Monday, March 27, 2017

Dick Cavett’s Epic Woodstock Festival Show (August, 1969)

by Colin Marshall, Open Culture:

Even if you never tuned in back then, you need only watch a few famous clips of Dick Cavett in action to understand why he earned the reputation of running the first major American talk show that qualified as “cool,” “smart,” or “hip.”

His operation showcased some of the most important elements of late-sixties and seventies America, those that the other talk shows tended to ignore, misrepresent, or simply misunderstand. Cavett himself embodied a sensibility, neither strictly frivolous nor strictly high-toned, that allowed him the widest possible cultural range.

“The idea that one man could be both playful and serious was never deemed to be quite natural on American television, and Cavett was regarded as something of a freak even at the time,” wrote critic and Cavett guest Clive James. “Eventually he paid the penalty for being sui generis in a medium that likes its categories to be clearly marked.” For an idea of what that position enabled, just watch Cavett’s musical guests: he had Frank Zappa, he had John Lennon, he had Janis Joplin for her final interview.

And then we have the “Woodstock episode.” Aired on August 16, 1969, the day after the festival, but taped mere hours after the last notes rang out in Bethel, it brought Cavett together with Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix, though scheduled to show up, played long at the festival and wound up too “zonked” to appear on television). Specifically, it brought them together on a strikingly elaborate, aggressively colorful one-off set that seated host and guests on a circle of what look like Naugahyde marshmallows.

Whatever the aesthetic transgressions of this broadcast’s design, they lead to more than one memorable moment in talk-show history, as when Cavett tears off in frustration the tacky scarf his staff insisted he tie on for the occasion.

Pull up the Woodstock episode on YouTube for the performances - Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” featuring Crosby, to name two - but stay for the conversation, especially the part when Cavett responds to Grace Slick calling him “Jim” one time too many: “You’ve got to learn my name, Miss Joplin!” 

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Leonard Bernstein Demystifies the Rock Revolution for Curious (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

by , Open Culture:

Many of today’s thirteen-year-olds surely have the Beatles on their iPods (or their iPhones or Androids, or whatever now ranks as the cutting-edge adolescent’s listening device of choice). Yet they would have been born in 2000, forty years after the dissolution of the Beatles themselves. Their parents would probably have been born in the sixties, already the height of the band’s creativity.

The startling implication: these kids rock out to some of the very same songs their grandparents may well have loved.

As P.J. O’Rourke once wrote upon spotting an aged hippie with a walker and a hearing aid at an Iraq War protest, sic transit generation gap. But back in 1967, when that gap yawned so chasmically wide as to render any communication across it seemingly impossible, the young Baby Boomers and their own Great Depression, Second World War-forged parents used the musical landscape to draw their battle lines. Who could broker a peace? Enter composer, pianist, and New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein.

Born in 1918 and hailed as one of the most accomplished and astute musical minds in American history, he could not only appreciate the techniques and innovations of the youth-driven pop-rock explosion of the sixties, he could get the ear of his middle-aged peers and explain to them just what they were missing.

The television broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution gave Bernstein a mass-communication platform on which perform this analysis, asking aloud the questions of: (a) why this music so infuriates Americans over a certain age and (b) why he himself likes it so much.

Decked out in a square-friendly suit and tie and appearing on the even square-friendlier CBS network, Bernstein plays clips of songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and the Association, breaking down the genuine musicological merits of each: their vocal expressions, their unexpected key changes, their countless sonic layers, their stripped-down melodic sense, and their lyrics’ adeptness of implication (“one of our teenager’s strongest weapons”).

Bernstein also calls upon “Society’s Child” singer-songwriter Janis Ian and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson to perform live. Quite a few crew-cut, cardigan-clad, martini-sipping adults must have come away from Inside Pop with a new, if grudging, appreciation for the craft of these long-haired youngsters. But now, to address the concerns of the 21st century’s bewildered grown-ups, who will go on television and explain dubstep?