Celebrated LIFE magazine photographer Gordon Parks shot these around Christmastime in 1958. They were used in a 200-page special issue on the glories and absurdities of American entertainment. Parks’ series was titled “Without the Girls, Show Biz Is No Biz.”
They’re soft focus and oh so beautiful. Very much like a Edgar Degas piece when he painted ballet dancers.
Cartoonist William Steig is beloved, and rightly so. Starting in the 1930s, his thousands of New Yorker panels (and over 100 covers) made him a giant in the cartooning world, and showed him to be an astute observer and renderer of human nature and the consequences of social class conditions (and a gifted ironist, to boot). His late-in-life career detour into children’s books yielded classics like CDB!, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and the completely awesome Rotten Island. Then in 1990, he wrote a little 32 page book about an ogre named Shrek, which has been adapted into fourmassivelysuccessfulfilms (so far) and more video game spinoffs than I feel like trying to count. Steig’s gifts were lost to us in 2003, when he died at age 95.
A bit of trivia: Steig was a devotee of the controversial theories of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.
Wilhelm Reich, after an apparent encounter with David Lynch’s barber
There is plentytoreadonline about Reich, both pro and con, so I will not go into great depth here. Reich was a psychotherapy pioneer, an associate of Freud’s in the 1920s, who went on to adopt some extreme positions. He was blindingly obsessed with the importance of orgasmic potency, and advocated levels of sexual permissiveness that alienated many of his contemporaries. Reich’s later career was devoted to the exploration of a cosmic energy that linked physical and mental/emotional health, “discovered” by and apparently detectable only to him, that he dubbed “orgone.” This led to his construction of supposedly therapeutic devices like the “orgone accumulator,” and “orgone cannons” (“cloudbusters”) that he claimed could be used as rainmaking devices. None of these claims have withstood scientific scrutiny, but they still have impassioned devotees.
US government medical authorities, believing Reich to be not misguided, but in fact a fraudster, won legal injunctions against the distribution of orgone accumulators as unlicensed medical devices in 1954. In 1956, Reich was imprisoned for violating that injunction, and, in one of the most notorious and singularly revolting episodes of official censorship in US history, the government supervised the burning of six tons of Reich’s books, devices, and clinical notes. Reich died in prison before he finished serving his two-year sentence, which, combined with the book burning, made a martyr of him among the types of people who think they can build perpetual motion machines in their garages and those knee-jerky “libertarian” paranoiacs who assume that anything that’s been suppressed MUST BE TRUE. However, despite Reich’s pariah status, there are ideas worth discussing in works like The Mass Psychology of Fascism and The Function of the Orgasm, among others. The title of his 1936 work The Sexual Revolution was certainly prophetic enough.
Reich and Steig’s works converged in 1949, when, frustrated that his work wasn’t being taken seriously by mainstream science (also a lil’ frustrated that he wasn’t being hailed as a savior of mankind), Reich penned an amazing and engaging screed denouncing the pettiness and stupidity of humanity, called Listen, Little Man! In it, he lambasted humanity for what he, with plentiful justification, saw as an overwhelming laziness in people, who eagerly favored their herd instincts over their greater potential, collaborating in the self-defeating destruction not just of society, but of the species itself, and so become less victim than harbinger. In the wake of WWII (ethnically a Jew, Reich fled Europe in the ‘30s), he saw little in the defeat of the Nazis to convince him that people weren’t just embracing different reasons to goose-step. The book loses some of its potency when you realize that he’s mainly so upset with people because his theories were being rejected, so ultimately you’re reading a self-mythologizing, self-pitying lashing out, a lengthy screed not unlike Bela Lugosi’s famous “I have no home” speech in Bride of the Monster. It’s still a great read if you’re in a misanthropic mood, and it contains wonderful artwork by William Steig.
Steig had skillfully handled this sort of content before, in his own books About People, The Lonely Ones, and Persistent Faces. Inspired by Picasso and Klee, he abandoned the relatively realistic brush-and-ink drawings that shaped his early fame and moved towards a more stark, abstract style, at once loopy and angular, obeisant only to the emotional truth of a character. And his assessments of wayward humanity became more and more brutal and incisive. This work was caricature as revelation. In his introduction to The Lonely Ones the great New Yorker writer Wolcott Gibbs wrote
Mr. Steig offers us a series of impressions of people set off from the rest of the world by certain private obsessions, usually, it seems, by a devotion to some particularly disastrous clichéd thought or behavior. They are not necessarily unhappy. Some of them, in fact, are obviously only too well pleased with themselves…
The illustrations in Listen, Little Man! are obviously well within this particular body of Steig’s work, and they constitute some of its most trenchant examples. It seems clear that this style of Steig’s was shaped to a degree by his therapeutic relationship and friendship with Reich—Steig even wrote the preface to Reich’s Children of the Future. Steig’s follow-up to Listen, The Agony in the Kindergarten, was absolutely a Reichian work, in which Steig BLASTED, with breathtakingly powerful pairings of pain-filled drawings and simple captions, the way Western childhood development can be pockmarked or even derailed by adult repression. Which invariably leads to the cultivation of grownups like those in Listen Little Man!, who really are just awful, awful people.
The Tokyo Rose is one of the more ingenious and chilling bits of psychological warfare in human history. During World War Two, in an effort to unnerve American GI’s and lower morale, the Japanese broadcast an English-language radio show hosted by a rotating roster of female voices. “Tokyo Rose” was the generic moniker given (by Americans) to all the announcers, but the most famous voice (and probably the one you hear in the broadcast below) was that of Iva Toguri D’Aquino, an American who had the misfortune to have been caring for a sick aunt in Japan when the war broke out. After the war, she was arrested and convicted of treason—apparently being a prisoner of war was no excuse for making a radio show. She wasn’t released until 1956.
The format of the show was actually pretty brilliant; in between coy “updates” on the war, (and insinuations of Japan’s impending attacks), Tokyo Rose would play the hits of the day. The show was incredibly popular among American serviceman. Rumors circulated that she possessed insider knowledge of American military actions. Some said she named specific servicemen as recent captures in her broadcasts—this is completely unsubstantiated, of course, and popular opinion is that the myth of Tokyo Rose flourished in the bewildered minds of her targets. And it that sense, the program was a complete success; Americans did overestimate the power and knowledge of Axis Japan.
Similar programs were employed by other Axis countries, including the insidious Lord Haw Haw in Germany, but none quite had the eery charm of Tokyo Rose, whose sweet voice and romantic tunes belied a brutal war.
Bonus: I’ve also included the grotesquely racist piece of American propaganda, Tokyo Woes. The 1945 Bob Clampett-directed Warner Brothers cartoon was only intended for viewing by the US Navy. Nothing sells war quite like racism and the promise of a hero’s welcome after a quick and easy victory.
Simon and Garfunkel’s 1969 television special “Songs of America” shows the two on stage, in the studio and on a concert tour across a turbulent country. Their ambitious Bridge Over Troubled Water album had yet to be released and the glorious title song was heard here by the general public for the very first time. The program showed news clips of labor leader/activist Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the Poor People’s Campaign’s march on Washington, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, JFK and Robert Kennedy and other events that were emblematic of the era.
“Songs of America” was originally sponsored by the Bell Telephone Company, but the execs there got cold feet when they saw what they’d paid for—legend has it that they looked at the footage of JFK, RFK and MLK during the (powerful!) “Bridge Over Troubled Water” segment (approx 12 minutes in) and asked for more Republicans! (Not assassinated Republicans, just more Republicans...you know, for balance!) The special was eventually picked up by CBS.
It was directed by the comedic actor, writer and later talk show host Charles Grodin, a friend of the duo. Grodin had already been in a bit part in Rosemary’s Baby (he was the obstetrician), but had yet to gain notoriety with his role in Catch-22.
Songs heard include “America,” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Scarborough Fair,” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” “Punkys Dilemma,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Mystery Train,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Sound of Silence.”
Today is Presidents Day, and that means it’s time for a mattress sale or, more likely, a day at home catching up on House of Games or The Walking Dead. But you could also spend it getting edumacated about the impressive personages who have occupied that lofty office.
Eh, takes too long, right? And who really gives a hoot about all those bearded jokers from the 19th century? But what if I told you that a gregarious professor of history has done all the work for you, by crafting 44 (actually 46) witty tweets so that you can at least know the thumbnail takeaway for each President? Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and a blogger at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, and he’s done exactly that: summarized every President’s accomplishments in a tweet.
Nearly all of the tweets are pretty cutting, and there’s a heavy emphasis on imperialist adventures abroad and racist and/or union-busting activities at home, which is fine with me. Here are a few of the more memorable ones:
I can hear you now at your next cocktail party, perfectly primed to uncork your newfound wisdom on your unsuspecting prey: “Oh, Harding? Yes, he liked bicycles, you know.” (Unfortunately, since everything I know about Harding comes from that tweet, I have no idea what that actually means.)
With the more recent presidents, it’s easier to have a informed opinion: I think Loomis underrates Eisenhower and Reagan mildly, but those assessments are very much in keeping with the others, and he makes a valuable point about Nixon, who did such “liberal” things as create the Environmental Protection Agency largely as a way to splinter and generally confuse the Democratic Party: “Not a domestic liberal people. Quit saying that. Signed those bills b/c Congress would have overridden veto.” And I think this is the exact right take on LBJ:
LBJ: I mean sure, there's that whole Vietnam thing. Take that away and he's a titan and a totally unexpected one. Alas.
These fascinating playing cards are the work of a Slovenian artist named Boris Kobe who was held by the Nazis as a political prisoner in Allach, which was a sub-camp of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Kobe lived to see the end of the war, and was a very successful architect in his native Slovenia afterwards; he died well into his seventies in 1981. His most prominent project after the war was probably the restoration of the Ljubljana Castle with Jože Plečnik.
As I see it, it’s a little unclear when and where these cards were made. Sources uniformly describe them as having been made “at Allach”—yet at least one of them appears to have been made after the Allied liberation of the camp, and it’s difficult to imaging Kobe hanging around the camp for very long after that. Certainly there wasn’t weeks of clandestine card games going on after that crucial moment. It’s difficult to tell, but there might be a little rhetorical sleight of hand going on there.
Whatever the case, the cards are simply remarkable. First, they look pretty great; Kobe was a gifted caricaturist, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained simply from looking at them. But most importantly, they show a life at Dachau close-up in the frankest terms. The cards depict inmates and guards alike, although most of the figures depicted are inmates forced to do back-breaking work, crowded into bunk beds, disrobing en masse, and, of course, as a pile of skeletons. The king of clubs is depicted as a skeleton.
As I mentioned, these cards were almost certainly created after the liberation of Allach on April 22, 1945 by the 42nd Rainbow Division of the U.S. Army. How do we know this? It’s apparently depicted in one of the cards: Card XXI seems to show liberation, the Slovenian flag, and a tombstone-like image marked “Allach” that is being consumed by flames.
The cards are intended for a game variously called Tarock/Tarot, but the word tarot here is likely to be misleading to English-speaking audiences. Tarock/Tarot is a trick-based game like spades or gin that was popular in the Habsburg Empire and Europe generally for centuries. So this is not a tarot deck in the occult sense as we would think of it; that should be obvious from a glance at the cards, which lack characters like The Fool, The Magician, The Hanged Man, The Sun, and so on. To their creator Kobe and whomever else originally used them, it was just a regular deck of playing cards. I have family in Austria and on my visits there we would sometimes play a related game called “Schnapsen” which didn’t require four players and used a restricted deck, I think the cards only went down as far as the eight card. Basically a game of Schnapsen there was equivalent to the way dominoes is played in a lot of places, you’d play it aimlessly and shoot the shit and gossip.
Question: What creates a ghost town? Answer: Rapid population, rapid depopulation. Ghost towns are the residue of booms and busts, expectations of substantial monetary gain that for whatever reason failed to materialize. Wherever resources can be exploited and depleted, there you will find, at some point, ghost towns. In the United States we have ghost towns where the Gold Rush happened, where railroads or interstate highways suddenly diverted opportunities elsewhere.
The modern story of Africa is largely one of exploitation at the hands of the European powers, so it’s probably not surprising that they have ghost towns there, too. One of the most remarkable exists in Namibia. It’s called Kolmanskop; the Germans who created settlements to mine the diamonds there called it “Kolmanskuppe.”
The 1910s were a big decade for Kolmanskop: the Germans created a veritable German Gesellschaft there, complete with a hospital, a ballroom, a power station, a school, a theater, even an ice factory, no small luxury in balmy Namibia. World War I put an end to all that; the town crept along until 1954 before becoming abandoned for good.
At that point, the sands started to take over the town and those sands are transforming Kolmanskop into a haunting, beautiful artifact.
French photographer Romain Veillon has a jaw-dropping series of photographs of Kolmanskop called “Les Sables Du Temps”—“The Sands of Time.” The title is a cliché, of course, but something about the material demands a cliché of that sort. In addition to whatever fleeting political point they evoke, the images are really about man’s transience in the face of implacable nature.
Veillon is hardly the first artist to discover the aesthetic possibilities of Kolmanskop. Richard Stanley’s 1993 horror movie Dust Devil was partially filmed there, as well as parts of Ron Fricke’s non-narrative 2011 movie Samsara.
“You wanna snort, Steve? A toot? It’s goin’ round.”
With the recent reunion of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney on the Grammy Awards, I was reminded of A Toot and a Snore in ‘74 a bootleg album of the sole recording session that John Lennon and Paul McCartney participated in after the break-up of The Beatles.
Lennon, who was in his “lost weekend” phase of drinking and drugging—and living with May Pang in Los Angeles—was producing Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album at Burbank Studios. On the first night of the sessions, March 28, 1974, Paul and Linda McCartney showed up. Also present were Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, Jesse Ed Davis, May Pang, saxophonist Bobby Keys and record producer Ed Freeman (who had been working with Don McLean in the next door studio).
There was a bit of a “convivial” scene going on, as one might gather from the bootleg’s title. McCartney later remarked that the “session was hazy… for a number of reasons.”
In his 2006 biography, McCartney, Christopher Sandford described the situation:
“The room froze when McCartney walked in, and remained perfectly silent until Lennon said, ‘Valiant Paul McCartney, I presume?’ McCartney responded: ‘Sir Jasper Lennon, I presume?’ (Valiant Paul and Sir Jasper were characters played by the two, in a televised Christmas play early in the Beatles’s career). McCartney extended a hand, Lennon shook it, and the mood was pleasant but subdued, cordial but not especially warm, at least initially.”
May Pang’s 1983 book, Loving John offered more detail:
Our first session was scheduled for the day after we moved in and it went beautifully- so beautifully that it only took four hours to lay down the basic rhythm track and vocal to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. When the tracks were finished, the musicians did not want to go home, so they hung out, jamming with each other or practicing their own licks. At midnight, however Keith [Moon] and Ringo left. It was time for them to hit the town.
The jam continued for another half hour, then visitors arrived. The visitors were Paul and Linda McCartney.
Paul headed straight for John. “Hello John,” he said eagerly.
John however was a study in casualness.
“How are you Paul?” he replied softly.
“Fine, how about you?”
“Hi duckie,” Linda said to John, kissing him on the cheek.
John and Paul made small talk as if they had been speaking on the phone two or three times a day and had spoken a few hours earlier. It was one of the most casual conversations I had ever heard. They couldn’t be the two men who not only had been trading vicious attacks with each other in public but also had squadrons of lawyers poised in battle against each other while they carved up their multimillion-dollar empire. They looked like any old pair of friends having a pleasant low-key reunion.
The small talk continued; then Paul, like a man possessed, suddenly bounced up and headed straight for Ringo’s drum kit and began to bash the drums.
“Let’s play!” he exclaimed. Linda immediately headed for the organ. “Let’s play.” She echoed. They couldn’t be stopped.
John strapped on his guitar and began to play “Midnight Special,” one of the numbers the Beatles used to jam on when they first began to record together. So did Jesse Ed Davis and Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, while Harry sang along.
Then we had another visitor, Stevie Wonder, who was also recording at the Record Plant.
“Stevie, Paul is here, and we’re going to jam,” John called out.
“Okay,” said Stevie. He went to the electric piano.
“Let’s record it,” said John.
“Yeah,” Paul agreed. John suddenly became very enthusiastic.
“We need a bass player,” he told the startled producer in the control booth of the studio next to ours. “Paul and I are jammin’ together.”
“I play bass!” the producer exclaimed. He dashed from his session to join ours.
“Fung Yee, I want you to play,” John told me. “Grab a tambourine.” I got up and joined the musicians
“Let it rip,” said John
That was the first time John and Paul had played together since Abbey Road in 1969, and it sounded wonderful. The team of Lennon and McCartney had been reunited with amazing ease. After they’d run down the song, John turned to Paul and said “Could you please tell your organist [Linda] to turn down the volume? I can’t hear Mr. Wonder”
John and Paul played it again, and it sounded even better. They made joyous music together that night. That was the only time John and Paul backed by Stevie Wonder and Harry Nilsson played together after the break- up.
I’m supposing that May Pang wrote the above from memory, because what’s on the actual tapes is not quite the stellar music a line-up such as this one might be expected to produce: It’s basically just a drunk, coked-up jam session, yet still a drunk, coked-up jam session of great historical significance.
You can read a transcript at Bootleg Zone. To be perfectly honest, it’s easier than listening to it!
Premarital sex! Lesbians! Syphilis! These are the the threats of Sex Madness, the most unintentionally hilarious moral panic film I have ever seen! And I watched Reefer Madness in a fit of herbal-induced giggles, if you catch my meaning, if you get my drift…
The plot is charmingly anachronistic, (if you can forget all the shame, damnation, and sometimes prosecution that has historically befallen less-than-respectable sexual practices). Paul Lorenz, our resident protagonist and “concerned citizen” fears the growing threat of “social diseases”—perhaps my favorite euphemism of all time. Meanwhile, additional plots serve to support his wholesome concerns. A New York burlesque show sets the stage for the aforementioned debauchery.
Most compellingly though, is the storyline of Millicent Hamilton, a good girl from a small-town who came to New York after winning a beauty contest. Poor Millie caught syphilis on the “casting couch,” and hopes to be cured by the time she returns to her sweetheart, Wendell. “Wendell”—now that’s the sort of name you can take home to mother.
Though it’s tempting to reduce the fervor of Sex Madness to puritanical pearl-clutching, in 1938, the US was still battling a syphilis epidemic that physically and mentally ravaged the populous. As with most STD outbreaks, a fair amount of shame, naivety, and pseudo-science contributed to the spread of the disease. Yes, Sex Madness is mostly prudish scare tactics and moral condemnation, but it also emphasizes that syphilis can be cured with legitimate treatments, warning the audience of the quackery that pervaded the time.
Of course, making a movie on these scandalous subjects risked censure at least, prosecution at worst, since the Motion Picture Production Code quite plainly forbade such filth on celluloid. Even the word “sex” could be grounds for action! Attempting to skirt potential repercussions, the film was released multiple times under different names, including such titillating titles as Human Wreckage, They Must Be Told, and Trial Marriage. It’s also possible that it was released multiple times to trick audiences into seeing it more than once—and with such prurient titles, wouldn’t you?
Another mark in the “why the Internet rules” column: an Oklahoma college student named Amelia has transcribed the music written on the ass of a figure from the “Hell” panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, and posted a recording of it to her Tumblr.
It’s not the most mind-blowing music you’ll hear in your life, I know, but it’s still wonderful that this was done.
There it is. Wonder why it took five centuries before someone played it?
Music geeks may have noticed that the staff on the man’s butt (must resist obvious joke) has only four lines. It seems likely that this is an older form of notation used for Gregorian chants.
If you’ll indulge a nitpick—on her blog, Amelia calls this “LITERALLY the 600-years-old butt song from hell.” Given that most sources hold that the triptych’s completion date was around the year 1500, give or take, it’s much, much closer to about 500 years old. But an error like that is easy enough to ascribe to a slip of the typing finger.
If you’re curious to know more about the Bosch painting, it can be viewed at The Prado. If you don’t live in Madrid and your travel budget isn’t so indulgent, this episode of the fine BBC documentary series Renaissance Revolution covers it in fascinating depth.
Many thanks to Rob Galo for bringing this to my attention.