Saturday, July 4, 2020

In memoriam: Saroj Khan


Saroj Khan in Nartakee (1963)

On July 3 Saroj Khan passed away. If you have watched Indian films from any of the past four decades you have probably seen her work as a choreographer; she also worked as a child actor in the 1950s, a background dancer in the 1950s and 60s, and an assistant choreographer in the 1960s and 70s.

Khan's parents fled Karachi during the Partition in 1947 and came to Mumbai (then Bombay). Her birthdate is given in Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's New York Times obituary as Nov. 22, 1948, although that date doesn't seem as though it fully accords with her appearance as a background dancer in songs such as "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958), when, if her birthdate is accurate, she would have been 9:


Saroj in "Aaiye Meharbaan" from Howrah Bridge (1958).

If there is any inaccuracy in her birthdate, it may be due not to the usual (and completely justified) concerns about age discrimination in the film industry, but rather to the fraught politics of Partition and the need to ensure that there was no question about her place of birth.

Her father, a well-to-do businessman in Karachi, had to abandon his wealth when he fled to Bombay. As a young girl of three or four, Saroj displayed a keen aptitude for dance, and her parents were advised to seek work for her in the city's film studios. Here she dances as Radha in "Bansuriya Kaahe Bajai" from Aagosh (Embrace, 1953):



As she grew older Saroj continued to perform as a dancer in films such as Taj Mahal (1963), Teesri Manzil (Third Floor, 1966) and Do Raaste (Two Ways, 1969), but she also served as assistant choreographer to the Kathak masters B. Sohanlal and his brother B. Hiranlal beginning with Kalpana (Imagination, 1960) and continuing with films such as Nartakee (Dancer, 1963) and Mera Saaya (My Shadow, 1966), teaching dances to the great Vijayanthimala among many other actresses.

According to Shalini Venugopal Bhagat's obituary, Sohanlal began an intimate relationship with Saroj when she was 13 and he was in his early forties; she considered it a marriage, although he was already married and she was below the minimum legal age of marriage. Whatever Saroj's feelings may have been—in a 2018 interview she said "Why would you sell yourself if you have the talent?"—the difference in their ages and Sohanlal's position as a professional mentor starkly raise the issue of meaningful consent.


Saroj named as B. Sohanlal's assistant in the opening credits of Nartakee.

In 1974 Saroj became a full choreographer in her own right with films such as Geeta Mere Naam (My name is Geeta) and Dost (Friend). She not only created movement, but instructed her dancers in their gestures and facial expressions, an integral aspect of what her dances communicated. She achieved wide recognition beginning in the 1980s when she choreographed films starring the expressive Sridevi, including Mr. India (1987), ChaalBaaz (Trickster, 1989), Chandni (Beloved, 1989), and Lamhe (Moments, 1991). From Lamhe, Sridevi and the Rajasthani singer Ila Arun in "Morni Bagama":



Some of Khan's most memorable choreography was set on Madhuri Dixit. The annual Filmfare Best Choreography Award was instituted in 1989 to honor Khan's work on "Ek Do Teen" from Tezaab (Acid, 1988), starring Dixit:



Khan received the first three, and five of the first six, Best Choreography Awards to be bestowed, and won a total of eight times, the most of any choreographer. Five of her awards were for numbers featuring Dixit, including "Humko Aaj Kal Hai Intejaar" from Sailaab (Flood, 1990), "Dhak Dhak Karne Laga" from Beta (Son, 1992), and "Choli Ke Peeche" from Khal Nayak (Anti-Hero, 1993).

Beginning in the late 1990s and she worked extensively with another great dancer, Aishwarya Rai (now Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), in films such as Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to Another, 1999), Taal (Rhythm, 1999), Devdas (2002), Kuch Naa Kaho (Don't Say Anything, 2002), and Guru (2007). From Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the astonishing "Nimbooda," which won the first of Khan's three Best Choreography Awards for dances featuring Rai:



Many North Americans' introduction to Bollywood was Ashutosh Gowariker's film Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001), which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Khan choreographed the dance "Radha Kaise Na Jale," featuring Gracy Singh and Aamir Khan:



I'll end this post with "Dola Re Dola" from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's version of Devdas, which featured Madhuri Dixit as the courtesan Chandramukhi and Aishwarya Rai as Devdas' childhood sweetheart Parvati:



Saroj Khan went on to choreograph for many other films, including Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (My Country, 2004), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007), Taare Zameen Par (Like Stars on Earth, 2007), Love Aaj Kal (Love Nowadays, 2009), and Agneepath (Path of Fire, 2012). In 2012 she was the subject of a documentary directed by Nidhi Tuli, The Saroj Khan Story, which was a key source for this post. Khan's death is a major loss for Indian cinema and for lovers of dance across the world. Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

English literature: Happy ever after?


Jean Gabin as Inspector Maigret in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre (1959), directed by Jean Delannoy. 
Image source: Pinterest

In an article on the novels of Georges Simenon in the London Review of Books of 4 June, the novelist and critic John Lanchester writes:
The reader whose idea of the novel is formed by the English canon may at some stage start to read books in the French tradition. At that point, it may suddenly seem that everything one has previously read has essentially been children’s literature. Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, even Austen and Eliot, are all wonderful writers, but their work is founded in wish fulfilment, happy endings and love conquering all. The side notes and off notes and internal dissent are all there, of course, but they are subtextual, subtle, inexplicit. The main current of the English novel is in the direction of Happy Ever After, along the lines of Miss Prism’s deathless observation: 'The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.' When you turn from that tradition to the work of Laclos, Flaubert, Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant and Proust, it’s like getting a glass of ice water in the face. Everybody lies all the time; codes of honour are mainly a delusion and will get you into serious trouble; the same goes for love; if you think the world is how it is described in consoling fictions, you have many catastrophic surprises in store. Above all, the central lesson of the French tradition is that people’s motives are sex and money, and you can write about those things as sex and money, directly, no euphemisms required.
Hmm. I'd like to suggest a few counterexamples to what Lanchester identifies as "the direction of Happy Ever After" in 19th-century English literature, in works by the very authors he names; I'm sure that many more could be identified. Be forewarned that multiple spoilers follow.

  • Charles Dickens: In Bleak House, Richard Carstone, a young man full of promise, gets drawn into the endless court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, neglects his health to pursue the case, is bankrupted and dies of consumption. Jo, a street kid, dies after infecting the heroine with smallpox, while his sympathetic friend and protector Nemo dies of opium overdose. Lady Dedlock, married to the much older Sir Leicester and thinking that a secret she has kept from him is about to be exposed, flees into a bitterly cold winter night and dies trying to reach the grave of her first love, without realizing that Sir Leicester's knowledge of her secret makes no difference to his devotion. 
  • William Thackeray: In The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., Redmond Barry, a charming rogue, bankrupts himself and his rich wife, loses his young child to a tragic accident, drowns his sorrows in drink, and ends the novel in prison.
    The great and rich are welcomed, smiling, up the grand staircase of the world; the poor but aspiring must clamber up the wall, or push and struggle up the back stair, or, pardi, crawl through any of the conduits of the house, never mind how foul and narrow, that lead to the top. (Ch. 10)
    In Vanity Fair, "a novel without a hero," the anti-heroine Becky Sharp uses sex to try to secure her social and financial position, with very mixed results: she ends up as a widow with a questionable reputation and a very modest income.
  • Anthony Trollope: To choose just an example or two out of many, in the Palliser novels Lady Laura Kennedy chooses security over passion and winds up trapped in a loveless marriage, while Lady Glencora Palliser has a loveless marriage thrust upon her by her socially ambitious family. Here are Lady Glencora's meditations in the novel Can You Forgive Her? as she contemplates running away with the man she actually loves (and whom we know is shallow and unworthy):
    'I am not such a fool as to mistake what I should be if I left my husband, and went to live with that man as his mistress. . .But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Ch. 47)
    In The Eustace Diamonds we are given access to the thoughts of Lucinda Roanoke, a young American woman who is being maneuvered by her aunt into an engagement with a man she despises:
    When she was alone she stood before her glass looking at herself, and then she burst into tears. Never before had she been thus polluted. The embrace had disgusted her. It made her odious to herself. And if this, the beginning of it, was so bad, how was she to drink the cup to the bitter dregs? Other girls, she knew, were fond of their lovers—some so fond of them that all moments of absence were moments, if not of pain, at any rate of regret. To her, as she stood there ready to tear herself because of the vileness of her own condition, it now seemed as though no such love as that were possible to her. For the sake of this man who was to be her husband, she hated all men. Was not everything around her base, and mean, and sordid?. . .How should she escape? And yet she knew that she meant to go on and bear it all. Perhaps by study and due practice she might become—as were some others—a beast of prey and nothing more. The feeling that had made these few minutes so inexpressibly loathsome to her might, perhaps, be driven from her heart. She washed the tears from her eyes with savage energy, and descended to her lover with a veil fastened closely under her hat. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting,' she said. (Ch. 42)
    Children's literature?
  • Jane Austen: Many of her major and minor characters wind up in unions with unsuitable partners. In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby trades sex for financial security by abandoning Marianne Dashwood, whom he loves, and marrying an heiress he doesn't feel anything for, Miss Grey. In the same novel, Lucy Steele trades sex for financial security by breaking her engagement with Edward Ferrars to marry his wealthier brother Robert, although whether she cares anything for either of them is doubtful. In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas trades sex for financial security by marrying the pompous Mr. Collins, and spends her days trying to distance herself from him in their modest parsonage. In Mansfield Park Maria Bertram trades sex for financial security by marrying the rich but dull Mr. Rushworth, but then runs off with Henry Crawford; after her divorce, Crawford is unwilling to marry her, leaving Maria a social pariah. In Northanger Abbey Isabella Thorpe trades sex for financial security by engaging herself to James Morland, but breaks off the engagement when she learns that he is not as wealthy as she thought and finds (or so she thinks) a better prospect in Henry Tilney's older brother Frederick. When she discovers that Frederick has no intention of proposing to her, she attempts to return to James—to no avail, which leaves her socially tainted.

    In a famous exchange in Sense and Sensibility which is hardly subtextual, subtle, or inexplicit, the sisters Marianne and Elinor openly debate in front of their visitor Edward Ferrars the role of money in personal happiness—which, since a woman who lacked independent means was dependent on the income of her husband, must include for them both the choice of marriage partner:
    "What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?"

    "Grandeur has but little," said Elinor, "but wealth has much to do with it."

    "Elinor, for shame!" said Marianne, "money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned."

    "Perhaps," said Elinor, smiling, "we may come to the same point.  Your competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; and without them, as the world goes now, we shall both agree that every kind of external comfort must be wanting. Your ideas are only more noble than mine. Come, what is your competence?"

    "About eighteen hundred or two thousand a year; not more than that."

    Elinor laughed. "Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it would end." (Ch. 17)
    Not only does Austen not employ euphemisms, her characters name quite precisely the amount of income they are hoping to achieve through marriage. Is there a French novel with an equivalent scene?
  • George Eliot: In Middlemarch we witness the resolutions of "three love problems," two of which result in miserably unhappy marriages. Dorothea Brooke marries Edward Casaubon, a "formal studious man thirty years older than herself," believing that the research project to which he has devoted decades of his life will be worthy of the sacrifices she makes to help bring it to fruition; she is crushingly disappointed. After a late-night bedroom argument,
    she sat listening, frightened, wretched—with a dumb inward cry for help to bear this nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread. But nothing else happened, except that they both remained a long while sleepless, without speaking again. (Ch. 37)
    Tertius Lydgate, another character passionately dedicated to a life purpose, is similarly thwarted by his choice of marriage partner, the beautiful but vain, shallow, and demanding Rosamond Vincy. Middlemarch shows the human cost of Victorian social mores that demanded that men and women unite themselves for life when they barely knew one another.

    In Daniel Deronda, the flirtatious, pleasure-loving Gwendolen Harleth marries the domineering Henleigh Grandcourt, and is made miserable by his tyrannical control. Although, like Casaubon, Grandcourt ultimately dies (horribly), his death does not free Gwendolen to marry the man she loves, because in the meantime that man has fallen in love with another woman.

    In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver cannot choose between her long-pledged devotion for Philip Wakem and her attraction to her dashing new suitor Stephen Guest. Before she can resolve her dilemma she and her brother Tom are drowned together during a flood.
In short, for these characters there is no "happy ever after." And this is not only true in the novels of the 19th-century English authors named by Lanchester, but of others such as Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, in which the lovers Heathcliff and Catherine both marry people they don't love, and both die in misery), Charlotte Brontë (Villette, in which it's suggested that the heroine's great love drowns at sea), Elizabeth Gaskell (Ruth, in which the disgraced heroine nurses her seriously ill seducer back to health, is infected by him, and dies), and George Gissing (New Grub Street, in which struggling writer Edward Reardon finds himself trapped in an incompatible marriage, and smart, sincere, and deeply-feeling Marian Yule is emotionally abandoned by her cynical, social-climbing journalist fiancé Jasper Milvain).

Lanchester is a better critic than this ill-considered and, I have to say, lazy contrast between English and French literature would suggest. I recommend that he, and all my readers, (re)acquaint themselves with the great, complex, and thoroughly adult novels listed above.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

See you on the dark side: Tolkien, Pink Floyd, and the Claremont Diner

The coronavirus shutdown has resulted in our literal confinement to interior spaces. But for me it has also meant that, without the welcome distractions of friends, libraries, concerts, bookstores, museums, parks, and my usual wanderings around the city, I've been increasingly confined to my own head. Like many of us, perhaps, as each day settles into a predictable repetition of an endless present, I've found myself thinking more about the past. And the internet is an amazing aid to memory: details that have long been fuzzy can be almost immediately clarified (although the collective memory, like my personal memory, can sometimes be unreliable, as you'll see below).


Mass market paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings trilogy; covers designed by Barbara Remington (1965). Image source: New York Times

Tolkien. One summer when I was approaching or in my early teens I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I had been an avid (but pretty much indiscriminate) reader before this: I read everything from Wilfred McCormick's Bronc Burnett series to Sherlock Holmes to James Bond to science fiction. But Tolkien's books took me into a very different imaginative realm, one in which ordinary, comfort-loving protagonists found themselves unwillingly caught up in a titanic struggle between good and evil. [1]

The story had everything to appeal to an adolescent boy: adventure, terror, chases, magic, deep caverns, dark forests, impassable mountains, and (not enough) beautiful elf-maidens. That summer I immersed myself in Tolkien's world and was so captivated by it that when in mid-summer I reached the end of LoTR, I started over again from the beginning and re-read the whole thing. [2]

Pink Floyd. This was also the summer I immersed myself in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Its atmospheric music was the perfect soundtrack to my reading. Every day I would put the album on our cheap portable stereo, curl up on the comfy old couch in the family room, and rejoin Frodo and Sam on their quest; when the record reached the end of a side I would get up and flip it over. I would do this for hours, probably to the dismay of any family member within earshot.



I owed the discovery of both Tolkien and Pink Floyd to a friend of my older sister whom I'll call Dale. He was a flamboyant character: his black hair was shoulder-length and frizzy, held in place by a headband, and he favored vests worn over tie-dyed t-shirts. He started coming over to our house regularly to visit my sister, but she would usually refuse to leave her room when he stopped by. That left Dale and me to entertain one another.

Perhaps Dale thought that the way to my sister's heart was to be kind to her younger brother; if so, I could have disabused him of that notion. But despite Dale's continued lack of success with my sister, a pattern developed: he would stop by once or twice a week in the afternoon, bringing two or three albums with him. We'd sit around that portable stereo while he played what he had brought: prog-rock bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, Traffic, ELP, and King Crimson. [3] Given that my listening until then had been largely AM-radio-driven—I had a small cube alarm-clock radio that I tuned into New York stations at very low volume late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping—Dale's music was ear-opening. [4]

His favorite band was Pink Floyd. Dale would play "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" (from Ummagumma), and wait for the moment when he could whisper the title phrase followed by a bloodcurdling scream. Or he'd play the 23-minute "Echoes" (from Meddle) and narrate the scenes from Lord of the Rings that the sounds evoked for him (which is probably what established the connection for me between Pink Floyd and Tolkien). But once he brought over Dark Side of the Moon, it was the one we played most often. Later I managed to acquire my own copy (perhaps at my next birthday).

The concert. Memory is fallible, and I don't remember how the possibility of seeing Pink Floyd live came about; Dale must have arranged the whole thing. The band was appearing at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, which was a good 45 minutes away by car. I have no idea how Dale talked my parents into allowing me to go. They must have paid him for the ticket, as well, because I couldn't have. This stub shows that the price of a ticket was $7.50—pretty steep in those days [5]:



However it happened, the afternoon of the concert I found myself in a car filled with Dale and a group of his friends, most of whom were, like Dale, several years older than I was, heading down the highway towards the gritty industrial cities that lined the Jersey shore opposite Manhattan. Dale had assured my father that I'd be back around midnight.

We got to the venue fairly early, while it was still light, and in our inexperience parked as close to the stadium as we could get. (Better, we realized afterwards, to park near the exit.) We entered and took our seats, which were in the stands almost directly opposite the stage. A huge white pyramid/prism floated over the stage, and there was a large circular screen looming over the band, on which films would be projected during the second-half performance of the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon. There were wires stretching from the stage over the audience to the roof of the stadium behind us; during "On the Run," a large model plane with sparks shooting from its engines would slide down the wire (according to one story, it got stuck before crashing into the stage and fizzled out over the audience; I do remember being puzzled by the effect). [6]

Here is the opening song of the very concert I saw: "Raving and Drooling (I Fell On His Neck With A Scream)," an early version of "Sheep" (later issued on Animals, released in 1977)):



The lyrics are hard to make out, but this is what I hear:
Raving and drooling
I fell on his neck with a scream
He had a whole lot of
Terminal shock in his eyes
That's what you get
For pretending the rest are not real
Babbling and snapping at faraway flies
He will zig-zag his way back
Through memories of boredom and pain
Raving and drooling
I fell on his neck with a scream
He was caught in the middle
Between the illusion
Of safety in numbers
And being brought down to his knees
The whole first half of the concert was unfamiliar (here's the complete set list, and if you like you can actually listen to the entire concert). I learned later that the music they performed during that first hour was not only new, but unreleased material, a brave choice by the band: after "Raving and Drooling" came "You've Got To Be Crazy" (an early version of "Dogs," later issued on Animals), "Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts I-V," "Have A Cigar," and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-IX" (all later issued on Wish You Were Here, released three months after the concert). I now know that the entire first half of the concert featured songs about Syd Barrett, the band's co-founder and original lead guitarist and singer, the "mad genius" drug casualty who had been forced to leave the band and later was briefly institutionalized due to his erratic behavior. [7]


"Now there's a look in your eyes / like black holes in the sky": Syd Barrett in the late 1960s (left) and during the Wish You Were Here recording sessions in 1975 (right). 
Image sources: Mick Rock, YouTube (left); Nick Mason, Wikipedia (right)

During (I think) "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," spotlights were aimed at a mirrored circle that had risen over the stage; the reflected beams were quite spectacular in the twilight, shining through the haze of fog and pot smoke. A fair proportion of the latter was generated by the people sitting in the row directly in front of us, who seemed to be toking constantly from the time we arrived until the end of the concert. A stiff breeze was blowing straight into our faces, carrying their smoke into our eyes, noses, mouths, and lungs. I didn't get high—at least as far as I can tell judging by later experiences—but I can't vouch for the other members of our group, and we all got hungry. Perhaps our hunger wasn't chemically aided, as we had left for the concert in the late afternoon and by the time the concert ended, after the encore of "Echoes," it was nearly 11.

That encore infuriated Dale: "That wasn't 'Echoes'!" he insisted as we tried to find our way back out to the car. Listening to the recording of the concert I do hear an added saxophone solo by Dick Parry, which didn't fit with the gestalt of the song as we knew it, but then, couldn't the band change it as they saw fit? For Dale, a purist in these matters, the answer was no.

Once we found the car it took us more than an hour to make it out of the parking lot (that half the drivers in the place were stoned probably didn't help), and when we finally got on the road we immediately took the wrong freeway entrance. We'd been driving for at least 15 minutes when someone finally realized we were travelling in the wrong direction. It took more time to find an exit and get ourselves turned around. By the time we made it back into familiar territory it was well after 1 am. We were all starving, and someone had the brilliant idea of going to the Claremont Diner.


Image source: Cooky Cat

The Claremont Diner. At the intersection of Bloomfield Road and Route 23 in Verona stood the Claremont Diner, one of those stainless-steel-clad 1940s diners that stayed open around the clock. The Claremont served a legendary cheesecake, baked daily on the premises, and we all ordered a slice. We were long-haired, tired but giddy teenagers, must have been reeking of secondhand pot smoke, and as rambunctious teenaged boys were probably not the quietest or most well-behaved group; we were treated with wary skepticism by the weary night-shift waitresses. The cheesecake and coffee that we were finally served revived us, and as we were about to leave I bought a slice of the cheesecake to go, thinking that I would enjoy it for dessert the next day. [8]


Claremont Diner cheesecakes awaiting customers. 
Photo by Jeffrey J. Jensen, son of the Claremont's pastry chef. Image source: MyVeronaNJ

When I was dropped off at home it was about 3 in the morning. I tried to be as quiet as possible as I crept up the walk and inserted my key in the lock of the front door. Before I could turn it, though, the door suddenly opened and I was face to face with my father, dressed in his bathrobe. As he lost no time in informing me, he had been waiting up all night for my return, and was not happy about the hour.

I could sense that he was about to pronounce my doom and that I would be grounded for weeks (or the rest of the summer!), when I had a brainstorm. "I'm late because we stopped at the Claremont Diner," I said, "and—I brought you a slice of cheesecake." I held out the cardboard container containing the precious offering. My father grumbled that this didn't make up for my lateness, but he sat down at the kitchen table and ate my cheesecake while I watched, concealing my disappointment as best I could.

The cheesecake worked its magic, though, and the dreaded punishment never materialized. In fact, a few weeks later I was permitted to go with Dale and his friends to a local movie theater to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'd learned what sacrifice I would need to make to appease the angry god on my return: a slice of Claremont Diner cheesecake.

Coda: About two months after the concert I attended, a nineteen-year-old named John Lydon was walking down King's Road in London wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt. Only, he had slashed holes in the silk-screened band photo and written "I HATE" above it in red marker. The manager of a new band approached him and asked him if he wanted to audition as the singer. Later that night Lydon mimed to Alice Cooper's single "I'm Eighteen (and I don't know what I want)." As the band's guitarist remembered it a couple of years later, "we thought he was really funny, I thought he was hysterical. And like he probably did—he thought we was a bunch of idiots.  So we went on from there." [9]


Image source: Vintage Everyday

With John Lydon renaming himself Johnny Rotten the band went on to be the Sex Pistols, whose visceral three-minute blasts of confrontational anger were the musical antithesis of Pink Floyd's melancholy space music (although the musical differences disguise a shared lyrical theme of alienation). I would discover the Sex Pistols and other punk bands a few years later, and perhaps that discovery will be the subject of another post.

Last time: What is happy?: The Cowsills in concert


  1. If somehow you haven't read the books or seen the Peter Jackson films: the sorcerer Sauron, the Dark Lord who rules the blasted land of Mordor, suspects that the Ring of Power that will enable him to conquer Middle Earth has fallen into the possession of a hobbit living in the bucolic Shire. Sauron sends his armies of evil to find the ring; meanwhile, the hobbits and their small band of allies, the Fellowship of the Ring, learn that the Ring can't be used for good. The only way to defeat Sauron is to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires where it was forged: Mount Doom, deep within Mordor.
  1. Books were precious and expensive commodities. When I started LoTR, probably at Dale's recommendation, I cautiously bought only the first volume. When I finished it I rode my bicycle down to the local bookstore with my carefully saved allowance and counted out the coins to order the next. I should have rationed my reading so that I didn't finish a volume before I had saved enough money to order the next one, but I'm not sure I was so self-disciplined. In 1965 Barbara Remington had designed a set of covers for the mass-market paperbacks that, when placed together, formed a continuous image. But by the time I started reading the set the paperback cover art (and the cover price) were changing, so I wound up with a mismatched set. I recently found a boxed set of the paperbacks with the Remington covers at a book sale for 50 cents. I bought the set, even though I don't plan to re-read the novels—although if the coronavirus shutdown continues I may reconsider.
  1. Dale also brought records by more obscure groups. Evidence that the internet is astounding, Exhibit 111,279,637,948: I remembered one album with a nautical/pirate theme and a gatefold cover, but that's all I could remember. In a couple of minutes of surfing I found it: Discogs.com allows you to filter by cover type (gatefold), year and genre. It was Dinosaur Swamps by The Flock.
  1. Number 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1974 included 34-year-old Ringo Starr singing "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine," Terry Jacks' version of Rod McKuen's "Seasons in the Sun," Ray Stevens' "The Streak," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy Don't Be A Hero," Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died," and Paul Anka's "Having My Baby." The competition is stiff, but it may qualify as the single worst year in pop music.
  1. The ticket seems to read "Sat Jun 14 1975; Rain date June 15." The concert was not postponed by rain (the New York Times for 14 June predicts the weather to be "sunny and warm") but several internet sites and YouTube videos claim Sunday June 15 as the date of the concert. Unlikely: it's inconceivable that my parents would have allowed me to attend a concert on what would probably have been a school night (school wouldn't have ended until at least a week later).
  1. The animations for the Dark Side of the Moon songs were by Ian Emes, and can be found on YouTube.
  1. The words are attributed to Roger Waters, the band's bass player and lead singer after Barrett was forced to leave the band in 1968, in Nicholas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (New edition). Helter Skelter, 2005, p. 14.
  1. Alas, a little more than a year later the Claremont Diner burned to the ground. More about its history (and the famous cheesecake) is available on the MyVeronaNJ blog.
  1. Quoted in The Sex Pistols: The Inside Story, compiled and edited by Fred and Judy Vermorel, Universal, 1978, p. 15.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

What is happy?: The Cowsills in concert

I listen to classical music almost exclusively now, but there was a time (as regular readers of this blog may have gathered) when I went to a lot of rock shows. A recent e-mail from a friend got me reminiscing about some of the memorable shows I've seen, and I started compiling a list. I'll spare you the full version, since reading about a great show you didn't attend is like hearing about a great party that you missed. But I thought that—aided by the collective memory of the internet—I would share my experience of the very first rock concert I attended:

The Cowsills, Music Circus, Lambertville, New Jersey, 5 September 1970

My age wasn't yet in double digits when, for a birthday present, my father took me to St. John Terrell's Music Circus outside of Lambertville, New Jersey, to see The Cowsills.

They were a major part of my musical universe at the time, along with The Beatles, The Monkees, The Archies, and The Fifth Dimension (my mother's favorite group). In 1970 I think I only owned perhaps three albums in total—$3.98 was a lot of money on a $0.10 weekly allowance, so my mother must have helped me out—and two of them were by The Cowsills: Captain Sad and His Ship of Fools and Best of. (The third? The Monkees' Headquarters.)


Captain Sad and his Ship of Fools, 1968. Image sources: discogs.com


The Best of The Cowsills, 1968. Cover art by Jack Davis. Image source: discogs.com

If you've never heard of The Cowsills, they were the toothy, clean-cut, real-life models for TV's The Partridge Family (which didn't start airing until a few weeks after the concert I attended). The real Cowsills were more talented than most of their TV avatars; for evidence, a truncated version of their hit "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things" from their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on 29 October 1967:



Dig 11-year-old drummer John's stick-twirling (at 0:20), the perfectly syncopated tambourine of 7-year-old Susan, who looks like she's having the time of her life, the cool violin bass of 13-year-old Barry, and the five-part backup vocals led by their mother Barbara. Eldest brother Bill is on lead guitar, and second-oldest brother Bob on keyboards; none of the children were yet out of their teens.

I know that as we grow older we can often be embarrassed by our first musical enthusiasms, and sure, the lyrics about the alluring but elusive Flower Girl are very much of their time. (The song was written by Artie Kornfeld and Steve Duboff; Kornfeld would go on to co-organize the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.) But this song still sounds pretty great to me more than 50 years on, and their performance is charming. This configuration of the group isn't quite the one I saw; middle brother Paul would join the group in 1968, and in 1969 Bill would be kicked out by his father Bud, the group's manager.

The Music Circus concert was a surprise birthday present, so during the long drive across New Jersey with my father I was given no clue to where we were going. When we arrived and I saw the band's name on the roadside sign I was overwhelmed. This was my first concert, and it wasn't until we were pulling into the parking lot that I understood that attending a performance by a famous group was even possible. You could watch pop stars performing on TV and listen to their records, but didn't they inhabit their own realm apart from ordinary mortals? That for the price of a ticket anyone could share the same physical space with them and hear them play their music live was a brand-new idea for me.

My father being my father, we had left three hours early to make a one-hour drive, so we had time to kill. (Alas, I've inherited his neurotic anxiety about being late.) The Music Circus was a big-top tent (and a carousel!) set amid the pastureland of west Jersey; summer concerts began in the early evening, while it was still light, but we had arrived so early that the tent wasn't yet open. So we walked around to the back, where we encountered a crowd of girls, three or four years older than me, packed together at the dressing room door. Every time it would open a crack they would scream and make a rush for the door, which would hastily be shoved closed. I was completely baffled and dismayed by this behavior—why were they besieging the poor group?


The Music Circus in September 1968. Image source: St. John Terrell's Music Circus

My father, perhaps sensing my growing unease, suggested that we take a walk. We headed off across the fields surrounding the Music Circus, and soon the screaming girls were left behind. Ahead of us in the distance was an apparently deserted 19th-century farmhouse, and for lack of any other destination we walked towards it. But as we got closer I could hear the muffled sound of amplified instruments, growing louder. The band wasn't backstage after all—they were here, in the living room of this house now a few yards away, rehearsing for the concert.

If you're thinking that this is the story of how I met The Cowsills, I'm sorry to disappoint you. As soon as I realized where they were, I stopped dead in my tracks. My father urged me to climb the porch stairs and knock on the door, but that thought totally mortified me. The last thing I wanted to do was intrude on them. Unable to convince me to take a step further, my father finally gave up, took my hand and led me back to the big top, which was beginning to fill. It wouldn't be the last time I declined the chance to meet idols in the flesh.

I spent the time waiting for the band to come on stage looking through the concert program, which was 30 pages long and about the size of a record album, and which I kept as a treasured memento for many years afterward.


The Cowsills 1970 souvenir program cover. Image source: B.A. Presley's Cowsills site

As the tent slowly filled I found myself pretty much the only boy among about 2000 teenaged girls, who, when the lights went down and the band took the stage, began screaming nonstop: it was a terrifying, overwhelming wall of sound. The poor musicians pleaded with them to stop screaming and listen, to no avail. I was frightened and bewildered: why was the audience here if they didn't want to hear the band play? It was my introduction to the idea that pop concerts fulfill a variety of functions, many of them non-musical. In retrospect, I can see that for most of the audience, the concert was more of an occasion to scream en masse than to listen to the band. That auditory manifestation of power must have been exhilarating.

The concert itself was pretty much a blur. I was disoriented not only by the unremitting screaming but by the unfamiliar songs the band was playing, some of them covers and some drawn from their new album, II x II. The set list from a show one month later, which must be very similar to the show I saw, has been preserved by B.A. Presley. The concert apparently ended with "Hair," which had been their biggest hit the year before, but it to me it would just have been another song I didn't know (it was released after The Best of The Cowsills, but has since been included on CD versions of that album). That the most clean-cut pop group in America was singing a song extolling hair so long that it would "fly in the breeze / And get caught in the trees / Give a home for the fleas" was a joke that The Cowsills themselves embraced, but that I only appreciated somewhat later.



When the concert was over, night had fallen and I was completely wide-eyed. I wasn't sure whether I had even enjoyed it—I was definitely suffering from sensory overload. But something about the experience must have been captivating, because the very next rock concert my parents allowed me to attend, almost five years later, promised even more sensory overload: Pink Floyd performing Dark Side of the Moon, perhaps the subject of a future post.

Coda: In researching this post I came across information about the emotional and physical abuse (as well as financial mismanagement) visited on his family by the dictatorial, alcoholic patriarch Bud Cowsill; in the documentary Family Band Bob Cowsill says that he "created a house of fear." The band's sunny pop sound and cheerful public personae concealed that painful backstage reality. The group broke up in 1971 after recording one final album, but in the past three decades surviving members have periodically reunited, played live, and recorded; they maintain the official Cowsills website.

I also came across a website for the Lambertville Music Circus. Among the other performers appearing there during the summer of 1970 were Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Little Richard, and Fleetwood Mac. Many thanks to the fans and fellow obsessives who have documented so much of this history, and prompted my very fallible memory to recall the things I couldn't think of yesterday.

Next time: See you on the dark side: Tolkien, Pink Floyd, and the Claremont Diner

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Wild Nights with Emily


Emily Dickinson in 1847, at age 16. Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Was Emily Dickinson, for decades, the lover of her sister-in-law Susan? Emphatically yes, is the answer provided from the first moments of writer/director Madeleine Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily (2018). Olnek is drawing on scholarship from the past 25 years by Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart and others that has complicated the view of Emily as a "virgin recluse" (as she was described by her editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson [1]). The film's title comes from Emily's impassioned poem:
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

[2]
In fact, even though she and Susan (who was married to Emily's brother Austin) lived next door to one another for 30 years and could see each other virtually every day, Emily wrote more letters to Susan—by a factor of two—than to any other correspondent. Her missives were filled with poems and poem fragments; Susan was often Emily's first and most trusted reader.


Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, undated portrait (detail). Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. https://id.lib.harvard.edu/ead/d/656cd02e-3e8e-4a9b-837f-bc1e0689aea1/catalog

After Emily's death at age 55 in 1886, Susan spent several years trying to put together a selection of what she called Emily's "letter-poems." That edition would have placed many of the poems in their original contexts, but evidently Susan, faced with a vast amount of material, found it too difficult to choose what to include. An example of a letter-poem:

Morning
might come
by Accident,
Sister -
Night comes
by Event -
To believe the
final line of
the Card would
foreclose Faith -
Faith is Doubt -

       Sister -
Show me
Eternity, and
I will show
you Memory -
Both in one
package lain
And lifted
back again -

Be Sue, while
I am Emily -
Be next, what
you have ever
been, Infinity -

[3]
Image source: Emily Dickinson Archive
Where does letter end, and poem begin?

"She feels a little baffled by my possession of so many [manuscripts] of Emily's," Susan wrote of Emily's younger sister Lavinia after Emily's death. [4] Lavinia, concerned about the lack of progress Susan was making on her edition of the letter-poems, and perhaps also wanting a more conventional editorial approach, eventually asked Susan to return the dozens of small, hand-sewn books of poems that Emily had created. In a fateful decision, Lavinia passed the books on to Mabel Loomis Todd, so that she and Higginson could prepare their own edition of Emily's poetry for publication.

Todd was a strange choice, not only because of her lack of any obvious qualifications for the job, but because of her role in the Dickinson family: she had been carrying on an ill-concealed affair with Austin since 1882. Emily's feelings about Todd may be guessed, perhaps, by noting that although Todd visited Emily's home many times, she was never able to meet Emily face-to-face.


Mabel Loomis Todd, around the time of her arrival in Amherst [ca. 1881-82]. 
Image source: Emily Dickinson Museum

If Emily had misgivings about Todd, they were justified. Todd edited Emily's writing with a heavy hand. She cut apart Emily's hand-sewn books, destroying the groupings of poems that Emily herself had painstakingly placed together. Instead she categorized the poems by assigning them broad (not to say banal) themes such as "Life, Love, Time & Eternity, Nature." [5] Emily did not title her poems, so Todd supplied titles of her own invention. She also changed Emily's line-lengths and punctuation, removing the characteristic dashes that provided rhythm and emphasis. She and Higginson produced two volumes of Emily's work, Poems (1890) and Poems: Second Series (1891), after which Higginson withdrew because of disagreements with Todd's editorial actions.

Those actions were especially damaging when Todd edited Letters of Emily Dickinson (1894). She omitted any mention of Susan, Emily's chief correspondent. Worse, someone—Todd is the likely culprit, although Austin may also have lent a hand—went through the writings in which Emily referred to Susan and erased, scribbled over or literally cut out mentions of her. As Martha Nell Smith writes,
. . .the erasures, cut-aways, and blottings-out have gone, until the last decade, practically unremarked in critical study. For most critics and editors, these have not been worthy of critical examination. In fact, of particular interest for critical inquiry is that these elisions—both those that can be restored and those forever out of our grasp—have been and continue to be compulsively reenacted and recycled rather than rigorously examined in Dickinson studies. [6]
Of course, critics may just have overlooked the subtle alterations Todd made to Dickinson's manuscripts. Here is part of the surviving manuscript of a poem to Susan that begins "One sister have I in the house / And one a hedge away":



This poem ends:
I spilt the dew,
But took the morn -
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers -
Sue - forevermore!

[7]
It is one of many love poems addressed to Susan; here is another:
Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a "Diver."
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home -
I - a Sparrow - build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

                         Emily. [8]
On the back of the manuscript the name "Sue," written by Emily, has been erased. In the 1894 Letters, Todd falsified the poem's addressee, claiming that it had been sent to editor Samuel Bowles and had been written as though addressed by him to his wife. Todd heterosexualized other references, as well. In a letter to Austin just after he and Susan had become engaged, Emily wrote, "Miss Susie was here on Friday, was here on Saturday, and Miss Emilie, there, on Thursday. . .Dear Austin, I am keen, but you are a good deal keener, I am something of a fox, but you are more of a hound! I guess we are very good friends tho', and I guess we both love [S]us[ie] just as well as we can." [9] The first and last letters of "Susie" were erased by Todd or Austin so that the phrase read "we both love us just as well as we can"—Emily's wry acknowledgement to Austin of their similar interest in Susan could not be allowed into print.

Despite Todd's elisions, Emily's letters to Susan were omitted from the 1894 edition of the letters because they were filled with language "too personal and adulatory ever to be printed." [10] Susan herself destroyed many of these letters after Emily's death, but some escaped.

May 1852: . . ."Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor can the heart conceive" my Susie, whom I love. These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among those silent beds!. . .I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still.  Emilie [11]

June 1852: And now how soon I shall have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home. I dont know why it is — but there's something in your name, now you are taken from me, which fills my heart so full, and my eye, too. . .

God is good, Susie, I trust he will save you, I pray that in his good time we once more meet each other, but if this life holds not another meeting for us, remember also, Susie, that it has no parting more, wherever that hour finds us, for which we have hoped so long, we shall not be separated, neither death, nor the grave can part us, so that we only love! Your Emilie — [12]

"Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say -" Image source: Emily Dickinson's Correspondences

11 June 1852: Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say - my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me; If you were here, and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — [13]

27 June 1852: And very, very often when I have waked from sleep, not quite waked, I have been sure I saw you, and your dark eye beamed on me with such a look of tenderness that I could only weep, and bless God for you.

Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?. . .

I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you - that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast - I go to sleep at night, and the first thing I know, I am sitting there wide awake, and clasping my hands tightly, and thinking of next Saturday, and "never a bit" of you. . .

Why, Susie, it seems to me as if my absent Lover was coming home so soon - and my heart must be so busy, making ready for him. [14]

January 1855: I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens, and it breaks my heart sometimes, because I do not hear from you. I wrote you many days ago - I wont say many weeks, because it will look sadder so, and then I cannot write - but Susie, it troubles me.

I miss you, mourn for you, and walk the Streets alone often at night, beside, I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from that silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die. [15]

Not many letters from Susan to Emily still exist, but one that does, from the early 1860s, suggests how profoundly their feelings were shared:
Private
I have intended to
write you Emily to-day but the
quiet has not been mine. I send
you this, lest I should seem to
have turned away from a kiss –
If you have suffered this past
summer I am sorry[.] I
Emily bear a sorrow that I
never uncover – – If a nightingale
sings with her breast against
a thorn, why not we [!]
When I can, I shall write —
                                                        Sue – [16]
Was the sorrow that Susan never spoke of that she was married to a man she didn't love? If so, was her marriage to Austin a strategy to remain close to Emily—literally next door—or was it a displacement of her feelings for Austin's sister?

I want to be careful not to assume too much about what these letters are saying Emily and Susan may have done in bed together. However, they could not be more clear about how they felt about one another. As Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith write in the introduction to Open My Heart Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, there are two factors that have led scholars and critics to minimize the significance of the love between Emily and Susan. The first is the image—assiduously promoted by Todd and Higginson, and aided by Austin Dickinson—of Emily as "the recluse spinster belle of Amherst."
The second factor is the view of intimate female friendships in the nineteenth century.  According to this view, women of Dickinson's time often indulged in highly romantic relationships with each other, but these relationships were merely affectionate and patently not sexual.  Such same-sex attractions, so the popular wisdom goes, had the character of an adolescent crush rather than a mature erotic love.  As this correspondence shows, however, Emily and Susan's relationship surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the "intimate exchange" between women friends of the period.  The ardor of Dickinson's late teens and early twenties matured and deepened over the decades, and the romantic and erotic expressions from Emily to Susan continued until Dickinson's death in May 1886. [17]
Olnek's film Wild Nights with Emily vividly and at times humorously portrays the intensity of the relationship between Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler). And, quite rightly, Olnek feels free to imagine aspects of the love between her characters that the letters only imply. Her film offers a much-needed corrective to the image of the irascible, ill-mannered, and unrequitedly heterosexual Emily of Terence Davies' recent film A Quiet Passion. In that film Susan (played by Jodhi May) hardly appears, and the deep emotional connection between her and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is not even hinted at—another "reenactment and recycling" of Susan's historical erasure. Wild Nights is a very welcome, funny, and moving restoration of Susan to the emotional center of Emily's life and work.


Molly Shannon (Emily Dickinson) and Susan Ziegler (Susan Dickinson) in Wild Nights with Emily
Image source: AfterEllen


  1. Quoted by Lilia Melani, "Emily Dickinson -- Love." http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/wild.html
  2. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44087/wild-nights-wild-nights-269
  3. https://www.edickinson.org/faq#5 
  4. Martha Nell Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters," in Wendy Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 51.
  5. Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 56. 
  6. Smith, "Introduction," Mutilations: what was erased, inked over and cut away, http://archive.emilydickinson.org/mutilation/mintro.html
  7. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998, p. 76.
  8. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 91.
  9. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 5.
  10. Susan Dickinson, quoted in Smith, "Susan and Emily Dickinson," p. 54.
  11. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hb173.htm; dates of this and other quotes from Emily's letters to Susan follow those determined by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Amherst: Paris Press, 1998.
  12. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl20.htm
  13. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl2.htm
  14. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl7.htm
  15. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/working/hl1.htm
  16. Hart and Smith, Open Me Carefully, p. 101.
  17. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith "introduction," Open Me Carefully, p. xiv. http://archive.emilydickinson.org/classroom/spring99/edition/hart-smith/h-s-letters.htm