Saturday, January 12, 2008

Wednesday, January 6, 1960

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb."

On January 6, 1960, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were returned from Nevada to Finney County in Western Kansas, in order to stand trial for the murders of the Clutter family in mid-November, 1959: the parents, Herb and Bonnie, and two of their younger children still living with them, Nancy and Kenyon. The return of Hickok and Smith to the place of the murders was depicted in the film Capote (2005), with future In Cold Blood author Truman Capote (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), by then having traveled to Kansas and researching the case, witnessing the event.

Six months earlier, on June 25, 1959, Charles Starkweather was executed by electric chair by the State of Nebraska. I had turned five years old a couple of days earlier. I don't remember anything about Starkweather's execution, although it happened just up the highway. I have a vague memory of staying overnight with my grandparents during his murder spree which, in January 1960, would have happened a couple of years earlier. The reason I remember the historic moment at all was because at bedtime my grandmother asked my grandfather if he'd locked the doors--the first time in my life I remember anyone ordering the doors of the house to be locked. Later--perhaps the next day, I don't recall--I asked my mother why granny and grandad had locked the doors, and she explained it to me: a killer was on the loose, he could show up anywhere. At the time, we lived about forty miles from Lincoln, where Charles Starkweather's murder spree had begun. Whether the doors of our house continued to be locked after Starkweather was arrested I do not know.

Over two decades later, in 1986, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I'd been living since 1979. My wife and I locked the doors at night. Was that habit instilled in us by the likes of Charles Starkweather, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith? Or by family habits with which we'd grown up? I do not know. One hot day that summer, my next door neighbor asked me if I'd like to see Charles Starkweather's grave, and I said yes. A good friend of his was a gravedigger at Wyuka Cemetery, located on the north side of Lincoln's O Street between 33rd and 48th Streets, and recently he had shown my neighbor the grave site. On the arranged day, we drove to the cemetery, between five and ten minutes from my home. You have to know where his grave is in order to find it, as the small rectangular stone, inscribed only with the name Starkweather, rests flat on the ground in the shade of a large tree (at least at the time), just a few steps from the road.

On the day we visited--and this is a true story--we discovered that someone had left a small bouquet of flowers on top of the gravestone. Serendipitously, it must have been around the 25th of June--that day, or one or two on either side. Seeing those flowers on the gravestone instantaneously connected me to my past and invoked all the memories associated with Charles Starkweather, not only those when I was a small boy, but those from years later, in 1976, when his putative accomplice at the time of killings, Carol Fugate, was, controversially, released from the Nebraska State Prison in Lincoln.

Despite the historic proximity of the murders, and despite the fact that both cases featured the Midwestern outlaw couple (as in "Bonnie and Clyde"), the crucial difference between the two murder cases is, of course, Truman Capote: Starkweather never had the literary equivalent of Capote, while Hickok and Perry did. The style of writing known as "New Journalism" grew out of In Cold Blood, while in contrast, because his story had no prestigious literary antecedent, Starkweather's story, devoid of the compelling, if not sympathetic psychological portrait created by Capote, became, in its filmic incarnations, more "sensational," the killer more incoherent, more of a "bad seed" rather than portrayed as a consequence of his environment.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Tuesday, January 5, 1960

"A nationwide poll of your hopes, plans and fears for the decade ahead, with picture reports on the mood of the American people as they enter THE SOARING ‘60’s."

As the cover of the January 5, 1960 Look magazine reveals, the mass media's role to promulgate the government’s agenda is so obvious it stares you right in the face. (The X Files' tag line, "The Truth is Out There," is in fact very true--it's right in front of you.) After the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, the so-called Space Age began. Translation: the U.S. government convinced the American public that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites meant they had the technology to launch ballistic missiles, that is, long-range rockets with nuclear bombs. A threshold moment, a new relationship between the government (military) and educational institutions (science and technology) began. Sputnik prompted Congress, in July 1958, to pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as of October 1, 1958. In January 1960, 50% of the government’s total budget was devoted to defense. The cover of Look associates the space program and a rocket's nighttime take-off with the promise, mystery, and anxiety of the new decade. Ironically, the word "soaring," associated with "flying" and being "high," anticipated the language of the drug experience--"tripping"--popularly associated with the 1960s. (See the January 1 blog entry.)

In the media, ever fond of the sound bite, the Space Age soon became the Space Race, figuratively transforming what was originally a wholesale institutional restructuring (new jobs, job incentives, re-defined job relationships, job responsibilities, new administrative duties, new budgets, budget sources and amounts of funding, re-defined institutional objectives, on and on) into a competitive sporting event with the Soviet Union. By means of the national media, neologisms such as “astronauts,” references to “flight teams,” acronyms such as NASA, rocket types associated with military bases such as Redstone, and mythological (divinely sanctioned) designations such as “Mercury” and “Gemini” all allowed military and quasi-military terminology to become part of the language of daily life. During the 1960s, Life magazine—alone—dedicated over three-dozen covers to the space program (the cover of the March 3, 1961 issue is above left), although it is hard to tally the number of hours of television programming that was devoted to launches, orbital flights, moon flights, and so on. A new, very modern sort of hero was born, characterized, some years later, by Tom Wolfe, as having "the right stuff." Since "astronauts" were no longer (military) pilots in the traditional sense, their character had to be redefined anew.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Monday, January 4, 1960

"Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl..."

According to Billboard Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990 (Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991) Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” was the “Number 1” single in the United States for two weeks beginning the week of January 4. “El Paso” is indebted to the corrido (a narrative song, often a ballad, sometimes with a rhythm much like that of a waltz) that Robbins transformed into a country-western ballad. It told the story of a cowboy who fell in love with a Mexican cantina dancer (her name is not important). She was wicked, though, and mocked his love by flirting with other cowboys. One night, so the narrator tells us, in a jealous rage, he shot and killed a boy to whom the girl was being overly attentive. The cowboy fled El Paso, but soon realized that his love for her was stronger than his fear of death, and he returned. He was set upon by the vengeful friends of his victim, and was mortally shot by them. He dies, seemingly happy, in the feckless girl’s arms. He died exalted because of his passion, and yet his passion remained unfulfilled, and thus his desire brought him not ecstasy, but death.

Another pair of famous lovers, Romeo and Juliet, who had only a few days to celebrate their passion--after all, they met on Sunday and died on Thursday, and had just one blissful night of erotic pleasure together--and whose love ended in mutual suicide, are nonetheless celebrated as the happiest and most famous lovers in the western world. Paradoxically, the brevity and misery of their fated love is touted as the model to which lovers should aspire. For love to be genuine, it has to be autonomous, intense--and calamitous. On the one hand, our myths uphold the idea of living happily ever after, but on the other, we measure authentic love only by the degree to which it incites misery and suffering. Denis De Rougemont, in Love in the Western World, says that obsessive passion is really the desire for death: Isn't that the lesson "El Paso" teaches us? In order for love to be real and authentic, we must be unhappy. In one of those delicious ironies possible only in art and not life, “El Paso” was covered by none other than...The Grateful Dead, who played the song in concert several hundred times. Perhaps Bob Weir, or Jerry Garcia, or both, knew what the song was really about.

Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, released in September 1959, was one of the very first LP records I remember (as opposed to 7" 45s and my parents' 78s). Holding the cover in my hands, I would study the cover, flipping it back and forth, first the cover, then the back, examining every detail, reading every word. And I would play the record over and over and over. My mother was very tolerant. I was fascinated by it—and still am. The songs are remarkably diverse, each one a narrative in miniature; they were about religious conversion, Fate, Destiny, Love, and Death, filled with unexpected reversals, catastrophic endings. I now own it on CD. Robbins, gifted with a beautiful, remarkably expressive voice, was a mystic who died prematurely in 1982 at age 57.

In 1976, a few years before his death, Robbins revisited “El Paso” with a song titled “El Paso City.” The narrator is a passenger on an airplane flying over the west Texas desert, near El Paso, who remembers a song he’d heard long ago—“El Paso.” The narrator experiences an anamnesis (a sudden remembering of something he’d forgotten he'd forgotten) and asks, “Could it be that I could be/the cowboy in this mystery/That died there in that desert sand so long ago,” which I’ve always interpreted as Robbins’ admission that he believed he was, in fact, in his previous life the doomed cowboy he wrote about in the earlier song. Of course, in exploring his relationship with the muse that resided within him, "El Paso City" is also about the mystery of artistic creation.

And of course, "El Paso" is not about the real place, the Texas border town. In its figurative sense, "El Paso" names a certain imaginary location, a border kingdom where Desire and Obsession meet Death. In El Paso, you can find the answer to the daunting riddle, Why is passion so strongly linked with death?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sunday, January 3, 1960

"…the personalities of the popular music industry have every reason to cultivate the child market and are quite willing to “rob the cradle.” This…means that children are compelled to learn how to respond to music, in a fashion their peer group will find acceptable, at increasingly earlier ages. Under these pressures, music can hardly help becoming associated with both the excitements and the anxieties of interpersonal relationships."

--David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd, qtd. in On Record, S. Frith and A. Goodwin, Eds. (Pantheon Books, 1990), pp. 10-11.

The “Number 1” record on the pop music charts the week of December 28, 1959-January 3, 1960 (the "week of" determination was Monday through Sunday) was “Why” by Frankie Avalon. The teen idol’s hit was about to be displaced on the charts, the next day, by Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” a profound (if unconscious) narrative exploring the relationship between sex, obsession, and death, a entirely different view of love than the one in Avalon's momentary hit.

The lyrics to "Why" begin as follows:

I'll never let you go
Why? Because I love you
I'll always love you so
Why? Because you love me

No broken hearts for us
‘Cause we love each other
And with our faith and trust
There could be no other

Why? ‘Cause I love you
Why? ‘Cause you love me

In retrospect, David Reisman may have been among the first critics of American popular music to produce what Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), has called "aberrant readings or interpretations" (p. 195), because for Reisman, these ostensibly winsome, largely monosyllabic lyrics might just as well have been sung by the "other-directed" personality of modern America singing a song of love to the peer group to which he wants so desperately to belong as they are--so it would seem--about idealized Romantic love.

Although published almost sixty years ago, the analysis of popular music performed by sociologist David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950) remains exceedingly insightful. I doubt that many music critics and scholars--at least those with a sociological orientation--would dispute his contention that the meaning of popular music resides in a large part in the way its consumers use it, that one’s identification with a particular kind of music is used as a means to form bonds with (or against) a particular social group. For Reisman, writing in the midst of the economic boom of post-war America, the consumption of a particular form of music was one of the various means by which the “other-directed” person was able to accommodate himself or herself to others to gain approval (the approval of the “peer group”): musical taste was largely pragmatic. As the quotation used as the epigraph to this blog reveals, Riesman believed that American industry had every reason to inculcate this type of “other-directed” person, so concerned about the opinions of others, because the "other-directed" personality was indispensable to the corporate, “team-playing” mentality: "The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” The anxieties and ecstasies of interpersonal relationships--the need to belong--should be inculcated in individuals at as young an age as possible. Hence, songs such as "Why."

As a sociological type, Reisman's "other-directed" personality might well have been the inspiration for the character of Arch Hammer in Rod Serling's "The Four of Us Are Dying," the Twilight Zone episode I discussed in yesterday's blog, and which premiered the evening of January 2nd: Hammer's skill of modifying his physical appearance (and hence personality) in order to blend seamlessly into any social group uncannily anticipates Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), although the character of Zelig is portrayed as an anxiety-filled conformist, not an "other-directed" personality, but the underlying anxiety is consistent in both types.

A compelling portrait of David Reisman by his former student, Todd Gitlin, is available here.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Saturday, January 2, 1960

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan asserted that each new media takes as its content the older one. The movies, for instance, became the content of television. Now, the old television programs are (slowly) becoming the content of the internet (in the form of digital downloads). As an experiment trying to verify this theory, I tried to find out whether I could download any of the programs from Saturday night, January 2, 1960. (Saturday morning children's programming at the time, ironically, is something I don't remember well. I remember much better the evening programs, and in any case Saturday morning programming is not something I'd care to download, anyway, for reasons I'll have to explore in some future blog.) Our university library has several books which contain information about U. S. network programming of the past several decades, but since the university is currently on break and the library closed, I was unable to get hold of these books. I used Wikipedia instead, and indeed, found I could indeed recover the network television schedule for the 1959-1960 TV season. Next, I visited the Internet Movie Database in order to determine the specific episodes the networks broadcast that night.

None of the programs televised that night are currently available in the form of downloads--but several of them are available, or will become available, on DVD. Of the ABC programs shown that evening, only Leave It to Beaver (8:30 p.m. EST) is available on DVD, and of the NBC programs, only Bonanza (7:30 p.m. EST) is available. CBS, however, has done a better job of making its programs available in digital format. The Perry Mason episode shown that night, "The Case of the Violent Village," is no doubt forthcoming on the Season Three DVD box set of that series, but Season Three hasn't been released yet. The Gunsmoke episode shown that night (the most popular show on television at the time), "Groat's Grudge," is not yet available on DVD (or download), either, although no doubt it will be.  The Have Gun-Will Travel episode, "The Prophet," is available on DVD (but not download), but I was unable, alas, to get hold of the Season 3 box set. That left me with the one episode I did have, available on the Season Two box set of Wanted: Dead or Alive, "Mental Lapse." I also happened to have Season 1 of The Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition, and therefore the episode that was televised 10:00 p.m. EST the night before, on January 1st, "The Four of Us Are Dying."

With these two half-hour programs in hand, I sat down and watched them back-to-back, "The Four of Us Are Dying" from January 1, and "Mental Lapse" from January 2, and--much to my surprise--learned that both starred Harry Townes (right), a marvelous actor I remember seeing on television for years. As far as I can remember I've always loved movies, but outside of Elvis Presley--the first "star" I can remember as a child--I grew up with greater familiarity with television actors than movie stars. Harry Townes is one of them--not that I could have given you his name at the time. Only years after, by virtue of reference books, could I have given you his name.

In "The Four of Us Are Dying," a sort of SF/noir hybrid, Harry Townes plays a hard-nosed con artist named Arch Hammer who has the ability to simulate the physical characteristics of others. By studying a snapshot of someone, he can "make his face change" and become that person, a replica of that person, complete with bodily mannerisms. As the episode begins, Hammer has arrived in New York City with some luggage filled with newspaper clippings containing pictures and news articles about a couple of men who recently suffered violent deaths. In the drama's first movement, he morphs into a dead musician named Johnny Foster in order meet--and to seduce--Foster's former, beautiful, girlfriend, a nightclub singer named Maggie (Beverly Garland). He becomes Johnny Foster and morphs into--Ross Martin! An experienced charmer, he convinces Maggie to quit her job after that night's show, with the promise that the two of them will run off together and have a great time (an offer, one infers, the real Johnny never made her). And why shouldn't I have a beautiful woman as a residual benefit? Hammer asks himself after leaving the club.

In the show's second movement, in order to acquire the much-needed cash for his upcoming fling with Maggie, Hammer morphs into the betrayed and murdered mobster Virgil Sterig, in order to extort money from his ex-boss, and becomes--Phillip Pine, a fine veteran television actor I also well remember through television. However, before Sterig can successfully pull off his getaway after having extorted the money, two of his ex-boss's thugs arrive, and he's forced to run for his life. Trapped in an alleyway, with no clear escape in sight, in the nick of time he spots a tattered poster announcing a past boxing match, and at the last moment morphs into--a heel, Andy Marshak, played by Don Gordon. As was so characteristic of Rod Serling's rigid Puritan sensibility, Hammer's desperate, selfish act has unintended consequences: almost immediately, he unknowingly runs into Marshak's irate, pathological father who, at the show's conclusion, shoots and kills him because of what he (Marshak) has done to his mother and his girlfriend. In a sort of pre-Terminator 2 sequence that anticipates the T-1000's attempt to survive after falling into the molten ore, upon being shot Hammer tries to grab, hold on to, one of the simulacra he's become over the course of the evening--hence the inspiration for the show's title, "The Four of Us Are Dying." Such was the Twilight Zone on January 1, 1960.

Serendipitously, I'd already planned to watch the January 2 Wanted: Dead or Alive episode, but near the end of the TZ episode's end credits, a brief segment urged viewers to look for Wanted: Dead or Alive (also a CBS show) on the same network. A minute or so later, as if heeding the suggestion made by the oracular announcer 48 years earlier, I had Wanted: Dead or Alive cued up--and there again, this time in a western setting, was Harry Townes. Interestingly, the episode was written by William F. Nolan, well-known as a SF/fantasy writer, perhaps best known for the feature film Logan's Run (1976). In the episode, Townes plays a man suffering from amnesia (hence the episode's title), who, at the story's opening, in a sort of Phlip K. Dickian twist, is improbably posting a "Wanted" poster asking for information about himself: who he is, what his name is, where he's from. Since he's offered a $500 reward for information about himself, bounty hunter Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) takes him up on his offer. It turns out that the character Townes plays is named Olin McDonald, falsely accused of killing his partner about a year earlier after the two had won a pot of money gambling. Subsequently attacked by the minions of the corrupt owner of the gambling hall, McDonald was left for dead, but later found on the trail--his memory gone (presumably by means of trauma to the head). By the show's end, he has experienced an anamnesis and the story ends happily, with McDonald reunited with his beloved.

Although I'm not using the term precisely the way media theorists would like me to, the yield of information achieved by juxtaposing these two episodes is an example of the "convergence" achieved by the ease of digital sampling in the era of the internet (multiple sites available simultaneously), a presentation of information not available in the era of analogue broadcast. I had Wikipedia, the Imdb, and the episodes themselves in digital form. The sort of information yielded by the juxtaposition (convergence) of these various media would not have possible in the era the programs were originally broadcast. At present, the entire season of a particular show is available (or will be available); one wonders if, through internet downloads, whether (theoretically) an entire year of television is going to be (re) produceable.

Intrigued by the serendipity of seeing Harry Townes in the two episodes, I thought I'd learn the rest of the story. According his obituary in the New York Times, about a decade later Townes was ordained as an Episcopalian minister, an event, interestingly, anticipated in a Route 66 episode from 1960, The Strengthening Angels, in which he played a minister.

A photograph, from years later, reveals Harry Townes in a different role, courtesy