Singing the Anthem

I’ve always thought that the Star Spangled Banner was a poor choice for our national song.  It is very militaristic for one thing.  For another, it is very difficult to sing.  I would much prefer America. But since I don’t think there will be a change in my lifetime, I have fun by watching the rendition before ball games and other events and seeing how it is done and whether the singer makes it all the way through it without an error.  Or adding horrible extra notes.  (And I don’t blame Beyoncé for lip-synching at the Inauguration.  She was singing outdoors with the band on a totally different level of the platform.  Besides, she totally nailed it live at the Super Bowl.)  But watching and listening is a spot in itself.

We went to the Brockton Rox opening game a few weeks ago.  (They play in a Futures League.)  An elementary school band played and were terrific.  But we’ve also seen some clinkers.  When it is a kid, you want to give them an “A” for trying.  An adult, not so much.  The New York Times had a recent story singing at ballparks.

It is a notoriously difficult song to sing, a musical high-wire act, with an octave-and-a-half range and a devilishly spaced melody. You usually sing it a cappella in a stadium where the echo hits your ear a half-beat behind the melody, and the lyrics are so familiar and fraught with meaning that every fan in the stands can hear the slightest mistake or botched note.

“It’s certainly nerve-racking,” said David Cook, the pop singer and “American Idol” winner who will sing the anthem on the Fourth of July in Kansas City, Mo., just before the Royals take on the Cleveland Indians. “For every person who wants to talk about Whitney Houston killing it years ago, 10 people want to talk about Roseanne Barr butchering it, so there is always that fear that ‘I better not forget the words to this song.’”

And most people like it done straight.  No Jimi Hendrix.   Me, I like his version.

Not all baseball anthems are done traditionally. Pop musicians who are ardent baseball fans often jump at the chance to do the honors. Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist of the band Metallica, who grew up in San Francisco, and James Hetfield, the band’s lead singer, opened a game for the San Francisco Giants with a distorted guitar duet of the anthem in May this year. Steven Tyler and James Taylor have done the anthem in their own inimitable styles for their home team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park in Boston.

Mr. Steinberg, a senior adviser to the Red Sox who has worked as an executive for the Dodgers and the Orioles, said it has become common for rock stars to try their hands at the anthem ever since Joan Jett had success singing it for her beloved Orioles in the late 1980s. Boston being the cradle of the Revolution, however, the Red Sox tend to go with a military theme on the Fourth of July, Mr. Steinberg said, so the team has asked Musician Second Class Nina Church, a vocalist with the Navy Band Northeast in Newport, R.I. to do the honors in her dress whites.

Petty Officer Church, 29, said that as a member of the Navy band, “you could call me a professional at singing the national anthem.” The key to pulling it off, she said, is to start on the right note. “The range of the piece is an octave plus a fifth,” she explained. “A lot of people start a little too high.”

But even Petty Officer Church stumbled a little, but recovered well.  I wonder if the Dropkick Murphy’s have done the Anthem at Fenway?  Don’t think so.  That might be interesting.  Or I read someplace that Justin Verlander, the pitcher for the Detroit Tigers can sing.  Maybe he can start a new trend:  Players who sing the Anthem.

Clockwise from top left: STEVEN TYLER at Fenway Park in 2002; CHAKA KHAN in 2008 at Dodger Stadium; JAMES HETFIELD in San Francisco in May; ROSEANNE BARR at a San Diego Padres game in 1990; MARC ANTHONY at Shea Stadium in 2001; and TAYLOR SWIFT at Dodger Stadium in 2007.

Clockwise from top left: STEVEN TYLER at Fenway Park in 2002; CHAKA KHAN in 2008 at Dodger Stadium; JAMES HETFIELD in San Francisco in May; ROSEANNE BARR at a San Diego Padres game in 1990; MARC ANTHONY at Shea Stadium in 2001; and TAYLOR SWIFT at Dodger Stadium in 2007.

Photographs: Clockwise from top left: Elise Amendola/AP; Stephen Dunn/Getty; Jason O. Watson/Getty; Andy Hayt/AP; Ray Stubblebine/Reuters; Kevork Djansezian/AP

Marilyn Monroe, Hal Schaefer, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra and the wrong door

The New York Times published an obituary for Hal Schaefer today.  I had never heard of him, but this picture caught my eye.

This is Mr. Schaefer with Marilyn Monroe in 1953.

Hal Schaefer was a vocal coach, arranger and jazz pianist.  According to the Times

In his professional life as well as his personal one, Mr. Schaefer was often the least famous person in the room; his musical career was substantial but largely uncelebrated. A former prodigy who was inspired by the clean, tumbling melodic lines of Art Tatum, Mr. Schaefer played with big bands led by Benny Carter and Harry James and was the accompanist for Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, Vic Damone and other singers. Before he was 21 he led a trio that performed at the intermission of Duke Ellington concerts.

He was also an arranger and a modern jazz composer and for more than 50 years performed and recorded as a soloist and as a leader of small ensembles and jazz orchestras.

“A romantic with a rhythmic soul,” John S. Wilson of The New York Times called Mr. Schaefer after a performance at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in 1982. “Mr. Schaefer is very much a mainstream pianist, but he has his own way of looking at the mainstream, enlivening the relatively standard repertory that he played with fresh and entertaining ideas.”

Mr. Schaefer probably made his biggest imprint as an arranger and vocal coach in Hollywood, where he often worked with the choreographer Jack Cole. He coached Monroe through “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” her signature number in the 1953 movie “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (he arranged the music as well), and Jane Russell, who also starred in that film. He also worked on other movies with Mitzi Gaynor, Betty Grable and Judy Garland. He wrote film scores for “The Money Trap,” a 1965 police drama with Glenn Ford, Elke Sommer and Rita Hayworth, and “The Amsterdam Kill,” a 1977 thriller with Robert Mitchum.

But Schaefer was also involved in an incident involving DiMaggio, Sinatra, and Monroe.  According to his obituary

On Nov. 5, 1954, not long after Marilyn Monroe filed for divorce from Joe DiMaggio, DiMaggio was having dinner with Frank Sinatra when he heard, probably from a private investigator, that if he went to a certain apartment house on Waring Avenue in West Hollywood, he’d find her in the arms of another man.

There are different accounts of what happened later that night, but what is certain is that a party of men, including DiMaggio and Sinatra, showed up at the address and someone broke down the door of the ostensible love nest, terrifying the woman who lived there, Florence Kotz — sometimes identified as Florence Kotz Ross — who was in bed by herself.

“Mrs. Ross was fast asleep about 11 p.m. when five or six men suddenly battered down the back door to her apartment, tearing it from its hinges and leaving glass strewn on the floor,” The Los Angeles Times reported, adding, “A bright flash of light was shone in her eyes and she was confronted with a number of men, some of whom seemed to be carrying an instrument which at first sight she believed to be an ax.”

The incident, which came to be known as “the wrong door raid,” resulted in a lawsuit filed by Mrs. Ross against Sinatra, DiMaggio and four others, which was settled for $7,500. And where was Monroe?

Los Angeles Times story from June 2, 1957 had an account that was similar.  But added this detail.

The men fled and Ross reported the incident to police as a burglary. Then Confidential magazine published a story about the raid in its February 1957 issue, touching off the Legislature’s investigation of scandal magazines and private detectives.  Ross learned the identities of the raiders when one of the private detectives, Philip Irwin, told the story to the investigative committee and the grand jury.

Sinatra received similar treatment when he was served with a subpoena in Palm Springs at 4 a.m. on Feb. 16, 1957, and he filed a complaint with the LAPD about the incident. Although his testimony was contradicted by others, Sinatra was adamant that he remained in a Cadillac parked outside the complex during the raid.

Private detective Barney Ruditsky, Irwin’s boss, testified before the grand jury that Sinatra and DiMaggio remained outside while he and Irwin broke down the door. During the investigation, Irwin testified that he had been beaten up by six men after he told an official of the State’s Bureau of Private Investigators and Adjusters his version of the raid. He also testified that he hadn’t sold the details to Confidential magazine.

In September 1958, the “wrong door” lawsuit against DiMaggio, Sinatra, Irwin, Ruditsky, Patsy D’Amore and John Seminola was settled for $7,500 ($53,739.63 USD 2006).

And where was Monroe during all of this? Next door, visiting girlfriend Sheila Stewart Renour at 8120 Waring.

Wrong.  Monroe was, Schaefer claimed, with him.

A female friend of hers claimed at the time that they had been together that evening, but years later, Hal Schaefer, a jazz pianist who was also Monroe’s vocal coach and who had become her confidant and romantic partner, admitted in interviews that he and Monroe were trysting in an apartment just a few yards away.

“We were very close to making love; I don’t remember the stage we were at, but I would say half-dressed,” Mr. Schaefer recalled. He added: “And all of a sudden for some reason, Marilyn got these vibrations, and we went over to the window and saw this group standing across the street, one of whom was Joe DiMaggio and another was Frank Sinatra. They all came en masse and broke this door in, demolished it. We scrambled to get out the back way, and we made it, luckily.”

Frank, Joe and their pals got off easy even for accounting for inflation.  And we are left with this interesting story told by a man who once loved her.


The wrong door.

Cell Phone Culture

I own a cell phone.  It is not a smart phone.  I don’t search the internet, look at GPS, or have a lot of apps.  I talk and I text.  Because my mother is 93. I almost always have it with me in case she or one of her aides is trying to reach family.  I am obsessive about having it on vibrate at concerts, at work.  Until I read about the incident at the New York Philharmonic, I mostly thought about those people who are constantly on the phone.  They stop in the middle of the sidewalk unexpectedly or they weave back and forth so you can’t pass them.  They drive erratically and often don’t notice that the light has turned red.  They have loud and sometimes very private conversations on the train.  And I have one work colleague who has loud personal and political conversations for large parts of the day.  This is the way the world is now.  We try to ban talking and texting on the phone while driving with little success.  We announce that patrons should turn off electronic devices before concerts.  (I notice that the Boston Symphony used to have a projected announcement but this year have added a broadcast message.) 

Then last week we had the incident at the New York Philharmonic.  According to the story in the New York Times

The unmistakably jarring sound of an iPhone marimba ring interrupted the soft and spiritual final measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, did something almost unheard-of in a concert hall: He stopped the performance. But the ringing kept on going, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor.

After words from Mr. Gilbert, and what seemed like weeks, the cellphone owner finally silenced his device. After the audience cheered, the concert resumed. Internet vitriol ensued.

 Gustave Mahler

So the cell phone owner, Patron X, claims he didn’t know it was his phone ringing.  He thought he had turned it off, but the alarm was still on. 

But no one, it seems, felt worse than the culprit, who agreed to an interview on Thursday on condition that he not be identified — for obvious reasons.

“You can imagine how devastating it is to know you had a hand in that,” said the man, who described himself as a business executive between 60 and 70 who runs two companies. “It’s horrible, horrible.” The man said he had not slept in two days.

The man, called Patron X by the Philharmonic, said he was a lifelong classical music lover and 20-year subscriber to the orchestra who was friendly with several of its members. He said he himself was often irked by coughs, badly timed applause — and cellphone rings. “Then God, there was I. Holy smokes,” he said.

“It was just awful to have any role in something like that, that is so disturbing and disrespectful not only to the conductor but to all the musicians and not least to the audience, which was so into this concert,” he said by telephone.

“I hope the people at that performance and members of the orchestra can certainly forgive me for this whole event. I apologize to the whole audience.”

What have we learned from this incident?  First, music, live music, is still important.  Two, many people have no clue about how to use their technology.  I’m not talking about knowing the programming or electronics, but how to turn it on and off and what bells and whistles it has.  Anyone read the instructions? 

I think the incident at the Philharmonic shows again that we are being ruled by our technology.   The Economist had this comment

The problem is that although most people are minded to silence their mobile phones during performances, alarms are often designed to make a racket regardless of whether the phone is in silent mode (some even sound when the device is powered down). In 2007 Apple’s late boss, Steve Jobs, touted the original iPhone’s mute switch in 2007, which could be without messing with menus (though the device can also be unintentionally unmuted in a pocket). But alarms override the mute function.

Donald Norman, a guru of usable design and a former Apple and HP executive, says that there have been proposals to design phones to detect a signal disseminated in a performance space that instructed the phone to mute itself. (Suggestions involving signal blockers are no use against alarms, and are in any case banned by telecoms regulators.) He notes that the vibration mode is of little help. After all, the vibrations need to be significant enough to rouse a mobile’s owner, and creating them produces sound. Perhaps, Mr Norman suggests facetiously, concertgoers ought be frisked before entering a theatre.

Maybe it won’t come to that. Modern smartphones can use satellite-navigation and Wi-Fi network information to determine location indoors. They also have an array of sensors for noise, light and movement. It shouldn’t be too difficult to teach an operating system to suppress all alerts when, say, it discerns live music at the same time as locating itself in Avery Fisher Hall (the New York Philharmonic’s home). 

For now, though, vigilance remains the only safeguard—albeit not a foolproof one. Mr Norman, doubtless a sophisticated user, admits that even he can’t disable all sounds on his phone; every once in a while, the blasted device beeps. One can only hope it doesn’t choose to do so at an inopportune time. Like the adagio of Mahler’s Ninth.

As I said, technology rules us.  I wonder what Mahler would think.  Happy 100th Birthay, Gustav!

Bob Smith, White House Piano Man had this great human interest piece today about Bob Smith who first played at the White House for Richard Nixon, but retired before George W. 

According to Politico

Former White House pianist Bob Smith provided entertainment to presidents, their spouses and guests for more than 30 years. As such, he has plenty of stories to tell — like the one from his White House debut, with the Army Band Chorus, at Tricia Nixon’s 1971 St. Patrick’s Day engagement party. “My Three Sons” star Fred MacMurray arrived at the event seemingly inebriated and took up the saxophone. 

 “He was just horrible. … The most awful thing you heard in your life,” Smith recalled. President Richard Nixon asked Smith to “get rid of him,” and Smith, with help from the Secret Service, complied.

Bob Smith plays the piano.

Made official White House pianist,

…First lady Pat Nixon, Smith said, used to bypass protocol and call him directly on his home phone to ask him personally to play various events—from background music at cocktail parties and receptions, to sitting in as accompanist to a hired musical act.

He later played for and with the Clintons and Gores

Later, he got along great with the Clintons. He and the president bonded over their shared love of playing music. Smith recalled several duets he played with Clinton on sax, an instrument “that was always in reaching distance” of the president.

 He was in with the Gores, too.

 “So while I’m doing saxophone things with [Clinton] at the White House, I’d go over to the vice president’s house, [where] Tipper Gore had her drum set set-up outside in the living room next to the grand piano. She’d come over and say, ‘Can I sit in?,’” Smith recalled. Tipper Gore was a “very good player,” he said.

Over the years, Smith also had numerous interactions with celebrity White House visitors, including Audrey Hepburn and Lena Horne, who sang along while he played. Cary Grant once skipped out of a White House dinner to sit outside the dining room at the piano with Smith. At the actor’s request, Smith said, the two played Cole Porter songs for over an hour.

But the reason he retired is one of the most interesting parts of the story

Smith decided to retire when the Clintons moved out of the White House because, after playing for Bush 41 and spending time with the Bush family, he preferred leave before Bush 43 moved in.

 President George H.W. Bush “was very cool,” Smith said. “But there were too many times where I saw [his son, President George W. Bush,] over that time where he was less than statesmanlike,” he laughed.

Maybe the Obamas should get him out of retirement.


Michael Jackson and Race

It has been more than a week since Michael Jackson was found near death in his rented home in Los Angeles and was pronounced dead at the emergency roon. I haven’t written about Jackson because I couldn’t quite figure out an approach. I have to admit that I liked the Jackson 5, admired “Thriller” and “We are the World”, but never really got into his post-Thriller music. And like everyone else, I spent years watching the horror show that was his life.  Now we are all picking though the comments and observations of everyone who can get air time.

I don’t know for sure if he was physically abused or not. His father says not, but some of his brothers say otherwise and I’m sure they are right. He was clearly psychologically abused.  Jackson used to say he had no childhood because he had to work all the time but I heard Barry Gordy describe pick-up basketball and baseball games with the Jackson kids, his kids and other children of the Motown family. I’m not sure we will ever know the truth. But we did watch him have extensive facial surgery so that his nose almost disappeared and we watched his skin turn paler and paler. (I don’t believe anyone who says he had a skin condition – no one else in his family seems to have a similar problem.) He tried to make himself Caucasian.  I couldn’t look at him anymore.

I heard someone say he sheltered his kids so they would not have a public upbringing. They point to Diana Ross as his role model – she raised kids and few people knew she had them. But he didn’t “shelter” them. He exploited them. The famous balcony scene with the baby, “Blanket”, being held over the edge; the kids – all white, by the way – being dressed up and paraded around. No one can tell me he was trying to shelter them. And now we learn that none of the three have any of Jackson’s DNA.

Patricia Williams  has put this all together for me.  In her column in the Nation, Williams writes

To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. “Man in the Mirror” had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure–so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.

In the wake of his death, many have hailed his “crossover appeal.” There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that “appeal” had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was “the White Negro,” so Michael fashioned himself into “the Negro Caucasian.” He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.

I can understand the need to appear “lighter”, “whiter”.   I had one grandmother who despaired every summer when my sister and I turned browner and browner.  She believed, as many Japaneses did, that pale skin was a sign of upper classeness and dark skin of being a peasant.

Williams again

But in the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson’s children is challenging in other ways. Like his demands for plastic surgery or painkillers, their conception was accomplished as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction. According to and other entertainment news sites, Jackson is not biologically related to any of his three children. Reportedly, the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by sperm from secret donors. Apparently the children were all crafted to be “white” enough to match Jackson’s artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself. Deborah Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the surrogate who carried his oldest two children to term, describes being inseminated “like a horse”; she then received around $9 million to give up any claim to them. On the birth certificate of Jackson’s youngest child, the space for “mother” is left blank.

It’s hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children. It is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process. How much more common will the purchase of “the perfect child” become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly? It’s not a new problem: “colorism” (preference for lighter skin) is an old problem within the African-American community. Choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game. Nevertheless, it is troubling that the law of sales is about the only context for debating this rapidly developing area. Shouldn’t we think harder about the degree to which a free market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology?

We can only hope that Michael Jackson leaves a legacy that is more than his music and that through his children we can begin a serious dialogue about genetic engineering.  This would be a very positive thing to leave behind.