Thursday, May 28, 2009


That's the name of one of my alltime favorite films. It's a black-and-white film noir from the 1940s starring Robert Mitchum at his best. One of his co-stars is the young Kirk Douglas playing a wealthy bad guy. But the best thing in the movie for my taste is Jane Greer playing the baddest bad girl ever in any film (not violent or psycho like in contemporary movies, but just plain "bad").

But that's not the topic of this post. What I was thinking about last night after putting more CDs into my computer and adding them to the shuffle and some great old swing tunes turned up, was that when my generation passes, and so many of us already have, the personal link to certain musical and cinematic and other cultural and artistic styles and movements will disappear.

I know that's true throughout history, but it doesn't lessen the impact. Like the kind of movie OUT OF THE PAST is—black-and-white 1940s film noir. It can be imitated, and its stylistic aspects reproduced by a contemporary film maker, but that old square screen before wide screens came into use, the feeling of watching a movie when TVs weren't commonly available but post-World War Two world weariness and atomic age angst were, when neither actual bloodshed nor sex were ever shown on screen but only implied (people got shot and fell down and died with no sign of a bullet having entered their body, and fell into each other's arms as Greer and Mitchum do in a scene that immediately cuts to a shot through French doors of the moonlight on the beach and ocean and then the sudden and almost violent motion of the doors slamming open from a gust of wind that also knocks over the lamp immersing the screen in darkness as metaphor for deep and spontaneous passion, etc.

The difference between an old black-and-white film and its sensibility compared to the wide screen full color and—once the 1960s hit—more "realistic" take on sex and violence isn't nearly as much of a total break as the difference between big band swing and popular crooners compared to the musical revolution that rock'n'roll introduced and what has followed.

After my contemporaries are all gone there won't be anyone who was alive when the music coming over the radio in cars and homes and businesses was coming from bands and orchestras made up of saxes and trombones and trumpets and clarinets unless you're listening to a jazz station but even there you won't find the popular big band sounds of the 1930s and '40s (that lasted barely into the 1950s).

That's the sound of history now, cultural history and even political history (so many of the WWII songs resonate still with the politics of the homefront and the battle, even if just the sound of missing home from a soldier's perspective or missing the soldier from the homefront's perspective). But it's still living history for me and those my age and older (and some younger who were on the cusp of all that).

Obama didn't experience it, or Oprah, or Jeff Koons or George Clooney or Joan Jett, let alone the younger movie and music and art world stars and their contemporaries. I mean when I hear the voice of Marion Hutton singing with Glen Miller's band, or Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw's, or the young Sinatra still with the Dorsey band, it evokes memories of my oldest sister Joan or my older brothers (all teenagers by the time I was born, the boys) playing clarinets and saxes and trumpets and piano, or jitterbugging in the living room to the radio, or singing along to Vaughn Monroe or Billy Eckstine emanating from the 78 RPM record player.

Some day, not that far away, anyone experiencing those sounds and sights will be just exploring history, maybe digging it and identifying with it strongly, but unable to call up actual memories of when those cultural artifacts and styles were current. And others will be the last to have lived through a period before hip hop and rap were common and predominant on the radio waves and other forms of bringing music into our homes, pre-computer times, pre-ipod times, etc.

I'm not bemoaning the loss or being nostalgic about times long gone and wishing they were still around (though a little of that creeps into my feelings now and then), I love this iTunes shuffle deal where I can put my entire CD and record collection into digital form and use the shuffle device to constantly surprise myself with music that brings a smile to my face and/or a little swing into my hips and shoulders and an actual physical shuffle to my feet, and all that.

I'm listening right now to Art Tatum playing "Sweet Lorraine" and anyone who digs jazz or masterful piano playing or old tunes would get great pleasure from it, but for me, it evokes an entire world, even just the melody, which was done by all kinds of popular musical artists back then, including Nat King Cole at the beginning of his singing career (after one as mostly a piano player leading his own group—"The King Cole Trio") but even more personal, playing it from sheet music myself on the piano or hearing one of my older siblings singing it at a party to a swinging beat.

Another thing not as common now, people sitting around a living room making music for each other. though as you can see from a couple of posts ago, that fortunately, is still current and won't be lost with the passing of any generation soon, thankfully.


Jamie Rose said...

Gorgeous post Lals.

The Kid said...

Yeah, yeah, beat me Daddy, eight to the bar.

Although I didn't get to experience this music or these films first-hand, and do not possess (nor ever will) the encyclopedic catalog of information about them that you do, they are still dear to me because they are so deeply woven into the stories of my family's life. I hate to think it will all be impersonal ancient history someday, too.

My father didn't just tell us about the first car he ever owned (a black '59 Pontiac) but also the song playing on the radio when he took his first drive ("Turn Me Loose"?) I'll have to ask him today when I call him for his birthday.

My grandmother could tell us with some authority that she didn't like the way Peggy Lee moved her lips when she sang, because she often sat two feet in front of her at nightclubs in NYC.

To me, the best thing about the art forms of that era was its' public consumption. New movies were an event, a night out with your neighbors. And the radio was a very democratic instrument; the entire block was listening to the same programs and songs (like it or not).

Plugging into your iPod is such a lonely, singular experience. But it seems to suit this generation - one that prefers the false intimacy of 'social media' sites to live performances or actual friends.

Good post, thanks Mike.

(And Happy Belated Birthday too!)

JIm said...

Nice. A belate happy bithday to multi talented (except politically) seasoned citizen.

Toby said...

Great thoughts about swing. Some of us are old enough to have danced to it, and the experience of hearing it live, with that beat and pulse loud as the Who's, is unforgettable. As is its impact on dance. All of American Bandstand's hip moves came from the era of swing, as did many of modern dance. I'll never forget dancing live to numerous society bands, who played swing classics, and to Count Basie, whose band was not exactly swing, but swung.

Lally said...

Oh yeah, Count Basie definitely swung. My sisters taught me to jitterbug to "One O'Clock Jump" and 'Stompin' at the Savoy" (which made me want to grow up and check out that Savoy place).