Musical Genius: America’s Gift to the World

I’m not into music the way my wife is, whose collection of music is vast in its eclectic sweep. I confess to being hooked on literary reads across the years, which includes poetry as well.

Still, I’m repeatedly stirred by music from many genres when I take time to listen. It’s why I try never to miss the annual Kennedy Center award broadcasts, introducing me to artists, well known to the public, but largely new to me.

I do subscribe to Apple Music, my way of catch-up for what I’ve missed across the years and what’s happening now. With my new Bose headphones, the stereo comes in, loud and clear. I’m transfixed. Oh my god! What have I missed? I’m this kid unleashed in a chocolate factory after hours.

One music artist I’ve come to especially appreciate is composer, pianist and conductor John Williams, prolific genius behind many of Hollywood’s award-winning musical scores. An American treasure who belongs to the world, he turned 91 this past February.

Where would Spielberg and Lukas be without him: winner of five Academy Awards for Best Original Score, think Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, ET, Star Wars, and Schindler’s List.

Collectively, Williams has garnered 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards, seven British Academy Film Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and 53 Academy Award nominations.

But this isn’t the whole story. Williams wrote the theme music for the 1984 Olympics among still other feats independent of Hollywood.

He’s also served as principal conductor of the renowned Boston Pops (1980-1993) and has composed numerous classical works.

In 2004, he was honored by the Kennedy Center.

In 2005, the American Film Institute selected his score to 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, as the greatest film score of all time.

In 2009, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts in the East Room of the White House, “America’s highest honour specifically given for achievement in the arts conferred to an individual artist on behalf of the American people” (

Recently, Williams announced his retirement from writing film scores, only to take it back: “I’ve at least 10 more years to go. I’ll stick around for a while”(

One prize has eluded him: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country’s highest award to a civilian for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” (

Surely, it’s long overdue, a remiss I hope President Biden will promptly address, since time is of the essence.


What More Needs To Be Said?

It’s rare I venture into the entertainment world, imbibing the latest tidbits of gossip. It’s not my thing. Never has been. My heroes lie elsewhere—those who’ve made the world a better place. Having said that, there exist those I admire in the film industry for their aplomb as film auteurs, writers and directors dedicated to moving beyond titillation and using this powerful medium as high artistry to make us think about those values lending meaning to our lives: Aaron Sorkin, Oliver Stone, Francois Truffault, Michael Moore, Stephen Spielberg, Werner Herzog, and still others, among them Woody Allen, a personal favorite, come to mind.

This morning I came upon this wonderful passage in Woody’s just published Apropos About Nothing where he’s elaborating on Zelig, his attempt at documentary commentary. It reverberates with insight that reinforces my own in our turbulent time of “wrongthink,” or revived McCarthyism with its notorious blacklisting, its pile-ons and would-be lynchings of those who dissent:

“Zelig was about how we all want to be accepted, to fit in, to not offend, that we often present a different person to different people knowing which person might best please. In the end this obsession for conformity leads to fascism.”

What more needs to be said?

American Sniper: Anatomy of a Mauling


There’s been heavy flak, to say the least, over Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster film, American Sniper.

It started with film director Michael Moore’s take on snipers as “cowards” who shoot people in the back.”

Others soon piled on, like Seth Rogen, who compared the film to Nazi propaganda.

Outspoken Bill Maher went further, condemning real life Chris Kyle, on whom the movie is based, as a psychopathic killer.

Returning blows, Kid Rock hoped Michael Moore would “catch a fist to the mouth soon.”

Surprisingly, Jane Fonda tweeted her appreciation of the film: “Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.”

Nominated for six academy awards, including Best Movie, the controversy hasn’t gone away and, in all probability, precludes any Oscar possibility.

Anyway, I knew I had to see the film after both my dental hygienist and neighbor, first thing out of their mouths, asked if I’d seen it.

So I dutifully went the very next day to a matinee showing, surprised by the large audience on a weekday.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout, gripped by the film’s graphic, nearly non-stop violence spurting from nearly every Sadr City window, rooftop, or corner.

Not since Platoon had I seen a you-are-there war movie like this, replete with in your face carnage inflicted by a relentless, hidden foe relying on ambush.

Retired marine sniper Jeff Crenshaw says “It’s the most realistic thing I’ve seen since the battlefield.  It shows the true nature of war and how awful it is and the toll it takes on a human being.”

Like Vietnam, not knowing who your foe is, possibly even a mother or child, you had to watch your back, and that’s where Kyle comes in, portrayed as protector, not assassin.

My take is that the film’s been misunderstood by its critics, even deliberately maligned by those with political agendas oriented to the Left. They hated the Iraqi war, thought it a ruse for oil interests. Nourishing grudges, they will neither forget nor forgive.

I found American Sniper neither a glorification of war nor right wing propaganda.

Neither a “Republican movie” nor a film appealing to innately angry audiences of Tea Party stripe.

In fact, it sidesteps politics altogether.

Even the Mahdhi insurgents are shown to be ferocious in defending what they regard as their turf against the invading American forces, superbly equipped with the latest weaponry and technology.

Hardly a psychopathic killer, Kyle is always shown as an interventionist, honing in on his target in the nick-of-time to safeguard his fellow soldiers at risk of a hurled grenade or a shot from a window.

At times he waits hard and long, reluctant to shoot a child who may be carrying an incendiary device towards unsuspecting American troops.

In another scene, he prays that a child struggling with a rocket grenade launcher will drop the weapon. He’s not in Iraq to kill children. Fortunately, the child drops the weapon.

Iraq is a place where you’d best never drop  your guard, since it’s not clear who’s enemy, as we see when Chris and other soldiers get invited to a civilian’s home, which turns out to be a setup for ambush.

Kyle ultimately breaks down, telling his wife he wants to come home, clearly having his fill of war; in fact, four tours.

Clint Eastwood has defended his movie, echoed by Gary Sinise, saying that the movie is really about what happens to our soldiers on their return home, themselves victims of war.

Married and father of two children, he may be physically present, but mentally he’s absent as his troubled wife tells him.

He endures a nagging guilt he needs to be there to protect them.

Implying Kyle was a coward is simply way over the top.

As for Maher, who quotes Kyle’s autobiography in which he denounces his foes as “barbarians” and expresses pleasure in killing them, this is umbrage born of ignorance, not surprising in people who’ve never served a day in uniform or participated in combat, nor seen their fellows blown apart, tortured or shot at.

But let’s leave the verbal broadsides of the critics aside.

The film isn’t really about Kyle.

It’s about the American soldier, or all soldiers for that matter.

Unfortunately, the critics have been engaged in killing off the messenger in failing to distinguish between statement and meaning, which is what artistic irony entails.

Literalists, they can’t fathom ambiguity.

In one scene, the at home veteran nearly kills the family’s pet fog, conflating its play with his young son as aggression.

Kyle clearly isn’t a well man.

The bottom line is that he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which includes all its pervasive symptoms:



Anger and irritability.



Difficulty in relationships

Inability to focus.

I’ve just come off reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, her masterful biography of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, who survived 48 days at sea in a rubber raft, only to land in the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands, then subsequently transported to Japan, where he endured near starvation and daily beatings at the hands of a sadistic camp commandant for two years.

Returning home at war’s end, Zamperini’s travail continued with nightmares in which his tormentor appeared, along with alcohol dependency, alienation from his wife and friends, a hatred for his captors, and a determined resolve to return to Japan and kill the man singularly responsible for heinous crimes afflicted on himself and fellow POWs.

In short, Zamperini suffered the classic symptoms of PTSD.

So what if Kyle wrote of his loathing of the enemy, Maher?

This is what inevitably happens whenever critics like Maher launch personal attacks, shallowly judging by symptoms and not rooting out causes, or lifting behavior from context.

Truth is, war often strips us of our humanity.

We say and do things alien to the better angels of ourselves.

PTSD is a wounding of the mind and spirit every bit as real as any physical wound.

Hardly simplistic, I found American Sniper a tell-it-like-it-is movie, replete with ambiguity of the kind integral to tensions formulated whenever humane values conflict with the killing mores of the battlefield.

I salute first lady Michelle Obama, speaking recently before a veteran’s group, who accurately appraised the film as “complex, emotional, and a realistic depiction of a veteran and his family.”

While I know there have been critics, I felt that, more often than not, this film touches on many of the emotions and experiences that I’ve heard firsthand from military families over these past few years.  This movie reflects . . . the complex journeys that our men and women in uniform endure.

That resonates for me, a veteran.

What’s more, it speaks for millions of audience goers as well, from every demographic: red state and blue, gender, race, and ethnicity.




































Aldoran’s Solamente Tu (Only You)

AldoranThis song, though in another language, compels me to listen, and even when I don’t try to, it whirls through my head, refusing to go away. And I prefer it this way.

I’m writing of Pablo Aldorán’s Solamente Tú.

Alborán, just recently turned 25, writes much of his own music and was a Latin Grammy Award nominee in 2012 for his debut album by the same name, released in 2011.

Spanish, like all Romance languages, resonates with sensory beauty when put to music. All you need is to listen to get hooked. It’s also a fun way to learn Spanish. Alborán’s passionate intensity adds still more.

But sometimes you don’t need to understand another language. As is often the case with poetry, its kin, you need only to allow yourself to feel.

I wasn’t surprised, then, to find through translation that Solamente Tú is, indeed, poetry in its own right. Here are the words, rich in the metaphors of love, in both Spanish and English. You can access the song directly at youtube, but I like the album recording best.

Solamente Tú

Regálame tu risa,
enseñame a soñar
con solo una caricia
me pierdo en este mar
Regálame tu estrella,
la que ilumina esta noche
llena de paz y de armonía,
y te entregaré mi vida

Haces que mi cielo
vuelva a tener ese azul,
pintas de colores
mis mañanas solo tú
navego entre las olas de tu voz
y tú, y tú, y tú, y solamente tú
haces que mi alma se despierte con tu luz
y tú, y tú, y tú..

Enseña tus heridas y así la curará
que sepa el mundo entero
que tu voz guarda un secreto
no menciones tu nombre que en el firmamento
se mueren de celos
tus ojos son destellos
tu garganta es un misterio

Haces que mi cielo
vuelva a tener ese azul,
pintas de colores
mis mañanas solo tú
navego entre las olas de tu voz
y tú, y tú, y tú, y solamente tú
haces que mi alma se despierte con tu luz
y tú, y tú, y tú, y solamente tú
haces que mi alma se despierte con tu luz
y tú, y tú, y tú..

No menciones tu nombre que en el firmamento
se mueren de celos
tus ojos son destellos
tu garganta es un misterio

Hace que mi cielo
vuelva a tener ese azul,
tintas de colores
mi mañana solo tú
navego entre la sola de tu voz
y tú, y tú, y tú, y solamente tú
hace que mi alma se despierte con tu luz
y tú, y tú, y tú..

Only You

Give me your laughter as a gift,
Teach me to dream
With just a caress
I lose myself in this sea
Give me your star,
the one that lights up this night
full of peace and harmony,
and I will hand my life to you.

You make my sky
Have that blue again,
Spots of colors,
My mornings only you.
I sail among the waves of your voice,
and you, and you, and you, and only you
make my soul awaken with your light
and you, and you, and you…

Show your wounds and so it will heal them
That the whole world knows
That your voice keeps a secret.
Don’t mention your name, for in the heavens
they die of jealousy
Your eyes are sparkles
Your throat is a mystery.

You make my sky
Have that blue again,
spots of colors,
my mornings only you.
I sail among the waves of your voice
and you, and you, and you, and only you
make my soul wake up with your light
and you, and you, and you, and only you
make my soul wake up with your light
and you, and you, and you…

Don’t mention your name for in the heavens
they die of jealousy
Your eyes are sparkles
Your throat is a mystery.

You make my sky
have that blue again,
spots of colors,
my mornings only you.
I sail among the waves of your voice
and you, and you, and you, and only you
make my soul wake up with your light
and you, and you, and you…

Maleficent: a must see movie!

“No society treats its women as well as its men.”
UN Development Programme, 1997)


There’s a new movie I’m wanting to see. It’s called Maleficent and stars Angelina Jolie.

It’s timely because it’s really about rape, which has now entered into virtually every fabric of American life, including our schools. On our higher college campuses, one out of five coeds will be raped.

Time Magazine in its recent cover issue on the subject, mentions that the University of Montana (Missoula) has averaged 80 rapes annually over the last two years. It isn’t unique: even the Ivy League schools have a high incident rate–that is, of reported rapes, twenty percent of them related to alcohol. Some experts speculate that most campus rape goes unreported.

Across the nation, the same 20% figure prevails, with 80% of rape victims below age 25, according to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, done in 2010, and made public last year. Stalking, now abetted by smart technology, is even more widespread, or five times the number of rapes.

But let’s get down to bedrock: The survey estimated that 1.27 million American women were raped–or one woman every 29 seconds–and 5.1 million stalked–a fall out rate of one woman every 7 seconds.

Rape is so much a part of our national fabric that it’s found its way into a Walt Disney film in a grim version of Sleeping Beauty. In the eponymous film, Maleficent is a fairy initially enjoying unlimited aerial freedom in a forest setting (i.e, archetypal rendering of situational danger), who falls in love with Stefan, a human being, who betrays her.

Rape, in the film’s metaphorical version, is transposed into Stefan’s drugging Maleficent so that he can take her wings back to the king of humans. In this age of ambien, pervasive alcohol, and PT141 on the horizon, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In a cogent review,, Hayley Krischer writes that “Maleficent is a commentary on current male and female relationships. It’s a commentary on rape culture. And much more, it’s a story that allows a woman to recover. It gives her agency. It gives her power. It allows her to reclaim the story. And this is something that can’t be ignored.”

Sadly, clipping a woman’s wings is what many men do, with rape its ultimate manifestation, taking away their ability to be fully themselves, free to pursue their dreams, able to soar above the nets of male malice, discrimination, exploitation and often betrayal. (Krischer reminds us that 70% percent of rapes are committed by someone the woman knows.)

While many gains have been made with the rise of feminism in the 1960s, the rape culture is still with us, and even more, of men who still try to clip a women’s wings through unequal pay, feminization of poverty, career barriers, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and physical violence.

In a culture still dominated by testosterone driven men I doubt this sad scenario will ever fully vanish, but at least a film like Maleficent can give women awareness and its articulation, empowering them to keep their wings intact.





Will tablets replace your TV? The new frontier of online video


Just came across an interesting piece in the Economist  (November 9, 2013) on the growing popularity of online video in China that threatens TV.  In fact, a recent Chinese government reports says that only 30% of Beijing households watched TV in 2012.  Online video is big bucks in China with some 450 million viewers, or 80% of the connected population.    

We haven’t seen this drift in the West where TV sets are on 5 hours a day in the average American home.  That doesn’t mean China’s online video craze won’t happen here.  Who could have predicted the rapid downturn in PC demand that followed the rise of tablets three years ago?   Computers once priced in the $1000 range can be had now for $300 or less.  What’s more, tablet users are increasingly prone to downloading Amazon or iTune TV and movie offerings to their tablets.  Cable and satellite networks like DirecTV are catching on, and so you’re not confined to your TV anymore for personal viewing.  There they are, with all the convenience of portability, right on your tablet!  Hey, let’s not leave out Netflix.

And then there’s always been the ubiquitous YouTube, more popular than ever. tells us that in 2012 one hour of YouTube video was uploaded every second.  In short, video making, like self-publishing, has become the province of the everyday Joe.   According to Brent Weinstein, Head of Digital Media at United Talent Agency, “Online video today is what TV was a couple of years after it came on to the scene” (

YouTube, in fact, has been a honing ground for developing sophisticated expertise, spilling over into start up multi-channel networks (MCNs) such as Ted, TubeFilter and Kaltura-Connect coms with their dedicate devotees.

The big ops can read the tea leaves.  Just the other day I saw this catchy Hulu ad.  Get your first week free, then enjoy your favorite TV shows on your tablet for just $7.95 monthly.  With prices like that, cable and satellite TV had better watch out.

Of course we’re still talking about original TV programming, even if rechanneled; nevertheless, it isn’t hard to figure out where the math is taking us.  The bottom-line is that a revolutionary change in how we get our information and entertainment is underway.

According to the Economist, Chinese online video entrepreneurs started competing directly with TV programming five years ago, coming up with their own programming.  In the U. S,  you can see this same trend reflected in  Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu making their own programs to sidestep licensing costs and gain access to a potentially huge market.  Very soon, we’ll be talking about mobile networks.

For families who like to do their viewing together, no problem.  Internet TV is on its way and of course with Apple TV, no problem transferring your tablet videos, music and photos to a larger screen right now.

Usually the scenario is that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.  With China, what’s happening marks a seismic shift.  Better, anyway, than its usual export of Asian flu!


Doesn’t get better than this

Karen and I saw Argo yesterday, the film about the ingenuous CIA-Canadian rescue of the six Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s Tehran residence in the aftermath of the seizure by Iranian militant students of 52 of their fellows at the American embassy in November,1979.

You may already have seen it, and even if you haven’t, I’d be doing you a considerable disservice to give you any details.  Now don’t cheat by googling and miss all the fun. I promise you this film will keep you glued to your theater seat from beginning to end.

Of course, a lot of the film’s tension is orchestrated, since one of the six has recently shared that everything actually went like clock work.  By the way, the hostages had three plans to work with, but chose this one, the film production guise, as the most likely to succeed and embraced it immediately. Not so in the film.

Other inaccuracies occur as well; for example, the Shah’s full name isn’t correct. Also, Premier Mossadegh was appointed by the Shah, not elected. Free elections haven’t been part of Iran’s history.

The primary roles of Britain and New Zealand in helping the Americans are ignored.

At the end of the movie, former President Carter says, “Eventually we got them all out.” I seem to remember an aborted rescue attempt somewhere. The truth is the Iranians spitefully released the hostages on January 20, 1981, or on Inauguration Day when Reagan took office.

But the movie overcomes its exaggerations, just maybe because it’s more fiction than fact, thus enabling its transformation into an intense, well-performed thriller that will surely catapult it into Oscar consideration. Ben Afleck, who directed the film, plays CIA agent Tony Mendez, with understated brilliance, replete with a 70s’ shag-carpet beard.

That last scene–a lumbering Swiss jet lifting its wheels, heavy trigger-finger revolutionaries in hot pursuit–Oh, my God!

The Harry Nilsson legacy

Everbody’s talkin at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of their mind

People stopping staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Backing off of the North East winds sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

I first heard Harry Nilsson sing these lyrics, composed by Fred Neil, and a staple of the great music that helped make Midnight Cowboy one of the best films of 1969 as a graduate student in Chapel Hill, seeking time-out from academic rigor.

Over the years, I neither forgot the movie with its archetypal search for the lost Eden, nor its haunting lead song, which has remained my favorite, beating out even John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Linda Ronstadt’s smash hit, “Blue Bayou.” By the way, Lennon and Nilsson were drinking buddies at one point, and the Beetles admired his song-writing. He was prolific, often writing songs for other singers and bands, including Glenn Campbell and the Monkees.

There’s something about this song, maybe the way Nilsson sings it, that puts me in a buoyant mood setting out for a new day whenever I hear it.

Ironically, his name probably draws a blank for many young people, underscoring yet again the short tenure of fame in a world that moves on.

For the older generation, how can one forget his “I guess the Lord must be in New York City,” another great song from Midnight Cowboy:

I say good-bye to all my sorrows
And by tomorrow I’ll be on my way
I guess the Lord must be in New York City

Nilsson also wrote and sang the gentle lyrics of “Remember,” which was revived as part of the sound track for the popular movie, You’ve got mail:

Remember is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with every place you know
Remember, when you’re feeling sad and down
Remember, turn around

Life is just a memory
Close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be

I think of “Remember” as a lullaby, great for sleepless nights.

Nilsson also wrote other memorable songs, often sung by other artists:

“Sixteen Tons”
“Me and my Arrow”
“As Time Goes By”
“A Love Like Yours”

I like it best when he sings his own lyrics in that mellifluous, cadenced voice that resonates so hauntingly, for Nilsson’s music, make no mistake about it, is about you and me in our everyday humanity, expectant, but often disappointed.

It’s quite amazing that this musical genius came from a rough, Brooklyn neighborhood and a broken home. He had just a ninth grade education. His mother was an alcoholic, and he would have six step-fathers. It was rare he gave a public concert. Only one album came out under his own name.

Among his admirers were the Beatles, who deemed him the best American solo singer-writer in America. He enjoyed close relationships with John and Ringo.

I think of him as being a lot like his contemporary, the English singer-songwriter, Nick Drake. Like Nilsson, Drake refrained from public concerts, remained relatively unknown, and was largely an influence. Today he’s recognized in the UK as one of its greatest singer-songwriters in the last 50 years. He was 26 when he died of a drug overdose for depression.

On January 15, 1994, Nilsson died from a heart attack. He was just 53.

%d bloggers like this: