Tony Bennett Keeps the Music Playing

Photo by Tom Beetz.  Creative Commons.
Photo by Tom Beetz. Creative Commons.

I’ve got the world on a string today, as I can finally tuck a rarefied, finely plumed feather into my cap – or, if you prefer a more current reference, scratch a prominent item off my bucket list.  Because last Friday, I saw Tony Bennett live.

Stop a moment and read that name again.  Tony Bennett.  The Tony Bennett.

You can’t write a piece on Tony Bennett or review his show without dropping the adjective “legendary” more than a thesaurus would like.  There may be other words with similar meaning, but none truly epitomize the man and the voice.  Dear gods, that voice, projected from an 87-year-old body with none of its power diminished by time.  My grandmother died when she was 86, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to feed herself.  A year her senior, Tony Bennett can stand on a bare stage with a quartet of backing musicians and blow a few thousand jaded audience members out of their padded seats.  From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it, he’d be far richer than he already is.  But what is physically impossible to package, instead he shares, and how lucky are we to be the recipients of his generosity.

Tony Bennett is our last nostalgic link to the era of Frank and Ella and Bing, when men and women took their natural talent, refined it through years of vocal training, hard living and humiliating gigs and polished it into a perfect instrument that could be applied to some of the most elegant pieces of musical poetry ever composed.  Songs that were universal because they weren’t about bling or the thug life or some fantasized notion of puppy love auto-tuned within an inch of sheer roboticness.  These were songs written by people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen – scribes who understood the purity and universality of feelings found in simple moments, like noticing the way your love looks tonight.  That beautiful perception in songwriting, which Tony Bennett’s ongoing career continues to celebrate, has seemingly become an archaic notion.  For heaven’s sake, it took 11 people to write “Jenny From the Block” and they couldn’t even make the lyrics rhyme.  A song can’t be simple anymore, it has to be big, broad, even histrionic to get anyone’s attention.  However, Tony Bennett understands the lasting value of these old songs.  He’s been singing them so long he knows them inside out, back to front, syllable to syllable, note to note.  He knows how they were meant to be performed – in fact, he’s defined how they’re meant to be performed – and as he’s said himself, he treats them as classical music.  And they’re still playing Mozart 400 years on, why shouldn’t Gershwin receive the same accord?  Bennett always acknowledges the writer of a song when he performs it.  As terrific as he obviously is, he never sees himself as better than the notes and the words he’s delivering, and recognizes that he’d be nothing without the hard work of others.  Genuine humility just endears him to us even more.  The greatest ones always see themselves as eternal apprentices – the man who believes he has nothing left to learn is the man who needs to learn the most.

Last Friday, for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, and accompanied only by piano, guitar, standup bass and drums, Bennett led the audience on a guided tour of his most famous songs – standards like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and more – tunes you’ve heard a thousand times on radio, record, tape, CD, iPod, but managed to sound brand new and at the same time, for lack of a better word, classical.  He is traditionally economical in his delivery – no unneeded notes, no elongated frills or scats or anything other than the sheet music asks for – just the ineffable meaning that an old, weathered soul can provide.  His stage patter was likewise minimal, the only real anecdote a touching story about a letter he received from the composer of “Smile,” thanking him for making the song popular again – signed, Charlie Chaplin.  While one would love to have dinner with the man and listen to his stories, when he’s on stage you just want him to sing.  And sing he does.  Bennett achieves the impossible feat of bringing so much of himself to the performance yet somehow staying out of the way of the music, letting it and not his impeccably tailored self take center stage.  He is keen to divert the spotlight away from himself to the ones who back him up – the appropriately-named Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and “Count Basie’s favorite drummer” Harold Jones.  And as much as his repertoire might be rooted in the past, he does not shy from the bright lights of the future, promising a forthcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga (though we can safely assume it will be firmly on his turf, not hers).

To hear Tony Bennett sing in person is to be transported; to be connected with a golden era of music that dances ever further from reach with each passing year.  They don’t write songs like that anymore, and they don’t make folks like Tony Bennett to sing them, either.  We shall not see his like again, but, given the energy and vitality obviously still coursing through those 87-year-old veins, Bennett is determined to sing, you sinners, until they pry the microphone from his cold, dead fingers.  Ironically, my wife and I had talked a mere handful of weeks ago about ensuring that no matter what it took or what the cost, we would make it out to see him one day – and soon.  Serendipity delivered us Bennett tickets shortly thereafter.  And we sat together in the darkened auditorium, hands clasped, listening to the man whose music accompanied our wedding six years ago and makes us to this day reach for each other and share a slow dance in the kitchen whenever he comes on.  To hear that stuff is to be reminded of the depth of love two people can share, to strive to say it and show it to each other much more often.  And so we thank Tony Bennett and say, that’s how you keep the music playing.

UPDATE:  I posted this to The Huffington Post yesterday and received this response:

tonytweet2

That thud you heard was me fainting.  Tony Bennett!!!!

Getting back on the horse

horse

So you’ve gathered it’s been quiet around here lately.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous topic for bloggers, aside from the Buzzfeed-esque “18 Reasons Why Something In Particular Rocks And/Or Sucks,” is the struggle with writing, in its many forms, whether it be the challenges in completing a manuscript and subsequently editing it to near-perfection and getting someone to pay to read it, or simply maintaining the often herculean effort of grinding something out with consistency of quality and schedule.  The problem is the easiest thing in the world to do is not write, and there are innumerable distractions standing between us, the keyboard and the time required to produce.  External factors such as the kid wants me to put together Lego with him, we have nineteen different errands to run, the laundry needs to be folded and put away, so-and-so is coming over, there’s a new episode of The Blacklist.  Internal factors like I had a long day at work, I’m tired.  I don’t feel like it today.  I have nothing to say.  I’m intimidated in living up to what’s come before, or the work of my peers (a frequent fallback for those of us who continue to be convinced despite copious evidence to the contrary that we’re  Just.  Not.  That.  Good.)

My writing teacher Lynda used to tell a story about the Muse.  She reminded us that those who sit and wait for the Muse to arrive are more likely to have Godot show up first.  You have to be willing to force your fingers to strike the keys in even the most random and nonsensical of motions to drag her goldbricking ass off her seashell and plop her down next to your page.  Basically, the best way to get over not being able to write is to write.  Even if what comes out in those initial phases is more suitable for flushing than publishing.  There’s a terrific reason why “getting back on the horse” is such a lasting metaphor for the dogged resumption of effort, as standing next to said mount and staring at it expecting forward movement is the very picture of futility (as expressed in my never-painted Impressionist work, Silly Man Staring At Horse And Scratching His Head At Its Total Lack of Motion).  I used to do show jumping when I was much younger, and as intimidating as some of those jumps might be, they weren’t going to get any less scary by circling them in perpetuity.  You just had to shake the reins, give your horse a kick and go full tilt.  And man, did it ever feel good to clear them, even if on occasion the horse’s rear leg caught the bar and tipped it over.  The occasional fault doesn’t diminish the nobility of the pursuit, nor does the fact that there are other more skilled jumpers out there who clear every obstacle without a single flaw.  It is easy to let oneself be cowed into stasis by the seeming facility others have with their words, the depth of their respective vocabularies and their capacity for assembling the most breathtaking imagery from limitless reserves.  Show me a writer who isn’t insecure to some degree – even Franzen-sized inflated egos have many strategic holes leaking helium.  But the choice is either succumb to that self-imposed pressure and never create anything again, or persist with stubbornness and get better by doing more and trying new things.  Write poetry, song lyrics, short stories, reviews, lengthy op-eds on whatever issue-of-the-day made you stop and think about it for a minute or two.  Eventually you find your wheelhouse, and once you do there’s no stopping.

In The King’s Speech, a movie I absolutely adore, King George V (Michael Gambon) rues the rise of the importance of radio communications in monarchical affairs, claiming that “in the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse.”   In the modern era, the opportunity to pull a Salinger, to create one lasting work and fade from the collective pages yet retain relevance, is a distant memory.  Our information-driven age is a ravenous monster consuming and digesting information as fast as, and in some cases faster, than it can be produced.  To vanish voluntarily from the zeitgeist for even a few days at a time is to invite the chorus of “I can’t wait for his next” to change its refrain to “Whatever happened to?” and eventually “Who was that again?”  Laurels are not rested upon easily, nor should they be.  Whatever the circumstance, you have to stay on the horse.

So as I climb into the saddle, I look ahead.  What can faithful readers expect?  Well, I’m going to see some pretty big-ticket performers over the next month so there will be reviews.  The recent political tribulations both at home and down south have provided plenty of fodder for some (ill-?) informed opinions.  We may look back at some classics and cast our spotlight on up-and-comers we find worthy of attention.  We may talk about being a dad, approaching 40, dreams of the future and regrets of the past.  The usual staples of dissecting Aaron Sorkin and dissing spam.  Laughter and tears and occasionally pretentious meandering.  But above all, there will be heart.  Always heart.  Because what is the written word really other than the beats of a human heart transformed into elegant strokes of ink?

Hi-yo, Silver.  Away.

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part V

mickey float

Disney World has made the news a few times over the last few weeks, and not really in a good way.  First up was the brief notoriety afforded to Escape From Tomorrow, an unlicensed movie shot guerrilla-style surreptitiously throughout the Disney parks, with a storyline suggesting malevolence lurking behind the facade (the movie’s regrettable tag line:  “Bad things happen everywhere”).  Then there was this item from the New York Post revealing that one-percenters have been gleefully paying intellectually or physically challenged people to escort their families through the parks so they can skip lines.  It’s nearing two months since I last left the place that for me remains a reservoir of goodwill and good feeling in a world growing increasingly greedy and misanthropic.  And while I am ever aware of the essential contradiction at the heart of Disney World’s existence – a theme park celebrating the innocence of childhood that is lorded over by a corporation – I push back hard against the tide of cynicism lapping at its shores.  Reviews of Escape From Tomorrow are tainted by the writer’s opinion of the place; those who dream of kicking Mickey in “his pious balls,” as one sort put it, find their smugness vindicated by the movie’s skewering of the Disney tropes, where others who thrive on their positive memories struggle with the creep of darkness along the edges of the frame.  (For the record, I haven’t seen the movie.  With Escape From Tomorrow‘s official release looming in a few days, Disney has apparently chosen to simply ignore it, sidestepping the Streisand Effect.  The chatter and the publicity have likewise diminished, so good call there, Mouse House.)

Disney's Boardwalk at sunset.
Disney’s Boardwalk at sunset.

We remarked upon returning from our voyage how much we in point of fact didn’t get to see; a great deal of Animal Kingdom, including the delightful Festival of the Lion King show and the serene Flights of Wonder bird exhibit, was left unexplored as it was the only park we weren’t able to repeat visit during our eight days.  A healthy portion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was either down for refurbishment, still under construction or hidden behind impenetrable wait times.  I’ve long held the dream of dining at least once in each of the eleven different full service restaurants throughout Epcot’s World Showcase; a glimpse of the seating area in Mexico would be all we’d get on this occasion.  Speaking of food, one can’t conduct a proper review of Disney World without mentioning the dining fare – while one might cringe at the sight of folks strolling through the parks gnawing maniacally on oversized turkey legs that clearly aren’t from any turkey that wouldn’t fail an Olympic drug test, Disney does in fact boast plenty of culinary experiences that manage to enchant both taste bud and heart.  Our selections ran the gamut, from the ripped-from-Leave-It-To-Beaver meatloaf and pot pies of the Prime Time Diner in Hollywood Studios (where the waitresses yell at you if you put your elbows on the table or – horrors – use your walkie talkie – i.e. cell phone), to the finger-lickin’, artery-bustin’ ribs, cornbread and fried chicken of Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque (where the characters join you for an after-supper country dance party to burn all that stuff off), to even a messy yet tasty pizza delivered to our hotel room.

May I join you for dinner?
May I join you for dinner?

Of the more upscale options, we have two favorites in particular.  First is Sanaa, the African restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village.  The food at Sanaa is exotic and flavorful, replete with a wide array of tongue-tickling spices and compelling textures, but what truly sells it is the incomparable view.  Animal Kingdom Lodge wraps around an open area that is accessible to the animals of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, so it’s typical to have giraffes and zebras wander by the windows of Sanaa as you’re sitting there enjoying your appetizer.  The first time we went, my wife uploaded a photo of the view to her Facebook page and one of her friends thought we were in Africa.  After dinner you can wander out to the central firepit and use night vision goggles to see if you can spot a wildebeest sneaking in for a bedtime snack.  There’s a guide on hand to assist with the goggles and answer questions (and presumably ensure that no one jumps the fence), and in one of the most serendipitous examples of small world I’ve ever encountered, I and the Namibian gentleman on duty that evening turned out to have mutual friends – these folks.

kouzzina

Our other favorite is Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, on Disney’s BoardWalk.  This Greek-themed restaurant, nestled comfortably amidst the old-timey seaside architecture and only minutes by foot from Epcot’s rear World Showcase entrance, is not somewhere I’d recommend if you’re looking to count your calories, not when the signature appetizer is the Saganaki, or flamed and decadently rich Greek cheese.  Another standout is the Pastitsio, a Greek take on lasagna with cinnamon-infused meat sauce and bechamel, which no one in our family has ever been able to finish in one sitting.  I opted for the braised short ribs this time, but even they come with potatoes mashed with smoked feta so alas, no room for dessert.

ohana
Flame On at Ohana.

One surprise last-minute addition was Ohana, the immensely popular Hawaiian family service restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  We’ve wanted to try it for years but have repeatedly been thwarted by its tendency to book up months in advance.  It was a fellow countryman, one of the cast members at Epcot’s Canada pavilion, who alerted us to a new app that tracked up-to-the-minute dining availability.  Spotting a convenient cancellation, we leaped at it.  The equivalent of an indoor luau, Ohana is probably the friendliest restaurant we sampled this time, with staff calling you “cousin” and a ukulele-strumming entertainer leading the junior diners in hula lessons, Hawaiian karaoke and coconut races between courses, while you wait to be served beef, pork and chicken that’s been marinating for three days straight.  I can’t say it ranked quite as highly as Kouzzina or Sanaa with me, but I’m still glad random fortune allowed us to fit it in.  One more item scratched off the Disney Bucket List, as it were, a document that seems to get longer with each trip rather than shorter, and will probably never be satisfied.  There’s just too much, and Disney World is too far from home, and finances aren’t infinite.

It’s doubly ironic, because as I draw to the close of this series, I find myself reflecting on all the things I didn’t find space to include:  the Wishes fireworks show over Cinderella Castle, the five-floor DisneyQuest arcade and the rest of Downtown Disney, the quirks and quibbles about FastPasses, character encounters and LeFou’s brew.  But there’s an incident that occurred a few weeks after we got back that I think helps to put things into context and provide a sense of unity and completion to this quintet of ramblings.

My wife was in line to renew her driver’s license.  She was wearing the black Minnie hoodie she’d acquired on our trip, which sports ears and a bow on the head.  It’s really cute.  Thinking she couldn’t hear them, the couple behind her in line openly sneered at her, and the dude boasted to his charmless companion that he was proud that she would never wear something like that.  Apart from wishing I’d been there to deck this smarmy douchebag, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and his undoubtedly equally hipster-esque friends.  They do themselves no favors by pretending they’re above embracing Disney.  Sure, you can climb onto a soapbox and lecture the world about capitalism-run-amok under a layer of artificial pixie dust, but isn’t that the obvious argument?  Doesn’t it require more sophistication and a greater capacity to seek truth to look beyond these tedious trappings and find something of value that you can carry with you?  I am reminded so much of the late George Harrison, who while dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical achievement could still laugh at Monty Python’s jokes about cannibalism.  And I would not even suggest that Disney is somehow lowbrow, or lowest common denominator.  Yes, sometimes their attempts are clumsy, some of the movies aren’t great, we all wait with bated breath to see what they do with Star Wars and they’ve been accused of complacency as Universal Studios Florida nips at their aging heels.  But there is so much that should be celebrated rather than scorned.

Like the character in the U2 song “The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, I went this time in search of experience that would challenge me as a writer and enrich me as a person.  In each park, I discovered a fundamental lesson.  Belief.  Being.  Connection.  Communication.  Four simple concepts that should be obvious but often get buried under layers of irrelevant complication, and form the very heart of the art of placing one word after another.  And isn’t it wonderful that these lessons didn’t have to be learned at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or in the depths of personal crisis.  They were plain to see and framed with Mickey ear ice cream – the literal spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  I departed after eight days, feeling my sense of storytelling renewed and a certitude about continuing to share my words with the world.  The writer journeying through Disney World is a wandering bard stopping for a drink at a wellspring from which imagination flows, and eventually he moves on, his thirst quenched, carrying that inspiration onward to wonderful parts unknown.  With a stuffed Winnie the Pooh under his arm.

So long, Disney World.  And see ya real soon.

farewell