October 11, 2017

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” (and finger-eating wolverines)


On October 11, 1975, at 11:30pm Eastern Time, a new TV comedy show debuted on the NBC network.

It opened with a wacky skit featuring three comic actors who were virtually unknown at the time.

In the skit, a frumpy-looking East European immigrant with a heavy accent is being tutored on how to speak proper English by a well-dressed teacher.

They are sitting in comfortable chairs next to each other in a small room.

The teacher starts a repeat-after-me type lesson with an unusual language exercise about wolverines…

       TEACHER: “Let us begin. Repeat after me. I would like...”

       IMMIGRANT: (With a noticeable accent.) “I wude like...”

       TEACHER: “...to feed your fingertips...”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to feed yur fingerteeps...”

       TEACHER: “...to the wolverines.”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to de woolvur-eenes.”

After a couple more odd exercises about wolverines and badgers (or, “woolvur-eenes” and “bed-jurs” as the immigrant pronounces them), the teacher suddenly gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, apparently dead from a heart attack.

The European immigrant looks confused for a moment.

Then he gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, copying the professor.

Next, a Stage Manager walks into the scene, smiles into the camera and says, for the very first time, what would soon be a well-known line:

       “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The three not-yet-famous comedians in the skit were: John Belushi a former Second City improv performer who went on to become one of the most beloved comic actors in the world prior to his tragic death in 1982 from an apparent drug overdose; Michael O'Donoghue, a former National Lampoon magazine writer picked as head writer for the new show (who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994 at age 54); and, the fortunately still living comic legend, Chevy Chase, who was best known at the time as a cast member of the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

All three were among the amazingly talented group of original cast members of the show, which was officially titled NBC’s Saturday Night when it started airing in 1975, but soon came to be called Saturday Night Live, or SNL for short.

The revolving, evolving group of comic actors who performed comedy sketches on NBC’s new Saturday Night series were collectively dubbed the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

The voice heard after Chevy Chase on the historic first episode was that of longtime television show announcer Don Pardo, reading the names of the performers who would be appearing (a function he continued on SNL until his death in August 2014). The first host was my favorite curmudgeon, the great George Carlin (1937-2008).

I was watching the premiere of SNL that night and watched the show almost every weekend for nearly 20 years. Nowadays, I record the show on DVR and watch the opening long enough to hear the famed line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

I check out who the guest host and musical guest will be. Then I usually fast forward a lot, though skits that rarely strike me as funny as anything done by the early “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” I often have no idea who the guest hosts or musical performers are and don’t understand most of the jokes that include current pop culture references.

Yep, I’m nearly as old as John Belushi would have been if he’d survived his oversized lust for life and I’m nearly as much of a curmudgeon as George Carlin. I miss them both.

Of course, there are some things I do like about the modern world. For example, I can now rewatch old episodes of Saturday Night Live any time I want as streaming video on my iPad.

And whenever I get nostalgic and rewatch the opening skit that turned the lines “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines” and “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” into catchphrases, it still cracks me up.

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October 07, 2017

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”


Three years after Jack Kerouac coined the term “The Beat Generation” a group of Beat poets gathered at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco for a poetry reading.

The date was October 7, 1955 and Kerouac was there.

So were local Beat celebrities Gary Snyder, Phil Lamantia, Michael McClure and a then virtually unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg.

In his novel, The Dharma Bums (published in 1958), Kerouac called it “the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” He then described this memorable scene:

“Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem ‘Wail’ drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session).”

“Alvah Goldbook” was Kerouac’s humorous alias for the Ginsberg and “Wail” was the fictitious name he gave to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” — which Ginsberg first read in public that October night.

“Howl” was a stylistically wild, groundbreaking poem that quickly became both famous and infamous.

The beginning of the long run-on sentence that makes up the first part of the poem is the most quoted bit:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
       starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
       looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
       to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
       in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
       across the tops of cities contemplating jazz..."

“Howl” was instantly revered by the Beat crowd and eventually gained worldwide fame. But it had a rocky start in printed form.

In the poem, Ginsberg writes graphically about heterosexual and homosexual sex and about the use of illegal drugs — forbidden subjects in the uptight society of the 1950s.

When “Howl” was printed by a British book publisher in 1955, copies were seized as “pornography” by Customs officials.

In 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and a popular beat poet in his own right, published “Howl” in the U.S., in a small collection of Ginsberg’s poems titled Howl and Other Poems.

Copies of the book were soon seized by the San Francisco police and Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling an “obscene and indecent” book.

At the trial, Ferlinghetti was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

During the course of the trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn listened to nine literary experts testify about the book’s literary merits. In October 1957, he issued a carefully thought out ruling in favor of the defense.

Horn concluded that Howl and Other Poems met the current legal test of having redeeming social importance and was not “obscene.”

Thus, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty — and “Howl” and Ginsberg moved on to wider and everlasting fame.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 7:

• Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s infamous comment about blacks wanting “good sex, ‘loose shoes’ and ‘a warm place’ when they use the toilet” was published in the October 7, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

“Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God.” - You may not remember those words, but if you were watching the news in 2001 you remember when Osama Bin Laden delivered them. They were the opening words in the videotaped statement he released on October 7, 2001, gloating about Al-Quaeda’s September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia.

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September 07, 2017

Hope I die before I get old… then I can sleep when I’m dead…

  
The date September 7 has an ironic link to two famous rock music quotes associated with the deaths of two of rock’s most legendary bad boys.

On September 7, 1978, Keith Moon — the great, drum-kit-destroying drummer for the British band the Who — died of a drug overdose at age 31.

One of the Who’s first big hits, released in 1965, was “My Generation.”

That song includes a line that is well known and often cited by rock fans: “Hope I die before I get old.”

It’s in the first verse, which is repeated at the end of the song:

       “People try to put us d-down
       Just because we g-g-get around
       Things they do look awful c-c-cold
       Hope I die before I get old.”

As rock fans also know, Keith Moon was renowned for his self-destructive, drug-and-alcohol amped lifestyle.

Naturally, the famed “Hope I die...” line showed up in obituaries written for him in 1978 and in many articles and books later written about Moon and the Who.

In an odd coincidence, on September 7, 2003, exactly 25 years after Keith Moon passed away, American rock musician Warren Zevon died of cancer at age 56.

Like Moon, Zevon was legendary for his substance abuse and other excesses.

One of the best known songs from Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album is “I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.”

The lyrics were written in Zevon’s darkly-humorous trademark style:

       “I’m drinking heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin
       I'll sleep when I'm dead
       Straight from the bottle, twisted again
       I’ll sleep when I'm dead.”

Inevitably, the line “I’ll sleep when I'm dead” was cited in many obits, articles and blog posts shortly after Zevon shuffled off his mortal coil.

It was also used as the title of a book about him, compiled by his former wife, Crystal, and published in 2007.

The book’s full title is: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.

Talk show host David Letterman was a longtime fan and friend of Warren Zevon and had him as a guest on The Late Show many times.

On October 30, 2002, Warren made his last appearance on Letterman’s show.

At that point, it was public knowledge that Zevon’s cancer was likely to be terminal in the near future.

His fan and friend Letterman asked Warren during the show if facing death had given him any new insights about life.

Zevon’s reply included three words that became another famous quote: “Enjoy every sandwich."

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August 31, 2017

“She was the people’s princess” (but not the first) . . .


In 1995, after she was separated from but still married to Britain’s Prince Charles, Princess Diana said in a BBC television interview: “I’d like to be a queen in people’s hearts.”

For many people, she was.

Diana became and remains beloved for her high-profile support for various charities, like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, her un-Royal-like rapport with the public and, of course, for her beauty.

Her tragic death in a car accident in Paris on August 31, 1997 led to a huge outpouring of emotion from those who knew her and from the public.

Tony Blair, Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, was British Prime Minister at the time of Diana’s fatal crash.

On the night of her death, he was one of many notable people the press asked for reactions.

Blair’s widely-published response was poignant and memorable. He said:

       “She was the people’s princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories forever.”

Since then, the phrase “the People’s Princess” has been inextricably linked to Diana.     

In his Yale Book of Quotations, quote expert Fred Shapiro notes that Blair wasn’t the first person to use that nickname for her.

More than a decade earlier, it had appeared in a souvenir booklet about Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s 1983 tour of Australia.

The heading of a section in in that publication was “Diana: the People’s Princess.”

However, it was Blair’s more widely-publicized use that made the phrase forever associated with the beautiful, doomed “Princess Di.”

Diana was not the first British Royal to be called “the People’s Princess.”

A century earlier, Royal watchers and the press used that nickname for Princess Mary Adelaide, the Duchess of Teck (1833-1897).

This reflected the fact that Mary Adelaide was one of the first of “the Royals” to actively support a broad range of public charities.

Indeed, if she had been as stunningly beautiful as Diana, she might be more widely known today. Alas…

Well, you can judge for yourself about Mary Adelaide’s looks. Her other nickname was the highly unflattering moniker “Fat Mary.”

The photo shown here is one of the better ones I could find of the first “Peoples Princess.”

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August 29, 2017

Bring me the head of John the Baptist – and Alfredo Garcia...

Salome & John the Baptist's head, by Gustave Moreau-8x6
Director Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, starring Warren Oates, is one of my favorite movies from the Seventies.  

The film’s title comes from a line in the movie said by the main villain El Jefe (played by actor Emilio Fernández).

When El Jefe finds out his daughter has had a secret affair with his gang member Alfredo Garcia and is pregnant, he puts a hit out on Garcia, saying: “I will pay one million dollars. Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!”

That second line is a modern descendant of a famous Biblical quotation associated with the date August 29.

About 2,000 years ago, according to the Bible, a rabble-rousing, hair-shirt-wearing, locust-and-honey-eating preacher known as John the Baptist mightily annoyed King Herod and his family.

Herod had married his own niece and they had a daughter.

Righteous John publicly denounced the marriage as incestuous and against Jewish law.

Herod threw John in prison. Not long after, the king threw himself a birthday party.

The featured entertainer was his daughter.

bring-me-the-head-of-alfredo-garcia poster TDIQShe’s not named in the Bible, but historical accounts say she was Salome – the one known for the exotic “Dance of the Seven Veils.”
Salome apparently tripped the light fantastic in an especially pleasing way at Herod’s birthday bash.

He told her he wanted to reward her by giving her anything she wanted.

At the suggestion of her mother, Salome replied: “Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.” 

That’s the original King James Bible version of what she said, in Matthew 14:8. It uses the old English word charger, meaning a large platter or dish.

Later translations and paraphrases of the line generally used platter, giving rise to more commonly heard variations like “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter” (English Standard Bible version) and “Bring me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (the King James 2000 Bible translation).

This led to the English idiom “to bring (or have) someone’s head on a platter,” which is a figurative way of suggesting that someone will be punished severely. 

Of course, in the Bible story (and in the movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) it was a literal punishment.

Herod gave Salome her wish, by ordering John’s head to be cut off and brought to her on a platter.

In the centuries since then, August 29 has been the traditional date the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches have used to commemorate the beheading and martyrdom of John the Baptist.

Alfredo Garcia, the beheaded movie character, is less widely remembered.

But he does have a special place in the hearts of Sam Peckinpah and Warren Oates fans like me.

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