Remembering John Rockwell


My friend John Rockwell passed away recently and I’m still in shock.

John and I met in the radio station at Pratt Institute, where John had started graduate school. He wandered into the station and asked if he could join. I asked if he’d done any radio before. He had. WDCR (Commercial AM) at Dartmouth College and a short stint at a station in Lebanon, NH. We hit it off immediately. We probably spent more hours in the production studio at WPIR (the Pratt station) than in class. We did actually go to school together — I was taking some graduate classes as an undergrad, and we were in a few together.

Wherever I went, John was always around. During my 10 or so years at WRSU-FM (Rutgers University), John would help out with promos for the station, and we jointly taught some classes in production there.

My first commercial radio job was at WPLJ in New York, where I ended up being Alex Bennett’s producer. Alex was the co-creator of a NY cable show called Midnight Blue, which was about to make the transition to a color, 1-hour commercial show on NY’s 2 cable franchises. Alex asked if I knew anyone who was interested in doing video. My (and John’s) friend Jim Wheelock was studying film at Pratt and was interested, but asked if I would accompany him to Alex’s apartment for a meet. We both ended up as part of Midnight Blue, and it was not long before John got pulled into the group. John had a car — an right orange Audi Fox wagon, which his folks had given him after they traded for one in (as John’s mom Phyllis termed it) “menopause beige.” (You can see where John got some of his sense of humor). John often ferried the crew and our 100-pound cases of video equipment and lights around, as thus earned the screen credit of “Transporation.” (I was several years before any of noticed that we missed a “t” there).

After Midnight Blue, I got a job at Cinema Sound, a studio and radio production company housed in a townhouse (with gargoyles and all) on West 75th Street. Not long after, Bill, the chief engineer went on vacation, and the Friday before he was due to come back, the other engineer (Hank Eberle) was fired. On the way out, Hank told me something that the Bob and Joan Franklin didn’t know — that Bill had taken another job and was not coming back. That left alone as the only engineer, with 3 5-hour year-end shows and one 2-hour one to do. I talked the Franklins into hiring John, because he and I had done so much production work together. Needless to say, they fell in love with John almost immediately. Bob (and, to a lesser extent, Joan) could be exasperating. John rolled with it a whole lot better than I did. After about 7 years, I left; John stayed on as the last surviving Cinema Sound employee until the death of Joan Franklin a few years back. (Bob Franklin died suddenly in 1980). By then, the company had very little work –  mostly small audio projects and language training work.

Over the years, John and I wrote, produced, recorded and mixed dozens of long-form (5-hour) shows and probably thousands of short-form news and feature segments. After Cinema Sound abandoned rock-oriented year-end shows, we formed Rockwell Weinstein Productions, Inc. to produce our own shows (while still working on Cinema Sound’s shows). We were asked to bid on taking over Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Continuous History of Rock and Roll” radio series. We came in second; Jimmy Fink (with whom I worked at WPLJ) got the show. (I don’t think Jimmy knows that we were in the running).

Hard at work at Cinema Sound on one of those specials (John Ogle in the middle preparing to record our script

I remember one of the years our show ran on WNEW-FM and we all gathered in Hoboken with our “sales” staff to listen to Dennis Elsas introduce the show and do the commercial breaks. Quite a thrill.

I had already started working weekend at WHTG-FM in Asbury Park (actually Tinton Falls, near Asbury), one of the pioneering alternative radio stations when I quite Cinema Sound. This led to me working more or less full-time at the station, doing much of the commercial and promo production. As usual, John came along for the ride, since much of the work wound up being done in either Cinema Sound’s studios or my home studio (a true “studio apartment” in Brooklyn). John only came down to the station a few times, but his voice was all over various promotional spots. Faye Gade (the owner of the station) was another instant fan when she met him.

After I moved to California, we continued to work on programs together for a few years. Eventually, the costs of maintaining the corporation proved to be more than we were making, so our business partnership was dissolved. We did, however, remain in touch. I wound up back in New York for one reason or another and always spent some time with John. He made a couple of trips out to San Francisco during the time I was there. This was in the era before Facebook and sharing everything online (John more than me), so there were some periods of time where we were not in touch all the time. Never mind – with real friends, it’s always “picking up where you left off” the next time you see each other.

In 2006, I moved back to the East Coast, settling across the river in Jersey City. During the years when Joan Franklin was still alive, I would frequently pop in to Cinema Sound and we’d go to lunch or dinner. When I had surgery on my hand and needed a “guide” to pick me up at the outpatient clinic, John’s only questions were “where do I need to be and when?” He dragged me home in a cab, waited for the pharmacy to fill my pain meds, and made sure I was safely at home before heading back into the city. I never got the return the favor. On the occasions where John needed to go the hospital, I was not the person he called and I usually didn’t find out about his illnesses until he was already back home.

That’s one of the things that most everyone says about John is how much he cared for everyone around him and how reluctant he was to ask for help himself. When Joan’s looney friend Ellie’s health declined, John was around to visit and help. Joan Franklin essentially became like another mother to John, and he the son that she never had. Predictably, it was John who found Joan when she contracted meningitis and was comatose in her bedroom. That illness led to series of strokes that left Joan in a vegetative state, and she died after being removed from life support. (Luckily, that horrible task fell to Joan’s accountant and executor, not John). During the year the estate was being resolved, John kept things together, took care of clients, and watched over Joan’s townhouse.

You always wind up wishing that you had done more. I pushed him (a bit) on the business front, even offering to partner up again, but John wanted to go it alone in business. I tried to set him up with software to keep his business books and helped him get the studio set up. Periodically, we’d talk and I’d mention ideas for expanding his business.

One time, way back, John and I were talking with someone, and we coined the “Rockwell Law Of Inertia.” I started out, noting that a Rockwell at rest tends to remain at rest. It takes a great deal of force to get a Rockwell into motion, but once in motion….. which prompted John to finish with “…A Rockwell in motion tends to return to rest.” That was John’s self-deprecating sense of humor (and at least had a kernel of truth, also). I was always jealous of his ability to be funny. Now, I can get a good line off now and then, mostly arising out of a situation that I’m in. But John could sit down in front of a typewriter (in the olden days) or a computer, and actually write something original and funny. Not many of us can do that.

And I suppose that’s what I may miss the most. We had so much fun together over the years and every conversation included at least a few laughs, no matter how serious the moment. He was such a big part of two-thirds of my life, it’s hard to image him not being there. I’m still finding myself hearing a song, or reading something and immediately thinking “I need to send this to John.”

Rest easy old friend.

Adventures In Health Care

Now that the Supremes have affirmed that reforming health care in the United States (at least in the manner that the sausage produced by our dyfunctional legislative process suggests) is Constitutional, it’s time to move on to actually implementing the Affordable Health Care Act and see what the result is. With his balancing on the head of a pin act, this is essentially what Chief Justice John Roberts said:  it’s a political process; the Courts ought not undo what the voters (through their elected representatives) did. The fact that the Right is disappointed and have cried about “activist judges” does not change this fact. (Interesting how suddenly not doing something is suddenly “activisism” when it’s not the result they desire.)

The cry from the right is that this “taking away our freedom.” Presumably, this means the freedom to die in the streets if you’re sick and can’t afford the costs of treatment. They opine that “decisions should be between the patient and his or her doctor.” Really. These people have obvioulsy not had much experience dealing with our broken healthcare system. I have. Recently. Very Recently. It was not pretty.

I wound up in the Emergency room of my local hospital, early on a Sunday morning, after a night of extreme pain. Now, I have good health insurance (like most Americans, through my employer), But most everyone knows never to get sick on the weekend, because it’s impossible to actually get your doctors on the phone, let alone get to see them. (Curiously, if this had happened while I was vacationing in Paris, a doctor would probably have come to my hotel room to see me — even though I’m not a French citizen. Then again, the French have what is considered the best health care in the world — no, it’s not us — and live longer and healthier lives than we do).

My local hospital happens to be a really good medical center which operates as a “charity hospital.” That is, it’s one of the places that private, for-profit hospitals send their non-critical cases when the person is uninsured and unable to pay. Many (maybe most) of the patients that morning in the ER were non-paying cases:  the working poor, the homeless, the uninsured or uninsurable. I gathered that a “paying guest” was somewhat of an oddity overall. One of the first things that happened — shortly after someone came around with a rolling computer cart to take my information — was someone informing me that my insurance had $100 co-pay for an emergency room visit, and would I be able to pay that immediately (credit cards accepted). Mind you, this was a request for payment before any medical professional had even examined me.

Later that day, I was admitted for observation, with the possibility that my condition might require surgery. Fortunately, I did not, and I was released from the hospital late in the evening of the next day. A couple of days later, my health insurance company sent me a copy of their “approval” for my admittance to the hospital. In other words, at a point where where I was facing surgery, the decision to admit me was not really up to me and the surgeon with whom I was talking — it was determined by whether some “faceless bureaucrat” back at the insurance company decided that this was (a) covered under my policy and (b) medically necessary. The approval was only for a single hospital day; additional days would require additional approval by the insurance company — not by the decisions of me and my doctor.

All this talk about decisions being “between you and your doctor” is just crap. We have a system where those decisions are made by faceless bureaucrats at the insurance company. These are, of course, bureaucrats who are not at all responsible to any of us (unlike those infamous “government bureaucrats,” which are subject to the political pressures of the electorate and elected officials). Ironically, if I had been uninsured and unable to pay, the decisions would be much more on a doctor-patient basis.

This is not my first run-in with medical insurance interfering in the doctor-patient relationship. The Affordable Health Care Act goes part of the way in addressing these issues. No more kicking people off for “using too much healthcare” — that is, being too sick. No more denyiing coverage for “pre-existing conditions.” And who knew that being a woman — even a healthy one — was a “pre-existing condition” mandating higher premium rates.

If you think that “repeat and replace” is a good idea, think again, in part because the “replace” part is “go back to the way things have been for the last 60 years.” It’s interesting when the news media interview people who have “reservations” about “Obamacare.” You always hear people talk about being worried that they can’t afford health insurance (something the ACA addresses). You never hear anyone say, “Gee, I really don’t want health insurance.” Hell, even the very wealthy have health insurance, and it’s frequently “Cadillac Plans” that have benerous coverage and benefits. And they can afford to write a check every time they get sick — but they see the benefits. (Let’s not forget that our members of Congress have generous “governement” health insurance, that new of them turn down). It’s going to take a while before we realize Ted Kennedy’s dream of everyone being secure, knowing they will have good health care when they need it, without running the risk of bankruptcy. Or dying in the street.

Still The Same Old Rudy

I almost liked Rudy Gulliani. It was right after the attacks of September 11, when he turned into someone very different from the Mayor that many in New York knew. The Rudy of 9/11 struck all the right notes, calming a shocked city (and by extension, the nation); showing calm and seeming competence if a world gone mad. There he was, attending as many funerals as possible, shedding tears.

But soon the old Rudy began to emerge. His term about to be about, he suggested that New York City “postpone” the November mayoral election, presumably because New York just could not possibly go on without him running things. The people of New York didn’t take kindly to this mad power grab, and voted Mike Bloomberg in. The city survived and recovered.

Gulliani, of course, went on to parlay his status as “the world’s Mayor” into a very lucrative series of business opportunities. among them consulting on “how to keep your city safe.” After all, who knew better?

Well, Bloomberg and NY Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, to name two. While Rudy Gulliani touted his skills as thwarting terrorists, his real experience was in how not to stop a terrorist attack. He was, after all, the man in charge in the years leading up to the attack. He was the guy who put the city’s emergency command center in — where? Oh, yes, #7 World Trade Center. Right smack in the middle of the complex that had already been attacked once by Islamic extremists, who vowed to come back. All sorts of experts advised locating the center in a bunker beneath downtown Brooklyn. #7 was, you will recall, the “small” tower that came down later in the afternoon of September 11. (This is the one that the “loose change” nuts claim was brought down by a planned explosion, rather than having two 110 story buildings fall nearly on top of it).

So where did Bloomberg build the new emergency center? Downtown Brooklyn. In a bunker. You may have seen it during Hurricane Irene. After 9/11, Ray Kelly began to build his own international intelligence organization at a time when NYC was not getting the cooperation from the Feds that they felt they needed. New York is now considered, along with London, in the forefront of protecting cities from attack.

Those who lived under Mayor Gulliani before the attacks remember that he was hardly the most popular of Mayors. He won elections in part by engaging in race-baiting, something that has happily subsided in the years since. He paid more attention to the needs of corporate business interests like Disney (taking over much of Times Square with government help) than the needs of the average New Yorker. He was, in short, a bully of major proportions.

During the last Presidential campaign season, Joe Biden famously summed up Gulliani as “every sentence consists of a noun, a verb and 9/11.” During this Tenth Year Anniversary, he’s been puffing up his importance and belittling the contributions of everyone else. So I’m back to hating Rudy. The old Rudy remains. One of the lessons learned in the last ten years, I suppose.

To boldly go where no one has gone before…

When I was a little kid, they used to roll a TV into our grade school classroom so we could watch space shots. Watching a grainy, black-and-white image of the rocket igniting, breaking free of its hold-down bolts, and slowly climbing into the crowds was a thrill beyond belief. And it was a thrill not only from a scientific viewpoint (back when science was revered, as opposed to the tendency for certain right-wing elements to revile science). It was also thrilling because it was ours. It was something we, the American people, were doing as a country, prodded at first by the young, forward-looking President and then continued in his memory. When JFK said “we will go to the moon,” the first reaction from the scientific community was something along the line of “he’s nuts.” The second reaction, though, was “Well, let’s see if we really can do that.” NASA and the space program was born. Something like over 40,000 people worked together to invent rockets, capsules, rocket fuel, telemetry and everything else needed to get men onto the moon and back safely. Along the way came a myriad of things we take for granted now, everything from transistors (vacuum tubes wouldn’t do on a spaceship) to velcro and teflon. There was, of course, Tang, and smoke detectors (after a launch pad fire killed 3 astronauts).

But all the “things” we got out of the space program are really beside the point. What we got more than anything was that we went along into space. We were there with John Glenn when he orbited the earth, and we took that first step with Neil Amstrong. It was — and is — a point of national pride. We did it. No other country on earth could do what we did. Talk about “American exceptionalism.”

Watching the shuttle take off was no less thrilling than watchin Shepherd all those years ago. We have come to think of space travel as routine; of the Shuttle as the “space truck,” no more interesting than a Starving Students moving van blocking our street. Every so often, we were reminded that exploring space, even when it means being the delivery van for the International Space Shuttle, is still dangerous business. Challenger and Columbia reminded us of that. Those two space shuttles are not living out retirement in some museum; their crews are not enjoying retirement on earth. So there was still that moment, as the rockets ignited in glorious high-def TV with the digital surround sound shaking the house, when everyone held their breath. Would the huge boosters lift the shuttle off the ground? Would it reach orbit without a mishap? It did, of course, a picture-perfect launch for the end of the shuttle program.

NASA officials have been quick to note that this is not the end of the US space program. Design and planning continues on a “heavy lift” (that means Big Mother) rocket and capsules to make humans into space, beyond earth orbit, on to the moon, or Mars, or an asteroid. But at this point, it seems to far off to be real. Perhaps when we start seeing test rockets going into space, it will become more real again.

In the meantime, the push to “privitize” everything will give us commercial space travel. You and I probably won’t ever have the chance to take a ride on Virgin Galactic. A couple of hundred thousand a trip is a bit steep for most of us. And, unlike Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Shuttle, those flights won’t be “ours” anymore. I’ll miss the thrill

Thanks, Big Man

I can’t get used to the idea of the “late” Clarence Clemons. It just doesn’t scan. For anyone who has ever been to a Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band show (and I have been to a lot of them for more years that I like to count!), Clarence was always a presence on the stage. First, of course, he towered over everyone, and especially Bruce. He was built like the footballer he was in college, headed for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns until an accident clobbered his knee and ended his football career. He was the flashiest dresser (and what style!). He would be the first to tell you he was the prettiest and the sexiest, too. And he was — there was just something about him that exuded sensuality. Maybe the sax helped.

Bruce wrote the songs; Clarence added the soul (and not just in the obvious way). Bruce admits it. Jon Parales, in his analysis in The New York Times, noted that Clarence provided the vital link to all the R&B that informed and infused rock and roll. Thanks in part to his presence, the E. Street band could lay claim to honoring, not plundering, the cultural heritage. Any number of rock bands include horns (Bruce included, now as in the early days), but few feature a saxaphone so prominently in the music. And Clarence’s style was all his own. You hear him on a record (Bruce, Aretha, Lady Gaga) and you know immediately that it’s him.

You can see everything there is to know about the relationship between Clarence and Bruce on the Born To Run album cover (when you fold it out — hard to do in this era of digital downloads where album art is rapidly becoming a lost art). Bruce writes about it in his introduction to Clarence’s Book, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales. But back to the show. Anyone who’s been knows that Clarence was a fan favorite. When he would step forward for one of those sax solos, or when Bruce would introduce him, or those times when Bruce would slide across the stage, landing on his knees at the Big Man’s feet, the audience would go wild. Whoops and Cheer and shouts and waves of applause. Other frontmen might feel a tad insecure. But if you could take your eyes off Clarence and look at Bruce, you would see the biggest grin in the world on the Boss’ face.

In earlier days, when both Bruce and Clarence were younger (and Bruce was lighter), Bruce used to do these runs across stage and leap into Clarence’s arms. No one ever doubted that the Big Man would make the catch. And that pretty much says it all. Clarence was the kind of friend we all wanted. One who was always there; who could always be counted on to catch us and keep us from falling. Someone to laugh with at the jokes; to cry with when in pain. Someone who would be a friend in the truest senses of the word, forever and always and without a doubt.

I finally figured it out this weekend, as the shock of Clarence’s passing monopolized the time. Bruce just loved knowing that all of us in the audience, all 50- or 90-thousand, loved Clarence as much as he did. He couldn’t be happier, and if Clarence was more popular, so much the better.

The E. Street Band has always had an nearly-unique ability to functon as a unit; to read each others minds; to charge off after The Boss, no matter what musical avenues he tears off down. They are all immensely talented musicians in their own right, but together they really do make magic. It’s hard to imagine how — or if — they will go on without Clarence. Others may be able to fill the saxaphone parts in songs, but no one will ever be able to fill that Big hole in the stage, nor the big hold in our hearts.

 To view Brian Williams very personal report on the passing of Clarence Clemons, click here

Talking Heads With Something To Say

The state of commentary and discussion, particularly on cable TV, isn’t good these days. Where we once had the eruduite musings of a Bill Buckley (with whom I seldom agreed, but who sent me scurrying to the dictionary to look up some of the words he used, and who was always fascinating to listen to), TV punditry is frequently reduced to highly-opinionated blowhards spending most of their time screaming over each other, while generic “background” footage loops over and over on part of the screen, and incessesent animated graphics compete for screen real estate with scrolling or flipping “crawls” of “breaking news.” Right-wing Republicans (is there any kind anymore?) seem to be more likely to be shouting down an attempts by their opponents to get a word in edgewise, though they certainly don’t hold the monopoly on that.

Particular distressing has been the slide of CNN. What was once a pretty good news organization with a global reach and perspective (Ted Turned famous banned the term “foreign” from the early CNN, noting that what’s “foreign” is largely a matter of perspective and which piece of ground you’re standing on), has been reduced to hypergraphics and endless reports of “what’s viral on the internet” (hint:  lots of cats). I’m amazed that Turned even has the stomache to venture into the building in Atlanta, given what his creation has turned into.

But then there’s a bright spot on CNN:  Fareed Zakaria.  I’ve long admired Fareed (he seems too familiar by now to call him anything else), back when he was a frequent guest on the Sunday morning talk circuit, particularly ABC’s This Week program. (That latter program is now presided over by Christian Amanpour, who’s slowly remaking it into a more intelligent program as well). These days, Fareed presides over a Sunday morning “chat show” called GPS (for the Global Public Square), in addition to his “day job” as Editor-at-large for Time.

The things I really like about GPS all stem from its host. First off, Fareed Zakaria was born and grew up in Mumbia, India. Then he came to the U.S. for undergraduate studies at Yale and graduate studies at Harvard. Yes, that makes him one of the right-wing hated “elite.” The rest of us might call that “smart” and “educated.” One of the first things that you notice in a Fareed interview is how keenly interested he seems to be in anything and everything. There is a a level of curiosity that is missing from most political talk show hosts. The second thing you notice is how often Fareed says little. He tends to let his guests go on at length, challenging them when they misstate facts; jumping in with questions at appropriate times when more explanation or a follow-up is needed.

Perhaps it comes from being from another country originally, or maybe it’s that intellectual curiosity, but I find that the perspective on GPS tends to be a lot more global, and less paraochially “American” than most shows. It’s not that Fareed is remotely anti-American; if anything, he frequently is a cheerleader for American exceptialism, but in a positive way. That is, he doesn’t have the knee-jerk reaction that “of course America is the most exceptional place on earth,” but rather the desire that we should be, by virtue of our drive, skills, accomplishments and hard work, and not from any God-given right.

This global perspective is also reflected in the guests. Sometimes these are the “usual experts” and politicians you find on every other Sunday-morning show. But more typically they are just “smart people” who know something about the subject. Sometimes the group is ideologically-balanced, which makes for lively conversation when smart people disagree. Sometimes not. The desire seems to be to assemble a group of people who have opinions based on a strong set of reliable facts.

Yes, the GPS logs spin and change color, and I find the constant captions reiterating what the guest has just said somewhat annoying. And there is the omnipresent CNN “breaking news” flip bar on the bottom to send you into fits of electrical brain disturbance. You can always close you eyes, though, and concentrate on what’s being said.

There are also the various weekly features, including the “What In The World” (think WTF!) segment and a weekly book recommendation (sometimes one from one of the guests; occasionally Fareed’s). If you want to exercise your brain beyond the usual Sunday morning blather and get behind some of the news (and exposed to some things you have not encountered before), this is a good place to start.

Lately, Fareed has branched out with a series of specials built around the theme of Restoring The American Dream (remember what I said above?). Each hour tackles a different aspect:  education, innovation, etc. It’s reminiscent of the old days CBS Reports et. al. when documentaries were a regular part of network programming. All of the programs are available online at the web site, and as a free podcast on iTunes for those who prefer to view their programs on smartphones or tablets.

Set your GPS to GPS. It will be good for you brain.

Rachael Maddow, will you be my friend?

I tried to be Rachel Maddow’s friend. I mean, I think she’s cool.She’s adorable, with that cute little bit of an overbite and the geekier-than-tho glasses. She’s also a journalist the way they used to be, which is to say that she does her homework, trying to find out the actual, um, facts before forming an opinion. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own set of facts. I suspect Rachael agrees with that assertion. Fox News, of course, couldn’t agree less).  I like her slogan, “Mind over chatter.” There’s too much mindless chatter on TV, particularly on the cable networks. And she is one of the few journalists that truly “speaks truth to power,” being unfraid to challenge the statements of her guests when they’re blowing smoke.  Then there is that thing about fairness:  she has often stated that she wants her guests to leave feeling they’ve been treated fairly, even if she has disagreed with most of what they said. That whole “disagreeing without being disagreeable” thing that seems to be mostly missing from political discourse in recent years.

So there I was on Facebook, when up popped the suggestion that I might want to be friends with Rachael. My good friend Gil Askawa is a “mutual friend,” said Facebook. (Gil’s also a journalist, so that’s a doubly-good recommendation). So much of what appears on Facebook is useless drivel (no, I’m not interested in how you’re doing in Farmville — with apologies to my niece, who’s really into that), but there are potentially some interesting posts here and there. I figured Rachael Maddow would have something interesting to say.

Alas, it was not to be. Facebook informed me that “Rachael has too many friends.” (Funny, I thought friends were like ratings points; you can never really have too many. Rachael would probably love to take a few ratings points away from Fox). Facebook has recently limited “friends” to 5ooo. Now, for most of us, 5 friends is about all we can handle, but “friends” in the online sense is something else. Facebook claims something about their plumbing getting all clogged up if you have more than 5000 friends. As with most things involving Facebook, there must be a sinister motive to this. My friend Bob the Media Guy keeps trying to figure out how to “monetize” this social networking stuff (since that’s that Media Guys do); I keep saying once you figure out how to make money doing it, it will drive all the freeloaders away and there will be audience left. In any event, it seems like a bad idea to limit media types and celebrities in how many people they can influence or at least touch.

So, sorry, Rachael. Guess if you want to be friends with me, we’ll just have to meet for coffee sometime. We actually work a few blocks apart, so it should be easy. Have your people call my people.

Who Needs Healthcare?

I was watching the nightly news (NBC to be exact). As has been the case for the last week, the news was filled mostly with stories from Haiti. Among them the tale of a medical group that arrived shortly after the quake. They set up shop on the grounds of an abandoned steel mill. They brought their own supplies — both medical supplies and what was needed to keep the doctors and medical staff going. They set up intensive care units, with respirators at the ready, and a neo-natal care unit. They take digital photos of all arriving patients, and immediately establish electronic medial records! X-rays and advancing imaging all are digital, and can be immediately shared with specialists virtually anywhere in the world, who can consult on the cases.

It would be nice to say this team came from the United States. Nice, but wrong. The team is from Israel. The US military and many, many US medical volunteers have, of course, being amazing work as well in Haiti, and heaven knows the country needs all the help it can get. But among the growing backlash against health care reform in this country, the Israeli example vividly illustrates how much we need that reform. What the Israelis can do in a manner of days in the middle of the worst natural disaster since the Far East Tsunami, most of our communities in the US are sorely lacking.

The latest polls show the minority opposed to health care reform has nearly doubled. Who are these people? Are they so susceptible to the ravings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh that they are blind to the need for real reform in this country? Of course, the lack of cohesive explanation and education on the part of the supporters of health care hasn’t helped, but even so. Are we really turning into a country of uninformed idiots, susceptible to the ravings of demagogues?

Meanwhile, people keep saying they love their insurance companies and want to keep things as they are? Really? I don’t know about you, but I’m looking at most of the money that could have gone into salary increases swallowed up by increased health care insurance premiums. Oh, and that “keep your insurance if you like it.” Guess what? My employer decided to change insurance companies, so bye-bye old insurance; hello new insurance company. Did I have choice? Hell no.

Stupidity reigns. But at least a few of the Haitians are getting the kind of care we all should be getting.

Here’s to Shatner

Once upon a time, in a recording studio far, far away, I worked with William Shatner. He was in to do some narration for the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium (now the Rose Center). He was rude, arrogant and downright awful. But, as the then-director of the Planetarium put it, “We have to use him; he’s Cpt. Kirk!” One of my more memorable recording sessions, but not one of my favorite.

Bill Shatner’s mellowed over the years. He’s learned to laugh at himself, and he’s learned to exploit his <um> “acting talents” to good effect, especially comedy. On Boston Legal, he played a far-right Republican. In real life, William Shatner is somewhat to left of most liberal Democrats.

For the past couple of years, Shatner’s been doing a somewhat unconventional “chat show” on the Bio Channel — William Shatner’s Raw Nerve. Shatner chats with a single guest, the two seated in an s-shaped “love seat” type chair, facing each other. Shatner’s recent guest:  Rush Limbaugh. Now, the ever-corpulent (physically and mentally) Rushbo has been making the rounds, doing what Rush usually does:  make up shit and pull supposed “facts” and opinions out of his ass. The man lies. Or perhaps he believe the bullshit, but I think not. I think it’s all done in the interest of keeping Rush in the “news” and getting ratings and raking in money. I’m cynical that way. (Rush should never have allowed cameras into his studio while doing his radio show. Not only does he spend half the time pulling his short off his huge, sweaty body, but am I the only one to notice that most of the time he’s reading from a script? That’s right. It’s long been rumored that el Rushbo’s “opinions” are in fact written for him by a squad of writers. And it’s not just notes; he does seem to be reading verbatim off the paper in front of him.

Anyway, leave it Bill Shatner to boldly go where no “legitimate” newsperson (let alone a single Republican) would go. Shatner posited the theory that, if you are rich, you get good health care in the United States; if you’re poor, you don’t. Limbaugh countered with “if you have money, you can afford a beach house; if you don’t, you live in a bugalow.” But, protested Shatner, this is health care we’re talking about. Limbaugh said he saw no difference.

Wow. At least an admission that the far right believes in “them that’s gots gets more; them that’s nots, fuck ’em.” Now, I suppose that’s a legitimate political philosophy. But do most of us really want to live in a country where people are dying in the richest country in the world for lack of health care?

It really is a question of morality. You either believe in some kind of communal common interest and taking care of each other, or you don’t. And William Shatner seems to be among the few in the media willing to articulate that.

Needless to say, if I ever have a chance to work with Bill Shatner again, I will not hesitiate to do so. Shatner rules!

So Long, Mary

Sometimes it seems like several lifetimes ago; others like it was just yesterday. Memorable moments in your life are like that. I was not-quite-in-college; still hanging around, serving as a teaching assistant for a class in “Media in America.” It was a class I helped create the year before, this time “taught” by a famous, hip FM radio disc jockey named Pete Fornatale (who is still a famous, hip FM disk jockey in New York). It was, to the say the least, a somewhat unconvential liberal arts class at a school not known for its liberal arts (being centered more around art/architecture/engineering/computer science/fashion and food).

Pete had prevailed on a number of friends, acquaintenances and contacts in the media “biz” to provide the substance of the class. Among those friends were two musicians and producers named Terry Cashman and Tommy West. Besides being known in their own right as Cashman & West, they were rather more famous for having produced hit records for Jim Croce. Pete called and asked if they would come to Brooklyn to talk to the “kids” about making records and the business of music. Cashman and West said they couldn’t; they were in the middle of producing a solo record for Mary Travers. But they had a better idea:  they said they needed an informal sing-along chorus for one of the songs. Would Pete mind bringing the class to the midtown recording studio? And would the class mind singing while there? Um….yeah, we could do that.

And so about forty of us tromped into the studio. Cashman and West gave everyone a tour of the control room and studio, and demonstrated the process of making multi-track records, playing each individual track to demonstrate. Then they coaxed us in singing the chorus to a song by Jim Dawson called Simple Song. It is just what its title suggests, a simple song accompanied by an irresistible la-la-la-la chorus. But not quite so simple as it might seem when you’re trying to sing backup to Mary Travers (whose part had already been recorded). We sat on the floor of the studio and “rehearsed” and then sang the same parts over and over as Cashman and West “conducted” and rolled tape. (Yes, in those pre-digital days, it was tape!).

While we were recording our part, a television crew crept into the studio. Cashman and West had called some friends at Channel 5 (now the NY Fox station; but then an independent whose 10pm news had a large viewership). Our “media lesson” turned into something more than a studio session. We all had the added thrill of watching ourselves on the news that night.

During the TV taping, Mary Travers walked into the studio. Now, I was then (and remain) a huge fan of Peter, Paul and Mary. I had seen them numerous times in concerts (among the best concerts ever). I had marched with them at anti-war rallies. I had conversed with Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey a couple of time, and had briefly met Mary as well. That day in the studio, Mary was — well Mary. She was almost of another world. But there were a couple of things that struck a discordent note with me. While we were all sitting on the floor (faking) singing for the cameras (not tape rolling), Mary was lip-syncing. I thought that odd. And once the lights were off, instead of staying a chatting with a group of college kids, she vanished as quickly as she had come.

It was only years later that I learned that part of her stage presence was the result of extreme stage fright. I don’t know if faced with 40 college kids was terrifying, or if she was just having a “diva” moment. Her friend and singing partner Noel Paul Stookey writes a bit about Mary’s contradictions in his tribute on her web site. I guess I was not the only one who noticed.

But eventually all was forgiven. That recording of Simple Song (heard on my current podcast) is one that I treasure. It’s a beautiful production of a beautiful, gentle song, made more so by Mary’s nearly perfect voice. It was a voice she lent to so many causes over the years. So many times Peter, Paul and Mary were there, marching with everyone from Dr. Martin Luther King (they played at the 1963 March on Washington) to Nelson Mandella’s triumph in South Africa.

Mary Travers had contracted leukemia a while back, and had been in remission. The disease came back; friends and strangers banded together to find a donor for a bone marrow transplant, which arrested the leukemia. But the rigors of chemo took their toll and Mary died from complications from the treatments. She was 72.

Beyond the slogans, the political and protest songs, Peter, Paul and Mary have created a legacy of wonderful music, including some of the best children’s music and songs, some of the funniest records and some of the most beautiful. Their TV shows will play forever on PBS and will likely be entertaining people for a long time. And, of yeah, they helped make Bob Dylan a household name.

But now there will be no more concerts, no more shows, no more records. Peter and Noel will, no doubt, continue the tradition, but PP&M were always a melding of voices and styles.

So farewell Mary. We’ll miss your presence, your beauty and most of all your voice.