License to Ill
Before 1985, the Beastie Boys, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz, were just three Jewish kids from Manhattan in a hard core punk band. In 1984, they signed on to Def Jam records which their producer, Rick Rubin, ran out of his dorm room. While opening for Madonna’s The Virgin Tour in 1985, they noticed that the audience responded very favorably to the DJ and rap portions of their set so they began experimenting with combining these different elements into their songs.
On 15 November 1986, the Beastie Boys released their genre bending Hip Hop album License to Ill. The way paved the year before by Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, the Beastie Boys took the concept a step further with all original songs, in both recording and theme. While most white hip hop artists of the 1980s attempted to imitate black artists, the Beastie Boys just rapped in “their unique and irreverent style” about what they knew: themselves, girls, drugs, booze, partying, petty crime, and Rock and Roll.
What Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry did for Rock and Roll, the Miracles and the Temptations did for Motown, and Donna Summers and the Bee Gees did for Disco, the Beastie Boys brought Hip-Hop to an entirely new audience. Public Enemy’s Chuck D called them, “the Jackie Robinson of Hip-Hop”, and the Rolling Stone reviewed their album under the now famous headline, “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece”.
License to Ill would go Triple Platinum by the end of the year. It became the highest selling rap album of the 80s and the first to reach #1 on the pop charts. Hip hop went mainstream and record sales for artists like Salt and Pepa, Grandmaster Flash, Ice T, and Stetasonic exploded. (And it seemed MTV played “Fight for your Right” every fourth set… )
If you are reading this and were alive in the 80s you probably received License to Ill from a record club in December 1986. There isn’t a bad song on the entire album and its one of the few I can put on and listen straight through.
No Sleep til… Brooooooklyn! (You know you just sang, “Da Na..Da Daaaa” there.)
“Call me Ishmael…” and so begins one of the great American stories. Originally published as “The Whale” in October 1851 in London, Herman Melville’s classic American novel was published in New York with its definitive title on 13 November 1851. The story is based partly off of the true and tragic fate of the whaler Essex, which was destroyed by a whale in 1820, whose survivors had to resort to cannibalism, and the Mocha Dick, an albino sperm whale that fed off the coast of Chile in the early 19th century that was notoriously hard to kill. Mocha Dick survived over a hundred encounters with American whalers before he was slain.
Moby Dick is the story of the crew of the Nantucket whaler, Pequod, and told through the eyes of the sailor Ishmael. But it is really the tale of Captain Ahab, and his self destructive and obsessive quest for revenge on Moby Dick, a great white whale. With themes of obsession, race, defiance, revenge, friendship, brotherhood, free will, and duty, the Pequod is a microcosm of America and every bit as relevant today as it was in antebellum America.
“Wherefore … we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality… . In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s ark; and if ever the world is to be flooded again, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
On 5 October 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in theaters starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. The adaptation of a Truman Capote novel is about a high priced American geisha (for lack of a better term) Holly Golightly (Audrey in her iconic role), and her neighbor, a kept boy toy (a young Hannibal from the A-Team) in a pre Great Society New York that probably only ever existed in the minds of rich Manhattan socialites. Audrey’s part was originally meant for Marilyn Monroe but she refused to take a part that involved playing a prostitute. The crew and producers initially complained that Audrey was miscast, but I think we can agree she brought a depth and charm to the role that might have been shallow and stereotypical in Marilyn’s hands. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another absolute classic and movie of its time. Henry Mancini’s score, as always, elevated everyone’s performance. (My father is a huge Henry Mancini fan). However it must be said that the movie is not without controversy. Breakfast at Tiffany’s can’t be shown today in polite society because the perpetually offended will not see it for what it is, but will use a few scenes as an excuse to signal their virtue. So if you are going to watch it, know your audience. In any case, as a classic of American cinema you absolutely should, tonight even, if only to see the movie that created the modern romantic comedy, a Hollywood icon, and dare I say an American icon.
In the High Renaissance, the feuding Italian city states were constantly at war with each other, when they weren’t at war with France or Spain. Perhaps the greatest rivalry of the city states was between Papal Rome under Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI, and the idealistic (and relatively corruption free) Republican Florence under Piero Soderini, Niccolo Machiavelli, and the various merchant families (notably the recently deposed Medici).
For decades, the Office of Works for the Florence Cathedral wanted a series of Old Testament statues for the tops of the Duomo’s buttresses, but for various reasons little came of them. They were concerned for the hugely expensive block of magnificent Carrara marble exposed in the sacristy courtyard. At the behest of Leonardo Da Vinci, they commissioned 26 year old Michelangelo to sculpt Florentine David in direct defiance to Rome’s Goliath.
On 13 September 1501, Michelangelo began sculpting the colossal five m/17 ft David, which became one of the greatest achievements of High Renaissance art. The statue is of the young shepherd in the moments after he decided to fight the massive Philistine warrior Goliath, but before combat began. The tense, frightened, but observant David is poised but about to spring into action. The exquisitely and meticulously crafted sculpture took two years to finish.
A commission led by Da Vinci and Botticelli was so impressed with David that instead of placing it on Il Duomo, it be given a place of greater prominence. Michelangelo protested briefly because David was proportioned to be seen from below, but his concerns were dismissed. On 25 January 1504, David was unveiled at the entrance of the town hall in the Palazza Vecchio, gazing defiantly toward Rome.
In the early 60s, television was dominated by declining Westerns. Furthermore, the genre of Science Fiction was well past its Golden Age of Arthur C Cark, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and the best episodes of the Twilight Zone. Enter Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, a former B-17 pilot in the Pacific, Pan Am pilot, and LAPD beat cop. He had a vision of combining the two genres. In 1964, he pitched a treatment for a very different television show to Desliu executives (a production company formed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball), and the show was eventually picked up by NBC.
Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” was set on a futuristic 23rd century spaceship, the USS Enterprise, that explored the unknown expanse of our galaxy. Unlike Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the star ship was a naval vessel with a lingo that seemed familiar to the World War Two generation, which was the original target and most lucrative audience at the time. The show’s liberal interventionist and character driven plots would revolve around the three main characters. This trio consisted of the Horatio Hornblower-esque captain and decision maker, and the two halves of his conscious: the coldly logical science officer and the emotionally charged medical officer. The agreement of the three was then supported by a diverse crew – the swashbuckling physicist and helmsmen (the first Asian character portrayed in a positive light), the stereotypical but willful nurse (and ship’s computer), the supremely competent, if irascible Scottish engineering officer (a hit with the generation that saved the world), and the stupid hot and always capable African-American communications officer (the first African American on prime time TV not in a menial role), among many others. (The youthful mop topped navigator, for the girls spellbound by the contemporary band The Monkees, did not join the crew until the second season.)
The first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”, aired on NBC at 8:30 pm on 8 September 1966. Most critics hated it, particularly the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And it also opened to generally poor ratings among most viewers, except one key demographic: young people. They had never before watched TV in these numbers in this timeslot. Young viewers were drawn to the unheard of combination of heady science fiction, utopian respect, cultural diversity, egoless teamwork, unbridled optimism, and all wrapped up in good old fashioned American “Can Do” attitude. The show only lasted for three (glorious) seasons, mostly due to the peace movement, the Vietnam War, and the souring of American attitudes to intervening in other cultures.
However, the fans of the show wouldn’t be kept down for long. In 1972, a surprisingly successful convention for Star Trek enthusiasts was held in New York City, and the first “fandom” was born (not to mention the “con”). It was this fan base, and their renewed interest in Science Fiction, that would form the lines outside movie theaters to see the future Star Wars and Close Encounters, and lead directly to the intellectual property model of entertainment we enjoy today. These fan bases would go on to make Science Fiction, and its off shoots in comic books and fantasy, among America’s greatest cultural exports. The informal networks of the shared interests in these fandoms would not only precede social networking by 40 years, but form their models.
In many ways, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scottie, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu prompted America ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
The Dead Man’s Hand
On 2 August 1876, famed Union scout, frontier lawman, sometime gunfighter, and professional gambler James Butler Haycock aka “Wild Bill” Hickok, was shot in the back during a game of five card stud in Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, Dakota Territory (today’s South Dakota). He was holding two pair, black aces and eights, with an unknown, and much disputed, red fifth card. Wild Bill’s final hand is now known as The Dead Man’s Hand.
The Tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin
One spring in the Late Middle Ages, the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony had a rat problem: the town was overrun with them. The mayor and the town council were perplexed. “What shall we do!” they cried. Then the town blacksmith had an epiphany, and said, “Let’s hire a Rat Catcher!” (a common occupation in the Middle Ages.) The mayor, not to be outdone, said, “Not just any rat-catcher, but The Bestest Rat Catcher! And I know of him!” So the mayor sent a messenger to find the Bestest Rat Catcher. The town council offered to pay the princely sum of 1000 guilders for his services.
Sometime in early summer, the messenger returned with the Bestest Rat Catcher. He was clothed from head to toe in colorful patched (or “pied”) garments. The townsfolk were again perplexed, he looked nothing like what they expected. To catch a rat, you must get dirty. But the Bestest Rat Catcher assured them he just had to play his Magic Pipe and the rats would follow him away.
On Sunday, 22 July 1376, while the entire town was at church, the Pied Piper of Hamelin did just that. He danced through the town merrily playing his pipes and, just as he said, the rats poured out of the houses and buildings. He led them away to the Weser River, where he boarded a flat boat, and pushed himself off. When the rats tried to follow, they all drowned.
The Bestest Rat Catcher returned to town and when the townsfolk emerged from the church, they were astonished and grateful that the rats were gone. But the greedy mayor was not. He didn’t think the Rat Catcher did enough work, “How could he clear the town so quickly? He did not do a thousand guilders worth of work! It must be the work of the Devil!” The Blacksmith, ever the wise one, managed a compromise: The Bestest Rat Catcher would not be burned at the stake, but would receive only 50 guilders, still a great sum for a day’s work. The Mayor kept the rest of the money.
The Bestest Rat Catcher felt cheated and vowed revenge.
The next Sunday, the Pied Piper returned. But this time he was not in his clothing of bright patches, but garments of deep dark ominous colors. The Pied Piper again played his pipes and danced merrily through the streets. But this time he was not trying to catch rats, but the town’s children. While the adults were again at Mass, the children gleefully followed the Pied Piper as he led them over a hill and far away.
When the adults returned home from Mass, they were horrified to find that only three children were left in Hamelin: one was deaf, and couldn’t hear the Piper. One was blind, and danced into a tree. And finally one was lame, and couldn’t keep up.
The rest of the children, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin, were never seen again.
(There’s two dates for Pied Piper story: one was in 1376 and the other in 1284, but both are on 22 July. The reigning theory is that the “Pied Piper” was actually an emigration recruiter that was getting paid to help Germans settle in recently devastated lands. The first area was along the Baltic, where the Teutonic Knights just wiped out the original Ugric Prussians , and the other was in Transylvania, which the Mongols completely depopulated in the 1230s .)
On the most hallowed day of 5 July 1946, the bikini was modeled for the first time at a popular Parisian swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor (honoring a Napoleonic Marshal of France). The bikini itself was named after the recent nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. It was designed by Louis Reard, a French automobile and mechanical engineer who also ran his mother’s lingerie shop. Reard couldn’t find a fashion model to debut the risqué swimwear, so he hired Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the nearby Casino de Paris. Although two piece swimsuits appeared before, Reard’s design was the first to expose the hips and navel. While modeling the bikini, Bernardini held the tiny box the bikini was sold in. When asked what separated his design from others, Reard said, “a true bikini will fit through a wedding ring” (both literally and metaphorically).
Reard’s bikini was popular in the fashion circles, but the mainstream public didn’t really catch on until a divinely inspired and epic triumvirate of events occurred in the early 1960s. First, singer Billy Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” hit #1 on 8 August 1960, which set the stage from provocative to fun. Next, Frankie Avalon and everyone’s favorite mousketeer, Annette Funicello, got all growed up and starred in the hit movie, Beach Party: an instant hit with the kids. And finally, Raquel Welch appeared in the movie One Million Years BC in 1966 in the original furkini, and every straight male under 30 in America had a poster of her up on their bedroom wall. Like beer (ever notice most great things in life start “b”, just sayin’) the bikini is proof that Baby Jesus loves us and wants us to be happy.
God Bless America! (and France I guess… and Italy, whatever…)
The Battle of Alcatraz
After a failed escape attempt to seize the notorious island prison’s boat launch, rioting prisoners took hostages and fortified themselves in one of the cell blocks. On 3 May 1946, prison authorities summoned assistance from nearby Treasure Island Naval Station and the US Army post at The Presidio. Two platoons of marines and coast guardsmen led by Gen Joe Stillwell and BG Frank Merrill arrived the next morning. Using tactics they learned fighting dug in Japanese; the marines and the prison guards isolated the prisoners from the hostages and then stormed the cell block. Three prisoners and two guards were killed, with about a dozen wounded. Two captured prisoners were eventually executed in the gas chamber.
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
On 6 May 1981, the Commission of Fine Arts unanimously chose Maya Yang Lin’s simple and elegant design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in the Constitution Gardens in Washington D.C. Lin’s post minimalist design was of two black walls of granite that descend into a gravelike depression and meet at an angle. It was chosen from over 1100 submissions in an open call to artists by the Department of the Interior. The walls would be engraved with the names of those who were killed in the line of duty during the war in chronological order, starting with Air Force T-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. who was murdered on 8 June 1956 by another airman as he was handing out candy to orphans in Saigon.
The choice, like the war, was controversial. Veteran’s groups hated it and wanted something more akin to the Marine Corps War Memorial. Several compromises were proposed, but President Ronald Reagan called the Commission and told them to ignore the critics. One of the compromises, adding the “Three Servicemembers” to the Memorial, was eventually approved but only when it was placed far enough away that it wouldn’t disrupt the integrity of Lin’s creation.
Names are still being added as remains of those listed as “missing in action” are found, or those who died as a direct result of injuries sustained in the war. The last six names were added in 2010.
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