Source: Veterans Day 2016 “Gimme Work”
What Will We do Without Without Randy Newman?
First of all, this is not a review, OK? I’m not a reviewer and I wouldn’t want to be one. It’s too complicated and political to criticize works of art in public, inciting people to buy a product or not, in order to serve the needs of a newspaper, a website, advertisers, publishers, labels, producers or what-have-you. It leads to unfairness, bitterness, unnecessary meanness. In fact, I hardly ever read reviews. When I do read them, it’s usually by mistake. Like my eyes just hit on something I have to click on and it turns out to be a review. Or I’m so bored waiting in the doctor’s office that I pick up some tired old magazine and start leafing through it. Reviews spoil all the fun. They tell you what to think before you see, hear or read whatever it is they’re reviewing. They dare you to disagree, each reviewer setting himself up as some kind of authority.
But OK, here it is. I just bought Randy Newman’s new album on iTunes, connected my stupid old iPad to my little bluetooth speaker, took both things into the kitchen, hit play, and started making lunch. I listened to the first cut. “The Great Debate”. Then I listened to it again. It’s about eight minutes long. I’m not going to describe it here. I’m not even going to tell you what it’s about. I’m not going to reduce it to a thumbnail description and then go on and on for a thousand words about what I think of it. The onliest thing I have to say is this: Give it a listen, you won’t be sorry.
I have already said so to a bunch of my friends. And I listened to the rest of Newman’s new album. But I needed to write this down because all of a sudden it occurred to me: what happens when Randy Newman dies? He’s not sick as far as I know, and he’s “only” 73 so he could reasonably go on another ten or twenty years, producing an album of new work every three to five years or so. Or maybe, like Philip Roth, he will suddenly, in his seventies, find a new stride and give us eight or ten brilliant new works in under a decade. I don’t know. Still, I shudder to think about a world without the possibility of a new Randy Newman song, somewhere down the road, maybe around the next corner.
Why? Not because he makes me laugh, although he does. Not because he makes me cry, although he does. Not because I agree with him – I don’t always, but I do sometimes. Not even because it’s hard to know what part is tongue-in-cheek and what part isn’t (though that’s part of the fun).
It’s simple, really: Randy Newman makes my world better, more subtle, more interesting, more mysterious, more poetic and more uncomfortable. He makes me a better human being.
So do Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Neil Young and a few others. They’ve been doing this (for me and millions of others) for fifty years. They’re older now. Some of them have already had a brush with death. One day soon, the inevitable will happen to them as it does to all of us. Sam Shephard just died, and he was no older than Randy Newman. What will the planet Earth be like once they’re all gone? And Paul McCartney too? And James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne?
I mean, consider this: we lost just one of them, John Lennon, who died in 1980. The world has been spiraling out of control and heading downhill ever since.
I had prepared some pithy tweets for this morning. It came down to a choice between: “Can we pls now talk about how terrible Clinton is w/o being accused of supporting the neo-fascist?” and; “Bad news: the conservative Republican won. Good news: She’s not Trump.”
I was only going to tweet one of them, and I couldn’t decide which. I went to bed thinking the former, woke up (at 6AM Paris time) thinking the latter. But I was also thinking, well, I guess I should also admit that I was wrong, that Hillary Clinton pulled it off after all, and “Whew, that’s a good thing!”
Then I turned on my computer. I wanted the news from a source that wouldn’t be crowing predictably about how wonderful it was that Clinton, our first woman president, had handed Trump his lunch and struck a blow for sanity and democratic values, for decency and against pussy-grabbing comb-overs. So my first click was my bookmark to Democracy Now, Amy Goodman’s stunning alternative news program – the one that, you know, actually does strike a blow for sanity and democratic values, Monday thru Friday, week in, week out.
There was a man talking about how hard it was going to be to pick ourselves up after this startling defeat. And I thought, “Huh, so the Democrats didn’t regain control of the Senate or anything…” But OK, it was time to move to gray lady and find out wtf.
I take no pleasure in noting that I was right (https://michaelkatims.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/mrs-clinton-should-withdraw-now/). Benghazi, Wikileaks, the FBI investigation into her email, the accusations of pay-to-play Clinton Foundation contributions… Staunch Clinton supporters – good friends and family included – can go on and on about how none of those things is true, there is no there there, nothing has been proven and nothing will stand up to scrutiny. Today is the day that those good people find out it doesn’t matter. Today is the day that they must reckon with the fact that in the court of public opinion, nothing is inadmissible. Clinton and the DNC lived by the sword of media manipulation (“controlling the message”), now they die by drowning, in a sea of “I don’t believe you anymore.”
No one – not Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren – no one who really took the time to examine her record (voting for the Iraq war, flip-flops on PTT and Keystone, marriage rights, etc.), truly believed that Hillary Clinton would be a stalwart defender of progressive values once elected. Sanders tried to mobilize his base in support of Clinton by saying, essentially, “first we elect her then the next day we can start to oppose her again.” That’s a complex message for people who are hurting and who don’t want to wait another second to send a strong message (“strong message” = “fuck you”) to the establishment. That’s right, the establishment. And by that I mean, the people who cater to the elite, to the ones who are holding the purse strings of our society, the political class who have a good working relationship with Goldman Sachs, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and on and on. To the American public, Hillary Clinton is, always was, and always will be that person.It’s not just a matter of image and it’s not debatable. It’s who she is.
Add to this her tendency to be unwittingly contemptuous of the electorate – phrases like “basket of deplorables” and “bring them to heel” were perceived as betrayals of her true attitudes. This all adds up to the opposite of populism. It’s a candidate who is essentially saying, “Elect me because I know better than you.”
But OK, I can hear the replies – what do you mean, what relationship to the elite, who says? Lots of politicians collect fees for speeches! And everybody else flip-flopped, too! And that’s not what she meant! Fine, fine. But even if you truly believe that Hillary Clinton was a principled and basically progressive candidate, today is the day when you must admit she was unable to convince people in sufficient numbers that she was anything other than a corporate tool, two-faced and corrupt. It’s not James Comey’s fault and it’s not Wikileaks or Putin. Today is the day when you have to come to terms with the fact that Hillary Clinton was, simply put, a terrible candidate. And now we’re all (all of us, all over the world) in deep shit because of her failings.
I’ll leave it to another day to count the ways we’re in deep shit. But hey progressive America, you folks who really care about social justice and global warming and racism and sexism and peace on earth, next time look for a candidate who might actually have some broad popular appeal. Next time, look for a candidate who inspires confidence, who might come across as genuine and honest and principled. Who knows? He or she might just win. Assuming, that is, we ever get another chance to elect anyone at all.
Though the numbers don’t bear it out, pundits like Paul Krugman have already pointed the finger at Jill Stein (https://twitter.com/paulkrugman/status/796175841256415232). And I have no doubt that, within hours, the bullshit machine will be purring and the left will be blamed, once again, for the tragic failings of the center-right, progressives will be blamed for the fact that the Democratic Party abandoned the working class in favor of Wall Street, and lost its way. But that thinking is so twisted it is really hard to understand. The problem is not third-party candidates. The problem is that the two major political parties are completely broken, mostly corrupt, slightly crazy, and woefully out of touch with the body politic.
If Hillary Clinton had withdrawn on May 29th and endorsed Bernie Sanders, I believe he would have defeated Donald Trump. Better still, if she had never run at all and Elizabeth Warren had decided to throw her hat into the ring, we might be looking at a much brighter future right now. 2016 was the moment when American voters were ripe to tell the political establishment, “I don’t believe you anymore.” That is what they did.
They said, “We have seen your act and we’re done with you.” They said it to Jeb Bush and now they have said it to Hillary Clinton. Maybe next time, they’ll also say, “Go ahead, Elizabeth or Bernie or Tulsi Gabbard. Make it better.”
Maybe next time, if there is a next time, we’ll press Alt+left instead of Alt+right. You may say I’m a dreamer. But just imagine how much better off we would be without the lesser of two evils. Just imagine if next time the choice is between evil and mostly, really, deep down, honestly and truthfully, good…
When I was a little boy in Richmond, Indiana, my parents decided to go to the drive-in to see the new Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift movie Raintree County. There must have been a kids movie …
The following was written in 2010, to be read at the memorial service for my father, Robert Katims:
Robert was an actor but he was also a salesman. They say a good salesman can sell ice to Eskimos. But that’s not what a salesman is, not how Robert told it anyway. A salesman is a man who turns doorknobs.
Being a salesman made a man out of me. That’s what he told me, very recently, when the two of us were sitting around his living room, right where I am now as I write this, chewing the fat and, as always, arguing. (What joy there was in arguing with my dad! I will never enjoy arguing with anyone as much as I enjoyed it with him!)
Being a salesman made a man out of me. Not the army. Not the untimely death of his own father, still a young man. Not the divorce of his parents. Not having children or getting married. Or any of the other things he might have pointed to as having made a “man” of him. Being a salesman. And by way of explanation he spoke of the courage it took to turn a doorknob when you weren’t invited and had no appointment and had no idea what was waiting on the other side. That moment when you puffed up your chest and chased your own inner demons long enough to turn that big brass baby and stride on into a room and say Hi, I’m Robert Katims and I have something for you. And he told me that he once sold to a guy who broke down in tears and bought a lot of stuff because, he said, You remind me of my dad.
A dad who was a salesman.
My dad was a salesman and in the words of Arthur Miller,
for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.
Turning doorknobs. A salesman needs to turn a lot of those doorknobs if he’s going to make a living. And the doorknobs don’t come to you either. You have to go find them, way out in the blue. And while he was out there we were at home. Me and my brother and sister, and my mom. We were playing or fighting or arguing or shopping or cooking or watching TV and he was elsewhere.
Then there would come a moment when we heard a sound and the salesman would turn his own doorknob and a cry would go up like Christmas morning. Daddy! Daddy’s home! I can see him smiling and setting down his big briefcase as he prepared to receive me in his arms. Daddy’s home! And the smell of tobacco and cologne and Brylcream, the scratch of his beard on my little boy cheek, his thick black curly hair in my fingers as he picked me up in his arms and held me over his head. Daddy’s home! Oh what a moment!
As I grew to be thirteen or fourteen and suddenly knew everything, I came to understand that being a salesman was my dad’s selling out. He had really wanted to be an actor but he didn’t have the courage to pursue his dream. He had a wifey and little kiddies to worry about so he went and got a day job. I accused him of giving up. I used all my powers of cross examination (which under his tutelage had already grown to be formidable) to get him to confess that he missed acting. But he never broke. He told me he didn’t miss it one bit. He told me that selling was acting anyway and he was giving the performance of his life, ten times a day. He told me he didn’t care. He told me that if he missed acting he would go back to it. He told me just about everything and the exact opposite of just about everything and I didn’t believe him. I would not be fooled. In this and many other arguments, I exposed him. I ridiculed him. I mocked him. I cajoled him. I cornered him. I evinced him. Almost entirely. Almost to my own satisfaction. But he never broke. And he never backed down.
It was as if acting were a dirty little secret. The 1953 review my mom had saved, yellowed already back in 1971 when I found it, in the shoe box in the basement. Robert Katims in The Penguin! A stellar performance by a new young talent. My father was upset when I unearthed it. He didn’t want his children to know he had been an actor. Why? Was he trying to hide what he thought of as his failure?
Let us understand at least that when my father gave up acting it was also out of disgust with the entertainment industry as a whole which had caved in to the House Un-American Activities Committee and had named names. And here was this kid who was just starting out, just hoping to break in to that very industry.
You see, the secret within the secret was that my dad was a “leftist” or a “fellow traveler” or whatever. A damn commie, in the eyes of Joe McCarthy’s crew. So if he was ever lucky enough to break into the movie or the television business in the 1950s he could expect to be called by the Committee and what then?
So maybe when he told me that he didn’t miss acting one little bit he was being sincere after all. Who would miss that?
Nobody asked salesmen to name the names of their fellow salesmen and managers who were sympathetic to the communists. (Or did they?)
And my dad was sympathetic to the Soviets. All his life. With the Khrushchev and the Castro and the Hugo Chavez. Probably he was so sympathetic that he blinded himself to the contradictions of those charismatic leftist leaders and the crimes those contradictions led to, at least in some cases. Not in all, by the way. My father was not a complete apologist for Stalin. It is not good for us to over-simplify the opinions of others, it is not good for our health. Especially those who can no longer rise in protest.
My father rose in protest. He stood up in the Brooklyn Democratic Club meeting and said the club should only endorse a candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam. This was sixty-five and the candidate was for the office of mayor of New York City! The mayor of New York has nothing to do with foreign wars. Abe Beame wasn’t saying a damn thing about Vietnam one way or the other. But Bill Ryan was. Ryan was saying U.S. out of Vietnam. And that was good enough for my dad. He rose and took the unpopular position that if you didn’t oppose the war in Vietnam, openly and categorically, you had no business running for public office in New York City in 1965.
And so my dad got up on top of a car in a vacant lot across from 47 McKeever Place and introduced Bill Ryan to an enthusiastic throng of about twelve and said over a bullhorn, Ryan for Mayor! and I watched from the eleventh story window in the living room of our apartment at Ebbets Field. That’s my Dad! On top of the car talking into the bullhorn with everybody listening! Making a very convincing sales pitch! A regular actor!
Rise in protest. Go ahead. Stand up and take an unpopular position, then come back and tell me if it’s easy. Not even in public. Just try it at dinner. Then we’ll talk.
I say it takes doorknob courage. The same kind of courage my dad was talking about. I say it will make a man out of you (or a woman).
My father (like my mother) did not simply support the civil rights movement. He joined the Committee to Defend the Black Panthers and called for the liberation of all political prisoners, organized events to raise money for their defense funds. He and a bunch of folks from the neighborhood. Ruth, Abbie, Mimi, Lou, Mary, Evelyn, Reed, Joe… His best friends were those who rose in protest, who weren’t afraid to say what they thought and wouldn’t back down from a good argument. Nathan was his best friend.
I say it takes doorknob courage to be a white Jewish man in America and stand up and say If you’re black in America and you’re not paranoid then you must be crazy! and my father said that. And I am so proud of him for saying that.
And saying these things had consequences. Who knows exactly what consequences by the way. Henry Graubart, a member of that same Committee to defend the Panthers, turned out to be a spy and an FBI provocateur. Old J. Edgar Hoover thought that what my dad was doing was important!
As a salesman, my father could make lots of time for annoying J. Edgar Hoover.
Maybe giving up acting was a refusal to sell out, did you ever think of that?
What joy there was in arguing with my dad. Especially when I had driven him to distraction with all my dazzling argument and he finally, breathlessly begged me, Michael, just shut up a second and listen, will ya?
In any case, as with most of the arguments we had, I was right! He did miss acting! I can prove it: He went back to it as soon as his children were more or less grown. He made movies and TV and performed in the theater in New York and Los Angeles (and other places too). I was right!
Later, how proud he was of being an actor. And if you went to a restaurant with him in Pacific Palisades or Santa Monica and there was somebody famous sitting at the next table, Robert would turn and say “Hi we’re in the business! I’m an actor and my son here is a TV producer! And my other son here speaks French! And my daughter is a very important business executive!”
If he spotted a customer, my dad would try to sell himself and me. And my brother and my sister. And my mom. And anything and anyone else he could possibly think of to sell. And often it was embarrassing for us but many, many times, people were buying it.
He was a pretty good actor, but to my mind he was a better salesman.
He was an actor and a salesman, a political activist, a bridge and tennis enthusiast, a Met fan. You could go on and on. The life of a man is not one thing. He was also a taxi driver who once got out of his car and punched another driver for blocking his lane. He was also a waiter on the graveyard shift at an all-night restaurant in Manhattan. Did he ever tell you how he stopped putting sugar in his coffee? How many times did he tell you?
On the last day of his life I was driving his car toward the hospital when his wonderful nurse called me on the phone and said “I don’t know what you have planned for this evening but you may want to spend it here.” Everywhere he went, my dad made an impression and Barlow Respiratory Hospital was no different. Alia and Dr. Hwang and Aimee, they were his friends already after spending all those months with him. That phone call was an errand run for a friend more than a professional courtesy to the family of a patient. By the time I got there, his blood pressure was terribly low. His eyes were open and he was moving them from side to side, as if watching a tennis match projected on the ceiling over his bed in the ICU. I told him I knew how he must be suffering and I told him it was OK for him to go. I’m sure he heard me. According to his nurse, his blood pressure went back up when I spoke. Probably he wanted to argue with me. Anyway, six-thirty comes rolling around and it’s time for the nurses to change shifts. They throw the visitors out during the shift change. I got up and left and I said to my dad, see you later. Though he did not speak, I could hear his answer, clear as day: “See you later, old buddy!”
When I came back, with my brother Jason, he was gone. Alia tearfully apologized to me for throwing me out just before he died. I said Alia, don’t you see? He was waiting for me to leave. As long as I was in the room with him he couldn’t die. That would be like backing down, that would be like losing the argument!
There comes a moment, as every good salesman will tell you, when the best thing to do is to stop talking. Never sell past the close.
Or, as my father would put it: “Michael, shut up already, will ya?”
Ok, Dad, but I’m going to say one more thing, because now at least I get the last word!
The doorknob has turned and the salesman has gone through another door. Daddy’s home!
Santa Monica, July 2010
My father once asked his best friend, Nate, “Who was the best baseball player ever?” Nate thought about it for a few seconds and then he said, “Well, first we have to eliminate any players whose main contribution dated from before 1948.” By this he meant that before black players were allowed to compete in the National and American Leagues, white players were only competing against a reduced pool of talent. If every single great black pitcher had been pitching in the major leagues between 1914 and 1935, how many home runs would Babe Ruth have hit? The honest answer has to be, “Less than 714.”
But how many less? 10? 100? 250?
It is impossible to measure the true value of the white players from the pre-integration era, because they never had to face the black players of the same era. It is exactly the same logic that eliminates Sadaharuh Oh from the conversation – if a player isn’t measured against the best of his contemporaries, how do you measure him? So, according to Nate’s implacable logic… THEY DON’T COUNT!
“Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Stan Musial? Cy Young? Ty Cobb?” my father asked breathlessly. Disqualified, every single one.
If we agree with Nate’s perfectly reasonable conclusion, we must also adjust the record books. Not just individual statistics but team statistics. So the Cleveland Indians last won the World Series in 1948. By Nate’s yardstick, that championship counts, just barely – and indeed they had two black players on that team, Larry Doby and one player who would most certainly be in the running for “greatest baseball player ever” but whose main contribution was made in the Negro Leagues, before integration – Satchel Paige.
But the Cubs? The Cubs never won the World Series before 2016. Not in 1908, not in 1907. Never.
They came up together. One was a poor, skinny, black Dominican who grew up in a house with outdoor plumbing on a dirt road near a banana farm. The Mets – reluctantly – signed Jose Reyes…
They came up together.
One was a poor, skinny, black Dominican who grew up in a house with outdoor plumbing on a dirt road near a banana farm. The Mets – reluctantly – signed Jose Reyes in 1999, at the age of 16, with a $22,000 signing bonus. He was 6 feet tall and 130 pounds, with a smile to light up a night game. Continue reading
In 1968, Richard Nixon was rumored to have a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam if elected president. It turned out that the secret was something Nixon called the “Madman Theory”. Continue reading
Written in November 2014
The year was nineteen ninety something. It was late in the season and I was at Shea Stadium. The Mets were out of the race – and so was the visiting team. (Was it the Expos?) It was not a remarkable game. No one was going for any records or milestones. There was no towering star on his last tour through the league. It was just a baseball game. Continue reading