Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Daring the Mirror To Reveal Someone Else" (on Joan Rivers' comedy and life)


daring the mirror to reveal someone else

Joan Rivers in Joan Rivers: (Still A) Live at the London Palladium / 2005
Ricki Stern (writer), Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (director) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work / 2010

Can we talk? Let me began by asserting that—however wonderfully kind, supportive, loving, groundbreaking and whatever other attribution you might use to use to describe the comedian Joan Rivers as a mother, friend, acquaintance, and performer—Rivers’ later career on stage and television was marked by an embracement of the crassest, most outré, and outrightly bigoted of American values. Surely Rivers felt she could represent herself as the outspoken supporter for all anti-correct-thinking attitudes, in part, because of her almost giddy acceptance of a somewhat absurdist Jonathan Swift-like position which she honed, with her rapier-sharp commentary, on  not only whatever her audiences thought was  beyond the limits of good taste, but outside any one’s definition of what most might imagine to be subjects of humor.

     In her 2005 performance at London’s Palladium, for example, Rivers tackled a wide range of inconceivable topics from death, suicide (both animal and human), murder, cannibalism, racial and sexual prejudice, extreme extensions of human body parts (including breasts, testicles and vaginas), bodily smells (most specifically farts), Queen Elizabeth II’s crotch, Liza Minnelli’s marriage to a gay man, her “friend” Julie Andrews’ throat damage, Helen Keller’s deafness and blindness, the 9/11 bombings, and, by implication, even the Holocaust! Where can you go from there? Perhaps it isn’t an accident that at one point Rivers stretched her body out flat upon the stage floor.

     While one might suggest that Rivers’ frenetic hate fest incorporating most of these jokes (she “hates, absolutely hates old people”; she’s convinced that all Philippinos consume their dogs and that every actor in Hollywood has had facial surgery; Anne Frank, she argues, was a “whiner” in need of a nose job; her own mother-in-law could only complain when Rivers attempted to cremate her—alive!) is a kind of black humor that has its roots in Kafka, Beckett or even Sade--even more troubling, I would argue, are the things that the fictitious persona of Rivers absolutely loves, which includes nearly every bourgeois element of what used to be described as the American dream. Rivers’ persona mostly admires beauty and money, and everything that comes with that: marriage (no matter how meaningless; an unmarried woman who lives with a man is automatically an “absolute slut!”), financial well-being, a grandiose house filled with possessions, a fashionable life (beautiful clothes, glittering jewels, and elaborate (even if time-worn furs) and, finally, as the natural apotheosis of all of these qualities and things, celebrity.

    Arguably these “desirable” things are simply the mirror-opposites of those dark forces of which the comedian makes fun, thus incorporating a gigantic satiric portrait of American life. But Rivers herself, in her own numerous admitted attempts to beautify herself through countless “nips-and-tucks” of the plastic surgeon’s knife (“I was the ugliest girl in the little town of Larchmont”), her life-time predilection for wearing beautiful gowns, jewelry, and furs, and her clear infatuation with celebrities and her own celebrity-status creates a severe problem if we might wish to credit her humor with any irony.

     When she reports that her daughter, Melissa, “stupidly” turned down an offer to be a Playboy model, berating her child and herself for refusing to do something with which she felt uncomfortable when she might have otherwise earned a great deal of money, it is somewhat difficult to know whether the joke she is telling is based on Swiftian overstatement or a real, gut emotional response. When my English students, long ago, were confused by Swift’s insistence that it may be useful for the British to eat Irish children, I could always try to point to the language itself to make his “real” values more apparent; but in the case of Rivers, it is nearly impossible, at times, to separate the artifact from the fact that she has almost become everything that she claims to value; and one wonders, accordingly, whether or not she truly hates or at least devalues all those things she claims to so honestly to speak out against.

      Her distasteful jokes and her ridiculous values are only laughable, it seems to me, if we can inherently imagine that Rivers, as a real person, is simply presenting a shtick, a series of bizarre one-liners that, at heart, represent values that she actually disavows. Yes, Sophie Tucker, may have been a coarse figure, slyly insinuating sexual fables that shocked some in her audience, but no one truly believed that Tucker was actually spending her days enacting her reports. Even the would-be femme fatale Mae West, anyone with even a little bit of perception knew, was probably more beloved by the gay boys whom she eventually incorporated into her act, than by any significantly endowed heterosexual man. Lucille Ball may have played a loud-mouthed, lying ditz, but we also recognized that she was a beautifully smart lady of great cleverness. Phyllis Diller (who, at moments, Rivers—at least in her commentaries on her married life—seems to imitate) may have dressed the part of a badly clothes-coordinated street lady, but we knew, or at least guessed, that behind her façade of self-demeaning put-downs, she was a grand beauty. The sometimes seemingly potty-mouthed “tramp” through which Bette Middler vamps, we all know is a cover-up for the sweet, slightly sentimental, gal she is at heart. As I have noted earlier in this volume, anyone with a stitch of brains realized that if Elaine Stritch was a tough broad, she was also a permanently naïve lover of life.

     Rivers celebrated none of these obviously deviously comic personae. Rivers did, in fact, look quite lovely, was well-dressed, her hair professionally retouched and cut. She looked like a lady, but spoke as if she had lived in the sewer for most of a life that she had spent scratching to get up and out.

     When onstage The Palladium she seems disappointed with the size of the purposeless orchestra (for which she claims, she had to pay for herself), we can’t imagine that she’s lying to us. She wants, she claims time and again, everything that money can buy. Her outrage for getting six and a mirror for the 12 players she ordered up—even if they perform briefly only upon her entry and exit—seems utterly genuine. Although she may perform anywhere and everywhere just for the love of an audience—several of whose members she demeans throughout her skits—we truly believe she would like the stage to be filled, as were some corners of the Palladium, with flowers and plants. A great part of her personae, in fact, depends on our belief that she is utterly honest—which is why her audiences let her escape with the numerous expressions of intolerance and hate; in a sense, she’s asked for and gained our permission to dish out the worst before she serves up what she proclaims in the best of life.

      But what if the audience, such as the English one at the Palladium, doesn’t want or even comprehend all that American straightforwardness that advertises its own ultimate ugliness of moral values and convictions? What if her audience doesn’t know who Paris Hilton or the countless other irrelevant “celebrities” Rivers mentions are? In several instances, the poor camerawoman of her Palladium performance seems to have had almost jump over seats with camera in hand to show us a few laughing youths to create any sense of response.

     If nothing else, you have to give Rivers credit for walking that tightrope between who she pretended to be and who she just might been night after night. At times like the ugly Queen in Snow White, Rivers dared the mirror reflect back someone else.

     The above comments were in reaction to watching the Joan Rivers video of her performance at the London Palladium, which I watched after the news of her death last week, after she suddenly stopped breathing during minor surgery. For the same reason I also took time out to view the 2010 documentary about Rivers made by directors Annie Guldberg and Ricki Stern.

     That film, both directly and indirectly, brought up many of the same issues I discussed above. On one the level the film portrayed an absolutely level-headed and smart business woman struggling to keep her career going long after the age (75) at which most comedians and actors have given up any hope of performing. There is something endearing about a woman who cannot imagine retirement, and who clearly is a fanatic about her ability to continue doing what she loves most, to stand upon as stage (“The only time I am truly happy”).

    Despite admittedly difficult times with her daughter, Melissa, moreover, the documentary makes clear that Rivers deeply loves her and, despite the career—which Melissa argues stood always as another “being” in her mother’s life—worked hard with her husband Edgar to give her a “normal” life.

   

     Certainly, Rivers admittedly plays the Diva (even if the Diva is often lonely), but she is also absolutely humble in her willingness to take on almost any job offered her, including ads for Depends adult diapers and gigs in small towns such as the one we witness of her performing in Wisconsin. As she makes it clear, given the fact that she must pay not only for her only quite lavish penthouse life, but helps with education and support of several relatives, she needs money. But money seems almost secondary compared to her need to be “loved” as someone who daily makes people laugh.

     If on stage Rivers “hates” the old, children, and even those who suffer, every Thanksgiving morning she delivers (this year with her young grandson) meals to those who, ill and dying, cannot get out of their apartments. In the afternoon, Rivers invites relatives, friends, neighbors, and even a few homeless people to dine with her.

     Even if Rivers comes off as psychotically insecure and needy, in short, she is also presented as a savvy and loving individual who comprehends precisely the outsider comedic vein she is mining. When, during her Wisconsin performance, an audience member virulently reacts to one of her jokes about the deaf (he has, so he announces, a deaf son), Rivers abuses him right back, insisting upon her right to use anything to make human beings chuckle; but later she admits that he comprehends his hurt. She has, after all, made her career, as she puts it, “going into places you shouldn’t go.”

     And despite the shell of toughness she near-perpetually projects, we also glimpse throughout A Piece of Work, the difficult times—Johnny Carson’s refusal to ever speak to her again after she took on a show on Fox Network, the suicide of her husband Edgar, and the overall ups and downs of her career—which has helped, as she admits, to make her “furious about everything” that is not right and just in the world. As an agent reports, Rivers is stoic in her insistence about “standing out in the rain” to wait for the lightning to once again strike.

    Yet watching this sensitive film, one is also struck with just how perverse Rivers’ personal values are. Her penthouse may represent great wealth, but in its faux Marie Antoinette French interiors it represents a kitsch ginger-bread conception of great wealth (“Marie Antoinette would have lived here if she could have afforded it?). The gold leaf upon its walls, it short, may really be gold-leaf, but the whole concoction represents no one’s personal taste as much as it does a taste acquired by someone who has leafed through too many lavish decorators’ catalogues. In her own home, we recognize, Rivers lives in a kind of stage-set—even if all the objects in it represent the “real” thing—as Henry James might have joked.

     In fact, beyond the obsession to recreate her own body, Rivers, an astute observer easily perceives, never lived in a “real” world. Everything in her life was an image of an image; language for this comedian was never something that actually might create reality but merely something that stood in, like a metaphor, for some reality lying always just outside her grasp.

    Perhaps the most telling moment of this sometimes brutally honest deconstruction of the Rivers “semi”-legend comes when she begins to describe her love of acting. I always wanted to be an actor, she claims. “I got into comedy only as a way to make money so that I could act.”

     In short, Rivers herself is a work of “art,” is not a real being, but something she has herself created. Her career, she insists, is an actress’ career, and “I play a comedian.” We must admit that as a comedian-performer she certainly gave her all, literally “dancing as fast as she [could].” But sadly she interpreted her audience’s laughter—and no one’s jokes better fit Henri Bergson’s definition of laughter being intertwined with hostility or even hate—as showering her with acceptance and love.

     Sadly, it becomes apparent, when Rivers looked into the mirror there was, most often, absolutely no one there!


Los Angeles, September 17-18, 2014

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"The Birdsong of Climate Change" (the effects of climate change on bird populations)


the birdsong of climate change

http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/09/09/us/JPBIRDS/JPBIRDS-articleLarge.jpgThe birdsong of climate change, reports Felicity Barringer’s September 8th article in The New York Times, will be the coo of the mourning dove. Their climate potential will most certainly increase over the next sixty-five years. But the Baltimore oriole will likely no longer live in the state of Maryland. Bird species such as Trumpeter swans may no longer even exist, having been forced out of their existing territory. No reported the National Audubon Society on Monday.
     Perhaps half of the 650 species listed on the report may have forced by 2050 to new places to live and feed, or, if they cannot adapt, will like disappear from the planet or, at least, North America:
                             
                             Among the most threatened species are the three-toed 
                             woodpecker, the northern hawk owl, the northern gannet, 
                             Baird’s sparrow, the rufous hummingbird and the trumpeter
                             swan, the report said. They are among the 30 species that, 
                             by 2050, will no longer be able to live and breed in more
                            than 90 percent of their current territory
 
http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/09/09/us/BIRDS/BIRDS-master675.jpg     Certainly some of these species may become what scientists describe as “heroically resilient,” but many others forced out of their local habitats will surely disappear. “What happens as these birds keep moving higher and higher and farther and farther north and runs out of trees? Trees don’t fly. Birds do.”
     The major author of the report, Gary Langham suggests that the likelihood that the future will look like what our grandparents experienced regarding birds is highly doubtful. Not only will changes in climate harm birds already considered endangered, but will likely “decimate” birds that currently have robust populations.
     American robins, red-tailed hawks, western scrub jays, western meadowlarks, north cardinals, and northern mockingbirds are all likely to flourish. But the brown pelican of the Gulf Coast and Puffins off the Maine coast will probably no longer survive.
     The news, based on recent bird counts, should be warning to all naysayers in the climate warming debates. For years scientists have been warning us of the mass exodus of certain birds from various regions across the continent, but today we were told, in all-too specific terms, that many beloved avian species, within many adults own lifetime, will no longer to spotted by their children.
 
Los Angeles, September 16, 2014
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2014).

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"A Sound in the Night" (on Jersey Boys and Bob Crewe)

a sound in the night
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (screenplay, based on their musical), Clint Eastwood (director)Jersey Boys / 2014

 
Manola Dargis of The New York Times—a critic with whom I often find myself in agreement—describes Clint Eastwood’s newest flick as “a strange movie,” which, apparently, she perceives as a positive quality, since she follows that statement up with suggesting it’s a reason “to see it [the movie].” I also have to presume that she sees the quality of “strangeness” as having something to do with the director’s vision, not with the film’s focus on three New Jersey street boys and one college educated (also Jersey born and bred) composers’ relationships as members of the renowned singing group the late 1950s and 1960s, The Four Seasons.

      Although I’ve thought long and hard about this likeable but not terribly profound film over the last couple of days since I saw the movie in Los Angeles, I still cannot for the life of me perceive how Eastwood’s rather old-fashioned telling of the rags to riches tale is “strange.”

     Retaining the hook of the original stage musical, in which each of the four members of the chorus share in the telling of how the group came together and what tore them apart, the director seems hell-bent on creating a biopic about musical creators similar to the dozens of such films throughout Hollywood history—the kind of slightly torrid, but mostly sanitized story that Michael Curtiz shot about Cole Porter (Night and Day, 1946) and Norman Taurog directed  about the career of lyricist Lorenz Hart (Words and Music, 1948)—both of which ignored their characters’ homosexuality—Michael Curtiz’s version of the life of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (Young Man with a Horn) or Jerry Jameson’s film on country-western singer Tammy Wynette (Stand by Your Man)— to name some at random.

http://news.softpedia.com/images/news2/First-Trailer-for-Clint-Eastwood-s-Jersey-Boys-Is-Here-438515-2.jpg     

     Like almost all such works of this genre, Eastwood and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice chose to slow down the pace of what was basically a review on stage into a slower moving story about the lighter and, more importantly, the darker sides of these performers’ lives. In all such films, the first objective is to simply lay out all the difficulties the musicians faced in achieving their dreams—here played out within a culture in which there are few choices available in order to get out: the mob, imprisonment, or becoming a celebrity. Singer/bad-boy Danny DeVito (Vincent Piazza) claims they hit two out of three, but, in fact, DeVito himself is imprisoned, the group has a mob friend in Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), and they do become a radically successful act—suggesting, in their perverse New Jersey code, they have unfortunately hit the jackpot! So that his audience can still identify with these figures, Eastwood and his writers downplay the jail sentences and mob connections, focusing as much as possible on the groups’ on-stage harmonies. Yet, like most works of this genre, we quickly perceive that off-stage, at least, three of these four figures fail in their personal lives.

      Dargis winces at the film’s depictions of the bedroom battles between the film’s central figure, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), and his wife, Mary (Renée Marino), but I’d argue that their offstage encounters—which stand in for all the characters’ marital problems—are no more or less stereotypical or badly told than these figures’ relationships with their parents and the Italian community into which they were born, all which Eastwood flashes out to his audience in the form of ridiculous framed tableaus of pictures of Frank Sinatra beside the Pope and through quick glimpses of domestic delights such as spaghetti with tomato gravy, and mutterings in Italian 101. A serious robbery of a neighborhood shop’s safe alternates with a comic spoof in which the get-away-car, whose front end faces the stars is counterbalanced by the heavy safe stuffed into its trunk. Even murder, a serious concern of the nervous mothers of Valli’s neighborhood, is played out as a sham. Valli is so beloved of mobster DeCarlo that he even offers the up-and-coming hairdresser the chance to shave him.

 http://cdn1.therepublic.com/smedia/8/d/8d5b1fd1fff74b8faec8ec9efafc31dc/inline_142047125294.jpg    

     The fact that despite all of these comically mock-shaves with lawlessness and death that Valli grows up to be a basically nice boy is a miracle which the film does not even attempt to explain. Perhaps he simply is, as several of the film’s admirers of his voice proclaim, a kind of angel.

     On the other hand, although we might react to the complaints expressed and loneliness felt by Valli’s wife as somewhat trivial, we cannot help but shed tears—even if novice film actor Piazza has some difficultly in convincingly bringing them into his own eyes—for the effects his absence and his wife’s drunkenness have upon their daughter, Francine, who even after Valli has attempted to parent more successfully, commits suicide.

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSq0rW9aaMgmtFX3Gs_7Eb5a7zKA6jhQGZ2cUThP72h0XmdYeci

     And then there is DeVito, the fast talking huckster, who, at the center of the film, is revealed as a far more pernicious force in his robbery of $500,000 from the group and in ability to pay back a large sum to the syndicate which has loaned the money to him. His behavior is not only dark, but destroys the Four Seasons, and, through Valli’s determination to keep the code of silence (omeria) by paying off DeVito’s debts, forces the lead singer to spend years of his life grasping for any gig he might get.

      Indeed, when you add these “dark” elements to the more elusive betrayals of “the group” by both Valli and the composer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen)—who handshake an agreement that excludes the other two singers—and by producer and lyricist Bob Crewe—who, through a contractual sidebar, forces the singers to backup other acts for two years before they can cut their own demo, and even then, demands that they pay for the recordings—the perceptive viewer may begin to see the film as more dark than light. Finally, we begin to realize that all those previously comic scenes were perhaps not so funny after all.

       Of course, it’s the music, the performers’ joyous release of their creativity, that generally clears away the cobwebs and makes all the difficult times appear to be worth the suffering. Eastwood explores these avenues in at least two directions, the first a rather odd one. In the character of Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle)—an important character almost gone missing in the stage musical—the writers have created a slightly over-the-top gay man, who is so constitutionally different from three of the former “Four Lovers,” that he almost wipes away any frown they might display within the spotlessly white rooms of his swankly ostentatious bachelor boy digs. Mes enfants, he sputters as he introduces the uncomfortable Frankie, Nick, https://static-secure.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/audio/video/2014/4/18/1397813944361/Still-from-Clint-Eastwood-012.jpgand Tommy to his haute couture dressed guests. With the patience of a snippy queen he explains the meaning of a new song the group is about to perform, “Walk Like a Man.” And with the mad hatter patter of an enthused wedding planner he plots their publicity voyage for a song (“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Crewe’s secretly gay anthem) that, disliked by the studio head, forces them to go around him. Indeed whenever Crewe enters the film, he seems to wipe all the tears away, lightening the film up in the way such entertainment necessarily must end. The only other figure of the film that can almost match him is singer-composer Gaudio, with whom Crewe wrote most the group’s dozens of hits. From the moment Crewe spots him in the old Brill Building of New York City, his eyes nearly pop out with sexual delight, while the straight object of his admiration quips that none of them had actually seen someone who behaved in real life like Liberace did on television.

     Of course, this too is all stereotyping. In real life, Crewe, whom Howard and I knew fairly well, was nothing at all like the “puff” Doyle portrays—although Doyle does look something like the young Crewe. But you have to give it to Eastwood in these scenes for finding another way to balance the darkness his subjects project.

     Obviously, in all such works, it’s the music and lyrics that matter most, for without them there could no film in the first place. Certainly, the successful Broadway show realized that in putting The Four Seasons’ songs front and center.

      If there is anything “strange” about Eastwood’s film, however, it’s the way the music functions—and ultimately fails—in this work. Growing up with these songs, I can say that most of them sound almost like anthems to my own youth, and mostly Eastwood—himself a lover of music—gives these ditties a chance to shine. From the early hits, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Workin’ My Way Back to You” (a non-Gaudio/Crewe song) “Walk Like a Man,” and “Rag Doll,” to the later works “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Bye Bye Baby” and “My Eyes Adored You,” the movie allows the Jersey Boys to sing out in a joyous rapture—led by Young’s convincing falsetto imitation of Valli—that almost transports us back into another time and place—with Eastwood seeming able to transform his biopic into a musical after all!

http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/9a46f525f106940864dfbea05e9fcbcfd6b37c57/c=0-1505-1454-3429&r=537&c=0-0-534-712/local/-/media/Phoenix/Phoenix/2014/06/18/1403129689000-JerseyBoys.jpg      Eastwood, who reports that he saw the Broadway show on which he based his film in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and New York, clearly loves The Four Seasons and their sound, claiming in a recent Los Angeles Times article that he believes the Jersey singing group “has endured more than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.”

      If there is anything “strange” about Eastwood’s film, finally, it is that despite his love for this music, despite my own and possibly every other member of the cinema audience’s pleasure in hearing these toe-tapping bundles of nostalgia, the songs can’t really redeem the ultimate emptiness of the performers’ lives—or justify, as Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) eventually screams out, as he prepares to leave the group, all those meaningless hotel room nights. The music is great fun, but two times through “Sherry” is more than enough. The charming Gaudio-Crewe baubles are not, as anyone who truly loves music must admit, as profound as the greatest of The Beatles’ or Rolling Stones’ masterworks. A sweet “rag doll” is just not significant as “satisfaction.” In short, the songs of The Four Seasons,” even if they have endured, simply do not hold up to loss of love and fulfillment each of these figures faced in real life, or, at least, what the film represents as their “real” lives. Even as the fab-four wind up belting out their melodies at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the director interrupts it, as if even he recognized the song need not be repeated, for a voice-over final statement from composer Bob Gaudio—a man now living in Nashville.

     A few moments earlier Valli, asked by a reporter what moment of his career meant the most to him, responded “Four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us, the first time we made that sound—our sound.” Clearly, Valli has never left his hometown in New Jersey, where he stands forever on the street, conjuring up not a life but a “sound.” 

     We never see that moment within the structure of the film, so in terms of the plot, it does not truly exist except as a kind of imaginative speculation of a possibility never transcended. And that is perhaps the darkest statement (about an event enacted only in shadow) of a film, in retrospect, that seems to be screened mostly in black.

Los Angeles, June 22, 2014

Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (July 2014).

Less than five months after writing the above and most of the note below, I read that Bob Crewe died on September 11 at the age of 83. I have interpolated what I had previously written with additional material that appeared in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times obituaries of September 13, 2014.

 

http://www.historyofrecording.com/images/27900031.jpgMy companion, Howard Fox, and I met Bob Crewe through his interest in art and through his participation in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Modern and Contemporary Council. Early on, after moving to Los Angeles, Howard and I were invited to a party in his house, a kind of local celebration—if I remember correctly—for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1985. Several music celebrities were in attendance.

     Besides the numerous songs for which he wrote the lyrics for the Four Seasons, mentioned above, Crewe wrote lyrics for “Silhouettes,” (popularized by Herman’s Hermits), “My Eyes Adored You,” “Sock It to Me, Baby,” (for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels) “Walking My Cat Named Dog,” (Norma Tenega) and many more.

    Although many of his lyrics were simple in their popular upbeat and repetitive refrains, some were more sanguine, such as “The Sun Ain’t Gonny Shine (Anymore),” recorded first by The Four Seasons, but made popular by the Walker Brothers:

 
                             Loneliness is the coat you wear,
                            A deep shade of blue is always there,
                            The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore.
                            The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky
                            The tears are always clouding your eyes
                            When you’re without love.

 
Bob wrote songs for Lesley Gore, Andy Williams, and The Tremoloes, as well as writing the lyrics for the music of the campy 1968 film, Barbarella, with pieces such as “Barbarella” and “Drag Me Down” performed by The Glitterhouse.

      Bob was also an artist, and Howard interviewed him in conjunction with one of his shows, during which the two discussed not only Crewe’s artistic images but his personal life, including his then 20 years of sobriety after years of alcoholism. Although I did not know Bob well, he always treated me with an enthusiastic sense of friendship. What struck me was the intelligence and, often, the wittiness of his observations.

     Crewe never appeared, to us, as the slightly effeminate man as he is portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s movie; but the late 1950 and 1960s represented a far different time for gays, when many otherwise normal sounding gay men behaved in a camp manner that exaggerated the roles others had imagined for them; back then, perhaps Bob did simply act differently. Upon his death, his brother noted, moreover, that Bob was discreet about his sexuality in many of his social circles, and some of his promotional material for Dynovoice Records spoke of women fawning over his handsomeness.  

https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-SuQi60HrO_M/U901NPHyNFI/AAAAAAAAd-0/F-TW8VmviPY/s720/doug%25208-2-14%2520%2528135%2529.jpg     At the celebration for his long career as a lyricist, I recall that we congratulated him upon the recent use of his song “Lady Marmalade” (“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir”) in the film, Moulin Rouge in 2001, praise which enthusiastically embraced. Later, according to reports, Crewe was delighted by the attention to his work brought about by the stage production and movie of Jersey Boys.

      Over the following decade, we saw Bob less often. We had heard that he had suffered some illness—apparently beginning with a fall in his home—that left him with some dementia. In preparation for the piece above, I read Bob’s on-line biography, discovering that he had since moved to Scarborough, Maine, close to his brother and his family, where he lived in a nursing home. Having previously created The Bob Crewe Foundation in 2009 to support AIDS research and gay rights, he also donated three million dollars to the Maine College of Art.

 

Los Angeles, June 23, 2014 / September 13, 2014