Highclere Castle  By Richard Munckton from Windsor, Melbourne, Australia - Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17687993

Highclere Castle

By Richard Munckton from Windsor, Melbourne, Australia - Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17687993

downton abbey

This is an old musing on the early seasons of Downton Abbey when the show was just starting to be the phenomenon it became. It’s a placeholder to whet your appetite until I can get to the cineplex to watch the long-awaited film - stay tuned for the review.

It's taken me several weeks to come to terms with why I'm addicted to the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey, since it's basically a soap opera. The Matthew-Mary courtship made the front page of TV Guide (remember this is PBS) and the Abbey held its own against the Superbowl, rating second in the same time slot. So I'm not the only one watching. I've settled on the following explanation - Downton is about honor (or we should say honour). The hidden key to the series is Mr. Bates - his name is John, but in the world of Downton first names don't exist except for the lowest servants - the chambermaids and footmen. Bates is the first person we see in season one, episode one, and the carrier of a secret he is very tight-lipped about, even at his own peril. He is a man for whom honor must be preserved even at the cost of appearing completely dishonorable. At the verge of the end of season two, we find him about to face trial for the murder of his wretched wife, who was poisoned. Meanwhile he's married the honorable chambermaid Anna (she has no last name until the wedding vows themselves), but only at her insistence [this post was written at the end of season two - yes, a long time ago].

The Family, that is to say the Crawleys by name and the Granthams by title, are headed by the mostly honorable Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and his American wife Lady Cora. The ever useful Bill Bryson informs us that precisely 500 of these marriages of American money and English title occured at the turn of the century, one example of the series' historical accuracy. The couple has no son, but rather three daughters whose sibling rivalry is of Freudian and mythological proportions. When the original heir to Lord Grantham dies on the Titanic, his third cousin (once removed) enters the picture - the aforementioned Matthew Crawley, and the cat and mouse with the eldest daughter Mary ensues. A review in the New York Review of Books noted the biographical parallel - series writer Julian Fellowes is a stunted heir to an Earlship himself, and holds a lesser title. This obviously adds to the authenticity of the portrayal of class relations and tensions.

The series is also about class, and changes in the British class structure in the early 20th century. Like the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs, and Gosford Park (written by the same Julian Fellowes), Downton views the house from the servants' perspective as much as from the masters'. The working class characters continually read the writing on the wall that portends a flattening of English class. In one scene, a stifled charlatan rails on Lord Grantham that one day his type will have to answer for their arrogance. The Earl replies that "luckily ... that day has not yet come." Maggie Smith, who play the Earl's mother, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, gets the best lines. When the Abbey is turned into a convalescent home, she asks "is it conducive to rest and relaxation, all this mixing of classes, setting everyone on edge?" In one unbelievable moment, in her early encounters with the middle class lawyer-turned heir Matthew, she asks "what is a weekend?" Actually the term is relatively new, or at least was at the time.

I like to think it is these two things - honor and class - that draw so many to Downton on Sunday nights. It's not the opulence of the place, at least not that alone. Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed had a similar family and a similar history - it was turned into a hospital during WWI, but it is no grander than any of the mansions featured on the innumerable shows about the lifestyle of the rich. Their clothes are another matter - the mysterious Mr. Bates is the Earl's valet, an occupation the middle-class Matthew calls "silly ... for a grown man." But the result is immaculate. Still, being early 20th century, the clothing is subdued by todays standards. No, it's virtue and social class that bring us back week after week, and Fellowes' penchant for throwing obstacles in his characters' way - the soap opera aspect. As he stated, "you can't just show them sitting around eating cucumber sandwiches."

After the Deluge: Jackson browne, folk intellectual “for everyman”

In 2018, I attended the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne’s performance in Honolulu. Browne is widely recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of the 1970s, if not the twentieth century. Of Browne’s 2005 album Solo Acoustic vol. 1, the music critic Thom Jurek wrote: “the music here speaks for itself. [Browne’s] gift as a songwriter is enigmatic, unassailable and singular.” His impact can perhaps best be seen in the 2014 album Looking Into You, a tribute album to Browne, on which luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt, and popular artists like Ben Harper, Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin all perform Browne’s songs, composed over a 40-year career. But it is the lesser-known artists like Bob Schneider, who does a poignant, slowed down version of Running on Empty, and Venice’s version of ʻFor a Dancer,’ and their thoughts on his music, captured in the liner notes, that show his deep effect on three generations of musicians.

Browne grew up in the Abbey San Jacinto, a Stone church-like building built by his grandfather. Music was played in this house as he grew up …The lyric “As I chose to be gone from the house of my father” from ʻA Child in these Hills,’ refers to this house. Jackson Browne was an emancipated Youth, leaving home at 16, and it often figures, nostalgically, into the creation of his own mythical backstory.

Browne fell in with the folk- and country-rock “Troubador” scene in LA. The folk singer Karla Bonoff said of this period:

I first started hanging around The Troubadour Club in Hollywood when I was around 17. At that time Jackson was playing [there] regularly. I have a vivid memory of standing in the balcony and hearing him play ʻMy Opening Farewell’ for the first time. It was so inspiring to me and such a pivotal moment in my life where I can clearly remember knowing that I would dedicate my life to being a songwriter, and hopefully write something as brilliant.

With her song ʻFalling Star’ Bonoff nearly did, and showed Browne’s influence on this generation of songwriters. As Browne put it, that was a time when the songwriter mattered, when the song mattered. 

 Browne fell in with what became The Eagles, living in a basement below them. Glen Frey said that Browne would work on a verse and then play it thirty times – it could be heard through their floor. This incessant practice may be what allows him to inhabit his songs like no one else can. What is surprising about Looking into You is how few of the songs sound better than Browne’s own version, especially when he has noted that he had no particular vocal talent in the beginning.

One can't help wondering what kind of music would have been created if Browne had simply joined The Eagles (who at one point sold a million albums a month for 18 consecutive months), but the fact is that Browne made it first. His self-titled album, which is often mistakenly called “Saturate Before Using,” appeared in 1972. He did famously co-write ʻTake It Easy,’ and plays it on his 1973 album For Everyman. On his Solo Acoustic album he jokes, with undertones of bitterness, that he's sometimes asked in concerts to play ʻPeaceful Easy Feeling.’

The Eagles Hawaiʻi connection is in the song ʻThe Last Resort.’ Being from Maui I would be thrilled to hear them singing about how missionaries "sailed to Lahaina," and how they "even brought a neon sign/said ʻJesus is Coming'" (it actually says "Jesus Coming Soon"). Jackson Browne's Hawaiʻi connection is more subtle. He partnered with Jack Johnson on the Kokua Festival.

The music critic Thom Jurek wrote that, of the iconic “Troubadour” singer-songwriters of that period – James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne – it was  Browne, of the three, who captured the spirit of their generation best. The singer Eliza Gilkyson, who sings ʻBefore the Deluge’ on Looking into You, said:

I don’t think anyone has ever told the story of our generation – our ideals, illusions and spectacular fall from grace – better than Jackson does in ʻBefore the Deluge.’ It is forgiving and tender, sad and hopeful, and ultimately prophetic as we now face the very future he predicted when he wrote it in 1974. I wish he had gotten in wrong.

No doubt Browne wishes he was wrong too. In just a few lines Browne sums up the boomer “sell out” of their wild dreams to the mandates of the capitalist system they despised, and he did so as it was happening:

And on the brave and crazy wings of youth

They went flying around in the rain

And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered

And in the end they traded their tired wings

For the resignation that living brings

And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow

For the glitter and the rouge

And in a moment they were swept before the deluge

I first knew of Browne in the 1980s, thanks to the few hits on the Lawyers in Love album, which got some play on radio and MTV. But it wasn't until 1993 (I was near the end of college) that I came to the deep appreciation for him that came to boarder on reverence.

I bought his new album, and when I told a friend, he said “Jackson Browne? I thought he was dead.” I responded “No, the album’s called ʻI'm Alive’!” The 90s marked a renaissance for Browne, a time when his music could again be appreciated as it was, rather than through his awkward adaptation to 80s hubris. This was thanks to shows like MTV’s Unplugged and the commercial success of folkies Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls (who, incidentally, do a heartbreakingly disappointing version of what is perhaps Browne's best song of all, ʻFountain of Sorrow,’ on Looking into You).

His next album, 1996’s Looking East, has perhaps his best song post-heyday, Barricades of Heaven, which again eulogizes his emancipated youth: “Running down the towns along the shore/ I was 16 and on my own/ I couldnʻt tell you what the hell those brakes were for/ I was just trying to hear my song.”

Some, like the psychologist Wayne Dyer, felt that Browne had captured not just the spirit of a generation, but “the thing itself:”

Just do the steps that you've been shown

By everyone you've ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own

No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown

In the end there is one dance you'll do alone


Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive but you'll never know

Jackson Browne was inducted into the Rock ʻn Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. Bruce Springsteen introduced him. Browne performed April 6th, 2018 at the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu.




how to listen to jazz

We didn’t really understand what we were listening to,

 but we could tell that it had its advantages.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility

When I listen to some of today’s avant-garde jazz - the “ECM sound” of Keith Jarrett or Esbjorn Svenson Trio - I can find little in common with the original masters like Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday. So how does one even define the musical form called jazz? One documentary put it simply: “It swings.” But as jazz critic Ted Gioia notes in his book How to Listen to Jazz:

How do you pinpoint the epicenter of the elusive quality known as swing, praised so lavishly by fans but so resistant to explication or measurement? How do you grasp the structure of an idiom in which so much seems spontaneous, made up on the spot … yet is obviously driven by rock-solid ground rules and shaped by revered traditions?

Jazz went high brow long ago and has been, in a way, a victim of this inaccessibility. So while Wynton Marsalis won the Pulitzer Prize for “Blood on the Fields,” jazz has sunk to the least popular musical form in America (behind even classical, at least as measured by downloads).

As I write this, I’m listening to the “lost album” of John Coltrane, released only in 2018, “In Both Directions at Once.” The producers are not actually sure that this was meant to be an album. It is the right length: about 45 minutes, but like most good jazz it is all riffs. It may have been a jam session that happened to be recorded. But what is the difference in jazz between a jam session and an album? In jazz, as Ken Burns (not a musician, much less a jazz aficionado) came to understand when making his film on jazz, all is improvisation:

The genius of our country is improvisation, and jazz reflects that. It's our [America’s] great contribution to the arts.

I’m a musician myself, so I know enough about music to know, basically, what will probably happen next in a piece of music. Not always, but usually. (With country music, always). When it comes to jazz, however, I almost never know what will happen next. It is this very unpredictability that makes the genre so compelling. As Chet Atkins said, “once you become predictable, no one's interested anymore.”

Jazz also creates a mood like nearly no other type of music. Classical music is also effective at this, but when I say mood it is a distinctly urban mood that no other musical form can duplicate. It is a downtown mood only later transposed to uptown. As Langston Hughes put it:

Jazz, to me, is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul - the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. 

A little-appreciated fact, in my view is that jazz musicians, those worth their salt, are nearly all virtuosos. The pianist Robert Glasper notes: 

I always tell people that, just to be a bad jazz musician, you have to be better than most musicians. The worst jazz musicians are normally better than most musicians, because you have to know so much. 

Because they are so virtuosic, jazz musicians have the ability and the propensity to carry a musical line very far from its original theme. Trying to listen while continuing to hear the theme underneath is one of the tricks of listening to jazz. If you didn’t identify the theme to begin with, you’re lost. As my daughter says when I play avant-garde Coltrane “It’s just random notes!” Getting people in this attention-starved public sphere to listen long enough to hear the underlying structure is the challenge in raising the profile of America’s great musical art form. So great, it fact, that Nina Simone didn’t call it jazz at all. To her it was “black classical music.”

if beale street could talk

In 2017 I co-wrote the screenplay for a movie filmed in Hawaii called The Islands, which starred Mira Sorvino. On set I spoke with her and she told me that all the work now was in TV and Indies - the big studios are only making animation and superhero movies. So it is rare that a director has success with a film like Moonlight which stole the show at that year’s Oscars.

So the follow-up to possibly the greatest upset in Oscar history is a big deal, and director Barry Jenkins chose to follow up Moonlight with an adaptation of novelist James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The film has a slow but deliberate pace, like the era - the book was published in 1974. This is a welcome change from the sense one gets from contemporary action films (which is what Hollywood mainly puts out now) of being punched in the face for two hours straight. Instead, Beale Street builds in suspense slowly, like an old Shaylaman film without the kitch.

Beale Street is the story of a young mother (not bride, which matters to some and not others) and her relationship with childhood friend-turned lover, “Fonny” to the familiar. Fonny is framed in the horrific rape of a Puerto Rican woman and he ends up in a kind of purgatory. But not exactly the kind of purgatory with which Baldwin’s book ends.

The blogger and writer Rhone Fraser critiques the choice to alter the ending (spoiler alert):

Let me begin by saying that Barry Jenkins’s film If Beale Street Could Talk must be seen. It must be supported because it deals with the effect of the mass incarceration industry on the Black family in the United States. The novel is structured in real time, in the year it was published, which was in 1974.

It is narrated by “nineteen year old” Tish Rivers. However, the film distorts two things in the novel. One, the relationship between Frank Hunt and his son Alonzo Hunt, known in the film as Fonny. Two, the fact that although Fonny was incarcerated, he never took the plea offered by the state to supposedly get a shorter sentence. The narrator Tish tells us, in Baldwin’s words about Fonny:

“He swiftly understood that he was between the carrot and the stick but he had to make it clear, finally, that he’d be damned if he’d go for the carrot” (127).

However, in his screenplay, Jenkins writes:  “and so…like many of these poor men, Fonny took the plea” (103).

Those involved in the film, constantly asked about the film’s ambiguous ending in which the length of Fonny’s sentence is not revealed, replied that “it doesn’t matter.” The fact that he is in prison for any length of time for a crime he didn’t commit is sentence enough. With #Black Lives Matter reminding us that, if anything, this problem may be worse than ever, Jenkins’s retelling and emendation of Baldwin’s tale is as relevant as ever, both as art and political commentary.