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Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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In Which It Is Neither The Plane Nor The Pilot

Red Sails 


He went from being cocaine-ravaged thin, with this totally gaunt, pallid face, to this new healthy look blond hair, tanned looking, very exuberant.

Simon Reynolds

Before 1979, David Bowie had spent over a decade without successfully making it onto an airplane. Once he limped out to a jet, he would hyperventilate as soon as the white walls seemed to turn inward. To travel from England to America he would go by boat; crossing the United States was a matter of planning his concerts days apart so he could cover the distance by train or bus.

He told an interviewer later, "I finally said, sod it, I'm gonna lick this. 'Cause it's stupid, not being able to get anywhere. And so, it worked. It really worked. I've been flying ever since that flight. The fear has come back two or three times on this tour. I don't know why. I've got a great plane, great pilot. I know it's more dangerous to drive a car, but it's still something."

on his private jet with Shelley Duvall leaving Phoenix

It would be known as the Serious Moonlight tour. His personal plane Jet 24 allowed Bowie to perform in markets that had not experienced him since long before his last tour in 1978. The 1983 tour included a big ticket appearance at the second and last US Festival in San Bernardino on Memorial Day weekend. Apple founder Steve Wozniak pushed for Bowie on the recommendation of Ray Bradbury. An abiding hatred for the Los Angeles area meant Bowie had to be enticed with vast sums (a then unheard of $1 million), but it enabled his team to book the tour right through Asia.

In the early 1980s, David Bowie was experiencing his first backlash. A new look and new attitude confused longtime fans, as Bowie seemed to be going straight, discarding part of his gay identity. His last record deal had paid him an obscene amount of money and industry observers viewed it as a risky gamble. It totalled $17 million for Bowie, but demanded he become an iconic global draw.

Artistically, his exaggerated style had been appropriated by his imitators, and he was searching for something else to be. His inspirations were entirely bourgeois:

I thought, well, it would be fun to dress everybody up in some kind of costume. I thought it might be nice to make it look a bit like Singapore in Fifties. I had seen a musical called Zoot Suit, and I was very impressed by the clothes the actors wore. Then I went to see La Bohème at the Met. And I was equally impressed by those clothes. And, lo and behold, it was the same guy who designed them both: Peter Hall

So I tracked him down and he got very excited about the idea, because he'd never worked in the rock area. I said, can you just come and look at my band and see what characterizations you imagine and draw me up something? So he designed everyone's clothes. He saw Carlos as the Gandhi type, or actually more of a prince. His original drawings were brilliant. He chose all the materials and came to see how everything would look under our lighting.

For Bowie, the artistic experience oriented around an unstoppable present. The past was useful to him purely as a proxy stage, an intellectual assemblage whose sole purpose was to be incipient of a future moment. To prepare his producer Niles Rodgers before the production of 1983's Last Dance, he played him his vinyl current stuff, moments or movements he admired in the abstract. Rodgers stole the "ah-ah-ah-ah" riff from "Twist and Shout" for the beginning of "Let's Dance" after David played a version on a six-string guitar and they were off.

Backstage and in his hotel room, life was a matter of avoiding a neverending stream of well-wishers, fans complaining about their lack of access and other celebrities wishing to bask in his glow. He said of the tour:

I must have read more than I've ever read in my life. I've got a half suitcase full of books, most of them collected en route. I'll go down to the foyer in the hotel, you know, and buy a book, those paperbacks and stuff. I'm not even trying for good material. The latest one shows what frame of mind I'm in. The one I'm reading at the moment is about how the end of the world will come and you will die. It's a straightforward account of what destruction is like with a megaton bomb. It's frightening. My God, this thing is more than unsettling...

Before I got the hang of touring, I took along four library trunks full of books. At least 400 books. All the books I owned. I didn't have a house then. I drove Eric crazy. He had to haul all those books around.

He recalls his time in Singapore:

When I move into my suite at the Ming Court Hotel, the little Malay porter indicates the three-tone carpet, the ten-channel T.V. He is bursting with pride about the bathrooms but is visually awed by the three hundred square feet of personal freedom. He paces the room from wall to wall. "So much space," he sighs.

The Singapore authorities are not friendly toward rock & roll. Two of my songs, "China Girl" and "Modern Love", were banned from radio play. "Restricted," as they say. Our wonderful and fearless promoter, Dr. Goh Pohseng, risked his livelihood, bank balance, and even his freedom to get me and my band into his country. When the authorities heard I was going to do an impromptu guest appearance at his youth club two days before our major gig, they busted it, banned the resident band for indecent performance, and threatened Dr. Pohseng with imprisonment if a guest of a club (me) should get up on stage and sing.

Every show ended with "Modern Love" except that one.

lunch in Singapore

Dr. Pohseng also faced incredible local resistance in getting the staging and lights together. When he asked for three yards of cable, local suppliers knowing it was for rock & roll - would only sell him a 100-yard drum. No one would lease him timber for the stage, so he ended up buying an architect-designed permanent structure at ten times the cost. And so it went, over, and over.

The lights were flown in from all over Malaysia. Many arrived broken, and those intact not much more powerful than a bedroom lamp. But, good lord, he tried...

Is there a single way in which the world of 1983 was different from ours today?

His performance did not go much better than what preceded it.

I rip through a welcome and an introduction to the band in Chinese. It is received with dutiful sympathy by the crowd as my pronunciation is so dreadful that not one word is understood. The audience end of the ramp is so far away from the band that I singing half a beat behind them. I look back and see a tiny, jumping Carlos Alomar leading a badly lit rock'n'roll group. I peer out and see paramilitary cops at the ratio of about one to two with the first row. They finger their billy clubs, their hands on their guns.

My jacket style is designer Tokyo skyscrapers and diamante searchlights. There is so much lacquer in my hair that a hurricane couldn't move it. My shirt is held into my pants by elastic thongs round my legs. I have two pairs of socks on because of oversized shoes. I am imploring the crowd, "put on your red shoes" ... there is a scream of recognition 15,000 strong. A tiger-print-clad girl is slapped back over the security boundary by a ferocious swing of a billy club.

In a city where you can be arrested for chewing gum, a demand to put on red shoes is deemed unhealthy.

Above all, Bowie was aware of his own powers. He read every one of his own reviews or profiles he could find. He knew what a glimpse of him meant to so many; he dismissed the crassness of paparazzi, the outrageous demands of fans, the requisite attention from paramilitary platoons as part of the price. Still, he appears incredibly lonely, not just in the isolated poses captured by tour photographer Denis O'Regan, but even among friends.

from left: Bette Midler, David, Michael Jackson, Kim Wilde, Cher

O'Regan pioneered the use of autofocus at the tail end of the 1980s, and he was one of the first major photographers to turn digital when that became possible. He would tour with Bowie twice more, in 1987 and 1990, but it is his snaps of the Serious Moonlight tour that capture David in an affected but vulnerable way that is most unusual. Unlike most celebrity photographers, whose images vacillate between either envy or devotion, O'Regan recognizes a place apart from his subject, while invading Bowie's sphere whenever he can. Only his legendary portraits of Freddie Mercury rival the images of this 1983 tour for sheer magic.

He is no less an alien helping a car back into a parking space than in a white linen jacket, his arms circling Bette Midler, posing towards something time forgot. He is engaged with the world the way that a doctor examines a troubled patient.

This Bowie oscillates between anachronous circumstances. A decade earlier, his addiction to cocaine reached its apex when John Lennon was shocked by the amount of the substance Bowie had on hand, remarking to his girlfriend that "I've never seen such mounds of the stuff!" Although he'd try a line of the local blow if everybody else was having some, drugs had ceased to be a major part of his life. One night in London he sampled several women, but for the most part a scandolous lifestyle was beneath him.

parking in Los Angeles

Bowie described the eastern end of the tour as a "carrot," with himself as the rabbit. His voice was at its peak in the early legs. Geeling Ng, an actress who had played the titular role in Bowie's video for "China Girl", joined the tour in France and Germany as Bowie's partner, but left two weeks later, having figured out Bowie only desired something fleeting. 

a Chinese fan

Spending time in close proximity to his son Duncan, who at the time preferred to be called Joey, refreshed his perspective. He told Susan Sarandon,

When you're young and you're determined to crack the big dream of 'I have a statement and the world needs to hear my statement,' there's something a bit irresponsible about your attitude towards the future. A nonrecognition that the future exists. I think it's important for youth to have that. My son keeps me remembering that there is a tomorrow. That never really occurred to me before. 'Tomorrow'? This is it. This is now. This is what's important.

with Grace Jones

His intriguing but slightly vacant ideas represented a native intelligence apprehensive about what would constitute his own future. His first marriage had not suited him at all, but life as a single man was no more in accordance with his metier. To be so disaffected and at the same time artistically engaged absorbed a tremendous amount of Bowie's mental energy. Only a person of astonishing mental reserves could survive.

In one of O'Regan's most striking photographs, Bowie emerges from flooded waters like a newly baptized babe. A mother and her child, signifying the fractured relationship Bowie shared with his mother and his ex-wife Angela, pose in an embrace. How often, we realize with a start, Bowie must find someone in this exact condition, having waited hours or even days for his arrival. Striding towards the two females, the emotional anguish of living up to other people's expectations looms large. How could he feel, watching their heads emerge above the waterline like skulls atop a marble pyre?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Midge Decter and Gloria Steinem.

Photographs by Denis O'Regan.

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"Under Pressure" - David Bowie (mp3)

"Criminal World" - David Bowie (mp3)

"Cat People" - David Bowie (mp3)

"Ricochet" - David Bowie (mp3)

fans waiting at the Budokan

"Oh! You Pretty Things" - Au Revoir Simone (mp3)

"Sound & Vision" - Matthew Dear (mp3)

"Golden Years" - Susumu Yokota (mp3)

"Life On Mars?" - The Thing (mp3)


In Which These Young People Are More Than Usually Self-Regarding

The Feminist Who Wasn't


Liberal Parents, Radical Children
by Midge Decter
248 pp, 1975

I remember the first time I saw Midge Decter. It was on C-Span. Midge was promoting her memoir An Old Wife's Tale: My Seven Decades In Love And War about her upbringing, her life in the New York publishing world, her marriage to Norman Podhoretz and her struggle against the forces of communism. Booknotes host Brian Lamb mentioned that she had just been in Chicago, and this cast fell over her face. "Chicago," she intoned with a throaty brill, "is a greeeeeeeeeat American citay." The feeling of hearing something trite made unfamiliar and interesting by context first occurred when God laid out the Ten Commandments; it was later repeated by David Ben-Gurion, and here, by Midge Decter herself.

My local library contained only one of Decter's books. Last year was its 35th anniversary. Midge introduces Liberal Parents, Radical Children with the following explanation:

I will be presenting you here with a series of portraits of significant types among you, as seen under the aspect of certain of the patterns of conduct by which you have distinguished yourselves as a generation: dropping out of school, using drugs, sleeping around, creating and defecting from a communal way of life. These portraits are not of real or particular individuals though the experiences ascribed to their heroes and heroines are, as I believe, real experiences.... If such a question is at all of importance to you, it might be said that what I have undertaken to do is an essay in fictionalized sociology.

You might be asking yourself, "Midge, what exactly is fictionalized sociology?" How dare you. You disagree with this woman at your own peril.

After outlining the general problems with keedz in those days, Midge gets into it immediately. What exactly is wrong with young people in 1975 you ask?

The first thing to be observed about you, then, is that taken all together, you are most than usually incapable of facing, tolerating, or withstanding difficulty of any kind.

Wait, there's more.

The second thing to be observed about you is that, you are, again taken as a whole, more than usually self-regarding.

Starting to hit a little too close to home there, Midge. Lastly:

The third thing to be observed about you it is really in some sense a concomitant of the first two is that you are more than usually depending, more than usually lacking in the capacity to stand your ground without reference, whether positive or negative, to your parents.

These epithets against an entire generation of people feel like shots against the bow of today's young ones, which makes sense because here were Midge's criticisms of their laissez-faire parents. There is some carping against young people that is nothing more than static noise; some dumbass scholar always pining, "They don't love books the way we do!" No, guy, they read twice as much as you ever did. You didn't read the internet. They've read the internet, the whole thing. Since when does reading only count if it's in the thrall of a deceased tree?

Midge Decter may well have stood for recycled paper in 1950, I regret that I haven't had the chance to ask her. Then known as Midge Rosenthal, she was herself the first of a generation.

Fleeing St. Paul, Minnesota for the possibilities of New York, Midge was an unskilled college dropout, and soon a young mother who divorced her first husband, a veteran attending schoool on the G.I. Bill. Living in the lower class neighborhood of Glen Oaks, Queens, she improbably provided for her two daughters through her jobs in journalism. She worked at then-liberal journal Commentary until she moved to Harper's, where she eventually became the executive editor under the magazine's young editor-in-chief, Willie Morris, and the magazine became hot for the first time.

Willie Morris

Inspired by a story she heard about a daughter who had run away from her family to become a Buddhist, she wrote Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her first long form book. Each chapter contains one life story childhood, adolescence, early adulthood — of an archetype described by Midge. In the third chapter, "The Pothead," a young woman's fictional travails in the drug culture are related. (This is a chapter among chapters: it is magnificent.) She takes about 1500 words to describe the girl's upbringing up to adolescence, before writing the following:

The onset of adolescence, then, produced in her an utterly naked expression of the turbulence through which both her soul and her body were being made to pass. Half the time she would appear before them in the guise of a provocative young woman, painted, languorous and knowing. She would patronize her parents, sigh contemptuously in response to any of their demurrers about her conduct or appearance, and waggle her hips in a manner intended to communicate to them that she was no longer to be excluded from the realms of worldly understanding.

Uh-oh. After this made-up young woman drinks too much cough syrup one night, shit gets very real. "Secretly, illegally," this little thing was learning to drive. And then her relationship with pot begins.

They had been supplied with a couple of cigarettes containing the magic weed by a recent newcomer to their circle, a young man who was a freshman at a nearby college and had become the lover of one of the girls. He instructed them thoroughly in the art of marijuana use; and as the clumsy little-hand-rolled cigarette, heavy with saliva, was passed around from mouth to mouth, as the deep inhalings were taken, held within the throat and chest, and sparingly released, as eyes rolled upward and heads sank back against the nearest support, she began at last to glimpse the state towards which all her earlier efforts had only been aspiring.

The description of marijuana use that follows is an uncomfortable interlude. Midge seems to be speaking from experience; and perhaps caught in the glow of her own remembrances, she turns it into a tantalizing journey: "time seemed to stop," "she did not particularly want to move." Later, The Pothead thinks she spots a plainsclothed detective observing her and her friends in the coffee shop, but writes it off as paranoia.

Eventually the Pothead begins using every day, and her parents become aware of her addiction to marijuana. The Pothead's only conclusion: "They pretended they wished to know all about her, she thought bitterly, but in truth they only wished to know that which suited their own narrow and particular sense of life." In the end, the Pothead moves out of her parents' lives and into a co-ed apartment to pursue her new lifestyle.

The Pothead gets off easy. Midge may not like drugs, she may not approve of the effects they have on people, but at heart her love of freedom does not allow her to kill off The Pothead, or force us to witness the girl's destruction. No, drugs are just not a great choice, she seems to be saying. But it is nothing next to her next chapter: "The Sexual Revolutionist."

young Norman

To understand Midge's view of feminism, it's important to understand her own marriage. She met Norman Podhoretz when she first came to New York, when she was spending eight hours a day studying the Hebrew Bible at the College of Jewish Studies. She found herself married to a guy named Moshe, a veteran she finally divorced in 1954 after bearing two daughters.

Midge loomed three years the elder of Podhoretz, who was 26 when his Jewish girlfriend's desire to make things legal encroached on his bachelorhood. He was wary of becoming a stepfather, and his mother Helen Podhoretz was horrified by the possibility of this development. When she met Midge and her daughters, she instantly softened when young Rachel Decter told her, "You're so beautiful!"

In so many ways, Midge overcame barriers women had to cross before feminists had named them. She required no man to prop herself up, she complained not at all of the misogynistic treatment she must have endured at times in her professional life. It was in her blood and her bones to treat all people equally. As a young woman, she considered herself and her friends liberals; what else? Even her second husband, Norman Podhoretz, saw her as a feminist "in the classical sense," even though she handled most of the duties around their home.

Midge's talent for being a mother orients around a statement she makes in the chapter titled "The Sexual Revolutionist." It is intrinsic to our understanding of parenting now, but then it was not: They were members of the first generation to understand how real and weighty was their true power over the psychic development of their children. In essence, it was becoming a parent that finished the idea of Midge Decter, the feminist, before it ever had a chance to gestate. As soon as she saw how other parents regarded their children, enduring the 1960s was a matter of surviving a hell of their devising.

The parental units of the girl who would become The Sexual Revolutionist are no sociological fiction. In this chapter's titular character we can see her second daughter, Rachel. That she would tell the story of her own daughter seems not only contradictory but insincere, but some of the details match. Midge once described her daughter as "everybody's longings rolled into one package," and the same is true of the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist. It is her parents who are the real revolutionaries, however:

Mankind's resistance to the force of sex, born in ignorance and taboo and the impulse of organized religion to deny its adherents their innocent pleasures, had let to a notion of the body as somehow loathsome and unclean; and this notion had served for century after century to twists the sexual appetites of men and bury or extinguish altogether the sexual desires of women. Few had escaped unscathed or untormented. They themselves, while they had grown up in a world on which the grip of the sexual taboo had by comparison with the past already been considerably weakened thanks to the heroic labors of a lonely band of doctors and philosophers had had to work with all the powers of reason and self-discipline they could muster to overcome the shame of their birthright.

So far, so good. In time, the parents of the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist take her to get a prescription for the pill. The girl's mother has a strange reaction, despite being on the drug herself:

As the doctor wrote out the daughter's prescription, her mother could not resist one small pang of envy. She did not know whether her daughter yet had need of this new medication or not, and did not want to know, since it was up to the girl to decide how much of her life in sex she wished to share with her parents. (They hoped, they were to tell her laughingly over her birthday celebration dinner, it would not be too much.) But now her daughter would never in her whole life know either the sickening need to hide and dissemble before her mother, such as she had once so painfully lived with, or that one last ineradicable bit of anxiety that women before her had always carried into bed. Her daughter, in other words, would never know how lucky she was.

All is status quo until the girl who will become the Sexual Revolutionist meets a man. He is only one man, but he is not a particularly great man. He is college-aged, she is still in high school. They have sex every day, but they never discuss it. When they're out among friends, he pantomimes his desire for other girls in front of her. Once, she finds him on top of her unwilling best friend in a bedroom at a party. She goes on seeing him. She marvels at his intelligence, she marvels at her own empathy. He is older and she is his: "She liked belonging to him."

Eventually, this guy/goy moves in with her and her parents, where "she gave herself to him on their living room couch." (They also have intercourse at the beach, in the sand.) She finds herself fighting with her parents, regarding their views on things as hopelessly naive. When her boyfriend encourages her to give him head in front of their friends, she hails a taxi and gets out of there.

This bad experience with men is the catalyst for everything that happens afterwards. For Midge, it was possibly redolent of a man Rachel had brought home to them as her fiance, a skilled, beautiful farmer from a kibbutz who Midge regarded as Satan incarnate, even though she permitted Rachel to marry him against her better judgment.

Meanwhile, Rachel's fictional counterpart, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist, heads off to college. Although the men are on the whole lot nicer to her there, she is faced with the thorny problem of rejecting their sexual advances. Midge discusses this as if it had never happened before: "All she got for her pains was the souring of a friendship." But eventually she meets a new prospect, one she regards as a keeper.

He listened as no one had ever listened, his face a tender pool of comprehension and sympathy, and he responded in kind. He too was alienated from his parents, who were brutal, particularly his father, in their disappointments with him. He told her of his psychoanalyst, of the fact that he was presently having deep difficulty concentrating his mind on his studies, of his longing to be loved for simply what he was. Not very long after they met, they sat together on a grassy hillside beneath a cloudless sky and exchanged avowals of profound love. He held her hand, caressing her fingers on by one, while they discussed the details of moving in together.

Of physical sex there had been none between them, not a hint or gesture.

You'll be surprised to know it turned out he was gay.

In the wake of her disappointment, the girl who would become the Sexual Revolutionist wanders into a feminist lecture. (This is evidently the only reason Midge can think of for someone to become interested in the empowerment of women.) The lecturer informs the students that men are oppressive and unnecessary, and that "it was the clitoris, rather than the penis, which was the true instrument of female pleasure."

She returns to her parents with a spate of "mimeographed articles" and a passion for her new creed. Her father is both shocked and relieved at what's happened - shocked because he feels potentially implicated in her oppression, relieved because he had suspected she did not enjoy the sex with her high school swain.

Her mother, on the other hand, is at first not so enthusiastic. Having given her daughter the kind of freedom she herself never enjoyed, she cannot imagine the source of the girl's complaint. In the end, she comes around, reckoning that she may indeed have been forced into her own life as a mother. She begins to see her daughter's attitude as simply a natural extension of the freedom that was afforded to her. Is this Midge's own view? Not quite.

Midge at an event

Today, she is just as offended by how women dress and act as she was in 1975. Her problem with feminism began with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She hated it: "This work had seemed to me both intellectually and stylistically very crude. It was also unbelievably insulting to ordinary housewives, written on the level in exactly the kind of lingo previously used by a number of pop sociologists to denigrate the postwar lives of the ordinary people of Glen Oaks."

Midge did not like the late 1960s, but it was not the movement towards civil rights and freedom that caused offense, it was the protests of white college students in the early 1970s that truly incensed her. In contrast to African-Americans who fought for their own rights in the south, college kids picketing Woolworth's in New York drew Midge's ire in the extreme. For her, the chaos of the time represented a class war rather than a gender one: she represented individuals, male and female, who lacked power, and to see privileged students from rich families raging against working class people from her own background was too much to bear.

She was surprised to learn that journalist Gloria Steinem ("a so-so talent") was a voice in the movement. She agreed to debate Steinem in a downtown ballroom. She recalls the scene in her memoir:

The debate took place in a downtown ballroom that often served as a union meeting place, and the room was packed. Actually there were four women debating that night, on her side a black social worker and on mine, a black official of the teachers' union. Gloria was unforgettable that evening, for she turned up in a crotch-high suede skirt and knee-high suede boots and kept warning the men in the audience that they had better wake up and realize that she and women like her were dead serious, and no longer were women going to put with being their playthings. I think she even stamped her foot, while I, looking at that skirt, had to control my impulse to giggle...

Later in the evening she declared that women no longer needed men, and that men had better get used to it, whereupon her own debating partner jumped up and said, "Oh no, Gloria! What women in Harlem need is husbands!"

gloria in the 1960s

Perhaps Midge's view of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan sounds like sour grapes now. By the time she was inspired to write Liberal Parents, Radical Children, her daughters were all out of the house leaving her only son, a junior in high school at the time. She was not so much older than the women in the movement, but she felt like she was from a completely different time and place in comparison. The movement never mentioned grandmothers, soon she was one.

They both became well-known, powerful actors in their circles; Steinem for her outspoken, groundbreaking feminism in addition to her founding of Ms. magazine, and Midge for her invention of the Committee for the Free World (CFW) to fight tyranny around the globe, as well as the Independent Women's Forum, which has been a crucial part of ensuring women have a strong voice in the conservative movement.

The fact that two Jewish women from a similar Midwestern background could find this much on which to disagree is an American phenomenon, a cultural artifice that posits difference where there is similarity, and the inverse. Two charismatic and inspiring women fought for everyone's liberty for the emancipation of women is impossible without the same for men. One of these women was called a feminist, another an anti-feminist. What better way to repay the debt they are owed than according both the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Harold Pinter's adaptation of Proust and the death of Jim Henson. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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"Self-Esteem" - The Offspring (mp3)


In Which We Slip Inside The Muppet Factory

Jim Henson's Boulevard


It was Group A streptoccocal pneumonia that killed Jim Henson in 1990, caught from a Mattel executive as Jim flew to Los Angeles to appear on Arsenio. By that time Henson had long since divorced the wife and mother of his children, bought out her half of his company, and taken up with model types like Daryl Hannah. (A friend said, "He loved beautiful things and beautiful women.") Henson, under the care of his Christian scientist mother, refused medical treatment until it was too late. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered outside his ranch in Santa Fe.

On September 26th, Sesame Street begins its 42nd season. It was the project that changed Jim Henson's life.

The original idea for Sesame Street was the brainchild of television executive Joan Ganz Cooney. Considered the mother of all children's television, Cooney's decision to use Henson's puppets changed what would become Sesame Street from a somewhat dour educational program to an entertainment show. Up until then, the absolute pinnacle of children's television was Bob Keeshan's Captain Kangaroo, and its rote instruction and low production values hardly comprised a breakthrough in the genre.

Jim and his wife Jane with the puppets of Sam and Friends

Henson's first attempt at children's television, Sam and Friends, was a dry run for his full cast of Muppets. The show's purpose was as much to hawk various products to the Washington D.C. area where it aired as to educate and entertain its audience. After the show signed off in 1961, the Muppets were already famous from Jack Paar's The Tonight Show and had appeared in a variety of commercials.

Henson and company wanted to shoot a Muppet Snow White as a pilot for CBS, but when ABC showed more interest, they demanded a different fairy-tale heroine. Jim's version of Cinderella would air years after Sesame Street was on the air, but it was actually a test-run for the show. The reason that it did not air was half ABC getting college football and half the fact that it wasn't very funny.

There was little movement to create educational television until Lyndon Johnson began pushing for noncommercial television as part of his Great Society program. Despite powerful people in the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation supporting the effort, all the major television networks passed on Sesame Street. Their fear, and eventually the fear of executives in public broadcasting, was that kids would just flip to cartoons instead of educational programming.

Academics involved with Sesame Street developed papers on how to integrate the educational aspects of the show with the entertainment ones. Focus groups were essential in their approach; it was how they could tell if the children were actually learning. The attitude of the male academics towards Joan Ganz Cooney was also problematic they undercut her when they could, informing whoever was listening that they did not know if a woman could command such a program, questioning whether a woman from a non-academic background could really handle such an enterprise. The education and research director from the Ford Foundation, Marjorie Martus, opined that she "did not think a project headed by a woman could be taken seriously."

Despite these challenges, Cooney became the head of the Children's Television Workshop. A gruesome meeting of academics and creative types looking to siphon money from the show's appreciably large budget showed up to brainstorm ideas for the show. Maurice Sendak spent most of the time drawing pornographic cartoons of the participants. When a bearded, hippie-ish gentleman strolled into the back after they broke for lunch, Cooney initially thought he was a terrorist member of the Weathermen. Jim Henson introduced himself.

The first concepts for the visual look of Sesame Street involved an actual street with the familiar trashcans redolent of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. It was either too close to reality for a test audience of pre-schoolers, or too far from it. They kept the setting but used a brownstone instead.

The first title of Sesame Street was 123 Avenue B. Setting the show itself in a place much of its audience had never experienced was radical enough; but immersing it on a drug-ridden street corner betrayed the naivete of all involved. A child under the supervision of a CTW consultant at a daycare center on the West Side came up with the name Sesame Street, and at the last minute, it was used. As recalled in Michael Davis' marvelous history of the show, Street Gang, feedback came back from the affliated advertising agency: "Nobody is going to remember it. It has too many esses."

Jim was bored and painted a plumber's closet while waiting to go on The Tonight Show.

Once production began, the creative elements took over the show. The writers and actors drank constantly after-hours, fleshing out ideas for the next day. Henson worked harder than anyone, using entire weekends to film sequences.

Bert and Ernie, performed by Frank Oz and Henson respectively, became the show's centerpiece. Rather than a relationship between two homosexuals, the connection actually paralleled Frank and Jim's real life interactions, with Jim as the troublemaker egging on the more mercurial Oz. Another Frank puppet, Grover, represented a different direction from the same Bert and became one of the show's biggest attractions.

The first test screenings scored high marks for the puppets, but the long-mulled over choices for live actors were not as appealing, and passages featuring human actors generally bored the kids.

Encouraged by the early reaction, the academics began to see the potential in Henson's puppets. A Harvard professor suggested a fumbling figure who could make mistakes, and Henson created Big Bird to soften the proceedings, a puppet that stood over eight feet tall and required the puppeteer to enter it. Henson's walk wasn't birdlike enough so the part went to Henson recruit and talented puppeteer Caroll Spinney.

In the first episode, Bert and Ernie set up their traditional interplay:

ERNIE: Hey, Bert. Can I have a bar of soap?

BERT: Yah.

ERNIE: Just toss it into Rosie here.

BERT: Who's Rosie?

ERNIE: My bathtub. I call my bathtub Rosie.

BERT: Ernie, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?

ERNIE: What's that?

BERT: I said, why do you call your bathtub Rosie?

ERNIE: Because every time I take a bath I leave a ring around Rosie.

Henson had set up shop at East 67th Street, living with his growing family in a place that could occupy both of his major creative projects. The first Henson workshop constituted a space where ideas arose constantly and could be encouraged. Characters like Oscar the Grouch, Prairie Dawn and Aloysius Snuffleupagus emerged out of this collaborative environment, and soon there was a menagerie of potential puppets for the show that far exceeded the cast of Sam and Friends.

To a child watching Sesame Street for the first time on November 10th, 1969, it must have been something of a shock to the system. The inner-city setting integrated with a range of somewhat frighteningly realistic animal characters was fortunately softened by Henson's short films, where he really showed off his ability to captivate children with his perspective.

From the moment it aired, Sesame Street was a tremendous success among its core audience of children and parents, as well as the television executives who the show depended on for its continued existence. Children's television had never done ratings like this; parents immediately saw the utility of using the show to watch their kids.

Time touted the show as "one of the best researched programs in history" and gave credit to the combination of public and private enterprise. In reality, it was largely Henson's creative genius that made the show such a phenomenon, but that did not stop reams of educators and academics from beaming with pride. Time wrote,

This week the National Educational Television network began to do something for that forgotten minority with the first segment of Sesame Street. A color series to run one hour every weekday for the next 6½ months, Sesame's 130 segments are dedicated to the proposition that children are people, involved in their own quest for enlightenment and entertainment via the video set.

What Sesame Street does, blatantly and unashamedly, is take full advantage of what children like best about TV. "Face it — kids love commercials," explains Joan Ganz Cooney, executive director of NET's Children's Television Workshop. "Their visual impact is way ahead of everything else seen on television; they are clever, and they tell a simple, self-contained story."

The show won every honor possible for children's television, and President Nixon wrote to Joan Ganz Cooney, telling her that "the many children and families now benefitting from Sesame Street are participants in one of the most promising experiments in the history of that medium. The Children's Television Workshop certainly deserves the high praise it has been getting from young and old alike in every corner of the nation. This administration is enthusiastically committed to opening up opportunities for every youngster, particularly during his first five years of life, and is pleased to be among the sponsors of your distinguished program."

Of course, there was backlash. Some educators resented having to share their job with a television program they felt was beneath them, and academics were still skeptical that a television program could be good for young ones.

The chief complaint about Sesame Street was the very thing that had captivated the attention of its target audience: the show's breakneck pace. It was impossible to be bored watching Sesame Street: if you did not like one particular segment, another was on its way. Taking its cues from the theater, including the considerable influence of vaudeville, Sesame Street endeavored never to be boring. To some, that was what made it dangerous to traditional learning how could the classroom compare to an expensive television production?

Mississippi banned the show because of its integrated cast, and the National Organization for Women tore into the show for its depiction of Susan the homemaker, complaining that "the program has shown greater responsiveness to the needs of blacks than women." The Hispanic community was even more incensed in the early years of the show, they had no representative on Sesame Street.

With the commercial success of Sesame Street, advertisers and toy companies wanted to cash in. Henson was extremely resistant to marketing the characters he had created, but once Cooney convinced him it would make his company financially profitable and therefore independent, he relented.

To fill the show's need for new characters and Henson's need for marketable muppets, more performers and writers were brought aboard. Sesame Street's then-head writer Norman Stiles came up with Count von Count, a dylslexic Dracula who poked gentle fun at Bela Lugosi. Writer/director Jon Stone and Henson reworked an old design into the fabulously popular Cookie Monster, originally created for an ad campaign. Producer Matt Robinson created a Roosevelt Franklin puppet that spoke in scat and was identifiably African-American. Black executives within the CTW were horrified, and the character was "killed off." In 1985, a little-used Muppet named Elmo became the show's mainstay.

By the time Sesame Street grew into itself, Henson already felt trapped. His ambitions lurked outside of children's television and had inspired his classic short Time Piece among other more adult-oriented projects. He did not want to work on Sesame Street for the rest of his life.

Cooney told him, "You are going to break out of this. Something is going to happen that will provide new opportunities for you. You need to have the patience and belief to see what I'm saying is true." Other projects, including the groundbreaking Muppet Show and several feature films lay in Jim's future, and Joan was right: all became possible because of what he had done for children.

His funeral is bizarre, even now. The notice in The New York Times read:

A memorial service for the puppeteer Jim Henson, who created Kermit the Frog and many other Muppet creatures, is to be held at noon on Monday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, at 112th Street. Written instructions left by Mr. Henson, who died of a bacterial infection at 53 years of age on Wednesday, requested that no one attending wear black.

CNN wanted to broadcast the services live, but the family would not allow it. Employees of the company distributed fabric butterflies on wands to the attendees. His children and his ex-wife aimed for something uplifting more than maudlin.

The end result is a moving synthesis of both extremes. Near the event's conclusion, Big Bird came out.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here.

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