October 2011 Archives
A lot of buzz in the soul-patch-o-sphere about Elvis Costello’s recent appearance with Elmo on Sesame Street. I must confess to ambivalence. I’m a devoted fan of both cultural institutions (meaning E.C. and Sesame; Elmo hasn’t earned the designation), and I’ve enjoyed some of the celebrity star turns on PBS’s flagship kids’ show. My problem isn’t with the cognitive dissonance of New Wave’s Angry Young Man doing children’s television, for anyone paying attention since Costello’s marvelously hokey “Spinning Songbook” tour of 1986 knows that E.C. forsook that persona a Zuckerberg’s-lifetime ago and has since embraced mainstream showmanship with humor and élan. (I loved him on Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special.)
It’s the song choice and Muppet choice, I think. That they reached back to the Angry Young phase, and specifically to one of the very first blasts of it—rejiggering the almost-debut 1977 single “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and its statement-of-purpose opening line, “Oh, I used to be disgusted/ And now I try to be amused” as “A Monster Went and Ate My Red 2” and “Oh, I want to count to ten now/ But it’s something I can’t do”—well, must every act of cultural transgression eventually be defanged and cutesified? (And with Elmo in E.C. drag, no less?) Personally, I would have much preferred a remake of the 1982 song “Tears Before Bedtime,” both because it lends itself to kiddie interpretation and because, with its weird multi-tracked backing vocals, it already sounds like it’s a duet between Elvis Costello and a bunch of Muppets.
A larger point: It feels like every famous person traipses down the Street nowadays. I rather miss the innate Sesame-ness of the celebrity appearances of my childhood, when it seems that the visitors were always righteous and beautiful black people like Lena Horne and Richard Pryor, dropping by while in the neighborhood to uplift the race. Somehow, the latter-day cameos by the likes of Seth Rogen and Michelle Monaghan just don’t have the same oomph. (Though there is something compelling about the wrongness of Robert De Niro’s legendary master class with Elmo, which upset adult viewers while leaving small children puzzled.)
As much as I understand the universal love for Sesame Street and every decent famous person’s innate desire to appear on it, I’d rather some public figures in the arts remain indisputably of the adult world, never deflating their own mystique by counting to ten or reciting the alphabet in the presence of talking felt. Herewith, a list of well-known people who should never appear on Sesame Street:
Tom Verlaine of the band Television
It is the way of things that everyone has a kind of proprietary feeling towards a famous person after that famous person dies—“He spoke to me more than anyone!”—so let me preface what follows by humbly stating that I am just one of millions whose life was significantly impacted by the late Steve Jobs.
But it is fascinating to consider this impact in biographical terms, to realize how personal Jobs made personal computing. By dint of having a good childhood friend whose dad was a professor of engineering at Rutgers University, I was one of those kids who had early access to an Apple II computer, which the professor’s family kept in the basement. We were given free rein to use and abuse this machine, and we flipped avidly through computer magazines to follow the doings of the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, as well as the people who were designing Apple II games. Our hero was a Persian-American programmer named Nasir Gebelli, who, working first for Sirius Software and then his own Gebelli Software company, came up with design-forward games that looked better and hummed along more elegantly than the noisy dreck that most other software companies were producing back then. We spent hours playing such games “By Nasir” (as he tagged them) as Phantoms Five, Space Eggs, and Gebelli’s then-audacious 1981 leap into 3D vector graphics, Horizon V. (I still conflate these games with the Who song “You Better You Bet” playing on the radio.)
Much in the same way that the 12-year-old Jobs had the gumption to call up Bill Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard on the telephone, my friend, the engineering professor’s son, decided one day in seventh grade that he should simply call up Nasir Gebelli in California to discuss his ideas for new games. Gebelli, far from being affronted, offered my friend a job—an opportunity that, given child labor laws, my friend had to pass on. (My friend did end up working at Apple years later, though.)
In the winter of 1984, our junior year of high school, we saw Jobs’s famous “insanely great” introduction of the Macintosh computer. My friend’s uncle on the other side of his family was by this time running a software company that took an early shipment of Macintoshes. (You called them Macintoshes back then; even Jobs wasn’t yet hip to the power of abbreviated branding.) Through that company, I was able to receive a corporate discount on my first personal computer, a Macintosh 512k (a ton of memory back then) that I took with me to college as a freshman in 1985. That school year was a tipping point. At its beginning, I was the only person in my residence hall to have a Macintosh, which proved to be a good ice-breaker socially; most of my colleagues (I kid you not, youngsters) had arrived on campus toting typewriters. But by the school year’s end, about half the kids in the hall owned Macs, and the university had set up a computer lab equipped with Macs for public use.
I still have the 512k Mac in storage, its veal-colored casing (to use Tom Wolfe’s perjorative phrase for the plastic housing of early personal computers) yellowed by time. It was the first of approximately 21 Apple devices I have owned, up to and including the iPad 2 that I’ll use next week, when I’m abroad, to Skype in my part of the Thursday-night Giants radio show that I co-host on the nation’s smallest NPR affiliate. (It’s called “Tangled Up in Blue,” if you care to listen to loony, undisciplined ranting about football.)
I’m not an ardent-enough techie to call myself a fanboy, and maybe that’s a good thing—and the reason I actually met a girl and married her—but I was, and am, a fan of Steve Jobs.
This month I have a post up at Vanity Fair’s site about the extraordinary and improbably inspiring story of how George Harrison mentally and spiritually endured the horrific attack upon his person in 1999, its details courtesy of his engaging widow, Olivia. It is a companion piece to the brief spotlight I wrote in V.F.’s October issue about the new Martin Scorsese-directed HBO documentary about Harrison.
I can’t bring myself to engage in the “favorite Beatle” game—the whole thing wouldn’t have come off without all four of them—but I must confess to an abiding interest in George, who seemed the most intellectually curious and the best prepared for a life outside of Beatledom. Eleven years ago, as Vanity Fair prepared its first music issue, I was given carte blanche to pursue my dream of writing a profile of George. After months of petitioning, going through (glass?) onion-like layers of intermediaries, I received a call one August morning in 2000 from a publicist who’d been deputized to handle me, and he was delivering happy news: “George is quite keen to do it.” I was instructed to sit tight the following day, when I would receive a second call laying out the logistics and details of how I was going to meet Mr. Harrison at his estate, Friar Park.
The call never came. I waited one day by the telephone, then half of another, before an apologetic call came from the same publicist, informing me that Harrison was compelled to give a deposition or attend to some other kind of business regarding the legal case against the intruder who had invaded his and Olivia’s home. I was told that the matter of my Vanity Fair profile of George would be revisited in due time. But, sadly, that time never came. Shortly thereafter, George fell ill again with cancer, too ill to do a lengthy interview. He died in November of 2001.
While I’m Beatle-linking, here is a link to one of the few pieces of writing I’ve ever done that I am unequivocally pleased with, a thingy that ran on V.F.’s Web site last year called “Lennon at 70!” Reaction to it was sharply divided, but it was written, if I can go all Yoko on you, with love.
Like a lot of mere civilians, I cannot get enough of the Beatles’ story. To me, it was the best narrative of the twentieth century, in fiction or nonfiction. The four of them were at once a blank screen upon which all the fads and morés of their era were projected—teenybopper-ism, Indian mysticism, psychedelia, anti-war activism, postwar materialism, etc.—and four very strong, fully formed, sui generis personalities. No writerly embellishment can better the stories that they gave us.