Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Influencing the Influencers

It’s well known that the late Amy Winehouse was heavily influenced by the girl groups and female soul singers of the ‘60s.  She, in turn, greatly influenced many artists who burst on the scene after her, such as  Duffy, Lily Allen and Adele.  But she also left her mark by pulling off a truly rare accomplishment -- influencing some of the original influencers!

Cover songs, of course, are a great indicator of influences. So you would expect Winehouse to cover various oldies she loved (her version of The Shirelle’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is one standout).  But you wouldn’t necessarily expect oldies artists to cover Winehouse – or indeed to include any contemporary songs at all in their nostalgia-filled live shows. Audiences attend oldies shows to, well, hear oldies.

Yet, last Wednesday at Central Park Summerstage, “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson stopped her show in its tracks with a moving rendition of Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good.  Then on Saturday, at Lincoln Center Out of Doors – during a day otherwise devoted entirely to old girl group songs Ronnie Spector sang Back to Black midpoint in a show she dedicated to Winehouse.

Neither Jackson nor Spector was pandering to grief-stricken fans. For one thing, the prime audiences for these two shows hardly consisted of Winehouse's crowd. For another, both singers had been including Winehouse in their repertoires since before the singer's death.

Spector, as is well known, heavily influenced Winehouse’s look as well as her sound.  Last week, in a touching Rolling Stone tribute to the deceased star,  she wrote that Winehouse's "lyrics were so amazing that I couldn't help but sing one of her songs."

But Wanda Jackson?  When I was promoting a documentary about this virtually forgotten rock pioneer in 2006  (the film's title eventually became The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice),  Amy Winehouse was just achieving breakout status and Jackson had released an Elvis tribute album.  She was simply not  doing new material. But last year, Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then released a new album -- The Party Ain't Over -- produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. At White's suggestion, the CD included one contemporary song -- by Winehouse, of course.

Now, after hearing Ronnie Spector and Wanda Jackson do justice (albeit with expurgated lyrics) to Amy Winehouse this past week, I have to wonder what's next.  A quick look at the schedule finds Aretha Franklin in Coney Island on Thursday for the free concert we've been looking forward to since last summer. The Los Angeles Times, for one, says Winehouse's voice channeled Franklin's.

Aretha recently released her first studio album in eight years...but Jack White (or an equivalent) wasn't involved.  So don't expect to hear her version of Just Friends or RehabJust relish her voice and be thankful she's still with us well past that tragic age of 27.  That's another way of leaving your mark.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Turner Classic Television?

  Al 'n Yetta by Allan Sherman

For fans of classic TV, like me, these are both the best and worst of times. 

Best, because at least three networks – Antenna TV, Me-TV and Retro TV – are now vying for the audience once coveted by the likes of TV Land and Nick at Nite. 

Worst, because I can only see one of those channels – Antenna TV – here in Brooklyn, and, well, the show selection is still rather limited.

What's needed is a channel that culls from the entire history of classic television just as Turner Classic Movies does for that other filmed entertainment genre.  

As with older movies, most of today’s audience has no first-hand memories from when vintage television programs first aired.  Thus, these shows are no longer nostalgia – they’re history. And as TCM does with classic movies, classic TV needs to be taken seriously.

When Viacom’s TV Land began 15 years ago, that seemed to be its mission. The network even ran one-shot historically significant shows under the umbrella title, “Museum of TV and Radio Showcase.”  And we loved their airing of vintage commercials, dubbed “retromercials.”  But, in an era when even the Museum of TV and Radio couldn’t stomach the connotation of “old” that came with the word “museum” and morphed into the “Paley Center” TV Land soon abandoned its focus of "preserving our television heritage."

Both David Bianculli and Diane Werts over at TV Worth Watching have done a good job of bemoaning the descent of TV Land into the home of tired rerun retreads and derivative reality fare.

That’s a shame, since Viacom – born out of the original CBS Films – controlled one of the richest libraries of classic TV anywhere, at least until the company split in two in 2005, with the old TV shows becoming part of the new CBS, and TV Land remaining at Viacom. 

Yes, who exactly owns the rights to what can get confusing in the TV distribution world. 

Once upon a time (well, the early ‘90s), MCA Television found a way to monetize its old ‘50s TV shows by incorporating clips from them into its innovative HBO sitcom Dream On. Those old clips now lie buried somewhere deep in Comcast’s Universal Media library. 

Other rights-holders are more active in classic TV distribution. Antenna TV, for example, is essentially a 24-hour channel for old shows and movies from Sony’s Columbia/Screen Gems library.  Me-TV runs lots of product from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer catalog.

But what about the classic Warner Bros. shows that practically invented the studio system in network television back in the '50s and ‘60s? From what I can tell, such historic and trend-setting series as Maverick  and 77 Sunset Strip haven’t run anywhere since AmericanLife TV  stopped showing them a few years back (full disclosure: I once handled public relations for AmericanLife.)  They also figured prominently in what was perhaps TV Land’s final nod to vintage TV -- a 50-hour tribute to the 50th anniversary of Warner Bros. Television in 2005.

Now, guess who owns all those old Warner Bros. shows?  That’s right – the same Time Warner that owns Turner Classic Movies!  And they’d make a great starting point for a TV-centric equivalent to TCM.  This new channel could put TV shows in historic context, support preservation efforts, and, of course, group them together by theme – for example, a month of Emmy-winning episodes during awards season; a salute to Betty White’s 60 years in TV, from Life With Elizabeth  to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls to Hot in Cleveland; or a marathon of the nine episodes of WB’s The Roaring 20’s directed by esteemed director Robert Altman (similar to a sampling of Altman’s Combat! episodes that worked well for AmericanLife). 

So, from one who’d much rather watch Bachelor Father (here’s Mary Tyler Moore in an early guest appearance) than The Bachelor any day, let’s hear it for TCT – Turner Classic Television.
Robert Altman directed nine episodes of WB's The Roaring 20's.

Friday, February 4, 2011

It Could Happen Tomorrow...

During this winter of New York City’s discontent, I’ve occasionally thought back five years – to my involvement in a massive PR push for the premiere of The Weather Channel series, “It Could Happen Tomorrow.” Over the Christmas holiday season, as a strike stopped mass transit for a couple of days, we feverishly worked to promote the upcoming premiere episode – about what could happen if a massive hurricane struck the city.

Flash forward to this past holiday season – mass transit was again disrupted for a couple of days, this time by a blizzard.  So were lots of other things, from car traffic to garbage pickups to mayoral approval ratings. And since then, the entire city has seemed to be playing its own version of “It Could Happen Tomorrow.  But let's not forget the key second word of that title –  could, not will.

Ok, New York this winter has endured a couple of massive snowstorms, including that blizzard, along with a fair number of smaller ones.  And the nasty weather has certainly caused a mess.  On my own block, the Sanitation Department didn’t pick up the paper recyclables for some five weeks – corner-to-corner, our sidewalk looked like the remnants of a print publishing empire mixed in with cereal boxes, all laid out on a bed of dirty white carpeting.

Brooklyn, Winter 2011
(photo by Les Luchter)

So folks certainly have a right to be concerned. And we all need to be prepared for any potential storm. But there’s a difference between prepared and pre-emptive, between could and will.

A couple of weeks ago, my niece was all geared up to fly from JFK to Europe to begin a much-anticipated semester abroad. Due to a winter storm “warning,” her flight was canceled more than a full day in advance, yet the “storm” turned into a light dusting.  

Earlier this week, I was supposed to have a doctor’s appointment.  It didn’t happen because, two days prior, the MD’s office called to say that all appointments were being canceled due to another winter storm warning. The streets were going to be icy and they were looking out for our safety. Well thanks.

By the following day, the storm “warning” had been downgraded down to an “advisory,” but then got transformed into an even scarier “Ice Storm Warning.” (I know all this because I get handy alerts from my pals at The Weather Channel!)

And yes, it was icy that morning -- before the precipitation turned to rain at around 8 a.m.  I ran an errand late morning when I could have been on the way to my appointment, and the streets were quite navigable.

What everyone seems to have forgotten in the wake of our giant snowfalls is that weather forecasts, by their very nature, are apt to change. Since when have they been seen as infallible?

For years, I've complained about the "snowmongering" of local media, especially local television news. "Snow is coming," they would blare during station breaks.  "Details at 11." Then, if you stuck around, you'd learn that there was half-an-inch expected up in the Catskills, or at least in the infamous "Northern New Jersey." (thanks to my Weather Channel alerts, I can now forgo this process :) )

I always thought I had invented the term "snowmongering" as one of my major contributions to contemporary civilization. But great minds think alike, I guess. I just did a Google search, and "snowmongering" is right there in the Urban Dictionary: "when someone over exaggerates how much snow there truly is...."

These days, snowmongering has extended from the media to the government, private enterprises and seemingly everyone on the block. If there's a flake in the forecast, the entire city starts preparing for a deluge. The departments of Sanitation and Emergency Management issue their own "snow alerts," one of several terrorism-like levels preceding an actual emergency. The local Trader Joe's gets mobbed midday (trust me, it's usually rather manageable at 3 p.m.!) as folks rush to stock their pantries. The hardware store runs out of salt. The kids start praying for another day off from school.

Trust me, I don't take snowstorms lightly. I don’t relish climbing out the ground-floor window to help excavate our front door, as I did in December. All that white stuff isn't fun, unless you're building snowmen or igloos, or sledding, or throwing snowballs (and, quite often, as was the case last week, the snow can be quite pretty). But I guess my college days in Syracuse, where two-foot storms were routine and the city handled the cleanup with a minimum of fuss, has enured me somewhat to the phenomenon.

By the way, the last blizzard to hit New York City before this winter happened about a month after the  premiere of "It Could Happen Tomorrow." On Feb. 11-12, a record 26.9 inches fell in Central Park.  The snowmongerers had a field day. I woke up ready for some heavy-duty shoveling.  But somehow the brunt of the storm had completely missed Brooklyn and even lower Manhattan. We had just a few inches on the ground.

So, it could have happened, but didn’t.  Could it happen tomorrow, though?

The forecast now calls for a “wintry mix.”

Let's at least wait for the first flake to fall before falling all over ourselves in panic.