Thursday, December 27, 2007

I just wasn't made for these times

My, my, this is an eclectic group of party animals, is it not?

When I first saw a (different, much more stiffly posed) photo on the cover of the TV supplement in this past Sunday's Buffalo News, I thought "who is that stone-faced man standing alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, and Steve Martin?" Then I realized the bearded, bespectacled man was not FFC (he is really pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher, duh) and the stone-faced guy was none other than Brian Wilson. This motley crew was to be honored during the 30th annual "Kennedy Center Honors," so naturally I made a point of watching the broadcast tonight.

For the record, I think Scorsese's brilliant in small-to-medium doses, never really found Martin all that funny, never heard of Fleisher until now, and am one of the few homosexual men of my generation who finds La Ross tremendously overrated. She has her moments, from "Someday We'll Be Together" to her recent career in crime, but she's never really done that much for me as a pop diva, a camp icon, or anything else. I mainly tuned in for Brian. (Here's his official site's page on the event, with plenty of links.)

I'm really, really tempted to trot out that overused William Carlos Williams chestnut about the pure products of America going crazy, because this was one surreal assemblage of talent: the five honorees sitting next to each other and Lord and Lady Bush, Diana blowing kisses every few minutes, Scorsese looking slightly embarrassed, and Brian mostly off in that safe place he goes to when things get scary (which is to say 95% of every day since January 1, 1964). The announcer for the show was Carl Kasell, direct from NPR and my favorite game show. Apparently public radio does not pay its most highly regarded voice that well, because here he was picking up a little extra cash shilling for CBS, reduced throughout the evening to saying things like "The Kennedy Center Honors ... sponsored by: the Bristol-Meyers-Squibb-Sanofi Pharmaceuticals partnership."

Art Garfunkel did the intro to the Wilson segment, and people laughed when the first words out of his mouth were "I love rock and roll," thinking he was being sarcastic--when, as we know, Garfunkel does not do sarcasm. This was followed by a film bio which managed to compress most of the key plot points into 3-4 minutes, paying as little attention to the other Beach Boys as possible. I couldn't help wondering how Brian felt hearing this tidy, relatively perky trip through the most painful events of his life: abusive father, clueless record label, career-crushing depression, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, guys--you left out the brother who died of cancer, the one who drowned, the decades of lawsuits with the cousin, and the cult-leader psychiatrist. What gives?!

But no matter, for it was on to the musical performances, each more surreal than the last:
1. Lyle Lovett performing a truly touching slowed-down version of "In My Room" (the surreal note here was that I had just seen him parody exactly this sort of gala tribute near the end of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to hilarious effect).
2. Hootie and the Blowfish, all dressed in matching blue Pendleton shirts, doing a cover-band medley of "I Get Around" and "California Girls" that inspired Brian to bounce around a bit in his seat, a move that Diana picked up on and began to exaggerate in her groove-y diva way, which in turn made Brian nervous again. Several elegantly dressed women in the audience leapt to their feet to dance, until, in that time-honored ritual repeated at every dive bar and suburban wedding across this great land since the early 1960s, their male companions grudgingly joined them. Soon the President and First Lady joined in, and for one brief and shining moment, a room full of wealthy, mostly white people was united in arhythmic hopping and bopping, clapping merrily against the beat. Even Leon Fleisher, whom we had just learned 20 minutes earlier has lost the use of his right hand--a tragedy that ended his career as a pianist and nearly destroyed him--was clapping away, visibly wishing he was somewhere else. A Christmas miracle!

This would all have been quite enough, but no:
3. "Ladies and gentlemen, Libera," says Carl Kasell, and out walk 9 boys in white choir robes (very Polyphonic Spree--and boy, wouldn't they have been a cool choice?). The littlest, cutest boy says in his best Oliver Twist voice, "Mr. Wilson, we were born a long, long way from your 'California beaches,' but the sunlight of your music can be felt every day on our streets in South London." Brian looks taken aback by this news flash, then smiles, and the boys sing a churchy choral version of his late-period solo non-hit "Love and Mercy," a wonderful song whose anti-war message surely sails directly over the head of our Commander in Chief (whose fave BB hit is BOUND to be "Kokomo," you just know it). The 9 moppets are joined by approximately 75 more boys; this new batch has clearly hit puberty so they have to stand farther back. All these underage kids chanting somberly about "standing in a bar" is a jarring image, but also lovely in its way. Brian closes his eyes; he and his wife Melinda look like they're going to cry, Diana dabs her eye, and it is quite powerful--until the kids reach the climax of the song, and--can it be? no, it can't! yes, it can!--dozens and dozens of beach balls fall from the ceiling onto the heads of the audience, who begin batting them around as if they are on spring break. Yee-ha!

Kasell takes us to another commercial break, then out comes host Caroline Kennedy, fresh from her recent notoriety as the inspiration of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," to wish us all a good night. (This is a total digression, but does it strike no one else as slightly creepy and restraining-order-y that she was 13 years old when he wrote that song?)

Writers' strike or no writers' strike, TV does not get much better than this, folks.

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