Thursday, March 18, 2010


Michael Franks, proud graduate of "The Cool School"

OK, boomers, it's time to redecorate your cubicles!

I've been preoccupied with the early 1960s lately. I guess it's simply the density of entertainment I've enjoyed lately devoted to that period.

On TV you have the AMC series Mad Men, of course. Did you know that Mattel plans to issue Barbie dolls based on the show's characters? For half a second I'll confess being tempted. Then there are two films that received attention at this year's Oscars: An Education and A Single Man. The former lets you see the world through the eyes of a lovestruck teen: she's smitten with Edith Piaf and a night life lubricated with jazz clubs and martinis. The same mileu is present in A Single Man. Again, our eyes are treated to well-dressed people behaving in a sophisticated way.

The allure of the time deepened for me over school vacation when I dug a couple of 2-album jazz singing collections out of my archives. Listening to these records while reading the newspaper (Hmmm. Can't take the twentieth century out of this boy, eh?), the vocals repeatedly made me reach for the liner notes. Who was singing? I was awakened to the beauty of voices I hadn't fully appreciated till then: Eddie Jefferson, Jimmy Rushing, Al Hibler, Ann Richards, and Nancy Harrow (to name a few). When were these recordings made? Time and again, almost without exception, the answer was 1962.

I love to read liner notes, and I was especially taken by the Producer's Note on one album where a long list of singers the producer wished could have been on the 2 records is enumerated. Among the alphabetized names (which truly make a nifty listening curriculum for the months ahead) the name Michael Franks appears.

I adore Michael Franks, and I'll write about him soon, but for now allow me to share a twenty-first century story. There I was working with my I-Tunes playing on my computer when what should I hear but Michael Franks's song "Hearing 'Take Five'" (from his last release, Rendezvous in Rio). Oh, I had to write about 1962 after being inspired by these lyrics dedicated to that very year!

Life was good
It's hard to describe
How simple times were then
Just being alive
Was all the thrill we needed
I still remember the day
I heard "Take Five"

Before St. Frank
Had been canonized
Our parents bragged that their
Martinis were dry
And JFK was flying high
And on the top of the charts
You heard "Take Five"

What became of heroes?
Now it's ones and zeroes

For once pure genius
Also was fame
And once I heard it
I was never the same
Paul Desmond, Gene, and Joe, and Dave
Brought my Philco alive
Playing "Take Five"

Just a flash in time. The Beats had made their mark, but the Beatles were still a year away. Robert Zimmerman was newly arrived in Greenwich Village, settling into his identity as Bob Dylan and going off to visit Woody Guthrie. The Rat Pack was ascendant and the Cuban Missile Crisis delivered a Cold War chill. Deep societal change was about to occur, but in this year the "old world" (of the post-war period) peacefully co-existed with the emerging new world.

Before being overrun by rock, jazz was in a poignant flowering. Audiences were listening to great singers in their prime: Ella, Sarah, Anita O'Day, you name it. Nat King Cole was still alive.

Then it all changed, seemingly overnight. I was much too young to be aware of the seismic shift, but with the assassination of JFK and the escalation of the Vietnam War, America was entering a new, more deeply troubled, state of consciousness.

Looking back on his youth in "The Cool School", Michael Franks recalls the feeling of "cool", circa early 1960s.

Am I a dinosaur, yeah you bet
I grew up listening to Mose and Chet
Let others fume and fuss
Belabor the Obvious
Me, I'm a child of the Cool School
Me, I attended the Cool School

..If define "cool" you must
It's kind of ambiguous
Something you sure can't pretend
One way to tell you see is
When your inner harmony
Always turns blue in the end

May I be completely unaware of a positive seismic shift that's about to happen in our time. Perhaps our fascination with 1962 speaks to an inarticulate sense that change is going to come. That, just as the saying goes, "It's always darkest before the dawn."