Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
2  And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
4  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
-- Revelation 21:1-4


Kids today have their computers, iPads and smart phones that bring the whole world into their grasp and into their eyes, ears and minds.

In the 1960s, I had a 21-inch, black-and-white Magnavox console television for my window on the world and, likewise, its accompanying radio and phonograph for the soundtrack of my life.

I always think of that old Magnavox, itself long consigned to sepia-tinted memory, when yet another piece of my youth has passed away as heaven and earth is aborn anew. It brought me the world; that world is no more, the new Jerusalem has yet to come down from on high, and I, in the September of my years, must wander the metaphysical neutral ground.

Andy Williams was someone that old Magnavox brought into our Baton Rouge home, and into my young life -- "Moon River" . . . The Andy Williams Show on TV . . . another appearance by the Osmond Brothers . . . "I Can't Get Used to Losing You," (one of my absolute favorite songs to this day) . . . years of Christmas specials amid freshly waxed floors, a newly decorated spruce tree and a cardboard fireplace with a festive, light-bulb fueled "fire."


IT'S BEEN decades since a live spruce tree graced my childhood Louisiana home, and the new laminate living-room floor doesn't need waxing. Mama is 89 now, and Daddy has been gone for 11 years. God only knows what happened to the 15-watt cardboard fireplace that held my Christmas stocking and strained under the dead weight of woolen hosiery stuffed with apples, oranges, candy canes and "D" cells.

Now, the Santa-festooned stocking I've had ever since I saw my first Christmas Day hangs on our Omaha Christmas tree, and last night, Andy Williams died. Bladder cancer. He was 84.

“Moon River” was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, and Audrey Hepburn introduced it in the 1961 film“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but it was Mr. Williams who made the song indisputably his own when he sang it at the 1962 Academy Awards ceremony and titled a subsequent album after it. When he built a theater in Branson, he named it the Andy Williams Moon River Theater.
“Moon River” became the theme song for his musical-variety television series “The Andy Williams Show,” which, along with his family-oriented Christmas TV specials, made him a household name.
“The Andy Williams Show” ran on NBC from 1962 to 1971 and won three Emmy Awards for outstanding variety series. But its run also coincided with the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and with a lineup of well-scrubbed acts like the Osmond Brothers (whom Mr. Williams introduced to national television) and established performers like Judy Garland and Bobby Darin, the show, at least to many members of a younger, more rebellious generation, was hopelessly square — the sort of entertainment their parents would watch.
Despite that image, “The Andy Williams Show” was not oblivious to the cultural moment. Its guests also included rising rock acts like Elton John and the Mamas and the Papas, and its offbeat comedy skits, featuring characters like the relentless Cookie Bear and the Walking Suitcase, predated similar absurdism on David Letterman’s and Conan O’Brien’s talk shows by decades.
Mr. Williams’s Christmas specials, on the other hand, were entirely anodyne and decidedly homey, featuring carols and crew-neck sweaters, sleigh bells and fake snow, and a stage filled with family members, including his wife, the telegenic French chanteuse Claudine Longet, and their three children. The Osmonds were regular guests, as were his older brothers, Bob, Don and Dick, who with Mr. Williams had formed the Williams Brothers, the singing act in which he got his start in show business.

Although Mr. Williams’s fame came from television, movie themes were among his best-known recordings, including those from “Love Story,” “Charade,” “The Way We Were” and “Days of Wine and Roses.” Decades after he had stopped recording regularly, his old hits continued to turn up on movie soundtracks: “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in “Bad Santa,” for instance, and his version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Mr. Williams earned 18 gold and three platinum albums and was nominated for Grammy Awards five times, but he never had a gold single. (His version of “Moon River” was not released as a single, although versions by Mr. Mancini and Jerry Butler reached the Top 20.) His biggest hit single — and his only No. 1 — was “Butterfly,” an uncharacteristically rocklike 1957 number for which he was instructed to imitate Elvis Presley.

His more mellow hits included “Canadian Sunset,” “The Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Lonely Street,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Are You Sincere?” He continued to record into the 1970s.
HERE'S THE THING. Pop culture worms its way -- being culture and all -- into your brain, your soul and your heart. In many ways, it defines us. It is a signifier -- who are you? Well, what music do you like? What do you read? What's your favorite movie?

What are your memories of childhood? How do you mark the passing years . . . note the chapters of your life?

Likewise,  those who create pop culture, like Andy Williams, worm their way into your life, too. They guest star in your memories and can cause a middle-age man to slip the sure restraints of time and space. And it's not just "your" pop culture that's capable of such magic.

The New York Times obituary says that my generation, the Baby Boomers, found Williams to be "hopelessly square -- the sort of entertainment their parents would watch." That's too simplistic to pass the smell test . . . or the test of time.

Yes, peer pressure would dictate that he fell into the category of Stuff Parents Like and thus was uncool. Of course, peer pressure is merely the difference between saying what you think you must and knowing what you believe in your heart. And if you have any integrity whatsoever, what you believe in your heart will win out eventually.

Look at it this way: Your favorite uncle may have been "hopelessly square," too. Did you disown him because of that? Did you slip out the back door when you saw his car turn into your driveway?

And as the years passed, did you erase him from your memories? Of course not. Did his presence cause them to be any less fond? Of course not. Did you stop loving it when he sang that song he always sang? Is the memory of that hopelessly soiled because a certain someone was a "hopeless square"?

Of course not.

I THINK that's kind of how my generation has come to deal with that -- and those -- deemed "hopelessly square" by others just as young as stupid as ourselves back in the day. Me, I have come to long for the days when hopeless squares ran the world. We the Hip, frankly, ain't doing such a bang-up job of it right now.

Long have I, and have people like me, mourned the passing of things like The Andy Williams Show from our collective pop culture, just as we lament a present culture that has banished Andy Williams and his successors from even the consciousness of today's tragically hip.

But mostly, we today mourn the passing of a legendary singer and an entertainment icon. Andy Williams may or may not have been "hopelessly square" and he may or may not have been popular with all the "wrong" people, but he sure as hell sang like a dream.

And he was as comfortable as a crew-neck sweater on a cold December day.

Mr. Williams, I just can't get used to losing you. Rest in peace.
 

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