Pope Brock


Titanic Under Alles

I’m fresh from seeing a very strange movie offered on Filmstruck. It’s called Titanic, it is indeed another film about the sinking, the difference being that it was made in 1942 under Hitler’s regime and all the characters speak German. The movie elevates English greed and bumbling to great heights, and the lone voice protesting it is (totally fictional) First Officer Pederson, the only German on board, who keeps urging the stupid owner and the stupid captain to slow down because if we hit an iceberg at this speed then oh the humanity. Production notes: the film was conceived and driven forward by Goebbels despite the enormous costs as a great propaganda vehicle. Partway through the filming the director, Herbert Selpin, criticized something about the regime so Goebbels had him killed. Somebody else came in to finish filming a traumatized cast. When the thing was finally ready,the Allies were bombing Germany so widely that Goebbels blocked its release on the theory that the public might be  demoralized by a movie full of death and panic when they were finding plenty of it at home.

But, to return to first principles, it’s watching characters like asshole John Jacob Astor and all his idiot English cohorts freaking in German that will stay with you. The sinking stuff (water pouring in etc.) is very well done.


Song of the Day: Norah Jones, Sinking Soon




Books, Fiction

Too Misty

Outstanding creative writing advice via Muriel Spark. This is the opening of her novel Finishing School:

“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

Song of the Day: In a Mist, Bix Beiderbecke

Blog, Music

Wondrous Italian Clarinet Player and Some Russians in Evening Wear

Now and then I come across a song on Youtube I’d love to play on my radio show, but something vital would be missing without the visuals.  So I happily bring you here:

First, Hetty and the Jazzato Band, an Italian swing outfit. They’re all good, but the clarinet player is the coolest thing ever:

Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano

The second group is called The Sexican (I think). From the comments section I’m guessing they’re Russian though I don’t usually picture Russians doing this stuff with their bodies:

Cuarto de la Banda

Weird and expensive.


Blog, Music

Melodious Veep

You know the song “All in the Game”? (“Many a tear has to fall/But it’s all in the game….”)

It’s been covered by everybody, from Jimmy Witherspoon to Van Morrison to Roland Kirk.

Turns out it was written by this guy:

Charles G. Dawes, vice-president under Calvin Coolidge and recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize.

That is to say, he wrote the melody in 1911. Forty years later somebody named Carl Sigman came along and added lyrics. In 1958 Tommy Edwards took it to #1….

All in the Game

“Shine Little Glow Worm” has a similar history. But that’s for another time —




Blog, Books, Music

The Gone

Yesterday I got in touch with Alicia Mayer, the grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, in connection with some research I’ve been doing on some MGM movies from the 30s. I was having a hard time locating his papers, which I assumed were archived someplace. Not so. According to Ms. Mayer, his papers were all “burnt by his second wife and her lawyer.”

That puts them right up there with Cassandra Austen, Mrs. Stephen Foster and all the other maniacs who have gouged holes in our artistic heritage. But then wonderful stuff has gone missing for so many reasons….

Refused publication, James Joyce threw Stephen Hero into the fire; Nora retrieved 1/5 of it.

From 1856 to 1896 Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann exchanged more than four thousand letters, almost all of which he destroyed just before his death.

Julius Caesar wrote a play called Oedipus — who knew and where is it

Gogol burns Part II of Dead Souls — well-known — rewrites it completely and burns that too — less known

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci representing Orpheus pursued by the Furies is ruined while being restored in 2001

Emile Zola burns all his letters from Paul Cezanne; Cezanne destroys his portrait of Zola (tiff?)

Check out Henri LeFebvre’s incantatory Missing Pieces for many, many more of the the same. It’s the eeriest book you can imagine.

Song of the Day: Scatman Crothers





Blog, TV

Artificial Intelligence

World History for 11 points!

In 1521, after the excommunication of this religious reformer, a Holy Roman Emperor summoned him to appear before a conference. The conference demanded that the reformer recant, but he refused. Tell me:

1 The name by which the conference is known

2 The name of the religious reformer who appeared before it

3 The name of the Pope who excommunicated him

4 The name of the Emperor

Drawing four blanks? In 1958 dairy farmer Harold Craig answered every part correctly on his way to stockpiling $106,000 in winnings. And he did it on live television!

But then he was cheating.

To me there are two amazing things about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. One is how the producers, sponsors and networks ever believed that an ever-widening conspiracy of several hundred people wouldn’t spring a leak. The other is how riveting the surviving shows are even when you know they’re fixed. Here’s the  famous match-up between Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel on the show Twenty-One. Even when you know they’re acting — when you know the bank vault containing the questions is cardboard — it’s great TV:

Van Doren v. Stempel, brought to you by Geritol

The collapse of the quiz shows — which at the time were bigger than I Love Lucy — began on a May morning in 1958 when Marie Winn stepped onstage to play Dotto. Miss Winn (Janet Malcolm’s sister as it happens) was cute as a button

so it’s easy to understand why the producers wanted to keep her around. Unfortunately while she was on-air, a standby contestant (“Skinny Eddie” Hilgemeier) found her little notebook in the dressing room — the one containing the answers she was giving live at that moment (“‘The Cask of Amontillado!'”). Thus began the quiz shows’ toboggan to disaster. Even Patty Duke, 11 years old at the time, was found to have been pre-fed answers for the $64,000 Challenge by producer Shirley Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s sister as it happens). Two grand juries and a Congressional investigation later….

But fixed or not, look at the level of knowledge contestants back then could plausibly be expected to possess. When Charles Van Doren successfully named the seven British prime ministers between the wars and the three countries that border on the largest lake in Africa and what kind of milk Pecorino and Gorgonzola cheeses are made of (cow, reindeer, goat, sheep, buffalo, zebra [!]), eighty million people thought sure, he could know that.

Shakespeare for 10 points!

Many people who are famous in history and legend appear in Shakespearean plays. Name the plays in which the following famous people appear:

1 Joan of Arc


2 Agamemnon


3 Cardinal Wolsey

How we doing?

Song of the Day: Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster




Blog, Books


Famous Last Words:

“Mrs. Tope’s care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner-cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; then falls to with an appetite.”

A few hours later, as Victorian novel freaks well know, Charles Dickens stroked out at age 58. He left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished, and no outline to indicate where the story was going. Edwin (the character) has disappeared, that’s all we know, and like Dickens he’s been missing ever since.

However much this drove the reading public crazy (and it did, and continues to in its quiet way), it caused particular pain to Samuel Luke Fildes, the book’s illustrator, who suddenly lost a really good gig. But then he saw an opportunity:

He called it Empty Chair and it sold like hotcakes.

Artist Robert William Buss took one look and also saw an opportunity. The print inspired him to create a great big painting he called Dickens’s Dream:

Dickens Dream - Robert W. Buss

…The dozing author, as you see, visited by a host of his characters.

Buss died abruptly before he could complete the work, leaving another work of art unfinished. But better this way, don’t you think? Really beautiful and ethereal. In any case, it makes for a super-challenging 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The pieces are spread on a table in my living room as we speak. So far the puzzle remains unsolved.

Song of the Day: Iris DeMent

Blog, TV

Double Doody

I learned yesterday that Carl Bernstein, the legendary Watergate reporter, won a Howdy Doody lookalike contest when he was a boy. My first horrified thought was that he might have looked like this:

For this was in fact the original Howdy Doody who alarmed households across America beginning around 1950. Fortunately he only lasted a couple of years. Much acrimony developed between Buffalo Bob, who thought up the character, and Frank Paris, who made the puppet, Paris growing increasingly incensed about his revenue share. One day in 1952 he snatched Howdy and disappeared from the studio four hours before airtime. What to do? When the show went on at 5 pm, Buffalo Bob explained that Howdy had left town for a while to cover the presidential election. They put up a big map tracking his whereabouts. He then filed reports (unseen). Meanwhile Clarabell, Big Chief Thunderthud and the others picked up the slack, until Howdy reported that seeing one of the presidential candidates up close had inspired him (Howdy) to have plastic surgery. Puppeteer Velma Dawson went to work and created the addled redhead we know today, with 48 freckles, one for every state in the Union. Howdy was really pleased with the results:

He still doesn’t look like Bernstein to me.

Song of the Day: Eva Cassidy



Blog, Books


I discover I’m mentioned in Adam Gopnik’s latest memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate, when he describes going to meet photographer Richard Avedon for the first time. Apparently I was there:

“….His name comes back to me as two oddly matched monosyllables, like a title: Pope Brock…”

Well, his name comes back to me as four syllables that sound better read backwards, Kinpog Mada.




Blog, Music

Standing in the Shadows of Stax

Last week I came upon two major examples of The Song Behind the Song. Like so many things, they were complete news to me. They both involve R&B hits from Stax in the 60s: “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the totemic “Mustang Sally.” For decades I’d been going around believing that Albert King introduced the first (followed by the acid bath it got from Cream) and Wilson Pickett the second. I’ve been grateful to these people. I still am. But if we take these covers and lift the lid….

“Born Under a Bad Sign,” it turns out, was written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and first recorded by Bell himself. As you may know, he was one of those almost-major figures on the Stax roster back then with a couple of important hits to his credit. This wasn’t one, in his own rendering:

Born Under a Bad Sign 1 

But Albert King made it famous. This is partly because King’s version is a lot better, as you can tell instantly from that four-note power climb at the start —

Born Under a Bad Sign 2

But it still wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t such a great song, one of those twists on the blues that seems like the blues at first but is really a fabulous thing of its own. William Bell has just released his first Stax album in 40 years, in which he revisits the song himself:

Born Under a Bad Sign 3

You can hear another 40 years of a man’s life in it for sure.

As for “Mustang Sally,” I now discover that Sir Mack Rice, who died last summer, wrote and recorded it with modest success (#15 on the R&B charts in — what else — 1965) before Wilson Pickett lit up the sky the following year:

Mustang Sally 1

Mustang Sally 2

Again, two bars of Pickett’s cover and you know that musically you’re in the presence of greatness. But without Sir Rice (knighted by his producer) we wouldn’t be.

A little research reveals that Aretha Franklin, his piano player on the demo, convinced him to change the title from “Mustang Mama.” And you thought she couldn’t get any cooler.

Truth to tell, when I want to listen to this song these days — and I can’t go too long without it — I find myself creeping back to Andrew Strong’s cover in The Commitments:   

Mustang Sally 3

Yeah, I know he’s white, but still.