Sunday, January 12, 2020

This Wasn't Supposed to Happen: Some Thoughts About the Death of Neil Peart

The first time I met Neil Peart, it was mid-1974. I was working at WMMS in Cleveland, where I had helped to launch the band's career in the US by getting "Working Man" on the air. I had first been sent the Canadian import version of their album by a record promoter friend of mine named Bob Roper, and that song resonated with the WMMS audience immediately.  John Rutsey was the drummer at that time, but he had health problems, and the other members (and their management) realized they needed to make a change. Neil was chosen because he was not only an excellent drummer but a talented lyricist. The next time Rush came to Cleveland, Neil was with them.

Back then, I was still sort of the "big sister" to the band; I helped them to get signed to a US record label, I called other stations to encourage them to play "Working Man" too (it was one of our most requested songs), and when they first performed in Cleveland, I was there to cheer them on. Naturally, because Neil was the "new guy," he wanted to meet me-- not because I was in any way influential, but because I already had established a relationship with Alex and Geddy, and he wanted to know more about me. So, I invited him to visit me and he did.  He came to my apartment and we talked for several hours. As it turned out, we had a love of literature in common-- in fact, I lent him my copy of Shakespeare's "King Lear," which had special meaning for both of us. 

We kept in touch sporadically. In April 1975, he sent me a postcard (which I still have) to let me know he was alive and well, touring was going great, and the band's new album was "pretty well written and will be recorded in July." Neil was always a very private person, and I did not expect that we would keep in touch with any regularity. In fact, as time passed, we only saw each other now and then, usually when I want backstage at a Rush concert. And because he never liked doing the endless "meet and greet" events where band-members shook hands with fans, I ended up seeing Geddy and Alex much more than I did Neil. But whenever I saw them, I always made sure they sent Neil my love.

Whether I saw him in person or not, Neil remained a presence in my life-- through his amazing lyrics, and through the privilege of watching him play. He was such a gifted drummer, and widely admired by his fellow musicians in other bands.  And I kept up with his life-- the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, his time away from the band, his eventual return... And then, one night in September 2010, when I had come to see the band perform in Boston, out of nowhere, he asked to see me. We hugged, like two old friends, and then we chatted about politics, about philosophy, about family, and yes, about "King Lear"-- he still had the copy of the play he had borrowed from me, and as I posted to social media at the time, I was very moved to find he still had it, and it still meant something to him.

And as he and I were saying goodbye, we were standing out in the hall and he remarked upon the lesson he took from "King Lear"-- that it's not enough to say you love someone; you have to show it. And he remarked upon second chances-- that he hadn't been there enough for his daughter Selena (he loved her, but by his own admission, he was on the road a lot); but he absolutely was going to be there for his daughter Olivia. It was a promise he kept.

I was not surprised when Neil decided to retire. I knew he had tendonitis. I knew he was in more pain than he let on. And while fans were, of course, disappointed, being a "retired drummer" gave him the chance to spend more time with his wife and daughter.  I kept in contact with him through his closest friend Craig, and I was so glad to hear he was content and enjoying his life.

And then it changed. A private person till the end, Neil shared with very few people that he had cancer. Even many reporters who had covered Rush over the years had no idea. When we all found out he had died, it was such a shock that few of us knew what to say. I am still finding it difficult to put into words what I feel about this tragic loss, but let me try:

Neil Peart was an honorable, ethical human being. Despite being one of the music industry's greatest drummers, he was never arrogant. He treated drumming, and song-writing, as art forms, and he elevated both. He loved being a musician, and his lyrics resonated with so many fans.  Neil was also a charitable person-- but when he gave (which he often did), he never wanted to call attention to himself.  He lived his life his way, never afraid to be himself, encouraging others to be themselves too. He left a large body of incredible music, that will live on. And he left years of wonderful memories that his millions of fans will never forget.  To think of a world without Neil in it breaks my heart. But I consider myself fortunate to have known him. May he rest in peace.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Good Times, Bad Times, You Know I've Had My Share

So, here we are at the end of the decade, and if I had to describe it, words like "surprising" and "shocking," as well as "gratifying," and at times "disappointing," come to mind. It was a decade that was often unpredictable, and sometimes unforgettable.  As 2019 ended, and the new decade was about to begin, many media sources were doing retrospectives on the decade's big news stories (and there were plenty of those); I don't want to bore anyone with ten years of my personal memories, but I do want to look back on a few events that affected my life during these past ten years.

To say the least, it was a decade of ups and downs. Let me begin with some positive events:  one of my favorite  memories involved Rush.  I was invited to give a talk as the band got their much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June 2010. Thousands of fans were there, and I got to meet a lot of them-- some still keep in touch with me.  There were also several wonderful gatherings of Rush fans, and I was included in a documentary about the band-- "Beyond the Lighted Stage," as well as in a video by film-maker Ray Boucher.  It reminded me once again how much these three guys from Toronto changed so many lives (including mine).

My other favorite Rush memory, as you might expect, is when the band finally got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013. I got called by several Canadian TV stations (and a couple in the US) to comment about it, and I was there, in Los Angeles, to see it happen. It was quite amusing when Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, who by many accounts had never been a fan and did his part to keep the guys out of the Rock Hall for years, began announcing the evening's inductees, and just as he was about to say Rush's name, the audience (which had many, many loyal fans in it) began to boo him. They booed him for several minutes, till he basically had to admit that Rush did deserve to be inducted. (When HBO broadcast the taped highlights of the event, I'm sure that part got edited out!)

Not all of my memories of the decade involved Rush, of course. In May 2011, at the age of 64, I received my PhD. I had gone back to school at age 55, and although it took nine years, going part-time and driving 100 miles up and back to the University of Massachusetts, I was able to make it happen, proving it's never too late to follow a dream. (My other dream is to own a radio station, but thus far, I haven't been able to make that one happen... yet.)

Throughout the decade, I had a number of articles and essays published, and several books:  a 2011 history of Boston radio, and a 2014 second edition of my book "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting."  In June 2017, I had the privilege of giving a talk at a baseball history symposium at Cooperstown NY's Baseball Hall of Fame; I spoke about five unique women who wrote about baseball, as far back as 1907. (My talk was later selected to be in an anthology of the best presentations from the symposium.)  I also was invited to be a guest speaker at a number of colleges, civic organizations, ham radio clubs, and public libraries.  I always enjoy bringing my rare memorabilia and talking about how people lived in the "good old days." And my ongoing efforts to collect and preserve the history of broadcasting won me the 9th annual Collectors Prize from Historic New England in 2018.

But there were some difficult times too. In late 2014, I found out I had cancer. Fortunately, I was able to go to one of the best hospitals, and my doctors were outstanding. Although it was a scary time in my life, today, thank God, I am five years cancer-free. But a dear friend of mine was not so fortunate. Earlier that year, Jerry Brenner lost his battle with cancer. Many of you may not know his name: he was a record promoter for many years, and a very influential figure in the music business. But more than that, he was a mentor to many of us in radio, including me; I had known him since I was in college, and he always believed in me.  I miss him to this day.

In 2015, I began blogging. And while it hasn't made me famous (or rich), it has allowed me to express my opinions on a wide range of subjects.  I appreciate those of you who have read my postings.  My most-read entry was from September 2017, about another event that was memorable in this decade: the end of Rush's performing days. This post focused on why Neil Peart had decided to retire, after an impressive career that made millions of fans happy all over the world.

I could easily get into a discussion about the politics of the past decade, or some of the famous people who left us too soon, or how I wish that as a society, we could be kinder to each other. (I still can't get used to people calling each other rude names on social media.)  I could talk about the changing technology-- I remember that back in 2010, most people were just beginning to use smartphones; today, few of us go anywhere without them.  As this new decade begins, who can predict what other changes lie ahead?  All I can say is I'm glad to be alive to see 2020 begin; and I'm ready for whatever comes next.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

It Goes to Show You Never Can Tell

If I'm still here on Tuesday the 17th (and I sincerely hope I am), it will officially be five years since I had my cancer surgery. I am told that's significant, because if it hasn't returned by then, it probably isn't going to.  That will be a tremendous relief. As many of you know, when you have had cancer, you always worry about if (or when) it might recur.  By nature, I'm generally not a worrier, but I have to admit I've spent a lot of time worrying during the past five years, even though I'm well aware that worrying isn't very helpful.

But in addition to worrying, I decided the best way to cope was to keep busy. So, in early 2015, I began blogging. I also took a few online courses (yes, I already have my degree, but I've always enjoyed learning something new). I wrote some media history articles for academic journals. I spoke at several conventions and conferences (including going to Cooperstown to give a talk at a baseball history symposium held at the Hall of Fame).  And no matter how I felt--and some days, I didn't feel so great, believe me-- I kept showing up for work, and I kept trying my best to be an interesting professor. Mainly, I tried to follow the advice I often give to my students: it's okay to worry, but don't let it stop you.  So, some days, I worried. But I didn't let it stop me.  

As I've mentioned in other blog posts, evidence suggests I shouldn't be here. Nearly every one of my female relatives on my mother's side died of cancer (including my maternal grandmother, who had the same kind of cancer I did-- but she only lived to be 44, while I'm 72, by the grace of God). I try to keep things in perspective, and keep an attitude of gratitude. I had wonderful doctors. I got great medical treatment. Having good health insurance was a plus too. In other words, as scary as things were sometimes, it really could have been a lot worse.

In the past five years, I've lost a few friends to cancer.  However, there were others who made often-remarkable recoveries. I'm not very good at predicting the future, so in my own case, I've just tried to take things a day at a time, while hoping that everything would turn out well. I've thanked many of you before, but I want to do it again: there are many people who reached out to me during this journey, to encourage me and to let me know I was in their prayers.  To those of you fighting your own battle with cancer (or with some other illness), I hope you too have a positive outcome. And if I've learned anything from my own situation, it's that so much of what we all get upset or angry or frustrated about on a day to day basis isn't worth the time we spend on it. In the greater scheme of things, what matters most is being alive. I'm grateful I'm still here to write those words.  

Saturday, November 30, 2019

What We Leave Behind

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood-- Dorchester, MA, back when it was predominantly Jewish. There was also another ethnic neighborhood in Dorchester too, and it was mostly Irish. In the Jewish part, there were a number of synagogues, Kosher butchers, and Kosher delicatessens. In the Irish part, there were a number of churches, stores that sold ethnic foods popular with the Irish clientele, and some taverns. There was no rule that Jews couldn't go to the Irish part of town, nor was there one that forbade the Irish residents from visiting their Jewish friends. But as I recall, the folks from each neighborhood didn't do that; they hung around mainly with "their own."

These days, Dorchester still has ethnic enclaves-- there are always new groups of immigrants: there's a Vietnamese area, a Haitian area, and the next generation of Irish residents, among others. The Jews, for the most part, moved to the suburbs-- some moved to Jewish neighborhoods in Brookline or Newton (if they could afford it); others, who were working class, left for whatever neighborhoods had affordable rents. My family bought a house in Roslindale, another neighborhood of Boston, when I was eight. As I recall, nearly everyone there was Catholic, with a few folks who were Greek Orthodox. Suddenly, I went from living among many Jewish families to being the only Jew in town. It was quite a culture shock and it took some time to adjust.

Years later, out of curiosity, I went back to visit the area where I spent the first eight years of my life, and I found that not much remained of the old Jewish neighborhood-- the house I lived in burned down a few years ago, and nobody rebuilt it. The buildings that once housed synagogues are now home to churches. The former Kosher butchers and delis now have entirely different names and entirely different customers. None of this surprised me: I'm well aware that times change, neighborhoods change, and demographics change. Today, it's almost like the Jews were never there.

What brought all this to mind was an article I was reading in the Boston Globe about the gradual demise of Boston's Chinatown. Working class Chinese people are being forced out by rising rents; buildings are being bought up by developers who are putting in expensive apartments ($6,000 a month for some); quaint local Chinese restaurants are being replaced by much fancier (and pricier) ones that are aimed at tourists and upper-class foodies. As the article points out, this long-time ethnic neighborhood will soon become Chinatown in name only, as the local Chinese population will no longer be able to afford to live there.

There are many Chinese people who already left. Like other upwardly-mobile immigrants in previous generations, they wanted to live in the suburbs, to have better schools for their kids to attend. But there are others who can't afford to leave, or whose English skills are weak.  They worry about where they will go when Chinatown is no more. It's a dilemma that people in many cities are facing. Working class ethnic neighborhoods are gradually being bought up, and residents are facing an uncertain future. I frequently hear about how our economy is booming, but there remain large segments of the population who are barely getting by, and outrageous rents are a large part of the problem.  

I admit I'm of two minds about ethnic neighborhoods-- on the one hand, there's a certain security and comfort in seeing folks who are familiar, who share the same culture and customs; it's also nice to hear one's ancestral language (the folk songs especially). On the other hand, at some point, it's important to get out into the wider world and be exposed to different cultures and customs; and speaking good English is essential for success in most occupations. Yet there's still a part of me that misses the old neighborhood. But beyond the nostalgia, I recognize that people do move on, and it's probably a good thing. However, I still wish there were a way to preserve the best of what used to be there, rather than just bulldozing it, or turning it into condos for rich people.  There's a lot we can learn from the folks who came before us. For that reason, it saddens me each time a neighborhood's history gets erased...often in the name of "progress."       

Friday, November 15, 2019

Reporting the News in a Post-Truth World

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is coming to Boston in a couple of days to do several speaking engagements, and I'll have a chance to meet him. You may remember his name-- he and his then-colleague Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, back in 1972; and their investigative reporting eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.

I can't predict what he'll talk about, but I'm sure the current state of journalism will be one of the topics.  Things are certainly different from when he was reporting about politics in the early 1970s. It was the era before the internet; there wasn't even any cable news yet. Most of us got our information from newspapers and magazines, and by watching the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC, or CBS.

Like today, Americans were very polarized. But the Fairness Doctrine was still around, and commentary was not usually a part of any newscasts; nor were one-sided attacks allowed.  There were some radio talk shows that expressed views from one side or the other, but both sides had to be given a chance to be heard. And on TV, popular programs like the Tonight Show tried to avoid partisanship entirely, and focus on making the audience laugh-- whatever their political views.

President Nixon distrusted and disliked the press, and so did Vice President Spiro Agnew. Both were harsh critics of the media of their day, and both accused reporters of bias (like many presidents, before and since, Mr. Nixon believed the press was against him; and Mr. Agnew claimed the press was out of step with the views of most Americans, a claim other politicians have also made).

Meanwhile, hardworking investigative journalists kept trying to do their jobs, in print or on radio or on TV. And Bob Woodward was part of that group of reporters whose goal was to find the truth and let the public know.  I doubt he imagined back in 1972 that one day, the Fairness Doctrine would be gone, leading to many Republicans watching (and trusting) only one channel, and reading only publications that reinforced their views; and the same would be true for many Democrats, such that both groups were living in entirely different realities when it came to politics.

These days, it seems many people prefer commentary to news; they say they want "unbiased news," but surveys show many of them really want reporting that favors their particular candidate or supports their particular side.  In fact, the highest-rated folks on cable news are the commentators, many of whom distort or exaggerate the facts to serve a partisan goal.

I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein (or someone like them) could bring down a corrupt president today. I fear that large numbers of people would simply ignore their reporting, tune out their stories, and seek out media outlets that said their work was "fake news." I believe we need good reporting now more than ever. Yet it really seems that many people don't care about facts; they'd much rather have partisan opinions. I'll be interested in how Mr. Woodward sees it. I'll let you know what he says.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Team (and the Song) We Needed

On any day in Washington DC, you can find politicians from both sides of the aisle criticizing their political opponents. It's almost like a ritual: members express their outrage on camera, and then their supporters get on social media to reinforce their side's talking points and criticize the other side some more. At times, all the bickering can become exhausting, and everyone can use a break. Fortunately, for the past few weeks, both Republicans and Democrats in the Nation's Capitol found one thing they could agree on: cheering for the Washington Nationals baseball team. The Nationals had surprised everyone by getting into the playoffs and then going to the World Series. And now, they were on the verge of winning it all-- an outcome just about nobody had predicted earlier in the season. And some people believed it all had to do with "Baby Shark."

For a while now, some baseball players have had a song they use when they come up to bat. And if a player is in a hitting slump, he might change the song. That was the situation for Washington Nationals player Gerardo Parra back in June.  Inspired by his two-year old daughter, he began to utilize the popular (and to some adults, very annoying) children's song she loved, "Baby Shark," whenever he walked to the plate.  Ballplayers are often superstitious, and when Parra began to get some hits, he kept "Baby Shark" as his song.  The fans at Nationals Park approved-- in fact, it didn't take long before they were loudly and enthusiastically singing along, as "Baby Shark" became the unofficial theme song of the Nationals, complete with hand gestures mimicking a shark.

Parra also instituted the custom of players doing a sort of happy dance in the dugout. And throughout much of the season, the Nationals were giving their fans a lot to be happy about. It had been many, many years since DC had seen a championship baseball team-- they last won a World Series back in 1924, with a different team-- the Washington Senators.  On paper, this team (a descendant of the old Montreal Expos), didn't stand much of a chance against their World Series opponent, the Houston Astros. While the Nationals won 93 games this year, the Astros led the major leagues with 107 wins. They were confident-- they had won a World Series in 2017, and they had a number of well-known players. In short, few pundits gave the Nationals much of a chance.

Of course, as sometimes happens in sports, things didn't turn out the way everyone expected. The Nationals may have been the underdogs, but they never gave up and they never gave in, and they took the series to game seven, before defeating the Astros in Houston (in a unique series where, for the first time, neither team won a home game). Meanwhile, in rainy Washington DC, fans were sitting in Nationals Park, watching on the big screen, and singing "Baby Shark," as they celebrated the unthinkable: the Nationals were World Series champions.

Today, politicians were back to their usual partisan arguments, and the House took a vote on an impeachment inquiry. But all over the city, Democrats and Republicans paused to smile and exchange congratulations about their amazing baseball team. Many people were planning to attend the parade on Saturday, and in that brief time, politics and partisanship would cease to matter. And for a little while, the love of baseball and the joy of having a winning team would unite the city, and fans would be singing "Baby Shark" and doing a happy dance.  And political debates would take a back seat to pride in how the Nationals showed all the doubters that even in these contentious times, miracles can... and do... happen.     

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Is This Any Way to Choose a President?

I'm teaching a very important course this semester, and the timing couldn't be better. It's called Political Communication, and since we are currently in the midst of choosing the Democratic nominee for president, there's a lot for us to analyze.  During the semester, we examine what each political party is doing to get their candidates elected.  We study how campaigning is done, how politicians get their messages out to the public, which strategies are effective, and which ones aren't.  We also look at some past campaigns, to compare them to what goes on today.  (Did you know that George Washington didn't campaign at all the first time he was elected president? Imagine all the money he saved!)

On Tuesday night, I watched portions of the Democratic candidates debate. There were twelve people on the stage (way too many candidates for a real debate), and three moderators questioning them. For about three hours, each of the candidates tried very hard to distinguish themselves-- to say something clever or something memorable, in addition to getting their talking points out there.  I thought some of the candidates stood out more than others did; but the entire event felt really superficial to me. Nobody was able to explore the issues in depth. They were all performing for the cameras, hoping the viewers would find them both likeable and informative.

And there were so many issues that didn't get discussed at all; but even if they had, I'm not sure all twelve candidates would have had enough time to tell us much.  I wondered what Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would have thought about candidates only getting about 75 seconds to answer a question: in their famous debate, each man was expected to speak for at least sixty minutes, with the other person being given ninety minutes to respond. Okay fine, there was no television or radio or internet in 1858, so the public didn't expect short sound-bites, and they were fine about long answers.  In fact, they expected a thorough articulation of each candidate's policies. I don't see how 12 candidates can thoroughly articulate much of anything; and even when the candidates are winnowed down to just a few,  I wonder if that quotable (or tweet-able) moment, the one that can go viral on social media, will take precedence over giving in-depth answers. 

Perhaps I'm imagining it, but our politics seems to be lacking in substance. In fact, it seems more like a Reality TV show, or perhaps Professional Wrestling.  The president says something outrageous. The media report it. The commentators on each side react to it. The various candidates who want to replace him express their disapproval of what he said.  And on we go, till the next outrageous assertion, and the cycle repeats itself.  Meanwhile, the partisans on each side retreat to their respective corners, watching or listening to their favorite media outlets, as their favorite politicians repeat the standard insults against folks on the other side. (It's possible to spend one's entire life safe in a bubble, only exposed to views that agree with yours, or reinforce what you already believe.)

More than any time I can remember, our Political Communication is dominated by insults, name-calling, and exaggerated claims, all intended to stir up outrage. No wonder nothing is getting done.  This president prefers to go on TV or social media and mock the folks on the other side, rather than seeking common ground with them. And his opponents are torn between coming back with insults of their own or ignoring what he said (and possibly appearing weak).  And here we are, stuck in a made-for-TV election process. I wonder what the viewers thought of the debate. I wonder which candidate impressed them. But above all, I wonder if there is any one candidate who can help create a country that is less angry and less partisan. Let me know what you think.