Monday, August 17, 2015

This Day In Pop Culture, August 17

Kwik Kwiz Kulture Kats:

What date in pop culture can we celebrate miletones in punk rock, transgressive literature and baseball?

This one!

Ramones Play First Show at CBGBs, 1974

Is it possible to write a post about the Ramones that can be read in the two and a half minutes which was the typical length of one of their songs?

On this day in 1974 the Ramones emerged from one of the fouler abcesses of lower Manhattan, CBGBs, and kicked music in the butt, much like the Beatles had done ten years earlier.


Bassist DeeDee Ramone counted down the first song as he would every other they would perform. It was DeeDee, sensitive, sincere, sometime street hustler, who wrote many of the band's early songs and provided their initial aesthetic of leather jacket, jeans and gym shoes. Joey Ramone draped himself over the mic and assumed the alter ego to which he escaped from his awkward, dysfuntional, obsessive-compulsive true self. Stage left was Johnny Ramone, always angry, always defiant, caught left leg forward in mid-ax-hero stride, pounding downstrokes, only downstrokes onto the guitar strings. Tommy Ramone sat behind the drum kit, an island of normalcy along an atoll of misfits, keeping the bunch on the beat, both musically and often emotionally.

Rock music goes through cycles in which bursts of energy and creativity slowly devolve into the corporate humming of clones, until vanquished by the new upstart escaping Liverpool, Seattle or in the case of the Ramones, Flushing.  Rock in the early '70s had become self-indulgent with the extended musical explorations of the Grateful Dead and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and the personal explorations of James Taylor and Cat Stevens.

That first night the Ramones reminded the world that of the three main ingredients of rock - musicianship, energy and attitude - the last two go a long way.

Leggs McNeil, who would go onto spread the gospel of the punk scene was at CBGBs that night:
 "They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song... and it was just this wall of noise... They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new."
McNeil was on to something. The Sixties had passed from the calendar and the heart a few years earlier, collapsing under its own excesses without leaving a cultural bequest to the next youth cohort. That night in 1974 the Ramones, along with others, began construction of a new youth culture that would be all its own.


Below is a rough video of the band taken at CBGB's a few weeks later.

And for a few more pics of the band and CBGBs, visit the Kulture Kat Pinterest board below.

Follow KultureKat's board The Ramones on Pinterest.

Charles Bukowski Is Born, 1920

Bukowski came into this world today, inhabiting only it's darker corners for the following 70 years. He wrote poems and novels, unnoticed for much of his life, on the three things he loved best: alcohol, sex, and Los Angeles.

Sometime ago I wrote a review of Factotum, a biographical treatment of Bukowski's later years. What follows are a few select paragraphs, repurposed for this post.

...Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Germany in 1920. His family escaped the economic dissolution of his birth country in 1924, eventually settling in Los Angeles, Bukowski’s home for most of his life. As a teenager, Bukowski began his love affair with alcohol, and shortly after, his affair with writing. Bukowski was always the outsider, alienated from others by his accent, the anti-German bigotry of the war years, and the severe acne scarring on his face.

In his early twenties, Bukowski published two short stories. Becoming quickly disillusioned with the publication process, Bukowski began what he calls his “ten year drunk”. He only achieved recurring success with his writing in 1969, at the age of 49.

Most of Bukowski’s work is written from the perspective of the alienated outsider. His style was raw and unsympathetic. He wrote most often of the hopelessness which binds together the lowest rung of society, thus earning the title “The Poet Laureate of Skid Row”.

Factotum, like all of Bukowski’s work, is a near perfect exemplar of transgressive fiction. In many ways, the common achievement of works of transgressive fiction is to create a discomforting disorientation by having the character the reader sympathizes with violate accepted social norms and act in unsympathetic ways...

If you'd like to read the previous post in its entirety, you can find it here.

Ray Chapman Dies After Being Hit By Pitch, 1920

Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman came up to bat against Yankee star pitcher Carl Mays in the 5th inning of a game at the Polo Grounds. Mays threw hard and with a near underhand release which made it especially difficult for a batter to judge. The last pitch Chapman would ever see tailed up and in, hitting him on the side of the head. The crack of the impact was so loud that Mays fielded the ball, assuming it had hit the bat. Chapman was helped from the field and died the next morning from a severe skull fracture.

Most baseball fans have never heard of Ray Chapman, but his death helped usher in a more exciting power hitting era of baseball.

Team owners hated wasting money, whether on players or baseballs. Over the course of a game, a new ball would be introduced only when the previous ball was irretrievably lost. In the later innings, the ball was often scuffed, torn, deformed and softened. It was also discolored by grass, dirt and tobacco juice. Pitchers liked it this way, it gave them an advantage in what would later be called the "dead-ball era".

During this time, a "power hitter" might have only a handful of home runs for the entire season. Frank "The Home Run King" Baker led the American League in homers from 1911 to 1914, yet in his best season hit only 12. The offensive strategy of the game was "small ball": add together the right sequence of singles, steals, and sacrifice bunts and a team might manufacture a run in an inning.

The outcry which followed Chapman's death lead to a rule change which required a ball to be replaced as soon as the umpire judged it to be discolored. Shortly after, the dead-ball era of baseball was over and the home run became the dramatic highpoint of the offense. In 1921, four times as many home runs were hit than in the 1919 season.

To be sure, the new rule which resulted from Chapman's death was not the only reason baseball changed so suddenly. At almost the same time. it became illegal for pitchers to doctor the ball with spit or by abrading the surface. Perhaps as important, Babe Ruth's hitting style of full, powerful swings at the plate was adopted by other players who had previosuly used a shorter chop when batting.

But to this day, Chapman is the only player ever to be killed in a professional baseball game. If we don't remember him for his stats, we can at least remember how his death helped change the game.

For a few more pictures of Chapman and Mays, visit the Kulture Kat Pinterest board below.

Follow KultureKat's board Ray Chapman on Pinterest.

Greenwich Village 1910-1920, In Pictures

Which is the capital of Bohemian America, Greenwich Village in Manhattan or San Francisco's North Beach? Any casual survey of 20th century pop culture will inevitably lead you through one of these metro hamlets. Both have long-served as sanctuaries of the alternative-inclined.

Bohemian communities attract those compeled to alternative approaches to life. They are often thought of simply as artists communities, a view that is true but limited. In general, bohemians reject, or at least are not dominated by the materialistic drives of the larger society. Their political views are liberal, and sometimes radical. Their approach to sex tends to be unlimited by monogamy. Like most other communities, they seek out others who share their lifestyle.

Bohemia are cultural incubators in which alternative ideas are street-tested, mutate, often die and sometimes escape into the greater culture-sphere.

A few months ago I came across an article in Slate about Jessi Tarbox Beals, one of the first women newspaper photograpers in the US and a resident of Greenwich Village in the early decades of the 20th century. The pictures in the article were all taken between 1910 and 1920, the period in which Greenwich Village first became self-aware of its bohemianism.

The early history of the village, its notable residents and places, and its contributions to American pop culture will be the topics of future KultureKat posts.

Until then, here are a few pictures of the original Greenwich Village Bohemians from the Slate article and a few other sources. Look at the faces in these black and white photos and consider that some may be our cultural grandparents.

"Group portrait of people gathered at the Garrett Coffee House." (14 Photos Of Greenwich Village From Before You Were Born)

"In 1916, a small monthly magazine called The Ink Pot began publishing stories from its headquarters on Sheridan Square. With one Peter Newton acting as the editor, The Ink Pot was one of a number of short-lived publications in the neighborhood that covered the colorful lives of various Village bohemians. It also provided advertisements for shops, restaurants, and galleries in the area." (The Ink Pot' on Sheridan Square, Then & Now)

"Dancing in Charley Reed's Purple Pup, 186 West Fourth Street, Greenwich Village, circa 1910-1920." (Photos of Bohemian Partiers in New York’s Greenwich Village, 1910-1920)

"The corner house, now demolished, was at one time the grave digger's residence at the potter's field. In the early 1900s, it was occupied by a popular ice cream and soda shop on the ground floor and, for a while, by Bruno's Garret on the second floor. By the time this photograph was taken, Bruno was gone, and Grace Godwin, visible in the second-story window, had taken over the upstairs. Godwin added window boxes and served breakfast, afternoon tea, and after-dinner coffee." (This 1920s Washington Square Garret...)

And finally, meet Jessie Tarbox Beals. Born in 1870, like many educated women of her time, Jessie Tarbox trained as a teacher. She received her first assignment as newspaper photographer in 1899. She and her husband, Alfred Beals, opened a studio in Greenwhich Village in 1905, where she continued to photograph many of its residents for the next 20 years.


For the original Slate article which inspired this post see Photos of Bohemian Partiers in New York’s Greenwich Village, 1910-1920.

For a summary of the life and career of Jessie Tarbox Beals, Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) at the Library of Congress website. ANother good summary is this New York Times article A Pioneer in a Man's World, She Was Tough Enough.

For the entire collection of Teal's Greenwhich Village photos, visit the New York Historical Society's Pinterest board. For a smaller selection of my favorites, go to the KultureKat Pinterest board.
Follow KultureKat's board Greenwich Village, 1910-20 on Pinterest.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This Day in Pop Culture. June 25

The Last Packard Produced, 1956

The last Packard–the classic American luxury car with the famously enigmatic slogan “Ask the Man Who Owns One”–rolls off the production line at Packard’s plant in Detroit, Michigan on this day in 1956.

Mechanical engineer James Ward Packard and his brother, William Dowd Packard, built their first automobile, a buggy-type vehicle with a single cylinder engine, in Warren, Ohio in 1899. The Packard Motor Car Company earned fame early on for a four-cylinder aluminum speedster called the “Gray Wolf,” released in 1904. It became one of the first American racing cars to be available for sale to the general public. With the 1916 release of the Twin Six, with its revolutionary V-12 engine, Packard established itself as the country’s leading luxury-car manufacturer. World War I saw Packard convert to war production earlier than most companies, and the Twin Six was adapted into the Liberty Aircraft engine, by far the most important single output of America’s wartime industry.
Packards had large, square bodies that suggested an elegant solidity, and the company was renowned for its hand-finished attention to detail. In the 1930s, however, the superior resources of General Motors and the success of its V-16 engine pushed Cadillac past Packard as the premier luxury car in America. Packard diversified by producing a smaller, more affordable model, the One Twenty, which increased the company’s sales. The coming of World War II halted consumer car production in the United States. In the postwar years, Packard struggled as Cadillac maintained a firm hold on the luxury car market and the media saddled the lumbering Packard with names like “bathtub” or “pregnant elephant.”
With sales dwindling by the 1950s, Packard merged with the much larger Studebaker Corporation in the hope of cutting its production costs. The new Packard-Studebaker became the fourth largest manufacturer of cars in the nation. Studebaker was struggling as well, however, and eventually dropped all its own big cars as well as the Packard. In 1956, Packard-Studebaker’s then-president, James Nance, made the decision to suspend Packard’s manufacturing operations in Detroit. Though the company would continue to manufacture cars in South Bend, Indiana, until 1958, the final model produced on June 25, 1956, is considered the last true Packard.

A Marriageable Woman, Circa 1950

Sally Edelstein, the writer of the blog "Envisioning the American Dream" recently posted a quiz from the May 1953 edition of "The Girlfriend and the Boyfriend" magazine. The quiz "What Are You Best Fitted For, Love or a Career?" offered young women some insight into what their future might hold for them. Answering all or most of the 11 questions 'yes' indicated that the young woman may best be suited for a career. A similar number of 'no' answers indicated that love lie in her future.

Ladies, take the test for yourself and eliminate some of the guesswork out of those big life decisions.


To see Sally Edelstein's original post on the quiz, click here.

To see more images from the magazine, including a companion quiz on judging your boyfriend as a lover, and advice on spotting girls who flirt, visit the KultureKat Pinterest board:

Follow KultureKat's board A Marriagebale Woman, Circa 1950 on Pinterest.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BBC's Poll Results of the 100 Greatest American Films

I usually don't put a great deal of stock in Top 10, 50, or 100 lists, whether they're for songs, second basemen or movies. I never feel that the item that's third on the list is clearly better than items four or fourteen. Its not that I think that they're completely inaccurate. If something makes one of these lists it usually deserves to be considered as one of the best in the category. To me, the Top 10/50/100 lists are useful for starting meaningful conversation, something much more valuable than the specific ranking of certain items.

This week released the results of a poll of the "100 Greatest American Films". To qualify as "American" the film must have been fianaced by US backers. At first I wasn't sure about this being the sole criterion for consideration. Does it matter that 32 directors on the list were born outside of the US? But after reviewing the titles, none stood out as anything other than an American film.

The poll was conducted among film critics from around the globe. Each was asked to provide an ordered list of the 10 films which they feel "on an emotional level" are  the greatest in American cinema. First place on a critics list earned a film 10 points, 10th place earned it 1 point.

And the award for Best Picture goes to...

What else could it be other than Citizen Kane? Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece has been at or near the top of every critics' poll for over 50 years. Film fans love the film, but not nearly as much as the critics. Its a great story, well-told, and the novice Welles employs every technique that he admired from other films.

Here are the top 10 films according to the BBC poll.

1 Citizen Kane Orson Welles 1941
2 The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola 1972
3 Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock 1958
4 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick 1968
5 The Searchers John Ford 1956
6 Sunrise FW Murnau 1927
7 Singin' in the Rain Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly 1952
8 Psycho Alfred Hitchcock 1960
9 Casablanca Michael Curtiz 1942
10 The Godfather Part II Francis Ford Coppola 1974

By the way, the number 11 film on the list is Welles' 'The Magnificent Ambersons' from 1942. Not a bad couple of years' work by a first time director.

The nominees for Best Director are...

Okay, I have to admit that I got a little geeky with the list. It was so neatly formatted that I just had to paste it into a spreadsheet so I could do my own analysis.

C'mon. You'd do the exact same thing. Admit it.

Noticing that several directors make multiple appearances on the list, I wondered if one of them might be the "home-run king" of American film. I was surprised to find that there wasn't one "king", but a small group of directors who account for a disproportionate number of great American films.

Four directors appear on the list for five of their films: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg.

Coppola, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorcese each have four films on the list. Welles, John Ford, and Charlie Chaplin each make the list three times.

Together, these 10 directors account for 41 of the Top 100 films.

And the Best Decade for American films is...

In a companion piece to the poll results, Tom Brooks observes that "contemporary films didn't fare well" in the poll, noting that the most recent film in the top 10 is Coppola's 'The Godfather Part II' from 1974.

Let's turn to the spreadsheet for some insight on a similar question: What decade produced the most (and the least) number of films on the Top 100 list? The results are not completely surprising.
1910's - 1
1920' - 4
1930's - 6
1940's - 15
1950's - 15
1960's - 10
1970's - 21
1980's - 13
1990's - 9
2000's - 4
2010's - 2
Some of this makes sense. The 40's and 50's were a great period for American films. The industry had matured and had absorbed a lot of talent fleeing from Europe. The 70's reflect the rise of the great independent directors: Coppola, Scorcese, Robert Altman and to a lesser extent, Spielberg.

What's more troublesome is the glaring shortage of great American films in the 90's, 00's, and 10's. And lets extend that period a bit. of the 13 Top 100 films in the 80's, 10 were produced before 1985.

So what has happened to American films in the past 30 years? The migratation of talent from cinema to television didn't really start until the late 90's. Could it be explained by changes to the economics of the US film industry? The revenue from international distribution of US films has grown tremendously and favors popular blockbusters. Umm, maybe.

Maybe this has something to do with the critics, who for some reason are biased towards older films.


The first link below is to the article on the results of the poll. The last link is to a companion article that briefly explains why each of the top 25 films deserves its inclusion on the list.

The 100 Greatest American Films

What's So Good About Citizen Kane?

The 25 Greatest American Films

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

This Day In Pop Culture, July 10

Richard Speck Kills 8 Nurses In Chicago

Was there a time in the 20th  century in which fear wasn't an ingredient of American culture? There was the decade-long Great Depression, which was alleviated only by World War II. After the US took a breather to kickoff the baby boom, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, went hydrogen in '55, and parked a dozen missiles in Cuba in '63. It seems that fear has always been with us, changing in texture from a material to a mortal threat, and from internal to external. The Depression was material and internal, the Cold War mortal and external.

A new mix of fear began in 1966 when Richard Speck killed 8 nursing students in an apartment on the south side of Chicago. At the time, Speck was considered the embodiment of evil. In hindsight, he was not a monster but a hapless loser, a petty criminal, an alcoholic with his own fears, a coward who could only find courage from the handle of a knife. Speck was destined for insignificance until circumstance - he was bumped from his spot working on a merchant ship the day before - placed him in Luella Park, drunk, staring up at the nurses' apartment building.

Speck forced his way into the apartment and bound seven nurses with torn bed sheets before methodically stabbing and strangling them and two others who came to the apartment to investigate the noise of the struggles.

No, I haven't lost count. Speck bound seven nurses, killed two more who came to the apartment, but a total of eight nurses died that night. It was Speck who lost count, forgetting the ninth nurse who had squrmed under a bed. It was this nurse who when asked if she could identify the man who murdered the others stood up, walked to the defense table, and pointed her finger at Speck's face. But that was nine months later.

Less than three weeks after the murder of the nurses, Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas with a carbine, a shotgun and a dolly of ammunition. A natural marksman honed to expertise by the Marines, Whitman shot 46, killing 14.

Speck may have had problems with simple addition, but when it comes to settling the questions of justice, we humans are all mathematicians. We calculate cause and effect, we balance the equation. On one side we have an unsettling horror, on the other a set of actors and their actions. With a little fudging we find a way to tell ourselves, "They had it coming". Unfortunate yes, unexpected no. We reconcile the equations of justice, recapture the orderliness, and get on with our lives.

In 1966 randomness entered the equation and our mathematics no longer added up. What had 20 year-old Gloria Davy done to deserve being stabbed and strangled by Speck? What had 16 year-old Mark Gabour done that explains why Whitman shot him in the head? Americans had to face the unsettling possibility that if violence could be random even those like themselves, the followers of the rules, could be victims of unexplainable, unpredictable violence.

But Speck and Whitman were only the spectacular opening acts of what would be a generation of continuosly increasing rates of violent crime. From 1957 to 1980, the homicide rate in the US more than doubled, from 4.0 to 10.2 per 100,000. At the same time rape, assault, robbery and theft also increased.

American's fear of violence soon appeared in our pop culture artifacts. In the 1968 Presidential election, Nixon made violent crime one of the central issues of his campaign, promising that "The wave of crime would not be the wave of the future for America", as can be seen in this television ad below.

Steve Pinker describes the impact of violence on American culture in "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular “police lock,” a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stabbings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. 
Then in the first half of the 1970s, American pop culture fought back, giving us a string of vigilante films satisfying the audiences' craving for justice. In 1971 Dirty Harry was released, followed by Walking Tall (1973) and Sudden Impact (1974). All had similar themes: smug criminals who felt they were untouchable by the law, an incompetent criminal justice system, and most important, an avenging hero who takes matters into his own hands.

Pop culture also dealt with violence in a new genre of film that first appeared in the late 70s. The Urban Apocalypse film assumes a dystopian future in which order has collapsed and society is ruled by street gangs. The Warriors and Mad Max were released in 1979, with Escape from New York coming two years later.


To read the relevant excerpt from Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" go here.

For KultureKat's collection of 1970s Vigilante and Urban Apoalypse movie posters, please visit our Pinterest board by clicking the link below.

Follow KultureKat's board 1970s Vigilante and Urban Apocalypse Films on Pinterest.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Aviator Chic

When this KultureKat is on the prowl for pop culture morsels he has a few regular spots he likes to visit. I'll turn you on to one of them right now: Yeah, that's right. I can find plenty to satisfy my American pop kulture kravings on the website of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Like this little appetizer about the creation of Ray-Ban sunglasses and the subsequent fashion statement we'll call aviator chic.

The original Ray-Ban Aviator glasses were developed by a real pilot in 1920. John Macready was motivated to find better eye protection after an incident involving fellow test pilot Shorty Schroeder. It seems that Shorty was on a test flight that broke the 33,000 foot barrier. Somewhere near the apex, Shorty pulled off his goggles which had fogged over. His eyes immediately began to freeze. Fortunate to land his plane safely, Shorty was helped from the plane by Macready. Distressed by his friend's experience, Macready contacted Bausch & Lomb with some ideas for a green-tinted, tear-drop shaped lens specfically designed to protect a pilot's eyes from the sun and freezing tempertures.

General Douglas MacArthur rockin' the Ray-Bans circa 1940.
The sunglasses took off for civilian use in 1937 as the Ray-Ban Aviators and, while remaining a favorite of real pilots, also became a fashion statement for General Douglas MacArthur, as well as Tom Cruise in Top Gun.


For more about the histroy of Ray-Ban sunglasses and aviator chic, please follow this link to the full article on