“May you live in interesting times” has hit us with a vengeance. How else can you describe a society waking up to its misogyny and ending the careers of allegedly offending men without trials while electing a president who bragged about how he sexually assaults women? Nuts, right?
I’ve been preparing an arrangement of an old novelty song, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, for publication. I bought a recording of it when I was about 12 or 13 and thought it was funny and loved its relationship to the blues, although it technically is not a blues. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF8PMtdBL_Q
In the 1918 song, a man tells us that his girlfriend left him and now wants him back. He professes to be the rare good man who would be true to her, but then insists that she submit to his control and derision or she can’t return. So the joke is that maybe there are no good men, but some men pretend to be good before showing their true colors.
Sounds bad, I know. But really, it’s funny. Well, at least it’s funny to me, because I know that most men fantasize about revenge and control, but in real life, they are too insecure or evolved to make demands on women. I saw this with my parents. My mother, at times, would become unreasonable, and my father would leave the house and go outside to warm up the car, so he could grumble out of her earshot. Who warms up cars? That went out with Model T’s.
So when the guy in the song tells his girlfriend to “keep a smile on her face and her big mouth shut” and the band (all guys) cheers, it’s funny because we all know that we would never treat women that way, especially a woman we love. It’s fantasy. And it also points out that women have power. We men need their love, and we need to love them.
But some men do treat women this way, and that is truly sad. That is who the #metoo movement is addressing. Unfortunately, there are a lot of these guys among us. When I hear the stories of celebrities grabbing or drugging women, or men exposing themselves or masturbating in front of women, I’m not only repulsed, but I’m surprised that anyone would do these things, and I also wonder why they do it. Maybe I’m naïve or living in a different world, or both, but I like sex the old- fashioned way—with women who want me as much as I want them. Throw in a little romance, and I’m good.
I can’t remember who, but I was once doing some arranging for a singer. When I suggested a certain tune, she told me that she doesn’t sing songs about women who put up with abusive behavior from men. That kinda leaves out a lot of great songs, especially blues lyrics.
I remember the first time I heard Billie Holiday sing My Man. I thought it was tragic that she could love a man who beat her. Why would she do that? Hey, I was 13. What did I know about love, or anything else for that matter. Should we never listen to that recording? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VfX451prmY
I don’t know which is sadder; her man’s behavior, or her inability to leave him and find something better. Should we not hear her story? She’s so compelling. You can feel her love and vulnerability. It lasts but 2 minutes and 55 seconds and I am instantly reminded why she is my favorite singer. Here it is: She at once expresses the deepest joy and pain of human existence more than any other singer I know. Her soulmate Lester Young had that ability as well.
Sadly, they couldn’t cope with real life and succumbed to substance abuse, which numbed them and ultimately distanced them from their feelings, both in life and music. Gone was the joy and immediacy of their recordings from the late ’30s. You can see and hear the decline on videos of them from the ’50s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQlehVpcAes
They died months apart from each other in 1959. He was 49. She was 44. Now that is truly sad. America doesn’t treat its artists well. Especially when they are black.
Getting back to lyrics, if people are uncomfortable with hearing about abusive relationships in songs, what about movies and TV? Should we not watch The Honeymooners? Yes, The Honeymooners, the greatest sitcom of all time. Just listen to the way Ralph talks to Alice. He belittles her and threatens to hit her-“To the moon, Alice!” Why does she put up with him? Her mother tells her that she could do better. Don’t we all think that? Alice is understanding, has insight, is loving, kind, and beautiful. What is she doing with this moax? She loves him. People are complicated.
In real life Jackie Gleason had a bit of Ralph Kramden in him. Although he could be generous and certainly knew how to live large, he also could be overbearing, inconsiderate and even cruel to his writers and other actors. My mom once met Audrey Meadows in a restaurant in Hong Kong and wound up having lunch with her. Ms. Meadows did nothing but sing Gleason’s praises. She loved him. On the other hand, Art Carney wasn’t so thrilled. Carney liked to rehearse. Gleason did not.
By the way, Ralph doesn’t just abuse Alice. He constantly insults Norton, his best friend. As a kid growing up watching this show, I laughed and wondered, “Who lives like this?” At that time I had no idea my father grew up in that kind of poverty, actually worse. He never told me about the family dynamic, but judging from the relationship he had with his siblings, it couldn’t have been very far from The Honeymooners.
Like Ralph, my father covered up his insecurities by attacking those around him-- those whom he felt more powerful than—his sister, his children, and his employees. He was afraid of my mother, so he was careful never to criticize her.
So, Ralph is an insecure bully who threatens physical harm, but never delivers. He was a poor student and probably never read a book in his life. He has illusions of grandeur and comes up with get-rich schemes that always fail because they are poor ideas and because he doesn’t do his homework to successfully bring his ideas to fruition. He blames other people for his failures and has no insight whatsoever. Does this sound like anyone we know?
The big difference between Kramden and Trump is money. Trump’s father was very rich and, although he ignored his son, he made sure that Donald wouldn’t have to suffer any consequences in life. Fortunately, for Ralph, his moments of humility and clarity come when he is defeated by his own shortcomings and returns to the safe and loving arms of his wife. That’s when we see Ralph’s humanity and love him for it. He’s flawed, but loveable.
We know that our president didn’t spend his time reading, so maybe he, like many of us, grew up watching The Honeymooners. Unlike Ralph, I wanted to accomplish something in life through my own efforts. Trump wanted to be like Ralph. He still wants to be rewarded for not doing his homework. He thinks that makes him clever and better than the rest of us. His family money and complete lack of morality and ethics has gotten him this far, but there is a man named Mueller who may be putting an end to this sorry chapter in American history as soon as the Democrats wrest control of Congress from Trump’s enablers.
What will happen with #metoo then? How much of their juice was inspired by the words and actions of the Abuser-in-Chief? Hopefully, we’ll find out before too much irreparable damage is done to our Democracy, our relationship with other nations and the ecology. And hopefully, this will all serve as a wake-up call for Americans who love our democracy and for American men who love (or should love) our women.