After watching last night’s episode of Better Call Saul on TV, I was feeling how great it is to be alive. This show delights me in so many ways. I love the characters. It’s no easy feat to make murderers loveable, but here we are. I feel everyone’s humanity. The group therapy scene where Mike calls out one of the others for mourning an imaginary wife blew me away. Could there be a sharper metaphor for how we all lie to create our public image, and how when someone has the courage to say that the king isn’t wearing any clothes, he is hated for telling the truth? But we all want to hear the truth, don’t we? That’s what John McCain thought. That’s what Neil Simon used in order to make us laugh at ourselves. And this week we lost them both.
These are two men I have respected for 50 years or more. I mostly disagreed with McCain’s policies, but I never doubted his love of our country and democracy. His heroic military service as a young man continued in the tradition of patriots like Nathan Hale. How many of us would refuse release from torture for reasons of brotherhood and principle? Not many. Maybe even not any. Way back then, I knew this man was destined for greatness.
He and I come from very different backgrounds. I’m a New York Jewish Liberal and he was a Navy brat with admirals for his father and grandfather. I don’t know about his religion. I imagine he was Catholic since his name starts with Mc, but being a firm believer in our Constitution and its separation of church and state, I don’t remember any time when religion affected his political decisions. It’s not surprising that coming out of the military, he was a Conservative, but he wasn’t extreme. He sought to be fair and honest, as much as any politician can be.
When I really came to love him, was when he joined up with Russ Feingold to try to limit money in politics. McCain understood how money was threatening our democracy and he had the courage to stand up to his party and say so. And then he stepped across the aisle and got legislation passed to help fix this problem. For this and many other times he bucked his party, he earned the name Maverick.
Just to be fair, he did make a few missteps, the worst of which was his decision to pick Sarah Palin for his running mate in his quest for the White House. He knew he was losing, and Steve Schmidt, another patriot from the Right that I respect, came up with the brilliant idea to appeal to the anti-intellectual, racist, anti-Semitic, low class, tea-bagging, angry masses. I’m sure Steve has regretted this every day since, but in a moment of desperation, they grasped at straws. Palin did bring in the masses that would some years later become Trump’s base, but she also dragged a hero through the political mud. I was sorry to see that. I was embarrassed for him. I wouldn’t have voted for McCain no matter who was his running mate, but I was hard to watch him be dishonored.
But then there was one beautiful moment where he showed us the old John McCain. In a town hall meeting, an idiotic woman started ranting about Obama being a Muslim, which by the way, even if he was, does not mean that he is less of an American than anyone else. But there it was. A fastball coming right down Broadway, and McCain didn’t flinch. He stopped her in mid-sentence and told her that she was wrong, and that Obama is a good man. They disagree on many issues, but there was no way McCain was going to co-sign character assassination or fake Fox News.
And that’s how I feel about John McCain. We disagreed on many issues, but he was a good man. He was better than a good man. He was a man of principle in an age of weak human beings in just about every walk of life. Maybe it was time for him to go. His character shamed us all for the cowards we are.
Neil Simon, on the other hand, a fellow Jew who grew up in the Bronx near my dad, was destined for a life writing comedy. Before I even knew who he was, I was laughing at his writing for TV on two of my favorite shows, Caesar’s Hour and then The Phil Silvers Show.
Then I saw the movie Come Blow Your Horn. I loved the characters. I knew them all. They were from the world of my childhood. I was the kid who wanted to grow up, follow my dream and leave my middle class upbringing behind. The movie doesn’t hold up all that well, but at the time, it helped me define my path and gave me the courage to believe that,
- I was not crazy, and
- I was not alone.
When the movie version of The Odd Couple came out, my aunt told me how funny it was, and so I went to see it. I was in college at the time and not really old enough to understand it beyond the superficial laughs. Fortunately, I have seen it many times since and consider it a prime example of the humor in opposites. Not only are Oscar and Felix the slob and the anal compulsive neat freak, but also they love each other while driving each other nuts.
Years later, I got to work with Doc on the film version of Brighton Beach Memoirs. I loved the story, and I thought that the sets, costumes and music really caught the feeling of the era, but I never thought the casting was quite right. Gene Saks was a very good director and easy to work with and he really loved the music. But the box office was disappointing, so Michael Smalls and I didn’t get Biloxi Blues, which we were both looking forward to.
Michael was the composer on Brighton Beach, but he was not a jazzer at all, and the period was 1938, so I was hired to bring authenticity through my arrangements. We put together a marvelous group of musicians and had a ball.
Years later, PBS aired an American Masters on Neil, and to my surprise used some of our music. There are many clips of Doc being interviewed. In one he tells how he started writing plays. I’ve often told this story. In fact I’ve included it in my book, Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging:
As a young man, Doc was on the amazing writing staff for the Sid Caesar Show, when he announced to his fellow writers that he wanted to write plays. One of the guys suggested a well-known book about play writing, so Doc immediately bought a copy and read it.
The author explained the form of plays and how to outline the plot and then fill in the dialogue afterwards. So Doc followed this advice, but found that once the characters were established, they wanted to say and do things that he didn’t know about beforehand. So much for outlines.
EarIy on in my career, I read the same sort of advice for writing music. I had the same experience that Doc had. When I mentioned this to Bob Brookmeyer, he told me that it was the same for him as well. This is one of the reasons why in a Neil Simon play or movie, the characters seem true. They have integrity. Maybe not John McCain integrity, but just enough that we know them, love them, see ourselves in them, and have a good laugh at ourselves.
The world has moved on since creating these two great Americans. You know how they say that with every generation something is gained and something is lost? I’m not ready to lose these two men, and I’m certainly not happy about it. I can only console myself by thinking that I was damn lucky to walk this earth with them.