television

The Rockford Files, S2-E1, “The Aaron Ironwood School of Success.”

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A whole lot of Rocky.

After a triumphal debut season, “The Rockford Files” kicks off its sophomore year with an action-packed thriller. There’s nothing fancy here, no romantic female lead for Jim to work with, no very special guest star, no two-parter. Instead, they double-down on the basics: appearances from Dennis, Beth, and a whole lot of Rocky. Angel Martin does not appear in this episode.

“The Aaron Ironwood School of Success” begins with Jim exiting his trailer early one morning intending to pick up Rocky so they can go meet an old family friend at the airport. But before Jim can take three steps towards the Pontiac Firebird he gets forced into the back of a waiting limousine. These hoods look like they mean serious business, but Rockford quickly outwits them, and less than 200 seconds into the new season we have our first car chase.

Jim must have wanted to inaugurate the show’s second season with a surprise, because he makes his first getaway not in the Pontiac, but in a VW bug that has been customized into a pizza delivery vehicle and happens to be making an early morning stop at the beach restaurant across the parking lot.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan's delivery vehicle.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan’s delivery vehicle.

My first thought is, “isn’t that funny? You never see VW bugs delivering pizzas in real life, do you? WTF?”

After making a getaway on the sands of Malibu’s beach, Jim, still in the bug and having found a spare pepperoni pizza to munch on, collects Rocky and they head off to the airport to meet their family friend from way back by the name of Aaron Ironwood (played by James Hampton hot off his role as the doomed Caretaker in “The Longest Yard”), who has done well for himself and is arriving in his own private jet.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

Jim gets away on the sands of Malibu beach.

As Jim gets away along Malibu beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ironwood is a childhood friend of Jim’s who was looked after by the Rockfords after his own parents were tragically killed. Today (1975), Aaron Ironwood is a motivational preacher hocking a get rich quick scheme called “Dare To Win.”

It soon becomes clear that Aaron Ironwood is the kind of old family friend that gives Angel Martin a run for his money, and Rockford quickly finds himself on the wrong side of some very powerful bad men.

The gist of the “Dare To Win” program, as Ironwood lays out to a rapt audience, is this: “I’m gonna teach you how to make a million dollars…by the end of the year. And what’s it gonna cost?? Only five thousand dollars.” The audience oohs and aahs their collective approval at this last sentence.

* * *

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We hard cut to a honky-tonk bar, where Jim and his old chum are re-bonding over some arm-wrestling, shuffleboard, and “country-style” fistfighting out back. With the ice broken, Aaron asks to know what Jim really thinks about “Dare To Win.” In the kindest terms possible, Jim answers, “there’s not too much about it that doesn’t sound like a medicine show sales pitch.”

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 11.22.43 PMOver a couple of cold ones, Aaron makes a confession of his own to Jim: Not all is well in the preaching empire. There’s been drinking, there’s been whoring, there’s even been puking, and now somehow the mob’s gotten wrapped up in it. He needs Jimmy’s help, and he’s got an offer Rockford can’t refuse. The paperwork’s already drawn up.

Beth Davenport looks over the contract and gives it her approval, whereupon Rockford signs on the dotted line.  The rest of the episode plays out with a series of double-crosses and some mob justice scenarios that belong in The Sopranos. And in the episode’s other good news, Dennis Becker passed the written part of his lieutenant’s exam and is now fifth in line for promotion.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

I can’t testify to the status of prosperity preaching in 1975, when this episode aired. Certainly televangelists existed, but I don’t know if they were quite on the cultural radar the way they were a decade later, when (the other) Jim, Tammy Faye, Swaggart, and Oral provided the Decade of Greed (ie the 1980s) with its religious dimension.

One guesses that the 1970s were gravy years for the Aaron Ironwoods of the world, when they could roll their earnings over into personal jets and hookers well out of reach of the long arm of the law and the eye of the media.

Society as a whole would remain oblivious to the racket until Jessica Hahn revealed it all in Playboy ten years later, but the Rockford Files was on the case as early as 1975, three years before the Stones sang about it in “Far Away Eyes.”Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 10.51.31 PM

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Laverne, Shirley, & a Mid-Life Crisis

laverne-and-shirleyFor the first time since Alexander Haig was Secretary of State, I had the opportunity to watch an episode of “Laverne & Shirley” from the very beginning. I still remembered that distinctive theme song as if it were yesterday, but as I sat through the show’s opening credits for the first time in my adult life, the meaning of these lyrics sank in in a whole new way:

 

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. 
Schlemiel, schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated. 
We’re gonna do it! 

Give us any chance, we’ll take it. 
Give us any rule, we’ll break it. 
We’re gonna make our dreams come true. 
Doin’ it our way. 

Nothin’s gonna turn us back now, 
Straight ahead and on the track now. 
We’re gonna make our dreams come true, 
Doin’ it our way. 

There is nothing we won’t try, 
Never heard the word impossible. 
This time there’s no stopping us. 
We’re gonna do it. 

On your mark, get set, and go now, 
Got a dream and we just know now, 
We’re gonna make our dream come true. 
And we’ll do it our way, yes our way. 
Make all our dreams come true, 
And do it our way, yes our way, 
Make all our dreams come true 
For me and you. 

Look at those words.

Once you get past ‘schlemiel, schlimazel” the theme song sounds like the sort of pep talk that people fighting a losing battle against time to attain the markers of social success give themselves before heading out to work another day on the factory line.

“We’re doing it our way, yes our way, making all our dreams come true. This time there’s no stopping us. We’re gonna do it!”

It’s a Hail Mary pass that says the more we suffer now, the greater shall be our triumph later, but only if we don’t ever stop believing.

If Laverne’s father, the pizzeria owning Frank Defazio, were around today, he’d tell his “29-year old” daughter and her best friend that the definition of stupid is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and he’d wave his rolling pin to drive home the point.

Isn’t this what the new film, “Frances Ha” is all about? Frances Ha is what happens when Laverne leaves Shirley behind or vice versa, when one partner decides to get on with her life and renege on the vow to keep dreaming the dream together forever no matter what.

Every fifth or sixth episode seemed to revolve around this plot, with Laverne and Shirley inevitably getting back together exactly as before by the end of the half-hour.

If you took Laverne and Shirley aside and said, “listen you two, what do you really want to do with your lives?” They wouldn’t have a realistic answer. Laverne and Shirley were dreamers, not schemers. All they knew was that they wanted to be part of the zeitgeist somehow.laverne shirley

Here’s where I join the party. As a kid in the Me Decade, I couldn’t much relate to working class girls from 1950s Milwaukee. I was in it for Lenny and Squiggy and, strangely, for Carmine. Sure, I enjoyed the comedy teamwork of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, but the particular triumphs and tribulations of Upper Midwestern factory girls was beyond my purview.

That was then. Now I’m on the wrong side of 45, working a Laverne & Shirley blue-collar job myself. I used to want to be the next Rod Serling or Reuben Kincaid, or both. But after 20 years of punching the clock, I’m starting to realize that it ain’t happening, that I have a lot more in common with two working class girls from 1950s Milwaukee than I ever imagined. At this point, the only thing left for me to do is go buy a bowling ball and join the team.

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Joyce Brothers (1927-2013)

In another indicator of the subtle but steady changing of the times, the death of Joyce Brothers earlier this week went by largely unnoticed.

To anyone who watched a respectable amount of television in the Seventies, Joyce Brothers was instantly recognizable as a mainstay on the game show and talk show circuits as well as a special guest star for all occasions. Everyone knew who she was, yet no one knew what she did. To borrow a phrase from current times, Joyce Brothers was famous for being famous.

Joyce Brothers in the 1950s.

Joyce Brothers in the 1950s.

Dr. Joyce Brothers was her official show biz title, and her celebrity dated back to her winning appearance on “The $64,000 Question” in the mid-1950s, when the pop success of trivia shows featuring everyday citizens testing their wit against a series of ever more challenging questions in a given subject was enough to captivate a nation of TV watchers for weeks on end (some things never change, just ask Regis Philbin).

Television was in its infancy then. Producers were still trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. With the advent of quiz shows, certain lines were crossed on at least one occasion to create more compelling storylines. Joyce Brothers’ Wikipedia entry notes that her game show topic, boxing, was suggested to Dr. Brothers by the show’s sponsors, presumably because they thought the idea of a demure housewife taking on the subject of prizefighting would make for good television.However, despite this small bit of contestant engineering, Joyce Brothers’ winning appearance on “The $64,000 Question” was scandal-free.

Not only had Dr. Joyce Brothers been famous since the Eisenhower years, but her physical appearance had scarcely changed in the intervening decades, a fact put to good use by the producers of “Happy Days” when they featured the Joyce Brothers of 1978 playing herself in the 1950s-based sitcom. This is how I remember her.

 joycebrothershappydays

In the 80s and 90s I watched much less TV than I do today. When I returned to television in the 2000s, it never occurred to me to notice Joyce Brothers’ absence. And as another decade came and went, I would have presumed that like most figures from the Eisenhower era, she had died long ago.

I’m only one man. It’s impossible for me to monitor all news outlets all the time, but I would have thought that the passing of Dr. Joyce Brothers would be noted by at least a few of my regular sources. Yet I heard nothing. Instead, it was left for me to scour the Internet obituaries to uncover this information.

I’d imagine that Dr. Brothers led a rich, full life that extended beyond the spotlight, so there’s nothing in particular for the general public to mourn about her death. Instead, the near anonymous 2013 passing of a 20th Century TV icon serves to remind us that the world we grow up in and think of as rock solid and forever young is just another castle made of sand.

sunset

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TV Invented the Rock Star (Part 2)

(In Part I of this essay, we examined the origins of the rock star figure in Western culture, starting with Elvis and leaving off with the Beatles’ triumph on The Ed Sullivan Show.)

To be sure, America’s youth had been using jazz as liberation theology a full generation before rock music appeared. Big band music was the rock and roll of the radio era.

Just don’t say that to a Hepcat. 1940s hipsters hated the new generational preference for rock and roll with a passion. Jazz was complex, sophisticated, groove-able, while rock was crude and obvious.

And therein lies the difference between the youth music of the radio era and the youth music of the TV era. In television, the visual replaces the aural. The looks and moves of the front man replace the bandleader’s role of conductor. The punch of the drums and guitar are turned up in the mix while the harmony of the brass and woodwinds are eliminated entirely. Four guys do what two-dozen used to.

***

The rock pioneers who grew up in the pre-Elvis era talk about picking up obscure radio stations broadcasting out of the Mississippi Delta states and of being unable to ascertain whether a given artist was white or black. This miscegenation was indeed the original sin (as some saw it) that spawned rock and roll. Television eliminated the racial guesswork, and a narrower flavor of rock ensued.

TV, in fact, created the rock star right about then. Rock and roll would have gone on had there been no television, but it would have remained underground, taking place in dark, crowded clubs that violated local noise ordinances, not to mention segregation laws. But Elvis appeared on Ed Sullivan one Sunday night, the Rock Star was born, and the rest is history.

***

Elvis was an entertainer when he went on The Ed Sullivan Show, as were the Beatles. The persona of the singer/songwriter hadn’t permeated the rock and roll pantheon just yet. But things took a serendipitous turn when the Fab Four retired from the road to become dedicated studio artists.

By the early 60s, rock’s original pioneers were either dead (Buddy Holly), jailed (Chuck Berry), drafted (Elvis Presley), disgraced (Jerry Lee Lewis), or in bible college (Little Richard). The hits kept coming, but it was a producer’s game now. Record labels called the shots and musicians served as hired talent.

The intellectually curious of the early ’60s gravitated towards the folk movement. Rock and roll was high school, folk music was college. And folk had produced a star in his own right, the baby-faced Bob Dylan. Whether very directly or only somewhat directly, Dylan’s songwriting had a big influence on the Beatles, as did their introduction to weed.

Folk music and grass. In essence, the four working-class lads from Liverpoool were seduced by the college scene of the 1960s. Lennon and McCartney were like Pinto from “Animal House” in Prof. Jennings’ bathroom. “Can I buy some pot from you?”

The trend was set.

***

1967 is known as The Summer of Love, but it should really be called The Year of the Album. By then, most of the baby boomers who screamed Beatlemania into existence four school years earlier were becoming college-aged (or draftable).

***

A day in the life of The Summer of Love consisted of drawing the shades, smoking banana peels, and listening to album sides as the album’s cover is passed around and gaped at like a sacred object to be inspected for hidden truths.

In 1967, records were tailored for this very thing. Liner notes and jackets became part of the album package rather than just the packaging. Consider some of the records that came out that year: Strange Days, Surrealistic Pillow, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Are You Experienced, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Disraeli Gears, Days of Future Passed, Forever Changes, Axis: Bold As Love, Procol Harum, and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, among others.

Rock and roll had outgrown the family room TV and entered liberated dorm space and crash pads. The album had become the highest form of artistic expression and would remain so for a very long time.

Alongside the concept album, the advent of commercial FM radio in the late ’60s, with its superor sound quality to AM, provided an ideal vehicle for this new format of album oriented rock to expand into.

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Sydney the psychiatrist from MASH dies at 95

Sydney the psychiatrist from MASH dies at 95

Not only did I not do the math and realize that Allan Arbus was Diane Arbus’ husband, but I didn’t realize he was 95 years old. That makes him only three years younger than Col. Potter (Harry Morgan b. 1915) when he played Sydney on MASH! He seemed more like Hawkeye’s age.

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Rockford Redux: Link to B.B. Olshin’s Heartfelt 2012 Piece on the Rockford Files

Wow! A week after my own post on the Rockford Files, I came across this wonderful piece by someone named B.B. Olshin. It’s eerily similar to mine in some places, and much better articulated and thought out in other parts. I’m humbled to have made so many like-minded (in some cases almost word for word) observations as this 2012 article written by a philosophy professor, no less. I swear I didn’t know about it beforehand; I just discovered reddit today!

Click on the link below.

Finding Solace in The Rockford Files.

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TV Invented the Rock Star (Part I)

Rock stars.

Is there even such a thing anymore?

The answer seems to be no, at least not in the traditional sense. There are YouTube sensations and American Idol winners, but they’re more like karaoke performers with choreography. Beyond that, the up and comers who sell out arenas and bring out the crowds seem to be DJs.

DJs! I don’t even know how to spell it right: Is it deejay or DJ? I’ll go with the latter since it’s fewer keystrokes. I have no right to judge, but the world I grew up in had certain immutable laws, one of which was that rock and roll would always be king. No one challenged this monolithic truth besides a small number of Anita Bryant types in Seventies news clips.

The only time you ever pondered the genre’s mortality was during the quiet part of The Who’s “Long Live Rock,” when Daltrey intones “rock is dead” three times slowly. Of course, that lyric was just meant as a warning to remind you of what could happen if you let them take your rock away. It was an affirmation. And the affirmation that trickled down to teenage America was that even though you’re just a minor, you could contribute your own dollars, along with your heart and soul, to help keep rock and roll alive.

The century progressed and new generations of teenagers came of age. Trends rose and fell, but rock and roll was still the mother ship to which they all returned. Oh sure, DJs were already on the scene, but few took them seriously as rivals to actual rock stars. They worked the occasional dance club, but their natural purview was bar mitzvahs and wedding parties, not headlining arenas and stadiums.

When the notion of rock star-level DJs did eventually surface in public media, there was no reason not to believe that soon enough the kids’ enthusiasm for the fad would quickly max out and they would drop it like a moldy potato. That’s what happened with hair-rock and every other fanciful trend that took rock and roll too far away from its roots. The youth culture would quickly and aggressively self-correct this trend, it always did. These DJs would get bounced to the curb with the spandexed hair-rockers soon enough.

But in the 2000s, a strange thing happened. The correction never came. Instead, the digital realm began to completely displace rock and roll’s analogue roots. Analogue, in fact, became obsolete. Tapes, records, even CDs were rendered superfluous. Musical instruments themselves became unnecessary. In theory, with the swipe of a finger, one kid with one Ipad could mash and tweak every note ever recorded in the history of man to create masterpieces that Beethoven and the Beatles could only dream of. In theory.

We all know that there’s more to making music than generating a sequence of sound waves. And we all know that actual musical ability isn’t always at the top of the list of what makes an actual rock star. There are reasons we love the Beatles and Hendrix while remaining indifferent to the multitude of dedicated note-for-note Beatles and Hendrix cover artists.

So what are those reasons?

To understand the rock and roll phenomenon a little better, we need to go back to Year Zero, where it all began.

* * *

Who was the first rock star, anyway?

Why, Elvis, of course.

The harder question is why?

Was it Elvis’ ability to channel race music to a white audience? Was it the opportunity he had to work with the hit-makers of the Sun Records crew? Was it the pompadour and the pelvis?

Most people would agree that it was some sort of combination of all three. But in doing so, they omit the most crucial ingredient of all.

Television.

The Age of Television.

The Age of Television.

There is no Elvis without television, not the Elvis we know, which begs the question, how much of rock and roll itself is the result of television?

Is it any coincidence that the era of rock stars more or less matches up with the era of TV?

A milestone was reached with the first-ever televised presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. If you listened to the debate on the radio, you likely thought Nixon beat Kennedy. If you watched the debate on television, you probably thought Kennedy was the winner.

Guess who ended up taking that first election in the live television era?

The power of television is that strong.

***

The Nixon-Kennedy debate occurred halfway between two other major television events: the first Elvis appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and the first Beatles appearance on that program.

Would there have been Elvis as we know him without television? Would the Beatles have had their mania without television?

People like to credit the ascent of rock and roll to some sort of collective generational awakening, as if the fingers of teenage America all magically walked themselves over to the sweet spot on the Ouija board together at the same time. But what if the answer was far more mundane? What if rock and roll initially became the coolest thing ever because it was on television Sunday night at 8:00?

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The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1964.

Movies enabled performers to be seen on multiple screens across all across the nation. Radio allowed them to be heard live in people’s living rooms simultaneously all across the country. But television marked the first time entertainers could be seen live in your living room nationwide and simultaneously. Rock and roll as we know it begins with this visual being seen by hundreds of millions of eyeballs in their living rooms at the same time.

It’s ironic that an aural experience like music would depend on a visual medium like television to gain traction, but maybe that tells us something about the essence of rock and roll, or lack thereof.

Elvis already had four gold records by the time he got on Sullivan. People knew what he sounded like, and they liked (or hated) it. What was different about a live appearance was the chance to get a look at Elvis himselvis, and just as importantly if not more so, to get a look at the audience. Check out all those screaming teens.

In a way, THAT was the sound that reverberated most strongly with us, not the performances of Elvis or the Beatles. Listen to that sound. It was like nothing ever before heard in the annals of Western Civilization. Teenage girls were succumbing to their hormones while the adults in the room pretended not to notice. But in hindsight it seems obvious that they sensed a loss of control over this marketed-to, largest generation in American history.

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Beatles fan overcome with emotion.

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More emotion

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And more emotion.

***

Throughout the pre-Woodstock era, the shifting norms of American society played out in the triangulation between Ed Sullivan, his audience, and the performers on the show. It was a Sunday night ritual.

Sullivan, the stiffest possible authority figure left of Nixon, introduces the act and then stands back while the kids go crazy. Sullivan then returns to the stage after the performance to comment on the audience’s behavior and to banter with the talent. Sullivan rarely gets what all the hubbub is about, but he’s powerless to stop it. You could see the generation gap itself acted out in those little vignettes. Little did they know at the time just how thoroughly these nascent Baby-Boomers would overturn the status quo in America or how soon.

1964, the year the Beatles debuted on Sullivan, was a Presidential election year. By the next election cycle, 1968, these teenagers would take over campuses, political conventions, and make serious grabs at the levers of power. Society itself would cross over the cultural Rubicon that year, with rock music as its unlikely masthead. (Part two of this piece will follow next week.)

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Excited young American during “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” from the Beatles’ debut performance on Ed Sullivan in 1964. What would she be up to in 1968?

Categories: 1950s, 1960s, counterculture, Music, television, The Age of Television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Praise of Rockford

Though it may be hard to believe, Apr. 7, 2013 marked the 85th birthday of one of TV’s most timeless icons, James Garner. Thanks to the magic of syndicated reruns, Garner is instantly recognizable to generations of TV viewers as Jim Rockford, private investigator and beach parking lot trailer inhabitant.trailertitle

If you’re like me, the phrase, “two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses” served as a childhood credo, the magic over/under number that seemed like some sort of gateway into adulthood. Whatever your chosen profession, if the quote on your business card–or answering machine message–was $200 a day plus expenses, you’d be writing your own ticket and living in a beachfront condo.  In 1974, two hundred dollars a day was a princely sum, more than the average major league baseball player earned in fact. But it was the “plus expenses” part that hinted at the great unknown.

rockopenerOf course with Jim Rockford, the carpet didn’t match the drapes. There was no beachfront condo, there was a beachfront trailer badly in need of a coat of primer. Rockford’s answering machine and outgoing phone message may have been 1974’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the incoming messages were from bill collectors with overdue dry-cleaning notices.

The Yellow Pages ad.

The Yellow Pages ad.

Rockford had a full ¼ page ad in the Yellow Pages, but he also had an unfinished game of solitaire on his desk.

Rockford’s people weren’t Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they were Beth & Rocky &, Dennis & Angel. (By the way, Rockford taught me another another truism: Anybody named Angel is born to be trouble, male or female.)

rockfordnice

Jim Rockford was an everyman, a tall, handsome everyman whose profile was worthy of Mount Rushmore, but an everyman nonetheless, just a guy in a trailer trying to keep the power from getting shut off.

There were plenty of other TV dicks with hour-long primetime slots in those days, but Rockford was the most photogenic of them all. Malden, Ebsen, Cannon, Baretta–not a particularly good-looking bunch of lead detectives by any stretch. But Rockford’s handsomeness was countered by his outsider status. Jim Rockford did time, and although we’re told that it was for a crime he didn’t commit, we also see that in the eyes of the law, Rockford will always be an ex-con, an eternal outsider in the American judicial establishment.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Rockford was too busy being a fugitive from injustice to ever become a legitimate sex symbol. In the Seventies, you needed a moustache for that. Unlike Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, there were no James Garner wall posters adorning bachelorette bedrooms. Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird was probably the biggest sex symbol on the show.

Rocky

Rocky

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

***

Whether in movies or television, never underestimate the strength of a soundtrack. We do as much watching with our ears as with our eyes. While the Rockford Files’ visuals are compelling enough, the show also offers great ear candy. This ear candy is the secret ingredient that makes “The Rockford Files” so much more watchable than other similar shows. It is rerun comfort food, and the soundtrack is the subliminal reason why it tastes so good.

The theme song is famous in its own right. Other than Garner himself (and possibly Stuart Margolin as Angel), this tune is the single most memorable thing about the show. It was the first TV theme song to achieve Top-40 radio success in the 70s, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975. This is the song that put Mike Post and Pete Carpenter on the map.

City of Angels?

City of Angels?

Other TV theme songs quickly followed on the heels of The Rockford Files in becoming Top 40 radio hits–Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, and later The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero–but these were all ballads with lyrics. The Rockford Files theme was pure instrumentation: Soundtrack music accompanied by a montage of photo stills illustrating the life and times of James Rockford.

It’s easy to forget that this was an era before MTV and VH-1. Show intros like Rockford’s fulfilled the same role that music videos would in the 80s. In the Seventies, show intros were our MTV.

Go ahead and watch a Rockford Files rerun. You’ll realize that the musical mood established with the opening theme carries through for the entire episode. Country/bluegrass jams are used throughout as sound beds for car chases, describing a character’s emotional arc, to evoke a sudden mood change, punctuate a hard cut, twist the plot, or simply to brighten up the scenery.

The Rockford Files reminds us how good L.A. could look with a country twang, even in the disco era. By the 70s, L.A. had become a prisoner of its own gridlock, smog, and overdevelopment, but Rockford liberated the landscape simply by using music that evoked the freedom and wide-open spaces of the Old West. Revisit an episode with open ears and see if you don’t find that it is the best use of harmonica ever.

 * * *

car

Of course, no visual pairs better with a country-bluegrass sound bed than a good car chase scene, and car chases are a staple of every Rockford Files episode. The Arthur Penn-directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), was a groundbreaking film in many ways, one of which was the marriage of car chases with banjo and fiddle music, which had an invigorating effect on audiences. Following Bonnie & Clyde, the period from 1968-74 was the golden age of car chase movies, when the classics of the genre came out, starting with “Bullitt” (1968), followed by “The Vanishing Point,” “The French Connection,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This six-year span also included “The Seven-Ups,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Duel,” and “The Italian Job.”

But as far as I know, no one was doing it on television until Rockford came on the scene. Country-fried car chases were a new phenomenon on TV in 1974, like answering machines were. Of course, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dukes of Hazzard” would follow, but Rockford was doing it first. And what’s notable about those other car-chase shows is that it took two-men to do what Rockford did on his own.

There were not too many muscle cars on the tube in 1974 either. Most of the TV dicks of the time–Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Karl Malden–drove land yachts. The above-mentioned Starsky & Hutch did indeed drive a Seventies-looking sports car, and, what a surprise, their show debuted at the end of The Rockford Files’ first, and highly Nielsen-rated, season.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

Turning on that Rockford charm.

Turning on that Rockford charm w/Lindsay Wagner.

 

 

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren't they?

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren’t they?

***

While revisiting “Bonnie & Clyde” for car-chase information, I stumbled onto an epiphany: In addition to being a groundbreaking film, Bonnie & Clyde represented everything that was wrong with the 1968 generation. The film rewrote history to portray a couple of violent thrill-killers as a misunderstood Romeo & Juliet hopelessly pitted against an omnimalevolent Establishment. It glorified Bonnie & Clyde as martyrs and reveled cartoonishly in the blood they spilled. It inspired hundreds of thousands of gullible youths to take the message literally and to act out in ridiculous self-serving ways, in essence to loot the noble ideals that had been so painstakingly built up during the earlier part of the 60s and pawn them on an orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll, no doubt setting back the legitimate aspirations of that decade by at least half a generation.

At Angel's pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" in the background?

At Angel’s pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” in the background?

And what about that generation that followed the Sixties? I had another epiphany:  Jim Rockford is the Bonnie & Clyde of the post-Woodstock generation. Rockford Files was the go-to afternoon re-run for latchkey kids of the 70s and 80s. It’s a big part of what makes us the people we are today. We don’t self-identify with an extroverted glamour couple shooting up banks and pissing off old folks just for kicks. Our patron saint is a guy who lives in a trailer by the beach and appreciates the little things in life: the smell of the sea, the sound of the gulls, and an onion ring basket shared with a good friend over a picnic table. This was the same strain of disillusioned anti-materialism that ushered in the 90s in response to the steroidal greed of the 1980s. That’s why Ben Folds writes lyrics about getting stoned and watching Rockford Files reruns instead of Barnaby Jones or Magnum, PI.

Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who decided to combat the boredom of their lives by robbing banks and killing for kicks, Rockford was set up; he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Nearly every episode sees him going up against a hostile police force that continues to hold his false conviction against him in perpetuity. If anyone had a right to be angry at society in general and authority in particular, it’s Jim Rockford. But do you see Rockford acting out like Bonnie & Clyde? Not even close.

Inadvertently, James Rockford is the folk hero of post-Watergate era America. Respect for the establishment is at an all-time low, but people are also burned out on the Bonnie & Clyde-style excesses of the Sixties. Each week, Rockford treads the fine line between powerfully corrupt authority figures (ie The Man) and shallowly groveling opportunists (eg Angel Martin), and he does so without ever having to fire a shot (almost). He was the ideal outlaw figure for the times.

Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.

The trailer’s leaking, the Pontiac just blew a retread, Angel’s shaking him down for another sawbuck, and the insurance company isn’t going to pay out after all. That was exactly how the Seventies felt; but Rockford persevered with style, ending every episode with a wry twist that let us know that no matter how much it felt like things were spiraling out of control, at the end of the day we always break about even.

Where the hell's the aspirin?

Where the hell’s the aspirin?

***

What is sometimes overlooked is that “The Rockford Files” was actually James Garner’s second great act in television. Garner is one of the select TV actors who starred in his own series not once but twice, and in two very different timeframes. In the era when television was black and white, Westerns reigned supreme, and Eisenhower was still President, Garner was Bret Maverick. In the era of dystopian, post-Watergate detective shows, he came back as Jim Rockford.

During that interregnum between 1959 and 1974, America had changed about as radically a society could in 15 years, Not too many actors could bridge that gap and stay relevant, but Garner did just that. It was a totally different America in 1974, but Garner was still Garner and Maverick was now Rockford. The people who ran television liked Garner so much they paid him the ultimate network tribute, allowing him to use his real first name for the character of Rockford.

Garner was still a smooth-skinned post-adolescent when he played Bret Maverick.  As Rockford, his majestic profile had matured into its fully chiseled peak. When the time came, Garner walked away from both shows on his own terms, leaving money on the table each time, enhancing his outlaw status.

Rockford portrayed an ageless quality on-screen, so it might surprise people to know that James Garner was 46 years old when the show embarked on its five-year run.  And unlike other leading men, Garner did almost all his own stunt-work and live car chases, as well as appearing in almost every scene of every episode. He put his middle-aged body through the ringer to play that part, and the toll it took may have been the primary reason he decided to pull the plug on the program during its sixth season.rock1

***

“I knew those two weren’t Feds. Feds still wear narrow ties.” Rockford fingering a couple of imposters in an early episode of the first season.

Yes we are boldly in 1974 with this program. There is no ironic Seventies appreciation here, only the real thing. When “The Rockford Files” came out, it was cutting edge, not nostalgic. That’s why it gives us such great insight into what was actually considered cool in the mid-70s: wide ties, earth-tone Pontiacs, and witty answering machine banter.

Kids, that's a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford's business model.

Kids, that’s a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford’s business model.

One other thing about 1974. It’s closer in time to the 1930s than the 2010s. With fresh 2013 eyes, what you notice is just how much a Rockford Files script mirrors one from the classic LA Hardboiled detective genre of the 1930s and 40s (think “Double Indemnity” 1944). It’s all there: The snappy banter; the archetypal characters–hoods, goons, dicks, Seamuses, high-class dames and femme fatales; and air that bristles with sexual electricity but always maintains a puritanical approach to what is actually portrayed on-screen (which happens to be much less than a Close-Up toothpaste commercial of the same era).

Detectives have been part of L.A.’s fictional landscape since L.A. began producing fiction. In novels, movies, or T.V. serials, the City of Angels has always had detectives as protagonists. But there was only one that ever lived in a trailer in a beach parking lot. As I touched upon in a different blog post, Jim Rockford represented the fusion of one Southern California archetype, the hardboiled detective, with another SoCal archetype, the off-the-grid beachcomber. It’s uncertain when we will see another like him come this way again, but Rockford’s place at the top rung of syndicated reruns is eternal.

trailer

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

HAPPY NEW YEAR ABE VIGODA!!

vigoda

Until December of 2011, whenever somebody mentioned that Abe Vigoda was still alive, I would say, “Hey, that’s great, but what about Harry Morgan?”

 

 

 

Vigoda has been playing guys with one foot in the grave since the ’70s, but Harry Morgan has been looking old on TV since 1966 and he’s still alive, too. Where’s his brass ring?

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Well, Harry Morgan passed away in Dec. 2011, and I still say he went out as the all-time champion in the old-looking guys who are still alive category.

When 2012 began, we still had Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith, and Jack Klugman giving Vigoda a run for his money.

We said goodbye to Borgnine and Griffith in the first part of the year. But for my money, Jack Klugman was always the dark horse in the race. From his Twilight Zone appearances to the Odd Couple, he made a living playing guys who seemed destined to die in their fifties.

Who could have dared imagine that Oscar would outlive Felix Unger by nearly a decade? Yet, as 2012 wound down to a close, Jack Klugman was still here, while Tony Randall had passed away in 2004. It seemed the cigar-voiced Klugman might just be indestructible.

But as we learned on Christmas Eve 2012, this was not the case. Klugman went to his reward at the age of 90.

Abe Vigoda is the only one left.Abe_Vigoda

In 2013, when we celebrate Vigoda’s “still living” status, it’s a little more poignant than it was 13 months ago.

Categories: 1960s, 1970s, television | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Six Million Dollar Man and the Gestalt of the Gerald Ford Years

I haven’t seen so much as a clip of the Six Million Dollar Man since the program actually aired in the 1970s. For all intents and purposes, Steve Austin has been living exclusively inside my head for the last 35 years. But the memory is a sharp one. I was a TV child and the Six Million Dollar Man was officially my favorite program during the 7 to 9 age bracket, when whatever your earholes and eyeballs glom onto gets etched into the wet cement of your brain pan and hardens into the long-term memory that stays with you forever.

“Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology…We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man…Steve Austin will be that man.”

These words, set to the beat of Viking war drums, form part of the show’s intro, which still plays randomly from time to time in the surround-sound of my cranial jukebox. For 35 years I’ve been carrying this secret around with me, and I need to get it out in the open.

Turns out there are full episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man available for viewing on the Internet now. So, after a four-decade separation, I finally squared the circle and queued up one of my favorite episodes, “The Secret of Bigfoot (Part I).”

 

“Bigfoot” begins with the dramatic whirr of a chopper’s blades. Within moments it all comes rushing back to me, not just the Gerald Ford-era banter of Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman as they fly over the “San Madrian” Fault, but the whole gestalt of 1975-76 itself, of what a strange time it was to be alive and living in L.A.

Like the subconscious of the Manchurian Candidate being activated whenever the queen of diamonds is played, the moment I hear that chopper taking Steve and Oscar to their rendezvous with Bigfoot, my brain’s sleeper cells are switched on and I’m right back there in the third quarter of fiscal 1975, this time with the omniscient perspective of a boy from the futuristic year of 2012 AD.

“The Secret of Bigfoot” aired at the very end of the Vietnam era. By this time, choppers are not only synonymous with Southeast Asian jungle combat scenes, but also the harried evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon that so embodied the unceremonious (some would say humiliating) retreat of a superpower back to where it came from.

And of course, right about then the same thunk-thunk-thunk of the chopper’s blades accompanied the visage of a disgraced President being whisked away from the White House lawn into a hasty exile.

Fall of Saigon, evacuation of US Embassy

Nixon bids his adieu.

By this time, the whirr of the chopper was also synonymous with our own post-apocalyptic urban condition: cops in hot pursuit of violent criminals, g-men engaged in surveillance and crowd control, news crews updating the citizenry on the myriad traffic jams and high-speed chases affecting the roadways.

The Seventies is when the ominous rumble of the chopper became ubiquitous, when the Vietnam War finally came home.

And to think, in the 1950s helicopters burst onto the scene with such utopian fanfare–a helicopter in every garage so dad could beat traffic on his commute. By the 70s, everything about the Fifties seemed impossibly naïve, but that’s a whole other subject.

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In “The Secret of Bigfoot,” Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman are on their way to help a team of researchers set up a state of the art earthquake monitoring system in the remote mountains on the other side of the “San Madrian Fault.”

Earthquakes loomed large in the 70s for some reason. Maybe it was because LA had kicked off the decade by recording the deadliest quake of its history on the morning of Feb. 9, 1971.

In 1965 it was the Watts Riots; in ’67 it was the acid-eating runaways on the Sunset Strip; in ’69 it was Manson; in ’71 the earthquake. And the even years were no picnic either. It all seemed to be part of LA’s descent into savagery and chaos, and by extension the end times of America’s so-called golden age.

A year before “Jaws” made us afraid to go in the water, a movie called “Earthquake” was the summer blockbuster that made everybody afraid that California was about to fall into the sea. The film was said to be based on the real-life 1971 L.A. temblor; it chronicles the struggle for survival of six ordinary people after a major quake destroys most of Los Angeles. Why not believe it? An earthquake was as likely an event as any to usher in the post-apocalyptic future that seemed inevitably headed L.A.’s way.

“The Secret of Bigfoot” episode of Six Million Dollar Man aired a little over a year after “Earthquake” the movie swept the nation, planting the fear of the fault-line into our hearts. So when Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman fly out to help with the seismic monitoring stations, we know the future of all Americans is at stake here.

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And of course, as the title postulates, this helicopter ride across the “San Madrian” is all leading up to Steve and Oscar’s imminent encounter with Bigfoot himself.

Bigfoot was another counterculture hero of the Seventies: a loner who wore his hair long and went underground, living off the land and staying one step ahead of the law. During those difficult Gerald Ford years of Mourning in America, Bigfoot was the anti-Nixon.

Steve and Oscar in the helicopter, surveying the San Madrian Faultline, unaware that they will soon encounter Bigfoot.

The Six Million Dollar Man was more than just the stylized choreography of a bionic action hero, more than just homo-erotic stump porn. The Six Million Dollar Man offered helicopters, earthquakes, and Bigfoot–the gestalt of American culture writ small for children to digest. That’s why we loved that show so much, it didn’t condescend; it spoke to us as people, not pupils.

The show was dark, with little time for cuteness or humor. It delved deeply into the paranormal, playing out against a stark backdrop of good versus evil. It was the closest thing we had to the X-Files in the 70s. Before Mulder and Scully there was Steve and Oscar, whose on-screen chemistry fell somewhere between that of Mulder & Scully and the two cops from Adam-12. The love between the two men was real; I can see that now.

I didn’t get more than a few minutes into the episode. I didn’t have to.  Everything I needed to see happened right there in the first sequence.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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