Friday, October 07, 2016

Ratted Out?

One of the more peculiar fetishes my generation* developed was a brief enthusiasm for the lounge acts of yore, embodied chiefly (but not exclusively) by The Rat Pack.
"Yeah, I quit smoking. Also drinking and singing. That a big deal?"
Some of this retro-resurgence was ironic. What other option was there? The older sibs had clearly exhausted all venues of shock and awe with their hippie-cum-punk antics. If "today's noise is tomorrow's hootenanny" why not just make yesterday's hootenanny today's noise?

It turned out that yesterday's hootenanny had undeniable flashes of astonishing insight and depth. Throw in the whole business of devoting time, energy and $$$ to putting yourself together for a swell night on the scene, and the intended ironies silently dissipated like a puff of unfiltered cigarette smoke beneath the city's neon lights.

It helped that the Chairman was the only survivor of the pack by the time we "discovered" them. He could oblige the noobs with another album or two of duets -- no-nonsense "that's a wrap" studio sessions that the listener couldn't help but suspect were finagled for bragging rights, not just for hungry up-and-comers, but for the fading legend himself.

It also helped that we were too young and blinkered to notice the moment these guys took a nosedive from being the Reigning Kings of Cool to residing for decades in TV's dumpster bin of mockable celebrity has-beens. Sinatra himself was a seemingly inexhaustible font of reliable cheap laughs for the comic talents of none other than Joe Piscopo.

I still listen to some Sinatra, if the mood strikes -- selections from the Capitol years, the entirety of In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning. Any given playlist I cobble together inevitably has one or two surprise entries from Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. And while I sure don't mind putting on a suit, you're more likely to find me wearing shorts until the snow starts to fall -- something Dino might appreciate, as he reportedly preferred blue-jeans to tuxes.

All this is brought to mind after reading Donald Liebenson's Vanity Fair account of When Jerry Met Dean -- Again, On Live Television. I can take or leave Liebenson's breathless account of a moment that amounts to little more than a well-played showbiz prank. But watching the footage of it (40 years ago; I was 11, the only Dino I knew was a barking dinosaur) was a revelation. Here it is:



Suddenly, Piscopo makes sense. The more Lewis recovers from the surprise, the more we see a listless reflex to Borscht Belt entertainment tropes taking over, all of it strictly Squaresville. Clean up the language a bit and dress these chummy goofs in felt, and you've got The Muppet Show. (And good Lord -- was there ever a lazier entertainer in Hollywood than Dean Martin?) Give the people what they want, of course -- by this time both the entertainers and the people in attendance were used to being called "square."

Nor, I imagine, were they much bothered by the denigration. If you brought the Boomers into this world, you basically shrugged this sort of thing off, and traded in kind -- or a lot worse. Hence the constant ribbing amongst the boys -- "It shoulda been a Jew" "You're not going Jewish on me" "Am I black? I didn't think I was dark," etc. Your hippie kids huff and roll their eyes at these exchanges, but what do they know?

Now that I think of it, these guys and their audience had all experienced military service -- if not directly, then indirectly. And the military mode -- still** -- is to point out potential personal distinctives in The Other, then, in ridicule, exaggerate them to such heightened levels of absurdity that the canard "truth in every jest" no longer applies.

Needless to say, this is not a mode we encourage as general public discourse in this day and age. There are reasons for that, some of them surely quite valid (it very quickly gets tiresome, for one thing). Still, I can't help but wonder if this rote sort of ribbing didn't deflate some of the very real tensions it simultaneously acknowledged and played with.

Final observation: the physical contact amongst these dudes! Long, tender hugs! Kisses! Soft touches to the other's cheek! My gen is so riveted to the Spectrum, it's all we can do to look up from our shoes and make fleeting eye contact.

One wants to exercise some caution when extolling the virtues of earlier generations. But still and all, a little extolling and, dare I suggest, judicious emulation might not be a bad thing right about now.

*Gen X, for those keeping score.
** Generation Kill, HBO's Iraq War drama, is a tutorial in the method, and makes this on-stage banter look like a Sunday School flannelgraph drama. 

4 comments:

Joel Swagman said...

Just out of curiousity, what was the time frame for Gen-X rediscovering the Rat Pack? Are we talking Mid-80s here or late 90s or...?

Darrell Reimer said...

Good question. I'm prone to pinning it on Cobain's suicide ('94). Cobain's suicide pretty much finished off the whole "Rock 'n' Roll as an Ethos" bullshit. So bring on the Rat Pack. It probably was a year or two earlier, but '94 is the year I'd pin it to.

Joel Swagamn said...

Oh right... Maybe I remember this actually. Was this tied into that whole Swing Dance revival of the late 90s?

Darrell Reimer said...

Exactly. That, and "Cocktail Culture."Drinking martinis and smoking cigars was a thing.