Friday, January 17, 2020

100 Years Ago Today Prohibition Went Into Effect

It was one hundred years ago today that Prohibition went into effect in the United States. One year before, on January 17 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. It was on October 28 1919 that Congress passed the Volstead Act, meant to carry out the intent behind the Eighteenth Amendment. It was then on January 17 1920 that the production, sale, and transport of alcohol became illegal in the United States.

Obviously Prohibition had an immediate impact on the United States, but its impact would also be lasting and is still being felt to this day. Bootlegging began almost as soon as Prohibition took effect. Speakeasies, illicit places selling alcohol, sprang up almost immediately. While organized crime had existed prior to Prohibition, it grew ever more powerful during the years Prohibition was in effect. Such criminal organizations as the Chicago Outfit and the American Mafia made millions of dollars through bootlegging, the smuggling of liquor from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and the operation of speakeasies. Gangsters became prominent figures in the United States throughout the 1920s.

Of course, Prohibition would also have an impact on American popular culture. In fact, it seems very likely that the gangster movie would not exist as we know it without Prohibition. Gangster movies emerged during the Silent Era, among them Underworld (1927), Lights of New York (1928), and The Racket (1928). Arguably the Golden Age of gangster movies was the early Thirties. It was during this period that The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) were released. In all three films, bootlegging played a prominent role in the plot. The gangster movies of the Prohibition Era would have an impact that is still being felt to this day. Even more recent movies, such as The Untouchables (1987) and Miller's Crossing (1990), owe their existence to the gangster movies of the Prohibition Era. Even television would feel the impact of Prohibition years after its repeal. The Untouchables debuted in 1959 and produced such imitators as The Roaring Twenties. The Prohibition Era has been the setting of more recent television shows as well, most notably Boardwalk Empire.

While Prohibition would lead to the emergence of the gangster movie, it also had an impact on movies in other genres made while it was in effect. If the temperance movement had hoped that with Prohibition drinking would no longer appear in movies, their hopes must have been dashed repeatedly during the Silent Era and the early Pre-Code Era. If anything, drinking seems to appear more frequently in movies from the 1920s and the early Thirties than any other time in the history of American cinema. It certainly played a central role in many of the flapper movies of the era, such as Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Drunkenness continued to be a source of gags in movies even as Prohibition was still in effect. In fact, getting liquor and then getting drunk is at the centre of the Laurel & Hardy short "Blotto" (now lost except for a Spanish language version).  While drinking would continue to be part of the movies well after Prohibition was repealed and continues to be a part of movies to this day (let's face it, the "Thin Man" movies would be a whole lot less fun without the drinking), it seems like the Silent Era and the Pre-Code Era was some sort of heyday for on-screen drinking.

Of course, Prohibition eventually came to an end. Opposition to Prohibition had existed from the beginning, and as the Twenties progressed the movement towards its repeal only grew. Organisations in favour of the repeal of Prohibition, such as the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, had memberships in the thousands. The Democratic party's 1932 platform even included the repeal of Prohibition. It was on December 5 1933 that the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, finally bringing Prohibition to an end. While Prohibition was over, its impact is still being felt to this day.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Godspeed Neil Peart

Neil Peart, the drummer and chief lyricist for Canadian rock band Rush, died on January 7 2020 at the age of 67. The cause was glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

Neil Peart was born on September 12 1952 in Hamilton, Ontario. He spent the first two years of his life on the family farm in Hagersville, Ontario. When he was two years old his family moved to St. Catharines, Ontario. He developed an interest in music while still very young. While he took piano lessons as a child, his parents bought him a drum kit for his fourteenth birthday and he began taking lessons in drumming. Mr. Peart played in local bands as a teenager and, at eighteen, he migrated to London in hopes of pursuing a music career there.

After eighteen months in London and having made little progress as a musician, Neil Peart returned to Canada. When Rush's original drummer John Rutsey left, Neil Peart auditioned for the band. He joined the band on July 24 1974, only two weeks before Rush's first tour of the United States. His first album with Rush was the band's second album, Fly by Night, released in 1975. Fly by Night was followed the same year by Caress of Steel. The album was not well received by critics. Worse yet, their tour sold below expectations, to the point that the band nicknamed it "the Down the Tubes Tour." Mercury Records considered dropping Rush, but were convinced by their manager Ray Daniels to let the band record one more album.

Mercury tried to convince Rush to make their next album more commercial, but the band ignored the label. Instead they recorded 2112, side one of which was occupied by a single, 20 minute track relating the story of a future dystopia. Released in 1976, 2112 proved to be a success, peaking at no. 5 on the Canadian album chart and no. 61 on the Billboard album chart. It also received positive notices from critics. Their following albums, A Farewell to Kings in 1977 and Hemispheres in 1978, performed even better on the charts than 2112 had. It would be their album Permanent Waves, released in 1980, that proved to be their big breakthrough. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard album chart and at no. 3 in the United Kingdom.

Rush would continue to top the charts after Permanent Waves, from their following album, Moving Pictures in 1981, to their final album, Clockwork Angels, in 2012. The band also went through stylistic changes. Starting with Signals in 1982 the band moved towards a more synthesizer dominated sound. With Presto in 1989 Rush moved back towards a more guitar oriented sound.

While the three members of Rush remained friends, Neil Peart retired in 2015 due to chronic tendinitis.

In addition to his work as a musician and lyricist, Neil Peart also wrote seven non-fiction books on this travels.

Although highly successful, Rush has been a band that many either love or hate, with little ground in between. This is also true of Neil Peart, whom Blender ranked as the second worst lyricist (after Sting) in their list of "the worst lyricists in rock." While Blender might not have liked Mr. Peart's lyrics, there were clearly many who do. His lyrics have described as "artful," and Neil Peart as "the thinking man's lyricist." For all that some might not appreciate Neil Peart's lyrics, it is clear that they speak to a good many people. Certainly, in his lyrics Neil Peart addressed things not often addressed in rock music. In his lyrics Mr. Peart drew upon science fiction, fantasy, mythology, personal issues, and humanitarian concerns. While other rock lyricists might only address subjects of love, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, Neil Peart addressed a wide variety of topics.

While Neil Peart was controversial as a lyricist, he was universally admired as a drummer. Even people who did not particularly like Rush often listed him among the greatest drummers alive. Neil Peart was known for the precision of his drumming, as well as the power of his drumming. He was well known for his massive drum kits, and used a diverse array of percussion instruments.  His drumming often defied genres, drawing upon rock, blues, jazz, funk, and everything in between.

As both a lyricist and a drummer Neil Peart would have a lasting influence. Rush has been cited as an influence by such diverse artists as Alice in Chains, Fishbone, Manic Street Preachers, Queensrÿche, and yet others. No less than Trent Reznor counts Rush as one of his favourite bands. Neil Peart certainly had an influence on his many fans. If Rush has been popular since the late Seventies, it is probably because Neil Peart's lyrics spoke to so many people. His lyrics were informed by his love of literature and history, and he often addressed the vagaries of life in his lyrics. He often addressed topics left unaddressed by rock lyricists, but topics with which the listener could identify. Neil Peart may have been a drummer, but he ultimately had the soul of a poet.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Edd Byrnes Passes On

Edd Byrnes, who played Gerald "Kookie" Kookson III on the classic TV show 77 Sunset Strip, died on January 8 2020 at the age of 87.

Edd Byrnes was born Edward Byrne Breitenberger on July 30 1932 in New York City. His father died when he was 13 and he took the name of his grandfather, a New York City firefighter. He eventually took an interest in acting and following his graduation from high school he worked in summer stock. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.

Mr. Byrnes made his television debut on an episode of Crossroads. He guest starred on Wire Service, Navy Log, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Telephone Time, and Cheyenne. He also appeared in movies, making his film debut in Fear Strikes Out in 1957. It would be his role as a murderer in Girl on the Run (1958), a feature film that effectively served as the pilot for 77 Sunset Strip, that led to him being cast as Kookie. Kookie turned out to be the breakout character on 77 Sunset Strip. At the height of the show's popularity, he received over 15,000 fan letters a week, more than any other star at Warner Bros. The character's popularity led to Edd Byrnes recording the novelty song "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" with Connie Stevens. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959. Edd Byrnes would have frequent disagreements with Warner Bros., and during the second season actually walked off 77 Sunset Strip. He eventually returned to the show and remained with it until the sixth season, when the show underwent a format change and the entire cast except for Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was fired and the show.

In the late Fifties Edd Byrnes also guest starred on the shows Colt .45, The Gale Storm Show, Sugarfoot, Maverick (possibly as an ancestor of Kookie in one of the three episodes in which he appeared), Lawman, Surfside 6 (as Kookie), and Hawaiian Eye (as Kookie). He also appeared in the movies Reform School Girl (1957), Johnny Trouble (1957), The Deep Six (1958), Darby's Rangers (1958), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Life Begins at 17 (1958), Up Periscope (1959), and Yellowstone Kelly (1959).

Edd Byrnes continued to appear as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip into the early Sixties. He also guest starred on the TV shows The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Burke's Law, Mister Roberts, Honey West, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Mannix, and Love, American Style. He appeared in the movies The Secret Invasion (1964), Beach Ball (1965), 7 winchester per un massacro (1967), Vado... l'ammazzo e torno (1967), and Professionisti per un massacro (1967).

In the Seventies Edd Byrnes was a regular on the short-lived TV series $weepstake$. He guest starred on Adam-12, Alias Smith and Jones, The Pathfinders, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The ABC Afternoon Playbreak, Faraday and Company, Marcus Welby M.D., Thriller, Police Story, Police Woman, Sword of Justice, California Fever, CHiPs, B.J. and the Bear, and House Calls. He appeared in the movies Wicked, Wicked (1973), Stardust (1974), and Grease (1978).

In the Eighties Mr. Byrnes guest starred on Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, Quincy M.E., The Master, Crazy Like a Fox, Simon & Simon, Throb, Rags to Riches, and Mr. Belvedere. He appeared in the movies Erotic Images (1983), Back to the Beach (1987), Mankillers (1987), Party Line (1988), and  Troop Beverly Hills (1989).

In the Nineties he guest starred on the shows Empty Nest, Married with Children; Burke's Law; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Murder, She Wrote; and Unhappily Ever After. He appeared in the TV movie Shake, Rattle and Roll: An American Love Story.

I think there can be no doubt that Edd Byrnes will always be remembered as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip. With Kookie, he created an instantly memorable character, a parking attendant known for his hip language and running a comb through his hair. It is little wonder that Kookie was at the centre of one of television's earliest fads, following Walt Disney's "Davy Crockett" but preceding The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Of course, Mr. Byrnes made numerous guest appearances on other television shows, from a convicted bank robber on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to a lecherous stockbroker on Murder, She Wrote. Edd Byrnes will always be remembered as Kookie, but he played numerous other roles as well.