John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Life lessons from the Billy Joel concert

Billy Joel Concert

The author at the Billy Joel concert with some nudnick and two beautiful women

Billy Joel The StrangerThe first two music albums that I fell in love with were Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Steely Dan’s Aja. I was 13 years old. Over time I came to like Aja better but initially The Stranger was my favorite. First favorite albums always have a special place in your heart and which is why I was so excited to attend my first Billy Joel concert at the YUM center last week.

The first thing I noticed was Billy Joel looks a lot different today than he did when I was first introduced to him in 1977. He even joked when introducing himself that he was really Billy Joel’s father. A lot of time has passed since The Stranger was released –37 years to be exact. But as I was treated to a generously long lifetime of songs from the legendary Billy Joel I couldn’t help but notice that –at least in my opinion—almost all of Joel’s greatest songs came from The Stranger (1977) or earlier works.

The 37 years that followed had produced some memorable and even exceptional songs but none that rated, again in my opinion, as classics or truly extraordinary pieces of music.

jyb_musingsWhich made me think to myself that perhaps in music—and other professions—the key is to have a huge creative burst in your late 20s and then you can coast the rest of your life by replaying your greatest hits, so to speak, to sell out crowds. In other words, I asked myself, Was Billy Joel and so many other of our greatest artists their own version of Orson Welles –who stunned the world with his prodigy and prodigiousness in his early career before falling relatively flat during the ensuing decades?

But as I remained entertained and even entranced by Billy Joel I knew something more was at play. Perhaps for some artists they do flame out early and coast for many years after that. But that is not what we were witnessing with Billy Joel. Yes, his greatest music perhaps was written when he was a younger man but we were not watching a man who was past his prime. He had matured from a great song writer to one of the greatest entertainers of our time. Joel may have been at the apex of his creativity in his 20s but now in his 60s Joel was still peaking as a performer and master musician.

So, as we were slowly filing out after the concert, I wondered to myself what this all meant. Perhaps it was that great creativity and breakthrough originality are breathtaking to experience but like all things that take your breath away are hard to sustain. But real passion and dedication that lasts not for months or years –but for decades –and is nurtured while honing your life’s work, may not take your breath away, but does elicit something even greater—an awe and respect as well as a record of sustained excellence that is even rarer and more special than moments of genius.

The author at the Billy Joel Louisville concert with some nudnick and two beautiful women

The author at the Billy Joel Louisville concert with some nudnick and two beautiful women

I learned, I suppose, that the depth of our devotion is more profound than the height of our creativity. In music. And in life. The former can create one of the great albums of a generation. But the latter can establish one of the greatest entertainers of our lifetime. And made me glad that the Billy Joel I finally got to see live wasn’t the brilliant 28 year old at his creative flashpoint, who would have still been very exciting to see, but rather was the 65 year old master of his craft and consummate musical performer, who truly was amazing to behold. And who also taught me an important lesson about life.

Lauren Mayer: Good News Can Be Funny, Too!

As a political humorist, I gravitate toward bad news and schadenfreude. This is hardly surprising since satirists are often inspired by idiotic comments, horrible laws, and ludicrous judicial decisions.

I’m getting ready to record an album of my “greatest hits,” songs from my weekly videos going back to the 2012 election, and I’m noticing how many of them were inspired by things that would have otherwise made me angry. These include Todd Akin’s “shut that whole thing down,” Paul Ryan blaming poverty on lazy inner city men, the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook, and the dire need for a minimum wage increase. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this— humor has always been used to cope with difficulty by ridiculing authority, highlighting hypocrisy, and helping people laugh at what might otherwise make them cry.

However, it’s nice to change things up a bit. As my dad used to say, “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” (Which is either brilliant, or weirdly redundant.  As were most of his aphorisms, including “Eschew obfuscation” – if you need a definition, ask a teenager who just finished SATs.  But I digress.)

Last week there was still plenty of news to inspire dark humor, but the ACA enrollment news was surprisingly good. Add that to my love of word play and seeing a short-lived internet pun, and I decided it was time to celebrate instead of skewer.  (Okay, I took a few digs at the Obamacare nay-sayers, but gloating is too hard to resist!)

Lauren Mayer: Classic (and Sophomoric) Humor and Politics

like to joke that I have 3 boys, ages 17, 20 and 47.  (One is my husband – cue rim shot.)  Husband 2.0 came along when I was a single mother with really young kids, and he proceeded to endear himself to them by doing silly impressions (his Yoda and Scoobie-Doo sort of mesh together) and inventing a game he called ‘Dodgeball In The Dark,’ in which they raced around the backyard throwing whatever wasn’t nailed down.  But he really bonded with the boys via male humor – first Simpsons, then Family Guy as they got (almost) old enough, with a healthy dose of “that’s what she said” jokes thrown in.

Many writers have weighed in on why women are less amused by this type of humor – in fact, Google “Why men love The Three Stooges and women don’t” and you’ll get over 2 million entries, with a wide range of explanations.  I’m constantly trying to give my boys a bit of refinement and elegance, and moms are traditionally the ones who discourage rough-housing and bad language, but there is also something to be said in favor of letting our hair down a bit – especially since at my house it’s a losing fight anyhow.

I’ve learned to enjoy Family Guy (okay, it can be horribly offensive, but also really funny, and the song parodies are a riot), and I’ve been known to crack an off-color ‘that’s what she said’ on occasion.  Plus this week, when I was at my wits’ end trying to figure out a topic for my song, Husband 2.0 suggested I do something juvenile with the rhyming name of Hobby Lobby – and this is the result.  (Maybe we’re the reverse of the old saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. . . I give him class and he gives me bawdy humor suggestions?)

Lauren Mayer: Modern Jewish Mothers and Same Sex Marriage

Most of us are familiar with the cliche of the Jewish mother, who urges everyone to eat, nags her adult kids who don’t call her, and who is the butt of dozens of jokes that make people groan instead of laugh.  (Although I do love the one about the mom who gives her son two ties for his birthday, the son immediately puts one on, and the mom says “What, you didn’t like the other one?”)

Of course, I’ve always thought I was way too hip for that cliche, but as I find myself nagging my own sons about their eating habits (which are mostly terrible, and would it be so hard for them to eat something green besides green Skittles?), I can hear echoes of my mother and grandmother.  Yes, I’m a Jewish mother – but that isn’t as inconsistent with liberal political views as one might imagine, particularly when it comes to gay rights.

For example, many reformed synagogues (including ours) have offered same-sex commitment ceremonies for years.  And Jews are disproportionately represented in entertainment (just listen to “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway” from Spamalot), with a gay-friendly environment.  Plus we’re far more likely to live in urban areas, or suburbs near large cities, which tend to lean more Democrat and thus more tolerant.  (In fact, at the large suburban high school my kids attended, the biggest issue with their Gay Straight Alliance club was that it was mostly filled with straight teen girls who, thanks to Glee and Smash, wanted their own gay best friend.)

When my kids were young, I tried to impart this tolerance by making sure my boys spent time with my wonderful gay friends, and urging tolerance whenever I could.  (My older son was about 11 when he asked me when I thought he’d be ready to start kissing girls.  I responded, quite earnestly, “Your body will tell you when you’re ready, and it will also tell you whether you want to kiss girls or boys, because both are okay.”  He rolled his eyes and said, “Geez, mom, give it a rest.  I hate to disappoint you, but I’m straight.”)

At any rate, it makes perfect sense that a Jewish mother would not only welcome, but actually want, a gay son – because that way she’d never be replaced by another woman.  (Cue rim shot.)  But to my surprise, when I googled “Jewish Mothers For Marriage Equality,” there were no exact matches.  So clearly, a song was waiting to be born (and now, if you google that phrase, this one will come up!)

Lauren Mayer   , ,  

Lauren Mayer: There’s A Song, and YouTube Video, For (Almost) Everything . . .

One of the advantages of being a teenager’s mother (no, really, there ARE some advantages!) is early knowledge of trends.  And it’s not just obsessive texting, video games, or mindless cat videos – my boys both introduced me to the wealth of actual, useful information one can find on youTube.  (Although there’s plenty of ridiculous filler – as one comedian observed, we could just combine the youTube, Twitter and Facebook into one giant time-wasting site called “youTwitFace” . . . but I digress.)

My tap-dancer son has shown me great archival footage of the legends he admires, and youTube has introduced a whole new generation to the genius of Bill Robinson, Eleanor Powell, and the Nicholas Brothers.  My younger son is a fan of cool science experiments as well as a group that does brilliant out-of-the-box music routines (including one in which a group of musicians created a piece by playing every part of the piano EXCEPT the keys).  Because of youTube’s enormous scale (6 billion – yes, billion – hours of videos are watched every month!) I can find a video for anything I might ever want to do, from making homemade brioche to installing sheet rock (neither of which I’m ever likely to do, but it’s still cool to know I COULD if I wanted to!)

Of course, that volume makes it hard to come up with an original concept – someone else has probably already filmed their dog playing with a rubber ducky, no matter how cute yours is.   So when Harry Reid made headlines last week by arguing that the GOP was “Addicted to Koch” (the billionaire Koch brothers), I figured someone would turn his memorable line into the obvious song.  And while a doctored photo did pop up with a bunch of leggy models and Reid’s head superimposed over Robert Palmer’s, the song itself had yet to turn up on youTube.

Not only was Reid’s comment a great reference to an incredibly popular song (with an iconic video), but I played in a rock band during the ’80s which actually covered a couple of Robert Palmer tunes, so I knew the song in question.  And on youTube I found a) the original video, b) hundreds of tutorials on how the makeup artist created that look, c) thousands of bad karaoke versions, and d) a couple of exposes on how a musician was hired to teach the models to mime playing their instruments, but they were so hopeless that he gave up after an hour.  (Which explains why none of them seemed to be playing – or dancing – to the same beat. )

And to top it all off, when my son saw me dressed & made-up for the video, he knew exactly what I was parodying . . . .

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: American Hustle

american hustleI haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet but my favorite movie of 2013 was American Hustle.

The casting is flawless; the story is corrupt but uniquely American and irresistible (and less about the con game depicted than the co…n games each of us plays with ourseleves); the acting is mesmerizing; the mood, style, ennui and chutzpah of the period–the 70′s–is captured brilliantly; the writing, dialogue and camerawork make you feel like you are personally sitting in the background of each scene watching old friends; — and then there’s the soundtrack, a soundtrack tied to the core of the characters personalities and storyline as expressed in one of the early scenes as Irving, Christian Bale, realizes he’s falling in love with Sydney, Amy Adams.

“She was unlike anybody I ever knew.
She was smart. She saw through
people in situations. And she knew
how to live with passion and style.
She understood Duke Ellington.”

jyb_musingsBut my favorite song on the soundtrack isn’t from Duke Ellington but E.L.O.’s Overture which seems perfectly emblematic for this storyline and moment in time.


Kentucky Hustle?

I watched American Hustle again last night and was amazed that a 22 year old (at the time) young lady from Louisville, KY dominated every scene she was in.

And she is in scenes with Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and many others.

Can we have a shout out for this KY star?

I love the scene when there is the big meeting with the mob bosses and everyone is intimidated by them except Jennifer Lawrence’s character, who sashays toward them and takes over their conversation in a matter of seconds.

That scene is emblematic of what she’s done with Hollywood, too.

You go, girl!

Lauren Mayer: Pet Rocks, Puka Shells and Pop Stars – Going Viral, Then & Now

Every generation in modern history has had its cultural, sartorial or entertainment fads ‘du jour’ – in the 1920s, it was flagpole sitting and Charleston contests, in the 1950s it was Davy Crockett caps and bobby soxers squealing for Frank Sinatra, the 70s had lava lamps and David Cassidy.  These trends became popularized first by word of mouth, as a few adventurous souls made things look cool.  Then it would take weeks or months for a fad to catch on, and months or years before it became so popular it was no longer cool.   (I remember the first puka shell necklace I saw – worn by a 13-year-old at summer camp who was rumored to be so fast, she let boys French kiss her. So anything she wore was bound to be cool and a little dangerous – until about a year later when you could buy plastic puka shell necklaces at Woolworth’s . . . .but I digress)

However, these days trends can start, flare up and die out much more quickly, whether it’s a longer-lasting fad, such as Lululemon yoga pants, or a quick meme, like Mitt Romney’s unfortunate choice of the phrase “binders full of women.”

So it’s probably not surprising that the Oscars weren’t even over before someone created a ‘Travoltify-Your-Name’ app, in honor of John Travolta’s now-legendary mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name.  Add in a generation of teen girls who feel empowered by the characters Ms. Menzel has played, as well as the tendency of girl-power-anthems to sound alike, and I may have come up with the ultimate trend-driven, flash-in-the pan pop song.


Lauren Mayer: Teaching A Middle-Aged Dog New Tricks

LMayerHeadshot-1You’re probably familiar with the rather over-used cliche of technology-impaired adults being at the mercy of youth.  The pre-teen rolling her eyes as she tries to teach her mother to text, the intern showing the executive yet again how to log in to Outlook.  Mind you, there are plenty of us who are quite capable of more sophisticated tasks (especially now that we’ve figured out there’s a youTube tutorial on doing just about anything).

But it is generally true that the younger generation is more comfortable with technology – they don’t know a world without portable computers & smart phones.  (It’s hysterical watching toddlers treat a television like a mobile device, trying to change channels by swiping their hands across the screen.  And while I’m not sure how I feel about all these devices for young kids, boy, do I appreciate those iPads when I’m on a plane with young kids!)

I have learned quite a bit from my sons, whether it’s the proper use of ‘twitter’ vs. ‘tweet’ (one is a noun, one is a verb), or how to reboot our cable/internet connection when it goes down at least once a day. My 17-year-old son runs his own youTube channel and is pretty savvy (he’d seen Gangnam Style before it hit 100,000 views!); when I was wondering whether my own youTube videos were doing well, he kindly reassured me by saying, “Well, Mom, anything over 100 views is viral for old people.”

My boys were the ones who turned me on to “Cards Against Humanity” (an off-color, totally inappropriate and hysterically funny variation on category games like “Apples To Apples”).  This self-described ‘party game for horrible people’ was launched via Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform.  Notice, I can now use terms like ‘crowd-funding’ and ‘platform’ and sort of sound like I know what they mean!, but in case you’re wondering, crowd-funding is basically a cross between layaway, Renaissance art patronage, and PBS pledge week.  Artists and inventors finance projects by soliciting backers, who pledge varying amounts of money in return for ‘rewards’, varying from a copy of a CD or game to a custom-designed song, video, or food item.  And you can find all sorts of projects – indie films, steampunk-themed cupcake sprinkles, graphic novels, medieval guitar music, and more.

I’m jumping in, producing an album of ‘greatest hits’ from my weekly songs, and hoping to prove that people over 30 can play in this new playground too, including those of us who grew up without computers, who remember the first ‘car-phones’ that were the size of suitcases, and who actually know the meaning of an “E ticket’ ride at Disneyland.

So I invite you to try out Kickstarter, or IndieGoGo or other similar sites, to see work by inventive people of all ages.  (Or at least by a bunch of youngsters plus one feisty 55-year-old who can’t lie about her age because her kids will rat her out.)  The project pitches themselves are often very entertaining, and at least in the case of mine, you can amuse yourself by imagining the double dose of hate mail I’m likely to get from my title.

Check it out here.

Lauren Mayer: It’s Not Nice To Tease (But It’s So Fun!)

The Oscars weren’t even over before the internet was buzzing with critical comments about celebrities’ appearance & wardrobe, and with critical comments about those critical comments.  Can’t they just enjoy their intimate little industry awards ceremony (televised to millions and millions of watchers) in peace?

When celebrities and politicians put themselves in the public eye, they’re fair game, since they achieved their status through public attention.  I do agree that it’s not nice to hit below the belt (although when Joan Rivers does it, it’s pretty entertaining).  But it is perfectly appropriate to criticize public figures for the choices they make, whether it’s to dress like a swan, complete with an egg purse (no one will ever top Bjork’s outfit!), or to disregard the one name you’re supposed to introduce (which has already launched apps that will ‘John Travolta’ your name into something unintelligible).

Likewise, when politicians say or do ridiculous things, it is understandable when we mock them, whether it’s John Oliver’s iconic ‘Carlos Danger’ dance when he was subbing on The Daily Show, or all the humor that was prompted by Sarah Palin’s insistence that she could see Russia from her house.  (Although even Ms. Palin could be overshadowed by some neighborhoods – during the ’08 election, I had been a runner-up in a Palin impersonation contest, and thus was invited to come in costume to the Castro, San Francisco’s colorful gay neighborhood, to introduce a local news feature on Halloween.  I walked several blocks in a red suit & her signature hairstyle and glasses, carrying a larger-than-lifesized stuffed fake moosehead, and no one even stopped to look at me.  But I digress . . . )

So sure, sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt at making fun of politicians in these weekly songs.  But hey, I can take it as well as dish it out – I know that by posting my videos on youTube, I will get insulted and called a variety of names (which are usually spelled wrong).  And if politicians like Ted Cruz do things like urging their supporters to pray for more anti-gay discrimination laws, or insist that if people listen to Ted Nugent, it’s Obama’s fault, then they can’t expect me to resist material like that!

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Born to be Wild

jyb_musingsYou know you are 50 when….

Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” pops up to play on your iPod and instead of proudly displaying the album image and secretly believing it is your way of warning others that you, deep down, have a ferrel and dangerous side that they should be wary of—you instead flip quickly to the next song because you know, deep down, that others have nothing to be wary about in your presence.

And others know that, too.

And when the next song that pops up us Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel you proudly display the album image for others to see and secretly believe  it is your way of saying, “I may not be wild today but back in the 70′s I had a very sensitive side and loved Simon and Garfunkel’s melodic Scarborough Fair no matter what other people thought.

And that’s how I still roll today.”

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