Lives, finished and unfinished + my 100th post

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s private funeral is being held today at a church in Manhattan. There will be a memorial service later. Hoffman died February 2 of a drug overdose at the age of 46.

Pete Seeger’s memorial service was held in Beacon, NY, where he lived—on the day Hoffman died. The service was a moment of quiet reflection about Seeger’s life along with plenty of his songs. He died at 94 on January 27 after being hospitalized for a few days.


Springsteen and Seeger at Pete’s birthday party in 2009. Copyright Kevin Mazur/WireImage.

I can’t help but think of the contrast between the two lives. Seeger was a singer, songwriter, political and environmental activist for more than 70 years. At 17, he joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party; he severed his CP ties in 1949. He started singing with the Almanac Singers in 1941; their work included antiwar and other leftwing political songs. Over the years, he was investigated by HUAC and blacklisted; sang on public television and on college campuses and coffeehouses when he couldn’t get more commercial gigs because of the blacklist. But he never quit songwriting, performing and political activism. He has a huge repertoire of songs and recordings and is considered a national treasure by the public and a role model by many current musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.


People Magazine cover, 2//12/2014, cropped.

Hoffman was a brilliant, prolific actor with some 50 movies plus TV shows and stage performances on his resume. Recently he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In 2000 he and John C Reilly performed Sam Shepard’s ultimate sibling-rivalry play, True West, switching roles occasionally thru the run. My favorite Hoffman films are probably Synecdoche, New York, and Capote.

Many writers have commented in the last week about his talent and how he fully inhabited every role. A.O. Scott said he “made unhappiness a joy to watch.” He lived only half the life that Pete Seeger lived. Think how many amazing movie experiences we are going to miss because of the drug habit he kicked and then kicked him back.

We can’t possibly know what demons tortured Hoffman and made him rely on prescription drugs and heroin. But the loss of his life is a loss to us as well as to his family and friends.

There are many unfinished lives in the literary, music and entertainment businesses, and in everyday life. This is a topic that interests me, as I’ll explain below.

Buddy Holly, the early rock and roll musician, died at 23 in a wintry plane crash 55 years ago last week.

John Kennedy Toole, the bizarrely comic novelist and author of The Confederacy of Dunces, died at 32 in 1969.

Janis Joplin, the great blues and rock singer/songwriter, died at 27 in 1970.

Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the world’s best guitarist (and left-handed too) died at 27 in 1970.

John Millington Synge, the Irish playwright and author of Playboy of the Western World, died at 37 in 1909.

John Wellborn Root, the Chicago architect and design partner of Daniel Burnham’s firm, Burnham & Root, died at 41 in 1891. The house where he lived is a block away on my street.

And my sister Lynda died at 27 in 1970 when a drunken driver crashed into the passenger side of the family car, killing her and her 3-month-old baby. Even after four decades, I find it difficult to talk about her death, so few of my friends know the details. Some day I’ll dedicate stories of unfinished lives to Lynda.

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 Nancy Bishop’s Journal: My 100th post

This is my 100th post. When I started this blog in July 2012, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was going. Since then, I’ve become much more focused on writing about the things I love—movies, theater, music, books, art and Chicago stories. It’s been more fun than I thought possible. I feel as if after all those decades of business writing, I’ve finally become a writer.

Those 100 posts average 800-900 words each, so in the last 18 months, I’ve written about 85,000 words, the equivalent of a book, a substantial book at that. In addition, since May 2013, I’ve written 80 stories—mostly theater and art reviews—for Gapers Block, the Chicago-centric website. That’s another ~40,000 words, in case we’re counting.  So in ~20 months, I’ve written the equivalent of two books. That’s not bad productivity.

Pop culture pool: Drowning in TV, music, theater

A little of this. A little of that. It’s January. It’s cold and snowy. Have fun while you’re hibernating but don’t stay inside and mope.

True Detective on HBO

truedetectiveThis new HBO series has a dark, ominous atmosphere, clued by the opening theme music and visuals. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are detectives with the state CID in rural Louisiana near the town of Erath. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, the senior guy, and McConaughey plays his partner Rustin Cohle, a moody, sometimes poetic detective. (This is another step in the McConaissance, as Tribune writer Christopher Borrelli termed it. McConaughey, who spent years playing in romantic comedies, has now turned into a serious actor. I personally think the change started with his 2011 performance in Killer Joe, the Tracy Letts script that started as a stage play.)

True Detective (in the Sunday night quality TV ghetto) starts out in 1995 like a police procedural when they find the first evidence of a serial killer who performs ritual murders. It’s also a character study of the two detectives, who are seen in 2012, testifying in separate internal investigations about the case.

The show is intense and the plot will keep your attention. But the best thing about the program is the writing. I’ve watched the first three shows and each time I hear several lines I want to write down, usually spoken by McConaughey’s character, who has been through a failed marriage and lost a child in an accident. He’s cynical, brooding and critical of religion. He often offends his partner, who represents the traditional small-town milieu in which they operate.

“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”

“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”

“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We’ve become too self-aware.”

The screenwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, a former lit and writing teacher at the UofC and DePauw University in Indiana. He left teaching for Hollywood and worked on the AMC show, The Killing, before this. The Tribune article I noted above is a good overview and interview with Pizzolatto. (Registration required to access article.)

GRAMMYs mashups

The Grammys have become more of a variety show than an awards program since most awards are presented off-camera. But the musical performances are often absorbing collaborations between performers you would not often see together on a stage. The most publicized teamups this year were Daft Punk with Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder and the super-hot opener by Beyonce and Jay Z. But my favorite was the classical pianist Lang Lang with Metallica. They performed the Metallica song “One,” which was inspired by the Dalton Trumbo book and film, Johnny Got His Gun, a horrifying war story. Footage from the 1971 film formed the backdrop for the Grammys performance. It was a song you had to pay attention to.

Pete Seeger, “a heart of gold and a spine of steel”


Bruce and Pete, 2009

You have to love a radical folk singer who never gives up his activist ideas and activities into his 90s. Pete Seeger was a national treasure and role model and leaves us with so many memories. Like his performance with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 inaugural concert. (The description of Seeger above is from Springsteen’s New York Times comments on January 29.) And his performances of children’s programs on educational TV when he was banned from the commercial networks. After Pete’s death on Tuesday, a testament to his grittiness surfaced: the transcript of his testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. He never took the Fifth Amendment; he persisted in saying the committee had no right to ask him questions about what he belonged to or for whom he played and so he wasn’t answering. He would talk about his songs and that was it. Great reading.

Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread

I’ve had Rosanne Cash’s album The List on my iPod for a long time—and full confession: I bought it because she does a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak.” It’s a fine album and now I have her newest as well. It’s The River and the Thread, an excellent album of original songs by Cash and a few collaborators including her producer husband John Leventhal. The thread follows the towns along highway 61, the main highway from Memphis to New Orleans, also famous as a musical route because of the many songs written about it, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Most of the songs have road references and a strong sense of place. So far, my favorites are “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design.” There are many layers of culture and memory in these songs, plus the sound and the beat are more vibrant than her previous work. Rosanne Cash is worth a listen.

ON STAGE: The Golden Dragon by Sideshow Theatre

This is a short, fast-moving, sometimes puzzling play that I called a dark fairy tale. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“The Golden Dragon by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is a fanciful story presented by Sideshow Theatre Company. It’s a sort of dark fairy tale about the workers, residents and guests at a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food restaurant in a warehouse building in a certain global city. We are not sure where, but it doesn’t matter. The play is made up of the intertwined stories of 15 or 20 characters, played by five actors who quickly move from role to role without regard to gender, nationality or costume.“

I puzzled over it before writing my review, but it is really a fun and adventurous outing by Sideshow and displays the versatile acting chops of the five performers. The Golden Dragon runs until February 23 at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater.

The Little Prince by Lookingglass Theatre


Lookingglass’ home

The Little Prince is adapted from the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Lookingglass gives the wonderful story its due with a terrific production. I’ve loved this story forever and enjoyed reading it with my children as well as reading it in Spanish and French when I was studying those languages.

The play is produced by Lookingglass with the Actors Gymnasium, so there is plenty of flying, zooming and energetic action on the deceptively simple set. The play is poetic, visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying. It’s extended until March 16 at Lookingglass’ Old Water Tower space.

 Tennessee Williams Project by The Hypocrites

The Hypocrites is doing a trilogy of mostly unproduced Tennessee Williams plays at their space in the Chopin Theatre. The first—Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens—is set in the rather baroque lobby area in the downstairs space. For the second—The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde—the audience moves into a creepy London boarding house set—and finally to a St. Louis hospital ward for The Big Game.

tennessee-williams-project-6835 Director Matt Hawkins takes the same cast thru each transformation. The first play is the longest and the most successful. Patrick Gannon plays a wealthy transvestite who brings home a sailor, played by Joseph Wiens. The drinking, seduction and interaction is quite intense and well performed by the two actors. The second play seemed most unlike any Tennessee Williams play I have ever seen and had a strong Brechtian flavor—and for a moment, took a Sweeney Todd turn. It was, I can only say, odd. The third play is about a young man with congenital heart disease and his two roommates, one a football player on his way to the titular game, the other with a severe brain disease. The play is fraught with disease and death, as are many of Williams’ plays.

The trilogy is an interesting, if uneven, evening of theater. The Tennessee Williams Project runs until March 2.

And et cetera….

I’ve seen a bunch of movies lately too, but I wrote about Movies, Movies, Movies last week, so I’ll save these for my next film fix: The Wolf of Wall Street, Princess Mononoke, Captain Phillips and Like Father, Like Son. And probably more.