Sunday, November 16, 2008


I'm kind of regretting that I wrote that last thing. A little too raw, even for me, here. But I only take down things that are unjust. No take-backs. Just to get some distance between me and it, though, I'm bumping this up, from April of '07 -- Alec Baldwin and his voicemail to his daughter. Sure, you remember. Almost anything would have done -- but there sure is a lot about depression, here. Maybe somebody will write a paper on me. Can't wait.


One of the ways I unwind is by listening to old time radio. Lum & Abner are amazing. Jack Benny was on top for a reason. Orson Wells of course. His The Third Man series c. '51 is everything you'd expect. Bogart and Bacall did a season of Bold Venture -- worth hearing. The Golden Age of Radio lasted from the mid thirties to the mid fifties. Some shows lasted into the sixties, like Johnny Dollar (an insurance investigator with an action-packed expense account), and Gunsmoke -- William Conrad, TV's Cannon, was Matt Dillon. But TV just destroyed the industry. Lots of OTR is very good. You can buy decades worth of a program online for five or ten bucks. Best deal of the century. Lots of drek. Lots of stuff that's unlistenable. Abbott and Costello. Amos & Andy were the most popular act in radio -- really prototypical sitcom fare, and not racist at all, from a certain perspective. No more than the portrayal of goofy white characters would be racist. But it wasn't great writing. Really average. I'm amazed to hear the studio audience laugh at the not-at-all funny lines. Ah well. Different times.

Bing Crosby is much more important than you know. For twenty years he was big in radio and the movies, and utterly dominated music. He invented modern singing. He was the first crooner. He communicated songs, whereas before they'd been about belting them out, or sounding pretty. At his best he is unsurpassed. You have to overlook the mannerisms of that day, the swoops and buh buh boos. But the way he used that voice. Consummate. Sinatra is better only because he sounds more modern. There's no comparison, in terms of voice.

You know the persona -- casual and cool. Flip and sincere. Very attractive. I remember the Christmas specials from the sixties and into the seventies. His kids gathered around -- very homey. There's a Christmas radio show from the late forties where his original group of sons, four of them, all sing their little songs. Quite pleasant. (The eldest, Gary, had a hit in 1950, Sam's Song, with his father; the first double-sided gold record ever. I think Gary was the first teen idol. A decade before the Nelsons.) They were not untalented boys. The youngest one, Lindsay, sang a sweet little song with a swing beat about hitching a ride with Santa Claus; I listened to it several times, impressed with the syncopation.

Some forty years later Lindsay put a bullet through his brain -- the day after he watched a rerun of his father singing White Christmas on TV. Two years later another brother killed himself. Gary wrote a book in the early eighties describing his father as a harsh and abusive man. I don't know. But when a third son died under circumstances that the coroner left vague, speculation arose that Peter too had killed himself -- he was the son who defended his father against Gary's charges of abuse. Gary died of lung cancer in '95.

Bing Crosby left a fortune of some $150 million dollars. His will stipulated that his sons from his first marriage could not collect their inheritance until they were in their 80s. None of them lived so long.

That's a sad story, taken all together. When I heard that first family radio Christmas special, with the whiskey-voiced mom, Dixey (who died in '52 of problems related to alcoholism), and the stern but affectionate-sounding dad, it made me feel creepy and uncomfortable. I, you see, was a child performer. I was compelled to stand for countless hundreds of hours in front of a very large mirror, singing. "Smile." We toured the country, singing in night clubs and sundry venues. We were on TV, coast to coast. Mid-sixties. My father was extremely talented -- should have been rich and famous. Didn't work out that way, for various reasons. And his sons were not without potential. So I could hear the practice, in the Crosby boys' radio performance. I could see the endless rehearsals. Maybe I projected some of the less patient moments of my experience onto their circumstances.

That's all. Just a story about appearances, and practice, and intimations and empathy. And, by implication, about the need for gentleness. It isn't by force of will that we shape our sons into the men we want them to be. Our love doesn't mean a thing, without respect. Individuality needs to be honored. Shaping a child in the way he should go, or twisting him -- it takes wisdom to know what to do. The difference between discipline and perversion takes forty years, sometimes, to show up.

I don't know that Bing Crosby was an abusive father. One son said yes, another said no. I just know that his sons led unsuccessful and rather tormented lives. If my son has an unhappy life, I would take that as my own failure. A father's job is to prepare his children for fulfillment, as much as is reasonable. There's a way that my standard is too high. There's another way that it is just right. In any case, it isn't our place to judge. We learn our lessons where we may, often by mere implication.

Is Alec Baldwin's daughter a "brainless" "little pig"? Could be. Really, it could be. Look at her parents, and make your own call. Baldwin got on the phone and left a pretty scathing message for his daughter, which his former paramour has released to the public. For my part, I don't consider Baldwin's calling his daughter such names to be abusive. Sometimes parents are harsh, and rightly so. There is a context that must be honored, as much as the isolated and out-of-context incident we've been hearing about. But confrontations shouldn't be done in unconsidered anger, and shouldn't be done over the phone, via voicemail. We should be gentle. When we're not, we should be wise in our anger. When we're neither, we should apologize. In any case, Baldwin had a right to expect privacy.

We will be more informed about Baldwin's parenting skills in the years to come, when we see how his daughter relates to the world. If she is happy and well-adjusted and successful in a meaningful way, that will decide the question. Until then, our opinions are based on insufficient evidence, and amount to rumor and gossip. So I don't have an opinion. I'm afraid I think I do have an opinion about Bing Crosby, what with the results being in.

And for myself, my own circumstances, I'm again afraid I have an opinion. Children are not brought into the world to gratify their parents' desires. Children are on loan from God, entrusted to individuals for a time, and for which there will be an accounting. God has a mountain of millstones, as well as a treasure trove of crowns. My father? Forgiveness will spare him from the first. He must await the second as a gift of unmerited favor. Both mercy and grace must come from his sons. But that's always how it is. We are most vulnerable to those who know us best. Sons need to be gentle with their fathers, if they can be. It's not justice, but it's only right. For God knows to whom he has entrusted his little babies, and it must be His hope that these gifts, which may be at first despised, will grow into great blessings.


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