Sunday, February 26, 2006

Saying good-bye to Don Knotts

I feel like I've lost an old friend.

When I think of Don Knotts, his image is always stuck in early 1960s black-and-white. He is wearing a deputy sheriff's uniform, of course, walking with that bent over posture and wearing an "I'm full of it" look on his face.

Losing Barney Fife is like losing your favorite uncle.

Knotts stole the show right out from under Andy Griffith. One need only to suffer through one of the later color episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" to prove the point. It was still Mayberry. But it wasn't the same without ol' Barn.

The Griffith Show gets better with age. I've probably seen some of those episodes 50 or more times. And I still laugh out loud when Barney sings "Good Ol' 14-A" off-key or when he locks himself in the jail cell for the umpteenth time. Those shows really are classics --- a nostalgic look at a simpler time that never really existed.

And then there were his movies. None of them were ever box office smashes. But he knew what we wanted to see and we laughed at "The Ghost And Mr. Chicken" and "The Reluctant Astronaut." It was all basically Barney Fife anyway.

If his early 1980s turn as the lunatic landlord Mr. Furley on "Three's Company" was pure camp, we laughed anyway, chuckling at his outlandish wardrobe and his latest take on that some old nervous character, so unlike his shy, humble real-life self.

Celebrities always seem to go in bunches. And so it is this time. Venerable character actor Darren McGavin died over the weekend as well.

Older TV fans will remember him as the super-pissed Mike Hammer in the 1950s. Sci-fi buffs will remember his turn as "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" in the 1970s. Younger fans know him as the dad in the holiday favorite "A Christmas Story." McGavin and Knotts were even in a movie together, a mid-70s Disney entry, "No Deposit, No Return."

But it is Knotts we will miss most. We all grew up with Ange and Barn and Otis and Opie and Goober and Floyd. Barney Fife is a part of us, something we somehow managed to keep from childhood that still comforts us when we needed it.

Knotts' legacy will live on in countless re-runs and on DVD. So he won't be far away. He'll be pulling the squad car into the sheriff's office just in time to sneak a quick call to Juanita at the diner before Andy gets in.

So long, Barn. We'll miss you at the fishing hole.

Monday, February 20, 2006

A silent mic for Curt Gowdy

Curt Gowdy died today. The microphone is silent.

Longtime sports fans will remember Gowdy's laid-back, conversational style of broadcasting. He covered a little bit of everything for NBC back in the days before cable TV -- Super Bowls, World Series, the "Heidi" game.

I became familiar with his work years later, when he was hosting an outdoors show for ABC. Tapes surface from time to time of some of his more famous games. The 1975 World Series, that epic seven game battle between the Big Red Machine and the Red Sox, turns up on ESPN Classic from time to time.

Gowdy's style was patterned after the late great Red Barber. Easygoing. Familiar. No cheerleading. Professional.

He was there that September afternoon at Fenway Park when Ted Williams homered in his final at bat. Gowdy called him "the greatest hitter who ever lived."

The sportswriter and the Splinted Splinter became pals after baseball. The duo could often be found pursuing Williams' other great love -- fish.

He would show up from time to time, like an old friend dropping by the house. He made a cameo in the 1988 comedy, "The Naked Gun," playing himself. Gowdy came back to do a game for ESPN in 2003 as part of a special series. He said he thought he could do better. We were just glad to hear that voice again.

So much that was once good about baseball is long gone. The pure pennant race. American League pitchers coming to bat. Harry Caray. And now Curt Gowdy, too, is gone.

I hope he and Williams are somewhere on the water together tonight, wetting a couple of hooks and remembering that last at-bat.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Whispering dreams and wistful dust

Yesterday was his birthday.

Abraham Lincoln was born 197 years ago to the day Sunday, on a cold winter morning in a small cabin near Hodgenville, Ky. Carl Sandburg, gentle poet and Lincoln's most lyrical biographer, once wrote that Tom and Nancy Lincoln "welcomed into a world of battle and blood, of whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new child, a boy."

Lincoln is, sadly, a fixture now, taken for granted like the copper coin that bears his image. But he endures. Lincoln books abound. Arguments rage over everything from his sexuality to his depression to his killer's death. The History Channel aired a three hour documentary on him just last month.

And yet we hardly know this Kentuckian who has been called both a dictator and a savior. The myth and the man merged the moment his spirit slipped the surly bonds of earth that April morning when Edwin Stanton said that the fallen president "now belongs to the ages." But still historians look.

Two new books appeared on the Great Rail-Splitter at the end of last year. I haven't read Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, "Team of Rivals," on Lincoln's administration. A friend says it is a fascinating study of the man and his cabinet, perhaps the most talented yet contentious such body ever assembled.

The other book, "Lincoln's Melancholy," is a fascinating study of Lincoln's well-known but barely understood battle with depression. Author Joshua Wolf Shenk writes that Lincoln endured two major depressive episodes -- one after the death of Ann Rutledge, the woman some believe was the love of his life; the other in the winter of 1840-41.

Shenk contends that Lincoln's dip into psychological darkness, and his recovery from it, instilled in him a purpose. He became convinced that he would accomplish great things, that his fate in life was to complete an important task.

Lincoln remarkably was able to recover from depression without any of our modern treatments. No Paxil to pop. No psychiatrist's couch on which to lie. The known treatments were downright barbaric. One required him to be drained of blood.

Shenk knows something about the subject. He is a survivor. It gives the book an added credibility and, perhaps more importantly, a certain pathos with its subject.

Lincoln's birthday passed quietly yesterday. It's not a holiday anymore. His and Washington's birthdays were combined a few years ago and celebrated as the preposterous President's Day. (Who really should be honoring Warren G. Harding and Rutherford B. Hayes?) It is a joke. And a shame.

But Abraham Lincoln is above all that anyway. Perhaps Sandburg said it best:

"There is no new thing to be said about Lincoln," he wrote. "There is no new thing to be said of the mountains, or of the sea, or of the stars. The years go their way, but the same old mountains lift their granite shoulders above the drifting clouds; the same mysterious sea beats upon the shore; the same silent stars keep holy vigil above a tired world.

"But to the mountains and sea and stars men turn forever in unwearied homage. And thus with Lincoln. For he was a mountain in grandeur of soul. He was a sea in deep undervoice of mystic loneliness. He was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service. And he abides."

Indeed he does -- in books, on television, in our national discourse. Lincoln's spirit lies deep in the shadows but is ever-present, hovering somewhere between whispering dreams and wistful dust.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

High harmony in the night

I'll never forget the first time I heard "Knoxville Girl."

The year I graduated from Halls High School, an FM station out of Etowah, Tenn., started playing real country music. You know, the kind filled with steel guitars and fiddles, sung by men and women who actually had talent. You might not know what I am talking about. You can't hear it much on the radio today.

I had to run a large wire antenna up the wall, but finally managed to pick up the signal. One night this incredible duo came on singing a morbid ditty about a guy who beats a woman to death and drowns her in the Tennessee River. The harmony was incredible. Made you climb the wall. Gave you chills.

It was my first exposure to Charlie and Ira Louvin.

The Louvin Brothers started out singing gospel music, merging Ira's high tenor with Charlie's more melodic vocal to create a distinct and unmistakable sound. By the mid-1950s, the brothers expanded their repertoire to include a little bit of everything. The hits included "When I Stop Dreaming" and "You're Running Wild."

They were from Alabama, but spent a few years in Knoxville at WNOX. The big break came when Fred Rose, owner of the famous Acuff-Rose Publishing, signed them to a contract. They quickly got a deal at Capitol Records, where the brothers released their first record, "The Family Who Prays."

After a two-decade career at the pinnacle of country music, the Louvins met a tragic end. Ira was killed in a car crash in Missouri in June 1965 while performing a series of concerts in Kansas City.

But their legacy lives on in the music. Emmylou Harris' first hit, "If I Could Only Win Your Love," was a Louvin Brothers song. Everybody from Gram Parsons to the Everly Brothers were influenced by their sound.

If you are ever up late on a lonesome night flipping the dial on your radio, don't be surprised if you hear a tenor harmony originating from a low-watt station somewhere between here and nowhere.

Chances are it will be two brothers from Alabama, riding a high lonesome sound across the waves of time, reminding us what real music is.