An Acting Lesson: John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”

An old piece, re-posted for John Wayne’s birthday:

In one lengthy scene in Hondo, filmed in one almost unbroken take, Wayne makes horseshoes in the little outdoor smith in the yard. Geraldine Page hovers nearby. He talks to her about the Apaches, and what they are up to. She argues back, resisting him, standing up for herself.

The thing I want to talk about, though, because it’s instructive and a perfect example of what I want to talk about: Throughout this very tense scene, with tons of back-and-forth dialogue, John Wayne actually makes horseshoes. It’s not a pantomime. He’s actually doing it. He has a task to complete, and so he goes about completing it, all while he tells her how things are, and what needs to happen, and what she needs to do.

I want to talk about the importance of physical action in acting, and how it grounds an actor in reality. This is what Kimber Wheelock, my acting teacher in college, called “the reality of the doing.”

This is a deep subject. It’s about acting technique. This is rudimentary shit for actors, you really can’t act at all if you can’t perform physical actions … but it’s so much a part of acting technique that it is 1. taken for granted and 2. not understood at all by outsiders, by culture critics, by those who claim a love of film but half the time don’t know what to look for (at least when it comes to acting). Acting technique is as much a part of film collaboration as lights and sound … but it remains a mystery. There’s really no mystery about it. Technique is technique. You don’t have to STUDY to get great technique. Experience is all you need (and openness and talent, too). Technique doesn’t mean anything fancy, like proficiency with accents, or acquiring “special skills” like horseback riding or fencing. Technique is practical. “The reality of the doing” is a great way to discuss this, and teach this.

When Dennis Hopper first started out, James Dean was his idol. Hopper came up in a theatrical tradition, through classical stage training. His training and technique was old-fashioned. When he had a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, he watched Dean’s work with amazement and awe. He started copying Dean’s attitude and mannerisms. Dean noticed, and pulled him aside, saying, “If you’re going to smoke a cigarette onscreen, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Just smoke the cigarette.”

This is crucial. How many untalented actors “act like” they’re smoking – or crying – or singing – or listening. You can “act like” you’re listening and not be listening at all. A light bulb went off in Hopper’s mind when Dean said that to him. Dean’s comment set him free as an actor. It helped him know what to DO. It relaxed him.

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A quote along these lines from Sam Schacht, my acting mentor in grad school: “Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”

This reminds me of Wayne’s famous comment about how he did not see himself as an “actor” but as a “RE-actor.” He said that partly because he was invested in the somewhat false narrative that he had somehow “fallen into” acting, that he started out as a prop guy, he had no ambition to be an actor. Uh-huh, Duke. Whatever you say. But the fact remains that he was right: As much as Wayne DOES onscreen, he never forgets the RE-actor part of it (this is the “listening and talking” element of acting. I’ve said it before: ALL good actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions.)

What does “the reality of the doing” mean? It has to do with James Dean’s advice to Dennis Hopper.

Sanford Meisner, an original member of The Group Theatre, who became one of the most famous acting teachers in America through the Neighborhood Playhouse, was obsessed with “the reality of the doing.”

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He thought the Method, at least as taught by his old friend Lee Strasberg, was too focused on feelings. Meisner’s definition of good acting was thus:

… behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.

Notice it’s “behaving.” Not “feeling” or “being.” Behaving. Behaving is Doing. And “truthfully” is just as crucial. None of it matters if what you are doing is phony.

Elia Kazan, another Group Theatre alum, described his job as a director as “turning psychology into behavior.”

Again with the “behavior.” I don’t mean to beat the drum so repeatedly, but the focus on emotions has a way of taking over, at least in acting classes, when actors are susceptible and eager to learn. Gena Rowlands has said that she “can’t cry.” “Crying” is not her thing as an actress. Who cares. She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.

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Meisner created great exercises, now known as “The Meisner Technique” (this was my training) to help actors click into “the reality of the doing.” Actors get swept up in the emotions: they worry about whether or not they will be able to cry, they are concerned with what kind of anger to bring to a scene, they obsess on emotional backstory. These are all necessary things, by the way, each with its own importance. I don’t mean to dismiss them, and neither did Meisner. But what about the DOING? Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.

If all an actor does up there is feel, the audience will be left cold. It is the DOING that makes scenes come alive, “pop.”

The doing can be physical, backed up by objective: “I am going to wash these damn dishes like MAD because I am so pissed off at my husband right now and don’t want to deal with it.” (Joan Crawford was a master at this. I like to point out that the “Method” didn’t just magically emerge in the 1950s, and everyone before hand was doing it wrong.) Watch the scene with the dictaphone in Sudden Fear. Or her waitressing in Mildred Pierce. Her coffee-pot-sketch-artist business in Daisy Kenyon. Business, as actors call it. Business, business, business. All motivated, all figured out by her, all flowing with lines and her emotions.)

The doing can be emotional, what people mean when they talk about “objective”: “What I am DOING in this scene is trying to get THROUGH to you/trying to fuck you/trying to comfort you.” Everything you say, every gesture you make, comes from that objective.

Sam Schacht again: When actors were “stuck” in a scene in his class, unsure of how to make something happen, he would throw out the reminder: “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one. See where it gets you.” “Fight” or “fuck” are objectives, things to do, or at least ATTEMPT to do, because your scene partner, with his or her own objectives, may not want to fight you, may not want to fuck you. If you both play your different objectives 100%, then Voila. You are doing what Tennessee Williams wrote, or Shakespeare, or Wendy Wasserstein. It’s amazing to watch when it clicks. I still think of that “fight or fuck” thing when I’m trying to break down a scene and analyze what the actors are doing, how they are going about achieving their objectives.

If you want to witness a group master-class in that kind of “doing”, watch episodes of Thirtysomething.

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The entire show was built on emotions, shown through everyday behavior like making dinner or getting the kids ready for school. That was the rhythm of the show, and those actors were brilliant at accomplishing it. That’s why the group scenes in that show were so incredible and the sheer amount of DOING going on was often overwhelming. It always felt like dinner was REALLY being made, the kids’ backpacks were REALLY being packed.

Dean’s advice to Hopper again: Don’t act like you’re making dinner. Make dinner.

Thirtysomething devoted itself to physical behavior in a way that is unique – definitely something for actors and directors to learn from (especially those master shots in the series – so many master shots used – with people coming in and out of the frame, going to the fridge, searching through cupboards, exiting out the back door for a second, re-entering holding a bike helmet, or whatever – there was always a REASON to go outside, all as everyone is talking, and listening, and living their lives. It’s unbelievable ensemble work: very difficult to accomplish and choreograph.)

Everything we do has a reason behind it.

“I must board up the windows of my house before the typhoon hits/before the aliens arrive/before the serial killer comes up the driveway”) or small and non-urgent (“I carefully place coasters on all the tables in the house because I am a neat-nik/because this is my dead mother’s furniture/because I am a germaphobe.”) If you do physical business without a reason behind it, then you got nothing.

Watch Gena Rowlands walk into the cavernous penthouse suite in Opening Night (the scene repeats itself a couple times).

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What she wants, what she is DOING, in that purposeful walk, is going to get a drink. She doesn’t take her coat off. She makes a beeline for the bar. She cannot wait to get there, why is the room so HUGE, why are the drinks so far away? In every single scene, every. single, scene, her desire for alcohol is so imperative it drives everything she does. You can FEEL her need for a drink. THAT’S “doing.”

If an actor only focuses on emotions and forgets the DOING part of it, not to mention the whys of the doing, you don’t have a scene. Much of acting class, in general, is helping actors click into “the reality of the doing.” (The bad acting teachers only focus on emotions. You can clock those actors from miles away. They can cry, but they cannot walk and talk at the same time. When they are asked to do “physical business” at the same time as an emotional catharsis, they are unable to do both and will always prioritize the catharsis. They’ll be sobbing and let the soup boil over. No: you gotta sob AND take the soup off the stove.)

The great actors understand all of this intuitively. They’d think all this talk about it was silly. Either you DO it, or you don’t. Don’t sit around TALKING about it.

John Wayne did not become a star right away. He made many B-Westerns before The Big Trail and then many many after, until Stagecoach came along and made him a star. He was not a natural “actor”, but he was a natural personality. Once he figured out he didn’t need to “act” at all, and he could just “be” onscreen (nothing “JUST” about it!), everything clicked into place. His personality was so strong that everybody felt it, in real-life and onscreen. But to OWN that? To understand it, and be able to utilize it on purpose? To be able to channel it into roles as diverse as the ones he played? Ethan Edwards, Ringo, Hondo, Thomas Dunson? These are not the same characters. Wayne used himself and his personality consciously. Only the great ones can pull that off.

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Gary Cooper once said that he enjoyed doing Westerns so much because it was real. You have to really ride the horse, get off the horse, tie up the horse. You can’t fake it. While all that “doing” is going on, there’s no time to worry about acting. It’s funny: if an amateur actor (a talented and coachable amateur actor, that is) is flailing a bit in a scene, unsure of what to do with his emotions, give him a physical action to perform and then have him play the scene. A talented albeit green actor will suddenly understand, get the Dennis Hopper light-bulb. Ohhhh, okay, so if I play the scene AS I sew a button on the sweater, if I focus just as much on sewing the button as I do on my lines and my scene partner, suddenly we’ve got a SCENE. I’ve seen such moments in countless acting classes, and have had such moments myself. It’s great. Because in real-life, the whole world does not stop because you are arguing with your wife, the entire world does not take a pause so that you can burst into tears at your leisure. You are still driving your car, or boiling water, or herding sheep. You have to do BOTH. Simultaneously.

Sounds elementary, right? Well, actors will understand how much of a challenge all of this is (and Wayne had to figure it out too, he didn’t stride out of the gate as his confident glorious self, although he brought to the table many natural attributes like grace and beauty and fearlessness – those things help.) Actors have to understand this concept and master it QUICK, or they will find themselves being acted off the stage by their scene partner who already gets it.

My point, ultimately, finally, is this:

In one mostly unbroken take, John Wayne makes horseshoes, all as he banters and scolds and flirts with Geraldine Page. If they had been just standing in the corral, doing nothing else but talking, the audience would not only fall asleep, but it would feel phony. In general, people do not stand in the middle of an open space and talk at one another about their lives for 20 minutes. They’re doing other things. Making horseshoes is a complicated multi-step process. Wayne’s doing it all: hammering out the shoe, heating it up, pumping the bellows, plunging the shoe into the cold water – a hiss of steam accompanying it – hanging the shoe up for later, starting in on another one. It’s an archaic piece of business, a 19th century kind of thing, and Wayne does it with the grace and ease of a man who has been around horses all his life, and knows how to take care of them, knows what he is doing. His actions are as automatic as a practiced and experienced cook making Thanksgiving dinner for a huge crowd all by herself. She’s got the turkey going, she’s mashing potatoes, she’s boiling water for green beans, she’s got the biscuit batter all mixed … and as she’s doing all of this, she’s chatting with her kids, giving them chores, talking with her guests, whatever.

John Wayne is doing multiple things at the same time in this wonderful scene. He is taking over Angie Lowe’s life, in a peremptory manner, even when she says, “I don’t need you”. He doesn’t care, she DOES need his help, and her husband is a loser/loafer who has left her in peril, whatever great things she may say about him. Hondo is also drawn to her, physically and emotionally, and he’s been alone a long time, probably his only sex life is fucking the prostitutes in town whenever he makes it that way. So … he likes her. You can tell he likes her. The scene ends with him coming up behind her and grabbing her. Because dammit, she’s a good woman and he wants her. She deserves to be taken care of. She deserves to be man-handled. With care, of course. She’s flustered, saying, “I know that I am a homely woman.” The way he looks at her though … she’s the most gorgeous thing in the world. Through all of this emotional stuff, though, grounding the scene, and giving it its structure, is the horseshoe-making Grand Pantomime. Only it’s not a pantomime. It’s the real thing.

Wayne never stops. He walks and talks at the same time. He plays multiple levels of emotional reality with every line. He throws lines over his shoulder. He has a comeback for everything she says. There’s a build to the scene, a long slow crescendo. When he pauses, you hold your breath. And Wayne makes those damn horseshoes right before our eyes.

This is the sort of acting moment that rarely gets pointed out and praised. (I think this is partly because many folks writing about movies care most about direction, to generalize. And so they don’t understand how important/rare/difficult/beautiful such a scene is for an actor to pull off – and also how crucial it is that these details are set, and present, and it is up to the ACTOR, not the director, to accomplish that.)

Watch him make the horseshoes. And carry on a conversation. And have multiple objectives. And be attracted to her. All at the same time. And as you watch, understand that what he is doing looks easy, because it is easy for him, but it is not easy for others. Also: it’s not just that it’s easy. It looks easy because Wayne prepared. He was meticulous in his preparation. If he had to do something onscreen, he learned how to do it, he practiced it, so when the cameras were rolling, he was confident, he had done it 100 times before. The rifle-twirl he does in his famous first entrance in Stagecoach is a perfect example.

He had to practice that, he had to have a stuntman show him how to do it, the rifle had to be slightly sawed off so it wouldn’t catch under his arm, and he did it over and over and over again, until it was automatic. Business like that has to be worked out. An actor has to devote himself to the smallest details. The camera is tuned into truth: phoniness and fakery are magnified a hundred-fold by the movie camera. Wayne understood that. The only way to combat it is to be 1. prepared and 2. relaxed. But you can’t have 2 without 1.

Similar to the bad acting classes where the folks who cry loudly in every scene get the most attention/praise, the more histrionic “showy” acting gets the most attention, from critics who tend to be a little bit credulous about acting, which seems … magical to them. (#notallcritics). Wow, she was really crying. Wow, his anger was so loud. Wow, she really seemed super-drunk in that scene. ACTING with a capital A! I wonder if this is because acting and the use of the imagination in such a powerful childlike way is still such a mystery to many folks, who couldn’t even begin to do something like that.

But none of that emotional stuff has any “oomph” whatsoever if the actor is not clicked into some “reality of the doing” pouring into the overall Story as a whole. The “reality of the doing” occurs in the big moments of catharsis and crisis, helping us understand the stakes, helping us invest. But, even more importantly, the “reality of the doing” has to be present in the small moments as well.

Moments like making horseshoes as you talk to a woman you desperately want to kiss.

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Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Time Machine podcast with special guest

I saw this podcast linked to on Facebook mainly because a couple of people I know have been “guests” on it. Including him. The premise of the podcast is the two hosts discuss a real-world event – the Dust Bowl, Apollo 11, the assassination of Lincoln, etc. and then there’s a “machine” making Jetson-type noises that takes you back to those events and see what was really going on. There’s a small cast of actors/improvisers “acting out” the Last Supper, etc. It’s extremely amusing because the people involved are all fantastic improvisers. Like, all the disciples suddenly start bitching about how much time they spend washing people’s feet and you can hear one guy say, “I’ve got carpal tunnel!” These are not scripted. It’s improvised. It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, and it’s very much my kind of humor. So here’s the Last Supper episode, with a special guest – a “former theologian” named Ephraim Zumpf – who joins the host to discuss the Last Supper and other things. The “former theologian” is Window Boy, old timers will know, and I’m sorry but I was listening and laughing at every single thing he said. “I don’t know. Somewhere over there.” “There’s no way that they spoke English.” “This is bullshit.” “Sparkling water?” It’s not that he’s being funny on purpose – NEVER – he just commits to the ‘bit’. It was good to hear his voice! I have no idea who the actors are playing Jesus, Judas, and the rest, but I love them. This has been a crushingly busy month and I’m pretty stressed out and I just tripped over this whimsical bit of comedy – no larger commentary, no trying to be serious or “timely” – no POINT at all – just a bunch of improv people pretending they’re eating dust in 1930s Oklahoma or ordering another round of falafels at the Last Supper.

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“I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” – Bob Dylan

For Bob Dylan’s birthday

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“When I first heard Elvis Presley’s voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” – Bob Dylan

“Nobody was going to be my boss” is one of my favorite comments from a fellow musician on the impact Elvis had. There’s also this from Keith Richards’ great memoir. My favorite comment about Elvis very well may be George Harrison’s response to the question from an interviewer about his musical roots. Harrison, surprisingly, said he didn’t have any musical roots. The only “root” he could think of was from when he was a kid in Liverpool, hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” playing through an open window.

But Dylan: hearing a song, hearing a singer, on the radio, and suddenly knowing that “nobody was going to be my boss”?

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Bob Dylan considering Elvis

Elvis recorded Dylan’s song “Tomorrow is a Long Time” in 1966. Dylan had written it, and recorded a demo of it in the early 60s. He played it in his concerts, and others started recording it. (Everyone recorded it, including Odetta, which is how Elvis heard it.)

No matter. Elvis’ cover was buried on the soundtrack album for the movie Spinout, and it didn’t make a splash of any kind (and it should have, it’s a high point of his 60s recordings, and different from anything else he ever did, before or since.) Elvis sang a couple of other Dylan songs during his live shows in the 70s, “Don’t Think Twice,” and “I Shall Be Released” – and he liked “Blowin in the Wind”, and would sing it around the piano with his buddies (there’s a tape recording of this), even though it seems like Elvis and Dylan would have had nothing in common, especially socially/politically. But “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time” is the best of all of these. It’s haunting, eerie, James Burton showing his genius with his Telecaster. Dylan officially released the song in 1971, I believe, after a decade of performing it live, and a decade where everyone and their grandmother had recorded it. It was one of those songs.

Bob Dylan: “The highlight of my career? That’s easy, Elvis recording one of my songs.”

Coda: I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s film Rolling Thunder Revue for my Film Comment column.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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Two Eminem News Items

After over a year of almost no reminders that he even existed:

“Hailie’s getting so big now.
You should see her.
She’s beautiful.” — Eminem, “Cleaning Out My Closet”

Heart-crack. I’ve known about this woman since she was a baby. “These goddamn food stamps don’t buy diapers.” “I think my dad’s gone crazy.” He has expressed regret for talking about her so much. He basically didn’t realize what fame meant until it was too late. He wrote a gorgeous song about this on his unfairly-disliked Revival:

I’ve said your name but always tried to hide your face
This game is crazy, I wanted to claim my love for you, but dang
I never knew it’d be like this, if I did I wouldn’t have done it
You ain’t asked for none of this shit, now you’re being punished?

We have all been invested in Hailey for decades now. Once she became an adult, she came out of the Eminem-imposed hiding, and she set up an Instagram and now has a podcast. She’s been dating the same guy for years, they met in high school, and they just got married. Go Hailey Jade. I know it’s crazy but millions of people are happy you are happy.

A day before this image dropped came a cliffhanger post, post-dated May 31, 12:am:

So people have been speculating a new album was coming. It’s been 4 years now (how is that possible) since the double-album year of 2020. Since then …. nothing. He pops up here and there, and he was highly visible during the Lions’ recent run, sitting in the box with his three daughters and their partners, a husband, a fiance, and a girlfriend. Sorry, Marshall. It wasn’t your year. I know your pain. But other than that … he’s Citizen Kane.

Any time he goes away, you know something is coming. Eminem’s fanbase can be extreme and annoying. I won’t lie. The man is not the only rapper in the world. Branch out. There’s a lot of shit going on right now and a lot of cool artists making music. I mean, Kendrick-Drake, amirite? We haven’t had a rap beef since the Eminem-MGK beef, which was hugely entertaining, but years ago. However, I am also a fan and I’ve thought, “He’s working on something. What could it be?” Maybe another kind of Marshall Mathers LP-redux like he did in 2013 with The Marshall Mathers LP? Then he dropped a little music video which was a tease, basically saying, “It’s coming.” In April came confirmation. And sorry, but I WAS RIGHT. Look at that title! (Plus “coup de grace”? I love him.)

So … I guess I need to set my alarm on May 31st. I go to bed at like 9:30. But I can’t just WAIT until the next MORNING. I’ll be in a hotel room in Manhattan. Bring it.

I’ve said it before. I am immature. I think it’s one of my best qualities.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“When I aim at praise, they say I bite.” — Alexander Pope

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
-— Alexander Pope, from “Eloisa to Abelard”

Alexander Pope was born on this day in 1688.

He was so huge in his day, so talked-about, so hated and feared by some writers – and so loved by other writers – that his lapse into total obscurity for over a century – until he was rediscovered in the 20th century, is one of those fascinating – and alarming – literary phenomena. People are “in style” and then they aren’t. They are so much NOT in style that they are forgotten. A link in the chain of cultural continuity is broken. It will take reparative work to connect the chain. It’s good to keep in mind that nothing is forever.

Pope was so famous, so dominant, so feared, it’s not surprising he was a huge target. Writers reacted against Pope – and against the whole Neoclassical era – for 100 years. Every “movement” creates its own counter-movement. Reacting AGAINST something is how the culture moves forward. After Pope’s generation came the Romantics, and we still live in the world made by the Romantics. The Romantics changed everything. The 18th century Enlightenment yielded to subjective Romanticism which morphed into late 19th-century curlicues, which was then demolished for all time by Modernism.

But let’s get back to Pope.

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My Liberties column Movies Before Breakfast: on Carole Lombard

My second article for my Liberties column is now live: Lombard: Queen of Screwball.

The column has a Lombard-inspired name and logo – Movies Before Breakfast – which we chose before I even knew I’d write about her. And the logo is a spin on the famous Love Before Breakfast poster.

I love the dovetail of this because Carole Lombard with a black eye has not only been my avatar on Twitter but has been hanging on my wall since the Chicago days, lifetimes ago.

I’m really happy about this one because I’ve never actually written a full piece on Lombard before and I had so much fun digging into her filmography, especially the ones beyond the screwballs for which she is most famous. There’s so much to discover.

Lombard: Queen of Screwball

Movies Before Breakfast

The Question

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“Boredom is very important in life. It helps you feel when something is wrong.” — John Strasberg

It’s John Strasberg’s birthday today. I told this story before on here years ago, when I used to write like this on here, on occasion. Figured I’d re-post it. He is very very important to me.

Back in the late ’90s, I took an intense acting workshop with John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, and author of one of my favorite acting books/memoirs, Accidentally on Purpose. The workshop lasted 4 or 5 days but I came out of it altered. The quote in the title to this post is one of the things he said during the workshop. I never forgot it. Going into it, I was tense with excitement and anticipation, because Lee Strasberg was so important to my own development and growth, particularly as a teenager, and Lee’s influence was so vast – considering the Studio circle in which I ran – that being connected, in some small way, to Lee’s legacy was really exciting to me. I did not know much about John Strasberg at the time, although I had read his sister Susan’s books, in which he is often quoted, and exists as a peripheral figure to the main triangular drama going on between Susan and her parents (Lee and Paula). John came off as a troubled young man, resisting his parents’ domination, and hurt by their affectionate tender relationships with the actors they coached (in stark contrast to their rigid displeasure towards him). But I didn’t know much about him as an acting teacher. How does one become an acting teacher if you are the son of one of the most famous acting teachers who ever lived? How do you begin to come out from underneath that shadow?

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“There’s nobody as good as the Ramones, never will be.” — Joey Ramone

“To me, John Lennon and Elvis Presley were punks, because they made music that evoked those emotions in people.” — Joey Ramone

It’s Joey Ramone’s birthday today.

Nothing I can say will top my brother Brendan’s essay on seeing The Ramones at the Living Room in Providence. So I’ll pass the mike. It’s one of my favorite things Bren has written – with a HELL of a final sentence – JESUS. Not only does he describe that show – and the extraordinary nature of it – but he evokes that whole entire time, and what it meant to be a fan of “that kind of music” in the ’80s, and what the Ramones signified and embodied.

The Living Room, Pt. 3: One Two Three Four, by Brendan O’Malley

And I’ll leave off with this: Joey Ramone’s painfully exuberant cover of “What a Wonderful World”.

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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“The problem for me, still today, is that I write purely with one dramatic structure and that is the rite of passage. I’m not really skilled in any other. Rock and roll itself can be described as music to accompany the rite of passage.” — Pete Townshend

It’s his birthday today.

The Who’s songs were in my consciousness from a very early age. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about them – somehow. This is what it meant to grow up without the technological ability to “curate” your own experience and tastes. I grew up when the adults – and that included my older teenage cousins, and older siblings of my friends – were dominant, their tastes and preferences so much in the air it was the background music of my childhood. Much of that music – The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel – I took on as my own. Music was timeless. I wasn’t obsessed with the New, although I was into new things as well. I reiterate: through the sheer power of osmosis I knew all of The Who’s hits. I saw Tommy when I was in high school. I was a musical theatre kid, and here was musical theatre!

In 1964, a hopeful young filmmaking duo – Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (brother to Terrence) – were inspired by the film A Hard Day’s Night to make a film of their own. They wanted to document a band’s journey to superstardom. The problem, was … the film wouldn’t work, obviously, if the band fizzled out. It was a crap shoot. They chose to film a band called The High Numbers, who were rapidly becoming a huge influence in London’s “mod” scene, tearing it up at their regular residency at the Railway Hotel. The audience filled with the hippest of the hip. The shows were already legendary. It was a very small place. The ceilings were low. Lambert and Stamp’s film never was finished but there is existing footage on YouTube.

Not only is it fascinating to see the Who before they became the Who … it’s also incredible film-making, moody and evocative, the footage visceral, thrusting you into that room. It’s intimate. It’s rather amazing that the band Lambert and Stamp chose to “follow” would, indeed, become global superstars and it’s too bad they didn’t keep filming them over the next decade to document their rise.

Still: this footage is incredible. Watching them do their thing before they were stars. It’s only 1964. They are already on fire as a band.

They were influenced by rhythm ‘n blues, obviously, but again … this is just 1964 and to me they sound like an emanation from punk rock, 10, 12, years in the future. “My Generation” sounds the same way. Way ahead of its time.

I think my favorite of theirs might be “The Seeker”.

I also love “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The opening still – to this day – after probably hundreds of times hearing it, on the radio, in soundtracks, in the air around me – gives me goosebumps.

My brother – a punk rock fan from before punk rock was cool – wrote about The Who, and included their album The Who By Numbers in his Best Albums list (posted on my site), a fact which is surprising if you know my brother. The Who? Really? But that list is about formative memorable experiences, and I love how my brother writes about those moments of musical revelation. And that time two of his friends forced him listen to The Who By Numbers, because they were sick of my brother’s dismissal of The Who. And how he finally realized what the fuss was about. I love the essay, so here it is:

50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley, #10. The Who, The Who By Numbers

 
 
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Happy birthday, Big Joe Turner, “Boss of the Blues”

Before the advent of microphones, if you were a singer, you needed to be heard. “Blues shouters” were powerful figures known for shouting above the music. Big Joe Turner was a blues shouter from Kansas City, and also one of the many – many – building blocks in what eventually would be called “rock ‘n roll”. His career spanned from jazz clubs in the 1920s to touring the world up until his death in 1985. He stood on stages with and collaborated with them all: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, boogie-woogie maestro Albert Ammons, pianist Pete Johnson. Turner hailed from Kansas City, and did some early gigs in New York, but came back home, feeling New York wasn’t ready for the rowdiness of his sound yet. Eventually New York came calling in 1938, in the form of a talent scout – John Hammond – putting together the From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall. (These two concerts are now legendary and did what they set out to do: connected the dots in Black culture, from gospel to jazz to swing.) In 1938, same time, Turner and pianist Pete Johnson went into the studio and recorded “Roll ‘Em Pete”.

For more background on “Roll ‘Em Pete”‘s significance, you really need to listen to Andrew Hickey’s episode on it in his A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs podcast. To boil it down: In “Rock and Roll Music”, Chuck Berry wrote “It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it” … and “Roll ‘Em Pete” is generally considered to be the first song featuring that back beat. (Hickey goes into all that. And more. Way more. I’ll be listening to that podcast until the day I die, probably, and I still won’t be finished.)

Powerful forces were converging all over the place in the 1930s and 40s, cultural, spiritual, political and technological. These forces somehow coalesced making space – somehow – for what came after, i.e. 1950s rock ‘n roll and rockabilly. Something as world-changing as 1950s rock and roll doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not a bolt from the blue. Even Elvis deciding to record “That’s All Right” in 1954, an old blues song by Arthur Crudup, has such a long history surrounding it you really need to understand the context to get why Elvis’ version was such a revolution (and seen as so threatening). If you don’t get all that, then you might make the mistake of thinking, “What is the fuss about?” It’s easy enough to get the timeline and know the Renaissance followed the Black Plague – ha – but there are a lot of little things along the way, inroads, developments, explorations, tangents – that help foster the eventual explosion.

“Roll ‘Em Pete” was a wellspring.

Big Joe Turner was a powerful performer, with a massive voice and infectious energy: these were all very important qualities in the “modern” era. If you wanted to get booked into clubs, then you had to make people want to MOVE. Big Joe Turner was a bluesman, but he was also a big band swing-bang master of ceremonies, which then of course morphed into boogie-woogie which was just a tiny skip away from rock ‘n roll.

Turner influenced everybody. Buddy Holly. Fats Domino. Little Richard. And, of course, Elvis. I love this live performance of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” – where even though he’s got that huge microphone, you can feel the shouting in his voice, the power of it.

In doing a little bit of research for this post, I came across this piece about Derek Coller’s Turner bio-discography Feel so Fine. Some really great details but I loved this anecdote: Turner was arriving in England in 1965 for a tour. He didn’t have a work permit and the immigration officer said, “You’ve got a nerve.” Turner replied, “That’s what it takes these days, daddy.”

 
 
Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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