June 2017




1984: A Rereading



After Kellyanne Conway introduced us to “alternative facts" this past January on Meet the Press, there was a sharp spike in the sales of Orwell’s 1984; one that made it the best-selling book on It instantly sold out.


To put a number on it: “… a 75,000 copy reprint…larger than our typical reprint for ‘1984,” a Penguin Books spokesman told CNN.” Even larger than the 30% increase following last November’s election.


Given this sort of phenomenon for a book published almost seventy years ago— which aside from that of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when it was announced that a long-lost sequel of it was to follow— I can think of no other which, lightning quick, became a “must reread.” Though it took me almost four months to get around to it. And once again, it did not disappoint.


“Alternative facts” will become part of our nomenclature and Kellyanne will be immortalized, for what was no doubt an impromptu utterance. It echoed or suggested an alliance with the many words and catchphrases in 1984, characterized by: a minimalization of speech, the absence of nuance, and a contortion of logic and reason. These would include “doublethink” (believing contradictory things), “newspeak” (ambiguous, political propaganda), 2+2=5 (self-explanatory). All rather Trumpian, one might say.


While all politicians have played footsy with facts, there has never been even a mosquito-bite sized bump in 1984 sales owing to something coming out of the Carter, Reagan, two Bush’s, Clinton, or Obama administrations. Nixon might be another story, and one I don’t wish to revisit at the moment. Especially as a special prosecutor has been assigned to look into the dealings of all this president’s men (and daughter?). A whiff of Watergate is in the air.


I read 1984 for the first time in the formative years amidst Woodstock Nation, when youthful idealism was at fever pitch. It was a page-turner that had a bone-chilling effect. Especially disturbing to me—the torture scenes not withstanding— was the Two Minute Hate. A daily ritual wherein the people of Oceana (the fictional place in which the novel is set), stop whatever they are doing, to watch a film depicting those they have been told are their enemies. And in knee-jerk response, they shout out their vein-popping hatred against them.


Cut to 2016, where we saw something not too dissimilar. Take those Trump campaign rallies (please), wherein the crowd would be egged on by the vitriol coming from the podium. Nor can I erase the memory of that scene at the Republican convention, when Mike Flynn led the hall assemblage in that vile chant against Hillary, “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!” “Lock her up!”



Now it is Flynn himself, who could wind up the “lockee,” (which rhymes with “we’ll see”), when this slew of investigations has concluded. Though as of this writing he’ll be taking the fifth. And whatever else he can take to finesse the mess.


All this has raised questions that many of us never seriously considered before. But do now. Could a totalitarian governance ever emerge in the USA? Wherein, “we the people,” who have boasted of having the greatest democracy ever known, could no longer live a life grounded in truth? Who could no longer separate fact from fiction? Which brings to mind what Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the esteemed U.S. Senator from New York once famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Until now?


For the four of you who haven’t read 1984, nor are familiar with its premise, nor have ever heard anything described as “Orwellian,” in short (spoiler alert)…it is a story told through the experience of the protagonist, a regular guy named Winston Smith, who to quote some excerpts from a synopsis…

“…is living in a society controlled by an omnipresent, totalitarian power, which distorts the truth, erases and alters evidence of the past and essentially controls its subjects.


… and who as a member of the Outer Party… works for the Ministry of Truth (or Minitrue in Newspeak)… whose job is to rewrite past newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports the party line…so that no proof exists that the government is lying.”

Imagine how much tougher Winston Smith’s job would be today what with all that video and social media out there in the hands of the masses? How do you get hold of it? Do away with it as if it never existed? Or doctor it so that it became unrecognizable?


On second thought, you might not need to! Today, for example, even with first-hand visual accounts at our disposal, we are often told that what we just saw, we didn’t see. As in, “Who are you going to believe, me? Or your lying eyes?” The alternative fact regarding the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration readily comes to mind. (Unforgettable, as he keeps harping on it.). Not to mention the multiple instances, of the unwarranted gunning down of African-Americans by local law enforcement (a white-hot topic best left for debate on another day).


Some have been critical of the book for being so off the mark, in that nothing Orwell literarily foretold actually came to pass by the year 1984. But that was never his intention. What he was offering was a dark existential forecast of an undisclosed future.


Take the very title itself. As I just learned, it was originally, “The Last Man in Europe.” And as the story goes, Orwell’s publisher suggested an alternative, as this one didn’t have much punch or “sales appeal.” Various scholars have suggested, that given it was written in 1948, Orwell then chose “1984” by simply reversing the last two numbers of that year.


All that said, there was one piece of technology in the book, which one can’t help but notice for its irony and similarities here in 2017— wall mounted “telescreens.” If one has a “smart” TV these days, wall-mounted or not, it can indeed intrude on one’s privacy. “They” can track what you are watching and buying, and that information can then be sold to marketers. And the access “they” have to our behavior on all of our electronic devices, goes without saying. Although I just said it.


Of course, this is all a far cry from Big Brother literarily watching you 24/7 through ubiquitous screens that permeate every aspect of your daily life, both in one’s home and out of doors. Followed by punishment for the slightest perceived infraction against the party line. Though the more dour among us may say, that’s coming next.


Another not so tangential issue raised in the book—though I never realized it at first reading in my youth and I imagine few focus on— is the question of the value in the use of torture. It’s a contemporary subject that has been much discussed and debated, what with the U.S. in a constant state of war in one place or another. Though thankfully not on the scale of that depicted in 1984.


What is clearly illustrated in the book, is that under physical duress, a person will say anything or agree to anything to save his own skin. And therefore, any information gained through such tactics is not likely to be valid. One noteworthy person holding this opinion being John McCain; a man who ought to know something on the subject.


The long lasting power of the novel is evident, given the many other dystopian novels, short stories, essays and poems it has inspired. And particularly in our culture and that of the U.K., it has been adapted into other mass media— TV, radio and two noteworthy featured movies that closely followed the book. One in 1956 starred Edmund O’Brian, and the other, actually released in 1984, starred John Hurt and Richard Burton (in his last cinematic role). Both of which I have seen and would highly recommend. And who can forget that dramatic Apple commercial which aired in the 1984 Super Bowl, that arguably, was the best ad ever made.


And now, as reported in Rolling Stone among many other outlets, “George Orwell's 1984 will hit Broadway this June. The stage adaptation of the dystopian classic has had four successful runs in the U.K. so far and opened in Los Angeles in early 2016.”



I love 1984; I hate its conclusion. Consisting of just four words, it is one of the most famous last lines ever written in a novel (spoiler alert again)…


He loved Big Brother.







Lobby Song



Eager black faces
Every day in the lobby
Of the building where I work
And the girls roll by.


The young men—“Security”
In front desk uniforms
Down in the lobby
Every day in the building
Of the recognized professions
And the girls roll by.


On the way to a lunch
Of a lite tuna salad
First a quick hit of cash
From the ATM machine;
“My you look pretty,”
Ooze the courtly Southern gents
As if coming by to call
In an evening thick as cotton
On the porch of a dream
Where the girls roll by.


Moths to a light drawn
They flutter for they must
Yet they dare not touch the bulb
‘Cause it’s all in the basking
Of a smile in reply,
Just a perk of the post
Though there’s no tomorrow in it…


And the girls roll by.

                                —Ron Vazzano







It was FORTY (plus TEN) years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play



It is hard to believe that ten more years have passed in the day of a life. For on the fortieth anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” I did a rather “short-‘n-sweet” piece on it (JUNE, 2007 MUSE-LETTER). A teaspoon of remembrance… a tablespoon of homage.


With a generous dose of some poetically-licensed editing, I offer it again. For what was true upon reflection then, remains so now. Though ten years after (not to be confused with the English rock band by that name), given the current environment, you might find yourself singing on more than one occasion… “I heard the news today, oh boy.”


June 1967: Queens, N.Y.


We studied the album cover as the joint got passed around the room. A small apartment, where while one in our group was getting lucky behind a closed door, the rest of us were trying to identify the montage of famous people on the front of it. Which was a first for that sort of graphic design on an album. And we sang along, what with the lyrics of every song being printed on the back. A first-time cover concept for something like that as well. “Far out!”



Lenny Bruce.       Freud.       Marlene Dietrich.       Edgar Allen Poe.




Were lyrics in Rock ever more tantalizing? More entrancing? More poetic?


W.C. Fields.       Brando!       Oscar Wilde.       Laurel and Hardy.




Dylan!       Dylan Thomas.       Karl Marx (“Where’s Groucho?”).       Marilyn.



Crescendo! Was a piano chord ever held longer?


Was this fantastical use of “high” tech sound mixing and double tracking ever heard before? Other than, say, on another planet?


And what’s with these pseudonyms? Sgt. Pepper? Mr. Kite? Billy Shears?


A “concept” or “theme” album, yet one having so many discordant chords and styles that somehow meshed together. Which only further served to enhance the altered state that the listener might be in the process of seeking.


From a funky sitar riff on one cut (how third-world-sounding-sensitive-cool was that!), to a music hall strutting number immediately following, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” And written by a rock ‘n roller lad named McCartney, at the age of 15 no less. Though we didn’t know that on that day in Queens. “Imagine actually being 64,” someone said.


And can you “dig” the day-glo military costumes? With stripes and patches and badges—oh, my! And the Fab Four mustachioed in a stunning centerfold portraiture?


To say Sgt. Pepper was an immediate hit upon release (June 1st in the U.K…June 2nd here), is to understate its impact by at least two-and-a-half. Rolling Stone magazine has long since called it “The best album ever made.” (Though the Rolling Stones might contest that). But beyond any assessments of its musicality, it captured the zeitgeist of the times (a word that might have sounded to us like a response to a sneeze). And just what was that “z”? I’ll take a stab at it:


Youthful counter-culture sensibilities,
funneled through
the new artistic expression of psychedelia.


And of course, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” A sentiment first expressed by a guy named Jack Weinberg at the height of the Free Speech Movement (full disclosure: I had to look that up).


But however one may define it, or whatever one might feel about that era— especially in a rear view mirror of fifty years passing— it was a time the likes of which we will never see again. And in retrospect, the strongest drug taken might have been that of wishful thinking. Performer and audience, we thought together, we could change the world; that we could get by with a little help from our friends.


Hyperbole? To coin a phrase, “You had to be there.” Though it has also been said that “If you remember the 60’s…you weren’t there.” Well, some of us were and still remember. Perhaps, because like Bill Clinton (“It depends upon what your definition of is is”), some claim to never have inhaled. But for certain, all were high on this transformative album. Which in the blink of a “cataracting” eye, is now a half of a century old. And as a personal sentiment, oh if only to actually be sixty-four again.







Quote of the Month









With Apologies to Jimmy Cannon Once Again



On slow news days, this renowned New York sportswriter from yesteryear, would offer a buckshot of non-sequitur observations and ruminations in his column, that would range far and wide beyond his regular beat. Usually they revolved around his pet peeves or picadilloes, as opposed to any serious world events. Everyday sorts of things that might strike a note of familiarity with a reader. Beginning with the phrase “Nobody asked me but…,” he would be off and running.


While it seems that there are no longer any slow news days—especially on CNN—and as a means to escape it all, and with apologies to Jimmy once again (I’ve done this before; NOVEMBER, 2014 MUSE-LETTER), I offer my version of:


Nobody Asked Me But...



I never use a pencil anymore.


People in bus terminals always look depressed.


I’ve never been served by a Starbucks barrister, who didn’t stop to speak to a co-worker while in the middle of my transaction.


Banks have much more space these days than they need.


People walking in front of me are always going too slow; those in back of me, too fast.


I’m getting tired of hearing about Mars.


I hate when celebrities show pictures of their kids, as if no one has ever had kids before.


Do birds ever run out of energy?


Millennials have to stop saying “I’m like,” after just about every other word in a conversation.


Joe Cocker belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


There’s too much cotton in those small-sized containers of over-the-counter medications.


I will never go totally “paperless,” despite monthly statements nagging me to.


Regarding climate change… New York is warmer in the winter and chillier in the spring, than when I was a kid.


I’ve never seen a mortally wounded character in an opera, die in under ten minutes.


People having a smoke outside in doorways, always have a sheepish look on their faces.


Putting pineapple on pizza is offensive.


It is impossible to understand a cable or cell phone bill.


Something’s off about Mike Pence being so uptight about being alone with a woman who is not his wife.


Whatever happened to Susan Boyle?


I never met anyone who lived in the Dakotas.


How can a Central Park carriage horse be so strong eating only oats?


Judge the quality of an ice cream brand by the taste of its vanilla.


Not everything is “Breaking News.”


Doctors seemed more puzzled in making a diagnosis than they used to be.


When are we going to get rid of pennies?


I don’t know anyone who eats a full breakfast.


Why does every tech support person you’re finally able to get on a phone, have a heavy accent?


Hugh Downs is still alive.







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