Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and the American Male


October 1, 2017

Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and the American Male

by Adam Gopnik

https://www.newyorker.com/

Image result for Hugh Hefner

The careers of certain cultural figures follow a predictable arc: first young and brazen, then oddly revered, then overly familiar, and then, at last, obsolete. Frank Harris had a career with a shape something like this: a cowboy and a lawyer before becoming the leading London newspaper editor of the eighteen-nineties, he then became known only as the author of a scandalous, multi-volume sexual memoir, ending up merely notorious. Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who died on Wednesday, at the age of ninety-one, at the Playboy Mansion, in California, was another such figure. It is as hard now to recapture the period during the nineteen-sixties and seventies when Hefner actually seemed, if not exactly a cultural presence to be reckoned with, then at least a publishing magnate to be recognized, as it would be to return his magazine, Playboy, to the distinctive place, high up on the newsstand, that it once occupied. At one point, George Will could compare Hefner to Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby—not an entirely bad notion, given that the essential vulgarity of Gatsby’s taste, obvious to his creator, has been eclipsed by the retrospective glamour that has been placed on the book. But something like the opposite has taken place with Hefner. There was a time when his excursions into the Playboy philosophy, which was not quite as ridiculous a document as its title makes it sound, were, though never taken seriously, at least seen as significant. Now, they seem not merely quaint but predatory.

What Hefner did was, in one way, as old as sex itself: he took the heterosexual male gaze and commodified it. He took the universal straight-male appetite for pictures of semi-naked women and found a way to feed it that became acceptable enough to attract conventional advertisers. But his real touch of opportunistic American genius was the reverse spin that he pioneered: he took commodities and attached them to the male gaze. He took all the goodies of mid-century American life—the hi-fis and the stereo LPs and the nascent color TVs and the Flokati rugs—and made them part of a plausible seeming whole. The “Playboy man” of Hefner’s imagination was as much a creature of his living room as of his lusts. Desire became inseparable from decoration, carnality from consumerism. Only the bachelor with the right Breuer chair could hope to have an active bedroom. Hefner, as someone once said, made the indoors to the mid-twentieth century what the outdoors had been to the nineteenth—the place where you showed yourself worthy of the idea of a man.

Image result for Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe

Playboy Magazine featured Marilyn Monroe that launched Hugh Hefner’s Publishing Career

The feminist critique of Playboy came early, sharp, and loud. It was certainly political, and it was also correct. However much Miss July might be asked to list her intellectual attributes alongside her measurements, it was as a measurement alone that she was being displayed. The pictorials came accompanied by a rhetoric of female empowerment, or at least sexual empowerment, but it was in every way a measured empowerment. Proposing Hefner’s ideal as the most desirable body type was not just repellant but in many ways noxious. The anxious adolescent coyness that the enterprise never escaped—in part because anxious adolescent coyness was Hefner’s true signature emotion, a silk dressing gown and a pipe being exactly an anxious adolescent’s idea of sophistication—was essentially anti-sex, replacing the real thing with a synthetic substitute.

Let it be said that Hefner hired and helped many women. Alice K. Turner was the magazine’s fiction editor for two decades. (Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Joyce Carol Oates all wrote for Playboy.) Hefner handed over the reins of the operation to his daughter, Christie, who for a while was one of the more prominent women C.E.O.s in the country and a major supporter of progressive causes. And, of course, many fine and important things were published in the magazine. The fiction tended to be second-rate work by first-rate names, but the interviews that Hefner published were often major events: Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fidel Castro, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and the very last testament of John Lennon.

The case could even be made—Hefner himself certainly wanted to make it—that, by sponsoring a broadly libertarian view of culture, Hefner and Playboy played a pivotal role in bringing an end to imprisoning ideas of gentility. In one of those carom shots of which cultural history is full, by announcing feminine sexuality as a good thing for the girl next door—however comically self-interested the announcer’s motive—Hefner may indeed have played an unintentional role in the assertion of female sexuality and autonomy. After all, he reminded many women of what they didn’t like about the way they were portrayed, and that they might have something to say about it.

Image result for Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe

The Sex Symbol of the 1950s and 1960–Marilyn Monroe (dec. 1962)

But, in the end, the American fable his life most resembled was not “Gatsby” but “Citizen Kane.” By the time Hefner died, seemingly as isolated in his mansion as Kane was in his Xanadu, his empire had been vastly reduced—by both time and fashion. Even before the Internet levelled the world of libidinal gazing, the titillation that Hefner’s imagery evoked had already mostly vanished. The ironic triumph was that the Internet, which achieved Hefner’s dream of instantly accessible and publicly acceptable erotica, undid the old man. Punching a few keys on a keyboard could provide the entire range of human desire and, as pornography took on a truly democratic character, it nearly bankrupted many of its tycoons in the bargain.

The relation of erotic libertinism and political liberty is one of the most vexed in all of modern history. But when social histories of the last half of the past American century are written, the pipe, the pajamas, and the self-invented playboy who held them will still demand their moment of attention, their acute and not entirely dismissive gaze.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. He is the author of “The Table Comes First.”

Thayaparan’s Response to Kayveas’ Confused Values


October 1, 2017

Thayaparan’s Response to Kayveas’ Confused Values

https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/396818

 

I personally have great skepticism about the theories extolling the wonders of ‘Asian values’. They are often based on badly researched generalisations and frequently uttered by governmental spokesmen countering accusations of authoritarianism and violations of human rights…”

– Amartya Sen, Foreword to ‘The Passions and the Interests by Albert O Hirschman’ (1996)

COMMENT by S. Thayaparan| Before I begin, I would just like to say that it is not constructive engaging in ad hominems with M Kayveas for presenting a contrarian view – in the alternative press – on celebrating “Asian values”. Indeed, I wish that more space was available (unlike the mainstream press) to pro-establishment types to peddle their views.

I am going to answer all the questions the PPP President posed because the reality is that these questions are rhetorical traps. These traps are deployed by those who would wish to silence people who believe that Malaysians, regardless of creed or race, have rights that the state wishes to infringe on using religious and political norms, all under the guise of “Asian values”.

 

Here goes.

Kayveas wrote: “So where is the extremism that we are screaming and hurling in every direction, in the wake of this demand to have or have not a beer festival in public space, if I may ask?”

The extremism comes from the so-called security threat that people opposed to this public event pose and the capitulation of the state to these extremists. It really does not matter if non-Muslims enjoy the right to “celebrate” in private, there is no law that says that these rights are denied in public spaces.

“So why do we fight over so-called ‘rights’ to have a beer festival in the public space when we could have gracefully enjoyed to the last drop in private space like a hotel’s grand ballroom?

The “fight” is not about celebrating alcohol. The fight is about our right as non-Muslims/Malaysians to hold activities in public even if those activities may cause “sensitivity” to certain religious groups.

 

“Should we not be thankful that alcohol is not peddled and celebrated in public venues where our young frequent to chill out?

You just claimed that non-Malays/Muslims enjoy unrestricted access to alcohol and we should be grateful for that. We can assume that young people have access to alcohol in this country. How does holding a public beer festival where young people would be restricted from publicly drinking a bad thing?

“Should we not let our Asian values triumph over this imported foreign carnival fads that often leave much to be desired in comparison to our own rooted Asian values?”

Certain towns in America are dry towns. There are laws that restrict the sale of alcohol in countries in the West. There are laws in the West about public intoxication. Therefore, when you say let our Asian values triumph, what values are you talking about which are distinct from Western values?

“Where do we go from publicly-held beer festivals?”

Yes, we should ask ourselves, what other types of festivals would the state ban and who in the state decides which festivals to ban. What if Muslim agitators decide to ban Christmas carols in public – which has happened – because Christians can listen to their carols in private?

Or what if Hindu processions were deemed “violent” and offended the sensitivities of certain racial and religious demographics? Would the triumph of Asian values still apply?

 

 

Selangor MB Azmin Ali (photo) is under pressure from religious extremists as to his decision not to ban Octoberfest in Selangor using that heinous excuse that the majority in Selangor are Malay/Muslims.

This is where we go from here.

“How about fashion festivals as in the likes of carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or Jamaica?”

Do you understand the origins of these festivals? These carnivals are a melding of Portuguese and African culture (after a troubled history of slavery), not to mention a potpourri of other influences.

It is about couture and music, dancing and joy, straight and gay, in other words “this” and “that”, mixing in peace. It is much more than scantily-clad men and women.

Take a look at social media if you want to watch naked Malaysians engaged in various sex acts.  However, if you want to have a street party, have a carnival or better yet, a Bersih march.

“Or if you would, some form of revived Woodstock that spills and oozes with drugs in the open?”

Woodstock is a music festival. Music festivals are currently “allowed” in Malaysia. What are you suggesting? That we ban music festivals, too?

I would not worry about people scoring drugs in such events. I would much rather worry of the corruption that allows for the free flow of drugs in this country. The rural meth labs. The drug traffickers who collude with elements from the state security apparatus. They pose more danger than the drugs that ooze out of music festivals.

“Or even a gay festival of sorts now that it is becoming very much a ‘westerner’ penchant?

“Penchant”? Sexuality Merdeka was banned for whatever reason and politicians and extremist activists talked of going after the “gay menace”.

 

 

Religious extremists, their apologists and collaborators did not acknowledge that Wikileaks exposed the fact that there are homosexuals in government.

I think a gay festival is exactly what this country needs if only to expose the hypocrisy that defines Asian values.

“…what is so wrong in Malaysians respecting the Asian values of moderation, consideration and believe in the eternal truth that promotes self-restraint, respect and endorsement of everything Asian?

The problem here is you haven’t defined what separates Asian values from so-called Western values.  You do not want people having beer festivals. You do not want young people exposed to drugs and alcohol.

You obviously do not like scantily-clad women because you object to Brazilian-style carnivals. You do not want homosexuals having marches and you do not want to be “Westernised”- which is kind of strange because you have no problem wearing nice Westerns suits.

These are not exactly “Asian” values. These are values that are exhibited by groups of people (normally religious) all over the world. There is nothing distinctively Asian about them unless you consider hypocrisy a distinctively Asian trait.

Also, I do not think you understand what you mean when you write this – “All Malaysians know and do cherish our superior Asian values which must remain as the bedrock of a distinctly progressive future.”

A progressive future means abandoning silly ideas about the superiority or inferiority of Asian and Western values and embracing values that do not divide us along racial and religious lines.

 

 

I wish I could say that you have voiced the genuine agenda of the UMNO establishment but the reality is that many in the opposition probably support your perspective. Hypocrisy is the most overt trait of religion, and as we can tell, the basis of “Asian” values.


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

Tribute to Playboy’s Hugh Hefner


September 28, 2017

Tribute to Playboy’s Hugh Hefner

http://www.adnews.com.au/news/a-tribute-to-hugh-hefner-a-look-through-his-most-famous-ads

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner has died at the age of 91.

The American publisher, businessman and philanthropist founded the controversial Playboy magazine back in 1953. That first issue on 1 December featured Marilyn Monroe from her 1949 nude calendar shoot and sold more than 50,000 copies.

Through his long career, Hefner appeared in a slate of ads – mostly for alchohol companies. Reports say his net worth at the time of his death was more than US$43 million due to his success as the founder of Playboy.

 

marilyn monroe

The first cover of Playboy from 1953 sold for 50 cents

 

 

tanquery hefner ad

Both lauded and criticized by feminists of the era, the media icon convinced Hollywood starlets to reveal more of themselves on his pages than perhaps anywhere else. The interviews were great, too.

Hugh Hefner, who parlayed $8,000 in borrowed money in 1953 to create Playboy, the hot-button media empire renowned for a magazine enriched with naked women and intelligent interviews just as revealing, died in Los Angeles at the Playboy Mansion of natural causes on Wednesday. He was 91.

“My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom,” read a statement from Hefner’s son, Cooper Hefner, chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises.

While most famous for Playboy, the businessman dabbled in all forms of media, including hosting his own TV shows, beginning with Playboy’s Penthouse in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Shot in his hometown of Chicago and syndicated, the show featured Hefner in a tuxedo and smoking a pipe surrounded by “playmates” and interviewing such celebrities as Bob Newhart, Don Adams and Sammy Davis Jr.

The show boosted his personal and professional reputation and promoted what eventually became known as the “Playboy Philosophy,” a lifestyle that included politically liberal sensibilities, nonconformity and, of course, sophisticated parties with expensive accouterments and the ever-present possibility for recreational sex – though Hefner maintained he was a relative late bloomer in that department, remaining a virgin until he was 21.

Hefner followed that show with Playboy After Dark, which had a similar format but with more rock ‘n’ roll, including appearances by The Grateful Dead, Three Dog Night, Harry Nilsson and Linda Ronstadt. The syndicated Screen Gems show was taped at CBS in Los Angeles and ran for 52 episodes in 1969-70.

Hefner also co-produced hundreds of Playboy-branded videos and a few feature films, such as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Monty Python’s first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, both released in 1971. He had been a sought-after guest on TV shows as far back as 1969 when he played a Control agent in an episode of Get Smart, and more recently he appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage and Sex and the City as well as in animated shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Hefner also made cameos in several movies, most recently 2008’s The House Bunny, which told the fictional story of a Playboy “bunny,” played by Anna Faris, who has been kicked out of the Playboy Mansion, the famous real-life, 22,000-square-foot house in Los Angeles where Hefner lived for more than four decades and where he hosted famously decadent parties that attracted celebrities A-list through D.

The house sold for $100 million in August with the provision that Hefner be allowed to live there the rest of his life.

Hefner became the unofficial spokesman for the sexual revolution that permeated the 1960s and ’70s and he was both lauded and criticized by feminists of the era, with some accusing him of objectifying women while others said he liberated and empowered them. During a conversation with Gloria Steinem in 1970, Hefner dismissed feminism as “foolishness,” and Steinem told him: “What Playboy doesn’t know about women could fill a book … There are times when a woman reading a Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

"There are lifestyle components to Playboy, but it's really a philosophy about freedom," says Cooper Hefner, who was photographed Aug. 3 at the company's headquarters in Beverly Hills.

Hefner was a staunch supporter of abortion – including helping to finance the landmark Rowe v. Wade decision in 1973 — and more recently was an outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage, and his dedication to such issues (along with his distribution of pornography) made him a pariah in some religious circles. “By associating sex with sin, we have produced a society so guilt-ridden that it is almost impossible to view the subject objectively,” he wrote in 1963 in one of his many broadsides aimed at Christian leaders.

Hefner also launched the Playboy Channel in 1982, a premium cable outlet that has since been sold and rebranded Playboy TV and is more explicitly sexual than when it was under his purview. He created The Playboy Club nightclub chain that still exists as a novelty, but in its heyday in the 1960s, the era’s biggest stars – including Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin — could be spotted holding court while food and drink were served by the barely dressed bunnies. All this was loosely reflected in the NBC series The Playboy Club, which was set in 1961 and canceled in 2011 after just three episodes aired.

Playboy magazine, though, was Hefner’s bread and butter and his first love. He created it as a young man three years removed from earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a few years after quitting a job as a promotional copywriter at Esquire. He borrowed $1,000 from his mom and $7,000 from more than 40 other investors for a publication he was set to call Stag Party until he discovered a magazine called Stag already existed. He purchased a picture of a naked Marilyn Monroe that was taken before she was famous and put it on the cover of his magazine, which he renamed Playboy. The first issue hit newsstands in December 1953.

He didn’t bother putting a date on it because he was doubtful there’d be future issues, but it sold 54,000 copies – 80 percent of the total he had printed — and his largely male audience thirsted for more. The iconic mascot, a silhouette of a bunny in a bow tie, made its debut in the second issue, chosen because Hefner thought rabbits carried “sexual meaning” and were “shy, vivacious, jumping” animals.

Through the years, Hefner convinced many Hollywood starlets to reveal more of themselves on his pages than perhaps anywhere else, with Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Lindsay Lohan, Kate Moss, Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Joan Collins and Drew Barrymore among the many who warranted in-depth cover stories or Q&As accompanied by sexy pictorials. The “Playboy Interview” launched in 1962 when the magazine hired Alex Haley to interview jazz legend Miles Davis, and subsequent subjects included filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen, actresses Mae West and Bette Davis, civil rights luminaries Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, writer-philosopher Ayn Rand and, in 1965, The Beatles.

In a 1971 interview, John Wayne complained about “perverted films” coming from Hollywood and in 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter famously uttered, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Through the years, a running joke among men became that they buy Playboy not for the pictures but for the articles, though it rang true because some of the most notable writers in modern history appeared in the magazine, including John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Ian Fleming, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac.

Playboy Enterprises, the umbrella company Hefner founded in 1953, has fallen on hard times on a few occasions. Long gone is the Big Bunny, the private jet Hefner used decades earlier, and layoffs have plagued the enterprise, which went private in 2011 after years of a declining stock prices. In 2008, it was reported that Hefner had resorted to selling tickets to his famous parties at the Playboy Mansion with the proceeds going to Playboy Enterprises. Hefner’s daughter, Christie, ran the company for more than 20 years but left in 2009.

Image result for Playboy Magazine Cover today

The magazine underwent a redesign in March 2016 that eliminated nude photos from its pages, but that practice did not last long.

Hugh Marston Hefner was born April 9, 1926, in Chicago to parents Glenn and Grace Hefner; a brother, Keith, came three years later. He has described his upbringing as “puritan” and “repressive” and said, “In many ways, it was my parents who, unintentionally, developed the iconoclastic rebellion in me.” However, in the book Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, author Steven Watts suggests that Hefner’s formative years weren’t too much different than others of the era, except that his bedtime was a little earlier than that of his friends and his Sundays were reserved for church and family activities.

Also, there wasn’t a lot of outward affection from his parents. “There was much calmness and kindness among the Hefners, but little passion,” wrote Watts. Hefner, though, “chafed at even the mild restraints put in place by his parents.” His mother later confessed her parenting style came from advice she read in Parents magazine, which at the time recommended skimpy displays of affection and strict bedtimes and noted that kisses on the mouth should be avoided because that could spread germs.

Hefner was non-athletic and introverted but incredibly imaginative, and he immersed himself in movies, music, radio, cartoons and a love for animals. At about age 6, he allowed his dog to sleep on his beloved “bunny blanket” — which was replete with images of rabbits — and when the pet died, the parents burned the blanket, an experience Watts says may have influenced Hefner’s choice of a bunny for the logo of his empire years later.

When he was 9, Hefner published his first newspaper, which he sold to neighbors, and he created a couple more publications for his grammar school. When a fourth-grade teacher complained to his parents that he spent far too much class time drawing cartoons, he apologized for his transgression via a poem: “I will not make my teacher mad; Because that would make me sad; I will not draw at all in school; And I won’t brake [sic] a single rule.”

As a teenager, Hefner read Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, according to Watts. He created a secret organization he called “The Shudder Club” for those who shared his passion for horror and science fiction, and he published five issues of Shudder magazine. “The boys were delighted when Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre replied to their solicitation and accepted honorary positions in the club,” Watts wrote. He also started a newspaper in high school and took an interest in theater, starring is several plays.

A “dramatic change” in Hefner’s life occurred in the summer before his junior year when he crushed hard on a girl. The two took up dancing, but when she invited someone else to a hayride, it prompted him to make “a personal overhaul,” according to Watts. He transformed himself into a “Sinatra-like guy” with loud shirts and hip language, and he honed his dancing skills and began referring to himself as “Hef.” Soon, he and his friend Jim Brophy were the most popular kids at Steinmetz High School, and it was around this time that Hefner’s attraction to the opposite sex “veered close to obsession.”

He joined the U.S. Army in 1944 and was assigned a desk job at various places stateside. He drew cartoons for Army newspapers and attended dances and movies regularly. He was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1946 and returned to Chicago and enrolled at the University of Illinois, where his cartoons took on sexual themes. In 1947, he earned a pilot’s license.

When he became managing editor of the college’s humor magazine, Shaft, he introduced a feature called “Coed of the Month,” an obvious precursor to the “Playboy Playmate of the Month.” He read Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, and it “electrified” him, Watts wrote. Years later, Hefner’s college friends would recall marveling at how openly he spoke about matters pertaining to sex.

Despite complaints later in life that his dad wasn’t affectionate and his mom was overly Victorian, Hefner wrote in college: “Had I the ability to choose two perfect people for my parents, I don’t think I could have found a pair better for me than God did.”

After graduating, he failed to sell comic strips for newspaper syndication, then enrolled at Northwestern with the plan of becoming a college professor. He quit after a year and had a series of unfulfilling jobs at various magazines, including Esquire for $60 a week, which he quit when he didn’t get the $5 raise he sought. In 1952, he joined Publisher’s Development Corp., which put out small magazines with nude photography, and a year later he was making $120 a week at a children’s magazine. He found success on a local level in 1951 with the publication of his book of cartoons called That Toddlin’ Town: A Rowdy Burlesque of Chicago Manners and Morals. The front cover was the sketch of a stripper.

He married a classmate, Millie Williams, in 1949, but “the troubled marriage faced growing pressure from Hugh’s increasingly active sexual imagination,” Watts wrote. The couple hosted risque parties that included stag films. Hefner began suggesting wife swapping, and he eventually slept with his brother’s wife, though Millie backed out of sex with Keith. They had a daughter, Christie, in 1952 and a son, David, in 1955, before divorcing in 1959.

Hefner set out to create his media empire at a particularly low point in his life in 1953 when he was despondent over a marriage he knew wasn’t working and a career that had stalled. He recalled in 2004 that he stood on a bridge in Chicago in the dead of winter thinking, “I’ve gotta do something.” That year, the first issue of Playboy was published.

In 1989, Hefner married Kimberly Conrad, a former Playmate of the Year, and the couple had sons Marston and Cooper. They divorced in 2010, and Hefner married Crystal Harris two years later.

Image result for Marilyn Monroe crypt

In 2011, Hefner told The New York Times that he had already chosen and paid for his final resting place — a crypt next to Monroe’s in Westwood.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hugh-hefner-dead-playboy-founder-sexual-trailblazer-was-91-708796

The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


September 17, 2017

The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


Cat Stevens was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.

Photograph by Matt Writtle / eyevine / Redux

Early in a Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Yusuf/Cat Stevens, concert in Boston a couple of years ago, there was a hushed pause in the room as the then sixty-six-year-old performer waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar in between songs. “I’m really happy to be here!” the singer suddenly exclaimed. It did not sound like ersatz show-biz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like capitulation. The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer. It was an embrace. It was an acknowledgment by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, a figure who, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist more than three decades ago, had come back.

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens. In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world, in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video-clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person whom he now presented himself as—to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy, and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy, wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved. For a long time, the man who’d changed his name to Yusuf Islam had completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens—a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those it once meant a great deal to.

The man who was Cat Stevens ran Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, and acted as a spokesperson for Islam. After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for his traditional fan base. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of orthodox Islam.

Then, in 2006, came “An Other Cup,” his first album of commercial music in twenty-eight years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, Yusuf. Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track, “Midday (Avoid City After Dark),” set a tone of unease, paranoia, and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit to a much earlier composition (“I Think I See the Light”) and an interesting (if forced-sounding) reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite” (“Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound. Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work. The follow-up, “Roadsinger,” in 2009, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it—was he wary of us, or we of him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to appear here and there online. Yusuf was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material, save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path, such as “The Wind” and “Peace Train.” He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, unhip as this may be to admit, the music of Cat Stevens once meant a great deal to me. I did not grow up listening to it, per se (I was too young), but his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched “Harold and Maude” for the first time, and my world changed. I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like “Numbers” and “Izitso,” the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (“Mona Bone Jakon” through “Foreigner”) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances, and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life, too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.

Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired, knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me had long since retired from the music world.

In time, his music, too, would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions, to remind myself of something that I’d once treasured, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me. I paid attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment. It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced, in late 2014, that he was going to perform in America for the first time in thirty-eight years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teen-ager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning they went on sale. I did not listen to his latest album, “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone,” nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows that he’d been playing of late. I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing. I imagined that there I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement. I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer who had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first (and what I assumed would be the last) time.

It has taken some time for me to think clearly about what it was like to be at that show. What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians, backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that. It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was partly that, too. Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that the singer was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked onstage to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” O.K., in some way, this was what we’d all come for, and here he’d already given it to us. All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that—or so I thought. What was this, though? He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket—not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances that I’d seen him do online. And the stage set—it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat, whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and—hardest to believe—lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest” followed, two pop hits from the infancy of his career, both secular love songs, both jarring surprises. “Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” and the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers. Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers, but that he was on his way to find them. Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump-inducing moments in the generous, two-part concert. He followed it with “Last Love Song,” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly uninspired-sounding) “Back to Earth,” the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalogue speaking volumes. By the time he reached the end of the first set, closing it with “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” the message was clear—something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them. After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam, that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it.

The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old œuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles from Nowhere” (I have my freedom / I can make my own rules / Oh yeah, the ones that I choose). They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but that didn’t matter. The faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.

It was touching to hear the singer-songwriter still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Classics such as “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Trouble” brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naïveté even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.

Being at that concert, hearing those songs again, sung with conviction by that man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some preëxistential, innocent moment—with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s return from the dead in “Our Town.”

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be there. It’s a sound I keep coming back to in my mind when I think about the experience of being at that concert, a sound distinct from any that I think I have ever heard. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of forgiveness.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens has a new album coming out this week, called “A Laughing Apple,” and more tour dates have been announced. I have not heard the new recording yet, but news of its release has led me to reflect on that night, when it felt as though this shape-shifting performer had brought someone we once loved back from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgment that we’re so much better together than we are apart. It’s a notion as naïvely idealistic as any he ever gave us; an echo from the past, finding its way to us past a wall that is, miraculously, no longer there

Howard Fishman is a writer, performer, and composer based in Brooklyn,  New York.

 

Malaysia’s Music Man–Dato’ Ooi Eow Jin


July 22, 2017

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Dato’Ooi Eow Jin, pianist at the Hotel Majestic. Photo by Stacy Liu.

At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.

He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.

For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile.

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 The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

Hotel Majestic —which first opened its doors in 1932, and relaunched in December, 2012 to much fanfare—is a building that doubles as a treasure trove of Malaysian history. Former patrons claim the Allied forces of World War II conspired within the walls of this hotel; the inaugural meeting of the Independence of the Malaya Party, held by Datuk Onn Jaafar, took place here in 1951.

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Dato’ Ooi with Tan Sri P. Ramlee, both are from Penang

Today, as every day, guests are spending a cloudy afternoon basking in the Majestic’s colonial luxury. A group of girls eat scones on embroidered sofas. Some aunties chatter while sipping the house-blended Boh Cameronian tea. Waiters decked in white jackets walk around in brisk fashion. The only constant is the sound of music that floats in the air, the last thing anyone would remember.

Yet, unbeknownst to everyone present in this room, the old man hunched over the piano is Ooi Eow Jin. 38 years ago, Ooi Eow Jin (known to hotel staff as Uncle Ooi) was one of the music industry’s most sought-after composers.

It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.

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Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks.

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The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang

“It was at that place when he first heard me,” says Ooi as we sit at a corner of the Majestic before his session. His voice is brittle, strung-out. His thoughts jump between past and present. Sometimes he stops, and leans forwards to ask you to repeat your question. He wonders why we’re sitting here in conversation.

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Well, you have an interesting life.

“I don’t know what is there to write about me,” he says, words rattling gently inside a soft, time-worn box. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”

But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”

 

“Those days, the RTM Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”

 

This was a big deal. Soliano had moved from his part-time job playing keyboards at nightclubs to starting an orchestra at then-Radio Malaya in 1957. When television broadcasting was introduced in 1963, the RTM Orchestra became one of the most widely-watched music acts in the country.

It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. “Imagine people saying, ‘You are crazy. You’ve got a full-time salaried government job, and you’re leaving it for a contract job.’” He wags his finger, reminding you that one generation will always admonish another for choosing uncertainty over certainty. “But that was my calling. I couldn’t be a clerk if there was something like this in front of you. Those days, the Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”

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Radio Malaya Band with Alfonso Soliano in  the early 1960s

Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra. “It was a great experience playing all kinds of music. To have the orchestra there, that’s something, you know? That… that really took my heart away.” Soliano would groom Ooi to become the orchestra’s senior arranger, giving him opportunities to conduct concerts, and teaching him how to compose a piece of music. “He guided me. He wanted me to depend on my ears. ‘What you hear, you play’, he would tell me.’”

 Ooi’s career would soon intersect with another artiste looking for his own break in life. In 1976, a young singer with a songbird’s voice by the name of Sudirman Arshad took part in a nascent reality show called Bintang RTM. In the final round, Ooi arranged a Broadway medley that would help Sudirman win the competition. “I used two songs. One of them was ‘Cabaret’, and the other was ‘Big Spender’. I arranged those two songs for him, and he got first prize because of that.”

The two became friends, and Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”. History tells us that Sudirman would become an Asian phenomenon, pulling in 100,000 people in a Chow Kit Road open air concert, tabbed as “Malaysia’s Number One Entertainer”.

Related imageThe Legend –Sudirman Haji Arshad

Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”.

“One thing I know of Sudirman is that he is a very, very humble man, a very nice person to know,” Ooi says. “Every time he meets me, when he was famous, he would say, “Mister Eow Jin, I can never forget you for what you’ve done for me. Imagine someone like that saying like that about you.” He looks down, humbled by the power of a sincere compliment. “It makes your heart melt.”

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Ooi gets up from his seat, and returns soon after with a CD in his hand. It is a compilation of twenty compositions, a greatest-hits collection he gives out to friends. It’s part of a personal canon that encompasses over 60 Malay pop songs, a nostalgic walk-through of the local music industry’s heyday.

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Singing Sensation Dahlan Zainuddin

He penned the weepy hit “Masa Berlalu” for singer Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia; other singles include Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film Dia Ibukuin 1981, along with the theme song sung by the popular M. Nasir. He would rub shoulders with industry luminaries that spanned the entire region; names like Gigi Villa, the Alleycats and Frances Yip all sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.  

“I have something that will knock you down.” He takes out a photograph, and lays it on the table. It is a black-and-white snapshot of a boyish, bespectacled Ooi wearing an army uniform. He is standing next to P. Ramlee on the shores of Sebatik Island off Tawau.

 

Industry luminaries sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.

Ooi played for the Malaysian legend during a tour of 21 army barracks in Borneo in 1965, bringing A-class entertainment to the armed forces. “We were quite near the Indonesian camps, and we could hear gunfire sometimes, at a distance… A few of us would fly in on helicopters into these camps, and we would do on-the-spot performances for the soldiers.”

By any generation’s estimation, this is unquantified success. But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music.

When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”

His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.

Older guests who come to the Majestic Hotel—some fans of the RTM Orchestra, or simply those who listen to artistes like Sudirman and are homesick for a piece of history—still remember Ooi. “Some will come up and say, ‘Hey, you formerly from RTM Orchestra ah?’ Ya lah, I’m now doing a new job.” By a twist of fate, the Filipino quartet who plays in the evenings after Ooi’s session are the Solianos, a family ensemble who are all children of the late Alfonso Soliano, Ooi’s mentor.

Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.” Ooi has also seen his only two sons through tragedy; the eldest had a brain tumour in his twenties that has resulted in two serious operations, and his youngest son died of leukaemia as a youth. “These are just the sad things of my life I put away. I store it away somewhere, and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”

He comes to us after his first session. He sits on our table, and a waitress brings him a cup of coffee. Instead of drinking one of the hotel’s hinterland imports, this cup is made from a three-in-one instant coffee mix from Malacca, a sachet he gives to the kitchen to specially brew for him every day. He grabs her hand, and pats it like a grandfather.

“Thank you.” He looks up and smiles at her, paying forward the kindness once shown to him a long time ago. “You are a very nice lady.”

“No problem, Uncle.”

He leans forward, eyes tainted in fading black. “Did you hear me?” He looks back at us for an answer.

We could hear you.

“I’m always not sure whether people can hear me from back here.”

Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent.

UPDATE: As of 30th June 2015, Mr Ooi has retired as a pianist, aged 77. However, friends rallied around by organising a fund raising concert to help the pianist through his family difficulties.

On 7th September 2015, Mr Ooi was conferred a Datukship by the state of Penang. Poskod.MY is honoured to have played a small role in bringing wider attention to this music man. 


 

 

Malaysia stops airing Despacito


July 20, 2017

Malaysia stops airing Despacito but goes easy on a Corrupt Prime Minister –The Sheer Hypocrisy of it all

Bernama reports

Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) will cease broadcasting the global hit song, Despacito, at all its radio and television stations immediately, said Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak.

He said the RTM evaluation panel decided to withdraw the approval to play the song after a re-evaluation.

“As such, RTM is ceasing the broadcast of the song at its radio and TV stations with immediate effect,” he said to Bernama after attending an Aidilfitri ‘open house’ of the ministry in Putrajaya today.

Several quarters have called for the broadcast of the song to be stopped, alleging obscene lyrics

— Bernama

 

Despacito: classic summer hit or the new Mambo No 5?

Two Puerto Rican musicians (and Justin Bieber) have overtaken none other than Justin Bieber, to have the most-streamed song of all time

Despacito: classic summer hit or the new Mambo No 5?

Two Puerto Rican musicians (and Justin Bieber) have overtaken none other than Justin Bieber, to have the most-streamed song of all time

Wednesday 19 July 2017 08.26 EDT Last modified on Wednesday 19 July 2017 09.24 EDT

Name: Despacito.

Age: Six months old.

Status: The most streamed song of all time.

I’ve never heard this song. You are in the minority. Despacito has been No 1 in the UK and Australia for nine weeks, and No 1 in the US for 10 weeks.

Despacito becomes most streamed song of all time, with 4.6bn plays

Read more

But I’ve been abroad. Well, it’s also been No 1 in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, the Philippines, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Uruguay and Venezuela.

But I don’t pay attention to the charts. It has been played 4.6bn times across all streaming services.

But I don’t use streaming services. Its videos have been viewed more than 3bn times on YouTube alone.

But I am an elitist snob who hates all popular things. Right! OK! Why didn’t you just say that?

Tell me more about the song. It’s a Reggaeton-pop number performed by a 39-year-old Puerto Rican man called Luis Fonsi, aided by a 40-year-old Puerto Rican rapper called Daddy Yankee. But the song’s international success is down to a remix featuring Justin Bieber.

And what does “Despacito” mean? It means “Slowly” and concerns Fonsi and Yankee’s favoured seduction style.

TMI, as the kids say. But that’s the thing: the kids can’t get enough of it. This song is even more popular than Ed Sheeran, for crying out loud, and Ed Sheeran is so popular he got to stare aimlessly into the middle distance on the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

But couldn’t you say that this is a false record, since new subscribers are increasing the market base of streaming services every day? Look, it’s a nice, fun, summery song that lots of people heard on holiday. Isn’t that enough?

I miss real music. You mean summer songs from years gone by?

Exactly. So, Agadoo and Mambo No 5, then?

Stop deliberately trying to provoke me. Why do you hate fun so much?

My primary hobby is writing comments on the Internet. I knew it.

Do say: “The way you nibble on my ear / the only words I wanna hear / Baby take it slow so we can last long.”

Don’t say: “Oh go to sleep, Justin, your bedtime was hours ago.”

Preview YouTube video Luis Fonsi – Despacito ft. Daddy Yankee

Preview YouTube video Black Lace – AgadooPreview YouTube video Lou Bega – Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…) (Official Video)