Of Harry & Tonto, Mickey & Sylvia, Leiber & Stoller and Social Secuity and Medicare

Aging and dying have often become so inextricably linked in our minds that we tend to forget that they are actually opposing alternatives.

An acquaintance on Facebook wrote this weekend: And who retires at 65 today? How hard would it be to raise the Social Security age to at least 67? Let it go to 70 and then calculate the savings.  

It goes without saying that he has a desk job. If he drove a truck, dug ditches or worked on an assembly line, he might feel differently.  

For every elderly person like my 84 year old mother in law, who travels to Lee Avenue everyday from Park Slope to work at a pharmacy (which means we have to delay Thanksgiving, but not Jewish festivals, until she gets off from work), there are others who would live longer if they could quit.  

People who can afford to retire when they feel like it generally live longer than those who must keep on working, especially if one also doesn’t delay the age at which they can qualify for the single payer program we call Medicare. If you raise the eligibility ages for these programs, eventually the poor folks who drop dead end up having their tax dollars subsidizing the retirements and health care of the richer folks who live longer.

We won’t even mention that encouraging earlier retirement opens up the job market for young earners who are often more productive at cheaper rates (a fact which is so tempting for many employers that older people forced to work often can’t find jobs to support themselves).

Though for reasons I outlined the other day, I see no reason the President should issue his own proposals for any entitlement reforms until the GOP puts theirs on the table (at which point whatever poison the President puts forth in response will instead look like the antidote), I think some changes are probably unavoidable and maybe even necessary in the long run, so I agree with Evan Theis that “the Democratic path to reform is clear: Make a reasonable adjustment to the formula for increasing payments year-to-year that more accurately tracks real costs for seniors, and raise the cap on income taxable under the payroll tax that funds Social Security.

That may sound like neo-lib capitulation, but it is also a non-negotiable line in the sand: “no privatization and no increases in the retirement age!”

Anyway, this rant was all brought on by Saturday night’s showing by TMC of  Paul Mazursky's "Harry and Tonto," a mostly quite lovely meditation on aging and other topics, loosely suggested by “King Lear” (Mazursky later directed an explicit modern day adaption loosely based upon “The Tempest”).   

We were watching the scene where Josh Mostel is about to tell off his aunt, played by Ellen Burstyn. Domestic Partner despises the C-word and I made a snide remark of warning to her about its impending appearance only to find Mostel instead called his aunt "a bitch."


I remember seeing the film upon its release in 74, and though mores have changed, the word came so without warning then that it was as shocking as it was funny (and it was funny, in a way it no longer is with the substitution), but that one word alone earned the film an R-rating, and the switch was subsequently made for commercial reasons.

Internet sources say the original is apparently lost, which, whatever your views on the matter, is an historical shame, wiping out as it does important evidence from a debate about an important writer/director whose record on the matter of gender relations ranges from abominable ("Blume in Love," in which the protagonist rapes his ex-wife on the way to a reconciliation) to pioneering ("An Unmarried Woman").

It also erases some evidence that what the language market will bear at various times is not a straight line. How many times has Quentin Tarantino dared to use the C-word? (Memo to Quentin: please do not take this as a challenge).  

It is also a shock to a system to know that a film I've seen in its intended version no longer exists.

I really am that old (On the other hand, my recall that the shot of Melanie Mayron's boobs went on for a bit longer may just be palimpsest).

Less shocking, given the existence of, among other things, "Taxi Driver" and the entire Sidney Lumet oeuvre, is the film's portrait of New York in the 70s. Nonetheless, it is still jarring.

Was the West Side ever really that scary?

That the City has changed tremendously is perhaps best brought home by the plot point that the title characters' apartment building is being torn down to build a parking lot.

In the New York of today, parking lots in areas like that are torn down to build apartment buildings.

If my eyes don’t deceive me, Harry of Harry & T’s West Side dwelling was on a part of the West Side near where Broadway malls. Not so far to the south, and just as raunchy in its times, was the Hell’s Kitchen area, now known as Clinton, in close proximity to the music district and the Jewish delis which served it.  

In this age of their slow disappearance (occasionally relieved by the opening of a place loosely suggested by the original, like “Mile End,” which is an authentic Jewish Deli in the way “Harry and Tonto” is an adaption of “King Lear”) One must always mourn the death of any Jewish Deli, even one so overpriced and overrated as the “Stage Deli,” for which the Times recently wrote the lovely remembrance I’ve linked.   

 Nonetheless, the real lede got buried in the middle of the piece—“Sarge's” on Third Avenue burned down in November.

With its 80 year old waitresses and zero concession to modernity, “Sarge's” was the “real deal," while the “Stage” was really a theme park adaption of the original, as self-conscious in its own way as “Mile End,” but a bit less creative.

Nonetheless, the importance of Delis like “The Stage” and “The Carnegie” in the life of the Brill Building era music business so emblematic of the old New York cannot be overestimated.

When, as recounted by Josh Alan Friedman in “Tell the Truth Until They Bleed,” songwriter/producer Jerry Leiber was persuaded onto selling his share of “Red Bird Records” by being hung out a window by his feet, he was first taken out by mobsters to a Jewish Deli near the Brill Building.   

In “Hound Dog,” the joint autobiography of Leiber and his songwriting/producing partner Mike Stoller, we find this appetizing passage by Stoller:

The more we worked with the Coasters, the stronger the bond between us became. Even our culinary habits had a certain distinct harmony to them. There were, of course, four Coasters plus Jerry and myself. Billy Guy was living with a Jewish woman. I say that so you’ll understand the order we phoned into the downstairs deli during a rehearsal:

three pastramis on rye with mustard

two pastramis on whole wheat with mayo

one pastrami on white bread with ketchup

The deli owner called back. “Is this some kind of a joke?”

I explained that is wasn’t; it was more a matter of ethnic diversity.

From then on, whenever we called in the pastrami order, the counter man would shout, “It’s the Leiber and Stoller special!”     

I thought of this and wondered what happened when the whole black/Jewish ensemble, as it sometimes did (most notably on “I’m a Hog for You”), worked with session-man Mickey “Guitar” Baker, one of the many prominent black jazz and bluesmen who (like Baker’s buddies Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree) ended up finishing the last decades of his life as a French expatriate.

Did they order him chopped liver on challah and tell him it was foie gras on a brioche?  

About a year and a month ago I wrote this about the death of Sylvia Vanderpool:

Like Shirley Goodman of Shirley and Lee, Sylvia Vanderpool (later Robinson) of Mickey and Sylvia, recorded some great-boy girl R&B in the fifties before having solo disco/funk hits in the 70s. Mickey and Sylvia were most famous for "Love is Strange,", and though M&S were surely not in love, this was not the strangest part of Sylvia's story.

Sylvia's male counterpoint in the fifties, Mickey, was the great session musician, Mickey “Guitar” Baker, in whose real story M&S (where he taught Sylvia to play a mean guitar) was really just a curious and atypical footnote (though somewhat less strange than his providing the male lead vocal on Ike and Tina’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.”)

Same with Sylvia–after her disco comeback, she, as a producer and label owner, was the key person in transforming rap from a street/club thang into commercial gold–think "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message" (which has never been equaled).

 “It's like a jungle sometimes

 It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under”

Which is all preface to noting the passing of the great Mickey “Guitar” Baker, who could certainly sing, but was the mostly unsung hero behind thousands of blues, R&B, rock and jazz recordings.

Like it did with “The Stage Deli” (but with more reason here),  The Times gives Baker a nice send-off. The Hound (formerly of WFMU and the recently departed “Lakeside Lounge) provides a more detailed appreciation, which, unfortunately, gives short shrift to Baker as jazzman (his jazz recordings as a leader were mostly mediocre, but he was still a great jazz sideman).  

And here’s a pretty good Baker discography (the best currently on the web) which aims to be complete, but isn't.

Which pretty much concludes what I hope has been a lovely meditation on the aging of people, cities and delis.