CAST A COLD EYE (Hugh Hefner, R.I.P.)

There’s always something a little wistful, and a shade pathetic, about a man who outlives his time. Hugh Hefner outlived his time so thoroughly that he lasted just long enough for his definitive cheesecake mag, Playboy, to leave off with the nudes.

Fitting, perhaps, for a man who reportedly cried when he finally accepted the reality that his nudes were going to have to show pubic hair in order to keep low rent thugs like Bob Guccione and Larry Flynt from driving him out of business in a Nightmare Age which, like many a wide-eyed revolutionary naif before him, he had ushered in all unknowing.

There were comebacks and comebacks and comebacks ever after. But I suspect it was never the same from that moment. By the time all the public hair was shaved anyway, I doubt he cared a whit. I never even heard if they caved on tattoos and body piercing after he let go full control.

Perhaps he never did either.

That said, his contributions in delivering generous helpings of jazz and late-sixties rock and roll to audiences who might not have experienced them otherwise (including, in the age of YouTube, people like me) shouldn’t be forgotten. Nor should the fact that, when he was in charge of taste-making, taste at least still existed.

That’s nothing we need worry about now, seven sex revolutions later. There’s no cheese and no cake. Pretty soon, no men or women either. Paradise surely awaits, right here on earth.

It may or may not be what he thought he wanted. But, either way, Hell will be living to see it.

Wherever he is now-and I suspect it’s getting a little warm–he was at least spared that….

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Nicole Kidman Finally Ages Gracefully and the Cowsills Storm the Playboy Mansion)

Nicole Kidman in Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012).

Talk about disorienting.

I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever  of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.

Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.

Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.

But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.

YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).

For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.

They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.

Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.

But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.

If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.

That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.

Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).

Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.

The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)

Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.

Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.

Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.

You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:

Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)

NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.

But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…