How perfect that Fred Birdsall was with me on that Colorado summit when the mountain goat came by.

We’d climbed Gray’s Peak, then Torrey’s Peak near Georgetown together that morning, a day off for Fred from his wife Ann Hyde’s Institute of Design where he did whatever was needed to keep her fashion school in the Rockies humming. As all-purpose logistical support, he did everything for her, the staff and students. He became friends first with my wife Ellie, a teacher there, then with me when I started visiting her for weeks every summer. This made perfect sense to me; they’re two of the best people I’ve ever known.

Fred looked country, a solidly made man whose slouch hat shaded twinkly blue eyes over a bent nose and strong jaw, mostly working in a smile. A retired oil executive, he’d taken Ann with him on exploration projects across Arabia, then went with her to Paris where she studied fashion. Of his former profession, he said simply, “Everybody needs oil, every day,” but he also said his in-laws had originally opposed Ann’s marriage to “oil trash.” While Ann’s elegance somehow seemed carefully cultivated, constructed in a patrician childhood, Fred’s was innate, but also blended with an old-school gentleman’s kindness. Plainspoken but cosmopolitan, he ordered Budweiser by its full name over lunch or dinner, but also knew his way around the wine lists of the top restaurants in Europe and America and the most complex music of the classical canon.

In his easy-going courtliness and interest in everything, Fred reminded me of my father in law, Alfred von Wellsheim. He was unflappably, dependably calm and kind where Ann was electric, charismatic and volatile. He radiated such affection for colleagues and neighbors there in Winter Park that you instinctively adopted them all as friends right away.

Most of all, Fred loved to roam the Rockies. This was great for me, to have a high-information guide with stamina to match; less great for Ellie who envied our hikes and rambles while she was stuck in daily after-class staff meetings led by the exacting, meticulous Ann.

We’d park Fred’s sun-faded gray Datsun station wagon at a trailhead and go up, and up. At the beginning of every visit, before I became acclimated to the short oxygen supply at altitude, I’d make him do all the talking so I could catch my breath, and learn of his life. Both Gray’s and Torrey’s topped 14,000 feet, an “adult portion” as Levon Helm says of New York City in “The Last Waltz.” But I’d been in the mountains for a few weeks by the time we walked up one, then across a knife-edge ridge to the other. No technical climbing or safety gear, just a very steep walk on firm rock where friction and footing were no problem. We popped above tree-line before nine o’clock, peered down at a ramshackle cabin falling apart on a shelving ridge far below us and crunched through some snowy crusts on the trail, up high.

Then the goat came and I suddenly could barely breathe at all. 

Two mountain goats, on Torrey’s Peak

I froze; Fred did, too. Pure white, short but exerting a presence beyond its size, its winter wool still peeling away on that August morning, it looked at us for a minute, maybe three. I raised my Nikon, loaded with Kodachrome, and shot a frame, hoping the shutter click wouldn’t spook it. No reaction, good; then the goat came toward me; then right up to me, and gently pushed my knee with its head – another click – then turned and walked off the summit; but gave me time to change lenses for a close-up first.

Half the fun of an experience like that is sharing the awe, and Fred was always perfect for that. 

He knew the name of every flower that flourished up high, and liked hiking along on Ellie’s color-awareness field-trips to meadows where paintbrush or penstemon popped out of the ground in red or purple pointillist exclamations in the wind-waved grass.

When Ann closed her fashion school in Winter Park as Alzheimer’s began to change her life, Fred gave Ellie his Datsun wagon, the institute’s everyday utility vehicle. She drove it across the country with our son Zak and daughter Pisie, who’d come to see Fred as an auxiliary, bonus grandfather. They had the bad luck to follow flooding, and said later that was the stinkiest road trip any of them had endured. And, the air conditioning had stopped working. But that rugged car saved Zak’s life when a car ran a stop sign and T-boned it.

Ellie flew out to Colorado for a farewell to Ann and a last ramble there with Fred and other friends before his move back to Houston. They revisited many of the sights around Winter Park and other parts of Colorado, toasting Ann and her Institute in wines whose price tag made Ellie gasp.

On that trip, Fred sometimes surprised himself and Ellie by addressing her as Edith, a woman he’d met years after Ann’s passing and who’d enchanted him. He and Ellie laughed at this name substitution since he was so clearly smitten. Fred and Ellie also talked about a trip he hoped to take one day, a guided excursion through places crucial to the ascent of civilization, including Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and archeological sites and ruins across Europe. As Fred and Edith grew closer, Ellie was the first person they told of their engagement and impending wedding. Fred was then near 80, but a teenager when he spoke of Edith.

They married, made Fred’s civilization-exploring epic trip as their honeymoon, and settled in Houston. Dstance grew between updates from them.

As time passed, and Ellie calculated Fred’s age, she’d wonder and worry about him. 

So, when “Fred Birdsall” popped up on the caller ID of our landline phone on Saturday, my heart leapt. But a woman’s voice spoke to me, asking if she’d reached Ellie’s phone and if Ellie were available. When I explained that Ellie was in her sewing studio, a different building, the woman identified herself as Edith, announced in a calm voice that Fred had died and suggested she’d phone back another time. “No,” I begged her, “let me take the phone out to her,” as I searched around for snow-worthy footwear and headed for the door. 

I knew the news would hit hard, so I stayed with Ellie as she and Edith spoke long and lovingly of Fred. They cried and laughed. Me, too; across the room. 

They agreed that Ellie should miss the memorial this Tuesday in Houston, though Ellie promised to be there in spirit. A great spirit, like Fred, she can do that. She and Edith both seemed happy that Fred hadn’t died of COVID but of general wearing down and wearing out, the sum of a well-lived and long life. He’d have turned 94 this March, but always seemed younger, on a summit in the Rockies or over dinner. Edith said every day with Fred brought happiness.

And in those years he was here with us, he was a calm sweet source of delight for us all – even for that mountain goat.

Ma Rainey’s Small Axe

The “Lovers Rock” episode of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” showed me again why I love reggae. (The series premiered on November 20, 2020 on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. It won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for 2020’s Best Picture.)

I admit I was once pretty insufferable about reggae. 

“How about some Allman Brothers?” a visitor once asked me in my Hamilton Hill apartment. “No,” I said. “I only play reggae these days.”

Through that obsession, I knew the series title came from a Bob Marley song lyric: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” a proudly determined assertion of underdog power. I recognized most of the songs on the funky soundtrack, and understood lots of the slang. New-to-me terms in the dialog, delivered in the lilting fluidity of West Indian/London language, delighted me with its fresh brashness. And in key ways, this hour-long celebration of Caribbean culture transplanted to Europe is much more than the vivid depiction of a party.

We see it from the set up, as men move furniture from a front room, others haul in and assemble a massive rock club-scale sound system. Women fix food in the kitchen, post a menu on the wall. Meanwhile, men and women dress and groom, discuss and joke about possible mates. 

Then the music starts.

Guests eye each other warily and warmly, then pair off and dance. Couples form and fade, it’s profoundly sexy, a ro-dance that all but melts the screen as the music pulsates, throbs, bobs and booms. For every riff, every beat, a well-dressed body moves in sensual sync. Reggae rocks so many beats at once that all the motion on the screen amplifies the sound, and vice versa. It’s feedback, it spirals upward and it’s loudly joyful.

In that throb, “Lovers Rock” shows two extraordinary things happen.

During several songs, the DJ turns down the sound system, but the music continues. EVERYBODY sings, with harmony, and it’s so fun, so beautiful.

As the music intensifies, the dancefloor gender balance gradually shifts. Soon, the room seems full only of men, moving in more and more frenetic joy – until those men ARE the music.

Sure, there’s a story, a plot, moved forward with overlapping incidents and episodes. There are courtship vignettes, passionate pairings so hot that sweat in the sound-filled air condenses and runs down the wall. There are confrontations that arise, erupt, shift, resolve and fade, like songs. But McQueen’s always moving camera also shows peace-making, protectiveness and nurturing.

There is false and true love.

But the echo that “Lovers Rock” leaves in my soul is the ecstasy of the music.

The music.

That’s what I want music to do for me, to give me that ecstasy; it’s why I listen – not that I can imagine myself giving myself so joyfully, physically to it.

The best writing about music, and films showing the making of it, reach for that feeling. But, for me, “Lover’s Rock” comes closest of anything I’ve seen to showing how it feels. 

The Denzel Washington-produced film of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how music can confer memories we don’t actually have for ourselves. Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted the script from Wilson’s work and director George C. Wolfe staged it for film. Telling a story now a century old, the film and its music operate like a time machine to a specific time and place. But the force of the music removes the distance, the sense of otherness, and invites us back, or over there.

Compared to the immersive naturalism of “Lover’s Rock,” “Ma” feels arch and stagey at times. Since a play has to rely on talk, telling us its meaning, rather than the kinetic way a film shows us – and in two dimensions rather than three – Wilson’s words must carry the action. They do; with supercharged narrative force but also with nuance in close-ups of actors’ faces. 

However, even those sections that show rather than explain feel enclosed. When a curious character repeatedly assaults a locked door, frustrated at not knowing what’s beyond it, the metaphor feels a bit too on the nose: The payoff feels blunted by the recognition he’s burst into another, even more confined space than what he left. The escape he sought, then won, shows us how impenetrable is his bondage. He stands in an airshaft. It’s walls loom high, unclimbable. 

The play/movie’s conflict is about the power and freedom that same character restlessly seeks. He wants to make his own art, freed from the mercenary mission of accompanying another artist, the singer. 

He faces a double confinement, concentric barriers. The singer’s power is the engine that brought him into the studio where the action plays out; and she is a force of nature played by Viola Davis. At her quietest, she is still calmly formidable. When she’s getting what she wants, she feels no need to rip anyone’s face off with a nuclear glance or volcanic words.

She has a clear map for her players to follow and resists their pencilling in alternate routes to their own self-expression.

She steamrolls dissent, insisting on her vision of her songs. 

A subtler and more alien and therefore more unbeatable force is the business. White men own the means of production: the studio, the machines, the means of making money from talent they lack but think they own.

I’ve spoiled the story enough that I now worry I’ve waved you away from watching it. 

But my intent is the opposite. I want you to see it.

Allowing for the not always perfectly realized effort to take a play to the screen, it is often simply and breathtakingly great, largely because of the casting and performances. The hype is correct. The late, great Chadwick Boseman’s last appearance may be his greatest and Viola Davis confirms again that she’s our most all-purpose powerful actor now. 

They give life to the place and time and people that Wilson’s words sketch, framed in a skilled supporting cast. We see the limited and limiting world of art and artists in a mercantile world they inhabit. They have no hope of owning any of it except those moments when they perform. It is a lively cultural kaleidoscope, but also a period piece crackling with timeless concerns. The film-makers wisely waste little energy on atmosphere. Instead, word images of pride and creative energy at work create an engine of kinetic striving; voices in rooms build a world. Then, however, the imposed boundaries of what can be achieved even with tremendous talent add up to a heartbreak.

Well, several heartbreaks: Is the murder in “Ma Rainey” worse than the cultural appropriation – a new form of slavery – also shown?

Like the “Small Axe” in Bob Marley’s song and McQueen’s movie, the Black artists are underdogs whose triumph, if there is one, may come too late to benefit them and is almost always owned by others.

Think Van Gogh dying penniless while his works now make millions.

Think disputes over Prince’s estate.

And think – OK, spoiler alert – the horrifying last scene in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – like Pat Boone singing Little Richard songs.

Think of that “oh-shit” moment.

Pretend It’s a City

Another recent TV experience talks about music in ways I like.

While “Small Axe” celebrates the joy music brings, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows how the “business” of show business exploits and destroys it, Fran Lebowitz in the second episode of Martin Scorcese’s “Pretend It’s a City” documentary series provides both comic relief and a surprising reverence.

Interview segments have the hermetic intimacy of “My Dinner With Andre,” while scenes showing Lebowitz walking city streets suggest she’s finding much to annoy her.

A misanthrope celebrated for her cranky impatience with human imperfection, and just as uncompromising in admitting her own, Lebowitz talks in this episode of loving the crude, trash-flashy New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. When that building literally falls down, it hits as a perfect New York episode of timelessness and decay fighting it out. After concert footage shows the Dolls’ raffish, pioneering fearlessness, Scorcese shows us Marvin Gaye, that suave Motown god. Unlike the Dolls, he’s unselfconsciously at ease with himself. The Dolls, and Lebowitz, perceive the world as cracked mirrors, but always aimed at them. Gaye sings alone, then with a band as he teaches a song to them, singing their parts like Paul McCartney still does. 

After extolling Gaye and Motown, the conversation turns general as it shifts to a restaurant where Lebowitz talks at Scorcese. She tells him music “is centrally important to people. And they love the person who gave this to them…No one is loved like musicians. Musicians are really loved by people because they give them the ability to express their emotions and their memories. There’s no other form that does that. I think musicians – musicians and cooks – are responsible for the most pleasure in human life…music makes people happier, and it doesn’t harm them.”

And then she talks about the time Charles Mingus chased her down the street…

Enough, enough, e-fucking-nough

Identify Criminals

Use police, news and civilian video and facial recognition systems to identify criminals

Use cell-phone locator functions to identify criminals

Clean the Capitol

Sweep all spaces for electronic audio and video surveillance devices; also phone and intercom bugs

Fumigate and disinfect for COVID

Reset all communications networks and computer services

Sue all criminals to bankruptcy to cover costs, including the trump organization and family and republican campaign organizations

Establish workable security for U.S. government facilities 

Impose Judgement

Fire Capitol Police “leaders”

Fire and indict as traitors all Capitol Police “leaders” or “officers” whose appearance in photos abetting incursions confirms complicity; National Guard troops also

Invoke the 14th Amendment, Section 3 to unseat any U.S. Rep. and Senator who supported blockage of state Electoral College confirmations

Abolish the Electoral College

Shorten presidential transition to 30 days

Criminalize as treason any failure to cooperate with transition requirements

Try all criminals for treason and/or sedition; imprison for life – including trump