Danny Alexander kind of challenged me to write about records which have influenced me — using the record covers.
I want to start with the very first album I got — it was 1957, I was visiting my sister, Greta, in Buena Park, Southern California, for the summer. That was the year that I helped her “fix up” the house she and her husband had just purchased in the Hollywood hills — sand and paint cabinets, clean, clean and clean some more. In Buena Park, though, I had made some friends from neighborhood kids my age: Jeff Jones from the family next door, Pinky and Jim Wilcox from the house down the street, Alan Wiggins also living on that street. We played in the street in front of the houses, went to the boys club together, went together with my sister’s family to Knott’s Berry farm, the alligator farm across the street from Knott’s, and of course to Disneyland which had recently opened up. The summer came to an end, I had to go back to school in New Haven, Connecticut, and given that my sister was moving, the chances of my seeing my new-made friends again was practically nil. The families were not well off in this complex of tract homes — working class folks who were from somewhere in middle America where they had been unable to make a living. But the kids were sad to see me leave, and in a startling gesture I had no way to anticipate, and even today makes me want to reach out and thank them for their kindness again — they gave me my first LP record, “My Fair Lady.”
It was undoubtedly a record my sister had, undoubtedly one I played over and over again while I was there, knew all the words, copied the accents and dialects as best I could. She most likely suggested this album when they asked what they should get for me. But I couldn’t play it. I did not have a record player at home that would play LPs. We had an old record player that only took 78s. I didn’t tell them that though.
When I moved to southern California in 1960, I moved to go to the University of Southern California. When I moved into the dormitory that fall (Trojan Hall, with a room overlooking Figueroa St. at 36th St.), my sister gave me a table top record player. I set it on my desk, where I did my homework, the desk set into the wall under the window overlooking Figueroa. And of course the first record I played was “My Fair Lady.”
My father had been a used book dealer back in the early 1930s. As a child I watched my father build bookcases out of oak for the books that remained from the shop that had closed as the depression hit its depth. There was something seriously valuable about these old books is the message that wafted across these musty volumes. Wanting to be like my father, I sought out used book stores from my first visit to Los Angeles in 1953. I don’t know what it was that attracted me to George Bernard Shaw — I don’t remember any volumes of Shaw in his collection — but going into downtown LA and searching the shelves of the Goodwill and the Salvation Army stores, I found old GBS titles which I brought home. Even more, I actually read them. I don’t know if Pygmaiion was one of the plays I read then; but I do know that I knew the myth from my reading of Greek mythology, the fantasy stories that I loved. So I was just ready for loving “My Fair Lady” when it hit the musical stage.
In these years my mother encouraged my interest in the theater by taking me to plays in the local Schubert theater. New Haven was a major place shows on their way to Broadway to “try out.” I don’t remember much, except I saw some amazing actors in plays by . . . Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. And by the time I got to college, I had come to understand that both Shaw and Brecht represented artists who fused their politics with their art. Neither of them were satisfied with the status quo, both wanted a new society. While I didn’t understand the differences between them, I understood that one thing that united them was an understanding of class.
No matter what Lerner and Loewe did to transform “My Fair Lady” into a simple love story, for me the question of “other” was always the most important thing in the story. The class representation in language, the idea that the upper class had the right to mold the people of the lower classes the way they wanted, the concept that workers could not think for themselves — all of this was very prominent for me in this play and even the musical. And the idea of Eliza standing up for herself, not just an object of these two wealthy men! And isn’t that what we are struggling with today, in a much more exaggerated form, perhaps even a qualitatively different form? In the 1950s, Lerner and Loewe could satirize the British caste system implying it didn’t exist in the US. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and despite reports that the virus does not discriminate, we know that it ravages “othered” communities; we know that the well heeled have better access to necessary health care. We know that COVID is spreading rapidly among communities where the poorer dialects of English are spoken. The class character of who gets hit by the virus most is clearer and clearer. And the resistance to a system that allows this is growing too. Because unlike the 1950s, those of us in that class have no choice any more. We have learned that the Henry Higginses of our world do not care about us.
So I would like to join Eliza in a chorus that I think is what our own ruling class is most afraid of: “Just you wait Henry Higgins, just you wait. You’ll be sorry but your tears will be too late.”