Movies, Music, Pop Culture

Thoughts on ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Ma Rainey’s nephew has just gotten into a car accident driving his aunt and her girlfriend to a recording session in a scene early “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The scene is set in 1927 Chicago. Rainey, played by the incomparable Viola Davis, is about to be hauled away by the police.

Rainey is indignant. Don’t they know she’s the star?

They don’t. Her white manager bribes the cops. She sees the money go from one white hand to another.

Ma Rainey has a lot of power for a Black woman in 1927 America. Her voice sells records and white men will cater to her to a point.

But to get out of going to jail for speaking her mind about a traffic mishap, she needs her freedom bought by a white man.

If the viewer hasn’t caught on by now, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not a musical bio pic. This is a film about the blues in their truest sense — the oppression of Black and brown people.

She punishes these white men for the oppression and slights she’s endured. She shows up late. She demands her stuttering nephew deliver the intro to her song. She orders Cokes be brought in to combat the heat. She drinks those Cokes slowly while the white record men swear and complain.

Ma Rainey’s voice makes them money. And for as long as it does, they will put up with her. She knows this, hates this and revels in it at the same time.

The trumpet player Levee Green (the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance) rages against anyone and everyone who doesn’t recognize his ascendancy to the greatest trumpeter of all time.

Levee is cocky and mocks the old ways of his fellow bandmates. He ignores the advice of wise pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and mocks the faith of trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo).

Rage bursts from Levee in self-destructive explosions. He becomes obsessed with a locked door. He rams his body into it until he finally cracks through, revealing a space no bigger than a prison cell with the daylight far away — a symbol of how deep a hole the young Black man begins life and how each door broken through runs into another brick wall.

The story ends in tragedy and blood as so many do for Black Americans, then and now.

I would not go so far as to say I liked this movie, but I was absolutely impressed by it. I love the way playwright August Wilson uses language and builds tension with lines the way an orchestra reaches crescendo.

The reason I say I don’t like the movie is because it’s a sad story that makes a sadder statement about the plight of fellow humans that remains true today.

It’s hard to embrace such discomfort. But it’s a good idea that we do and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a worthy place to start.

Daniel P. Finney’s new off-off-off Broadway Play is called “Megatron: The Musical.”

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Music, News, Pop Culture, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift just keeps on giving and God bless her for it

From the desk of Daniel P. Finney, paragraph stacker, Des Moines, Iowa.

ITEM ONLY: I am very tired. My knees hurt. I have convalesced at home since February. That’s when I got pneumonia. I’m sure I put on a pound or 10. I’m getting used to moving around on a daily basis, but the restroom at the new office is on the other side of the building. My doctor gave me a water pill. That’s putting some mileage on joints not up to code. But none of this matters. Why? Because Taylor Swift is releasing a new album at 11 p.m. Central tonight. This comes five months after arguably the best album of her career, “folklore.” I will be listening. Of course I will be listening. And that will make everything OK. Taylor Swift was born on Dec. 13, 1989. I believe that she got a lot of those “this is for your birthday and Christmas” gifts. So she just keeps making albums so that none of her fans ever have to suffer that fate.

Daniel P. Finney wants you to know he had a wonderful time ruining everything.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, mental health, Music, News, People, Pop Culture, sports

HOT SHEET: Hawkeyes, Cyclones win, pierce the gloom of the coming winter of COVID-19

From the desk of Daniel P. Finney, hot seat editor, 24th Street bureau, Des Moines, Iowa.

ITEM FIRST: Most Iowans interested in football found happiness Saturday. The Iowa State Cyclones bludgeoned Kansas State. The Iowa Hawkeyes mauled Penn State. All was right with the world for a few hours on a late autumn afternoon.

ITEM TWO: Sunday promises to be another excellent day for this pro football fan. His favorite team, the Chicago Bears, will not play, but he fears the Bears are so bad they may find a way to lose without taking the field.

ITEM THREE: The Age of COVID-19 feels like a woolen sweater too tight in all the wrong places. It itches and stifles and never seems to let us breathe no matter how hard we tug and pull. The naturally shortened days of autumn get even shorter when the restaurants lock their doors at 10 p.m. Efforts to curb the virus’ potentially deadly spread curb our abilities to gather in fellowship whether it be to root for a favorite football team, celebrate a holiday or worship our gods. The ol’ Paragraph Stacker called one of his best friends Saturday. She was overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all and despite his silly jokes and empathy, he could not shake even a giggle loose. The miles between us seemed doubled or tripled despite the intimacy of a phone call. He felt the depression from his end of the phone. He had no choice but to let go and hoped her planned passivity would bring what Pink Floyd called comfortable numbness. The typist fared no better on his Saturday. He could have done laundry, but a psychological immobility paralyzed him whenever he gave leaving the house a serious thought. He attempted to watch football games, but the he fell into fitful sleep early in the games. Most of his friends hunkered with their family and the weight of a lifetime of bad choices and failures to grow left the Paragraph Stacker alone in a little apartment surrounded by nothing but entertainment but overwhelmed by the urge to have a beer with a buddy in public. So, he slept, for this is the season of hibernation. And he slept some more because he knew more of this malaise was to come. As the poet songwriter Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

ITEM FOUR: This blog will become private in a few weeks, which means you’ll have to request access to read the posts. It’ll still be free, but there will be an extra step to reading posts. The easiest way to avoid all that is go to https://paragraphstacker.com/ now and look for the follow button on the left side of the page. Enter your email address and confirm it. You’ll get every post delivered to your inbox.

ITEM LAST: The ol’ Paragraph Stacker makes no secret of his love for classic “Doctor Who.” He relaxes to the infinite stream of 200 episodes on the free streaming service Pluto TV. Saturday evening found him watching the very first “Doctor Who” story he ever watched many moons ago on Iowa PBS: “The Armageddon Factor.” He found a gem of an exchange between the Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, and his companions, Romana, played by Mary Tamm, and his robot dog, K-9, as voiced by John Leeson. It’s as true today as it was in 1979.
THE DOCTOR: Where’s your joy in life? Where’s your optimism?
ROMANA: It opted out.
K-9: Optimism: belief that everything will work out well. Irrational, bordering on insane.
Perhaps that’s a little too dark to end a Hot Sheet. So if it’s insane to be optimistic, perhaps the typist shall lean on a quote from another favorite childhood classic, the 1989 “Batman” film.
BRUCE WAYNE: You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!

Theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, Daniel P. Finney stepped into the quantum accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time who appears in the form of a hologram that only Daniel can see and hear. And so Daniel finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.
comics, des moines, Faith and Values, humor, Media, Movies, Music, Newspapers, People, politics, Pop Culture, TV

HOT SHEET: The strange occurrence on 24th Street

Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020

From the desk of Daniel P. Finney, sergeant of the watch, Drake Neighborhood Station, Des Moines, Iowa.

ITEM ONE: A faint knock on the door shook the typist out of a nap inspired by the late afternoon football game.

ITEM TWO: The typist found a blue-eyed boy with tousled brown hair clad in faded blue jeans, high-top basketball shoes and a faded replica Walter Payton jersey with a set of headphones with orange foam covering the speakers and a portable cassette player hanging from his belt.

ITEM THREE: The typist recognized the boy immediately: It was his younger self at about age 10.

ITEM FOUR: The child had become unstuck in time.

ITEM FIVE: Author Kurt Vonnegut made up the phrase “unstuck in time” for his famous novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

ITEM SIX: Dan-10, as the typist would call him, had not yet read that book, nor had he known the loss of his parents by age 14, understood the true weight of his struggle to survive while they lived and the profound sadnesses of the many failures and regrets carried by the typist, Dan-45 as he would call himself.

ITEM SEVEN: Dan-45 invited his younger self in for milk and cookies, except he had no cookies to offer the boy as Dan-45 is diabetic and such things were bad for him.

ITEM EIGHT: Dan-10 settled for a can of Cherry Pepsi, which he declared almost as good as the fountain cherry Cokes at Montross Pharmacy on the Winterset square.

ITEM NINE: The boy sipped the pop and walked around Dan-45’s apartment; He marveled at the collection of pop culture ephemera.

ITEM TEN: Dan-10 peppered his older self with questions. Many exchanges went like this:

Dan-10: “Who’s the lady in the poster?”

Dan-45: “Taylor Swift. She’s a singer. I like her.”

Dan-10: “Is she like Madonna?”

Dan-45: “Yes and no. She’s her own artist.”

Dan-10: “I have a crush on Madonna.”

Dan-45: “So do I.”

ITEM NINE: Dan-10 noted Dan-45 had a lot of toys. The boy asked his older self if he still played with them. Dan-45 said he did, but not as much as he used to. Dan-10 retrieved a few Transformers from a box by Dan-45’s desk and they had an adventure on the coffee table. The good guys won.

ITEM TEN: Dan-10 was curious about Dan-45’s TV. The middle-aged man turned on the TV and tried to explain how streaming services worked.

Dan-10: “You mean you can watch anything you want any time you want?”

Dan-45: “Well, almost.”

Dan-10: “Can we watch ‘Doctor Who’ with Tom Baker? Iowa Public Television is showing the Colin Baker ones right now and I don’t like them as much.”

Dan-45: “You bet we can, buddy.”

And so we watched “City of Death.”

Dan-10: “I have a crush on Romana.”

Dan-45: “I do, too.”

ITEM ELEVEN: The two Dans spent some time reading comic books and eating lunch meat sandwiches with cheddar cheese and yellow mustard on a Hawaiian bun. The afternoon faded to evening and the sun set. The streetlights started to flicker on.

ITEM TWELVE: Dan-10 said he better be getting back home again. Dan-45 walked him to the door. The middle-aged man felt sad for the boy. He knew the next half-dozen years would be really hard on him and there would be many rough patches after that, like now. Dan-45 had told Dan-10 little of the future, but mentioned the virus and how people aren’t very nice to each other.

ITEM THIRTEEN: Dan-10 opened the door. Dan-45 felt like he should give his younger self some sort of wisdom, but the boy spoke first.

ITEM FOURTEEN: “You seem kind of sad, but you showed me your phone that can play video games, watch movies and TV and listen to any song you ever heard whenever you want,” Dan-10 said. “You said you wrote for a newspaper just like Clark Kent. You can drive a car, buy beer and vote. I bet nobody ever said ‘Adults need to be seen and not heard.’ You have friends that you can call long-distance for free. When I grow up, I hope I’m just like you.”

“You will be,” Dan-45 replied, “for better and worse.”

ITEM LAST: Dan-10 walked through the apartment door and seemed to fade in the bright hallway lights. He must have restuck in time. Dan-45 closed and locked the door, sat down in his big recliner and put on some more Tom Baker “Doctor Who.” Maybe the virus, the economy, politics and so many other things were just terrible. But through the eyes of his 10-year-old self, Dan-45 realized the simple pleasures of life were worth their weight in comfort.

Daniel P. Finney smells vaguely like a 1979 Strawberry Shortcake doll.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, humor, Iowa, Media, Music

The ultimate Paragraph Stacker playlist, Vol. 1

New music releases on Fridays. Today is Thursday. I always like to beat a deadline. Here, then are notes from a truly mad paragraph stacker on songs admired and enjoyed in my 45 years on planet Earth. Musicologists will be unimpressed by the lack of deep cuts. So it goes. I like the music I like and if it happens to be popular, well, why should that be a deterrent? YouTube links added if I could find the song.

1. COMING UP CLOSE By ‘Til Tuesday: I love Aimee Mann’s voice. As a rule, I prefer her solo work to her brief two-year stint with the 80’s one-hit wonders, ‘Til Tuesday. That said, this gem from their back catalog, which mentions Iowa in the opening lines, touches my heart and puts me in a place and time the way few songs do.

2. EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE By Neil Young: He’s Canada’s greatest songwriter, but could any song better sum up how it feels to grow up in a small town than this? Actually, come to think of it, could any song better sum up what it feels like to work in newspapers right now? I doubt it on both counts.

3. YOU’VE GOT TO HIDE YOUR LOVE AWAYBy The Beatles: For years, I rejected the Beatles. I realized it wasn’t the Beatles I was rejecting, but baby boomers. The Beatles are the source of so much good music, it’s hard to turn your back on them. This is the third track from “Help!,” the soundtrack to the motion picture of the same name. John Lennon’s lyrics speak to the part of me that fears too close of connections to people, especially women, after a collection of childhood traumas.

4. THE BOXER By Simon and Garfunkel: This is still probably my favorite song. It played over and over on my sister’s tape deck whenever I visited her. There’s a line in there that goes, “In the clearing stands a fighter … he carries with him a reminder of every glove that laid him down and until he cried out in his anger and his shame, ‘I am leaving! I am leaving!’ but the fighter still remained.” Damn right. Can’t change what you are.

5. MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPER By The Rolling Stones: This song actually helped me understand my dead, drug-addled, brain-fried mother a bit better. I realized there was a whole subculture of pill-popping matriarchs working through the wee small hours as they descended into late-life madness. Now, of course, I take “little yellow pills” to fend off madness deep set in my bones and blood.

6. BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY By Emmylou Harris: Harris has one of the great voices of country music. She wrote this song for her late father and boy, it chokes me up every time. I can see my father’s liver-spotted hands, flannel shirts with pockets stuffed with paperwork, bushy gray mustache and heavy-rimmed glasses. Her voice hits the tone of sorrow in my soul pitch-perfect.

7. HURT By Johnny Cash: This is Johnny Cash near the end of his life in 2003, I think, covering Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. He essentially wrote his own obituary. The weariness in his voice and weight he gives the lyrics. He transforms the song and makes it his own. In the process, he reaches me as I struggle to balance the past with the present.

8. INDIFFERENCE OF HEAVEN – By Warren Zevon: There are so many wonderful songs by Warren Zevon. It’s a shame he’s thought of mostly for “Werewolves of London.” It’s a great tune, but he’s so much more than that. This is off “The Mutineer” album. It sums up my take on religion. A lot of terrible shit happens in the world. A lot of wonderful stuff happens too. Seems like Heaven doesn’t give a shit either way. Cynical? I suppose. But it’s how I feel.

9. I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU By Dolly Parton: Whitney Houston ruined this song. Dolly’s version from 1972 is the best love song of all time. If there is a better song about unrequited love, I don’t know what it is. When I made this playlist, I vacillated between this and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Both are beautiful, but I picked this for the most ruthlessly practical reason: It’s more that 2 minutes shorter and allowed me a 20th track on the disc.

10. ON THE WRONG SIDE By Lindsey Buckingham: This comes from the “With Honors” soundtrack, a movie from 1995 that I absolutely adore. This tune talks about transitions. Aren’t we always in some form of transition? Life is metamorphosis.

11. ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE By Bob Dylan: The great Dylan is the only artist I allowed to appear twice on my soundtrack, three times if you count The Pretenders’ cover of “Forever Young.” This is my favorite song of Bob’s that sounds the least like his body of work. It has that weary journeyman quality to it that seems to talk to me. Keep moving forward.

12. MR. REPORTER By The Kinks: This is another band that is thought of in terms of one or two songs, but they’re much more than “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” Get yourself a copy of “Face to Face,” if you can find it, and you’ll see what I mean. This is a pretty straightforward addition, but it captures the self-loathing of journalism quite well.

13. THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD By Nirvana: I had to get David Bowie on here somewhere, but this version by Kurt Cobain and the boys surpasses even Bowie. It comes from their magnificent “MTV Unplugged” album, despite it obviously being an affected guitar to open the song. That said, I see this as sort of my post-St. Louis anthem. I fucked up. I moved on.

14. THINGS HAVE CHANGED By Bob Dylan: This is a late-career gem from the greatest American songwriter who ever lived. He wrote it for the 1999 film “Wonder Boys,” which is a good movie, but the song is terrific. It, too, is my post-St. Louis anthem. Things I used to believe, about myself, about journalism and life, changed after that. I needed to become a different man, a better one. This song reaches that bit of me. “I’m locked in tight, I’m out of sight. I used to care, but things have changed.”

15. IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME By Cher: Mock me if you will, but Cher is a great entertainer. She owns a couple of Oscars, an Emmy and some Grammys. That’s a tough trifecta to match. This a damn good, rocking tune from her 1990 album “Heart of Stone.” It’s simple, but it expresses just right the feeling that most of us have. Who wouldn’t want to turn back time?

16. CLEAN By Taylor Swift: Taylor Swift music makes me happy. The woman seems to endure a lot of criticism. They say her “nice girl” image is carefully cultivated. I argue everyone’s image is carefully cultivated, especially in the media. The only relationship I have with an artist is their art. And I love Swift’s art. This is my favorite song off her “1989” album. I find serenity in it.

17. ANY ROAD By George Harrison: This comes from George’s final album in 2001, released not long after he died that November. This is the first track and it contains the lyric “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Goddamned right, George.

18. FOREVER YOUNG By The Pretenders: This too comes from the “With Honors” soundtrack, a record that is easily in my top five most played CDs in my collection. This is a Bob Dylan song, but Chrissie Hynde’s vocals are so beautiful, I think they make it their own. Also, Bob hits me right in the chest again with his lovely wish for eternal youth: “May the wind always be to your back …”

19. DON’T YOU (FORGET ABOUT ME) By Simple Minds: “The Breakfast Club” film made this song a 1980s staple. Each listen puts me right back atop my bed after Little League games watching endless replays of that flick on the local UHF station. I wanted to be John Bender, but was probably more like poor Brian and a smidgen of Andrew.

20. BREAKFAST CLUB By Z-Trip, et. all: I wanted to end on an upbeat note. This song is silly, but warm and inviting. There was a time when cereal and cartoons were all we needed to conquer the universe. I never want to forget that part of myself, even if my present day me knows it takes a bit more than that to rule the world.