Steve Allen plays at the front lines of the culture war.
Thursday, July 1, 1999
This article was supposed to be devoted to the musical side of the multi-talented performer, author and television pioneer Steve Allen, who is appearing this Saturday at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel.
But it seems that Allen is just a bit preoccupied these days, and what began as an interview about Allen''s remarkable achievements as a songwriter, lyricist and composer quickly veered off into a lively discussion of the so-called "culture war" that is raging from the halls of Congress to the executive offices of the entertainment industry.
Between his highly publicized feud with radio shock jock Howard Stern over the sleaze factor in entertainment, and his increasingly outspoken opposition to what he perceives as the trashing of American popular culture, Allen admits that his upcoming musical engagement on Saturday hasn''t been uppermost on his mind.
"I haven''t decided on the mix yet," says Allen, who spoke with the Weekly from his home in southern California, "but I had the great good fortune to grow up during what is commonly recognized as the true golden age of popular music, and I tend to write in that general genre, which is the best possible way to write some good music." Allen cites songwriters like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer as major stylistic influences.
For all of Allen''s recognition as a true comedic genius, not to mention his achievement as creator and original host of the "Tonight Show" and the highly acclaimed, award-winning "Meeting of Minds" series on PBS, most people overlook, or are wholly unaware of, his accomplishments as a musician.
With a repertoire of some 7,800 songs to his credit, including such bona fide classics as "This Could Be The Start Of Something Big," "Picnic," and "Impossible," Allen ranks not only as one of the most prolific composers in contemporary music history, but a highly regarded songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by such vocal legends as Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Hoagy Carmichael and Ella Fitzgerald. Allen''s enduring qualities as a songwriter can also be heard in an upcoming Fantasy label release of Allen tunes performed by jazz greats Terry Gibbs and Buddy DeFranco.
Allen will be featuring many of his best-known works on Saturday, performing on piano as well being accompanied by noted Hollywood pianist and arranger Paul Smith.
"When I start to sing I don''t enjoy accompanying myself," explains Allen. "Paul is probably the greatest accompanist in the business."
Given Allen''s quick-witted and lively sense of humor, Saturday''s performance is guaranteed to be a spontaneous, entertaining and wildly unpredictable mix of music, humor and politics.
But enough about music and entertainment.
Allen is very much on a crusade these days, speaking out at conferences and on talk shows about what he perceives as a frightening decline in the quality and content of popular entertainment.
As an entertainer who used his television talk show in what were still conservative times in the early ''60s to champion such avant garde writers, artists and performers as Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac and Frank Zappa, the irony of finding himself allied with the more conservative wing of the American political spectrum in an effort to "cleanup" the entertainment industry isn''t lost on Allen.
"There is a perception in the minds of some that the complainers are the old Jerry Falwell crowd, but that''s not the case," comments Allen. "The key point is this is a large debate with not all good people on one side and evil on the other."
To the degree that politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows, there are none stranger than Allen and his association with the Parents Television Council (PTC), which, in addition to its various efforts to clean up TV, has been actively engaged in trying to get Howard Stern ejected from the air waves.
"I was approached by the Parents Television Council, who said that I was saying what they had been saying," says Allen of his association with the PTC. "I''ve been speaking out on the issue for 15 years, so I joined them. Since they were already organized they could disseminate whatever portions of my message they adhere to."
As far as Allen is concerned, the spiral descent of popular culture began sometime in the late ''60s, when artists'' hard-fought victory for greater freedom of expression mutated into a belief that equated vulgarity for its own sake with artistic legitimacy.
"Those who say to me how can you complain about Howard Stern when you championed Lenny Bruce are guilty of poor thinking," says Allen in defense of his position. "Lenny Bruce was highly talented, he was a comic philosopher who delivered a social message. Today''s foulmouths have no social message. It''s now a gimmick to talk dirty.
"I''m not a censor for the world, but there is such a thing as going too far."
Unlike his erstwhile colleagues who blame today''s cultural quagmire on Satan-worshipping, hippie-loving secular humanists, Allen contends it isn''t a bunch of drug-crazed, trench-coated perverts running the show, but well-heeled, Mammon-worshipping corporate types and entertainers who are calling the shots.
"It''s not the wild-eyed Marxists who own TV stations, but the socially and politically conservative guys at the country club on the weekend," says Allen. "There is a degree to which generally conservative factions in society are marketing every kind of garbage and complaining about it on Sunday in church.
"Offensive shows would not be on the air if it weren''t for the major corporations sponsoring them," adds Allen. "Economic self-interest is one of the really bad, problematical things about modern life generally. There are many ways it has become manifest. The ''Not-In-My-Back-Yard'' people recognize the need for change, but don''t want to cut from their own paycheck. The fact there is a market for this is used as a defense, but there is no defense."
Admitting that it can take decades to effect social or cultural change, Allen seems content to carry the banner for more edifying forms of entertainment. As Allen hopes to demonstrate on Saturday, by carrying on the grand musical traditions of thoughtful lyrics and meaningful, jazz-based melodies, art will ultimately triumph over commerce.
"Jazz is a true art form," says Allen. "You can fake your way through rock, as some have been frank or careless enough to admit."
Steve Allen and Paul Smith play the Jazz & Blues Company at the Crossroads Shopping Center, Carmel. 7:30pm. Tickets $50. 624-6431.