Ready for Some Football?
When I got the press release for the Houston Symphony's "Gridiron Glory: Sights and Music of the NFL" show, I thought it was a prime example of what persnickety social commentator Paul Fussell termed "prole drift." In his wickedly funny and unapologetically elitist book Class, Fussell defined prole drift as "the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized," and he cited shopping malls, best-seller lists, blockbuster films and "the lemming flight to the intellectual and cultural emptiness of the Sun Belt" as other examples.
And Fussell would have a field day with this. Along with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's 2003 photography exhibit "First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise," this shotgun marriage of football and classical music in Jones Hall seemed very much within the prole-drift realm. And both could also be interpreted as craven bows of obeisance to Texans owner Bob McNair, a trustee at the MFAH and a guy who likes to throw his money around, especially in the direction of the fine arts.
And yet parts of "Gridiron Glory" succeeded as grand entertainment -- occasionally even intentionally. For starters, there was the weird scene in the red-carpeted, terraced, vaguely Roman Imperial lobby. Jesse Jones would be absolutely thrashing around in his grave if he knew that somebody had allowed the Texan Freaks into his grand performance hall. But then, this father and son in matching face paint, red-and-blue papier-mch Viking helmets and silk-screened overalls patterned with images of Toro, the Texans bull, clearly had a firmer grasp on Puddy's Law -- "Ya gotta s'port the team" -- than old Mr. Houston could ever attain.
"Gridiron Glory: Sights and Music of the NFL"
And yes, the usual evening-wear-clad River Oaks symphony-subscribing set was there, but so were a sprinkling of hipsters in ironic awe of the proceedings, a few hot-pants-clad Texans cheerleaders, a woman in a Texans jersey that gave her name as "Hooty-Kat" and former players such former Seattle Seahawk Jacob Green, and ex-Oilers Butch Woolfolk, Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffires, the last two of whom were vital cogs in Houston's unstoppable offense on Nintendo's Tecmo Super Bowl.
A silent auction was also in progress. Sheet music from the evening's performance seemed to be drawing some decent bids. As for the Texans memorabilia -- eh, not so much. A signed Andre Johnson jersey was available for $60 a half-hour before the performance, while a David Carr-autographed football was going for not that much more. And an autographed action photo of offensive tackle Chester Pitts -- described laughably as having a "fair market value" of $50 -- had attracted not so much as a penny. (The oft-sacked Carr probably agrees with that valuation.)
Once inside the hall, you expected to see vendors hawking nachos and "da coldest foam in da Jones," but a mutant hybrid of Theater District formality and Reliant Stadium rowdiness prevailed. This was, after all, High Art.
After a brief introduction from a symphony honcho, the orchestra -- a few of whom got into the spirit by daubing eye-black on their faces -- launched into "Up She Rises," composer Sam Spence's rewrite of "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?" And then NFL Films president Steve Sabol -- possibly the most content man in America -- kick-started the evening with reminiscences about the "football music" genre he helped birth.
Sabol, whose father, Ed, founded NFL Films, spoke about how he always viewed football as great drama. "I loved football in a mythic way," he said from the podium. "It was about the uniform that turned you into a warrior...but more important, it was about the struggle. To me, football is a game of grand passions and bold gestures..."
The trouble was, back then there was no existing music that fit Sabol's vision. The earliest NFL Films, Sabol related, were scored with John Philip Sousa-style marches, and they never quite worked. Sabol described what he was looking for as a cross between the songs he sang around campfires at summer camp -- songs like "Drunken Sailor" -- and the martial soundtracks to the 1952 NBC World War II series Victory at Sea. He wanted music that would, like football, "quench our thirsts for heroic simplicity."
Enter Munich-based, American-born film composer Sam Spence. As Kool Herc was to rap, so Spence was to football music, and it's his blend of marches, hoary old folk melodies and faux-Wagnerian operatic passages that you have heard ever since. Or, if you were a football-loving kid, have pranced around in mock slow motion to ever since.
Spence and Sabol's next challenge was to convey these thoughts to the German musicians, most of whom knew about as much about American football as Americans knew about bobsledding. They had to translate the meaning of Gale Sayers's jitterbugging runs and Fred Biletnikoff's mind-boggling circus catches. Sabol settled on epic events from European history: He told Spence to tell the musicians that games on the frozen tundra of Green Bay were like desperate battles in and around Moscow, and that marathon drives against stout defenses were like Hannibal's crossing the Alps.
And it all must have worked, because this music -- whether by Spence or his stylistic protgs Tom Hedden and David Robidoux -- is fired with a grandeur that elevates football beyond mere sport. You know this stuff -- crisp, stentorian brass, thundering kettle drums, staccato snares. While it always aims for sweeping grandeur, it ranges from the "crime jazz" spy-movie vibe of "The Lineman" to the western/Morricone feel of "Round Up" to the big-city bebop of "Ramblin' Man from Grambling" to the Teutonic menace of "Waltz of the Goliaths," ideal accompaniment for Darth Vader's cape-flowing strides through the Death Star.
A video screen above the stage displayed these films as the orchestra played, and it occurred to me that the best of Ed and Steve Sabol's NFL Films are as vital a relic of the 20th century as the Star Wars flicks. It isn't just the actual football, though the play is always impeccably captured; it's the manner in which they capture the feel of a bygone America. It's almost unbearably nostalgic to see one of them from, say, Baltimore in the '70s. Back then, at least in the Sabols' telling, that town still snapped and crackled as a thriving and proud port city and steel town full of big-shouldered, World War II-veteran, conservative Democratic union workers with crew cuts and beehived wives, all of whom loved the Colts. Contrast that with the images you see of Baltimore now on the news or on shows like The Wire. Today, the Colts are gone, replaced by the more ghoulish Ravens, and the town is known as Bodymore, Murdaland. What's more, it's a burned-out shell of a city, rife with heroin addiction, homicide, AIDS and poverty. What happened?
Sabol and his friends and the composers also prepared a short film for the event: a Texans retrospective. And while it met their high standard stylistically, its editorial thrust was laughable. After all, the franchise's sole memorable highlight remains Billy Miller's lunging touchdown in the Texans' 19-10 triumph over the Cowboys in the franchise's very first game. The film managed to milk that moment of glory for a full five minutes by augmenting it with other footage that transforms Jabar Gaffney into Jerry Rice and Kailee Wong into Lawrence Taylor. Cymbals clashed on all five slobber-knocking tackles the Texans have managed in as many years, the violins circled and wheeled on the home team's precious few long runs, the string section soared as you wondered when Corey Bradford would fumble untouched by any defender. Vader-like horns cropped up again when Kubiak the Magnificent arrived on the scene to bring the pain to the rest of the league.
The film ended with recent shots of David Carr shredding a befuddled-looking defense with purposeful scrambling and laser-guided throws -- Brett Favre in his prime came to mind. Only the footage was from Texans practice, and the defense he was dominating was his own. I don't know the name of that piece, but had Sabol and the composers had a better sense of humor, it could have been called "Etudes in Ineptitude." But then again, the film did open and close with identical woodwind- and brass-accompanied shots of sunrise over Reliant, strongly implying those lines from Ecclesiastes about there being nothing new under the sun.
All in all, the show made me realize that Fussell might not have developed his ideas far enough. Prole drift runs both ways. Sabol's films and this music did much to drag pro football out of the working-class ghetto, in that his footage, John Facenda's Orson Welles-level narration and Spence's vigorous, manly music helped make it acceptable for the middle classes to unabashedly love pro football.
But as for Jones Hall, the Houston Symphony and the MFAH and their McNair-stroking football shows, I fear he was right. Classical music elevates football, but football can only bring those institutions down. What's next -- rasslin' at the Rothko?
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