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Thanks to Lisa Townsend Rodgers for a great review of my book, BOP APOCALYPSE

NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND

 

Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs

SOCIAL INFLUENCEWednesday, March 15 9:48amBy Lissa Townsend Rodgers

 

 

History doesn’t happen in a straight line. Rather, it’s comprised of intertwined parts, like an engine, a tapestry or a jazz improvisation. In Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs, author Martin Torgoff bridges bebop jazz and Beat novels, paranoid cops and junkie prostitutes, and Harlem and San Francisco’s North Beach to tell the tale of how 20th-century American counterculture was born and how the very efforts to stomp it out might have been what sustained it.

Torgoff states, “No single piece of legislation more effectively guaranteed the growth of underground alternative culture in this country than the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and no single piece of legislation more decisively declared war on that culture.” Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger was more propagandist than policeman, penning “news” articles like “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” stoking xenophobia and racism to get anti-marijuana laws passed and to fuel his vendetta against jazz musicians and other counterculture figures.

Characters and scenes spring to vivid life in Torgoff’s prose: The wild, wine-soaked poetry reading where Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl,” or John Coltrane and Elvin Jones nodding away the afternoon eating glazed doughnuts in a Times Square movie house before stumbling into that night’s gig (inventing the hipster habit of quoting movies as the two exchange non sequitur lines from the day’s schlocky Tab Hunter flick). But the less famous are also as well drawn—and as crucial to the narrative, such as an outer-borough kid’s first visit to the Savoy Ballroom: “He felt like a weight was being lifted from him, like the Great Depression itself was just blowing away from him like a thin leaf caught in a saxophone hurricane.” Or Ruby, an abused girl from Brooklyn who descends into the Village netherworld: “She would wear these black patches over an eye that had been blackened badly after a fight and would paint gold glitter in the shape of an eye on the patch like it was some kind of fashion statement.”

Some took drugs for fun or as a “fuck you”; some to escape reality or sharpen the senses; some viewed it as crucial to creation: “[Jack] Kerouac held to the belief that marijuana was a valuable tool that could collapse space and time and render memory and feeling as synesthesia or heartbeat itself.” Interestingly, the book’s histories of those who hit the needle seem to disprove the idea that marijuana leads to heroin—Charlie Parker and John Coltrane went from alcoholic to junkie without much more than a passing toke, while the two jazzbos most devoted to the muggles, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, lived to ripe old ages of prosperity and world renown. We also see the excesses of law enforcement: The dying Billie Holiday handcuffed to a hospital bed as fans outside chanted “Let Lady live!” and beat icon Neal Cassady getting five-to-life for possessing three joints.

In the 1930s, Anslinger called drug users “the lowest scum of the earth.” And in 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” The events of Bop Apocalypse may take place in the 1940s and ’50s, but its tale still resonates today.

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From Whence the Bop Apocalypse?

The title of my new book comes from an image in Allen Ginsberg's epic poem, Howl, where he condenses the entire era of the 1940s-1950s into a single indelible image and provides its perfect metaphor--

Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands

marijuana hipsters peace & drums & junk!

 The narrative about the Beats in the book is about the role that jazz and mind-altering substances played in the creation of what became the breakthrough masterworks of the Beat Generation--Ginberg's Howl, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch--and how that gave advent to the whole new bohemian culture in cities and on college campuses across the nation that would become the American Counterculture.

Here are all the principal characters, looking particularly beatific, in an iconic photo taken in 1945, when they were first getting to know each other (left to right are Hal Chase, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs) when Jack and Allen were students at Columbia, along with a quote from the book about the impact of drugs on their lives at the time--

It was truly an odd and yet compelling destiny. As the war was ending and twelve million men and women in the US military were demobilizing and returning to their lives, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were perceiving and digestingthe meaning and magnitude of the dropping of the atomic bomb and the uneasy peace that followed as they experimented with illicit drug-induced altered states of consciousnes. They would station themselves underneath the great Pokerino sign, sublimely stoned, Ginsberg in a belted raincoat and a paisley scarf, Kerouac in his seaman’s jacket, and Burroughs in his Homburg, always looking like a bank president in his three piece suit. The sign would cast a pulsing neon glow over the the multi-tiered labyrinth of elevated platforms and the arcades and the chop suey joints and the tropical fruit drink stands and the multitudes of people and cars, and Times Square would transmogrify before their eyes into what seemed a giant surreal room hanging in the space of a dying post-nuclear world. 

 

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On Racism, Drug Laws, and My New Book

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On Racism, Drug Laws, and My New Book

An important part of the narrative of my new book, BOP APOCALYPSE: Jazz, Race, the Beats and Drugs (Da Capo Press) is about the racism inherent in the formulation of our templates for drug laws, policy and enforcement in America. The man who first institutionalized it was Harry Jacob Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930-1962, and behind all of it, as I state in the book, was a panic about interracial sex--

"The other most powerful fear had to do with sex and forbidden flesh, for walking hand-in-hand with the image of marijuana use was an unspeakable fear as old as slavery itself..Always implicit in the anti-marijuana agenda was the great fear that, as the sweet smell of burning cannabis rose in the steamy back streets of New Orleans, in dusty towns along the border of Texas and Mexico from Brownsville to El Paso, on the South Side of Chicago, along 12th Street in Kansas City, Central Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles, and the Stroll between 131st and 132nd Streets crossing Seventh Avenue in Harlem, the sexual boundary between the races would vanish as if by some perfidious deed of black magic, and the great taboo of interracial sex would come tumbling down forever.

Nothing epitomizes this fear more than the following item from Anslinger's file, which he would trot out over and over again: 'Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with female students (white) smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result pregnancy.'"

 

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My next book, BOP APOCALYPSE

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My next book, BOP APOCALYPSE

Gonna start talking about my next book--BOP APOCALYPSE: Jazz, Race, the Beats and Drugs--even though it's not due out until January from DaCapo Press.

My last book, Can’t Find My Way Home: America In The Great Stoned Age, (Simon & Schuster, 2004), told the story of how the use of illicit drugs went from the underground to a mass experience that one in four Americans have come to know, and how that has shaped the cultural landscape of this nation.

This book, BOP APOCALYPSE: Jazz, Race, the Beats and Drugs, tells the story of the underground itself--in essence, how the use of drugs entered the DNA of modern American popular culture in the first place. BOP APOCALYPSE is largely the story of the evolution of jazz and its relationship to the Beats: the first time that drug use coalesced with music and literature, becoming a central element in the creation of an avant-garde American voice and underground cultural sensibility.  

The narrative of this book encompasses the birth of jazz in New Orleans; Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; Louis Armstrong; the Chicago of the 1920s; Mezz Mezzrow and the tea pad culture of Harlem in the 1930s; the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937; the Savoy Ballroom; Kansas City and the birth of swing; Billie Holiday; Lester Young; Charlie Parker and the birth of be bop; the initial conjoining of the group of writers in New York that included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William Burroughs; the addiction and fate of a generation of jazzmen and the impact of heroin on a whole community; the policies and popular attitudes surrounding addiction; the creation of the three jazz-imbued drug-induced masterworks (On the Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch) that launched and defined the Beat Generation; and the advent, by 1960, of a new bohemian culture in cities and on college campuses across America.

BOP APOCALYPSE takes the reader back to the time when the templates of modern drug culture, law, and policy, were first established, along with the concomitant racial stereotypes, and shines a light on the very origins of the whole culture war over the use of drugs in America. It’s a fascinating and controversial period that teaches us much about the conflicts and questions that surround drugs today.

I'm happy to say the book contains some of the best work I've ever done.I'll be posting more about it and related subjects in the subsequent months... 

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A Few Thoughts About The Artist Formerly Living and Known As Prince

When I watched Prince work, I was always reminded of great auteurs who had done it all, like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. But when we filmed him creating and directing the opening to his Lovesexy tour in London in the summer of 1988, it was Mozart who came to mind. Prince arrived onstage in a replica of his Thunderbird convertible on a hydraulic lift to “Escape,” then would slink across the stage to “Erotic City, “ and would meet Sheilah E and the dancer known as Cat center stage for some shenanigans. It was just three people dancing on a stage but it was outrageously funky, entertaining and erotic. His command and control of every element and aspect of the show was consummate. Songwriting. Music. Sound. Production design. Lighting. Choreography. As I watched him put it all together and tweak it to his perfection, I thought, Ah, this is what it must have been like when Mozart directed one of his operas. Prince was the Mozart of pop, funk, rock and soul.

 

I would never have had the chance to meet Prince if he hadn’t admired my script for the 1987 documentary, Elvis ’56. As a result I was hired as the writer of what was to be an authorized documentary about his musical life and times. As such I got to watch him launch the tour at Wembley--an amazing spectacle. There was much controversy swirling around him after the episode of the Black Album and the naked cover of Lovesexy. As Eric Clapton put it when we filmed him, “You either love him or hate him, there’s no in-between”--and Clapton was an unabashed fan. Lots of people were always buzzing around the show--George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Sting—but the real fun was the after-hours jams in clubs. That was where you saw who Prince really was—a devout musician who loved to melt your face with his guitar. You could see how he had taken all of his influences—Miles Davis, Elvis, Little Richard, James Brown, Sly, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Hendrix, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Frank Zappa, countless others--and made them a part of his palette. He could be any one of them, all of them at once, or none of them at all. He inhabited a world of incredible music that revolved around him like planets around the sun. He lived for it.

 

Prince was outlandishly talented but make no mistake, he could be a very strange little cat. Sometimes I would think he must have been beamed down from another world. I always sensed his troubled youth in the part of his personality that was so shy and standoffish. Conversation with him could be strained and uneasy. He could be vulnerable in his art but kept his private life very private. He was paranoid but he also understood the power of mystique. It was Randy Newman, another fan, who remarked to us, “He doesn’t appear to be a friendly fella because he’s so remote but there’s great humor in his stuff so you know he couldn’t be a bad guy.” His manager at the time, Bob Cavallo, told me that when Prince was nominated for Purple Rain, he was hoping it would be the night that America would get to see that Prince was just a regular guy and really connect with him, but then Prince showed up in his purple sequined hood and that was that. Prince Rogers Nelson was anything but a regular guy.

 

Of course he was vain. I never saw him without those platform shoes except for once when I saw him playing basketball and I couldn’t believe my eyes at how tiny he was without them. They must have been six or seven inches high, and when I heard he needed hip replacement surgery a few years ago, I knew it had to be those shoes.

 

The world of entertainment is chockablock with divas and control freaks like Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross but I’d never met anyone as obsessed with it as Prince. I began to understand it more when I went through the recently built Paisley Park, his multi-million dollar high-tech creative play land. With its recording studios and sound stages it was his own private MGM, complete with a costume department where he designed his own clothes. Nobody could ever tell him what to do, but there was a Howard Hughes component to it. I had the same feeling when I went through Graceland after Elvis died—of someone who lived entirely and profoundly in his own world.

 

At the finale of the Lovesexy shows, where Prince would get the massive crowds to shout back at him that God is alive, he would suddenly disappear. His worshipful fans never knew about the chute that he went down, into the packing crate with wheels that would be rolled quickly out to the limousine. I thought of it when I heard that he died, how he would be gone—poof!—in a matter of minutes while his fans were still showering the stage with love, and somehow it seemed a metaphor for many things about him.

 

Prince was one of the most stellar and unique musical personalities of the era. He’s left the building but the love remains. 

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Holly Woodlawn's Walk On the Wild Side

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Holly Woodlawn's Walk On the Wild Side

Holly Woodlawn is gone at the age of 69. The last time I saw her we were having lunch in a posh midtown restaurant. It was 1991 and her book had just come out--the aptly titled A Low Life In High Heels--and she was dressed to the nines in conservative but very chic designer wear.

The place was crowded and Holly wasn't happy that nobody in the restaurant seemed to recognize her as a Warhol drag queen superstar. Alas, it had been a long time since Trash made her one in 1970, but whatever disappointment she may have felt was more than cancelled out by the fact that at the same time nobody would have ever suspected that this woman having lunch there that day began life as Haraldo Santiago Francheschi Rodriguez Danhaki in Puerto Rico.

Holly's breakthrough moment in underground film came as a transgender welfare cheat in Trash when she famously copulated with a coke bottle in sexual frustration while husband heroin addict Joe Dallesandro  nodded out on the floor. She became part of the great triumvirate of Warholian drag queens that included Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling who all came to epitomize the strange new celebrity of Max's Kansas City in its heyday, but while Jackie was certainly more talented and Candy was certainly more beautiful, nobody was funnier or somehow more touchingly melodramatic than Holly--or had more sheer moxie--and it was not for nothing that Lou Reed brought her onstage as his first character in his epochal Walk On The Wild Side--

Holly came from Miami, F-L-A
Hitchhiked her way across the USA
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, "Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side."

Holly had a great story but what intrigued me the most were her first days in New York, when she arrived at sixteen and lived in the Village, knew absolutely nobody, and had no idea how she would survive. She fell in with a group of prostitutes of every conceivable sexual persuasion, lived off the streets, and put her whole being into being a woman. 

 With the whole Caitlin Jenner circus going on and transsexualism all over the mainstream media, it's hard to remember what it must have been like at that time, when there were only a handful of transsexuals living openly. Not that she ever had a choice in the matter, but the courage it took to be herself and live as she did was nothing less than monumental, and as I remember her and reflect on that day we had lunch, what stands out the most is the simple but elemental pride and pleasure she took in passing as a woman.

We'll miss you, Holly. If there's a cabaret in Heaven like Reno Sweeney's, I know you'll be squabbling with Jackie and Candy to see who gets on stage first...

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Mad Men's Fitting Finale

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Mad Men's Fitting Finale

After a few days of digestion, the final episode of Mad Men resonates like a perfectly strummed chord.

For the most part, the odysseys of the characters conclude logically enough: Peggy finally in love, Joan losing love to ambition and feminist self-reliance, Roger taking responsibility for his love child with Joan after which it's business as usual as we watch him charmingly cracking a joke in French with Marie Calvet in a restaurant--an age-appropriate woman every bit as flirtatious, elegant and cynical as him, who will no doubt drive him completely crazy. As for Pete Campbell, well, he was always a pathetic creature of his social class and culture and a loser in his romantic life. His decision to take the big job with Lear Jet and move to the Midwest also makes perfect sense, but his effort to reclaim his wife and child is so ardent and sincere that it seems nothing short of a transformational spiritual awakening...

And speaking of transformations and spiritual awakenings, Don Draper finding his way to Esalen and the Human Potential Movement, where we leave him chanting Om in lotus-position on a perfect sun-dappled day in Big Sur,  is a consummate choice by series creator Matthew Weiner. That Don's transit through the tumult of the Sixties would end here mirrors the experience of so many at the end of that decade who found themselves overwhelmed by the burnout of such high intensity times. Needing a dramatic shift in their lives, they found themselves searching for inner peace through meditation, sensory awareness, and the expansion of the powers and energies of mind, body, and spirit. Their ranks included artists and hippies and bohemians but what made Esalen so remarkable was how many middle class teachers, journalists, psychologists, housewives and business men like Don Draper were drawn there. And given the darkness that pervades his soul (and has always made him such a compelling character)  one can hardly imagine any one more in need of inner peace than Don Draper.

Unlike the ending of the Sopranos, there is no ambiguity in where Don's journey ends. It's as if the figure of the man in perpetual free-fall from the Madison Avenue skyscrapers in the series opening graphic has finally landed, and it's easy to imagine him in Gestalt therapy, biofeedback, EST, and so many other adjuncts of the Human Potential Movement (he would have made a damn good EST instructor!). But Don chanting Om and getting in touch with the fundamental vibration is only the penultimate scene, for this is a series about advertising and the real ending is the Coke commercial--shining faces singing "I'd like teach the world to sing in perfect harmony"--one of the classic commercials of the era that completely rips off the look and vibe and very quality of light of Esalen and what it stood for.

Perhaps this is the only ambiguity of Mad Men's finale. Does the commercial infer that Don returns to advertising and makes this commercial? He certainly would have been the perfect one to do it. Or is it Weiner's unambiguous statement about how capitalism and the business of advertising will always co-opt every cultural trend to sell its products?

Perhaps both...A great end to one of the greatest series in the history of television.    

 

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Alex Gibney's Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All

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Alex Gibney's Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All

I've never been an Alex Gibney fan but I generally always see his films because he makes documentaries about subjects that are usually of great interest to me.

In 2010, three years after Gibney won an Academy Award for his documentary Taxi To The Dark Side, a bold film about the torture and murder of an innocent cabdriver in Afganistan on a US base, Esquire opined that he could become "one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our time."  Has it actually happened?

 Along with Ken Burns, Barbara Koppel, Alan and Susan Raymond, and a few others, Gibney has certainly become one our most ferociously ambitious documentarians. On the night my friend Donny Markowitz won an Oscar for Best Song, Jack Nicholson told him, "Kid, when you win an Academy Award, this town pretty much bends over and spreads its ass for you" (or words to that effect), and since 2007 Gibney has been able to fully capitalize on the award, attaining the enviable and exceedingly rare position in the world of documentary film of being able to do pretty much what he wants to do.

 A solid craftsman whose ambition and guile often exceed his actual talent, Gibney has accomplished this by making films about controversial can't-miss subjects that range from the mediocre (Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream) to the very good (Mea Maximum Culpa: Silence In the House of God), along with uneven films about musical and cultural icons like Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson, and James Brown. Think what you will of him but perhaps his greatest contribution has been to make coherent films about very challenging subjects like Enron, Jack Abramoff, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and Scientology (albeit from a polemical point of view with an agenda that is decidedly leftist) but nothing he has done has ever really knocked me out.

Until now, that is. 

Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All, his two-parter being shown on HBO, is without doubt his best work to date.

From fade in to fade out, every choice works. The footage is magnificent. The songs are perfect signposts and epiphanies. The narration is a fine mix of people blending personal insight (family members like Nancy Sinatra, Tina Sinatra, and Frank Jr.) with incisive cultural and musical commentary from people like Terry Teachout and Pete Hamill (but where was Gay Talese??) and how much better of a formula to hear these people over picture rather than to see them. Perhaps best of all, Gibney gets completely out of the way and lets the material speak for itself. His style can get heavy-handed and there isn't a scintilla of any of his fingerprints on a single scene--always a hallmark of fine filmmaking.

The film ends with a historical montage of New York cut to the finale of Sinatra's great swan song, "New York, New York" (what else?)  that is nothing less than stunningly moving (at least for a New Yorker), and one walks away breathless at the sheer magnitude of the man, his life, his art, and his times...

A great film that I can't wait to see again.

Kudos, Alex. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Baggar Vance, Where Are You?

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Baggar Vance, Where Are You?

I'm not a golfer but I need Baggar Vance to help me get my swing back.  The same way that the mystical caddy played by Will Smith helped Rannulph Junnuh (Matt Damon) realize that all he had to do was to get out of his own way to reclaim his golf game in Robert Redford's 2000 film--and in doing so, reclaim his life--I need that spiritual teacher to somehow get me back on track.

When I first saw The Legend of Baggar Vance I thought it was a fair to middling work that had some good elements, but after watching it recently I think it might be Redford's greatest film. From fade in to fade out it seemed a perfectly realized work: acting, writing, cinematography, casting, music. Mostly it was the emotional power of the movie that floored me. No doubt because of the kind of year I've had...

Junnuh is Georgia's most promising young golfer before going off to the First World War. He returns traumatized, a different man, and all he can do is let everything fall away, including his beautiful girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron).  Living a shadowy life on the outskirts of town, all he really wants to do is drink (I can relate). Adele is trying to recover her family's lost fortune by holding an exhibition match between the two greatest golfers of the era, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan, with a a grand prize of $10,000, at the golf resort her father built as the Depression struck, but she wants a native son to amp things up for the local Savannah population, so she sets in motion a scheme to get Junnuh to play. Junnuh flat out refuses at first... but then starts entertaining the notion. He's trying to hit golf balls, shanking and hooking them with no control whatsoever into the dark void of the humid Georgia night, when Baggar Vance (Will Smith) appears--a mysterious traveller with a suitcase who announces that he will be his caddy.

This is when things get interesting because Jeremy Renner's screenplay (from Steven Pressfield's novel) is based on the Mahabarata, the part of the Bhagavad Gita where the warrior hero Arjuna (junnuh) is frozen with fear before a great battle, and the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Baggar) to help him find his path and become the warrior he was meant to be. 

And so begins the epic golf match. Junnuh plays poorly at first and after the first round is far behind, but in the second Baggar helps him find his "authentic swing" and he catches fire, playing brilliant golf effortlessly. He makes up a lot of ground and, miraculously, by the third and final round it's a three way competition. And then Junnuh takes his will back, disregarding Baggar's advice. He starts playing poorly again, and shanks the ball deep into the forrest. When he finds the ball, Junnuh can only stand there in anguish. It seems utterly impossible that he can ever hit the ball and get back onto the fairway and into the match.  This is where Baggar finds him, caught in the throes of a full blown flashback of the war, completely unravelling--and this is where the moment of reckoning occurs. It's time to lay his personal demons down, he tells Junnuh, and just be the golfer he was always meant to be…."Now strike that ball, Mr Junnuh, and don't you hold nothin' back."

The movies that make us cry do so because they touch some visceral personal or universal truth or situation. Though I've never been to war--except for the one raging inside me--I felt that I understood Junnuh's pain as well as his fear. For me it had been a year when jobs and projects vaporized and nothing lined up no matter how hard I tried. Ideas and inspiration came and fell away just as quickly. Maybe it was my age, maybe it was the world. Maybe the fact that the industries I've always worked in have been contracting and changing for a decade and I no longer knew where I fit in. Everything was in some transition, everything was unknown. My mother was at the end of her life and I dreaded her passing. And there was my son, struggling terribly in school with his ADHD--and there was me, watching his self-confidence erode as my own seemed to be vanishing along with his. My wife was worried about both of us.  I was trapped deep in my own thicket of fear, confusion, and depression, and the shot out seemed increasingly hopeless.

The shot that Junnuh hits is exactly what it needs to be--perfect--vaulting him right back into the match, and then Baggar stuns everyone by leaving Junnuh before he plays the final hole. It now hardly matters who will win because whatever happens, Baggar knows that Junnuh will be fine. As Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita, "All roads lead to me in the end."

Like Junnuh, I  feel that somewhere there is another run waiting for me. My moment of reckoning is coming, and when it does I want to strike that ball and not hold anything back, but it will not happen unless I can lay my baggage down.

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Baggar Vance, where are you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dear Rudy

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Dear Rudy

Dear Rudy, I heard that you don't think President Obama loves America and I'll be brief and perfectly frank. You were always a smug, arrogant, pompous, sanctimonious, hectoring demagogue. For a moment it seemed you were humbled by divorce and cancer, and then came 9/11, when history tapped you on the shoulder and you stood in front of those television cameras and said everything that we needed you to say. For a few critical weeks here in New York, you were somehow able to speak to the rage and loss and fear and despair we were all feeling. For those few weeks when you turned into our Winston Churchill, it was easy to forget that you were one of the most divisive mayors in the history of New York City...But then time passed and alas, you were Rudy Giuliani again, inevitably the same smug, arrogant, pompous, sanctimonious, hectoring demagogue.  

 

 

 

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 Reflections on "Lyin' Brian"

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Reflections on "Lyin' Brian"

How we love to watch the mighty fall... 

As Brian Williams star comes crashing down, call his story about being on that helicopter that crashed in Iraq whatever you like--embellishing, fabricating, lying. It's far more interesting to conjecture about why he might have done it in the first place.

Maureen Dowd, never a shrinking violet, uses the word "pathological" as she wonders in her column why on earth a guy who already had the "premier job at NBC News" would feel "that he needed Hemimngwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up," citing his "reach for celebrity" and, as one NBC reporter tells her, that "there was no one around to pull his chin when he got too far over the top."  Maybe. She also makes the obvious point, as have many others, that network news has for so long now been "part of the entertainment, branding and cross promotion business" that it's really quite absurd in this day and age to expect anything like accuracy and objectivity in network news. 

Personally I lost all respect for network news during the reporting of the crack "epidemic" way back in the 1980s, when all three networks in a wild stampede of sensationalism routinely fabricated stories about "crack babies" that fed a national hysteria and scored the highest ratings since Watergate. I haven't trusted them since.

Certainly It's ironic--perhaps delusional?--that at a time when the most bold-faced lies are told on a daily basis from the pinnacles of government to churches to the world of business, we should still expect honesty, integrity and accuracy from our news anchors, non-fiction writers, and academics. But we do. 

Speaking of Watergate, it marked the zenith of respect for the media in this country, when the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought the lies of Richard Nixon to account, leading to his resignation. Woodward has since gone on to become one of the most respected doyens of American journalism, publishing book after best-selling book about politics and government.

When I was researching the John Belushi story for my last book, I had occasion to carefully study Wodward's book Wired for the accuracy of its reporting about Belushi. How accurate was the book?  All I will do is quote Penny Marshall, one of scores of people he interviewed, who were shocked by the book: "It makes you wonder if Nixon might have been innocent."

But still, even in a world where Bob Woodward, one of our paragons of journalistic integrity, is really no more credible than a tabloid entertainer--Kitty Kelley with a Pulitzer--one has to wonder what Williams was thinking.

Being on television in front of millions, was it just pure hubris to think no one would ever call him on such a story? And his claim to "misremember" is the most absurd of all: Despite complete chaos and shock, people in war zones are in such a state of hyper-vigilance that they tend to remember everything.

I suspect that Williams has been telling stories like this his whole life in one form or another. Sure, he might have thought that coming off as Sebastian Junger might have made him cooler, more heroic, giving him a leg up against the competition, but he probably told the story for the same reason anyone ever tells a tall tale: it's just a better story than how it really happened. And if you tell a story over and over for long enough, it can become very real in your mind. Much more vivid than the truth. That may be pathology, but it's also human nature. 

I don't know what happened, but I do know that this is not the end of Brian Williams. Our national celebrity obsession dictates a second chance for him, and forgiveness is as much as part of the celebrity equation as schadenfreude.

As Muhammad Ali liked to say, the measure of a man is not taken when he's on top. It's what happens when he gets knocked on his ass that counts...

Brian Williams will be back, but one way or another he'll never be the same.

 

 

 

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ISIS and the Burning of Moaz el-Kassabeh: History Through the Flames

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ISIS and the Burning of Moaz el-Kassabeh: History Through the Flames

To be burned alive has always been one of history's greatest nightmares. 

When the Buddhist monk Thich Quanc Duc set himself on fire sitting in a busy Saigon intersection on June 11, 1963 to protest the repression of the Diem regime, the Pulitzer-winning photo by Malcolm Browne allowed the whole world to witness his self-immolation in abject horror. That someone would voluntarily subject oneself to such a fate stunned all who saw the image and called attention to his cause. "No news photo in history has generated as much emotion as this one," commented President John F. Kennedy at the time.

The same will be said about the footage of the burning to death of the captured Jordanian pilot First Lt. Moaz-el-Kasabeh by ISIS on February 3, 2015.

There is so much one could say about the obscenity, the unfathomable cruelty of dousing a man in a cage with gasoline, setting him on fire, and video taping his agony for broadcast on television and social media but words would fail. Instead I'll direct my comments to the charred images of dead people said to be the victims of coalition air strikes. "An eye for an eye," the ISIS video pronounces, as justification for this act. 

It's true and tragic that anyone with a knowledge of history could never deny that fire and its effect on human flesh has always been used as a weapon of warfare, terror, and torture. The Catholic Church routinely burned Jews at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. Whole cities were sacked and burned in Europe for centuries. The Plains Indians often roasted their captives alive. Hitler's SS burned people alive in synagogues.

During the Second World War the flamethrower became a vital weapon used against Japanese soldiers holed up in caves on Pacific islands like Iwo Jima--the effect from the Japanese point of view was unforgettably rendered by director Clint Eastwood in his 2006 film, Letters From Iwo Jima. Air forces commonly dropped incendiary bombs during this war: the burning of London, the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. How many Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated by the atomic bombs dropped in 1945? 

And then came the jellied product called napalm, invented by Dow Chemical and  first used by the US military in Korea but hardly on the scale that it was later used in Vietnam...

The point is easily made, then, that yes, nobody's hands are clean--war is a dirty business.

But even so, what ISIS did to Moaz el-Kassabeh--not just the savagery of the act itself but the fiendish intention to exploit and disseminate these images as a form of psychological terror--is beyond the pale. Should we watch or turn our heads away?  

After seeing it, one becomes enraged, more persuaded than ever that ISIS is indeed evil, and that it should be defeated, eradicated. And when one looks at the burned corpses displayed by ISIS as the reason for this act of horror, all one has to do is think of those who burned to death in the Twin Towers--or leaped to their deaths to avoid it--and the terrible thought arises: They started this…and what happens henceforth shall be upon them.

And thus will more death by fire be justified; and thus will more history unfold through the flames.

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For Phil Hoffman, On the Anniversary of His Death

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For Phil Hoffman, On the Anniversary of His Death

Hard to believe it's been a year since Phillip Seymour Hoffman died.

I certainly can’t say that I knew him well but I knew him well enough to call him Phil. I knew him in his salad days as an actor in New York and have always felt connected to him since because we shared the same therapist. In fact I saw him regularly on Thursday mornings for years. He’d be coming out, I’d be waiting to go in. Some days there would be a pained look in his eyes as he emerged; other times a wry ironic kind of smile on his face. I would later recognize many of these expressions in so many of his unforgettable portrayals on stage and screen as his brilliant career evolved.

We knew each other from the same circles of recovery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a particularly difficult period of my life that it seemed I would never emerge from, and no matter his mood or expression there was always a friendly nod of encouragement—a recognition that somehow we were there to face the very personal demons that drove the engines of our alcoholism and addictions—and underneath that was an acknowledgement of how very difficult this work was, and that we were kindred souls on the same path. We rarely spoke except to say hello but when we did we always looked into each other’s eyes and made contact. That's the kind of guy he was...

One day at a meeting I was sitting next to him and for some reason I turned to him and said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets, right?” Of course it’s a well-traveled axiom of recovery--some would call it a cliche--but there's a profound truth contained therein and  it seemed perfectly apropos to our peculiar connection. “So I’m told,” he said with a rueful laugh.

I’ve thought of that exchange many times since his death. I always felt that whatever those secrets might have been, Phil was able to use them masterfully as the palette of his art—that is, until he no longer could.

After he died it was particularly painful to see the media turn him into the poster boy of the New Heroin Epidemic. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new one every decade, with the same numbing misconceptions and prognostications about heroin addiction and a new "plague."  After his death addiction "specialists" conjectured about how a new generation of anti-opiate meds might have saved his life. True enough, which made his death by overdose even more tragic Many others have wondered what on earth he was doing with so much dope, saying that it surely confirms some kind of death wish.  Of course, any addict who ever fantasized about the reassurance of a large supply finds this easiest of all to understand, and he was not helped on that final run by ready access to a nearby cash machine with such a nice balance.

For my part, I’ve tried to understand why Phil’s death has hit me so much harder than the deaths of so many of those doomed and beautiful icons of my generation, with the possible exception of John Lennon. Perhaps it’s because somewhere inside of myself I’ve always retained the illusion that if only I was rich or successful or accomplished enough I wouldn’t have the problems that I do, and that I’d be safe from the danger of relapse. Somehow Phil’s death has blown that fantasy away forever.

Of course, my heart broke for his friends and family—especially for the children who will grow up without him—and for the loss of his immense talent. But mostly I was rendered breathless by an awareness of the sheer amount of pain he must have been in—it’s shattering, unfathomable, yet terrifyingly mundane in the lives of addicts—and by a visceral feeling that whatever it was that he was talking about in that room on those Thursday mornings so long ago had somehow overcome him and knocked him off that path we were on.

Or very likely not talking about, for the maxim always seems to ring true: we are, alas, only as sick as our secrets.


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American Cool, Pt. 2: So What?

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American Cool, Pt. 2: So What?

As it develops in jazz circles, Cool expresses an attitude of easy defiance; of not caring what other people think of you; of thumbing your nose at the world and casting your fate to the wind and damning the consequences, whether relating to the drug laws or anything else. Cool is being able to be cool even after losing your cool, about being so cool that you don’t even have to be cool…

Elements of all of these ideas coalesce powerfully in the jazz world of the 1930s and 1940s, as swing and later bebop provide jazz with a dangerous and seductive outlaw allure. Bebop is fundamentally the music of rebels and underdogs, played in dark smoky clubs by musicians in dark shades who turn their backs on their audiences as they turn away from society, erecting a wall of ironic detachment behind which they can make up their own rules and use narcotics as their drug of choice, all of which invites retribution from police. Cool is Charlie “Bird” Parker, the tragic genius and living personification of hipsterism. 

The hipster "is to the Second World War what the Dadaist was to the first," writes jazz impresario Robert Reisner. "He is amoral, anarchistic, gentle, and over-civilized to the point of decadence…He knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, the hatred implicit in religions--so what values are left for him?--except to go through life avoiding pain, keep his emotions in check, and after that, 'be cool' and look for kicks. He is looking for something that transcends this bullshit and finds it in jazz."

Ultimately, Cool is Miles Davis, who records a series of sides in 1948 and calls it The Birth of the Cool. Miles is an angry young man, and as Jazz Cool languishes mostly underground in a subculture of hipsters throughout the forties and well into the fifties, nothing expresses it more than the expression of seething world-weary disdain that Miles so often uses--“So what?” In 1956, the expression becomes the name of a song on his album masterpiece, Kind Of Blue.

The importance of Jazz Cool is hard to overstate.  It becomes a central sensibility in the literature of the Beat Generation, which finds its way to a mass middle class white audience during the 1950s. One would only have to ask someone like Clint Eastwood, a jazz-besotted teenager at Oakland Technical High in the late 1940s, about the Cool of Miles Davis to gauge how important an influence Davis was on Eastwood’s own outlook and development and place in this story...

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American Cool, Pt. 1: THE PRESIDENT OF THE TENORS

What is cool? Who is cool? In today’s world, the word itself is such a universal part of the lexicon that “cool” has become one of the first words learned and used by children.  But what does it really mean, and where does it come from?

 A single moment and image bring it all into sharp focus. It’s June of 1992 and the candidacy of Bill Clinton is in trouble when he appears on the Arsenio Hall Show in Ray Ban Wayfarers, gleaming sax in hand, grinding out a serviceable rendition of Elvis Presley’s classic, “Heartbreak Hotel.” The moment is carefully designed to deliver one very important message about the candidate to the youth culture of the time: Folks, this is not George Bush, and this is not Ross Perot. Call him what you will—draft dodger, womanizer, marijuana dabbler—but in every sense of how American culture has come to define the notion, call him cool. “It’s nice to see a Democratic candidate blowing something other than an election,” quips Arsenio to the candidate, whose campaign really begins to gain traction from this moment…

Just how deeply this image is embedded in the DNA of American pop culture is made strikingly apparent by a montage of a few of the great avatars of the attitude, all in the requisite dark shades: Miles Davis, James Dean, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Cash, Michael Jordan, Brad Pitt, P. Diddy, Jay-Z. All of them are remarkably different individuals, yet each one is an undeniable exemplar of the idiom...

 The origins of Cool in western civilization go back to England and Beowulf and Shakespeare, to English literary metaphors that describe Cool as being about composure and lack of emotion. But as Cool develops in America, it’s really the African cultural tributaries of meaning that provide its spiritual power—and, ultimately, its controversy. If Europeans define the term as primarily the ability to remain calm under stress—as something akin to Hemingway’s famous definition of courage as “grace under pressure,” for example—“Itutu,” or “mystic coolness,” is one of three pillars of a religious philosophy created in the fifteenth century by the Yoruba and Igbo civilizations of Western Africa. Within these cultures, the sensibility of Cool contains meanings of conciliation and gentleness of character, of generosity and grace and the willingness and ability to defuse fights and disputes, as well as physical beauty.

These traditions profoundly impact the African Diaspora through the experience of slavery and beyond in America as Cool becomes an attitude and a pose for African Americans to deal with the pitfalls of discrimination, negative self-image, guilt, shame and fear. Through the culture of jazz and the singular personality of saxophonist Lester Young, it becomes nothing less than a state of being. Our story really begins right here. Prez, as he is called (the President of the Tenors) is an incandescently stylish and inventive musician deeply wounded by the racism of the time and the first to use the expression—“that’s cool, man!” Prez is the first to wear sunglasses at night. He’s the sole inventor of the lexicon of jive, coining such staple expressions as “the Big Apple” and “you dig?”  

As the fashion designer Christian LaCroix rightly observes, “the history of cool in America is the history of African American culture,” and as this single musician comes to personify it, Cool is the word used to describe his light, relaxed tone, a hot riff or a lilting melody he plays, but also the way his trousers break over a particular pair of crepe-soled shoes as he indulges his predilection for sharp pinstriped suits of impeccable elegance, silk double breasted vests, and pork pie hats... 

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Sailing With Robert Stone

Bob Stone was my favorite contemporary novelist. When I learned that he passed away on the same day as Anita Ekberg, I immediately thought of him as a young man watching Fellini's La Dolce Vita at the old Thalia theater on Broadway, which is where he would have seen it when it came out in 1960. Stone loved movies, and he no doubt reveled in the famous scene where Ekberg wades into the Trevi Fountains in all of her babe-alicious glamour and anoints Marcello Mastroianni. How I would have loved to ask him about his impressions of that scene and its impact on him. Had you told him, "Bob, you're going to die on the same day as Anita Ekberg," I suspect he would have had something very wry to say about it...

I was twenty one and already working in publishing when I read Dog Soldiers, his second novel which won the National Book Award. I was stunned by its scope and emotional power, and by Stone's tremendous sense of economy and control. It was like Joseph Conrad had taken acid, gone to Vietnam, and written a tale about heroin smuggling that personified the entire dark side of the American misadventure there and exposed its strange juxtaposition to the counterculture--but ultimately, like all great novels, it was about the human heart and soul and the eternal struggle between darkness and light. These were his great themes. Wallace Stegner wrote that he "writes like a bird, like an angel, like a con man, like someone so high on pot that he is scraping his shoes on the stars."  

Stone was my kind of writer and I sought him out, interviewing him after A Flag For Sunrise, his novel about Central America, came out; and then after the publication of Children of Light, his novel of Hollywood and cocaine. He was a fascinating person to interview, and always very kind and encouraging about my own work, but it wasn't until I interviewed him for my book Can't Find My Way Home that I felt I truly got to know him. He was summering on Block Island and invited me out and over the course of a memorable day shared with me in great detail his experience of coming to California in the early 60s, meeting Ken Kesey in the Stanford Writing Program, and participating in the birth of whole psychedelic counterculture--the part of his life he would later chronicle in his great memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. 

"Innocence is a funny thing," he told me. "It made me feel like I had found a special and worthy place."

His childhood had been challenging, to say the least. Abandoned by his father, his mother was a schizophrenic ex-school teacher, always in and out of institutions before he was sent to a Marist orphanage--all of which begins to explain the loneliness and isolation that frames his work.

 "One minute it seemed I was on the streets of New York, the next minute in the baths at the place that later became Esalen, naked with these people, smoking marijuana and watching the fog roll in off the ocean, and these hard feelings and attitudes just started melting away. At that moment, the early 60s, these august institutions seemed to be losing confidence--the universities, the corporations, the very fabric of the state--everything seemed like it would fall over if you pushed it, like it was up for grabs. And there was Kesey, who was really a born shaman, a great adventurer…"

Stone held me, spellbound, as he told his story. We were several miles off Block Island on a sail boat when he wrapped it up...

"From the beginning, deep down, I never felt that drugs were a good thing, but they were something wild and open and free," he concluded. "But nothing is free, and the biggest mistake we made was thinking that these experiences could be."

The sun was setting, suffusing the horizon in color, making me think of those rainbow-orange sherbet sunsets some of us had known back in those days.

"I would always wonder how it was that this party I had gone to in 1963 had somehow followed us out the door and down the street and was filling the world with Day-Glo colors and all manner of motion. I would wonder how we could get back to that party, back to that garden."

There was a profound wistfulness about him as he gazed off.

"Even now I do."

 Don't we all, Bob? Farewell to a fine man and a great novelist...

 


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SHADES OF BILLY

Been reading Fred Schruers recently published biography of Billy Joel and for the most part enjoying it very much. It's a good time for the book given Billy's string of record-setting shows at Madison Square Garden--clearly there's still a huge amount of interest in him, especially in the New York area. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is when Billy runs into his ex-manager Frank Weber in a parking lot out in the Hamptons--the same Frank Weber who robbed him blind of untold millions--and instead of accosting him angrily (or decking him) as many would have done, says hello and asks him how he's doing. That's Billy.

I always really liked Billy because he was a really nice down-to-earth guy with a good soul. I first met him circa 1968 when he played our high school dance with his group the Hassles.  At the time his stage personality was more memorable than the music they played. A few years later he came to play my college in upstate New York. This was circa 1972, when Billy was just starting to build a foundation after the debacle of his first album with Artie Ripp.  I remember going to his motel to say hello. We liked to welcome all of the incoming bands by getting them good and high before they played but some of my friends got his band so wasted that they could barely play (Billy didn't appreciate this too much)... 

I wrote about Billy here and there over the years and during the music vid era shot a cool little doc around the making of his album The Bridge. Although it was not one of his favorite  albums by any means, it did contain his gorgeous duet with Ray Charles, "Baby Grand"--his love song to his piano, and arguably one of his great ones. It was around that time that I found myself drinking with him in the bar of a Holiday Inn upstate along with some of his crew where he was getting ready to kick off his tour. I'm relating this episode because it's not in the book.  It's the kind of thing that probably happened to him hundreds of times but it's something I'll never forget.

Billy was fun to drink with because he loved to tell stories. Of course he was a born storyteller and also probably one of the best-read high school dropouts in America so he was damn good at it. The story he  happened to be telling was about the tie-breaker game for the American League East pennant, played at Fenway Park between the Red Sox and the Yankees on October 2, 1978--one of the most tense and dramatic games ever played. Billy was playing in Boston and being a huge baseball fan there he was sitting in the stands with his Yankee hat on when Bucky Dent--or "Bucky Fucking Dent" as he would be forever known to Boston fans--hit the pop fly that somehow made it over the Green Monster for the three run home run that plunged a knife into the heart of Red Sox Nation.

As a foul mood settled heavily over the stunned crowd a Boston fan saw fit to display his feelings by snatching the Yankee cap off of Billy's head and racing away down the aisle with it, to the delight of the crowd. And Billy, being the pugnacious fellow that he is--"Never take shit off anyone", he always tells his audiences--took off after him, tackled the guy, grabbed the hat back…And there they were, duking it out before the security guards raced over and stropped the melee before a riot broke out and escorted Billy out to his car, where another riot of sorts ensued as his car was surrounded by throngs of furious Sox fans thirsting for the blood of the first Yankee fan they could get their hands on, and this one happened to be a rock star from Long Island.

While Billy was telling the story nobody was paying attention to the lounge singer setting up with his electric piano, but when he broke out into the familiar strains of "Just The Way You Are" it stopped Billy cold. The song was Billy's first Top Five hit and a Grammy for Song of the Year, but it was also perhaps the most syrupy song in his whole catalogue, and this guy was ladling it out with such goop that it seemed a parody of everything that Billy probably always wrestled with about the song, precisely because it became the staple of wedding and lounge singers.

It was pricelessly funny, exactly like Bill Murray would have done the song in his lounge singer guise on Saturday Night Live--except he was serious. He had no idea Billy was there, who could only watch, a bemused grimace spread across his face...

 Billy waited until the set was over and went over and blew the guy's mind by graciously thanking him for doing his song.

That was Billy...

      

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What I Love About Jack Bruce

Been listening to a lot of Jack Bruce's work since he passed last weekend. I've always loved the whole palette and package of his talent, but what I keep coming back to is not the unparalleled virtuosity of his bass-playing whether rock, blues or jazz-inflected,, but Jack as songwriter and especially Jack as vocalist. It's the Jack Bruce-Peter Brown compositions like "As You Said" that have been blowing me away more than anything. It's the only song he ever played cello on in the whole Cream catalogue and it sounds and feels like nothing else, before or since. The melody is so haunting, the vocal filled with such passion. When he sings the last line--As you said, I'll never come again, again, again--with such unearthly emotion, it's like some shattering truth about life itself, how fleeting and beautiful it is…

RIP Jack Bruce, his like will certainly never come again...


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