Gordon Matta-Clark, Paul Simon, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway

Every now and then, a young man’s (and even a middle-aged man’s) mind turns to thoughts of…. what was that, again? Oh, yes – how fractured and random thoughts become when July rolls around.

            I was pondering this, as well as a couple of unrelated ideas (hence, the title of this piece), while walking home from my semi-weekly marketing trip.  Every couple of days, I head out with my trusty and reliable wheelie and collect our fresh fruits, meats, and vegetables from several disparate local greengrocers. Part of the allure is not only the obtaining of the goods but also the time it allows me to meditate. This is what I was doing that morning.

            First: Gordon Matta-Clark. Mr. Matta-Clark was the son of the famous surrealist painter Matta. He rose to fame due to his predilection for acquiring and then literally slicing up old buildings, and he died of cancer at the age of thirty-five in 1978 (two years after his twin brother, Sebastian, committed suicide). I thought of him because he seemed to be acutely clairvoyant about the condition of the world forty years on.  What looked like an insane, if grandiose, artistic gesture then now feels to me like a perfect metaphor for the great divides of today -- the divide between instant communication and total misunderstanding, between expensive technologies and the impoverishing costs of basic subsistence, between liberation and repression of all kinds (sexual, literary, political).

            From this random observation, my mind (often attuned to my own private radio station) switched to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’.  This song, recorded in 1966 but not released until 1968, on the duo’s iconic album ‘Bookends,’ has always struck me as striking a perfect balance between angry optimism and damned resignation.

            The refrain is simple enough:

 

                        I look around

                        Leaves are brown

                        And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

 

            But against this plainness, Paul and Artie (if I may) sing against a relatively hard rock beat (for them) and a persistent drumming that suggests restlessness and a deep sadness. In the middle, when Art alone sings ‘Won’t you stop and remember me?” the song turns into something more than a meditation. It is a cry for help. Simon wrote this song over fifty years ago, but it is still relevant.

            Finally, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. You might ask: how in hell did we end up here? Well, this, too, devolves from my market-to-home-wanderings. Every trip produces another incomprehensible and idiotic tee shirt. I can’t help it; I like to read other people’s clothing. And here in the Czech Republic, there seems to be an unusual propensity for shirts (always in English) that no one who can actually read English would wear.

            Over the course of, say, two weeks, I’ve seen shirts printed with foul obscenities (directed to who?), shirts that have babblings like ‘L.A. My Homey’ (this on a middle-aged white man), or ‘Save The Planet, Rabbits’ (I don’t quite follow, but then I suppose even interviewing a rabbit, if this were at all possible, wouldn’t enlighten me any further).

            The prize for me (so far) must go, however, to the young man I spotted wearing a shirt that had a black and white photograph of what appeared to be an ordinary four-lane road, topped by the words ‘Cross-Bronx Expressway’ in a newspaper-headline sized font. Okay. I suppose if you had no idea where this expressway was (having never heard of the Bronx) it might seem chic. But still, I would never think of wearing a shirt celebrating the worst (and shortest) interstate highway in America.

            Anyway, my ending to these random thoughts comes with a bit of advice: listen to what you mind is telling you as you walk around your hometown, and take it as a bit of surrealist entertainment. This is the way the world works, after all. It presents itself as little pieces of reality, mixed in with memories from your past, interpretations of song lyrics, unconscious mood swings evinced by subtle chord changes, and visages of old buildings in ruins or new buildings under construction.

I say it’s all part of the big picture. Or, as the one-hit wonder Icona-Pop put it, in a song overheard on yet another morning walk:

 

I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone

I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn…

I crashed my car into the bridge…

I don’t care.

I love it.



On Italian Food

 Ernest Hemingway once said ‘Paris is a moveable feast.’ I know of a more literal one: Italian food. How this Jewish boy, raised on Buitoni (canned pasta, for those who have to ask), ended up with a life-long love of ravioli, marinara, osso bucco e tutta la cucina italiana is a wonderful tale of cultural displacement, of how heritage and taste can diverge.

I took my first step away from Hamburger Helper (a staple of suburban American kitchens) as a result of – predictably, for this writer – a book. That book was Elizabeth David’s Italian food. It was originally published in 1954, when the people of England were suffering from food shortages caused by post-war austerity and (not co-incidentally) hearing stories from returning soldiers about a new and delicious continental delicacy called ‘pizza’.

In Italian food, I read Mrs. David’s description of the fish markets of Genoa, her instructions on how to layer lasagna al forno, and how to properly trim an artichoke (far too complicated for this fifteen year-old). There were recipes, of course – for simple things that I could try in my parent’s kitchen, like spaghetti or fritto misto (fried fish, with olive oil splattering everywhere). But I was most fascinated not by recipes but by the prose – the author’s amazing descriptions of Italian hill towns with their vineyards, the open-air markets, the midnight trattorias, and stone furnace kitchens.

When I was old enough to wander outside the boundaries of my family, I discovered Little Italy, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. There my friends and I discovered a place where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room, or where your table was on the sidewalk – places where everyone around you was talking (actually, shouting) in Italian. I don’t know why, but I immediately felt at home.

Around this time, I thought about actually making a living in what they called the ‘food service industry’. I took a job at a delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and learned how to slice prosciutto, brew espresso, and build a proper panini. I figured I liked eating the stuff, so why not try to sell it? But as with all things vocational, I soon understood loving something is not the same thing as profiting from it.

A dozen or so years later, after I had already settled down with my partner (and soon to be husband), my parents gave me a small gift of cash. This happened right around the time when John and I were planning to celebrate our second anniversary (we’re up to our thirty-fourth one now, just to give you an idea of the time-frame here), so the first thing we thought of when it came time to spend this money was… Italy, specifically Venice.

Venice is like a dream version of Italy: all of the beauty and charm (and food) with none of the traffic and noise. All my fondest memories of this visit all have something to do with food: fegato alla griglia (liver) at Harry’s Bar, a seafood fritto misto on the banks of a canal, a tiny trattoria run by two old ladies who served nothing but spaghetti. I’ve been to Venice a few times since (with, I have to admit, diminishing returns), but I’ve never forgotten that first bite of risotto ai gamberi.

At home, I immediately became a partigiano. I bought a hand-cranked Atlas pasta machine and started making my own lasagna noodles and ricotta-stuffed ravioli. Together, John and I scoured all of New England looking for ‘the best’ Italian restaurant (hint: the winner changed from year to year). And when we retired, we decided to live in Italy. (Full disclosure: actually, we first went to Ecuador, and then Malta – but there’s no room for that story here).

Living in Italy turned out not to be as easy as we had hoped. But the food was never part of the problem. It’s no part of the problem in Prague either; there is more variety, better prices, and greater quality here than anywhere else I have ever lived. But if I had the ability to teleport us to a different city in Italy once a month, I would. 

Then I could again have the most perfect pasta Bolognese I ever ate (in Bologna, of course), or a veal cutlet from Verona, served by a handsome waiter while we sat at an outdoor table gloriously cornered by a fifteenth-century church and a medieval stone portal. 
John and I could go back to Rome and eat spaghetti a splashing distance from the Trevi Fountain, or find the bar around the corner from the Pantheon where we and our dear friend Rebecka polished off four bottles of the vino di casa, a memory perfectly described by Joni Mitchell: “I could drink a case of you, and still be on my feet”. 

We could return to Lake Garda and drink fresh Valpolicella. We could walk down the block from wherever we were staying and buy bundles of fresh tagliatelle to cook for dinner, delicious with nothing but butter, parsley, and parmesan.

 John and I don’t live in Italy anymore; at least not physically. But whenever it’s time to head out to the markets here in Prague  (there are many of them, and all wonderful), the first thing we say to each other is: what pasta? Shall I make a gluten-free lasagna? (And yes, this is really possible). Or how about pasta fasole (a soup of sausages and white beans)? Or good ol’ spaghetti and meatballs? (Still a nearly weekly occurrence – I can never get enough of a spicy marinara and a glass of  ‘spaghetti red’).

They say that food is love, and I’ll add that eating Italian food with my Italian (well, half-Italian) husband is a form of lovemaking. I’ll remember mussels stewed in wine in Little Italy on a hot summer night, washed down with ice-cold verdicchio di castelli di Jesi. Spearing squid-ink rigatoni in the Campo Santo Stefano in Venice. Nibbling gelato on the banks of the Adige river in Verona…

Even after we moved out of Italy, we never left it behind. We can still stroll down to the fair on the banks of the Vltava in Prague and find a booth making fresh ravioli. At home, I can make a blissful meal out of a few lemon-soaked olives, slices of streaky ham, sweet olive oil, chopped basil, and grated gran padano. Across the decades, good Italian food has been a constant and intimate companion, the third in our ménage a trois.

A la famiglia! Salute!

West Side Story

There aren’t too many encomiums to roads. Route 66 and Highway 61 have their songs, and Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg wrote poems and prose about them, but these tunes and writings are not about any particular place but a state of mind.  Most of the time, when someone writes about a highway, it’s either a complaint relating to traffic or an ironic attempt to turn the deadening boredom of interstates and freeways into some form of entertainment. (For an example, listen to Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’).

But I have a highway in mind, one deserving to be remembered. It’s the Julius Miller Highway, better known as the West Side Highway. This was the first elevated highway in the world, built between 1929 and 1936 (for the most part) and torn down between 1973 and 1989. That’s barely forty years of use, but during the time that the West Side Highway stood, it served as a symbol of everything that was at first grand and exciting and then untenable and dangerous about Manhattan in the 20th century.

My first-hand experiences with the West Side Highway came via my family’s frequent trips from our home in suburban New Jersey to my grandparent’s apartment in Brooklyn. From the back seat of our car, I became an expert on the topography of highway illumination (bear with me; I’ll get back to the West Side soon). There were the rustic posts of the Palisades Interstate Parkway (rest stops only; the actual highway had no lights at all) and the utilitarian flying saucer-like metal poles on the George Washington Bridge. My eight year-old brain identified things as N-lights (facing one side of the road), M-lights (both sides) and every iconoclastic design in-between).

But my attention was continually drawn to the lighting on the West Side Highway. In retrospect, I read that the un-credited designer was trying to emulate the silhouette of a stepped-back skyscraper (the same lights were used on the Triborough, now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge). They must have looked quite trendy in the 1930’s, but what impressed this kid was their weird, monster-like shape.

My other predominant memory of the highway – one that logically would appeal to a child – was its resemblance to an amusement park ride. The road was paved with (so I found out later) Belgian blocks, which are durable but prone to uneven wear and guttering water, two elements which might be considered charming in an actual Belgian alleyway but were not terribly practical when run over by thousands of cars a day. The West Side Highway was built before any design standards existed, so the road was laid out with several sharp S-curves and with the exit ramps on the left. This meant drivers would have to continually slow down to negotiate a turn and then change lanes and accelerate in order to make it to the exit. When twenty cars are trying the same maneuver at the same time, it can resemble a demolition derby – and far too often, it literally turned into one.

The highway had additional attractions, unrelated to but intrinsically connected with my more or less monthly trips down and backs. When heading south, we’d pass the piers of the great transatlantic liners, and if I was lucky one of the big boats would be docked there, looking for all the world like a brightly lit hallucination, completely out of proportion to the (to a child) tiny cars and narrow, shadowed road. And going north, I’d see the tracks of the New York Central railroad, often busy with passenger and freight trains running along side the road, as if we were in a kind of race. There were billboards, too -- fifty feet tall and suspended on metal rods above and on the side of the road. 

 All childhood fantasies have to be torn down eventually. Dire reports of deterioration and epic traffic tie-ups were not enough to kill Julius Miller’s dragon. It took the literal disintegration of the road, in the form of a collapse of an entire city-block long section of the highway in 1973, to stop the cars from coming, and then another fifteen years to dismantle it and replace it with a functioning road. Along the way, the ship piers turned into a gay cruising ground, then into a needle city for junkies, and then – in the ultimate and ultimately ironic (final?) incarnation, into the ‘Chelsea Piers’, a yuppie playground filled with foodie boutiques, high-end gymnasiums, and flower-filled views of the Hudson River and the gargantuan housing developments lining the Jersey shore.

Yes, driving on this road really was as scary as it looks: hitting your spots and making your turns was like being a billiard ball heading for a corner pocket. You make your shot and you take your chances. Frankly, in retrospect I’m amazed more cars weren’t crushed and people killed. 

 I’ve met a few more favorite highways in my time (although now that I live in Europe and don’t drive, I don’t see any new candidates). There’s the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is one long (23 miles!) bridge and tunnel combo and counts in my mind as a ‘highway’ (it’s nearly five times longer than the old West Side Highway). There’s the old Interborough Parkway in Queens (now named after Jackie Robinson), which bans trucks and meanders through state-owned parkland, meaning it’s one of the only highways in the city that is surrounded by trees. 

Driving on these roads was not an expository experience. But barreling down the West Side Highway at a breathtaking 30 miles per hour, your hands gripping the wheel as you try to negotiate the hairpin curve at Little West 12th Street while maneuvering the car over to the left to catch the Canal Street exit: that’s worth a rewrite. And while we’re on the subject, what’s with the bridge at Canal Street? There’s no Canal. (The correct answer is: the highway support beams couldn’t be drilled down because the Holland Tunnel was beneath them; it’s merely a coincidence that there’s a bridge over a street named ‘Canal’).

Sixty years on, a great number of my memories of growing up in New York have been burnished by nostalgia or faded by insight, but my ghostly fascination with this strange, simultaneously futuristic and archaic highway haunts me still.

On difficult writing

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ by William Faulkner.  That by itself is a sentence frankly boastful of accomplishment; the book has a reputation of being ‘difficult,’ which I suppose is a euphemism for ‘don’t try to read this book unless you have a doctorate in English Lit’. But I raced through it like I was reading a mystery (which, in a way, it is), and I ended up feeling dazzled, enriched, and educated – the latter of which, at my age, is always to be considered a bonus.

I wanted to read ‘The Sound and the Fury’ because I am beginning my research on a new novel, a long-form ghost story set in Victorian Dublin. My story concerns the tribulations of a family that includes three very different and differently flawed brothers – just like Faulkner -- and I was curious to see how the author handled it. I was also interested in reading something with unreliable narrators, one of my possible angles of attack.

But I was rewarded beyond my mere pragmatism. When I run into writing like this, I tend to first hold my breath, and then applaud:

 “… I remembered I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I had to open the bag again. I found my toothbrush and got some of Shreve’s paste and went out and brushed my teeth. I squeezed the brush as dry as I could and put it back in the bag and shut it, and went around to the door again. Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat. I’d have to go by the post office and I’d be sure to meet some of them, and they’d think I was a Harvard Square student making like he was a senior. I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.”

That’s the last paragraph of Quentin Compson’s section; he’s about to drown himself in the Charles River, a fact you never hear him discuss but only apprise by inference, and by details dropped into the narrative by the other characters nearly two decades later. And this comes after a bout with Faulkner’s so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, where you go a page or two at a time without any capital letters or punctuation.

Why do I enjoy such literary shenanigans? (That is the precisely correct word, by the way, since it is Irish in origin and is about playing tricks). I guess I do it for the same reason that I re-read James Joyce from time to time. I once took a class in graduate school where our sole assignment for the semester was to interpret one page of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, so you might appreciate how much that kind of torture entrances me. I love, too, the junkie sputter of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr., and Kerouac’s wild Beats. Perhaps it is an inheritance from my Sixties youth bled into me by ancient, counter-cultural demands. A lot of time has passed since then, but I still love the challenge.

I guess another version of my answer is: it’s another version of ‘imitation is the sincerely form of flattery’. I read Faulkner or Joyce or Burroughs with the immediate goal of learning how to be a better writer. It is as if the words on the page were a form of code or perhaps a secret language that the author is trying to teach to me, and me alone.

 Mind you, not all writing has to be ‘difficult’ to inspire me in this way. I adored Andre Aciman’s ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ in which a fifteen year-old French boy artfully narrates his infatuation with an American graduate student. And F. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner’s near-exact contemporary, tells the story of Nick Carraway’s search for the meaning of Gatsby’s green light in perfectly parsed language that is completely devoid of the Faulkner’s deliberate obfuscations or Joyce’s annotated literary dust-bin.

 ‘Page-turners’ like Fitzgerald, or Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler all have their place, of course. I envy them their ease of characterization, the architectural solidity of their plots, and the comprehensibility of their vocabulary. I have resorted from time to time to their ‘tricks’ – such as the slow-drip revelation of detail or a strong reliance on ‘atmosphere’ to enhance or delineate character. But I harbor a secret yearning (okay, I guess it’s not so secret anymore) to write…beyond. That’s a very specific word with a very amorphous goal: someplace imaginary but real, universally known but understood only by one, with characters who are tragic by being doomed to die but comic by being alive.

 I have to admit I also feel a bit cheated. Faulkner and Joyce (and Fitzgerald, and, in a smaller way, Burroughs) ruined things for modern-day writers by doing something that we can only admire or imitate, but never surpass – even when we are motivated to try. Motivation is a powerful engine; that’s one of the reasons I look forward to researching and plotting my next novel barely weeks after I finish the last one. Sisyphus never had it so hard.

 And so, although I’d love to be, like Nick Carraway, ‘borne ceaselessly into the past,’ it is only the future I have to look forward to. It’s the only place I can go to write, in my own voice and through my own intent, something as paradoxical, as beautiful, and as perfect as the last paragraph of ‘The Sound and the Fury’:

 Ben’s voice roared and roared. Queenie moved again, her feet began to clop-clop steadily again, and at once Ben hushed. Luster looked quickly back over his shoulder, and then he drove on. The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right; post and tree, window and doorway, and signboard, each in its ordered place.

'Each in its ordered place’…Flaubert’s le mot juste: the Holy Grail of great writing. Difficult? Of course, but, possible? In Joyce’s words: … yes I said yes I will Yes.

Two Skinny Peas In A Pod

In honour of Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday last December, I wrote a long (25,000 word) essay about my life-long admiration of his work. Here is one chapter, about Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger:

I saw The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1972, the summer after I graduated from high school. I was not quite seventeen years old. I actually got a pair of tickets to the concert, for ten dollars apiece – I still have the ticket stubs as proof – and was amazed to find out that none of my friends, even the ones in my rock band, were interested in joining me. This struck me as a negation akin to refusing an audience with the Pope, or an invitation to the Second Coming. I got over it, and, with my ticket pinned to my underwear in case some desperate Stones fan attacked me on the way, I made my way to Madison Square Garden.

         It took me so long to pass through security that Stevie Wonder, the opening act, was half way through his set before I found my seat. I was on the floor, just a decent sweat fling away from Mick Jagger himself. For over a year, I had been listening to the band’s greatest hits album, ‘High Tide And Green Grass’ as well as their most recent studio recording, ‘Let It Bleed’, and their brand-new live record, ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’, so I knew their music pretty well. In the week preceding this concert, I had been listening to it practically around the clock. So when Mick and the boys appeared on stage, I was not disappointed.

         Nor I have I been since. All the Rolling Stones are old men now – as am I, in a way – but they haven’t stopped touring, and I haven’t stopped seeing them. I have attended seven other Rolling Stones concerts in my lifetime – not that impressive when compared with the serious and well-funded folks who have trailed the band around the world for decades, but still outnumbering any other act I’ve ever encountered in person. I’ve seen the Stones with and without Mick Taylor, the lead guitarist who replaced Brian Jones, with and without Bill Wyman, the original bass player. I’ve seen them in Fenway Park, and in a field in the middle of England (at the Knebworth Festival, on a bill with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyard Skynyard). And, God and the band willing, I will see them again.

         What these concert experiences have proven to me is that Mick Jagger is the greatest stage performer of the second half of the twentieth century. His ability to lead and control a crowd, to draw and focus the attention of an easy-to-distract ten to twenty thousand people, and to sustain this leadership at an exhausting pace for at least two hours (and sometimes three), even in his sixties and now seventies, is a testimony to his stamina, professionalism, and generosity.

         All this would be no more than sheer numerical prowess, as good as but worth no more than a great racehorse, if it wasn’t for Jagger’s artistic accomplishments, which despite his centrality really must be equally assigned to his songwriting colleague, Keith Richards, and the musicianship of the rest of the band. No other popular songwriters since 1950 or thereabouts – not even John Lennon and Paul McCartney – have as deep or as accomplished a catalogue (although it could be argued that Bob Dylan, while subjects to dips and dead spots, has been more consistent over a longer period of time).

         With the fullness of time, and with apologies to the writers of standards such as those I’ve been discussing elsewhere, it is clear that the Jagger-Richards songbook is going to be worth mining for many decades into the future. How good these songs will sound when sung by someone other than Mick Jagger is debatable, but I don’t think it will be for lack of trying. Every band worth their salt (or dope) is going to want to take a crack at ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Satisfaction’, and more power to them.

 

         At this point, you may have asked yourself what all this has to do with Frank Sinatra. Yes, the musical sensibilities of the Rolling Stones and Sinatra have nothing – literally nothing – in common. Frank would never have dreamed of covering a Stones tune, and the Stones would normally not go near any American pop standard (although Keith has been known to growl his way through Ned Washington and Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’ during his solo sets).

Even their decadence lay on opposite sides of a generational divide, with Sinatra’s tobacco, Chivas Regal, and showgirls on one edge and Mick and Keith’s pot, still whiskey, and groupies at the other. But show business is show business, and if you go looking for some historical context as well as the obvious fact that one writer (me) in particular worships both artists, the similarities begin to float to the surface.

         For one thing, both Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones began their long, long careers in the same place: as the seemingly shallow idols of screaming teenaged girls. Sinatra in fact is a large way Mick Jagger’s template. Here’s a moderately meek (if not quite effeminate) guy, skinny as a stick, singing basically silly songs that are nominally about loving girls but subliminally about sex. He allows (or at least, doesn’t protest against) his record company when they market him as a sex object, and his initial fame is almost entirely based on how loudly his crowds can scream and how much money he can rake in with records, personal appearances, and promotional tie-ins. Almost precisely twenty years later, the Rolling Stones repeated the pattern that Sinatra more or less invented in the early 1940’s.

         The story of Frank Sinatra at the Paramount theater in New York – with its endless lines of fainting bobby-soxers filling up Times Square and the tales of the band complaining that they couldn’t hear themselves play and what did it matter what they played anyway – exactly parallels the story of the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show. You can see Mick rolling his eyes at the sanitized lyrics of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ while the sound of thousands of screaming adolescent girls nearly drowns him out. Even their physical arrival at the theater looks the same. Frank pulled up to the Paramount in a taxicab, and there’s footage of the Stones tumbling out of a limo twenty two years later, and only a block or two away.

         And not only did Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones begin their careers almost exactly the same way – they ended them the same way, too (although as of this writing, of course, the Stones haven’t quite reached an ending). When Sinatra’s record sales started to fall off (partially because of the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and artists such as the Stones), he ramped up his touring schedule and started to deliberately imitate the big rock bands of the day. Frank moved in to the mid-sized areas like Madison Square Garden (home for his live recording ‘The Main Event’) as the Stones switched to stadiums. The scale increased, but the goal was the same – feed the bigger fan base, make more money, and give as many people as possible a supposedly ‘one last chance’ to see a living legend in concert. Now Frank and Mick and company fly in, on a jet or a helicopter, and the fans may still be screaming but the sound will be distant and muffled.

         I find it an amusing parlor game to guess at what might be included on the fantasy recording ‘Frank Sinatra sings Jagger & Richards’. Certainly any decent set list would include ‘Angie’, for Angie Dickinson, whom Frank dated briefly in the early ‘sixties. AndI would add ‘As Tears Go By’, which Sinatra might have sang to Mia Farrow near the end of their marriage. I think Ava Gardner might have inspired an entire medley of covers, from ‘Play With Fire’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ through ‘Under My Thumb’ (which would benefit from a swinging Nelson Riddle horn chart). And to save the best for last, a folksy and poignant version of ‘Wild Horses’ for the last love of Sinatra’s life, his wife Barbara.

 

         I’ll write more about Frank Sinatra in concert later – I did get to see him, if only once, as opposed to the more than half-dozen Stones concerts I attended. But there is one other area of similarity between Mick Jagger and Frank Sinatra that bears delving into here, and that’s their appeal to gay men. Now you might think, well, with Mick, that’s obvious, he went out of his way to ‘play gay’ in order to shock people. Plus, he literally planted gay references throughout his work across the years – Turner in ‘Performance’, the lyrics about sailors in Paris in the version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ on ‘Love You Live’, the years of eye-shadow and David Bowie right around ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n ‘Roll’. In the musical ‘Hair’ the character Woof even sings a little song about self-abuse while ogling a photograph of Mick.

         It is less obvious – in fact, more coded, or perhaps received through reverse psychology – how Frank Sinatra connected to gay men (and gay women, for that matter). For one thing, he could be funny about it: there’s a great clip of him appearing with Dean Martin on Martin’s television show, where the two of them discover that a computer dating service has put them together because they are so completely compatible. And he could be ‘liberal’ about it, too, in the ‘sixties sense of the word: he played a gay-tolerant cop in the film ‘The Detective’ and although the movie has its share of homophobic characters and the inevitable dated silliness about how gay men lived it was considered forward for its time. Sinatra might have switched his political affiliations from the left to the right as the nation moved from Kennedy to Reagan, but being children of Hollywood neither Frank Sinatra nor Ronald Reagan were unfamiliar with the lives of gay men and women. This is not completely idle speculation; even the former Mrs. Sinatra quipped about it. When Ava Gardner heard that her ex had married Mia Farrow, she told reporters, ‘I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy.’

         Even their music was ambisexual. The Stones’ music naturally dovetailed with the ‘sexual revolution’ of the sixties (which continued, in the form of gay liberation, into the seventies and beyond) and the band’s records were always welcome and danced to at gay bars and discotheques. But gay men and women were not entirely invisible in the ‘fifties, and Frank Sinatra’s songs, with their nearly craven loneliness and heartache, must have been on the jukeboxes and radios of bars that catered to gay people for the same reason.

         For Frank Sinatra, like Mick Jagger, were always, artistically, outsiders – no matter how much mainstream success followed or how much that success offered conventional acceptability. In the end, both men’s personas – for Frank, that of the boozing, brawling capo who ‘made it there’ and ‘did it my way’ and for Mick, that of the prancing, devilish sex god ‘spilling my blood on the stage’ – belied the sensitive, slightly lost, and literally boyish personalities that they created for themselves at the beginning, and which must be interpreted as, if not completely gay-friendly, at least invitingly gay.

         It’s easy to forget, looking at photographs of Frank in the ‘nineties, slightly rotund and a little balding, or of Mick today, a mass of wrinkles and bones, that in their early twenties they were considered the most beautiful (as opposed to handsome) young men of their time. The early Sinatra’s looks – like the early Jagger’s – were often described as effeminate, and it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine that such barely coded language was picked up by gay men of the time, in a world when these kinds of codes were necessary. I’m not saying that Frank Sinatra was gay, of course, but that his image as portrayed not only to made him appealingly approachable to young women who would buy his records, but also the stuff of young gay men’s dreams. Recordings such as ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ only underlined this appeal.

         All the songs on ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ were chosen precisely because of their function as, in Sinatra’s own parlance, ‘saloon songs’ which were not only popular hits in their day but certain to be among the most selected buttons on the juke box in the corner of that same saloon. Their message of unrequited, broken, or unattainable love resonated in the gay world of the ‘fifties.

It was a very short walk from Frank’s spot under that blue street lamp to the gay bar just around the corner. I wasn’t there then, but I made that short journey, both literally and symbolically, many times since.

The Internet as library

“Why don’t you look it up?”

This was the $64,000 question of my youth (and if you get my reference, you can guess the approximate years of my youth). Whenever I asked my Mom or my Dad ‘who was Admiral Dewey?’ or ‘why are caterpillars green?’ they would refrain from making an educated guess (even though they were educated and their answer was likely correct and not a guess). Instead, they’d ask me a question in response:

“Why don’t you look it up?”

My childhood home had a dictionary (Webster’s Collegiate) and an encyclopedia (Columbia’s wonderful one-volume edition, circa 1960), but to actually ‘look something up’ meant a trip to the library. Often, my visit would begin with a focused search for the answer to my question, but end up with browsing.

Browsing in my public library was how I discovered Hugh Lofting’s ‘Dr. Doolittle’ and H.H. Munro’s ‘The Open Door’. It was how I found a book of Korean ghost stories, and where I discovered, when I was slightly older, the Brontes and Eric Knight (‘Lassie Come-Home’). Once I was familiar with the layout of the place, I knew where to look for the new books, the older fiction, and the biographies that made up my middle school and high school reading list. I was voracious and persistent. It might exasperate my parents, who patiently waiting for me to make my selection so they could go home and start dinner, but I’d want to read the spine (and sometimes the blurb) for every book before I would leave.

This habit – no, mania – for browsing stuck with me as I grew up and went to college. Only the libraries got bigger: three floors at Rutgers, six at Columbia, and ten at Harvard (and that was only one of dozens of dedicated buildings). I remember discovering William Burroughs at Rutgers, only because he ended up in the vicinity of my assigned author, James Baldwin. At Columbia, I spent hours up in the balcony of the reference reading room poring over Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ only because it happened to be shelved behind my favorite writing desk.

At Harvard, I had the extra boon of being an employee of the library, rather than a student. This entitled me to wander up and down the floor to ceiling aisles of books with the purported purpose of conducting research. I was expected to be a bibliographical expert in whatever particular subject I was helping to teach; one year it was American Film Comedy, another year it was German Expressionist Painting. You get the picture – my childhood habit was now my professional obligation.

 

As you probably have already guessed, all of this browsing occurred before there was such a thing as online resources. My first day of work at Harvard just happened to coincide with the first day of operation of the new electronic book catalogue. I can safely say that neither of us have been the same since.

Over the course of the thirty plus years since that day, book catalogues eventually became completely automated and put online, followed in no short order by the books themselves. Things called search engines now do browsing for me. It’s a peculiarly imprecise technique, but it is how I discover things, with the exact same part of my brain that I used forty or fifty years ago. Then, I would see a book in the new fiction section, read the blurb, find an introduction by another author, look up his name, and come home with a book on a completely different subject than I set out to find.

Now, for instance, when I start researching 19th century Dublin, I throw some words into a Google search-- let’s say Capel Street, the year 1882, and the word ‘church’ and I have a pages-long menu of possibilities. Wander into the ‘maps’ page and I can see where every congregation on Capel Street met; switch over to ‘books’ and I get summaries (and sometimes the full text) of everything written about this triumvirate of topics in the past century.

Admittedly, it is very hard to do this without some sort of presupposition. It helps to have deep prior knowledge of the kinds of things you are looking for, and it is equally important to develop a kind of rapid-fire resolution system to skim over stuff that is likely to turn out to be either an advertisement, or locked behind a firewall, or – and this is the most likely result – irrelevant. But with enough training (it helps to be an academic librarian) and patience, I will get my answers.

The maxim that the Internet is unreliable is true, to the extent that there is no librarian sitting at a desk, ready to point out to you that the source you are consulting is years out of date, or that there’s a much more authoritative version of the subject that happens to be filed under ‘business’ instead of ‘mathematics’. These days, you have to appoint yourself your own librarian.

And I would still go and browse in a library, if I could. Right now, I’m living in the Czech Republic, and most of the books in Czech libraries are, for some reason or another, in Czech. We do have two very good English language bookstores in the city… but bookstore browsing is a completely different topic.

If I could, would I go back to a world of paper catalogues and Dewey decimals? Probably not – like every other modern invention since the telephone, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I used to write all my books in longhand before ‘typing them up’ – now there’s an antiquated phrase. I still fill paper notebooks with my research, but that’s mostly because it forces me to organize my thoughts (no cut and paste, no delete except for a rubber eraser).

But it is pleasant to think that it isn’t too long a flight between that ten year-old boy on a bench in the Closter, New Jersey public library, wading through a short stack of books of fairy tales, and the sixty plus years-old man who is now typing (see, I still use that word) on a screen, with tabs open to ten different web pages, each funneling information from every corner of the earth, and from every year of recorded time.

‘Why don’t you look it up?’ is now ‘Google it’, but I’m still always searching for something.

Thinkin' About Bob Dylan Blues

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob Dylan lately. Actually, I think about Bob Dylan often; he’s been in my ‘pantheon’ of music stars (which includes The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Who) for over fifty years now. But after he won a Nobel Prize for Literature (Literature!) and I watched the video of Patti Smith performing ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ at his medal ceremony (which he, Dylan-like, skipped) I have revisited these memories and inspirations, and in turn I have been inspired to write about him.

The usual format for these sorts of things is a Top Ten list. Okay, I started by listing all my favorite Bob Dylan songs, and stopped when I hit sixty- seven. Then I started crossing out titles that were indicative of my love of his music but not personally meaningful, and chopped this list down, mercifully, to twelve. And there I stopped. If this list is going to be personal, it must also be tailored to me, and I can’t get to ten with Bob.

And so, in release date order, here are a dozen reasons why Bob Dylan is worth thinking about, starting with (of course)…

“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. For the first few years, Bob Dylan’s songs were constructed like ballads – guitar, no other instruments, verse upon verse ending in the title – like the folk music he learned from Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, and the Weavers (among others). “Hard Rain” takes this format, and the lilting, almost lullaby-like melody he assigned it, and cross-pollinates it with lyrics that go beyond the traditional subjects of balladry – women, poverty, wandering – to make the song nearly biblical in it’s injunction against humanity.

(Aside: I’m going to resist quoting lyrics here. The piece will be long enough without them, and nothing I say can improve them).

“The Times They Are A’ Changin’”. Another traditional ballad, obviously; this time Dylan is substituting a direct harangue for an indirect warning. Dated? I don’t think so.

“It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. This is my favorite of Bob Dylan’s ‘intermediate period,’ the songs he wrote and recorded after he moved out of his guitar ballad phase but before he picked up the electric guitar. The non-melody is a buzzing, rhythmic sort of proto-rap (forgive me) that bursts into lyricism at the end of every verse. I recall it being used to memorable effect in “Easy Rider.”

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” I’ve included this song for two reasons: it’s one of Dylan’s most beautiful melodies, and it is featured in one of my favorite Joyce Carol Oates stories, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’. Read it and see.

“Like A Rolling Stone”. Okay, I suppose I am wholly unoriginal for including this, but what can you say? Any song that can have an entire book written about it (by Greil Marcus) must be considered weighty. Plus, if you’re going to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, you’d better have written some Nobel-worthy words. These are among them. But I promised, no quoting. Look them up.

“Ballad Of A Thin Man”. This is from my favorite Bob Dylan album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. I fell in love with this album before I even heard it, with that enigmatic cover photo of an impossibly cute Dylan and a very phallic camera hanging over him. For a young (soon to be) gay kid, this song hinted at all the wonder to come. Okay, so it might actually be about a rotten journalist and not a homosexual encounter. Tough, this is my list.

“Lay Lady Lay.” I was fourteen when this song was released, and it sounded so unlike Bob Dylan that at first I thought it was a joke. Then I mocked it for being one of his few actual Top 40 hits. Finally, I appreciated it for being one of the most loving (and sexy) songs Dylan ever wrote.

“Tangled Up In Blue.” I’ve always liked Dylan the Mythologist, and this is his most self-referential of songs. Plus, the melody is memorable and the arrangement – a sort of mid-tempo country stomp – makes me smile every time I hear it.

“Idiot Wind”. This is another personal favorite, sort of analogous lyrically to “Positively 4th Street” but with a more generous (or shall we say, greater) target. I know it’s supposed to be about Sarah Dylan, but coming in the middle of Watergate and the disillusion sweeping the planet, I always thought Bob had more universal idiots in the back of his mind.

“The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar”. I must pass over a large part of the ‘Jesus’ period, and not because I fail to relate to the subject matter. Actually, much of his work in this period is quite interesting. There’s just not enough space. Still, this song, from “Shot Of Love” rocks like no other Dylan song. You can dance to it. Plus it features one of Bob’s best vocal snarls.

“Every Grain Of Sand” I came late to this tune, also from “Shot Of Love.” I didn’t pay much attention to it in 1981, when it was released, but it started popping up on other people’s best lists, and they’re right. Listen to how unusually natural and emotional Bob sounds.

“Workingman’s Blues #2” This is the most recent inclusion on the list; it’s from ‘Modern Times,’ released in 2006. The melody is lovely; the lyrics wistful and passionate, and the character singing the song another one of Dylan’s alter egos, meaning us.

I could go on. I could cheat and list my other contenders. And I welcome your own nominations. So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road…

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

   History is myopic. We are told that we live in the best of times, that the future belongs to us, that we learn from our mistakes. These thoughts occur to me because I just finished watching Ken Burn’s fourteen-hour long film ‘The Roosevelts”. It is not coincidental that I watched the final episode, in which Franklin dies and Eleanor picks up the mantle of humanistic governance, on the eve of the 2016 American Presidential election, for when the two events are considered side by side, so to speak, it says volumes – nay, it constitutes an entire library – about how far political discourse and its effects have fallen.
    Not that FDR was a saint; Burns makes sure we understand that he was unfaithful to his wife and a master manipulator of the uses and abuses of power at a worldwide level. And nostalgia can be as myopic as history. So I won’t try to make the argument that everyone’s parents make: that things were better when we were growing up. True or not, we can only live now, in the present. But there is something else to be said about the contrast between the world of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and our response to it and the world of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And that has to do with morality.
    I write these thoughts on Election Day, not knowing who is going to win. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I suspect the next president will be Mrs. Clinton, but who wins this election is not my point. I hardly expect Mr. Trump to be another FDR, but I don’t think that Mrs. Clinton is another Eleanor, either. As I watched Mrs. Roosevelt determined to make her idealism change peoples lives, I found myself wishing today’s leaders, both men and women – and in this way, the world HAS changed – were not only accomplished and insistent but a tad more inspiring. Even Barack Obama started out as a rocket, and ended up something more like a firecracker.
     Something  – and there’s not enough space here to spell it out, but let’s at least mention television, the internet, the condition of education, the decline of reading, and the short-circuiting of all forms of real communication – has caused a massive change in the needle of our moral compass.  Because of these things, we’ve lost a bit of control over ourselves, but even more frighteningly, we’ve lost control OF ourselves – to opinion makers, to corporations, and to planned obsolescence. As Barbara Ehrenreich told us, we are ‘amusing ourselves to death.’  I like my creature comforts as well as the next guy, but I don’t think I’ve lost my ability not to care about the next guy – and hopefully, I won’t.
I can understand human frailty, but I wish I didn’t expect it, especially from our so-called leaders. Perhaps we were better off not knowing of Roosevelt’s affairs; perhaps it was necessary that we never saw him struggling to walk. The drive for duplicity was as strong then as it is now, but I can’t help but think the character of the individuals forging that network of beliefs and desires was superior. 
    In my fiction, I always try to create heroes and heroines who are morally challenged, so that I can work out, in the form of a story, what I believe is the difference between right and wrong behavior – war or peace in my ‘war trilogy,’ creativity or destruction in ‘Aluminium’ and ‘Michael Ashmore,’ truth or lies in ‘Walk Away Renee’. My books are my ‘safe spaces’ where I can create and then live in a world bounded by rules my characters believe in. Always, there remains a glimmer of hope that I will learn from my own words or show others a way to learn from them.
    We get the leaders we deserve, and no matter who wins today, he or she will have earned every ounce of our shared admiration and hatred, most likely in equal measures. This alone is cold proof of how dysfunctional politics has become, and how much we have ourselves to blame for it. I wish I could offer a solution – God know, many others (Peggy Noonan, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal) have tried – instead of poking my head up every now and then to complain and then go back to the safety and security of what I know. But that, too, is a characteristic of the times we live in, which is, as I have said, the only time we have.
    It’s been nearly fifty years since Paul Simon wrote ‘Mrs. Robinson’, with the verse that makes up my title:

    Going to the candidate’s debate…
    Laugh about it, shout about it, 
    When you’ve got to choose,
    Anyway you look at it, you lose.
    Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
    A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…

    Fifty years from today, what will we have to say?

The Weathervane of Democracy

I’d tried for as long as I could not to write about the current presidential election. This is not to say that I tried very hard not to read about it; that’s pretty well nigh impossible if you are a reader of any major newspaper or on-line news organization. As a writer, one looks for subjects at hand, and Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton are easy ones to access; still: one’s first reactions – incredulousness and a strong sense of disassociation on the one hand, and overfamiliarity and suspicion on the other – are not only common but commonly discussed. It seemed to me to be at the very best repetitive and even a bit self-indulgent to take up the topic when so many others, better positioned and better equipped, had already done so.
But with modest restraint comes a longer view, and I think the time has come to cast about for a more nuanced explanation for why Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party and why he has a chance – not quite even but far from a long shot – of being elected President. I’ve read (almost daily) a great deal of what has been written about the man, the campaign, the electorate, the media, and the blame (to use one common descriptor) – the Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico, Slate, Real Clear Politics, Red State, the National Review, one could (and will) go on. And this does not include the myriad of other sources, including television, which I am not party to because I don’t live in the United States.

All of these brave and talent-filled resources missed Mr. Trump’s rise, and all of them are scrambling to retrace their steps and try to uncover the exact moment when they went wrong. ‘We’re too insulated,” they cried, or ‘we’re too liberal’. “We created this monster,” is another favorite form of handwringing, also correct, but entirely self-serving, coming from an industry whose job it is to create monsters. They do this because monsters scare people, and get them to pay attention, and with a hundred different things going on in front of us at every moment of every day, getting someone to pay attention is winning more than half the battle.

Not that Hillary Clinton is the Beauty to Mr. Trump’s Beast. Although her nomination was expected and in retrospect inevitable, her rise has not exactly been greeted with three cheers. In this contemporary version of the classic fairy tale, the difference between Good and Evil is parsed, which is one form of moral compromise. Strategic voting is another, which is why I am supporting Gary Johnson and William Weld. But that’s for another essay.
The important point to be made is that the American political system hasn’t been functioning quite the way it was created to function since at least Bill Clinton’s administration, possibly since John Kennedy, and – again, if one is able to take in the long view and include popular American history along with the version sold in history textbooks – probably since Andrew Jackson. The leaders of this country – and that includes often debased executives like the President as well as more cryptically inclined baronets in fields like banking and industry – have always had a volatile relationship what we cutely and somewhat naively call ‘the people’.

Right from the start, Thomas Jefferson and his peers warned of the totalitarianism of mobs, and thought democracy without a strong system of what we have come to know as ‘checks and balances’ – there’s a quaint phrase left over from a paper-based universe – was doomed to fail. That it has not, despite monetary crises, civil war, political assassinations, street violence, or massive amounts of sheer indifference is a grand testament to strength of the founder’s original intentions. But all sharp surfaces get worn away in time, and this is especially so when the high tides of coincidence correlate with the rough seas of progress.
For, as I implied in throwing the blame back to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Clinton, nothing has blunted the directness of democracy in quite as unpredictable and somewhat terrifying a way as the rise of television and, ultimately, the Internet. Democratic with a small d to a fault, these twin pillars of the modern world, or at least the most modern world so far, have turned the democratic process into…well, a reality TV show, not quite like but then again not quite different from Donald Trumps’ own ‘The Apprentice’. Not only is it all about me, it is now also about me and not you: “You’re fired!”

I am not the first to connect the ‘dumbing down’ of society to the corrosive effect of mass media – Marshall McLuhan, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Ralph Nader have all taken us through the paces over the past half-century or so. Perhaps the first glimmer of how far up this haze of populist zeal had floated was when the future President of the United States was asked about his underwear (not to mention how this same future POTUS managed to keep or uncover a photograph of himself as a teenager standing next to another POTUS, Mr. Kennedy).

Or perhaps this shard was merely catching the light from the presidential debates, which began with Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and ended with Walter Mondale quoting a television advertisement for a national hamburger chain. Somehow, in the stretch of time between when Madison, Monroe, and the rest of that gang of over-educated white Virginian landowners sat down to put together a new constitution and sometime just after the dawn of the age of cable television (but before wireless internet put cable, as well as network TV, let alone print news completely out of business), Americans just stopped caring about what their political leaders did or wrote and only paid attention to what they looked like and how they behaved (or misbehaved).

Okay – now that we’ve established a base for how we got here, perhaps it’s time to take a look at where we are going. The illusion that the man (or woman) who is the chief executive of the United States has that much more power than any other nominally chief executive in the world is no longer viable. Everyone knows and more or less agrees that the quadrennial election cycle is a dog-and-pony show put on to make the people think that their opinion matters, in the same stupid way that big companies survey their employees about idiotic things like dress codes and naming the break rooms. Top this off with the certainty that your money, at least, is going nowhere near where you intended to put it and the nearly equal certainty that those people who have this money couldn’t care less about your opinion. Now try to run a democracy.

Donald Trump has run happily, directly, and deliberately into this vortex. His face is a mirror of our own, and, in a way, vice versa. We – meaning those of us who put his picture on the top of our webpages or into the lead story of our news feed – have turned his omnipresence into a kind of self-congratulatory smirk. But we are not alone in this Frankenstein creation; I honestly believe Mr. Trump himself thinks he is the mirror and we are – to steal another phrase from reality television – the Real World. In fact, neither one of us is real; there is no Real World anymore (I think this was MTV’s original point). 
More or less half the voting public thinks that electing Donald Trump President would be the end of…something – democracy, freedom, the American Dream, or the birth of a fascist state and a celebration of the resurgence of racism and nativism. And perhaps almost as many think that the election of Hillary Clinton would be as nearly a large unmitigated disaster, despite the perverse pleasure of having our first First Man. But I believe both of these points of view are wrong, in that they go along with the ancient and nearly ceremonial belief that who the President of the United State is matters.  Yes, it is an important decision – but not more important than buying a home or getting married. Actually, those last two decisions will certainly have more effect on your life than who the President is. 
We live in a universe full of contradictions: the importance of personal freedom and the power of institutions, the ease of communication and the difficulty of sending or receiving clear messages, and – pertinent to this essay – the primacy of the individual and the surrendering of faith and hope into the hands of political figures. This confusion glosses over an undetected danger: that we are ceding control of our lives and don’t know it. The warning signs have been posted everywhere, but we refuse to heed them.

 “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong,” sings the Balladeer in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical ‘Assassins”. He was talking about John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln, but not that much has changed in one hundred and fifty years. Donald Trump (or Hillary Clinton) might be the scariest, or the most engrossing, or the most dangerous, or the most illuminating candidate for political office that any of us has ever seen. They might be all of this, or none of the above. The only cure for this kind of wrongheadedness is time.
The weathervane of democracy ever follows the wind. We are trapped within its vortex like Dorothy Gale of Kansas, and – like her – we look to a Wizard or a Good Witch to show us the way home. And, like Dorothy, we will learn – hopefully not too late – that we have had the power to find our own way all along.