Herman, Henry, and Me

Two years ago, while in the middle of working on my novel ‘Telemachus,’ I posted a piece called ‘On Difficult Writing’. There, I wrote about two of my favorite writers and their books – William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and The Fury’ and James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.  I felt a great affinity to these books, and I held them up as inspiration for my work.

Now it’s time for me to pay homage to writers with whose writing I hold a more adversarial relationship – Herman Melville and Henry James. 

Melville is clearly pre-modern, and his style was born out of a world where the word was clearly the predominant method of communication, and a goodly portion of the population of that world was illiterate. Melville’s audience was thus better read and much narrower than those to be found in the 20th and 21st centuries. His was the searching voice of the newspaper class: avid readers who wished to keep up to date with literary fashions and conventions.

James is often lumped in with the moderns, but although his writing style encompasses elements such as stream-of-consciousness and complex sentence structure, his characters are subject to late 19th century morality. James’ forward-looking constructions masked a longing for a return to classic order.

My schooling emphasized the importance of both of these men. Melville was the bane of high-school sophisticates like me who learned to appreciate the seriousness of purpose of ‘Moby Dick’ but feigned to actually read the book from cover to cover. Melville’s sentences can turn into rabbit-holes. Take this one, plucked at random from ‘Billy Budd’:

With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was towards those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines: books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era – history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophise upon realities.

Okay: seven subordinate phrases and one incomplete ellipsis in support of the stem ‘bias towards books’.  I’m a great believer in the theorem that one should not have to read a sentence twice in order to understand it. This belief is difficult to uphold under these circumstances. Reading Melville is like driving down a rocky road at night: you are best to proceed very slowly and keep a sharp eye out for obstructions.

Henry James is usually plied upon the naïf college sophomore; just when you safely feel you have crossed the shoals of Hawthorne and Cooper in your American Literature class, your teacher throws you up again the sea-swell of ‘The Ambassadors’.  To Melville’s subordinations, James adds a wallpaper pattern’s worth of curlicues of phrasing. This is the first paragraph from the above:

Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room “only if not noisy,” reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh—if not even, for that matter, to himself—there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other.

The effect is cumulatively discombobulating. As opposed to Melville’s more immediate sense of being lost in a cave, you speed along through James’ prose until you get jammed up like a kid caught with his fingers in a jar of honey.  All you can do to extricate yourself from the mess is wash your hands of it and move on.

Why, then, you might ask, do I submit myself to these small tortures? The simplest answer, and my most honest one, is ‘sensibility’. Despite evidence all around me of the decline and fall of the power of the printed word, I still believe in its efficacy and – more importantly – its beauty. To live in Herman Melville’s and Henry James’ world – to see the world through their mediated constructions – is how I teach myself the history I need to know to write the books I wish to write.

Masters, even failed or mad ones, are yet full of needful instruction. ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘The Ambassadors’ are mountains whose summit may be shrouded in mist, but I have found gleanings from their slopes as precious as diamonds. Morality did not die with modernity, and Melville and James help me to remember this.

 

It's fruitcake weather!

The title of this blog entry comes from the exclamation that concludes the second paragraph of Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’.  In this early story, Capote’s alter ego, a seven year-old boy named Buddy, hears his beloved older cousin make this announcement, thus bringing on his favourite time of year, Christmas.

I thought of it because I’m going through my memory bank remembering all the works of writers I admired as part of my research for the book I am currently working on, a memoir of what it was like growing up gay in the seventies.

Truman Capote comes to mind easily, and often. There’s his description of the namesake store, in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’:

It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

There’s the lyricism of Tennessee Williams in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,’ with his touching descriptions of the ‘young, young man’ Blanche attempts to seduce in the former and Brick’s struggle to reveal how he truly feels about his lost best friend, Skipper, in the latter.

I was profoundly affected by James Baldwin’s ‘Giovanni’s Room’. Baldwin tells the story of a literally fatal love affair between an American and an Italian expatriate in Paris in the fifties, and their friend Jacques’ heart-breaking admonition:

‘Love him, said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty— they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.’ He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. ‘You play it safe long enough,’ he said, in a different tone, ‘and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.’

If I had enough space and time here, I’d quote from William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ and Allen Ginsburg’s ‘Howl’ and Gore Vidal’s ‘The Pillar and The City”. All these works, and every one of these writers, inspired me to think that the stories I lived and the stories I could tell were worth writing down. 

I’ll close with the most beautiful opening sentence ever to come from a writer in the gay pantheon, from Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’. It’s actually not the first sentence of the book (there’s a prologue) but the first sentence of the first chapter:

I have been here before, I said: I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago, on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

Read it to yourself out loud, if you don’t believe me, and languish in that sense of acute memory and lost time, a sense I will strive to create in my memoir, and that still inspires me and animates my work today.

A Life in a Song


            There are few things I miss about America, but one of them is the proximity of Broadway. It used to be a ritual for my husband John and I to drive down to New York from Boston and catch one or two shows. Luckily, thanks to the wonderful world of electronic transmission, we can still listen to the Original Cast Recordings of musicals we saw (and even a few that we didn’t see).

            Today’s category is ‘Musicals That Are Defined By One Song’. Classic shows like ‘My Fair Lady’ pour out a half-dozen hits, and others, like those written by Stephen Sondheim, are ‘integrated,’ meaning that the entire score conveys the message of the show and the arc of the characters’ lives more effectively than any single number. But there are some shows – examples of which are the subject of this essay – where one single song captures -- and, indeed, overrides – the rest of the show. They create indelible moments in which an actor, using only his or her voice and the songwriters’ sense of character, creates an entire scene full of brilliant imagery, profound emotion, and life-affirming drama.

            The first of these songs is ‘All The Wasted Time’ from ‘Parade’ by  Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry. The show is about the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, accused (wrongly) of the murder of a young girl in Georgia in 1913. The subject is tough, and the show is uneven, but the song that Leo and his wife sing at their last meeting -- a picnic in a park just before Leo is incarcerated, when there is still a strand of hope that he will survive -- is a moving testament to the power of love.

            In ‘All The Wasted Time,’ Leo sings:

 

I will never understand
What I did to deserve you,
Or how to be the man
That I'm supposed to be.
I will never understand
If I live a thousand lifetimes
Why you did the things you did for me.

 

            Lucille sings a verse, and then they sing together:

 

Leaves too high to touch,
Roots too strong to fall.
All the days gone by
To never show I loved you so,
And I never knew anything at all…


            And then, Leo repeats this last line, his voice rising an entire octave on the last  word:         


   I never knew anything at all.

This is a performance John and I saw live, and the thrill of hearing Brent Carver soar up to that last, high note, full of hope and sadness, remains one of the greatest memories I have in the theatre.

 

The second song I wish to single out is ‘Jerry Likes My Corn’ from ‘Grey Gardens’ by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie. It’s based on the movie of the same name, the story of Edith and Edie Beale, the eccentric recluse relatives of Jacqueline Onassis. This song, sung by ‘Big’ Edie about the teenaged boy who serves as the household’s wholly incompetent handyman, is a superlative example of  a ‘character’ number. In it, everything you need to know about Edith’s eccentricities, sense of self, and view of the world is contained in three verses. She sings:

 

Jerry lacks a mother`s tender care,
Nobody to need him.
Mother`s now are barely ever there
Someone`s gotta feed him.

The kind of things that I like
His high school friends all scorn:
Cottage cheese, chamomile,
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
But, Jerry likes my corn.

            By the end of the song, after Big Edie established her preference to Jerry over her awkward and demanding daughter, and just before she falls into a dazed sleep, she concludes:

 Jerry doesn`t fight like two fish wives,
Jerry likes relaxing.
Now and then we play my forty-fives,
Hear the old sad sax sing.

No picnic growing older,
Abandon and forlorn.
Stuck in bed, stiff with gout
Alcoholic drinks are out--
You`ll die!
The doctor`s warn
Then quick as a wink
I`m in the pink
`Cause Jerry likes my corn!

            The last song I’d like to consider is ‘Ring Of Keys’ from ‘Fun Home’ by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. ‘Fun Home’ is based on the memoirs of the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. There are three versions of ‘Alison’ in the musical, and ‘Ring of Keys’ is sung by the 13 year-old version. She starts to become aware of her attraction to women when she sees a butch delivery woman come into the luncheonette where she is eating with her father.

            The lyrics are a marvel of specificity, as Small Alison creates an ideal fantasy figure out of the attributes of a real person. She sings:


With your swagger and your bearing and
the just right clothes you're wearing,
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots.
And your keys, oh!
Your ring of keys.

              And then, at the very end, the incredible leap from the specific to the general that is the hallmark of all great writing:

                        I know you,

                        I know you.

            Three little words, and a world.

 

 

 

 

I've Been Thinking

The song ‘The Best Way To Travel’ is the second track on the second side of the Moody Blues’ album ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’ (yes, my young friends – once upon a time there were things called albums that had things called sides). The album was released in July 1968, and the song was written and sung by the band’s keyboard player, Mike Pinder.

The lyrics are brief, and in their entirety they read:

And you can fly

High as a kite if you want to,

Faster than light if you want to,

Speeding through the universe

Thinking is the best way to travel.

 

It’s all a dream,

Light passing by on a screen,

And there’s you and I on the beam:

Speeding through the universe

Thinking is the best way to travel.

 

We ride the waves,

Distance is gone, will we find out

How life began? Will we find out?

Speeding through the universe

Thinking is the best way to travel.

 

By 1968, The Moody Blues had established their own niche as a late British Invasion band with an emphasis on full orchestrations and pseudo-philosophical lyrics. They are most famous for ‘Nights In White Satin’ and continue to write and tour today, fifty years on, with original members Justin Hayward, John Lodge, and Graeme Edge (Mike Pinder left in 1978, Ray Thomas died in 2018).

The most distinctive element of ‘The Best Way To Travel’ is the wide stereo panning that constitutes the instrumental break in the song at the 1:00 mark. The effect is reminiscent of the sound of a space ship in a science fiction film; if you are wearing headphones, you are definitely going to imagine yourself ‘travelling’ across some vast and unknown place.

The sound morphs and continues as a vaguely Sputnik-like bleating underneath the third verse before fading as the first verse and chorus returns. Throughout, Mike Pinder’s voice is sweet and yearning, singing a melody that sounds like a cross between a nursery rhyme and a mantra.

I was an especially vulnerable fourteen year-old when I first heard ‘The Best Way To Travel’ as well as the other well-known songs from the album, ‘Legend of a Mind’ (about Timothy Leary) and the opening track, ‘Ride My See-Saw’. I was just beginning to discover the natural affiliation between rock ‘n’ roll music and drugs, and I made the connection between Pindar’s ‘thinking is the best way to travel’ and the places my mind could go once freed of my body’s suburban New Jersey shell.

My budding literateness latched on to the first word of the song – ‘and’. I realize now it’s likely there to fill out a beat in the music, but at the time I was more fascinated by the suggestion that the song began in the middle of something. Whatever ship Mr. Pinder and the Moody Blues were sailing, I was already on board for the ride. 

I also liked the line about being ‘on the beam,’ as if my life was being projected on a movie screen. I imagined myself being in control of the image and the focus, but also spinning out of the light to become a spectator. I sympathized with the displacement the singer felt, with the deliberate disorientation that comes from acute adolescent self-perception.

Over fifty years have passed, but ‘The Best Way To Travel’ still resonates with me because there’s a direct line from the sentiments in the lyrics to my strong belief in the power of the imagination. I employ the ‘thinking’ Mike Pindar implied every time I write a sentence, create a character, evolve a plot, or string some dialogue.

Itis all a dream.

SWOOP SWOOP, OH BABY, ROCK ROCK

 

In the late ‘nineties, Robert Smigel and J. J. Sedelmaiercreated the animated cartoon ‘The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” about a pair of superheroes rather like Batman and Robin and all the fun the two of them have being oblivious to the sexually suggestive things they do together.

 

I think of them now, in honor of the greatest ambiguously gay duo in the history of pop music, Lou Reed and David Bowie, and their greatest joint achievement, the 1972 album, ‘Transformer”.

 

Of course, both Reed and Bowie were not quite ambiguously gay, both having long-standing relationships with strong, talented women (Laurie Anderson and Iman, respectively). But early in their careers, and especially on ‘Transformer,” they fabulously poked at sexual norms, and, along the way, wrote and produced some of the best songs about sex (and only obliquely gay sex) ever written.

 

A good part of the back-room atmosphere of the album is due to the fact that Reed wrote most of the songs for, and intended to be performed by, the Velvet Underground, the group Andy Warhol put together to accompany his discotheque light shows. One song, “Andy’s Chest” refers to this period directly. The lyrics never refer to Warhol, or to his chest, for that matter; they are a series of surreal images (…’when you shave off all their baby hair, you’ve got a hairy minded big bare bear…’) that somehow, in Reed’s fey baritone, sound sexy. The song ends (ambiguously, of course) with the chorus ‘swoop, swoop, oh baby rock, rock’. That always sounded like sex to me.

 

This mythological and ambi-sexual ‘baby’ shows up elsewhere, as well. In the opening song, “Vicious,” Reed’s alter ego admonishes his lover ‘…when I watch you come, baby I just want to run far away’. And in the most famous song on the album, “Walk On The Wild Side,” he says:

 

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody's darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side

 

Candy, of course, is Candy Darling, the Warhol superstar, and another member of the coterie that filled out the cast and characters of ‘Transformer’.

 

Beyond the big rhythm number “Vicious” and the aspirational ballad “Walk On The Wild Side,” “Transformer” is filled with songs that are, well – transformed by Reed’s whispered vocals and David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s precision production. Everything is clear and nothing is obvious. Two of the best songs on the album are ballads – “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day”. Bowie is featured prominently on the former; his ‘Space Oddity’ era harmonies give a (likely deliberately) otherworldly sound to the recording. And again, the lyrics are wide-open to sexual interpretation:

 

I've been told that you've been bold

With Harry, Mark, and John

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to Thursday

With Harry, Mark, and John

 

“Perfect Day” is my personal favorite, and – I believe – the most beautiful and strangely optimistic song on the album. When Reed sings “…oh, it's such a perfect day / I'm glad I spent it with you,” you believe him – even more so when he adds, a few verses later “…you made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else, someone good…”

 

‘Transformer” is also notable for…wait for it… the most ambiguously gay album jacket in history: two people, first a man, in hyper-masculine drag with an obvious hard-on and then…what? – it looks like a man dressed like a woman, but it might just be a woman in hyper-feminine drag. In short, the cover image perfectly projects, in a visually stunning way, the exact same argument as the music: you only live once, and you are what you pretend to be.

 

Both Lou Reed and David Bowie went on, of course, to produce more great music (and more great sexual ambiguity – think of “Berlin” and “Diamond Dogs”), but there was never as great a shocking and original statement as ‘Transformer”. We should pay attention, and salute it.

You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me

Writing is a job, and like all jobs, the work can benefit from good habits. Marcel Proust needed a cork-lined room; Henry Miller wrote out a daily schedule. Hemingway liked to write standing up; Stephen Sondheim likes to write lying down. The numbers of ways to do good work are as many as there are writers.

I have my own set of parameters, as inviolate as the Ten Commandments. Before the dawn of the internet, I wrote all my drafts in longhand and in pencil, employing what was (and still is, I believe) quaintly called a ‘collegiate lined’ notebook – meaning the spaces between the lines are very small and you can fit a lot of words on a single page. These drafts needed to be assisted by a good gum eraser, and many were the times when I rubbed out entire pages, depriving posterity of the direction of my original thinking.

 Once electronic manipulation entered the picture, my pencils and erasers gave way to hand-written commonplace books. This is the technique I still employ: a computer for storing drafts, and a paper notebook filled with character notes, plot outlines, bits of historical research (out of order, and starred or underlined to indicate importance). 

Once the medium has been settled, it is time for me to choose the solvent. In other words: where do I write? My first novel was drafted entirely in my bedroom office, but this has proven to be the exception. Since then, it seems as if any place on earth besides home proves suitable. I’m not sure why this is so, except that perhaps in the fullness of my years I need a more neutral backdrop for word painting.

The solutions to this problem vary with my location, the time of day (or even what day of the week it is), or the weather. I like libraries (after all, I worked in one for over three decades). Shopping malls are suitable in heat waves, or when coffee is needed. For a while, I preferred hotel lobbies, a great font of anonymity and easy access to drinks or restrooms. In spring, I can write outdoors. In strange towns, I have employed museum courtyards.

One added obstacle – something Miller and Proust and Hemingway never needed to consider – is Internet access. The art of writing needs no outside influences, but checking spelling, doing research, reading maps, and verifying dates do. As most of my work is historical, this ability is critical. Many are the times I have picked out a superlative place to work only to discover the view is better than the signal strength: off I go in search of that grail-like ring of black bars.

And of course once the work is finished it has only just begun: on a computer screen, the little icon of a first draft in Microsoft Word looks pretty lonely. For me, a true sense of accomplishment arrives when the file is populated by a series of drafts, each altered for amusement’s sake not only by re-writes and corrections but also different fonts, layouts, and – occasionally – titles.

Now we reach the most important habit of all, at least for me: being habitual. Nothing is generated from a sleeping monitor. I watch my word count number carefully, and try not to stop until I’ve added at least one thousand words each outing. I add numbers like mileposts: five thousand by the end of the week, twenty-five thousand at the end of a first draft, fifty thousand before I can think of showing it to anyone. 

 Words are like parades: if you stand in the right place, the beginning and the end are out of sight, but whatever is in front of you changes every minute. Stand your ground and keep your eyes open, and the vista will be endless. Rain or shine, day after day, don’t stop watching the parade go by.

On Re-writing

 

I’ve never been a good polisher. The fun part for me is always the research and the first draft. I like to think of it like a military campaign  -- something I write about often, although I’ve never served: you create your battle plan, you go over the details, and then you send out the troops. Sooner or later, of course, it’s time to get down in the mud and face the enemy. For me, as a writer, this is called ‘re-writing’. The mud is built out of my sentences, and the enemy is perfection.

My current novel has turned into a bit of a bear. It began as a (relatively) simple story of a pair of young Polish immigrants, brother and sister, both Jewish, and what happens to them when they cross paths with the swath of German provocation and anti-Semitism brewing in pre-World War II Paris. Specifically, it is a fictional retelling of the story of Herschel Grynszpan, the teenager who assassinated a German embassy official there in 1938.

But when I finished my draft – my fifth draft, we’ll get to that in a minute – I discovered, to my delight and also perturbation, that the story wasn’t finished yet. My hero, Adam Kaminski, wasn’t ready to stop at what I thought was the ending. An entire second part of the novel opened up before me. I let Adam lead, and he took me to London, and the first year of the war. I compiled my usual outline, spent a month researching the time and the city (I needed a second notebook, as my research for the other half of the novel filled my first one), and then raced to complete a first draft.

In my current version, ‘Adam Kaminski,’ as my book is now titled, comes in at a little more than 80,000 words; this is by far the longest book I have ever written. And, of course, that means it is the longest re-writing project I have ever attempted.

As I said, the first half of this story, when it was called ‘The Ox on the Roof’ (named after a famous gay bar in Paris) went through five drafts before revealing itself to me as incomplete. I’ve now finished two drafts of the second half, and I find myself wondering out loud (and to you, dear reader) what happens next.

The entire book covers two weeks – seven days in Paris in 1938, and seven more in London in 1940. Do I tackle each day, one at a time, like separate short stories? Do I re-do my outline and look to see which chapters are too short, missing information, unjustified, or badly explained? Do I run the whole thing over and over through Spellcheck and fix the grammar, typos, strange translations, and obscure foreign phrases? Full confession: I’ve already done all those things, as I do for all my previous books. But with nearly 400 pages and dozens of named characters, I feel like something is eluding me.

I could crawl through the manuscript like a scientist, working to make each sentence perfect, as if a collection of 8,000 perfect sentences will, by some alchemy, thereby produce a perfect book. I could search for readers. This has the advantage of giving me a new perspective on what I’ve written. It also can produce contradictory or nullifying information, the kind that creates doubt and ends up having me change one word ten times.

Part of my impatience with the work of re-writing comes from the fact that I am a generally impatient person in the first place. I would no sooner spend ten years working on one book, like an itinerant James Joyce, than I would spend ten hours at a dinner party: both strategies strike me as running out the justification for their existence at, perhaps, a fifth of that time. 

Nor am I a great believer in the ‘put it away and it will all make sense when you take it out again’ school of writing. For me, that’s like giving up on a picture puzzle when the last one hundred pieces are missing and starting a Lego project instead. You end up with two unfinished works instead of one.

No, the only solution I can come up with is a variation of the one I started with, my metaphor of war. I have never fought in a war, and I hope to never be caught in one, but I find the history of wartime endlessly fertile ground for my stories.  Five of my eight novels (so far) have taken place in a war zone or at a time of war. And in order to stay true to my characters, I must give them military attention and military strength.

That means re-writing is a full-fledged campaign consisting of continual combing through all the possibilities I mentioned above and any others that occur to me. I am constantly expanding sections with new information, either about my characters or their homes, jobs, streets, neighborhoods, cities, and nations. I cut things and replace them, or re-locate them, or put them back, as if I was editing a film and not a book. I read sections aloud when I can. I draw pictures of my main characters in pastel or colored pencil. I retrace memories of my own life, conjure the emotions they instilled in me, and assign them. Most of all,  I write.

I began ‘Adam Kaminski’ nearly one year ago, when I first read about Herschel Grynszpyn and wondered how it would feel to be so angry and lost as to fundamentally throw my life away in revenge. I thought I would tell his story, but I couldn’t find my way in. Then I got the idea of telling Herschel’s story through the eyes of an outsider, a Jewish young man sympathetic but nowhere near as much of a victim. From there, Adam’s friends, family, and lovers popped up like flowers in the Jardin des Plantes. And then in Kensington Gardens.

How will it end? I know, but I’m not telling. And I might change my mind.

If you really want to find out, you’ll have to ask Adam. Hopefully, you’ll meet him soon enough.

Here Come The Warm Jets

 

 

         There are three kinds of albums (or LP’s, or discs, or whatever you want to call them) worth remembering. The first are ‘desert island records,’ ones you would pick if you were stranded. The second are ‘puce moments’: times when music and friends combine to imbed themselves in your memory. The third are transformational, music that teaches you something new about yourself and the so-called ‘meaning of life’. 

I’ve experienced all of these kinds of albums in my life, but rarely does one album fit all three categories. For me, the prime example is Brian Eno’s 1974 masterpiece, ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’.

         I was a sophomore at Rutgers College that year, nineteen years old and just learning how wide the world can be. I was playing in a rock band called ‘The Crabs’ (full name: Bad Taste  and the Crabs, featuring Olga Loomis and the Fabulous Crabettes). Our bass guitarist, Howard Wuelfling, threw this strange record on the turntable one night after rehearsal. (Yes, the only way to listen to music in those days was on the radio, on tape in the car or home, or a turntable with a needle).

         The Crabs were big fans of Roxy Music, and ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ was the first solo album by Eno, a former member of that band (he didn’t use his first name, Brian, until the next decade).  Eno’s idea was that the best music came from what he called ‘organized accidents’. He recruited musicians especially for their incompatibility: some played rock, some were electronic whizzes, and others liked folk music or jazz. Eno wrote the songs during rehearsal while the musicians improvised, and then he produced the whole thing by mixing it in his studio, manipulating it electronically until he had blocks of sound as laden as anything by Phil Spector, but in an entirely alien key.

         I was fascinated by the nonsensical lyrics of ‘The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch’ and the pop-like ‘Cindy Tells Me’ (where Eno sounds like The Turtles on acid). Robert Fripp (from King Crimson) co-wrote ‘Baby’s On Fire’ and ‘Blank Frank’ and helped to turn both tracks into jazzy sonar landscapes, the latter anticipating by half a decade the experiments John Lennon and Yoko Ono were working on just before John’s death.

         I loved how Brian Eno, who did not play any musical instrument, managed yet to entice so much interesting and beautiful music from his crew, and how he used so many different singing voices on the songs (although he was also not a singer). Since I also never really mastered any instrument (I was competent as a drummer) and couldn’t really sing (although this never stopped me from trying), Eno inspired me.

         Across the years (over forty of them now), the song that lingers the most in my memory is the title track, the closing number (and the only one on the album with a fade): ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’. Although it starts out as an instrumental, the song builds in intensity until the vocals, heavily mixed down, emerge from the noise near the mid-point:

 

We're down on our knees and we've nothing to say 
Nothing to say 
Nothing to say...

 

         This sort of stuff might have sounded irresistibly profound to this vulnerable teenager, but it still manages to hold its own so many decades later. The hum of the synthesizers is mesmeric, almost prayerful, and as the drums and vocals fill in, the music turns literally dramatic. I always thought this song would make a fantastic soundtrack to a play-out or credit sequence in a spy movie.

         Other albums from my youth have lingered in my memory in the same way as ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ – Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin,’ The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street – but Brian Eno’s work stands out. It is sui generis, a singular example of how great pop music and avant-garde art can infuse each other and inspire originality. 

It’s easy enough to find these days; go and listen.

ALL COME TO LOOK FOR AMERICA

Now is the time when we get to turn back the clock. It’s the end of Daylight Savings (It happens here in Europe a week before America). But I have been doing this in my writing all my life, imagining myself in times and places I have never been, and re-imagining myself as a child and young adult. So it seems natural for me to wander back in time, and remember some of the most affecting moments in my life.

 

It has been fifty years since Simon & Garfunkel’s album ‘Bookends’ was released. This happened at a perilous time in America’s history – 1968, and I am thinking about it now because we seem to be at a similarly perilous time again. The album had several songs that attempted to capture the essence of uncertainty in the air. Most famously, there is ‘Mrs. Robinson’ with its line about ‘going to the candidates debate / laugh about it, shout about it / when you have to choose / anyway you look at it, you lose’. There’s ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ talking about dissatisfaction (‘…time, time, time / look what’s become of me’) and ‘Old Friends’ with its lyric about age  (‘Can you imagine us years from today / sharing a park bench quietly / how terribly strange to be seventy’).

 

But the centerpiece of the recording, and the most poignant song across time, is ‘America’. The lyrics aren’t really about the country; it’s more of a short story of sorts – about two people, a young man and a woman named Kathy, hitchhiking from Michigan to New York for….what? – a new life, a chance to save or extend their relationship, an unrealized opportunity. The lyrics are an intoxicating mix of particularity and poetry. On the one hand, there’s Mrs. Wagner’s pies, Saginaw, and the New Jersey Turnpike, and on the other, there’s the line about the moment when ‘…. the moon rose over an open field’ or when the narrator cries out ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said / though I knew she was sleeping.’

 

There is the sense that the singer is lamenting both the loss of a love and the loss of an ideal. The poignancy was aching then (literally: there’s another line where the young man says ‘I’m aching and lonely and I don’t know why’) and it is even more aching now, when fifty years of our lives filled with heartache and hope and promises and tragedy, have passed and left a trail writ in water, to quote Keats’ gravestone.

 

Paul Simon did revisit this theme again, a few years later, with his song ‘American Tune’. He wrote it in 1973, right after Richard Nixon was elected, and it advances the vague sense of unease of ‘America’ into something more definitively tragic:

 

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower, 
We come on the ship that sailed the moon,
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune


But it's all right, it's all right,
You can't be forever blessed.
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day,
And I'm trying to get some rest --
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest.

 

 

Paul Simon is seventy-seven now, and I’m sixty-three, and the nation we were born into and grew up in and (at least, in my case) still feel some affinity for despite living a thousand miles away seems in some respects in as uncertain a place as it was all those years ago. 

 

But the urge to instruct, to enlighten, and to create remains (again, at least for me. I can’t speak for Mr. Simon). I keep on writing, and trying, with my writing, to understand and learn from history, to offer love and hope, and to make the world of my imagination a model for the real thing.

What A Drag!

 

I’m all tapped out on drag queens.

This summer, my husband and I have been speed-dating ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’. It’s been one of the ways – perhaps it’s been the best way – to help us get through this endless summer of heat and construction.

We started with the current season – no.10, and worked our way backwards through season 9, 8, an 7. Then we decided to apply a little origins theory to this experiment, and went back to season 1 and headed forward (with the exception of season 5, which for some reason – likely legal – iTunes excluded from availability).

On the surface, ‘Drag Race’ is like all the other reality competition shows: you start with a dozen or so competitors, give them each a weekly challenge, and get rid of one at the end of each broadcast.

But Ru Paul is not your ordinary hostess, and ‘Drag Race’ is not your ordinary show. First of all, everyone is or at least passes as gay, and no one is coy about it. Even ‘Fashion Police’ wasn’t this gay, Joan Rivers not withstanding. 

Plus, the contestants are drag queens. Because of this, and like the other best show of 2018, Ryan Murphy’s ‘Pose,’ you get a whole ‘nother layer of sexual, social, and political affect laid in on top of the more obvious dirty jokes, wild wigs, and sang-froid bitchiness.

Watching ‘Drag Race’ – especially watching ten years of ‘Drag Race’ in eight weeks – is a heady combination of over-the-top hilarity and deeply moving self-empowerment, often whiplashing from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes.

My husband and I love to join in the shouting out of all of Ru’s favorite catchphrases (‘Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best woman win!’ or ‘Silence! I’ve made some decisions’ or my personal favorite, ‘Good luck, and don’t fuck it up!’). We ogle the semi-naked pit crew. We wait with breathless anticipation for each season’s celebrity impersonations in the ‘Snatch Game.’

We root for our favorite queens. (Among my tops: BeBe Sahara Bonet, Sharon Needles, Latrice Royale, and ‘I do declare, Blair St. Clair). We watched Michelle Visage replace Merle Ginsburg and Ross Mathews replace Santino Rice as judges. We watched Ru self-promote the hell out of her make-up, records, books, and side-projects.

But we also weep (with joy) when Ru reminds us of the value of sisterhood when applied to all human beings, when in between the moments of wig-pulling and reading (which has nothing to do with books, look it up) one queen offers a hand or a shoulder or a hip pad to another, or when the legacies of the gay drag icons of the past inform and inspire.

Seeing the entirety of the show in this manner (so far: it’s been renewed for an 11th season), I noticed a slight tick upwards in production values. The rather under-lit studio and relatively paltry prizes of the first few seasons have given way to longer runways, live audiences, and towering amounts of make-up, jewels, and cash. 

I noticed an equal increase in political sodality (or should I say sorority?) Perhaps this has something to do with the ascendance of Donald Trump in the middle of the 8th season. The at first shy and modestly defiant queens soon stepped up their game and crashed the standard of what properly behaved gay people look and sound like.

But let’s not take this serious stuff too seriously. These are still drag queens, after all. How fun is it to shout ‘Amen’ after Ru asks ‘if you can’t love yourself, how they hell are you going to love someone else?’ Or to do the drag ball wave (again, look it up) and scream ‘Vangi! Vangi’ or ‘Cameroooon!’ at the TV? In the end, ‘don’t fuck it up’ is not only a good catch-phrase, it’s also a pretty good template for how to live your life.

But now, unless there is a sudden and unexpected burst of ‘Drag Race All Stars’ this fall, John and I will have to wait until next spring to catch Ru saying ‘hi, hi, hi’ to her new drag family. I can’t imagine waiting a week to see who has to lip-synch for their lives, but I will if I have to.

To quote the final line of every broadcast: ‘Now, let the music play!’

 

 

Drowning in the Liffey : the search for my Irish soul

 

I write these lines while sitting in the middle of the Rosie Hackett Bridge spanning the River Liffey in Dublin. I am looking directly at the O’Connell Street Bridge, over which I have crossed at least one hundred times in my fiction as well as perhaps two dozens times in reality.

It is here that Joe Dooley, the hero of my first novel, ‘The Music Teacher,’ passed each day on his way to the General Post Office one block north, where he posted the lessons notice that attracted the attention of his best buddy and first love, Henry Vogeler.

And it is here that Billy Boland, the hero of ‘Telemachus’ – my other novel set in Dublin – walked on his way to his job sorting paper at Eason’s Stationers, located on what was then called Sackville Street. 

I crossed this bridge a hundred times while writing “The Music Teacher’ and ‘Telemachus’, and I crossed it a hundred times before when reading Oliver St John Gogarty’s memoirs of turn-of-the-century Dublin or James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ – the touchstone of all things cartographically Dublin. I crossed this bridge when tracing the routes of the soldiers of the 1916 Easter Rising. The bridge lies in the center of the heart of my imagination, and now it is literally in the center of my line of vision as well.

I say I’m drowning in the waters of the River Liffey, although of course I am not literally but rather literarily drowning in it. The water is endlessly coursing, so that I am never looking at the same river, and the flow of the water mimics (perhaps ‘mocks’ is a better word) me, reminding me that I am changing from moment to moment just as much but a whole lot less noticeably. 

My writing has always spun from the reflection of this internal current. Under the flow of this eternal river lies the bed that I can easily attest nourished my entire creative life. I have no reason or justification for this fascination with all things Irish – Irish language (which I cannot speak), Irish song, literature, art, or history. I am a Jewish boy from New York. Perhaps I was Irish in a past life. My husband, who is half-Irish himself, thinks so. 

Maybe it’s the taste of good whiskey, rare and so rarely sorted. Maybe it’s the irresistible combination of those blue eyes and that black hair which so many Irish lads beam out to the world -- a combination of ‘come hither’ and ‘feck off’ that creates a singular form of repressed passion.  Maybe it’s that first sentence of ‘Ulysses’: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

But I know, as I knew when I came here in my dreams, and when I came here fifteen years ago, and when I came here last week, that I will return, someday to stay, someday to live, to stitch the dream to a real piece of fine linen, and drape it around me as a muse.

And oh so pleasantly drown.

Stoned again

You may recall I revisited my relationship with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones (and oh, how much Charlie would hate that phrase) in March, when I first procured my tickets to their upcoming (tomorrow!) show in Prague, but I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on one experience in particular, as a way of demonstrating a key aspect of this long-term love affair.

It was the summer of 1976. I had just graduated from Rutgers, and my parents gave me the gift I asked for – a trip to England to see the Rolling Stones. I was twenty years old, and it was my first trip abroad and my first trip anywhere without my family.

My first night in London was terrifying. I had booked a room in a hostel in Earl’s Court, and the strange sounds of the street, the loneliness of not having anyone to talk to, and the sudden perception of the great distance that existed between me and anyone I loved brought tears to my eyes.

It took a few days to adjust, but – eventually – I did. I went to the Marquis Club in Soho to see Phil Collins and met a cute fifteen year-old boy named Barry. I ate Indian food and Wimpy burgers and Cadbury chocolate bars. I learned to navigate the British rail system and found my way to many of the places of my dreams – the Lake District where Keats wrote, the Scottish Highlands (where I flirted with a German boy named Alexander), and even Liverpool, where I stood outside the Cavern and imagined hearing The Beatles for the first time.

But all of this was a preview, a warm-up of sorts, for the main act – the appearance of the Rolling Stones at the Knebworth Festival: just me and 200,000 other people on a field thirty miles north of London. 

I caught the train to Knebworth from King’s Cross Station the night before the concert. I knew that all the tickets were general admission and the quality of your ‘seat’ depended on how early you queued up. So I sat on the grass there for almost 24 hours, keeping as warm as possible in my Bay City Rollers windbreaker (green vinyl with white cloth stars) with nothing to eat but whatever the kind strangers beside me had to offer.

To be honest, I don’t recall much of anything between the morning I joined the line and the moment the Stones hit the stage. I must have had the right idea about arriving when I did, because I do remember that I ended up spitting distance (almost literally) from Mick, still the closest I’ve ever been to the man (outside of a chance encounter in the Bottom Line men’s room, but that’s another story).

I must have napped through some of the other acts, because I can look up who was there easily enough – Todd Rundgren, 10CC, Hot Tuna, Lynyrd Skynyrd – but I don’t have any audible memories of them. I do know it was pretty close midnight when the Stones came on stage. 

You know you’re the Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band In The World when you can OPEN your concert with ‘Satisfaction’. According to Stones legends (and seconded in print by Bill Wyman), this show would end up being their longest one ever – 28 songs spread out across close to three hours. 

And then it was over. I made my way back to the train station and joined the huddled masses stuffing themselves in train carriages to take us back to King’s Cross. And the next morning, I flew home.

Now, 42 years later, I am seeing The Rolling Stones in Europe again. Mick is 74 (and turning 75 later this month). I’m 62. It’s can’t be merely the excitement of the music that accounts for why I still do it (or, for that matter, why the band does it). The band hasn’t had a hit record in decades. No, at this point it must have something to do with mortality and our constant sword crossing against it. When friends ask my why I want to see the Stones in concert, I say ‘well, if Mick and Keith can keep doing it, so can I’.

That’s the point. On paper (or on line, which is the way most of us communicate these days) it is patently ridiculous to be interested in seeing an act that was relevant five decades ago. It’s as if, in my childhood, my parents had been salivating about attending a Rudy Vallee concert. And yet...

I’ll be among the tens of thousands on the airstrip tomorrow night. It won’t be the biggest crowd I’ve ever joined for a Stones concert – that will always be Knebworth. And I’ll never be twenty years old again. But I’m still here. (And I’m still friends with Barry, the boy I met at the Marquis that week).

It’s a cliché now, maybe even more than a cliché – call it a truism. But I like it, like it, yes I do.

In Memory of Lost Bread

 

Writing about food is like writing about sex: it’s no substitute for the real thing, but meanwhile it’s a creative way to pass the time.

I first thought about writing about food when I was twelve years old. My Dad wrote advertising copy for a publishing company in New York, and he often kept samples. One day, he brought home a book of pancake recipes, and for the next month I buried my family under an avalanche of pancakes – pancakes with bananas, pancakes with strawberries, diced with bacon, rolled into crêpes, stuffed with sausages…

I persisted against all odds and against the continual complaints about mushy pancakes and burnt pans and unwashed bowls until I had tried every recipe in that (thankfully) slim volume. I doodled my own recipes and imagined a mimeographed newsletter that I could sell for a penny a copy to my unsuspecting neighbors. A year passed inconsequently, and then adolescence crept upon me. Cooking breakfast started to seem less important than my drum kit or my record collection.

This gastronomic urge returned in my early twenties, when I started to work in a second-hand bookshop in Upper Manhattan that happened to be a block away from a food boutique. The combination of easy access to old cookbooks by Elizabeth David and Craig Claiborne and a shop that sold fresh pasta, coffee beans, French cheeses, and Italian charcuterie was irresistible. I provisioned my dime-sized New York kitchen with stainless steel gadgets and cheap cast iron pans, and started to read and cook, and I’ve been doing it, on and off, ever since.

I have tried to write about food for publication twice. The first time, while I was still in New York and was thinking about ways of making some extra money, I wrote a few pieces on spec about fish and barbecuing and sent them off – to no avail, of course -- to Gourmetmagazine. I tried a second time while living in the Boston area and after successfully publishing books on film, hoping to interest my agent in a combination cookbook and memoir. Again: silence.

Many decades have intervened since. My serpentine journey in retirement (Ecuador, Malta, Verona) landed me in Prague. A few months after moving here a French restaurant opened up across the street from our apartment. And not just any French restaurant, but one run by the grandson of one of the great chefs of the twentieth century. Grégory Oliver’s grandfather Raymond owned La Grand Véfour in the heart of Paris, where he cooked for Churchill and De Gaulle and movie stars and starred in one of the earliest cooking shows on television.

Grégory and his mother Stéphane (who once ran her own restaurant in Paris) were, jus sanguinis, brilliant chefs, and their restaurant Papi Oliver (named for Raymond) is the kind of sensory experience that just might replace sex, if one needed an alternative. My husband John and I visit regularly, and an idea born of reverse engineering occurred to me: how could I feel as I did when I was in my twenties, reading Elizabeth David and rolling out pasta on my old Atlas machine? What if I was to try to recreate in words, as best I know how, how it feels to be in the midst of such inspired culinary creativity and history?

Grégory learned to cook from his mother; his mother learned to cook from her father. Raymond Oliver was born in Langon, Gascogny and moved to Paris. Greg was born in Paris and moved to Prague. Three generations, three cities: I have a story. 

Now, over my daily café Americanoand a croissant, I ponder a book about food where I will try to entwine the threads that have brought me from suburban pancakes to boeuf bourguignon with the ones that brought la famille Oliver from southwest France to central Europe and see what kind of literary garment can be wrought from them.

Like the days of our lives, recipes never turn out the same way twice. But the act of putting words on a page and weaving them into a story that can say something about my friends and myself seems worth the effort. 

The title of this piece is a parody of Marcel Proust. He called his novel À la recherche de temps perdu – In memory of lost time. The French name for French toast is pain perdu – lost bread. Food, memory, time: I hope they’re the perfect ingredients for a good book.

An Elegant Legacy, or The Importance of Being Irish

 

 

First, this essay would have made more sense on St Patrick’s Day, except that I didn’t think of writing it until St Patrick’s Day. And next, I make no claim to being an Irishman; I’m only married to one. Let me explain.

 

The soft dust of Irishness has trailed me since I was a boy My first best friend was Martin Farley (or ‘Fartin’ Marley, as my father called him). Martin lived in a house a block away from my own; he had four brothers and a sister and a yard big enough for a real (as opposed to a whiffle) baseball game. I am Jewish, and it was in his parents’ den that I first saw the shiny crucifixes, glossy portraits of the young and handsome Jesus, and decorative saints of Roman – or more specifically, Irish Catholicism.

 

I read books of Irish fairy tales filled with beautiful color illustrations (by Arthur Rackham, I later learned), and, when I was old enough, the works of the other great Irish writers – Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and, eventually, James Joyce. It was with Joyce, and college, that my casual and cultural Irish interests (people with Irish names, foods with an Irish heritage) morphed into the deeper and more soulful connection I feel today, and have felt, with variable levels of commitment, for the past four decades.

 

As a graduate student at Columbia, I took a semester-long course with Frank MacShane where the goal of the class was to understand (and produce a coherent paper about) one page of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. My first novel, ‘The Music Teacher,’ was set primarily in Dublin, and although I enjoyed writing it immensely, I must confess in retrospect I enjoyed the research – walking up and down the North Side lanes and in and out of the South Side squares – even more. I revisited these streets again in my most recent book, ‘Telemachus,’ where my Joycean affinity finally bloomed into something more completely obsessive: a retelling of the story of  ‘Ulysses’ as told by Molly Bloom’s mythical son, twenty two years on.

So now I recall the joy on my husband’s face on the day he received his Irish citizenship papers in the mail. Or how I burst into tears the first time I saw Ireland from the air, As our plane circled over the island, I saw it really was emerald green, and it felt so much, so irrationally, like coming home.

 

The Irish and the Jews are linked in my imagination: two races in perpetual diaspora. The music of both peoples is laced with lament, the food filling, and the families overflowing with feelings (not only loving but everything else, as well).

 

There’s a song in the musical ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ called ‘Look To The Rainbow’ whose lyrics so perfectly express my deep connection to Irishness. They’re worth quoting in full:

On the day I was born,

Said my father, said he.

I've an elegant legacy

Waitin' for ye,

'Tis a rhyme for your lips

And a song for your heart,

To sing it whenever

The world falls apart.

 

So I bundled my heart

And I roamed the world free;

To the East with the lark

To the West with the sea.

And I searched all the earth

And I scanned all the skies,

And I found it at last,

In my own true love’s eyes.

 

'Twas a sumptuous gift

To bequeath to a child.

Oh the lure of that song

Kept her feet funnin' wild.

For you never grow old

And you never stand still,

With whippoorwills singin'

Beyond the next hill.

 

Look, look

Look to the rainbow.

Follow it over the hill

And the stream.

Look, look

Look to the rainbow.

Follow the fellow

Who follows a dream.

 

Happy belated St Patrick’s Day!

 

 

Like A Rolling Stone

Like A Rolling Stone

 

As Michael Corleone said in ‘The Godfather, Part III,” ‘…just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ Yes, The Rolling Stones are coming to Prague this summer, and I, of course, will be there. It seems no matter how old I am whenever the Stones tour those of us attuned to the sound of the old tribal chant drop everything for the ancient and increasingly archaic call of music and community Or maybe it’s only rock ‘n’ roll -- and I like it, like it, yes I do.

 

The boys and I go back nigh on forty-six years, nine concerts in all. I remember a few poignant details from each one (even in my youth, I was never so stoned or drunk as to forget where I was or what I was hearing). My first time: Madison Square Garden, 1972, when I was so scared that someone would try to steal my ticket that I safety-pinned it to my underwear. And New York again in 1975, when my date dyed her hair blue to match a lyric from ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’, the single off of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’.

 

I was in London (specifically, Knebworth, a village fifty miles north of London) in 1976, when the Stones headlined a festival that featured one of the last hurrahs of Lynyrd Skynyrd. My twenty-four hours in line outside the festival grounds placed me within spitting distance (sometimes literally) of Mick Jagger, and the bands’ set was nearly three hours long.

 

I was barely twenty years old. For the next decade, adulthood temporarily intervened. I didn’t see the band perform live again until the Steel Wheels tour of 1989, this time in Boston. There were 50,000 people in the audience and the stadium echo was supposed to produce a noise something akin to a jet plane landing, but somehow the Stones’ sound engineers produced headphone-quality music in that most inauspicious space.

 

I’ll skip lightly though the Voodoo Lounge, Bridges To Babylon, Bigger Bang, and 50 & Counting tours – not because they weren’t as memorable, but because in the years between my late thirties and my mid- fifties they were as routinely dependable and richly worth celebrating as a family reunion. Every five years or so, my co-workers at Harvard could expect the day when I would come into the office breathless, sweaty, and extremely nervous.  They knew: Stones tickets must be going on sale that day.

 

There was the time the concert ended at midnight, and by the time we drove out of the parking lot, it was three in the morning. We sang along with Bob Dylan songs all through the two-hour drive home. And then there was the time I failed to procure a pair of tickets (the nerve!), I was reduced to entering the Stones’ ‘Lucky Dip’ lottery – and won. The seats were in the top balcony of the Boston Garden, but ten minutes before the show started someone from the band’s crew came up to all of us and handed us floor passes.

 

So on July 4th (which is not a special day in the Czech Republic, except perhaps for being remembered as the day the Rolling Stones played Letnany Airport) I will be sitting up in the rafters (I’m too old to stand) for a Stones concert for the ninth time. Could this be, as the band suggested fifty-three years ago, ‘the last time’? I don’t know. But I do know that if Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are still alive, and I am, I’ll be there.

Like A Rolling Stone

Like A Rolling Stone

 

As Michael Corleone said in ‘The Godfather, Part III,” ‘…just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ Yes, The Rolling Stones are coming to Prague this summer, and I, of course, will be there. It seems no matter how old I am whenever the Stones tour those of us attuned to the sound of the old tribal chant drop everything for the ancient and increasingly archaic call of music and community Or maybe it’s only rock ‘n’ roll -- and I like it, like it, yes I do.

 

The boys and I go back nigh on forty-six years, nine concerts in all. I remember a few poignant details from each one (even in my youth, I was never so stoned or drunk as to forget where I was or what I was hearing). My first time: Madison Square Garden, 1972, when I was so scared that someone would try to steal my ticket that I safety-pinned it to my underwear. And New York again in 1975, when my date dyed her hair blue to match a lyric from ‘If You Can’t Rock Me’, the single off of ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’.

 

I was in London (specifically, Knebworth, a village fifty miles north of London) in 1976, when the Stones headlined a festival that featured one of the last hurrahs of Lynyrd Skynyrd. My twenty-four hours in line outside the festival grounds placed me within spitting distance (sometimes literally) of Mick Jagger, and the bands’ set was nearly three hours long.

 

I was barely twenty years old. For the next decade, adulthood temporarily intervened. I didn’t see the band perform live again until the Steel Wheels tour of 1989, this time in Boston. There were 50,000 people in the audience and the stadium echo was supposed to produce a noise something akin to a jet plane landing, but somehow the Stones’ sound engineers produced headphone-quality music in that most inauspicious space.

 

I’ll skip lightly though the Voodoo Lounge, Bridges To Babylon, Bigger Bang, and 50 & Counting tours – not because they weren’t as memorable, but because in the years between my late thirties and my mid- fifties they were as routinely dependable and richly worth celebrating as a family reunion. Every five years or so, my co-workers at Harvard could expect the day when I would come into the office breathless, sweaty, and extremely nervous.  They knew: Stones tickets must be going on sale that day.

 

There was the time the concert ended at midnight, and by the time we drove out of the parking lot, it was three in the morning. We sang along with Bob Dylan songs all through the two-hour drive home. And then there was the time I failed to procure a pair of tickets (the nerve!), I was reduced to entering the Stones’ ‘Lucky Dip’ lottery – and won. The seats were in the top balcony of the Boston Garden, but ten minutes before the show started someone from the band’s crew came up to all of us and handed us floor passes.

 

So on July 4th (which is not a special day in the Czech Republic, except perhaps for being remembered as the day the Rolling Stones played Letnany Airport) I will be sitting up in the rafters (I’m too old to stand) for a Stones concert for the ninth time. Could this be, as the band suggested fifty-three years ago, ‘the last time’? I don’t know. But I do know that if Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are still alive, and I am, I’ll be there.

The Importance of Being Brooklyn

 

 

Brooklyn is important because I was born there. Well, I actually wasn’t born there; I was born in Mt Eden Hospital in the Bronx, and I lived with my parents in my grandparents’ apartment on the Grand Concourse until our basement flat in Brooklyn was ready.

 

And I didn’t really grow up in Brooklyn, either: we moved from Sheepshead Bay to a full-blown ranch house in suburban New Jersey when I was seven. But whenever anyone asks me where I’m from,  ‘Brooklyn’ is my instinctual answer. That’s because Brooklyn isn’t just a place on a map, but a spiritual – more specifically, a literary landscape. It has inspired me, as it has inspired many other authors, almost as long as it has been a borough of New York City (that’s a little over one hundred and twenty years, and counting).

 

An entire genre of war and post-war fiction sprouted from that overbuilt Brooklyn soil. There’s Betty Smith’s ‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ (1943), about a lonely Irish girl, her doting aunt, and her charming but alcoholic father, and Irving Shulman’s ‘The Amboy Dukes’ (1947) about Jewish gangs of East New York. Most famously, there’s Hugh Selby Jr’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ (1965), where longshoremen and transvestites try to eke out a living amidst the waterfront dime shops and nickel bars.

 

This phenomenon is not limited to the generation of writers working after the Second World War. Colm Tóibin’s eponymous ‘Brooklyn’ (2009) updates the age-old tale of a post-war Irish immigrant and a local lad (who happens to be Italian) and makes it fresh for the 21st century.

 

And, of course, as I’ve said, Brooklyn has inspired me. It’s practically a character in my novel ‘Vinegar Hill,’ where a young Jewish poet and a champion swimmer (for Brooklyn College, natch) fall in love and help to uncover a German spy nest located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The borough is featured less prominently in my novel ‘Hotel Continental’. Most of the action takes place in Vietnam, but the main character is from Brooklyn, and his memories of his family and his friends there color his look on life in an Asian jungle.

 

I suppose the old adage is thereby true: you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy. I still get inspired reading Hart Crane and conjuring up my memories of standing directly under the Brooklyn Bridge, a breathtaking experience despite the fact that it is no longer (as it once was) the tallest structure in the city. I have never forgotten the roar of the surf or the carnival sounds of Coney Island. And I still carry the same chip on my shoulder that any Brooklyn boy (or girl) carries: who needs Manhattan? Brooklyn is better: the best.

 

Here in Europe (and, I suspect, in many parts of America), Brooklyn is a tee shirt, a ball cap, and a marketing ploy. The word itself has jumped off from being a specific place to embodying an attitude. This brings me a small measure of pride. I may be decades – many decades – away from living in Brooklyn, but in my heart and soul, I am still a Brooklyn boy.

The Lonely, Crowded World Of A Writer

 

 

            Writing is the loneliest of professions. The work can only be done alone. The social history of writing is long and full, from the coffee houses of London and the bohemian cafes of Paris to the bars and clubs of Greenwich Village in New York. No amount of pleasant company, however, helps you address the blank page, or even one filled with words. There is a difference between collegiality and cooperation.

            And yet…when I am writing, I may be lonely but I am not alone. My friendships began with the books I read as a boy, books full of simple words and pictures and timeless stories. As I grew older and learned to write, I advanced from innocent admiration to blunt co-option. Eventually, alchemically, I became the sum of the books I have assimilated and refracted until a new style emerged I can only hope to call my own.

            I find the dichotomy between the internal conversations I have with my imagination – like the one I am having right now – and the world around me fascinating. When I was younger, I needed to write in total silence. I’d find a corner desk in an upper floor of the library, or sit on an empty bench in a large park on a cool afternoon. This silent communion would necessarily be interrupted by factors beyond my control, such as noisy library patrons and sudden rainstorms.

Since then, I have learned to write in the world as well as of it, allowing the sounds of children or the bustle of traffic to coexist with the lapping of my laptop. I have taken up my work in the food court of a shopping mall, or near a playground in a park, and (when air-conditioning is required) even in the lobby of a local hotel. At such moments, my muse is, indeed, both lonely and crowded.

            A warning: any writer who has made it through writing school, as I did, should have learned by now not to think too hard about the metaphysical aspects of the craft (or trade, it can switch back and forth, or be both).  As I worked on this post, I can hear my teacher’s voice saying ‘forget the distractions, just put one word after another’.  But it’s hard to hold to this dictum when you are simultaneously a) wondering what you will have for lunch, b) trying to decide if your hero is ‘wandering’ or ‘strolling’, c) changing your mind about your audience, or your submission target, or your plot outline, and d) preparing for an appointment with your dentist.

            And yet (again): when I am creating pure writing – that is, writing that flows effortlessly like a mountain stream, that ‘sounds right,’ and says something that up until that moment I hadn’t thought of – I levitate straight out of this lonely, crowded world. I am completely inside an alternative universe, one of my own creation. This is the place where I am happiest, at least with myself, the place that I believe is the ultimate destination of any writer: an orb apart, shiny, complete, and attained.

            Keats got it right. This is how you feel when good writing strikes:

 

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 

            The best writing – my best writing – aims for a similar transportation, to reach that peak and look down at what you see, and create something new out of it. When that happens, I no longer mind being lonely, or notice the crowd.

 

Reminder: I will be reading from my novel ‘Vinegar Hill’ at the Globe Bookshop, Pštrossova 6 in Prague on Tuesday, October 17th, 2017, and then I will be reading from ‘Hotel Continental’ at A Maze In Tchaiovna, Muchova 6 in Prague on Monday, October 23rd, 2017. Both events will begin at 19:00. Please come join me!

Launch Parties in Prague!

I am pleased to announce that I will be holding two launch parties for my new novels in Prague this October. I will be reading from 'Vinegar Hill' at the Globe Bookshop (Pštrossova 6) on Tuesday, Oct.17, starting at 19:00, and then I will be reading from 'Hotel Continental' at A Maze in Tchaiovna (Muchova 6) on Monday, Oct.23, starting at 19:00. I will have copies of both books available for sale at a special price (300 kČ, regularly 325). Please come and celebrate with me!