Tuesday, March 31, 2009


After my recent favorite movies with two-word titles list (but no articles—“the” or “a”—allowed), I thought I’d do one for novels when the garbage truck woke me up last night. If you’re just tuning in, I use these lists to help me get back to sleep and the more restrictions I put on them the harder I have to think, and recall, and the more apt it is to have me snoozing before I finish. The main restriction being they have to be works I dig.

ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy, ABSALOM, ABSALOM! By William Faulkner
BIG SUR by Jack Kerouac
CANNERY ROW by John Steinbeck, CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut
DON QUIXOTE by Cervantes (the original title in Spanish is actually more than two words but this is how it’s been known in English forever), DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens, DHARMA BUMS and DESOLATION ANGELS by Jack Kerouac
ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton
FIRST LOVE by Ivan Turgenev, FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce, FORGETTING ELENA by Edmund White, FROM BONDAGE by Henry Roth (Vol. III from MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM)
INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison, IN THRALL by Jane DeLynn
JUDGMENT DAY by James T. Farrell
KINGSBLOOD ROYAL by Sinclair Lewis (maybe not considered great literature, but what an impact it had on me as a kid in the age of overt and legal racism etc.)
LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad
MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert, MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen, MOBY DICK by Herman Mellville, MALONE DIES by Samuel Beckett, MUMBO JUMBO by Ishmael Reed, MODERN LOVE by Constance De Jong
NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
ORPHEUS EMERGED by Jack Kerouac (his posthumously published early novel, not his best but a great peek into the period of his formation as a writer)
PARADE’S END by Ford Madox Ford (actually a tetralogy, i.e. four novels, combined to make one monstrous one that was one of my all-time favorite reads), PRATER VIOLET by Christopher Isherwood, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth
ROCK WAGRAM by William Saroyan, REAL ESTATE by Jane DeLynn
SISTER CARRIE by Theordore Dreiser, SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky, STRANGE FRUIT by Lillian Smith (another novel never considered great literature and not very radical but at the time its racial focus was considered dangerous and subversive and certainly had an impact on my young mind when I discovered it), SNOWBALL’S CHANCE by John Reed (a sequel to ANIMAL FARM for the Bush Junior era)
TRISTAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne, TRACY’S TIGER by William Saroyan
VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray
WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson (actually a collection of stories that is the first one to add up to a novel, with the town as the protagonist), WASHINGTON SQUARE by Henry James, WHITE MULE by William Carlos Williams, WAITING PERIOD by Hubert Selby Jr. (Selby’s last published novel, another dark take on the Bush Junior era—but one only Selby would dare)
YOUNG LONIGAN by James T. Farrell, YESTERDAY’S BURDENS by Robert M. Coates

Monday, March 30, 2009


"By now you know the problem with President Obama's media strategy. He's too somber. Also, he laughs too much. He needs to get out and communicate more. And he's doing too much TV. He's overly professorial. And too fluffy. He needs to be a calm, grown up voice. And he needs to share taxpayers' rage. But, you know—calm their rage too." —James Poniewozik in the latest TIME

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Last night (Saturday) my little guy and me and my daughter and one of my oldest best friends, along with my daughter-in-law and grandson and a friend of his named "Zephyr" (I love the Berkshires) drove up from Great Barrington, Mass (after I drove up from Jersey) to Pittsfield and the Colonial Theater there (a great old style 19th Century or early 20th style theater, meaning all seats are great except for the third balcony (highest) which over a half century ago or so was reserved for "Negroes" and seemed deliberately designed (the theater has been restored to its original glory but with updated sound system etc.) to be uncomfortable (straight back wooden seats, etc.)—the theaters then being higher than deep so that the balcony seats (even up to the third tier despite the uncomfortable seats) seem intimately close to the action on stage and the orchestra seats are all raked so anyone on the ground floor can see the stage etc. (there were box seats up on the sides too, though those weren't being used).

The place was packed with an enthusiastic crowd willing to pay twenty-five dollars to see some of the top guitarists in the Berkshires. The county-wide newspaper—The Berkshire Eagle—had polled readers to see who they thought was the greatest guitar player in the Berkshires and four of those who came in the top five or six (James Taylor couldn't make it!), came with their bands to demonstrate their skills last night.

I could tell you more about who was on stage but somebody messed up and there was no program! But the first band I know, because my oldest son plays bass in it. The guitar player is Don McGrory (and the band is known as Don McGrory and the Delta Soul Trio, Miles Lally on bass and "Jonesy" on drums). They started the show and had everyone moving in their seats after the first few notes. They are so tight, and so good, they could appear in any venue with the best musicians out there and hold their own.

The crowd loved them, cheered every song and every guitar solo, and some yelled for more (including me) when they finished their four song set. And I have to say, my son Miles not only kept the groove but added to the performance level with his moving to it and his skinny brim hat and soul patch, etc.)

They were followed by a Berkshires favorite with the kids, David Grover, only this time playing for adults. He started his set playing a miced (miked?) acoustic guitar, showing off his Merle Travis two fingered picking style with virtuoso displays that culminated in his playing a solo guitar arrangement of one of John Phillip Sousa's most famous marches (the one we used to sing the made up lyrics "be kind to your web footed friends, for a duck may be some-body's moth-er" to) sounding like a marching band with only a guitar! with beautiful invented flourishes that obviously impressed the audience whether it's their kind of music or not.

He ended his set by calling out a drummer (mostly playing mostly by hand a percussion stand-up set up that included a snare, a conga, a small set of bongos, a cowbell, a cymbal, etc.) and a bass player to do a couple of songs that culminated in the classic Crosby Stills and Nash masterpiece suite "Judy Blue Eyes" ("doodoodoodoodoo-doot-doot-doodoodoodoo")
and had everyone in the theater on their feet screaming with excited gratitude as they left the stage.

My friend, who had heard Crosby, Stills and Nash sing it not that long ago said Grover and these two guys (who unfortunately I cannot name because of the program screw up) nailed it better than CS&N did when she heard them (my older boy told me later that backstage the music writer who organized the poll and the event was saying the exact same thing, that he too not long ago had heard CS&N attempt this most musically complicated song in the history of rock, or certainly one of them, and they hadn't done it anywhere near as good as these guys did (all middle-aged men themselves).

After intermission, a local hero and his jam band took the stage, I think his name was "Thorn" or "Thor" or "Tore" (again the nonexistent program) [I looked it up and he's Tor Krautter] amid shouts of "Tor for president!" and cheers from one section of the audience. This was the only group with a roadie and a tour bus, so obviously they work a lot. They had the jam band de rigour look of just having gotten out of bed and not sure they were interested in noticing anyone watching as they played their separate instruments in what initially seemed like a bubble.

On their first song, "How Sweet it is to be Loved by You"—an interesting choice for a jam band I thought—the guitarist just picked and the instrumental solo and riffs were taken by the organ player (or electric keyboard with the organ button pushed, I couldn't tell from my vantage point). The guitarist was also using a music stand to read either lyrics to the songs they played or the music or both, which seemed equally strange for a jam band. But by their last song, it was finally demonstrate what he was doing on this stage with these other guitar virtuosos as he played some riffs and complicated flourishes that were impressive and the bass player, who looked so grim (from concentrating?) that he seemed almost "depressed" as my friend Karen said, playing on only three strings (the bottom one having come loose and drooping down) equally impressed (at least me) with some solid work.

Then came the last band led by the winner of the poll, whose first name I think was David, but whose last name I haven't forgotten because it's so unusual—"Ide"—[again, I looked it up and it's actually Steve Ide]—a modest man who made the audience comfortable immediately saying they'd never played in this kind of venue before, that they were used to clubs where people dance to their music so please feel free to get up in the aisles, and then he and (another modest and generous gesture from the winner, he had another guitar player in the band, a giant of a man, with long brown locks and beard—I was later told by my daughter that he teaches either pre-school or kindergarten!—whose first name is all I remember—"Bob"—who deserved to have been close to the top of this poll himself, and may be next year after his work last night) his band started and once again, as with the trio my son plays bass in, you couldn't help but move to the groove and I felt a tap on my arm and turned to see my youngest, Flynn, dancing in the aisle beside me, gesturing for me to join him, but not wanting to block anyone's view I hesitated and the women behind me jumped out of her seat and started getting down with Flynn and then I got up and my friend Karen and my daughter Caitlin and my grandson Donovan and his little friend Zephyr and eventually my daughter-in-law Jennifer and we pretty much stayed in the aisle dancing until the night was over.

The highlight of which was a finale with all the guitarists joining Ide's band on stage and playing several songs with each one taking solos and each one starting each song (and I assume picking them) and man was it glorious! Again, I can't help but marvel at the amazing amount of talented people in the world now. Maybe there always was but the population was so much smaller you could know who most of them were, but now, you can turn around anywhere it seems and be knocked out by as-good-as-it-gets talent in almost every art, especially music.

We left Pittsfield elated and exhausted. Another great musical experience in the Berkshires. I bet there's just as amazing musical creation going on in your neck of the woods. All you have to do is just turn around and dig it.

Friday, March 27, 2009


The rightwingers seem to be panicking in the face of Obama's popularity and more so his reasonableness. They have to ratchet up the faux stakes in order to rouse their base against the progress he's making and the hypocrisy he's exposing of theirs (e.g. the market's response is all important, unless it responds positively to an Obama speech or policy, etc.)

But the best response anyone has come up with lately to all this can be found on RJ Eskow's blog, nightlight. Check this out. RJ's not only accurate and articulate, he's funny.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


"Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see." —Paul Klee from his "Creative Credo" (don't know the translator)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


There's a story about JFK hosting a dinner of Nobel Prize winners in the White House and making the witty comment that there hadn't been that much brain power at a White House dinner "since Jefferson dined alone."

I thought of that last night watching Obama's press conference. Anyone who watched it from beginning to end could conclude only one thing—this man is the smartest in the room.

The reporters tried to snare him, trip him up, challenge him, make him look bad etc. But he's not only smart, he seems to relish a challenge, as his life story illustrates. He called on more reporters from rightwing media or right-leaning media than on even moderate ones. And answered every question not only with an articulate and precise and focused answer that made sense and completely answered the question, but also accepted the reality of other opinions and perspectives.

It was so gratifying to watch someone that intelligent not only represent himself and his vision and policies, but to have such an intelligent and articulate and focused person as the representative of our country.

Man what a change! And it's obviously got the rightwingers cross-eyed with frustration, to the point of many of their spokesmen (Rush, Glen Beck et. al.) almost foaming at the mouth and definitely going overboard on the fearmongering (did I hear correctly that Beck is warning of "totalitarianism" and "concentration camps"?!). It's sad, and a little worrying, but maybe predictable given the trajectory of rightwing political strategy over the past several decades.

Wouldn't it be great to be having a serious and real discussion, even argument between true "conservatives" and "liberals"—rather than this faux one (the perpetrators know they're making things up or wildly exaggerating, but unfortunately their rightwing followers don't always get that).

But short of that, watching Obama take on the representatives in the press of rightwing and moderate and a variety of perspectives and put each in context and answer each fully, with total command of the facts and details, displaying a breadth of knowledge the reporters (who I'm sure became complacent thinking they were smarter than the last occupant of the office) can't even come close to is truly rewarding.

If only those who need to see that the most were watching, unfortunately I doubt that. They probably only got their take on the press conference from the usual rightwing sources either on the rightwing controlled networks like FOX or the frightened supposed neutral networks who cater to the right in order not to be seen as "liberal" or to lose the connection to the rightwing power brokers in DC and "corporate America" et-endlessy-cetera.

[I meant to add: if the rightwingers did indeed watch it, their biases, or those of their leaders, would most likely make it impossible for them to see Obama's brilliance objectively—although I heard that even O'Reilly admits Obama's brilliance—and see his clear, precise, focused, intelligent answers as some kind of smokescreen because he's not one of them, which is ironic of course since rightwingers are always avoiding directly answering questions and creating smokescreens of dubious "facts" and/or red herring diversions etc.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This morning on PRI's "The Take Away" radio show, the host, John Hockenberry (sp?) interviewed the head of banking in Lebanon.

In 2005, he made a decision to get out of any investments in those subprime mortgage derivative hedge funds etc. (or whatever they're called) and as a result, the banking system in Lebanon is sound and growing, with credit still flowing, unlike in the land of the so-called "Masters of the Universe" the good old USA.

Listening to his explanations as to why he didn't follow the lead of the world's major financial institutions, he sounded not only practical and clearheaded, he also sounded like a good old fashioned "American" banker, or like George Baily in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE with his small Savings & Loan business.

First of all, I understood everything he said, because he spoke in regular, conversational, English, even though it's not his first language, unlike the financial wizards in our own country. Second of all, he didn't see himself as wise or better than anyone else, he just thought it didn't make sense to invest in things you couldn't really look at and evaluate, nor did he think it right to use depositor's money to take big financial risks.

When asked why he didn't have faith in the ratings companies that gave these toxic (as we now know) investments such high ratings ("triple A" as they say), he said, very practically, that these ratings companies were taking part in shaping a lot of these financial systems and products they were rating and therefore obviously couldn't be all that objective. Only he said it much simpler and without seeming to lay blame anywhere, just doing what he thought was the safer and more prudent thing to do.

As a result, not only are Lebanon's banks thriving, but the country is projecting four per cent growth this year, as opposed to our negative projection. And all this in a nation torn up only recently by a real war on their own land! And still divided in ways that threaten political stability, and in which more powerful neighbors and outside nations continue to try to exert influence and cause problems.

And on top of that, he did all this without receiving any bonuses, and on a salary of 250,000 dollars a year.

So what's our excuse?

Monday, March 23, 2009


There’s a thing (“meme”?) going around the net asking poets to make a list of twenty books that made them fall in love with poetry.

I had it sent to me by a few people, but I couldn’t figure how to respond since I feel like I was born loving poetry (I’ve been writing it since I could write), so there aren’t any books that made me “fall in love with poetry” because—I already was in love with it.

As a boy I was inspired and influenced by the liturgy at Mass and other Catholic rites and—when my oldest brother became a Franciscan—by St. Francis’ famous prayer as well as his poetry (“Brother Moon” etc.), and by song lyrics, like Johnny Mercer songs—“Zippidy Doo-Dah” and “You Got to Acc-cen-tu-ate the Positive”—and Hank Williams’—“Hey Good Lookin’” etc.

Then as I headed into my teens: Chuck Berry’s lyrics, e.g. “Mabelline” and eventually Jon Henricks’ lyrics—e.g. to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time”—influenced everything I wrote and thought about writing, especially poetry.

But as for a list of poetry books: I decided I could make one of poetry books that confirmed my love of poetry and inspired me to discover other approaches to writing it.

Not like I need an excuse to make another list, nor as though I could limit it to only twenty, though I did limit it to people I didn’t know, at least at the time I read the books. If I were to list books by poets I know that impacted me it’d be another forty or fifty or…

So here they are, as close as possible to the chronological order of when I first read them and/or they had their initial impact on me and/or my poetry, or at least my thinking about poetry, as far as I can remember at this moment, though I know I’m forgetting too many:

In my teens:

1. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL by St. John of the Cross
2. LA VITA NUOVA by Dante
3. LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman
4. 50 POEMS by e.e. cummings
5. “SECOND APRIL” and “THE ABOMINIST MANIFESTO” two broadsides by Bob Kaufman that knocked me out when I found them on a chair in Figaro’s one night c. 1959-60, later collected with other work in SOLITUDES CROWDED WITH LONELINESS—I also dug his GOLDEN SARDINES.
6. MEXICO CITY BLUES by Jack Kerouac
7. KADDISH AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg—I dug his first book, HOWL AND OTHER POEMS but then got angry after being dismissed, I felt, by him and some of the other “Beats” in their first wave of fame when I was a teenager hanging around the Village, then KADDISH came out and won me back, even more so.
8. DINNERS AND NIGHTMARES by Diane di Prima—a mix of prose and poems from the “Beat” writer I felt closest to in terms of where we came from and what we were trying to do with it.
9. THE BEATS edited by Seymour Krim—especially di Priima and Ray Bremser’s “turnpike”
10. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY edited by Donald Allen
11. THE NEW BOOK/A BOOK OF TORTURE by Michael McClure—what I liked best about the Romantic Poets I was discovering he made new and vital for my times.
12. BY THE WATERS OF MANHATTAN by Charles Reznikoff—years earlier I discovered a novel he wrote and published in the 1930s by the same name, so grabbed this New Directions paperback as soon as it came out and continued to dig all his writing.

In my twenties:

13. LUNCH POEMS by Frank O’Hara—my initial reaction to this was defensive, but it haunted me and after many re-readings changed my life.
14. RIP RAP by Gary Snyder
15. PATERSON and SPRING & ALL by William Carlos Williams—these two books altered my thinking about poetry forever, I was so inspired by and felt so connected to his poetic strategies and voice, and of course Jersey origins, no matter the generational and class differences.
16. THE MATERIALS by George Oppen—a distinct voice that nailed me with how concise a poetic line could be and influenced that direction in my own work, among the many directions I was, and still am, always taking.
17. “A CLOUD IN TROUSERS” (and other poems from SELECTED) by Vladmir Mayakovsky—big confirmation of some of my own approaches to combining what I learned as a kid from Irish myth making “boasting” and what African-Americans originally called “toasting” that contributed to “the dozens” and evolved into “rap” etc. as well as “the long poem” strategy.
18. THE BRANCH WILL NOT BREAK by James Wright—especially two poems: “A Blessing” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”—whose subtle strategies seemed so understatedly original.
19. SELECTED POEMS by William Butler Yeats—I was impressed more by his crazy theories than the actual poems, which rarely resonated with the kind of Irishness I grew up with but produced great and memorable lines.
20. LANGUAGE by Jack Spicer—totally opened me up to a new way of seeing how poetry could “express” my own thought processes.
21. ALPHABETS AND BIRTHDAYS by Gertrude Stein—I later used to read from this to my older kids when they were little as bed time stories; it definitely validated some of my own “experimental writing” and my sense of what is possible as did all her work as tedious as some of it can become on rereading.
22. THE CANTOS by Ezra Pound—the whole fragmentation/juxtaposition this-is-the-way-one-mind-works thing, though not the politics and petty prejudices.
23. THE WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS by T. S. Eliot—his rhythms influenced me, I realized years later, and I still love to read “Prufrock” and others despite not digging his theories or anti-Semitism or the negative faux-intellectual impact his work had on mid-20th Century academic poetry etc.
25. SELECTED POEMS of Muriel Rukeyser—no one I knew seemed to know her work back when my first wife, Lee, introduced this book to me, but the ways Rukeyser structured poems, especially long ones fascinated me and opened up new approaches to structure and rhythm and ways to balance the abstract with the concrete.
26. TALES by LeRoi Jones—that’s what it says on my edition before he became Amiri Baraka—I always preferred his “prose” to his poems and these short pieces are more prose poems than stories anyway.
27. CANE by Jean Toomer—the prose interspersed with poems is equally poetic.
28. THE SELECTED WRITINGS of Blaise Cendrars—someone whose writing style I found so compatible with my own I felt like I’d discovered a long lost soul mate reading him the first time.
29. POEMS AND ANTIPOEMS by Nicanor Parra
30. FINDING THE MEASURE by Robert Kelly—I think I fell for the actual book as much as the original poetry in it, one of the first Black Sparrow Press publications to hit me with its fineness.
31. SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS—working my way through all of them from beginning to end the first time, I had this epiphany part way in, to read the series as a novel or autobiography, which made it more accessible and easy to follow and inspired me to use the same format for an autobiography I’d been working on since I left home at 18, which became “The South Orange Sonnets”—the title and length—twenty sonnets—occurring to me after I read Peter Schjeldahl’s “Paris Sonnets” and thought of the way “The New York School” was deliberately riffing on “The Paris School” label and figured I’d bring Jersey into the equation…
32. GUNSLINGER BOOK I by Edward Dorn—the stoned horse was a little too much even then, but the precision of the language used so originally and the underlying philosophical struggle made it seem deeply important and exemplary at a time full of portents, the late 1960s.
33. BROADSIDE PRESS—almost any book from this small press that Dudley Randall ran out of Detroit, all the poets being thought of as part of the “Back Arts Movement”—having been offered a prize by a panel thinking from my poetry at the time that I was “black” and then having it taken back when it was discovered I wasn’t, I was still sometimes associated with poets in that movement, especially after Etheridge Knight and I became best friends—the impact of these emerging “black” voices in the poetry world, including Knight, Don L. Lee, Audre Lourde, Nikki Giovanni, Clarence Major, etc.—confirmed a lot of my earlier influences and made room for a much wider understanding of what poetry could be and vice versa.
34. “A” by Louis Zukofsky—the hardcover Jonathan Cape edition with the first 12 sections impressed me no end, especially being dropped into the early 20th Century New York street reality and leftist political perspective before he goes on to the distillation of Pound’s fragmentation/juxtaposition technique—reducing it to even smaller fragments and brighter, harder juxtos.
35. SOAP by Francis Ponge—a book length poem written over decades with a variety of approaches based on precise descriptive writing that extended the “no idea but in things” of WC Williams into new realms of metaphor and analogy, and even deep philosophy and political projection, et-amazingly-cetera.
36. I REMEMBER by Joe Brainard—the original oversized “chapbook” with a photo of him as a toddler on the cover—it was followed by a sequel and another sequel before later being collected as one book—one of the first books by a contemporary—who I didn’t know yet, when I read this first version—to impact my writing or at least my sense of it.
37. LION LION by Tom Raworth—another contemporary I hadn’t met yet, this book was so unbelievably original in its approach to the idea of a “poetry book” it validated all the homemade little books of poem and note fragments and paste-ins and collages I’d been making, while impressing me with its unique beauty.
38. THINGS STIRRING TOGETHER OR FAR AWAY by Larry Eigner—I already knew his work and dug it, I owned it in his earlier SELECTED POEMS and elsewhere, but this collection confirmed his importance in my personal pantheon and made me almost giddy with appreciation for his stripped down lyricism.

In my early thirties:

39. I REMEMBER THE ROOM WAS FILLED WITH LIGHT by Judith Hemschemeyer—some of my favorite straight ahead narrative lyrics about the struggles of life and love in terms usually dismissed as generic (or Ron Silliman’s “school of quietude” etc.) but she transcends through her precise use of language and imagery that resonates with the kind of dailiness I could relate to as I was uncovering my own renewed approach to being honest about the mundane as well as profane—I still dig this book and wonder who she was and what happened to her, though I guess I could just google her to find out, but I like the mystery of this one book falling into my world and introducing me to a poet I otherwise would never have noticed, let alone had my love of this most common approach to writing poetry renewed.
40. THREE POEMS by John Ashbery—another poet whose work I initially resisted (before I knew him personally) and then had an epiphany about and totally dug/dig, but this book impressed and influenced me the most, a beautifully radical approach to what a “poem” can be.
41. HYMN TO LIFE by James Schuyler—I dug all his previous books but this one (before I knew him personally) I related to in ways that seemed deeper than anything else he’d written up to then—maybe because of the long line and breath which he continued to develop in the books that followed.
42. NONE OF THE ABOVE, the anthology I edited in the early 1970s that came out in ’76—the poetry of everyone in it had an impact on me (I said I wouldn’t include friends, and many in this anthology weren’t friends, at least not yet, but several were), too many to name here (thirty-two poets included and others who I wanted but for various legal and other reasons the publisher excluded).

Like I said, there’s probably tons more, but…

Sunday, March 22, 2009


If you’re a Jack Kerouac scholar, or just a big fan (as I am) these two books are legendary. Both of them have been talked about even since long before Kerouac passed away. But neither were published until recently.

WAKE UP: A LIFE OF THE BUDDHA is Kerouac’s reinterpretation of Buddha’s legend. It was written in the 1950s when few “Americans” had any idea who Buddha even was, let alone had any interest in his life.

Kerouac had trouble getting it published, like a lot of his writing, because it was often too original in its subject matter and/or its approach to that. WAKE UP was no exception. It’s taken this long—four decades—since Kerouac’s death, and more than a half century since he wrote it for publication!

When he was still alive, Kerouac published a much smaller text based on his studies of Buddhism and other “Eastern” philosophies and spiritual paths, THE SCRIPTURE OF THE GOLDEN ETERNITY (City Lights books). It’s a poetic meditation on the deeper meanings of the Eastern texts he was studying, much of it Buddhist.

But he intended WAKE UP to mean much more than his other writings on Buddhism. It’s a true attempt to introduce to Americans what Buddha was all about, and to do it as reverentially as he could, treating the text as something outside his own writerly impulses, making that clear on the title page where instead of “by Jack Kerouac” he typed “Prepared by Jack Kerouac.”

When he was still alive, many Buddhists scholars and practitioners dismissed Kerouac’s interpretations of their sacred texts and their founder as too wildly personal and imaginative than solidly researched and textually factual and consistent.

Having studied these texts on my own as an autodidact before I finally got a college education on the G.I. Bill, and having come from the same kind of ethnic Roman Catholic mystical tradition, I totally bought Kerouac’s interpretations and even poetic riffs on Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies or spiritual traditions.

Unfortunately Kerouac didn’t have much support for his take on all this and is not alive to see it vindicated in the introduction to this first true publication of WAKE UP: A LIFE OF THE BUDDHA. It’s by Robert A. F. Thurman (yeah, Uma’s father) one of this country’s foremost, if not THE foremost, Buddhist scholars. He totally praises WAKE UP—and Kerouac’s approach to Buddha and Buddhism in general—as accurate, and even inspirationally advanced.

His opening sentences make that clear:

“What a surprise! Working on this introduction, it has become apparent to me that Jack Keroauc was the lead bodhisattva, way back there in the 1950s, among all of our American predecessors.”

About time. He goes on to write several more pages that in themselves are worth the price of the book, at least to me (and any Kerouac fan, or any reader with an interest in Buddhism). They’re revelatory, celebratory, and a mini-education in Buddhism, Buddhism in America, and the relationship between Kerouac and his Catholic mysticism and Buddhism in America.

Kerouac’s book itself is another matter. If you’re a fan, you’ll probably dig it, as I did. If you’re not, this isn’t the best introduction to what makes Kerouac’s writing so exciting and original. It’s definitely his voice, but his most wide-ranging and yet repetitive voice, earnestly working very hard to convey the essence of Buddha’s experience and teachings. Not a smooth easy read.

If you want that, the other legendary book that most fans had been hearing about since before Kerouac died, is a collaborative novel he wrote with William S. Burroughs (“William Lee” as per the manuscript title page, which also says “John” Kerouac)—AND THE HIPPOS WERE BOILED IN THEIR TANKS.

The title supposedly came from a newspaper headline about a fire at a circus. Or at a zoo. Or from a radio news report. Or… Over the years it became vague, and it really doesn’t matter because ultimately, except as ironic distancing, the title doesn’t have a lot to do with the text. Although a case could be made for it’s standing as a metaphor for situations too weighty or creatures too trapped to avoid.

The story is based on the truth, a famous murder that is referred to or featured in many “Beat” texts and legends. In August of 1944, a friend of Burroughs’ from his native St. Louis, Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammemer and threw his body in the Hudson.

Carr confessed to Burroughs and Kerouac, the latter helping him get rid of the murder weapon, a supposed “boy scout” knife (a nice touch to emphasize that Carr was still basically a teenager and Kammemer was an older man—in his thirties—who was a “homosexual” and had been supposedly “stalking” Carr).

Only actually the murder victim was a friend of Carr’s and Kerouac’s and Burroughs and Carr sometimes hung out with him, indulged Kammerer’s crush on him, and tolerated him until that fateful morning when he no longer did.

The novel is written in alternating takes for most chapters, Kerouac writing as “Mike Ryko” and Burroughs/”Lee” as “Will Dennison.” The language is close to that of the typical pulp fiction detective novel of the time, only more so (some of the profanity and sexual situations would have been considered too risky by publishers of the time, one of the many reasons it was repeatedly rejected). The pace too is often that of pulp fiction, and yet there are leisurely interludes or slightly askew descriptive and narrative passages that are more about the perspectives of these burgeoning “Beats” (the term wouldn’t be popularized until over a decade after they wrote this) and their world than the “plot.”

It’s a quick, easy read, and totally informative if you don’t know much about mid-20th century city life among the young and restless, or if all you know comes from movies and novels of the time. This book cuts through all the pretenses to “the Greatest Generation” claim, that may be true enough for a lot of the generation that survived the Great Depression and fought and won World War Two, but Kerouac and Burroughs and their crowd were a part of that generation and don’t talk or act or live much like anything hyped as “The Greatest” anything—except maybe writers and artists, and for many of us fans, original thinkers.

That’s one of the reasons I dig this book so much and think a lot of others will as well. It tells a part of the story of those times and the people struggling through them that has been left out—except in some of Kerouac’s novels, but those are tinted with his personal search for spiritual meaning and redemption while AND THE HIPPOS is much more “just the facts ma’am” style narrative and any romantic and/or sentimental and mystical spirituality that may slip into small passages of Kerouac’s sections are overwhelmed by the lack of all that in Burroughs’ chapters.

As the oldtime “hep cats” used to say (like Louis Armstrong or Hubert Selby Jr.) this book is “a gasser.” At any rate, at least for those interested in those times and these authors.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I just found out Betsy Blair passed away, in her eighties.

She was the female lead in one of my all-time favorite films—MARTY.

She also wrote one of my all-time favorite autobiographies, THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT (the subtitle tells it all: LOVE AND POLITICS IN NEW YORK, HOLLYWOOD, AND PARIS).

It's the story of a Jersey girl who's discovered as a teenage dancer in a New York club by the then ascending Broadway star, Gene Kelly, who marries her and carries her off to Hollywood when the movie industry discovers him.

And her being blacklisted for her politics under McCarthyism, her breakthrough role in MARTY, and then her eventual break from Kelly and Hollywood to live an entirely different life in Europe working with Antonioni and Costa Gravas etc. and eventually marrying the director Karel Reisz.

An incredible woman, an incredible life. May she rest in peace.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I didn't know her, but have friends who did.

Every one of them says she was as beautiful in person, and as beautiful a person, as she appears to be in photographs and in the stories these friends tell.

I knew her only from her work as an actress, which was impeccable, original, and unforgettable even in the most commercial vehicles—like the remake of THE PARENT TRAP with the young Lindsay Lohan playing the separated twins and Richardson her mother, a character with so many nuances to her personality, at times it elevates the film and its totally improbable plot from PG froth to poignant family drama.

How sad, and how sorry I feel, and I'm sure you do too, for her family, especially her husband and their children.

May we all appreciate our families each day as if it might be our last, as obviously one day it will be.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I never saw this movie or had much interest in seeing it, mostly because I always associated it with Ronald Reagan and he was a pretty bad movie actor resulting in most of the movies he had a starring role in being pretty bad.

But I stumbled on it last night just as it was starting and when I saw Ann Sheridan was in it, an old favorite, and Robert Cummings, another old favorite (mostly from his 1950s TV show), I thought what the heck.

It’s highly melodramatic and full of archetypes rather than fully rounded characters, but despite all that, it’s an amazing movie and I was wrong to ignore it all these years.

The black-and-white cinematography (which won an Oscar for James Wong Howe) is beautiful, the story is melodramatic but nonetheless gripping and cathartic in the best ways drama can be.

Ann Sheridan is her usual terrific self, and all the supporting actors are top level Hollywood studio character players, completely dependable, nothing but excellent work among them all.

Cummings is actually miscast as the studious, dedicated, brilliant yet humble grandson and friend. He does it as well as can be expected I guess from an actor whose main assets were his devilish charm and sarcasm in a role where he couldn’t display either.

But Reagan is the true revelation. He gives an entirely believable portrait of the devilish sarcastic one who turns out to be a straight shooter with deep character and courage.

It’s a delight to see him finally (for me) really give a screen-worthy performance that engages and entertains in ways that are as big and as compelling as the big screen demands.

Every other thing I’ve seen him in, including the “Gipper” role, have moments of veracity, but mostly he comes across as self-conscious, or even worse, completely unaware. Not this role. He owns it.

I found the flick to be wholly satisfying despite its flaws and overcooked hysteria. One of those kinds of movie experiences you can only get (or at least me) from classic Hollywood. Thank God for Turner Classic Movies.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


"The president needs to brush back the arrogant, greedy creeps who kneecapped capitalism, rather than cosseting Wall Street for fear of looking like an avatar of socialism." —Maureen Dowd in The New York Times today (3/18/09)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


It's a complicated situation, like most. But the recent violence in Northern Ireland makes clear that old wounds can be reopened by those who'd like to use them for their own ends.

I wanted to comment on that briefly on this celebratory day, on how it's clear that the economic boom in Ireland, a country that was poverty ridden for centuries, contributed mightily to the end of hostilities and a compromise that people abided by during the good times.

The same can be said for many places where there's been, or still are violent conflicts. If everyone in those regions is given an opportunity to make their lives better, to have what they call in this country a "middle-class" lifestyle—i.e. be able to pay the bills and maybe even own their own home—they have a stake in the peace.

But when hard times return, the old wounds can be reopened and put to use by extremists on any side who have goals of their own that old divisions might serve.

I believe Ireland should be free of all English control period. It's one country, obviously, look at any map, the dividing line between North and South is as arbitrary as most of the "national" boundaries created by the Brits during their centuries of world conquest and control.

But violence usually only breeds violence, which is often what those committing it intend. Hopefully, the peace will hold and economic stability will return before too much damage is done. But if there's any lesson to be learned, as I see it, it's that the more equally distributed "wealth" is, the less impetus for violence there is

If the pople in the West Bank and Gaza, or the Southern Sudan or Somalia, or the Congo or North Korea for that matter, were able to earn enough money to make starvation and homelessness and dire poverty a thing of the past, the violence and/or threat of it would equally diminish.

That was JFK's contribution to what rightwingers call "capitalism" (an economic system dependent on a "free market" which is an ideal that has never occurred in real life but generally is used to describe the mix of "socialism" and "capitalism" that almost every modern country's economic system is, including our own, etc.). JKF learned the lesson his father taught him from the Great Depression, when Joe Sr. said "I'd give up half of what I have to keep the other half"—because he realized paying higher taxes, sharing the wealth, etc. would bring the stability needed to keep the whole thing from tumbling down.

Out of that idea came JFK's (like the Peace Corps and other initiatives of his) with the aim of helping the poor to find ways to become more "middle class" and therefore have a stake in the "system" and in stability and peace.

Not a bad idea. Though having had this country and therefore much of the world run by rightwing Republicans for too long, who'd rather just keep it all (i.e. no-bid contracts in Iraq, crony-ism in government, deregulation, etc.) to the point of destroying the world economy in ways that is bringing back deeper poverty than ever in places where it had been virtually wiped out or was on the way to being (Eastern Europe, Asia, Ireland, etc.) is deeply ominous, as the news is making clearer every day.

Thank God Obama isn't an ideologue but instead is a pragmatist who has enough life experience, world experience, and heritage (he has a lot of Irish in him for one thing) behind his great intelligence to understand this and work toward rectifying the mistakes of the past eight years and longer.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Writing about AUGUST RUSH made me think of favorite two-word movie titles when I was trying to come up with an alphabet list to put me back to sleep (after family here and getting up at 5AM to see them off to catch a plane), with the caveat that the titles couldn’t start with an article, i.e. “the” or “a”—:

JESSE JAMES (the old black and white with Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power)
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (the original Preston Sturges one)

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Friends tried to get me to see this movie back in 2007 when it came out, but I missed it. I heard great things about it (as well as some dimissals) but only caught a short section that didn’t impress me.

If they had only told me Keri Russell was in it, I would have tried harder. She’s one of the most underrated movie actresses (as I’ve written before on this blog) around today. If she had been around back in the 1940s and ‘50s the studios would have known how to put her potent combination of beauty and acting chops to good use, giving a run to Grace Kelly and other ethereal beauties who can also emote on screen—but Russell would have beat them all.

As it is, AUGUST RUSH is one of the hokiest movies ever made, with an almost embarrassingly implausible plot, predictably and conveniently tied up like a bow—

—and yet—AND YET— it totally works. Partly because of the great acting by Russell and the child star of the flick, Freddie Highmore, as well as Terence Howard in a supporting role, which renders insignificant the miscast Robin Williams and the unpredictable Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

Russell manages to make almost every film she’s ever been in better than it could ever have been without her, and this one is no exception. The combination of the music, the editing, and her beauty and acting, along with Highmore and Howard, and at least an adequately emo performance by Meyers, and yes, the hokey story that somehow transcends the hoke to become deeply truthful in ways simple realism often can’t, ends up making this one of the most emotionally satisfying movie experiences I’ve had.

Sure, I’m a sap for old fashioned sentiment, especially the kind generated by stories about overcoming the odds to reach your goal no matter how far fetched. But there’s a deeper truth to this story, as anyone who has been moved to tears by a Gospel chorus, or an exceptional performance at a classical music concert, or just the sound of an old favorite tune coming through the window on the first day of Spring, knows, that kind of sentiment ain’t cheap. It’s well earned.

And AUGUST RUSH earns it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


1. Through the year and a half the stock market spiraled downward and the Bush Junior administration ruined the world economy, none of the so-called mainstream news media ever used the term Bush or W. Bear market, ever.

In the few weeks Obama has inherited the downward spiraling stock market and world economic situation, the so-called mainstream media have referred to the “Obama Bear market” (once they got their cue from the rightwing propagandists) over and over again!

2. During the past week when the stock market rebounded and began to climb, did any of the market experts or media commentators attribute it to Obama’s policies or statements etc.? Nope. If it goes down it’s his fault. If it goes up, it’s somebody else’s.

3. The terms “Communist” and “Socialist”—once they began to be thrown around repeatedly by the rightwing propagandists—in connection to Obama have been used over and over again (24 times last count by Fox, six by CNN etc.).

The term Fascist in relation to the Bush/Cheney administration though used repeatedly by the leftwing media was never associated, not ONCE, in the so-called mainstream media with Junior and his cronies.

Once again proving that the so-called mainstream media in the USA is controlled by rightwing owners and managers in most cases and where not by centrists and moderates afraid of the rightwing Republicans and easily manipulated by them.

[Just after I posted this I was cruising the blogs I recommend down to the right and on rj eskow's night light I found his latest post more or less addresses the same topic only as usual with more humor and insight, check it out.]

Friday, March 13, 2009


I can’t believe I left this book off my favorite autobiographies list (as well as off an earlier list of books about great music creators).

Armstrong was not only the musical genius we all know him to be—one of the greatest musicians and musical innovators of all time—but he was also, like many “artists,” actively creative in many other forms—like collage and painting and especially writing.

He kept a little portable typewriter with him in dressing rooms throughout his career, typing away before or between sets, or after them before heading home, etc. He tells his own story in fragments here, recovering some time periods and missing others (it’s a “selection” from a giant trove of typed pages he left behind when he passed).

His original use of punctuation and grammatically original word combinations and usages remind me of the composer Charles Ives’ writings, another homegrown musical genius I too often leave off my lists. The difference is with this volume, Armstrong’s unique usages of underlining and italics and punctuation is kept mostly intact so we can see how he was using these devices in a musical way, something Ives' editor seemed to have overlooked in his published essays which were unfortunately “corrected” so that his uses of dashes and periods and commas and ellipsis etc. were ignored and turned into some copy editor’s idea of conformity!

Don’t these guys realize who they’re dealing with? I always hated the ways in which the arbiters of “universal” usage based their rules on what they thought/think are some kind of permanent standards set up by some ancient committee of English Language overlords or something when in fact most grammar and punctuation rules came out of necessity (e.g. when the monks’ handwritten scrolls were originally transferred to printed type on a page, the size of the type determined the length of lines in such ways that it often meant a printer’s devil (assistant, another job I actually held for a while in my youth working for an independent book publisher) made the decision to drop which letter and substitute an apostrophe to make the line fit), etc.

Anyway, someone like Armstrong who broke the rules of European musical composition and ideas of improvisation, let alone tone etc., to create something newer and more vital to his times and circumstances, ought to be free to fool with grammar and punctuation anyway he likes. And he does. And for the most part, this edition leaves them in.

But I’d like to see all his writings the way he intended them to be put together. As it is, this selection offers so many examples of real-time language usage and musical history, as well as many memorable vignettes etc., it’s well worth the price of admission.

Here’s a randomly selected sample (I skipped anything that had a lot of underlining and italics because I still can't get them to work on this thing):

“From the first time I picked up my trumpet, or the one that was out to the Orphanage, I was a popular youngster…Success has always been—mine…So was never a thought for me to do dirty things to people or think that there was anyone whom ever wanted do me any harm…Hmmm…But they did…”

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Last Monday night’s Colbert Report introduced me to a singer/songwriter I wasn’t aware of when I made my recent list of favorite new female singers and singer/songwriters. If I had been she’d be on it.

After I wrote that list I discovered Neko Case, and now Lisa Hannigan and I’m beginning to feel really positive about the future (and maybe about a future list). These women are original and bright and creating music that is playfully deep and deeply playful.

I already wrote about Case, but Hannigan is even more of a delight to discover because her music—both the melodies and lyrics—is so simple yet so intricate, so rooted and yet so light and litlting, it makes me smile in appreciation.

Her appearance on Steven Colbert’s show was like a shot of sunshine in the midst of all the recent gloom and doom. Just what the doctor ordered.

She sang a song she’s obviously been doing for awhile (there are several performances of it on youTube including one in a Dublin venue that’s closer to what she did on Colbert, but my favorite is this one from last year in a pub in Dingle, she isn’t playing the squeezebox keyboard thingee she is on the Dublin and Colbert gigs, but she’s still totally charming and smile inducing). It’s called “I Don’t Know”—one of those tunes you feel like you’ve been humming for years already.

This music feels to me like the kind of upbeat—without being superficial or “pop”-y—soundtrack that appeared during the Great Depression and at the height of WWII and in the midst of civil unrest and the struggle for civil rights and ending the war in the 1960s and probably other seemingly bleak times. As though the muses decided the world needed to sing—or at least hum—its way back to some high spirits.

Just in time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


1. This budget has fifty percent less "earmarks" than the previous one according to nonpartisan watchdog groups.

2. The "earmarks" part of the budget is less than one percent of the budget.

3. Yet the rightwing Republicans still get to dominate the topic in the media, as almost no one is talking about how Bush Junior's administration never included the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in his budgets but Obama is, making it the first HONEST BUDGET in a very long time.

(Obama promises in HIS budgets, ones that originate from HIS office—this one originated before he came into office—will be gone over line-by-line by him to insure no "pork"—i.e. "earmarks" that do not serve a common welfare purpose. So, I will be holding him accountable next year, when that time comes, unlike my rightwing Republican friends who now blame Bush Junior for things they wholeheartedly supported at the time, and on the record. As we learn from Jon Stewart, watch what you put on tape or in e mails or blog comments etc.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


1. Rightwing Republicans, who supported Bush Junior right up to the consistently profligate end and raised no objections to his turning the gold of a huge surplus left by Bill Clinton into the lead of well over a trillion dollar deficit...

...now screaming like hungry (for more no-bid contracts etc.?), exhausted (from spending all that money?) babies about a projected deficit of equal size from the current spending bill before Congress...

2. ...without mentioning the fact that this spending bill was created BEFORE Obama took office, and one major reason it is larger than Junior's is because Junior always wrote up his budgets WITHOUT INCLUDING THE COST OF THE IRAQ WAR, let alone the Afghan one, so that this revised spending bill is the first HONEST BUDGET we've had at least since 2003!...and that if Obama wrote his budgets like Bush did the projected deficit would be much smaller...

3. ...and the amount of "earmarks" or "pork" in this budget, that was originally drawn up several months before Obama became president, has an almost equal amount of money being spent by both Republicans and Democrats EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE FAR FEWER REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS!...

Monday, March 9, 2009


"Vagueness is at times an indication of nearness to a perfect truth."
—Charles Ives

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The rightwing Republicans attacking Obama for current economic circumstances, as well as other aspects of the worldwide decline…

…is like a guy being given a company car to use for a period of time, and it’s in perfect condition, even has some free checkups and free oil changes and so on available, but instead the guy forgets to check the oil, deliberately ignores the oil light flashing, rides the brakes until they’re shot, careens over curbs and parking lot dividers until the shocks are useless and the wheels are drastically out of alignment, fails to replace a fan belt that’s close to snapping…

…and who has friends who want to see company cars eliminated, or at least with much reduced power, so they pour sugar in the gas tank followed by ping pong balls, slam the seat belts in the doors until they’re useless—etc. etc…

…and then the primary user instead of going up the hill to where he got the car heads down and ends up crashing it into a telephone pole so the frame is cracked and close to breaking as are the axles, etc….

…then he’s replaced…

…and when the new guy gets in and maneuvers the car off the telephone poll and starts to drive away and turn the car around, he discovers how trashed it is and while he’s trying to slow down so he can turn it to go back uphill, he finds he can’t because the brakes don’t work and the steering’s off, and then the engine cracks from lack of oil so he has no power except that of gravity pulling the car downhill faster and faster…

…and then the friends of the former driver start blaming the new driver for not turning the car around and heading back up the hill!!!

But there’s more…

…the new driver remains calm and cool, pulls out his cell phone and calls the old driver’s friends and then his own friends to urge them to start building a giant shock absorber, like a huge pile of soft rubber etc. at the bottom of the hill and to have a new engine block ready to replace the old one and mechanics to fix the other problems so that he can have as soft a landing as possible and quickly get the car running properly to turn it around and head back up the hill…

…but the former driver’s friends ridicule this plan aa too expensive, some saying it’s better to do nothing, let the car crash at the bottom and start again with a skateboard, while others say that the best thing to do is to give the old driver and his friends a big tax break…

…and even some of the new driver’s friends are more interested in arguing with the original driver’s’ friends than in uniting to get what the driver says he needs….

…and the media onlookers mostly ring their hands and cry and rant and whine about the possibility of a horrible ending to all this…

…fortunately the driver remains calm and makes other calls and gets some to respond to his requests…

…but will they get it all done in time to save the car?...let alone the new driver…?

Friday, March 6, 2009


…and memoirs. The difference to my mind being autobiographies tell the whole life story, memoirs tell part of it, or only one aspect of it.

After my last post about Larry Rivers’ and Carrie Fisher’s autobiographies, when I needed to make a list to help me fall back to sleep last night after the bug I’ve had for a few days woke me, I thought of autobiographies and memoirs I dig (not included are obviously autobiographical novels or “nonfiction novels”—sounds like a future list!).

Anyway, here’s what I came up with (with apologies to any friends whose books I didn’t recall in the middle of last night):

BORSTAL BOY by Brendan Behan
[THE CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE (the first autobiography, maybe, and one of the first I ever read and was insired by)] CONFESSIONS OF AN IRISH REBEL by Brendan Behan, BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMOUS BOSCH by Henry Miller, CHANCE MEETINGS by William Saroyan, CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND by Christopher Isherwood, CHRONICLES by Bob Dylan and CROSSING THREE WILDERNESSES by U Sam Oeur (a compelling and unique story which, full disclosure, mentions me briefly)
DAWN by Theodore Dresier, DANCEHALL DAYS by George O’Brien and DIGRESSIONS ON SOME POEMS BY FRANK O’HARA by Joe LeSueur (some people mentioned in this one didn’t like it, but Joe was an old friend with a unique perspective that I always enjoyed)
EVERYBODY’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Gertrude Stein and ETHIOPIA by Eric Torgersen
FRIENDS IN THE WORLD by Aram Saroyan and A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME by Suze Rotolo
HERE COMES, THERE GOES, YOU KNOW WHO by William Saroyan and HEART BEAT by Carolyn Cassady [and HARMATAN by Paul Violi (another poetic memoir, this one of a Peace Corps stint in Nigeria c. 1966-67)]
[I REMEMBER by Joe Brainard (can't believe I left this off initially, one of the all time best and most original autobiographies)] THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE by Paul Auster
[LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN HIS OWN WORDS (can't believe I left this off, one of the great self-told stories of the rituals and routines of genius] LAST NIGHT’S FUN by Ciaran Carson
A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway, MINOR CHARACTERS by Joyce Johnson, MILES by Miles Davis with Quincey Troupe (despite some disappointing self revelations from Davis) and THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT by Betsy Blair
NEWSPAPER DAYS by Theodore Dreiser
OUT OF OUR MINDS by George O’Brien and OFF THE ROAD by Carolyn Cassady
QUITE EARLY ONE MORNING by Dylan Thomas and A QUINCY HISTORY by James Haining (I’m mentioned a lot in this, but even if I wasn’t it would still be one of my all time favorite books just for Jim’s unique voice and perspective—a small press publisher and poet c. 1970, and his way of laconically revealing some deep human truths)
SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN, THE by Thomas Merton, SKY by Blaise Cendrars, SMILE PLEASE by Jean Rhys, THE SOUTH ORANGE SONNETS by me (what can I say, it’s one of my favorite little books and autobiographies, intentionally written as that when I was in my twenties), SONS COME & GO, MOTHERS HANG IN FOREVER by William Saroyan, THE STREET by Aram Saroyan, SCRATCHING THE BEAT SURFACE by Michael McClure, SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME by Marlon Brando with Robert Lindsey (disappointingly unrevealing about too many things but still fascinating because he was), SLEEPING WHERE I FALL by Peter Coyote (a great take on what it meant to be at the heart of “the ‘sixties”) and THE STAR FACTORY by Ciaran Carson
UP FRONT by Bill Mauldin
[LA VITA NUOVA by Dante (the memoir of a love affair and the poems it inspired and one of my all time favorite books)] VERONICA by Veronica Lake with Donald Bain and VILLAGE OF LONGING by George O’Brien
YOU’LL BE OKAY by Edie Kerouac-Parker

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I picked up Larry Rivers' autobiography in a used book store another artist, and friend, Don McGlaughlin takes me to now and then. He spotted the book and recommended it.

The first thing I did was check the index to see if I was mentioned. I too often do that with a book written by someone I know, or knew, or about a period or event I had something to do with. Last vestiges of a big ego. My name wasn’t there.

Not that it even should be. I wasn’t close to Rivers. But I did encounter him many times over a few decades at events or under circumstances that seemed memorable to me.

And it was co-authored by a man I loved for his openness and kindness and for always treating me like a dear old friend—the playwright Arnold Weinstein. Rivers didn’t do that, and I wasn’t crazy about him in person, but I admired and respected his work and his life and thought we had some things in common, things not many others share.

But despite that, and even though he was famous and rich and way ahead of me in most things, Rivers was always treating me competitively, as his wife [Clariice] once loudly pointed out to a room full of people at a party at Joe LeSueur's where Rivers was giving me a hard time. She said it was obviously because an attractive young woman was paying more attention to me than to him.

Another time we were on a panel commemorating the 10th anniversary of poet Frank O’Hara’s death. I was the only one invited to be on it who hadn’t been a personal friend of O’Hara’s. Rivers countered almost anything I contributed with one of his cleverly dismissive wise cracks followed by a personal story that seemed to contradict what I said, or often more broadly what anyone else said. I was still honored to have been included [and actually dug his insights into O'Hara's work methods].

At any rate, Rivers’ autobiography is as unique as he was—sometimes fun, sometimes disturbing, always lively. And full of a raw honesty that was his most impressive and sometimes endearing quality (like when he read the autopsy report at O’Hara’s funeral as an elegy).

His is the story of a working-class kid who had a creative drive that first led him to jazz and then to painting. His recollections of particular people and incidents from his family life (both the one he came from and the ever evolving one he started at a young age) and his life as a jazz musician and artist, blow a hole through any fusty ideas of life being any less exciting back when he was starting out during, and after, WWII than it is now. At least for people like Rivers.

The circumstances of his life, and the world’s, changed, naturally. So did the approach to making music and art, and even families for that matter. But being the unique spirit he was, he naturally approached everything he did with the kind of openness to experimentation that he employed in his art and in his relationships.

If you dig his art (which I did and mostly still do) or have an interest in the “New York School” of art and poetry—i.e. the post-WWII avant garde downtown scene—or just love memoirs and autobiographies of interesting people, I recommend it. But expect to be put off as much as drawn in by his story and voice, as I’ve always been by his art and him.

WISHFUL DRINKING is Carrie Fisher’s printed version of a one-woman show she performed (maybe still performs) based on her incredible life.

Incredible not just because she started out famous, on the cover of major magazines (LIFE et. al.) as the baby of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher when Reynolds was one of the most famous and popular young movie stars in Hollywood and Eddie Fisher was one of the most famous and popular singers in the USA.

Or because she grew up to become a famous and popular young movie star herself (most famous still for her tours as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars and a few sequels, though she’s done great movie acting work in several less known films over the years), and married one of the most famous and popular singers in the USA at the time, Paul Simon.

It’s like a fairy tale. Only very much not. As she has told in versions of parts of her life story in her barely fictionalized novels, like her first, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, and now much more directly in WISHFUL DRINKING, where she tells it with honesty as raw as Larry Rivers does in his autobiography and did in his life.

But Fisher’s a woman, a small one too as she points out repeatedly, who didn’t come from some long line of wealth nor work her way up from some ethnic working-class background, but instead was somewhere unlike any of those more typical stories because her sense of reality was skewed right from the beginning from always being in the limelight as well as from the unique personalities and lives of each of her famous parents.

But like Rivers, Fisher is really clever, in the best sense of that word. Both are wise guys, in the old sense of always cracking wise, as they used to say. Which meant making wise cracks at the expense of others. But in the case of Fisher, it’s more often at the expense of herself. And ultimately, in ways that are deeply wise in the original meaning of that word.

It’s sometimes easy to miss how smart she really is, especially since this book is more like an annotated stage monologue than her novels or a typical autobiography. We were friends in my Hollywood years, and I still consider her a dear friend even though I haven’t seen her in many years nor made any effort to stay in touch, a pattern born of too many moves, too many responsibilities, too many projects on my plate all the time, etc. leaving me little time for keeping up with too many old friends I think of daily but fail to let them know…

But my point isn’t to make a big deal out of the many interesting people I know and have known, though I’m totally grateful for that, but to say that over my lifetime I have known some pretty uniquely brilliant people, some famous and some not. And out of the handful I consider to be the brightest, I include Carrie.

Of course life takes its toll. I used to have a photographic memory when I was a kid, tell you what page something I was referring to could be found on. Can’t even remember what book now. But Carrie is still cracking wise in ways that few others can or do. There’s a lot of great jokes at her expense in here, and sometimes at the expense of others, but never without an injection of common humanity. Many of them made me laugh out loud, a lot.

And—of course, as most of know the story by now—there is a lot that’s not funny in her story, not just the drugging and drinking and mental health problems, but the price paid for the pressure to always be on, to always be striving to impress and wow and delight and entertain and live up to people’s expectations, whether live audiences, movie and TV audiences, readers, strangers in public places, or even too often friends.

When I knew her best, she seemed to relish her quick wit, as well as that of others (not me, one of the reasons I write is because I usually think of the clever thing to say when I’m back home alone, if then). If you spent any time with her you not only laughed a lot but would be amazed at how original her quips usually were, and the ways she reinvented our common language to pull them off.

WISHFUL DRINKING doesn’t capture that as fully as I would have liked, and there’s a deep sorrow to some of it that can be heartbreaking, even if heartbreakingly funny. But there’s no denying the uniqueness of her story and therefore her perspective. Her ability to transcend that uniqueness and make us feel like we can truly understand what she’s been through, that we somehow were there too with her, is the proof of a great story teller.

I hope she keeps telling them.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Some folks have commented on my new profile photo. It's a candid shot taken when I wasn't aware of the camera in the local "reservation"—kind of a nature preserve at the top of the "mountain" we live at the foot of. Not the way I see myself, but I guess the way I sometimes appear to others.

It was shot by my friend Torre Claesson, a Swedish neighbor who's a kind of renaissance man in his way—dynamite guitar player and creative director in the ad biz, but also an interesting photographer. I added his blog—MY EYE AND I—to my recommended list down to the right, check it out. The shot of a snowy NYC street was taken as we walked down Seventh Avenue yesterday morning together from Penn Station.

Monday, March 2, 2009


This is an incredibly moving documentary. At least it was for me. I caught it on the Sundance channel.

It's about the championship boxer from the Virgin islands who was rumored to be gay back in the late 1950s and early '60s, at a time when no public figure was known to be gay except, as the film points out, maybe Liberace. Certainly no athelete, and definitely no boxer.

He captured a couple of championships in different weight classes. But then in a fight to regain one of those championship belts in early 1962 against Benny Paret, who had been making derogatory remarks about Griffith's sexuality, Griffith ended up pummeling Paret so intensely that the man seems to have been knocked into a coma before he even hit the floor. A come he never recovered from, dying not many days later and leaving an impact on Griffith that can only be imagined but the film captures pretty well.

(It left an impact on boxing as well, being the first televised fight to actually record a fight that ended in death. In fact it led to the Friday night fights that had been a staple of TV for many years—I used to watch them with my father every week when I was a kid—being kicked off the air for at least a decade.)

Then decades later, drunk and leaving a gay bar in Manhattan, Griffith was attacked vicously by a gang of young homophobic thugs who beat him so badly he almost died. He spent a month in the hopsital but never entirely recovered his cognitive facilities.

Seeing this story and the love and forgiveness Griffith found in his life is overwhelmingly real and poignant and so far from the usual cliches and stereotypes that fictional characters in movies end up displaying, it makes this film one of a kind, like so many great documentaries.

If you get the chance to see it, I think you'll be surprised by the deep feelings it evokes, despite what may be an intial resistance to so violent a subject and the seemingly unknowable characters at the heart of it. I was.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


A quick overnight trip to celebrate my oldest child's birthday, my daughter. My older son and his wife and boy, and my younger son and I, all meet her and her husband at a restaurant in West Stockbridge.

Driving down the main street on a cold, dark Saturday night, you'd think the town had been evacuated for some emergency. There isn't a sign of life. Turning onto a side street with a few businesses, there's some parked cars and a warm glow coming from a low slung building indicating life inside.

You enter into a room the size and shape of a small diner. Across from the door where the diner counter would be is a wooden bar with stools, all occupied, tables against the outer wall you just entered through are also full of dining customers. The place is called Rouge, a restaurant bar with several different sized rooms branching out in a mild maze of who's eating where?

We're in the largest room way in the back, or side, depending how you look at it. Dinner is good. Presents are opened and appreciated. Dessert comes. My daughter Caitlin's has a flaming candle in hers enshrined under a dome of spun sugar that looks like spun glass lace. We all sing Happy Birthday.

After dessert the music starts, in a room up some stairs at the other end of the restaurant. Actually a room within a room. The interior room isn't much bigger than a small bedroom. The entrance is an arched doorway with no door, and to one side, facing down the stairs into the bar is a double-window-wide opening through which drinks and food can be passed or spectators can look in and see a band—drums, electric bass and electric guitar.

The group is Don McGrory and the Delta Soul Trio. McGrory plays guitar, well enough to have been voted one of the three best guitar players in the Berkshires (with James Taylor one of the other two). By day he has a rug store—more like a rug art gallery—in Great Barrington. By night he fronts various bands, this being his latest.

The bass player is my oldest son, Miles, The drummer I only know as Sam [woops, Bob Jones]. This rhythm section helps make the night cook. My eleven-year-old son and 10-year-old grandson are the only non-adults in the place. Many of the diners are middle aged, and some seem on the elderly side of that broad category. But before the first tune is halfway through, the room with the band and the surrounding area is filled with people dancing, from the two boys to people who look like senior citizens and probably are.

The joint is jumpin' and it doesn't stop as the trio works its way through two sets, with a short break between, of all kinds of country and blues and rock'n'roll tunes. But not the usual bar band repertoire. They play "Little Sister" and "Spoonful" and "T is for Texas T is for Tennessee" and medleys and roll into one song after another most of the time non-stop. It's hard to keep up. But we do.

Maybe as many as forty people ate dancing at once, jumping and shouting and moving to the beat, being driven by my son's bass lines and the drummer's solid rhythm and the guitarist's screaming riffs and bluesy extensions of notes bent as far out of shape as Western music is capable of, or Western musical instruments.

It's a great night, exhiliratingly exhaustive. A fitting celebration of my eldest's birth and a tribute to my oldest son's musicianship, and that of the other two in the trio. I look forward to hearing them again, and dancing myself out of whatever disappointment life might throw at me and partying for my daughter's next birthday and the rest of my descendants as well.

And now I'm back in Jersey in time for a last blast of winter. At least it means a lot of municipal and city workers will be making overtime plowing and clearing the streets and sidewalks. A little mini-stimulus from Mother Nature. We'll take it where we can get it.