Sunday, May 31, 2009


I’ve got a lot of books by poets Geoff Young and Mark Terrill. But some of them are really tiny, or extremely thin with staples where the fold is—what are called “chapbooks”—while others have a “perfect binding” as it’s called when there’s a “spine” (the flat surface between the back and front covers where the title and author’s name are printed sideways).

I think of all and any kind of collection of pages that are bound in some way as a book—even those that are side stapled (three staples up the left side on pages that then open on the right like a book).

Some people find it pretentious when some of us list as “books” we’ve had published what they consider “chapbooks”—while I find it a kind of discrimination against thinner or smaller books, or books with just cheaper ways of binding, to call them anything other than books.

So here’s two poetry books, one with no spine, (just two staples where the pages fold, “saddle stitching” as it’s sometimes called)—Geoffrey Young’s THE SPECIALIST—and an extremely thin “spine” on the other collection of poems (42 pages)—Mark Terrill’s THE SALVADOR-DALAI-LAMA EXPRESS.

I feel like I’ve written about these books before, or mentioned them, though I can’t find any actual post on them. But they’re recent books (2009) by these two favorite poets and now friends (Geoff I’ve known for many years but Mark I only know through emails after Geoff published a book of Terrill’s that instantly became one of my all time favorites BREAD & FISH) and wanted to hip people to them.

THE SPECIALIST only contains nine poems (if I counted correctly), though some of them are a few pages long. The longest is the title poem, which makes the book worth it. “The Specialist” is maybe Young’s most serious poem. Not that most of his poems don’t deal with serious themes (another in this collection, “Peter the Late” is about as serious as it gets) or language (many of his poems have no obvious “themes” or “topics” but still convey a lot of “meaning”) but they almost always have an element of irony or its close cousin very witty sarcasm.

“The Specialist” about caring for an alcoholic father is something else. In fact, it may be the best thing I’ve ever read on what it’s like to be a caretaker for a practicing alcoholic.

Not that it’s a screed on caretaking or has any answers other than human and practical ones, but because it captures, sometimes with wit, sometimes with a gravity that’s only lightened by Geoff’s mastery of language, the hopelessness of repetitive drunken behavior followed by remorse followed by drunken behavior and so on endlessly, or until the ultimate end.

Here’s just a few lines [I'm sorry I'm unable to get these long lines to break the way Geoff does in the book, so I'll indicate the line breaks by one slash and the indented line breaks with two]:

“The poets have told us about hell, a terrible freeze in the nerves,
//something to do with bodies pursued to the edge of lifelessness.
/How walk in then and take over the controls of a ship wandering in circles,
//a ship whose captain hopes its own motion will create a maelstrom
//strong enough to suck it down forever?”

But it’s more than a take on dealing with a practicing alcoholic, it’s a love song from a son to a father in the last stages of not just his alcoholism but his life. A more poignant and realistic view of both these sad realities you’d be hard put to find.

Mark Terrill’s book—THE SALVADOR-DALAI-LAMA EXPRESS—contains about forty shorter poems. Not all reach the heights of his best—as BREAD & FISH does—but there’s enough of them that rank up there with his best to make it an extremely worthwhile read.

I’ve always found the kind of deep spiritual epiphany many Buddhist poets profess experiencing almost impossible to find in their poems. But Terrill—who as far as I can recall doesn’t mention any specific spiritual practice anywhere—captures exactly what these other poets talk about but rarely convey in their poetry (even when it’s sometimes terrific) with the exception of Joanne Kyger (there may be others but she’s the only one who comes to mind).

Almost every piece of writing I’ve read by Terrill captures and imaginatively expresses just those kind of epiphanies (BREAD & FISH hits that mark in every one of the prose poems in it, for instance). In this latest collection, there’s more variety, in terms of approaches and intentions in the poems, which makes some of them about other than his usual spiritual insights into his mundane and not-so-mundane experiences.

But here’s an example of the former from THE SALVADOR-DALAI-LAMA EXPRESS that has some obvious references to Buddhist ideas in it but so lightly done and so well integrated into the simplicity of the scene he is sharing it works, for me, just as those epiphanic (if there is such a word, well there is now) moments do:

“Out Back”

Out back my eyes are all over that
flat green northern German landscape
illumined by an oblique morning sun
casting down its clear crystalline light
while immediacy’s insistence has me
inwardly mobile, moving toward some
jewel-like center, some glowing matrix,
some shimmering source of enlightenment
which probably isn’t even half as bright
as the diamond-like dewdrop sparkling
in that blade of grass right over there.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Thanks to my friend Jamie Rose for sharing this clip, and to P.J. for alerting me to this one you may have already seen on Letterman, where I then found this one on my own.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Okay, falling asleep last night I don’t know why, but I thought of the movie CASABLANCA, still one of my all time favorites, and somehow got hung up on the rhythmic melody of its four-syllable title and thought, hmmmm, that’d make an interesting list.

So this is what I came up with for movies I dig whose titles have only four syllables:


Thursday, May 28, 2009


That's the name of one of my alltime favorite films. It's a black-and-white film noir from the 1940s starring Robert Mitchum at his best. One of his co-stars is the young Kirk Douglas playing a wealthy bad guy. But the best thing in the movie for my taste is Jane Greer playing the baddest bad girl ever in any film (not violent or psycho like in contemporary movies, but just plain "bad").

But that's not the topic of this post. What I was thinking about last night after putting more CDs into my computer and adding them to the shuffle and some great old swing tunes turned up, was that when my generation passes, and so many of us already have, the personal link to certain musical and cinematic and other cultural and artistic styles and movements will disappear.

I know that's true throughout history, but it doesn't lessen the impact. Like the kind of movie OUT OF THE PAST is—black-and-white 1940s film noir. It can be imitated, and its stylistic aspects reproduced by a contemporary film maker, but that old square screen before wide screens came into use, the feeling of watching a movie when TVs weren't commonly available but post-World War Two world weariness and atomic age angst were, when neither actual bloodshed nor sex were ever shown on screen but only implied (people got shot and fell down and died with no sign of a bullet having entered their body, and fell into each other's arms as Greer and Mitchum do in a scene that immediately cuts to a shot through French doors of the moonlight on the beach and ocean and then the sudden and almost violent motion of the doors slamming open from a gust of wind that also knocks over the lamp immersing the screen in darkness as metaphor for deep and spontaneous passion, etc.

The difference between an old black-and-white film and its sensibility compared to the wide screen full color and—once the 1960s hit—more "realistic" take on sex and violence isn't nearly as much of a total break as the difference between big band swing and popular crooners compared to the musical revolution that rock'n'roll introduced and what has followed.

After my contemporaries are all gone there won't be anyone who was alive when the music coming over the radio in cars and homes and businesses was coming from bands and orchestras made up of saxes and trombones and trumpets and clarinets unless you're listening to a jazz station but even there you won't find the popular big band sounds of the 1930s and '40s (that lasted barely into the 1950s).

That's the sound of history now, cultural history and even political history (so many of the WWII songs resonate still with the politics of the homefront and the battle, even if just the sound of missing home from a soldier's perspective or missing the soldier from the homefront's perspective). But it's still living history for me and those my age and older (and some younger who were on the cusp of all that).

Obama didn't experience it, or Oprah, or Jeff Koons or George Clooney or Joan Jett, let alone the younger movie and music and art world stars and their contemporaries. I mean when I hear the voice of Marion Hutton singing with Glen Miller's band, or Helen Forrest with Artie Shaw's, or the young Sinatra still with the Dorsey band, it evokes memories of my oldest sister Joan or my older brothers (all teenagers by the time I was born, the boys) playing clarinets and saxes and trumpets and piano, or jitterbugging in the living room to the radio, or singing along to Vaughn Monroe or Billy Eckstine emanating from the 78 RPM record player.

Some day, not that far away, anyone experiencing those sounds and sights will be just exploring history, maybe digging it and identifying with it strongly, but unable to call up actual memories of when those cultural artifacts and styles were current. And others will be the last to have lived through a period before hip hop and rap were common and predominant on the radio waves and other forms of bringing music into our homes, pre-computer times, pre-ipod times, etc.

I'm not bemoaning the loss or being nostalgic about times long gone and wishing they were still around (though a little of that creeps into my feelings now and then), I love this iTunes shuffle deal where I can put my entire CD and record collection into digital form and use the shuffle device to constantly surprise myself with music that brings a smile to my face and/or a little swing into my hips and shoulders and an actual physical shuffle to my feet, and all that.

I'm listening right now to Art Tatum playing "Sweet Lorraine" and anyone who digs jazz or masterful piano playing or old tunes would get great pleasure from it, but for me, it evokes an entire world, even just the melody, which was done by all kinds of popular musical artists back then, including Nat King Cole at the beginning of his singing career (after one as mostly a piano player leading his own group—"The King Cole Trio") but even more personal, playing it from sheet music myself on the piano or hearing one of my older siblings singing it at a party to a swinging beat.

Another thing not as common now, people sitting around a living room making music for each other. though as you can see from a couple of posts ago, that fortunately, is still current and won't be lost with the passing of any generation soon, thankfully.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


If you read this essay from today's NY Times to the end, I think you'll be surprised, and also have a strong argument against the righwing pitbulls who had ads already prepared for Obama's possible Supreme Court nominations before he actually chose one, making it clear it wouldn't matter who he chose, they would be prepared to sling mud.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


But a busy one in many ways.

Saw old friends up in the Berkshires, including ones not seen in almost two decades from the West Coast. Had a great "cook out" Sunday at my older son's and his lovely wife's at which old friends passed a guitar around and played songs they'd written or knew (poet Annabel Lee strumming and singing old timey country kind of songs so authentically we were transported to Appalachia in the early 20th Century; Michael O'Keefe singing and playing his own compositions that had the feel of traditional Americana as well, and my older son Miles playing and singing a song about Geronimo Pratt and his surviving years in prison and solitary confinement after being falsely accused and locked up for decades, and Kale brown leading us all in "May the Circle be Unbroken") after hours of great conversation and food (my son Miles and my daughter-in-law Jen make a mean burger).

Drove back yesterday on what seemed like the most beautiful day of the year so far to drop off my little guy with his mom and catch a train to the city to take part in the tribute reading for George Schneeman at St. Mark's (on the occasion of the publication of the Poetry Project in-house magazine The Recluse 5 tribute to George).

It wasn't so much old friends of George's (I was sorry to see that one of my alltime favorite poets, Maureen Owen, couldn't make it, other close friends of George's will be taking part in a more formal tribute in the Fall) though there were those of us who had known George for several decades (including Steven Hall who played guitar and sang a poignant song for George and Elinor Nauen who read her short but relevant haiku like poem and Cliff Fyman who read his alphabet poem made up entirely of words taken only from George's NY Times obituary, a very clever device that summarized George's life in a seemingly abstract and disjointed way but actually had a narrative drive and reality to it).

A highlight of the evening for me was listening to stories and poems and emotions about George from those who either knew him since they were kids as a close friend of their parents (Anselm and Edmund Berrigan and their cousin Will Yackulic, as well as Vincent Katz) or in more recent years as young immigrants to Manhattan who were welcomed by George and his wife Katie's hospitality and generosity and who were inspired and in many ways in awe of George's commitment to his art and to doing it outside the usual art world commercial considerations and networking (including the artist Pamela Lawton and the poets Todd Colby and and Gary Parrish).

Vincent especially moved me when he showed the audience a framed print of one of George's famous (at least to those of us who were fans of his art) checkered flannel shirts on a hanger, but this one with a poem written by his oldest child, Paul, when Paul was eighteen. Paul was the only representative of George's family there (his second son Elio having passed years ago, sadly, and his youngest Emil living in Southern California, and Katie at home with bronchitis) so it was doubly moving and I suspect surprsing to those who didn't know Paul wrote poetry, and compellingly original poetry it was.

And lastly, I want to thank everyone who sent birthday greetings via phone messages, emails and even a comment on this blog (thanks Jamie). As those of us who are lucky enough to have learned this: every day is a gift, so the only attitude that makes sense is gratitude. It's also the key to happiness, but that's another story.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Can't believe I forgot to list until late last night a reading I'm taking part in this Monday evening at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's in the Bowery (10th St. & 2nd Ave.).

It's a reading marking the publication of the project's in-house literary magazine's latest issue—a tribute to the late great artist George Schneeman.

The line up is terrific, including Maureen Owen, Vincent Katz, Elinor Nauen, Anselm and Edmund Berrigan, Steven Hall, Corrine Fitzpatrick and many more.

It's only 8 bucks—or 7 if you're a student or "a senior"—but if you want to catch me, I'm on first so be there (at 8PM) or be square, as they used to say.

Who were "they" anyway?

Friday, May 22, 2009


Dick Cheney has been playing the mass media like its his personal bongo drums. He beats on their heads with a consistent (or not) rhythm and they make the noise he wants them to.

The cable networks, MSNBC, CNN, FOX, etc. played Cheney's and Obama's speeches yesterday as if they were of equal weight and importance—a sitting president trying to clean up "the mess" Bush/Cheney let behind and an ex vice-president who was almost non-existent during the previous eight years and is not an elected official or even holds any official position in his party!

Cheney's speech was set up to follow Obama's no matter when Obama made his (Cheney actually complained that Obama was late, thus making Cheney start late, which showed explicitly that Cheney was not making a random speech but was using the media to counter whatever effort the president might be making to unite the country behind his policies).

Even the network news shows last night portrayed Cheney's speech as equally important as the president's.

Does anyone remember Gore's speeches being given this kind of coverage and validity and discussion by the usual "analysts" (like Cheney's daughter, someone we hold dear as an objective analyst!).

Of course not.

Because despite the phony charge that the mass media in this country is "liberal" it has been proven over and over again that they are prey to fears of being called "liberal" by rightwingers and have no principles nor any deep concern for the "truth"—what they are is slaves to easy manipulation by corporate or political forces that threaten their facade of objectivity, so they "balance" all reality with any bogus claim made by rightwing corporate or political powers well schooled by now in how easy it is to get the media to genuflect when they say so.

Gore was giving speeches about one of the most important issues facing this country and the world, but the media virtually ignored him until his documentary won an Academy Award. And they ignored him even more when his speeches criticized some of the Bush/Cheney policies that have since been proven to be not just misguided but disastrous.

But all Cheney has to do is give a speech to a crowd about the size of a decent poetry class (and as far as I could determine made up almost entirely of white males) in which he presents no evidence, no proof, for his assertions, and makes snide comments about our president (during wartime, didn't this same Cheney claim that when Democrats dared to criticize Bush Junior they were "traitors"!) including another of his references to Europe as if our president's being respected there was a sign of weakness (yeah, who wants one of the few places on earth where there is no war and almost no poverty and no one without healthcare and the basic human necessities to admire us!).

Grade F for the entire array of news shows across the free TV and cable spectrum on this one.

[If you want to see what the right thinks of the media, check this out.]

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I don’t have an ipod, but since my oldest son, Miles, got me some speakers, with a bass component for it, that hook up to my laptop, I’ve finally begun putting my CDs on my computer. I play them on shuffle so I’m always surprised at what pops up while I’m writing or doing things around the apartment.

I notice some recordings make me burst out in a big smile when they start playing, and some even get me dancing in my chair or as I move around my place.

So, last night, for my falling asleep (I’d say back asleep, but I don’t want my caring friends to worry that I don’t get uninterrupted sleep much) alphabet list, I thought I’d try to remember songs that make me smile and even dance when they come up in the shuffle randomness.

BIRTHDAY, Bjork (when she was the lead singer for The Sugarcubes)
DESAFINADO, Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto
EVONCE, Thelonious Monk
FOUR IN ONE, Thelonious Monk
I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU, Clifford Brown & Max Roach + (in concert)
KALAMAZOO, Glen Miller (with Tex Benecke vocal lead, just the sound of his voice always makes me smile)
LEAN BABY, Frank Sinatra
MILKCOW BLUES BOOGIE, Elvis Presley (from The Sun sessions)
NITA’S RAMBLE/THE FLAMING SHILLELAGH/THE THUNDER REEL, Celtic Thunder (three tunes played together by the original group written by Terence Winc and with him on squeezebox and his brother Jesse on bodrahn (or however you spell that Irish drum)
Q (I don’t have anything recorded that starts with this)
RETRUN TO ROAN INISH (Mist Covered Mountain/Shores of Lough Gowna), Maire Breatnach (from the soundtrack)
UNDER YOUR SKIN, Luscious Jackson
V (or this)
X (or this)
ZOMBIE, The Cranberries (okay, not a happy song, but the way Dolores O'Riordan sings it, especially when she repeats the title with that gritty throaty snarl, it somehow makes me smile, maybe because she’s calling out some jive perspectives)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I spent last night (evening actually) with Myrna Loy. What a delight.

I love Turner Classic Movies. And not just because sometimes I get to see old Hollywood friends I haven’t seen in a while as co-hosts (with TCM’s main host Robert Osborne) of the evening’s programs. Or because they show movies full screen and uninterrupted. But because Osborne puts so many of the interesting stories about the making of these old flicks in perspective, with details I don’t readily know or remember.

Like the two films I caught last night that Myrna Loy was in before she became a big star. The year was 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression and Loy was twenty-eight, a fact I wouldn’t have guessed but Osborne made a point of. Loy had made many movies as a bit player but in the first, even though she enters the movie what seems like more than halfway through it, she steals it. In the second, she’s the pivotal character and once again makes the entire film worth watching.

With her round little Betty Boop face and that peculiar inflection in her speech, plus the offhanded lighthearted way she has with even the most serious lines, let alone the least interesting—exposition etc.—she makes them all seem like the lightest irony ever expressed, without that tinge of superiority most sarcasm has in movies, but instead a little flicker of self-deprecation—she just plain steals all the focus in the camera and our hearts.

It was the following year, 1934, that she met her match, William Powell, starring with him in the first THIN MAN movie and in turn becoming a huge star herself (at one time, as Osborne points out, voted the “Queen” of movies in conjunction with Clark Gable’s “King”—interesting that I grew up knowing about Gable’s title but not about Loy’s).

But in these two flicks—PENTHOUSE and WHEN LADIES MEET—the only co-stars who can keep up with Loy are the women. Warner Baxter, a ‘30s movie star who’s the star of PENTHOUSE, always seems too old for the roles he’s playing, at least romantically, and with little screen charisma, though his slicked back hair and thin little moustache is supposed to indicate his irresistibility to women.

This is the flick Loy first appears in after the film’s been going quite a while, as a supposed “common” girl whose best friend is a gangster’s moll (Mae Clark, another bright screen presence who didn’t have Loy’s unique qualities but still holds the screen better than anyone other than Loy in PENTHOUSE). And even though it’s hard to take Loy seriously as the gangster hanger-on type, she still makes the role work out of sheer movie magic—just making every line and every bit of business delightful to watch.

In WHEN LADIES MEET, the main male roles are played by Frank Morgan (who six years later made his mark as the wizard in THE WIZARD OF OZ) in another totally unbelievable slicked-back-hair-and-thin-moustache-supposedly-passing-for-irresistable-to-females-like-Loy role and the young Robert Montgomery, an actor I was never that crazy about in movies though I bought him as an older male lead in TV’s FATHER KNOWS BEST [I've been corrected on this, thanks Bob, the latter was Robert Young, but if you see the young Robert Montgomery in WHEN LADIES MEET you'll see how he could easily grow older to become Robert Young in FATHER KNOWS BEST, and I have to admit I did like Montgomery in HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN, even if his low class pug act seemed totally put on, as in this flick, it was a nice effort]. He does his best in WHEN LADIES MEET and almost comes up to Loy’s level, but not.

The women, on the other hand, make this flick totally worth watching—Ann Harding, a star in many ‘30s flicks, and Alice Brady, a comic actress sidekick in many ‘30s flicks, both are unique screen presences. Together with Loy they make this close to a classic.

But in the end, as I learned last night, even the lousiest movie can be worth watching if Myrna Loy is in it. I knew her mainly from THE THIN MAN series, and she certainly captures my heart and admiration and critical kudos for her role in one of my all time favorite flicks, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. But now I know, she’s just simply terrific in anything, even a klunker like PENTHOUSE.

If they play them again, check them out and you won't be disappointed, at least not in Myrna Loy.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Two “origin” flicks. One the story of how Kirk met Spock et. al. and became Captain of The Enterprise, the other how Wolverine became Wolverine and the whole X-men concept began. The former a TV series I wasn’t that much interested in, the latter a comic book I never read. But I enjoyed both flicks, for different reasons.

I’ve read objections to the new STAR TREK film based on politically correct perspectives, but after all, it’s a science fiction fantasy. And though there are aspects of almost every creative act and the work that results that can be criticized from some political perspective (and I often do), movies like STAR TREK and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, are meant almost solely as entertainment.

Yes, there’s often a “message” in sci fi and super hero comics, but ultimately, and especially once Hollywood gets hold of them, that’s entertainment! And as such, both these movies are fun.

The best thing about STAR TREK for me was how well they nailed the personalities of the main characters on the TV show as their younger selves. Except for Uhura—played by Zoe Saldana—the only African-American main character in the original show and the movie. While most of the other actors playing the main characters’ younger selves, (Bones, Scotty, Sulu, et. al.) pretty well matched the originals, Saldana is first of all much more of a fox than the TV version ever was (apologies to Nichelle Nichols but her younger self and Saldana are from entirely different universes physically, which may indicate some racial insensitivity on the part of the filmmakers since all the non-“black” characters pretty much nailed the physical aspects of the characters), but she’s also just an entirely different personality.

But Bones and the rest, and especially Spock and Kirk, were perfectly rendered younger versions. In fact you can actually watch Chris Pine as Kirk develop the traits that became so familiar from William Shatner’s original TV role.

The special effects were pretty fun. The main defect was the Romulans as the enemy aliens. Their leader Nero, played by Eric Bana, was about as hammy as an old Buck Rogers movie serial alien enemy. But the interaction of Pine as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as the young Spock, as well as the other main characters, especially Simon Pegg as Scotty, is worth watching the movie for.

As for Wolverine. My eleven-year-old and I were sitting behind three teenage girls who seemed obviously there to see Hugh Jackman, or at least their response to the first shot of him without a shirt would indicate. But then, when Taylor Kitsch appeared as Gambit, they seemed as much surprised as me and Flynn at their uncontrollable outburst of giggles and sighs and excited whispers.

Both movies had the usual quotient of impossible plot twists that made no sense if you took the time to stop and think about them. But they also both fulfilled the comic and sci fi genres black and white us vs. them contrast that makes for a satisfying resolution in most movies like this (where it belongs, rather than in real life politics, though there’s a nod to the Bush junior “us vs. them” and “preemptive war” attitude and policy in WOLVERINE).

But in the end STAR TREK was the more satisfying to me. It was just a fun movie experience. And the message about the future, even where politically incorrect, was still light and positive and left the audience, or at least me and my little guy feeling very optimistic.

Whereas X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE had elements in it of the cynicism that so ruined the last Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT. Like the relationship between Jackman’s Wolverine and his supposed brother (the first scenes of this movie are so muddled it’s impossible to know for sure what just happened) Victor played by Liev Schreiber. Schreiber’s Victor is so heartlessly evil, as are several other villains in WOLVERINE, it’s as though we’re being forced to watch a film about psychopaths who run in packs and expected to enjoy such a dark and pessimistic perspective.

Fortunately, there’s a few touches of humor and even feeling in the relationship to save a scene here and there. But overall, the film is so dark it becomes even more unbelievable than sci fi usually is anyway. And add that to some miscasting (Will-i-Am as John Wraith is just one example, nice try but no cigar, and maybe another case of white filmmakers needing the one African-American among the main characters and not being very selective about making the role work, just making it black, not that Will-i-Am didn't try and sometimes achieve some emotional accuracy, but not enough) which for my taste includes Schreiber as the consummately evil Victor, I just don’t buy a lot of his in between action scenes emoting, or lack of emotion acting.

But Jackman’s screen charisma I have to admit holds the movie together, along with the equally charismatic Taylor Kitsch (who strikes me as a young Johnny Depp type, another actor who started out in TV) and Lynn Collins as the love interest Kayla Silverfox and a few other supporting actors.

But whereas STAR TREK left me feeling satisfied, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE left me dissatisfied with the dystopian vision of the film and the downbeat ending. But, it was kind of fun while it lasted, despite the caveats above, so all in all, for a few hours diversion, both flicks have some worthwhile entertainment value.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Here's a couple of shots from that benefit I was part of last Sunday evening, all taken by Flash Rosenberg, whose outfit befitted her name and whose photographs I am grateful for.

This first is me mid reading for some reason turning toward those on the stage behind me, which aren't all visible unfortunately, nor do I know everyone's names, but to my far right (left in the photo) you can hopefully make out poet Anne Waldman, actor/poet Michael O'Keefe, poet/artist Rene Ricard, Actress Claire Danes (I'm blocking a view of Patricia Clarkson) with Sapphire at the front of the table to my left (far right in the photo) and in the dark somewhere behind her Amber Tamblyn.

This is artist Kiki Smith, book artist Ruth Lingen and me in Bob Holman's apartment after the reading.

[You can click on the photos to enlarge them and see those on the stage in the top photo much clearer, as well as the titles on Bob's obviously alphabetized bookshelves behind us three in the bottom one.]

Friday, May 15, 2009


Two of our finest film actors—Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx—playing “real” people in a film based on a true story. The possibilities for greatness are almost guaranteed. And, for the most part, THE SOLOIST doesn’t disappoint.

There are things I can criticize and will. Like Catherine Keener in the role of Downey’s character's (Steve Lopez) ex-wife. She can be terrific (playing Harper Lee in CAPOTE for one) but for my taste is miscast in this role. It’s kind of a thankless one in a way, the female foil to Downey’s virtuoso (another one among many) performance. But it’s definitely partly on her because there are few times in this film when things feel way too generic and most of those times are the scenes she’s in.

The director, Joe Wright, proved his mastery with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and, for my taste, especially with ATONEMENT. In THE SOLOIST he at times soars, visualizing the power of the music (Beethoven’s) that is at the heart of this flick in ways that work so well I feel like it may be the first time the power of classical music has truly been captured visually (though he falls flat in one scene where he tries to project that power through amorphous colored shapes, sort of a “psychedelic light show” version of what Disney did in that scene in FANTASIA where the music is shown as sharper edged brightly colored abstract shapes).

Foxx plays the showy role of the musical genius (Nathaniel Ayers) beset by mental demons with some restraint, and Wright visualizes his bouts with inner voices successfully, more so than I’ve seen that done before (with the caveat that for an African-American boy raised in an African-American family and household and neighborhood (according to flashback scenes) it seems odd that almost all the voices in his head are as “white” sounding as a WASPy commercial announcer).

But Downey is the one who carries and balances and grounds the film. He’s such a master of the film acting craft he makes most other actors seem almost phony in comparison. Though there are some erratic mood and personality shifts from scene to scene that aren’t entirely justified by what preceded them (maybe the fault of Susannah Grant who adapted Steve Lopez’s book, though her previous credits include ERIN BROKOVITCH which sustained the story very well, so who knows what’s to blame).

The homeless people Wright hired to play themselves add an element of reality that also grounds and balances the movie. But the one cast member who stood out the most for me was Lisagay Hamilton as Foxx’s character’s sister. She only had a handful of scenes but she elevated them emotionally and artistically. (Nelsan Ellis as the director of the LAMP homeless center was also a stand out.)

It’s a movie worth seeing and a story worth thinking about.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


After the high of last Sunday's benefit reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, today I was invited to read my poetry at the Lunch and Business Meeting of The New Jersey Rheumatology Association Annual Spring Meeting at the Woodbridge Hotel and Conference Center (following morning sessions on things like "Antiphosholipid Syndrome").

No kidding.

The organizer for the conference is a Rheumatologist, Andy Weinberger, who heard me read my work at the Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood NJ twice over the past few years. He thought it would be interesting and unique to have a poet (listed in the program as "New Jersey Poet and Actor") read for ten or so minutes during dessert.

I started with that short seventeen syllable poem I quoted in the post about Sunday's benefit. I figured it would be a good test of the audience to see how much of a sense of humor they had. Nobody laughed. Though as I commented on that, I noticed one older gray haired gentleman leaning into another man at his table explaining how the title "Most Memorable Movie Mothers" related to the final line of the poem: "SHAFT"—and they both chuckled.

But once I warmed up, so did they. In fact, they became an incredibly receptive audience, especially when I read a poem just written last night on the theme of arthritis, mostly about how my Irish grandfather and my own father and my brother the ex-cop who passed last year dealt so stoically with theirs (though with the protection of a petrified potato in my grandfather's case and the old copper bracelet in my father's), with a final nod to John Carradine who played my grandfather in my second starring role in a horror movie a few decades ago and at the time had hands totally deformed from his arthritis, though they didn't stop him from being as forceful as always, at least when the cameras were on.

Afterwards I chatted for a while with two doctors about pain and poetry and getting older and the Irish and Ireland and Jersey and Brooklyn backgrounds and it was a lovely time. I made it home just as my eleven-year-old was getting out of school, in time for me to change into more comfortable cloths (in respect to the business atmosphere I wore a suit coat with my Krew skateboarder jeans and boots and black custom made shirt (a gift from fellow actor Scott Johnson several years ago) and a tie with bleeding books on it (another gift) and get his bike from his mom's and take it to the bike shop for needed repairs after a spill he took last week.

Ah, the life of a poet, I mean, New Jersey Actor (mostly retired) and Poet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I could go on about this blowhard, but I'll let Maureen Dowd (and her Bush family sources) in today's NY Times column.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I was listening to the Jonathan Schwartz show the other day on WNYC in my car just when he was doing a little tribute to the musical GYPSY for its 50th anniversary.

I never saw the musical on stage, but I did see the movie with Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee and Rosalind Russell as her mother, the role Ethel Merman originated on Broadway.

I wasn’t crazy about it. By this time Russell had lost her charm for me, even though I had dug her in the movie of AUNTIE MAME not many years before. And the whole thing just seemed so contrived and over the top, including Russell.

I always felt Ethel Merman was contrived and over the top, ever since seeing her as a kid on The Ed Sullivan show blasting out some Broadway show tune, like my father shouting on long distance calls, taking the term literally.

Merman always seemed so full of herself and so “show bizzy” it put me off the musicals I had loved up until then, until WEST SIDE STORY came along and hooked me again (I know it has its faults as well, I still dig it).

But hearing Merman sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”—with those young Stephen Sondheim lyrics and the Julie Styne unlikely melody—on Schwartz’s show last Sunday, made me reconsider Ethel Merman’s whole existence in my inner life.

Where before she represented everything phony and pushy and full of itself about some stage and screen actors that makes most people not identify with the whole process, this time she represented an old and maybe soon to be no longer known side of singing on stage before microphones were used to amplify the human voice.

What always came across as over the top song belting from Merman, now came across to me as an indelible and seemingly almost impossible human feat. I could hear every vowel and consonant she sang, even in the lower registers and more softly intoned sections, in a way that made me know I would have heard them just the same in the last row of any theater she was singing in.

I was so struck by this accomplishment—to hold a tune, sing on key, annunciate every letter of a word to make it clear to everyone within earshot, and to expand that earshot to beyond what any of the rest of us might ever be capable of, way beyond, was extraordinary.

I remember my old man telling me as a kid watching the Ed Sullivan show on the little old black and white that seemed so futuristic then, that when he was a kid, if they could hear you in the last row, you were a singer.

Merman obviously personified that era, one that lasted centuries, millenniums for all we know, only to go into the twilight glow it’s in now, with barely a handful of practitioners left (it’s no coincidence Patti LaPone starred in the last revival of GYPSY in the Merman role).

Hearing her this way made Merman so much more endearing to me now, her long dead voice resounding from the distant past in a way that seemed to say, see how amazing we humans can be, me getting every single nuance of each word from way up here on stage all the way back there to you in the distant future marveling at the human capacity for triumphing over all kinds of obstacles. Hey, maybe you can overcome some too.

Monday, May 11, 2009


It’s a rush to do the thing you most love to do and have people dig it. The Hollywood-themed benefit last night was like that for me, and for everyone who participated I’m sure.

It was a packed house with a lively and responsive audience full of artists and actors and directors and poets and poetry fans and movers and shakers in the downtown scene.

It started with “Cocktails with the stars and poets” for those who paid a higher fee than just the cost of tickets to the reading. The place was set up table style rather than the usual rows of chairs, and included tables on the stage where the readers and their guests sat.

Bob Holman, founder of the club was his usual spontaneous be bop host with the most as he started the reading pretty much on time with a beautiful little essay or statement on mothers [Mother's Day Manifesto], very poetic and engagingly written by I think Cady Dean Stanton, the early feminist, [nope, Julia Ward Howe, see comments] that Kristi Zea, the movie costumer turned art director as well as director was planning on reading had she made it, but unfortunately was in the hospital with her own mother who is ill.

[Woops, I knew I'd forget something. Bob first brought up poet Vincent Katz, the Chair of the Board of Directors of BAS* and he got the audience primed for the evening's combination of entertainment and enlightenment by being entertaining and enlightening himself.]

Bob then introduced the wonderful actress Patricia Clarkson (saying she’d been the star of Saturday Night Live the night before) who read three poems by a poet/friend, but unfortunately I didn’t get his name because someone on stage asked me a question just as she said it (sorry)) [his name is Howard Altman, see comments].

She did a wonderful job, as you would expect, and then Bob introduced another wonderful actress, Claire Danes and pointed out that she’d spent the previous night “meeting with Barack Obama” (who she said is even better looking in person, only she said it more humorously getting a big laugh).

Danes read two poems by Alice Notley that were gnarly and female and brilliantly intelligent and original. She read them like mini-dramas, which we realized they were from her dramatic reading.

Michael O’Keefe then read three powerful and well crafted poems about his father’s last days from a soon to be published manuscript of his first collection of poems (and very fine ones they are) called SWIMMING FROM UNDER MY FATHER.

Sapphire read next from her novel PUSH (soon to be a movie if I heard right). The rhythms of all the readers thus far had been varied, but with Sapphire an entirely new rhythmic element was introduced (if you haven’t read PUSH it’s an incredible tour de force written from the perspective of a poor, undereducated but defiant and secretly yearning African-American teenaged mother of two stuck in ninth grade for her third year and struggling just to get by).

Then came Amber Tamblyn, who had been shouting encouragement and wise cracks from her table on stage as Rene Ricard was doing from the opposite side of the stage at the table I was at (and I was doing a bit of myself), reminding me of the old days when Ted Berrigan was alive and always responded out loud to whatever poetry he was part of an audience for.

Amber injected a youthful irreverence and energy into the evening as she read work of her own that was funny, profane, and highly entertaining.

Sarah Vowell was next, a unique voice I’d heard before, always smart and humorous in my experience but in an ironic-yet-touching way that few can pull off. She does. And did.

Rene Ricard then read some poems that were equally funny and poignant, clever as always and honest in the unfiltered way I think our work often shares. I hadn’t seen him in what seemed like a decade or more and was just delighted he was still as vibrant a presence as always and just as funny and perceptive as he was back in the 1970s when he was discovering Jean Basquiat and other great artists and poets and getting them to those who could help them find a wider audience. Rene’s one of those “living legends” of the downtown scene, still.

Then I was introduced as an actor as well as poet, and read an excerpt from OF, a book length poem written while I was still working in Hollywood, because I wanted to give the audience an idea of what a typical day for someone working in the movie and TV business was like back when I was doing that.

I followed up with a seventeen-syllable poem (not a haiku I pointed out, as that form is really almost impossible to render in American—though Kerouac comes closest to mastering it for my taste—and has very little to do with seventeen syllables actually) I extracted from my last post on memorable movie mothers:



Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in GRAPES OF WRATH


Then closed with “My Life 2” which is the profile statement to the right only with the line breaks the way they should be. It all got a great response from the audience, which is where I started this post, how satisfying it is to do what you love doing most for an audience that appreciates it.

And then Bob brought up the Youth Poets/Urban Word NYC (Bob said they appear on Russel Simmon’s Def Jam TV show and there were supposed to be four so I’m not sure who was missing among Alexis Marie, B Yung, Kayan James & Jasmine Mans) whose spoken word (memorized that basically means) coordinated (almost choreographed except the dancing was only upper body movement not feet) physicality echoed drill team precision with Def Jam style testifying poetics.

A perfect climax to an evening of steadily building momentum from a wonderful array of poetic possibilities.

Anne Waldman closed the evening with what Bob called “a benediction”—more a summary and hurrah for the power of poetry and the possibilities of its intersection with Hollywood.

Then there were greetings from friends and strangers, with so many folks telling me how much they dug my work it was like a natural high for which I’m extremely grateful. As I pointed out to one person who made a self-conscious statement about adding his accolade to someone else who’d just given theirs, it’s pretty much all we poets (and a lot of others working in other arts for which there’s very little or no monetary rewards) get (which is why I always make it a point to let people know how much I dig their work).

One of the highlights, among many, was someone coming to get me to bring me to the artist Chuck Close who is confined to a wheel chair (but a futuristic machine that seemed at least twice the size of the usual ones) so he could tell me how much he liked my reading. (There were others I’d like to mention but am afraid I’d leave too many out unintentionally and seem ungrateful so I just mention Close because I don’t know him and it seemed particularly poignant.)

I felt honored and humbled and delighted just to have been invited to participate, much less receive so many warm accolades. So it was especially a delight to have several people tell me they had no idea I ever acted and only knew me through my books, including a woman who said she’d been a bookseller in Connecticut for years.

Those of us who mainly write, especially the poets, so often labor in solitude with only sporadic ventures into venues with audiences that can respond in person and in the moment, that these kinds of events seem like an exotic meal that not only nourishes but elevates life’s dailiness to something extraordinary, as we often are attempting to do in our work.

Oh what a night. I loved it. Wish you all could have been there (and afforded it, or that they'd filmed it and put it on YouTube). But there are plenty of free readings by all kinds of wonderful poets in your neighborhood or not too far I bet, so do yourself a favor and check them out. You won’t be sorry (or most of the time you won’t anyway).

*To be more precise it was a benefit for “Bowery Arts and Science (BAS)…a non profit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the oral tradition of poetry via live readings, media documentation and creation, and to elevating the status of poetry to that of its sister arts. The mission of BAS includes a strong educational component, introducing all manner of poetries to students of all ages; the preservation of endangered languages via the valuation of the poetry of these cultures; and the infusion and integration of poetry with other arts and into the daily life of the citizenry.”

Saturday, May 9, 2009



Bogart’s character’s hardened mom in DEAD END, who, after he risks arrest to see her, tells him she’s sorry he was ever born
James Dean’s character’s mother, the madam he discovers in EAST OF EDEN and drags his brother to force them together in an explosion of overacting that’s so intense it seemed brand new at the time, now it seems, to me at least, way over done
The “ma” Cagney’s character screams he’s at the “top of the world” to in the climax of WHITE HEAT, a scene cited often as classic, though the one that’s truly uniquely classic is when the middle-aged Cagney as Cody sits on his elderly but criminally cruel mother’s lap for solace, as grotesque and indelible an image as any movie has ever produced

Greer Garson’s selfless chin-up-smiling-through-the-tears World War Two mother and symbol of English resistance to the blitz despite the loss of an innocent daughter to its randomness (am I remembering that correctly?) in MRS. MINIVER for which she won an Oscar
Joan Crawford’s lurid palette—even in black-and-white—as the title character whose motherhood is lethal to her offspring in MILDRED PIERCE, another Oscar winner
Cher’s realistic rendering of a drug and sex addled but nonetheless loving single mom in MASK should have been nominated for an Oscar

Jane Darwell’s poignant maternal acceptance of Henry Fonda’s transformation from the stalwart son of the Joad family into another outlaw against the ravages of capitalism in GRAPES OF WRATH
Anne Ramsay’s comically crazy control-freak slapstick shtick as the mother of her wannabe gangster sons played by Robert Davi and Joe Pantilioni in THE GOONIES
Anne Bancroft in THE GRADUATE (‘nuff said)

John Travolta as the surprisingly believable and endearing mother in HAIRSPRAY
Shelley Winters as the unsurprisingly cloying and annoying mother in LOLITA
Elizabeth Taylor as the surprisingly believable but imaginary mother in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFE?

In the amazingly accomplished star studded cast of PARENTHOOD, Dianne Wiest’s single mother is most unforgettable
In the groundbreaking Great Depression gangster film THE PUBLIC ENEMY, Beryl Mercer’s unconditional—if conflicted—motherly love for Cagney’s breakthrough character makes the film more than mere sensationalism
Anthony Perkins playing his character’s own mother as his startling star turn in PSYCHO

Irene Dunne in I REMEMBER MAMA
Jean Arthur in SHANE


[woops, and how could I forget Nicole Beharie and Alfre Woodard in AMERICAN VIOLET]

Friday, May 8, 2009


I know it’s a little early, okay way too early, but this is my Oscar pick for 2009. And not just for best movie, but for best actress, best actor, best supporting actor and best supporting actress and maybe best directing. I could go on.

(And just for full disclosure, as they say, I knew the director, Tim Disney, for awhile in my Hollywood years, a really nice guy, as I did some of the actors, in particular the wonderful Alfre Woodard and my good friend Michael O’Keefe, who is also a fine poet I’ll be reading with, among others, this Sunday at a benefit for the Bowery Poetry Club, see up top to the right for details.)

If you’re anything like me you go to highly recommended movies with a “show me” attitude, so if you don’t want to be influenced, even if reversely, from my reaction, stop reading and find out where this flick is playing and go see it now!

Otherwise, here’s my reaction: AMERICAN VIOLET manages to have an incredible emotional impact while being directed in an understated way that evokes such subtlety in the actors, especially the leading lady, Nicole Beharie, you might at first feel something’s missing, like Hollywood polish and obviousness.

The story is based on real events that occurred in Texas starting in 2000. But it could have been like lots of Hollywood style “true life” stories, a lot of which I enjoy (e.g. ERIN BROKAVITCH since this is like a low budget African-American version of that, only more real, more reminiscent of ON THE WATERFRONT in terms of acting and impact, or even more so NOTHING BUT A MAN).

Instead, it’s as though the obvious was repressed to showcase the unexpected, and whatever obviousness was left is so understated it’s almost thrown away. A direction often given to actors is “throw the line away” meaning you’re making too much of it, and this movie is full of thrown away lines but unlike in most movies, the ones thrown away in AMERICAN VIOLET are often the ones with the most emotional impact.

For instance, Charles S. Dutton plays the Reverend in AMERICAN VIOLET, a powerful actor who often explodes on screen and on stage with the intensity of his emotions. But not in this film. One of the finest moments in the movie is the final scene, the coda if you will or post-climactic scene that brings every emotion, if not every reality, stirred up by this movie to a satisfying resolution. In it Dutton’s Reverend singles out the flawed but determined and truthful heroine from his pulpit in such an underhanded and quick way your emotions react before you even register what he just said.

That’s some pretty fine directing, and casting. Everyone in it is terrific. But there are unexpected delights. Like Will Patton, an actor who got a role in a movie I was originally cast in but had to drop out of at the start of my movie acting “career” while he went on to act in a lot of interesting films (including one I had only a few scenes as the president in which were later cut, THE RAPTURE, but which he had a pretty big role in as the motorcycle cop).

Maybe partly for that reason I always found his acting pretty one dimensional and felt cheated because of that, like hey, I could have done so much more with those roles.

Not this time. He deserves a “Best Actor” Oscar for the incredibly restrained but perfectly realized truth of the Texas attorney he plays, a “good old boy” with a conscience, but one he doesn’t have to display or point out or even articulate specifically (also a tribute to the writing by Bill Haney, though with another director or actor it still could have been overdone or melodramatic). There’s one scene in particular with Patton that is the most moving scene he’s ever done and works so well in the understated way I’m talking about that the emotional impact is increased tenfold to what it would be if played and written for the “lesson” inherent in it that isn’t stated but understood.

In this flick, at least for the first hour or more of it, subtext is everything, little is spelled out until the climactic scene. I saw it with a couple of close friends who didn’t know the original story so were totally capable of being either put off or thrown by it, but instead were both knocked out.

I had read the original news stories about the real events so not only knew something of what to expect, but also recognized some of the lines spoken in the film as direct quotes from the real life statements of the participants. But even knowing pretty much what was coming in the arc of the story, the individual scenes were full of so many nuances and little surprises and touches of a reality rarely if ever seen on screen before, I was continually moved and engaged and so swept away I felt emotionally wrung out when it was over, in that great cathartic way.

I also felt like I’d had a completely satisfying movie experience. The acting was so unexpected at times, it often seemed like non-acting or even somehow not good because it contained the elements of reality that often look too awkward or self-conscious or self-righteous or repressed or hesitant that it clashes with what we’re used to from most Hollywood flicks.

This is something I was determined to bring to my film and TV acting that ended up at times looking too awkward or hesitant or so “real”—from my point of view—that it clashed with those around me in a scene and probably contributed to my not becoming the star the managers and agents and studio heads and others predicted (or hoped for), that and stepping on too many “toes” (to put it mildly) and ignoring too many of the powerful in that industry and making choices that weren’t smart in terms of playing that game well (and chance and other things way out of my control).

Sorry to get sidetracked with personal revelations but in this movie, more than any I’ve ever seen I think, all the acting seemed so authentically real life to me, even the obvious stuff, that it could win my ensemble acting award as well.

Just to single out some, I mentioned Alfre Woodard, who has never spent one second in any movie I’ve seen her in being anything other than totally true to the character and real in whatever situation the character is in. She’s an impeccable actor who deserves more awards than she’s received, including for this film (the scenes between her and Nicole Beharie playing her daughter were so fantastic in terms of duet acting I almost sobbed from the emotions they evoked and cheered for the beauty of their craft as they verbally dueled).

And Michael O’Keefe, who you might remember as the caddy in CADDYSHACK or the son in THE GREAT SANTITNI, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Or those of you who were into the Roseanne TV show, he played her brother-in-law. Lately he’s been appearing in smaller roles in movies that get major attention at awards time. Not for him, but without him they wouldn’t have been as good, i.e, MICHAEL CLAYTON, FROZEN RIVER and now AMERICAN VIOLET, which if it doesn’t get nominated for some Oscars would be a crime, including a Best Supporting role for Michael as what in any other film would be the stereotypical bad guy, but Michael—and the director and writer—turn into an example of “the banality of evil” (as Hanah Arendt put it when writing about Eichmann [who I could now see O'Keefe easily portraying and probably winning an Oscar for]).

Another actor who could easily be nominated for a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor for AMERICAN VIOLET is Tim Blake Nelson. He’s shown such a range in his movie roles that it’s amazing he hasn’t already won several Oscars—e.g. the dimwitted but hysterically unintentionally humorous third member of the "hillbilly" trio in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? compared to the straight-laced, restrained but passionate Jewish Civil Rights lawyer in AMERICAN VIOLET.

Even in the small but crucial role of the lead character’s husband, the rapper and cable TV star (PIMP MY RIDE host) Xzibit, who always comes across as about as charming and congenial as anyone on TV, does a great job of humanizing another role that would have been played for the hard edge of the character alone by most other actors directed by most other directors. Instead, the whole range of human possibilities are expressed in the subtlety of some of his choices in the scenes he's in.

But the revelation of the movie is the star, Nicole Beharie, as beautiful as a young Beyonce. So beautiful you might question how appropriate she might be for the role of a young mother of four living in public housing in Texas, but she quickly turns that on its head, and again, not to be repetitive, she humanizes not only her beauty, but her character’s striving and failures in ways that seem uniquely real for these times.

Did I have any problems with this flick? The Texas accents don’t always harmonize, though they probably don’t in real life, but there could be objections raised to that or to the obviously low budget quality of other aspects of the flick, but like ON THE WATERFRONT and NOTHING BUT A MAN was for their times, this film captures a part of our reality that is too often overlooked or ignored in “art” and news and life, but shouldn’t be.

In fact, if you aren’t enlightened, as well as engaged by this worthy film, you need to see it again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


1. When Obama took over as president and the precipitous slide in the stock market that had been going on for a long time under his predecessor continued for several weeks, the rightwing Republicans started calling it "The Obama Market"—and rightwing commenters on this blog kept using the stock market as an up or down vote on Obama—but once that market turned around and started rising, they stopped talking about the "Obama market" or using the market as a vote of confidence on Obama (go back and check the comments on this blog and you'll see all mention of the stock market and Obama from the righwingers ceases once it turns around) and no word at all about how now the market is above where it was when Obama came into office, i.e. under his predecessor, meaning Obama, at least according to the rightwingers who make these kinds of claims for the stock market (I don't) has already proven he's a better president than his predecessor (as if we didn't all know that anyway).

2. No sign of the rightwing Republicans either on Obama's plan to cut more government programs than his predecessor, under whom the government grew dramatically (after the federal government actually was reduced under Clinton/Gore, before which it grew under Reagan/Bush, hmmmm, is there a pattern here? like say Republicans talking about reducing government and then getting in and expanding it and Republicans labeling Democrats as "big government" when Democratic administrations are the only ones who have reduced it in the past several decades!).

3. And all the criticisms of Obama's inexperience and Democrats being too weak on national security haven't morphed into any hallelujahs for Obama's clear focus on rooting out Al Queda in Afghanistan and Pakistan where they are, and were under Bush/Cheney, though the previous administration never addressed that issue directly as Obama has by getting the leaders of those two countries together and finally prodding the Pakistan military into fighting domestic terrorism from Al Queda and the resurgent Taliban (resurgent because Bush/Cheney withdrew troops and resources from the fight against the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan and redeployed them to Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction as advertised, nor any connection between Iraq and Al Queda (until we invaded Iraq) let alone any connection between Iraq and 9/11).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I started reviewing for newspapers and magazines back in the 1960s. It began when I was still working as a musician, so I was asked if I'd review some new LPs for a newspaper in Iowa City while I was working on an MFA at the U. of Iowa.

I acted in a few student and independent feature films in the '60s as well, so I was also asked to review movies. My opinions were pretty controversial (I was also a political columnist for several alternative or "underground" newspapers as we called them then and for the University of Iowa newspaper).

But by the 1970s, I was pretty exclusively reviewing books for literary and little magazines as well as alternative and established newspapers, the best known probably The Washington Post and The Village Voice (both of which I wrote a book column for).

Naturally, I got a lot of books for review in those years. In fact, my older son and I, when he first lived with me in Manhattan, and later his sister, after she joined us, ate food paid for by the bags of books I'd sell every week at The Strand Book Store—with it's "miles of books"—and other book shops.

After I moved to Southern California and started working in the film and TV business, I gave up the reviewing, for the most part, and as a result, the number of books I got sent diminished. But never totally disappeared.

My friends would often send me their latest books, but I'm talking about books from total strangers. Over the years I continued to get them now and then. Sometimes the writers knew my own books and dug them and just wanted me to see what they were up to. But some obviously were looking for a review.

Since I started this blog and began posting about books I'm reading and mostly digging, some by friends and some by strangers and some by strangers who have subsequently become friends, the amount of books I'm receiving in the mail and by FedEx and UPS has started to climb again.

All this is to say that on my nightstand I have at the moment forty-four books I'm in the process of reading, some more slowly, savoring them so to speak, some more quickly. I probably have one of those disorders they diagnose kids with all the time now, because I find it impossible to read one book straight through. I have to read several books at the same time—a few poems in a poetry book, than a chapter or two in a prose one, etc.—so my mind stays engaged.

So if you sent me a book and I haven't mentioned it, that's because it's part of this vast pile next to my bed which I delve into most nights for a while before sleeping, mixing and matching bits of each, finishing some sooner some later, but eventually they all get read, from cover to cover, even the front and back pages that aren't part of the text (another compulsion).

I want to thank everyone who sends me their books, or their publishers. I like my reading as well as other elements of my life to be determined by arbitrary factors, like what I receive in the mail. I like that I still get stuff in the mail. Thanks.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


"Is Diane Lane the most believable presence in contemporary American movies?" —Charles Taylor in last Sunday's NY Times review of the DVD release of what sounds like a terribly underrated and overlooked movie that I haven't seen but intend to now, KILLSHOT.

Like Taylor claims this movie is, Diane Lane too is a terribly underrated if not entirely overlooked great actress (has she won an Oscar yet?) In the same review he describes Lane as "personifying, as she often has, the hard-won grace of adulthood." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, May 4, 2009


JAN KEROUAC A Life in Memory, edited by Gerald Nicosia, has just been published by Noodlebrain Press (an imprint obviously created for this project since “noodlebrain” is a term Jan used about herself and her famous father Jack).

It’s a compilation of memories from some people who knew Jan (like one of Neal Cassady’s kids) or took an interest in her life and struggles, including Nicosia, who was one of Jan’s closest friends and advisors and champions, with an interview Gerry did with Jan back in the early 1970s also included.

But it’s not just a book for Jan Kerouac fans, or anyone interested in anything having to do with her father Jack, although if you are one of those it’s well worth your time, but it’s also worth reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of parent/child relationships, and not just those involving a famous parent, but those effected by the parents’ problems and the impact on children of the problems that caused them to separate and the children to be raised without one or the other around.

But even if none of that interests you, it’s still a fascinating read for anyone interested in the story of a uniquely charismatic young woman whose life was both tragic and inspiring.

Like any compilation, especially one as forthright and sometimes raw as this one, there are highlights and not so high. I suspect they might vary for each reader, and since I was interested in every word (I only recently received it and read it straight through, a few chapters each night, unable to stop) I won’t bother to try and predict aspects of it anyone might find engaging or not.

As I’ve said and I’m sure is obvious to anyone who reads this blog or my writing elsewhere, I’m a big fan of Jack Kerouac’s writing. But I was never a big fan of some of the more important decisions he made in his life, including choosing to first deny he was Jan’s father and avoiding any responsibility for her and then when he finally admitted she was his daughter still not including her in his life.

I always assumed the main reason, and I still feel there’s a lot of truth to this, is that he didn’t want to be burdened with the normal obligations and responsibilities of family life, especially as practiced back in the 1950s, because he feared, and probably rightfully so, that it would interfere with what he believed was his higher calling and purpose, to create a body of work that would change “American” if not world literature for the good forever.

To my mind he achieved that, although I’m sure there’d be plenty of disagreement from some critics and especially academics and others, maybe you reading this. But is artistic genius and it’s expression more important than a child’s security and happiness?

I personally opted for the latter in my life. Most of the decisions I’ve made since my first child was born back in my twenties, and to this day, are based more on what I think is best for my kids than on what I think is best for me and my “art”—and whether warranted or not I certainly felt the same way Kerouac did since I was a kid, that I was put here to write (and practice other arts) and in so doing change the course of literary history and free others to write more honestly and individually about the truth of their lives, especially the secrets that seemed to have been hidden from common expression throughout history until our own time.

Keroauc beat me to the punch in many ways, as did others (though I think I made my contributions, especially early on, in ways that were new and had some influence) since they were older and there before me. And before Jan.

Jan became a writer like her father, known for two autobiographical novels BABY DRIVER and TRAINSONG. I remember first reading her with a jaundiced eye, thinking she and her publisher were just taking advantage of her father’s name.

But I also was sympathetic to the reality that she had grown up without any help from her dad or even his presence in her life. So why not use her last name to get some recognition and hopefully money for herself.

Her mother, Joan Haverty, wrote a book about her time with Jack called NOBODY’S WIFE which I reviewed on this blog relatively negatively because I felt she was judging Jack’s behavior in the 1940s and ‘50s by the post-feminist standards of the 1970s. And because it is clear to me from his writing and hers, as well as from some others (including some in JAN KEROUAC A Life in Memory, though too little for my taste) that Joan had her own problems which contributed as much or more to Jan’s problems as the absence of her famous father.

I knew Jan only through our correspondence after poet and friend, and editor of this book, Gerry Nicosia put us in touch. She seemed like an amiable, honest, good hearted woman, if a little insecure, and I dug hearing from her and was saddened by her death not long after we became friends through the mail (before the instant and more immediate satisfaction of e mail had become common, at least for people like Jan and me).

Maybe that colors my gratitude to Gerry for putting this book together and getting it out. As I’ve written before, I was involved to some extent in Gerry's and Jan’s attempts to get her rightful inheritance of her father’s archives, not just for the financial support it might afford her (and she was fighting grave health issue for the last several years of her life or more so was in need of all the financial help she could get) but more importantly to her, to Gerry, and to me and others who are fans of Jack Kerouac’s writing, to keep those archives intact and accessible to scholars and fans and anyone interested in exploring them, as Jack had intended and made very clear.

One of the many unfortunate decisions Jack made that created problems for him later was to take gravely seriously his promise to his father at the elder Kerouac’s deathbed that he would care for his mother. Because Jack spent most of his time writing, daydreaming (about his writing and what it would bring him), and going on alcoholic binges (the source of much of the stories in his writing) with only occasional success for many years, and then dwindling success toward the end of his life (shortened by that alcoholism), Jack didn’t do a very great job of caring for his mother, other than spending most of his time with her and letting her basically care for him.

As part of that, when his second wife, Joan Haverty, gave birth to Jan after they had separated, according to accounts in this book including Jan’s, her father didn’t want to upset his mother so he assured her that the baby wasn’t his. Then, even when he realized the lie, he was afraid to go back on it and possibly upsetting his mother and his comfortable arrangement of having her as his domestic help (and in many ways partner) without the responsibilities and distractions of a child and having to get an actual job to support Jan or give her part of his earnings as a writer once he became successful, which could have also gotten in the way of his finally being able to care for his mother at least financially as well as cut into his ability to continue writing without having to worry about any other kind of work for pay, etc.

Jack married his last wife, Stella, the spinster sister of his earliest and most important soulmate, Sammy Sampas, when he knew he was drinking himself to death and that his mother might outlive him. He wanted someone there to care for her, and Stella did. But according to Jan and her lawyers and others, including experts in a court case still to be decided, when Jack’s mother died before Stella, her signature was forged on a will leaving Jack’s archives to her, which wasn’t so bad until Stella died and they fell into the hands of her brothers, who began selling bits and pieces of them off piecemeal (Jack’s star as a writer was almost extinguished when he passed but had grown much brighter than even previously around the time the Sampas brothers got hold of his archives) including a famous raincoat to Johnny Depp, as well as letters Jack wrote that were sold to Depp and other Hollywood stars (so that instead of them being intact and accessible in a library setting, along with the rest of Jack’s archives, they can only be viewed in a frame on a wall in a Hollywood mansion).

Thankfully, Gerry and Jan and others, including me to a small degree, made such a fuss over the first several years the Sampases were doing this, they were forced to reconsider and in recent years have given most of the archives, or what’s left, to the New York Library (Jan wanted them to go there or to Berkeley branch of the U. of California), though they sold the original “roll” (as Jack called it, though the Sampases and others, including the owner and now the publisher of the book version call it a “scroll”) of ON THE ROAD for millions.

Jan’s life was definitely tragic—her childhood poverty and rebellion leading to incarceration and more rebellion and bad choices harming her health and happiness and her too early death from kidney failure that made the last years of her life so difficult.

But as I said, it was also inspiring. For instance, she rarely, if ever, blamed her father for his absence, believing he had a higher purpose with his writing (that has had an impact on millions) and feeling, as she makes clear in the interview with her in this book, more like a parent to her childish father than an abandoned daughter.

She also made something of the tragic circumstances and choices of her early life by writing about them in BABY DRIVER and TRAINSONG successfully, gaining some stature and sense of accomplishment from this beyond the tortured confusion of her childhood and adolescence and early adulthood. As well as adding something to the important literature of our times.

And when she died she was still working on her incomplete last novel, PARROT FEVER, (pages of which she sent me toward the end for my opinion, which I found touching and humbling), still a committed, working writer and artist, giving her an identity that both joined her to her father, and freed her from his overwhelming absence in her life.

I want to again publicly thank Gerald Nicosia for all he did to help Jan in her life and writing, but also for what he has done, especially with this book, to keep Jan’s life and accomplishments in the public eye as much as possible so that she and they are not forgotten or dismissed (and all he continues to do to see that Jack’s work is some day accessible and published as Jack wanted it to be, and not with the editing and censorship imposed on it by the Sampases for their own purposes, whether financial or personal (all negative comments about the them, for instance, edited out of any posthumously published books of Jack’s etc.)

[ordering informatio: PO Box 130 Corte Madera, CA 94976-0130 ($25 postpaid—checks should be made out to Gerald Nicosia)]

Saturday, May 2, 2009


I heard the great jazz piano player Bill Charlap on WNYC yesterday explaining improvisation and displaying his amazing talent and technical skills. I knew Bill before I knew who he was.

We met on a New Jersey Transit train to the city one day. I found out he was a jazz musician but I didn’t catch his last name and put it together with the piano player whose music had already impressed me when I heard it on another WNYC show, Jonathan Schwartz’s, on a Sunday afternoon drive back from the Berkshires.

But when I did I was even more amazed as he’s a very modest unpretentious cat for someone that TIME magazine named the greatest jazz musician of the year a few years back.

I think he originally grew up in the city, but he’s been living in Jersey for years and has kids in the same public school my little one goes to, so I consider him a home boy now.

So for last night’s wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-help-me-get-back-to-sleep alphabet list, I started thinking about all the musical makers who live or lived in Jersey and did another alphabet list. (I think I did something like this before, but I can’t locate it.)

Here’s what I came up with:

ANTHEIL, GEORGE (early 20th Century avant-garde composer and friend of Jersey poet William Carlos Williams), ARMOR FOR SLEEP (some relatives by marriage in this group)
BASIE, COUNT, COZY COLE, BON JOVI, BLUES TRAVELERS (at least some of them), SCOTT BUCK (a local multi-talent—meaning he plays many instruments—but mainly guitar player and songwriter and original)
ELGART, LES & LARRY, BILL EVANS (Not sure he grew up here, but lived in Jersey), THE E STREET BAND
GILLESPIE, DIZZY (another jazz great who I don’t think grew up in Jersey but lived most of his adult life here), LESLIE GORE, GLORIA GAYNOR, STEVE GIRARDI (a local jazz guitarist and composer whose music is unique and compelling)
ISLEY BROTHERS, THE (I saw them at the West Orange Teenage Canteen long before “Shout” was a hit), JANIS IAN
JOHNSON, JAMES P. (great stride piano player and composer), WYCLEF JEAN, THE JONAS BROTHERS (why not)
KIRSHNER, DON (who created the Monkees), KOOL AND THE GANG (at least some of them)
MONK, THELONIOUS JR. (has lived in my hometown, South Orange, for many years now and his father spent the last years of his life living in Jersey, Englewood I think), MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
NELSON, OZZIE (a big band leader before he became famous for the TV show and his younger son Ricky, who was born in Jersey), NAUGHTY BY NATURE
PAUL, LES (not born in Jersey but has lived here most of his adult life), THE PLURALS (a very cool white group that I heard live many times back in the 1950s and were locally famous), THE PARLIAMENTS (some of), BUCKY & JOHN PIZZARELLI, PARLIAMENT-FUNKADELIC (also some of), KATE PIERSON (from THE B-52S, or so I hear)
ROBESON, PAUL, NELSON RIDDLE (one of the best arrangers of Sinatra recordings), THE RASCALS, THE ROCHES
YO LA TENGO (someone told me they live in Hoboken, I don’t know if they grew up in Jersey)

(You could do this for your home state too, if it’s other than Jersey)

Friday, May 1, 2009


I was going to confine this post to the comments section of my last post. It's a reply to my constant rightwing blatherer and childhood friend Jim and one of his many unsubstantiated comments (he thinks giving citations to other rightwing blatherers is the same as being factual), this time about how the corporate tax rates in this country will make us like Japan (no what's made us have any similarities with Japan's economic collapse and less than robust recovery over the last ten years, is that both were the result of a housing bubble, only Japan's was confined to Japan's own economy, especially the banks, whereas ours being based on undecipherable formulas packaged as "hedges" against a failure that was actually inevitable and then sold throughout the world, has caused an economic collapse EVERYWHERE!).

I realize it's a waste of time to argue with Jim since he's a rightwing ideologue and cannot see beyond their propaganda obviously from his comments. But it becomes so tiresome to have him repeat the lies of his rightwing cheerleaders ala Rush/Hannity/et. al. that I dropped my original idea for a post and just copied the comment I was about to add to the last post here.

Here's Jim's "comment"—"The US 35% Corporate tax rate is the highest after the Japanese, in the world. The Japanese have been in a twenty year slump. JFK, Reagan and George W. proved that the best way to raise tax revenues is to cut the rates."

Oy. Where to start with all the fallacies and distortions in just those few words. Okay, here's the facts Jim. Most countries IN THE WORLD Jimbo, have corporate taxes in the 35% range, a vast majority (interestingly the "socialist" ones Jim's always denigrating ala Sweden Norway et. al. are mostly much lower).

And of the few who aren't in the same range as the USA's 15 to 38% (yes, some corporations pay as low as 15% here Jim, legally) they have graduated income taxes that go way above the USA's 35% (which may be where Jim got that figure for us, mistaking personal income tax for corporate, but that's been a rightwing ploy for decades, confusing corporations with individuals and even getting the law to agree).

For instance Spain's corporate taxes range from 25 to 30% but their individual income taxes go up to 42% or Belgium's 34% corporate tax rate is balanced by individual taxes that can go as high as 50%! Canada, who's corporate rate can go to 35.5% interestingly only goes as high as 29% in income tax rates (and still gives free healthcare!). France is another country that has a corporate rate close to 35% (it's 34%) but income taxes can go as high as 50%.

India, actually is closest to our figures, so I guess their phenomenal growth rate proves Jim's point—NOT!

As for Japan, Jim has that wrong as well. Their corporate rate is 30% but personal income taxes can go as high as 40%.

All this, of course, as any basic economics course should teach (but most MBA programs in this country are run by rightwing defenders of the so-called "free market"—which of course is an ideal that could never be actually carried out in reality (much like "communism" and "socialism" etc.)—and therefore deregulation (leading to the current worldwide economic collapse brought on by the philosophy taught in most of our business schools, but notice no big leftwing outcry to rid college campuses of these rightwing MBA professors whose teachings are a central part of the root cause of WORLDWIDE FINANCIAL RUIN! Nope, just the rightwing outcry to rid campuses of leftie professors who want to promote the idea of equality of the races and sexes and genders and gender preferences and the idea that government can do some good, the dirty villains!)

At any rate, anyone with an ounce of intelligence and any history of following markets and reading about economic realities, not theories, will know that these tax rate figures are useless indicators of anything unless joined with a slew of other statistics and facts including things as seemingly unrelated as geography, climate, consumption percentages, even religion and politics.

That's why we're so lucky to have someone with as nuanced an intelligence and perspective as Obama leading us through the current mess—created by simplistic ideological (rightwing) theories that in reality have proven completely disastrous—and with a useful personal history, having experienced all the dominant religions firsthand, most of the dominant geographical and climate variants and economic and power extremes personally—from Hawaii to Chicago, Indonesia to Harvard, welfare kid to millionaire author, community organizer among the most deprived to "leader of the free world" or "the world's only super power" etc.

Obama, fortunately, knows much much more than Jim or his rightwing cheerleaders have even a clue about, thank God.

[Oh, and PS Jim, taxes increased under presidents who raised tax rates or let them settle back to previous rates (and vice versa), as well, remember the Clinton presidency?]