Wednesday, September 30, 2009


What scares me about this is the infiltration into our armed services of not just fundamentalist so-called "Christian" beliefs and perspectives—where the Bible trumps the Constitution, the exact opposite of what the Founders intended—but also the so-called "Christian" fundamentalist linked rightwing political beliefs and perspectives—where rightwing ideology trumps the Constitution and intent of the Founders, as demonstrated by their refusal to accept that the majority voted in Obama and now it's his turn to try his policies to solve the problems he inherited by the other side's eight years in office.

I'd like to see one of those SEVEN DAYS IN MAY or DR. STRANGELOVE films of the '60s that pinpointed the logical outcome of the rightwing paranoia of those days remade and updated to reflect the current developments on the rightwing paranoia front. I actually have read rightwing commentary that blames Obama for the "too big to fail" bailout policy calling it "socialist" but not acknowledging that the policy was initiated by the Bush Junior rightwing Republican administration and proud defenders of so-called "capitalism" (better called corporate socialism)!

PS: Just watched the evening news, switching around the channels to see what the networks and major cable outlets are saying and can't believe the fuss they're making over a Democratic Congressman from Florida who used the term "Neanderthals" for Republican obstructionists and points out they don't have any healthcare plan beyond "Don't get sick, and if you do die quickly!" Somehow his criticism in this form the newtworks find equal to the rightwing attacks on Obama! On CNN Wolf Blitzer kept ignoring the Congressman's cogent and humorous criticisms of Republicans for their obstructionism to pummel him with confrontational arguments questioning the literalism of the Congressman's criticisms (as if the righwingers don't take all their attacks literally! i.e. Obama's citizenship credentials, accusations of "socialism" for a very mild and moderate form of "capitalism" etc.)!! (Probably ordered by Blitzer's superiors since CNN's attempt to not criticize the right has left them behind FOX in the ratings lately.)


My web site is back up, thanks to the woman who created and designed it, Magdalene Powers. It's got an updated photo, but there's still some changes that have to be made and some additions (hopefully some footage and some audio of poetry readings and/or some acting jobs I dug). But it may be awhile, since my friend Maggie (a writer whose work I've touted on this blog) is in L.A. trying out for Jeopardy! Let's keep our fingers crossed that she not only gets on, but wins big!

Monday, September 28, 2009


What I've been saying in various posts in the past several months, is said differently and I think pretty well in this post on today's Huff Post.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


The last list, in which I included Ted Berrigan’s TRAIN RIDE, started me thinking about two-word book titles in which each word only has one syllable. So I made that the requirement for last night’s list (as well as the usual, that they have to be books I dig (including plays in book form since that’s how I know many plays and sometimes prefer them), and I couldn’t use “the” or “a”—too easy) (I’ve done something close to this in the past but not exactly, so some titles popped right up in my mind but the rest I had to dig for, which is the point, because it helps me fall asleep much easier, which I obviously did leaving a lot of blanks):

BLACK SPRING by Henry Miller, BIG SUR by Jack Kerouac and BLUE SKIES by Simon Schuchat
DARK BROWN by Michael McClure
END GAME by Samuel Beckett [Woops. I've been reminded by Ray DiPalma that ENDGAME is one word. Should have checked it on my bookshelves before I wrote this up. In my mind it was two words. Oh well. Ray also reminded me that there's a Beckett work called EH JOE that actually fits the bill. So thanks Ray!]
FILM NOIR by Bruce Andrews (although the way the Irish say “fillum” some would say that’s two syllables, but not in upscale “American”)
HEART BEAT by Carolyn Cassady and HIS LIFE by Glen Baxter
IN TIME by Robert Kelly and IN THRALL by Jane Delynn
JACK’S BOOK by Barry Gifford & Lawrence Lee
KING LEAR by William Shakespeare
LUNCH POEMS by Frank O’Hara, LET’S GO! By Otto Rene Costillio, LIGHT YEARS by Merrill Gilfillan and LIGHTS OUT by Geoffrey Young
MAN’S FATE by Andre Malraux
NIGHT SHIFT by Carl Hanni
OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder
RIP RAP by Gary Snyder and RAW DEAL by Jerome Sala
SOME TREES by John Ashbery, SOME DO by Jane Delynn, STRONG PLACE by Tim Dlugos, SMILE PLEASE by Jean Rhys and SUNG SEX by Kenward Elmslie and Joe Brainard
THANK YOU by Kenneth Koch, THESE DAYS by Lee Lally, THREE POEMS by John Ashbery and TRAIN RIDE by Ted Berrigan
UP FRONT by Bill Mauldin
WHITE MULE by William Carlos Williams
YOU BET! By Ted Greenwald

Friday, September 25, 2009


Someone who knew William Burroughs (I only knew him slightly) told me the other day that supposedly on his deathbed he said:

"The antidote is love."

That gibes with my experience.

[Simon Pettet e mailed me this clarification of my third hand info above:

"Love? What Is it?
Most natural painkiller what there is

Last Words: The Final Journals of William S Burroughs - edited with an Introduction by James Grauerholz.
Grove Press, 2000 page 253]

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I spoke with a friend yesterday who is ill. They have an undefined serious debilitating illness that has caused them to lose their job and in that process lose their health coverage.

Under Cobra, the system that allows workers to continue with their health plan by making their own payments, it's costing my friend fourteen hundred—one thousand four hundred—dollars A MONTH to continue health care coverage for themselves and their family.

Not only is this adding to the general stress of the ways in which the Great Recession has hit this family, and causing greater stress which in turn I am sure contributes to the health issues, but my friend and the doctors involved have to find ways around looking for some obvious causes that may be long term and therefore the health plan may not cover!

My friend and their family is what this country calls "middle class"—a term rejected in the 1960s by my radical friends of that time as meaningless. They used to say (and as I've said here before): "If the ruling class rules and the working class works, what does the middle class do, middle?"

No, what we have in this country—very much like many so-called "developing countries" or what used to be called "the third world" or more honestly in my boyhood, "poor countries"—is a ruling class of overseers, the one percent who control as much or more of this country's wealth as the bottom 95%—yep, you read that correctly—and their minions who do their bidding or more importantly do what is in the interest of that one percent—i.e. the managers of corporations, the media managers and their minions, and most of the politicians in DC and various state capitols.

Just talking to my friend got me so riled up about this stupid so-called "healthcare system" in this country I could go on a tirade for days, let alone one blog post. But I think this quote from a post on Huffington yesterday by Robert Creamer sums it up pretty obviously:

"We spend $7,290 per person and end up in 37th place. They [the French] spend only $3,601 and they are number one. That's just not right.
On the average, Frenchmen live almost three years longer than the average American. That's infuriating.
What's more, every legal resident of France is covered by health insurance, and in the U.S. 46 million people are uninsured. When someone in France goes to the hospital, everything except a small co-payment is covered - it's that simple.
The government doesn't deliver health care in France. Private doctors and hospitals do most of that. It just provides health insurance for everyone.

[For the whole article go here.]

How simple. How successful. How too democratic and in the spirit of equality and justice for all. Not in the USA! Oh no. Here it's "every man [and woman and child] for themselves" and what's the wealthiest one percent is theirs and what's ours is theirs too, and we can die trying to fix it, because their minions ain't giving up access to their small chunk of that wealth for our sakes.

[And here's another Huff Post article that answers the GOP criticisms of "the public option" in a pretty original way.]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


There's a heartbreaking but also heartwarming serial documentary playing this week on the Sundance Channel called BRICK CITY.
(Thanks to Jaina for hipping me to it.)

It's co-directed by two of the producers (Mark Levin and Mark Benjamin—Forest Whitaker is a producer as well) and follows several city residents, officials and others over the course of last summer, 2008, in Newark, New Jersey.

Newark is a city I have a lot of personal history with. My mother came from there and her parents still lived there when I was born. I had many cousins on my father's side who lived there as I was growing up. It was our "downtown"—where we went to shop for new school clothes and Easter outfits (the famous-to-us Bamburger's Department Store).

It's where we often went to the movies, the arcades, to concerts of popular, jazz and rock'roll bands and singers. I played music in bars and clubs there as a young man, after going to a boy's Catholic Prep day school there, St. Benedict's that at that time catered mostly to the two largest immigrant groups in the area—Italians and Irish—as a means for getting their boys into college and hopefully into a profession (now the main ethnic group there is African-Americans, and the school is much bigger and better and more varied in its approaches to learning than the strict place I attended, thanks to an alumni that is said to be second in this country only to Notre Dame's).

I dated many girls who lived In Newark, including those from other than Irish Catholic families which meant me being an interloper in neighborhoods that weren't necessarily so welcoming to an Irish Catholic boy (including Italian-American girls and African-American girls, at a time when that was not just frowned on but could lead to much trouble and even physical harm from all sides), and so on.

This was all before what most people in this area who are old enough call "the riots"—but some call "the rebellion" or "uprising" etc. that occurred during the 1960s, mainly on two separate occasions but the last of which in 1967 caused permanent damage to what was beginning to be called "the ghetto" as it was almost completely burned down (the results of which are still in evidence in empty fenced in lots where wooden row houses went up like tinder and have still not been replaced or where government financed brick townhouses have risen in the now landscaped ruins, or where single brick or cement buildings remain standing from my boyhood days there).

But even before that, there was a campaign whose aim was to build a "New Newark" as the then city hall called it. Yet here we are almost a half century later and parts of Newark still reflect what happened in the 1960s. It's known as BRICK CITY partly because it has a lot of structures built of bricks, and once was a city that made a lot of bricks, but mostly these days because it's seen as such a hard place to live, and you have to be hard to survive in it.

This documentary follows mayor Cory Booker on his rounds, especially with meetings of his top police command, but also with possible investors (in a meeting with some Chinese officials he and his staff get across the reality that Newark has a huge international airport, closer to New York City than any of New York's airports ironically, a huge port, one of the biggest in the world I think they claim, and yet it's a lot cheaper than New York or New Orleans etc., one Chinese official nods and says something like "New Jersey cheap, yes, okay, that's good, New Jersey cheap") and ex-cons and students and the array of his constituency.

It also follows some individual citizens, most fascinatingly, a young, pregnant, female member of the Bloods named Jayda who is both troubled and in trouble, but is also articulate and a charismatic screen presence (in fact, it's interesting to note that almost all the people in the film who are struggling just to survive and/or come from "the streets" as they say [including the police chief and some other city and school officials], are natural movie stars—i.e. you can't stop watching them and want to see more—whereas the people with the power and the money come across mostly, not entirely, as almost lifeless in comparison).

It's well worth watching if you can get it, or when it comes out on DVD. People have been bugging me for years to watch THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS and other shows about deep seated urban—and their nearby suburban—crime and other problems. I checked them out and saw what everybody was digging in these shows, the grittiness of a reality shaped by great storytelling and acting. But BRICK CITY is the antidote to that fictionalized reality. It's the real thing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009




Too many R.I.P.s lately. So it's nice to acknowledge someone still around.

Mucho thanks to my good old friend Tom Wilson and his COOL BIRTH blog for reminding me of how much I should get some Freddie Hubbard on my iTunes. This clip his post links to you have to watch (actually you don't have to watch, just LISTEN to) all the way to the end to dig some beautiful playing (and he's doing this with essentially a house band, not his own tried and true musical compatriots etc.—though they're certainly up to the task, but still).

Monday, September 21, 2009


The reading with Simon Pettet at Geoff Young's gallery in Great Barrington on Saturday was a delight, if I do say so myself.

Geoff had the bright idea that Simon and I alternate poems, a format I've done in the past, but hadn't taken part in nor seen in many years. Very old style. More like a poetry jam than a poetry reading.

It's a little risky, because each individual poet can't take the time to stretch out in any one poem (like many of mine which are often longer than Simon's) or to follow a poem that possibly falls a little flat with one you know will pick things up, etc.

Plus, the other guy could get in several hits in a row while your choices (as responses) miss and the whole reading will begin to sag.

Or one poet could just so dominate the other that it's too one-sided to even watch, like some of the early Mike Tyson fights (or exciting to watch, depending on your nature, to witness such quick and efficient devastation of an opponent).

But fortunately for Simon and me, and I think the audience would agree (and a very smart and attractive group it was), it really swung. Partly because I think we are enough alike in sensibility and even sentiment (a bit romantic but capable of being cold eyed about it), especially since I had to read short poems or short excerpts from long ones.

After we did the one poem back and forth thing for a few poems, Simon hesitated and suggested we go back to a more normal format but many in the audience made it clear they wanted us to continue the back and forth formula.

That's when we really had to dig down, or at least I know I had to, and grab a poem that I felt would resonate with what Simon just read and carry the reading forward and hopefully to an even higher level.

It was a gas. Felt like the days when I was a young jazz musician and would jam with people who were in my range of ability and so there was a security in letting the instincts and inspiration take the music to wherever it wanted to lead me.

(When Simon suggested we go back to a normal format and some in the crowd insisted we not, someone, I think it was Phil, made a comment comparing it to a jazz jam, citing two saxophonists that I knew but can't remember which ones (if you're out there Phil remind me please) but do remember feeling very jazzed just by the flattering comparison.)

We cooked that way until it felt like close to finishing when Simon made a brilliant suggestion, but again a risky one, that for an ending we each read a poem by the other poet.

I picked a poem of Simon's that he wrote during the onset of the Iraq War (that begins "There is a cruel, messianic, dim, tribal intransigence") that's been my favorite poem of his ever since. Then he, seeming at a loss as to which of mine to choose since I had a stack of books from over the years sitting on the table on either side of which each of us was standing, read one I chose for him that I wrote back in '75 on April Fool's day.

As I read Simon's, I noticed I couldn't help but read it slower than I usually do, more like Simon reads his poems, only still sounding like me, ending up with a combination of both our styles that made the poem new for me and moved me even more than it already had.

The same thing seemed to happen when Simon ended the reading with my April Fools Day 1975 poem. I was as surprised at where it took him, and me, and I hope the audience, as Simon seemed to be. And he read it quite a bit faster than he usually reads his own poems, more like I read mine.

I think it worked because all of us had gotten used to the rhythms and strategies of each poet, and our voices, and then to switch off and resonate each other's voices and poetic approaches in each other's voice was just kind of delightfully fresh.

Anyway, that's the way I experienced it. Wish you'd been there, and if you were, hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I’ve been reading a new book by my old friend poet Ray DiPalma every night before sleeping. It’s a collection of six “journals and daybooks” from 1998 to 2008 (or maybe I should say “selection” since there are days missing, though that might just mean there was no writing on those days).

I’m digging it and will write a post about it when I finish it, but it’s already one of my favorite books about writing (and reading). Most of it is not very personally revealing in ways most readers might expect from a journal. And there are only a handful of direct comments about writing, but they’re gems and go a long way to explaining Ray’s approach to it, (though all his writing is “about writing” it seems to me).

Anyway, I love journals and diaries and daybooks, even when they’re used as a literary device in fiction rather than a way of recording actual personal history, or some combination of the two. So the night before I left for the Berkshires, where I am now on a gorgeous almost Fall morning, when I was having some trouble falling asleep—my body just wasn’t ready to go there—I thought I should come up with a list that would really tax my mind enough to wear it out and help me snooze, and having just put down Ray’s new book it seemed obvious.

My favorite books that use the diary, journal and/or daybook form, whether fictional or not (though most aren’t). I had an ABC immediately with ANCIENT USE OF STONE topping the list, then Jim Carroll’s (on my mind since his recent passing) and then F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.

This is all I could come up with (I have a feeling I may have done this before, but obviously not with Ray’s book):

CRACK UP, THE by F. Scott Fitzgerald (the bulk of which is from journal entries)
DIARIES OF A YOUNG POET by Ranier Maria Rilke; THE DIARY OF JAMES SCHUYLER and DOCUMENT FOR AN ANONYMOUS INDIAN by Arn Henderson (a unique book from the early ‘70s that’s a collection of poetic notations, overheard dialogue, facts and photographs about or of various places in Oklahoma, like a completely original trip journal)
EVA HESSE DATE BOOKS 1964/65 (this is what they call a “facsimile” edition, so it’s in her own hand etc.)
FAIT ACCOMPLI by Nick Piombino (poet and friend Piombino culled earlier journals for blog entries, so this is like notebooks within notebooks within etc.)
I’M NOT STILLER by Max Frisch (the bulk of this novel is supposedly the notebooks of the imprisoned Stiller)
JOURNAL OF ALBION MOONLIGHT by Kenneth Patchen (another fictional—considered surreal at the time—“novel” in the form of a journal)
MOMENTS OF THE ITALIAN SUN by James Wright (mainly short prose pieces that read and most likely are entries in a travel journal and one of my favorite Wright books)
NOTEBOOKS OF JOSEPH JOUBERT (edited and translated by Paul Auster, Joubert started his journals when he was in his twenties in the 1770s and wrote them until his death I think, but Auster’s selection covers from the 1780s to the 1820s) and the fictionalized autobiographical novel written partially as notebook entries: THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE by Ranier Maria Rilke
OBITUARIES by William Saroyan (a book of daily contemplations on Variety’s list of those who died in 1976, with an entry for each one, a kind of journal of the year’s deaths); OF by me (a book-length poem written as poetic journal and travel diary entries in one notebook from Jan. to May in 1990) and OBSIDIAN POINT by Ken McCullough (a poetic journal by another old poet friend, written as poetry and prose covering a mountain trip in tha Fall of ’75 and a masterpiece in every way for my taste)
PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON, THE (or at least that’s the way the English translation has it, though back then the Japanese didn’t have “pillows” (more like a small hard cloth log) and it’s a journal in retrospect the way it’s translated, but it’s definitely the oldest one on this list, written around the year 1000)
QUINCY HISTORY, A by James Haining (another great book about writing, poetry, and being a small press publisher in the 1970s)
ROLLING THUNDER LOGBOOK, THE by Sam Sheperd; REUNIONS by Harry E. Northup (another kind of poetic journal, short poems relating the daily routines and struggles and facts and feelings etc. of this friend and poet covering the years 1995 to 2000—and beautifully done for my taste)
SPECIMEN DAYS by Walt Whitman (the first book to turn me on to this quasi genre back when I was a teenage autodidact) and THE SECULAR JOURNAL OF THOMAS MERTON (his later religious journals are equally engaging, to me)
TRAIN RIDE by Ted Berrigan (a delightful one day poetic journal written during a train ride)
VERMONT NOTEBOOK, THE by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard (Joe’s drawings etc. and John’s sort-of, journal-entry-like, prose entries written during a summer vacation in Vermont)
WINDBLOWN WORDS by Jack Kerouac (early journals ’47 to ’54)

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Okay, I take back some of my criticism of Anderson Cooper on CNN allowing rightwingers to vent without challenge since he finally did force one to show his true "colors"—see it here. Though he could have followed up more forcefully. And Carville shouldn't have laughingly dismissed the guy.


Film director/screenwriter John Hughes drops dead on a New York sidewalk of a heart attack at 59. Poet/songwriter Jim Carroll working at his desk from a heart attack at 60. Carter presidential Press Secretary Jodie Powell from a heart attack at 67. Movie star and dancer Patrick Swayze from cancer at 57 (here's a sweet appreciation of Swayze on Cool Birth). Political activist and union heroine Crystal Lee Sutton aka "Norma Rae" dead of cancer at 68. Actor and poet Henry Gibson from cancer at 73. Now singer Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary fame dead from leukemia at 72.

All these well known public figures and more seem to be dropping like flies in recent days and weeks. What I see happening is the same thing that happened back in the '50s with rock'n'roll and the '60s with radical politics and the spread of "recreational" drug use, and so on through the decades that the "Baby Boomers" have dominated demographically.

There are those who came just before them and pioneered some of the outstanding changes in politics and music and culture in general etc. Followed by that big population bump of the boomers who made the changes seemingly universal, at least for a while (as in "everybody's doing it" rather than the hip few among the pioneers etc.).

Now that the boomers run is heading toward the ultimate eclipse, it seems once again their immediate forerunners are paving the way for the deluge to come in the "famous deaths" department.

Gibson and Travers and Powell and Sutton were all part of the pioneer generation in culture and politics (though they weren't really trendsetters or cutting edge innovators in their fields, more like popularizers of what the innovators were doing) and Hughes, Carrol and Swazye belong to the first wave of baby boomers now heading into retirement and beyond.

So what I'm thinking is, as with everything else the boomers have had anything to do with, because of their vast numbers the number of "celebrity" deaths is going to become a trend before too long and this current run of sad departures is just the beginning.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I just heard the actor and poet Henry Gibson passed and it saddens me, even though he lived a good full life and was in his 70s, which is starting to seem not so old anymore.

It saddens me because he was one of the nicest persons I've ever known. He's best known, at least to those old enough, as a member of the ensemble that made LAUGH IN a hit in the 1960s. He was the little guy who played various characters, but most memorably for many, the silly poet. Or for the last regular TV gig he had as the boss on BOSTON LEGAL.

But a lot of us remember him more for the lead role in the seminal Robert Altman film NASHVILLE. Probably the only time Henry played the lead in a move or TV show. Which is a shame. He was a gifted actor with great range.

I met and became friends with him in the '80s. He was not just always gentle and kind but also enormously generous with his time and attention. He took part in the weekly reading series I co-founded and co-ran with Eve Brandstein, reading his own poetry, which yes sometimes was humorous, but always original in the same way Henry was. I've never known anyone else like him and he will be missed.


Crystal Lee Sutton, the North Carolina woman who inspired the movie NORMA RAE has passed away. According to her testimony, one of her last battles was with her health insurance company several years ago during the onset of the cancer that ultimately killed her! Once again her personal struggles coincide with the struggles of many others. You can read about it here and here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It’s interesting that the mass media has suddenly become fascinated by “incivility”—i.e. the rudeness of some people in public, or rather public people in public.

All those angry mostly older white folks carrying signs depicting Obama as Hitler or the devil or accusing him of lying and wanting to brainwash their children etc. etc. etc., including the public figures on the right and in the Republican Party, and most of the focus has been on their anger and allowing them to voice it as if it’s righteous instead of self-righteous and either completely ignorant or totally misinformed (as I noticed last night on Anderson Cooper's show on CNN when some rightwing apologist was given what seemed like hours but was probably fifteen or twenty minutes to justify exactly that behavior, no apologies requested or given).

But now that we have three incidents that involve African-Americans, suddenly it’s all about “civility” which reminds me too much of old racist ideas about how African-Americans are less “civilized” than whites and therefore can be either treated like they’re “less civilized” (i.e. Congressman Wilson’s rude outburst during Obama’s speech the other night shouting “You lie!”) or are expected to behave “less civilized” i.e. reactions to Serena Williams’ outburst against the line judge who made a bad call and cost her the game and championship, or Kanye West’s rude grabbing of the microphone away from Taylor Swift when she was trying to give her acceptance speech for winning best female video for the MTV awards.

Many people I’m hearing in the media and reading on the net disagree that these incidents can be linked by “race” or racial issues, but how can you avoid it?

John MacEnroe himself, as a TV commentator for the match, criticized Serena Williams’ outburst! MacEnroe, who has made a living—since being a tennis champ who was constantly “uncivil”—as a character in commercials with the reputation of being capable of blowing up at any minute over any thing!

I remember when MacEnroe and Jimmy Connors were winning matches and mesmerizing but also confusing tennis fans with their rude outbursts against officials at their matches. It was embarrassing for many Irish-Americans at the time, because the WASP tennis champions of old (and even the rare non-WASPs and single African-American, Arthur Ashe) never exploded with vocal venom at their tennis matches.

So what gave MacEnroe the right to criticize Serena Williams for her outburst at what turned out to be a bad call (MacEnroe and Connors didn’t have the advantage of instant replay to verify their claims), she cursed, and threatened to shove the tennis ball down the judge’s throat.

Interestingly, the line judge was a diminutive Asian-American, who Williams towered over and who behaved as if she were genuinely frightened that Williams was going to physically attack her. Would she have felt the same way if a petite blond white tennis player had verbally attacked her or even threatened her? Did she really think Serena was going to physically attack her in front of an arena full of tennis fans and various tennis officials as well as police and guards all over the area? She acted as if she did.

Serena was wrong to lose control in such an obviously vitriolic way, but was it really worse than what MacEnroe and others have done in the past? I’ve certainly had outbursts like hers, though I’ve worked hard not to have them over the years.

If she were a Spanish or Russian or French player and had cursed in her native tongue would people be reacting as harshly against what she did? Isn’t part of the problem that it could be said that she swore in her own native tongue, i.e. “African-American”?

Or will I be accused of being a racist for saying that? I certainly have used the language she used and I’m not African-American. And plenty of white people I’ve known over the years have cursed in the same ways. But it’s usually not at tennis matches on national TV.

Joe Wilson cursed at President Obama (and I’m really getting tired of the media constantly referring to him as “Mister Obama”—how long do you think the right would let the media get away with that if it were Reagan or Bush?) in the language of white Southerners or macho white male culture in general in this country.

What was the worst thing a cowboy could call another cowboy in the old Westerns, or a man could call a Southern gentleman in the Hollywood fantasies of the old South—a liar. It meant there had to be a shootout or a duel. The honor of the one called a liar had to be defended to the death.

Wilson, a congressman from South Carolina—the last state to do away with segregation laws in my experience (when James Meredith was marching on Ole Miss and lunch counters were being forcefully integrated in Georgia, I was stationed in Greenville, South Carolina, where African-Americans were not allowed to even go to the local drive-in in their own cars or walk in the local park, which the city closed down rather than integrate, etc.), the state with the most fundamentalist Christian cults, the state where the right almost always triumphs— knows that “You lie” would be the same as yelling “You are a coward, a dog, an ingrate” and all the other insults famous from Hollywood’s version of Southern men with honor.

He also knew that he was yelling it at the president in a public forum and on television. He knew what he was doing and what impact he wanted it to have. That he would be seen as the champion of those who are having a difficult time accepting Obama as president, which obviously has a lot to do with Obama’s being partly African-American, because as much as the right hated Bill Clinton—the supposed “first black president”—they never questioned his legitimacy as having been elected president and they didn’t shout “You lie” when he addressed both houses of Congress with his own push for healthcare for all, they just tried everything they could to get him removed from office.

Can you imagine what the right would be doing if Obama were caught with a young white female intern in the oval office?! It’s obviously racial.

And Kanye West? My little guy wanted to watch some of the MTV awards before he went to bed so we actually caught West’s rude intrusion on Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech and both reacted critically to it. It was obviously rude and self-centered and self-indulgent etc. even if his point was that Beyonce deserved the award instead of Swift and he obviously thought he was standing up for Beyonce and that Swift could finish her speech after he gave back the mic, but she was either too distraught (the way the media is playing it) or, as my son and I saw, the director of the show got confused and interrupted her attempt to continue her acceptance speech with music (ala the Academy Awards when someone’s speech goes over the allotted time) and then with repeated starts, as though the reel was skipping, of a filmed interlude with Tracy Morgan and Eminem (a series of supposedly comic vignettes that also played on some racial stereotyping interestingly).

But would West’s behavior have garnered the same level of attention if it had been a fellow African-American performer he interrupted during their acceptance speech? Oh, wait a minute, he did that a few years ago and, hmmmmmm, it didn’t get almost any attention in the mass media.

My little guy has a crush on Taylor Swift, so that was part of his negative reaction to West’s rude behavior, but probably a lot of people have crushes on her—she’s a lovely looking blond young woman who comes across as super sweet and talented as a singer/songwriter—and the visual impact of the interruption was hard to miss, a very dark African-American male with patterns shaved into his very shortly cropped hair, dressed in black if I remember correctly with the stance and verbal thrust of a rapper, i.e. “gangsta” style (even though West is famous for being the more cerebral version of that stance) grabbing the microphone from this slim, pale-as-virgin-snow, teenage looking (I’m not sure if she’s finally twenty or not, my little guy says she is), blonde, wisp of a girl looking like a virginal prom queen of old, as opposed to the other female music stars at the awards who were mostly dressed like classy hookers or strip joint female crotch grabbing dancers, or drag queen ghouls (Lady Ga Ga) etc.

Though Beyonce looked pretty classy as usual and interestingly was exceptionally classy in turning over her later award (in another category) acceptance speech time to Swift, calling her out with an introduction in which Beyonce spoke about how she remembered being a seventeen (which is what I thought Swift’s age is) year old first time award winner and how much it meant to her. Interestingly (and I believe for racial reasons) Beyonce’s classy move did not seem to make the evening news or most of the mass media shows I checked in on. Hmmmmm.

I also watched Kanye West apologize on the new Jay Leno show last night and he seemed not only truthfully contrite but totally confused by the reaction to and by his own behavior, genuinely disturbed by it all. And why shouldn’t he be? This kind of behavior has been rewarded by audiences and CD buyers (predominantly white) since long before he started his career as a clean-cut young man who rapped to convince his fellow African-American young men, in particular, to take the higher road but then got off it himself to increase his street cred and sell more CDs, because that works.

It’s the trap of wanting the cake and eating it too. We can’t have a culture that glorifies old stereotypes (Southern gentlemen and their “honor” and their white virginal women—young urban black gangsters turning rudeness into millions—black athletes overcoming great odds to succeed in previously white dominated sports but not allowed to act out in the stereotypical supposed “black” manner, i.e. cursing and threatening to do mythical damage that is obviously meant to intimidate but is not really a threat, anymore than the fingers many of us flash in traffic when cut off by others is etc.) and gets past them at the same time.

Having Obama in the oval office seems to have allowed a lot of “Americans” to on the one hand believe we’ve crossed some barrier that will lead to racial harmony while others take it as an excuse to be openly racial without having to actually talk about race. But ain’t no way these three incidents didn’t pivot on racially based conceptions of accepted behavior in the arenas where they occurred.

Monday, September 14, 2009


[This is a personal take on the impact Jim Carroll had on me, including some self-aggrandizement on my part, but an attempt to be honest about it no matter how unflattering to me, or Carroll, who is remembered in many blogs and obituaries on the web as a gentle and sweet man as well as by many fans as a great poet who had a lasting and powerful impact on their lives.]

Like a lot of us who were alive and reading The Paris Review and various alternative or avant-garde little magazines back in the '60s and early '70s, I was a fan of Jim Carroll's poetry right from the start. And when excerpts from THE BASKETBALL DIARIES were first surfacing, I was impressed with his prose as well.

I was also critical. The excerpts from the diaries contained writing that was about as clear and concise as any out there at the time, and even more powerful. Mostly because it was so directly confessional while coming from the perspective and supposed experiences of a boy supposedly writing the diaries when he was 12 through 15.

I say "supposed" because at the time, knowing something about the people and places he was writing about, it was clear to me that a lot of it was written in retrospect and not at the time. That became even clearer as more and more of them appeared.

Everyone I knew who read any of them was knocked out by this kid creating such amazing documents about a life most people I knew had no experience of. Not just the working-class, Irish-American, Catholic family and neighborhood stuff, but the drugs and basketball prodigy realities so perfectly described and so dramatically controlled by one so young. The writing that is, not the drugs or the sport.

I also felt in competition with him as a fellow Irish-American poet writing about my own youth in a series of sonnets (which many critically found more prose than poetry when they first appeared) that were getting published in similar venues. Not that they were that much alike, but I had a bad habit of thinking everyone was ripping me off in those days, and for too many years afterward.

But I had to admire Carroll's writing, no matter how much I protested that the diaries were written when he was older and contained too many mistakes—one I remember (though I haven't read it in years so may be a little off on the exact date) has a Bob Dylan song on a juke box in an Irish bar in the Bronx in 1963! Or '64 at the latest. A reality that was impossible for all kinds of reasons, unless the bar wasn't the one he cited, or the date was a few years later, or etc.

When the diaries were finally published as a book by the small Bolinas, California, press Tombouctou in 1978 (I still have my first edition copy), Carroll confirmed my doubts by writing in a small preface that: "they are as much fiction as biography." That removed any need for me to criticize them any longer and I went on to praise them in conversations, classrooms I was teaching in at the time, and in reviews and essays.

His first big collection of poems, LIVING AT THE MOVIES, came out in '73 from a bigger, New York publisher, Grossman (I still have that book too) and placed him firmly in the second generation "New York School" that included, and in many ways was led by, Ted Berrigan. Berrigan was a good friend and mentor to Carroll. Ted was also a good friend of mine, and when Carroll—under the influence of the poet Patti Smith (who had begun fronting her own rock band and was becoming much more famous and financially successful as a result)—decided to front his own band, one of his first songs to have an impact and become a hit of sorts was "People Who Died"—which anyone who knew Ted Berrigan's work knew was the title of one of Ted's more famous poems at the time.

It angered me, in my fears of being ripped off myself, that this younger poet who Ted treated so well would go out and make money off an idea Ted had first. Even though with any kind of afterthought it must have been obvious to me that Ted didn't invent the idea of writing a poem about friends—or people whose work you admired—who had died. And as always, Ted was generous and gracious about it, convincing me that he was delighted that Jim had not only done it but that it had helped make Jim famous for a while as a "rock star."

Not long after that, Carroll gave a reading at St. Mark's to a standing room only crowd who had come to see the rock star read, and he chose to read some incredibly mean-spirited, childishly tantrum-like tirades against his family and the Irish-Americans he came from in general. At least as I heard it sitting in the reading. Now I had a new bone to pick with him, and made it clear at the reading and to anyone who would listen to what I see now was my own self-righteousness and envy (though at the time it felt like what a lot of my African-American friends had expressed they felt over "black" writers airing the dirty laundry of their families or blaming them for things they were sometimes just victims of, or Jewish friends who felt the same way about similar writing from their ethnic standpoint [and even though I was known for my own sometimes violently angry poetry]).

Not long after I got involved in the movie business (something I got a lot of flack for on the alternative press scene, as "selling out") Leo DiCaprio portrayed the main character (i.e. Jim) in the movie adaptation of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES. And once again I was upset, not with Jim this time, but with Hollywood for not making clear that this was not reality but art (though some saw the movie as a successful art film) and for not emphasizing the role of poetry and literature in elevating the main character's life to more than just another urban drugs & violence exploitation flick. [I felt so strongly about this because as I always said, and still say, "poetry saved my life"—and Carroll wrote something similar about himself, only more poetically articulated].

Eventually I got over all my problems with Carroll and his work—while never denying how much I dug much of it—and over the following years went out of my way to attend some readings he gave where the crowds were much smaller and he seemed much less angry and confrontational (as did I). And I ran into him at parties, though we rarely did much more than nod to each other.

One time, when I was still living in L.A., a poet friend was hosting a big "spoken word" event back in New York that Sony was sponsoring at a time when CDs were new and some record companies thought they could exploit the then recent explosion of live poetry readings (another thing I thought at the time I deserved some credit for, having started a weekly reading series in L.A. that attracted some movie stars and therefore got worldwide publicity, initially flattering but eventually dismissive—"brat pack wannabe Whitmans" was one of the phrases thrown out by either Time or Newsweek—but before which there was almost no attention being paid to poetry (The L.A. Times had made the decision to even stop reviewing poetry books!) and almost no venues anymore outside academia (with a few exceptions like St. Mark's or The Nuyorican cafe in NYC) where it was being read, and within months of the enormous wave of publicity for this series I started with the poet Eve Brandstein, there were coffee houses opening all over L.A. and other cities and towns with homegrown poets reading and/or performing their work, as well as movies with poetry as the subject matter or part of it, or poets as characters in them (several named Michael).

Anyway, my friend introduces himself backstage to Jim Carroll and says he's amazed they hadn't met after all these years, especially since they shared a mutual friend, me, and, according to my friend, Carroll said he wasn't really a friend of mine and didn't really know me but he had "stolen" a few things from my poetry. My friend said he was smiling when he said it. That made me smile when I heard it, my envy and need for credit having thankfully left me by then.

The last time I saw Jim Carroll was at a party in the city several years ago where once again we caught each other's eye and nodded, but this time I saw something in his eyes that gave me the sense of a trapped animal, and I thought later that maybe he felt trapped by his past, his reputation, his earlier fame and notoriety and achievements. Maybe that's a stretch to second guess the mind of another, and maybe I was thinking of some of my own experiences, but I can see the look in his eyes right now.

Jim was a memorable guy, his physical presence (his eyes were pretty stunning when they caught you in their glare and he was always so thin it made him seem taller than he already was), his style (he was a dandy of sorts, especially early in his life and career when he was taken up by the older New York poets and artists, and from my perspective exploited by some, from what I heard some used him almost like a doll or toy to dress up for their own entertainment) and his intensity, especially in the writing in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES.

That book has become a classic, an alternative one maybe, like another poetic prodigy, Rimbaud's THE DRUNKEN BOAT, but one that will be read for generations to come. At least I hope so. I wouldn't want the only impact of Carroll's to be the movie made from it, with all it's Hollywood glamorization of addiction and violent fantasies.

I realize this remembrance has been partially presumptuous and doesn't necessarily throw a great light on the workings of my mind over the years, but I'd hate to remember Jim Carroll with fake sentiments and dishonest praise. The guy could write and was a genuine prodigy no matter how fictionalized the diaries were. Even if he did them in retrospect to some extent, or revised them later, he was still a teenager when they first began appearing, still in his twenties when the book came out, and their impact was immediate, sensational as it was. And the only feeling I have for him now is compassion. I hope his life was peaceful and fulfilling these recent years, and that he was at peace with himself and his past.

[For a maybe more objective and loving remembrance of Jim, click here to see Tom Clark's poetry blog today.]

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Caught a bit of MY COUSIN VINNY the other night and was once again knocked out by Marisa Tomei’s performance (as I am by everything she’s done).

It brought up memories of how she won the Oscar for that performance and the rumor started immediately that Jack Palance, who didn’t have his glasses so couldn’t read the Oscar card in the envelope looked up instead at the prompter and read the last name of the last nomonee which happened to be Tomei.

The Academy refuted the rumor but it still spread and poor Tomei became the scapegoat for the generally consistent resistance to give a comic performance, or even a serious performance in a comedy, it’s due, epecially in the form of an Oscar (Kevin Kline is one of the other few exceptions to that generalization, and lately there’s been more, like the nominations for JUNO and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, which is why none of the above are on the list).

When I was falling asleep last night up here in the Berkshires (where a few trees are beginning to turn colors already) I thought about that and then started thinking of other performances in comedies I think make some movies worth watching.

So here’s the alphabet list I came up with before snoozing:


Friday, September 11, 2009


Up in the "'Shire" for the weekend after a long rainy drive. But here's a link to commemorate what the ringtwing does to he seriousness of this day and its meaning for those who lost loved ones to the attack. (I only lost friends, not family.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Well, if anyone with any objectivity watched Obama's speech last night to Congress, I can't see how they couldn't have been impressed.

He answered all his critics, refuted all the main lies from the right, brought home all the major reasons why healthcare reform is necessary and necessary now, and wrapped it up with a very pointed and poignant argument for healthcare reform representing the best in us.

He did it forcefully, honestly, and about as conversationally as a speech to Congress has ever been. So no one could misconstrue anything he said.

Unfortunately, I suspect the rightwing nuts and the vulnerably uninformed they arouse with their lies and hate mongering tactics weren't watching and instead will get their propagandists' deliberately distorted interpretation. Hopefully, the speech will at least cause the media to give more weight to what the president represents, which is still a majority of the country, and less to what the rightwing nuts represent, which is a miniscule percentage of the population that will always be unwilling to see any Democrat, much less a mixed race one with a funny name, as anything other than suspicious.

[It was almost funny to watch the Republicans try to figure out when to sit in stony silence with sour looks on their faces and when to stand and applaud. One of the funniest was when Obama made a statement about holding insurance companies accountable and the Dems stood and cheered and the Republicans sat stonily looking sour until one of them figured out how that might look and stood and then others looked around and got it and before long they were standing and cheering too. Woops. Almost got caught out there Pubbies.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I mean, why otherwise would the mainstream media give so much attention to extreme rightwing fringe lies and fantasies.

The excuse is that the news thrives on "controversy." They kept referring to Obama's speech to school children as "controversial" and his attempt to reform our healthcare system as "controversial." No. The war in Iraq was controversial. More people demonstrated against it around the world than ever before demonstrated against anything in history.

But they were hardly covered by the media until the tide of public opinion turned and could no longer be denied. Yet a very tiny minority with paranoid fears about Obama infecting their children's minds and turning them into mind controlled robots has to not only be covered but become the main story of the week, while a huge majority of parents polled had no objection to Obama addressing school children as Reagan and Bush Sr. and other former presidents have.

I hated Reagan's agenda: the breaking of unions so working families could no longer afford college for their children or even a home without both parents working and maybe even each working two jobs etc. He created the whole "homeless" problem. What used to be a few "hoboes" and such before Reagan, under Reagan became entire families living in their cars etc. And so much more (the use of torture in the whole Central American debacle, as has recently come out in the released CIA papers).

But there was no outcry from the left against Reagan speaking to schoolchildren, even though he pushed his rightwing agenda and fantasy version of reality. There was no outcry about Bush Sr. boring them to death. But a man who overcame great odds, unlike the Bushes or even Reagan for that matter, to accomplish incredible educational achievements and even become president, an example to all our kids of how perseverance and commitment and hard work can help you rise above the obstacles life throws in your way, no, that's too much for children to hear.

The story should have been to investigate the sources of these objections (false rumors and lies etc. from the usual rightwing suspects). But nope.

Not even to mention the stories being ignored by the media while this nonsense goes on. Here's three that I haven't seen mentioned and which are more important than anything else the media is wasting time on lately:

1. Water. There's a great documentary I caught on the Sundance channel the other night (called FLOW) about how several major corporations are basically taking control of the world's fresh water and selling it back to us while degrading and destroying the environment. It's heartbreaking. And it's been in the works for a while, as many of us know and have already written about. Internationals like Vivendi and Suez, American corporations like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestle's. All of them finding the sources of fresh water, whether in Michigan, India, Africa, etc. They end up digging wells so deep they deplete the local sources of fresh water and then they pollute what's left with the waste from their water treatment and bottling facilities etc. impoverishing what were once thriving rural communities. And they've gotten together and formed some kind of world water counsel to set the rules, in which all the main players have major stakes in these corporations! They'd bottle air if they could and make us pay to breathe.

2. Just one year ago the world economy had broken down so thoroughly, most economists were predicting the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression with the subsequent consequences. Now, most economists agree that the steps taken by especially the Obama administration with the stimulus package and the saving of several financial institutions (the Bush attempt is a little more iffy since the results cannot be calculated because much of the money they handed out is unaccounted for at this point). What was an unemployment rate above 25% in the Depression, has been kept below 10% so far, and even if it goes to the expected 10%, it will still be a miraculous turn around given the circumstances just twelve months ago. Had McCain been elected and allowed to do what he was suggesting at the time, there is no doubt things would be so much worse everyone would recognize what we have now as a blessing in comparison. Let alone if the last administration was still around. They're the jokers that created the mess in the first place.

3. Oh and speaking of the above, has anyone seen the media cover the story that the U. S. treasury has "turned a profit of some $4 billion from eight large banks that have settled their debts—an annualized return of about 15%—and payments from other companies could add billions more" (according to Time). 15% in this economic climate! You might find this stuff in print or on the web, but on the mainstream TV news shows, nothing. Barely a squeak, but they go on and on about the current "controversy" made up entirely by rightwing propagandists who strategize this stuff into existence solely for the purpose of destroying Obama's presidency and returning the Congress to Republicans so they can do what they did the last time they were in charge: lead us into unnecessary wars and death and destruction (including of our reputation) and the almost total annihilation of the economy (not just here but worldwide!), not to mention torture, invasion of privacy, and complete corporate takeover of the government (and yes I know that even with Democrats in power, though not with an unbeatable majority, corporate power still rules much of DC, but already a lot of the excesses from the previous eight years have been reversed by Presidential orders and new legislation).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Got the first issue of a new literary magazine in the mail a while ago. It's called ELECTRIC LITERATURE. This first issue contains five works of short fiction, some of which seem to be parts of novels.

The writers are all well established and I've read some of their work before (in mags like The New Yorker). But I have to admit, reading these five pieces in succession over a period of weeks, or more, made the strengths of each and the differences between them not only more obvious, but more of a pleasure to experience.

Jim Shepard's "Your fate Hurtles Down at You" definitely reads like part of a novel and almost an academic exercise. It's set in the Alps in 1939, but ignores the significance of that year, the beginning of WWII when Germany invaded Poland etc. to focus on a group of unlikely scientists studying snow layers for some innovative scientific discoveries about avalanches and other snow related realities that have until then been relatively ignored.

The implications of the story—which is studied, descriptively precise, slow moving (is it too obvious to say almost "glacial" or just too much of an exaggeration but one that's hard to avoid)—touch ever so indirectly on some of the issues of the time and the greater issues (death of the planet compared to totalitarian genocide etc.) but so indirectly, even discretely, it's like a class in the old "close reading" method and may, as was often the case with that technique, be unintentional anyway.

But, it turned out to be a good set up for the other four pieces in it's unique perspective and novel like feeling. The story is resolved at the end in a way that felt like I'd just read a novel and not a short story or part of a novel. Which made moving on to Diana Wagman's "Three-Legged Dog" more satisfying in a way. It's definitely a short story, and the old fashioned kind I like with an arc that ends with a resolution that leaves me feeling like I wasn't wasting my time investing in these characters.

Unfortunately, or not, depending on your taste, it's another one of those contemporary stories in which the protagonist turns out to be a loser in the usual ways, too focused on himself to appreciate someone else's perspective, especially the person he most treasures, and so he can't help... You get it, but it's done so well, it made me interested anyway, especially in how Wagman was going to pull off the reversal.

"The Time Machine" by T Cooper hits a lot of those same familiar notes—first person story told by a needy, insecure, jealous, lover who can't help destroying what he has. This story is also told not just in the usual first person monologue way but using lists and emails etc. But it's so well done, I ended it feeling like I'd just had a satisfying reading experience. And from a fiction writer whose work I've read in The New Yorker where the stories generally leave me cold at the end, wondering why I bothered, because there never seems to be any resolution or more importantly any good reason (literary, story-wise, reality check-wise, etc.) why they don't. But this one did, and though maybe predictable, and ultimately disappointing, as a little reading vacation from my own reality, it worked.

Michael Cunningham's piece from a novel, OLYMPIA, was equally satisfying as a short fiction experience. I would like to read more about these characters. But the piece here was complete as is and surprised me again with how satisfying the experience was (yes, that Michael Cunningham, THE HOURS, etc.). It gets at a sibling relationship from the perspective of the unfortunate one whose parents like the other best, ala the old Smothers Brother routine, but just like them, the less charismatic (supposedly) less physically charismatic at least, it's the narrator who is really the one who controls the situation and our reactions to it (i.e. can anyone remember the handsomer Smothers brother's name?).

But the big brother with all the natural gifts is in the end an entirely engaging and memorable character, even if we've seen versions of him many times before. I know I'll never forget him. How many fictional characters can we say that of? Well, a lot for some of us, but all for good reason.

If Cunningham's piece had been the last one in the magazine, as I expected it to be actually, the whole mag would have been admirable, but predictable to some extent. It's Lydia Millet's "Sir Henry" that was not just unexpectedly satisfying, but the most unique of the bunch for my taste. The story of a professional dog walker (in Manhattan, mainly Central Park) and what that professionalism entails that makes him one of the highest priced ones, ended up being fascinating, a total surprise to me.

If you'd asked (or described the subject matter to me) I'd have said I'll pass. But that's one of the great things about exposing yourself, or at least myself, to the arts however they happen to enter my life—whether with or without any effort on my part—I'm often surprised, and those surprises are often pleasant ones. The magazine has gotten some illustrators and animators to make little films based on one line from each of these stories and the first one is from Wagman's and can be checked out here.

The main editor is Andy Hunter and he's done a good job. Though the mag isn't great as a work of art in itself—as some books can be—the design, typeface, and the cover art isn't all that original or satisfying for my taste. But that said, it's still full of some pretty great prose that I'm glad I got to read and am thankful to Hunter and his staff for sending it to me to check out. You might want to check it out yourself.

Monday, September 7, 2009


The healthcare reform measures getting most of the attention have been misrepresented in the media and misunderstood, obviously, by a lot of people who would benefit from them but have been frightened and confused by rightwing propagandists who only care about defeating Obama and the Democratic Party not about the health of their fellow citizens.

But today's Huffington Post has a pretty well articulated take on the issues at stake and the politics. Check it out here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


"Keep aiming
for simplicity of thought
unless, of course
you like over-abundance"

—Joanne Kyger from the poem "Sorting"

[the lines are indented in four different
ways in the original and in my typing,
but for some reason it reverts to flush
left when it's "published"—sorry Joanne]

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Helsinki was one of my favorite places in the Berkshires. It consisted of an L shaped restaurant with mismatched chairs and tables and other boho touches that made it feel homey and my kind of place.

And in an entirely other area, another L shaped space, bigger than the restaurant, this one being the club. I heard a lot of great music there, did some dancing to it too. Sometimes I brought my little guy and his nephew and they let us (much like CBGB's).

Most of the music was great jazz, but they featured all kinds of sounds, like my friend the songwriter and great guitar player and singer Peter Case a few years ago unfortunately on a weekend I wasn't in Great Barrington where the club was located.

One time when I was digging some young jazz musicians I hadn't heard before and started shouting my approval, before I got my shouts out somebody beat me to the punch. My experience is that in recent decades audiences don't voice their opinions as much or as loudly as they used to, so I like to uphold the tradition. Something I appreciated when I was playing in clubs.

The bandstand at the Helsinki is situated at the elbow of the L shape and I was sitting with my kids and others on one end of the L and the shouting was coming from the other end. So I stood up to see if I could see who was my compatriot of enthusiasm. I spotted another old guy with glasses, and then realized it was poet and friend (and gallery owner) Geoff Young, another jazz aficionado (read his poems and you'll find some of the smartest and most original takes on various jazz music experiences ever written).

Like CBGB's and many other clubs around the country that I've encountered in my lifetime, and even performed in some of them (read my poetry at CBGB's and other legendary clubs, as well as many years before played music in some), it's sad to see them go. (I think Helsinki is actually relocating to the more populous Hudson, New York, where I hear it has a larger space so they can get bigger crowds and afford to pay the musicians etc. (the original club in Great Barrington was often sold out if you tried to just drop by to dig the sounds any given night, especially on weekends).)

But the good news, or some good news in the demise of the GB club, is that my older son, Miles, was asked to back a local and popular singer/songwriter (Miles plays bass mostly) for the last show [one of] of the last day [actually weekend, see comments] of the club's existence. Miles has played with a lot of different groups over the years in a lot of legendary clubs himself (CBGB's included). But to play the last notes heard in such a classic music club is pretty cool. Wish I had been there.

Friday, September 4, 2009


"A study reported in The American Journal of Medicine this month found that 62 percent of American bankruptcies are linked to medical bills. These medical bankruptcies had increased nearly 50 percent in just six years. Astonishingly, 78 percent of these poeple actually had health insurance, but the gaps and inadequacies left them unprotected when they were hit by devastating bills."

"A 2004 study by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, found that lack of health insurance causes 18,000 unnecessary deaths a year. That's one person slipping through the cracks and dying every half an hour."

—Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times, Sunday Aug. 30, 2009

[Kristof has always been a reasoned columnist, focusing more on realities than opinions. Click here to read a more recent and totally lucid and convincing column on the healthcare debate.]

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Went into the city with my almost-twelve-year-old yesterday to catch a matinee performance of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. What a treat.

I already loved the movie. Any story about a working-class kid who has a desire to be some sort of artist against the wishes of his family, especially his father, always gets to me.

My father was a seventh-grade drop out, the son of Irish peasant immigrants. His mother worked as a maid and his father at various menial jobs until he became the first cop in our Jersey town.

My old man was a self made man, he worked for others from childhood to adulthood and then began a series of his own businesses, mostly hardware stores, ending up when I was a kid with a little home repair business I grew up working in.

In one of his most famous lines to me when he discovered some poems I had sent out for publication when I was a teenager still living at home (he thought he had the right to open my mail, because I was underage and it was his house, so he opened a rejection letter with some poems of mine that had been sent back and when I got home berated me for thinking I knew anything the world would be interested in reading about, saying I was still a boy and hadn't done anything yet, hadn't experienced enough, which I set out to remedy and thought I already was ahead of that game), he said "You can write all the poetry you want to. When you're a millionaire."

That summarized his feelings about art, which pretty much were everyone's I grew up around. It was great to play music for house parties or the extra buck, but having any pretentious about being some kind of "artist" was seen as not only getting above yourself, but almost as a betrayal to who we all were, to them essentially.

So the story of Billy Elliot hit a chord with me and moved me deeply. But what amazes me is that this story is so universal. Of course it's the basic story of transformation and fulfilment. But still, in this case, it's pretty specific. The young son of a British miner in Margaret Thatcher's England when she was determined to break whatever power the unionized miners had and privatize the coal industry there which would lead to the end of a way of life for generations of men and their families.

The boy can't help dancing, and when he discovers ballet, can't resist. His teacher sees his potential and encourages him to audition for the Royal ballet school. Oh, and his best friend in their working-class community is a boy who likes to dress up in his sister's clothes. That would seem to be a story with very limited appeal.

But the movie was a surprise hit, and the play not only has been a major success in England, but on Broadway, where it won the Tony for best musical for 2009. The place was packed, tickets are hard to get (I got mine off the internet through a broker and worried until we were in our seats that it was a scam because they were actually cheaper than what you'd pay at the box office!). There were more women than men, but still, there were a lot of men.

There was a lot of age variation too and race and style. It seems to have broad appeal. And the audience seemed to think they got their money's worth. There's four boys who play the lead role because it's so demanding physically, especially for a kid (they're mostly around 13 years old). The show we saw starred David Alvarez as Billy. Alvarez's parents are Cuban, but he grew up in Montreal, and has only been living in the states, Manhattan to be exact, for the past couple of years, mainly to work as a dancer/actor.

Most of the cast are American, though they all have perfected the appropriate working-class British accents, but to have the lead be a boy who looks Latin, playing Brit, was even more of a stretch for the audience to accept. But man did they. They gave him an extended standing ovation, one of the longest I've experienced at a Broadway play.

And maybe that's all it is, the exuberance of seeing a fellow human, especially a young one (he seemed to have some trouble with a few bits, especially the main free style tap dance in the show, so that when his obvious talent with the ballet moves occurred afterwards it was all the more unexpected and impressive) extend what we normally expect from us mere mortals.

I remember the first time I went to the ballet (and one of the only times) and opera (ditto). I was already in my thirties and was no expert on either form, but you didn't need expertise to be impressed by a fellow human hitting a note so high and so perfectly that it seemed superhuman, or balancing on the toes of one foot and spinning with such grace and geometric perfection that you wondered if it was an illusion (or in the case of Baryshnikov, leaping so high and so seemingly effortlessly you wondered if he was part deer).

That was the feeling several times yesterday at BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL. The music is by Elton John, but I think if I heard it out of context I wouldn't be as impressed as I was watching the play unfold and hearing the songs as part of the story, especially the one sung by the actor who plays Billy's father, Gregory Jbara, who had so many little bits of business that were so much fun to watch and react to, the audience fell in love with his every gesture after a while. He played the perfectly befuddled middle age man who has worked hard all his life at the only thing he knows and is bewildered and frustrated and overwhelmed by the changes occurring not only at the workplace, but in his own home and family.

Another treat was Carole Shelley as the Grandma. Delightful to watch as she played perfectly to type but embellished it with so many little flourishes of individual personality it was hard not to watch her whenever she was on stage. And the same for Thommie Retter, a big man with a big belly who halfway through a musical he's done very little musical in, he pulls off a tour de force dance number in which he displays the agility of a skinny little kid and knocks the audience out.

Ah, it was a delightful way to spend a day in the theater, and worth every penny. I laughed, I cried (I have to remember to bring one of those pocket packages of kleenex to these things) and I thought deeply about my long gone parents and grandparents and my own youthful rebellion against getting a secure job in the Post Office or on the force, or taking over the home maintenance business, to become some sort of "artist"—a poet of all things.

I've lived the life I wanted, and still do. As the audience for the musical assumes Billy will (and the movie shows him doing), and remain amazed that so many others who seem so different than me and the friends I've made over a lifetime in the arts not only understand that, but appreciate it and even honor it by, in this case, having made and continuing to make BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL a Broadway hit.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Got to thinking about what some took as an attack on Quentin Tarantino in a recent post, so for a more positive movie director post, my falling-asleep list last night was some favorite movies by three of my favorite directors—Woody Allen, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock (went with my favorite trinity template for these directors who more than fulfilled their early promise, making great movies pretty much right up until the end of their lives, Woody’s still doing it):


Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Or as I call it, the antidote.

Last week, when I was down the Jersey shore, my oldest son, Miles, and I drove back in his car to pick something up from the place where we were staying and on his satellite radio we heard an amazingly moving chorus of young voices singing. While trying to figure out what we were hearing, we ended up listening to a radio documentary and interview about what turned out to be a chorus of elementary school children recorded in the 1970s.

There was something so poignant about the sound of these kids singing David Bowie and Brian Wilson songs it brought tears to my eyes. And we were delightedly surprised to discover these kids were recorded in Canada in some obscure small town called Langley.

When he returned home to the Berkshires, Miles sent me three links to the three parts of another, filmed documentary about this recording and the people who made it. So here they are: one, two three.

Watch the whole thing and I think you'll be equally touched. It's the antidote to the gratuitous violence, gratuitous irony, gratuitous anger etc. I've written about in recent posts. The achievement of these kids and their music teacher makes clear once again that true wealth is not measured by fame or fortune but by ways we touch others we encounter that brings more joy into the world.