Thursday, August 16, 2018

ARETHA R.I.P.

In my late teens, from 1958 to 1961, I spent a lot of nights drinking wine in a paper bag sitting on the sidewalk with my back to a metal grate out of which came live music from the bandstand directly below the grate in the Village Gate which was a nightclub in a basement under what was called a "bum hotel" in those days.

I had a crush on Nina Simone who played there regularly, and when I had the money I'd sometimes get into the club to hear her sing and play piano. I was playing piano in less well paying clubs in those days and someone hipped me to a new act performing there that I should get inside to catch, so I got the dust (short for "gold dust"—one of the many hip terms my fellow jazz musicians used for money in those days) and went in to see this teenage girl with the cool name Aretha play and sing.

She and I were the same age and in my memory we were both sixteen or seventeen, so it would have been before her first album came out, but maybe we were eighteen and this was her tour for it, either way I'd never heard her. When she sat down to play I dug her basic blues chops, and then she opened her mouth and filled that little space so powerfully that all the usual nightclub chatter that went on during sets and musicians hated, but was common in those days, ceased.

I remember it just being her and the piano, alone on that stage, blowing everyone's minds with the intensity of her talent. I never stopped listening to her and never stopped being blown away by her talent. Rest In Peace Aretha.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

EIGHTH GRADE

For his first feature film, the multi-talented Bo Burnham wrote and directed EIGHTH GRADE, and mostly nails it. Lots of great editing and storytelling and music and set ups in the story of a girl's last days of middle school.

Elsie Fisher gives an incredibly committed performance that spans the spectrum of emotional and psychological moods with comic and poignant and enlightening moments of pure originality. She should win an Oscar for Best Actress.

Monday, August 13, 2018

BURT BRITTON R.I.P.

Burt Britton was a good friend of mine. I'm not posting his photo here because the only one I could find online isn't great, and because he was a very private guy in his last several decades, and because his true and best self-portrait is the book he produced, called SELF-PORTRAIT, which changed his life.

Burt was an ex-marine and an actor before he became a fixture at The Strand bookstore in lower Manhattan in the 1970s when I was raising my oldest boy on my own there and scuffling to get by. One of the ways I paid the bills was writing book reviews for papers like The Village Voice and The Washington Post. As a result, a lot of authors and poets sent me their books or their publishers did. I'd sell bags of these books to the many booksellers in the book district which The Strand was the heart of.

I'd usually stick one rare book in each bag to entice the booksellers who'd buy the bag as though they hadn't noticed that one book was actually worth something. Burt's station was in the basement among the rare books. When I approached the counter one day in 1975 with my five-year-old son, Miles, Burt said, "You're the poet Michael Lally," which surprised me since I wasn't famous.

He disappeared in some book stacks and came back with copies of the several books of mine that existed then, to sign for him. After I did, he pulled out a bound sketch book and opened it to a blank page and asked me to make a self-portrait. I gave Flynn the pen and he drew a picture of himself (in patched jeans) writing his name on the figure's shirt, then I sketched a thought bubble coming from the figure's mind and put a little sketch of my bespectacled face inside it.

When we were done, Burt flipped through the sketch book showing me self-portraits by famous writers—e.g. Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Vonnegut etc.—and unfamous ones like me. It turned out everyone in publishing knew of Burt's sketchbooks full of similar self-portraits and wanted to publish a collection of them. But they all wanted to do just the famous ones, and Burt refused to let anyone publish them unless they included everyone.

Eventually Random House agreed to his terms and the book came out in 1976. It was an instant success and garnered a full blast of media attention (meaning newspapers and network and local television) turning Burt into a star. He was married to the late, model-beautiful Corby (before there were model opportunities for stunning African-American women, their wedding celebration if I remember correctly in their apartment on a New Years Eve), but the publicity created challenges as women came out of the woodwork to entice this manly ex-marine book loving bright and ruggedly handsome newborn celebrity, and they divorced.

One story he shared was about the late Margaret Trudeau, the ex-(I think at the time) wife of the Canadian Prime Minister, and yes, mother of the current Canadian Prime Minister. She came to New York and called Burt from her hotel room relentlessly until he went and spent some time with her there.

He also was approached by a book lover who thought his newfound fame could help make a success of a new bookstore they opened near the old Whitney Museum on upper Madison Avenue. It was called Books & Company and one of their first window displays included all my books at that time (it was before smart phones and I didn't own a camera and never thought to ask anyone to take a photo so...).

Burt was now in a position to order any books he wanted, to sell in the store, but he loved too many books and before long the upstairs office spaces were crowded with boxes of unopened books, as was eventually the room where readings were given (I did a few there), and all the profits were being plowed back into Burt's obsession, so his partner bought him out.

As fame faded and the bookstore everyone thought of as his wasn't his anymore, he retreated into almost the life of a hermit (though eventually fortunately he and Corby got back together before she passed a few years ago). In 1982 I moved to L.A. with Mies and my oldest child, Caitlin, but when in New York (and after moving back East in '99) our mutual friend the late poet Ray DiPalma would call Burt and the three of us would sit in the living room of Ray's apartment and talk books and acting (Ray had done some theater acting too, like Burt) and share stories about writers and poets and book people and actors we'd known.

We did that the last time not too many years ago, and afterward Burt walked me to the subway and hugged me goodbye. He had a gray beard by then and wore dark glasses and a knit cap and a seemingly too large overcoat and in general looked like an anonymous vagabond. But Burt was always uniquely iconic, so even incognito you couldn't miss the power of his presence. He was someone no one who met him at any point in his life ever forgot. Including me. And I never will.

[here's a link to his NY Times obit]

Sunday, August 12, 2018

ANOTHER GRATIFYING EXPERIENCE

The charity events at Author's Night in Amagansett, Long Island, yesterday make me grateful to still be around to have such experiences. And more than grateful to longtime friend Alec Baldwin for making me a part of it (out of the close to one hundred authors signing their books, I was the only one with a book of poems).

Alec made sure I was seated next to him and his amazing wife Hilaria (both of whom had great books (which I highly recommend) to sign (You Can't Spell America Without Me and The Living Clearly Method), and every now and then he'd shout something like: "Make sure you buy my friend Michael Lally's new book. He's the greatest living poet, and pretentious too!" or some other Irish humor that always makes me feel at home, literally.

Many people heeded his advice, and other folks bought a copy of Another Way To Play because they had a family member who likes and/or writes poetry, or in a few instances, because they were old friends or ex-students I hadn't seen in years. (All proceeds of the tickets to get into the events and the sales of books went to the libraries out at the end of Long Island.)

It was extremely crowded, and the line for Alec to sign his (written in the first-person persona of 45 with, and according to Alec mostly by, Kurt Andersen) was huge when the event began, and never diminished for the over two-and-a-half hours Alec engaged each buyer in conversation and jokes and posed for selfies etc. (it's hard work being a celebrity, as I've learned from being around him and others over the years).

It was an honer to have been included for this charity extravaganza which raised over 350,000 dollars. As usual, I feel like an awfully lucky guy. Here's some photos taken by Rachel E. Diken who drove me all the way out there and back and took photos and footage for the documentary she's making about me and my life and poetry (and needs more funding to complete):



Thursday, August 9, 2018

IN THE SUMMERTIME

me at the Jersey shore (Belmar, 18th Avenue beach)
c. 1946 or 47, my sister Irene to my left
(the only one of my six siblings still alive)
and to my right I think it's my cousin Kathi

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

ANOTHER FAVORITE QUOTE

"Choice is always more pleasing than anything necessary."  —Gertrude Stein (copied it into a journal in 1974 but unfortunately didn't include the book of hers I got it from)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

If you need a break from reality, THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME is a pretty funny little escape pod. An action-hero-buddy picture where the buddies are women (as is the director, Susanna Fogel, who also co-wrote the script), it turns a lot of buddy-movie tropes on their heads, and Mia Kunis and Kate McKinnon as the stars, are an unexpectedly perfectly matched duo.

McKinnon is as hilarious on  on the big screen as she is on the small (and Jane Curtain and Paul Reiser amplify the fun with their straight faced characterizations of her character's unfazably devoted parents). And Kunis's unassuming beauty and self-deprecating character are the perfect foil to Sam Heughan's unassuming beauty (got to be the handsomest man on screens anywhere). Their screen charisma would be enough for me, but they're also terrific performances. Fun flick.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

BLINDSPOTTING

I saw BLINDSPOTTING a week ago, and it still resonates. Despite some obviousness here and there, this film has more scenes I've never seen in a movie before (and I watch several movies a week and have since I was a boy of six, seventy years ago) than any movie I've seen in years.

Written by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who also star as the "white" and "black" characters whose friendship drives the plot of the story about the impact of gentrification on them and their neighborhood in Oakland California, much of the dialogue is rap (Diggs was in the original cast of HAMILTON), and all of it is politically and socially relevant without being too preachy or self-righteous.

The cast, especially Diggs, Casal, Janina Gavankar, and Jasmine Cephus Jones, are excellent. The movie is at turns funny, tragic, suspenseful (the tension in some scenes was so overwhelming I had the impulse to look away), poignant, engaging, and enlightening, and knocked me out, despite whatever artistic flaws my critical mind kept searching for.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The final hours of the Summer Drive for Rachel E. Diken's documentary film about me and my poetry have arrived...
Donate $100 or more by Midnight TONIGHT and receive Special Thanks credit in the film! 
www.gofundme.com/lallydocumentary


Thursday, August 2, 2018

ONCE: THE THREE BOYOS

me, my longtime friend the great poet/author/songwriter/etc.Terence Winch
and Joe Biden, sometime in the 1980s
(photo by Susan Campbell)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

DON'T WORRY: HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT

I love John Callahan's cartoons, and have since they first began appearing. And I loved his story, an alcoholic who became a quadriplegic after a drunken accident, lost all hope, then got sober and became one of the most widely impactful cartoonists of his time.

Now Gus Van Sant has made a movie based on Callahan's memoir of the same name, and it is the best movie about recovery from active alcoholism ever. The first movie (or TV show) where we get to see people in recovery laughing instead of always looking desperately glum, using the gallows humor common among all kinds of survivors, and in a way that lets everyone in on the joke.

And though I often think Joaquin Phoenix is miscast (and the hair in this flick doesn't help), I always appreciate his total commitment to the characters he plays. And he certainly gets into playing his version of Callahan with his usual intensity. But the real revelation in the terrific cast is Jonah Hill, who deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this one.

As does Van Sant for the screenplay and directing. [Full disclosure, I wrote some of the voiceover for one of Van Sant's previous masterpieces, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, and Gus took the photo used for the cover of my new book ANOTHER WAY TO PLAY.] See this movie!