Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Part of what happens is a kind of mass hypnosis I think. You know, the power of suggestion. I was at a presentation the other night called something like “Science Theatre” where two British scientists showed slides and film clips to disprove non-scientific beliefs and demonstrate how easily the mind can be manipulated. One of their demonstrations was about backward lyrics to songs, using a clip from “Stairway to Heaven” if I remember right. They played the backwards clip and it was obvious that what we were meant to hear, and most of us did, was the word “Satan” a few times. It was a very distorted version of the word, but nonetheless pretty apparent to most of us.

But that was all we could hear. The rest was gibberish and obviously just random sounds. UNTIL they put up a new lyric on the screen and highlighted the words as they played the backwards clip again, words that made a kind of sense having to do with “Satan” and the singer. Everyone in the audience heard those words where they had previously heard only gibberish. It demonstrated incredibly well the power of suggestion.

I think something similar happens with evaluating the work of artists. Some authority figure, like a professor or critic or leading practitioner of the art or even publicity department affirms in print or on TV or film or in a lecture that so-and-so represents the cutting edge or the next big thing or already is the next big thing, ala the article on Muldoon (see part I), and presto, it’s now conventional wisdom, as they say.

This even happens in Hollywood, the center of hype. In my early years there, Jack Nicholson had a stake in a club called “Helena’s” in east L. A. that was run by a Greek woman who had been a notorious belly-dancer before she played the role of the dyke in the backseat of the car in FIVE EASY PIECES. She was a friend of Nicholson’s and the way I heard it he set her up with this club. She and I were friends for awhile too, but when her club first opened I didn’t know her and the doorman wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t a star, or a friend.

Then there came a time when I was let in, I forget why, maybe it was who I was with, and I started going there regularly because despite the doorman, it seemed like my kind of crowd. But I found it difficult to make friends there, as I’m not much with small talk and I missed the camaraderie I felt in New York where I’d been living before this.

Then one night I dropped by the club and everyone was saying hi to me. I told the friend I was with, “I guess it just takes a little time out here for people to get to know you, now it feels more like New York” or words to that effect and he replied, “Schmuck, don’t you read the trades?” which is what they call The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, the papers that cover “the business” as people in show business chauvinistically call it. I didn’t read them. He said there was an article in one of them about how I was writing three different screenplays for three different studios, and that’s why people were being friendly, they thought I “had some heat” as a writer, usually a job that has little power in the movie business as it’s run in Hollywood, but does at certain times, like before a script actually begins to be produced but has already garnered interest, or the times I’ve been called in to “doctor” a script already shot (like the one in which a sexy European actress was starring—she ended up calling me in my one-room little pad on the border of Venice late one night and purring to me over the phone as she asked about the narration I was adding and new scenes to be shot, wanting to make sure whatever it was I was contributing was to her advantage).

What I came to learn about Hollywood was that you could hire a publicist who everyone knew and she could get you publicity that everyone knew she got you, and was paid for, and the studio heads and other big guns would read it or hear about it, and their minds would shift and they would see you as more of a player, as if the hype you paid for was true! Even though they knew it was hype! I guess they were impressed that you got the right publicist or the right publicity or whatever. (I never did it, though I thought about doing it a lot. Maybe if I had I'd be financially secure now, maybe not.)

Meanwhile they would talk all this baloney about how talent would out, like the scenes in SINGING IN THE RAIN where Donald O’Conner’s and Gene Kelly’s characters talk with the studio head as if Debbie Reynolds’ character’s talent had to be rewarded and the goldmine movie star she’s talking and singing for needs to be taught a lesson. They actually have lines that state that of course the young up-and-comer’s talent is what’s important and must be rewarded with screen credit and her own movie to star in. And the female star she’s making look good has to trick the studio head into not exposing the truth! As if!

As everyone making that film knew, and we all know now, there were all kinds of talented singers and dancers and body doubles and so on who made stars look or sound good and never got screen credit, let alone a chance at their own stardom. There’s tons of talent in Hollywood that’s exploited just for the purpose of making some “star” look better and that talent is rarely rewarded in any way even close to the ways the “star” is. Not that there aren’t stars who deserve some of what they get because they get people into theaters and make unbelievable amounts of money for the people who back their movies. But there’s very few of them.

And not that there aren’t talented actors, whose movies don’t make the huge bucks, but still deserve to be stars because their artistry moves so many. A lot of people feel that way about Nicholson and didn’t appreciate my take on him in THE DEPARTED. I dig a lot of Nicholson’s work and accept how talented he is. But I also accept that sometimes some other talent, maybe an even as yet undiscovered one or overlooked one could do what he’s supposed to be doing with a character, even more originally and interestingly and movingly. Only they won’t get the chance, because the powers that be are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they take a chance on a relative “unknown” should the project fail, or because they just can’t judge talent unless it’s hyped or gets attention in some other way out in the world.

Okay we all know that. But explain the art world to me, and the vagaries of that “market” especially for new talent, but even for established ones. I just saw where a piece by an L. A. artist I still think of as young sold at an auction for over two million dollars. I’m happy for him. I dig his work and I dug him when I got to know him when I first lived in L. A. and he wasn’t getting enough for his art, to make his rent. More power to him. But how did his work go that high while some other artist, equally innovative or interesting or committed or talented or even more so, gets overlooked, even shunned.

It’s kind of like what the Republicans were so good at for the past several years until their incompetence in most other areas started to get in the way. They would issue talking points and a daily message and, as John Stewart’s Daily Show would often demonstrate, every talking head coming from their side on TV or radio that day would use the same words, to make the same talking points, to deliver the same message. And for several years there, it worked. Much to the chagrin of a lot of us. How could people be so stupid?

But it wasn’t any more stupid than the idea that undernourished, frighteningly skinny teenagers represent the heights of female allure. Or that people driving very fast around and around on a circular track while wrapped in advertisements is really exciting to watch on TV. Or that being attacked by a band of men, a majority of whom are from Saudi Arabia, demands a retaliation against two other countries, the first of which had some connection to the men, the second none whatsoever. Etc.


I used to believe the above quote when I was a kid. But life has taught me otherwise. Some of the greatest artistic achievements I’ve witnessed, whether on stage or TV or film or recordings or in galleries or someone’s loft or apartment or the street—have never been rewarded with any kind of major public recognition or appreciation beyond the limited audiences they’ve been able to attract.

And I know it’s all a matter of taste. But whose? How did all the so-called “language poets” get so much academic and critical acclaim and attention? Some of my best friends are identified as “language poets” and I too have been numbered among them, at least when the term was first being thrown around and the magazines that published and promoted their point of view vis-à-vis poetry (like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) were first appearing.

That point-of-view being as simply as I can summarize it, that words have other qualities besides their most literal meanings—i.e. shape, size, weight, or relationships to other words or history or capitalist exploitation etc. The “language” poets’ work would emphasize all that over and above (and yes—beyond) meaning. Or, as poet Bruce Andrews explained it to me when we first became friends back in the early 1970s: “connotation over denotation”.

Hey, I recommend a “language poet” in my Xmas list blog, my old friend Ray DiPalma’s latest book. (Though he may not want to be described that way, and if so sorry Ray.) Some might see Geoff Young’s work that way too, another poet I highly recommend on that list. I’ve got nothing against any language poet personally, but how did that particular approach to poetry—that except in rare cases, to the general reader and almost anyone I ever talk to, often appears way too dense and meaningless to sustain much interest unless performed in a captivating way at a reading or explained by a particularly brilliant teacher—become so overwhelmingly recommended and commended by reviewers in Publishers Weekly etc. and among those-in-the-know who run a lot of the alternative poetry venues, from readings to magazines?

It’s a mystery to me.

Again, I know, it’s a matter of taste, even if the academics seem to think, or want us to, that it’s a matter of intellect and expertise. In fact, like some kinds of “free jazz” that came into vogue at about the time I was getting out of jazz—jams where anyone could blow anything regardless of chord changes or melodies or time signatures and other structural considerations that were always the basis of even the most progressive forms of that music as I had learned it and played it and dug it—“language-centered poetry” as it’s sometimes called, is very easy to fake. And there’s a lot more room for the results to be pretty tedious, and few who subscribe to its principles or lack of them ever say the emperor has no clothes.

There are other categories of poetry that are even more full of mediocrity that gets highly praised. To continue with the music analogy, there’s a category I’d call “pop” poetry, like Billy Collins, who I think if I remember an article I read on him has become the best-selling poet of all time. A poet I admire and love cajoled me into attending a reading of his back when he was the Poet Laureate of the USA and all I could say afterward was, why did you drag me to this?

Yes, a few of the poems he read were humorous enough to raise a chuckle, and a few were sweet and maybe even touching if you love cats or share his taste in other pets, etc. And he seemed like a nice guy whose poems are pretty good. But do they deserve top honors? Nah. An audience, why not? If he can get the readers and they dig his work, more power to him. When I was young there was a guy I can’t remember his name now who wrote reams of poetry and recorded it as well, Rod McKuen that’s it, and he sold more poetry books than anyone in history until then, and I dug some of his recordings, as obviously a ton of others did too. But he didn’t win any literary prizes. He just got rich, which he deserved, because his books and records were enormously popular.

Is Billy Collins better than him? In that academic, writing-workshop kind of way, he is. But in terms of depth of feeling and insight and impact on an audience, I’d say they’re about equal. McKuen may even be a little more experimental, dare I say original?

A disclosure here, my poetry has been compared to McKuen’s now that I think of it, as well as Bukowski’s, another enormously popular poet who never got any of the literary rewards or awards but nonetheless has had, I would guess, a bigger emotional influence on his audience than Collins, even more of a life changing influence I’d guess.

I wrote a big article/review on Bukowski and another less well-known but better poet, in my estimation, Larry Eigner, back in the early 1980s for The Village Voice. Eigner was confined to a wheelchair all his life and yet his poetry is more expansive, more free, more full of unexpected dance-like moves and use of space than any of the above. He was picked up by the “language poets” as a predecessor to their approach, though he stood, or rather sat, way outside it as far as I can see, on a whole other plane.

Sometimes the whole academic-and-critical-attention-and-awards thing can be explained by simple personalities. Some people know how to work the system better than others. Some people just know how to schmooze and hustle better than others. Some people really do know how to use the casting couch better than others. Some people just have better luck than others. Just like in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the poetry of plenty of poets I’ve read or heard, surpasses anything written or read by a lot of recent prize winners and critically-acclaimed, academically-championed lesser talents. Yet they will never get the opportunities to make a living from their work, to gain a place in literary history, to have their books published by major presses or important smaller ones or taught in college classes and continually in print, like many lesser lights do and will. It’s actually pretty weird when you think about it.


Well, maybe sometimes. But shit, does it piss you off as much as it does me to see so much mediocrity or just un-interesting crap being canonized? Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an article on the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, about how he’s the next Seamus Heaney (The Irish Nobel-winning poet), and in passing commented on his rock band Racket and compared his lyrics to Van Morrison’s as well as “Gershwin or Cole Porter” (I assume the writer meant Ira G.) and then quoted some that fell so short of that mark, they were like lines from a junior high show off self-consciously proving how clever he can be:

“You may buckle your sword and sandals
To fight off the Goths and Vandals
Now they’ve dented your chrome
Just don’t sit around to count the cost
Of every shiny thing you’ve lost
Back in the catacombs
Do what you must when you’re in Rome
Just don’t try this at home.”

Has this guy listened to Van Morrison’s or Ira Gershwin’s or Cole Porter’s lyrics?

I respect Muldoon’s achievements in the poetry world, where there’s very few rewards that amount to much more than a college teaching gig. He’s managed to get some of the better ones. And I appreciate his growing up Catholic in Northern Ireland and all that must have meant. And I don’t have anything against him or his success, just against those who champion his poetry as more than it is. I read poems of his that appear in THE NEW YORKER and wonder how he ever got this great reputation. But then I wonder that about a lot of people who have garnered whatever the big rewards are in their various arts and professions.

I know it’s all a matter of taste. I’ve left plenty of poetry readings where people I’m with, especially other poets, had exactly the opposite take on what we just heard. And I’m just as guilty of bad writing and bad acting and whatever other things I’ve attempted and put out into the world. But my lines don’t get quoted in The New York Times. Actually the only lines of mine that ever got widespread attention, in Time and other major publications, were some I wrote, or rewrote for the narration of the film DRUGSTORE COWBOY, but they were attributed either to the director of that film, one of my favorites, even if I hadn’t had anything to do with it, or his co-screenwriter, or the guy who wrote the unpublished jailhouse novel the film is based on—or to Matt Dillon.

And it’s pretty much the same everywhere isn’t it? You may ask. Like in the corporate world? Guys who fuck up a corporation’s profits and operations and all that and get rewarded with a several-million-dollar severance pay and a top gig at some other corporation? But I’m mostly concerned with the arts, where I’ve always, or mostly, made my living and achieved whatever modicum of “success’ in the world’s terms that I have. Success in my terms is moving someone, touching them somehow so that for a moment they don’t feel so alone or are able to transcend whatever pain or confusion or disappointment or frustration or whatever they’re trying to get through and find some relief or distraction—or enlightenment if I’m really lucky.

But this isn’t about me, but about the people who compare a writer like Muldoon to those he’s not even in the same league with as far as I can see. Though he may be a wonderful guy, I never met him, his poetry seems no better than tons of workshop students around the world who are equally often un-interesting, but much less likely to ever be compared to a Nobel winner favorably, or have claimed for her or him what one of the critics quoted in this article says about Muldoon—that he has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written”—or given some top gig at Princeton or somewhere similar, and what seems like a sweet life of making a very nice living off your creative endeavors—and even your amateur rock band gets a gig at The Knitting Factory.

The article quotes several lines from a Muldoon poem:

“a grave lit by acetylene
in which, though she proceeded him
by a good ten years, my mother’s skeleton
has managed to worm
its way back on top of the old man’s,
and she once again has him under her thumb.”

I don’t know about anyone else who might teach poetry workshops, but in mine, I would be encouraging some changes in those lines. I have nothing against clichés, if they work or are used originally or in a context that makes them shine in new ways or resonate in ways they haven’t until then, but even if you have absolutely no knowledge of poetry whatsoever do those lines in any way say to you that this is a writer who has “reconceived the whole way in which modern poetry can be written” or has half the wit of Porter, the ingenuity of Ira Gershwin, or the passion and depth of even the most simple lyrics of Van Morrison?

Maybe it’s just me.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Today I learned that Anita O’Day died, at 87. I just mentioned her yesterday, after not having thought of her for years. Does that happen to you? It seems to happen to me all the time. Coincidence, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like it. I was talking about another “white” female jazz singer who was performing and recording when I was a kid, Irene Kral, no relation as far as I know to the contemporary singer, Diana Krall, (I think that’s how you spell her name, you know who I mean, Elvis Costello’s mate and a darling of the critics).

Irene Kral was the least known white female jazz singer of the 1950s and early 1960s, when I played jazz in bars in New Jersey and New York—and after I joined the service in 1962 in various other cities—either with small combos, or solo as my version of “the piano man”. But she was one of my favorites, and still is.

The most well known white female jazz singer then was probably Peggy Lee, though I suppose today she’d be considered “pop”. The most appreciated white female singer in jazz-musician circles, in my experience of those times, was Anita O’Day. Others had their moment of popularity as well, like Annie Ross, mostly as one-third of the trio Lambert Hendricks & Ross, or Chris Connors or even Keely Smith, though Smith too would be probably considered “pop” now. I wonder who I’m forgetting, as I often wonder about memory and history. How does an Irene Kral become forgotten, or anyone who had an impact on the culture or politics or even sometimes science of a particular time.

Or the gossip that often passes as “history” now. At the time, Anita O’Day and Annie Ross were rumored to be heroin addicts, Chris Connors a lesbian, and Keely Smith a battered wife (of Louis Prima). Some of these rumors I heard from people quite close to these singers, but nonetheless I had no personal knowledge of. That didn’t stop me from passing on the gossip, some of which has popped up in biographies and histories of that time, and I wonder how rumors like that, about such private behaviors, could ever be truly proven, and regret having contributed to them in however minor a way.

Having lived through some history now myself, I have personal experience of how it gets written and rewritten. Whenever I do some research on a memory of mine, I often discover aspects of the event or person I’m researching that I had forgotten or never knew. Or more often, people and events that have been left out that at the time seemed so much more crucial to me then, than what is now included.

I’ve noticed this lately with various histories of the “downtown” scene of New York in the 1960s and/or seventies and even eighties. All of which I experienced personally, even in the years in those decades when I was living elsewhere (I was around, working and or living in lower Manhattan from the late 1950s to '62, for most of 1966, and from 1975 to 1982. And I worked various gigs there, including playing music or reading my poetry or later acting on stage or in films or TV, during all the years in between and since. And yet, when I read recent histories of the scenes I was most familiar with, I notice all kinds of people who were important to those scenes have been left out, and others who had nothing to do with it, included!

The most obvious reason for this that I can see is—those included now who weren’t even a part of it or so incidental no one would have noticed if they were, have since attained either some fame or power or both in today’s world, and those excluded or simply forgotten have lost what fame and/or power they had then.

In some ways it’s disheartening to experience this, as it is to experience the eclipse of anyone’s reputation or popularity whose work or persona you dig and want to see others have the opportunity to. Hell, it’s happened to me. I’ve read autobiographies or memoirs or articles or books about how someone came to create the work they become famous for, and at the time they created that work, or maybe were just starting out, they couldn’t stop telling me how much my work or life had influenced them, or how much my support or friendship or mentorship had made it all possible. And then seemed to have forgotten that, or changed their minds about it, when they came to tell their story.

I can’t fault them, though I used to, because now I’m old enough to know that everyone has the right to rewrite their own story, and everyone has the right to change or forget or decide to leave out any part of it they like. I’ve certainly done just that. But when outsiders, those who weren’t there and didn’t actually experience the times and events and people they’re writing about, pretend to be recording history and get things all mixed up, leaving out crucial parts and including things that weren’t a part of the time or scene they’re writing of, it feeds my love of the forgotten, the obscure, the footnoted, the incidental and the so-called “minor” figures and works of cultural, political and even scientific "history".

Sometimes someone can go from enormous presence in a period to being left out entirely. My favorite writer as a young man, and still one of my favorites, is William Saroyan. He was so famous in the 1930s, the term “Saroyanesque” became part of the language. He had the kind of fame Elvis or Ali has had in my lifetime. His books and plays influenced a lot of what became signature about the 1930s and early '40s, including the sentimental but usually comic focus on eccentric characters from the ethnic lower classes (often expressed in movies and on Broadway through a more white bread or at least not as ethnic filter, ala the play and movie YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU).

Because of Saroyan’s stubborn resistance to any kind of authority, or uniformity, or violence, he was not as blindly supportive of the patriotic perspective of WWII as most of his generation was. When he wrote THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON, a novel based on his experiences in England as a draftee in the Army, extrapolating from that experience and his strong feelings against any kind of nationalism (despite his sentimentalism about Armenia, the homeland of his parents and ancestors) he had his main character captured by the Germans and kept in a P.O.W. camp under circumstances much more pleasant than anything being portrayed at the time, or since, and unrealistic in terms of what history has recorded. He made the Germans seem not unlike the English and Americans, or at least just as human, which seemed to be the point he was trying to make, in the midst of a war everyone else saw, and often rightfully so, as truly a battle between “good and evil”, but he saw as just more of the same old human tendency to dehumanize the enemy.

Although his popularity with the fans among his readers continued for decades after that, including me after I discovered his first big collection of short stories when I was still a teenager in the 1950s—THE DARING YOUNG MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE—his reputation with critics never recovered from the attacks that occurred after the publication of THE ADVENTURES OF WESLEY JACKSON. Because the attacks often came from Jewish critics, who found an indirect form of anti-Semitism in Saroyan’s humanizing of German soldiers and P. O. W. camps, it probably contributed to what became the rumor that turned into history, Saroyan’s supposed anti-Semitic reaction to the discovery after they were married of his first and second and only wife’s Jewish ancestry.

Who knows what he really felt, but as a fan who has over three big bookcase shelves filled with books by or about Saroyan, as well as having seen or possess copies of unpublished manuscripts and letters, it’s pretty clear that Saroyan dated many women who happened to be Jewish, and had many friends who were, including “the Jewish genius” Artie Shaw, and wrote of Jewish characters in a much more sympathetic and even realistic way than many of the now more renowned writers of that time (Hemingway et. al.). But I don’t know what was really in his heart any more than anyone else does. I just know the writing and see no signs of anti-Semitism there, especially considering what can be found in the writing of so many of his contemporaries.

When I finally met him, toward the end of his life, he was like a lot of famous people I met after they were famous, often long after, he seemed to be some kind of caricature of what he wanted people to see or thought they wanted to see. What others might call a “blowhard” or so egocentric or Narcissistic there seemed to be no interest in anyone but himself. But it didn’t change my love of his work or my disappointment that it, and his reputation, have fallen so low since those times he had such a large impact on.

Anyway, not to get carried away, but what is a blog for otherwise, this guy’s writing saved my life, made me feel like there was someone out there who understood the way I thought and felt, who saw things often the way I did, who, like me, was accused of being too “sentimental” or “romantic” in our writing or stance in relation to the world, and yet based that writing on the realities we had personally experienced and witnessed that others who put us down for our perspective never came close to.

There are plenty of other examples of those who end up on “the rubbish heap of history” or in the vicinity of it, who deserve better in my opinion. You probably have a list of your own. I’ve written too much already to spend any more time making my own list right now, but I will in the future. And it will start with Irene Kral.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

XMAS LIST (books)

Well, I wrote a sweet post, best ever, greater than anything... But, my usual techno-dyslexia (a friend created this blog for me and basically I just type and post) led me to hit "tab" to indent and when I didn't notice that "tab" moved the cursor to the next box, I hit it again and WOOPS the little beach ball starts spinning, meaning the machine is working hard to find the next box, not on the page which has no more, but somewhere in infinity, and for the next hour I wait for it to find it...but alas...

So, I had to "force quit" finally losing the greatest blog ever posted anywhere. Or not. About my suggestions for books to buy for gifts this holiday season, with the interjection before that list of a tangent on the controversies that have cropped up in recent years surrounding the "holiday season".

Actually those arguments have been going on forever, or nearly. People fighting over what exactly they're celebrating, or commemorating, or whose interpretation or actual event that's being memorialized. (Check out any "Holiday Hell" as I refer to it in a poem in CANT BE WRONG.) But in recent years, in my neck of the woods, the controversy has revolved around references to the birth of a certain religious historical-or-not figure. Which birth gave rise to the original meaning in "Western culture" of the "holiday season".

In fact, last "holiday season" our local high school became the focus of national TV newscast ridicule and rightwing radio diatribes about "liberal" "political correctness" having gone the way of, well they didn't quite put it this way, but the way of all other extremist positions, as in literal interpretations of the Bible (except where it would inconvenience believers in terms of their own divorces or lies or materialism etc.) or certain select excerpts from the Koran or the writings of Milton Friedman, et. al. The reason for this ridicule from commentators around the country was the latest local official school policy which dictated that the high school chorus was not allowed to sing any song that had any reference to the word "Christmas" or what it might represent. Not even "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" because it mentions "Christmas Eve".

Meanwhile, in the same school district, my little boy in his second grade class learned the rituals and meaning and history of Hanukkah, the rituals and meaning of Kwanza (but interestingly not the history, which only extends back into the 1960s and the guy who invented it, Ron Karenga if I remember correctly), and the story and performance of The Nutcracker. That was their way of covering the "holidays" in the "season". No references to anyone's birth, nor any singing of anything that had any reference to anyone's birth.

I listened to some elderly Jewish folk passionately support this ban by recalling how uncomfortable and oppressed they felt as children in the public school system being forced to sing Christmas carols and take part in performances of traditional renderings of the story of the birth of someone they didn't believe in or care about, for the most part, except in the ways the religion based on his supposed teachings ended up oppressing and even killing their ancestors and 20th-century relatives.

I remember from my own youth, battles between Jewish and Christian families over whether the town decorations should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" and whether nativity scenes should be allowed on public property or in store windows. Some of my Jewish and non-Jewish friends defend recent forms of "politically correct" retaliation by pointing out that my little boy can get the story of the birth of Jesus anywhere, that it permeates the culture and the media during this season. But hey, guess what, he hasn't got a clue.

In fact, most of the time he asks me, "Are we Jewish?" He rarely goes to church, and obviously when he does hasn't paid attention, and there's nothing on TV that refers to the actual nativity story like when I was a kid, except for the Charlie Brown cartoon which depended when it was made on the supposedly "universal" knowledge of the birth of Jesus story so it could riff on how it applied to these cartoon kids' lives. But since my son hasn't really been exposed much to the story, like I was in movies and TV specials and in church and in traditional Christmas carols and so on, he really doesn't get it.

Not that school should neccesarily be the place where he does get it, but why not? I studied all the religious traditions I could from my boyhood on, because I love history and ritual and a lot of the art that has been inspired or influenced by religions. Like I loved the rituals of the Catholic church when I was a kid, as I did Jesus and his mother Mary and his later exemplar (in the other meaning of that word, not the one copied but the copy) Saint Francis—because of their compassion.

But I also despised the hypocrisy of many in the church, especially those in authority, and disagreed with their distortion of what I believed was the original message of its founder—love. So I explored other possibilities, falling in love as a teenager with the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tsu's (or Tse, depending on the translation) 81 prescriptions for a well-led life (like it is not the size or shape or design of a bowl that makes it useful, but the emptiness within it, etc.). However, encountering real life followers of the Taoist traditional "religion", I discovered they could be as hypocritical and rigid and authoritarian as the Catholic church.

I went on to study as many of the great books of world religions and spiritual movements as I could get my hands on, some with masters of those traditions, like Confucianism, Buddhism, the Bahai faith (when the only place that was integrated in Greenville, South Carolina, while I was stationed there in 1962 was the living room of some local followers of that "modern" religion based on the precept of universal spiritual unity so therefore no segregation in a time and place when any integration was against the law), The Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran and Tibetan Book of the Dead, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, Mao Tse-Tung (oh wait, that was another "path"), etc. and discovered that though there were deep truths and great guidance in aspects of all of them, there were also aspects of all of them that could be used to justify prejudice and elitism and blind allegiance and all the rest of the negative aspects of "tradition" and "religion".

So I ended up making "the creative act" my religion, finding in poetry and music, movies and paintings and performance, all kinds of literature and art, the spiritual solace I was seeking and the means of expressing it. Even if many of the people I encountered who practiced these arts turned out to be just as narrow-minded and rigid in their own factional ways—including me at times—as the followers of many religions and gurus and paths to supposed enlightenment.

I settled on my own way, an amalgamation of things from all these spiritual traditions and art—and science at its most speculative and creative—to comfort me and guide me and help me to express the connection to the eternal I believe we all have inside us, even if just in the impetus of our genes to extend their existence through millenniums of progeny, or of our minds to extend the life of our thoughts and mental imagery into the future of humanity or whatever survives it. And even in the more humble and simple desire to feel connected to the universe we are close to insignificant in, except by the ways we influence or change or accept the other parts of it we come in contact with.

Woops, got carried away. Here's the list of books that you can buy to give to others and in that way make a small dent in the usual commercial juggernaut that overwhelms a lot of us during the "holiday season". You'll be supporting overlooked artists and those who make their work available. I assume if you got to a blog you can locate these on the internet somewhere.

Three books of poetry:

FICKLE SONNETS by Geoffrey Young, poetry by a master of mixture of high and low, direct and skewed, hysterical and hip.

BREAD & FISH by Mark Terrill, a small collection of prose poems, each with a deep insight into what it means to be alive and overwhelmed by the capacity of life for epiphanies of the highest order, no matter how humble the experience.

RED SNOW FENCE by Harry E. Northup, poems of dailiness by an actor/poet whose work in both arts starts you out confused, wondering if he's revealing too much or withholding too much and then halfway through—your heart breaks open and you feel like this is a guy you always wanted to know and are so grateful he's giving you the chance to.

Three books of prose:

THAT SPECIAL PLACE by Terence Winch, a memoir of his life as an Irish Musician, poignant, funny, and usually profound in an honest and generous way, like most of what Terence writes, including his much praised—deservedly so—poetry and lyrics.

GRASSHOPPER FALLS by Merrill Gilfillan, a collection of short stories that are worth it if only for one called "One Summer by the River" except that they are all as good, from a poet and prose writer whose work is among the best of his generation.

RECOLLECTIONS OF MY LIFE AS A WOMAN by Diane di Prima, the only woman among the Beat generation to have a wide impact at the time, whose first book DINNERS AND NIGHTMARES is the best expression of what it meant to be Beat as it was happening, and in this first volume of a projected extended autobiography a more reflective take on being in the trenches of the Beat generation rather than the boys club that garnered all the attention.

Three other recent books of poetry by friends I recommend:

MORE WINNOWED FRAGMENTS by Simon Pettet, the first beautifully concise poem in the book is the best response I've read to the madness of the past few years, the rest is more of Simon's sweetly precise takes on the way language defines his, and our, world.

RAPID DEPARTURES by Vincent Katz, a poet I still think of as "young" but whose maturing voice comes through with unique style in this paean to Sao Paulo and New York, and the life of the artist and poet who believe in the redemptive power of the real.

CAPER by Ray Di Palma, more of the original "language" poet's mastery, eccentrically erudite, humbly in service to the word. (There is a companion book from the same publisher by L. A. poet Paul Vangelisti, a companion in every way to Ray's.)

And one slightly more expensive tome for good measure:

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TED BERRIGAN, the most influential poet to come out of the New York scene of the 1960s, hardly a poem in this book won't make you smile, even if only a nervous one of bewilderment, but more likely of recognition and pure enjoyment. His mastery of the juxtaposition of the "found" and the original predates "sampling" and makes him a master of poesy in the way Fred Astaire was a master of "swing".

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Can any one tell me when exactly the rightwing Republicans started referring to the Democratic Party as "the Democrat Party"?

Even some in the media do it now, but others as well, including ordinary citizens who have listened to too much Rush or Fox News or other outlets of rightwing-think. A lot of them unaware that they are even taking part in an historical change of political perception. But, of course, many of them very aware of what they are doing.

The rightwing Republicans successfully demonized the term "Liberal" until most politicians, including liberal Republicans, as well as the usual Democratic Party suspects, became afraid of using it to describe anything they might appear to be connected to. They've even tried to dehumanize "humanist" by equating it to "anti-Christian" and "atheist" for their fundamentalist followers. Now the right would obviously like to put to rest any idea that the Democratic Party has anything to do with governing or thinking or behaving democratically.

It's amazing they pull this stuff off isn't it? Unless you think about how much more that the coprorations who they shill for have pulled off. Like how did corporations legally become "persons"? And how do they continue to get away with that?—few of the responsibilities the rest of us "persons" have to live up to, less of the laws than we have to follow, more loopholes than we get for taxes, and more and much much larger handouts from the government than any real person has ever gotten or ever will.

When I was a young man I never heard anyone say "the Democrat Party" and I've been active—through my father and then through the radicalization of the movements of the 1960s—with national politics since I was a boy. I don't remember hearing it before Karl Rove, but I suspect it came in with Lee Atwater, the real "Architect" (as Bushie calls Rove) long before Karl.

In my third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary from 1992 there is no reference to it, just "The Democratic Party" and "The Republican Party". But I wouldn't be surprised to learn it has since been included in some dictionaries, including computer and online reference sites.

As I said, it's an obviously not too subtle point that they don't want the Democratic Party thought of as actually "democratic"; and unfortunately retaliating by calling theirs "the Republic Party" doesn't have the same sting to it.

It's been pointed out by others that though Bush Jr. said words that seemed conciliatory in his speech the day after the Congress became "Democratic" he still referred to them as "the Democrat Party" indicating, despite his pretense of willingness to work with them, his disdain for them and what they stand for, and signaling to his core rightwing support that he is still one of them, even if it's obvious to anyone paying attention that a lot of them have pretty much given up on him along with the rest of us.

"The Republican and Democrat Parties"—doesn't that sound kind of stupid? But then, stupid seems to have been the driving force of a lot of developments in our country and in its influence on the rest of the world for quite a while now. Don't even get me started on totally jive gangsta language and posturing and young men wearing pants they have to pull up every thirty seconds. I'll save that for a future post.

Monday, November 20, 2006


My spiritual mentor was the novelist Hubert Selby Jr. I met him through Ralph Bakshi, the guy who made the cartoon features of the 1970s that the Museum of Modern Art considered good enough and important enough to showcase and collect at the time. It was 1982 and I had just arrived in L. A., or environs, with my second wife.

We were sitting in the house we were renting in Santa Monica, eating dinner with another couple (was it George and Lucy Mattingly, the publishers of my first real perfect-bound book, a collection of poetry called ROCKY DIES YELLOW?) (The title came from the headline on the newspaper the Bowery Boys are reading at the end of the flick ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, after James Cagney as "Rocky Sullivan" goes to "the chair" as a mewling coward, either because his character is truly frightened of dying in it, or because he is faking fear to destroy his rep with the little gang so they don't follow in his footsteps. The title was an inside joke I was having with myself, because at the time I was "pretending" to be "gay" and part of the fight for "gay rights" in order to make the world more tolerant of diversity and make room for all of us, as well as discourage my own kids and others coming up behind me from following my macho-angry-sometimes-violent-young-straight-man example.)

The phone rang, and I answered it to hear a voice say: "I was born in Brooklyn in 1943, who discovered rock'n'roll first, you or me?" I said, "Who the fuck is this?" and the voice said, "My name's Ralph Bakshi, I make movies, but I've been out here in Hollywood for ten years and feel like I lost my soul. I just read your book and think you can help me get it back. I want you to write a movie for me."

He was talking about a collection of poetry that had come out the year before, my biggest to date, published by the then young L. A. poet and fiction writer Dennis Cooper. It was called HOLLYWOOD MAGIC, not because I wrote it after I moved there, or had anything to do with my new "career" as a movie & TV actor, but because I wrote it all BEFORE I had anything to do with "Hollywood" other than truly believing that I, and people like me, influenced what "Hollywood" put into movies, or even what movies they made. Some people took that as arrogance. I just thought I was testifying to the inter-connectedness of all life. And at the time, in fact since I was a kid, I always believed that everything's alive.

And of course it is. Even that rock I threw through a window, or the bottle that got shot out of my hand at a wild party in Spokane in 1964 weren't as solid as they appeared, but in fact, consisted of tons of little energized worlds whirring around like mad inside their very beings.

Anyways, after having read the TAO TE CHING as a young guy, because I liked the cover of the paperback book it was in (a 1944 translation by Witter Bynner, the best "recent" translation is Stephen Mitchell's) and discovered that it confirmed my own longheld beliefs, by then I preferred the term "spirituality" over "religion" because, despite the good pious Irish Catholics I had known growing up, including many in my family, starting with my grandmothers on both sides, but especially my father's immigrant-peasant-Irish mother, I could see that throughout history a lot of bad shit happened to people because of organized "religion", like Inquisitions and Crusades and burnings-at-the-stake (from which one theory bandied about in the early years of the "gay rights movement", 1969-70-etc., was the "historical fact" that the reason gay men were called "faggots" was because homosexuals were added to the wood of the fires that burned heretics at the stake to make the fire more fierce and kill a few "faggots" while they were at it, which now sounds like dubious "history" but I took for fact at the time, because I believed anyone who I thought was on the side of "right" which to me has always meant love, the basic tenet of Jesus that made him so revolutionary at the time, or in my youthful interpretation of that story).

So, when I go to meet Bakshi at the Paramount lot in Hollywood, there's this frail-old-super-straight-looking white cat sitting in a chair there who he introduces to me as Hubert Selby Jr.

Now I'm not only all coked up, which was my way of being in tune with the times in 1982, and had been for a decade previous, and in the process of being hustled by "Hollywood" characters left and right who are gonna make me a big movie star or director or writer of the first Oscar-winning-movie-about-a-mixed-race-love-that-conquers-all, etc. and this little pipsqueek of an old guy with a cackle for a laugh and a high grating voice like a subway train grinding the rails as it makes a turn in a twisting tunnel, doesn't impress me at all. In fact, I feel sorry for the cat, being old and frail and all, and me being at the peak of my powers at forty-one, about to become a super star and all, so I condescend to be nice to him as Bakshi tells us he wanted us to meet because we're his two favorite writers, and then I realize, "Oh, he's the mammyjammer who wrote that depressing book I couldn't finish when it first came out in 1964 or thereabouts", and I'm a print junkie who always finished everything I start to read throughout my life until I picked up LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and was just too bummed out because it reminded me of everything I had been living for a while then myself. Bad enough to live through it, let alone have to re-experience it through reading a fucking book! (I've since read it, and realize what a writer who comes out of Selby's back pocket said about it is true, that one of the great things about it is how he gets readers to love characters that initially seemed unlovable.)

So I didn't see Selby again for a while. But Bakshi and me hung out. It turned out his and my favorite film was an adaptation of a popular novel around 1960-62 by a writer named Warren Miller called COOL WORLD. The director of that flick was a young white woman named Shirley Clark, who shot the movie with a handheld camera in natural light, even at night, in Harlem and Coney Island with a cast made up mostly of real Harlem street kids she discovered since there weren't enough young professional black actors then to make up the gang the movie is about.

For whatever reasons of self-delusion plus reality, I identified with that movie as a young man more than anything I had ever seen. The reason I wrote poetry and prose and wanted to make movies or take part in making them was because I had always felt, since I was a baby, that books and movies got life wrong as I was experiencing it, and seeing it lived all around me. But when I saw Shirley Clark's COOL WORLD I thought, shit, she got it right.

Now, I hadn't seen that flick in twenty years when I met Bakshi, and this was before VCRs and videos and all that were commonly available, and even so it wouldn't have been available (and still isn't I think) but because he had a deal with Paramount to make a movie, Bakshi had the power to set up a private screening just for him and me of our favorite movie! It was the first time I had experienced that. Sitting in one of those plush little screening rooms on the lot, with big ass velvety chairs that leaned back and telephones on stands beside them so you can call the projectionist in the booth behind you or even call someone outside like your agent or other Hollywood types etc.

I enjoyed the hell out of that. So did Bakshi, leaning back in his chair smoking a cigar if I remember right. That same day he asked me if I had any ideas for movies and I borrowed a typewriter from his secretary while he and she went to lunch and used that hour to write a thirty page "treatment" for a movie about the gangs of my youth in New Jersey, the three-hundred-strong mostly Irish-American Jersey City gang THE LOAFERS (a term already in use in Walt Whitman's time, the time of Scorcese's noble but failed attempt to capture it in GANGS OF NEW YORK, for Irish-American street boyos then) or the equally large Italian-American Newark gang THE ROMANS. One of many films I envisioned and wrote that never got made but passed around Hollywood for years and bits of which I saw show up in the films of others, nothing new but the way of businesses everywhere throughout time, but I thought then was particularly aimed at me due to my brilliant originality etc.

Anyways, as they say on DEADWOOD, and other David Milch shows, like NYPD BLUE, "anyways", the live-action film I ended up writing for Bakshi never got made. He eventually got his wish to direct a live-action film, or partly live action, written by him and somebody else. He called it COOL WORLD too. Or as it officially became known, RALPH BAKSHI'S COOL WORLD, which was as far from Shirley Clark's as a guy could get, though there was a sort-of-black cartoon creation called "Sparks" who in the film is "Holly Wood's" (Kim Bassinger's cartoon character) boyfriend. I did the voice for "Sparks" and thought maybe Ralph got the idea for him from me, or the way I sometimes saw myself and thought I projected myself, a darkshaded, bebopping, scatting, cool street dude with a shock of white hair. But it probably had nothing to do with me and I just ended up doing his voice because Bakshi had made a lot of promises about us making films together and when they all fell through probably felt guilty and threw me the bone of a voice-over job. Or not.

The main point being:
(yeah what man?)
that through Bakshi I met Selby and we eventually became best friends, as I suspect he was with many others, and spent a lot of time hanging out talking about New York and the characters we knew there, some in common, and jazz and old movies and radio shows when I was a little boy and he was a teenager and like that. He loved to pull my chain about all my Irish-Catholic superstitions, and obsessions at the time with getting recognition for what I thought of as my artistic contributions to the world. He had long ago accepted his own situation, which when I met him was working as a clerk in the office of a guy with a little production company. When I'd mention the name Hubert Selby Jr. to friends and people I ran into, they'd say, "I thought he was dead."

He told me no one had ever even asked him to read in public since he'd first moved to L. A. in the 1960s and then moved back in the '70s and had been there ever since. So when I got asked to read at Beyond Baroque, the poetry venue in Venice beach, I asked them if Selby could read with me, and he was so unknown to some folks there they put him on the poster as "Herbert" Selby.

I always felt very gratified that I had got him out before the public like that, the first time in L. A. But when with the poet-and-general-all-around-Hollywood-dynamo (though originally from the Bronx and New York) Eve Brandstein and I organized a celebration for Selby's 75th birthday party, so he could experience what his memorial would be like BEFORE he passed, he thanked his friend Henry Rollins for getting him his first reading in L. A. and I swallowed my pride and certainty it had been me and accepted that Henry's readings with Selby had certainly done more to revive Selby's reputation, especially among a younger generation, than anything I had done.

But the reason I started writing this endless blog entry, was to say that Selby taught me a lot of what I know about spirituality and the ways I practice it in my life. And he always did it with unconditional love. I remember when those nuns got killed in El Salvador by the rightwing militarists oppressing the people the nuns were trying to help, I was so upset, that when the scene of the crime popped up in the 1986 movie Oliver Stone made about it, called SALVADOR—the film that started his career, as well as solidified James Woods position as best young character actor worthy of stardom—when that scene of the nuns' murder came up in that flick I was sitting in a packed movie theater in Westwood where they were then holding a lot of premieres since Hollywood had become so sleazy, and I heard someone let out a cry of such deep anguish I wondered for a moment if they'd have to stop the movie and take care of them, and then I realized it had come from ME!

I hated the scum that had done that to those nuns. But not long after I met Selby in 1983 and got him that reading, and he began to get other readings either through me or Rollins and then others, he started reading a story he had written that was more like an essay about how he imagined one of the torturers and murderers and defilers of those well-intentioned-young-American-women-nuns going home to his family afterwards and settling down with a beer in his favorite chair with his kids playing around him and his wife cooking dinner etc. He turned the guy into an average Joe, or Jose, and then in the course of the story gave him forgiveness for his all-too-human actions.

The first time I heard him read it I argued with him for hours afterward. I told him I'd never forgive those motherfuckers, and to do so was to accept the evil in the world instead of fighting it. But Selby stayed calm, as he almost always did with me, with a few exceptions, and explained, as he had in the story, that if he hated these guys, then he was like them and would become them. That the answer to their hate and cruelty and evil wasn't more of the same, but the opposite, forgiveness and love. This from a wise-ass-Brooklyn-junior-high-drop-out-ex-junkie-punk-of-an-"old-man" I had denigrated only a few years before as too old and unhip and uncool for my steamroller path to Hollywood stardom!

It was like Jesus had come back in the body of a punk Don Knotts.

But the son-of-a-sailor got me thinking. As he always did.

One of the things he got me thinking about, in terms of the argument over that El Salavador atrocity, was what he always used to say I needed to learn to accept, or maybe he didn't say it as imperative as that but more as a suggestion or maybe even just as his example. He'd explain that there is no left without right, up without down, pleasure without pain, good without evil, happiness without sadness. That the very concepts contained their opposites. So if I was going to seek happiness, I had to expect sadness too. Or if I wanted pleasure, I had to expect pain with it. Obvious. But something I still had seemed to manage to ignore most of my life.

Once I was bitching to him about being caught up in a vicious circle and he said, "Then dig the circle Michael".

Another time I was complaining about how I couldn't "get a handle" on some problem or issue or situation and he said,
"Michael, there is no handle."

When I complained about all my financial problems, thirty-thousand in debt in mid-1980s money, two teenagers I was raising on my own, no car after the engine in my Dodge Colt blew up when a friend I loaned it to while I was out of town didn't put oil in the thing. No car in L. A.! Trying to get to auditions and screenwriting meetings or interviews for boiler rooms or car sales lots or whatever to get a job to pay the rent and feed my kids and Selby tells me when I get a check in the mail for a hundred bucks to thank god for the blessing but also when I get a bill in the mail for a hundred bucks to thank god for the blessing and I'm thinking and saying "WHAT THE FUCK HAS THAT GOT TO DO WITH FEEDING MY KIDS!!!"

But by then I was so impressed with his own calmness in the face of his own problems, mostly physical since he'd had a lung and part of the other, along with nine ribs, cut out of him as a young Merchant Marine with TB back in WWII (see the interview I did with him in the one-shot mag Eve Brandstein and I put out in the late 1980s, an attempt to riff on The Paris Review, ours was called THE HOLLYWOOD REVIEW, or another interview with Bill Langenheim in the magazine ENCLICTIC).

Not that he couldn't rant himself. He was often telling me how he had spit at God just a few minutes before I dropped by his Hollywood apartment to hang out, because of all his own problems and the problems of so many others in this world. But he somehow always transcended his rage, something I desperately wanted to do, so I followed his suggestions and for instance started thanking god for bills as well as checks and after quite a while, like several years of doing that, I slowly came to accept the bills with the checks as part of life and even eventually came to see how they were often blessings for me and mine and I too became much calmer in the face of life's travails.

And still am, even though Selby is no longer around to give me the right word when I need it as he always had.

Just one example, or maybe two. When the "Rodney King riots" (or "rebellion") started in L. A. my older son was in that area dropping off the drummer from a band he was playing in at the time. My son had dreads then, but otherwise was a very white teenage boy. So when I heard and then saw on the news scenes of white men being dragged from their cars and trucks and four-wheel-drives to be beaten or smashed in the head with bricks by rampaging thugs, I got crazy and started screaming in my Santa Monica rental and called Selby and ranted into the phone about getting me a gun and going down there and so on. This was before cellphones so I had no idea about the safety of my precious boy.

But Selby didn't own a TV and wasn't listening to the news on NPR as he often did, but classical music instead, so he had no idea and made me slow down and calm down and tell him what was going on. When I did, he started chuckling in that inimitable cackle he had and said something like, "Man I sure have wanted to smash somebody's head in with a brick sometimes" or words to that effect which years before would have had me ranting about blowing HIS fucking head off too, but instead, because I'd learned so much from him, it worked the opposite way, like a pin pricking the balloon of my self-righteous justified rage, making me realize in that moment, that I too had felt like that many many times, and in fact had jumped up on the hood of the cars of white boys and men I suspected were racists or acted like them in the face of my love for a black girl when I was a teenager and young man and I'd kick in their windshields or headlights or taillights before they peeled out to escape the madman and lucky they didn't get out and bash MY head in! Who was I to get all self-righteous about these thugs. Did they deserve punishment for their actions. yes. But was I so much better than them, or were we all human on a spectrum from very evil to very good with shades in between that most of us touch on at some point in life.

Anyways, you get the idea. The man was profound.

Check out one of the last novels he wrote, a book cut down from a manuscript four times the size that went on to unfold a story I hope gets published someday in its entirety, a manuscript I brought with me on a job in Europe and sent back to him with notes a little at a time as I read through it, notes he asked for by the way, I wouldn't presume to be so presumptuous, though I often had before I met him, and sometime still can be (see THE DEPARTED entry).

It's called THE WILLOW TREE. And like most of his books, once you accept and get into the rhythm and shape of the language his characters use and he uses to describe them and their actions, you will be exposed to the most profound treatise on forgiveness you've probably ever read.

The other example was when I found out I had cancer several years ago and hadn't yet had the tests that showed it hadn't spread and could be removed and I might live which, thank god, they did and I have, but in that moment, or several days, before we knew if it was a death sentence or not, I called to tell Selby about it and his response was to say there was nothing he could say in the face of that. And that's exactly what I needed to hear, not others' fear or answers or even support, though all that might be useful in some way, but to have someone say, "Michael, there's nothing I can say" and know that was the truth. We just sat on the phone in silence for a while, and then he told me he loved me, which I believed and still do.

After he passed, the love of his life, Suzanne, told me that after that phone conversation when I told him about my cancer, he went over to her place and cried. I never knew that. And almost feel embarrassed that I didn't die and haven't still but he did. But he would have blown that self-centered notion out of my mind in a second. He would always say in the face of my more blatant transgressions, "You're just a people Michael". But he always seemed so much more than that to me.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


When I can't sleep I make lists in my head, with rules to make me concentrate harder, helping me fall asleep quicker. Like one night I decided to go through the alphabet, listing one work of art I dug for each letter. But I got to Z in no time and was still awake, so I added the restriction that they had to have one-word titles, and no revising, Here's what I came up with as best I can remember, though I only came up with the title. I identify them more fully here:

ARABY, the James Joyce short story
BURN, the movie with Marlon Brando
CANE, the collection of stories and poetry by Jean Toomer
DAWN, the first volume of Theodore Dresier's autobiography
EPISTROPHY, the Thelonious Monk tune played by Eric Dolphy on his lp LAST DATE
FOUR, an early Miles Davis composition, sung by Lambert Hendricks & Ross with lyrics by Jon Hendricks
GLORY, the soundtrack to the movie
HELP, the Beatles song
i, the collection of "six non-lectures" by e. e. cummings
JEZEBEL, the black & white film with Bette Davis, her challenge to "Scarlet O'Hara"
KALAMAZOO, the Glenn Miller tune I first heard on one of my sibling's 78s
LAURA, the tune from the movie with Gene Tierney
MAX, an early poem sequence by Ray DiPalma
NUNS, an early chapbook by Terence Winch
OKLAHOMA, the film of the Rogers & Hammerstein musical
PATERSON, the poem in several volumes by William Carlos Williams
QUARTET, the novel by Jean Rhys
REUNIONS, a poetry collection by Harry E. Northup
SKY, a memoir by Blaise Cendrars
TALES, the early collection of stories by then LeRoi Jones
UNFORGIVEN, the Clint Eastwood movie
V., the first novel by Thomas Pynchon
WOMAN, the first in the series of paintings with that title by Willem de Kooning
X, the chapter in Dante's first book, LA VITA NUOVA, where Beatrice scorns him (& I read for the first of many times as a young man when I was going through a similar stage of my relationship with my own "Beatrice") (yeah, I know, it's a bit of a cheat for the "X")
YOJIMBO, the Kurasawa movie with Toshiro Mifune
Z, the Costa Gravas film

Most often I make elaborately categorized lists of three. The Trinity figured largely in my youth, part of my "race" and faith, from the Holy Trinity I named every time I crossed myself to the shamrock that supposedly symbolized them, or the Holy Family my mother named every time she got exasperated with me, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph", or the three small bedrooms in a house with six children (living) and two adults, or later three children and five adults, (some kids always slept in the half finished attic) or the three main identities I had as an "artist" over the years—musician, poet, actor—or the three kids I have, or etc. etc. I grew up thinking in threes, dividing the world into threes, my life, my work, words, ad infinitum.
So on sleepless nights when I'm not working some other contrived structure for lists, I make mini-lists of my favorite works of art, subdividing the categories to make room for more and more of what I love, and believe often saved my life.

Like books. I make a list, say, of my three favorite books of prose, but by poets, and then divide that into first "non-fiction"— then split that further into books by authors who aren't personal friends—Walt Whitman's SPECIMEN DAYS, Gary Snyder's EARTH HOUSEHOLD, Michael McClure's SCRATCHING THE BEAT SURFACE—and those that are (or was before he passed, in the case of Haining)—James Haining's A QUINCY HISTORY, Merrill Gilfillan's MAGPIE RISING, Terence Winch's THAT SPECIAL PLACE—then "fiction" left unfurther subdivided as I grow more tired—Rainer Maria Rilke's novel THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE, William Carlos Williams' collection of short stories, THE FARMERS' DAUGHTERS, Kenward Elmslie's THE ORCHID STORIES.
By the time I've recalled all these books and thought of the pleasure and comfort and in some cases laughs they've given me, I'm asleep.

On another night I list my three favorite spiritual tomes: Lao Tse's TAO TE CHING, Jack Kerouac's THE SCRIPTURE OF THE GOLDEN ETERNITY, and Hubert Selby Jr's late novel THE WILLOW TREE.
Or my three favorite plays to read in book form: William Saroyan's THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, Eugene O'Neil's LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT.
Or three of my favorite books read in the past year or two: Diane diPrima's memoir RECOLLECTIONS OF MY LIFE AS A WOMAN, Mark Terrill's collection of prose poems BREAD & FISH, and Ken McCullough's prose and poetry triptych OBSIDIAN POINT.
Or the three books that mixed poetry and prose and influenced me highly when I was young: Dante's LA VITA NUOVA, Jean Toomer's CANE, and William Carlos Williams' SPRING & ALL.

I made a bunch more last night, before I fell asleep, but can't remember them now. What are your top three...whatevers?

Thursday, November 16, 2006


THE DEPARTED sounded like a dream collaboration, Scorcese meets Nicholson. But instead it was a disaster, due to Jack's manic bid for screen presence. It's like Bush Jr's botched attempt to outdo his father with the Iraq debacle. In Jack's case it's to outdo "daddy" Brando in MISSOURRI BREAKS.

That flick was Brando's last as a leading man. Nicholson was the new Brando confronting the master with the edge of youth and a more dominant popularity at the time. But Brando not only blew him and everyone else off the screen, he did it with typical Brando ingenuity. Almost every scene that he's in, he not only dominates with the charisma of his screen presence but with the uniqueness of his choices, including dressing in drag—but unlike any drag we'd seen before as he disappears under the sun bonnet and neck-to-feet drab dress of an old prairie pioneer lady—or perching on the saddle of his horse like he's squatting over a Japanese hole-in-the-floor toilet. Jack's attempts at naturalism seemed pretty bland next to Brando's originality, or like an attempt to salvage the movie in the face of Brando's scenery chewing, depending on your perspective.

Now Jack gets his revenge in THE DEPARTED, which offered him the chance to pull on DiCaprio what Brando pulled on him at similar stages in their careers. And like Bush, he's gonna beat daddy at his own game. But also like Bush, he fails.

According to insiders on the set, Nicholson disrupted the flow of the movie and Scorcese's plans for it by rewriting his lines and scenes as well as trying to rewrite the lines of DiCaprio's character and others to give him, Jack, more screen time and scenery to chew. And it shows, the inconsistencies, the dropped plot points, as the screenwriting-class graduates call them, etc.

Brando may have improvised or rewritten some of his lines and scenes in THE MISSOURRI BREAKS for all I know, but the scenery chomping he does in that film is always consistent with his character's role and motives in the plot and even extending it as a comment on the times (1976) (or the future in the perspective of the flick) and the role of clandestine assassins working for the powers that be (CIA et. al.), while Nicholson's rewriting not only fucks up the narrative of the plot but also blows the point of his character's role in the plot and the real life it is based on, the Irish kingpin of Southie gangsterism, Whitey Bolger, who too was an FBI informant as well as brutal murderer.

Nicholson chooses to do a halfass homage to Brando as the shuffling aging don, mixed with the madman from THE SHINING—"Here's Whitey!" and misses the opportunity to explore another kind of gangster the movies have yet to get right (at least since Cagney), the Irish kind. Picture Richard Harris, with a twinkle in his eye, charming his minions and neighbors alike with his Irish (cum England) charm while carrying out the ruthless cruelty Bolger was famous for. Because Bolger was not just feared, he was lionised, based on clan pride and Irish pol charm, something Nicholson could have pulled off in his younger years, maybe. But he seemed to care less about the character he was playing and more about pulling on his younger castmates what Brando pulled on him in MISSOUURRI BREAKS, but Jack, I've seen Brando, you ain't no Brando.

I know I know, he's everybody's stoned sardonic Boomer's rock'n'roll doper hipster hero actor from the restaurant scene in FIVE EASY PIECES through THE SHINING's Johnny Carson-intro-satire to the aging convert to romanticism of that movie with Diane Keaton. But that still ain't no Brando baby. Even when he blew up to beyond late Orson Welles dimensions, Brando could underplay, get subtle, with the most incidental details in a scene. And he always risked all on the character, even when he seemed to phone some of the last few in. Nicholson suppresses the character under what has become his usual satanic majesty mannerisms.

All that said, there's some great moviemaking and acting going on in THE DEPARTED, despite Nicholson's conscious or not attempt to undermine it. Mark Wahlburg and Alec Baldwin come closest to what those kind of hardheaded Micks are really like from my family, clan and neighborhood experience, doing what they always do, some kick ass acting. DeCaprio makes up for being miscast in GANGS OF NEW YORK as an oldtime Mick, and in THE AVIATOR, where he tried hard and almost made it with some great moments but was just too boyish for any man of that time and place let alone a powerful loner megalomaniac like Hughes. But in THE DEPARTED, representing the credited screenwriter's background, I'd guess, as a Mick with one foot in the neighborhood and the other in preppie-ville, he almost makes the movie work, along with Matt Damon who does his usual competent job. Poor Martin Sheen looks lost in his role of surrogate daddy.

And how did the actress who plays the love/sex interest get profiled in The New York Times Sunday Magazine as our greatest screen actress since Meryl Streep (but come to think of it, Streep was overhyped as the great serious artiste of screenacting too, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting the mark she and her character were aiming for).

Worth seeing for the debacle of Nicholson's ham-ness (would a popular local Irish "godfather" really dis a nun and priests in a public venue, and do it with childish put downs? Yeah, I doubt it too, in fact I double doubt it.) and flashes of Scorcese's usual brilliance, as well as a new found campiness, as in the final shot, so hyper obvious a metaphor you wonder if it was meant to make up for all the murky, vague, confusing, and dropped "plot points" and gratuitous cliche montages (vide the one with the black chick and the cocaine!).


When I was asked a few days before the recent elections what the outcome would be, I said the Democrats would take the house but the senate would be an even split (with Lieberman straddling the divide). So I was close. I didn't think Webb would pull it out, and am impressed that he and his team did. Now what I say is the Democrats have to be wary of the revenge of the right.
When Jimmy Carter captured the presidency, he moved to remove some of the bad apples in the various intelligence departments, like the CIA, all of whom remained connected and came back with a vengeance when Reagan replaced Carter, thanks to the Iranian hostage crisis which was miraculously resolved when Reagan won.
The great thing about Clinton, besides his obvious intelligence, was his ability to play hardball with the big boys, unlike the more trusting Carter with his genuine Christian piety and principals. But even though Clinton could fake the neocons, and other rightwing manipulators who would do anything to retain or regain power, into making false moves that made them look bad and Clinton look good or not so bad, that didn't stop them from exploiting any opening, including Clinton's Lewinsky shortsightedness, to their benefit.
Their benefit being not only to shrink the government, or those aspects of it with the ability to regulate and police their profit making activities, by overextending it in foregin adventures or bankrupting it, among other things, but also the creation of smoke screens usually consisting of "values issues" behind which they can carry out their manipulations.
This time the smoke screens evaporated in the light of their own "values issues" i.e. Foley et. al. But do not think they will go quietly, or in fact go at all. They have placed their people in positions of power throughout the courts and the rest of the government, including behind the scenes in intelligence agencies etc. and they will be ready to spring whenever the Democrats let down their guard. And, of course, they contriol a lot of the media (while still savy enough to keep screaming "liberal media" at what little they don't control or influence strongly, or "Hollywood values" or "Hollywierd" at any use of entertainment fame other than their own, which fortunately backfired in the case of Michael J. Fox thanks to his natural likeability. By the way, in all the movies and TV shows I acted in during almost twenty years in "Hollywood" most producers I met were Republicans, as well as many directors, studio heads and other higher ups and even many actors and comedians and people in the music business as well. When the rightwing attacks Hollywood they throw out names like Barbara Streisand, a star from the 1960s and '70s, and two or three other active Democrats, while ignoring the more powerful Clint, Arnold, et. al. My experience was there were a handful of lefties, a lot of people unwilling to take any position, and a handful of rightwingers in the "Hollywood" establishment, and the higher you went in terms of power, the more rightwing it got. But that's just my experience.)
They've already blemished Pelosi's image with the Murtha business, (yeah, yeah, Democrats brought it on themselves, no, they just put up some nominees and voted on them, the media made it the look-how-the-Democrats-are-already-divided and both-candidates-are-tarnished-by-ethics-problems etc. while the same media continue to hardly bother—outside of sexual transgressions—about the Republican corruption and crimes that dwarf almost anything in the history of our country, i.e. the billions that have disappeared in Iraq reconstruction contracts etc.). Thanks to the usual human foibles Democrats will continue to create situations and statements that provide amunition for the rightwing's crusade against all things "Liberal" but, and this is the big but, that's playground mischief compared to what they will do if the Democrats look like they might secure the presidency and retain the congress.
Fortunately Harry Reid is a pretty tough cookie, as well as Nancy Pelosi, but they are not so smooth with reporters and interviewers and their public image, an area where the right has had the upper hand for decades, thanks to the combination of Nixon's mastery of behind the scenes chicanery, Reagan's onscreen TV spokesman chops and Hollywood grooming, and Karl Rove's message discipline. I only hope Democrats can keep their eyes on the ball the rightwing plays with and the game is all about for them—power.