Wednesday, April 30, 2008



I don’t know about you, but beauty still thrills me.

I was taking my daily constitutional, as they used to call it when I was a kid, in my local park (designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, as I heard it and feel forced to add in my pedantic way almost every time I mention it) and as I passed a small tree with low hanging branches filled with extraordinarily bright, white, blossoms, I had the urge to kiss one, or all, of them, because they filled my heart with so much joy at, and appreciation of, their awesome beauty.

At various times in my life, beauty seemed to be considered passé. Or too booshie for the avant-garde standards of some circles I found myself moving in.

But never for me, except in the usual “eye of the beholder” way that expressed itself in my own peculiar taste at times.

But the classic idea of beauty—the one the ancient Greek and Roman cultures admired and aspired to in art and life, and the Romantics revived in a different way that’s still current for many (including “Gothic” etc.)—that kind of beauty has often been deemed too obvious, too trite, too elitist, too boring, too unrealistic, too rigid, too etc. for a modern sensibility, and even more so for a post-modern one.

And yet. I wanted to kiss those blossoms in gratitude. My day felt more satisfying, my life more vital, my heart more light and light filled than before I spied them.


The robins scurried out of my way as I walked, too busy with their missions to bother to fly away and lose their goal, but not wanting me to keep them from it either. There was a beauty, as well as majesty, to the way they seemed to carry themselves with an air of dignity and self-respect, their breasts that kind of bright rust color sometime in the past deemed “red” so that their full names were always on our lips as kids—“robin red breast”—the appearance of which was always the first true sign of Spring.

As the poet Gerard Malanga once wrote (and may have copped from someone else as he was famous for doing, or rather infamous), which I can quote without looking up because it’s stayed with me since I first read it several decades ago: “Beauty has its responsibilities.”

It does. Which is partly what the fuss is all about over the teen star who plays Hannah Montana being photographed inappropriately for a fifteen-year-old, or so some people feel. What I object to is the make up and what we used to derisively refer to in the 1960s as the “plastic” distortion of whatever natural beauty she may have, and the ways in which Annie Leibowitz manufactures a faux iconic/transgressive beauty in her shots.

(And there are plenty of models that young, or younger as I understand it, starving themselves to satisfy some standard of so-called “beauty” that has nothing to do with the classic idea, nor with mine. And plenty of anti-beauty beauty shots of not just skinny kids, but made up to look sick or alien or distraught in ways we’re meant, it seems to me, to not want to inquire about. But we should.)

I think that’s partly Obama’s appeal. He seems to physically embody a counter argument to all the dismaying “reality” that has plagued our sense of beauty in these times. Because he is beautiful in his way as well, and that makes him “attractive” to many of us in ways we may not articulate but feel nonetheless. And it’s a beauty like the robin’s, that contains majesty, dignity and self-respect, as well as a beauty that promises a more beautiful future, a beauty that evokes a more ideal vision of the “more perfect union” our founders saw the future as being all about.

And it’s a beauty that has its responsibilities (the whole robin connection I may not have made clearly enough), which he seems to intuitively grasp and yet at times lose sight of. There’s the responsibility to avoid the self-indulgent narcissism of the prima donna, as well as the taken-for-granted assumptions of the pampered and adored.

But there’s also the responsibility of understanding that there is great envy and jealousy generated by great beauty. Obama’s beauty isn’t so much physical, though there is that (mostly a matter of his smile), but it is also in its way spiritual. Most of the time he seems to move and even be still with a kind of gracefulness rarely seen in men, or many women either.

His gutter ball on the much recycled bowling bit was emphasized by the talking heads trying to encapsulate his grace in a box of awkward, making it seem like a blown political ploy, rather than the demonstration of athletic grace, if not prowess, that if you watched it, it truly was.

It’s a grace that seems to come from a sense of self that is based on a broader sense of relationship, as though he understands that so many of us, though obviously not all of us, recognize some part of our selves in him, and he in us (despite the phony charges of an elitism that again is more about his grace and beauty than about the reality that he is the poorest of the candidates and comes from the poorest background and most difficult upbringing, at least in terms of physical circumstances, of all of them) and mostly our better selves. His smile is like the white blossoms on that tree I passed this morning.

It doesn’t mean he’s better than us, anymore than that tree is better than the others in the park with plain green leaves and no blossoms to speak of, or less vibrant ones. But it is more beautiful. I can’t deny that. Beauty thrills me. As has Obama, at times.

And when that tree loses its blossoms, which it inevitably will, and probably sooner than later, it will still have the kind of individual natural beauty that makes me love trees above most other things of this world, but it will no longer thrill me in that unique way great beauty does.

Obama has lost some of his bloom as well, under the unending attacks that come in part, I believe, from envy and jealousy, and otherwise from fear of joy and unfamiliar grace, and in part because he doesn’t seem to want to, or even know how to, respond in kind, a great trait in a statesman, but not in a political campaign I’m afraid. (As others have pointed out, he should have reacted to the questions that impugned his patriotism because he doesn’t wear a flag pin etc. in the last debate with emotion, not the intellectually pointed and correct answer he did give. It reminds too many people of the kind of analytical answer Dukakis gave to a question about someone raping his wife, and reminds me of an earilier post about this campaign many months ago when I said Obama had to avoid being cast as the egghead of the race, as Stevenson was against Ike in the 1950s, the aloof, intellectual “elitist,” who isn’t in touch with what “real people” are feeling, as if Hilary and John McCain are. But they seem to be lately, more than Obama, unfortunately.)

But like that tree. Obama’s natural beauty will still be there, even if he loses, if not as glowing and profound.


Several folks have asked me what I think of Charlton Heston after his recent passing got so much attention. Here’s another example of beauty thrilling people. He never thrilled me, though I did dig his stiff style of acting in PLANET OF THE APES, where it seemed somehow appropriate, as it did at times when he played Moses in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

But overall, I always found the guy misplaced, like some 19th century idea of performance had taken over his consciousness and he just didn’t know how to act naturally, or realistically, or even at times humanly.

His best work as an actor was probably in Orson Welles’ A TOUCH OF EVIL, a movie I’m not as fond of as many of my friends, though I do like a lot of it. Welles was smart enough to use Heston’s stiffness against him. With his greasy dark hair and moustache, Heston looked as far from the beefcake he usually played as he ever did. For once his “beauty” was no help to him, and it made his character more human, more vulnerable, if also more surreal, since Heston still didn’t seem aware of any of that.

The guy was an icon, of the right in his last decades for sure, but early on, of a kind of male beauty that seemed like a fortress against the more sensuous, more feline at times beauty of the young Brando and Dean. That Heston was even a contemporary of theirs seems surreal.

But that iconic stature served him well, and did give a kind of solace to us mere mortals, obviously, or he wouldn’t have achieved the status he did. And it was obviously natural in its own way, because it was ever present in him, even in the interview where he didn’t seem to have a clue in the Michael Moore documentary on gun violence in the USA, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, as well as in the last cameo I remember, in a favorite contemporary Western of mine, TOMBSTONE, the one with the too often under rated Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Val Kilmer as the most intense and mesmerizing Doc Holliday ever.

If it hadn’t been for that natural beauty of Heston’s, he would have been dismissed as an outmoded “ham” of an actor, rather than the Hollywood icon he became. I guess even if beauty does have its responsibilities, it also has its rewards, at least in some arenas.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Had a leak last night that I kept getting up to check, so falling back to sleep each time, I came up with an alphabet of some favorite “artists” (i.e. creators in any “art” form) couplets:












MICHAEL LALLY (well, it’s what popped into my head)



MAUREEN O’HARA (the actress, not Frank’s sister)









X? (anyone?)


BILL ZAVATSKY (a stretch, but you try “Z”)


Don't know if you noticed, but it looks like we finally are getting back to those fabulous '50s the conservatives are always longing for, before all that nasty '60s stuff ruined everything (like segregation, gender inequality, another endless war, etc. etc.).

Anyway, the statistic is that the percentage of vacant houses in the USA is the highest since they began tracking that statistic in 1957. Woopee.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Jason Shinder was a poet and anthologist, among other things. But what I'll remember him most for, is his kindness, his gentleness, and his humility.

Whenever we spoke or had any contact, whether emails or in person, he came across as truly caring about me, my ideas, my feelings, my state of mind and heart.

He'd been suffering with his illness for a long time, and yet, in his presence, you got the impression that his only concern was your well being. Despite the fact that his presence, given the odds he was fighting, was miraculous in and of itself.

He and Michael O'Keefe recently edited an anthology of poetry selected by others, called THE POEM YOU TURN TO. On the way back from the Berkshires today, I heard Alfre Woodard on the Tavis Smiley show read one of the two poems she selected and commented on for the book, and was delighted by it.

Jason and Michael asked me to contribute two selections as well, and I'm grateful to have been a part of the project. But the thing I'm most grateful for, is I getting to see Jason one last time a few months ago, and feeling the spiritual depth of his acceptance of his lot, and yet not letting it stop him from living his life as fully as he was able, which, as it turns out, was more fully than most of us who aren't faced with the phsyical challenges he was.

I'm happy to know the book came out only days before he passed, so that he was able to see the project through, with Michael, from idea to publication. I hope in some small way, it's a tribute to his contribution to the vitality of the presence of poetry in the lives of many more of us than the media ever seems to grasp.

He'll be missed. He already is.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


When I was a young man, one of my favorite writers was the lyricist Jon Hendricks, from the jazz vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. I had a crush on Annie Ross (& interviewed her once, when I was an 18-year-old disc jockey), found Dave Lambert strange and off my radar (an "old" white man), but was greatly influenced by Jon Hendricks.

His lyrics not only influenced my own writing, but my personal philosophy.Or maybe I just felt like he articulated a lot of things I believed in as well. Like in the lyrics to, I think a Count Basie tune (Hendricks wrote words to already recorded jazz instrumental improvisations, and then he and Lambert and Ross sang the words as the various instruments in the recording, Ross being the trumpet and higher range ones, able to hit notes higher than any other singer at the time, and Lambert and Hendricks singing the saxes etc., originally multi-tracking, as in the case of the large Basie band for their first album, but at their peak, just single tracks), anyway in one early example he wrote a line about how "the mind is like a parachute, it functions better when it's open" (or something close to that).

But the line that hit me most, and I carried with me forever, (and used part of as the title of one of my first published stories, in the 1960s) was something close to this (I'm in the country and don't have the LP to double check the exact wording):

"If you be still and never move,
you're gonna dig yourself a well-intentioned rut,
and think you've found a groove."

Thursday, April 24, 2008


When I played football my freshman year in high school, it was for the junior varsity team they called “the rinky-dinks.” And the school was either so cheap or poor or disorganized, that some of us had to use old equipment that included leather helmets from what I assumed was the 1920s, but who knows.

In some ways, football in the old days was more fun. The point of the movie, LEATHERHEADS. Although the movie’s about how professional football was more fun before the 1920s! After which it had too many rules (the creation of a “commissioner”) and too much money, so it became more about profit than avoiding getting pulverized.

I stopped watching professional football, and most football, years ago. I was especially affronted by the technical innovations in equipment, which made it possible for pumped up players to head butt each other and not get concussions or break their necks, or think they won’t.

It’s like the players went from being a combination of sports cars (running backs etc.) and pick up trucks (linemen etc.) to being SUVs and Hummers. You either suffered little in the crashes or you came close to losing your life.

Anyway, LEATHERHEADS stars and is directed by George Clooney, reprising his comic character from O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? to some extent. It’s been mostly panned by the critics, and my grown son and daughter-in-law found it partly engaging and fun but mostly mediocre, while my nine-year-old grandson and ten-year-old youngest son ended up wrestling in the aisles of the move theater we had to ourselves and running in and out to the rest room and refreshment stand.

But I laughed a lot, felt charmed and entertained, and even gave up my dislike of Renee Zellweger, whose pinched, prune-face smile seems to have become more contorted and either out of her control or so controlled it looks painful. But within a few scenes, I bought her character, she’s a terrific actor after all, and I accepted the premise of the movie, which seemed to be, life was crazy and fun in the 1920s, and here’s a movie that does it’s best to emulate that crazy fun.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t think of a time I’ve seen George Clooney on screen, either TV or film, that I haven’t been entertained in some way. It’s like he gets the bottom line of film-making is it’s a show, an entertainment, an opportunity to make an audience respond.

In some of his serious flicks, the response intended is fear or sadness or pity or insight or etc. and he seems more than capable of evoking those responses (see SYRIANA and MICHAEL CLAYTON to name just a few). But more often his roles combine an old-style, Hollywood-star-quality charm and comic insouciance, with some or all of the above (see O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and OUT OF SIGHT to name a few).

I love watching the guy. In LEATHERHEADS, he does some of what have become typical Clooney-comic-character moves, like the double takes and funny faces etc., but he does them so well, they crack me up every time. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my personal history, maybe it’s my Hollywood experiences, whatever, I find the guy one of the reigning geniuses of film.

And as with another reigning (some would say fading) genius, Woody Allen, some of Clooney’s films are lighter, or of less consequence, let’s say, like LEATHERHEADS. But for my taste, they’re no less satisfying. In fact, they seem to come along just when I need them, like flowerless dark chocolate cake after a more substantial meal from a great chef.

So, if you want some light fare, some easy entertainment, that includes some great comic performances from a crowd of familiar and new faces, you too might enjoy LEATHERHEADS. But, you can probably wait to see it on cable or DVD.

[PS: That's me in the third row with the tilted head, after we got better equipment]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Thanks to Kevin McCollister for passing this link on. Bet you can't not laugh.

[PS: Make sure you scroll down to the second bigger video screen with Charlie Rose on it and click on that one]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Now that the John Adams mini-series (as they used to call them, I prefer serial movie) is over, I’ll miss it.

I wasn’t crazy about Paul Giamatti as the young John Adams, but I wasn’t crazy about some other aspects of the early segments either. As Adams aged though, Giamatti seemed to grow into the role, or I became less distracted by what I initially considered miscasting.

I loved the look of the whole movie, from start to finish. Some wonderful period landscapes and settings and costumes. And the individual character’s looks were all pretty historically correct from what I’ve studied.

I liked the veracity of the teeth rotting and the skin not being covered in make up, as in most Hollywood historical dramas. Though I was distracted at first by David Morse’s false nose to enhance his role as Washington. I don’t think he needed it. But as always, I was impressed with his acting, as I was with most of the other actors, especially Laura Linney, who I think deserves some kind of special award for her performance throughout (although I have friends who thought she was channeling Katherine Hepburn at times).

Except for the basic facts—dates and provable conditions etc.,—history is interpretation, of course, and I didn’t agree with the way some of the writing and directing interpreted this story.

For one, where was Tom Paine? One of the prime movers of the American Revolution was missing as a central figure. And my research says Doctor Benjamin Rush was actually extremely radical compared to Adams, and yet in this he is portrayed almost as Adam’s lackey.

But of course, the story is told from the perspective of justifying Adam’s centrality to the revolution—the lead up to it, the actual war, and the resulting creation of a new form of government, etc.

And I know it was based on McCullough’s book, trying to set the record straight, or revise previous historical views on Jefferson and Adams. And it’s true that Jefferson has gotten more attention and accolades from posterity compared to Adams.

But, in my opinion, he deserves them. As JFK supposedly said at a dinner in the White House attended by Nobel laureates, or some such distinguished intellectuals, “This much brain power hasn’t sat at this table since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Or words to that effect.

And yet, early on in the series, Jefferson was portrayed as an almost passive dandy, a foil for Adams’ genius, or a party to it, rather than the fiery revolutionary and original intellectual he was. His accomplishments outside politics and governance alone would make him a giant historical figure.

And historically, especially in his memoirs, Adams often came across as vindictive, petty, and self-centered. There’s a bit of that in the last few segments of JOHN ADAMS, but it’s mostly portrayed as justified, rather than the result of bitterness and egoism. There’s no denying his importance to the creation of the United States, but there was a reason the others were more honored, and not just that Washington was the tallest man in the bunch and Jefferson the best looking.

Not that I didn’t love much of what Giametti’s Adams’ ends up saying and doing in this movie, especially in the last two episodes. Whether Adams really did literally point to a wild flower in his last days and exclaim his newfound awe in the face of creation I don’t know, but it certainly was a miraculous bit of movie-making.

It would be petty of me, I suppose, to quibble about the veracity of that scene, as it would be to quibble with the emotional outbursts of various characters throughout JOHN ADAMS. These scenes may work as drama, and I was moved to tears many times, but historically, it’s highly unlikely this kind of behavior happened at all, let alone often. Even today, older members of my family, who still adhere to the old ways, rarely cry or exhibit fear or uncontrollable grief or other personal emotions, even in front of their own families. Giamatti’s Adams seemed to be ready to burst into tears through most of the movie, and often did.

And the physical touching, and sometime lack of physical propriety, as well as the outbursts of blunt personal feelings, often rang untrue for the times to me. I grant the dramatic license of attempting to make it relevant to a contemporary audience, but if all the characters had behaved more circumspect, the power of their fewer brief outbursts would have been all the more moving, as in the case of Linney’s Abigail Adams. She seemed truest to the times of all of them, though Jefferson was also mostly self-contained in a way that seemed appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved JOHN ADAMS. I thought it was great film-making and great TV, just not entirely great history. But it’s a story that needs to be told, and told again and again, though I would like to see it now told from Jefferson’s perspective, as well as Washington’s and Paine’s, and Franklin’s and some of the other giants we were lucky to have as our Founders.

Bits and pieces of their stories have been told in films, but none with the breadth and depth of JOHN ADAMS. Let’s get it all down in serious serial film-making (in order to cover the time spans without having to alter facts and combine characters etc.) for future generations. And then move on to Jackson and Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR (as well as Frederick Douglas, Sacajawea, Chief Joseph, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, etc.).

In the meantime, we have THE TUDORS to watch, which is so historically inaccurate, often deliberately (as the producer said in an interview, it’s a TV show, not history) that you might as well call it DAYS OF OUR LIVES in period costumes.

Why anyone would risk a kingdom and eternal damnation for this Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) I could not fathom, especially a king with access to any woman he wants, at least in this version of the telling. But, I suspect it’s because Dormer was willing to expose her breasts and have them manhandled (I assume other women might not mind this, given that Henry is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which, by the way, is like having Brad Pitt play John Adams, I know I know, they say Henry VIII was fairly decent looking in his youth, but it’s hard to believe from the evidence of later portraits painted of him).

Anyway, it’s nice to see Peter O’Toole still working (and playing the Pope! A very louche Pope obviously)) and the poet Thomas Wyatt (Jamie Thomas King) getting some naked breast action and more, and just on the strength of a love poem. You go Wyatt.

The sad thing is, these historic dramas, especially one with as much exposed flesh as THE TUDORS, will be watched by young people who already think Iraq is in Asia and WWII was fought in Vietnam and Europe is a country and New Zealand is somewhere near Zealand.

It’s getting easier and easier to distort the actual historic facts, so that instead of discussing our different interpretations of those facts, we end up arguing over which complete falsehoods are facts and which absolutely provable facts are false.

God help us.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Got woke up the past few nights by people in various kinds of trouble. One I had to go out to help at 3AM. It wasn’t easy to get back to sleep so I decided, what the heck, why not follow the last post’s alphabet list with one of movies with male names for titles (including last names since some men, more than women I think, are sometimes known more by their last names alone).

Then I didn’t get a chance to post it, and when last night brought more distress calls (must be the moon) I decided to go ahead and do movie titles with both male and female names in them, so here’s both:

GIGOT (I think it was called, a Jackie Gleason tour de force of his sad soul character only in Paris as I remember it, with his usual over the top sentimentality but nonetheless unique genius)
IVANHOE (a boyhood favorite)
JESSE JAMES (the Henry Fonda original one)
KAFKA (I’m still not sure what I think of this flick, but it is a tour de force of some kind)
OTHELLO (Orson Welles Herculean effort to make this move makes it worthy alone, but his peculiar genius, which sometimes I find aggravating, is still so unique, it’s mesmerizing) and OLIVER! (the 1960’s musical)
PETER PAN (the 1950s Disney version) and PIXOTE (which I think is the boy’s name in one of my all time favorite flicks, though not for everyone, as I found out when I recommended this masterpiece of Brazilian realism to friends)
TOM, DICK AND HARRY (great old Ginger Rogers flick with the young(er) Burgess Meridith)
ULYSSES (The 1950s’ Kirk Douglas Hollywood epic version of Homer, but still fun to watch)
WILLY WONKA (the original)

For an alphabet list of movies with male plus female names for title, I had a harder time, and was groping for flicks I don’t even like (like GLEN OR GLENDA, voted the worst movie ever made or TOM & VIV, one of the most depressing) so I opted for a list of top ten, being the only ten I could think of!:

1) DAVID AND LISA (a favorite when it came out c. 1961?)
2) ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN (the great Jane Alexander)
3) FANNY AND ALEXANDER (maybe my favorite Ingmar Bergman flick)
4) HAROLD AND MAUDE (great performances)
5) JULES AND JIM (oh what an impact it had)
7) MIN AND BILL (early talkie with Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler at their best)
8) PAT AND MIKE (slightly sexist, but one of the best Tracy/Hepburn movies)
9) ROBIN AND MARION (Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery, ‘nuff said)
10) SAMSON AND DELILAH (the bible as only Cecille B. DeMille, and Victor Mature, could do it)

Saturday, April 19, 2008


My not too distant film noir alphabet list mentioned the classic LAURA. Last night, falling back to sleep after the gerbil woke me again, or trying to, I thought of another alphabet list of movies I dig with names of women for titles, of which Laura may be the most resonant, but here’s an attempt to come up with 25 others (though as usual some letters I fell asleep still trying to come up with something for, so help me out please):

ALICE (not a big Woody Allen hit, but definitely another Woody Allen original)
DAISY MILLER (considered a bomb and one of the reasons for Bogdanovich’s decline as a director, and his then girl Cybil Sheppard was pummeled by the critics, but I thought she captured exactly what Henry James intended for the kind of “American girl” of the time he was writing about)
ELIZABETH (the late ‘90s one with Cate Blanchett)
FRIDA (Salma and Frida, what could be better?)
GLORIA (the great Gena Rowlands)
ISADORA (Vanessa Redgrave in the late ‘60s, I think, as the famous dancer Duncan)
JEZEBEL (Bette Davis’ response to Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND)
KITTY FOYLE (didn’t Ginger Rogers win an Oscar for this?)
MARY POPPINS (hey, I like this flick, always have, it’s brilliantly done)
NINOTCHKA (still my favorite Garbo flick)
PETULIA (this could have been on my ‘sixties film list)
ROXANNE (flawed, but fun)
STELLA DALLAS (and Barbara Stanwyck won an Oscar for this, didn’t she?)
VERA DRAKE (another of Mike Leigh’s filmic coups)
ZAZIE (saw this in the early 1960s when it seemed terribly avant garde and thus never forgot it, there’s also ZITA and ZINA, an unusually rich “Z” for this category)

Friday, April 18, 2008


Click here.


Talking with my friend Jamie on the phone yesterday, she mentioned all the bad news on the radio, so I started listing the good news to counteract it and she suggested I write a post about that, so here ‘tis: ten good things about the present.

1) It’s not World War Two, when there was much more death and destruction going on in the world than now. In fact, there was more going on throughout most of the 20th Century, compared to the present.

The current wars our country is engaged in, as bad as they are and as much as I would like to see them end, have caused much less death and destruction than the major ones of my lifetime, from WWII through Korea to Vietnam.

Or even the Cold War for that matter where many more proxy wars were fought (like Korea and Vietnam, but also wars we didn’t directly engage in but nonetheless took many lives, like Africa’s various late 20th Century conflicts—the only comparable one now being the turmoil going on in the Congo).

There’s more death and destruction in the world than during the eight years of the Clinton administration, but otherwise, the world is relatively peaceful, with much fewer actual wars than in most of my lifetime.

2) Medical and scientific breakthroughs have made it possible for more people to live longer and survive various cancers and heart conditions and fatal diseases that would have killed them (me included) only a decade or two ago.

And Sub-Saharan Africa is finally getting some of the help it needs to overcome diseases other parts of the world conquered long ago, and the rare diseases unique to that continent.

3) The typical African strongman leader of the late 20th Century, like Idi Amin et. al. are far fewer than just ten years ago. As well as the Asian versions, etc.

4) South Africa is free of apartheid. African-Americans are no longer regularly lynched, as they were when I was a boy, or attacked with fire hoses and German Shepherds as they were when I was a teenager and young man, or kept from voting, or from running for office, or from attaining political office.

5) Women and African-Americans have progressed tremendously in their quest for equality with white men, though there is still more work to be done.

6) Even the current troubles with food prices rising because of oil monopolies manipulating supply and thereby prices (including this administration withholding strategic oil supplies, etc.) may have some good results, causing people to refocus on the important issues of overpopulation and over dependence on material goods rather than essentials, etc.

7) The emergence of China and India as economic engines rather than drains on the world economy and places of constant famine and destitution, is only a recent but positive development in most ways.

8) Yes, John McCain is my least favorite of the presidential candidates and I certainly don’t want to see him win, but any of the candidates for our next president will be an improvement on the current one.

9) We can become overwhelmed by media input and its misuse, but there are great benefits to the myriad cable channels and cell phones and internet access etc., including more connection and understanding between people worldwide and quicker response to emergencies and isolated tragedies (though bad governance can counteract that benefit, e.g. this administration’s response to Katrina).

Throughout most of history news of a natural or manmade disaster in some far away land wouldn’t even reach you until it was too late to help or the logistics of helping would be too difficult to surmount with the limited transport and technology of the time, but now, the world instantly knows of these things and can respond with help almost simultaneously (as in the tidal wave disaster a few years back, etc.)

10) There is and will always be, I believe, good and bad in every day, in every life, in every moment for that matter. Accepting that reality—while working to change the “bad” where possible, and build on the “good”—is the secret to peace of mind and heart.

I am passionate, obviously, about what needs to be changed for what I consider the good or the better, but I am also accepting of the constant presence of imperfection and even tragedy. Though it took a lot of years and a lot of living and a lot of guidance from others to get to a place where I can care, but also keep my perspective.

And I believe there are a lot more people like me, I know many, who have evolved from old ideas and narrow perspectives into someone more accepting, more caring, more thoughtful of others and of all creation.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


That mythical match-up in the boxing world (usually it’s Ali and Jack Dempsey or Joe Lewis etc.) between Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali seems to be playing out in the Hilary/Barack battle.

Hilary is like Tyson to me. The shorter and seemingly tougher, or at least feistier of the two, with only one real knockout punch—“experience”—and the rest low blows and rabbit punches (like last night’s, with her references to “Farrakhan” and “Weathermen” and all the guilt-by-association tactics that her campaign has been waging against Obama and last night was also taken up by the so-called moderators who, in the case of George Stephanopoulos seemed to still be on the Clinton payroll, and Charlie Gibson, seemed to be trying to help Hilary stay in the ring for the TV revenues a down-to-the-wire battle will secure, and possibly he’d like to see Hilary vs. McCain which would be a much more down and dirty fight than I suspect Obama would wage.

Also like Tyson, when the fight is obviously lost, she’ll resort to any tactic no matter how it may be seen, like Tyson trying to bite Holyfield’s ear off when it was clear he was losing.

Obama is like Ali in his grace and unconventional charm and crowd appeal and superior fighting skills (the reason he is ahead in actual votes, in number of states won, in demographic variety among his supporters, in organizing skills on the ground, in endorsements from V.I.P.s—the latest being Bruce Springsteen).

But, like Ali, he sometimes can get too cocky, and/or too tired and distracted and lose his focus, which seemed to be the case last night. I was afraid I was watching a version of the Leon Spinks fight, where I remember saying to someone on the phone (the poet John Ashbery actually) who called just as the fight was about to start and obviously didn’t know that, and as I was trying to get off the line politely to watch it as the fighters came to the center of the ring for the ref’s instructions and to look into each other’s eyes and the camera came in close, I said “Sh-t! Ali’s gonna lose!”

I could see he wasn’t totally present, was tired, was disconnected in some way that he almost never was. And sure enough, he did lose, and it broke my heart. Same thing last night. Right from the start, Obama’s facial expression was one of a tired man, exhausted even, and not focused. While Hilary, like Spinks that night, had the glow of someone ready to risk everything on this one last chance to score.

Hilary knows Pennsylvania is it, whether she will ever admit to it or not, no matter the outcome. So she didn’t hold anything back. She was on point and had her usual smart-as-a-whip answers ready, something I used to admire but now find heartbreaking because, like her husband, she could have been something glorious and new in our poilitics, but in order to win has stooped to the same level as those she would replace (though she’d still be a better president than any Republican I can think of, especially McCain).

She also was quick to use her programmed laughing response to anything that might land a blow on her. And the so-called moderators acted as her corner men.

Obama meanwhile had to fight three opponents rather than just one, as the moderators joined her in attacking Obama, or set him up for her punches, or held him while she landed blows.

Where’s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE now? Talk about one-sided. Stephanopoulos was actually bringing up Sean Hannity talking points! Obama is on the board of a charity organization that a college professor who was a student radical almost half a century ago is also on so therefore Obama isn’t a patriot? Obama doesn’t always wear a flag lapel pin so he doesn’t love America? And when Obama points out these are just distractions from what his campaign and this election and the concerns of most people are really about, Stephanopoulos keeps insisting it’s important and implies it may be deadly to Obama’s chances of winning!

But when Hilary laughs away the fact that she repeatedly told a lie about being under sniper fire, a lie her campaign would obviously be aware of and therefore obviously encouraged, the so-called moderators let her laugh it off as an embarrassing mistake (embarrassing because she got caught) and didn’t press her or ask about the lies she’s continually told about how she had a big part in the peace process in Ireland when she didn’t and was against NAFTA when she was for it and etc. etc.)

Obama should have used the same tactic (the Reagan gambit as I see it, a very successful one for him “There you go again” etc.) of laughing off the charges against him too. Instead, he seemed almost at a loss for words several times or too tired to be able to defend himself. Nor did he throw any low blows or rabbit punches back at Hilary, which is admirable and may have worked if he were laughing and smiling and being his usual charming self (which he was intermittently, but much less than usual) but because he looked like he was getting beat he played right into her tactics.

And where were his corner men? She had Chelsea in the audience, sitting between the governor of Pennsylvania and a prominent black Pennsylvania politician, and beside him ex-general Wesley Clark. If Oabama had any of his big supporters (Casey etc.) from Pennsylvania, or anywhere else, I didn’t see them, nor were his wife and daughters there, at least not on camera, which would have helped him when they cut to the audience, as it did Hilary when we were shown several times a smiling, obviously adoringly supportive Chelsea (though Rendell and the other men looked a little bored by it all, or maybe embarassed to be a part of Hilary's possiby party-destroying tactics).

So, here we go into the final rounds, and Tyson is hanging on to a tired Ali’s ear with his teeth and not letting go. What will Ali do?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


"Live ignorance rots us worse than any grave" —Philip Whalen from "(Poem) FOR C."

Monday, April 14, 2008


The latest brouhaha over comments of Barack Obama taken out of context brought to mind those famous words Jack Nicholson’s character used in A FEW GOOD MEN.

Something like them have cropped up in many films, usually in the mouths of hardnosed, conservative, realists, as in the movie THE MISSING when a government official explains to Jack Lemmon’s character how without secret and often oppressive and violent actions by our government, us citizens wouldn’t enjoy the good life.

But in my experience, it’s exactly those hardnosed, conservative, so-called “realists” who can’t handle the truth. If it doesn’t fit into their ideology, they can’t believe it, no matter what the facts may be.

Because the fact is, Obama was telling the truth—as he has often done better and more clearly than most candidates in my lifetime. A truth that may come to permanently harm him politically, or not, but nonetheless true for that.

Any survey, let alone anecdotal accounts many of us know firsthand, will show that many working-class voters around the country, particularly in the rust belt, but to some extent everywhere, who have seen their lifestyles deteriorate as a result of the loss of industrial economy jobs to cheaper labor forces in Asia and Mexico and other lands, and their real wages worth no more than what they were in the 1970s, and their lifestyles permanently altered by the need for both spouses to work, and maybe have to work more than one job in order to afford a home and the cars necessary to get to those jobs, and all the other realities of the changes that have turned many in the so-called “middle class” into working poor or struggling-to-get-by-lower-“middle-class,” while the rich get richer, are “bitter” about the loss of those jobs and their once easier and more comfortable lifestyles.

And they often blame it on immigrants and on other "alien" groups, and on “liberals” who support immigrant rights, and the rights of all people. Alot of these working folks have been tricked into believing that the very champions of the kind of political and economic policies that have led to all this loss and downward economic spiral (most but not all in the rightwing of the Republican Party) are the candidates who best represent them because they believe in “family values” which often stands for “gun rights,” anti-abortion postures, and fundamentalist religious beliefs, and that even “free trade” is the fault of liberal politicians, or “out of touch” Washington political elites (who the rightwing Republicans have managed, incredibly well I have to admit, to still characterize as out-of-touch “liberals” even though it’s rightwing Republican elites that have dominated Washington politics for years now).

Obama was just telling it like it is, as he was in his speech on “race” relations in this country. His choice of the word “bitter” in his recent comments is what has been pounced on most, because it makes these people sound hardened and sour in ways they don’t see themselves, nor do any people I know want to be seen as.

But the reality is that is exactly what the Republican rightwing plugged into, under Nixon first, and continues to to this day—bitterness over the loss of an image, if not a reality, of what life in “America” once was or should be. The so-called “Silent Majority” of Nixon’s election campaigns were tricked into believing that the damn hippies and blacks and “East Coast elite” were responsible for whatever ails you.

Nixon’s camp was the first to use the whole “East Coast elite” label on Democratic Party liberals (as well as on some of their own party’s more moderate members), though the Eisenhower campaigns were the first to use the anti-intellectual angle (against Adlai Stevenson and the implied “intellectual elite” he belonged to). “Egghead” was one of the most potent putdowns of the “I like Ike” years.

A lot of Nixon’s strategy came out of his own bitterness over losing to JFK in 1960, (and being unsupported by Ike himself in that campaign). JFK was the poster child for East Coast elite liberals, except his war service, his commitment to helping those less fortunate than himself and his family, along with his obvious intelligence and charm made him a difficult target.

But once he was out of the picture (and later his brother, RFK, was taken out as well), and Nixon was in charge, his people made a point of attacking not just the “East Coast elite” as it was then characterized, and the “hippies” and blacks (the code words being “drug culture” and “uban crime”) but also higher education in the form of most liberal arts colleges and/or East Coast elite schools.

Nixon’s point man in this anti-intellectual, anti-higher “liberal arts” education was his vice president Spiro Agnew, until he got indicted on criminal charges. I remember these attacks well, because at the time I saw them for what they were, a response to the educational benefits of the G. I. Bill (which I was in college benefiting from) making higher education accessible to more people from working-class backgrounds, and the generally positive results of government supported public education at the lower levels, creating an up-and-coming generation of well-educated voters who could reason and weigh the facts in ways that made them less vulnerable to manipulation.

As working-class people without the benefits of those educations—products of poorer rural public schools or of parochial schools where the kind of Age of Enlightenment reasoning, logic, and belief in the scientific method, etc., were not taught, or if taught not encouraged to be applied to politics and religious beliefs (believe me, I tried and it didn’t work)—saw their lives worsen in many ways, it was easy, or at least possible, to exploit their fears and worries by turning them into resentment toward those who seemed to be getting some kind of “free lunch”—welfare “queens” etc.—or extra help—blacks immigrants, etc.—or just had it a lot easier and didn’t seem like their kind of people—“East Coast elites,” etc.

Now Hilary Clinton’s campaign is using those same kinds of tactics. I think I heard she told an audience over the weekend that she believes life begins at conception. Well, there’s certainly a case to be made that the fertilized egg is “alive,” as there is that the cells in my skin are.

But she seemed to be implying, for the first time as far as I know, that the “right to life” people have it correct, even though from her record and from other comments she’s made over the course of her life, she’s never believed that before. And she’s smart enough—in fact as I’ve said before, one of the smartest candidates, if not the smartest (in terms of classroom-style learning), in the race this year—to know that scientifically speaking, if you make a case to defend the right for a fertilized egg to be treated legally the same as a “human,” than you have to make the case that almost all living things be treated that way too, since almost all living things, creatures and plants, are more advanced on the human scale than a fertilized egg or an embryo etc.

Casting Obama’s remarks as “elitist” and meant only for a closed-door meeting of San Francisco sophisticates (read far-out lefties) may prove to be smart politics by the Clinton camp. But, as has been said by many, about her camp’s tactics in recent weeks—ever since it became clear that she could not win enough delegates to beat Obama—they are taking a page from the worst tactics of the rightwing Republicans that have done so much to turn politics into a game of deception.

That doesn’t change the reality that the eight years of the Bill Clinton administration were not just years of peace and prosperity, where almost every bad statistic in this country went down, and almost every good one went up (crime down, teenage pregnancies down, etc. income up, employment up, etc.), but were pretty good for the rest of the world too, though not all (Rawanda e.g.) and that a lot of that reality was a direct result of having a really smart president with a really smart cabinet.

The best example is when the Mexican money crisis hit, or the Asian economies started tanking, (as well as many other examples), the Clinton administration stepped in to bail them out with loans that were favorable enough to make sense, because they got how interrelated the world’s economies had become and knew if they didn’t step in it might mean chaos, or at least worldwide recession.

Bill Clinton’s critics warned of dire consequences (Mexico going bankrupt and taking us down with them, etc.). But Rubin and other Clinton advisors turned out to be correct and the world markets were put back on track and the peace and prosperity continued for us and for most of the rest of the world. Until Bush junior was “elected.”

Now, because of crony and lapdog appointments by junior, and the stated and obvious goal of his administration to reduce big government not by reducing its size (it has grown under this administration and actually was downsized by Clinton’s administration) but by making it as ineffectual as possible, resulting in no one minding the store when catastrophe hits, whether manmade or natural (9/11, Katrina, etc.). And now we have another catastrophe in the so-called “mortgage crisis,” which is actually a banking and investment crisis, and which is having a worldwide effect, as real estate prices begin to plummet everywhere, not just in the U.S.

Add to that the oil crisis. Not for the oil companies, which are making historic profits, i.e. greater profits than have ever been recorded in the history of the world (!) while the world economy sinks because of those prices (the food riots now being seen around the world are the result of rising food prices caused mostly by rising fuel prices etc.).

These are the issues the Democratic candidates should be talking about, not whether a man who has dedicated his life to helping the poor and the disenfranchised and the underrepresented and to healing the divisions that have prevented “America” from leading the world into the future (rather than causing the world to be dragged back into the violence and economic upheavals of the past) instead of taking a cushy job in a top law firm, is an “elitist.”

And besides, hasn’t it always been the supposedly hardnosed, conservative “realists” who defend elites, like the elite class of people who figure out how to manipulate the political and economic systems to enrich themselves and their cronies while the rest of the world goes to hell in a bitter haze of resentments and outrage over the possible loss of their belief systems to some imaginary assault on them by a “liberal elite,” that if it really existed would have ended this campaign by now.

Sunday, April 13, 2008



It’s called “Joe Brainard The Nancys,” and it’s at Tibor De Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue in New York City, until May 17th.

If you are anywhere near Manhattan in the next few weeks, catch this show.

It’s a small one, taking up only one small room of the gallery space, with probably less than thirty pieces in it. But it captures so much of what makes Brainard’s art uniquely delightful, as well as surprisingly challenging.

The “Nancy” of the title is the cartoon character created by the Bronx native Ernie Bushmiller in the 1940s (descended from an earlier newspaper cartoon series he had taken over, which starred the once flapper Fritzi, who became Nancy’s stylish Aunt in the “Nancy” series of cartoons that were very popular when Branaird—and I—were boys.

Joe began using Nancy’s image in his art of the early 1960s, but it was a series of “IF NANCY WERE…” pieces done in 1972 and an oil dypitch in ’74, that defined his art through the appropriation of the Nancy figure in ways that no other collection of his work could do as well or as completely, to my mind.

There’s collages (Nancy waving to us as she pops out of an empty pack of Tareyton cigarettes—Joe’s brand), throw aways (IF NANCY WAS JUST AN OLD KLEENEX—her image coaxed out of stains and curves of a crumpled up old Kleenex tissue, that you have to see in person to appreciate not just the whimsy of, but the skill of, and the subtly disturbing image of, and possibly message of as well, though I doubt Joe would have agreed with the latter), pastels and ink drawings, gouaches and etchings and graphite drawings (including several versions of how De Kooning might have depicted her), and two oil paintings (that form a diptych and put to rest any doubts about Joe’s work with oils, including his own).


It’s called The Nancy Book, and is published, and very beautifully, by a new press, Siglio. And it too is well worth checking out.

It not only contains more Nancy art of Joe’s than the show does (including several collaborations with various poets, e.g. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan, etc.) but it also contains some of Joe’s writing about, or including, Nancy, and two essays about Joe’s Nancy art by two of his good friends, the poets Ann Lauterbach and Ron Padgett.

Ann’s essay is the more comprehensive and a good introduction not just to Joe Brainard’s Nancy art, but to his art and writing in general. She has some great insights into Joe’s use of Nancy as an icon to be played with and played off of, and some fine contextualizing, as they say, of the work.

One of the things she mentions, is Joe’s not doing much artwork (I think she says none, though I know that’s not entirely true) in the last fifteen years of his life, and, in my experience with him, making that decision in part because he felt he had failed to achieve the kind of art-world greatness that others had, or that he had envisioned for himself.

Ever since his death, over a decade ago, I’ve felt sorry that he hadn’t lived to see the outpouring of not just appreciation for his work (in every sense of the word, the prices have been rising steadily for one sign of increased value, at least in the eyes of collectors) but of genuine affection, even from those who never knew him.

His art was playful, and personal, in a way that was easily dismissed by the more serious practitioners of art-world politics and arbiters of art-world rankings. Unfortunately, Joe sometimes fell victim to judging his work through the eyes of others who didn’t get it the way the rest of us who always loved his work have always “got” it.

But Ann Lauterbach helps not only clarify the challenge for those approaching his work for the first time, despite its accessibility, but also the challenge to the art world to get it right, Joe Brainard’s place in their pantheon. A well deserved place, as time only continues to bear out.

And Ron Padgett’s essay—coming from one of Joe’s friends who knew him the longest, and has written the definitive memoir about him, called simply JOE (Coffee House Press) is shorter—I assume not to duplicate some of Ann Lauterbach’s explication, but his added comments on some of the realities of their shared boyhood that are relevant to Joe’s use of Nancy in his work, and his intimate knowledge of Joe’s life, make his essay equally enlightening.

The whole book is just one of those treasures that contain more than a book ever seemed intended to, and yet seem to fulfill what books ideally are most suited for.

I mean it’s a pleasure to read it, to spend time with the art work reproduced in it, to have my own little conversation with the contributors to it, as well as with the spirit of Joe himself, and to just simply hold it in my hands and feel the heft, the weight of its contents and importance, at least in my library, and sooner or later, hopefully, the rest of the world’s.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Caught WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP recently on TV with my ten-year-old. We had to cut away during some scenes, but it was mostly just broad comedy with broad stereotypes being held up for ridicule, or to make some broader point about racism and ethnicity and stereotypes.

But as good as everyone was in it (Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell, et. al.) and as well intentioned as the humor seemed to be, it was totally outdated. I remember how funny it was when it first came out, and it still has its moments, but mostly it just seems like a movie that couldn’t be made anymore, because the stereotypes it’s based on we’re finally outgrowing.

And what a good thing.

Obama is on to something, whether he wins or not. Jokes about the basketball prowess of African-Americans may have been radically honest even ten years ago, but today, with the internationalization of basketball—as well as more visibility for so many super successful African-Americans in a broad spectrum of endeavors—they seem lame and beside the point. As do most of the other stereotypes in and out of this movie that have been fodder for entertainment and politics and niche causes etc. for too long.

The boundaries are shifting, the definitions becoming more difficult to pin down, or pin on to the specific. Like Obama. Or Hilary, for that matter. She’s more conservative than most liberals, more dependent on her relationship with her man than the label “feminist” used to imply. She’s ebullient one moment and stiffly withdrawn the next, critical and almost seemingly bitter, then joyful and seemingly grateful, even humble, then defiant, even arrogant.

Obama is even less definitive of some stereotypical man, or African-American, or even mixed-race American, for which the stereotype has yet to be satirized as successfully as Woody Harrelson’s white-man-without-a-clue (he could so play Bush junior in the story of the president without a clue).

Not that the stereotypes still don’t apply in some instances, some experiences, some expressions of an individual’s humanity. But the broader outlines of a more globalized concept of individuality, no matter how consumerized, is prevalent today in a way that cannot be denied, nor stopped.

That’s part of what Obama appeals to in his supporters, the way I see it. And the more those old stereotypes are broken down the better. It doesn’t change the fact that there are still too many “black” American men in prison (and still too many “Americans” in prison in this country period).

It doesn’t change the fact that a way too high percentage of “black Americans” are unemployed, or underemployed, or suffering from the kind of poverty that a country this wealthy and advanced should have wiped out generations ago (especially since less wealthy countries have managed to do it). Or that a lesser percentage of “white Americans” but a higher actual number still suffer from poverty as well (e.g. as I’ve pointed out before, we’re so far down the list in health care compared to other industrialized countries, we’re behind Latvia in infant mortality rates, etc.).

It just means any art that is based on skewering “reality,” or on honesty that’s so blunt it’s shocking and/or humorous, can’t rely on what seemed brutally honest only ten years ago, even five for that matter. For my taste, those kind of racial clichés were already out of date decades ago when I was writing letters to the editors of The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times every time someone wrote about “young black boys” having “no role models” other than “the pimps and drug dealers and gansta rappers” etc.

I wrote many a letter about how insulting it is to those—“black” and “white”—who risked their lives, and in some cases lost them, for the cause of ending the kinds of legal and extralegal segregation and oppression and inequality that still permeated society when I was coming up. To ignore the fact that there was an African-American Supreme Court justice before there was an Italian or woman, and the other ethnicities and categories that have yet to have a Supreme Court judge from their ranks, or to ignore the other obvious successes across the worlds of politics and business and sports and entertainment, etc. was to insult, as I said, all those who risked their lives in the fight to make that all possible.

If a young “black” man doesn’t have any “black” role models other than the various forms of “gangsta” culture, then that just means he hasn’t watched a TV show (even the ones that feature “rap” show more of the world than that narrow view) let alone been exposed to anything outside the world of that contrived image.

It ain’t true, despite the gangs and prison corralling of young black men. What’s true is that government policies of this administration, and previous ones to some extent, have created the corporate friendly atmosphere that has allowed the prison system to develop in ways that feed that system’s privatization and necessary need for more “clients,” and the “war on drugs” is happy to funnel bodies into that system.

And yes, it’s racist in that a much higher percentage of young black men get much longer sentences for drug offences than do most whites. (I just heard of a case yesterday of a white male I know being caught with a lot of cocaine in separate baggies after totaling his car, the way I heard it. He is getting a break because it is his first offense. Most “black” men would end up with decades of prison time for such an offense.) And within the system itself, there is a further fueling of racism by the lack of programs and serious effort to actually do some rehabilitation and education, and of enough guards and other personnel, so that prisoners need the protection of ethnically and racially segregated groups to survive. Etc.

And yes that carries over into the whole “gangsta” image and projection into the culture in general, and unfortunately too often into the standards of even well educated young black men (and women to a lesser extent) from financially-secure family backgrounds (as it often does for young white men, though usually with less harsh outcomes).

Nonetheless, we are rapidly becoming the multi-cultural society some have been claiming we already were. And Obama represents that inevitability more than the other candidates, and with a style, as well as substance, to his politics that prove, to my mind, he is the right person for these times.

Not all “black” men can jump, and some white men have proven they certainly can jump, as some women of all shades have also proven. What Hilary and Barack have both done with their very viable candidacies for the office of president is prove it’s a new world, and welcome to it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I don’t have an iPod yet, but my ten-year-old son does. I watch him downloading singles and remember when I was just a little older than him getting one of those new little 45 record players that were almost like toys and beginning my collection of 45s.

Thinking about 45 singles, as opposed to the long-playing records that became my obsession when I got older, and CDs in recent years, I began to consider what I might compile on an iPod if and when I get one.

That led me to last night, when having been woken up by the usual garbage collection commotion around 4AM, I tried making an alphabet list of recordings of individual songs that others might have forgotten or not be aware of, because they were either made by relatively unknown artists or are lesser known recordings by well-known artists.

In other words, obscure recordings that deserve, in my opinion, to be better known. This is what I came up with before I was in dreamland again (I wonder if most of these can even be found to download on an iPod):

ALORS ALLEZ performed by Disturbed Furniture (on a 45 from the NYC c. 1980 punk/new wave short-lived band, I knew the lead singer, Alexa Hunter, from an independent film we acted in together and saw them live at The Roxy back then and totally dug their sound)
BLUE MOON sung by Elvis Presley (on THE SUN SESSIONS CD, though I first heard it on his first RCA Victor album put out as two 45s in a folding cardboard “album”—it’s the song on which he does a kind of falsetto cross between yodeling and croon-scatting)
COUNTRY FIDDLE—C, THE played by Pete Seeger (banjo) and Jean Carignan (fiddle) (from the INDIAN SUMMER soundtrack LP)
DARK MOON, HIGH TIDE performed by Afro Celt Sound System (on the soundtrack for GANGS OF NEW YORK and probably on one of their CDs)
EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME sung by Frank Sinatra (the original 78 recording, when he was still almost a kid and sounded like it)
FAMINE spoken/sung/rapped by Sinead O’Connor (don’t remember which CD it’s on, but it’s almost all the Irish history lesson you’ll ever need, simply brilliant)
GUESS I’LL GO BACK HOME THIS SUMMER performed by The Glen Miller Orchestra (I think that’s the title, as sung on the original 78 recording by the great saxman and vocalist Tex Benecke, it’s about as poignant a heartbreaker anyone could ever sing jauntily, from a Great Depression/WWII perspective that gets me every time)
HOME COOKING performed by Spanish Kitchen (I love the bass groove on this 45, and not just because my oldest son Miles is playing it)
I’M GLAD I’M PREPARED FOR THE RECESSION sung by Terence Winch backed by The Fast Flying Vestibule (the brothers Winch band before they created the original Celtic Thunder, Terence wrote this tune back in the 1970s but it still applies), and I have to add one of the best original songs I’ve heard in the last decade or so that my daughter Caitlin turned me on to: Cheryl Wheeler’s rap/talking blues tune IF IT WERE UP TO ME (from her SYLVIA HOTEL CD)
MARAT WE’RE POOR sung by the cast of Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE as it was known in shorthand (from the 1966 cast-recording album, THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE and as good an expression of one aspect of the spirit of the 1960s protest years as anything else, though so much more than that too)
NEARNESS OF YOU, THE played by Nat Adderly (on his LP, NAT TO THE IVY LEAGUE, in which he “samples” old style—in other words he “quotes,” on his cornet, phrases from other songs, other musicians’ improvisations, and, in this case also TV commercials—it is a tour de force and defines for me one of the key elements of jazz improvisation)
O NOSSO AMOR played by Antonio Carlos Jobim and many others (all the several versions of this tune on the soundtrack of BLACK ORPHEUS, though the sweet MANHA DE CARNAVAL is the more memorable tune from this film in many ways, and I also love it, O NOSSO AMOR is the life of the film and a rousing expression of its spirit)
PISS FACTORY spoken/rapped/sung by Patti Smith (her first recording, put out on a 45 from the unfortunately now defunct best NYC literary bookstore, The Gotham Book Mart—or at least backed by them, as I remember it—c. mid-‘70s, it’s almost proto-rap, or a talking blues, about working in a South Jersey factory before she headed for the big city)
QUIET MAN THEME, THE played by the studio orchestra I assume (from the soundtrack, which I could never get a copy of so have to just dig it from the movie when it’s on; I guess I could buy the DVD and record it from there, and also find out who’s performing it for sure)
RED IS THE ROSE performed by Irish Fire (this traditional Irish tune as sung by Dominick Murray and Grace Griffith with both playing guitar I think and Dave Abe on fiddle is about as poignant a heartbreaker as the Irish can come up with, from their self-named CD IRISH FIRE)
SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD played by Charlie Haden (bass of course) and Hank Jones (ditto piano) (from their STEAL AWAY duet CD of “spirituals, hymns and folk songs,” one of the all time great jazz and spiritual recordings ever, and a unique combo)
TOO MANY CREEPS performed by THE BUSH TETRAS (on a 45 by the NYC downtown all female punk band c. late ‘70s)
UNION STATION sung by Joe Stork backed by The Fast Flying Vestibule (the title song from the only FFV LP, UNION STATION, another tune written by Terence Winch, and as you can tell I’ve been listening to his early records lately)
VIVA LA VIDA performed by Trio Marimberos (from the FRIDA film soundtrack)
WHO FEELS IT KNOWS IT sung by Rita Marley (from the only LP I remember of hers, although I’m sure there was more than one, but I can’t remember the name of the album)
YSABEL’S TABLE DANCE played (and composed) by Charlie Mingus and a host of great musical talents, including Ysabel Morel on castinets (from his TIJUANA MOODS LP)
ZIPPITY-DOO-DAH sung by Johnny Mercer, one of the few songs he recorded that he didn’t write the lyrics to (from the first “record album” I ever owned, the soundtrack songs from SONG OF THE SOUTH on 78 recordings in sleeves in an actual “album,” a gift when I was a little boy that I never forgot, despite the later criticism of that film as politically incorrect)

If you can download any of these, I’d be very surprised if most of you aren’t either delighted, moved, and/or thoroughly engaged by these performances.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


When I started this blog a year-and-a-half ago or so, I wasn't that plugged into the internet, except for email and occasionally looking something up on Google.

But thanks to my friend, the great poet and now great photographer, Kevin McCollister, who suggested I do my own blog and then set it up for me instantly, and to my great old friend and fellow musician back ih the day and still avid jazz fan (as well as a generous and honest lawyer, there are some), Tom Wilson, whose technical assistance continues to aid me in this endeavor, I've become not just a little more at ease in the world of the internet, but actually as enamored with it as any of the other pursuits and interests in my life.

I love the way people can email me links to anything I mention, and how equalizing the effect of youtube and other outlets for old video and film clips are, making small contributions by bit players on TV shows and in films as famous as the performances of the stars they were supporting.

And the access to music and filmed performances by the well known and the unknown is overwhelmingly satisfying. As well as lectures and artwork and humor and all the rest that friends send links to because they think I will be as entertained or engaged or educated or astonished by them as they have been.

It has, as for many others, replaced my morning newspaper. I have the NY Times headlines emailed to me and then select any story I want to pursue further, but my main hit of what's new for the day is the list of links to blogs down at the right of this page.

I start out with another new view of L. A. that not many would ever get to see if it wasn't for jimsonweed [THE JIMSON WEED GAZETTE]. Then my coolbirth [BIRTH OF THE COOL] update on jazz and new technology and other cool things I might not have noticed happening in the world (and on the web). Then I check into the rest of the list that includes a nephew working in the wilds of Alaska [MY ALASKAN ADVENTURES] with moose and other creatures we don't have so much down here in the lower 48. It's a taste of the natural world and, unfortunately, also the impact of the encroachment of humans on it.

Then the rest of the list which includes mostly old friends, like Peter Case [pcblog], but not just because they're friends, and not just because he's a reknowned singer/songwriter/guitar player, but also because he's a soulful commentator with updates on life on the road as well as ongoing autobiographical hits and takes on the music and creative activities of others.

There's other old friends, like Paul Harryn, whose blog [PAUL'S ART] on the life of an artist, the old fashioned kind who actually paints on canvas, among other creative acts, contemplates the world around him in ways unique to his Pennsylvannia countryside artist's soul. And newly added Jamie Rose's blog [JAMIE'S BLOG], an actor's take on the practice and challenges of that art with advice that anyone can find useful, not just actors.

And RJ Eskow's Nightlight [actually A Night Light], with insights into current politics from not just this regular contributor to the Huffington blog, as well as one of the most articulate and perceptive guest commentators on various TV shows, but also an accomplished musician and songwriter in his own right. Or Ron Silliman's blog [actual title: Silliman's Blog], the most visited poetry site in the history of the internet, with good reason. Ron is not only one of the most wellread poets you'll ever encounter, but his blog also has regular lists of links to just about any news article or commentary or essay or reference to poetry or the concerns of poets that anyone might ever find of interest.

English poet Tom Raworth's Notes [NOTES] blog keeps me up to date not only on his travels and interests and family and friends, especially in the British poetry world, but also has the most pointed and humorous takes on current events, usually with some collaged images or altered artwork, etc. that is not only perceptive and brilliant, but totally original.

There's other poetry blogs, like the newly added Charles Lambert [CHARLES LAMBERT], whose post on Jonathan Williams I found a link to on Raworth's blog and was so taken with Lambert's writing, I added him to the list just today. Or old friends E. Ethelbert Miller's poet's blog [E-NOTES] that comments on the DC poetry and other scenes, and everything else from sports to the endless campaign, and all from another unique perspective you won't find anywhere else, and poet and psychologist Nick Piambino's [fait accompli] original aphorisms and New York poetry scene updates and links to sites you won't find referenced too many other places, if at all.

It's a unique blend of what artists and friends I admire and respect are thinking about or concerned with or want to turn others on to, and it starts my day with a jolt of creative energy that matches my own and makes me feel part of a unique community fashioned by my own taste and interests as well as those of my friends or nonfriends whose perspectives I find refreshing, literally, as well as enlightening, and quite often challenging.

Ain't the wolrd wide web grand folks?

[PS: Old friend and poet Doug Lang's blogs [douglang'sdcpoetryblog, douglangsfilmblog, and dadaville] are also among my favorites. Though he has taken a hiatus from them in recent months, I still check in every day to see if he's back, and if you haven't read them, his past posts are worth checking out for his critical insights and terrific writing, as well as for the occasional autobiographical bit about growing up in Wales with a jones for music and literature. He's also hip to cultural artifacts few people are even aware of, and if they are, from an angle few people would think of.]

[PPS: As a matter of fact, pretty much everyone on this list takes the occasional break from posting, understandably, and some favorite sites have even ceased to exist, erasing themselves so that I no longer even list them, but that's another facet of the net that's so like life, things come and go, with few remaining permanent, so that our daily landscapes are forever changing. Life.]

[PPPS: I realized I listed these blogs by the authors' names rather than their blog titles, so I've revised them to reflect the actual blog names and inserted where they go in the post above. Another benefit of the web, you can edit whenever you want, or rewrite and not show the edits, but I prefer revealing the process. no matter how mundane]

[PPPS: Also meant to say, the rest of the list of recommended sites are mostly websites I think some of you might dig.]


I'm sure a lot of you have already seen these talking points going around the internet, originally posted by MoveOn I believe. But thought it worth while to post it here in case you haven't seen them.

(And as for the plus sign in the heading, here's two they didn't have on the list: McCain voted against a new G. I. Bill for Iraq veterans for education benefits, and against increasing other benefits for Iraq veterans, including medical!)

So, here's the original ten:

1. John McCain voted against establishing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now he says his position has "evolved," yet he's continued to oppose key civil rights laws.

2. According to Bloomberg News, McCain is more hawkish than Bush on Iraq, Russia and China. Conservative columnist Pat Buchanan says McCain "will make Cheney look like Gandhi."

3. His reputation is built on his opposition to torture, but McCain voted against a bill to ban waterboarding, and then applauded President Bush for vetoing that ban.

4. McCain opposes a woman's right to choose. He said, "I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned."

5. The Children's Defense Fund rated McCain as the worst senator in Congress for children. He voted against the children's health care bill last year, then defended Bush's veto of the bill.

6. He's one of the richest people in a Senate filled with millionaires. The Associated Press reports he and his wife own at least eight homes! Yet McCain says the solution to the housing crisis is for people facing foreclosure to get a "second job" and skip their vacations.

7. Many of McCain's fellow Republican senators say he's too reckless to be commander in chief. One Republican senator said: "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He's erratic. He's hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

8. McCain talks a lot about taking on special interests, but his campaign manager and top advisers are actually lobbyists. The government watchdog group Public Citizen says McCain has 59 lobbyists raising money for his campaign, more than any of the other presidential candidates.

9. McCain has sought closer ties to the extreme religious right in recent years. The pastor McCain calls his "spiritual guide," Rod Parsley, believes America's founding mission is to destroy Islam, which he calls a "false religion." McCain sought the political support of right-wing preacher John Hagee, who believes Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for gay rights and called the Catholic Church "the Antichrist" and a "false cult."

10. He positions himself as pro-environment, but he scored a 0—yes, zero—from the League of Conservation Voters last year.

John McCain is not who the Washington press corps make him out to be.


1. "The Complicated History of John McCain and MLK Day," ABC News, April 3, 2008

"McCain Facts,", April 4, 2008

2. "McCain More Hawkish Than Bush on Russia, China, Iraq," Bloomberg News, March 12, 2008

"Buchanan: John McCain 'Will Make Cheney Look Like Gandhi,'" ThinkProgress, February 6, 2008

3. "McCain Sides With Bush On Torture Again, Supports Veto Of Anti-Waterboarding Bill," ThinkProgress, February 20, 2008

4. "McCain says Roe v. Wade should be overturned," MSNBC, February 18, 2007

5. "2007 Children's Defense Fund Action Council® Nonpartisan Congressional Scorecard," February 2008

"McCain: Bush right to veto kids health insurance expansion," CNN, October 3, 2007

6. "Beer Executive Could Be Next First Lady," Associated Press, April 3, 2008

"McCain Says Bank Bailout Should End `Systemic Risk,'" Bloomberg News, March 25, 2008

7. "Will McCain's Temper Be a Liability?," Associated Press, February 16, 2008

"Famed McCain temper is tamed," Boston Globe, January 27, 2008

8. "Black Claims McCain's Campaign Is Above Lobbyist Influence: 'I Don't Know What The Criticism Is,'" ThinkProgress, April 2, 2008

"McCain's Lobbyist Friends Rally 'Round Their Man," ABC News, January 29, 2008

9. "McCain's Spiritual Guide: Destroy Islam," Mother Jones Magazine, March 12, 2008

"Will McCain Specifically 'Repudiate' Hagee's Anti-Gay Comments?," ThinkProgress, March 12, 2008

"McCain 'Very Honored' By Support Of Pastor Preaching 'End-Time Confrontation With Iran,'" ThinkProgress, February 28, 2008

10. "John McCain Gets a Zero Rating for His Environmental Record," Sierra Club, February 28, 2008

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a powerful movie.

Like most people, I haven’t seen all the Iraq War movies—documentaries or fiction. And there are great ones that have already been made. But I got the chance to see STOP-LOSS last night, and because of the strength of the message it conveyed, and of most of the acting, the occasional weakness in writing and direction didn’t bother me.

Maybe because I was in the service for over four years when I was in my late teens and early twenties—the age of most servicemen and women, including the ones depicted in this movie—I cut it some slack, because the feel of what it’s like to be an enlisted man in the service certainly came across as realistic to me.

And even though I wasn’t in a war zone, nor did I see any kind of violence other than drunken brawls and the sanctioned physical and mental abuse in basic training and disciplinary actions, I remember clearly the feelings of pent up rage and frustration, of testosterone gone wild, of battling loyalties to oneself, one’s buddies, one’s country, one’s commanders, one’s mission, one’s duty, and so on seemingly endlessly.

Back in the 1960s, even when I was in college on the G. I. Bill (which Iraq veterans don’t even get to the limited extent I got, and John McCain has voted against increasing veterans’ benefits to make them more comparable to what he and I had access to!—though of course him much more because he was an officer) I never discussed my service experiences or even wrote about them.

It wasn’t until I saw THE LAST DETAIL, in which Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid kicked ass as Naval (if I remember correctly) enlisted men, Nicholson’s character trying to return Quaid’s to the service after being AWOL (for which I was courtmartialed, so know a little about). Sitting in a movie theater in Washington DC watching that film, I felt like my head was going to explode.

I’ve calmed down since then, but even so, movies that really capture what it felt like for me in the service (another great example is FULL METAL JACKET, the first half of which, before they go to Nam, compared well on the realism scale to my experiences) move me deeply.


Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish (I only heard last night and this morning about their private lives, which seem more important to the public these days than their skill as actors) are both outstanding in lead roles. Cornish isn’t as beautiful or as great an actor as Scarlet Johanson, but she has the same capacity for exposing unattractive sides of her character’s looks and personality in ways that seem much braver than most young movie actors, male or female. And I bought her character’s emotional life pretty much in every scene she was in.

Phillippe keeps surprising me. I expect him to be a pretty boy, or one of those typical young Hollywood movie actors who just can’t seem to come up to the mark of manhood that was common among young stars of the past but seems so absent since the 1980s (e.g. Tom Cruise still comes across as a boy!), but then Phillippe pulls it off, as he did in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. His youthful looks and manners seem in sync with the reality that war is a young man’s, and now woman’s, world for the most part.

And Channing Tatum has been a favorite young actor since my ten-year-old and I caught him in STEP UP, a cheezy street-vs.-academy dance film that he made work by the sheer charm of his screen presence and not-bad acting chops. He plays the big, good looking oaf in both films, but mostly pulls off the power as well as the sensitivity, and often with some subtlety. He also does the physical bits perfectly. He comes across as boyish, but that always fits the roles he’s playing. Whether he can make the transition to playing more mature characters I don’t know. But the final, and most powerful, scene in STOP-LOSS may be the prelude to his future in more mature roles.

Pretty much everyone in the film does good work, a tribute to the casting and directing (especially Timothy Olyphant as the men’s commander—he is maturing into a really solid actor—and the actors playing the parents of Ryan Phillippe’s character, Ciaran Hinds and Linda Emond, who is pitch perfect in her depiction of the strain on a young serviceman’s mother).

But on the other hand, some of the performances are much less than flawless, a mark against the direction, as well as the writing. E. g, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the kid from THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, makes you forget in some scenes his earlier roles and embodies the character he’s playing, but at other times he’s obviously out of his league.

There are elements to the story that I would have rewritten to make them more realistic and less formulaic, mainly the war scenes in Iraq. They’re a little too much cowboys and Indians and not enough the realities of this war (though they mean to be, but depictions of atrocities seem more Hollywood than the faux-home videos the movie incorporates into the story). Though the director’s brother has served in Iraq and the story is based on real soldiers’ experiences, the tendency seems to be to side with the soldiers, understandably. Even the “liberal anti-war lawyer” is portrayed as sleazy and insensitive, even uncaring, as if he’s in it for the five hundred bucks.

And the idea that the Army doesn’t send back to Iraq men and women who have gotten in trouble with the law when drunk, or have mental problems caused by Iraq, doesn’t live up to the reality of news stories about people with criminal records being allowed into the Army and fighting in Iraq (and responsible for many of the crimes committed there by our troops, though not all by far) and troops with mental disorders caused by the war, even Post Traumatic Distress Disorder, being shipped back, because there aren’t enough troops, and most of them have been broken by this conflict anyway, so if you were to refuse to use those who get DUIs and such, there’d be even less troops (about the only thing that can guarantee the armed forces letting you go and not sending you back to Iraq is if you are found out to have committed a homosexual act, ‘cause God knows gay soldiers are of no use on the battlefield, as opposed to criminal or mentally sick ones!).

But despite whatever quibbles I may have with the movie, bottom line, for this viewer, STOP-LOSS is one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in awhile, not a masterpiece by any means, but a film well worth seeing, and thinking about.

Monday, April 7, 2008


1. Has anyone ever seen a baby pigeon? I mean a little fuzzy chick, like you see for other kinds of birds when Spring rolls around. I knew kids who kept homing pigeons when I was a boy, but I don’t remember ever seeing eggs hatching and little pigeon chicks. What I do notice every Spring is a lot of uniformly colorless, almost the shade of dust, smaller pigeons, suddenly trying to get their bearings, like adolescents traveling alone a little further from home than ever before. I assume they’re the new pigeons hatched sometime when I wasn’t looking and already almost fully grown.

2. Scientists comparing satellite photos of the East Coast of the U. S. taken over the past few decades to the present have determined by the moving line of green, indicating budding trees, that Spring has been arriving eight hours earlier every year for quite a few years. But anyone living in Alaska or the Arctic circle has been aware of the earlier and earlier arrival of Spring over the past few decades, and up there, scientists say, it is encroaching even more rapidly on what once was still Winter.

3. Anyone see the report that certain kinds of birds that winter in Mexico, and even further South into Central and South America, are dying off? Scientists studying the birds in their Winter habitats believe the debilitating effects of misuse of pesticides is what’s harming the birds. Another benefit of NAFTA’s lack of universal guidelines for environmental (as well a safety and labor) concerns?

Saturday, April 5, 2008


A lot of people dismiss the power of words, especially when it comes to leadership.

Just as a lot of people try to portray all politicians as alike.

But yesterday’s NPR tributes to Martin Luther King Jr., on the 40th anniversary of his assassination, included clips from Robert F. Kennedy’s speech to a predominantly African-American crowd in Indianapolis the night King was killed.

And if ever words, and leadership, made a difference, it was that night.

As historians and commentators pointed out later, neighborhoods in over a hundred cities in the U. S. A. were in flames that night. The understandable rage of “black Americans” over the slaying of King came out as rioting, looting, burning, destroying, often their own neighborhoods.

But Indianapolis was peaceful. And it was a city that had enormous racial problems. Just a few clear, but eloquent and heartfelt words prevented the kind of senseless violence and self-destructive rage that enveloped so many urban areas across America.

The lives and property spared, not just from physical harm, but from arrest and prison or homelessness was enormous, compared to the toll taken in other cities.

RFK was simple and direct. Letting the crowd know quickly that MLK had been shot and killed. The screams from the crowd are heartrending even now. He spoke of how their anger against white people might be justified by the reality that the evidence indicated white people were responsible for the murder.

But then he went on to say that what King stood for was peace, compassion and justice. And that he too, RFK, understood how others might feel, because he too lost “a family member” I think is the way he put it, and “a white man” was responsible for that.

The only film I’ve seen that’s available of the whole talk is from Italy and has bothersome Italian subtitles, but the power of what RFK did that night still comes through. Check it out for yourself.

RFK could have easily been shot himself, or attacked by an angry mob, after delivering such devastating news to that crowd under those circumstances. But he doesn’t seem frightened or even wary. He seems appropriately solemn and serious and deeply effected by what has happened.

God it makes me miss what might have been had he not been assassinated himself only two months later, the first victim, as many have since pointed out, of Islamist terrorism in America.

His response to his own death, or to 9/11 and other recent catastrophes, shaped by the changes brought about in his own intellect and spirit after the assassination of his brother, and of Martin Luther King Jr. and the turmoil and violence and other deaths of that tumultuous time, might have been equally reasonable, understanding, and directed toward the necessary compassion, peace and justice that became his goals.

To say that that’s all dreamy headed Liberalism, is to deny the results of those changes in him that led him that night to take such a courageous but compassionate stance and to change the lives of the people who heard his words.

Perhaps if his speech had been able to be transmitted into the homes of every American—as was Bush’s top-of-the-rubble, bullhorn, macho, revenge speech at ground zero after 9/11 was—maybe all of America’s cities would have remained peaceful that night, like Indianapolis did.

Obama hasn’t been tested as much as RFK was by the time of King’s assassination, or as much as King himself was even earlier, but he has been tested. By the circumstances of his origins, by the doubt and criticism and mudslinging of this campaign, and by the events of the past several years under this administration—as we all have—and he shows a lot of growth as a result, even just over the months of this campaign. And he certainly knows how to use the words, as clearly and as eloquently as RFK.

It feels like Obama is the fulfillment of the promise King spoke of the night before he was killed, in that speech where he swore that even if he didn’t make it to “the promised land” that he had seen from the mountaintop by the grace of God (an unstated reference to Moses, as well as a foreshadowing of his death), he knew that his people would.

We have a chance to fulfill that promise as well, by believing—as Obama at his best continues to move people to believe—that we can aim for those old ideals of peace and compassion and justice, despite the struggles that will not disappear, the problems and unexpected catastrophes.

With a leader like Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy—and, I believe, Barack Obama—there is the real possibility that justified rage can be turned to compassion, that justice can replace revenge, and peace replace violence.

It did that night in Indianapolis.

Friday, April 4, 2008


The other night, coming back from Manhattan after meeting Terry Winch at Tir na n-Og, the Irish restaurant across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station, my ten-year-old and I were sitting in the first car of a New Jersey transit train, and as soon as we exited the station tunnel, the conductor pulled the whistle, once, then pause, then once again, then pause and then two long ones in a row.

The sound made me smile and feel deeply at peace, as it always does, but especially to be right there at the source of it. I grew up on a street that was a block-and-a-half long, with the half block ending at the Lackawana Railroad tracks, back when they carried not just commuter trains (which didn’t go to New York then, only nearby towns and Newark), but also freight trains that rumbled through all night.

So I often fell asleep to the sound of not just trains riding the nearby tracks, but to the melancholy-yet-full-of-promise sound of a train whistle, just down the street. It’s one of the most comforting sounds of my life, and I have usually lived near where I could hear it (or the equally comforting sound of foghorns and buoys coming from the sea). I live near those same tracks now, and it is not only convenient but, still comforting.

Our little venture into the city by train, my little boy and me, was preceded by our watching on Turner Classic Movies THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, the 1903 original that introduced the idea of multiple-cuts editing to tell a story. Silent movies created a brand new way of story telling, and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was the first great success at it, with twenty-one, I think the man said, different edits to make the story work.

Though I showed this famously pioneering movie many times when I taught film in college classes back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, it was still a thrill to watch again the hand-colored frames, the histrionic death scenes, the almost contemporary styles, all filmed under the aegis of Thomas Edison (directed by an electrician-turned-director/cameraman/editor/etc. named Porter), and filmed not far from the Edison company studio and headquarters in New Jersey, not far from where I was raised and now live again.

My son got the importance of the film and how unique it was for its times, and on the train ride into the city, catching up on homework, used the flick in a sentence he had to write with the word “version” in it, saying something like “They made a newer version of The Great Train Robbery.”

All of these things got me thinking about not only how much I love trains (I still ride them when I can, rather than fly, including across the country and up and down the East Coast). And then I started thinking about how much I love movies set on trains or with great scenes set on trains.

So naturally, falling asleep last night, I couldn’t resist making another alphabet list of favorite movies in which trains figure importantly. For those of you just tuning in, I came up with the idea of alphabet lists because I used to make lists to help me fall asleep (rather than counting sheep or life’s problems etc.) and then would want to remember them in the morning and couldn’t, until I came up with making them conform to the alphabet, which made the list making task more difficult, making me fall asleep usually before I finished, and helping me remember them in the morning.

Usually the titles just come to me, but when I get stuck on a certain letter, I just rifle through my brain files for a particular movie star or director, as in this one after I got the several titles for the letter “s” which all came to me in a row, and then some other letters, I started running out of ideas, so began going through favorite movie stars, which generated the rest of the list.

I didn’t include movies that take place on or have great scenes on subways, though there are a lot of them (and I did include THE COMMITMENTS because that was more of a train even though it’s kind of Dublin’s rapid transit).

And I didn’t include films that evoke the horrible misuse of trains to transport Jews and other victims of the Nazis to the death camps (with the exception of THE TRAIN and VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, which are more metaphoric about the Nazis misuse of trains than direct, as in SOPHIE’S CHOICE and SCHINDLER’S LIST and many documentaries), since this is more about my associations with the romance of trains. Nor did I include well known scenes that don’t hold up as well in re-viewings over the years, like the originally hilarious scene in PEEWEE’S BIG ADVENTURE with PeeWee and the tramp singing songs in the boxcar where PeeWee goes from enthusiastic to have-to-escape (unfortunately the feeling I got after re-watching that scene with my son too many times, unlike say the biker-bar scene which continues to crack me up).

Here’s what I came up with before dropping into dreamland.

ANNA KARENINA (the original Greta Garbo version, based on the Tolstoy novel with probably the most famous train scene—or scenes if you count the foreshadowings—in literary history)
BLUES IN THE NIGHT (the so-unique-even-when-it’s-terrible-it’s-original ‘40s flick I caught a few months ago and posted about that was selected by Matt Groening in the TCM guest host series, the last scene in a boxcar is so impossibly Hollywood unreal it’s surreal, but other scenes and montages are actually meant to be surreal, I think!)
COMMITMENTS, THE (the scene where they finally start to get their groove on, singing together on the train)
DOGMA (I might be on of the few fans of this flick, and the train scene isn’t necessarily the best in the film, but it’s essential to it, and I couldn’t think of any other “D”)
E? [EAST OF EDEN came to me during a discussion with my daughter Cait, the scene with Dean on top of the freight car popped into my head, and of course a train was involved in the fiasco of his character's father's business venture shipping iced vegetables]
FISHER KING, THE (this movie doesn’t entirely hold up, though Jeff Bridges is as always his underrated great acting self, and it doesn’t really have any train scenes, but that one fantasy dance scene in Grand Central terminal has to be one of the best train STATION scenes ever filmed)
GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, THE (the above mentioned 1903 original) and Buster Keaton’s silent classic THE GENERAL, and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (from as I remember it the 1980s, that starred Sean Connery and was based on a real incident having nothing to do with the original, silent, 1903 film)
[HARVEY GIRLS, THE (one of Judy Garland's lesser known movies with a some great numbers incorporating trains)] and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (some of the best train scenes ever filmed, still funny and entertaining)
I? [INTO THE WILD has a great train scene, as my daughter Cait and Richard and Robert and others commented or emailed me about]
LADY VANISHES, THE (Hitchcock’s original 1930s black-and-white classic)
MUSIC MAN, THE (have to include this for that opening train scene and song) and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (a bit campy, but still fun and totally entertaining)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (one of the great double entendre classic movie scenes between Cary Grant’s character and Eva Marie Saint’s takes place in a dining car, and the final and famously original jump cut ends in a sleeper compartment).
[OKALAHOMA!, which my daughter Caitlin had to remind me of, and the great scene where Gene Nelson's character has just returned from Kansas City where, as Cait remined me, "Everything's up to date" and the dance he and the crowd does incorporates the train station and train itself into it)] ON THE WATERFRONT (okay, it probably looks like I’m sneaking in another favorite movie that seems to have nothing to do with trains, but in fact, the scene where Brando’s character finally confesses his involvement in Eva Marie Saint’s character’s brother’s death to her, what he’s saying is drowned out by the screaming of a train whistle in the Hoboken train yard in the background, and it is one of the most memorable scenes in that movie, or any other for me)
PALM BEACH STORY, THE (some great and at times hilarious, if dated and racially insensitive, Preston Sturges train scenes with Claudette Colbert and as I remember it “the quail and ale club”)
QUIET MAN, THE (I know I use this all the time, but it’s not just one of my favorite flicks, it also has two great train scenes, when Wayne’s character arrives and the engineer and conductor and other Irish characters portrayed by members of The Abbey Theater do a hilarious round robin of misdirection, and the other when Maureen O’Hara’s character pretends to be leaving to rouse her pacifist husband into finally taking on her oafish brother, played by the great Victor McLaughlin, and Wayne strides down the station platform looking into each train carriage, slamming doors as he goes until he finds O’Hara feigning hiding and drags her out of the train by force—maybe a sexist take on Irish romance of the time, but nonetheless a great scene played perfectly by all involved)
RUNAWAY TRAIN (the mid-‘80s John Voight underrated flick)
SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Marlene Dietrich at her peak), SHADOW OF A DOUBT (the great black-and-white Hitchcock flick starring Joseph Cotton and my home girl Theresa Wright uses a train for the denouement) STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (another Hitchcock black-and-white classic, this one from the 1940s, starring the great Robert Walker whose character, in the opening train scene, mentions my home town!), SOME LIKE IT HOT (maybe the best comic train scene ever, with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe), SILVER STREAK (the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comic tour de force), SANTA FE (not the best but still a Randolph Scott—the poor man’s Gary Cooper—Western, this one about “building a railroad”)
TWENTIETH CENTURY (one of the all time greatest train movies and probably Carole Lombard’s best), THIS GUN FOR HIRE (not just Alan Ladd’s debut as one of the classic film noir stars, but the first teaming of him with Veronica Lake, and a train as the device for their meeting), [3:10 TO YUMA, both versions, thanks to Tom for reminding me] and THE TRAIN (one of Burt Lancaster’s pretty good later flicks)
UNION STATION (not the best detective story from the early 1950s, but I had to include it if only for the name and the great shots of the station as it was back then in black and white)
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (not his greatest, but still Sinatra)
WILD BUNCH, THE (that great scene where the posse hiding in the train is suddenly released and their horses leap out of the boxcar with the men on them)