Where Elvis Lives

A while back, a business trip took me to Memphis for the first time. Me and my boss at the time, let’s call her Daphne, were just there for a morning presentation, but I made sure to book a late flight home in order to have time to visit Graceland – something I had always wanted to do.

Our host’s secretary had booked the tour for us, and told us to check in with the concierge at noon. But the concierge knew nothing about it, and had to phone somebody. Several times, in fact. We could hear his mumbling, shoo-fly end of the conversation, which made it clear that whoever he was talking to, each of his calls was coming as a complete surprise. I could tell that the delay and the mumbling were starting to get to Daphne. She was from up North and had become accustomed to a Manhattan level of efficiency. This was nowhere in sight.

We had a long wait before a small, very beat-up bus pulled up. Michelle, the driver, was giving a tour of the city but offered to drop us off at Graceland, no problem. So we began a rambling ride around Memphis, with Michelle keeping up her tour guide spiel the whole way. I didn’t think it was possible to shout and mumble at the same time, but she’d mastered this difficult art.

The relaxed, anything-goes Southern vibe was cool with me, but I could feel Daphne growing steadily more irritated. We finally pulled up to Graceland Plaza, which is across Elvis Presley Boulevard from the mansion. There was quite a lot of confusion about our luggage, and how to pay for the ride, and the tour… Graceland has 1,500 visitors a day, but you could easily get the impression that nobody had ever done it before, that the city of Memphis had just gotten the idea the previous week. Daphne, not an Elvis fan to begin with and now in a really foul mood, actually got on her cell phone to find an earlier flight home.

No dice. We were stuck. Or rather, she was stuck, because I had no intention of getting an earlier flight home. I hadn’t come all this way only to get across the street and bail. Another little bus came, and I coaxed her onto it the way you would a recalcitrant five-year-old, and it finally trundled us and a German family through the famous music-themed gates, and up the hill to the house.

From the outside, it’s smaller than you expect. Built in 1939, it’s in the Colonial revival style popular at the time, thanks to “Gone with the Wind.” It sits atop a beautiful piece of land, with horse paddocks in front and behind. Inside, everything has been frozen in time, as if it’s still 1975. The front room could be my parents’ old living room, except for the big stained glass windows with the inlaid peacocks. Same with the formal dining room and the kitchen, all dark paneling and ancient appliances. The look is traditional and upper middle class… not very ostentatious for a man who earned something like $20 million a year (in 60s money) for 25 years.

Farther into the house, it’s a different story. The downstairs rec room, the famous jungle-themed den, the racquetball building, and other spaces are what you’d expect a wealthy 20-something rockstar to build for himself. Lots of custom-made bars (there were at least four of them, and Elvis didn’t drink), crazy fabrics and textures on the walls, some upholstered ceilings. Late-period Elvis in all his karate-chopping jumpsuited glory might lead you to think that Graceland is tacky, but it’s not. It reflects its owner completely, being a perfectly blended mixture of Southern graciousness, redneck excess, musician cool, and the indefinable air of authority that comes from huge success. A hint of that success is represented by two separate buildings that house Elvis’ trophies and awards—including an 80-foot-long hallway covered in gold records—163 of them, representing more than 800 million records sold. It’s overwhelming.

Outside, by a small swimming pool, there’s a family gravesite. After Elvis died, he was buried in a public cemetery next to his mother. Within days, someone had tried to dig up his corpse, so his father Vernon had Elvis and his mother’s remains moved to the house. Now Vernon is there too, with a couple of other family members and a marker for Elvis’ stillborn twin brother, who was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in 1935 and couldn’t be found. This whisper of sadness and loss and mystery is central to Elvis Presley, maybe part of his self-destruction; certainly it’s part of what draws you to him and makes you feel such empathy. He’s not some remote Rock God, he’s one of us; his house is like your granddaddy’s house, only exponentially more awesome.

He’s still there in the house and on the grounds, a palpable presence—you can feel his wildness and excess, even though much of it has been carefully airbrushed away by the guardians of his estate, and especially you can feel his modesty, his gentleness, his sense of fun, his essential goodness. He’s your friend. And like a friend who’s gone, it feels like he’s just in the other room, coming back any minute.

By the time we boarded the bus back to the Plaza and found a cab to the airport, Daphne was in a relaxed, upbeat mood. Something had happened to her. Or, to be more exact, some one had happened to her. We bought some T-shirts, postcards, and trinkets at one of the gift shops, and headed home.


Bowie’s in Space


One of the funniest and most lovable tributes in music is the live version of the folk duo Flight of the Conchords singing “Bowie’s in Space,” aka the Bowie Song. There’s some sweet banter at the start that makes clear how much they love the guy, and then they go into the call-and-response song that’s a perfect mimicry of Bowie’s style: the bitten off diction, the severely affected vocals, the allusions to space and drugs and a strangely divided mind. Both Bret and Jemaine are Bowie, one at Mission Control, the other out in space. “This is Bowie to Bowie. Do you hear me out there, man?” “This is Bowie back to Bowie. I read you loud and clear, man.”

I’ve covered this song with my friend Derek and it’s a blast because I get to do my Bowie impression, which I’ve been doing mostly in the privacy of my car or shower for about 30 years now. I always felt a strangely personal relationship with David Bowie, and the outpouring of grief this week makes it clear that a whole lot of other people do too. Suddenly on social media there’s all this Bowie love, from so many different friends, some of them a surprise. The grief is more widespread, and more profound, than I’d have expected. It hit me harder than I expected, too. And I’ve been thinking about the reasons.

Well for one thing, he was so fearless. Looking like he did, David Bowie could have had a career like his one-time bizarro duet partner Bing Crosby… just coasting on looks and voice and a series of identical-sounding hits. Instead he boldly threw away styles and modes and set off in new directions. Sometimes those new directions were actually alienating — I didn’t always have the courage, openness, or patience to follow him. The fine pop culture writer Mark Harris tweeted something very apt: that Bowie was the first artist to make him feel scared.

Of course, he was also cool. Literally cool, with his bone-straight hair, cut-glass cheekbones and wiry frame. He used theatrical devices like makeup and glitter and wildly fashionable clothes, but not the way most people use them, to get some kind of cheap immediate response. He was removed, distant. He didn’t seem to give a fuck what you thought. But then he’d turn and give you a wink or a smile, and it always seemed like it was just for you. He learned a lot from Marlene Dietrich, who used the same aloof kittycat tools of audience seduction.

Like Dietrich, he had a tantalizing androgyny. He flirted openly with gender bending and gayness, and he did it in the early 70s when nobody else dared. Actually very few male performers dare to do it now. There’s Prince, but what’s interesting is that a lot of men casually despise Prince in a way they don’t despise Bowie. Again, he seemed to be dedicatedly following some internal compass, and that sense of personal integrity was so strong that he wasn’t subjected to the usual disrespect that keeps most bisexual men quiet about it.

Beautiful people get a pass, of course, and he knew he was beautiful. But like everything else, he was distant from his own vanity. He threw it away sometimes, with crazy haircuts or masks or disfiguring outfits. In his final, amazing video for “Lazarus,” released last week, he’s lying on a symbolic deathbed, his eyes wrapped in bandages. There are little metal studs where his eyes should be. It’s disturbing, and it’s frustrating, because we want to look at him. He knows it, too. You watch and you know he’s doing it on purpose. He’s teasing, like he always did.

Then you get to see him without the bandages… he looks ravaged but still beautiful. The voice is thinner, and rougher. The song and the video confront his own mortality very directly, but without a trace of self pity. There’s nothing maudlin; he isn’t trying to make you feel anything, or rather he isn’t trying to make you feel anything simple, like sadness. He’s staring at death the way he used to stare into space with his glassy faraway eyes. He’s seeing something the rest of us aren’t. It might be something terrifying, or it might be something wonderful, or it might be both. He’s not afraid. He’s reaching for it.

It takes a true warrior to make dying look cool. Maybe somehow I could be that strong, that honest, that self-assured and brave. I read you loud and clear, man.



“Late Movies” Blogathon: Swan Songs


I’m pleased to join David Cairns’ Shadowplay for his annual blogathon. This year’s theme is The Late Show, and it’s a celebration of neglected late films of favorite filmmakers and actors. Here, we take a look at Just a Gigolo and Sextette, the final films of two great ladies of the screen. 

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Swan Songs

Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, two of the most famous women of the past century, had more in common than you might think.

Their paths first crossed at Paramount in the early sound era when Hollywood was raiding the stage for talent—the naughtier the better. Their dressing rooms stood side by side until both were purged from the contract list, after increasing censorship had made them more a liability than an asset. They were both on the list of stars famously declared “box office poison” by movie exhibitors late in the decade. Their careers temporarily on the skids, they met again at the second-rate studio Universal in 1939, where they each had a hit. And in 1954, they appeared in succession at the Congo Room at the Sahara in Las Vegas, for one-woman shows which reaffirmed their huge popularity and legendary status. They also liked each other, it seems, and maintained a long-distance friendship into old age.

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As performers, they did have little in common. Dietrich, the worldly Berliner, presented herself with wide-eyed mock innocence; her style was ironic, detached, disdainful. She was mistress of the feline art of pretending indifference, of seeming oblivious to her own impact while remaining utterly self-conscious. Multilingual, bisexual, a cross dresser, she played with gender like she played with everything else. Even men. In one of many letters, her close friend Ernest Hemingway wrote “What do you really want to do for a life work? Break everybody’s heart for a dime? You could always break mine for a nickel and I’d bring the nickel.” In public, he added: “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face.”


You can tell a lot about a lady by her admirers, perhaps. Mae West’s most famous tribute came from the surrealist and absurdist Salvador Dali, who painted her face as an eerily empty room. The steely, mascaraed eyes are flat paintings; the flaring nostrils a misshapen fireplace; the pursed lips a sofa that might not be as inviting as it looks. A tough broad who snapped wisecracks out of the side of her mouth in a nasal Brooklyn rasp, West was 40 years old, five feet tall and around 140 pounds when she made herself a legend of the screen by sheer force of will. What Dali captured was her mysterious mixture of attraction and repulsion; her greatest gift might have been for making people extremely uncomfortable.

What Dietrich and West did have in common was that both were important and influential sexual pioneers. Both were women who slept with anyone they chose and paid no price for it (onscreen and in life). Ironists who sneered at men who wanted sentiment to be part of screwing. Aggressors who broke decisively with the Victorian image of passive, pure, weak femininity. And most of all, both were fanatically devoted to maintaining the image of themselves they had created: Dietrich as a sultry, mock-weary survivor, West as a boisterous carnal wit. This disciplined self-concern ensured them both unusually long careers, beginning on the stage in the 20s (earlier, in West’s case) and proceeding to films and concerts through the next four decades.

And each made her last appearance on film in the same year, 1978. Dietrich appeared in two scenes of the David Bowie vehicle Just a Gigolo; West starred in the film of her play Sextette. The amazing return of these two goddesses 50 years after their initial burst of fame should have been an occasion for rejoicing, but the reviews they received, and continue to receive, were not exactly worshipful.

On Dietrich, then aged 77:

“[She] plays the mistress of a gigolo service in a mummified appearance that suggests nothing more than the limitless possibilities of makeup.” “…the old face… in the merciful shadows of a hat… her voice… pains us as a parody of herself.” “Photographed through gauze and a veil from a distant camera, she croak[s] her song and a couple of lines in a pathetic reminder of past glories.”

On West, who was 85:

“[She looks] like a plump sheep that’s been stood on its hind legs, dressed in a drag queen’s idea of chic, bewigged and then smeared with pink plaster. The creature inside this getup seems game but arthritic and perplexed.” “She’s clearly not all there [and looks like] the peroxided living dead… In most shots her features resemble Mr. Potato Head accessories pinned into a shapeless pink blob.”


It’s not my purpose to rescue Just a Gigolo or Sextette from critical purgatory. They’re both dreadful films, in their very different ways, and you should do anything you can to avoid seeing them. Gigolo is a disjointed mess, with somnambulant actors wandering through elaborate sets with nothing interesting to say or do. The script, a series of floating cryptic remarks, is acutely painful to listen to. Sextette is acutely painful to watch: a farce in which the consummation of the 85-year-old West’s marriage with 34-year-old Timothy Dalton is continually, and thankfully, interrupted by her ex-husbands, the male U.S. Olympic team, and the leaders of the free world… all of whom have the hots for her. Sextette tries to get by as a good natured cartoon, but the winces come much more frequently than the laughs.

And yet, the fact that Dietrich and West were still in there pitching as Disco gave way to Punk seems valiant and heroic to me. The scathing reviews seemed to be punishing these ladies for the sheer fact that they’d grown old—not a crime, exactly.* Maybe disappointed expectations played a part in the almost hurt reaction. Dietrich and West were from an era where an entire studio system was devoted to elevating performers to godlike perfection. Everything—scripts, co-stars, photography, lighting, atmosphere—was designed to set off, and show off, personality. When that system began to fail them, they both returned to the stage, where technique, charisma and distance could offset the ravages of time. Having created such intensely powerful images, both were finally excoriated for attempting, and failing, to maintain them.

In a better movie, Dietrich might have pulled it off. She did Just a Gigolo strictly for the money, having been reduced to sad circumstances in the previous years. Forced to retire after being seriously injured in an inebriated fall off a concert stage, she was now old, crippled, drinking heavily, and on the verge of eviction from her Paris apartment for non-payment of the rent. A fee of $250,000 for two days’ work was announced, though in reality she accepted one-tenth of that amount. She had one scene with David Bowie, and these two icons of androgyny might have been able to create some real sparks… if they’d been in the same room. Instead, their scenes were shot in separate cities and spliced together. What with that disconnect, the phony dialogue, and her frailty, the scene has a tentative quality even beyond the zombified ambience of the film itself.


But then, a bit later, she returns to sing.

“Just a Gigolo” was a popular song in Austria and then America in the late 20s, written originally to express the disillusion of a World War I soldier who is now reduced to being a hired dancer. A rinky-dink song, as David Lee Roth once demonstrated conclusively. Dietrich hated it, but knew it was integral to the film. Despite the intense pain and difficulty of moving, she sidles at a doorway before walking to the piano. It’s late in a deserted nightclub. The camera is very close at first. The piano player looks down, intent, as cigarette smoke rises. With a gloved hand, she pats the back of his head, her own head lowered. For a moment time seems to stand still as we get a glimpse of the face that enchanted Hemingway: a heavy-lidded eye, the familiar nose, lips, and cheekbones. Looking up to sing, she is aged of course, and vulnerable. Her voice is at once rough and thin, the phrasing labored and slow. But it works for her, as the song becomes the valedictory statement of a woman who has sold sex for half a century and now feels the onset of illness and death:

There will come a day
Youth will go away,
Then what will they say about me?
When the end comes I know
They’ll say “just a gigolo.”
And life goes on without me.

“When she was finished,” recalled director David Hemmings, “I was supposed to say ‘Cut!’ and I couldn’t. The moment was so charged and the spell she cast so total that the beats went by, one-two-three-four, until finally I came to my senses and said ‘Cut!’ and there was—literally—not a dry eye in the house.” It was Dietrich’s last moment on a sound stage, and though she lived another 14 years, she never allowed herself to be photographed again. She did make one more film, Maximillian Schell’s documentary Marlene, in which her refusal to appear is made the subject of the film. Schell’s camera seems to be chasing her through the billowing curtains of her empty apartment, as her recorded voice argues with him, insults him, lies to him, and dismisses him, as well as her entire life and achievement, as rubbish—“Quatsch!” She’s still utterly fascinating. And of course, she knew it.


Mae West was in some ways a simpler personality. She did not drink; she didn’t smoke. She believed in the power of positive thinking, and ascribed her youthfulness to that and the regular use of colonics. Oh, and sex once a day. She chose her lovers from the ranks of prizefighters, gangsters, musclemen—including men of all races in an era when that could get you arrested (in fact she was arrested, but for her raucous play “Sex” rather than sex itself). These mostly anonymous men were not allowed to call her “Mae,” but only “honey” or “sweetheart” in private and “Miss West” in public. None was allowed to spend the night—Miss West slept alone. Famously, she had a mirror installed over the bed in her Hollywood apartment, and her comment on that (“I like to see how I’m doing”) got a late TV interview yanked from the air. Aware, perhaps, that she wasn’t the youngest, thinnest or prettiest woman around, she committed herself to a personal and professional life in which she was the fairest of them all.

Call it self-belief or self-deception, it’s on full display in Sextette. In a previous comeback at the age of 77, the unfairly maligned Myra Breckinridge, she seemed armored in clothing, wigs and hats. But here, eight years later, she wears low-cut gowns and negligees and looks fairly amazing for her age. However, her physical infirmity is evident, and in the end that’s what kills her act. Not so much because she’s not sexy—a good case could be made that Mae West was never “sexy” onscreen, but rather a comedian whose subject was sex. It’s because she’s no longer in complete control. She had the clout to get Sextette made, but at 85, not enough stamina to sustain it. After the premiere of the movie, a pretty sad occasion (I know because I was there, but that’s another story), she reportedly turned to her escort and said “I can’t think about that. I have to think about tomorrow.”

Wobbly as she seems, she does have a couple of lovely moments. The movie features several rock stars doing goofy turns, and they seem the right kind of excessive people to be hanging around Mae West; at one point Alice Cooper is singing something at a piano and she stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders, grinning with pleasure. She seems happy just to be there, though we may not feel that way, exactly. At another point she meets a young athlete who blurts out that he’s a pole vaulter, and she rolls her eyes and murmurs “aren’t we all?” as she saunters past him.

On her funny, loose DVD commentary on Myra Breckinridge, Raquel Welch complains that West didn’t connect with other performers, that she was essentially off doing her vaudeville act in a movie of her own. She wrote most of her own dialogue, and took the credit from any writer who helped. Onstage, she had other actresses darken their teeth so that hers would shine brightest. She fought with her directors, and if she lived in our time she would have probably functioned as her own director outright. She was her own Colonel Parker, keeping “Mae West” front and center and away from other performers, actors, and co-stars in a hermetically sealed universe. Everyone else in her movies is a feed and a stooge—her former lover George Raft, the ultimate stooge, appears in her last movie as in her first, thus closing a 50-year show business circle. This endless self-reference was meant to exalt her but ultimately limited her, and in Sextette it makes her seem a lost and pathetic figure—ironically, the very last thing she would have wanted.


Better to remember her in Myra Breckinridge, in a musical number added to the movie after filming had wrapped. She plays a talent agent, so why she’s singing in a nightclub is anybody’s guess, but it’s not the kind of movie where you ask those kinds of questions. With men in tuxedos gyrating behind her, she coos and snarls out a kind of rap version of Otis Redding’s appropriately titled “Hard to Handle.” Still vital at 77 and looking more or less like a million bucks, she shimmies in her black and white dress, at one point ecstatically clutching her own hips, waist and breasts. She could have written the words herself; maybe she thought she did:

Action speaks louder than words
And I’m a girl with a great experience.
I know you had you another,
But I can love you better than any other.
Take my hand, come with me,
I wanna prove every word I say:
I wanna love you baby, gonna have you every day.
Good lookin’ thing, let me light your candle
Cause baby I’m sure hard to handle.

As a poet once wrote of West, “she loves herself… and the rest of us, who do not, can only look on in wonder.” This blazing Technicolor rock and roll number is a world away from Dietrich’s past-it-all Weimar fatalism. Youth will go away? Quatsch! But in her strength and sheer life force, West could be singing for both of them—warriors of sex who blazed a trail, took no prisoners, and lived to crow about it. Self-creators. Survivors. And in these last movies, to my eyes at least, more beautiful than ever.


* There’s sexism at work here too: nobody said anything remotely similar about Fred Astaire in wig, white tie and tails, embarrassingly dance-hosting That’s Entertainment 2 around the same time at the age of 76.


Season of Glass


“A lot of us are looking for fathers. Mine was physically not there; most people’s are not there mentally and physically, always at the office or busy with other things. So all these leaders are substitute fathers, whether they be religious or political. All this bit about electing a President. We pick our daddy out of a dog pound of daddies. This is the daddy that looks like the daddy in the commercials. He’s got the nice gray hair and the right teeth and the parting’s on the right side. This is the daddy we choose. The political arena gives us a President, then we put him on a platform and start punishing him and screaming at him because Daddy can’t do miracles. Daddy doesn’t heal us.”

These words, as timely today as they were 30 years ago, are John Lennon’s. They’re from an interview he gave to Playboy in November of 1980. I grabbed it off the stands on December 8 and took it to work to read. I could read a 20,000-word Playboy interview at work because I was the 22-year-old night stockman at a department store, with no duties except being on call to carry TV sets out to people’s cars. Other than that I sat in the basement, usually drinking beer and finding other highly antisocial ways to amuse myself. Like reading Playboy.

The interview was Lennon’s first major statement in many years. He had just emerged from five years of hibernation—five years in which rock and roll had never been worse. The mellow singer-songwriter vibe of the early 70s had turned slick and hollow; disco had come along and provided the death knell. There were signs of hope on the edges thanks to Elvis Costello, The Clash, The Police, and a few others, but what many of us were waiting for was Lennon to come back and lead the way.

He had other ideas. Double Fantasy, the new album, was actually a showcase for Yoko. The B-52s song Rock Lobster was a big hit around that time, and Lennon thought it was a ripoff of Yoko’s style: wild guitars mixed with warbled screaming. He thought her time had come. Like many other powerful men throughout history, he wanted his wife to be his equal on the public stage, whether the public wanted her there or not. Yoko was part of the interview too… I read past her parts impatiently. What did Lennon have to say, that’s what mattered. I was about halfway through reading it when the phone rang.

“Lennon’s been shot,” said my friend Gary.

What? No he hasn’t. He’s right here, talking to me. I ran upstairs to the electronics department. In the TV section, a wall of sets, maybe 100 or more screens, all tuned to Monday Night Football. I arrived just in time to see hundreds of Howard Cosells in their blue blazers and toupees, all solemnly intoning that Former. Beatle. John. Lennon. Had. Just….

I made my way home, somehow. Talked to Gary again, briefly. His voice was hollow. Turned on the radio. The late night deejays were as messed up as I was. They played every one of his songs, and the best were the really obscure ones. Angela. New York City. Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out. I sat staring at the poster from Imagine. It showed John at his white grand piano in his white room in Tittenhurst Park, his big white mansion in England. This poster was the only decoration in my all-white room. Needless to say, I’d gotten into John lately. So I sat and listened through the night, crying my bitter and uncomprehending tears. The world was crying with me, but that was very little comfort.

The next weeks brought the usual celebrity death orgy, with wall to wall coverage and endless footage and canned, lifeless tributes. The song Imagine, once a pleasant little wisp of cotton candy idealism, became a dirge, and unlistenable. Meanwhile, nobody talked about guns… how ridiculously easy it is to get them in this country, even if you’re a schizophrenic and off your medications. No, no, no talk about anything real, or what we can do in a practical way to make the world a saner and safer place. Gun control? No, just dirges and crocodile tears.

After a couple of days, I remembered something Lennon had said in the interview.

“It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don’t appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or dead James Dean or dead John Wayne. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. I worship the people who survive. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it’s garbage, you know. No, thank you. I’ll take the living and the healthy.”

So I took down the poster and folded it back up. Stopped listening to Lennon. Tried to move on, although there was still an aching hole in my heart, and an overwhelming sense of loss. Not for a man, exactly, but for the whole beautiful dream of the 60s, which I had just missed and which I suppose I’d been hoping would flower again in my twenties. This despite the recent election of cowboy actor Ronald Reagan, a daddy figure many people found very appealing and who fired a few bullseyes straight into any notion of idealism. My generation, to put it mildly, would not be so fortunate.

A few months later, Yoko put out an album called Season of Glass. It had a photo on the cover taken inside the Dakota, looking out over Central Park. John’s blood-splattered glasses sat on a table in front of the window. She wanted to show the violent, sickening reality of how he died and many people recoiled, as usual, from her directness. But as it turned out, the album was a blistering, heartbreaking, all-stops-out tour of the grieving process. By turns tough and achingly vulnerable, always revelatory, often gorgeous.

Fearlessly opening up her heart, she was everything Lennon always said she was. An earth mother. A goddess. A major artist. And she did what all great artists do: she made an intimate connection with me that healed my wounds and made me stronger somehow. Daddy doesn’t heal us… but it seems sometimes Mother can.

Season of Glass is as great as any Beatles album, maybe greater, but the world, busy merchandising its worship of dead John Lennon, didn’t even notice. Thirty years on, nothing has changed. I cringe in anticipation of the anniversary tributes coming this week. Imagine will be played on a loop; gun control won’t even be mentioned. I’ll be avoiding the whole thing as much as possible.

I worship the people who survive. I’ll take the living and the healthy.

Happy Xmas, Yoko.

The White Album


One of the best events in Orlando is “Classic Albums Live.” This is a concert series where they play a single classic rock album all the way through, note for note and word for word. It’s often like meeting an old friend, in that the totally familiar rubs up against the new and strange. Also, no matter what the album, having it performed live opens it up to a third dimension… you kind of walk into the record and poke around in it, making discoveries.

The one I looked forward to most was The White Album, which has always been a favorite record of mine. For one thing, it’s just got a lot of songs, and more Beatles is better, right? Um, right? More to the point, the group was more fragmented personally than at any other time, and the contrasts and dissonances make it an edgy, almost uncomfortable listening experience. One song will assault you, the next will soothe you, over and over. It’s the only record on which the Beatles weren’t trying to be cheery, upbeat lads. Or even a band, in the old sense. The seams are showing.

At the concert itself, the man behind me was offering his friends a garbled, inaccurate version of the album’s history, especially the influence it had on the Tate-LaBianca murders. And indeed Charlie Manson is a presence… not just in Helter Skelter and Piggies, but in the whole gestalt of the record (did I really just use the word gestalt? Sorry….). I was only a kid in 1968, but young as I was I recall the bad vibe of that year — the cities on fire, the assassinations (there seemed to be dozens), the war and the war protests leading the evening news every night. The holiday dinners when my “greatest generation” dad, uncle and grandfather would come back from hunting to rant about the goddamn hippies and their long sissy hair. Thanks, Grandpa — can you pass the plate of doves you just shot?

None of this came back at the concert, though. Time has passed; we have new atrocities on the news, and a new soundtrack for them. At the live concert experience, I just noticed many awesome moments: the guitar solos on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the shredding vocals on Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?, the haunting beauty of I Will and Julia, the despair of Yer Blues and I’m So Tired, the soured rinkydink of Rocky Raccoon and Honey Pie. The profusion of sounds and styles. Lennon’s brutal honesty and McCartney’s evasive cleverness. The sheer authority of every song, even piddling little nothing songs. It’s like a cathedral, the White Album — but a deserted, haunted cathedral with rats scuttling in the corners. Enter at your own risk.

Random Thoughts on Hamlet

Saturday, we went to see Hamlet at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Nicely staged, some good performances, but as so often with Shakespeare, I found myself listening past the actors to the words.

When you read annotations of WS, you discover that there are layers and layers of lost meaning: puns, allusions, references that are so packed into every line you get dizzy. Yet even without catching half of what he’s saying, he’s still a riveting dramatist because he gets at primal emotional dilemmas: the intersections of love, betrayal, trust, ingratitude, selfishness, idealism, ambition. Even a callow actor like the kid playing Hamlet was able to put across the character’s shrewd intelligence, his confusion and vulnerability, and his impotent rage.

Maybe it’s impossible to fully act Shakespeare, at least a whole play. When you see an actor really connect with the part and put all the meanings across, it’s a thrilling experience. Brando standing on the steps eulogizing Caesar, his passion bursting through his finely chosen ironic words… Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, sneering at Romeo as his challenges go unanswered (he practically mouthes the word “pussy”)… Olivier staring at the camera and forcing you to identify and empathize with Richard’s bitter self-justifications… Howard Keel’s strutting, vain, hilariously overconfident Petruchio realizing he isn’t nearly the badass he thinks he is.

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is Michael Morrison’s “John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor.” Using various sources he meticulously recreates Barrymore’s legendary 1922 performance of Hamlet, taking you through the entire play so vividly that you feel you’re sitting in the front row watching it. Miraculous writing. This was the first production to take Shakespeare out of the old declamatory tradition and ground the play in modern psychological meaning. Stylized minimal sets, simple costumes. The operating principle was that this was a brand-new play no one had ever seen.

What people loved most about the performance was that Barrymore played Hamlet as a Prince — noble, proud, charismatic. That aspect was completely missing the other night: the kid played Hamlet more like Adam Lambert having a sustained snit (maybe I’m getting more crochety as I get older).

Yet, listening through to the words, I felt in some ways I was seeing a brand new play, or at least seeing it through new eyes. For the first time, I felt intense compassion for this idealistic, smart but fatally innocent young man reacting a few beats too late to the careless treachery of the older people around him. I know this kid, I thought. I am Hamlet. But I’m also way too much like Polonius for comfort, and I discovered that I have more than a bit of Claudius in me too.

If the purpose of playing is to hold a mirror up to nature, then wow… ouch.


Have you read anything by Studs Terkel? He was the epitome of a Chicago writer — a stogie chomping, whiskey drinking tough guy, with the bullshit detector always on. Looking the hard truth right in the eye without fear and with quiet, steady, understated outrage.

“I never met a picket line or a petition I didn’t like,” he once said. Like the great lyricist E.Y. Harburg, he was a lifelong, unapologetic left-winger, and his politics was driven not by either idealism or grievance, but by intimate knowledge of how real people actually live, and how government policy actually affects them.

And the best, most beautiful thing about Studs was that he went out and talked to those real people, interviewing them with great love and patience until they had given up their “gold,” as he put it… and then he used his own writer’s gifts to edit and shape their words to reveal their eloquence. He once commented that Americans have a natural intelligence and wit, which is true, but it takes a shrewd man to see that, and a great man to put his own gifts in the service of it.

When Studs was 89, about seven years ago, a young journalist went to talk to him — and found him halfway through a cigar at 10 a.m. Studs offered him a glass of scotch because, he said, it was too early for martinis. They talked about the art of turning an interview, with its garbled syntax and false starts, into readable prose. Among other things, Studs said this:

“A guy stopped me once—I did Working, and had all kinds of portraits, and one is the portrait of a waitress, Dolores Dante, she used to work at the Erie Cafe, when it was an expense-account joint. She was great. She talked about the day of a waitress. So one day this guy stops me on the street, and he corners me, on Michigan Boulevard Bridge—you know, people stop me now and then, not celebrity, just me, you know, they know me. He says listen, I want to tell ya—since I read about that woman Dolores in your book Working, I’ll never again talk to a waitress the way I have in the past. I’ll never again. Well that’s pretty good. That means I’ve touched him.”

I love ya, Studs. Rest in peace.