Happy Birthday, Jack London

Jack London was born on this day, January 12, 1876. Happy birthday to the man who wrote:

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Jack London was a magazine writer who achieved world-wide fame during his lifetime. Best-known for The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire, he had a robust and busy career as a reporter and social activist. Some of that stuff does not time-travel as well as his most famous works, but it’s all an interesting look at the fights of the Left during that era. He was a big unionizer. He wrote a lot about class war. He had spent his formative years as a teenager bumming around, pan-handling, getting jobs on ships (on which he traveled as far away as Japan), working in canneries. He did attend high school but he was essentially self-educated, a voracious reader. He wrote for the high school newspaper about living through typhoons off the coast of Japan (not the usual high school essay topic). He was determined to go to Berkeley and after busting his ass on the entrance exams and applications, he got in.

But London always kept a foot in the wild side. While attending Berkeley, he hung out in saloons frequented by sailors and pirates and rough trade. These were his people. He would end up writing about all of them.

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He grew up not knowing who his father was. His mother had been living with a man prior to his birth, but all records (of any kind) were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so whether or not the two made it legal is still not known. London, while at Berkeley, wrote to this gentleman (who was an astrologer, then living in Chicago), and inquired if he might be his father. The man replied bluntly that this could not be the case, as 1. he was impotent, and 2. Your mama “got around,” son. It was this event that made London quit school and flee to the Klondike, following the gold rush of the 1890s, but also running away from his own problems and heart-break.

His time in the Klondike was formative (his best-known books come from that time) but it also destroyed his health. He developed scurvy (a condition that would have long-lasting effects on him). His career as a magazine writer started for real after he left the Klondike. He became involved in politics and activism. Like many people who grew up poor, he did not have grandiose ideas about his writing: His writing was his work, a way to make money, an escape from the drudgery of office work or the brutality of manual labor. London “came up” during the Golden Age of Magazines as well, and he benefited from the better/faster printing technologies, wider circulation, better mailing routes, all of the developments bursting forth in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Because of all of these factors, his work reached a mass audience in a way it might not have in a different era. He made a great living.

He died at home. Some think his death was a suicide. He had been living with unbearable pain from kidney stones.

The epitaph he chose for his gravestone was the first part of Psalm 118:22:

The Stone the Builders Rejected

(The second part of the Psalm, the part that completes it is “has become the capstone”, but that is not included on London’s tombstone. Much food for thought here in the choice of epitaph, not to mention the choice to EDIT it, as only a writer would.)

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The Call of the Wild was one of those books I was forced to read in 8th grade (not even 10th or 11th grade, but 8th grade!) and absolutely LOVED. I did not love all of the books I was forced to read then, but Call of the Wild captured my imagination. I remember the reading experience vividly. I remember being afraid of the wildness of the wolves and wanting Buck to go back home where he could be safe and warm. But then I also remember thinking: Running free through the snow and howling at the moon sounds amazing, and he is doing what he knows best. But still: the transformation Buck has to go through, from a domestic pet to a wild pack-dog (and not just the wild pack-dog, but the leader of the pack) was fascinating to me. I was 12 years old, and I clicked with it. (Kudos, London.) I kept thinking, as I read it, as each chapter went on, “It’s not too late for someone to save him … someone needs to swoop down and save Buck … he can still go back!” But eventually there comes a point of no return. And Buck must get strong and Alpha or he will not survive. It is as clear as the nose on his beautiful face what he must do.

There are lessons in this for all of us. It’s a brilliant book. It’s about animals, but the entire time I read it I kept inserting myself into Buck and wondering, “How would I behave in this situation? Would I survive? Would I buckle under? How would I cope with all of that?”

You begin to realize that the journey of the book is that Buck becomes himself, his true self, over the course of events. That the tame Buck in the beginning was the lie, the falsehood. His domestic days were not the norm, they were an unnatural respite: being wild is who he really is. And it’s not just about who he really is: it’s a cellular memory of his own species, the deep course of understanding within him that “This is the way we wolves are.” By the end of the book it is impossible to imagine Buck lying curled up in front of a fire and playing fetch. Buck has not “reverted”. He has inhabited his true destiny. He is not a conscious animal, at least not in the way human beings are conscious. He does not reflect. But he knows that the sound of the pack calls something up in him, something primal, something older than anything he has ever known. The destiny of biology.

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There was something else that helped me click with Call of the Wild at such a young age. In the late 70s, there was a Charlie Brown TV special called What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! This was a different sort of Charlie Brown than the other specials. Charlie Brown appears only briefly. Snoopy is the sole star. In it, Snoopy is, like Buck, taken from his cozy dog house and thrust into the wild life of being a Klondike sled dog. He, like Buck, must learn to fight for his food (or he won’t eat), he must learn to dominate the other dogs, because “playing well with others” in this environment means you starve or die. This is a special for CHILDREN, remember. The whole special is deeply disturbing to our ideas of Snoopy. (There’s a clip below. Watch how he transforms in it. Look how big his teeth get, how huge his mouth gets when he roars). It’s disturbing on every possible level. It is a nightmare. God, I love the 70s. An era that was not afraid to freak out the children.

I probably watched this thing when I was 7, 8 years old. I didn’t know that what I was watching was an homage to Jack London’s book. I hadn’t read it yet. I was in 3rd grade. All I knew was that Snoopy had huge fangs and he was starving and cold and far from home and it WAS a “nightmare.” I ached for things to get back to normal.

A couple of years later, when I was much more sophisticated (i.e.: 12 years old), I read Call of the Wild and felt like the smartest person who had ever LIVED because I made the connection in my head: “OMG, that Charlie Brown movie was actually Call of the Wild!!” It was one of those moments of brain-growth, where you realize that the adults know something you don’t, that there are worlds of connections and references out there that you have no access to yet … but you will someday, if you learn enough, grow enough, read enough. It was a great moment for me. I discovered Call of the Wild for the first time, but making “the Snoopy connection” in my head was far more important. Because making connections like that is part of developing a critical mindset, an aware mindset, an awareness of the threads running through the culture. Making that connection – more so than any ponderous Foreword to the book, written by a scholar – let me know What a Big Deal the Book Was. Damn, if PEANUTS references it, then it MUST be a famous book!

Here is one of my favorite excerpts from Call of the Wild.

EXCERPT FROM The Call of the Wild by Jack London

In the days that followed, as Dawson grew closer and closer, Buck still continued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; but he did it craftily, when Francois was not around. With the covert mutiny of Buck, a general insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave and Sol-leks were unaffected, but the rest of the team went from bad to worse. Things no longer went right. There was continual bickering and jangling. Trouble was always afoot, and at the bottom of it was Buck. He kept Francois busy, for the dog-driver was in constant apprehension of the life-and-death struggle between the two which he knew must take place sooner or later; and on more than one night the sounds of quarrels and strife among the other dogs turned him out of his sleeping robe, fearful that Buck and Spitz were at it.

But the opportunity did not present itself, and they pulled into Dawson one dreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here were many men, and countless dogs, and Buck found them all at work. It seemed the ordained order of things that dogs should work. All day they swung up and down the main street in long teams, and in the night the jingling bells still went by. They hauled cabin logs and firewood, freighted up to the mines, and did all manner of work that horses did in the Santa Clara Valley. Here and there Buck met Southland dogs, but in the main they were the wild wolf husky breed. Every night, regularly, at nine, at twelve, at three, they lifted a nocturnal song, a weird and eerie chant, in which it was Buck’s delight to join.

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself – one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was so old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.

Seven days from the time they pulled into Dawson, they dropped down the steep bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trail, and pulled for Dyea and Salt Waters. Perrault was carrying despatches if anything more urgent than those he had brought in; also, the travel pride had gripped him, and he purposed to make the record trip of the year. Several things favored him in this. The week’s rest had recuperated the dogs and put them in thorough trim. The trail they had broken into the country was packed hard by later journeyers. And further, the police had arranged in two or three places deposits of grub for dog and man, and he was traveling light.

They made Sixty Miles, which is a fifty-mile run, on the first day; and the second day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their way to Pelly. But such splendid running was achieved not without great trouble and vexation on the part of Francois. The insidious revolt led by Buck had destroyed the solidarity of the team. It no longer was as one dog leaping in the traces. The encouragement Buck gave the rebels led them into all kinds of petty misdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatly to be feared. The old awe departed, and they grew equal to challenging his authority. Pike robbed him of half a fish one night, and gulped it down under the protection of Buck. Another night Dub and Joe fought Spitz and made him forego the punishment they deserved. And even Billie, the good-natured, was less good-natured, and whined not half so placatingly as in former days. Buck never came near Spitz without snarling and bristling menacingly. In fact, his conduct approached that of a bully, and he was given to swaggering up and down before Spitz’s very nose.

The breaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs in their relations with one another. They quarrelled and bickered more than ever among themselves, till at times the camp was a howling bedlam. Dave and Sol-leks alone were unaltered, though they were made irritable by the unending squabbling. Francois swore strange barbarous oaths, and stamped the snow in futile rage, and tore his hair. His lash was always singing among the dogs, but it was of small avail. Directly his back was turned they were at it again. He backed up Spitz with his whip, while Buck backed up the remainder of the team. Francois knew he was behind all the trouble, and Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too clever ever again to be caught red-handed. He worked faithfully in the harness, for the toil had become a delight to him; yet it was a greater delight slyly to precipitate a fight amongst his mates and tangle the traces.

At the mouth of the Tahkeena, one night after supper, Dub turned up a snowshoe rabbit, blundered it, and missed. In a second the whole team was in full cry. A hundred yards away was a camp of the Northwest Police, with fifty dogs, huskies all, who joined the chase. The rabbit sped down the river, turned off into a small creek, up the frozen bed of which it held steadily. It ran lightly on the surface of the snow, while the dogs ploughed through by main strength. Buck led the pack, sixty strong, around bend after bend, but he could not gain. He lay down low to the race, whining eagerly, his splendid body flashing forward, leap by leap, in the wan white moonlight. And leap by leap, like some pale frost wraith, the snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the bloodlust, the joy to kill – all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew and that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

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Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton

This is a post written in 2008, years before “Hamilton” mania overtook the world – and don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad it did. I almost can’t believe it’s happened. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda. To all of you newcomers, I say, Welcome to a worthy lifelong obsession. Also: Better late than never.

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On this day, in 1755, Alexander Hamilton was born in the British West Indies. He was illegitimate (as John Adams sneered: “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”). His illegitimacy was a stain on his birth he strove to wipe away for the rest of his short life.

Hamilton:

Take mankind in general, they are vicious – their passions may be operated upon. Take mankind as they are, and what are they governed by? Their passions. There may be in every government a few choice spirits, who may act from more worthy motives [but] one great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest. Wise government should avail itself of those passions, to make them subservient to the public good.

Hamilton’s also the one who said, at the end of his 6-hour long speech at the 1787 Constitutional Convention: “Decision is true wisdom.” This is part of the reason why he is one of the most important members of that founding generation – but it is also the reason that people found him terrifying. Abigail Adams warned her husband, “That man is another Bonaparte.”

There is a contradictory dynamic within him that I find so compelling.

Also. He’s a bit hot.

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Here’s a big post I wrote a while back about one of my pet obsessions: the election of 1800. Some awesome information there about this man. Nobody was neutral about him. He was a polarizing kind of guy.

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A couple years ago, the New York Historical Society had a massive Alexander Hamilton exhibit and Bill and I went. It was one of those events in New York when I was so excited to see all of it that I actually felt a bit nervous. You know what really got me? His DESK. I had to walk away because the urge to touch it was too overwhelming. Here’s a re-cap of our trip to the museum. Bill said something funny like, “I think this might be the first time I’ve gone to an exhibit like this where I’m with someone who knows MORE than I do about the topic.”

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The following is a letter the 17-year-old Alexander Hamilton wrote to his father, describing the hurricane that hit St. Croix on August 31, 1772 – one of the worst in the recorded history of the island. A couple of days later, Hamilton showed a copy of this letter to Reverend Knox (a very important person in the story of Alexander Hamilton – a real father figure to the boy.) Knox was so impressed with the prose that he arranged to have it published in the “Gazette”. The letter was so well-received that Knox set the wheels in motion to send Hamilton to the colonies, so that he could get a college-level education. This move changed Hamilton’s life. Here is the letter. It’s riveting:

It began at dusk, at North, and raged very violently ’till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting ’round to the southwest … it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction. It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.

A great part of the buildings throughout the island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered, several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined, whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of the water and air without a bed to lie upon or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbors entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country …

As to my reflections and feelings on this frightful and melancholy ocassion …

Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self-sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements — the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! Death comes rushing on in triumph, veiled in a mantle of tenfold darkness … On his right hand sits destruction, hurling the winds and belching forth flames: calamity on his left threatening famine, disease and distress of all kinds. And oh! thou wretch, look still a little further. See the gulf of eternal misery open. There mayest thou shortly plunge — the just reward of thy vileness. Alas! whither canst thou fly? Where hide thyself?

I look at my Diary Friday entries – written when I was 17 and hide my head in shame.

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This is from a letter Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1780.

No wise statesman will reject the good from an apprehension of the ill. The truth is, in human affairs, there is no good, pure and unmixed. Every advantage has two sides, and wisdom consists in availing ourselves of the good and guarding as much as possible against the bad…

A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing. It will be powerful cement of our union. It will also create a necessity for keeping up taxation to such a degree which, without being oppressive, will be a spur to industry.

“A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.” Those words went over like a BOMB exploding through the colonies. WHAT IS HE SAYING? WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT? IS HE THE DEVIL?

Alexander Hamilton made a six hour speech at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. People scrawled down notes of it, because he spoke without notes (except when he laid out his plan for the Government), so whatever we have of that speech is from those notes. How I wish I had been in that room. It was a rousing call to a strong central government, a rousing call for the states to give up their power and their identities, to submerge themselves into America. It was an insane speech, all things considered. His allies thought he had lost his mind. Another delegate to the Congress described Hamilton as “praised by everybody but supported by none”. Here are some excerpts from his 6-hour speech in Philadlelphia, 1787.

All the passion we see, of avarice, ambition, interest, which govern most individuals and all public bodies, fall into the current of the states and do not flow into the stream of the general national government … How then are all these evils to be avoided? Only by such a complete sovereignty in the general government as will turn all the strong principles and passions to its side.

In the context of the time, it is not surprising at all that people hated Hamilton, and thought he spoke treasonously. They had just thrown OFF the yoke of a monarch who had “complete sovereignty” … and now Hamilton wanted to put the yoke on again? This was heresy,

More:

In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many. Hence, separate interests will arise. There will be debtors and creditors. Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both, therefore, ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other.

Hamilton read aloud from his notes – and what HE proposed as the set-up for the national government is basically what we have to this day (except for the “executive for life” thing.)

He went way too far out with some of his ideas, but that was his role, historically, and I see him in that context. You always need someone like that, someone to be imaginative, bold, push the boundaries OUT. He, as an immigrant, was not attached to any one state in his loyalty. It made a huge difference. He stands out, because of this. There was literally no pause between thought and action with this guy (and that’s why he got into so much trouble.) But great men usually have a fatal flaw in their makeup. If they didn’t have it, they wouldn’t be great at all.

It reminds me of that great EM Forster quote: “Don’t start with proportion. Only prigs do that.”

I believe in my heart that Hamilton was the most far-seeing of the Founders. He saw the world we live in now. He did not see a Utopia. He saw reality. Or, he believed so strongly in that reality that he worked himself to the bone to bring it to pass. At that time, the colonies basically were still an agrarian society, where land was power and prestige. Jefferson couldn’t really imagine any other kind of world. Hamilton did and could. He saw ahead to the industrial revolution. He knew society’s set-up would change drastically, and he wanted the economy to be flexible enough to deal with those changes. Most of the commentary at the time from his contemporaries (all brilliant men in their own right) is along the lines of: “Alexander Hamilton is frightening.” “Hamilton is dangerous and must be stopped.” Etc.

It is almost as though he had dropped in from the future, and people like that always meet resistance.

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Here is the ringing first paragraph of Federalist 1, written by Alexander Hamilton, published on October 27, 1787, in the “New York Independent Journal”m the first of 85 essays (written by Alexander Hamilton mostly, but James Madison wrote Federalist 10 – maybe the most famous of all of them, and the one I go to most often for a re-read – and John Jay contributed 5 essays), eventually known as The Federalist Papers. The purpose of this onslaught was to put the case for the Constitution before the New York public for its review. Here is the first paragraph of the first essay:

After a full experience of the insufficiency of the existing federal government, you are invited to deliberate upon a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance, comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.

That prose would have gotten MY attention, as I scanned the “For Sale” ads for ladies hats and buggy whips surrounding it.

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Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of Treasury, put forth a monumental report to Congress calling for a national bank (this is something he had been pondering for years). He wanted it to be run by private citizens, not the government. The bank had the power to issue paper money. Hamilton opposed the government running the printing presses to produce money. A quote from his report:

The wisdom of the government will be shown in never trusting itself with the use of so seducing and dangerous and expedient.

Brilliant.

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The following anecdote (and quote) is pretty much why people were terrified of Alexander Hamilton, and felt that he should be stopped. To give you the proper context: he was answering criticism from his former Federalist Paper collaborator James Madison that his proposed Bank of America was un-constitutional. Hamilton had asked for a federal charter for the bank, Madison said there was nothing in the Constitution saying that the government should fund corporations. Hamilton pointed out the last article of the Constitution – the one about Congress being able to make “all laws which shall be necessary and proper”. Hamilton felt that that article was sufficient evidence that a charter would be constitutional.

BUT! The way Hamilton summed it all up was not calculated to assuage his enemies who feared his lust for power. He wrote:

Wherever the end is required, the means are authorized.

Gotcha, Machiavelli.

He went on:

If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority.

The story of the turbulent national debate about Hamilton’s financial plan for the country is amazing. I’ve read about it from all sides: Hamilton’s side, of course, but then John Adams’ analysis of it, his letters to Abigail about it, Jefferson’s side of it, Washington’s side of it. If you don’t know all the ins and outs of the debate, I highly recommend delving in. It was truly an incredible time in our nation’s history.

And about the duel. The thought of a “glorious” death permeates his personal letters from when he was a teenager. (“I wish there was a war.”) There are times when he is so cynical about his fellow man (due, in part, to his horrific upbringing) that he wants to end it all. He loses hope. He plunges from the heights into despair. Much of what happened to him came out of this death-wish (maybe even a sense that he probably would not make it to old age, all things considered). While he was here on earth, he acted like he could HEAR the clock ticking down on his time left. There were times when he behaved in an absolutely incomprehensible manner (the Reynolds pamphlet. It’s like Mary Astor’s sex journal. You read it and think, “Dude, why … WHY … are you publishing this?? Just say ‘Yup. I transgressed and was also a victim of extortion.’ Don’t walk us through it with purple prose like ‘She led me up to the darkness of the bedroom …'” Like: STOP.) A blaze of martyrdom seemed to appeal. He behaved with reckless abandon. He wrote a screed on John Adams, while Adams was president, saying that Adams was mentally incompetent, not fit for office. Political suicide. It was so wrongheaded that you gasp at Hamilton’s self-destructiveness. It was the death knell for his career. His makeup was such that he followed his impulses – and when he was on? He was on like nobody else. But when he misjudged a situation? He messed up big. His battle with Burr was fierce and long-standing. Honor was a huge deal to Hamilton. He could not let an insult stand. He could not. Maybe because of his illegitimacy, his harrowing early life. He was very very sensitive to any slight. He felt disrespected by Washington. His resentment grew during his time as secretary. He wanted to see ACTION in the war, not just sit and be a clerk, and write 150 letters a day. There is one famous incident where Hamilton kept Washington waiting for 5 minutes, because he had to talk to somebody else, and Washington was very angry and told Hamilton so publicly. Hamilton was so insulted by this that he asked to be released from his duties immediately. It was a total breach for him. He could not be insulted. If you insulted him by throwing a tiny arrow his way, he would respond with 25 cannon balls.

He had the presence of mind though, at least early in his career, to know that Washington (and what he stood for) was very important to America and the union, so he tried to keep his personal feelings out of it. He was very concerned, when he left Washington’s employ, that the real reasons for his departure be kept private (he mentions it in a couple of letters). Washington’s image as a universally beloved leader was more important than Hamilton airing his grievances. Later in life, though, Hamilton was unable to hold his personal feelings back in such situations, and more often than not, he would make his feelings public. None of this was a casual thing for him. Honor, his integrity, his character – his very NAME – was something to be defended to the death. It HAD to be that way.

On July 10, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wrote the following letter to his wife Eliza:

My beloved Eliza
Mrs. Mitchel is the person in the world to whom as a friend I am under the greatest Obligations. I have not hitherto done my duty to her. But resolved to repair my omission as much as possible, I have encouraged her to come to this Country and intend, if it shall be in my power to render the Evening of her days comfortable. But if it shall please God to put this out of my power and to inable you hereafter to be of service to her, I entreat you to do it and to treat her with the tenderness of a Sister.

This is my second letter.

The Scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject my self to the guilt of taking the life of another. This must increase my hazards & redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me and I humbly hope will but in the contrary event I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God’s Will be done. The will of a merciful God must be good.

Once more Adieu My Darling darling Wife

AH
Tuesday Evening 10 oClock

Joseph Ellis, in his wonderful book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, opens the book with the story of the duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the riverside plain of Weehawken. You know, down the street from where I live.

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The statue of Alexander Hamilton, right near my house. It hovers above the dueling plain where he took the bullet that would be fatal. It’s a beautiful spot. Observation: This photo was taken when there was still a hole in the downtown skyline. My only complaint is: I wish he were facing New York, not turning his back. He helped create New York.

Joseph Ellis closes his chapter on The Duel with these words:

Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that “a great man represents a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists of his being there.” Both Burr and Hamilton thought of themselves as great men who happened to come of age at one of those strategic points in the campaign of history called the American revolutionary era. By the summer of 1804, history had pretty much passed them by. Burr had alienated Jefferson and the triumphant Republican party by his disloyalty as a vice president and had lost by a landslide in his bid to become a Federalist governor of New York. Hamilton had not held national office for nine years and the Federalist cause he had championed was well on its way to oblivion. Even in his home state of New York, the Federalists were, as John Quincy Adams put it, “a minority, and of that minority, only a minority were admirers and partisans of Mr. Hamilton.” Neither man had much of a political future.

But by being there beneath the plains of Weehawken for their interview, they managed to make a dramatic final statement about the time of their time. Honor mattered because character mattered. And character mattered because the fate of the American experiment with republican government still required virtuous leaders to survive. Eventually, the United States might develop into a nation of laws and established institutions capable of surviving corrupt or incompetent public officials. But it was not there yet. It still required honorable and virtuous leaders to endure. Both Burr and Hamilton came to the interview because they wished to be regarded as part of such company.

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And finally, here is an excerpt from Ron Chernow’s magesterial biography Alexander Hamilton:

Few figures in American history aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton. To this day, he seems trapped in a crude historical cartoon that pits “Jeffersonian democracy” against “Hamiltonian aristocracy.” For Jefferson and his followers, wedded to their vision of an agrarian Eden, Hamilton was the American Mephistopheles, the proponent of such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges. They demonized him as a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar. Noah Webster contended that Hamilton’s “ambition, pride, and overbearing temper” had destined him “to be the evil genius of this country.” Hamilton’s powerful vision of American nationalism, with states subordinate to a strong central government and led by a vigorous executive branch, aroused fears of a reversion to royal British ways. His seeming solicitude for the rich caused critics to portray him as a snobbish tool of plutocrats who was contemptuous of the masses. For another group of naysayers, Hamilton’s unswerving faith in a professional military converted him into a potential despot. “From the first to the last words he wrote,” concluded historian Henry Adams, “I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom.” Even some Hamilton admirers have been unsettled by a faint tincture of something foreign in this West Indian transplant; Woodrow Wilson grudgingly praised Hamilton as “a very great man, ut not a great American.”
Yet many distinguished commentators have echoed Eliza Hamilton’s lament that justice has not been done to her Hamilton/ He has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders. The British statesman Lord Bryce singled out Hamilton as the one founding father who had not received his due from posterity. In The American Commonwealth, he observed, “One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the early history of the Republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized is splendid gifts.” During the robust era of Progressive Republicanism, marked by brawny nationalism and energetic government, Theodore Roosevelt took up the cudgels and declared Hamilton “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” His White House successor, William Howard Taft, likewise embracedf Hamilton as “our greatest constructive statesman.” In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive. He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised. As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state – including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard – and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nationa together.

Hamilton’s crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton’s life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. The saga of his metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington’s cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic. Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as the flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology. His contemporaries often seemed defined by how they reacted to the political gauntlets that he threw down repeatedly with such defiant panache.

Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. If promiscuous with his political opinions, however, he was famously reticent about his private life, especially his squalid Caribbean boyhood. No other founder had to grapple with such shame and misery, and his early years have remained wrapped in more mystery than those of any other major American statesman. While not scanting his vibrant intellectual life, I have tried to gather anecdotal material that will bring this cerebral man to life as both a public and a private figure. Charming and impetuous, romantic and witty, dashing and headstrong, Hamilton offers the biographer an irresistible psychological study. For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative. He never outgrew the stigma of his illegitimacy, and his exquisite tact often gave way to egregious failures of judgment that left even his keenest admirers aghast. If capable of numerous close friendships, he also entered into titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr.

The magnitude of Hamilton’s feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America’s political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day.

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Alexander Hamilton’s grave. Taken by yours truly. I go sometimes to pay my respects. It’s a beautiful cemetery.

A complex man – to be studied, discussed, fought about, celebrated. He is still relevant.

Posted in Founding Fathers, On This Day | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Mary Astor’s Sex Life On Trial

In light of the following recent text exchange …

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… between Mitchell and myself, I would like to announce the publication of two books, which will be sold as companion volumes:

I Miss Sluts, by Sheila O’Malley
Where’s Mary Fucking Astor When We Need Her?, by Mitchell Fain

Coming to your local bookstore soon.

This announcement could not be more timely, since Mary Astor has been all over the news (well, sort of) lately. Now Mary Astor is always “news” among my group of friends (witness that text exchange) because we adore her and are slightly obsessed with her.

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BUT one of the books I am most excited to read in 2017 (I just bought it yesterday), is the totally sui generis:

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Edward Sorel is an illustrator and has been so for decades. He started out with political satire stuff during the Vietnam War era, and has since worked all over the place, and you will definitely recognize his work if you read Vanity Fair. So turns out, he has had a 50-year obsession with Mary Astor – ignited by his discovery that she was the star of a gigantic sex scandal in 1936, through which she lost custody of her children, fought to get custody back, and all of this played out in courtrooms, on the front page, and in the court of public opinion. If you know about Mary Astor, then you know about this scandal. Most explosive, though, and what makes the scandal somewhat unique, is that Mary Astor (deflowered by John Barrymore) kept a diary, in which she wrote – in great great detail – about her sex trysts with George Kaufmann (a married man), describing their hours-long fucking sessions (she didn’t use euphemisms), and how many times she came, and how amazing it was, all in breathless “purple” prose. The press got a hold of the diary, she was raked over the coals for being a harlot. And it was sensational, in general, because she had such a pure virginal image. The press referred to it as her “lavender” or “purple” diary.

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What’s even more extraordinary is that Mary Astor came back from all of this and had a whole second career playing warm-hearted matronly types. Good for her.

So anyway, Sorel was obsessed with this whole thing, which then led him into a more far-reaching obsession with Mary Astor. Who was she? What was her background? How did she FEEL about all of this?

The result of his obsession is Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, the story of that sex scandal, accompanied by funny and beautiful illustrations by Sorel.

Example:

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Like, I can’t even believe this book exists now. It’s not just the story of Mary Astor. It’s the story of one man’s obsession with her. I cannot wait to read it.

So Where’s Mary Fucking Astor When You Need Her? She’s right here.

Posted in Actors, Books | Tagged | 13 Comments

Marlene Dietrich’s Marginalia

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I love marginalia so much that I created an entire “tag” for it on my site.

I love to read about the marginalia of famous people.

The tiny markings Thomas Jefferson would place beside lines of text that … interested him, that he agreed with, that he wanted to investigate further – who knows why, but they’re intriguing nonetheless.

Medieval monks copying manuscripts – years on end – bored out of their minds – filled the pages of these Tomes with marginalia, sometimes critiquing what they were copying (“This is a very poor translation”), sometimes, though, they’re little diary entries (“O God it is cold.” “My hand hurts.” Or, my favorite: “St Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.” I hear ya, monk, I hear ya on that.)

Elvis was a big marker-upper-of-books sometimes underlining practically every sentence on the page. (My favorite example of Elvis marginalia was a note he wrote in the margins of one of his religious spiritual books: “GOD LOVES YOU BUT HE LOVES YOU BEST WHEN YOU SING.” Marginalia can be golden.)

I woke up this morning to a text from my cousin Mike, that had only had a URL in it. The URL led to this article in The New Yorker: Marlene Dietrich’s Marginalia.

This is what O’Malleys do, we supportively text one another articles about marginalia at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes Dietrich’s marginalia was to correct information in this or that biography where her name was mentioned (my favorite is “SHE WAS LANG’S MISTRESS. NOTHING TO DO WITH ME!”) – but sometimes it’s a critique of the writing itself, as in the image above.

Posted in Actors, Books | Tagged , | 12 Comments

Powerful Claws Threaten Us: Elvis Presley, 1968 “Trying to Get to You”

One of my favorite Elvis performances. It’s one for the ages.

Elvis Presley performing “Trying To Get To You” during the informal sit-down session section of his 1968 comeback special. There’s a rough raw-ness to these sessions that are not only compelling but scary. The small space cannot contain him. At one point, he feels those limitations, and he starts to stand up. Girls scream in fright/excitement in the audience.

In this number in particular he appears to go a place primal as well as consciously performative, at the same time he remains in a completely private dreamspace. You figure out how one person can manage that. There is a sense of the huge private world of his desires and need from where he performed, what he drew on, his need to express himself, to be, as Dave Marsh observed, an “unignorable man.” There is also an exhibitionistic enjoyment of his own power. He is completely unselfconscious in terms of his presence in all of those worlds.

The truth is in the performance. The performance is about generosity, certainly, his willingness to give all of himself. That’s why we love live performers. That’s why we are drawn to them. He’s exposing everything. We would hold back some of that stuff. We might be embarrassed letting other people see that much of us. He is not. He “takes the fall” for us. We live off that contact high.

But there’s something going on here in particular that strikes me as quintessentially what Magic and Power is all about. It’s the kind of thing I miss so much these days when it comes to live performance: a sense that the performance is actually costing the performer something. Yes, there are those who still do it, but many rely on vocal pyrotechnics, which, while impressive, do not always equal the same type of cost. I’m not saying that Presley appears on the brink of some nervous breakdown here, he obviously doesn’t. I’m not talking about anything neurotic. I am talking about being private in public and the cost that that exacts on a performer, a cost he is more than willing to pay.

It’s difficult to do, especially for a star of Presley’s magnitude at this time. He had so much to lose. But that had always been his special brand of talent: bringing out into the light feelings/desires that many felt should have been left in the dark. You can hear the small audience start to scream spontaneously at certain points during this performance, and I can see why. It’s not a sex thing so much as it is a response to a kind of truthful assault, being in the presence of something so powerful and authentic that you almost want to draw away from it. It’s too much. Not only does it demand something of him, the performer, but it demands something of us. Will we be able to pay that cost? What is he asking of us?

Arthur Miller had this to say about Clark Gable (and stars, in general):

Great actor-personalities, I have come to think, are like trained bears in that they attract us with their discipline while their powerful claws threaten us; a great star implies he is his own person and can be mean and even dangerous, like a great leader.

I don’t feel particularly safe watching Elvis’ performance of “Trying to Get to You” and I’ve probably watched it hundreds of times. It’s a fun performance, everyone is whooping and hollering, Elvis cracks himself up at one point, but there is danger in that room as well.

Danger is part of live performing. Or at least it should be. Elvis Presley always had stage fright from the beginning of his career to the end. Not just because of all of the expectations of the fans, not just because he had so many lyrics to remember. Not because he had to live up to the legend. All of those things may have been factors in his stage fright, but he had stage fright from the first moment he sang in front of an audience long before he was famous, so there was clearly more going on there.

I imagine that it was also because: he knew where he was going to have to go and he knew that it would cost him to go there. He was willing to pay that price, there was no other way for him to get up there in front of people.

Something that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of Elvis Rhetoric is just how competitive he was. His demeanor was so courtly Southern polite, so deferential. Maureen Stapleton describes meeting him in 1956 and practically begging him to stop calling her “Ma’am.” There are many similar stories. It’s well-known that his career was managed within an inch of its life by Colonel Parker, and Elvis did what was expected of him and did what he was told to do. All of that is true and an essential element in understanding the man. But never forget: this man was more competitive than any man alive. There’s a reason Muhammad Ali looked at him and thought, “He is a kindred spirit.” To be the best, to dominate, to REALLY SHOW ‘EM … when Elvis got into that mode, mountains cracked apart. And that’s the mode he is in here.

I mean, watch this performance. The various expressions on his face, the gearing-up moments, the smiles, the closed-eyes, the shaking of the guitar like he wants to throttle it or fuck it, the sweat. There are moments when the performance does have that exposed gorgeous sexual energy that he brings into the light: you’re watching a guy having a private moment with himself, but there is more going on, always more. I think these singular figures, figures like Presley, flat out have more to let out than other people do. Their potential is larger, the inner space is more vast, or perhaps it is just that his perception of what he needed to express was clearer, more fearless, than those of mere mortals. He understood it, he got it, and he got it early.

The 1968 comeback special represented a renewal of energy, an unleashing of force and spontaneity and personality that Elvis felt had been inhibited in his years in Hollywood. He hadn’t been before a live audience in almost 10 years. He had been highly visible on the drive-in screens of America, but the heat and sweat of a live audience had no longer been part of his life.

Here he steps out again, before a small audience, close enough to touch him, and it was instantly obvious that there had been no diminishing of power in his time away.

If anything, his power had grown. It had become even more ferocious, more urgent.

His claws are exposed. The powerful terrifying gorgeous claws.

Posted in Music, Television | Tagged | 22 Comments

“Animals Don’t Hate, and We’re Supposed To Be Better Than Them.” – Elvis Presley, the Twin Who Lived

Elvis was born on this day in 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi

From Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy

On the chill afternoon of Tuesday, January 8, 1935, Catherine Hall was walking briskly home. At the end of Lake Street she slowed down looking right and left before crossing Highway 78 like her mama was always cautioning her to, but resumed her stride past Kelly Street and up to the corner of Berry when she brought herself to an abrupt halt. There on the Old Saltillo Road where she lived, right across from the Methodist church, she saw a crowd of neighbors collected around both Presley houses. Something interesting must be going on. Mama would know. She hurried past the people to her own front porch. But Mama was already waiting for her, and even before the thirteen-year-old girl could get out her question she was told to quickly change into her clean dress and tidy herself up because one of the twins young Mrs. Vernon Presley next door had given birth to that morning had passed away and they were going to pay their respects.

When her mother told her she was actually going to see a little baby who had died, Catherine prepared herself to see it looking all funny and twisted and deformed like that little calf that had come out all wrong. Once in the small front room, Catherine took no notice of the people or the food, or of Gladys Presley and the little live baby in bed with her, but slipped away from her mother and went straight to the small, open casket standing by the window. Fearfully she peered into it. Then her fear changed to puzzled astonishment. The tiny baby lying there was perfectly formed. It didn’t even look dead; it just looked asleep. She glanced around at the grownups. Perhaps they’d made a mistake.

Later on Catherine just couldn’t help telling her best friend that in her opinion they could’ve made a mistake putting that little infant in the casket. That baby didn’t look to he like he had anything wrong with him. Couldn’t he be alive and just real quiet, resting or something?

But Catherine’s best friend was one of Vernon Presley’s younger sisters and therefore, being infinitely better informed about the whole matter, was in a position to put Catherine right. She told her not to be so simple; of course the baby was dead. Wouldn’t Mrs. Edna Robinson, who’d midwifed most of the babies in East Tupelo, and Dr. Hunt, whom Vernon had fetched because of the emergency – wouldn’t they be expected to know everything there was to know about these things? She went on to tell more: that the second twin – the one who was all right – hadn’t come out till a whole half-hour after the first and that he hadn’t arrived till 4:30 in the morning. They’d already named him Elvis Aron.

“But what about the other?” Catherine timidly queried. “Do they name babies who are … like that, or what?”

She received an impatient look. Of course they did; they already had. How would he get into heaven without a name? He was named Jesse Garon and he was go ing to be buried near all the Presleys in the cemetery at Priceville so that he wouldn’t be lonely.


Jessie Garon’s grave marker at Graceland

Elvis had a lot of guilt about being “the twin who lived”. He wondered if he had somehow, by osmosis in the womb, stolen the strength of his twin. Had he lived only because Jessie had died? Jessie was part of the Presley family mythology. Jessie was not swept under the carpet and never mentioned again. He was a living part of the family. Elvis would pray to Jessie, and talk to Jessie – not just as an impressionable child, but throughout his life. What would it have been like if Elvis had had a sibling? What would have changed? Elvis was a sui generis figure in the culture: the fact that he had had a twin is so fascinating. Were they identical? These are questions that are interesting to contemplate, although some folks go a bit far with it. (You know, Jessie is alive and well and running a service station in Tallahassee, or whatever. )

Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith were a young couple, impatient and eager to be together (you can see it in the photo at the top of this post). They had almost no prospects, outside of Gladys’ ferocious get-up-and-go nature. They were sharecroppers sometimes, Vernon got odd jobs, Gladys got odd jobs as a seamstress, she picked crops with Elvis strapped to her back.

Like Harry Potter, Elvis was “the boy who lived”. The very fact that he lived gave him great importance, understandably, to his parents, especially when it was found out that after the horrific experience of giving birth to the twins on January 8, 1935, Gladys couldn’t have any more children. It is not at all surprising or unusual that Gladys would hover over her son, as long as he lived, even long past the age when it was necessary.

When he became famous, she was worried but not surprised. She always knew he was marked for something special. Because he was the boy who lived.

On January 8, 2013, I woke up with the sun, scraped my car of frost, and drove from Memphis to Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis’ birthplace. It’s about 100 miles from Memphis. The highway careened through farmlands, glittering with frost, steam rising off of the creeks and ponds. The road was nearly empty. I listened to church services on the radio, and raucous black choirs going to town for Jesus. I hit Tupelo before 9 a.m. It was quiet.

I stopped at the Veterans Park on the outskirts of town, a beautiful area with a pond and a fountain, and some pushy ducks who basically ran me off the lawn. The Elvis Presley Birthplace museum was closed, but that was fine because everything I wanted to see was out in plain view. There was the two-room shack, built by Vernon himself, the shack that was such a step-up to the hardscrabble Presley family, and so important to their feeling of independence. The shack was longer than I realized, although I’ve seen pictures. It has a little front porch with a battered swing, there are windows along the sides. The shack is placed in the center of a circle of stones, marking events in the Presley life during their time in Tupelo: The tornado that destroyed most of Tupelo when Elvis was a year old. Elvis winning a prize singing “Old Shep” at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair when he was 10 years old. (He would return to perform at that same fair in 1956, now an icon in a blue velvet shirt and white bucks, hometown boy made more than good.) The Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948. Vernon packed up the family in “an old ’39 Plymouth” (according to Elvis many years later) and they were off to seek a better life.

I was the only person at the Presley Birthplace. The frost still glittered on the grass. There was a modern brick church across the street, but it was still too early for services. The sun was just coming up, and everything was cold and still and quiet.

Along with the little shack, there was also the old Assembly of God church that Elvis used to attend with his parents (it had been moved from its original location). The church was just what I had pictured: homely, plain, white-painted, nothing special. But one of the most important places in Elvis’ childhood.

Solitude promotes reflection. I grew up in a town with deep colonial roots: homes along the Main Street are dated from the 1730s, 1740s. Except for the addition of streetlamps and sidewalks and stoplights, nothing has changed. If you catch that street at a certain time, dawn or sunset, when it’s emptied out, the area unfolds its history to you, in images, sensations, memories. You can almost imagine yourself “back then”. I grew up feeling that history around me. We were taught about it in school, yes, but it felt different when you grew up in a town that still has a little wishing well from the 1800s, and a library that used to be the spot for local Revolutionary patriots to meet up and make plans in the 1760s and 1770s. Sometimes when you go to these historically rich places, you can believe in other dimensions running alongside our own. You can feel that time is not linear, but stacked, or clear, like water: you can look down through it.

That’s what I felt, wandering around the little Presley shack and the Assembly of God church, on a frosty Sunday morning before anyone else was up. Time and history felt clear and I was looking down through it.


Elvis and his friends, 1943

A ’39 Plymouth sits near the parking lot, out in the elements. You can walk right up to it and touch it if you want to. I sat right near it and had some coffee. It was cold. The details of the car (not the actual Presley vehicle; that one is long-gone) were fascinating: the windshield wipers, the interior, the gas cap. There is so much space inside! You could certainly load up that thing with all of your belongings.

After that, I headed into town. Tupelo is plain and flat and simple. There’s not much to it. The main street area is surrounded by fields and giant turbines and silos. You can feel the space stretching out around the town, something I never get used to down in these small Southern towns, coming as I do from the congested East Coast, where each thing pushes up against the next thing. Here, space dominates, you can feel it at the end of every street.

Tupelo has an interesting history, Elvis notwithstanding. The town was poverty-struck, but also bustling and ambitious, a hub of industry and business and hustle. Tupelo is proud of their native son. He went far, farther than anyone else from Tupelo (farther than anyone else from anywhere, Neil Armstrong being the most obvious exception). Elvis’ emotional ties were in Memphis, although he did return once to Tupelo, most famously on September 26, 1956 to perform at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, the very same fair where he won 5th place in the talent show when he was 10 years old, singing the weepy dirge about a dog that dies, “Old Shep”.

Elvis had been on the rise for a year or so, but with the advent of Colonel Parker’s management and Elvis’ television appearances throughout the year, 1956 was the year when “it” broke, “it” being the cultural tidal wave. Elvis’ return to Tupelo occurred right before the opening of his first film, Love Me Tender. At the start of 1956 he was still a regional phenomenon, although that was quickly changing. By September, he wasn’t a regional phenomenon anymore. He belonged to everyone. He stood on a platform in the middle of the fairgrounds, wearing a blue velvet shirt (given to him by Natalie Wood), black pants, and white bucks. He’s so close to the crowd that it looks almost dangerous for him. A girl did bust loose from the crowd at run up onstage at one point, but she didn’t throw herself at Elvis. She made it up to him, and then stood there, staring at him, but frozen. He’s in the middle of playing a song, stops and glances at her, and says, friendly, unfazed, “Hi.” She is then hustled off by a cop.

Elvis gets close to those reaching hands, sometimes brushing against them, giving those girls a thrill, but he senses the distance he needs. They want to touch him, and he allows them to, briefly, but then he is off, to another part of the stage. He gives them what they want, and leaves them wanting more.

The pictures of that day are world-famous by now. Gladys and Vernon traveled to Tupelo to watch their son perform, and according to many people who knew Gladys, she experienced extreme anxiety, almost to the level of PTSD, returning to the town where she had known such hardship. But in the interviews done with Gladys that day, she is bubbly, proud, and happy. She was a survivor, a gritty woman who didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve (not in public anyway, that would have seemed very bad form to Gladys). You would never know that that proud Mama in the interviews almost hadn’t accompanied Elvis to the show, because it was in Tupelo, and because her memories of that town were so painful.

Where those fairgrounds once were is now the main square in Tupelo in front of City Hall: a vast lawn, with circular steps, benches, a big Christmas tree, and a beautiful statue of Elvis, onstage in the very spot he had performed in 1956. The statue was erected in 2012. The statue is isolated in the middle of the large lawn. Nothing is around it. He is highlighted against the low buildings of Main Street, nothing huddles up alongside of him. There is no other context for the statue.

It hovers in thin air. It’s lonely up there in the stratosphere.

When I arrived in the main square in Tupelo, it was empty. Emptier than anything ever is in New York City. The town hadn’t quite woken up yet, although I imagine people were getting ready to head out to church around that time. There wasn’t much traffic. The shadows were still long. The fields around the town came right up behind the buildings encircling the Square. The frost gleamed white. I almost wiped out right in front of City Hall on a patch of ice. The space is impressive. (My perspective is admittedly skewed because there is NO space around me where I live. Even the gorgeous expanse of Central Park is pushed in on all sides by apartment buildings).

The Tupelo Hardware Store, still open and running to this day, is where Gladys (famously) bought Elvis a guitar for his 12th birthday. He wanted a rifle. She got him a guitar. I knew it would be closed, but I was sitting on a bench in the park, looking around me, and saw, further up the main drag, a sign floating on the top of a building.

I love continuity, and I love places that remember. It’s just a regular hardware store. It sells tools and paint and ladders. But an important moment in 20th century culture went down there.

Elvis looks lonely in the middle of that big field.

It wasn’t just fame that brought him alone-ness. He started out that way. He was born into a world of poverty, a circumstance isolating in and of itself. But his first moments on this earth were accompanied by his parents mourning for the stillborn twin, who had preceded him into the world: in other words, he entered into a family that already missed someone. He felt that lack all his life: Somebody else should be with me right now. He had spent 9 months curled up next to this person in the womb. Elvis, of course, would not remember that part of his existence, but it cannot be argued that he wasn’t there, that he didn’t experience it in some way that became incredibly meaningful to him.

The family mythology of Jessie intensified with his fame. I’ve said before that I think, if you boiled Elvis down to his essence, what would be left as “the thing” that created him and defined him, it wouldn’t be blatant sexuality or even musicality. What he was really about was loneliness. And it was the loneliness that drove him to do what he did. We all experience loneliness but imagine a loneliness so acute that at a very young age you would set out to destroy that loneliness once and for all that you become Elvis Presley. The man who was never ever alone.

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He wasn’t a member of a group or ensemble, like The Beatles or the Stones. He didn’t “make it” surrounded by others. He made it on his own. He had help acquiring his position. Sam Phillips helped. Dewey Phillips helped. Scotty Moore and Bill Black helped. His first manager, Bob Neal, helped. Movie producer Hal Wallis helped. His supportive girlfriends helped by believing in him (he always needed a girl on his arm). Colonel Parker helped. But without Elvis putting forth his own essence, so fearlessly, none of those individuals would be remembered today, or at least not in the same way. He was a singular figure. He felt that singularity. As Dave Marsh observed so beautifully in his book Elvis, if there was one thing Elvis really wanted “it was to be an unignorable man.” His singularity was beautiful. It was also a trap. But he couldn’t be anything other than what he already was.

Kurt Russell has said that he loves Elvis Presley movies “because Elvis is in them”. You can count on one hand the artists who generate such a response. It has to do with the projection of Self, in the way that John Wayne did, and a very short list of others. Such figures, who seem inevitable once they have arrived (“how on earth did we manage before they came around?”), who become engrained in the culture, signifying/symbolizing something inchoate and yet present like the Mississippi River, imprinting themselves on every aspect of the landscape, will always stand alone.

Crowds will clamor up against such figures. We are drawn to those who project Self in a fearless way. It opens up space for us to do the same. Such figures allow things, they make space for things. These figures will often respond to fame by “entouraging up”, surrounding themselves with a Praetorian Guard of trusted friends and associates. The crowds will continue to push and jostle and grab and riot.

But the overriding image behind the Mayhem and Noise of that crowd will be a person surrounded by a vast and endless space.

Untouchable.

Posted in Music, On This Day | Tagged | 20 Comments

A Glimpse. A Glimpse Of What It Was Like To Be Him.

Ultimately I think that those rare souls who not only capture the hearts/imaginations of audiences in their day but go on to basically take their place in the firmament as a permanent blazing star in our culture are those who give their all to their chosen profession, hold nothing back, save nothing for a rainy day. They are here on this earth for a brief time, and they seem to know it, and act accordingly. This is the rarest of qualities. The human condition is such that we try not to think about death, we try not to think about mortality, we always want to have the illusion that we have more time. Death bed regrets, I am sure, are more often than not about the time wasted here on earth, the worrying about stupid stuff, the putting-off of dreams, big and small, for a better time, when there is no better time than now.

But I think there is another element that these rare souls all have, and it is more difficult to talk about and define. At the same time that they give their all as though there is no tomorrow, as though they will never get another chance to express themselves, they also withhold something. And that something is usually the key to their character, the driving force, the soul-light, the Rosebud. It’s different for each one. But there is a mystery at the heart of the greatest stars, and it is that mystery, that mystery of withholding, that keeps us going back to them, again and again and again, trying to plumb the depths of them, trying to understand what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Cary Grant is a perfect example.

His body of work is extraordinary, the depth and length of it, the display of talent breathtaking, it seems there was no genre he could not enter into believably. And yet there is still something in Grant, something essential, that he will never give us, at least not fully. We get glimpses of it. You can see it flash across his face sometimes, even in his sillier movies, but there it is, practically full frontal, keening through the entire performance in Notorious. His heart as a performer was open, generous, unselfconscious. But his heart as a man was closed. He kept himself safe and hidden. He CHOSE what to show us. He chose very carefully. And you might think that his work, then, would seem calculated or cagey. And of course, it doesn’t come across that way at all. That’s the magic trick.

Dean Martin is another one.

It is not surprising that Dean Martin would inspire one of the oddest and most contemplative biographies ever written, a biography that is really a meditation on Dean Martin’s soul, a soul that even his dearest friends couldn’t get close to. But there are glimpses. He left himself behind, there he is, in his songs, in some of his movie roles, in moments during his television show. But you always get the sense that Dean Martin was withholding the essential thing, the mystery at the heart of his personality. Whatever it was, it was not to be shared. These people who become those shining eternal stars do not feel the need to explain themselves, because everything we need to know about them is there in the work.


Elvis’ sold-out show at Russwood Park, July 4, 1956, Memphis

Elvis Presley is the ultimate example of this duality. Ultimate because he is arguably the biggest star of the 20th century. But also ultimate because his work as a performer was so blasted open and available, even as a kid, that he could tap into the vacuum in the culture, and he did it like he was born to the role. On the flip side, however, there are few stars who are as withheld from their own audience as Elvis Presley was. There were many reasons for this, good and bad, but I am not interested in hashing all of that out. The fact remains that a decision was made early on to limit Elvis’ exposure, and so after his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957, that was it, for Elvis, in terms of television appearances. He rarely gave interviews. He did not make public appearances. He went into the Army for two years at the height of his newfound popularity and vanished from view, except for the photos that came back via the teen mags of him driving tanks and wearing his uniform. The withholding of Elvis was a risky move, and one that paid off (in terms of the audience interest in him), although I think it impacted Elvis negatively and isolated him too much. Jackie Gleason had said to Elvis, early on, “You’re gonna be huge, kid. Make sure you still go out in public – don’t hide – don’t hide.” But Elvis hid. For his own reasons, and because that was the advice he was given.


Elvis boarding the ship, Brooklyn Yard, 1958

I don’t particularly want to discuss that decision. I want to deal with the RESULT of that decision. There are already too many “what ifs” that float around Elvis’ career and they get tiresome. Yeah, what if, what if, what if. I get it, but the career is so extraordinary already can’t we deal with what ACTUALLY happened? Otherwise we get bogged down in alternate realities where Elvis was happier, more at peace, less isolated, etc. Of course I have affection for Elvis – it’s very difficult to spend any time researching him and not feel your heart reach out to him – that’s another one of the ways in which he is special. Often you get obsessed with a star, and the closer you get to the star, the more repellent they seem and you realize: “Thank GOD he was withheld from audiences – because no one would love him if they knew THIS about him.” That is not true for Elvis. The closer you try to get, the sweeter he seems. The Bodyguard Character Assassination, embodied in Elvis: What Happened? certainly did some damage and there are uncorroborated stories in there that still get bandied about as though they are true. (I have my doubts that Red West ever “saved” Elvis from the high school bullies in the bathroom, a story that is now legendary among Elvis writers, and is treated as though it were an undeniable fact written in stone. I have no proof to back up my theory, but the only proof that we have that it happened is Red West’s word for it, and I think we need to take that with a grain of salt. It’s an extremely self-serving story. Just my two cents.)

There is something the Bodyguards did not realize, however. Elvis’ impact as a performer was indestructible. You can cackle about his idiosyncracies all you want (“tee hee, he had so many guns, tee hee, he was embarrassed by his uncircumcised penis, tee hee, he ate five sundaes in one sitting, tee hee, he wasn’t ALL THAT”) but still, still, he remains. Walking into the racquet ball court at Graceland is one of the most overwhelming displays of personal success that I have ever seen in my life. It’s up there with touring the Breakers in Newport, and without the feeling of disgust that accompanies the Breakers tour. The sheer scope of his accomplishments, seen in that Hall of Gold Records which then leads into the racquet ball court, made the big crowd on tour with me fall into a hushed silence.


Both photos taken by me on January 8, 2012

We were in the presence of something entirely “other” when in that space. It was like being in a cathedral. It is otherworldly. It is a level of success that cannot be matched, reached, or approximated. It is a force of nature, a fact of nature, like the Grand Canyon or the Milky Way, and yet it all came from …. just a guy. A human being. One man, who grew up poor and isolated, to then become rich and isolated. But not isolated enough to stop the flow of his talent, blasted across those walls in shining gold and platinum, blinding to the naked eye.

The key to Elvis will never be found in the words he left behind, although those are often eloquent and evidence that he understood, as well as he could, what had happened to him, and why. At 21, he said to an interviewer, “I happened to come along at a time in music when there was no trend.” That’s a smart man talking, that’s a man who understood the vast-ness of what he had tapped into. He didn’t just understand himself. He understood America, he understood the needs of regular people, and that was his role: to put himself out there, again and again, to make them happy, to express FOR them what they needed. But we can pore over his interviews all we want. And we do. However, the truth is not there. We can read the tell-all books, benevolent and malevolent, and get a closer glimpse of the man and who he was when no one but his friends were looking. George Klein’s book is excellent. Jerry Schilling’s book is excellent. June Juanico’s book is excellent. But still, these are only pieces to the puzzle. You will never get the full picture. Back to the Nature Metaphor, it’s like trying to comprehend the Milky Way, or trying to see it fully in one glimpse. It’s not possible.

Elvis put himself out there as though there was no tomorrow, and he did it from the start. And yet, at the same time, his essence, his truth, was somehow withheld, and so we come back to him, endlessly, looking for him, grasping for him, trying to hold him close so that we can understand better who he was. My main question is: Elvis … darling … WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE YOU? That is what I want to know. I want to be inside him for 5 minutes to understand what it was like.


Elvis on the train, summer, 1956

The best and most frustrating part is: he was so humble he never really spoke about that. As he said in one of those rare interviews in the mid-60s: “Through all of this, I have tried to remain the same.” And he did, bless his heart, he did. He couldn’t. I mean, none of us can. Life changes you, whether you are a superstar or not. But superstars have their own challenges, and my main impression of Elvis is that, unlike a lot of people, famous or no, he was mostly always trying his best. Not just in his career, but in how he treated people, and how he operated. Yes, he messed up, but we all do. No need to cackle over his flaws, because in doing so you forget that you are flawed, too, and you don’t have the challenge of being a superstar who can never go outside. Try experiencing that for one day and see how hard it would be to not let it change you. Very few people in general are always “trying their best”, in terms of interpersonal relationships. Elvis was well-raised and conscientious and tried to treat people well. If Elvis thought you were mad at him, he’d buy you a Cadillac. I suppose you could get cynical about that, but I choose to see it as a benign part of his personality, the generosity that he is still known for.


Elvis and his mother, Gladys Presley

So I will never know what it was like for Elvis, what life looked like to him from his perspective, and what it felt like to be him. But I will never stop trying to understand, I will never stop reaching out to him in my heart and trying to enter into that experience. And like I said, any evidence he left behind of what it was like will not be in his words. It’s in his work. Listen to him wail “My Baby Left Me”, and you know what it was like to be Elvis. Listen to him howl “Tomorrow Never Comes”, and there should be zero question left about what it was like to be Elvis. There he is, fully revealed, in “Just Pretend” and “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” and “Polk Salad Annie” and “How Great Thou Art”. Elvis was a simple country boy who enjoyed simple pleasures but his spirit was highly evolved, evolved enough to seek out the opportunity he needed, and to pour himself into that vacuum ferociously when it was revealed to him. He needed no permission. Only evolved people realize that they don’t need permission, that the whole point of our time here on this planet is to be ourselves, fully, in every moment. It is what regular people strive for every day. You can see it in the life of any pioneer, those who ask, “Well, why ISN’T this possible?” This is what our multi-million-dollar self-help industry tries to capitalize on: the desire people have to be themselves in a more real and immediate way, to not second-guess, to be “actualized”, to have no boundary between desire and action. Elvis was already there. He was there at 16. Most of the stars of which I speak, the ones who become important to the culture in some eternal fashion, are evolved like this. They may have personal foibles, and problems, and psychological issues. But in terms of their talent, they are way beyond the rest of us. Many people have talent. But those who don’t even realize that there is any way to be other than fully-expressed … those are the ones we can learn from.

To quote Dave Marsh:

There is no explanation. And if one listens closely to songs like “Hurt” and “I Can Help” and “If I Can Dream” – if one listens clear back to “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” – that’s what is truly heard: A voice, high and thrilled in the early days, lower and perplexed in the final months, seeking answers where there are none, clarity where there is none, cause where is only effect.

Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither – he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.

“Elvis made so much of the journey on his own.”

So let’s talk about that.

This is the real reason for this post today. The stress of fame is intense. George Harrison said that the only way the Fab Four kept their wits about them in the midst of that mayhem is that the stress could be distributed amongst the four of them. They had each other as allies. They could commiserate, giggle, make fun of, complain … it was happening to all four of them. Elvis was by himself. Fame, on any level, is an assault to the ego. It seems like it would be awesome, everyone loving you, and I’m sure on some level it is. But so much else comes with it, and Elvis was the pioneer of that kind of fame, and he had no one to talk with about it. Who could he commiserate with who would understand? Ann-Margret understood, and she wasn’t nearly the star that he was, although she burned hella bright herself. Elvis kept to himself. He wasn’t a complainer. It would be poor form to complain about being famous, he understood that intuitively. Whatever his private thoughts may have been about never being able to go outside, you never ever would catch him bitching. He was sweet to autograph-hunters, and would even set a time at his house (whereever he lived – in Memphis, Germany, or Beverly Hills) where he would walk down the drive to greet the fans in person. Who would do that now?


Elvis signing autographs at the end of his driveway in Los Angeles, 1960s

His girlfriend in 1956, June Juanico, describes visiting him in Memphis in the late summer, early fall of 1956, when the fame had really hit, and was like a locomotive careening out of control. They realized they couldn’t go anywhere. They were trapped in the Audobon Drive house. Elvis’ car was demolished by fans. He had to hide. He and June would escape on his motorcycle but for the most part, they were house-bound. June helped Gladys in the kitchen. Elvis wandered around the house aimlessly. Elvis and June made out in his bedroom with the door open (at June’s insistence: “What will your mother think??”). June was just happy to be with him, but Elvis was restless. He wanted to get out, to get away, be free. The two of them swam in the pool, boxing each other (Elvis put one arm behind his back so the fight would be fair), but June Juanico sensed an almost existential restlessness in him, a vibrant animal in a cage.


Elvis and June Juanico, summer, 1956

He had Scotty and Bill and DJ, for sure, and he had his entourage. But all of these people, as talented and loyal as they were, were just along for the ride, the ride that he was responsible for providing. He felt that deeply. His shows were extravaganzas of self-expression, with Elvis sometimes collapsing afterwards, from exhaustion, dehydration. He would lose up to 7 pounds a show, from sweat. That’s insane. And when he comes offstage, when he is hustled into the waiting limo by his police escort, when Elvis has indeed “left the building” … what is he to do with all the leftover emotions and adrenaline buzzing through him? Who can he talk to about it?

No one, that’s who.


Elvis asleep in a pile of fan mail, The Warwick Hotel, NYC, March, 1956

The footage of his touring in the 70s, captured so beautifully in the two documentaries Elvis On Tour and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is gets to the heart of what I am trying to express here. The rules put down by the Colonel, in order to allow filming, were draconian. No interviews, no personal one-on-one time with Elvis, no glimpses into his personal life. These would be tour diaries only. While it would be awesome to have footage of Elvis horsing around at home, and being a talking-head, talking about what it was like to be him, at some point that becomes irrelevant, because the work itself is so powerful, so entertaining, so fully ITSELF.


“He is the greatest live performer since Al Jolson.” – Cary Grant

I mean, what else is there to say?

Who gives a shit about peanut butter and banana sandwiches and an arsenal of guns and Polaroids of girls in white underwear when you watch his work? I sure don’t, although it is all rather interesting, I suppose.

What you see in these two documentaries is Elvis at work, and, ultimately, that is the only Elvis that matters. You see him singing gospel after shows and before shows with The Stamps, you see him having small conferences with the Sweet Inspirations, you see him basically conducting the giant orchestra. Jerry Schilling, watching Elvis’ gospel sessions for the How Great Thou Art album in the 60s, always said that Elvis doesn’t get enough credit for being an awesome and talented producer. He arranged all of those songs, he came up with the backup vocal arrangements, he knew exactly what he wanted, he knew how he heard it in his head. You can see him in that space during the rehearsals in these two documentaries. He’s brilliant. Tireless. He is always striving to get to that sound that he already has in his head.

All of this is fantastic and certainly adds to our understanding of Elvis, especially if we have a conception of him as a puppet of the Colonel, or a hick who just had a lot of charisma, or a buffoon who cleaned up nice when he was onstage. People constantly undersell Elvis. They need to watch these documentaries.

At the very end of Elvis On Tour, Elvis finishes a show and is raced to the waiting limo in the back. The credits begin to roll, as we hear Elvis singing “Memories”, a song that is not my favorite but that Elvis adored. The credits are on one side of the screen, and the remaining footage of the movie is on the other side (the entire movie utilizes split screens, which I think was a brilliant choice). “Memories” is a slow elegiac song (I think it’s a snoozefest, but who asked me), and we see a shot of Elvis’ father Vernon laughing backstage, the crinkle lines spread across his face. We see footage of a bridge, from the perspective of the limo carrying Elvis away from his triumph.

And then …

and then comes the glimpse.

A miraculous 3 seconds of footage that gives us the clearest glimpse of what Elvis normally left out. The missing piece, the mystery, the soul-light, the key. I have talked about the withholding of these great and eternal stars, and it is that withholding that keeps us coming back. Elvis is the ultimate mystery. He is so mysterious that Lester Bangs was reduced to calling him “supernatural”, speculating that he actually came “from outer space”. That is “the only credible explanation” for the organic phenomenon that was Elvis Presley.

Elvis sits in the back of the limo. He is still in his jeweled jumpsuit. He is sweaty. He has a towel around his neck. He was just performing literally 10 minutes earlier. Elvis never lingered. He moved on to the next thing immediately. He took care of business in a flash. He was gone before you could pin him down. He did not linger, he did not dwell. This is another key to his magic.

There he is, surrounded by his band of cackling brothers, all of whom he has known since either his high school days or his Army days. Nice as many of them were (and are), they are his staff, let’s not kid ourselves. They weren’t up there on that stage, bringing the Elvis Presley Thing to the masses. They are along for the ride. Yes, they were important parts of the machinery that helped Elvis do his thing … but at the end of the day, it is only Elvis who can get up on that stage and deliver.

Everyone in the limo is experiencing a contact high. It’s like THEY are all Elvis, it’s like THEY were the ones who were performing.

But they weren’t.

Elvis, in the back of that limo, is alone. It was just another gig, identical to all his other gigs.

And the camera catches a moment.

Elvis, sweaty and hyped up, laughs with the others, looking out the window. In the next second, the smile falls off his face with a swiftness that is arresting. He goes deep, deep inside himself in that moment. And then, with that same deeply interior look, he glances out the window, putting his ringed hand up near his mouth. And then, in the last second of footage, something else comes over his face. The cameraman, who probably has realized that he is capturing an extraordinarily private moment, zooms in on Elvis’ face. And it is the last expression caught by the camera that strikes me, that makes me wonder if there, there, we are looking at the key to who this extraordinary and yet ordinary man really was. The deeply serious and interior look vanishes, or transforms, turns itself inside out. Something rises up in his face, a voracious pleasure in himself and what he has done, and who he is, and what it felt like to be up there on that stage, and the ambition and self-love and need and desire shimmer there, dangerously, for a second, before the screen fades to black. You could see a couple of things in that look, but whatever it is, it is primal. He could either be a lion reveling in a meal he just ate, or … closer to the truth, probably, he could be a lion spotting a gazelle and thinking, “Oh, baby, baby, you are MINE.”

The fact that he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about this just highlights the moment, not to mention the fact that it is not socially acceptable to revel in your SELF, and Elvis, in general, didn’t do that. Of course on some level he did, the obsessive combing of his hair, his immaculate wardrobe, his pride in his appearance. But somehow (and this again speaks to how highly evolved he was as a human) he kept his ego in check, except for when he was onstage, and then he let the panther out.

On a smaller level, I have experienced that adrenaline rush. It is a high unlike any other. I experienced it after each one of the readings of my play. It took me days to come down. The adrenaline kept buzzing through me in aftershocks, and I would just lose myself in the memory of what I had accomplished and how well it had gone.

An adrenaline rush of voracious pleasure in your own accomplishment is awesome but it is also private. Or it should be. Nobody wants to sit around talking about how great you are for three days straight. And if you need that from others, you got problems.

Elvis did not have that problem. And we don’t know how he felt about so much in his life. We can surmise, and even now, I am just guessing, based on those four expressions that come over his face. Elvis was a transparent man, one of the most disarming things about him. His feelings were there, for you to see, to latch onto, to project onto, to live vicariously. He offered himself up like that. It’s why he was a good actor.

Elvis was too huge to revel in his success with anyone else. No one could commiserate because even if you were a big star, you weren’t as big a star as Elvis. The Beatles understood, but again, there is that key difference that there were four of them. And with Elvis, so much of his popularity had to do with his sheer power of personal charisma, the fascination that we had with him personally.

What was that like for him?

We will never know.

But in that final expression caught by the camera, I think I get a glimpse, a brief brief glimpse, of understanding.

Posted in Music | Tagged | 13 Comments

What Elvis Teaches Us About Performance: It’s Got To Cost You Something

Elvis was born on this day in 1935, Tupelo, Mississippi.

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I don’t care who you are. If you think you are worth watching, it’s got to COST you something. The great performers understand this. People with great pipes are a dime a dozen. The ones who are remembered actually leave bits of themselves up on that stage for the audience to pick up, and those pieces are lost to the performer forever.

But that’s okay. They’ve got more. Artists like that have more to give than other people do, a larger capacity for what it is even possible to give. They’ve got to get rid of it somehow. That’s why they do what they do: to give it all away.

There is grainy footage of Judy Garland, as an adult, singing “Over the Rainbow” where she lets us in on her drowning hopes, her dying dreams.

What she gives us there she cannot get back. She doesn’t want it back. The feelings there are unbearable anyway. The whole point is to share it, and transform that pain into something else in the sharing of it. As my great acting teacher Doug Moston once said: “I’m a big fan of sublimation. You take your pain and you make it sublime.”

Watch James Brown’s legendary performance on The TAMI Show.

If young performers don’t even know that a KIND of bar for live performing was set that day, then they will not realize how much better they have to be, how much MORE they will be required to give of themselves to even reach the outermost region of James Brown’s solar system of power.

As Kathy Bates said when she came and talked at my school, “If you’re lucky enough to have a gift, then just give it away. All day, every day, just keep giving it away.”

I see young performers sometimes and I wonder if they understand, actually, the job they want to do. I wonder if they actually get how much MORE they will be required to give, how much DEEPER they have to go. The great performers make it look easy, right? So it should be easy for me, too. But the great singers, even the ones who are not famous, understand the job. The great ones – the Lena Hornes, the Patti Labelles, the Barbra Streisands, the Frank Sinatras, and, yes, the Elvis Presleys – NEVER lacked understanding at what the job actually WAS.

Being young is no excuse.

Show business is a meritocracy. Get it quick, or get the hell out of the way. Or learn FAST. Steep learning curves are the name of the game.

13-year-old semi-illiterate ballerinas in class know what their job is and know how difficult it will be and how much work is required. They understand the rigors of their own business. Athletes know. Performers, however, somehow miss that memo, maybe because performing is seen as subjective, for some reason. It is to some degree, there is such a thing as personal taste for an audience, what may do it for you may not do it for me, but on the performing level it actually isn’t subjective at all. Put James Brown’s performance next to almost anybody else’s and you can see that truth with stark brutal clarity. It’s a challenge: Can you be as good as I am, as committed? Just go ahead and try.

On Season 5 of American Idol, Elliott Yamin did a duet with Mary J. Blige, which had to be the strangest pairing in the history of show business. They sang One by U2 together, and it is a perfect example of what an amateur looks like next to a full-blown professional. He was protected from that reality while surrounded by other amateurs, but then Mary J. Blige comes on – and she is supportive of him, holding onto him the entire time, but she goes to another level. She is already at that place when she walked on that stage, because she understands that that is the nature of her job. You can see Elliott playing catch up, furiously, as the song goes on. “Oh … oh … she’s … that big? That into it? That … huge? Oh … shit, I gotta get my game up …”

Unless you are prepared to leave something of yourself behind on that stage, you have no business being up there.

Which brings me to the following clip of another American Idol contestant.

I appreciate Justin Gaston’s words on Elvis, and his understanding that Elvis is “iconic”. That’s a start.

But watching Justin Gaston singing “If I Can Dream” in that studio hurt me, the way it hurts to see anyone not actually understand what their job is.

Dear Mr. Gaston, if I were your coach or your mentor, I would have nothing to say about your voice. Your voice is fine. It sounds great.

But I would give you one suggestion:

Why don’t you take your goddamn hands out of your pockets while you sing the song, and just see where that would take you?

Just see what it would be like to actually commit to a gesture. As the great John Wayne said (and nobody could do a gesture like John Wayne): “I think that’s the first lesson you learn in a high school play — that if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.”

Making a gesture changes how you actually FEEL. Try it. You’ll see. You have no idea how safe you are being, sir. You have no idea how much you are willing to skip off the surface of the water. You want to be a singer, but you don’t understand the job.

The Art of the Gesture is a dying art, in today’s more casual “over it” world. The singers who actually commit to gestures (and I’m not talking about dance moves, I’m talking about Elvis Presley-Judy Garland-Liza Minnelli-James Brown GESTURES) are few and far between. I could pontificate on why this is, although that would be boring speculation. Whatever the reason, the culture encourages “over-it-ness” and maybe performers don’t want to seem like they give a shit. They don’t want to betray their hearts or reveal how much they need love, how much feeling they have to give. They fear rejection, so even some big stars play it safe.

Anthony Hopkins came and spoke at my school. One guy asked him a question, referring to the scene in Nixon where he broke down while praying with Henry Kissinger. The guy said, “You were so vulnerable … I was just wondering … how you protect yourself doing something like that?”

The great Anthony Hopkins was kind, but it was clear he didn’t even understand the question. He looked quizzically at the questioner (almost like: “Are you an actor? Really?”) and said, “Oh, but you mustn’t protect yourself.”

In my opinion, if you don’t know that going in, you will never know it. Directors always say it’s easy to tell someone to “pull back” and “give less” but it is nearly impossible to get someone to “give more” (at least not consistently: you could browbeat someone into giving the performance of a lifetime, but it could not be repeated).

The great ones know going in: Okay, well, this is gonna COST me.

Maybe some will think I’m being too hard on the amateurs of American Idol but I would imagine that those people are not in show business. Because Elvis didn’t have to LEARN commitment, he didn’t have to be PUSHED to bring it out. He did so from the start. From Moment One. He put himself out there, not worrying about the COST.

Perhaps the true magnitude of the cost cannot be known at the outset.

Elvis Presley, as a 19-year-old virgin wailing “That’s All Right” in 1954, couldn’t know how MUCH it would cost him in the end, and how much he would actually be asked to give … and give … and give. He couldn’t have known the loneliness of the kind of fame he would achieve. Who could know it? No one had been that famous before. But at the outset, at the outset, from his very first moment performing live, when his wiggling leg made girls scream, he understood the job. I’m sure he didn’t even question it. I’m sure he never asked himself at the outset the question that that “actor” asked Anthony Hopkins. The great ones rarely look for escape routes from commitment and engagement, at least in their art. They do not flee from the implications of their greatness. They never actively avoid revealing themselves. That is why they are great.

Singing a song, even in a studio where no one can see you, with your hands in your pockets, betrays a complete misunderstanding of what being a performer is.

You don’t want to pay the price. You don’t want to give too much of yourself away, because you fear you won’t get it back. Well, kiddo, you won’t get it back. That’s the gig.

Ask Judy Garland. Ask Elvis Presley.

Yes, Elvis was “good-looking”, as you note, and “talented” and he had a lot of airplanes, which makes him super-cool. All true. He also had an arsenal of guns, a veritable zoo of animals, and a girl in every port ready to have pillow fights with him at a moment’s notice.

But he ALSO paid a price. I’m not talking about his early end, his death, his drug addiction. I’m talking about the performing itself. The reason WHY he had a lot of planes and a zoo and girls in every port was because he paid a price onstage, from when he was a young pimply boy to when he was an overweight ill man. He would collapse after shows. Sometimes he would lose seven pounds in a night from sweat. That’s how much he put out there on that stage, that’s how much it cost him! Night after night after night. When he made a gesture, he was with John Wayne: He MADE it. You can FEEL those gestures, even today, so many years later. They hover over the performing landscape like an afterimage, reminding us of what we miss. Reminding us of who is no longer with us. Who makes gestures like that anymore?

Even at the very end, when Elvis was bloated and very ill, he wouldn’t be caught DEAD singing a song with his hands in his pockets.

Now about the particular song in question: “If I Can Dream” was the epilogue to Presley’s 1968 television “comeback special”. Steve Binder, director of the special (who also, incidentally, directed The TAMI Show), had initially been at a loss as to how to “sum up” Presley in the special and needed a song to do it. Peter Guralnik, in Careless Love, describes what happened next:

[He] approached Earl Brown, the vocal arranger, about writing a song. “I took Earl aside, and I said, ‘Earl, let me explain something to you. We’re under the gun now, and what I need – instead of having him do a monologue at the end, let’s do a song where we incorporate what his monologue would say. That was all I contributed: this is what I would like the song to be. So Earl went home and at seven o’clock the next morning he woke me up and said, ‘Steve, I think I’ve got it. I really think I’ve nailed the song.’ So I went into the studio, and Earl played the song for me – it was called ‘If I Can Dream’ – and I said, ‘That’s it. You’ve just written the song that’s going to close the show.'”

Side note: they filmed the special in the wake following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., an event that destabilized the entire world, and devastated Elvis, not just because he was a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., but because it happened in his hometown, a shame and a blot on the city. Steve Binder was radical: could a song be written that somehow expressed that part of Elvis, a part of him never before seen? “If I can Dream” was what they came up with.

There was a slight problem in that Colonel Parker, Presley’s manager, was still under the impression that they were all actually working on a Christmas special and thought that the show would end with Elvis singing a Christmas carol. Binder was on a roll now, though. He bypassed the Colonel and went right to Elvis.

“So now I go to Bob Finkel [executive producer], and I say, ‘Bob, I’ve got the end of the show.’ And he said, ‘Do you realize what you’re doing? The Colonel will blow his stack. It’s got to be a Christmas song.’ I said, ‘It can’t be a Christmas song. This is the song Elvis will sing at the end of the show.’ I arranged for Elvis, Billy, Bones and myself to go in the dressing room, and Earl sat down at the piano and played it through. Elvis sort of sat there listening. He didn’t comment; he just said, ‘Play it again.’ So Earl sat there and played it again – and again. Then Elvis started to ask some questions about it, and I would venture to say Earl probably played the song six or seven times in a row. Then Elvis looked at me and said, ‘We’re doing it.'”

The network was nervous too. They had been expecting a Christmas song, too. But when Elvis said Yes, he got his way. Makes you realize his power, which he used so rarely. He used it onstage, but offstage he played along as best he could, making the best of every situation. But when he said, “Yes”, mountains moved. Even the Colonel didn’t fight it.

But here’s what I wanted to say. Here is what I thought of when I saw that poor misguided boy above think he can actually get away with singing anything with his hands in his pockets.

Once “If I Can Dream” was decided upon, then came time to record it. Recording was done on June 23, 1968. Elvis did only five takes. It took so much out of him that he fainted after one take. Binder describes the recording session. They did four takes. When it came to the fifth take, Elvis – perhaps knowing that this next one would be the one – asked that all of the lights be dimmed. The studio lights were dimmed, the control booth lights were dimmed. Elvis began the fifth take. Binder, in the control room, looked out at the darkened space, watching Elvis sing. He remembers:

“I think he was oblivious to everything else in the universe. When I looked out the window, he was in an almost fetal position, writhing on the cement floor, singing that song.”

You can see how much it is costing him in the actual performance of it below, one of the greatest performances in his career, in any career.

At the 1:31, 1:32 mark, when he sings “We’re lost in a cloud …”, he comes forward a bit, hand out, it’s a lunge, and no matter how many times I’ve seen it, it’s still startling. That gesture, made from his heart, wants something from me. It demands engagement. And what if I don’t want to engage? What if I feel I can’t engage on that level? Well, that’s my problem. Elvis still makes that demand.

And watch near the end, in the repetitive “While I can think, while I can walk, while I can stand, while I can talk” section: His gesture moves into something almost strange, and yet perfectly in tune with the beat. He moves his right arm back and forth, but not just in a keeping-the-beat way. If I could put that gesture into words, I would say that it looks like he is submerged in water, shoving water up our way into a splash. Watch how his arm stops, when it flies behind his back, as though there is an actual object there stopping him from going further. Because of that “stop,” the gesture – when it comes back towards us – has more force. It’s insistent, a push OUT. Elvis makes that gesture unconsciously (it’s not there in the other takes, it’s not planned), but taken onto the symbolic level and what that gesture expresses: it is not self-involved. He is demanding that we share his dream. That pushing-water-upwards-and-out gesture is pushing all of that feeling out onto us whether we like it or not. His arm don’t just go around in an ongoing circle: that would make the gesture stunning, perhaps, and theatrical, but without that emotional motivation behind it. It’s not a musical gesture. It’s an emotional DEMAND.

Indifference is the worst sin in a performer. The great performers know that it is up to them to bring us out. There are a couple of breathers in the song during the short bridges where you can see him collapse almost, and then gear up again to go back into the song. And he looks absolutely wrecked by the end of it. His final gesture is a gasp.

It is all he has left.

Singing that song cost Elvis something. And we out there in the darkness are so much richer for it. He left something behind, for us, eternally. He left something behind that he could never get back. Something precious, something he might have been able to use someday had he hung onto it.

But that’s not what his job was. His job was not to hoard that energy force, which was (essentially) his whole self. His job was not to manipulate himself so that he seemed bigger/engaged/charismatic. His job was not to hang on to his gift.

His job was to give it away. All day, every day, keep giving it away.

Posted in Music | Tagged | 23 Comments

Review: Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2017)

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Premiering on HBO tomorrow. I won’t lie: this one HURTS to watch. Half the time, though, I was laughing through my tears.

My review of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is now up at Rogerebert.com.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

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A slightly re-edited post of what I put up on Facebook. Wanted to share here too because I want people to know how GOOD this movie is, and to SEE it, and to PAY MONEY to see it because money talks to The Powers That Be.

Hidden Figures runs circles – many many circles – laps and laps of circles – around a couple of the most highly-lauded films of the year. It runs circles in every way that counts: storytelling (visuals, music, editing choices), character development, script construction. EVERY scene matters. There’s a build, a flow. Nothing interrupts that flow. There’s a great build from repetition: you see the same situation multiple times throughout the film, and each time you see it, it has shifted just slightly, until finally by the end you realize that the situation has been changed entirely: total transformation. This is extremely effective in terms of how you Tell a Story.

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The three lead actresses – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae – are superb. While Henson’s character’s journey, as a “computer” working (in a group 100% white and 100% male) to figure out the New Math required to get the astronauts back home after being in orbit, takes the majority of time, the journeys of the other two are essential to getting the full picture of the sheer scope of involvement of African-American women in NASA. It’s not just the story of one woman. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a woman with a mechanical bent (her father taught her), who oversees the group of “colored computers” hired by NASA in various capacities. It’s like a typing pool, only with math. Vaughan is a supervisor but in name only: she is not paid accordingly and does not have “supervisor” in her job title. She also realizes that that big IBM computer NASA is busy installing in a gigantic room may very well be a threat to her job security, so she sets out to teach herself programming because that’s where the jobs will be in the future. And Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who realizes that in order to advance, she should probably get an engineering degree (she’s got a gift for it), but in order to get the degree, you need to take qualification classes, and the qualification classes are held at a whites-only school. So there’s your three-pronged structure to Hidden Figures.

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Hidden Figures has many cards it needs to deal: it needs to establish these characters, that world, it has to re-create those early NASA days, it has to show each of the three women and each of their very specific journeys, and it all has to feel like one thing. It succeeds in doing all of this. Theodore Melfi directed (and also co-wrote the adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book). Honestly, if the world were fair, Hidden Figures would be an Oscars sweep, in particular that script. Not to dismiss the contributions of the actresses, but that script is something else. I’d like to sit down with a hard copy of it and study it.

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Hidden Figures builds, block by block, to its end, where the sensation of triumph is so intense that I can still feel it right now, just thinking about it. It’s so triumphant that at the packed showing I saw at 9:25 a.m. (a packed movie theatre at 9:25 a.m. – just think about that.) – the entire audience erupted into applause at the end – when each of the real-life women got their own credit screen and we saw what happened to each one of them. The audience didn’t just burst into applause once. It applauded for the first name. The second name came, more applause. The third name came, more applause. Then came the final credit screen: title card and director’s name. A final round of applause. This was a spontaneous reaction from a paying audience. And only a critic would think that that was irrelevant or unimportant.

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Listen, I loved some of those highly-lauded films of 2016 too (although two of them have already not worn well and I saw them a month ago). But not ONE of those prestige movies – two of which will probably win a bunch of Oscars – did what THIS one did: make a bunch of strangers on a Monday morning clap for 5 minutes straight for four successive credit screens.

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Maybe it’s because my background is Show Biz, not criticism/film-studies. Coming from Show Biz, as I do, the notion that “crowd-pleasing” is somehow … a bad thing? … or a not-important thing? or that it means shallow and pandering and “light” … does not make sense to me. At all. Of course if you TRY to be “crowd pleasing” then yes, it can come off as pandering, or if the manipulation involved is too obvious (soundtrack choices, etc.) – if too much of that underlying structure shows, then yes, stop going for my heartstrings so obviously, Film. But “crowd-pleasing” as synonymous with pandering?

Let me break it down for you:

I want people who think “crowd-pleasing” is NOT a good thing to go to an open mic night, stand up in front of an audience, and tell a bunch of jokes. Or prepare a Shakespearean monologue and audition for a community theatre production in your town. Whatever: I want these people to prepare something and then get up in front of a crowd and deliver it. I want them to experience the PANIC you feel when you stand up in front of people and whatever it is you are doing doesn’t land, doesn’t go well. I want them to experience the self-loathing, the terror, the Flight Response of standing up in front of a crowd and NOT pleasing the crowd in any way whatsoever. Maybe if they actually experienced something like this they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss “crowd-pleasing” as “lesser than” the Oh So Serious Prestigious Fare, or to make the COMPLETELY INCORRECT assumption that making something “crowd-pleasing” is easy.

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Hidden Figures does everything right and it does it at such a high level of competence and skill that not once did I feel its 2+ hour running time. I prefer movies to be shorter and I think most movies SHOULD be shorter. But Hidden Figures really NEEDS every single one of its scenes for the build it creates. There was no “fat” on this thing: every single section was necessary. I mean, you don’t watch Seven Samurai and think, “This would be much better if it were 85 minutes long.” There is nothing extraneous. Hidden Figures was one of the best films of the year – and now that I’ve seen it, that AV Club review is even more egregious. And don’t get me started on the review in Film Stage. And no I won’t provide the links because they don’t deserve the traffic. Fuck them. Like I always say, There is such a thing as a wrong opinion.

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So let’s hear it for Hidden Figures, a film that understands how to tell a story in the way classic Hollywood understood. Give the public what they want. Give them characters they can grasp onto, conflicts they can engage in, catharsis after a long struggle. Make them clap for 5 minutes on a rainy Monday morning.

Not every work of art is MEANT to be crowd-pleasing. Many of my favorite movies don’t give a shit what I think. But to please a crowd – the way this movie pleased the crowd I was in when I saw it – is

1. an important and essential goal in this Business we call Show
and
2. NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS.

Please see this film. And read my friend Odie’s review.

Posted in Movies | 12 Comments