“I swear my next project is going to be something really simple and focused and minimal.” — Baz Luhrmann

It’s his birthday today.

“I think what I’m saying is, when you get to where I am in your journey, you just have to start to accept that there’s something inside you that you’ve been trying to get out and will try to get out for the rest of your life, and you don’t even understand it yourself. For some reason, I am compelled towards these tragic romances, the issue of love and all its variances, and also in a kind of cinematic language that now even I have to accept. I’ve tried to get rid of it but I can’t.” — Baz Luhrmann

I know, I know, Elvis is the elephant in the room. Last year was the summer of the Elvis movie – it opened in June and it was still in many theatres in September. Almost unheard of now. Aside from Top Gun, I can’t think of any other movie still around months after it was released. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore – or it rarely happens – and it happened with Elvis. For the month of July it was playing at the 100-year-old movie palace literally a 20-minute walk from my (old) apartment. Just down the street. Soooo … I’d be bored and be like “Yeah whatevs, let’s go see it again.”

I’m a fan of Baz Luhrmann, and I recognize – and acknowledge – the reasons why people are put off by him. That’s fine. Critical consensus doesn’t exist for Luhrmann. I, however, think this is a good thing. I distrust consensus. Many critics snark and complain about him – and they complain about the things that are his main strengths. This is so often the case! They want him to NOT be Luhrmann. They use terms like “excess” and “over the top” and “bloated”, etc. But it’s his EXCESS that makes him HIM, and – newsflash – excess is not utilized carefully and cautiously. Otherwise it wouldn’t be excess, now would it.

It’s fine if he’s not your cuppa, but not being your cuppa is … not indicative of anything. Would you “give it to him” if he directed a quiet family drama? Would you then tip your hat to him and acknowledge he knows what he’s doing? It’s ridiculous. At a certain point, personal taste is irrelevant – particularly when you’re a critic. I include myself in this, of course. I have to set my own SELF aside sometimes to see what a movie is doing and why it might be doing it. I still might not LIKE it but I gotta give it up. (Then, of course, there are things that are objectively bad/incompetent. I’ll call it out.) At a certain point you have to just admit, “People get a lot out of this, but it’s not my thing.” Baz, though, gets all this weird commentary … it’s like critics think he should be doing something OTHER than what he is doing with his talent. Why should he try to please YOU, personally? Artists have to please themselves, first and foremost, do I have to do everything around here? On a side note: Baz Luhrmann comes from theatre and opera and it SHOWS. I am speaking as a former Drama Club Nerd, and Theatre Kid, who took tap dance lessons and did jazz hands wearing dorky costumes while performing some horrible “revue” in the high school gym. And then jumped up and down with excitement and adrenaline with all my fellow Drama Club Nerds afterwards. People like this are always mocked – because pure enthusiasm is so embarrassing (and not just in Teenage Land, adults pull the same shit).

If you think of Baz Luhrmann as a grown-up Drama Nerd, it all makes sense. I completely recognize his kind. Stop wanting him to be a different kind of artist.

Moulin Rouge had a huge impact on me, so huge that I distrust my response to the movie. I watched it – on VHS – over and over and over. I can’t even remember what year. 2002? A bad year. I watched it every day. Sometimes twice a day. I don’t know what I saw in it, I don’t know why I clung to it. I did find this really REALLY old piece where I tried to express it. 2005! Damn, I’ve been writing here a long time. It might be interesting to revisit Moulin Rouge – now that the fever passed – and attempt, again, to put into words what I “got” from it, and how it may or may not have changed. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have the same impact. A lot has changed.

Critics pooh-poohed The Great Gatsby. Again, there were complaints about Luhrmann’s “excesses.” Did these people not read the damn book? The whole book is about the excesses of the Jazz Age. We saw where a respectful “non-excess” approach got us with the 1974 version (i.e. NOWHERE). Gatsby is NOT a realistic novel, OR a melodrama. It’s a fever dream of excess. So again: you may not like Luhrmann’s style, but if you complain about his “excesses” then you need to ask yourself: Is the excess in the service of something equally excessive? Critics always talk about form and content. Well, in the case of Gatsby, (and in the case of Elvis), Luhrmann married form to content. It’s the same damn thing.

I was so irritated by the critical dismissal of The Great Gatsby. Fine, don’t like it. But don’t DISMISS it, or pooh-pooh someone for having their own style. You sitting behind a desk who’ve never created something from your guts/heart. Try to understand what he’s doing and why. At the very LEAST. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

So I did what you’re supposed to do when you’re irritated: I wrote a huge piece about Gatsby for Bright Wall/Dark Room:

Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

I think the movie makes some mistakes, which I also get into (Luhrmann loves framing devices. Sometimes they work – sometimes they do not) – but in general Luhrmann’s film is a far more “faithful” adaptation to the book than the 1970s film.

Interestingly enough, my Gatsby piece was completely ignored by the majority of critics, if judging by the Subtweets on Twitter, and the lack of ANY engagement with what I actually wrote. Crickets, in other words. I am not ashamed to say I am proud of the piece: I laid out an argument – just like I was taught to do in 10th grade English when we learned how to write a term paper – and I backed it up with examples from the book and from the movie. I would have loved to have discussions about the piece, people actually reading it, and maybe even entertaining the possibility that I was onto something. If someone I think is a good writer makes an argument, I entertain it. I don’t take it on blindly, but I like playing around with ideas, if they are compelling, or if they hit a blind spot. I don’t like complaining about this stuff – in general I don’t – but the Crickets response to the Gatsby piece was an extremely instructive moment for me. Oh. Okay. Discussion isn’t actually a part of “the discourse”. The consensus has been formed: Gatsby is bad and Luhrmann is ridiculous – and me “sticking up for him” just revealed how credulous and susceptible I was.

Luhrmann understood Fitzgerald’s book on a deep level. He understood its symbolism, and he MAGNIFIED the symbolism as opposed to try to present it in a subtle way. It’s not subtle in the book. The “green light” is not subtle. AT ALL.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Luhrmann’s interview with Interview magazine:

“When I was very young, I grew up in a totally isolated place, in a very small town. I always win the bet with anyone who says, “I lived in a small town”—I grew up in a town with 11 houses, and that was the big part of town. We lived on the outskirts. But the thing is, my dad ran a cinema for a short time and I went to a tiny little Catholic school. There were only three rooms in the school and there were nuns, and I would go up to the library and there would be a bookshelf with about 10 books on it. One of them was called The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, and I opened it and went, “I will never be able to understand that as long as I live.” And a nun named Sister DeChantl said something like, “Oh, he’s one of the greatest writers of all time!” I sort of struggled with Shakespeare for a bit, but when eventually I ran away to the city, there was a guy called Neil Armfield [the Australian film and theater director], who is one of our living treasures. He did a production of Twelfth Night. People were giving out drinks and it was like we were in a Club Med in the Caribbean. There was music and dancing and there was a flash of light, and an actor called Robert Grubb came on in a white suit and said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” The band struck up again and I don’t remember what happened, except I understood every single word of it, and the lights came up and I went, “What was that?” So someone did that for me with Shakespeare and I became a mad Shakespeare nut and quite a bit of an academic on it. I studied it very, very heavily at drama school, and I worked with the greats. But I wanted to do that for a cinematic audience. How would Shakespeare go about making a movie? That’s how Romeo + Juliet was born.”

Posted in Directors, Movies, On This Day, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

“When you lose everything, and I mean everything, you sit there in this empty room in the dark, and the only person who can get you out is you.” — Mickey Rourke

It’s his birthday today.

It’s hard to express what he meant to actors coming up at a certain time. It’s hard to express it without sounding hyperbolic. But he was an enormously meaningful figure. His work was so exciting we all just wondered what he would do next. I was obsessed with him, his gestures, the subtlety of his emotions, his soft voice, the ways he found to dig into scenes (the sugar in Diner!), his devotion to the things we all cared about: truth, story, living believably in imaginary circumstances. There were other figures who came up at around the same time, people who also brought with them excitement. River Phoenix comes to mind. But River was a child. Rourke was a man.

When word of The Wrestler started percolating, I felt an almost unbearable mix of longing, anxiety, and excitement. Listen, you don’t get into acting by being an apathetic person. And the people who mean something to you, mean something to you in the deepest most personal sense. He was one of those guys.

I wrote about Mickey Rourke at House Next Door, right before The Wrestler came out. This is the first piece I wrote that got real attention. Real journalists linked to it, shared it. Real film critics reached out to compliment me. IMDB put a link to it on its homepage, and it stayed there for weeks, until The Wrestler hype died down. The piece took on a life of its own. I still get emails about it. That kind of attention has happened to me since (hello, Elvis), but Mickey Rourke was the first. Which seems appropriate, since my love of him goes back to the moment he emerged, and we watched him unfold in real time. All of those feelings are in the essay – which is why I think it hit people so hard.

Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece literally years in the making, about movie scenes where men look at themselves in the mirror. If you’ve been around here since the beginning, you will remember me posting in, say, 2005, 2006, “I should write about this one day!” Well, I finally did, for Oscilloscope Laboratories. Mickey Rourke’s “mirror moment” in Johnny Handsome is included – it’s not only a great example of the device, but it’s one of Rourke’s finest moments.

Posted in Actors, On This Day | Tagged | 6 Comments

“I’ve always felt that work – learning from people who know more than I know – is what keeps you going.” — Lauren Bacall


It’s her birthday today.

This was the magazine cover that started it all.

Howard Hawks was looking for a protege, a girl he could mold into his perfect idealized woman – the ideal foil for the men in those fabulous macho movies he made. He wasn’t interested in traditional gender roles. He was bored at the thought of a “traditional” woman, however sexy or pretty or appealing she might be. His interest was so specific it could almost be called a kink: He wanted a full-on woman with a capital W, but a woman who wasn’t silly or romantic or easily flustered: he wanted women who could keep up with the boys, who kept her cool, who held her own counsel – but was never “mannish”. A Howard Hawks woman was tough but not hard. If you watch his films in chronological order, you can watch him attempt to create what he saw in his head …. but he never quite got it right until … Lauren Bacall arrived. She was young and almost totally inexperienced; therefore, she was a blank slate, and completely brilliantly mold-able.

Howard Hawks’ wife, “Slim” Hawks – who, for real, was the living embodiment of what Hawks desired and wanted to create onscreen – saw 19-year-old Betty Perske on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. It stopped her dead in her tracks and she immediately showed it to her husband. i.e. Look at this girl. Look at how she stares at the camera. Is this kind of the girl you’ve been looking for? Hawks saw what his wife saw. He had the teenage Betty brought out to Hollywood for a battery of nervewracking screen-tests. She traveled with her mother. She had some acting training but nothing to the level required of her here. She just did what Mr. Hawks told her to do. He dressed her a certain way. He made her hold her head down to keep her chin from trembling – this would become her signature look. He made her keep her voice low and steady (this took a lot of control on her part: nerves make your voice go high.) He made her read the lines a certain way.


At the same time, Hawks was developing a picture with Humphrey Bogart called To Have and Have Not, based on an Ernest Hemingway story. He needed a girl. A girl to play a thief, a love interest, a girl who gave as good as she got. Hawks’ dream-girl was “insolent”, the word he kept whispering in Bacall’s ear, a girl who could be AS “insolent” as Bogart was. Howard Hawks didn’t like silly women. He REALLY didn’t like prudes and prisses. Bacall made it through all of the tests, and Hawks cast her in To Have and Have Not. She was re-christened: “Lauren Bacall.”

Bacall wrote in her wonderful autobiography By Myself:

One day a couple of weeks before the picture was to start, I was about to walk into Howard’s office when Humphrey Bogart came walking out. He said, “I just saw your test. We’ll have a lot of fun together.” Howard told me Bogart had truly liked the test and would be very helpful to me.

Truer words …


Her debut in To Have and Have Not is one of the best film debuts in film history. It made her an instant star. Her first entrance is unforgettable. “Anybody got a match?” She, a virgin at the time, had almost no experience with men, and yet here she was playing a role where she oozed knowing confident sensuality.

This is very important to keep in mind: Bacall was not drawing on her own experiences. She followed Hawks’ instructinos, learning how to act on the job, and gave an incredible performance. Not everything has to come from a place of “lived experience”. It was an unforgettable first impression.

Bacall was able to channel her nerves, her fear, into a cool coiled character, sexually knowing, unflappable, with a sizzling hot interior. This is how strong she was: it also showed her total trust in Howard Hawks: but if you’re going to obey a Maestro, like she did, then you have to REALLY do it, you have to commit to it 100% – and that’s what she did. She didn’t fight his influence, she didn’t resent him telling her what to do, she wasn’t like “stop telling me what to do, Svengali.” He WAS a Svengali, and she participated willingly, fully. He knew what he had. She had no idea what she had. But he saw it. Slim Hawks saw it. They knew, just from looking at that magazine cover: she was a star.

And she remained so, for 70 more years.

One more thing: about that Harper’s Bazaar cover: If you look at Bacall’s deadpan straight-on expression, you see the future of modeling. The smileless future of modeling, where models stalk down the catwalk, with flat uningratiating faces. The future of modeling was the opposite of “come hither”. Bacall was an emissary from the future.

Posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

This Could Be A Total Bust, or Mickey Rourke Inside The Actor’s Studio, by Brendan O’Malley

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He maintained a blog for many years (he doesn’t blog anymore) -in 2020 I posted links to his 50 Best Albums essays, as well as all of his music essays – shows he’d seen, artists he loved, etc. Today, though, I’m posting what he wrote about Mickey Rourke – in honor of Mickey Rourke’s birthday. I am tangentially involved in this story. Many years back, it was announced that Mickey Rourke was being interviewed by Jim Lipton in Los Angeles for “Inside the Actors Studio.” I am on the mailing list for those interviews, and I went to all of the interviews in its early seasons, held at the New School for Social Research. (If you watch early seasons, and you see a red-haired woman wearing a black beret in the audience – that’s me.) I got complementary tickets due to my association with the Actors Studio. I would have obviously gone if Mickey Rourke’s interview took place in New York, but this one was being filmed in Los Angeles. I emailed Michael instantly – old-timers know all about Michael – one of our bonds was – and still is – Mickey Rourke. I asked if he wanted to take my ticket. He was busy, so I texted Bren. Thankfully he was able to go! And he gave a full report. Here it is.

This Could Be A Total Bust, or Mickey Rourke Inside The Actor’s Studio

We sat in the plush velvet theater seats waiting for Mickey Rourke to come out and have his ass kissed by James Lipton. The evening was supposed to have started at 7PM and it was now pushing 8. Our seats were right next to the two cameramen set up in the audience to film Lipton and Rourke. We heard their conversation…

“He’s not even here.”


“Rourke. He ain’t here. This could be a bust.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Just heard it on the headset. He isn’t here. This could be a bust. I mean, a total bust.”

This could be a total bust. With Mickey Rourke, who was briefly on top of the mountain, there is always the chance that he might just decide, “Ah, fuck this noise.” And disappear forever.

But all of a sudden there he was.

He was wearing what appeared to be some sort of a seersucker suit with a sheer tight long sleeve muscle shirt underneath open to his navel. His tri-color hair was in a set of mild dreadlocks and he wore blue velvet shoes without socks that looked like they could have been worn by Kirsten Dunst in a scene from Marie Antoinette. A fedora/hat-you-wear-to-bet-on-horses was pulled down over a pair of shades which sat atop an impish mustache/goatee triangle. In short, he looked fucking crazy.

Lipton asked about his parents’ divorce when he was young and he mumbled that Lipton was going to make him smoke sooner than he thought. He then pulled out a Zippo attached to a watch-fob and lit up the first of what seemed to be a thousand cigarettes.

In a moment of behavior reminiscent of the kind he uses to such wonderful advantage in his film portraits, he became frustrated by the smoke billowing out of the coffee mug he’d been ashing into so he took the pitcher from the side table and poured a dollop of water in to quench the ember.

The movement was delicate, refined, the kind of thing an aristocrat would do if they were holding a meeting with a visiting dignitary. When you combine that kind of grace and precision with the body and fashion sense of a Miami pimp with a Gatsby fetish … well, let’s just say you wind up with Mickey Rourke.

I won’t go into all of the amazing anecdotes he shared. You can watch the Inside The Actor’s Studio broadcast for that.

Melody (my girlfriend) is younger than me by just enough that she missed Mickey Rourke’s moment in the sun. She has a memory of seeing 9 ½ Weeks in high school and knowing it was naughty but she was too young to really identify with Mickey Rourke as an actor. She’d seen Barfly in college but couldn’t really remember it. His charm is pretty much disguised in that movie anyway. We went to see The Wrestler which capitalizes on his past but she really hadn’t been subjected to the full weight of what had been LOST.

So we watched Angel Heart to get ready for the big event. It was very interesting to watch someone experience Rourke for the first time in all his glory. He is truly astonishing.

(Side note: they didn’t talk about this film AT ALL which is such an oversight that there must be an actual reason for it, either Rourke refused to talk about it or Alan Parker wouldn’t give permission for the clips. There’s a story there that I’d love to know about.)

As we watched Angel Heart I primarily watched Melody. Since I know what is coming next in each scene, I vicariously witnessed her being buffeted about by the story, by Rourke’s easy charm and rumpled elegance, by the existential dread that he effortlessly embodies. This carried over to the night of the Inside The Actor’s Studio taping and by the time we left she admitted that she was “a little in love with Mickey Rourke.”

And isn’t that what is happening with the whole world right now? And isn’t that great? The whole world is saying, “Hey, Mickey Rourke! We are a little in LOVE with you.” It isn’t just normal box-office bullshit, media-created marketing blitzes telling us that Josh Hartnett is sliced bread’s next incarnation.

Nothing against Josh Hartnett (who I actually like), but the powers-that-be tried to treat him like he was Johnny Depp before anyone had gotten a look at him. He was like a minor league phenom touted as the next big thing. Then he gets to the big leagues and it just doesn’t happen. And conversely, can you imagine reading that Josh Hartnett had given up acting and was pursuing boxing? That he had had it with the stinking quagmire of Hollywood and rejected the whole kit and caboodle?

There was an organic quality to Mickey Rourke’s rise to stardom that is hard to explain to people now. There was no internet. There wasn’t even cable TV on a widespread basis. Nope. This guy hit the screen for 5 minutes in Body Heat and that was all it took. The audience responded and he was off and running.

I hit college just as he hit his stride and we college actors were all on the Mickey Rourke band wagon. We didn’t just want to see his movies. We wanted to BE him.

And this was when things started to go haywire somehow.

I remember going to see Johnny Handsome in the movie theater. For the first half hour I was convinced that Rourke was going to win an Oscar. He plays a disfigured criminal whose deformation has created a kind of anti-social violence in him. He then is given the opportunity for a radical kind of facial reconstructive surgery. The moment when he removes the bandages to see that his face has been transformed into that of Mickey Rourke is one of the more astonishing moments of acting that you WILL EVER SEE.

And then, the movie, like the next 15 years of Rourke’s life, quickly de-volved into a bad cliché. I remember being highly disappointed that the story and film had let Mickey Rourke down, that he was simply TOO good for the material. And in listening to him talk to James Lipton, I think it was that very sense that destroyed him. He could not reconcile the fact that his talent could NOT BE MATCHED in any significant way. His standards set the bar so high that he needed a Coppola or a Scorcese or a Polanski EVERY time out of the box or there wasn’t really a point to it.

Now a certain level of this is bullshit. He was out of control. He was difficult to work with. He seems to have been incapable of respecting the talents of other people, finding it easier to hide behind his own as a defense mechanism. But I don’t think this has anything to do with him as an ACTOR. If he’d continued digging ditches in Miami he’d have been a prima-donna ditch digger with anger management issues and an ego so finely developed that it becomes unhealthy.

This is why the story of his personal journey is so fascinating to us. Normally I don’t care a hoot about the personal life of an actor. In fact, it bores me to tears. I care about what happens once the credits roll and that is about it. But in this case, the relationship that he has developed with the public is so personal that his story has become part of his onscreen persona. And this is a change from the beginning of his career when he seemed to crave a kind of anonymity and mystery, even in the parts he played. He craved anonymity and mystery so much that in fact, he became anonymous and a mystery.

But on this night, anyway, Mickey Rourke deigned to grace us with his presence.

We’d gone from “This could be a total bust” to Mickey Rourke surrounded by fawning young artists hoping to touch one of their heroes. And the most amazing fact was that he’d shown up at all. That he’d turned off the voice in his head that said that evenings like this were bullshit, they weren’t what it was all about. We love Mickey Rourke because in some way we AGREE with him that that stuff is bullshit. But we’re still glad he showed up for it.

Look out world. Mickey Rourke has finally arrived.

Posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day | Tagged , | 3 Comments

“I’m trying to get people to see that we are our brother’s keeper. Red, white, black, brown or yellow, rich or poor, we all have the blues.” — B.B. King

WHAT a performance. And WHAT an audience. The mood – the back and forth – the communication going on – not just from up on the stage, but coming back at him from the crowd – is what live performance (and the blues) are all about.

Today is the birthday of legendary bluesman B.B. King, who died in 2015 at the age of 89. He had a six-decade career. He toured constantly, almost up until the very end.

Here’s one of my favorite live clips. Watch how King builds it. And listen to that guitar. One of the most eloquent guitars ever.

B.B. King was interviewed for the PBS oral histories “American Roots Music,” and it’s a goldmine. He was asked about Bo Diddley and Elvis and Little Richard and what these people meant for him and other blues musicians. His response is eloquent.

I never thought of it that way because, see, Little Richard played some blues; Elvis — believe it or not — played some blues; all of these guys. And I wondered why they called them rock and roll. The only reason I could see was because they were white. I couldn’t see any other reason why they were rock ‘n roll, ’cause a lot of the black guys was doing the same thing they were doing. So the only difference was sort of like the records when we first started making records. They would have “race records,” you know, if the dude was black. That’s a black one right there. If it’s pop, that’s a white one right there, and that was the difference. But when rock ‘n roll started, in my opinion – I said in my opinion – Little Richard had been doing some of the same things I heard the Rolling Stones doing. Fats Domino had been out – his way, his style – but he was doing the same changes and progressions that these guys were doing. The only difference I saw was white and black. I don’t know if it was done because of prejudice. I didn’t think of it that way, but I thought of it “Okay, that’s a white guy there; he’s rock ‘n roll. That’s a black guy over there; he’s playing the blues.” ‘Cause they hadn’t, for some reason, thought of soul at the time. These guys obviously didn’t have any soul. They called guys like me rhythm and blues, so somewhere along the line I guess I lost my rhythm! [And I] wind up here – just the blues, you know. To answer your question, I didn’t think anything other than we had more [people] on the scene. The more, the merrier – especially when you started having the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many guys like that. Would you believe that the Beatles helped open a lot of doors for blues players like myself?

Here’s BB King and Elvis, in December, 1956, backstage at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium at a fund-raising event hosted by WDIA radio station, a black-owned and black-run radio station.

The funds raised went to “needy Negro children.” Presley was there that night to support, and it was a moment almost unthinkable in that day/age. The symbolism was lost on nobody there. By December 1956, Elvis was the biggest name in the country. He had a hit movie to his name. He was a millionaire.

BB King wrote in his autobiography:

The entire black community turned out. All the DJs carried on, putting on skits and presenting good music. When Elvis appeared, he was already a big, big star. Remember this was the ’50s, so for a young white boy to show up in an all-black function took guts. I believe he was showing his roots and he seemed proud of those roots. After the show he made a point of posing for pictures with me, treating me like royalty. He’d tell people I was one of his influences. I doubt whether that’s true but I like hearing Elvis give Memphis credit for his musical upbringing.

And because my site is what it is, here is a lengthy quote from a 2010 interview with BB King about Elvis, and the persistent accusations of Elvis’ racism. Let’s listen to what BB King had to say about all that.

Let me tell you the definitive truth about Elvis Presley and racism. With Elvis, there was not a single drop of racism in that man. And when I say that, believe me I should know. All of our influences had something in common. We were born poor in Mississippi, went through poor childhoods and we learned and earned our way through music. You see, I talked with Elvis about music early on, and I know one of the big things in heart was this: Music is owned by the whole universe. It isn’t exclusive to the black man or the white man or any other color. It shared in and by our souls. I told Elvis once, and he told me he remembered I told him this, is that music is like water. Water is for every living person and every living thing. Water from the white fountain don’t taste any better than from the black fountain. We just need to share it, that’s all. You see, Elvis knew this and I know this.

Many people make the mistake of being wrong about all of this. If you ask anyone, I’m talking about people from all kinds of music – Blues, Soul, Country, Gospel, whatever – and if they are honest with you and have been around long enough to know—they’ll thank Elvis for his contributions. He opened many doors and by all his actions, not just his words, he showed his love for all people.

People don’t realize that when ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ was first played (by Dewey Phillips in July 1954) no one had ever heard anything like that record. It wasn’t just country. It was Rhythm and Blues. It was Pop music. It was music for everybody. This is important.

I was barely 11 years old, when one of the greatest influences of my life, Robert Johnson, was recording just across the street from this theater recording his first ever songs. Johnson came from the same dirt Elvis and so many of us did. It was the world of sharecropping, and to survive that hard work bending over all day long, there would be plenty of singing. Elvis’ momma and daddy did their share of it – both the picking and the singing. It was called survival. It was called life. It was just as important to us as water. It was as important to those of us who had it in our souls as the water.

The other big influence was Jimmie Rodgers. Some people want to say he was the Father of Country Music, but like Elvis, he was more than that. He was a big influence on not just me. I used to listen to my aunt’s records of Jimmie Rodgers and that was a real treat. I liked that ‘Mississippi Delta Blues’ and to listen to him yodel. I never did yodel, but Jimmie Rodgers could sure yodel. He was very good at it. But yes, he influenced more than country music, he influenced Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as much as he did Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson. See, Elvis did that too, but only much wider. Elvis influenced everybody’s music and it was for the good of all of us.

Now, where did Jimmie Rodgers learn his music from? He learned it working alongside the black railroad workers and hobos. Elvis lived and played with black children back in Mississippi. He told me that when he was just a baby and his mama had to work, he was cared for sometimes by his grandmamma, but mostly by a neighbor black lady.

People today will say things about Elvis they just don’t know about. They want to say this is black music, this is white music, this is country music. But when Elvis came along all that was suddenly washed down the drain.

Back in ’72, Elvis helped me get a good gig at the Hilton Hotel while he was playing in the big theater. He put in a call for me and I worked in the lounge to standing room only. Elvis fans came in different colors but their love of good music was all the same. They were always a good audience.

Many nights I’d go upstairs after we finished our sets and go up to his suite. I’d play Lucille and sing with Elvis, or we’d take turns. It was his way of relaxing.

I’ll tell you a secret. We were the original Blues Brothers because that man knew more blues songs than most in the business – and after some nights it felt like we sang every one of them. But my point is, that when we were hanging out in the Hilton in the 70s, Elvis had not lost his respect, his “yes sir,” his love for all fields of music. And I liked that.

If anyone says Elvis Presley was a racist, then they don’t know a thing about Elvis Presley or music history.

B.B. King had so many fruitful collaborations with other artists. In closing, I love his stuff with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Posted in Music, On This Day | Tagged | 6 Comments

“If a man is not faithful to his own individuality, he cannot be loyal to anything.” — poet Claude McKay

“I am a black man, born in Jamaica, B.W.I., and have been living in America for the last years. It was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable…Looking about me with bigger and clearer eyes I saw that this cruelty in different ways was going on all over the world. Whites were exploiting and oppressing whites even as they exploited and oppressed the yellows and blacks. And the oppressed, groaning under the leash, evinced the same despicable hate and harshness toward their weaker fellows. I ceased to think of people and things in the mass. [O]ne must seek for the noblest and best in the individual life only: each soul must save itself.” — Claude McKay

Claude McKay was born on this day in 1890 on the island of Jamaica. He grew up poor, but he was exposed to literature through an older brother. It got him going. He loved English literature, he loved all the Romantic poets. As a young man, McKay met Walter Jekyll, an Englishman who had come to Jamaica originally to be a planter. Unlike a lot of other imported-planter-types, Jekyll immersed himself in the local culture, becoming fascinated by the Afro-Caribbean world and its people, its folklore, its language. In 1906, Jekyll published a collection of the tales he had heard. Jekyll felt it was important to capture these stories, since they came from an oral tradition. The meeting of McKay and Jekyll was crucial, because Jekyll encouraged him to start writing in his own dialect, using his own language. There were examples from the past of those who had done this – those colonized by England, not just politically and socially, but linguistically. Someone like Robert Burns (my post about him here) rejected writing “in English,” instead he wrote like the people he knew, he wrote in dialect. McKay was very inspired by Robert Burns: he wanted to do for Jamaica what Burns did for Scotland.

McKay’s first book was called Songs of Jamaica, published in 1912. Walter Jekyll wrote the introduction.

That same year, McKay published another book called Constab Ballads, drawing on his experience as a police constable. McKay won a prize for these books, and moved to America that same year to study at the Tuskegee Institute. He then attended Kansas State College. He moved to Harlem in 1914. (He became an American citizen in 1940). In moving to Harlem when he did, he stepped into a seething vibrant literary culture.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of McKay’s life, however, is his almost restless and constant travel. Jamaica. Kansas. New York. He moved to England for a couple of years, right after WWI. He met important people who loved what he was doing. He wrote for Sylvia Pankhurst’s radical feminist newspaper. McKay’s “reach” widened exponentially. After his time in England, he went to Russia. The Russian Revolution fired him up with excitement and he wanted to see what was going on. This was 1922, the era when the Revolution – which had filled so many with so much hope – started coalescing into … well, the monstrosity it became. Nevertheless, McKay continued to “believe” in the ideals behind the revolution. (Socialist writer Max Eastman wrote the preface to McKay’s book Harlem Shadows.)

The wandering continued through the early 1920s: McKay moved to France. He lived in Morocco. Then he returned to America, and over the next decades he got the memo, in re: Communism, and he renounced his beliefs. Still caring about the plight of mankind, he devoted himself to Catholic causes. He was famous. His work was famous. He did not suffer in obscurity. For example, “If We Must Die” (printed below), was written in response to the 1919 race riots, or “race riots”, quotation marks necessary. Those riots were really part of a “Red Scare” – the first of many in America. “If We Must Die” may be McKay’s most famous poem. Henry Cabot Lodge read it into the Congressional Record at the time. If you watch The Man in the High Castle, you will recognize the poem.

McKay’s main innovation and gift was bringing the rhythms of Jamaican speech into American poetry. He was hugely influential on the Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean poets who came after.

Harlem Shadows was published in 1922, one of the most important years in 20th century literature – high modernism arrived with a vengeance, sweeping away the dead leaves of the past. Ulysses was published in 1922. As was T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was appearing piece by piece. Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt. Anna Akhmatova’s final collection of poetry appeared in 1922, before the decades of suppression of her work began. Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Siddhartha. The Beautiful and the Damned. Harlem Shadows is a part of this literary revolution, not to mention being one of the opening bells of the Harlem Renaissance.

McKay often used “old” forms, i.e. traditional European forms, like the sonnet – and this juxtaposition between form and content created startling effects when combined with his vocabulary, language, and subject matter. For example, his devastating poem “The Lynching” is in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The Lynching

His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

Breakthroughs like this extraordinary sonnet open doors for other artists, shine light where there was no light before. Not just in subject matter, but in form. McKay’s breakthrough signaled to others around him and to those who came after: The long tradition of English literature, created/written by white people, was not just “FOR” white people, and the beautiful perfect literary forms of the so-called white tradition were not barred to those who had been colonized by the countries from whence that tradition sprung. This was then and remains somewhat controversial, because indigenous forms were wiped out by colonization, and much of 20th century literature was a re-claiming of the indigenous forms. Anyone who came from a colonized culture understood that their natural tradition and language and customs had been wiped out or at least so co-opted as to have dissolved totally. (James Joyce was all about this. The Irish language had been stamped out. The clearest example of Joyce’s feelings on is the famous “tundish scene” in Portrait of the Artist).

McKay writing a sonnet about lynching is such a daring innovation in form: He claimed that white tradition as his own. Now, there may be bars for entry in terms of such work being accepted – people may not like what you are doing, may not accept you “using” a “white” form to tell your story – but the people who reject you are stuck in the past while you are the present and the future. (Countee Cullen’s work – my post on him here – has similar qualities. He was a 20th century Black man, writing in the Romantic Keats-ian tradition. McKay and Cullen both loved the Romantic poets, and both revered the sonnet.) One of McKay’s primary inspirations was William Wordsworth (my post on him here). McKay used Wordworth’s rhythms and sensitivity to nature to plunge readers into Jamaica. McKay’s Caribbean atmosphere could not be further away from the landscape that inspired Wordsworth. But love of nature is love of nature, no matter where you are.

McKay was not the first poet to use Jamaican English in poetry, but he was the most successful, cracking open poetry to include new voices, different sounds and different prosody. His influence on future generations cannot be measured.

After his death, he was declared the national poet of Jamaica.

Here are a couple of his famous poems.

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Harlem Shadows

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.


James Weldon Johnson:

Claude McKay, although still quite a young man, has already demonstrated his power, breadth and skill as a poet. Mr. McKay’s breadth is as essential a part of his equipment as his power and skill. He demonstrates mastery of the three when as a Negro poet he pours out the bitterness and rebellion in his heart in those two sonnet-tragedies, “If We Must Die” and “To the White Fiends,” in a manner that strikes terror; and when as a cosmic poet he creates the atmosphere and mood of poetic beauty in the absolute, as he does in “Spring in New Hampshire” and “The Harlem Dancer.” Mr. McKay gives evidence that he has passed beyond the danger which threatens many of the new Negro poets–the danger of allowing the purely polemical phases of the race problem to choke their sense of artistry.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Along with southern blacks, Caribbean migrants were among those moving north, including Claude McKay, later declared the national poet of Jamaica. Arriving in the United States in 1912 and abandoning the Jamaican English of his early verse, McKay was politically the most militant if prosodically among the most conservative of the new African American writers. In Harlem Shadows (1922), he preferred the sonnet among European lyric forms, but if the genre was traditional, McKay’s use of it – dislocating its norms of intimacy to express racial fury and estrangement – was not. Living mostly in France and Morocco for eleven years after 1922, he inspired francophone poets such as Leopold Sedar Senghor–African and Caribbean poets of the Negritude movement, who beginning in the 1930s asserted black pride and resistance to colonial assimilation.

Arthur D. Drayton, “Claude McKay’s Human Pity”:

McKay does not seek to hide his bitterness. But having preserved his vision as poet and his status as a human being, he can transcend bitterness. In seeing … the significance of the Negro for mankind as a whole, he is at once protesting as a Negro and uttering a cry for the race of mankind as a member of that race. His human pity was the foundation that made all this possible.

Robert Bone:

These first two volumes [Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads] are already marked by a sharpness of vision, an inborn realism, and a freshness which provides a pleasing contrast with the conventionality which, at this time, prevails among the black poets of the United States.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The sonnets “America” and “The White City” compact intense ambivalence toward white society in muscular syntax and violent images. The tension between McKay’s strict form and molten subject parallels the intense racial alienation represented in some of his poems. “Outcast” registers the poet’s sense of permanent estrangement from African culture. The figure of “The Harlem Dancer,” though idolized and exoticized, reflects the poet’s alienation: “looking at her falsely-smiling face, / I knew her self was not in that strange place.”

Jean Wagner:

Along with the will to resistance of black Americans that it expresses, [“If We Must Die”] voices also the will of oppressed people of every age who, whatever their race and wherever their region, are fighting with their backs against the wall to win their freedom.

Alan L. MacLeod:

That he was able to capture a universality of sentiment in ‘If We Must Die’ has been fully demonstrated; that he was able to show new directions for the black novel is now acknowledged; and that he is rightly regarded as one of the harbingers of (if not one of the participants in) the Harlem Renaissance is undisputed.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The year 1922 saw many important tendencies in modern writing put into motion. It was the year of The Waste Land, of James Joyce’s Ulysses (published in Paris), and, at the start of the Harlem Renaissance, of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows and James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry.

Robert A. Smith, “Claude McKay: An Essay in Criticism”:

Although he was frequently concerned with the race problem, his style is basically lucid. One feels disinclined to believe that the medium which he chose was too small, or too large for his message. He has been heard.

Posted in Books, On This Day, writers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“A vast amount of rubbish is published in the name of art. A man should let his work talk for him. ” — Charles Dana Gibson

It’s his birthday today.

Old-timers will remember when my blog-design was Gibson-Girl inspired. My favorite haughty Gibson Girl was in the blog banner for years!

What a goddess. She is gorgeous and she does not give af.

The only vestige of the Gibson Girl origin-story of this site is in the email address attached to the blog.

The Gibson Girl caught my eye back when I was in high school. I like to try to re-trace my steps in terms of these long-term influences but this one I’m not sure about. I was very into the Betsy-Tacy-Tib books, particularly the four books covering the high school years – these books had illustrations, and all of the teenage girl characters were rendered with Gibson-Girl silhouettes. I used to obsess over these illustrations, the swooping curves of the skirts, the pompadours … And somehow, the “Gibson Girl wallpaper” came into my life. I had a postcard of it, and it stayed taped up beside my mirror for years. So much so that I took the wallpaper – and the Gibson Girl – for granted, and never gave it a second’s thought. I still don’t give my love of these elegant haughty ladies too much thought. I just know I have loved them all of my life. Self-projection? I don’t think so, although of course they are aspirational in a way.

Charles Dana Gibson used his wife and her sisters as his models. He was surrounded by powerful women, women who had their own world going on, separate from the men in their lives – this seemed to fascinate him. And maybe because of his close platonic/familial relationships with women, he was able to gain access to women’s private lives in a way that other men – who were caught up in pursuing said women – couldn’t. Gibson knew how women talked about men when men weren’t present. And instead of being upset about it, he made witty illustrations celebrating the power of women.

Yes, the “Gibson Girl” was an “idealization”, and idealizations are always limiting …. but damn, in his point of view women were … going to the beach, attending fancy balls, snickering about men, tormenting and toying with men – OR bored out of their minds by men … His “idealization” was not domestic, and this is KEY (maybe key, too, to why I loved them so much. Domestic partnership and domestic life wasn’t going to be my destiny either, even though I always wanted it.) His starry-eyed view of women had nothing to do with seeing them dressed up in aprons, standing in kitchens, holding babies. In fact, the Gibson Girl was the opposite. In the world of the Gibson Girl, men are weak, either puny or boorish – not at ALL worthy of the goddesses among them – in some cases they are tiny in stature … completely inconsequential. The Gibson Girl strolls on by, nose in the air. So if this is an idealization then … doesn’t sound too bad. You could certainly do way worse.

It’s also amazing to me that all of this is made with just long slashes of a pen. Look at all of the slashes making up the piles of her pompadour-ed hair! It’s so intricate-looking – and there’s a perfect illusion of the hair having shine, of picking up the light in its curves and swoops. He does it so simply, but look at the effect.

Years ago I came across a giant art book filled with Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations – in a second-hand store, I think, maybe a flea market – I can’t remember, it’s been years and years. This was Pictures of People, first published in 1896 – my edition says “1901” on the title page. The book was in fairly good shape except for the binding and the stains on the cover. It’s HUGE. For a long time I’ve never had enough space to display it, and so it sat in a box or on a shelf … which defeats the purpose. This is a book to take some time flipping through, enjoying the illustrations. Finally now I have a free surface where I put the book, and so now I feel like it’s back in my life again. These things are meant to be shared. It’s a huge book.

Gibson’s stuff appeared in Life magazine and other publications: it was the heyday of American illustration. While he is remembered for the “Gibson Girl,” there’s a lot of variety in his work, and often the captions comment on the illustration in a way that cracks open the image, adding layers of irony, wit, illumination. (See “The Cabinet Meeting” below. That’s the most dramatic example.) His stuff is funny! It’s not just haughty ladies strolling by with parasols. There’s a lot of social commentary here. And again, it’s great to see this book since the images are so huge, you can really fall into the cross-hatching slashes making up the hair, the clothes, the skin of the illustrations. How did he DO that? It’s amazing.

Here’s a little tour of Pictures of People, proudly on display in my study area. Make sure to read the captions!

Posted in Art/Photography, Books, On This Day | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” — H.L. Mencken

“You know what H.L. Mencken said one time about religious people? He said he’d been greatly misunderstood. He said he didn’t hate them. He simply found them comical.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Today is the birthday of one of the greatest cranks in American letters – and the best writer of them all – the sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken.

He’s probably most famous for the quote in the title line, but also for his righteous enraged dispatches from the Scopes trial, collected into a book with the non-inflammatory title A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, a high watermark of journalism as activism. These articles are incandescent with rage. He hated quacks and fads and trends. He hated stupidity, he hated the credulous, he hated organized religion. The mere THOUGHT of chiropractors drove him bananas. And nuttery like creationism fired him up with evangelical zeal to reveal those ignoramuses for what they were: dangerous, misguided, and to be beaten at all costs.

I read Terry Teachout’s excellent biography (The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken), which helped contextualize him. He was one of THE authors of the “Jazz Age,” which is really interesting when you look at how he lived his life, in the most non-Jazz-Age-y way as possible. He lived in the house he grew up in. He lived with his mother. He didn’t marry until he was in his 40s. He occasionally played piano in burlesque houses, and things like that, he enjoyed cigars and alcohol … but he wasn’t a trendy “bright young thing.” At all. But you can’t get more successful than Mencken was in the 1920s. As the 1930s heated up with fascism all over the world, Mencken often found himself on the wrong side of history. He admired German culture so much, he “wrote off” Hitler as a goof, a sideshow. (He was not alone in that.) He became crankier with age. (Don’t we all. Or, I’ll speak for myself.) He was “out of touch” with the times. But during his heyday, he helped launch American letters into the stratosphere.

He was a snob. He didn’t try to keep up with the culture. He could not care less. He barely gave the movies any thought at all. He was highly suspicious of consensus. Maybe this is why I love him so much. He helps keep you sharp, he helps you interrogate your own responses to things, and you also interrogate your response to HIM. He’s fun to argue with. I read his In Defense of Women just this year and some of his blanket statements! I go, “COME ON NOW.” He could be brutal about women, yes, but that’s nothing … NOTHING … compared to his views on men. He thought American men were the worst. He felt sorry for American women for having to put up with the slobs. And Mencken put into words – over and over again – something I have felt and sensed my whole life: that men are more romantic than women, that men are more sentimental than women, that women are practical, because they have to be. Men get swept away. Generalities, yes, blah blah, but much of this has been reflected in my own experience. It’s almost a conspiracy, the assumption that women are these fluttery romantic nincompoops – when I have found the exact opposite to be true.Mencken can be a tough read, you have to have a very thick skin, which I do, and besides: anyone who can write as well as he can is worth the time.

I really love his unexpectedly tender essay on Rudolph Valentino, which – weirdly – is an unofficial obituary for Valentino, a sex symbol who died shortly after his bizarre meeting with Mencken. Valentino had reached out to Mencken for advice – this blows me away. The two men did not know each other. Mencken did not think the movies were a worthwhile subject. Two more unlikely people you could not imagine. Mencken dismissed most popular culture, he despised the new, any “fad,” anything the majority of people flipped over he thought was probably useless. And yet here he was, summoned to a meeting with a man who was famous in a field Mencken thought vulgar, a man whose movies he never saw. (I wrote about this beautiful essay here, with an excerpt.)

The Valentino essay stands out in its affection and baffled tenderness. But in general, why I treasure Mencken is his vinegar-y contempt and outrage at stupidity, ignorance, anti-science bullshit, credulous people, etc. Yes, some of his sentiments wouldn’t fly today, but that’s not the measure of something’s worth. When he goes after the anti-science attitudes behind the Scopes trial, he takes no prisoners. Think of the anti-vaxxers today. Think of Marianne Williamson’s disgusting comments on illness, AIDS, hurricane trajectories. This kind of stuff will always be with us, and Mencken destroyed those who hold such views. His contempt rollicks forth in non-stop hilarious broadsides.

There is a small pantheon of mean obituaries. The top 3 mean obituaries are, in chronological order:

1. Mencken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan (“He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense or dignity.”)
2. Hunter Thompson’s obituary for Richard Nixon
3. Christopher Hitchens’ obituary for Mother Teresa.

When Mencken is NOT contemptuous, i.e. his essays on Schubert, Beethoven, Ring Lardner, Poe, Mark Twain, his tone of unqualified celebration and admiration is intense.

Here’s an excerpt from his essay on the “artist” in society, and how all great artists are – in many ways – AGAINST the society from which they sprung.

“It is almost safe to assume that an artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist. The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely. He is, in brief, a more delicate fellow than we are, and hence less fitted to prosper and enjoy himself under the conditions of life which he and we must face alike. Therefore, he takes to artistic endeavor, which is at once a criticism of life and an attempt to escape from life.

So much for the theory of it. The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope – all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 per centers, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.

Dante put all of the patriotic Italians of his day into Hell, and showed them boiling, roasting and writhing on hooks. Cervantes drew such a devastating picture of the Spain that he lived in that it ruined the Spaniards. Shakespeare made his heroes foreigners and his clowns Englishmen. Goethe was in favor of Napoleon. Rabelais, a citizen of Christendom rather than of France, raised a cackle against it that Christendom is still trying in vain to suppress. Swift, having finished the Irish and then the English, proceeded to finish the whole human race. The exceptions are few and far between, and not many of them will bear examination.”

Posted in Books, On This Day, writers | Tagged | 8 Comments

“Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be ‘objective’ or clear-cut at the cost of honesty.” — Irish poet Louis MacNeice

“Self-assertion more often than not is vulgar, but a live and vulgar dog who keeps on barking is better than a dead lion, however dignified.” — Louis MacNeice

Born in Belfast on this day in 1907, Louis MacNeice went to public school, and then attended Oxford. When you read reviews of MacNeice’s stuff from other poets, the opinions are wildly divergent. Some are annoyed, some are enthusiastic – there is not a consensus. He was a brilliant scholar of the classics, and did many translations. His background was public-school all the way, and Oxford set him free. He went on to work for the BBC, producing radio plays (which he often also wrote). In fact, this job would end up causing his death. After recording a radio play in a damp cave, he caught pneumonia and died.

His generation – and the poets/writers who were his contemporaries (Auden, Stephen Spender, all people he knew personally) – had to deal with the giants of the generation immediately preceding it. You know, little-known folks like Yeats and Eliot. Their influence was so total it was impossible to ignore. You could barely even define yourself against these figures. It’s like deciding to go after Ali or Tyson’s crown: you had BEST know what you are doing first, and choose your approach beforehand. You can’t just declaim it and have it be so. The poets of MacNeice’s generation took different individualized approaches to these challenges of influence, everyone struggled in different ways.

MacNeice lived most of his life in London. He supported Home Rule for Ireland. I don’t think he ever thought of moving back to Belfast, but he never felt truly English. I think that sensation of separateness was exciting for him as an artist. It put him in a state of almost constant duality: here but also there, here and also not-here. He loved living in London, but he was very proud of his Irish-ness. He lived in the “between” state of the exile. And his poems take on Irish subjects, he speaks of Ireland repeatedly. MacNeice’s nostalgia was tempered by realism. This makes for a very interesting tone.

This poem has always killed me:


In my childhood trees were green
And there was plenty to be seen.

Come back early or never come.

My father made the walls resound,
He wore his collar the wrong way round.

Come back early or never come.

My mother wore a yellow dress;
Gently, gently, gentleness.

Come back early or never come.

When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.

Come back early or never come.

The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.

Come back early or never come.

When I woke they did not care;
Nobody, nobody was there.

Come back early or never come.

When my silent terror cried,
Nobody, nobody replied.

Come back early or never come.

I got up; the chilly sun
Saw me walk away alone.

Come back early or never come.

And here’s another one. You can feel the journalistic drive here, it’s very “just the facts, ma’am”.


I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

The brook ran yellow from the factory stinking of chlorine,
The yarn-milled called its funeral cry at noon;
Our lights looked over the Lough to the lights of Bangor
Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.

The Norman walled this town against the country
To stop his ears to the yelping of his slave
And built a church in the form of a cross but denoting
The List of Christ on the cross, in the angle of the nave.

I was the rector’s son, born to the Anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

The war came and a huge camp of soldiers
Grew from the ground in sight of our house with long
Dummies hanging from gibbets for bayonet practice
And the sentry’s challenge echoing all day long.

I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
And the soldiers with their guns.


Louis MacNeice:

Yeats proposed to turn his back on desire and hatred; Eliot sat back and watched other peoples’ emotions with ennui and an ironical self-pity … The whole poetry, on the other hand, of Auden, Spender, and Day-Lewis implies that they have desires and hatreds of their own and, further, that they think some things ought to be desired and others hated … My own prejudice … is in favour of poets whose worlds are not too esoteric. I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

W.H. Auden, whose obvious brilliance daunted his contemporaries, was the central figure in this group At various times during his time at Oxford, he befriended fellow students Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, and made the acquaintance of Louis MacNeice. These poets were given a collective identity when Michael Toberts published them together in an anthology, New Signatures (1932). They prided themselves on understatement and “social concern.” Since the early part of their careers coincided with the Great Depression across the industrialized world and the rise of fascism in Europe, they were eager to express radical political attitudes, but then often did so through older verse techniques. Except for their preference for inherited poetic forms, they were strenuously ahead of their time, not least in their use of the specialized vocabularies of politics, psychiatry, and the social sciences. After World War II led to the cold war, they became more centrist in their political views.

Conrad Aiken:

For sheer readability, for speed, lightness, and easy intellectual range, [the verse] is in a class by itself…[But] it is too topical, too transitory, too reportorial. It has very little residual magic.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Temperamentally he was engaged by facts rather than programs; solving orthodoxies made no sense to him. Auden moved across the political spectrum, but MacNeice stayed politically “between,” not passionately, like George Orwell, but quizzically. “Between” is a favorite word and stance in the early poems, different from Auden’s connective “between”. In MacNeice it signifies suspension: “In a between world, a world of amber” one poem begins. In “Epitaph for Liberal Poets” it is clear that he is not even able to conform to liberal humanism. He acknowledges the approach of the “tight-lipped technocratic Conquistadors”; his stance is Mark Antony’s, lamenting in acceptance the inevitable triumph of Caesar, hoping the poems will survive to thaw out in another age.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, September 11, 1963:

Did you read about MacNeice’s death? I saw him in London looking very firm and in good spirits, though Bill Alfred said he would be dead soon from drinking. I liked some of his poems, more the early ones, very much. Always a smart mind and eye, and a spring in the rhythm.

British Leftist Poetry, 1930-40
By a bitter Hugh MacDiarmid

Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis, I have read them all,
Hoping against hope to hear the authentic call.
“A tragical disappointment. There was I
Hoping to hear old Aeschylus, when the Herald
Called out, “Theognis, bring your chorus forward.’
Imagine what my feelings must have been!
But then Dexitheus pleased me coming forward
And singing his Boeotian melody:
But next came Chaeris with his music truly,
That turned me sick and killed me very nearly.
And never in my lifetime, man nor boy,
Was I so vexed as at the present moment;
To see the Pnyx, at this time of the morning,
Quite empty, when the Assembly should be full:
And know the explanation I must pass is this:
–You cannot light a match on a crumbling wall.

Michael Schmidt:

Riddles and nursery rhymes attracted him early on. And hymns. Later, the sagas, medieval allegory and the Horatian odes. He chooses two different styles, one vivid, documentary, engagingly particular and linguistically inventive, the other argumentative and analytical. The poet he sees like the broadcaster and journalist, as an extension of the common man, engaging his problems, renewing his language, but not necessarily offering answers.

W.H. Auden, joking about the poets of his crowd being lumped together into a collective entity called:


Elizabeth Bishop, letter to Robert Lowell, October 11, 1963:

It is sad about MacNeice–I liked his early poems very much and have two books of his–those lovely descriptions of Ireland, etc.

Louis MacNeice on antiquity:

It was all so unimaginably different, and all so long ago.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

MacNeice is of a similar Anglo-Irish background [to C. Day Lewis], but his verse is less ceremonious, more alert to historical particularities and his ambivalent participation in them.

Clive James, Commentary, October 1973:

[Auden’s] friend Louis MacNeice had once written that after a certain time the poet loses the right to get his finished poems back. Auden didn’t agree with MacNeice’s humility, just as he had never agreed with MacNeice’s sense of usefulness: MacNeice had tired himself out serving the BBC instead of the Muse.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, April 6, 1964

What I saw of MacNeice in magazines looked denser than he’d been for a long time, but I don’t have the book yet.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

MacNeice exercises what he takes to be the modern poet’s privilege of irresolution: he dramatizes the mind’s tentative advances and questionings in poems of frank ambivalence. In a series of lectures on allegory, Varieties of Parable (1965), MacNeice applauds Samuel Beckett’s statement that he is interested in the “shape of ideas” even if he does not believe in them. MacNeice makes his poetry out of the experience of a fallen world, without wistful glances back at an Eden of metaphysical belief or ideological certitude.

Louis MacNeice:

My sympathies are Left. But not in my heart or my guts.

Michael Schmidt:

He is the Kavanagh to Auden’s Clarke.

Posted in Books, On This Day, writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

September 11, 2001: In Memory of Michael J. Pascuma, Jr.

The 2,996 project is an ongoing collective tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. I signed up during its first year in 2006. You were assigned a name, at random, of one of the people murdered on September 11, 2001.

I was assigned Michael Pascuma, Jr.

With everything else to mourn and grieve and remember on this day, I know that not a September 11th will go by without me thinking, specifically, of him and his family.

As long as the lights are on at my site, I will post this tribute – to a man ripped from his family too soon – every year.

Michael Pascuma, Jr., center, with his family on a recent vacation. Left to right are his son Michael, wife Linda, daughter Melissa, and son Christopher.

Newsday article:
Michael J. Pascuma
Broker didn’t sweat ‘the small things’
April 19, 2002

Every Tuesday morning, Michael J. Pascuma Jr. of Massapequa Park would take a short stroll from the American Stock Exchange to meet colleagues for a breakfast conference at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center.

“They would conduct business and maybe later tell a few jokes,” recalled his daughter, Melissa Pascuma, a fourth-grade teacher at the Shaw Avenue Elementary School in Valley Stream.

Pascuma, 50, worked as an independent stock trader with his father at their firm, MJP Securities. Both held seats on the exchange. The senior Pascuma, 93, still works as a trader at the exchange. Shortly before the terrorist attack. MJP merged with another firm and is now called Harvey, Young & Yurman.

Pascuma’s daughter said that immediately after the first plane struck the north tower, her brother, Michael, reached their father by cell phone. “I have to get out of here. There’s a fire,” were the last words he said to his family. The trendy restaurant was located on the 107th floor of Tower One. Pascuma’s remains were discovered shortly after the disaster, and a memorial service was held at St. Rose of Lima Church in Massapequa.

“My father had the most amazing sense of humor,” said Melissa Pascuma. “He thoroughly loved telling jokes to the family and his friends. He was constantly generous with everyone around him, and he enjoyed every single day of his life.”

She said her father was fond of chatting online with friends and was an avid golfer. “He never worried about the small things. He knew what mattered,” she said.

Pascuma’s wife, Linda, said, “My husband was a wonderful family man who was very much loved and appreciated by everyone.”

The couple would have been married 27 years on Sept. 21. Linda Pascuma called the entire family “Disney-O-Philes.” “For the past seven years at Easter time, we’d all go to Disney World for 10 days,” she said. A friend served as travel agent and also went along on the trips. The annual event also included her sister’s family, bringing the fun-seeking entourage up to about a dozen members, recalled Linda Pascuma.

“Sometimes when my husband got a little bored with things, he’d go off to play golf while we went on the rides and things,” she said. “But it always was a trip we’d talk about all year.”

Pascuma, who grew up in Richmond Hill, never attended college but as a young man learned the ins and outs of stock trading from his father, still a well-known figure in financial circles who remembers the stock market crash of 1929.

Besides his wife and daughter, both of Massapequa Park, Pascuma is survived by his sons, Michael, a college student at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.; Christopher, a Massapequa High School student; and his parents, Michael and Ada, of Richmond Hill.

–Bill Kaufman (Newsday)

I went to the memorial sites where people who knew the victims could leave tributes and I came across the following message:

You will be missed. Thank you for all of your kindness. I will miss being your customer. Anne Boudreaux (New Orleans, LA )

There were many messages I found from family members, childhood friends, but this one in particular really struck me: “I will miss being your customer.” How many businessmen can say that there will be those left behind who will say, “I will miss being your customer“?

Other people from Mr. Pascuma’s life left tributes on various victims’ sites – and here are some personal memories of him.

Childhood friend Al Husni:

“I will always remember growing up with Michael. Playing ball, hanging out at PS66 with Michael, Chris, Latz, and the rest of the gang. His sense of humor, his gentleness, will never be forgotten by myself or those who knew him.”

Michael’s cousin Susan wrote, in 2006:

It’s sad to think about all of this even five years later. You are a grandfather now and you are not with your family. Life seems so unfair. Not a day goes by that you or your family are not thought about. May God Bless you and your family always. You all are always in our prayers.

Childhood friend Robert A. Maltempo:

“I grew up across the street from Michael, moving away from Richmond Hill at the age of twelve. I will always remember the good times we had and what a wonderful father Michael had (he treated me like his son). I remember playing ring-a-leevio until dark, seemingly every evening, at P.S. 66. I remember Billy Speckman and also another friend of mine and Mikes, named Michael (I’m butchering his last name) Krachunis) who lived next door to Michael. Had many, many wonderful times growing up with Michael…his basement that was full of miniature/toy construction equipment, the NY ranger games his family took us to, a row boat trip with Michael’s father singing “Michael Row the Boat to Shore” while Mike and I struggled with the oars.

George Moeser tells some really beautiful and funny stories about Michael Pascuma:

I met Michael Pascuma through my sister Jean Barone back in the 1980’s when my (now) ex-wife and I visited her and her (now) ex husband Tommy Barone during a Christmas holiday. We attended a party hosted by the family that owned the Mermaid Restaurant. Of all the people we met at that party in Massapequa Park, Michael was the standout. He was and still remains one of the nicest most genuine people I have met in this life. His warmth, demure and canny sense of humor along with that winning smile of his were a true reflection of great soul, something that can not be faked, learned or acquired.

He and his wife opened his home to us as if he had known us all his life. I met his father and talked about his horses. His wife Linda and Bianca became friends. Later that week we met him for a visit to the exchange where he worked, but I didn’t know there was the dress code and said he could take Bianca inside and I would wait. Michael thought for a moment then said, “Come on in with me, it will does these guys good to shake them up a little bit.” As we went on to the floor, all three of us were pelted with spit-balls and hoots laughter from the men and women working there, all in good natured fun. One of the keenest impressions I got about Michael was that you could sense the friendship and admiration his coworkers felt for him. He later told me, to his knowledge I was the only person in the history of NYSE to walk the floor in a cowboy hat and blue jeans.

The irony for me in learning of his tragic and untimely death was that he took Bianca and I to the Windows on the World Restaurant for lunch that day. I still have the photo Bicana and myself with the Manhattan backdrop taken by Michael. I have another of him and I on the train with him pretending to pick my pocket in an exaggerated pose, this great smile stealing the scene. Later in the week he met us for lunch again, this time to the Carnegie Deli. He didn’t want us to miss what he called the best corn beef sandwich on the planet – It was.

When we returned to Tucson, he would sometimes call the Boss Shears, the hair salon Bianca and I owned. Pretending to be a first time customer, he would ask if we took late appointments, saying he would have to fly in from New York. The receptionist would ask Bianca and I if we wanted a late appointment. And one or the other of us would ask what time. Then Michael would ask to speak to one of us, and I would recognize his voice instantly. He would laugh and say he might be able to catch the red-eye, get his haircut and fly back in time for work, but would bring two corn beef sandwiches from Carnegie as a tip for staying late.

Over the years we would fly back to New York on the holidays or a family function. Each time Michael and I saw each other again, it wasn’t as if years had past but only days since our last laugh, shared antidote or exchange of impressions.

Years later I was divorce, my sister was also divorced, and had moved to Brooklyn. She and I became estranged and I lost contact with her friends from Massapequa Park. My ex wife kept in touch with my sister Jean and Bianca continued to exchange Christmas card with the Pascuma family, but I lost touch. It was years later when I asked how he was doing that I learned he had died in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. That he died at the very same place where he and I had shared laughter over a meal was deeply moving to me. My eyes filled with tears and I prayed the Lord to bless him and keep him in all his ways. I still do.

Charlie Manos wrote:

You walked into my crowd on the floor of the Amex, and there it was a grin from ear to ear – always happy. I am blessed to have worked with you. I miss you guys. God bless.

Debbie Lenge wrote, in 2007:

With each day that passes you are missed more and more. “Nealon” events are just not the same without you. You would be amazed to see how the gang has grown. I often think about our commute–in the early days you made my trek into BBDO so enjoyable! Every morning was a comedy show. Few people can make me laugh as much and as hard as you did. Your granddaughter is absolutely beautiful. She looks just like her mommy. Melissa is a wonderful mom–you would be so proud of her. And Michael, I have to say from the bottom of my heart that you and Linda could not have raised better children. All three of your children are beautiful on the inside and out. They are truly class acts. If my children turn out half as good as yours did, I will feel like a success. I miss your jokes. I miss your stories. I miss you calling me an idiot. I miss the disapproving looks you gave me. I miss you shaking your head at me. But most of all I miss smashing pie in your face! You will never be forgotten. You are in our hearts forever!

On April 22, 2005, Michael Pascuma’s daughter Melissa had a baby girl whom they named Madison Michael. It would have been Michael Pascuma’s first grandchild.

Melissa wrote to her father on Sept. 12, 2005:

I miss you more and more each day, month and year. I would do anything to get a tight hug from you, hear your laugh, or hear one of your jokes. There are very few children in this world that have an amazingly exceptional father. I am so thankful I happen to be one of them. You held our family together and were the kindest, most generous human being that lived. You did not deserve this. You are a grandpa now. She carries the name of a hero, Madison Michael. Love you endlessly, Your princess

Michael Pascuma’s son Michael wrote:

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and will be Madison’s first. You should be here sharing this with us in more than just spirit. I wish there was something I could do because I would in a second! There is so much that we never got to do or say and I would do anything for 1 more minute. I was in Miami this past weekend and saw more Ferraris than ever before and I didn’t have you to call. For a split second I thought call Dad and then realied that can never happen again. I will never forget all the times we did share and will cheerish those forever. I miss all the things we used to do together and wish we could play one more round of golf. I would even take just being able to hear one more joke and hear your laugh. I miss and love you so much and I’m getting to upset to continue writing.

The NY Times Portraits of Grief piece on Michael J. Pascuma says:

Golf was Michael J. Pascuma Jr.’s consuming passion. He played every Saturday with a group of friends from work, at courses all over Long Island. He watched golf endlessly on television.

Michael, 50, immersed himself in everything, whether it was golf, his family in Massapequa Park or his work as a stockbroker on the American Stock Exchange. Work and family were entwined: he and his 92- year-old father, Michael J. Pascuma Sr., possibly the oldest broker in the United States, had their own firm, M.J.P. Securities, which recently merged with Harvey, Young & Yurman.

“You would think it was a stressful job, but he was never stressed,” said his 23-year- old daughter, Melissa Pascuma, whom he called his little princess. He also had two sons, ages 20 and 17. “As soon as he came home, he detached from it and his family was No. 1.”

Michael’s wife Linda:

My husband, Michael J. Pascuma, Jr., was an only child. Michael worked with his father on the American Stock Exchange. His father is still employed there at 93 years old. His mother is 89.

He was very well liked and a very respected Stockbroker. He was a very fair and honest person. He had a great sense of humor. He loved telling jokes or playing pranks at work.

He also loved playing golf. He played every Saturday with friends. He had started to travel a little to play on different courses.

Most importantly, Michael was a great father. He had three children, a daughter and two sons. His children loved him. He never fought or got mad at them. He would do anything for them. His sons enjoyed playing golf with him. He never worried about the small things. He loved life and appreciated everything he had. He knew what was important. If they made a mistake or if there was a problem he would always say it didn’t matter as long as everyone was healthy.

We struggle every day without him and he is truly missed by his family, friends and co-workers.

(photo taken by me, at the Tiles for America display, corner of 7th Avenue South and 11th Street)

The purpose of the 2,996 project was tribute, memory, and personalization of the almost 3,000 human beings killed that day. Names, histories, loved ones, not just a statistic. Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, wrote a poem about 9/11 called “Names” that is well worth posting today.

The Names
by Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Posted in On This Day | Tagged | 32 Comments