The dream is over
What can I say?
– John Lennon, “God” (1970)
A few decades ago Bob Dylan took Joyce Carol Oates for a ride and she almost never came back, but when she did she dedicated a creepy short story to him, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” A girlygazer past his prime (i.e., over 30) pretends to be of teenage vintage to lure a pretty waywarder into his vehicle, there’s resistance, at first, then one day … see story title.
Recently, I came across a scene from Hearts of Fire, a Dylan vehicle that crashes out in Hank Williams country, where the doggone rivers are dry, and sees him, with guitar, stealing in on a young lass sleeping among hay roostin’ hens in a barn, where he proceeds to serenade her, Milli-Vanilli style, with “Couple More Years” (a line straight from JC’s story!), with a girlygazer-past-his-prime song that lures her into going for a short ride down a long Life. (Spoiler Alert!) They say the director never worked in Hollywood again. And it made you wonder about Dylan’s road experiences, the Endless Tour, the needle in search of new hay. And, I thought, what did JC Oates know, and when did she know it?
It seems like aeons, now, since I turned on the car radio and heard the opening lines of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”: Well, I’ll be damned / Here comes your ghost again. Joan hearing Bob’s voice on the telephone from “a couple of light years ago.” Ten years, she said. So, a light year back then was 5 years, I’m thinking. (An aeon, if you’re keeping track, is 10 of those Baez light years.) Madonna was laying into Bob for his “obscurity” and “keeping things vague” and being “nostalgic” and something about the time the cufflinks broke. Damn, that was one basted lamb of a song. But Dylan keeps coming back, like Bill Halley’s comet, a shooting star that just won’t burn out. A recurring eternalist. A not-so-leitmotif. A needle in my haystack I stopped looking for ages ago.
I stopped regularly following Dylan’s work after Time Out of Mind (1997), for which I wrote a review, praising his “wizened if not wiser ways” and enjoying Alan Ginsburg’s nomination of Bob for the Nobel prize (he would eventually win in 2016). But I was seriously bummed out by a couple of dangerously depressing lyrics from “Trying To Get To Heaven”:
When you think that you’ve lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I’ll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems.
And, teary-eyed, I listened to Dylan sing in “Highlands,” my favorite song on the album:
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
Well, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.
Even a true, diehard Dylan fan, like moi, can only take so much 12-string homesickness for eternity, and I had to give up Dylan for years to find a way to cope with the picture of the world he painted (and probably plagiarized, too).
Like everyone else, I barely noticed when Love and Theft was released on the day the towers fell in NYC. And Tempest, inexplicably released on 9/11 (2012), left me unimpressed; the picture Dylan himself conjured up of sitting there watching James Cameron’s Titanic and him writing the title song, a limp last waltz with the ship’s band, with no mention of a causal iceberg, the onboard battle between the 1% and the 99, and me wondering why the reference to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Did I miss something?
Now, it’s eight years later, a Baez light-year or so ago, since his last studio album (the ones with the ‘messages’ and themes), and here it is, we’ll be damned, Rough and Rowdy Ways. He baited us for a couple of months, releasing singles off the album, luring us in for a ride. The album comes after the Impeachment failed and Covid-19 muscled in on the culture while everyone was busy watching the Super Bowl (no Bob Lite ads this year). Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has stopped, maybe permanently; it may be years before crowds can gather, masked and anonymous, in significant numbers to enjoy his gloom.
When “Murder Most Foul,” at almost 17 minutes, his longest song since “Highlands,” was released at the end of March, I went apeshit, I thought it was so bad, and had to be sedated with Enya shots. I literally nominated the song for an Ignobel Award (bad forensic science), writing, in part, “Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack,” his worst voice since that one-off falsebasso thing he did with “Lay Lady Lay,” that was incomprehensibly popular, Johnny Cash inviting him to Nashville for some country chart pie, oh, me-oh-my.
The lyrics! “Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” (Was he supposed to get out of the car? Who shoots dogs at all?) “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” (So, he was watching The Irishman when he wrote the song? And only watching it to see how Scorsese portrayed his song “Joey.”) “The day they blew out the brains of the king.” (Yo, heads up, we’ve been a democracy since we told the Royals to stuff their taxes.) And “I’m goin’ to Woodstock.” (No, you’re not, and a lot of hippies were pissed off about it, too.) “Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage.” (What the fuck for? Angry bikers are on the prowl.) Damn.
Well, Rough and Rowdy Ways is with us now, months after the single’s teases, and, frankly, it’s an outstanding album. It seems to start out where Time Out of Mind and “Highlands” left off. It’s dark and bluesy and full of intrigue. The Ghost of Memory, who has “less and less to say,” and who flirts with a Boston waitress on his way to the Highlands is that much further along on his long career’s journey into night. The cover art of Rough and Rowdy Ways resembles the dancing figures of Oh Mercy, but, now, much darker and retro, like the album’s road trip.
Covid-19 has stopped his touring, which may or may not be a good thing for him (and us). I think of him as The Wandering Jew, who snarked at Christ on his way to Calvary and was condemned to walk the Earth until the Second Coming, but then not again maybe Christ misunderstood his obscure meaning. So existentially dissociated, he’s a spook in his own life, without anchor or compass, and where he notes, in “I Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You,” that “I’ve traveled a long road of despair / I’ve met no other traveler there.” Dylan’s moving through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, down Blake’s road of excess toward wisdom, and he’s crossed the Rubicon into the Inferno, and “abandoned all hope.” What more does a girl want? Get in the car.
Keeping with the Dante-esque excursion into the licking flames of his private hell he trudges on, picking up Mary Lou and Miss Pearl, “My fleet-footed guides from the underworld,” and moving to a slow baion rhythm past the weigh stations of the double-cross and forever-loss, the album vaguely resembling the 9 plus 1 structure of the Divine Comedy. from the afterwordly consciousness of Others that he wakes to in “I Contain Multitudes,” on through a kind of purgatory where he burns off the accrued effects of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride), and “Three miles north of purgatory,” he’s crossing the Rubicon, not coming back, one step away from the all-consum(er)ing paradise of Key West — but also, one time home of Ponce de León, who sought the Fountain of Youth — and some semblance of the Ideal Feminine.
“I Contain Multitudes” showers the listener with vintage Dylan lines that are at once playful, evocative and which sometimes resonate with something you can’t quite put your finger on. “Multitudes” contains threats of violence, which becomes a sustained theme throughout the 2-CD set. The poet sings,
Got a tell-tale heart like Mr. Poe
Got skeletons in the walls of people you know
The Tell-Tale Heart is about tension that must break at any moment, but, when it does, you wish it hadn’t, for the horror it reveals.
Surprising lyrics in the song that seem to want to fuck with you, reveal that Dylan still has some spunkaneity in him. He sings,
I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones
And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones
Reader-response theory being what it is, each of us performing paged words differently, when I think of Anne Frank, I think of her recently discovered sex-saucy comments on Wehrmacht women wearing mattresses on their backs (and, also like Dylan, she liked to hide in the attic). Like Indiana Jones, around every corner Dylan faces a tiresome (s)word-wielding critic that he must dispose of with ennui. And like the British Bad Boys, he shares a common musical mentor in Muddy Waters, who wrote “Rollin’ Stone.”
To fend off women (presumably wearing Kill Bill eye-patches) who may come back at him in his dreamy travels, the poet sings, “I carry four pistols and two large knives,” and ends the song with the provocative image of a ménage à trois: “What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Who’s fucking whom, and in what order, seems to be the only question left.
The early release of “False Prophet” featured cover art that depicts a skeleton, holding an antique syringe filled with pink liquid, staring out at us, as if to ask ‘are you ready?’; the shadow behind him depicts a hanged man, suggesting that the skeleton used to be a crim back in his biology days. His body language seems to mimic the beat of the song, which features a rhythmic riff-off of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s “If Lovin’ Is Believin’.” An alert that Dylan means to be playful. It’s a great song.
“False Prophet” seems to suggest (you can’t really be sure with the vague-keeping Dylan) what he’s doing time in the hellish hoosegow for — false prophesying. The poet sings, “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in,” and fucked him over, essentially. Who can’t relate to that sentiment? (In that sense, all of us, including Dante, contain multitudes.) Then he hits us with what might be the quintessential truth of his career:
Enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
At heart, he’s Zimmerman, not Zarathustra, although, when you think about it, he’s Zarathustra, too. Enemy of the unlived meaningless life, Socrates and Dylan in a nutshell, but the latter sans hemlock. Maybe Socrates should have taken up the lyre.
In “My Own Version of You,” continuing the slow blues beat, Dylan goes from a consideration of the passive aggressive social milieu he’s been forced to live amongst, masked and alias-ly, to mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein who sings,
I’ve been visiting morgues and monasteries
Looking for the necessary body parts
Limbs and livers and brains and hearts
I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do
Seems like a comment on both the Age we live in, moving toward the Singularity, and a personal reflection on the Feminine Ideal; if he can’t find what he’s looking for in nature, he’ll make do with a composite, a jigsaw of all the women who have ever puzzled him.
The mad poet thinks that if he uses his creative energies he will “be saved by the creature that I create.” But it’s a dicey proposition. He says he’ll take “the Scarface Pacino and The Godfather Brando,” as if he were at a CRISPR machine splicing some roles. It’s an evil place he’s in, where “the enemies of mankind,” Freud and Marx, are engulfed in flames, and he imagines “the raw hide lash rip the skin from their backs.” It’s a nasty place: “Shimmy your ribs, I’ll stick in the knife / Gonna jumpstart my creation to life.” The music plods on and on, and he wonders, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel, can you tell me, please?” Dark shit, man.
Beginning with the sixth song, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” the tone and rhythm starts to change, and things lighten up. Jimmy Reed was an old time guitar and harmonica bluesman from Mississippi known for his accessibility, who spent time as a busker, and ended up on shift work at a meat packing facility, while white men, like Dylan, got rich off his Black-and-blues. You can hear Reed in a lot of early Dylan, and here, in Rough and Rowdy Ways, one can hear the beat of “Bright Lights, Big City” and the now-taboo humor of “I’m Going Upside Your Head.” Dylan’s paying homage; shedding off ‘one more layer of skin,’ striving and shriving on his way to ‘Beatrice’.
In “Mother of Muses,” an appropriate follow-on, he’s almost there. About to cross the last line into the last realm. Echoing sentiments expressed in previous albums, such as “I can’t believe it / I can’t believe I’m alive” from the song “Where Are You Tonight?” off Street Legal, Dylan begins with the final realization many critics have been waiting for: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” In his youth, he was just Watching the River Flow through his mind, Heraclitean, a river of multitudes, where, the poet sings, “I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in.” He’s ready to lie down next to the river now, and have himself a final dream, a door he’ll conjure up, to the other side, the final set of 9 plus 1 circles of paradise (so, maybe he’s got another album in him). Here he comes, Mama: “I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home,” leaving behind the material world, like the good Tibetan Book of the Dead says we must.
Then it’s on to the album’s Paradise, the ‘nostalgic’ “Key West,” book now. Artist colony, citywide museum, purveyor of fast foods (you know the ones, you know exactly the ones), and home of the Hemingway Code: grace under pressure. (Except for a couple of albums I needn’t mention.) That’s Dylan, too. And Caribbean Wind. And some Sara’s probably down there, too, in her late stage bikini, waiting to draw him into another disillusion, much to our delight. If you lose your mind, you will find it there, the poet sings. Well, maybe, but I can’t afford the rates there, so I’ll have to take his word for it. In fact, Bob, it’s because I can’t afford the rates that I lost my mind (oops, TMI).
Except for “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded so smooth, polished and uncroakin’ in a long time, maybe the result of precision engineering, or restraint, or both. And, incidentally, when I reconsidered “Murder Most Foul” (briefly), the song evoked, for me, American Graffitti, a film that features DJ Wolfman Jack, and the platters he spun, and recalling an era of contradictions and lies about the American Dream, and serving to remind us all that Dylan has been around since Ike warned us to beware the Military Industrial Complex. My whole life Dylan has been hoarsely whispering in my ear, beware, beware. Except when he was cashing in.
Who knows where Rough and Rowdy Ways fits into his catalogue. It’s his 39th album (his 39th lash?), and probably as good as anything he’s produced in awhile (it depends on how you look at it), but I wouldn’t want to move his albums around in a hierarchy — it would be too much like fucking around with a Rubik’s Cube. Who needs the frustration or self-administered take-down of intelligence? Certainly, the album comes at a time of preoccupation with disease and death that the Pandemic has brought and when the crisis of American democracy smells of collapse. You worry when you read that the Wandering Jew was condemned to do the Johnny Walker until the onset of Christ’s return — i.e., the Apocalypse promised in Revelations — and now he’s stopped wandering.
But as we’ve all learned over the decades, it’s senseless to read too deeply into Dylan’s oeuvre — probably you’re projecting and exposing yourself to well-founded ridicule, like that moron in that famous 1962 interview who seemed to mistake Dylan for Barry McGuire (a Dylan imitator) and asked him to explain the deep meaning of “Eve of Destruction.” It’s an instructive interview, glaringly exposing what the Poor Bastard has been up against all these years, squeezed between the Press that wants to hold him accountable and the People who want him to save them. No wonder he ended up referring to himself as “a song and dance man.” (Check it out: it’s unbelievable.) Next to Lennon, no Pop Icon has ever had to put up with such sustained blatherscheissen.
The poet once sang, “I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long / I can’t remember what it’s like.” With Rough and Rowdy Ways, he seems to be one step closer to Beyond. One day, probably soon, we’ll pick up the paper and read the obituary the Times has had on file and ready for many years. Thanks, Bob, for a lifetime of contradictions, insight-ments, and the strange solace, along the way, of emotional validation.
by John Kendall Hawkins
Once a bull hit me across the bridge of my nose and I felt like I was coming apart like a cigarette floating in a urinal. They can hit you on the head and bust your shoes.
- Ralph Ellison, “Hymie’s Bull,” (1938)
On the evening of August 1, 1943, after breaking bread and pulling corks, talking folklore, jazz and blues, with New Yorker critic Stanley Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson in their Queens apartment, up-and-coming writer Ralph Ellison said goodnight to them and took the train home to Harlem. When he emerged at 137th Street, he walked right into a raging race riot. Fires, massive looting, chaos.
It had begun in the lobby of a hotel, when a Black woman “improbably named Polite” got into a violent tiff with a white cop, and, when a Black soldier intervened, the cop shot him. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, “Margie Polite ran into the street screaming that a white cop had killed a black man. Harlem exploded.” Five people died, hundreds were injured, 500 were arrested. The scene inspired artwork, Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son, and was seared indelibly into Ellison’s consciousness. A day later, Ellison was called on by the New York Post to cover the event. He observed, wrote Rampersad, that “it was the poorer element’s way of blowing off steam.” Other surrealist details of dissociation and mayhem followed.
Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had landed a position teaching Folklore at the exclusive womens college there. He quickly became a popular professor (no doubt garnering girly titters as soon he wrote his name on the chalkboard), and hosted many parties at his home. Often while the more taciturn Shirley retired early for the night. Hyman was known for his wit, directness, and honesty. Ellison stayed with the couple for a few months and worked on the story “Flying Home” (Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote that Hyman virtually forced Ellison to write the story on the spot) — and the future classic novel of the Black experience in America, Invisible Man. Folklore and music bound Hyman and Ellison together, as well as the common experience of alienation in WASP America (he was Jewish), and Hyman became his trusted penpal and a valued literary advisor throughout his career.
There’s extraordinary dramatic tension and a guiding truth combusting about in the paragraphs above — clear signs of an intense and productive relationship between powerful personages of letters, Hyman and Ellison, and to a lesser extent Jackson — that would have provided a dynamic beginning to the recently released film, Shirley, the so-called biopic of writer, Shirley Jackson, author of the highly controversial tale, “The Lottery.” The movie might have started with the riot (or the railroad Jew being clubbed by “bulls”), but the film production team, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins chose a well-trod path, and it definitely made a difference. But not in a good way.
Instead, they produced a script from a ‘creative non-fiction’(CNF) book with the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell, which gave the viewer an almost farfetched sex scene in the first two minutes of the film. Merrell’s CNF tale means she gave herself the liberty to expand on factually-inspired information regarding Jackson’s time living in Bennington as a faculty wife to Stanley Hyman. The most important poetic license Merrell takes is the installation of a young married fictional couple, Rose and Fred, on their way to Bennington to begin a faculty career and temporarily reside with Stanley and Shirley, while they seek their own apartment. The book is told from the point-of-view of 19 year old Rose (Odessa Young), a pregnant, seemingly naive and ordinary person who comes under the spell of Shirley, who is largely depicted as an intelligent, empathetic woman struggling with her writing.
But Merrell’s tale, apparently with her consent, was wildly reconfigured, and, the Rose that rides on the train with Fred (Logan Lerman) toward Bennington in the film is radically different than the Rose who begins her narration in the book: A nice anticipatory train ride to a New England town becomes, in the film, crude. Rose is seen reading the New Yorker edition (June 1948) that contains Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and we watch as her expression becomes ever more delighted at what she’s reading, odd in itself. She finishes and commences a brief exchange with Fred about her reading:
Rose: They stone her to death.
Fred: Are you reading the Shirley story?
Rose: The whole town — even her own children — they all stoned her.
Fred: That’s creepy.
Rose: That’s terrific. (smiles)
A moment later, Rose wants to get her rocks off after reading the story and is moving her hand to Fred’s inner thigh, until they both head back-train and join the Mile Long Club (D = R*T). In the first minute of the film?
Then they get off the train, move through town on foot, pass some boys tossing stones in an alley — one of them wearing an eye patch (which I thought funny) — and then arrive at the Hyman house, in party mode, and pass among others — (spoiler alert!!) Ralph Ellison and his attractive partner. Ellison is shown for 4 seconds. In the whole movie. The first thing I wondered is how the actor playing him, Edward O’Blenis, a breakdancer from the Bronx, would want the credit he’s given at IMDB. 4 seconds? Then, poof, he’s the invisible man again.
It gets worse. Aside from putting the climax at the beginning of the movie, Merrell went along (presumably) with Gubbins’s plan to amp up Shirley’s psychological profile. What is a somewhat eccentric, occasionally snobby, struggling writer, with four kids, in the book, is turned into a kind of childless monster or psychopath undergoing some kind of disturbed withdrawal — until Rose arrives. In fact, Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley come across as a Michael Haneke-inspired couple who like to play with their guests — either of them ruining a breezy conversation at the table with an intentionally barbed and poisonous take-down comment, just to see the reaction of the target. Elizabeth Moss’s Shirley expression, afterward, looking like an impression of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (from Killing Eve). Speaking of poetic license. At one point, Shirley enquires of Rose at dinner, in front of Fred, if she’d told him she was pregnant before wedding him.
Fred and Rose arrive at a time when Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington student, has gone missing — posters are on trees, there is talk, and Rose, being drawn closer to the mystery that is Shirley, begins to suspect the couple’s involvement in foul play. In the book, Shirley humorously calls herself a witch (her acerbic ways and fiction about horror have put people off); she’s into Tarot, mushrooms, herbs, folklore.
But in the film, she pulls Rose in. She performs a Tarot reading and slaps down three Hanged Man cards in a row; her eyes chill as she gazes at Rose. The latter freaked out by the ‘reading’, and innocently unaware that Tarot decks have only one Hanged Man card, one of the most potent cards in the deck; Shirley is playing Rose and doesn’t tell her what the array means (Nothing) as she continues to hold her wonder. Is she a psycho or a psychic, or both? Shirley plays bonding games, pretending to eat a ‘poisonous’ mushroom to fuck with Rose. They go on a walk in the woods to where the Welden girl was last seen alive and the director fucks with us — Rose and Shirley standing at a cliff’s edge (Shirley holding Rose’s baby), then Rose is gone, then suddenly Shirley’s waking from a dream. She didn’t kill Rose, but we wonder why she’s dreaming of it.
Shirley is not only dreaming of abduction and murder, but writing about it in a new novel. Her struggle with words over, since Rose arrived, like fresh hot blood not felt coursing through her system since, well, the Welden girl disappeared; she rises from her emotional coffin. More games from the director, as Stanley and Shirley seemingly plot the demise of the young couple, including a reference to Macbeth. Stanley asks, now that Shirley is into full time writing again, what will become of Rose? Shirley replies, “What becomes of all wayward girls; they go mad.” And he, taking her advice for Fred — to “give him enough rope to hang himself” (The Hanged Man) — builds up Fred’s hopes for a tenure hire, praising his dissertation, only to intentionally crush him with a savage dinner table attack on Fred’s total lack of “originality” out of nowhere.
It’s at this stage that I stopped caring about what the film was trying to achieve, and I began to ponder again the whole notion of CNF. Stanley is teaching Bennington students at the cusp of curricular change from Canon Great Man-driven works to the postmodern pluralism and relative values. Turns out, there’s more to time’s events than the Mighty Whitey’s control of the historical narrative would imply. Stanley’s posture represents a defense of the Canon, the Old Guard, rejecting the upstart relativism that would overturn the monied tables of the Ivory Tower. And it’s Freudian to boot. Stanley’s is a brief fury, dishonest, and absolutely signifying nothing more than his pathology. As he teaches something as twee as Folklore — and praises the virtues of jazz at his lectures — it doesn’t make sense that he’d defend the primacy of Originality against Derivation, when the universal application of the latter — archetypes, intertextuality — are what he lectures on.
Shirley director Decker totally threw away an opportunity — to be relevant. CNF is a gift from the postmodern Gauds, but she and the writers fell back on old tropes and worn out storytelling. CNF is supposed to help get you where fiction or fact-ion alone is not always quite adequate for the narration; perhaps a little more Dionysian sizzle sauce needs to be added to the Apollonian stir-fry, such as with Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.
Even given the obvious fact that filmmaking tells the same story differently, Decker and company left so many opportunities by the wayside to make this film a deeper, more intelligent film about deep, intelligent people. Stanley and Shirley, in real life, represented a mature literary lifestyle, including its critical appraisal, but that’s all absent in Shirley. The film’s not really about Jackson at all. Frankly, as a biopic, the story borders on slander. It vaguely reminds me of the so-called “journalistic” promises of Zero Dark Thirty that, nevertheless, felt it necessary to include scenes with superstitious omens.
Consider some simple enhancements of fact that might have made Shirley a better film. How could Gubbins and Decker not make the town a character? Although they include the Welden disappearance in order to implicitly demonize Stanley and Shirley, they leave out the reality that between 1945 and 1950 five people went missing from the Bennington area, and it became known as “The Bennington Triangle.” It was a small town in which the rocky horror show of “The Lottery” is played out. The story that aroused Rose, appalled most people, with its implications of how people can just turn on each other, and led to subscription cancellations and outraged letters to the New Yorker. Why wasn’t this alluded to? And why not mention Shirley’s arch allusion to John 8:7 — “Let he without sin cast the first stone”?
Back to Ralph Ellison. Another enhancement opportunity lost. It would have been fantastic to have included a scene at the dinner table, or in the parlor, where Ralph and Shirley compared and contrasted, over buffalo wings and beer, themes and devices of their similar short stories, “The Lottery” and the “The King of the Bingo Game.” Both involve forms of scapegoating, entranced communities, and beat-down endings, one involving white small town life and the other a sense that Black Lives Don’t Matter, and both horrifically suggesting depravity at the core of humanity. Though Ellison’s piece was published four years before Jackson’s, such a discussion would have been an excellent use of creative non-fiction in the film.
Even feminism was given a miss. Merrell made it an important discussion point in her book, bringing in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to criticize Jackson’s upper crust tips on homemaking in Good Housekeeping articles, but apparently she lacked the cajones to insist on such a discussion in the movie. Again, the era was the late 40s, when feminism was on the cusp, and it would’ve been meet to hear the couples rumble in the jungle of marriage viability after WWII, especially since they placed such value on “honesty.” But also, and perhaps more tenuously, Shirley (“neurosis”) might have been linked to other prominent female suicidal voices at the time — Anne Sexton (“manic-depressive”), Sylvia Plath (“depression”) — the three forming a Suicidal Poets Society.
Similarly, Erich Fromm taught at Bennington when Hyman was there. It might have been enriching to have had had highbrow collegial banter at a Hyman barbecue during which they jovially discussed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and played, say, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. That, too, would have been a fine use of CNF.
Where was the discussion of folklore in more detail and music? All we really get is Stanley Hyman as, according to Rose, a potential monster who may have enabled the disappearance of a Welden girl. In real life, Hyman was a known philanderer who slept with many of his students, according to Ruth Franklin, Shirley’s biographer. Rather than masking him a fake monster, why not, in this age of #MeToo, have played up his actual activities. If it’s good enough to show Harvey Weinstein going through his career with a casting couch on his back, why not show the masks the Folklore instructor wore. Again, great CNF. But Decker and Merrell choose to go with a phony affair with elderly-ing librarian. I don’t think so.
Elizabeth Moss seems to be in the running for an Oscar for her role in the film, and, and as far as that role goes, she did a reasonably good job. But I didn’t come away feeling that I knew the real Shirley Jackson better. I’m reasonably certain she wasn’t a psychopath, for instance. And I don’t believe the tale enhanced her fictional body of work either. I don’t really see it as a biopic, but as a facade, with its biographical innards gutted to make way for riffing. It was like a Halloween mask of Jackson. At times, a silly Americanized version of Igmar Bergman’s Persona.
The bluesy soundtrack wasn’t bad though.
I wouldn’t sleep and I took my mind
Lost all knowledge of time and kind
Been dead ——- 400 years (400 years, 400 years)
Wake up, hey (400 years, 400 years)
– Jimmy Cliff, “I’ve Been Dead 400 Years” (1977)
Peter Tosh has a new re-lease on life. Praise Jah!
It comes in the form of a children’s picture book — of all things! — just laid down next to the apples in the marketplace, simply titled African. The title comes from a Tosh song Equal Rights, his much-listened-to album from the heady ‘70s, rife with rasta music filling our pink Lefty ears with sugar plum fantasies of universal suffrage and equality, presided over, in joy, by His Majesty Haile Selassie, emissary of Jah on this loamy Earth. Pass da spliff, brudda. Forward and fiaca. Menacle and den gosaca.
The colorful book, illustrated by Rachel Moss, is part of the LyricPop series put out by the hip Brooklyn-based Akashic Books. The series includes (or will include) similar translations of songs like Good Vibrations, Respect, These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, and my anticipated favorite, Where Is My Mind? the Black Francis cult classic. Recently, they even had Samuel L. Jackson pitch in with some sound quarantine advice in the form of an illustrated poem titled, Stay the F— at Home!
Equal Rights (1977) was a follow-up to Tosh’s debut album the year before, the wildly popular Legalize It, which got him instant fame among the undergraduate activist set in America and into all kinds of legal problems back home. Reportedly he was the “victim” of police brutality, and his title song was banned from Jamaican radio, making it even more popular worldwide. Legalize It is part of the fantastic cornucopia of musical wares teeming from 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Sadly, Tosh died brutally in his own personal 9/11 at home in 1987.
Equal Rights was more in tune with the global vibe at the time to end racism everywhere, arguably, Tosh and Bob Marley leading the way, getting our feet moving to da riddim (sometimes against our will, it seemed). They were engineers on the freedom train that some rastas (and wannabes) argue set in motion, by means of emotion, the collapse of the official Apart-Hate regime in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.
Marley, Tosh and Jimmy Cliff pulled Jamaicans away from the service sector sounds of calypso (Nudda all-shook-up martini, suh? A Black waiter might have said to a sun-tanning Ian Fleming, who wrote some Bond 007 books there) and invited listeners to reconnect with their African roots. Beginning in 1600, the Spanish conquistadors began enslaving native Arawaks and virtually drove them to extinction with the introduction of European diseases. The Arawaks were replaced by West Africa slaves. And sugar (and rum!) began its sweet rise on the tooth and palate of Empire back in Britain and the American colony to the north, which would see slavery introduced 19 years later. Hello cotton! If not for cotton, there’d a-been no Che t-shirts to resist The Man with in the ‘80s.
Later, because the Mighty Whitey is so festive, and full of deviant ingenuity, the two commodities were combined and we had a go at eating cotton candy at county fairs. (No, just fucking wid ya.) Sugar went on to become the number one hit of all time — just check out the ingredients list of any food product in America today! (No, I’m not fucking wid ya this time.) Sugar was (and is) the oxycontin of the 17th century.
Equal Rights, following on the huge success of the cult film The Harder They Come in indie and university cinemas across America (good luck seeing the film through ganja smoke — fire code, my ass), galvanized and inspired white do-gooders (or wannabes) to fight back against Ronald Reagan’s new Cold War tactics (remember how giddy we got with the Star Wars program?!) and the trickle-down economics that GWH Bush called “voodoo” — incredibly ironical when he lost re-election and Bill Clinton backroom resident evil James Carville taunted him afterward with, “It’s the economy, stupid!” And then Carville’s boss proceeded to end welfare as we know it. Anyway, Marley, and Tosh got our feet moving, and that’s half the battle when trying to mobilize the masses. Dylan, song-and-dance man that he is, just can’t get our feet moving.
“African” is a wonderful song, and turning it into an appreciation of the African diaspora, for kids, is a cheeky and spectacular idea. Reinforce the notion early that they are a force to be reckoned with in this often-hallucinatory world. If they hear it enough times in childhood, then they’ll be ready for the attitudes later — Miles Davis: “I’m Black alright, they’ll never let me forget. I’m Black alright, I’ll never let them forget it.” And the cousin track from Sly and the Family Stone: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey. Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” On and on and on we go. We should be hugging each other, after Mandela was let loose on the world. But here we are again, all bebopping in Minneapolis, the Mighty Whitey in the White House with the black-chain-link fence implying the victims are terrorists.
Anyway, it’s a lovely song, fit for kids and adults alike, and goes something like this:
Don’t care where you come from,
as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.
No mind your nationality,
you have got the identity of an African . . .
You will always have integrity, no matter your integument-y. Deep down in my dark white soul, I’d like to think I’m a little African. Rastafari!
Well, it remains to be seen if the song is legitimately effective as a sleeping agent. I guess if you read African as a poem, rather than cheating and playing the rhythm-inducing song off YouTube to the child, s/he may go to sleep — maybe counting Black people jumping fences to escape wolfish officers wearing dark glasses and fascist grins. But, if African is not effective, say your child is cholicy, Akashic Books has another Sam Jackson tale, Go the Fuck to Sleep.
Pass the bong, mon.
“Hell, you can’t get people to vote once, let alone twice.”
– Santiago Juarez, League of United Latin American Citizens
“Your chance of having your vote spoiled is 900% higher if you’re Black than if you’re white.”
– US Civil Rights Commission
We were warned about an imminent threat on Pearl Harbor before the attack. We were certainly warned about an imminent bin Laden-led attack before 9/11. Sadly, we were clearly alerted to the likelihood of a pandemic costing millions of lives, years before Covid-19. We’ve been told to expect a Pearl Harbor attack on the Internet, the global communication system gifted to the world by the Department of Defense. No conspiracy, no paranoia. Just the facts, ma’am, as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet.
But nothing’s been more pearlharbored, especially since 9/11, than the electoral system that is the foundation of our once-exceptional democracy. Time after time, it’s been shown that voters are being disenfranchised on a massive scale; old machines continue to break down; newer machines, incomprehensibly, remain open to easy hacking. In 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2018, our state and national elections have been rigged, according Greg Palast, in his new book, How Trump Stole 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished Voters. And Palast shows us the Who, What, Where, Why, and When. Just the facts, ma’am. Then, Palast points to how, despite the disastrous disarray of his presidency, Trump and the Republicans will steal it again, if we let them. Basta! to that, warcries Palast.
Let’s look together: We continue to be plagued by racially-motivated violence; mass shootings in a land where there’s more guns (est. 400 million) than people; a homeless epidemic; dwindling healthcare, when the trend needs to be the opposite; public education that’s totally lost its way as a provider of critical thinking skills for the masses and preparation for autonomous university study; middle class people sliding into food stamp territory; valued jobs on the decline in a gig economy, in which many people need two jobs to survive; mortgages, rents gone unpaid; trillion dollar student debt, enforced by master credit reports that threaten ruin; and a two-party political system little more than a choice between the lesser of two evils. Never mind Covid-19 and climate change to follow.
These are some critical issues. And the only way they can be tackled is by electing genuinely gifted leaders with that vision thang, who can work with other such leaders, to pass the legislation required to tackle these issues. It is literally a matter of life-and-death for the Republic, and maybe even the planet. Without a functioning system in place to elect such leaders, we are doomed.
And Palast makes it clear that the 2020 presidential election is make or break, and while it’s tough enough imagining Joe “Ain’t Black” Biden as president, it’s impossible to see anything standing with four more years of Trump. Let’s not forget that from December 18, 2019 to February 5, 2020, the period when Covid-19 was just making its way around the world (21 nations infected by January 30, according to the CDC), but not yet in America, we were totally absorbed by the inane impeachment hearings — to the point that, by the end, everyone just wanted to chill out and watch the $500 million Super Bowl in Miami, where Covid-19 ejectile may have been as free-flowing as the beer in the stands, and acting as a staging point for its spread, as people returned home all over the country.
Over and over, year after year, Palast returns us to the scene of the electoral crimes. The mother of all of them was Florida 2000. Everything about the Florida election stank. Given that the state was governed by the Republican nominee’s brother, who had just prior to the election publicly “guaranteed” GWB’s victory, a recount should have been automatic, no Supreme Court needed. Then Secretary of State Katherine Harris, writes Palast,
flushed 97,000 voters from registration rolls—most of them Black—tagging them as felons, ex-cons, who can’t vote. In fact, the number of illegal ex-con voters? Zero.
(Not quite true, Greg: CREEP felon Charles Colson was allowed to vote.) Add lynching chads, voter ID laws, “disqualified” votes, uncounted provisionals, and lost mail-ins. What a mess. Then toss in Nader’s presence, and Gore’s inability to win Tennessee, his home state. Yuck. What did we step in?
Then we got totally disoriented by 9/11. By the time 2004 rolled around, we were deked and contused, and nobody seemed to care any more. Palast pointed out that John Kerry had had the presidency stolen from him:
…John Kerry lost the presidency by a few votes in Ohio. Kerry would have been president except that Black voters, some waiting 7 or 8 hours in the rain, found polling station doors closed in their faces at the 7:30 p.m. cut-off.
But with his trademark humor, Palast also points out that in Ohio 2004, exit polls showed that
John Kerry had won Ohio’s female voters 53% to 47%. Among male voters, Kerry won Ohio by 51% to 49%. But CNN’s exit polls of all voters showed Bush the winner in Ohio, and thereby the re-elected President. OK, class, what third sex put Bush over the top?
But that’s not all, in New Mexico, native American votes were ignored. “More ballots are spoiled or disqualified in pueblos and reservations than in any other community,” writes Palast.
In 2012, Fox analyst at the time Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s “brain” and tenderly referred to by the president as “Turd Blossom,” unwilling to accept Fox’s calling of the Ohio election for President Obama, and thus being re-elected, made a phone call, in a last-ditch effort to “disqualify” enough votes to reverse the count.
Rove knew, says Palast, that “early voters were not allowed to vote on regular ballots or on voting machines. Instead, they were handed an absentee mail-in ballot [application],” while they were at the polling station (!), and then handed a number and told to wait, like at a deli counter in supermarket, then took the application for an absentee ballot, filled it in, and posted it in a box, right there, at the polling station. Palast was curious:
I asked the County Clerk why voters were going through this mad rigmarole to get “absentee” ballots when they weren’t absent.
He said, “Because absentee ballots can be disqualified.”
And so it goes, as Linda Ellerbee used to say. Only a Palast-inspired court order averted Rove’s subterfuge. Basta!
Well, in 2016, we know what happened: The Russians stole the election for Donald J. Trump. Whoa, Nellie! “Kris Kobach was more responsible than any other person in America for putting Donald Trump into the White House,” writes Palast. The Secretary of State for Kansas Kris Kolbach (KKK?) declared that the electoral system was being over-run by doppelgängers intent on destroying America from within — by voting twice! (see opening quote) Employing a system called Interstate Crosscheck, which was adopted by 27 states, including the so-called swing states, which resulted in the purging of scores of registered voters.
Greg Palast is flabbergasted and angry. He writes of Kris Kobach that
By the time I shook his hand in 2016, one of his schemes—Crosscheck (we’ll get to that)—had already purged 1.1 million from the rolls, too many of them Black, Hispanic and Asian-American, quite silently, in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and 26 other states, a stealth purge crucial to Trump’s victory.
Kobach is still at it with his purge lists and hoping to work with Trump in 2020. Ominously, Palast adds, “ In 2020, Kobach may choose our president for us again.”
But Kobach isn’t the only problem; swing state Wisconsin has had some serious voter issues, too. “In 2016, Trump officially won Wisconsin by a dinky 22,748 votes out of 3 million cast,” writes Palast. Had then-Governor Scott Walker not purged 182,000 student votes from the 2016 election, most of them overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning, then Trump would not be president. Walker has been ousted from office, but racist the Wisconsin Legislature has more than picked up the slack. At the end of 2019, they ended “Soul-To-the-Polls Day when most African-Americans vote.” No more early voting.
Palast said that he knew there was trouble in Milwaukee when he met with Sequanna Taylor, who told him she’d been purged from the voter registration rolls. This despite the inconvenient fact that she was Milwaukee’s County Supervisor. Palast adds, “Her name is on the ballot. Only a tip-off from a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter allowed her to save her right to vote for herself.” In all, the Legislature, so far, has managed to purge “232,597 voters from the rolls in 2020, ten times Trump’s 2016 margin.” Palast contacted Wisconsin’s Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs who explained to him that the reason for the purges was simple:
This massive purge is clearly an attempt to gain an advantage in Wisconsin for the Republicans, particularly for the presidential race that’s coming up.
Apparently, swinging Wisconsin likes the swagger that comes with being the Big Cheese.
Palast puts special emphasis on what happened in Georgia in 2018. As corrupt as the system seems to many, even on the surface, what Brian Kemp did in Georgia breaks new ground. Serving as secretary of state, while running for governor, was entirely unethical and, given what he ended up doing, probably grounds for felony prosecution. As secretary, Kemp got to decide which votes counted, and which didn’t. When Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race to Kemp, she refused to go the route of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton and merely accept the outcome. She started a non-partisan group called Fair Fight, who hired Palast’s investigative team to dig into “the math” of the purges.
They found that Kemp, employing the tactic of declaring people who had “moved” as scrubbable from the rolls, had led to thousands of suddenly disenfranchised people:
Of the half million voters Kemp purged for supposedly moving their residence, 340,134 had never moved an inch. But now, the Lenser team found nearly 100,000 more who had moved within their county—and therefore, they too should never have been purged. The total of wrongfully scrubbed voters was now over 400,000.
Palast is quick, however, to point out that Kemp borrowed this criminal idea (it’s literally a violation of the National Voting Registration Act of 1993) from Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted of Ohio. And so successful has it been that this formula has been adopted by a cabal of Republican secretaries of states. In this way, writes Palast, “millions [have been] blocked from voting . . . and they don’t know it.”
But we needn’t delude ourselves into thinking it’s all about Republicans and their evil will-to-power shenanigans; Democrats can do the ‘ol you-call-that-a-noif routine just as well. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a campaign backer of both Clinton and Joe Biden, went to extraordinary lengths to fuck the 5.3 million young voters (mostly Latino) who chose to vote as independents (NPP) rather join the Democratic party. Why? They didn’t like the “lesser evil” offered up, and, in this instance, writes Palast, they overwhelmingly preferred “Tio Bernie” to Biden this year, “Tio Bernie” to Clinton in 2016.
Using the “disenfranchisement by postcard” method, just before Christmas last year, Padilla sent out cards to NPP voters. The cards were designed to look like “junk mail” and, writes Palast, “91% of voters threw them out.” Those who ‘got it’ had to go to a polling station and literally ask for a “Democratic Crossover” ballot. If they didn’t use that specific language. Poll workers were instructed not to help them. Other poll workers, writes Palast, were themselves confused by the process:
Many confused poll workers gave the NPP voters Democratic ballots, not ones marked “CROSSOVER,” not realizing that, in most counties, those ballots would be tossed out, disqualified.
Other ‘anomalies’ led to Sanders’ primary campaign being sabotaged by Party insiders determined to make sure Biden received California’s huge pot of electoral delegates.
And there are many other players that Palast names and excoriates. There’s Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s reduction of polling stations in Black precincts that led to looooooooooooong lines. There’s Hans “The Fox” von Spakovsky Prove-you-are-a-citizen game (BTW, Why is there a space between Lyons and Spikovsky? See film: Fallen). Kim Strach, North Carolina’s elections board director, favored “Ballot Harvesting”to cull undesired votes. GOP secretary of state Ruth Johnson blocked a hand count of 75000 votes that hadn’t been processed by broken scanning machines — which would have given Michigan to Clinton. Paul “The Vulture” Singer gutted the Voting Rights Act by lobbying with funds earmarked for cholera relief in Africa.
In a trustworthy political world, efficient, well-oiled machines could take the sinful, human factor out of the process that is, after all, the glue of a functioning democracy. But even here, we find failure. We keep using old voting machines (in minority areas) that we know will break down. But even newer machines are suspect. Palast didn’t cover it specifically, but “Voter Village” a September 2018 DefCon voter hacking event (it’s annual), ironically supported by Alex Padilla, found four key vulnerabilities: Supply Chain Insecurity (machine parts manufactured overseas could come pre-hacked; through compromised chips whole classes of machines could be hacked across the U.S., remotely, all at once ), Remote Attacks Proven, Hacking Faster Than Voting (in under 2 minutes), Hacks Don’t Get Fixed. Startling stuff, well worth reviewing.
In addition to all the wise and witty writing in How Trump Stole 2020, Palast pads the otherwise short book with three insertions: An Emergency Alert section (“Coronavirus Causes Outbreak of Mail-in Madness”) which warns readers that, in 2016, “512,696 mail-in ballots—over half a million—were simply rejected, not counted. That’s official, from the EAC.”; the second extra insert is an extended interview with Stacey Abrams regarding the 2018 Georgia debacle; and, my favorite, a 48-page Ted Rall comic book version of Palast’s detailed assertions, which is funny and spot-on — a great add-on to the book.
Palast is a hip guy, and he’s not afraid to let the reader know just how hip he is. He’s got a rip-snorting (at times) sense of humor, without allowing it to degrade his argument or observations. He is a former professor of statistics, which lends authority to his reads of numbers. He’s a former gumshoe. And he’s an award-winning journalist. Palast writes that Republicans have done everything they can since Eisenhower (remember that hilarious MIC warning he gave to the public in his last speech as president) to get in power and stay there — including stealing elections — because they see themselves as champions of the MIC and proud defenders of America’s manifest destiny. While Palast definitely blames Republicans for the current state of electoral disrepair, he boldly notes where Democrats, too, have let American democracy down.
As Palast sees it, the answer is Power; simple as that. The more power you have, the more you crave it, like greed; and as Nobel peace prize winner Henry Kissinger once said, power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” So, we don’t fix the dysfunctional system, and may even make it worse, because it suits the corruption it takes to keep hold of power. We’ve all watched enough West Wing and Veep and House of Cards to get a reinforced sense of how it is. Just Is, rather than justice.
And speaking of Henry Kissinger, it’s also worth remembering his infamous statement at a 1970 meeting of national security wonks, which became known as the Kissinger Doctrine:
I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.
In the end, Greg Palast makes it absolutely clear that Americans don’t need Russians to meddle with their elections and fuck up their democracy. They’re doing a swell job already. He says,
Did the Russians attempt to interfere? Yes, but about as effectively as a mosquito interfering with a Steph Curry three-pointer. A Russian oligarch spent a ginormous $150,000 on Facebook ads, about 1/10,000th of the $1.2 billion spent on pro-Clinton ads.
The Russians did it? Nyet.
The remedy to all of this, writes Palast, is to go after these lawless pols, by shaming them in the press, and show that their treasonous behavior is done without people knowing (it would be a revelation for citizens to understand that the vote they thought they cast was thrown away, behind their backs, by the orders of these slimesters). Don’t give up and stay home. Go out and vote — only once, of course.
Oh, and, Basta!
Meet Joe Black
by John Kendall Hawkins
Today lookin’ like Death warmed over
Foolish as Brad Pitt just sayin’
His jiffy do gone
Replaced with a ‘fro
He recounts how he done Corn Pop
A bad dude needing welfare reform
Poolside all those white years ago
When push came to shove
Back in days he was good buds
With folk who exchanged
strange fruit trading cards
And called each other Bubba
Meet Joe Black
The great white hope now
Up ‘gainst that colored harlequin
In the white house
If only Joe hadn’t Coleman Silked
A human stain in his pants
A mea culpa spook
Rattling his closeted skeletons
Just a dog-faced lying pony soldier
Too small to fail
Like a shape-shifting monster virus
Politician one step below molester,
As Woody Allen would say
(Underwear have term limits
Why not politicians: take a memo:
Compare track records, and skid rows)
And the only thing is
biden Joe did wrong
Is he done went ‘head and stayed
in Mississippi a day too long,
As Bobby Dylan would say.
Meet Joe White
Sloppy slap happy Joe
We done scraped da bottom da barrel
(And the Aussies don’t even know)
superduper did another roperdoper
Up against the wall, he dropped the quine
Like hippies dropped El Cid to change their minds
And yesterday someone compared trump to hitler
who when his vases were panned
(apparently, it’s not so cool
if a rose is not a rose is not a rose)
ripped apart his brushes in a
Mein kampf kristallnacht bulldozer rage
Dancing like sugar plumbed fairies in his head
And painted them under his nose
And then good germans showed up, unopposed
We’re talking vases of finger flowers in bloom
Nuremberg, Leni W. as Shalott at the history loom
And Richie Rich broken bad
shirty brownnosers sieg heiling
Henry Kissinger American Express
Is that really an image we want?
Don’t leave home without it
because there’s a virus
Meet the Two Joes
States of red and blue
rock em sock em robo-pols
one flew east one flew west
And someone each of them knew
flew to New York to invest
Wall Street rallies don’t need
Triumphs of the will
Democracy will do
The red pill or the blue bill
choose your poison, flagly
(Socrates said fuck it give me the hemlock)
Well, someone said, maybe Elvirus,
that it ain’t over til
the morbidly obese fat fuck sings
And this could end falsetto
A quarantino ending for the ages
We all fall down
Inglorious basterds (sic, real sic)
Watching our dreams go up in flames
Let’s see what the mourning brings
In Search of the Chosŏn People
by John Kendall Hawkins
When you go away
Sick of seeing me,
I shall let you go gently, no words.
From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn
An armful of azaleas
I shall gather and scatter on your path.
Step by step away
On the flowers lying before you,
Tread softly, deeply, and go.
When you go away,
Sick of seeing me,
though I die; No, I shall not shed a tear.
– Kim Sowol, “Azaleas,” translated by David R. McCann
I can still recall the early morning cab ride I took many years ago in Daegu, South Korea. I was in a hurry, as usual; too much soju and kimchi the night before. On my way to the hagwan for the morning portion of my day-night split shift to teach EFL to busy university-aged students cramming in some English idioms seemingly between classes. It was the loneliest cab ride I’ve ever taken. No English spoken; I pointed to a map. The interior a shrine of talismans lit by a black light, a weird Wurlitzer melody and a voice of sorrow coming from the tape player, like an oriental version of “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Speaking of hung over idioms.
As you do in your travels anywhere, if you’re quiet enough, you let the “strange” culture in osmotically, and get an algorithmic feel for it over time. We’re 60% water from the culture we came from; by the time I left Daegu I was 60% Korean, by that measure. The rest I had to bring on board. People push and shove, masks worn everywhere, neon signs, musical language, sleepy Korean soldiers pouring from yellow buses, the sense of occupation. You remembered you were in a country still at war. And when you got tired of it, you found a way on to the American base, to buy Maxwell House and Gallo at the PX, hit the gym and library, and have brunch before the big screen with American sleepy soldiers. ‘Tired of it’ – the fucking moxie.
It wasn’t until years later, after I was out of Korea, one day poring over photo albums full of snapshots, that I began to more fully appreciate the culture I’d left behind, and thought about all the photo albums, smuggled out, full of our frameworks, our M*A*S*H* up of yet another client culture we don’t understand. I tried to keep this all in mind as I read Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend: A Novel from North Korea. You go at it thinking you’ll be imparted some salving insight into the South’s mean-girl sister to the North, sulky and envious, in lieu of material conspicuity. Some urge to be rescued by the West; a hunger for Micky D’s. The bobbing bait of materialism on the surface of things.
But Korea for 500 years was culturally and socially unified under the Chosŏn Dynasty. Though a so-called client state of China during that time, Korea was politically autonomous; China was laissez-faire. Then in 1910, Japan colonized Korea until 1945, meeting underground resistance. During that Japanese occupation Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was a Soviet-trained guerrilla leader known as “Tiger,” who led a series of effective tactical assaults. Japan had to cough up Korea at end of WW2, in a settlement involving the Soviets and Americans. When it became time to unify Korea, Kim Il-Sung held “free” elections that included no Southern representatives and proceeded to occupy all of the South, except the Pusan region. America/UN pushback ensued (see Korean War) and here we are.
Friend is an old book, first published in 1988 and previously translated into French and English. This edition, translated by Immanuel Kim for Columbia University Press, comes at a peculiar time in North Korean-American relations, and expresses a kind of hope that the Man Who Would Be King, Donald Trump, has counterintuitively created an atmosphere of negation with boy totalitarian Kim Jong-un. What wonderful times for global democracy, but we’ll take what we can get.
Kim tells us that the author, Paek Nam-Nyong, once belonged to the April 15th Literary Production Unit, a central task of which was to produce historical novels – The Year 1932, being one – extolling the heroic virtues Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. By doing so, Nam-Nyong helped prop up the almost-caricaturistic, larger-than-life Kim personality cult that uneasily reminds one of Jimmy Jones and his Kool-Aid gang in Guyana. Also, an important lens to keep handy is that Nam-Nyong’s father was killed in an American bombardment of the North when he was a baby, and, growing up in poverty, he lost his mother to disease when he was 10 years old. He lives in Pyonyang today.
The Friend referred to, by the novel’s title, is one Jeong Jin Wu, a judge who specializes in divorce cases, and the odd off-cut case that gets to the heart of the DPRK’s social contract with astonishing clarity. Nam-Nyong opens the novel by suggesting to the reader that life is so calm and serene in a district of the city Kanggye in the 1970s that nobody really knows where the court is located. “Although the Superior Court handled unsavory civil and criminal cases,” Nam-Nyong’s 3rd person limited omniscient narrator tells us, “the monumental facade of the building gave an impression of both grandeur and quiet dignity.” In this sense, Judge Jeong Jin Wu represents the Court-as-Friend – there to quietly restore a sense of Confucian balance.
It’s a short novel, at about 200 pages, and yet Nam-Nyong manages to “say” the judge’s name some 621 times (I counted). The effect of the three stressed syllables – Jeong Jin Wu – is to reinforce the importance of this protagonist, not only as a subject-in-himself but a central representative of the socialist community. He’s a role player, and by the time we’re done with book, we see a society of role players. It would border on allegorical, if not for the fact that people actually live like this. (Remember our American communes in the ‘60s and the roles we played, rapping and freely sharing our naked love with each other? I do; I was in a poetry commune and coupled often.) Buddhists dig it.
Well, how does a ‘peaceable kingdom’ work? To work at all, it has to be all about works, and trappings of materiality have to be stripped down, desire put on a paleo diet, and consciousness focussed on the old yin and yang – balance for the many; it’s the way the emperor likes it. Sounds crazy and cartoonish, but you should hear what they say about capitalism. This is really a central theme of Friend. We don’t need no Koyaanisqatsi in our community. And the judge is there, a gentle Lefty arbiter, to restore the balance. True, he’s a little too Left, but the promise is that, in the end, like T.S. Eliot said at the end of Four Quartets, “All manner of things shall be well.”
Friend has three parts, Their Love, Two Lives and Family, and works its way through the process of becoming and unbecoming in the lives of Lee Seok Chun and Sun Hee, a couple with a young child, Nam Ho, who are seeking a divorce from each other. The whole of Friend is equal to the sum of these parts. Judge Wu listens patiently when Sun Hee, a leading mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. Meets with him in his court chambers to plead her case for the divorce. Wu tries to surmise the underlying issue:
Why does she want a divorce? Do she and her husband not have a good sex life? Judge Jeong Jin Wu thought. Or perhaps her husband is impotent. No, it can’t be that. She has a son.
Standard stuff everywhere.
It turns out to be a matter of irreconcilable differences. But it’s a society of reconciliation, and such differences, at least as far as Wu is concerned, need to be fleshed out and understood – possibilities other than divorce imagined. Wu is a sensitive soul who loses sleep over the discord of his supplicants. “Much like a fisherman trying to untangle knots in a fishing line, Jeong Jin Wu was upset by the burden of having to deal with another family’s misery,” the narrator tells us. Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we go and self-deceive, he seems to believe, but then what does Wu know, as Nam-Nyong puts the judge through some serious changes of his own, when we discover Wu, too, has marital difficulties. Spicy dramatic tension.
So, not only do we learn that the good judge has grown to resent his wife’s absence from home 20 days per month (following her bliss involves bringing her agricultural expertise to a mountain community far away, and forces the judge to do his own dishes). He also recalls a couple that he did divorce out of pity for the wife, once he discovers that the husband was willing to call her an adulterer (and destroy her reputation) to get a divorce.
This Korean Pilgrim’s Progress through the stages of discord back to balance involves other couples observed, too. And we meet an idealized couple, in the form of Eun Mi and her family. Sun Hee “envies” Eun Mi
because she was also a great singer and dearly loved her husband with the kind of innocence that had not yet seen the harrowing reality of married life. The couple’s intimacy was evident, and harmony dwelled in Eun Mi’s family.
This harmony, to Wu, a man who must weigh things in the great scales of district justice, his humble zone of local influence, is everything. He reinforces the value of these couplings by showing another couple – a nameless coal miner and school teacher, who are shown as hard-working and loving – whom he returns to a few times. In fact, as he does with Seok Chun and Sun Hee, he interferes, after judicial hours, in their marriage dialectics. For instance, with Seok Chun he will go the extra mile to a river and wade knee-deep to dredge up special sand for Seok to make a machine mold for a project that will advance his career – and maybe make Sun Hee happy and willing to drop the divorce. Later, he tries to talk the coal miner out of apparent incipient alcoholism, as he fears it will unbalance his now beautiful marriage.
Like the culture it comes from, the language in Friend is spare and unadorned and refreshingly clear. Like re-reading Hemingway after fucking around with Joyce’s islands in the stream of consciousness called Ulysses. Nam-Nyong’s characters’ thoughts, though complex, are not caught up in decorative expositions of wit, charm and intellectuality – because these are forms of excess subjectivity and materiality (celebrations of desire that lead to problems in a society bent on egalitarianism). So, then.
Nam-Nyong achieves this effect in two instances where he has remembrances of love’s eruption, leading to proposals and a marriage contract. First, we hear some of Seok’s thoughts about his infatuation with Sun Hee as he meanders through the pouring rain:
Seok Chun meandered as though intoxicated and, struggling to keep his balance, proceeded in despair. Suddenly he fell into a ditch, a booby trap set by the neighborhood kids. Seok Chun lifted his head and saw on the path the silhouette of a woman holding an umbrella against the dim dormitory lights.
In the shadow of the umbrella, Seok Chun saw the face of Sun Hee.
Then, in the factory, Seok Chun is so infatuated that he literally tunes into the machine she operates: “Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated.” You can’t manufacture this kind of love.
Not long after reading aloud a legalistic thesis on marriage through history to a group of comrades, he is offered tender, private advice by Eun Ok who admires his intellect, and he, in return, her beauty. Early in his courting days with Eun Ok, he, a well-grounded judge, has his emoceanal waters moved by her lunar persuasion:
Eun Ok walked beside Jeong Jin Wu with an arm wrapped tightly around his. She was jubilant, her face gleaming like majestic snowcapped mountains. Simply gazing at Eun Ok’s radiant face and lustrous eyes [earlier, Nam-Nyong had described Sun Hee exactly the same way] made Jeong Jin Wu ecstatic. The ice crunched under the feet of the two lovers treading on the snowy path. The brisk morning breeze had become calm, and the sky was clear. The silver clouds receded from the snowcapped mountains into the far distance.
They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed.
While it lasts, love is a many splendored thing indeed, but soon, too soon, it seems, the tide goes out on moony love: “Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a harrowing reality.”
Nam-Nyong uses naturalistic, almost animistic descriptors at times. Forces of nature express anthropomorphic interest in the lovers described. This, too, seems to be a cultural phenomenon. “Azaleas,” the poem by Kim Sowol quoted above, was written in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. On one level it suggests a broken love, a woman wanting to move on with her life, with the retired lover strewing azaleas at her feet as she goes, rather than tears. This motif is taken up in Friend, as each of the marriages presented is rattled by independent-minded females. On another level, it seems to speak to what David R. McCann calls “the resigned sadness of the Korean people.” (It’s worth noting that azaleas contain a dangerous psychotropic rhodotoxin, derived from a plant native to Japan.)
One other aspect of Friend that is cleverly achieved is Nam-Nyong’s depiction of children and, consequently, family. The thought that disturbs Judge Jeong Jin Wu most is how broken marriages will affect the children. Nam-Nyong stages these effects by showing how the merged loved of their relationship (the children) are virtually forgotten about as squabbles lead to violent existential outbursts. Thus, one night, Seok Chun and Sun Hee, after a spat, neglect their son: “They had turned off the lights to go to sleep many hours ago, but Ho Nam sat between his parents, between the two rooms, amid the tense atmosphere, completely alone and dejected.” (It also pictured “a lost generation” stuck in a DMZ, longing for reunification.)
Children come across as coddled imps with, if all is in balance, an open future. Children are expressive in Friend. Seok Chun wandering aimlessly, love-smitten, falls into a “boobytrap” set randomly by such imps. Later, as the judge is walking along, kids run into him, and he almost loses his balance. Even Ho Nam tells Chae Rim, Sun Hee’s divorce-supporting cousin, to get lost and throws a bean sandwich at him. This strikes one as humorous – as does a scene with a forklift where a workman with blueprints presumptuously hops on for a ride and is “almost” deposited into a lathe to the female driver’s delight.
One last bit Nam-Nyong plays us with is the witty (well, I laughed) depiction of a very serious crime – a felony that a worker commits at a manufacturing facility that you would not conceive in the West:
The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen, but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.
For those of us steeped in cultures of conspicuous consumption this is numbing news, but pretty well sums up the purported ethic of the North Korean regime and socialism in general.
All in all, Friend is a tight, well-written staging of the so-called Juche political philosophy of independence and self-reliance that wants to be the soul of the North Korean regime. As Immanuel Kim puts it in the Afterword,
Friend is set during the Hidden Hero campaign of the 1980s, which sought to recognize the extraordinary achievements of otherwise ordinary citizens… The trend in fiction of this period was to delineate a new class of intellectual heroes who improved social conditions with their brainpower rather than their brute strength.
It’s a signal of some sort; maybe a booby trap for our trapped booby in the White House. We ain’t all about the missiles, could be one read. Who knows?
It seems that Paek Nam-Nyong, whose fame came with earlier Kim family novels, is being called upon again to burnish Kim Jong-un’s reputation. The question is for what purpose releasing a thirty year old narrative. Unlike other books written by defectors from the regime, Kim points out, “Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime” As usual, time will tell whether there is any other import beyond the narrative’s literary value, of which there is plenty. Kim’s dedication page is a nice way to feel the sentiment expressed in Friend. He writes: “For my wife, my comrade, my friend, Angela Kim.”
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I ought to join a club and beat you over the head with it, [but] I would not belong to a club that would have me as a member.”
- Two Groucho cracks joined together
A few decades ago I lived in low-rent East Hollywood among junkies, assorted burn-outs, and people playing extras — in movies and in life. A California native, my move there from the East Coast was a kind of homecoming. Fit a typical bill, I imagine: living with friends in a bungalow, working as an IBM temp through Manpower, smoking a lot of dope, reading Nietzsche, listening to Wagner, learning to play violin, writing poetry, eating next door at Shakey’s pizza joint (ragtime music, cheap beer, cheap eats), and, finally (maybe even inevitably), being invited to be an extra in a movie (Raid on Entebbe, Israeli commando).
But East Hollywood was a dirty place. I didn’t like being asked by a total stranger if I’d like to come up to their mother’s place to shoot up heroin. And standing at a bus stop to go to work, you’d note newspaper boxes and beside them boxes filled with smut rags, reminding one of all the kids who’d run away to Hollywood to become stars and ended up fellating some wannabe Harvey Weinstein on a Naugahyde casting couch and finding fame as naked cover girls on these rags, their telephone numbers included. Or homeless starlets sleeping on the Walk of Fame. Smog all around you, smut in a box, you felt dirty and in need of a shower, all the time.
Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing is a funny — at times hilarious — memoir, for the first 200 pages, and that’s just as well, as the reader needs that extra bounce and buoyancy for when the gravity of Mia Farrow’s entry, midway into the narrative, kicks in, and the voice-over begins to snarl and get ugly. You knew it was coming, suddenly it’s dirty, and you find yourself showering, hoping you don’t drop your Irish Spring, even though you’re in that jungle rain all alone. You’re protected in your thinking: East coast movie-making is worlds apart from all that Hollywood sleaze. But then Woody introduces Mia’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and you recall him helping Jeffrey Epstein get off easy for molesting all those girls. On the East Coast.
The memoir is broken up into three distinct parts — or acts, if you want to see its movie potential. In Act One, Allen directs us through his Brooklyn childhood, including his Jewish home life; indifferent education; avocations; early gag writing, stand-up comedy and movie aspirations; musicianship; womanly girls who enlightened him and girly women he married. Act Two is a descent into one man’s moral hell: making love to Mia, the milkshake Mama from Rosemary’s Baby. Act Three is an attempt to recover dignity by name-dropping and a bitter blowing of raspberries toward a woman who has destroyed his reputation to the point he’s “not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses.”
Act One of Apropos of Nothing is vintage Woody Allen story-telling. He starts out by saying he’s no Holden Caulfield, (but, by the end, he’ll seem like he’s doing all he can to be a catcher in the rye). He paints his childhood Brooklyn as a busy, multicultural village teeming with hustlers, small time hoods, future social democrats (Bernie Sanders grew up Midwood, like Allen), and the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Jackie Robinson, white baseball’s first Black player. Allan Konigsberg, Woody’s birth name, was an amateur magician and an avid card sharp, who spent his time developing “false shuffles, false cuts, bottom dealing, palming” — sleight-of-hand skills that, presumably, would inform his later movie-making.
He describes his Mom as a Groucho Marx look-alike who nagged him for wasting his IQ by underperforming at school, but he honors her by noting how her outside work and completion of domestic chores “kept the family from going under.” She pushed his further education relentlessly and questioned his life decisions in an effort to engage his critical thinking skills. She was an Old School mother full of tough loving.
He feels bad for loving his mother less than his Dad, but the latter was a kind of hero to young Allan. Dad was part of “a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl.” And that, in the spirit of JFK’s PT 109, “during World War I his [father’s] boat got hit by a shell ..sank… [e]veryone drowned except for three guys…[and] that’s how close I came to never being born.”
His father owned one book, The Gangs of New York, of which Allen said, “it imbued in me a fascination with gangsters, criminals, and crime. I knew gangsters like most boys knew ball players.” His father was a bustler and hustler and a criminal, too. “How he loved that life,” writes Allen. “Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie [Allen’s mother] is a mystery on a par with dark matter.” Allen’s parents stayed married for 70 years, “out of spite,” Allen speculates, and you can almost picture them as the interviewed parents critical of their criminal son depicted in the early Allen romp, Take the Money and Run.
Act One has two surprises. Allen indicates a youthful athleticism, lithe games of pick-up basketball, and unpredicted agility playing shortstop in baseball games. But the bigger surprise is Allen’s repeated denial of his Intellectualism: “This is a notion as phony as the Loch Ness Monster…I don’t have an intellectual neuron in my head.” And, “I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue.’” Methinks the laddy doth protest too much; he’s not just a shtick up man, as he pleads, but is capable of pointed deconstructive criticism: Pulling Marshall McLuhan into the frame, in Annie Hall, to take down a mouthy, “pontificating” NYU professor in line behind him at a cinema was genius.
Another aspect of Act One of Apropos of Nothing that you can’t help but pick up on as you go is Allen’s generous spread of Yiddish words and expressions that serve to remind the reader of the schlemiel character Allen often portrayed early in his career (although, some say he’s more nebbish than schlemiel). Since most readers are likely not familiar with Yiddish, the inclusion of these words causes one to stop and look it up. We get the following: kvetch, schlep, yentas, shul, mishigas, gonif, momza, mitzvah, schlemiel, schnecken, tummler, schlumps, schmoozing. Mashugana, schmuck, kosher, noodge, schnooky, mensch, rube, yokel, schlepper, klutz, lammister, shekels, schnook, weltschmerz, shiksa, chutzpah, and nudniks. Comedy’s fast, funny Yiddish slows, and given what’s coming in Act Two, it’s a good strategy.
It’s a real treat reader-performing Woody’s early years, as he moves toward gag writing for newspapers and then comic performance. As a young atheist everything was open to revaluation. First up, the fools of his education. “I hated, loathed, and despised school,” he writes. “with its dumb, prejudiced, backward teachers.” But more than “the coven of teachers” he hated “the whole regulated routine:” march, line up, feet straight, “no talking, joking, note passing, nothing.” He played “hooky” frequently, often finding himself at a library or at MOMA: “There I was at fifteen…confronted by Matisse and Chagall, by Nolde, Kirchner, and Schmidt-Rottluff, by Guernica and the frantic wall-sized Jackson Pollock, by the Beckmann triptych and Louise Nevelson’s dark black sculpture.” Funny stuff, truancy.
He found himself in trouble with the school dean for turning in writing with lines like, “She had an hourglass figure and all I wanted to do was play in the sand.” After he showed a few of these, someone advised him to start sending in gags to newspapers. He writes,
…I have to warn the reader the one-liners were not the equal of Voltaire or La Rochefoucauld. They were mother-in-law jokes, parking space jokes, income tax jokes, maybe an occasional topical one. Example (and don’t shoot me, I was sixteen): “There was the gambler’s kid who went to school.
in Vegas. He wouldn’t take his test marks back—he let ’em ride on the next test.”
Pretty offal stuff, but the seagulls loved it, haw-haw.
The narrative takes a serious leap into maturity as young Allen becomes interested in the opposite sex. We learn that his strongest youthful influence came from the womanly girl, Rita Wishnick, “an attractive girl, a polio victim who had a slight limp” with whom he hung out, platonic-style. They went “to movies, the beach, Chinese restaurants, miniature golf, pizza joints.” Rita came from ‘respectable’ middle class Jewish stock that were “getting educated to teach, to become journalists, professors, doctors, and lawyers.” It was from this relationship that Allen later decided to give NYU a try. He cracks, “I was a motion picture major for no other reason than watching movies seemed nice and cushy.” And almost middle class.
His success as a gag writer, leads to renown in the neighborhood, which leads to a knock on the door by someone with an angle on his talent who wants to be his manager — Harvey Meltzer. Allen sketches him up, as arriving at his door with “a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of facial tics.” It was a good move; he did have an angle, and soon Allen was doing stand-up, cutting comedy albums and writing for top talent — eventually leading to a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show. (For those really interested in this portion of Allen’s career, see The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader.)
The maturity that he gained hanging out with Rita pays dividends when Allen meets up with real women, albeit girly ones for the most part, like Harlene, who would become his first wife. She was “pretty,” “bright,” and was into music and theater. She came from “a good family,” who, despite his getting seasick on their boat, were glad to see Harlene marry up-and-comer Woody. Of Harlene, Allen recalls, “I must say, for a college-age kid, I took her to very romantic, sophisticated places. Off-Broadway shows, Birdland to see Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Candlelight restaurants in Manhattan.” But their marriage turned into a “nightmare,” as Harlene couldn’t adapt to Woody’s West Coast lifestyle, and his struggle to be not-Mort Sahl, which he likens to being a saxophonist after Charlie Parker.
But then Allen stumbled upon “the neurotic’s philosopher’s stone, the overlapping relationship” in the guise of Louise Lasser, a Brandeis drop-out, with whom he gets on famously, and immediately. She is smart, witty, beautiful, and soon becomes “the apotheosis of my dreams.” He loves her energy and quirkiness — she makes spaghetti for eight, unable to figure out portioning, and always “with six portions leftover.” She’s his coach, his psychologist, his champion and he looks at her “standing, her head tilted so her long blond hair could hang down on the ironing board as she ironed it over and over to make sure it was straight.”
And what’s more, his apotheosis “was supersonically promiscuous” and “had a cottontail’s libido.” He describes her going mad with lust while they’re ordering dinner at a restaurant one night:
“Let’s go,” she says, wanting what she wants when she wants it. “Where?” I squeal, being pulled up and dragged to the door. “We’ll be right back,” she tells the waiter…Now, being hustled through an ensemble of garbage cans, I am pushed into what is a dark, secluded outdoor spot in midtown Manhattan…We make love and not too long after I am sitting over my portion, a beatific smile on my face, her cheeks rubicund with fulfillment. Women like that do not grow on trees.
But imagine if they did, you know, literally; autumns would be something, huh?
However, all good things come and come and come to an end. In Paris to film Casino Royale, things fall apart not long after he and she sit down for dinner at a restaurant with the Burtons. Cleopatra calls him “a pockmarked Jew” and Mark Anthony ripostes about her excessively expanding girdle, “and they’re doing this all for the benefit of me, a total nonentity.” Later, while he’s playing five-card stud with Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin — the cast from The Dirty Dozen in town for some shooting — his apotheosis is out finding a new sexual orbit. He couldn’t keep pace. Things got rancorous; she got demanding (“I refer you to Shakespeare’s Fifty-Seventh Sonnet”). They remained good friends.
Later, he hooks up with Diane Keaton, who dressed “as if her personal shopper was Buñuel.” She becomes an important role player in a series of some his most successful movies that followed, including, of course, Annie Hall (the title of which, Allen says, evolved from Anhedonia…Sweethearts…Doctor Shenanigans…Alvy and Annie…I decided on Annie Hall, using Keaton’s
birth name). Well, La-Tee-Da, indeed. The Oscar-winning Annie Hall was full of great writing, acting and directing. There was the McLuhan scene, but there were so many other great ones: there’s the early classroom scene where Alvy explains his “healthy sexual curiosity” as a 6-year old; there’s Alvy snarking as he and Annie people-watch; and, there’s Alvy’s reference to politicians being one rung below child molester.
Allen’s life and career are arguably at its heights by the time Manhattan is released in 1979 to great applause. The story involves a character, Isaac (Allen) who is in love with Mary, a pretty divorcée (Keaton), while also dalliancing with a 17 year old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). He dumps Tracy, telling her she should go to London and be with boys her age, so that he can shack up with Mary. But she’s interested in someone else, and dumps him, upon which he tries to hypocritically resume his predatory designs on Tracy — just as she’s leaving for the airport — only to be rebuffed by the teenager.
A year later, he began dating Mia Farrow. He writes, “She turned out to be bright, beautiful, she could act, could draw, had an ear for music, and she had seven children. Tilt.” The same expression Allen used to describe what happened when his father’s life of ‘getting action’ stopped abruptly when he fell for his mother, ‘Groucho Marx’. Tilt. It gets messy quickly in this quarter of the book, as Allen spends pages and pages of knocking Mia Farrow’s character, explicating the charges of child molestation she publicly aired against him, shortly after she discovered erotic photos of him with another of her adoptees, Soon-Yi (to whom he’s married), and defending himself, bringing in a vast array of actors to be the McLuhans of his message.
Frankly, the narrative goes downhill rapidly, as Allen understandably employs his keen and acerbic wit to analyze Farrow’s psyche. When Allen brings up her role in Rosemary’s Baby and then alludes to her testimony in support of Roman Polanski’s character in his own child molestation case, I lost interest in this petty play for my sympathetic reader-response. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe him; doesn’t mean I do. But the reader interested in this messy moral goss is well-advised to decide for him or herself after reading readily available appropriate court transcripts, as well as a Yale New Haven investigation that includes interviews with Dylan Farrow, the child Allen allegedly molested. Make up your own minds.
But one under-reported angle that holds a lot of weight for me is Ronan Farrow’s alleged sober observation of Allen’s marriage to Soon-Yi: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression.” Tilt.
The last quarter of the book picks up pace and spirit again. There are moments when Allen seems to employ gratuitously provocative descriptions of people, such as his quick sketch of Scarlett Johansson:
She was only nineteen when she did Match Point but it was all there: an exciting actress, a natural movie star, real intelligence, quick and funny, and when you meet her you have to fight your way through the pheromones. Not only was she gifted and beautiful, but sexually she was radioactive.
Well, I agree, but I’m not a director under fire for wolfing at young women.
There are an assortment of tidbits worth reading, however. For instance, he tells us that he almost landed Jack Nicholson for Hannah and Her Sisters, but had to settle for Michael Caine, after Jack found himself obligated to star in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, with daughter Anjelica. He notes, “The end result was Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award that year for Best Actor and Michael Caine for Best Supporting.” Allen tells us, he almost starred opposite Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre, but that Shawn Wallace took over at the last minute, because “I just didn’t have the professional dedication to memorize the long speeches.”
The best bits of this section are his brief anecdotal descriptions of his intersections with legendary directors: Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. “Bergman invited me to his island a few times but I always ducked it,” he tells us. “I worshipped the guy as an artist, but who wants to take a tiny plane to a Russian-owned island where there’s just sheep and you only get yogurt for lunch? I’m not that dedicated.” A great “language barrier reef” kept him from understanding Truffaut when they passed “like ships in the night,” and he played phone tag with Fellini. He adds wistfully, “They’re all gone. Truffaut, Resnais, Antonioni, De Sica, Kazan. At least Godard is still alive, but he always was a nonconformist.”
As for his own legacy, let it be known, he writes that he regrets he “never made a great movie” and that “apart from not going out in public without a fake nose and glasses, I simply went about my business and worked. I worked while stalked, vilified, and smeared.” You could do worse than to go out, mistaken for Groucho.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“I used to be Deleuzanal, but, now, I’m not Saussure.”
– Toilet stall wall riddle, next to Nietzsche Is Peachy
Someone must have called Slavoj on his Radphone in the middle of the night and said go over to your window and look up at the sky; he did, and there it was: the Rad-Signal lighting up a silver Z. Some thought it was a call for Zorro; some said Zarathustra. Slavoj is a little bit of both. The voice on the phone continued on loudspeaker, “There’s a virus afoot, Slavoj, we need your wisdom.” He thanked the caller, an anxious acolyte, and hung up the phone. He climbed out of his phone-booth pajamas and raced over to his word processor and typed like a maniac on a mission from the entity formerly known as God.
Because he’s a genius, he was finished in an hour, saved the pdf, and sent it to his publisher: Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes the World. The exclamation mark there to build up the threat he faced. Could this be his kryptonite?! Or his finest philosophical hour? The world waited for the master’s work with baited breath. Read it and seep.
In his introduction, Slavoj Žižek starts off Pandemic! by quoting from the Bible, John 20:17, “Noli me tangere,” the one where Jesus has Arisen and Mary Magdalen recognizes him and comes a-running to give him a hug, and he says,”Whoa, don’t touch the threads, Mary. I’m a Made man now.” Or, he has a virus; maybe her simplex has rubbed off. We’re all herpes hosts; it erupts once in a blue moon, like original sin, to remind us we still have moral work to do. Žižek says we mustn’t touch each other, but, at the same time, if we use this historical moment properly, “there is a hope that corporeal distancing will even strengthen the intensity of our link with others.”
Žižek makes the all-important point that “we are all in the same boat now.” This is a truism, and explains why he gets the Big Bucks. One pictures the maiden Titanic asea, but, now, without the worry of icebergs ahead. Rather, the worry is whether there’ll be any ports ahead not under water. The Upstairs/Downstairs of Das Boot, held together by a melancholy stringed quartet, Cate and Leo, twin figureheads at the prow of the new flying dutchman we call the world. “Hegel wrote,” writes Žižek, “that the only thing we can learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, so I doubt the epidemic will make us any wiser.” Or, we’ve nothing to fear from history but fear of history itself.
Žižek says, “There is no return to normal, the new ‘normal’ will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives, or we will find ourselves in a new barbarism whose signs are already clearly discernible.” This is probably true, if the Plague lasts long enough. We read the pressures are mounting: domestic abuse, already a crisis in America, is bound to go into full swing; jobs are dropping like flies; cantaloupes (meaning all migrant agro) lie unpicked and bleeding in the sun; talking heads buddy up with news broadcasts from their cribs (presumably). One head says, through Žižek, “What iswrong with our system that we were caught unprepared by the catastrophe despite scientists warning us about it for years?” Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Indeed.
Panels pick apart the symptoms and point pingers, and “The usual suspects are waiting in line to be questioned: globalization, the capitalist market, the transience of the rich.” We make bells of our hands and wring them, Bobby Dylan-style, for all of us who are Left. Žižek says, Frank Wells told his brother H.G. that the feckin’ White Devil pommies had wiped out the aborigines of Tasmania, and that’s what inspired War of the Worlds, and that “Perhaps an epidemic which threatens to decimate humanity should be treated as Wells’s story turned around: the ‘Martian invaders’” and that it’s ironic that “we are now threatened ‘by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth,’ stupid viruses which just blindly reproduce themselves—and mutate.”
Žižek asks, “Why are we tired all the time?” Some of the answers are terrifying. But he posits that most folks are so caught up in pleasing The Man, polishing his apples with a smile, and as Wordsworth sighs, “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Žižek says,
When a medical worker gets deadly tired from working overtime, when a caregiver is exhausted by a demanding charge, they are tired in a way that is different from the exhaustion of those driven by obsessive career moves. Their tiredness is worthwhile.
You don’t want to know how tired I am, nor how seasick.
Žižek takes some time to pot-shot the Israelis. Suddenly, with the arrival of Covid-19, Yahu’s nits are all largesse with the PLA, and are now ‘helping’ in Gaza, “not out of goodness and human consideration, but for the simple fact that it is impossible to separate Jews and Palestinians there.” The new rule: any Palestinian looking to give a hug to a “muscle tough” border guard will be shot. The Kamila Shamsie debacle is noted, the author “retroactively stripped” of a literary prize, says Žižek, ostensbly for “participating in…boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014.” Nothing to do with the virus (or does it?).
He knocks the Turkish-Russian alliance, calling it “Putoğan.” Žižek blames the alliance for the Syrian refugee crisis. “A perfect storm is gathering,” he says. “Three storms are gathering and combining their force above Europe. The first two are not specific to Europe: the coronavirus epidemic…[and] the Putoğan virus: the new explosion of violence in Syria between Turkey and the Assad regime.” The third storm is, he writes, the refugee virus — “a new wave of refugees organized by Turkey [may] have catastrophic consequences in this time of the coronavirus epidemic.” This is being forced on Europe, thanks to the Putoğan stranglehold on oil to Europe. Žižek predicts that “populist racists will have their heyday.”
In a section he calls Welcome To The Viral Desert, Žižek complains that “The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered a vast epidemic of ideological viruses which were lying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism.” But Žižek is holding out for the arrival of a johnny-on-the-spot better-angels-of-our-nature virus and that a “much more beneficent ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking of an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.” I’m thinking, how about Pax Americana? But Žižek’s all about a manifest commie destiny. I’m conflicted.
To make his manifesto come to life, Žižek says Chinese communism must die (and probably capitalism, too). He believes the death could come suddenly, after a brief bout of violence. Think, he says, the “‘Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,’ the deadliest blow in all of martial arts.” He references, he actually references Tarantino, Kill Bill II, Beatrix (playing Covid-19) striking Bill, and Bill, played by the aging David Carradine (who kinda looks Asian and American, so fits the bill), takes one for the team, and after a teary ideological goodbye with his killer, dies. I’m welling up now, as I think of the simultaneous deaths of communism and capitalism. Music in my head, “My Corona.”
Next, he brings up Dr. WHO and “capitalist animism” and, out of nowhere, he adds, “Do not play with yourself.” Excess is the road to the palace of wisdom, Blake tells us, but damn. Anyway, Žižek manages to move on and leads us, like a google-eyed Virgil, through the Inferno, to a version of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, and applies it to epidemics, on our way to the beatitudinal Beatrix. As we recall, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Žižek asks rhetorically: “And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemic that exploded at the end of 2019?” It’s a hoax; China did it; well, at least it’s not SARS; we’re fucked; okay, let’s work this shit out.
Ever the optimist, because he’s got tenure, Žižek insists we can get over this pandemic and looks to historical precedents and seemingly refers to Foucault’s History of Sexuality (you can’t always tell) when he brings up medieval times and plagues and how they got past it all to finally produce Us. He adds a Step here, between depression and acceptance — “orgies.” Because, they reasoned, says Žižek that “since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible with lots of drinking and sex.” I thought, for no particular reason of the beginning of Foucault’s Sanity and Madness, and the reference to Narrenschiffen (Ship of Fools), and the transport of the mad from port to port on seasick asylum ships, and that recalled the Janus film classic, The King of Hearts, instant Carnival and a near-Corona.
He asks, “One interesting question raised by the coronavirus epidemic, even for a non-expert in statistics like me, is: where does data end and ideology begin?” This is a fair, if unelaborated query, given the Age of the Algorithm we’ve entered. He adds, mysteriously,
Many dystopias already imagine a similar future: we stay at home, work on our computers, communicate through videoconferences, exercise on a machine in the corner of our home office, occasionally masturbate in front of a screen displaying hardcore sex, and get food by delivery, never seeing other human beings in person.
Medieval porn, one presumes, and, um, why the objectification of the Dominos pizza guy?
Žižek says, “ I caught myself dreaming of visiting Wuhan. The abandoned streets in a megalopolis—the usually bustling urban centers looking like ghost towns, stores with open doors and no customers, just a lone walker or a single car here and there, provide a glimpse of what a non-consumerist world might look like.” This reminded me of a book by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, who in The Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind), described a holograph machine of the near future set up in the den, where you could send your bratty, privileged kids. Schmidt asks: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Wuhan? Maybe a coronavirus view of things for the brats?
Žižek references famous activists and reckons that that’s what’s missing. He honors the memory of the whistleblowing doctor who alerted the world to the virus before he succumbed. He writes, “Li Wenliang, the doctor who first discovered the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and was censored by authorities, was an authentic hero of our time, something like the Chinese Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.” And, “A Chinese Julian Assange is needed to expose to the public the concealment in China’s response to the epidemic.” This response could include “doctoring data” to show recovery where there is none. They may be commies, but they know das kapitalist strategies.
The ever-optimistic Žižek cites potential temptations we need to be aware of:
From a cynical, vitalist standpoint, one could be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed so that younger, healthier plants can prosper, and thus contribute to global health.
He tells of “three wise men,” Magi coming not to celebrate new life, but grim reapers grinning down. “Under a so-called ‘three wise men’ protocol,” says Žižek, “three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care.” Damn, who’s gonna tell Grandma that the nice smiling doctors want to kill her?
Žižek is not advocating the Three Wise men approach here, although he does support euthanasia. He writes,
I want to assert that I am being an utter realist here: one should prepare medicaments to enable a painless death for the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our first principle should be not to economize but to assist unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.
So don’t panic; Žižek has not gone over to the Other Side.
And then, lo and behold, he cites a phone conversation (unreported by the MSM) that Greek politician and writer Yanis Varoufakis had just a few days ago with Julian Assange, who weighed in on the Covid-19 crisis during a phone call from Belmarsh. Assange told Varoufakis that “this new phase of the crisis is, at the very least, making it clear to us that anything goes—that everything is now possible.” Varoufakis tells Assange, “Whether the epidemic helps deliver the good or the most evil society will depend, of course, on us – on whether progressives manage to band together.” Fuck, are we that desperate for change that we’re putting allour eggs in Covid-19 basket? That’s deplorable.
And that leads to his final section, Communism Or Barbarism, As Simple As That! What does the future hold for humanity? Following on from the Three Grim Reapers scenario, Žižek visions up:
I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc.. More than open barbarism I fear barbarism with a human face—ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.
A kind of global Velvet Revolution! Featuring communism, without the tanks; a brotherhood of sisters; the 1% diluted; Animal Farm, the sequel (Boxer, the glue of society, graciously remembered); everybody sharing shit, the return of peer-to-peer networks. Man, imagine that! I got your pandemic: I got your pandemic right here.
By the time Z. ‘s finished, a half-mad globe is put back in some semblance of order. Our “avowed Christian atheist” has convened a new world order of fresh-faced Communism; Corona has abdicated, Climate Change has been biff-bam-boomed. That was the Plan, anyway. But, lo, after all is said and said, Z. is back in his phone-book jammies and half-asleep, when there comes a rap-rap-rappin’ on the windows and a knock-knock-knockin’, actually a loud banging, on the door.
Outside, his acolytes — deconstruction workers, panpsychists, old school existentialists, sordid coprolaliacs, and Derrida — are coming at him, the walking dead, and he waits, like Vincent Price, in The Last Man on Earth, he waits, with all the answers, as they chant, “Zizek! We’re going to kill you, Zizek!” and he falls and he falls into an opioid slumber, a white hole event horizon, where no darkness can escape.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public. Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.
Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.” Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote. But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.
Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.
All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades. Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider. More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.
In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine. I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time. Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.
The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same. Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.
Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.
Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Neil Young, “Ohio”
It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?
I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.
And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.
These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,
In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and
government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston
marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown
of a family.
The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.
Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.
Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”
Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”
Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.
Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.
Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”
“Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:
What greater Joy Can New England see
Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.
Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.
But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.
It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.
Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”
Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.
But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.
Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,
[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.
A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.
Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.
After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”
The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.
The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,
In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms,
McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery
were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.
The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.
By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that
In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.
After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.
Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.
TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.
I don’t know if I like them apples or not.