Thursday, April 26, 2007

Seasons at Opus 40

We had Spring Friday and Saturday. By Sunday it was summer. Now it's regressed a little, but the forsythia is blooming along Fite Road, and here's Opus 40 with blue skies behind it.

And here we are getting the flower boxes ready, and checking on the return of the goldfish from hibernation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thrusting Metaphors

From the NY Times:

Edward Albee likes to tell about the time when, at 18, having fled his adoptive parents’ stiflingly conservative household to begin a more expansive self-education in Greenwich Village, he knocked on W. H. Auden’s door. Mr. Albee, frequently referred to as America’s greatest living playwright, thought himself a poet then.

“I thrust my poems in his hand and said, ‘I’ll be back in a week,’ and then I ran,” he recalled. “A week later I showed up, and he invited me in. He spent two hours talking about my poems.”

And from Comedy Central, this battle of metaphors between Stephen Colbert and Sean Penn, with Robert Pinsky playing the role of game show host.

This is the funniest poetry bit on TV since LA Law's "Poetry Expo" show, which featured Mamie Van Doren reading "Howl." Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been preserved on YouTube.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Jazz in the Fifties

Still reading Blue Note Records, by Richard Cook, and thinking about my jazz experiences in those years. People love to play the game of "What era would you like to go back to, if you could travel in time?" and mine, oddly enough, is so close to the era I was born in, I could reach out and touch it. I'd like to have been 25 in the 1940s --( well, 30 and 4F, but it's my time travel, and I'm being selective in my wishes). I'd like to have been around at the birth of bebop, to hear Charlie Parker playing on 52nd Street. I picked 30 because that would make me old enough to have some artistic experience and sophistication, young enough to stay out all night, to go up and catch the jam sessions at Minton's and Monroe's. And of course, in this fantasy, I'm totally hip, hipper than I ever was in real life (though not too hip, like Terry Southern's character).

In real life, here are my recollections of jazz in the 50s. The drinking age back then was 18, so these recollections are 1958-59.

My very first time in a jazz club...Smalls Paradise on 135th St. There was no cover, and one drink minimum. One drink for me meant a bottle of beer, which cost 75 cents, and which you could nurse all night. The first band I heard there was led by Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams. Pepper Adams played a gig at Opus 40 not long before his death, and I made sure to tell him what an honor it was to present the first jazzman I'd ever heard live. "Yeah, I remember that gig," he said.

Al Cohn and Zoot Sims at the Half Note, on Spring Street, with my friend Lenny Rosen. Mose Allison was the piano player in the band -- Back Country Suite had been released by then, and maybe Local Color too, but he hadn't gone full bore into his career as a leader/vocalist yet. At any rate, Lenny and I were huge Mose fans, and it was exciting to hear him in another context (Mose discusses his years with Al and Zoot here).

Less than a year later, I was married, and I remember Lenny telling me I'd made the right decision: "Just remember two lonely guys down at the Half Note." Well, a failed marriage is a plethora of memories, some good and some bad, but I remember those nights at the Half Note with unalloyed pleasure.

Henry "Red" Allen at the Metropole, in Times Square. Strangely, there's very little on the Web about the Metropole, though I did find these memories. No pictures. And it was an oddly picturesque spot. I didn't appreciate it enough at the time. I was young and bebopper, and I wish now I had listened more to these great traditional musicians. But the oddness of the place, in part, worked against a young would-be hipster appreciating it. It wasn't in the Village, or Harlem -- it was right there in Times Square, you could see the musicians from the street, through the window, you could just pop in, listen for a few minutes, and pop back out. They played in the daytime. The bandstand was long and narrow, behind the bar -- it looked more like a strip club, which it later became.

Count Basie at Birdland.

And the main memory of all.

About 15 years ago, I was in New York, walking near NYU, and I ran into a friend of mine, Bill Petkanas, younger than me, then an NYU graduate student. We decided to go for a beer. "I know a place over on Cooper Square," he said. "It's a thrash punk club, but the music doesn't start till late, and we can get a beer and talk now."

We went in. It was a punk club, all right, with black spray painted graffiti on the mirror behind the bar, and all over the bandstand. But I knew that bar, that bandstand. "I've been here before," I dold Bill. "But not to hear a thrash punk band. The last time I was here, Ornette Coleman and were on that bandstand."

Yep, it was the Five Spot. And that's the last reminiscence in my "I'm Not So Old" poem. I went there a lot in that winter of 1958-59, but once Ornette started his gig there, I went there all the time. I may not have been around for the birth of bebop, but I was there for the birth of Free Jazz, and that was as thrilling as it sounds. The white plastic sax, the tiny B-flat trumpet, and music like nothing anyone had ever heard.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm Not So Old


I was just fifteen when Charlie Parker died
My older brother took me aside
And said, Kid, it's a bad day
It's a sad day
Well, I didn't know why and I had to be told
Hey, but I grew up
And I learned my stuff
And I learned enough
And I'm not so old

When I was a kid just starting to move
I filled my soul with that rhythm and blues
And I listened to the Clovers
And the Coasters
And I couldn't get enough of that rock and roll
I was growing up
And the beat was mine
And it still sounds fine
And I'm not so old

Then one night I turned on the radio
Looking for some of that rock and roll
And I heard some bebop
Brought me to a full stop
Didn't know what it was but it moved my soul
I was almost grown
And they said it was Miles
I still dig his style
And I'm not so old

I saw Monk dance around the Five Spot floor
And a cat from Texas made the Five Spot roar
His sax was plastic
His sound fantastic
And I went back again to hear Ornette blow
I was all grown up
And he made jazz free
Still sounds good to me
And I'm not so old

Once they said that jazz had passed away
But I go down to hear the young cats play
They play in the tradition
They've got a mission
They play sweet and strong and free and bold
Well, I may be grown
But the cats blow on
And the music's young
And I'm not so old

Most of this is true…the first part isn’t. There was no older brother to tell me about Charlie Parker, and when he died, I didn’t know about it. Actually, neither did much of anyone else. He died on March 12, 1955, and the New York Times obituary didn’t appear till the 15th, at which time it listed the 35-year-old Bird as “about 53,” which was the coroner’s best estimate. My favorite story of that sad ending: Bird died in the Stanhope Hotel apartment of the “jazz baroness” Pannonica de Konigswater, while watching the Dorsey Brothers’ TV show (not Elvis -- he wouldn’t appear with the Dorseys till the following year). Nica called her Park Avenue physician, who arrived at the Stanhope to find a desperately ill and disreputable black man, dying of pretty much every excess known to man. As he began his examination, he asked,

“Mr. Parker…do you drink?”

“Sometimes I have a glass of sherry after dinner.”

From Wikipedia's entry in Nica, a followup that I hadn't known. Because of the negative publicity surrounding the death of this Negro in her apartment, she was asked to leave the Stanhope.

The other part that’s not quite true…it wasn’t Miles. But otherwise, it happened just like that. I was a sophomore at Bard, coming in from a late night of drinking at Adolph’s. Now, what you have to remember about those days is that we had a sort of paranoid protectiveness
about rock ‘n roll. That’s why you heard songs like “Rock and roll is here to stay/It will never die.” Because we weren’t so sure. The popular press kept telling us that rock 'n roll was a fad, doomed to die out like the hula hoop or Davy Crockett caps -- that we'd all outgrow it as we had the King of the Wild Frontier. And for all we knew, it was true. Something would happen to us when we turned 21, and we'd be listening to Jackie Gleason's Music For Lovers Only.

I knew that jazz existed, but I had never listened to it. I had, by that time, fallen thoroughly under the spell of rhythm and blues, which remains my passion to this day. So I came home from Adolph's, and, like the poem says, I turned on the radio. AM, of course, in those days. Alan Freed was gone in the payola scandal. You could sometimes pick up Jocko, your Ace from Outer Space upstate; mostly, we went for George "The Hound" Lorenz, out of WKBW in Buffalo. But this night, turning the dial, looking for the real rhythm and blues, I was literally brought to a full stop. I stood and stared at the radio. Music had never gone through me like that.

As I said, it wasn't Miles. That's a little poetic license. But close enough. It was John Coltrane, with the Red Garland Trio, on Prestige. It became the first jazz album I ever bought, followed by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on World Pacific, King Pleasure/Annie Ross on Prestige, and Mose Allison's "Back Country Suite." The radio station, if I remember correctly, was CKLW, from Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The disc jockey was Speed Anderson, seemingly completely forgotten today...a Google search turns up nothing.

All of this comes to mind because I've just started reading Blue Note Records: The Biography, by Richard Cook, a fascinating book. More about it, and about me and jazz in the 50s, later.

The Ten Percent Solution

For my subtext, or the hidden 90 percent, assignment, I put together a few teaching aids that I'd used separately, and it made for a pretty effective unit.

I started with a unit I've used in the past, the soap/Bogie unit. I play a short segment from a soap opera, and when it's over, I ask the class what they know as a result of watching it. And what they know is that the Wheelchair Bitch (as they dubbed her) is in a wheelchair because Babe ran her over, that Babe's boyfriend is a rich boy, that the boyfriend thinks she's lying, that in fact she is lying, etc., etc. How do they know all this? They know all of it because the characters tell them. It's all in the dialog. In a soap opera, everything is. There's no subtext to speak's all laid flat out for you. This is one way of presenting a scene, and it works in a soap, because they have to bring the viewer up to speed who maybe only gets to watch once a week, and they have to play to the viewer who's half paying attention while putting the clothes in the dryer.

Then I use a scene from the Hawks/Bogart/Bacall classic, To Have and Have Not -- a scene which has virtually no dialog -- and ask the same questions. What do you know, and how do you know it? It's the scene where Bogart (Morgan) and Bacall (Slim)'s eyes meet across the nightclub, when she gets up to sing "Am I Blue" with Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket). What do we know? We know she's being ironic and mocking about the lyrics to the song, but she means them, too. We know that there's something happening between the two of them, but we don't know what. We know that she doesn't want to be with the man she's with (Johnson). We suspect there may be a business connection between Morgan and Johnson. We know Johnson drinks too much. And more. The scene opens with a black waitress moving through a cordon of men, some of them in uniform. We know it's an exotic Caribbean setting, and maybe wartime, maybe a dangerous setting. We know it's a mostly male setting, and a woman has to know how to negotiate her way through it. Then, as the camera catches sight of Morgan over the waitress's shoulder, it seeks him out and comes to rest on him, first in a two shot with a waiter, then quickly to a medium closeup. We know he's a loner, and we know he's a figure of authority. His eyes look up, and we know that everything we see thereafter will be from his point of view. He lights a match, and Cricket's piano starts at the same moment -- Morgan is setting the scene into motion.

There's a shot of the drummer in Cricket's band reading a newspaper. He puts down the newspaper, picks up his brushes, and starts to play. What's it doing there? What do we know from it? We know what the whole scene is about. It's about what Hemingway writes about, and Hawks makes movies about. It's about being in synch, about being hip, about being one of us. The drummer is in synch, Cricket is, Slim and Morgan are. Drunken, pawing Johnson is not. Frenchy, who enters to the new, nervous, ricky-tick tune Cricket starts playing after "Am I Blue," is not, but he's OK anyway. He comes to tell Morgan that the men who want to rent his boat are there - the men who are in danger. He makes the camera shift slightly, so he can share the space with Morgan, but the camera doesn't like it. It's glad when Frenchy leaves, and it can put Morgan back in the center of the frame.

What I added to the unit this time -- I've used it before, but in a different context -- is the Moe Green scene from The Godfather. Michael arrives in Las Vegas to buy the casino from Moe Green. Green doesn't want to sell. Fredo is obviously on Moe's side. What's the scene really about? It's about power, control...and loyalty. Moe makes the first power play, by not being there when Michael arrives -- letting Fredo greet him with temptation, girls and a band. Michael makes his first test of loyalty, when he tells Johnny Fontane, the Sinatra character, that he'll be buying the Hotel from Moe, and he wants a signed commitment from Johnny to appear at the club five times a year, and convince some of his Hollywood friends to appear as well. Fredo hovers in the background, giving Johnny an out with his protestation that he's sure Moe doesn't want to sell out. Johnny hesitates. It's a tough spot. Is Michael bluffing, playing from weakness? Should he take the safe route, and say "Let's wait and see what Moe says"? But he comes through. "Sure, Mike, you know I'll do anything for my godfather." Maybe it's not as total an expression of support as "Sure, Mike, you know I'm with you." But it's the best Michael can expect.

What would the scene be like, if it had been written like the soap opera? If at the end of the scene, Michael had gone over to Tom Hagen and said, "Well, Johnny's with us, and Fredo isn't." "That's true, Mike, but maybe you should give Fredo a pass because he's your brother." "No, I can't do that, because with my father's illness, I have to show more ruthlessness than I would have otherwise." As one of my students said, "We've come a long way from the soap opera."

And in fact, Moe does talk a little like the soap opera characters, when he tells Michael that the Corleone family doesn't have that kind of power any more, the Godfather is ill, and he can get a better deal from Barzini. His dialog is better -- "I buy you out -- you don't buy me out!" but he's leaving his whole game on the table. He's like Johnson, the lecherous drunk.

Like writer, like character. Morgan and Michael both reveal their strength by what they don't reveal, what they hold back.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Holding Back 90 Percent

So not long ago, I run into a former student, and by former I mean way former, from the first part of my teaching career, way back in the Sixties, before I was blacklisted and spent 20 years wandering in the wilderness. He tells me that I gave him one of the most valuable pieces of advice he ever received as a writer.

Oh? And what was it?

“Before you start writing, know everything, and then write ten percent of what you know.”

I said that?

Yep, and he’s never forgotten it.

Hmm, come to think of it, that is pretty good. Maybe I’ll start using it again.

So that brings us to the present, which is my Creative Writing class this semester, and the unit I do on subtext. Subtext is hard to teach, and my assignment -- to write a scene with subtext -- is pretty close to impossible. The good thing is, I know it, so I’m not really asking my students to do the impossible.

Here’s the assignment:

Write a scene between two characters, featuring dialog, in which the characters are talking about, or doing, anything you want them to be talking about or doing. But what underlies the scene -- which you know, but you don’t address directly -- is one of the following.

   At some point in the future, the characters will have sex with each other
   The characters will never have sex with each other, but one of them thinks they will.
    One character is going to betray the other.
    One character has already betrayed the other.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jackie Answers the Phone

From my brother Jon Richards, creator of the cartoons that grace this blog, this reminiscence of Jackie Robinson, actually written as a gracious gift to this blog, but also published in the Santa Fe New Mexican:

During the 1972 season, Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets for a ballplayer named Charlie Williams and $50,000. I took the occasion to write a magazine article about the trading of baseball superstars in their declining years. The list is long and eye-opening.

Among those who, in the days before free agency, wound up their careers playing in strange uniforms are such Hall of Famers as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Dizzy Dean, Christy Matthewson, Tris Speaker, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and a raft of others.

Ruth at least left the Yankees of his own accord. But the Yankees didn't bother to retire his number. The legendary journalist Heywood Hale Broun was a boy at the time, and a die-hard Yankee fan.

"When George Selkirk trotted out on the field wearing number 3," he once told me, "I left Yankee Stadium and vowed never to go back there."

It was a little different with Jackie Robinson, the pioneer who baseball honors this year on the 60th anniversary of his epoch-making arrival in the Major Leagues.

Robinson was traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team with which he had broken the color barrier when he crossed the first base line at Ebbetts Field on April 15, 1947, the team for which he had done so much and endured so much, the team for which he had played his entire career.

He was traded across town to the hated New York Giants. He was traded for a journeyman relief pitched named Dick Littlefield, and a reported $35,000. He didn't go.

In researching the Mays article, I tracked Robinson down for an interview. He had a construction company then, and I reached him at a New Jersey building site. He answered the phone himself, which floored me so much I could hardly think of what to ask him.

Jackie Robinson! At the other end of the telephone line!

The irony, he told me, was that he had already decided to retire after the 1956 season, his tenth with the Dodgers. He hadn't made the announcement yet because he had a deal with Look Magazine for the story.

That irritated some people, including the veteran sports columnist Red Smith, who wrote that for "peddling a news story, the rights to his retirement, no defense is discernible ... He has embarrassed the Dodgers, dislocated the plans of the Giants, and deceived the working newspapermen whose friendship he had and who thought they had his confidence ... . But for the Dodgers, the Jackie Robinson of this last decade would not have existed."

But for Robinson, the Dodgers of that decade would not have existed, not as we remember them, not as the Boys of Summer, who had capped the Robinson years with the franchise's first ever World Series triumph in 1955, a year before the trade.

"I saw it coming," Robinson told me. He and Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, who had bought the team from Branch Rickey and who would break the hearts and the spirit of the borough of Brooklyn in another year by removing the team to Los Angeles, did not get along. Robinson was a Rickey loyalist, and that sat ill with O'Malley.

Robinson suspected some other reasons for the trade. There was still plenty of racism in baseball a decade after he ended its apartheid. When a top star finished his playing days it was common practice for the organization to find him a job, managing or coaching or in the front office, if he wanted one. But for a black star, Robinson said, it was a different story.

O'Malley and the Dodgers did not want the embarrassment of having to face that delicate question when baseball's first black superstar reached that awkward age.

So Jackie Robinson said "no thanks" to the New York Giants, and packed up his equipment bag, and moved away from baseball. He became a successful businessman, and a major civil-rights leader. He died young, at 53, from heart problems and diabetes, a year after that afternoon when we talked on the phone.

Once, 10 years earlier, I had stood next to Jackie Robinson, backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show, where I was working and he was appearing.

We were among a knot of guys hanging around the security guard's desk watching the New York Mets, then in their first hapless season, on TV. Jackie shook his head.

"What a bunch of clowns," he chuckled, as Rod Kanehl in center field played an innocent pop fly into a triple.

Al Jackson, a pretty good pitcher, was on the mound for the Mets that night. He was an African American, and without the man standing next to me, he wouldn't have been out there.

Sunday is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie first stepped onto a Major League baseball field, and honored baseball by his presence.

Alice Denham at New Paltz

Novelist-turned-memoirist Alice Denham visited New Paltz on Thursday, to speak to my Honors English class in the afternoon and give a reading-book signing in the evening.

My class has been studying the literature and culture of the 50s, and Alice's new memoir, Sleeping With Bad Boys, is about literary New York in that era, a time when serious novelists had star status, at least in Manhattan. But since so many of my students are writing their research papers about women's issues, the class discussion focused on that part of her experience -- being a young woman in the 50s, how Alice (a founding member of NOW) viewed the changes in the lives of women over the decades. It's hard, today, to imagine a world where abortion was illegal, and Alice, while lucky enough to find a doctor who would do it, had to have her abortion without anesthetic, since the doctor could not risk having an anesthetist in the room. Hard to imagine, as well, how lonely and isolated a young woman could feel back then -- thinking she was the only one having sex, much less having an abortion.

I asked Alice to read my class the section of her book about a party she attended, new and innocent in New York, at Norman Mailer's apartment, where Mailer and his then-wife Adele did an impromptu strip. I think Alice was a little surprised to be asked to read something that risque in class -- and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I'd have been long since fired for such a thing, if this were still the 50s. The students enjoyed it. But I don't think they have any real sense of Norman Mailer as an American literary figure, although we did read and discuss "The White Negro" in class.

The evening reading was well attended -- I'd guess 100 people or more -- thanks to Lyn Thoman's efforts in promoting it. After 17 years teaching at Marist, where there was no interest in any intellectual gathering outside of class, I'm always particularly gratified (and still a little surprised) to see this kind of turnout. Alice read from the early part of her book, a fascinating sequence about her new-in-New-York relationship with the still-unknown James Dean. She did, however, skip over the section that gave the details on what Jimmy was like between the sheets. For that, read the book.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Alice Denham

I'll give a full report on the reading tomorrow.

But anyone happening on this blog, from the New Paltz area, be sure to come to the reading/book signing by Alice Denham, at the Coykendall Auditorium on the SUNY New Paltz campus, tonight at 7:30.

Kurt Vonnegut

Here's a Kurt Vonnegut story I've always liked. A friend of mine was his lawyer, so I was at a dinner with him once, and he told the story on himself.

Vonnegut was an amateur magician, and he used to like to do little magic tricks when he gave readings. So he was giving a reading in London, and he wanted to end the evening by magically producing a bouquet of roses to hold out to the audience. He went to a local magic store to get the harness to put up his sleeve, to release the bouquet of roses at the appropriate time.

\As Vonnegut put it, there are always a lot of young guys hanging around a magic shop, the way young guys who like cars will hang around a mechanic's garage, and so it was with this store...a bunch of young layabouts, magic aficionados, not paying any particular attention as Vonnegut walked in and asked the clerk for the roses-up-the-sleeve harness.

A bored clerk, who clearly didn't recognize Vonnegut, said, "Sorry, sir, we don't have anything like that."

Vonnegut was amazed and irritiated. "What do you mean? Every magic store has them. I could go into any magic shop in Manhattan, and get one."

"Well, that's remarkable," the clerk said. "They must be so advanced in America. Any of you chaps ever hear of this?"

There was a general muttering of "" from the not-very-interested layabouts.

Vonnegut, getting really irritated by now, describes the harness one more time, carefully and slowly.

"No, sir, I'm sorry, nothing at all like that."

Vonnegut turned to walk out of the store. As he got to the door, he heard the clerk's voice behind him.

"Oh, Mr. Vonnegut..."

He turns around to find the clerk, and every other layabout in the whole store, holding out a bouquet of roses to him, plucked out of their sleeves.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Vonnegut, and may the Sirens of Titan sing thee to thy rest. All of us were in your karass.