There I was, pondering the future of the republic while lying on the mossy bank of a stream, staring into still waters from which nearly all life had been extinguished by toxic pesticides half a century earlier.
Once there were millions of live things in there, ravenous little wretches running others down and eating them alive. They were everywhere, as inescapable as bad ideas on Sunset Boulevard. Then they were gone, obliterated, forgotten, squashed by the arrival of civilization in the form of a massive DDT spraying, and leaving nary a fossil. But now they’re back, I saw them yesterday afternoon, all teeth and mandibles and whatever other arrangements that aquatic critters use in dining on one another.
I live, off and on, in a small house in a patch of woods adjoining protected wetlands. On most days during the growing season you can’t see the neighbors. Or their stash of broken lawn chairs, unworking grills, milk crates, rusted out wheelbarrows, and piles of grass clippings that they are certain time will turn into fertilizer. Like neighbors everywhere they pile this stuff against the fence that separates my property from theirs. Sometimes whey put atop it a blue tarp, as if to suggest neatness but in practice creating just another eyesore that I must hide from my view by creating an eyesore of my own, this one hidden in green fervor beneath a sheath of whatever green thing will grow.
Nothing grew in the brook since trucks came round in the late 1950s spraying the new sensation, DDT, on the brook, to kill the mosquitoes. It did so, but only for a few years while killing everything else, seemingly forever. Schools of fish – common roach if you must know – went belly up and floated downstream. With them died the rest of the food chain, which included a maelstrom of aquatic bugs and the fish that ate them, several species, leaving only ducks and the snapping turtles that preyed on them.
Several times over the years – often when a publisher rejected my newest idiotic idea and I needed to do something therapeutic – I waded and took water samples. Nothing, not a damn thing but the pesticide-resistant plants that grew in great mats, choking the stream. Once in the early 1980s I took one of these samples to a colleague at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who ran it through a testing thing of the sort now found on CSI, and discovered a pesticide spike big enough to kill everything but weeds, ducks, and really mean turtles. It was left over from the initial event.
Goodbye, I thought, forever.
Then last year I noticed a Great Blue Heron. He was in the brook and occasionally ducked his beak into one of those weed mats, catching something. Great Blue Herons eat fish, not weeds or ducks and certainly not snapping turtles. I saw one of the latter recently and guessed it measured four feet from head to tail. He swam by languidly, with the confidence of a creature that knew that nothing in there would bother him.
Then I noticed something else, definitely a living something, making a fuss in the aforementioned weed mats around dusk. Then I noticed the presence of pickerel along my brook bank. They are predators; the bigger ones for fish, the smaller ones for aquatic worms and things of that nature. But I turned up no aquatic insects of any kind in my samples, the last one having been taken three or fours years ago.
And there were water striders, which prey on smaller things. What were they eating in the vast dead wasteland below the surface?
What the hell was down there? So the other day, lying on the brook bank pondering the fate of the republic, I saw them. There were dozens of underwater insects, dashing around eating one another and clearly, something smaller. They were the same sorts of insects the boy me used to put in aquariums and watch. I have not yet found one of the fish that eat them and which, in turn, the pickerel and herons eat, but obviously they are there. What I had I found was a lower rung of the food chain. I was thrilled and amazed. Life can come back half a century after man and his modern weapons had extinguished it.
I thought of making it a metaphor for the arrival of the Obama administration. They I realized that would make me look like an idiot, and didn’t do it.
There’s life! Against all odds, there’s life! You, go lay on the brook bank and you will find it.
Every newspaperman gets interesting letters. For example, the one dated April 26, 1971:
“Dear Mr. Jahn,
“I am writing a biography of the late singer, Janis Joplin. While talking with Jerry *****, a writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, he mentioned that you had been with Janis Joplin on the night she died …”
No, I wasn't with Janis the night she died. We didn't get along nearly well enough for her to want me with her on her special night. (Besides, that night I was in England making a ham sandwich for Mama Cass.) Janis and I had a Southern Comfort and Coke one time, her cough syrup-like drink, and that was one thing I don't care to do again (ever try one?) And I did see what Janis looked like first thing in the morning one time, hung over, in desperate need of makeup, a comb, coffee and, um, well, Clearasil, clumping down a motel corridor wearing a scowl and a cotton housecoat with little pink flowers on it.
But hell, it was at Woodstock, or near Woodstock at any rate, and we all looked a little raggedy-assed. Apparently unaware that it's wrong to collar critics before their morning coffee to ask their opinions, she asked what I thought of her new band ... the first post-Big Brother and the Holding Company band. This was the band that she told me, during the Southern Comfort and Coke, that she wanted to name "Janis and the Jackoffs."
I was stupid enough to tell her that I thought they were a little so-so. Very un-Janis-like, she sniffed "Well, that goes to show how much some people know!" and huffed off, housecoat flying. I felt a bit let down. Janis's reputation for being a barroom bad girl should have endowed her with more substantial epithets.
Jeez, Louise, can you just imagine what Courtney Love would say?
Within months Janis agreed that "the Jackoffs" lived up to the name she wanted to call them. She dumped them and formed a new backup band. A year after Woodstock, Janis came to town backed by Full Tilt Boogie. I loved them and said so in the Times.
There is a greater lesson here. Janis was a prime example of not knowing what you’re good at. Janis was a great barroom blues shouter. But there were lots of those, slightly floozy babes who sang blues and rock. Just not in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. What made Janis unique was the band she became famous fronting, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
They were the ur-San Francisco psychedelic band. They were loud and messy, all fuzz tones and feedback and they were beyond loud, they were deafening. They were, let’s be honest about it, not very good. Lead guitarist James Gurley once inspired the line, in Rolling Stone I imagine, “Eric Clapton may be the best guitarist in the world and James Gurley may be the worst, but …” And the writer went on to tout the value of wild emotion and balls. Clapton was controlled. Gurley never heard the word. It would have done him no good. He was sleeping with Janis.
There were lots of psychedelic bands in San Francisco in 1967 and thereabouts. What Big Brother did to secure their place in history was hire a wild blues shouter, Janis Joplin, at a time when “chick singers” were in the Grace Slick mold. Cool and unemotional. What worked for Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin was the contrast. It was amazing, jaw dropping. The boys would play a bit of ear-shattering psychedelic rock and then Janis would come on, singing a chorus of barroom blues. She was hot and lured the audience in, and then the guitarists would come back and nail the audience against the back wall with fuzz and feedback. It was awesome.
So what did Janis do when she became famous enough to ditch Big Brother? She hired a mediocre blues rock backing band, the never- named Jackoffs. When that didn’t work, she hired a good blues backing band, Full Tilt Boogie. And what was she then, a barroom blues singer with a great band. She had no idea what she was good at it. For my money, she never rose to the level of her early San Francisco days.
Listen to “Ball and Chain,” the signature tune on Big Brother’s “Cheap Thrills.” Then listen to her later butchery of “Me and Bobby McGee,” clearly the worst version of that song ever recorded (the best was by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, aka Elliott Adnopoz, son of a Brooklyn doctor). Of course Janis’s is the one everyone remembers.
You have to know what you’re good at. If you can’t figure it out yourself, ask around. You’re probably unemployed now, so find what turns you on and do it. “Follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said when he wasn’t feeding George Lucas story lines.
I remember the day that Mr. Spock gave my son a Tribble.
It was 1975 or early 1976. I know because the magazine I was writing for folded soon after. Not with any help from me, I like to think.
The rag may have folded thanks to new owners, who came into town from one of the flyover states and wanted to make a dramatic entrance into the Big Apple.
-- They decided to symbolically “kill” the old magazine so as to replace it with the new. They produced a tiny coffin and had the staff – except those writers and editors who were horrified and refused to participate – drive nails into it, “burying” the copy of the old rag inside. Among them was the poor old owner, teary eyed, whose family had run it since the 1930s.
--Installed a time clock next to the reception desk. The entire editorial department refused to use it, and the new owner was forced to forget the thing.
--Brought in one of those Rotary Club motivational speakers, who got the editorial staff together and delivered a lecture on how to motivate those who reported to us. Not one of us had someone reporting to him or her. Not one.
So the new rag soon folded, perhaps landing in a coffin adjacent to the old. Right after that my ass was kicked down the stairs for asking if the rumor that you could buy your way onto the front cover for $5000 was true. So much for my career planning skills. And I was still disgusted with them for the coffin thing. The mag went under, but not before Mr. Spock gave my son a Tribble.
Here’s what happened. After I stopped covering rock for a living I spent a few years covering TV and interviewing its stars. I got to know Gene Roddenberry, and as I recall became about the only reporter who thought that this man had a prayer in the world of resurrecting his dead TV show. Also, we both sailed and he invited me to go out on his 35’ foot boat, a small offshore ocean racer.
Roddenberry was obsessed with boats. True Trekkers are advised to rent "The Enemy Below," the 1950s battle of wits between an American destroyer and a German submarine, and prepare to have their jaws dropped.
I got his home phone number and the offer to call anytime. I never did, so he may have given me the number of a phone booth, but I doubt it. I got some good Star Trek stories that I will get around to another day.
It occurred to me quite recently that I had gotten to be friends with the creator of Star Trek and never once said, “Gene, if you ever need a writer …”
Don’t ask me about career management.
Unconnected with Roddenberry, one day my five- or six-year-old son, a fanatic about the series, and I wandered into a store called the Federation Outpost. It was in Midtown, East 53rd maybe. There, wearing a deerstalker hat, smoking one of those pipes that bend like the plumbing beneath the sink, and a cloak was Leonard Nimoy.
He was in town preparing to take over the role of Sherlock Holmes in a touring company. Playing Holmes was a staple of his theatrical career going back before he became our favorite Vulcan. You see the resemblance, of course. Both Spock and Holmes were cold, logical, possessive of encyclopedic knowledge, analytical, and a tad smug.
The fact that Spock dressed up as Holmes and tried to look inconspicuous in a store dedicated to selling Star Trek merch is worthy of several doctoral dissertations. Nonetheless he pulled it off. No one recognized him. Except my son and me.
I introduced myself as a journalist and a friend of Gene’s. We talked for quite a while, mostly about his love of the stage and about Holmes. I didn’t like to ask obvious questions. What Trek question would I ask him, what was warp speed like? Did the ears give you a rash? Did you ever do Uhura? We liked one another, and he reached into a barrel of Tribbles that the owner swore were the real thing from the show, and bought my son one for $10. He still has it.
This yarn is apropos of nothing except that I will try to see the new Star Trek movie this weekend. Maybe my son, now four days shy of 39, will come with me. Maybe he will bring his Tribble and the three of us will munch popcorn and see how it all began.
Said comedian David Steinberg about the event that we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this summer, “if Woodstock was held 5,000 years ago it would today be celebrated as a Jewish holiday.”
Maybe he said 3,000 years. It doesn’t matter. His point is that half a million people sitting in the rain and mud listening to distant thunder certainly is worth eventual celebration with cold fish cakes and horseradish.
My sound bite for this milestone in cultural history was that “Woodstock was the senior prom of the sixties.” After that, cruel fate forced us all to grow up. I plan to offer my own thoughts and experiences in the handful of months to come. I will make you all sick of it. Be warned. I covered it for the Times. We can be insufferable.
One thing the "Woodstock Nation" propagandists left out of the travel brochures is that when you get half a million people braving a downpour to play in the mud of an immense cow pasture while the vaguely heard thump of a rhythm section pounds in the distance like thunder in the next county, what they are playing in ain't exactly "mud." The gee-whiz writers for Look, Time, Newsweek, and God-knows-how-many other mainstream media sources left out the contribution made by the cows. I guess they thought it was more acceptable to Mom and Pop to know that their half-naked children were playing mud pies and not something more lasting (it's damned hard to get pregnant or infected with a colorful disease when there's mud and ... well, think "moo" ... being shoved into your orifices).
Nothing much of an intelligent nature was being said at Woodstock, either. Bill Graham notably remarked that one way to keep the gatecrashers out was to surround the place with a moat filled with burning oil. Wavy Gravy was, oh my. I sat down under a soggy tent at the base of the hill where the helicopters were coming and going, carrying rock stars and reporters, and had a beer alongside Jerry Garcia. We had a typical sixties conversation:
And we finished our beers in silence watching someone play. I don't remember who it was, and like so many of the rockers I knew at that period in history, Jerry's not here to jog my memory.
What shall we make of Woodstock? I hated it at first. It was wet and cold and smelly and there was nothing to eat save for warm beer and stale donuts; the portable toilets were overflowing and there was nowhere to relieve yourself except the woods. Now, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the woods and by the stream, and am fearless about using nature as my toilet. However, it's not the sort of thing expected of New York Times writers, even werewolves like me. With the press badge came certain responsibilities. One is to avoid laying a loaf in front of half a million people.
At the time, I hated it, I said. So did the editorial page people at The Times. Then they reversed course and opined about how wonderful the whole thing was. For three days in a cow pasture in slightly upstate New York, there was the equivalent of the third largest city in New York State and there were no murders, was no crime ... well, okay, I hear you ... nothing but peace, love, music, and a mud amalgam being ground into your assorted holes.
No cops to speak of, but let’s not get picky.
But about three days after the three days of peace, love, whatever were over, I realized that I had attended a certified event. There was a lot of good music, for those who got close enough to hear it, of course. My personal favorite was a nighttime set by the otherwise despicable Sly Stone and his "Family." I'll get around to him one, other than to say that Sly and the Family Stone's performance of "I Want to Take You Higher," with audience members throwing sparklers into the air, was absolutely sensational. Nobody said you have to be a decent human being to make great music.
There were other moments, to be sure. Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Band. Jefferson Airplane, sure. Richie Havens, a friend from the East Village, his festival-opening marathon set is rightly famous. Sha Na Na, fellow fixtures on the Columbia campus who did some early harmonizing in my living room on 113th Street near the methadone clinic and drug building, were good. Independent film distributor and genial soul Richard Lorber lived in the apartment next door, and we flew into Woodstock alongside Joe Cocker in a National Guard helicopter.
Joan Baez, who I sat next to a year and a half before in the front row of the Yippie press conference at which Abbie Hoffman announced plans to demonstrate outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, sang. I didn't see Jimi, because as I recall I was off being huffed at by Janis while he was rewriting "The Star Spangled Banner." And there was the never-to-happen-again chance to have a conversation with Jerry.
Come to think of it, how did festival-goers get dry matches with which to light the sparklers? How did I lose anything resembling dry paper to write on and, thus, was forced to do some classic reportorial stunt writing? I ad libbed a "new top" --in that case, the first five paragraphs of an existing story. I wrote it in my head and dictated it over the phone line straight to the transcriber in Times Square, and it went into the paper without change. Said Dick Shepard, my editor and the paper's designated werewolf trainer, "that means you're a professional."
Thanks, I thought. Can the next gig be someplace dry?
It's a good thing Manson didn't see this or he would have killed me too. It's a snippet from a review I wrote of his fave album -- other than the one he did himself with songs about garbage dumps -- the Beatles "White Album." I just tripped over this online. Someone posted it. Manson, the desert music critic, committed his psychedelic mass murder inspired largely by the “White Album.”
“Many songs are either so corny or sung in such a way that it is hard to tell whether they are being serious. In most cases, they seem not to be. In an act of lyrical overstatement, they sing “Have You Seen the Bigger Piggies in Their Starched White Shirts?” And it doesn’t matter if the words – “Now it’s time to say ‘good night, good night, sleep tight’ – are sung as a put-on, they still are painful to hear.
“It is a light record. The music is light, clean and crisp. The lyrics are light. Usually they are happy but often they are lacking in substance, rather like potato chips.
“This new album sounds spectacular at first, but the fascination quickly fades. Where the best American groups – Jefferson Airplane and Blood, Sweat and Tears are two of them – produce substantial music that can be lived with, the Beatles tend to produce spectacular but thin music that is best saved for special occasions.
“The Beatles, though they might not have intended it, have in essence produced hip Muzak, a soundtrack for head shops, parties and discotheques.”
Some of you will need to Google “Muzak” and “head shop.” Maybe “discotheque” as well. The word “party” perseveres, however.
And if there's a take-home message from this post, it's that I have a problem with sacred cows -- as the saying goes, "he who follow sacred cow down the road encounters cow shit." Before too long comes my recollection of Woodstock, now 40 years down the road.
Rock bands of the classic era were always trying to see if the guy from The New York Times would do drugs with them. That was me. It was the late 60s/early 70s.
I pretty much looked like them. I had the clothes, the hair, and the general look, which went “this is too fucking ridiculous to be real.” But I had a press badge reading The New York Times, which in most cases meant that when I showed up at their hotel the heroin would go into the drawer with the Gideon Bible before they let me in the door.
There were occasional differences when the hard drugs remained on the mantle – predictably Dr. John and Sly Stone, but also Canned Heat. In the latter case, they were told only that the Times was coming to the hotel to meet them and probably expected a man in a suit. When I was let in the room they were sitting around with the hands in their laps, like good little parochial school boys. Bob Hite was sitting cross-legged on the bed, a long-haired Buddha with his trademark leather top hat placed carefully in front of him. Maybe someone tipped him off.
As soon as he saw me, Hite yelled “he’s a freak!” and whipped the hat off a bowl holding about a pound of weed.
Did I do drugs with rock stars? No. Except that time. Well, whaddya want? They knew I was coming and set the table. I was too well brought up to refuse their hospitality. As they say, breeding will out.
It was 1928 in Germany … where else? … and Brecht/Weill tossed The Threepenny Opera and “Pirate Jenny” onto the doorstep of the looming stockmarket crash and Great Depression.
You people can watch while I’m scrubbing these floors
And I’m scrubbin’ the floors while you’re gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town, in this crummy old hotel
But you’ll never guess to who you’re talkin’.
No. You couldn’t ever guess to who you’re talkin’.
Then one night there’s a scream in the night
And you’ll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin’ while I’m scrubbin’
And you say, “What’s she got to grin?”
I’ll tell you.
There’s a ship, the black freighter
with a skull on its masthead
will be coming in.
Or, as Spain Rodriguez’s Vietnam era underground cartoon character Trashman snarled as his automatic weapons went brakka brakka at the agents of the established order, “eat leaden death!”
We haven’t quite gotten to that rather dire level of backlash against the rich in general and, in particular, the high rolling execs of AIG who got the world into this mess. But there is plenty of dock space in Manhattan and the black freighter just chugged under the string-‘em-up strands of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The cultural backlash to the current financial crisis has barely begun, most notably in the Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart’s unloading on Wall Street cheerleader Jim Cramer. The reaction of popular music is in its infancy, if it is occurring at all.
The greed, gluttony and venality of the American rich was precursed in 2006 by experimental, performance art, alternative rock band the Flaming Lips:
If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich, would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back, would you do it?
If you could take all the love without giving any back, would you do it?
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
The band may have known something. But it also knew what was good for it, and shortly thereafter sold a snippet of its “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” to enliven a commercial for Kraft salad dressing.
Rock and folk has always been a staple of anti-rich sentiment, but not this time, at least not so far. This is not just me saying it. I polled my Facebook friends, most of who are in the media, and came up with nothing worth mentioning. I also asked a couple very close to me, both former record company executives. They also hit zilch. (By the way, both were recently laid off. She went to work for a human rights organization, which also laid her off a few months later. He’s trying to open a bicycle shop with two friends.)
During the Great Depression, the reaction took a few years to set in, but set in it did. Just talking about music, “Pirate Jenny” was followed in 1931 by the Harburg and Gorney classic:
Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
A few years after that, escapism set in, marked by goofy comedy and wishful thinking. Such as in another classic, that by Dubin and Warren:
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.
We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye.
The wishful thinking set in synch with some hard-edged leftist politics, but that’s not what’s on my mind today. I’m just doing pop culture today, and skipping around at that.
What’s clear is that populist protest as well as popular protest song rose most ardently when people’s daily lives were seriously threatened. That occurred during the Great Depression in the fear of breadlines and homelessness. It occurred during Vietnam in fear of the draft and being sent to die in a swamp. I was waiting for it to occur under Reagan and the Bush dynasty but it didn’t. And that was because the threat to the individual, to you and me, was minimal.
That has changed. There is a tangible threat now, and it’s much the same as during the Great Depression: the fear of loss of job, loss of house, and having to move back in with Mom, if in fact Mom hasn’t been evicted and moved onto the welfare rolls and into a Motel 6.
So where is the popular anger now? Where are the guys and dolls (speaking of revivals) with the guitars? Doubtless the reliably pissed off Springsteen and Bono are at this moment scribbling lyrics. I would be surprised if populist rocker John Mellencamp didn’t weigh in. I suppose it’s unavoidable that Billy Joel will take time out from mowing down Hamptons telephone polls to strike a few chords for justice. And I’m told that singer/songwriters Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle are likely to summon the requisite fury. But when?
As for the rappers, they’re mad enough but rarely against wealth. One out-of-left-field exception: reformed convict T.I. late last year slammed his gold-seeking confreres in “Live Your Life,” a duet with recently victimized singer Rihanna. All in all, though, rap has given up all right to populist rage. Maybe that will change when the price of gold, that classic depression safe haven, goes up. And the wearing of the bling goes down.
As for all those nascent populist stars optimistically seeking contracts from record companies that were in financial trouble before the crash of 08, keep strumming, keep seething, and keep your fury.
You'll need it.
The other day my MP3 player strayed onto “The End,” by the Doors. This is never a good thing in the absence of cheap wine, barbiturates and a freshly dug grave.
It recalled for me a true story, one in keeping with my claim to be the fourth prince of Serendip. It’s eerie, and the message that some will take home from it gives me hives. And that is because I do not believe in astrology, the special power of crystals, or that the U.S. government blew up the World Trade Center. If Washington was that efficient we wouldn’t be fighting with the Shar-Pei over table scraps.
And sorry, conspiracy theorists — vaccination does not cause autism. Don’t force me to embarrass you with facts.
Let’s go back to August of 2006. I had to go to L.A. on business totally unrelated to my writing. There was a big convention in town that made the woman who does my travel arrangements unable to book a hotel room for under $350 a night. And that was at the Chateau Marmont, my fave L.A. hostelry back in the 60s when it was kind of the Chelsea Hotel West and I could get a room for $15 a night. Its legendary resident in those times was Boris Karloff. It was said to be an exquisite treat to get into the elevator after midnight and encounter Karloff, who would in that famous voice intone “good evening.”
Since then it has suffered the inevitable gentrification. Now it looks like any other renovated historic hotel and the only longhair who can afford it is Neil Young, who probably wouldn’t be caught dead there.
Just as my travel person went white with exasperation, my thoughts slid downscale and I thought, “what about the place where Morrison lived?”
The Doors and I are inextricably linked because I wrote the first book about them, just 40 years ago. It sold for $1 then and the last time I looked it was a collector’s item at $100 and over. I’ll save details for another day. Salient here is that the book made me the target of stalking by several Morrison loonies, one of whom made my life miserable a decade later when I was stupid enough to list my phone number. He thought that I had some sort of cosmic connection to Morrison. I got so sick of the Doors that when the Oliver Stone movie came out I didn’t go see it. The 10 minutes worth I stumbled over on one of the cable channels last year convinced me of the wisdom of that decision.
During his most productive period, Morrison lived at a hotel on La Cienega just off Santa Monica Boulevard. That’s all of two blocks down the hill from Sunset in West Hollywood. Now that’s prime real estate. But then, Morrison probably paid what I was paying up the hill and down a bit at the Chateau.
The name of the place is the Alta Cienega. It’s still there and costs—tell your wallet that there is a God—a staggering $65 a night. If you want the “Jim Morrison Room,” where he lived, you will have to pay the premium rate, $69. But you get decades of graffiti from Morrison loonies who passed through in hot pursuit of the old, cold ghost of the Lizard King.
A mild codicil on Morrison’s residence: Danny Fields, a Warhol-camp survivor who became a 60s music boulevardier and, later, co-discoverer and manager of the Ramones, told me a month or two ago that Morrison “only left his clothes there. He lived in his car.”
Regarding the Alta Cienega, its quaintness includes the fact that you will not get a telephone in your room. There is only high speed Internet. This is either astonishingly old-fashioned or amazingly prescient. If you want a voice communication, a member of the Asian family that owns the hotel will take a message and slip it under your door.
It’s possible that the Morrison Room receives astral messages from wherever Jim went when he broke on through to the other side. This is unknown. If true, the capitalistically clueless owners of the hotel are unlikely to charge for them.
Let us turn now to the matter of the David Walley, a seminal rock journalist like me. We were friends and companions in the New York rock scene. I worked for the Times. He worked for the East Village Other, then the nation’s prime underground paper. The Times ran pictures of presidents and prime ministers on its front page. The East Village Other once famously decorated page one with a photo of real shit hitting a real fan. David and I pretty much defined the range of possibilities for rock journalism. He was the most political of the rock journalists of that or any other time, which made him a joy to talk to. How many conversations can you have about the Doobie Brothers?
I lost touch with him in the early 70s, but was aware of him writing No Commercial Potential, a biography of Frank Zappa, and Teenage Nervous Breakdown, a study of pop music and society. In 2004 or 2005 we reconnected via the Internet and resumed our political rants, nearly always about the now-departed regime in Washington. Typically David and I got into a email rant every three weeks or so and then didn’t chat for another three or so weeks, having exhausted the possible ways to beat the Bushies. We had one of these chats around the start of the month of August, 2006. In the course of it, I told him I was going to LA. He lived there for several years in the 60s, part of that time with the woman who later became Mrs. Jim Morrison. He asked me to go down Sunset to see if Duke’s Coffee Shop, one of his old hangouts, was still there. A week later I did.
Duke’s is an unremarkable bean wagon that has achieved a certain place in the history of rock hangouts because it abuts the Whisky a Go Go. I had a chicken salad sandwich and a chocolate egg cream and read one of the local underground newspapers. Then I went back to the Alta Cienega and emailed David this: “In your memory I had an egg cream at Duke’s.”
Whoa. That was a creepy error. I quickly changed the word “memory” to the word “honor.”
You see where this is going, don’t you, especially those of you pilots flying reconnaissance missions aboard the astral plane. Three days after I got home I ran into a mutual friend, who asked, solemnly, “Did you know that David Walley died last week?”
Well, okay. The word “coincidence” exists for a reason. David was a heavy smoker, and smoking is very closely associated with cardiac issues (he died of a heart attack). But I didn’t know about his smoking when my typing error sent him an egg cream in the beyond. He seemed perfectly vital on the phone, never mentioned health problems, and was proud that he had nearly completed a biography of Herbert Feis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning economist and diplomatic historian of the Cold War.
I don’t think his heart chose that moment to give up because it would especially freak me out. I think it was a coincidence. Maybe there is a mathematician like the guy on "Numb3rs" who can explain it logically. Or you never know, aw hell I might have felt a tremor in the Force. Maybe David and Jim had been out there beyond the doors of perception fighting over a woman. And they decided to bury the hatchet over an egg cream from Duke’s.
Whatever. David is gone nearly three years now. I wish he had lived to finish the biography of Feis. I wish he had lived to know of President Obama.
Or perhaps he does. I’m gonna go send him a blintz, this time in his memory.
Not too long ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated President in a splendid, tasteful and hopeful ceremony in the nation’s capital.
At about the same time, in the wasteland where rednecks ride their Hummers to the unemployment office, were other cultural milestones:
A promoter of monster truck rallies was killed by one of his monster trucks after failing to realize that, if you shouldn’t step in front of a Toyota, it’s unwise to tangle footprints with something that makes a Hummer look like a Tonka Toy. The Monster Truck Rally Association blamed the victim, natch, saying that he “stepped in front of a moving vehicle in a fashion that did not provide the vehicle’s driver adequate time to react.” The week before, a six-year-old fan was killed by shrapnel from another monster truck mishap. Word has yet to be received if it was his fault too.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, said by its owners to be the fastest growing sports organization in the world, announced plans to open a global network of gyms. A horde of YouTube Rambos doubtless will result. Senator John McCain, familiar with both real and preening faux bloodshed, called the sport “human cockfighting.”
Sarah Palin, America’s foremost human cockfight promoter, announced the formation of a political action committee, which among other things is key to exploring options for a 2012 presidential run.
You say, isn’t Sarah Palin 2008 news, like national treasure Britney Spears and the Montauk Monster? You ask, why go to Sarah Palin again? The answer is simple, just like … oh wait, let’s not be discourteous. We’re not going to her, she keeps coming to us, now with the possibility that she will grace the national discourse yet again in four … oops, three … years. Three years is not that long.
Among other image sanitizations, to erase any doubt about her academic creds she told this month’s Esquire that “Everything I’ve ever needed to know I learned through sports.” Doubtless the “the fastest growing sport in America” is lending punch, gristle and gore to the fastest rising politician in America.
Despite the serious doubters and the merely terrified, Palin is rapidly becoming Auntie Meme, the subject of viral emails, Flickrs, Twitters, Tumblrs, YouTubes and whatever is spat from the new media du jour. This will go on for a year or two, until she wears everyone out like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan did and no one cares anymore. And then her logical next move is an afternoon talk show. Hell, if Elizabeth Hasselbeck can have a forum, anyone can have a forum.
If Palin still wants to make a run at the presidency she needs a likeminded running mate with a track record among urban voters. The obvious candidate is Rod Blagojevich. He has comparable gubernatorial experience (he too didn’t build a bridge). He shares her oratorical skills, her mystifying appeal, and her talent for self delusion. There also is the shared skill of denial. She was not censored for abuse of power. He did not try to sell Obama’s senate seat. Finally, both are slick and have hair piled atop their heads. Really, the 2012 ticket of Palin and Blagojevich is a comer. Only they can stop the inevitable Bloomberg campaign, which will say “I can fix the economy better than the black guy.”
(Let’s not even think about Giuliani/Palin; that’s scarier than the notion of our Biblical ancestors having roamed the planet with Godzilla.)
A personal note. I recently found that there are three of my books in the Wasilla library system. I’ve long known that my books are popular with librarians, but this is ridiculous. Of the three, one celebrates some things that Palin might be freaked by - voodoo, homicide, drunkenness, interracial sex, New York City, cussing, and having children out of wedlock. Okay, so she wouldn’t be freaked by all of those. My point is that I would like my books gone, out, torched. Palin is interested in banning books that have “inappropriate language” in them?
Take mine first. Better dead than read in Wasilla. I’ll send matches.
There was someone banging on the window of this cheap Chinese takeout roach den and it was Jimi Hendrix.
I was walking down Bleecker Street in 1970, I guess it was, to review some guitar slinger or other at the Bitter End. That was how I made my living those days – as the folk and rock journalist of The New York Times. I was the first one to do this full time, and the first full-time rock journalist for any major paper. Here’s how the Times described me, in an anecdote that appears to have become boilerplate. So far it has appeared in my old editor Dick Shepard’s “The Paper’s Papers: A Journey Through the Archives of the New York Times”; Arthur Gelb’s “City Room;” and the obituary of its late managing editor Clifton Daniel.
“Mr. Daniel relished his role in expanding The Times’s coverage of arts news. ‘Any newspaper that didn’t cover a major industry in its community would be judged derelict,’ he said. ‘I thought the coverage should be conscientious, thoughtful, and thorough’ … In 1968, when The Times retained a long-haired culture writer as a rock critic, Mr. Daniel enjoyed breaking the news gently to the well-groomed former marine who was then the paper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. ‘His name is Mike Jahn,’ Mr. Daniel wrote in a note to Mr. Sulzberger, ‘and he is going to write pieces on folk/rock music.’
“Mr. Daniel went on to report that another editor had reassured him: ‘Mr. Jahn wears his hair in a somewhat bizarre style–in fact he looks like a werewolf. But since his work will not require him to be in the office very much, I don’t think he’ll bite any of us.’”
Thus began my contribution to the debasement of American culture – introducing the New York Times to the coverage of popular culture, specifically rock and roll. I am proud of my seminal role in putting our fair and sun-kissed land on the slippery slope to Paris Hilton. Anyway, a werewolf who gets three paragraphs in the middle of Clifton Daniels’ obit is entitled to have a beer with Jimi Hendrix in a roach hole Chinese restaurant.
That night he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to. We knew each other from around, running into one another in clubs in the wee hours. One time he called to ask me to meet him someplace and thoroughly baffled my non-rocker wife of the time, who said, memorably, “It’s Jimmy something.” When he saw me loping down Bleecker he banged on the window and yelled until he got my attention. I went up and we had a beer together. We talked about old blues records and young women, two of his obsessions. I think that one of the reasons he liked me is that, thanks to the attitude the Times teaches young writers, I was oblivious to celebrity and treated him pretty much like another guy who likes the blues and young women. We talked mostly about a Howlin’ Wolf 78 he found in a classic records shop in Chicago. But he also showed me a silver ring that one of his young women – he had an army of them – gave him, also in Chicago. It included a tiny sculpture of a woman going down on a man.
He blushed. He did that. And spoke so softly you had to learn forward to hear him properly. In person he was not the person you saw onstage. But he did blindside me on Bleecker Street, adding yet another chapter in the tale of my family’s gift of serendipity. I am, in fact, the fourth prince of Serendip. So were several generations of ancestors. You will hear about that from time to time.
Which brings me to the subject of my father and Harry Truman, who incidentally was Clifton Daniels’ father-in-law. My father was a newspaperman too, with the Brooklyn Eagle, later a stringer for the Times, editor of a well-respected weekly, and, finally, editorial page editor of the Long Island Press, then a Newhouse PM daily that cashed in under pressure from Newsday in 1977.
In 1956, working for the weekly, he was on a train rolling along on its way from Chicago (Chicago again) to St. Louis, which was on Harry’s trail home. It was early evening and he was sitting in his sleeping compartment with the door open reading the Times. There was a commotion in the hall. He looked out to see the Pullman porter carrying bags belonging to Harry and Bess, who had booked the compartment across the hall.
In those days when a president left office he was Citizen Truman. No special protection. Also unfazed by celebrity, my father said “Good evening, Mr. President,” and was rewarded with a nice reply that I have of course forgotten. After a while my father acquired bourbon and closed the door.
Before too long there’s a knock on the door. It’s Harry. He’s bored. He said, “the missus has gone to sleep. Would you like company?”
My father did. They drank bourbon and talked for I don’t know long, I seem to recall my father saying hours. That was long enough for my father to get some quotes about the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, and for Harry to get a promise that nothing would be printed until after his death.
Harry went back to bed, and my father retired as well. Comes seven in the morning. Knock on the door. It’s Harry again. “It’s time for my constitutional,” he said. “Want to come with me?”
Back and forth they walked the length of the train until Harry got his fill of morning exercise. I don’t know what happened after that, except that Harry’s kid married Clifton Daniel, who my father also came to know. Make of that what you will. The connection only recently occurred to me. Maybe Daniel recognized the last name when he hired me. At any rate, my father was blind-sided when he saw my byline. I don’t think that his fleeting knowledge of Daniel had anything to do with it. I’m pretty sure I got the Times gig after hearing about it from a rewrite man at four in the morning during the 1968 building takeovers at Columbia. I believe I mentioned being the fourth prince of Serendip.
Shit happens to me.
My father sat on the Harry story until the former president died in 1972. The story went out over the Newhouse wire and is mentioned online, though finding the mention is not without difficulty.
It was a few years ago I was thinking about my having drunk beer with Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend – forgot to mention him – and congratulating myself on how many famous people I had known and famous events I covered.
I covered Woodstock and the coming out of retirement of Elvis Presley and a few other things relating to the counterculture. I suppose that getting stoned with Abbie Hoffman and sitting in a WBAI studio speculating on how to politicize the hippies is one. Not too shabby a career to ponder as I await my first Social Security check.
But then I thought of my father, who covered the Lindberg baby kidnapping trial, the Hindenburg disaster, the rise of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, was an activist in the famously radicalized Brooklyn Eagle strike of 1937, and throughout the 1950s got death threats from the John Birchers for his editorials on McCarthy. And there was the train thing.
Suddenly I realized, jeez, you can have a prominent byline in the New York Times – you can be the werewolf of the New York Times — and still not do better than your newspaperman father, who hung out with the guy who test drove the nuclear terror that entertained us the rest of that century.
Sometimes in this Internet, everyone-is-famous (or can pretend to be so) age, we celebrate the inevitability of children doing better than their parents. But how inevitable is it really?
What do you think, George?