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?