A Sam Shepard Story

It’s a Friday morning and I am riding in a station wagon headed to the Lower Sierras for a camping weekend with my mostly older, mostly actor friends. The driver is a woman I’ll call Jane (in homage to Jane Fonda) who is smoking pot and telling me story after fascinating story about her life before marriage and mommyhood. Her two small children are in another car, her husband is off on a shoot, and it’s probably been a good long time since Jane was able to a) get stoned at nine in the morning and b) talk. Even if it’s just talking to me, a friend of a friend, a complete stranger. I am, however – in Jane’s defense – a good listener.

Right now I am listening to Jane (relative of a hardcore Weather Underground member) tell me about the time she smuggled money to Abbie Hoffman, post-nosejob and haircut and in hiding from a coke bust in upstate New York. The nose job made such a striking change in Hoffman’s appearance that she was never sure afterward that it was really him. Whoever it was – Steal This Nose! – said he had been set up for the bust by the FBI, which Abbie used to refer to as “a giant PR firm.” Some things never change.

I don’t remember other details from the Underground segment of our conversation, but the next story (featuring today’s subject as star) is fresh. The following year – 1975 – found Jane on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, working on the film made in conjunction with the music tour called Renaldo and Clara, and sleeping with the movie’s writer Sam Shepard. Yes, the four-hour Renaldo and Clara had a writer and that writer was Shepard. Which goes a long way toward explaining why Renaldo and Clara is the only one of Dylan’s self-produced movies that is even watchable. Far better than watchable, and, in parts, almost great. A few years earlier, Shepard had contributed the best and most coherent scenes to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, and – little known fact – he wrote sketches for the infamous stage play Oh, Calcutta.

Ten or so years later Shepard would write Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, possibly the best American movie of 1980s and one of the only Eighties movies with what might be called integrity. As a screeenwriter, he specialized in giving movie dreams flesh. Just as – in his plays – he turned the torture of flesh and blood into the stuff of dreams.

“I thought he would be a little mean,” Jane said. “Which he was, especially when he drank. I didn’t expect him to be so sweet. I don’t think I was the only one on tour he was sleeping with, but I didn’t care. I was in love with him,” she smiled. “I still am. The idea of him, anyway.”

I asked Jane what she meant by the “idea” of Sam Shepard. “That face,” she laughed. “Beautiful, but a guy’s guy, too. And what other writer could wear a cowboy hat and pull it off? Not make you want to laugh.” She said that all of Shepard’s ideas were Sixties ideas and they never changed. “He just put them in a shitty house. In an unexpected part of America. He just changed the clothes.”

I’m not ready to say goodbye to Sam Shepard. I’m still in love with the idea of him, too. So … consider this Part I.

Biff! Bam!? POW!!! Tom Wolfe***!

Thomas KennerlyTomWolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)

I think it was 2004 (when he was in  Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.

Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something  called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.

Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.

What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the thrill I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good and there would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.

Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.

Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.

1_Ken-Kesey-LSD-revolution-750x400
Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.

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I Know Which Brothers I Like Best

The ones who always made me laugh. (Instead of cry over the state of our nation.) In the late Sixties, the short-lived The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour revolutionized the TV variety show by making serious political issues of the day (such as civil rights and Vietnam and drugs) the brunt of sharp-witted sketches and by filling the musical slots with counterculture rock and pop acts.

Future Seventies comedy greats like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks were staff writers on the show and one can imagine Jon Stewart (who would have been seven or eight at the time) watching the Smothers Brothers with his parents and taking notes.

If you need help deciding which pair of siblings you prefer, I recommend these two books.

Dolores Huerta Was Booed at a Trump Rally?

Wait. No. It was at a Democratic Party event? Really? You don’t mean this Dolores Huerta?!

Well, I certainly hope the ignorant assholes who booed and hissed the 85-year-old Huerta were The Donald supporters who got lost on their way to a Funny Car race or WWE cage smackdown. It’s the only explanation that doesn’t reflect badly on Bernie Sanders. If you’re a Bernie supporter, the smart political move (not to mention the only moral one) is to disassociate yourself from that sort of boorish behavior. Apologize for the boneheads in your midst and invite them to find another candidate to support. (Such as Trump.) Because they’re sure as hell not helping yours.

Whatever you do, don’t go on social media and try to distract or deflect with nitpicky fights about  a “neutral translator” – LOL! – or whether the assholes showing Huerta disrespect also shouted “English only.” Who cares? The crowd’s behavior was stupid and trashy enough to warrant an admonition from the event moderator: “It’s Dolores Huerta, my goodness!” Which was caught on tape. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

P.S. I suspect most of the dumbasses at the event (and quite a few of the Twitter et al defenders of their behavior) have no idea who Dolores Huerta is and how important she has been to American history. Which is why God made Google. Get a clue before you boo! Actually, just don’t boo … it’s not a wrestling match … listen politely and act like adults.

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The Photo That Helped Change a War

NGUYEN NGOC LOAN kills viet cong
South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. (AP/Eddie Adams)

My teen-aged support of the Vietnam War ended the day I saw the above photograph – taken on this date 47 years ago – although I probably didn’t see it until later in the month in a national magazine such as Newsweek or Rolling Stone. My hometown newspapers supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, regardless, their editors would have deemed the image too graphic for the good folks at home.

Whenever I finally did see the photo, I remember thinking that the country where such an event could take place is not one I’d care to die for.  Even get a haircut for. And I also remember thinking that this is a fight between brothers – the shooter and the shot looked enough alike to be blood relatives – so the rest of the world should leave them to it.

We are flooded with images daily, hourly now, and I don’t believe that a single photograph could ever again have the impact that this picture (and a later, even more devastating photo known as “Napalm Girl”) had on the course of a war. I feel certain that’s not a good thing, but I’m not sure why and I don’t have the first clue how to fix it.

Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

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Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing