Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lionel returns!

They just don’t make brilliant social commentators of the curmudgeon variety like they used to. Time was, you had guys on the radio like Henry Morgan and Jean Shepherd (who sounded warm and friendly, but his take on modern culture was always acidic) who could summarize the social scene in a few carefully chosen put-downs and do it with style. That, sadly, is a thing of the past — we now have the occasional comedian who will venture into that territory (Lewis Black is performer who comes the closest), but they are stand-ups first and foremost, and don’t have (or most likely want) a daily forum for their disquisitions on modern life. (And no, I’m not going to put Andy Rooney into the category that once contained leading lights like Morgan and Shepherd….)

There is one gentleman, though, who has taken on the mantle of smart social commentator with a cranky (or, as he puts it, “contrarian”) outlook. It is Lionel, the “logodaedalus and expert” radio host who was last heard on the late, lamented Air America (curse you for the Montel stunting, Mark Green!) and is beloved by NYCers for his stints on WABC and WOR. Lionel is unafraid to tackle literally any topic, from the loftiest of philosophical notions to The Real Housewives of New Jersey. He has now reappeared in two guises: on his own site, doing audio commentaries and writing blog entries; and as a commentator on the WPIX nightly news here in the NYC metro area.

I really can’t describe what it is that Lionel does — the man should speak for himself. So I’ve linked here to a bunch of his best recent commentaries on WPIX, as they are posted on YouTube, since that site allows for easy embedding. If you’re interested in the full range of the topics he’s covered, you can go to his page on the WPIX site, which offers every commentary he’s done thus far on PIX (I’d recommend the bit he did this past Monday on the issue of the “Wikileaks” about Afghanistan). They are tight little pieces that, like most good humor, hit the target and then vacate the premises quickly. Three minutes may seem like too little time to develop a thesis on television, but Lionel has the rhythm — and he most definitely has the vocabulary.

Perhaps it’s best to start out with the family reminiscence, a genre that Shepherd of course did to perfection. Here, Lionel offers us a reflection on funerals and wakes:

A kind of urban personal-madness piece that is done with good pacing, about a stolen wallet:

There can be no greater perfection than a man complaining about the insanity of the NYC subway system:

On a subject dear to Lionel’s heart, the life lessons one could learn by watching pro “wrasslin’”:

And just so you don’t think that politics and policy aren’t explored, a piece from last week on the latest airport outrage that will just become a regular ol’ part of life, the new “nude” full-body scanners:

I recommend Lionel’s writing (including his book, Everybody’s Crazy Except You and Me (and I’m Not So Sure About You)). He is currently blogging on a regular basis on his site, Lionel Media. The audio commentaries are good, with the ones that come in under 20-30 minutes being best. On a popular radio message board it had been noted that Lionel’s politics have changed over the years, from seemingly conservative to Libertarian to progressive and back to a centrist viewpoint. I can say without qualification that whether or not I agree with his take on a specific issue, he definitely holds my attention and, most thankfully of all, doesn’t insult my intelligence. I’d love to see him back inhabiting the radio landscape in NYC (god knows we need something besides the two good interview shows on NPR and the idiosyncratic folks of Pacifica). Here’s hoping these current endeavors last for a long time to come!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Brooklynite Goes North: Deceased Artiste Maury Chaykin

I’m not trying to stay in a “locked groove” on the subject of character actors, but when one of the major players from the world of supporting folk Up North takes a powder, a short salute is in order. Maury Chaykin was one of those few performers whose presence in a film seemed to signal “this film was shot in Canada” for a lot of the Eighties, Nineties, and then the 2000s. He had sturdy supporting roles in both comedies and dramas, and was featured in Canadian films, American films shot in Canada, and American films both indie and mainstream (yes, even the dreaded Dances With Wolves and My Cousin Vinny benefitted from his character work).

For those regular moviegoers who are aware of character people, Chaykin was literally everywhere, so it was interesting to learn that at the time of his death he was only 61 years old. Born in Brooklyn, raised in NYC, and having graduated from the University of Buffalo, Chaykin moved to his mother’s native country of Canada as a young man, and the rest is character-person history: one of his first roles was in an episode of The King of Kensington with Al Waxman (another thoroughbred character guy whose name always, always signaled “Canadian funding”or, yes, “tax shelter”!) and one of his last performances was in a mockumentary fake-reality show spinoff of The Trailer Park Boys. Thus, while he could play many ethnicities and different sorts of individuals, he definitely was a proud Canuck, even when appearing in such mainstream American fare as Boston Legal and CSI.

I haven’t seen Chaykin’s best-regarded film, Whale Music, in which he plays a Brian Wilson-inspired character, and it unfortunately isn’t represented online. A lot of his work is indeed found in the obvious place; it seems that the bulk of the attention he got online was for his starring role as Nero Wolfe in A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which was on A&E from 2001-2002. Entire episodes of the show are up on YouTube, and fans have selected their fave moments like this one where the very staid “Stout detective” [pun=bad] gets angry:

A few interviews with Chaykin are online, including this one with he and Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney, about the dysfunctional family sitcom Less Than Kind, which McKinney produced and found Chaykin playing an angry dad. Possibly the best view of Chaykin (and a nice little insight into the mindset of a dedicated character actor) is in this mellower-than-mellow interview with a Canadian DJ type (very Seventies FM radio, extremely laidback), who interviews him about his work on Less Than Kind, his childhood and parents, his dual citizenship, his thoughts on L.A., and what it was like to be a character actor (and whether that term is an insult to a performer):

Some of Chaykin’s best work was done for one of the greatest Canadian filmmakers, Atom Egoyan, from The Adjuster to Adoration. Here he’s interviewed about his work with Egoyan on the latter:

Finally, two snippets of Chaykin’s work with Egoyan, the trailer for The Adjuster:

And the very, very American — note the corny-as-fuck narration and those distracting mag pullquotes — trailer for perhaps Egoyan’s best film, the extremely moving The Sweet Hereafter:

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Continuing on the thread of character actors introduced below, let me now celebrate the unique presence (and that’s what it’s all about, kats and kitties, screen presence) that is Udo Kier. Udo can be, by turns, the scariest and the campiest actor in a film, and that definitely calls for some celebration. So I offer you a clip uploaded by friend Paul Gallagher, a condensation of the oh-so-Eighties-looking sci-fi kitsch-a-thon that is The Invincible, directed in 1985 as Der Unbesiegbare by Gusztáv Hámos. Udo plays a kind of mega-camp Ming the Merciless here, and the faux video stylization is a bit overwhelming, to say the least:

I had long ago linked to what I considered one of the strangest meetings of Nina Hagen and another individual (check it out!), but I can truly say that there may be no finer pair of German eccentrics than the equally intense Nina and Udo:

And an interlude of Udo dancing, for no known reason (does he need one?):

And what set me off on this Udo-journey? Friend John Walsh sent me this wonderful clip of Udo being interviewed at the London Film and Comic Con in 2008. It was conducted by the French network Tele 7, but Udo speaks English, has had at least one drink (we see it in his hands at the outset), and requests that the cameraman follow him into the men’s room. Udo is one of a kind!

And since my initial blog entry on Udo was on the Funhouse blog which preceded this one (and is sadly defunct), I have to end this entry with the links I had included there to Udo's music videos (yes, you read that right). Here, in his Eighties syntho-pop prime is Udo with “Musik a Go Go”:

And quite possibly one of the most entertainingly crazy music vids I’ve ever seen, Udo’s “Der Adler.” He’s always watching us (or so he sez in this video), and we’re always watching him:

Grizzled Glory: Deceased Artiste James Gammon

I’ve sung the praises of great character actors on this blog before, so I have to note the death of James Gammon, who was both a good actor and a real presence onscreen. He had the look and the feel of a guy who’d seen a lotta life in his years, and thus even if the movies you watched him in were absolutely dreadful, he was 100% authentic.

His weatherbeaten looks ensured that he constantly got roles in Westerns, backwoods dramas, and family sagas, usually with an alcoholic character at the center of things. The guy worked steadily for five decades, and I should note that one of his first credits (after the always awesome Wild Wild West) was Captain Nice, the show that starred… Ann Prentiss (see entry below). Gammon did a LOT of work, and while I like his gruff-overdose in the brilliantly dopey Cabin Boy, the man had a serious reputation as a theater actor, having collected Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, and being someone for whom Sam Shepard groomed roles.

To honor Gammon, I uploaded a short scene from the documentary This So-Called Disaster (2003), which shows Shepard directing a production of the play The Late Henry Moss in San Francisco in 2000. Gammon plays the title role, and proves himself equal to his movie-star colleagues Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and Woody Harrelson. Check out Gammon’s voice and stage presence:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sisterly Menace: Deceased Artiste Ann Prentiss

Sometimes an obit’s juiciest, strangest details are contained at the end. For instance, I was referred this week (by friend M. Faust) to the mini-bio/obit that is circulating around the Net for actress Ann Prentiss, who is best known for three things: being Paula Prentiss’s younger sister; being one of the female leads in Altman’s terrific California Split; and starring in the short-lived but well-remembered superhero sitcom Captain Nice.

She was born Ann Ragusa and had pretty regular TV work in the Sixties, plus bit parts in a few other films. What is most amazing about reading her bios and obits, though, is that she died on January 12th of this year in prison at the age of 69, serving a 19-year sentence for having solicited the murder of her father and her brother-in-law, Richard Benjamin. The conviction was also for “making terrorist threats, assault with a firearm, and battery.” I’m not sure which family member she battered, but this is quite a surprise, as Benjamin and Paula Prentiss have had one of Hollywood’s longer-lasting, quieter marriages over the past few decades. Ann was apparently not the shy, retiring type.

Ann P. is good in California Split (on the right), but she seemingly never quite clicked in Hollywood, perhaps because she looked and acted much like her older sister. I’ve liked Benjamin and Paula P. since my childhood viewings of He and She and Quark. His subsequent career as a director has been very spotty (some titles, after the entertaining My Favorite Year and Racing With the Moon: My Stepmother is an Alien, Mermaids, and Marci X); of course, no matter how really bad his movies have gotten, nobody deserves an armed assault on their ass.

This case certainly didn’t have the “sex appeal” of Lindsay Lohan serving a shortened sentence for a drunk-driving offense, but you’d think Ann’s arrest might’ve been given a little bit of tabloid press at some point. I guess the readers of the Enquirer and TMZ don’t remember The Stepford Wives or Goodbye, Columbus — never mind a critical hit/box-office flop like California Split….

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Friday, for a change, a little more nothing": Deceased Artiste Tuli Kupferberg

The fact that poet-rocker-activist-access pioneer-wildman Tuli Kupferberg died this week wasn’t a great surprise, as he had been having some heavy health problems for months now. The fact that he continued to have videos put up on YouTube until only a month ago was the real surprise, a further indication that Tuli was a dedicated creator of poetic anarchy until the end. He gave away his best work in his latter years, and we in Manhattan (as his access audience) and around the world (as the viewers of his YouTube “perverbs”) were all the better for it.

I already wrote a blog post paying tribute to Tuli, on the occasion of seeing a Hal Willner-produced tribute to his work, and that of his legendary band the Fugs, at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. I direct you back to that blog post, as it contains some of the best links to Tuli’s work then and now.

To present an update, I would simply like to link to the latest additions to Tuli’s channel on YouTube. Here is yet another clip from Coca Crystal’s terrific cable-access show of the 1980s-90s. Coca’s own channel (with a great Tuli clip) can be found here. Tuli seems to be pretty somber here, but he’s in his prime singing “Where is My Wandering Jew?”:

An invaluable video link is below: the entirety of a show at the Bowery Poetry Club held to raise money for Tuli’s medical costs is up on Vimeo. I attended the show, which was called “A Little More Nothing” and was an awesomely humble little event (none of the heavy star power of the Willner show, but incredibly heartfelt and filled with local talent):

Tuli Kupferberg Tribute A Little More Nothing Part 1 from Thelma Blitz on Vimeo.

In case, you don’t want to watch the whole show, a few highlights are on YT. Here is a great moment, wherein the latest incarnation of John S. Hall’s awesome King Missile combo perform Tuli’s “The Ten Commandments” in a very Fugs-like style:

And one of Tuli’s colleagues, a former Fug himself, the legendary Peter Stampfel, performed one of his own tunes, an intense acoustic ditty called “Stick Your Ass in the Air” that showed that he, like Tuli, has not mellowed with age. Check out that voice!

Tuli’s final vids for YouTube were not “perverbs” (as he called his aphorism one-liners), but they were, each and every one of them, terrific. Here is a tape shot for Tuli’s MNN show, Revolting News, in which he performs his classic “Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side” in a few different versions (the “minor poet” one is pretty fuckin’ brilliant). When asked about what he thought of his first trip to NYC, Iggy Pop noted he was just looking for “that Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side that the Fugs sang about.”

I believe this is Tuli’s final video for YT. He talks about and performs the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Tuli’s colleague Thelma Blitz notes on the video “this is the song Tuli would like to be remembered by” (which is interesting, in light of his beautiful “Morning, Morning”):

Tuli supplied this brief but pungent closing video for the St. Ann’s night. Heed his words, kats and kitties!

And a very touching way to end this tribute, Tuli singing “Summer is A-Coming In,” a very early English poem:

And since like any good poet, Tuli dealt very beautifully with the specter of death, here is the Fugs song he created from that poem, the haunting “Carpe Diem,” which substitutes the Reaper for summer. The thing about Fugs recordings like this one is that they are so blissfully “out of tune” and yet the song sounds just fucking perfect. “You can’t out-sing the Angel of Death/Sing, cuckoo, sing!”

NYC is a lot poorer without Tuli.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Many-Splendored Thing: the late-night jousts of D.A. Harvey Pekar

I only have two collections of American Splendor comics. I found Harvey Pekar’s writing to be absolutely beyond-authentic, and perhaps that is what has kept me at a distance from becoming addicted to his work over the years: for the past two decades I have had both feet planted firmly in the tedious-office sphere which he depicted brilliantly, so reading his work always seemed too familiar and genuine an experience to me.

That said, he remains a very singular figure in the comic book pantheon: a writer who didn’t draw and who, unlike arguably the greatest modern genius of comics, Alan Moore, chose to explore his inner landscape and immediate surroundings rather than imagined alternate worlds. In terms of his non-comic persona, he was of course wonderfully depicted by Paul Giamatti in the American Splendor movie, and made eight extremely memorable appearances on the David Letterman show, which I link to below.

What interested me the most in rewatching these appearances is that, in the most confrontational appearance, Harvey accuses Letterman of being a “sell-out.” I find this interesting, as it betrays the same disappointment Bill Hicks felt in Letterman when his monologue was pulled from the show. Hicks and Pekar both somehow seemed to think Letterman was a hip nonconformist, rather than a jovial, sarcastic standup whose snarky attitude seemed to define Eighties TV comedy, but didn’t indicate any sort of rebellion whatsoever, from anything, at any time. Letterman followed in the wake of Carson and Steve Allen in having some incredibly gifted comedians on his show, but unlike those gentlemen (and Dick Cavett), he was never willing to be a cooperative straight man for those performers (I remember the word “jerk” being used when Pee-Wee, Jerry Lewis, and I think Bobcat Goldthwait came on). Unless the standup was one of Dave’s old cronies from the circuit (like the non-filmmaker George Miller — remember him?), Dave seemed to want to endlessly needle comic characters who came on his show (with Chris Elliott, it was part of the bit; with Brother Theodore, Andy Kaufman, and many others, it seemed like Dave wanted to show that he was “tolerating” what was transpiring in the guest chair).

So on came Harvey Pekar, a truly independent comic creator who needled Dave right back (in fact, the single best moments of the Letterman show at that time consisted of comedians who dished it right back at Letterman after he’d been particularly obnoxious to them). The contentious appearance that found Dave telling Harvey he’d never appear on the show again also finds Letterman calling American Splendor your “Mickey Mouse newsletter,” which is as genuine a moment as you will find on the Letterman show from that time. Letterman is an older, mellower soul these days, but his sarcasm and extreme crankiness (I’m always fascinated when people perceive him as homespun and friendly) has always seemingly been boiling just below the surface. Back in the Eighties, it appeared a number of times, and Pekar seemed determined to draw it out of him.

Here is Pekar’s first appearance on the show:

And a later bizarre appearance where Harvey joins wacky Dave doin’ a wacky stunt, wherein he visits the set of Live at Five (then hosted by current cranky cable host Jack Cafferty, who actually could’ve matched Letterman’s snotty barbs if he’d been genuinely pissed):

Here Harvey is allowed to do a full segment, but there is still tension in the air:

And here is the confrontational, truncated segment I mentioned above, where Harvey won’t let up on General Electric, and Letterman mocks his comic:

This has been billed as Pekar’s final appearance, so evidently he was allowed back one final time on the Letterman program, but he wasn’t on in the final 15-plus years of his life. I guess he didn’t fit into the hyper-slick plug-and-you’re-out guest segments that have been the bulwark of the CBS late-night show:

And, just so I don’t link entirely to agitated interviews with Pekar, here is a quieter, more considered chat, done for PBS:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: the Funhouse interview

I have been a big fan of the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa since I saw his License to Live at the New York Film Festival. My interview with him took place in July of 2001, at the time that the Screening Room in Tribeca was conducting a retrospective of his work. I used the interview to create two episodes of the Funhouse and also an article for, which you can find on that website or here. His answers were translated by Linda Hoaglund, who has subtitled some of his films.

Here he talks about his love of the films of John Cassavetes:

And here he discusses the use of sound in his films:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pity the angry prop comic...

I am of two minds about the weird little sub-genre of standup known as “prop comedy.” I grew up loving the stage shtick of Rip Taylor and the intentionally awful comic magicians Carl Ballantine and (cue “Fine and Dandy,” will ya?) Art Metrano. I also enjoyed as a kid the ultra-frantic Lenny Schultz who, while not a prop comic exactly, worked in same busy-ass mode. I never was a fan of what Rip Taylor hath inadvertently wrought, though — you know I’m talking about Gallagher and Carrot Top (whom Bill Hicks referred to as the comedian “for those who find Gallagher too cerebral”).

Thus, when I found out this week that Gallagher is now a pissed-off, bitter old dude, I was conflicted: I’m naturally prone to feeling sympathetic towards older performers who feel left out in today’s show-biz world. But, since I could never take large doses (or small doses) of Gallagher when he was at his peak of popularity (and for those who weren’t around, or who don’t remember, he was HUGELY popular at one point), I guess I’m slightly happy that he’s now a really fuckin’ angry prop comic who spews racist, sexist, homophobic jokes before he gets around to the Sledge-o-matic bit that seemed moronic when he started doing it more than thirty years ago.

This week an article appeared on a Seattle alternative website by Lindy West that chronicled a Gallagher show she recently attended in Bremerton, Washington. It’s a pretty nice American Gothic portrait of a comedian who never was a curmudgeon to start out with — he was a sprightly crazy guy who came out on rollerskates, told jokes about how he was “stuck in the Sixties,” and then walloped the shit out of some produce with a goddamned big mallet. Comedy gold, you say? Well, millions of people liked it during that period of cultural blight we now quaintly refer to as the Eighties. In her article West recounts Gallagher’s latest jibes against pretty much everybody who ain’t a white middle-class person (he claims that “we” are descended from Viking stock — isn’t the name Gallagher Irish? ’Twas the last time I checked…). It’s pretty eye-opening, and opens the way for the next descent into prop-comic madness (and I do mean *mad*-ness) that I found after reading West’s piece.

In December 2009 David Wolinsky of the Onion AV Club interviewed Gallagher, who spoke out against the “mediocrity” infesting American comedy today. I mean, he’s actually got me there — just visit any multiplex and see what is labeled “comedy,” and try to contradict the fact that the Golden Age of American Comedy is long, long behind us. But, then again, this isn’t coming from a still-with-us comedy god like Jonathan Winters. This isn’t coming from Woody Allen or Mel Brooks or Sid Caesar — this is coming from the guy with the “skullet” (oh my god, those Eighties terms) who still to this day closes his act by smashing a watermelon with an oversized mallet. For that reason alone, you gotta be fascinated by the guy’s anger.

And then, if you’re as much of a fan of descending down the rabbit hole as I am, I urge you to check out the story of “Gallagher Too”. The fact that Gallagher was so monstrously popular his sorta-lookalike brother could tour doing the same act and have a steady career is mind-boggling (further proof the Eighties wrecked the fuckin’ culture). The sad fact that the brothers never speak any more because they had a sort of metaphorical Mexican standoff with their really funny oversized mallets is even more deliciously, pathetically, compulsively readable. I walked past the lookalike brother many, many years ago in the area near Madison Square Garden, before I knew that there was a “Gallagher Too,” and kept wondering why anyone in his right mind would dress like the Sledge-o-matic guy. A paycheck will do strange things to a person.

The only thing these articles do, of course, is make you speculate as to when/where/how Carrot Top will crack. The fact that he metamorphosed somewhere in the Nineties into a bodybuilder who sported arms that looked like they’d been borrowed off of Popeye seemed like a small indication he might change his act. But he remains in the business and continues to be pretty much the leading prop comic in the nation. As for me, if I want to see a specialty act, I would far prefer a guy (or gal) who makes mouth noises for a living. Anyone got a line on Michael Winslow?

P.S. I thank Tim Carvell for turning me on to the original Stranger article. Also, as I looked for pics to go with this post, I found yet another rant-y kinda interview with Gallagher that includes the amazing sentence “There’s a lot of money in hatred.” Whoa baby!

Jumpin' with Joya: Deceased Artiste Joya Sherrill

Last week singer/TV host Joya Sherrill died at the age of 82. Sherrill had a long career in show business, distinguished by her work as a vocalist for Duke Ellington and as an NYC local kiddie show hostess. She was 17 years old when the Duke hired her to sing with his band. She worked with him on and off for the next few decades, and had hits with the group, including “I’m Beginning to See The Light”:

As I was reading Ms. Sherrill’s obits, I realized that I have her duet album with Sammy Davis Jr., Sammy Jumps With Joya. In the more thorough onine biographies like this one, it is revealed that a turning point in her career as a singer came when she toured the U.S.S.R. in 1962 with the Benny Goodman orchestra (purportedly making her the first American jazz singer “to appear behind the Iron Curtain”). She scored a hit with her Russian audience, but Benny Goodman made sure not to include her on the live album he released from the tour.

The part of her career that resounds with people my age was her eventual transformation into a local NYC kiddie-show host — she is celebrated as being the first-ever African-American woman to play that role. She starred in the low, low-budget show Time for Joya on WPIX-TV from 1970 to 1972, and the show’s later incarnation, Joya’s Fun School, was new only from January to March 1972, but this thorough article reveals that the ever-thrifty PIX (which I wrote about here) ran those three months’ worth of shows for the next ten years, until 1982!

In any case, Ms. Sherrill had a pretty interesting show business career. Since none of her shows exist on tape (not saying much for WPIX’s archive in this case), I will close out this little remembrance with another link to the TV Party article that has the full audio of the August 30, 1970 episode of Time for Joya, which featured as a guest her former employer, the one and only Duke. The show is very laidback as Joya sings the Ellington composition “Heritage” from the show “My People.” Duke also tells the story of the Three Little Bears to the kids, and you can hear what a local low-budget Seventies kids’ show sounded like (it’s a shame there’s no video, but we can be grateful to the gent who supplied TVP with the audio).

And, as two final goodbyes, here’s a perky little ditty that Ms. Sherrill did as a jazz singer that could’ve easily become part of her kids’ show:

And a later upbeat tune, with the wonderfully provocative title “Do Me Good, Baby!”:

Friday, July 2, 2010

“Playing with gentle glass things”: An appreciation of Richard Brautigan

I first became aware of Richard Brautigan in books I read about the Beatles, as his sole spoken-word LP was at one time intended to be a release on the “Zapple” label. My first encounter with Brautigan’s writing was again Beatle-related: he wrote a very haunting intro to the mass-market paperback The Beatles Lyrics Illustrated called “The Silence of Flooded Houses.” Then I read his short story collection, The Revenge of the Lawn, and my lifelong love of his work began. 

Brautigan is typically described as a “Sixties cult figure,” sometimes as a Beat writer, sometimes as a hippie icon. He was actually neither — he was younger than the Beats and not thought by them to be serious enough; though he clearly loved hippie chicks, he stayed far away from drugs and the communal lifestyle of the Haight-Ashbury district he lived in during the “Summer of Love." 

He is also often defined by the fact that he committed suicide at the age of 49 in 1984. I will leave behind those aspects for a bit and talk about what he really was: a poet and novelist who blended a gently surreal prose style with a wry, deadpan sense of humor and a view of nature as both constant and sheltering, and eternally subject to change. 

His writing style is deceptively simple, as was Vonnegut’s (in fact Vonnegut recommended Brautigan to his first mainstream publisher) and, although he can’t be duplicated, his influence is felt today in more whimsical, less poetic writers like Tom Robbins. The easy-to-read aspect of Brautigan’s prose caused him to be vastly underrated by American critics and academics and, true to form, has made him a cult hero in parts of Europe and Asia (the best American writers, musicians, and filmmakers tend to have more fervent cult followings in other countries than they do over here). 

For me, Brautigan’s work has been a touchstone since my teen years. Although capsule biographies of the man seem to dote on his last few depressed years, the sense I get from his Sixties work is that of a visionary optimist, and his Seventies/early Eighties work conveys a melancholic whose curiosity and wonder at bizarre insights and juxtapositions sustained him. For me, his writing is “magical,” perhaps in the sense of magical realism, since fantastic events are recounted in a comically deadpan fashion. Whatever the case may be, his writing never fails to lift my spirits when I’m feeling down, and as a writer I wish I could view life through the very special lens he was blessed with.

In the fall of last year, I came across discounted copies of the three collections of Brautigan’s work that have thankfully remained in print. I own the original paperbacks of all of his books (setting aside the limited-edition chapbooks and early broadsides), but the idea of revisiting the works between new covers intrigued me (my fascination with his work had found me haunting bookstores during the final years of his life hoping to find any new material by him). And it had indeed been decades since I had read most of the books — I used to gulp them down in single sittings back in the late Seventies, which had left me with vivid memories of some images and plot points, but a hazy recall of the particulars of most of the later titles. 

So I’ve spent the last eight months or so spacing out my reading of his work, just so I could make it last longer — there were only ten novels, two short story collections and five slim volumes of poetry. I found that the books I thought were “minor” (Sombrero Fallout) or “a little too long” (A Confederate General From Big Sur) were the right length, and several shades deeper than I’d been able to perceive as a grammar-/high-schooler. Brautigan’s poetry is a vivid and inventive, late 20th-century blend of his two influences, William Carlos Williams and the Japanese haiku poets. 

The poems, which are thankfully all available online (!) at the indispensable The Richard Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, run the gamut from quick gags, to surreal daydreams, to gorgeous love poems written for the women in his life (who were often seen on the covers of the books). A definitive volume of his collected poetry is long overdue, but in the meantime, I urge you to check the work out on the Brautigan Archive.

I had briefly wondered why Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe has allowed all of his verse to remain online on one “above-ground” site, but the reasons are apparent: all but one of his books of poetry are out of print, and the man himself used to stand on the street in Haight-Ashbury handing out his work. Brautigan wanted people to read his poems, and in this era of instant Net gratification, I’m sure he’d be glad they are all right there, out in public view. (He also was miles ahead of the curve when he wrote a poetic paean to the merging of the natural and the cybernetic, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," right.)

Of particular interest to fans like myself who only have his books from mainstream publishers is a digital recreation of his totally, utterly, completely out of print “book” (consisting of seed packets in a folder with poems on them) called Please Plant This Book

Brautigan’s novels break down neatly into three periods. The first is the absolutely magical Sixties work, which is best sampled in Revenge of the Lawn (in print in one of the three-in-one collections) and the three-in-one volume that appeared during Brautigan’s lifetime and has remained in print all these years. It contains his best-known work, Trout Fishing in America, the poetry collection The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and what is definitely his most “perfect” novel in my view, In Watermelon Sugar. Extremely low-key, IWS creates a world all its own, offering a bizarrely prescient allegory for the hippie era that was most likely intended as a simple comment about the joys and perils of communal living (he wrote the book in 1964, but it was published in 1968). 

The Abortion also seems to “sum up” the Sixties in a unique way. Written in 1966 but not published until 1971, it contains one of Brautigan’s most indelible creations, the Library of Unpublished Works. (A real-life equivalent to this exquisite dream-creation existed for a while in Burlington, Vermont.)

The second period of Brautigan’s fiction found him tackling a different genre every year, producing four very original books. His “gothic western” The Hawkline Monster and comic private-eye novel Dreaming of Babylon are still in print, but sadly the two more oddly personal and darkly humorous titles are completely gone from sight. 

Willard and his Bowling Trophies tells the story of a couple experimenting with mild S&M while three dumb-ass brothers search for their precious bowling trophies, which have been stolen from them but just happen to be sitting in the apartment right below the awkward S&M couple. I read the book as a teen and found it extremely funny and imaginative. As I reread it now, I still find it humorous, but realize the deep vein of sadness in the S&M couple’s interaction (details in Brautigan bios would seem to indicate that both the couple’s play and their unease are based on his own relationships with women in the Seventies). The book still has its wonderfully funny moments, but it’s quite something else when you come to it as a middle-aged person.

His novels were all “strange” in one delightful way or another, but the other out-of-print “genre” novel (which is the most playfully un-genre-fied work from this period), Sombrero Fallout, is perhaps his strangest narrative ever. A heartbroken “humorist” who seems to be Brautigan himself pines for the Japanese girl who broke up with him, while a page of a story he threw away starts to “live” in his garbage pail. Like Willard…, the book is an absolute revelation, as it mixes a blissful level of oddball humor with a sense of romantic loss that jumps right off the page. 

The third period of RB’s fiction is comprised of only three books. The Tokyo-Montana Express is a sort of diary of his journeys between a ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana, his adopted home, and Tokyo, a city that adopted him (he became a cult writer in Japan in the late Seventies, due to the haiku-like nature of his work). I delayed re-reading Brautigan’s last two novels, as they both exhibit the sadness that enveloped the end of his life. 

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away is a terrific, characteristically low-key tale of adolescence that shares with the final novel, An Unfortunate Woman, a roundabout, Tristram Shandy-like approach to storytelling (although Brautigan does tie up his loose ends very neatly). Also, both books are most definitely about the proximity of death in everyday life. 

The emotional ties I have to Brautigan’s work have grown stronger as I have gotten older, and so I was very glad to find a few kindred spirits online who have done beautiful tributes to the man and his work. There are several interesting articles on him here, and Dennis Cooper did a terrific blog entry that includes good samples of Brautigan’s prose. 

The two most invaluable references, though, are Jen Leibhart’s e-mail list, housed on her site The Brautigan Pages, and the already mentioned “deep” resource that is The Richard Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, run by Brautigan scholar John F. Barber. 

Brautigan video clips are very scarce, since he wasn’t a Mailer or Capote-like self-promoter and thus seemingly never appeared on TV(if he did, the appearance is buried in some archive or was disposed of years ago). He did, appear, however in an informal fishing documentary called Tarpon with his Montana writer friends Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane. Here is a scene from Tarpon that shows Brautigan simply hanging out and animatedly chatting with his pals: 


Brautigan walking in San Francisco in something called “Nowsreal”:


There are a number of people reciting Brautigan’s poetry on YouTube, but here is one soul’s “visualization” of a poem which features a sexy woman seen from the back. Methinks Richard would approve…


Another super-rarity: Brautigan “interviews” a little girl for a friend’s film project:


I find it every heartening to see that younger readers are taking Brautigan’s work to heart. Here are scenes from an event called “XXI Century Brautiganism” that took place on the WSU Vancouver Canvas late last year:

His spoken-word LP, Listening to Richard Brautigan, can be heard here, and it can be downloaded here.

In closing, I’ll just note that I had an incredibly brief encounter with Brautigan at a signing for Tokyo-Montana at the Greenwich Village Brentano’s (which, if I remember correctly, was on 8th St. and Fifth Avenue). He was sick on that day, but showed up anyway and signed books. For some unknownable fanboy reason, when my turn came, I said, “I never thought I’d see you in a situation like this!” He answered with a deep hoarse voice, “I never thought I’d see myself in a situation like this….” and dutifully signed the old paperbacks I handed him in his trademark tiny handwriting. I then told him, “You’re my favorite author,” and he got very quiet and handed the now-autographed books back. 

Perhaps he thought I was just being kind, that I had felt obliged to say what I did, or perhaps he was so sick he didn’t even care, but I’ve always been glad that I got to say those words to him. I meant them, and still do.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ken Russell's masterpiece The Devils now on iTunes

I’ve already professed my love for the work of Ken Russell in these pages, and still have more of my interview with “Unkle Ken” to come in this format and on the Funhouse TV show. In the meantime however, it has been brought to my attention that his masterpiece The Devils has finally been made available in this country in a sorta, kinda, near-to-complete version.

The film is owned by Warner Brothers, which is still, to this very day, scared of putting it out in its complete form, for fear that it will outrage Catholics and other dogma-loving Xtians. The truth is that the film is one of the finest explorations of religious hypocrisy ever, in any art form, and if someone is bothered by it, then they need to double-check their own religious beliefs. The documentary made for British television about the controversy surrounding the film constituted the first time that the censored “Rape of the Christ” sequence had been shown publicly (the same night the docu was shown the film was aired in its entirety). In that documentary a Jesuit notes that that scene is about blasphemy taken to the very limit, but the sequence that Russell intercut it with — in which Oliver Reed performs the ceremony of the mass with his lover and offers her the sacrament of communion — redeems the “Rape” sequence, showing what constitutes real faith as opposed to hypocrisy.

So the good news in this instance for U.S. viewers is that The Devils is finally available to be seen in its restored version. The bad news is that it is missing part of the “Rape of the Christ” sequence (which is what I assume takes it down three minutes from 111 to 108 minutes), and is only being made available by the oh-so-skittish Warner folks as a digital download on iTunes. No DVD, no Blu-Ray, none expected.

It’s very interesting to consider that of all the films that caused moral outrage at the turn of the Seventies, the rest of the pack — A Clockwork Orange, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Deep Throat — have all been perennially available on American home media on VHS and then DVD. The Devils thus validates itself by being so hard to locate (the best complete copy that has thus been circulated is of that single airing on British cable TV). It obviously has as much to say to our own era as it did back in 1971. Religious hypocrites will never go away, and they hate to be called out on their utterly ridiculous, offensive, and dangerous behavior (some might hit the nail through the palm with “un-Christ-like”). So check out the Russell film through the download, or through the bootlegs (I’m sure it’s circulating on Bit Torrent and Rapidshare, as the British cable TV version was up on YouTube in its entirety for a few months at one point), or when it appears at a local repertory theater. It’s a dynamic work that continues to say a lot about the publicly pious.

Here is where I found out about the iTunes download. Thanks to the great “Movie Irv” for passing this on. UPDATE: As of today, 7/8/10, the film has been pulled, and according to online sources, was up for less than a week. It was indeed missing the entire "Rape of the Christ" sequence, but supposedly was a crystal-clear restoration of the film. C'mon, Warner Brothers, what are you so scared of?

NYC's MTA has slowed down service until soon nothing will be running at all….

No, the title doesn't refer to New York becoming a Warriors or Streets of Fire-type landscape in an "alternate future" (although I often speculate on how easily that could happen). I just feel compelled to return to the topic of NYC's dreadful little tin-cans of horror, although I can’t really add much to what I’ve said in past blog entries.

Except, of course, to note that the MTA is crying poverty once again, as they always are. Now we know they lie on a regular basis, so it’s lovely to find that, just this week, as they took a whole bunch of completely necessary bus lines out of commission (stranding many riders in the outer boroughs — the lands the MTA is most apathetic about) and discontinued two subway lines, that the service has been absolutely awful. Worse than ever, and that’s saying something.

Perhaps the goal here is to re-establish that the citizens of NYC are dependent on them. Creating the wonderful fictions (which do indeed occur in real-life, but several of them in one day on the same two or three train lines — wow, what a coincidence!) of “police actions,” “track fires,” signal problems,” etc, etc, ad nauseum, must be exhausting, but they’re surely wanting to raise the fare, since none of the people who run the MTA take the damned trains and buses in the first place.

It's often been noted that cops should be forced to live in the communities they serve, just so they would know exactly what life in that neighborhood is like, and so they can’t escape to the suburbs at day’s end and think of the people who live in their precinct as “the Other.” I think the same should be true of the MTA. And while we’re at it, why not stick the tiny billionaire who bought himself a third term onto a subway running from Brooklyn to Queens, or the Bronx to Manhattan, or an outer borough to fucking anywhere. Have them ride the Frankenstein creations they’re responsible for on days like the past few, when a really sprightly tortoise could outrun a subway train in this town. Just an idea.

The movie/TV/music stuff continues above, but I must give complete credit to the source for the images seen above. They came from the the Remixed Metre blog, who says he got them from the Gothamist website, but I could only retrieve them from his site. So there.