Friday, December 18, 2009

Kubrick’s Killer Decade

The Kubrick glare
From about 1960 to 1970, film director Stanley Kubrick could do no wrong. He fed off the sixties zeitgeist with vampiric cunning—intellectual, cynic, craftsman, always detached, always so mindful of the light.

His best films are about death—or seen through a different lens—about life’s absurdity. He didn’t create heroes or happy endings. His films are scripted thesis.< Does thought drive emotion, or vice-versa?> Stanley’s films are top-heavy with thought—but unlike the grumpy Jean-Luc Godard, who enjoyed his salad days at about the same time, Kubrick never hits you on the head with a book.

"How you doing HAL?"
If you’re looking for the key to Stan’s mind, you might find it at the bottom of a magician’s trunk, or hidden under a chess board. The general sterility of his sets tricks you into believing ‘here’s a serious artist’ , but it is indeed a trick. Above all else, he is a humanist, and like others of his ilk, wasn’t too crazy about humans, at least their bodies.

So—similar to Hitchcock, actors never did that well in his films. Only two or three performances stand out. It’s no coincidence that his most memorable character is a computer.

Here’s killer Kubrick:

- Lolita (1962)
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971)

After ‘Clockwork’, one got the feeling that Kubrick wasn’t making the films that he wanted to – he was just keeping the wheels in motion with goofy stuff like ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘The Shining’. His final film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is disturbing, given that the same talent once gave us ‘2001’.
Stanley Kubrick
The Composer & Composition

Today, Kubrick enjoys legions of diehard fans that have sanctified every frame of his opus. He was the kind of guy who could inspire such devotion. Only an artist who tells the Truth, his own Big Truth in his own Time, ever reaches that rarified stratum where angels dispense the mixed blessing of immortality.

And what is Kubrick's Big Truth? It's plays on the other side of the screen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

LSD: Leary’s in the Sky with Diamonds

If you choose to visit YouTube and view Dr. Timothy Leary’s interviews and speeches, one rather unsettling conclusion becomes irrefutable: almost without exception, he radiates clarity, intelligence, humor, and robust health. Beside him, the hosts most often appear slouched and defeated, suffering under a dead-sweat, long having abandoned the corporate gotcha script and praying for a commercial break.

It’s wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Throughout the 1960s, Leary actively promoted—and experimented with—Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). He was the King Pin, capo di tutti. No LSD, no 60s. At least, not in the way we know/knew/remember that decade. Dr. T was a big deal. When he ran for Governor of California, John Lennon wrote him a campaign song called ‘Come Together’. Not bad.

Richard Nixon’s much celebrated (but never discovered) ‘silent majority’ were scared stupid of Leary. Not only did he have the implicit prominence of a Harvard psychology professor (a job from which he was canned—no surprise there), but the Beatles loved him, as did other prominent, counter-culture types. So—the law went after Leary.

He did jail time for marijuana possession (originally, a 20-year sentence. Whoa…). While in stir they gave have him psychological tests used to assign inmates to appropriate work details. But Dr. Leary had devised the test years earlier; in fact, they were called ‘Leary Interpersonal Behavior Test’. So Tim answered the questions in such a way as to appear a conventional person with interests in forestry and gardening. Result? Leary bagged work as a gardener in a lower security prison. Not bad.

The key to understanding the 1960s is to consider people like Leary—a guy who walked his own path, sometimes flaky, sometimes irresponsible, but never cowardly or morbid. He was outrageous in the best sense—that of having powerful, intriguing ideas.

It’s rare to see his type anymore. Now, even worse than then, the media (a cash-starved conduit for advertising) can’t tolerate originality. It’s too destabilizing: it scatters demographics. Nobody even has the time to Tune In, Turn On, or, god forbid, Drop Out. There’s no money trail to follow.

Leary, who died in ’96, was nothing if not an enlightened optimist — certainly not an attribute I’d ascribe to current social totems. He offered solutions without necessarily exploiting, or even mentioning, problems — and no man ever made big bucks doing that.

So requiescat in pace. Leary’s in the Sky with Diamonds.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ted Kennedy Part I: He Crosses the Bridge

Ted.... Mary Jo
You’d think a country that is as cranked up as the United States would refuse to give anyone, let alone a politician, a second chance. Europeans despise second chances, flailing the injured with the cool detachment of a still vibrant class system.

Part of the American ethos dictates that a loser doesn’t necessarily have to remain a loser. Down the road to success you’re bound to get in a few accidents. Pull yourself up pal.

On July 18, 1969, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, leaving a woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, to die in the submerged car. Experts believe that she lived up to four hours in the overturned vehicle. While she slowly asphyxiated, Ted dozed in a drunken sleep in a nearby hotel.

Seven days later he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury and received a suspended sentence. He gave the dead girl’s parents about $90,000. The next year he was reelected with 62% of the vote.

As the 1960s reached conclusion, dark forces, skirting the chronological perimeter for the last nine years, finally stormed the walls. For the most part, the ramparts held, supported, incredibly, by flowers and guitars. But nothing lasts forever, not even Time. In the later half of 1969, the evil that men do hit the headlines, shrieking through drifting waves of saffron and billows of tie-dyed shirts like lost V2 rockets. My Lai came on deck. Charles Manson. Brian Jones. Chappaquiddick. Altamont.

 A watery grave
But Ted Kennedy survived to become the second longest-serving U.S. senator in U.S. history. And he knew how to party hard. In 1989, European paparazzi caught Ted having sex on a boat. Numerous magazine articles profiled his sociopathic womanizing and impressive drug abuse.

In 1980 he ran for president. A few people brought up Chappaquiddick and Ted said aw, forget it, I quit. He made a great speech declaring “the dream never dies”, crawled off to Boston, and then never made that mistake again.

When Ted died in 2009 at age 77, President Obama gave the eulogy. Ted was praised as a great guy.

There’s nothing wrong with second chances. It takes guts to forgive, but it takes a lobotomy to forget.

Or maybe you just have to party, really, really hard.

But Ted never forgot.1969 held him under the waves, his destiny forever entwined in the floating, flowing hair of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Peter Pan Has Really Left the Building: Michael Jackson Thru Sunglasses Darkly

More of a warning than a destination
Michael Jackson turned pro in 1968-69. But he doesn’t have a lot to do with 60’s pop culture. He belongs to the sequined, coked-up 80s, a decade in which he was most powerful as a fashion force.

What he can offer us is bookmarks on the nature of celebrity, especially U.S. celebrity—the most aggressive kind—that has effectively euthanized talent stretching from Chaplin to Brando. In the late 60s, the paparazzi had yet to crank up. There was still enough war-generation sense of collective decency to temper the mass tabloids. In the new millennium, the notion of privacy has been degraded to the point where it’s as vulnerable as an infant.

Jackson called himself ‘The King of Pop’…not ‘pop music’, just ‘pop’ as in ‘popular’. The fact that he even gave himself a lofty moniker is sad— for such a thing is earned, not granted. He was battling with the lightness of his being, banal and appealing as a Warhol soup can.

A more accurate—but ultimately distressing—appellation for Jackson is ‘King of Fame’. Because that’s what he was about: his career deftly parallels the explosion in pop media. The imbalance now between talent and fame is so precarious that even those with gifts, such as Jackson, are smashed apart in a multimedia whirlwind. Few have the perspective and stamina to remain grounded.

Fame doesn’t pay you; you pay it, forgoing privacy, domesticity, family love, and peace of mind. Jackson’s popularity intertwined with his life in that same scorching, self-destroying furnace that immolated Judy Garland and a hundred more honored with sepulchral, concrete hand prints: all those unfortunate enough to bypass childhood, dragged screaming from the playground by fierce, brisk parents, on their way to a Savings Account.

But he was intuitive: Jackson knew he had more to do with popular entertainment than music: he was a package of singing, dancing, fashion, cosmetics and self-mutilation, an Emmett Kelly clown pulled thru sunglasses darkly. Those who baited him with charges of pedophilia were unaware that Jackson was already chained and dying in a silk-lined dungeon of his own decree.

He altered his appearance, with surgery and chemicals, trying to reconcile a healthy body with a sick mind. Or was the other way around? In his final years, Michael Jackson seemed to be in a death struggle with himself.

Gifted boy, confused man
His executors may as well sell Neverland, his sprawling Santa Barbara estate and personal monument to mental illness, named in homage to Peter Pan. It’s hard to see it as ever becoming Gracelandish, but tourism can be morbid and clever.

James M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, once wrote, “Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”

Maybe it has to do with dreams and sacrifice, but more likely it’s about a passion for popularity, a pursuit that destroys all grownups, every single one of them, no questions asked.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Phil Spector: An Inescapable Wall of Sound

When the Wall of Sound turned into bricks
We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight
So stick around
You’re gonna hear electric music
Solid Walls of Sound

- Elton John

Nobody better personifies the quintessence—and possibilities—of 60s pop music more than Phil Spector.

On a higher level, he is the single most important producer in rock history—one of the few of whom you can say, if he had never existed, what comes out of the radio today would be different.

But he was, and is, a ‘difficult’ man.

It’s quite possible that sometime during the late 1960s, he began to crack. Or maybe he got the pills-booze quotient wrong, as has been surmised. Whatever happened, Phil began to lose it. And the hits stopped forever.

Phil has discussed his mental illness. His father committed suicide when Phil was nine.

It appears 69-year-old Spector is in jail for eighteen years, having been convicted of second-degree murder. He shot and killed an actress in the foyer of his home. Phil has an extensive history of domestic abuse.

Spector has pulled many guns on many people, including Leonard Cohen and John Lennon. When he was arrested for murder in 2003, Spector had more than ten handguns in his house. That’s a lot.

Speaking of a lot, I’m reading over a list of Spector’s hits: Be my Baby, Da Do Ron Ron, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Then He Kissed Me, Walkin’ the Rain, Spanish Harlem, Unchained Melody…It goes on for a while. Pop music offers us few geniuses, but if put to the test, I’d say Spector has his foot in the door.

Technically, we know how he developed his famous ‘Wall of Sound’. But nobody, not even when using Phil’s studio engineers, has been able to reproduce it.

Author Tom Wolfe wrote a famous essay about him called ‘The First Tycoon of Teen’. Phil did indeed make millions, sometimes in questionable ways. He also made a lot of people big stars.

He produced the Beatles’ last album ‘Let it Be’, although Paul McCartney hated the results – and still does — though McCartney is getting a little cranky in his dotage.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Spector # 63 in the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Spector is renowned for his ability to scream at people, for up to half an hour, without losing his voice. He’s also known to be generous to friends and strangers in financial trouble.

He stands 5’ 5”, wears elevator shoes, lived as a recluse, and went weeks without leaving the walls of his mansion.

For decades people have wondered why such a small man ever felt compelled to create such a gargantuan sound.

Phil’s life is about walls...some keep people in, some keep people out. Sometimes they're made of music, sometimes brick. It's no difference to Phil. For like any significant artist, he knows the only way to create is to create alone.

It's been said that silence is a sound you can't hear. Be it ironic, merciful, or both, Phil Spector must face an inescapable Wall of Sound until the day he dies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Françoise Dorléac: A hollow man holds a flame

Considering the extent of Catherine Deneuve's fame, few people know that she had an older sister: her name was Françoise Dorléac - and she was just as beautiful as her famous soeur. Poor Françoise was to have a glamorous, brief life, making just a handful of films before her untimely death in 1967, gone at age 25 in a car crash.

Phillipe's flame from long ago
I didn't know any of this until I worked with a guy named Philippe Reux: we were partnered as 'on location' bodyguards for the film star Jean Claude Van Damme during the production of a movie called 'Maximum Risk', partly filmed in Toronto during the bitter winter of 1995.

Attempting to explain how I became Jean Claude Van Damme's lowly bodyguard occasions dark memories and general illegalities. Suffice it to say that for two weeks, it was my well-paid position to make sure that Mr. Van Damme was not harassed by his fans. I had a very quiet time.

Philippe was from Marseille, about sixty years old, white hair in a short pony tail, intensely skinny, once handsome with that peculiar Mediterranean tone of tan - light chocolate/more orange than gold. From certain angles he looked a lot like Keith Richards, especially in the early morning. Philippe chain-smoked, was excitable and chronically irritated. When we were introduced on the first day of our assignment, he just stared at me, wincing like he bit a lemon, as if he couldn't believe he was on a security detail with a man who had never killed anyone.

He spoke English in short - often incomplete - sentences. His staccato delivery alternatively conveyed deep-seated anger, boredom or both.

Never once, in twelve days of work, did Philippe ask me about myself: in fact, part of his attraction was a self-engrossment so powerful that he barely needed to eat. I doubt if he ever knew my name.

By the second day, Philippe was more expansive, mainly because I gave him cigarettes and lobbed him banal questions. He told me that Canada was boring, and that he was "a party man. I can party. All the time. I never stop. There is no point." He really did speak like that.
Sisters in harmony

He had spent all of his life on movie sets in low-end jobs: filling a star's coffee cup, walking a producer's dog - it didn't matter to Philippe; he was there for the party. It was a haphazard career that began in 1960 on the set of Jean-Luc Godard's 'A bout de souffle' and had never really stopped. He went from film to film carrying nothing more than his toothbrush and wallet.

If you asked Philippe, 'what was Godard like?' or 'how was Brando on the set of Last Tango?' he would either just walk away or give you an elliptical answer like "A film. Just chemicals. Nothing is important."

"She had this little dog"
In fact, for a man who had spent his life on movie sets, Philippe had no interest in the medium whatsoever.

When I told him that François Truffaut was an important director and well-known in Canada, he reacted with shock, as if I had mentioned that his own brother was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Then he immediately lost interest in the whole thing. Truly, he seemed incapable of sustaining interest in anything that wasn't attached to his body. I had come to accept him as a condescending extraterrestrial: it didn't matter where he was on planet Earth because it needed him more than he needed it.

During our last day of work we were stationed at a side entrance of Toronto's Old City Hall, down at the bottom steps, right behind the Eaton Centre. Van Damme was inside the Hall, filming a 'prison scene'. We smoked, leaning against Van Damme's 'personal trailer' - that was never more than a few hundred meters from the great man himself.

Time crawled by. Just to raise Philippe's irritability level, I asked what in life was important to him. He squinted at me, suspicious, as if I was laying a trap. I wasn't. I just wanted to know what kept him going. He seemed so perfectly hollow.

But for the first time, Philippe looked pensive.

Beauty is an accident
It had been snowing and Philippe, who wasn't dressed for a Canadian winter, started to smack his hands together, scowling at the sky, taking it all personally.

He told me that he liked to travel and that he liked to look at beautiful women - and the best way to combine both pursuits was to work in the film business. I asked him if he pursued the starlets. He replied that it wasn't necessary; that actresses were insecure and vulnerable to flattery - and sexual conquest under such conditions is dull and void of challenge. But beauty was another thing, he said - now that was worth pursuing.

"Okay," I said, "who is the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"

"Do you know the name 'Françoise Dorléac'?'

"Vaguely. Wasn't she in that Polanski movie about some old guy who...."

Philippe cut me off with a sharp wave of his hand. Evidently, I had bored him with just over ten words.

Two Sisters
"She was talented," he said. "Very beautiful. Her sister was Catherine Deneuve. She died. 1967. Twenty-five years old. We worked on 'Cul-de-Sac'. I had one night with her, you get it? No sex. Just lay down. We spoke. We were young. She had this little dog. I can remember her profile. You cannot be that close to such beauty and remain unchanged, undamaged. Died a few months later. Françoise. The most spectacular of them all. Beauty is a wonderful accident, you get it? I spent the night with Catherine Deneuve's sister. Something in me arrived at the end."

Always another party
Philippe's eyes were frozen on an object moving farther away. I was dumbfounded that he had a capacity for sentimentality. For a moment he even looked different.

Some of the crew was beginning to exit the set, which meant that Jean Claude would soon require our tough-guy services to protect him against the surging, nonexistent mob of frenzied fans. Philippe emerged from his reverie. His face tightened and he slowly rubbed his hands together.

We began to walk up the courthouse steps to the movie set. Philippe suddenly turned to me and said, "Never stop. Always another party. You get it?" As we reached the landing, Van Damme himself rushed down, petit and feline, leapt up into his trailer and snapped shut the door.

Au Revoir

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Persistence of Fate: Jim Morrison and the '27 Club'

After 4 years I'm left with amind like a fuzzy hammer
regret for wasted nights& wasted years
I pissed it all away
American Music
End with fond good-bye; plan for future—Not an actor
Which of my cellves will be remembered
Good-bye America
I loved you
Money from home
good luck
stay out of trouble
Jim in a suit...people are strange

- Jim Morrison (Wilderness Vol. 1)

Looking back on the day September 13, 1969, a friend of mine, George, can recall exactly where he was: "I had a job," he says, "to look after Jim Morrison, the singer for The Doors. And it was fucking horrible."

That's the day of Toronto Rock n' Roll Revival, a 13-hour concert at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium. Although John Lennon showed up, The Doors headlined.

George was attending the University of Toronto at the time, and to make some money, signed on as an event organizer. Somehow George became a reluctant member of a small group waiting at the airport for The Doors to show up and escort them to the stadium. He'd been told to stay close to Jim Morrison, as it was rumored he was an alcoholic.

"I think he was already drunk when they landed," George explains, "or just acting weird. Regardless, he was a difficult guy to be around and I knew it was going to be a tough night because The Doors was on last."

I ask him if he regards his time with Morrison as important, given that Morrison has become a cultural icon, one of the great die-young gods, like Jimmy Dean and Marilyn Monroe. "Not at all," says George. "I never liked The Doors. I still don't. That organ they play reminds me of a cheap Bar Mitzvah quartet. I wanted to see Chuck Berry and Little Richard and John Lennon, but had to hang with Morrison, so I kind of missed the whole thing."

Mr Mojo Risin'
George is careful to add that as The Doors' performance time grew closer, Morrison began to settle down, and in fact was quite sober, if not catatonic, as the band hit the boards. "There was something about his eyes that wasn't quite right," George adds as an afterthought, stepping into his sedan this bright Sunday morning, on the way to a golf course. "I don't think it was a question of no one being home, so to speak," he says, tapping his forehead. "I think the wrong kind of people were at home. Anyway, that was about forty years ago. It's important to remember how young all those people acted. Morrison was around twenty-five years old but he seemed younger than me, and I was nineteen. Just think about that." Then he's off to the Emerald Isle Country Club.

So I think about that. Maybe George is on to something—something about reckless youth, something about certain people who flame bright with life because they're burning at over three times the rate than the rest of us. An aunt of mine knew Jimi Hendrix, and she said that even though he seemed okay ("dressed a little wild"), you got the sense that he didn't belong was just 'a sense'.

And I think about George's affection for numbers: he's a good golfer, but he's a great numerologist, recognizing patterns and proclaiming hidden truths. He once told me that Einstein regarded math as an art, not just a science — an attitude that comes naturally to most people who are terrible with numbers.

Let's go back: it's July 7, 1983, and I'm hanging around Père Lachaise cemetery, just outside of Paris. I'm on an assignment (okay, freelancing) for a city arts magazine covering the twenty-second anniversary of Morrison's death. I'm five days late, as Morrison split on July 3, but I figure it doesn't matter, he was interred on July 7. Anyway, Morrison will wait around.

This is The End
He lays about ten meters away from where I sip coffee and pretend to adjust my camera, but really study a clump of hippies nested by the grave, wrapped in blankets and sweaters, swaying to an execrable, grating interpretation of People Are Strange provided by a thin, blonde young man who, judging by his accent is of Swedish descent.

It begins to rain, which is expected, even encouraged in Paris, because it makes the whole place even more beautiful. Nobody seems to notice; in fact, the Swedish kid has segued into an up-tempo, cheery version of The End. He sings phonetically, free from the encumbering meaning of words.

So enrapt am I with this revolutionary interpretation of Doors' music, I fail to notice a very short (and I mean short) old woman who has sidled up to me. She's built like a barrel with legs. Her skin is very white and her wonderful eyes are large, green and startling. In French, (which I kind of speak and interpret in dimwitted slow motion) she asks me if I'm a reporter.

"Yes," I reply, "I work for a newspaper," which is true in a Clintonesque way.

"There are no other reporters here," she observes. "Just you. Have people lost interest in the American singer?"

"Perhaps," I reply, mainly because I know how to say 'perhaps' in French. "Why are you here?" I ask. "Did you sing his music?" which is highly unlikely and not really what I want to say.

Drive, he said
She shakes her head. "No. My brother was buried here just the same time as the singer died. I live near here and I like to walk here. I have done this for many years. Au revoir monsieur."

Forward we go: Twenty-five years later I tell my story of the old woman to George, Morrison's disgruntled Toronto amigo. "You think she witnessed Morrison's burial?" I ask. "No," George replies, "I mean 'the same time' doesn't imply at exactly the same time. It could have been months apart either way. It's a language issue. Look, I could figure out the odds of you meeting a witness to the burial of Jim Morrison, and I can tell you now, they'd be freakin' slim."

I'm about to introduce a variation on the theme of Morrison's private internment, but George's attention is drifting. He flicks his smoke away and turns to walk home. "You know what Morrison said to me that day at Varsity Stadium?"


"He said something like 'This is the last time I'll ever play Toronto.'"

He knew how to party
"You think he was suicidal?"

George laughs. "No. It's just numbers. He was less than five-hundred days from death. I worked it out once. And I suppose somewhere, deep down, like Hendrix and Joplin and Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain and Robert Johnson—if you're marked for the Twenty-Seven Club, you're toast. It's fate. There's no escape."

I never did finish that 1983 article about Morrison. I could never get it in focus. I didn't have the strength of character to appreciate fate. I myself was in the middle of a strange, dark apprenticeship and didn't even know it.

"Stay out of trouble"

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lyndon B. Johnson: The Most Interesting & Crazy of Them All

The Johnson Treatment in action

When you talk about 1960s pop culture, at some point, often against better judgement, you must talk about Lyndon Baines Johnson.

LBJ (1908 – 1973) is among the most interesting of U.S. presidents. No other holder of that office ever encompassed such a divergent set of personality characteristics (with the possible exception of Richard Nixon during the darkest days of Watergate — when he took pills on top of the booze). And character is contrast.

Brilliant / anti-intellectual, shy / extroverted, crude / charming, violent / peace-loving, honorable / corrupt… Johnson, a towering Texan at 6’ 3.5”, 240 lbs, was an ever-evolving, ever-explosive force of life. There has never been a feature film made of Johnson’s life because American film generally has trouble with shading.

Johnson got the top job when his boss, John F. Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. And he gave up the position because he was simply burnt out.

He had a lousy heart. He expected to die young and smoked and drank heavily. He grew up poor and would take almost every advantage offered to him, underhanded or not.

He claimed, more than once, to close aides and friends, that he had an abnormally large penis.

He inherited the Vietnam War from Kennedy, and did his best to win it—not realizing, until the end of his job, that it was un-winnable. His inability to accept defeat resulted in the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, both American and Vietnamese. When American forces did withdraw from Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge would keep up the killing.

Johnson and JFK: A study in contrast
When in public, LBJ often insulted his wife and friends. Once, while receiving an enema, he gave dictation to a female assistant. While sitting on the toilet, he would sometimes call his aides to the washroom door and discuss affairs of state. If he felt a guest or dignitary was being condescending, he could display his disapproval by farting and belching.

He shook the hands of lepers after his advisors told him the disease was communicable. In order to get a fellow politician to change his mind, the lumbering LBJ might stand two inches from the man, bend slightly, and begin yelling: it became known as ‘the Johnson Treatment’.

He could sniff out nests of political power better than any American politician, before or since, and in this case, he was a genius - no question.

He had numerous love affairs that were, strangely, chaperoned by his wife. Johnson insisted on being called L.B.J., attempting to align his profile with F.D.R. He gave his wife (Claudia Johnson) a new name, ‘Lady Bird Johnson’, because he wanted her to have the same initials as himself. Their children were named Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson. He even named his dog LBJ, for ‘Little Beagle Johnson’.

LBJ: Warts and all
Bill Moyers, Johnson's press secretary, thought his boss was clinically paranoid. However, his paranoia was somewhat justified: LBJ had thousands of enemies.

He started out as a school teacher and said he was ‘temperamentally unsuited’ to be president.

The Treatment continues
A hardcore Southerner, Johnson did the most of any president in advancing civil rights. He envisioned the creation of a ‘Great Society’, but the Vietnam War gave him no respite.

He was prone to rhetorical grandiosity, once declaring "These are the most hopeful times in all the years since Christ was born in Bethlehem."

He hated Bobby Kennedy so much that he initially refused to let the assassinated senator and veteran be buried in Arlington Cemetary, close to JFK. And Bobby Kennedy hated LBJ just as much.

During a speech, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson declared that he supported a negotiated settlement to Vietnam. Later, when he visited LBJ at Johnson's ranch, the president grabbed him by the lapels and shook him and screamed, “You pissed on my rug!”

Long hair. Near the end. The real thing
After suffering a massive heart attack at age 46, he hated to be alone.

He became renowned for phoning people late into the night.

He died from a heart attack, alone in his bedroom, reaching for a phone.

Nobody knows quite what to make of Lyndon Johnson — because he was the real thing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Jays: Sebring, Gatsby & the American Nightmare

F. Scott

Tom Krummer A.K.A. Jay Sebring

"The truth was that Jay Gatsby… sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If we can hang out in English Lit 101 for a second—and why not—Jay Sebring (1933 – 1969) could only have happened in America. He was a stock character, right from the Smith-Corona of F. Scott Fitzgerald (his good friends just called him ‘F’), the man whose mind has left us with The Jazz Age, and its greatest poster boy, Jay Gatsby.

The U.S.A. No other country celebrates self-propagation, creativity and perseverance with such splendiferous rewards. And no other country is so agile at commercializing extreme violence. It’s a strange brew causing Messrs. Jekyll and Hyde to seamlessly mind-meld.

Like fictional Gatsby (born ‘James Gatz’ on a farm in North Dakota) with whom he shares an unsettling number of traits, Jay Sebring surely invented himself under the Beach Boy sun of optimism and good vibrations.

First he was Thomas J. Krummer, an Alabama-born Korean War vet. During his service in the Navy, he was found to possess tonsorial acumen.

After four years of buzz cuts, he split for L.A., epicenter of reinvention. It was there that the middle initial ‘J’ of his name became the hip ‘Jay’ and the bummer ‘Krummer’ was replaced by the name of a swingin’ Florida raceway (

In Los Angeles, he was a big hit as a ‘hairstylist for men’, cropping the mops of such celebs as Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, and Jim Morrison. In fact, Sebring virtually invented ‘the casual look’, a much-touted fashion of the mid-to-late 60s swingers.

Jay Gatsby was a successful bootlegger and became know for his fabulous, debauched parties. In fact, his parties we so dancing-naked-in-the-fountain-debauched that even today one feels a heavy heart that such gigs have followed the Dodo.

Sebring met the actress Sharon Tate at the Whisky a Go Go in October 1964. He was nothing if not a man of action, and within a year had dumped his wife, got a divorce, and became engaged to the beautiful Tate.

Tate and Sebring: Just before the end
Tate & Sebring: Just before the end

Then Tate went to London to shoot Roman Polanski’s film ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’. It didn’t take long for her to take up with Polanski. Sebring was wonderfully cordial about the whole thing—jealousy is for losers—and made a fast new friend in Polanski.

An aggressive entrepreneur, business boomed for Sebring, establishing salons in West Hollywood, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas. He also nabbed acting roles, including a cameo in a ‘Batman’ where he played the part of Mr. Oceanbring, a character based on himself. The hair care business is still going to this day: checkout Sebring International and watch a video of Jay explaining his theory of the Big Snip.

On August 8, 1969, Sebring was slaughtered in Polanski’s home, along with Tate and two others, by friends of Charles Manson. Jay was thirty-five.

“[Sebring] was short, about five feet six, and was lying on his right side, his hands bunched up near his head as if still warding off blows. His clothing--blue shirt, white pants with black vertical stripes, wide modish belt, black boots--was blood-drenched.”

- Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi

Gatsby was shot in his pool, a willing victim of mistaken identity. Ostensibly, he took a bullet for the woman he loved—but wise guys know that the Gatz saw his jig was up, and with exploding hubris, made the best of it.

So take from the Tale of the Two Jays what you will. Much has been written about the American Dream/Nightmare—a troubled vision that alternately has to do with freedom, wealth, sex, death, or combinations thereof. Certainly Sebring’s story shows us the fragility of success—the terrible randomness of wealth and life. Gatsby’s demise (like today’s sub-prime maestros) warns us that what we term ‘the moneyed class’ is in a constant death struggle with Darwin: you can’t always buy your way out of extinction.

Conclusion? The 1920s was a lot like the 1960s, but without acid, guitars, and possibly Peter Fonda.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Prisoner: Say Farewell to Number Six

I read the news today....oh boy...

"Popular culture is the collection of ideas or memes that are popular, well-liked or common and create the prevailing culture.

"Popular culture is the views and perspectives most strongly represented and accepted within a society." - Wikipedia

"What we now call the 1960s began with JFKs Inaugural and ended with Nixon's resignation...roughly."

- I. M. Clarke, in an isolated moment of insight

It's fitting that we begin this blog on 60s pop culture a few days after the death of Number Six, aka 'The Prisoner', aka Patrick McGoohan (1928 - 2009). Thesis have been about this TV program (which lived for just 17 episodes), trying to unravel—what TV Guide suggested—is "a weird, enigmatic drama, a Kafkaesque allegory about the individual's struggle in the modern age."

Very '68.

Which TV programs of today stem from The Prisoner's family tree? What of music? And fashion? As Ray Davies once wrote: "Where have all the swinging Londoners gone? Ossie Clark and Mary Quant. And what of Christine Keeler, John Stephen and Alvaro, where on earth did they all go? Mr. Fish and Mr. Chow, I wonder where they all are now."

We're only 'here' because we were once 'there'. But be careful as we consider 'pop'.

Wikipedia defines 'reminisce' this way: "Indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events." Sounds like a dead end. Why don't we breathe fresh air and 'remember' 60s pop with an eye on 2009.

So long pal...
Let's invite Emma Peel and The Haight and Matt Helm and Lava Lamps and Nehru Jackets and Jim Morrison and Ken Kesey and Mimi Farina and Ram Dass and all of them in for a fondue dinner. In fact, I wonder where they are right now.

Last thought to Ray Davies. "And I wonder what became of all the rockers and the mods. I hope they're making it, they all have steady jobs."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bobby Kennedy near the Vanishing Point

Bobby: near the vanishing point
Shortly before he died, Bobby Kennedy was photographed (May 24, 1968) alone on an Oregon beach with his dog close by. The photograph was taken by Bill Eppridge. It made the cover of Life magazine the following month.

Kennedy has his back to us in full flight. He’s neither running to something nor away. He’s cradled in ghostly aspic, protected for the moment.

Already he is outdistancing Freckles the dog, who will soon weary of the sun and sea and sit and watch as the man thins into the blue surf and sky.

Notice that Kennedy’s feet no longer touch the ground: they no longer need the ground. The tide has already buried his footprints.

The next time we see him (June 6, 1968), once again through the lens of Bill Eppridge, he is in a coma on the floor of a kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel, a bullet in his brain, and he’s struggling to lift his head but already he's alone.

It’s obvious to me that the two photographs are out of order.

Somehow Bill’s camera has slipped a sprocket and the last image we should see, that we must remember, is that of a spirit ascending. So that’s the way I play it.

Reverse the order...
Time can be so arrogant. It remains for us to make patterns that make sense to the soul. Einstein said that hours and minutes are more flexible than warm rubber. In the Big House, there are no clocks.

For Bobby Kennedy is still on the beach, but it's far from Oregon, near the Vanishing Point, where clouds sail.

Monday, January 19, 2009

One Hand Clapping: Che Guevera Dominates

Che gets focused

Recently, sitting in an outdoor bar in Montezuma, Costa Rica, I met a man named Ras who claimed to have known the late revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. (Ras was no more than fifty years old, said he was Cuban and was - and hopefully still is - the town drunk). Undoubtedly he was lying. He would have told me that he'd slept with Jacqueline Kennedy if it meant my forking over a few more 'colons'. His dates were all wrong.

But I didn't care. Lying is psychotic improvisation, and good liars exude a weird charisma, stimulating on-the-spot creativity. It's to be simultaneously admired and punished.

But Ras got me thinking about Che, dead for over forty years, whose popularity was subsumed and crushed - until recently - by the shake-yer-bootie disco era - which had no time for a grumpy communist.

It was about 10 o'clock in the morning. I watched skinny, browbeaten pariah dogs sniffing their way along the main avenue. A slow parade of pale, fleshy tourists loped silently toward the beach, resigned to a fate of sunburn and diarrhea.

Ras nodded off to sleep with an unlit Derby cigarette hanging from his lips

I puffed on my Cubana and began to consider Che Guevara, and for some reason, his decapitated hands. To cut hands from a corpse for the purpose of thumbprint identification seems ghoulish - but that's what happened in Bolivia. It's as if the fourteenth century momentarily collided with the twenty-first, akin to watching funeral home operators trundle a cart by your house, yelling, "Bring out your dead!"

Since arriving in Montezuma, I'd seen at lot of 'Che' T-shirts, depicting his most famous pose, where he appears to be Jesus Christ with attitude. I had also noticed the same image tattooed onto a few arms and backs.

In fact, Che is on a plethora of junk - lighters, beer, vodka, key chains, and bottle openers - maximum capitalism. Poor guy, the most committed communist of them all, flogged on trinkets for the much-cherished U.S. dollar. In fact, Cuba itself has grown a multi-million dollar Che trinket industry. The irony is indigestible.

So how did Che get marketable while other revolutionary-types have been roasted on the pyre of yesteryear?

He did the Marketing Time Warp, jumping more than a generation of obsolescence to settle as a mega star in the pantheon of 'Dead Pop Icons', along side people like Jim Morrison, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Brainiac scientist Stephen Hawking points out that time travel is indeed possible, but only into the future, and then with terrible consequences. So it seems.

At first, Che was promoted underground. From about 1969 to 1972, two posters dominated the walls of university dormitories - those of Che Guevara and 'Easy Rider' - the one where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are trucking down a desert road. Both posters extol the same thing - the triumph of individualism over 'the system'.

In the movie, Fonda and Hopper meet death on the wrong end of a shotgun. As for Che, in October 1967, failing to stir Bolivian peasants in a revolt, he was captured in the jungle by the arm, and after some routine humiliation received nine bullets in the gut. It later came to light that the CIA, for all intents, pulled the trigger (and just when I was getting to like those guys!).

It took 40 years for Che to become unreal enough to market. He had to be 'disengaged' from his Mao-style communism; he had to be sheltered from the executions that he conducted against his foes; he had to sanitized, neutered, and airbrushed.
Let the Marketing begin
Yup, the marketing people finally got to Che and gave it to him good. But they didn't get all of him; they never really got his hands. It's tough to get a promotional angle on decapitated body parts. The best you can do is buddy up to the Vatican and try to spin the hands as true 'relics'. But the Catholic Church is more vicious and wary than a wounded ferret, especially where communists are concerned.

So the promoters just kept to Che's face - the face that launched a billion t-shirts.

In November 1995, a retired Bolivian general revealed the exact whereabouts of Che's remains, along with other rebels of Guevara's hapless army. A group of experts disinterred the bodies, and sure enough they found Che, but they didn't find his hands.

No, Jorge Suarez, a Bolivian journalist, had kept Che's hands under the floorboards of his house.

Bolivia's minister of the interior gave Suarez the hands eight days after Che's death. The CIA had confirmed the thumbprints were Che's, and the Bolivian government wanted the hands cremated. But the minister thought differently. He told Suarez to hide the hands - and so he did for two years. The hands were finally smuggled back to Cuba in 1969.

In July 1997, Che finally came back to Cuba. His remains, together with those of his fallen pals, were shipped to Havana, held in small coffins.

As for the hands, they currently float in formaldehyde, encased in a jar, somewhere within the Palace of the Revolution. A few visiting dignitaries say they have seen the hands: permission for a viewing must come from the big brass. It likely won't be long before they determine a ticket price for public display.

What abou the film 'The Motorcycle Diaries' based on a journal that Che kept of his 1952 rumble through South American on the back of a Norton 500. The reviews are good. Dare I say two thumbs up? Yes, Che is cool again.

Still, I think about those ghostly hands, with nails still holding the jungle dirt, uncorrupted, corporeal integrity - and fancy that one day they muster the strength to smash the glass and grab the neck of some chunky dignitary, standing by the jar in his Che t-shirt, slurping a Che beer, dangling a Che key chain from his wide-bottom Dockers.

Anyway, the beauty of money is that it never discriminates and knows no irony. It equates a dead revolutionary with Donald Trump's hairspray bill. It's all dollars, it's timeless and applause is given to him with the thickest wallet. Though Che Guevara has two hands, he'll never clap again.