Saturday, July 28, 2018

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-Poet's Corner- Jack Kerouac’s Be-Bop Poetry-“Book Of Blues”

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-Poet's Corner- Jack Kerouac’s Be-Bop Poetry-“Book Of Blues”

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)
By Book Critic Zack James

To be honest I know about On The Road Jack Kerouac’s epic tale of his generation’s search for something, maybe the truth, maybe just kicks, stuff, important stuff has happened or some such happening strictly second-hand. His generation’s search looking for a name, found what he, or someone associated with him, maybe the bandit poet Gregory Corso, king of the mean New York streets, mean, very mean indeed in a junkie-hang-out world around Times Square when that place was up to its neck in flea-bit hotels, all night Joe and Nemo’s and the trail of the “fixer” man on every corner, con men coming out your ass too, called the “beat” generation.  Beat, beat of the jazzed up drum line backing some sax player searching for the high white note, what somebody told me, maybe my older brother Alex thy called “blowing to the China seas” out in West Coast jazz and blues circles, dead beat, run out on money, women, life, leaving, and this is important no forwarding address for the desolate repo man to hang onto, dread beat, nine to five, 24/7/365 that you will get caught back up in the spire wind up like your freaking staid, stay at home parents, beaten down, ground down like dust puffed away just for being, hell, let’s just call it being, beatified beat like saintly and all high holy Catholic incense and a story goes with it about a young man caught up in a dream, like there were not ten thousand other religions in the world to feast on- you can take your pick of the meanings, beat time meanings. Hell, join the club they all did, the guys, and it was mostly guys who hung out on the mean streets of New York, Chi town, North Beach in Frisco town cadging twenty-five cents a night flea-bag sleeps, half stirred left on corner coffees and cigarette stubs when the Bull Durham ran out).

I was too young to have had anything but a vague passing reference to the thing, to that “beat” thing since I was probably just pulling out of diapers then, maybe a shade bit older but not much. I got my fill, my brim fill later through my oldest brother Alex. Alex, and his crowd, more about that in a minute, but even he was only washed clean by the “beat” experiment at a very low level, mostly through reading the book (need I say the book was On The Road) and having his mandatory two years of living on the road around the time of the Summer of Love, 1967 an event whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year as well. So even Alex and his crowd were really too young to have been washed by the beat wave that crashed the continent toward the end of the 1950s on the wings of Allan Ginsburg’s Howl and Jack’s travel book of a different kind. The kind that moves generations, or I like to think the best parts of those cohorts. These were the creation documents the latter which would drive Alex west before he finally settled down to his career life (and to my sorrow and anger never looked back).             

Of course anytime you talk about books and poetry and then add my brother Alex’s name into the mix that automatically brings up memories of another name, the name of the late Peter Paul Markin. Markin, for whom Alex and the rest of the North Adamsville corner boys, Jack, Jimmy, Si, Josh, and a few others still alive recently had me put together a tribute book for in connection with that Summer of Love, 1967 just mentioned.  Markin was the vanguard guy, the volunteer odd-ball unkempt mad monk seeker who got several of them off their asses and out to the West Coast to see what there was to see. To see some stuff that Markin had been speaking of for a number of years before (and which nobody in the crowd paid attention to, or dismissed out of hand what they called “could give a rat’s ass” about in the local jargon which I also inherited in those cold, hungry bleak 1950s cultural days in America) and which can be indirectly attributed to the activities of Jack, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, that aforementioned bandit poet who ran wild on the mean streets among the hustlers, conmen and whores of the major towns of the continent, William Burroughs, the Harvard-trained junkie  and a bunch of other guys who took a very different route for our parents who were of the same generation as them but of a very different world.

But it was above all Jack’s book, Jack’s book which had caused a big splash in 1957, and had ripple effects into the early 1960s (and even now certain “hip” kids acknowledge the power of attraction that book had for their own developments, especially that living simple, fast and hard part). Made the young, some of them anyway have to spend some time thinking through the path of life ahead by hitting the vagrant dusty sweaty road. Maybe not hitchhiking, maybe not going high speed high through the ocean, plains, mountain desert night but staying unsettled for a while anyway.    

Like I said above Alex was out two years and other guys, other corner boys for whatever else you wanted to call them that was their niche back in those days and were recognized as such in the town not always to their benefit, from a few months to a few years. Markin started first back in the spring of 1967 but was interrupted by his fateful induction into the Army and service, if you can call it that, in Vietnam and then several more years upon his return before his untimely end. With maybe this difference from today’s young who are seeking alternative roads away from what is frankly bourgeois society and was when Jack wrote although nobody except commies and pinkos called it that. Alex, Frankie Riley the acknowledged leader, Jack Callahan and the rest, Markin included, were strictly from hunger working class kids who when they hung around Tonio Pizza Parlor were as likely to be thinking up ways to grab money fast any way they could or of getting into some   hot chick’s pants as anything else. Down at the base of society when you don’t have enough of life’s goods or have to struggle too much to get even that little “from hunger” takes a big toll on your life. I can testify to that part because Alex was not the only one in the James family to go toe to toe with the law, it was a close thing for all us boys as it had been with Jack when all is said and done. But back then dough and sex after all was what was what for corner boys, maybe now too although you don’t see many guys hanging on forlorn Friday night corners anymore.

What made this tribe different, the Tonio Pizza Parlor corner boys, was mad monk Markin. Markin called by Frankie Riley the “Scribe” from the time he came to North Adamsville from across town in junior high school and that stuck all through high school. The name stuck because although Markin was as larcenous and lovesick as the rest of them he was also crazy for books and poetry. Christ according to Alex, Markin was the guy who planned most of the “midnight creeps” they called then. Although nobody in their right minds would have the inept Markin actually execute the plan that was for smooth as silk Frankie to lead. That operational sense was why Frankie was the leader then (and maybe why he was a locally famous lawyer later who you definitely did not want to be on the other side against him). Markin was also the guy who all the girls for some strange reason would confide in and thus was the source of intelligence about who was who in the social pecking order, in other words, who was available, sexually or otherwise. That sexually much more important than otherwise. See Markin always had about ten billion facts running around his head in case anybody, boy or girl, asked him about anything so he was ready to do battle, for or against take your pick.

The books and the poetry is where Jack Kerouac and On The Road come into the corner boy life of the Tonio’s Pizza Parlor life. Markin was something like an antennae for anything that seemed like it might help create a jailbreak, help them get out from under. Later he would be the guy who introduced some of the guys to folk music when that was a big thing. (Alex never bought into that genre, still doesn’t, despite Markin’s desperate pleas for him to check it out. Hated whinny Dylan above all else) Others too like Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsburg and his wooly homo poem Howl from 1956 which Markin would read sections out loud from on lowdown dough-less, girl-less Friday nights. And drive the strictly hetero guys crazy when he insisted that they read the poem, read what he called a new breeze was coming down the road. They could, using that term from the times again, have given a rat’s ass about some fucking homo faggot poem from some whacko Jewish guy who belonged in a mental hospital. (That is a direct quote from Frankie Riley at the time via my brother Alex’s memory bank.)

Markin flipped out when he found out that Kerouac had grown up in Lowell, a working class town very much like North Adamsville, and that he had broken out of the mold that had been set for him and gave the world some grand literature and something to spark the imagination of guys down at the base of society like his crowd with little chance of grabbing the brass ring. So Markin force-marched the crowd to read the book, especially putting pressure on my brother who was his closest friend then. Alex read it, read it several times and left the dog- eared copy around which I picked up one day when I was having one of my high school summertime blues. Read it through without stopping almost like he wrote the final version of the thing on a damn newspaper scroll. So it was through Markin via Alex that I got the Kerouac bug. And now on the 60th anniversary I am passing on the bug to you.           

Book Review

Book Of Blues, Jack Kerouac, Penguin Books, New York, 1995

Some of the general points made below have been used in other reviews of books and materials by and about Jack Kerouac.

“As I have explained in another entry in this space in a DVD review of the film documentary “The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg”, recently I have been in a “beat” generation literary frame of mind. I think it helps to set the mood for commenting on Jack Kerouac’s lesser non-prose work, the poems under review here, “Book Of Blues” that it all started last summer when I happened to be in Lowell, Massachusetts on some personal business. Although I have more than a few old time connections with that now worn out mill town I had not been there for some time. While walking in the downtown area I found myself crossing a small park adjacent to the site of a well-known mill museum and restored textile factory space. Needless to say, at least for any reader with a sense of literary history, at that park I found some very interesting memorial stones inscribed with excerpts from a number of his better known works dedicated to Lowell’s ‘bad boy’, the “king of the 1950s beat writers”.

And, just as naturally, when one thinks of Kerouac then, “On The Road”, his classic modern physical and literary ‘search’ for the meaning of America for his generation which came of age in post-World War II , readily comes to mind. No so well known, however, is the fact that that famous youthful novel was merely part of a much grander project, an essentially autobiographical exposition by Kerouac in many volumes starting from his birth in 1922, to chart and vividly describe his relationship to the events, great and small, of his times. Those volumes bear the general title “The Legend Of Duluoz”. Perhaps even less well known are his poetic works, although given his spontaneous writing style method and association with many of the key poets of the 1940s and 1950s, beat or not, it is less understandable. That is why we today, in the year of the forty anniversary of Kerouac’s death, are under the sign of a compilation of his poetry, aptly titled, “Book Of Blues”.

Kerouac, in a couple of famous essays and in various places in some of his novels, makes a very big point that he was deeply influenced by the rhythm of jazz and by the be-bop language associated with it. Certain passages from “On The Road” and other works clearly emphasize that point. Although Kerouac was not known as a major beat poet, and will not be remembered as such, he certainly rated as a talented minor one, as these poems, especially “San Francisco Blues” indicate. It is hard to get a sense, unlike with Allen Ginsberg, of Kerouac’s ideas how these poems should “sound” from merely reading them on the page. But there is a method to the couple of hundred choruses that are included here in various forms broken into several interrelated poems. Let’s put it this way, read a couple of Kerouac’s books and then come back to this.

Bowery Blues

The story of man
Makes me sick
Inside, outside,
I don't know why
Something so conditional
And all talk
Should hurt me so.

I am hurt
I am scared
I want to live
I want to die
I don't know
Where to turn
In the Void
And when
To cut

For no Church told me
No Guru holds me
No advice
Just stone
Of New York
And on the cafeteria
We hear
The saxophone
O dead Ruby
Died of Shot
In Thirty Two,
Sounding like old times
And de bombed
Empty decapitated
Murder by the clock.

And I see Shadows
Dancing into Doom
In love, holding
TIght the lovely asses
Of the little girls
In love with sex
Showing themselves
In white undergarments
At elevated windows
Hoping for the Worst.

I can't take it
If I can't hold
My little behind
To me in my room

Then it's goodbye
For me
Girls aren't as good
As they look
And Samadhi
Is better
Than you think
When it starts in
Hitting your head
In with Buzz
Of glittergold
Heaven's Angels


We've been waiting for you
Since Morning, Jack
Why were you so long
Dallying in the sooty room?
This transcendental Brilliance
Is the better part
(of Nothingness
I sing)


***FromThe Archives -Out In The Be-Bop Night- In Defense Of The Blue-Pink Great American Western Night "Deviation"- A Short Note (2010)

***FromThe Archives -Out In The Be-Bop Night- In Defense Of The Blue-Pink Great American Western Night "Deviation"- A Short Note (2010)

Markin comment:  

Okay, here is the genesis of this little commentary. Rather a “tempest in a teapot”, I think, in the grand scheme of things and in the same category as White House flak, Robert Gibbs, and his inane blathering about “professional leftists” and their alleged carping on the short-comings of his boss, Barack Obama. But at least it gives me a lead for today’s commentary. Unfortunately it will come at the expense of a comrade, someone I care about and whose opinion I value, unlike Robert Gibbs (or his boss, for that matter). Here are the details.

I have recently been taken to task by this fellow member of the local anti-imperialist, anti-war ad hoc committee that I have belonged to for the past several years (and that I have written about previously in this space) who is miffed (I am being polite) at me for my constant use of the term, or variations of the term, “the great American night”, especially when dealing with the 1950s “beat” generation writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and the usual suspects). Now this is one of the comrades, a younger one, that I go back to the days of ancient memory Bush post-9/11 Afghan October war, bombing-them-back-them-to-the-stone-age, with, and who helped us, in all manner of ways, to get through those tough days when opposition to that war on the streets of Boston, and elsewhere in America, was an extremely dicey thing. So under normal circumstances I would be all ears when he had some comment or criticism. But here he is just “cannon fodder” for my commentary.

As readers may know this ad hoc committee is made up of various political types and is, most importantly, not bound by Leninist democratic centralist principles (nor could it be, as a patched together, if coherent, propaganda bloc composed of , well, I’ll be nice, characters ) and therefore I am not telling “tales out of school” by replying publicly here. Moreover, although Leninist organizations adhere to a single political line, publicly, and expect their members to maintain discipline on general questions those questions that fall outside of politics, like the subject of one’s attitude toward the “beats”, the use, or overuse of the term, “great American night”, or your favorite forms of music are matters of personal preference, as a rule. So I am firing away.

But there is more gnawing at me than making a public point at his expense. Go back to that young comrade’s point. We all come to leftist politics, young or old, in our own ways, and in our own good time. I have always been somewhat amazed at the variety of such experiences that, by now, almost defy categorization. We also come to out personal predilections in much the same way. Jazz, be-bop, bop-bop, techno-hop, hip-hop, poetry slam, folk jam, and so on. For a fact though he knows not, and I have drilled him on this, of ancient dreams of blue-pink great American West night dreaming old men, passed down from older men (mostly). Know or not know though, here is his answer.


There is no question that over the past year or so I have been deep in remembrances of the influences, great and small, of the 1950s “beats” on my own sorry teen-aged alienation and teen-aged angst (sometimes they were separate anguishes, sometimes tied together like inseparable twins, mostly the later) and the struggle to find my place in the sun, to write in bright lights my own beat plainsong. Of course, that "beat" influence was blown over me second-hand as I was just a little too young, or a little too wide-world unconscious, to be there at the creation, on those first roads west, those first fitfully car-driven, gas-fuelled, thumb hanging-out, sore-footed, free exploration west roads, in body and mind. And of that first great rush of the adrenal in trying to discover, eternally discover as it has turned out, the search for the meaning of the great blue-pink American West night. Ah, pioneer-boys, thanks.

I just got a whiff, a passing whiff of that electric-charged air, the sweet “be-bop”, bop-bop, real gone daddy, cooled-out, pipe-filled with whatever, jazz-sexed, high white note blown, howling in the wind plainsong afterglow. Moreover, somewhat tarnished, a little sullen and withdrawn, and media-used up by my time. More than one faux black chino-wearing, black beret’d, stringy-bearded, nightshade sun-glassed, pseudo-poetic-pounding, television-derived fakir crossed my path in Harvard Square in those high stakes early 1960s high school days. And a few real ones, as well. (A couple, whom I still pass occasionally, giving a quick nod to, have never given up the ghost and still haunt the old square looking for the long-gone, storied Hayes-Bickford, a place where the serious and the fakirs gathered in the late night before dawn hour to pour out their souls, via mouth or on paper. Good luck, men.). More to the point, I came too late to be able to settle comfortably into that anti-political world that the “beats” thrived in. Great political and social events were unfolding and I wanted in, feverishly wanted in, with both hands (and,maybe,feet too).

You know some of the beat leaders, the real ones, don’t you? Remembered, seemingly profusely remembered now, by every passing acquaintance with some rough-hewn writing specimen or faded photograph to present. Now merely photo-plastered, book wrote, college english department deconstruction’d , academic journal-debated, but then in full glory plaid shirt, white shirt, tee shirt, dungarees, chinos, sturdy foot-sore cosmic traveler shoes, visuals of heaven’s own angel bums, if there was a heaven and there were angels and if that locale needed bums.

Jack, million hungry word man-child sanctified, Lowell mills-etched and trapped and mother-fed, Jack Kerouac. Allen, om-om-om, bop, bop, mantra-man, mad Paterson-trapped, modern plainsong-poet-in-chief, Allen Ginsberg. William, sweet opium dream (or, maybe, not so sweet when the supply ran out), needle-driven, sardonic, ironic, chronic, Tangiers-trapped, Harvard man (finally, a useful one, oops, sorry), Williams S. Burroughs. Neal, wild word, wild gesture, out of ashcan all-America dream man, tire-kicking, oil-checking, gas-filling, zen master wheelman gluing the enterprise together, Neal Cassady. And a whirling crowd of others, including mad, street-wise, saint-gunsel, Gregory Corso. I am a little fuzzy these days on the genesis of my relationship to this crowd (although a reading of Ginsberg’s Howl was probably first in those frantic, high school, Harvard Square-hopping, poetry-pounding, guitar-strummed, existential word space, coffee, no sugar, I’ll have a refill, please, fugitive dream’d, coffeehouse-anchored days). This I know. I qualified, in triplicate, teen angst, teen alienation, teen luddite as a card-carrying member in those days.

More recently that old time angst, that old time alienation and a smidgen of that old time luddite has casted its spell on me. I have been held hostage to, been hypnotized by, been ocean-sized swept away by, been word ping-pong bounced off of and collided into by, head over heels language-loved by, word-curled around and caressed by the ancient black night into the drowsy dawn 1950s child view vision Kerouac/Ginsberg/Burroughs/Corso-led “beats” homage to the great American West night. (Beat: life beat-up, fellaheen beat-down, beat around, be-bop jazz beat, beatified church beat, howl poem beat, beat okay, anyway you can get a handle on it, beat.). The great American West “beat” breakout from the day weary, boxed-in, shoulder-to-the-wheel, eyes forward, hands to the keyboard, work-a-day-world, dream-fleshed-out night. Of leaving behind on the slow-fast, two-lane, no passing, broken-lined old Route 6, or 66, or 666, or whatever route, whatever dream route, whatever dream hitchhike gas station/diner highway beyond the Eastern shores night, of the get away from the machine, the machine making machines, the “little boxes” machine night, and also of the reckless breakout of mannered, cramped, parlor-fit language night. Whoa!

This Kerouacian wordplay on-the-road’d, dharma-bummed, big sur’d, desolation angel’d night, this Ginsberg-ite trumpet howl, cry-out to the high heavens against the death machine night, this Burroughs-ish languid, sweet opium-dreamed, laid-back night, this Neal Cassady-driven, foot-clutched, brake-pedaled, wagon-master of the to and fro of the post-World War II American West night, was not my night but close enough so that I could touch it, and have it touch me even half a century later. So blame Jack and the gang, okay and I will give you his current Lowell, Massachusetts home address upon request so that you can direct your inquiries there.

Blame Jack, as well, for the busting out beyond the factory lakes, corn-fed plains, get the hell out of Kansas flats, on up into the rockiesmountainhigh (or is it just high) and then straight, no time for dinosaur lament Ogden or tumbleweed Winnemucca, to the coast, come hell or high water. Ya, busting out and free. Kid dream great American West night, car-driven (hell, old pick-up truck-driven, English racer bicycle-driven, hitchhike thumbed, flat-bed train-ridden, sore-footed, shoe-beaten walked, if need be), two dollar tank-filled, oil-checked, tires kicked, money pocket’d, surf’s up, surf’s crashing up against the high shoulder ancient seawalls, cruising down the coast highway, the endlessly twisting jalopy-driven pin-turned coast highway, down by the shore, sand swirling, bingo, bango, bongo with your baby everything’s alright, go some place after, some great American West drive-in place. Can you blame me?

So as for that comrade, that well-respected young comrade, what would he know, really, of the great blue-pink American West night that I, and not I alone, was searching for back in those halcyon days of my youth in the early 1960s. What would he know, for example, except in story book or oral tradition from parents or, oh no, maybe, grandparents, of the old time parched, dusty, shoe-leather-beating, foot-sore, sore-shouldered, backpacked, bed-rolled, going-my-way?, watch out for the cops over there (especially in Connecticut and Arizona), hitchhike white-lined road. The thirsty, blistered, backpacked, bed-rolled, thumb-stuck-out, eternally thumb-stuck-out, waiting for some great savior kindred-laden Volkswagen home/collective/ magical mystery tour bus or the commandeered rainbow-marked, life-marked, soul-marked yellow school bus, yellow brick road school bus. Hell, even of old farmer-going-to-market, fruit and vegetable-laden Ford truck, benny-popping, eyes-wide, metal-to-the-petal, transcontinental teamster-driving goods to some westward market or kid Saturday love nest, buddy-racing cool jalopy road. Ya, what would he know of that.

Of the road out, out anywhere, anywhere west, from the stuffy confines of worn-out, hard-scrabble, uptight, ocean-at-you-back, close-quartered, neighbor on top of neighbor, keep your private business private, used-up New England granite-grey death-chanting night. Of the struggle, really, for color, to change the contour of the natural palette to other colors brighter than the New England leafy greens and browns of the trees and the blues, or better blue-greens, or even better yet of white-flecked, white foamed, blue-greens of the Eastern oceans. (Ya, I know, I know, before you even start on me about it, all about the million tree flaming yellow-red-orange autumn leaf minute and the thousand icicle-dropped, road strewn dead tree branch, white winter snow drift eternity, on land or ocean but those don’t count, at least here, and not now)

Or of the infinite oil-stained, gas-fumed, rag-wiped, overall’d, gas-jockey, Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Shell stations named, the rest lost too lost in time to name, two dollar fill-up-check-the-oil, please, the-water-as-well, inflate the tires, hit the murky, fetid, lava soap-smelled bathrooms, maybe grab a Coke, hey, no Hires Root Beer on this road. This Route 66, or Route 50 or Route you-name-the route, route west, exit east dream route, rolling red barn-dotted (needing paints to this jaded eye), rocky field-plowed (crooked plowed to boot), occasionally cow-mooed, same for horses, sheep, some scrawny chickens, and children as well, scrawny too. The leavings of the westward trek, when the westward trek meant eternal fields, golden fields, and to hell with damned rocks, and silts, and worn-out soils absent-mindedly left behind for those who would have to, have to I tell you, stay put in the cabin'd hollows and lazily watered-creeks. On the endlessly sulky blues-greens, the sullen smoky grey-black of mist-foamed rolling hills that echo the slight sound of the mountain wind tunnel, of the creakily-fiddled wind-song Appalachian night.

Or of diner stops, little narrow-aisled, pop-up-stool’d, formica counter-topped, red (mostly) imitation leather booth, smoked-filled cabooses of diners. Of now anchored, abandoned train porter-serviced, off-silver, off-green, off-red, off any faded color “greasy spoon” diners. Of daily house special meat loaf, gravy-slurp, steam-soggy carrots, and buttered mashed potato-fill up, Saturday night pot roast special, turkey club sandwich potato chips on the side, breakfast all day, coffee-fill-up, free refill, please, diners. Granddaddies to today’s more spacious back road highway locales, styled family-friendly but that still reek of meat loaf-steamed carrots- creamed mashed tater-fill. Spots then that spoke of rarely employed, hungry men, of shifty-eyed, expense account-weary traveling men, of high-benny, eyes-wide, mortgaged to the hilt, wife ran off with boyfriend, kids hardly know him, teamsters hauling American product to and fro and of other men not at ease in more eloquent, table-mannered, women-touched places. Those landscape old state and county side of the highway diners, complete with authentic surly, know-it-all-been-through-it-all, pencil-eared, steam-sweated uniform, maybe, cigarette-hanging from tired ruby red lips, heavily made-up waitress along the endless slag-heap, rusting railroad bed, sulphur-aired, grey-black smoke-belching , fiery furnace-blasting, headache metal-pounding, steel-eyed, coal dust-breathe, hog-butcher to the world, sinewy-muscled green-grey, moonless, Great Lakes night.

Or of two-bit road intersection stops, some rutted, pot-holed country road intersecting some mud-spattered, creviced backwater farm road, practically dirt roads barely removed from old time prairie pioneer day times, west-crazy pioneer times, ghost-crazy-pioneer days. Of fields, vast slightly rolling, actually very slightly rolling, endless yellow, yellow–glazed, yellow-tinged, yellow until you get sick of the sight of yellow, sick of the word yellow even, acres under cultivation to feed hungry cities, as if corn, or soy, or wheat, or manna itself could fill that empty-bellied feeling that is ablaze in the land. But we will deal with one hunger at a time. And dotted every so often with silos and barns and grain elevators for all to know the crops are in and ready to serve that physical hunger. Of half-sleep, half hungry-eye, city boy hungry eyes, unused to the dark, dangerous, sullen, unknown shadows, bed roll-unrolled, knapsack pillowed, sleep by the side of the wheat, soy, corn road ravine, and every once in a blue moon midnight car passings, snaggly blanket-covered, knap-sack head rested, cold-frozed, out in the great day corn yellow field beneath the blue black, beyond city sky black, starless Iowa night.

Or of the hard-hilled climb, and climb and climb, breathe taken away magic climb, crevice-etched, rock-interface, sore-footed magic mountain that no Thomas Mann can capture. Half-walked-half-driven, bouncing back seat, back seat of over-filled truck-driven, still rising up, no passing on the left, facing sheer-cliff’d, famous free-fall spots, still rising, rising colder, rising frozen colder, fearful of the sudden summer squalls, white out summer squalls. Shocking, I confess, beyond shocking to New England-hardened winter boy, then sudden sunshine floral bursts and jacket against the cold comes tumbling off. And I confess again, majestic, did I say majestic and beats visions of old Atlantic ocean swells at dawn crashing against harmless seawalls. Old pioneer-trekked, old pioneer-feared, old rutted wheeled, two-hearted remembrances, two-hearted but no returning back (it would be too painful to do again) remembrances as you slide out of Denver into the icy-white black rockymountainhigh night.

Of foot-swollen pleasures in some arid back canyon arroyo, etched in time told by reading its face, layer after layer, red, red-mucked, beige, beige-mucked, copper, copper-mucked, like some Georgia O'Keeffe dream painting out in the red, beige, copper black-devouring desert night. Sounds, primal sounds, of old dinosaur laments and one hundred generations of shamanic Native American pounding crying out for vengeance against the desecrations of the land. Against the cowboy badlands takeover, against the white rampages of the sacred soil. And of canyon-shadowed, flame-shadowed, wind swept, canteen stews simmering and smokey from the jet blue, orange flickering campfire. Of quiet, desert quiet, high desert quiet, of tumbleweed running dreams out in the pure sandstone-edged, grey-black Nevada night.

And then... .

the great Western shore, surf’s up, white, white wave-flecked, lapis-lazuli blue-flecked ocean, rust golden-gated, no return, no boat out, lands end, this is it coast highway, heading down or up now, heading up or down gas stationed, named and unnamed, side road diners, still caboose’d, ravine-edged sleep and beach sleeped, blue-pink American West night.

Yes, but there is more. No child vision but now of full blossom American West night, the San Francisco great American West night, of the be-bop, bop-bop, narrow-stepped, downstairs overflowed music cellar, shared in my time, the time of my time, by “beat” jazz, “hippie’d folk”, and howled poem, but at this minute jazz, high white note-blown, sexed sax-playing godman, unnamed, but like Lester Young’s own child jazz. Smoke-filled, blended meshed smokes of ganja and tobacco (and, maybe, of meshed pipe smokes of hashish and tobacco), ordered whisky-straight up, soon be-sotted, cheap, face-reddened wines, clanking coffee cups that speak of not tonight promise. High sexual intensity under wraps, tightly under wraps, swirls inside it own mad desire, black-dressed she (black dress, black sweater, black stockings, black shoes, black bag, black beret, black sunglasses, ah, sweet color scheme against white Madonna, white, secular Madonna alabaster skin. What do you want to bet black undergarments too, ah, but I am the soul of discretion, your imagination will have to do), promising shades of heat-glanced night. And later, later than night just before the darkest hour dawn, of poems poet’d, of freedom songs free-verse’d, of that sax-charged high white note following out the door, out into the street, out the eternity lights of the great golden-gated night. I say, can you blame me?

Of later roads, the north Oregon hitchhike roads, the Redwood-strewn road not a trace of black-dressed she, she now of blue serge denim pants, of brown plaid flannel long-sleeved shirt, of some golfer’s dream floppy-brimmed hat, and of sturdy, thick-heeled work boots (undergarments again left to your imagination) against the hazards of summer snow squall Crater Lake. And now of slightly sun-burned face against the ravages of the road, against the parched sun-devil road that no ointments can relieve. And beyond later to goose-down bundled, hunter-hatted, thick work glove-clad, snowshoe-shod against the tremors of the great big eternal bump of the great Alaska highway. Can she blame me? Guess.

Ya, put it that way and what does that young comrade, a dreamer of his own dreams, and rightly too, know of an old man’s fiercely-held, fiercely-defended, fiercely-dreamed beyond dreaming blue-pink dreams. Or of ancient blue-pink sorrows, sadnesses, angers, joys, longings and lovings, either.

How The West Was Won-Again-The Film Adaptation Of Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” (2000)-A Review

How The West Was Won-Again-The Film Adaptation Of Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” (2000)-A Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

[I noted in a recent comment introducing a review of It Happened One Night by now film critic emeritus Sam Lowell that he had done that review and then put it in one of his desk drawers and only in the process of cleaning out that desk did he find a draft copy of that review. Apparently the old curmudgeon is either playing me the fool or he really should be placed out to pasture as he is fond of saying these days because a draft copy of the review below was also found among the debris of that lifetime accumulation. I will only say for now that this is the last one to be posted. Of course if Sam finds anything else I will be glad to publish it as I have for the past decade or so. Peter Markin, site moderator]  

All The Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penelope Cruz, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy   

Unlike another tale, a coming of age tale if you like, of the modern American West, of the Texas west,  The Last Picture Show, where I read the novel by Larry McMurtry first then the film I have seen the film under review the adaptation of Cormac Mc Carthy’s All The Pretty Horses without having read the novel. But after watching the film I will make it my business to read the novel which deals with a different aspect of the West, the cowboy West when ranch life goes south on its main characters and they are left to fend for themselves. A task which in true Western fashion has them groping to stay alive, although that was a close thing.   

John Grady Cole (hey that is the way he introduced himself to one and all), played by Matt Damon, was career-less, cowboy career-less after his grandfather died and his mother decided to sell the ranch leaving this young cowboy with horses in his blood with no place to go. No place but to go looking for work south of the Rio Grande, south of the border down  Mexico way with his longtime fellow cowboy Lacey played by Henry Thomas.     

Whatever adventure, whatever expectations they had about making a living as ranch hands down in Mexico were disturbed along the way when they met a vagabond Blevens who was strange to say the least.  Along the way Blevens lost his horse and then found it again at a ranch. This brings in the factor of horse-stealing which will drive a lot of the action in the film, and which is as heinous a crime in modern day Mexico (and Texas too) as in the old days when horse thieves were strung up in an age when to take a man’s horse was to take away his livelihood, his means of travel and his manhood. Along the way because John Grady and Lacey are tarred with the same brush as Blevens they will see just what that meant. They were able to get work at a huge ranchero where John Grady got special recognition by the owner for his keen eye for horse flesh. Along the way as well they wind up because of Bleven’s actions in custody and eventually in the “you don’t want to go there” penitentiary after a corrupt Mexican cop wasted the unfortunate Blevens while John Grady and Lacey watched helplessly. They survived the prison ordeal somehow and Lacey decided to head home. John Grady decided he had some unfinished business and was staying to pursue that.       

That unfinished business was as to be expected getting his girlfriend to go back to Texas with him. This girlfriend Alejandra, played by fetching Penelope Cruz, a firebrand and well worth taking some grief for was unfortunately for John Grady the daughter of the ranchero owner and so they were fated to part, fated in part because the price of getting John Grady and Lacey out of that “you don’t want to go there” prison was that she would not see him again, certainly would not go away with him. That was that.

On his way back home across the border with his horse, Lacey’s and the late Bleven’s in tow as some sort of symbol of the experiences he had down south of the border he is stopped in Texas and essentially accused of that same horse-stealing charge. He got out of trouble once he told his story to a judge and then meandered back to Lacey’s place with those three damn horses. Yeah, the modern West is a tough dollar for a cowboy loving man just like in the Old West. See this one for the pretty horses, pretty scenery and pretty Cruz.        

The Contradictions of Malcolm X- His Life As Told To Alex Haley

The Contradictions of Malcolm X- His Life As Told To Alex Haley

Click on the title to link to a "YouTube" film clip of Malcolm X speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in 1964. He still speaks to some powerful truths about the black experience in America. Black is back, or it had better be.

Markin Comment:

Directly below is a review (February 1, 2008) based on Malcolm X’s autobiography as told to writer Alex Haley (originally written in 1964) "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X”, an imaginative literary treatment of his short, checkered life as a leader of the Nation of Islam, at that time a notorious (to white eyes and ears) so-called race-hating outfit led by Elijah Muhammad (with whom Malcolm had broken at the time of this autobiography). I am reposting the original review because in essentials I continue to stand by the main political (and literary) points made there. I have added a few other points below that repost as I have thought about this book more recently. 


“The Contradictions Of Malcolm X



The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, Ballantine Books, New York, 1964

Let us be clear about one thing from the start, whatever contradictions Malcolm X’s brand of black nationalism entailed, whatever shortcomings he had as an emerging political leader, whatever mistakes he made alone the way as he groped for a solution to the seemingly intractable fight for black freedom he stood, and continues to stand, head and shoulders above any black leader thrown up in America in the 20th century. Only Frederick Douglass in the 19th century compares with him in stature. No attempts by latter-day historians or politicians to assimilate Malcolm along with other leaders of the civil rights struggle in this country, notably Dr. Martin Luther King, as part of the same continuum of leadership are false and dishonest to all parties.

Malcolm X, as a minister of the Black Muslims and after his break from that organization, stood in opposition to the official liberal non-violence strategy of that leadership. His term “Uncle Toms” fully applies to their stance. And, in turn, that liberal black misleadership and its various hangers-on in the liberal establishment hated him when he spoke the truth about their role in white-controlled bourgeois Democratic Party politics. The “chickens were coming home to roost”, indeed! The Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, the Obama the “Charmas” who represent today’s version of that misleadership please step back, step way back.

That said, who was Malcolm X? Or more properly what did he represent in his time. At one level, given the rudiments of his life story which are detailed in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he represented that part of the black experience (an experience not only limited to blacks in immigrant America) which pulled itself by the bootstraps and turned away from the lumpen milieu of gangs, crimes and prisons into what I call ‘street’ intellectuals. That experience is far removed from the experience of what today passes for the black intelligentsia, who have run away from the turmoil of the streets. In liberation struggles both ‘street’ and academic intellectuals are necessary but the ‘street’ intellectual is perhaps more critical as the transmission belt to the masses. That is how liberation fighters get a hearing and no other way. In any case I have always been partial to the ‘streets’.

But what is the message for the way forward? For Malcolm, until shortly before his death, that message was black separatism-the idea that the only way blacks could get any retribution was to go off on their own (or be left alone), in practical terms to form their own nation. To state the question that way in modern America points to the obvious limitation of such a scheme, even if blacks formed such a nation and wanted to express the right to national self-determination that goes with it. Nevertheless whatever personal changes Malcolm made in his quest for political relevance and understanding whether he was a Black Muslim minister or after he broke for that group he still sought political direction through the fight of what is called today ‘people of color’ against the mainly white oppressor, at first in America and latter after travels throughout the ‘third world’.

However sincere he was in that belief, and he was sincere, that strategy of black separatism or ‘third world’ vanguardism could never lead to the black freedom he so fervently desired. An underestimation of the power of internally unchallenged world, and in the first instance American, imperialism to corrupt liberation struggles or defeat or destroy them militarily never seemed to enter into his calculations.

Malcolm’s whole life story of struggle against the bedrock of white racism in America, as the legitimate and at the time the ONLY voice speaking for the rage of the black ghettos, nevertheless never worked out fully any other strategy that could work in America, and by extension internationally. A close reading of his work demonstrates that as he got more politically aware he saw the then unfolding ‘third world’ liberation struggles as the key to black liberation in America. That, unfortunately for him, was exactly backwards. If the ‘third world’ struggles were ever ultimately to be successful and create more just societies then American imperialism-as the main enemy of the peoples of the world-then, as now had to be brought to bay. And that, my friends, whether you agree or not, requires class struggle here.

That is where the fight for black liberation intersects the fight for socialism. And I will state until my last breathe that the key to the fight for socialism in America will be the cohesion of a central black cadre leading a multi-ethnic organization that will bring that home. And it will not be from the lips of the Kings of today that the struggle will be successful but by new more enlightened Malcolms, learning the lessons of history, who will get what they need-by any means necessary.”

February 1, 2010

In re-reading the above review I feel that although I made the right political points I did not spent nearly enough time on the some of the problems addressed by Malcolm X's autobiography. Not the least of those problems is the one of socialists creating and honing of black revolutionaries like Malcolm out of the lumpen proletarian milieu. Or Malcolm’s perceptive take on the all pervasive nature of the imprint of white racism on the American experiment, for black and white alike then and now. And intimately tied up with that hard fact of political life is the problem of recruiting (and holding on to) cadre in the black milieu for nationalist or, in our case, socialist revolutionaries.

I noted in a review of William Styron’s novel of the great slave general Nat Turner a couple of years ago (See February 2008 Archives) that the historical problem of creating a revolutionary black leadership has always been a daunting one in America whether under slavery or Jim Crow (de facto or de jure, Northern or Southern version). Turner’s own life story, based as it was on creating himself by learning to read and write and thereafter learning a salable skill as a craftsman, violated every norm and expectation of ant-bellum slave existence. Turner was one of the “talented tenth”, as it were, of his time. The question is no less tricky is viewing the highlights of Malcolm’s transformation (in prison, to boot) from a street hustler, dope addict, womanizer and purely existential character seemingly doomed to the fate of many other Northern black youth of the mid-20th century. Those of us working the “black/ freedom/ labor” milieu at the beginning of the 21st century should well note that although Malcolm was an exceptional recruit away from that lumpenproletarian milieu we still have to understand, notwithstanding the Obama life story, that the life stories of our recruits to socialism will look a lot more like young Malcolm than young Obama.

There has been much talk, too much talk of late about this so-called “post-racial” society that has sprung up during the Obamiad. For about the one thousand and first time I will recognize that the election of a black man as President of the United States in race-conscious America is significant. But what of it? I will also concede that during the past fifty years or so, since the time of the hard civil rights movement, that especially among the young racial attitudes have softened. However, I will bet many a dollar that if old Malcolm X were still on the scene he would have more than a few choice words about “racial progress”. All he would have to do is look at the ghettoes, unemployment lines and the prisons. Those views don’t lie. I remember listening to Malcolm on late night radio (“The Jerry Williams Show” a call-in talk show in Boston that Malcolm mentions in his book). I swear I disagreed with virtually everything that Malcolm said in those days, except the pervasive nature of white racism that I was painfully aware of from my own white working class neighborhood in Boston. Malcolm told some home truths then, and I am sure he would tell them now as well.





The death of Haywood was not unexpected. The declining health
of the old fighter was known to his friends for a long time. On each
visit to Moscow in recent years we noted the progressive weakening
of his physical powers and learned of the repeated attacks of the
fatal disease which finally brought him down. Our anxious inquiries
during the past month, occasioned by the newspaper reports of his
illness, only brought the response that his recovery this time could
not be expected. Nevertheless we could not abandon the hope that his
fighting spirit and his will to live would pull him through again, and
the news that death had triumphed in the unequal struggle brought
a shock of grief.

The death of Haywood is a double blow to those who were at once his comrades in the fight and his personal friends, for his character was such as to invest personal relations with an extra-ordinary dignity and importance. His great significance for the American and world labor movement was also fully appreciated, I think, both by our party and by the Communist International, in the ranks of which he ended his career, a soldier to the last.

An outstanding personality and leader of the pre-war revolutionary labor movement in America, and also a member and leader of the modern communist movement which grew up on its foundation, Bill Haywood represented a connecting link which helped to establish continuity between the old movement and the new. Growing out of the soil of America, or better, hewn out of its rocks, he first entered the labor movement as a pioneer unionist of the formative days of the Western Federation of Miners 30 years ago. From that starting point he bent his course toward the conscious class struggle and marched consistently on that path to the end of his life. He died a Communist and a soldier of the Communist International.

It is a great fortune for our party that he finished his memoirs and that they are soon to be published. They constitute a record of the class struggle and of the labor movement in America of priceless value for the present generation of labor militants. The career of Haywood is bound up with the stormy events which have marked the course of working-class development in America for 30 years and out of which the basic nucleus of the modern movement has come.

He grew up in the hardship and struggle of the mining camps ofthe West. Gifted with the careless physical courage of a giant and an eloquence of speech, Bill soon became a recognized leader of the metal miners. He developed with them through epic struggles toward a militancy of action combined with a socialistic understanding, even in that early day, which soon placed the Western Federation of Miners, which Haywood said "was born in a Bull Pen," in the vanguard of the American labor movement.

It was the merger of these industrial proletarian militants of the West with the socialist political elements represented by Debs and De Leon, which brought about the formation of the I.W.W. in 1905. The fame and outstanding prominence of Haywood as a labor leader even in that day is illustrated by the fact that he was chosen chairman of the historic First Convention of the I.W.W. in 1905.

The brief, simple speech he delivered there, as recorded in the stenographic minutes of the convention, stands out in many respects as a charter of labor of that day. His plea for the principle of the class struggle, for industrial unionism, for special emphasis on the unskilled workers, for solidarity of black and white workers, and for a revolutionary goal of the labor struggle, anticipated many established principles of the modern revolutionary labor movement.

The attempt to railroad him to the gallows on framed-up murder charges in 1906 was thwarted by the colossal protest movement of the workers who saw in this frame-up against him a tribute to his talent and power as a labor leader, and to his incorruptibility. His name became a battle cry of the socialist and labor movement and he emerged from the trial a national and international figure.

He rose magnificently to the new demands placed upon him by this position and soon became recognized far and wide as the authentic voice of the proletarian militants of America. The schemes of the reformist leaders of the Socialist Party to use his great name and popularity as a shield for them were frustrated by the bold and resolute course he pursued. Through the maze of intrigue and machinations of the reformist imposters in the Socialist Party, he shouldered his way with the doctrine of class struggle and the tactics of militant action.

The proletarian and revolutionary elements gathered around him and formed the powerful "left wing" of the party which made its bid for power in the convention of 1912. The "Reds" were defeated there, and the party took a decisive step along the pathway which led to its present position of reformist bankruptcy and open betrayal. The subsequent expulsion of Haywood from the National Executive Committee was at once a proof of the opportunist degeneration of the party and of his own revolutionary integrity.

Haywood's syndicalism was the outcome of his reaction against the reformist policies and parliamentary cretinism of the middle-class leaders of the Socialist Party—Hillquit, Berger and Company. But syndicalism, which in its final analysis, is "the twin brother of reformism", as Lenin has characterized it, was only a transient theory in Haywood's career. He passed beyond it and thus escaped that degeneration and sterility which overtook the syndicalist movement throughout the world during and after the war. The World War and the Russian Revolution did not pass by Haywood unnoticed, as they passed by many leaders of the I.W.W. who had encased themselves in a shell of dogma to shut out the realities of life.

These world-shaking events, combined with the hounding and dragooning of the I.W.W. by the United States government—the "political state" which syndicalism wanted to "ignore"—wrought a profound change in the outlook of Bill Haywood. He emerged from Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1919 in a receptive and studious mood. He was already 50 years old, but he conquered the mental rigidity which afflicts so many at that age. He began, slowly and painfully, to assimilate the new and universal lessons of the war and the Russian Revolution.

First taking his stand with that group in the I.W.W. which favored adherence to the Red International of Labor Unions, he gradually developed his thought further and finally came to the point where he proclaimed himself a communist and a disciple of Lenin. He became a member of the Communist Party of America before his departure for Russia. There he was transferred to the Russian Communist Party and, in recognition of his lifetime of revolutionary work, he was given the status of "an old party member"—the highest honor anyone can enjoy in the land of workers' triumph.

As everyone knows, Haywood in his time had been a prisoner in many jails and, like all men who have smelt iron, he was keenly sensitive to the interests of revolutionaries who suffer this crucifixion. He attached the utmost importance to the work of labor defense and was one of the founders of the I.L.D. He contributed many ideas to its formation and remained an enthusiastic supporter right up to his death. What is very probably his last message to the workers of America, written just before he was stricken the last time, is contained in a letter which is being published in the June number of the Labor Defender now on the press.

As a leader of the workers in open struggle Haywood was a fighter, the like of which is all too seldom seen. He loved the laboring masses and was remarkably free from all prejudices of craft or race or nationality. In battle with the class enemies of the workers he was a raging lion, relentless and irreconcilable. His field was the open fight, and in mass strikes his powers unfolded and multiplied themselves. Endowed with a giant's physique and an absolute disregard of personal hazards, he pulled the striking workers to him as to a magnet and imparted to them his own courage and spirit.

I remember especially his arrival at Akron during the great rubber-workers' strike of 1913, when 10,000 strikers met him at the station and marched behind him to the Hall. His speech that morning has always stood out in my mind as a model of working-class oratory. With his commanding presence and his great mellow voice he held the vast crowd in his power from the moment that he rose to speak. He had that gift, all too rare, of using only the necessary words and of compressing his thoughts into short, epigrammatic sentences. He clarified his points with homely illustrations and pungent witticisms which rocked the audience with understanding laughter. He poured out sarcasm, ridicule and denunciation upon the employers and their pretensions, and made the workers feel with him that they, the workers, were the important and necessary people. He closed, as he always did, on a note of hope and struggle, with a picture of the final victory of the workers. Every word from beginning to end, simple, clear and effective. That is Haywood, the proletarian orator, as I remember him.

There was another side to Bill Haywood which was an essential side of his character, revealed to those who knew him well as personal friends. He had a warmth of personality that drew men to him like a bonfire on a winter's day. His considerateness and indulgence toward his friends, and his generous impulsiveness in human relations, were just as much a part of Bill Haywood as his iron will and intransigence in battle.

"Bill's room", in the Lux Hotel at Moscow, was always the central gathering place for the English-speaking delegates. Bill was "good company". He liked to have people around him, and visitors came to his room in a steady stream; many went to pour out their troubles, certain of a sympathetic hearing and a word of wise advice.

The American ruling class hounded Haywood with the most vindictive hatred. They could not tolerate the idea that he, an American of old revolutionary stock, a talented organizer and eloquent speaker, should be on the side of the exploited masses, a champion of the doubly persecuted foreigners and Negroes. With a 20-year prison sentence hanging over him he was compelled to leave America in the closing years of his life and to seek refuge in workers' Russia. He died there in the Kremlin, the capitol of his and our socialist fatherland with the red flag of his class floating triumphantly overhead.

Capitalist America made him an outlaw and he died expatriated from his native land. But in the ranks of the militant workers of America, who owe so much to his example, he remains a citizen of the first rank. He represented in his rugged personality all that was best of the pre-war socialist and labor movement, and by his adhesion to communism he helped to transmit that inheritance to us. His memory will remain a blazing torch of inspiration for the workers of America in the great struggles which lie before them.

His life was a credit and an honor to our class and to our movement. Those who pick up the battle flag which has fallen from his lifeless hands will do well to emulate the bigness and vision, the courage and the devotion which were characteristics of our beloved comrade and friend, Bill Haywood.

As The 100th Anniversary Of The Armistice Day 11/11/1918 at 11 AM Commences-Some Creative Artists Who Fought/Died/Lived Through The Nightmare That Destroyed The Flower Of European And American Youth –Randolph Bourne

As The 100th Anniversary Of The Armistice Day 11/11/1918 at 11 AM Commences-Some Creative Artists Who Fought/Died/Lived Through The Nightmare That Destroyed The Flower Of European And American Youth –Randolph Bourne


By Seth Garth

A few years ago, starting in August 2104 the 100th anniversary of what would become World War I, I started a series about the cultural effects, some of them anyway, of the slaughter which mowed down the flower of the European youth including an amazing number of artists, poets, writers and other cultural figures. Those culturati left behind, those who survived the shellings, the trenches, the diseases, and what was then called “shell shock,” now more commonly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is duly recognized, and compensated for at least in the United States by the Veterans Administration in proven cases reacted in many different ways. Mainly, the best of them, like the ordinary dog soldiers could not go back to the same old, same old, could not revive the certitudes of the pre-war Western world with it distorted sense of decorum and went to what even today seem quirky with moderns like Dada, Minimalism, the literary sparseness of Hemingway, and so on. I had my say there in a general sense but now as we are only a few months away from the 100th anniversary of, mercifully, the armistice which effectively ended that bloodbath I want to do a retrospective of creative artistic works by those who survived the war and how those war visions got translated into their works with some commentary if the spirit moves me but this is their show-no question they earned a retrospective.

Reopening The Emmett Till Case-The Case That Has Not Died, Nor Should It

Reopening The Emmett Till Case-The Case That Has Not Died, Nor Should It

A link to an On Point NPR program on the re-opening of the Emmett Till case.

By Frank Jackman

I have, as witnessed below, at various times reviewed some aspect of the Emmett Till case as a matter of historical importance although not to me individually directly since Emmett’s death, murder, happened when I was too young to realize what was going on. I picked up on the civil rights movement for black rights in the Mister James Crow South (and as it turned, turns out the North too) in the early 1960s when I went to downtown Boston and walked a picket line at Woolworth’s in support of the lunch counter demonstrators down South who wanted to have a freaking grilled cheese sandwich without having to face a civil war about it. That is when I first heard about the case, and it has never been far from the surface since.           

Now the Department of Justice, Alabama’s Jeff Session’s DOJ, has reopened the Emmett Till case that his family and partisans have tried to have reopened for many years. The DOJ motivation I am not quite sure of. What I know is that in this case justice will never be done, closure will probably never come but only a better idea of what really happened down in Mister James Crow Mississippi in the 1950s. Still some cases, and Emmett’s is one of them, will never die, nor should they.  


DVD Review

Free at Last: Civil Rights Heroes, film documentary, Image Entertainment, 2005

Every major (and most minor) progressive social struggle in America from the struggle for independence from Great Britain through to the struggle for slavery abolition up to the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality today has had more than its share of heroes and martyrs. The purpose of the documentary under review, Free At Last: Civil Rights Heroes, rightly, highlights some of those lesser known heroes and martyrs from the struggle for black civil rights that came to national prominence in the1950s and 1960s (although, arguably, that struggle goes back to the 1930s and before).

Although, in the end the question of black equality had to be addressed (and still has to be addressed) nationally the thrust of the black civil rights movement that is featured in this film is the struggle for something like a democratic revolution by blacks and their supporters in the police state-like American South in place since post-Civil War times. That barbaric de jure and de facto Jim Crow system officially, as a matter state and social policy, held blacks in second class citizenship (or lower). The struggle to overcome that ingrained (and profitable, profitable for whites of almost all social strata) was almost, of necessity, going to create more than it share of heroes and martyrs.

The case of fourteen year old Chicago resident Emmett Till and his horrible murder at the hands of white marauders in Mississippi in 1955, the first of the three separate segments that make up the film graphically highlights the problem. For the mere allegation of “whistling at a white woman while black” (if that allegation had any substance) young Emmett was brutally mangled and thrown into the local river. When his mother, righteously, made a cause out of this bestial murder all hell broke loose, at least on the surface. And the case galvanized blacks and whites nationally, alerting many for the first time to the hard fact that something was desperately wrong down in Mississippi (and not just there). But justice, Mississippi justice, to paraphrase poet Langston Hughes, is justice deferred. As detailed in almost all the cases highlighted in the film those directly responsible for the actions against the civil rights workers were either never brought to justice or only after something like a long drawn out legal civil war. No one should forget that aspect of the struggle either.

The other cases highlighted from the assassinated Medgar Evers to the four Birmingham girls murdered in their church when it was bombed to the three civil rights workers slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi that drew nation-wide attention to slain white civil rights workers Viola Liuzzo and Reverend James Reeb, murdered for “being white while working for black civil rights” exhibit those same kinds of sickening results. Let me put it this way after viewing the film footage here, especially Bull Connor’s attack dogs being let loose on civil rights demonstrators in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama that was one of the first visual images that drove me into the civil rights struggle, I still wanted to throw something at the screen. And you wonder why fifty or so years later I still say Mississippi (or fill in your preferred state) goddam. Kudos here.

“The Set-Up”-With The Detective Fiction Writer Dashiell Hammett In Mind

“The Set-Up”-With The Detective Fiction Writer Dashiell Hammett In Mind

By Zack James

Alexander Slater had always been ever since he was a kid, maybe ten or eleven if not before, a big fan of hard-boiled detective novels and films based on those novels by guys like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Rich O’Connor, Sid Stein, and Lanny Drew. Had spent many a Riverdale hometown Saturday afternoon in the late 1950s in the faded run-down, gum-strewn on the floor, cobwebs in the balcony seats, toilet in the men’s room a relic of plumbing around the time of the original Cranes who made their fortunes providing such hard-wear to the growing population in need of indoor plumbing and whose castle overlooked Crane’s Beach up north of Riverdale about seventy-five miles away, old-fashioned popcorn cooker which always, always provided burnt kernels at the bottom of the box Majestic Theater on Mooney Street just off of the downtown shopping area watching re-runs  of the classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Lady In The Lake, The whole Thin Man series, The Last Kiss, Girl Hunt, and The Lost Ones. That downtown area also beginning to fade as the stores, Doc’s Drugstore, the 5&10, Morley’s Clothing store, Sam’s Furniture store and the like that used to cater to the town’s needs moved out to the strip malls or all-purpose malls out on Route One a few miles from downtown.

Of course as a kid all Alexander cared about, along with his regular crew of Saturday matinee double-feature companions, Skip James, Jack Callahan, Johnny Rizzo, Five-Fingers Murphy, Frank Riley and sometimes before his family moved out of town so his father could take a job in the emerging computer industry at Honeywell about forty miles away along Route 128, was that they had enough money to cover the admission (trying as boys universally would then, probably still do, to get the under twelve reduced admission price long after they had entered their teens), were being “grounded” for some silly home or school infraction , and, maybe, just maybe, that for once the popcorn although always with burnt offerings was not stale. So Alexander had through the marvels of cinematic technology and the printed page been able to form a very distinct idea about what a private detective should be like, what he looked like and how he handled himself in the rough spots.       

That ideal was probably epitomized by Sam Slade in The Maltese Falcon on the screen (the 1940s one that made Humphrey Bogart, Bogie, famous not the two earlier ones which he had never seen until a few years ago via Netflix he had ordered the pair online and was seriously disappointed in those efforts, as was his wife Mary who while not nearly as much a fan of the private detective did love the Bogie version of the Falcon) and in some short stories done by Hammett by scrambling through a few libraries and second-hand bookstores looking for compilations. In a word a guy and it was always guys then still were a lot now although he had read a few interesting female detective stories, working class guys, tough, tough enough to by sheer will and pluck to outsmart his well-organized criminal opponents, hard-boiled no question, no sap for anybody even women which every guys knows is easy enough to become when the skirts going swishing by, with a code, a beautiful code of honor that he follows as best he can, maybe not to the letter but as best he can in the spirit, hard-drinking which somehow focused the senses whenever the bottle in the lower desk draw came out, and a rough and ready sense of justice, of tilting after windmills for the good of the cause.

And there that image stayed for a fairly long time until Alexander went out into the world of work after high school. He had taken shop classes in school, printing shop and so immediately after high school he had taken a full-time job with Mister Calder, the best commercial printer in town, whom he worked for after school and on weekends in high school. In due course after a few years in the dreaded Army in Vietnam which took a certain toll on him when he came back to the “real” world, a few years “finding himself” through dope, rock and roll, and following the hitchhike road that many guys of his generation took for a while when Mister Calder retired he took over the shop located in the first floor of the Tappan Building on Lancaster Street right off of downtown (in the opposite direction from the now long gone old Majestic if you were familiar with Riverdale back in the 1970s or earlier).   

At one time, back in the 1940s, early 1950s, the eight story Tappan Building was what they would call today the anchor of the downtown business section. Was the pride of Riverdale what with prosperous small law firms, a few doctors’ offices when doctors had their own private practices more, a couple of dentists, a few reputable insurance companies, nothing big, no Fortune 500 firms but substantial, solid professional. As those firms and professionals drifted out to the strip malls or were eaten up by larger firms elsewhere the once glorious Tappan Building began a long decline into “seen better days.” The owners kind of gave up on the place, not keeping it up with leaking faucets in the restrooms, un-waxed public area floors, unreliable elevators, and the sanctified smell of decay that follows such downward spiraling enterprises. Alexander had taken over for Mister Calder well into the decline of the building but since the leasing arrangements with the owners provided for cheap terms and the fact that his printing business was not one in need of a “good front” he never felt the need to move, probably a wise move once the high-tech moguls made self-printing for most occasions a worthwhile effort.

Alexander thus observed the decline of the Tappan Building first-hand as the type of businesses switched from prosperous professionals to shady characters. A couple of “repo” men, a few failed dentists whom you would not want within fifty feet of your mouth, maybe farther away, a couple of chiropractors, some no-name insurance firms, a notary public, a least a few guys who were running some kinds of scams out of their offices, and a detective agency. Fred Sims’ Detective Agency although all the years that he knew Fred he was the sole detective.      

Fred had been in the building since the mid-1960s but between Alexander’s military service and his wanderlust he did not meet Fred until he took over for Mister Calder. Once they met, met in Dolly’s Diner across the street from the Tappan, a place that is still there although Dolly’s granddaughter runs the place now and has changed it from a smoked-filled ham and eggs, coffee and crullers place to more healthful food and clean atmosphere for those who own the condos that had been created as a result of converting many of the old buildings, schools and churches in the area, they hit it off from the beginning although Fred was a good decade older than Alexander.

Fred, let’s be clear, was not, hear this, was not, and probably never would be Alexander image of a private detective build up from childhood (although in fairness to Fred he was the very first P.I. he had run into in person). Short, bald, with unkempt side hairs sticking out of the baseball cap that he wore indoors and out, and almost never took off, an old Robert Hall’s, if you remember that name in men’s clothing from another age, shaggy sport’s jacket, one of three he owned and alternated, threadbare socks, turned at the heel shoes, black, and many days, many no client days, a fair amount of stubble on his face. His office on the fifth floor reflected that persona, no real “front.”  A hand-printed cardboard sign advertising his name and business on the front door, a small waiting room (which made Alexander laugh for all the years that he knew Fred he never saw anybody in that room), dust in the corners, a well beyond its prime coatrack of uncertain steadiness, a couple of mismatched chairs, a small end table with magazines describing the first Apollo landing in 1969, an office area with a snarled desk, unmatched chair, and a few, too few file cabinets if Fred was prosperous which he was not. Later when they were easier to figure out he did purchase a computer but otherwise over the years the place had, and would continue to have, that beleaguered downward spiral look.    

Alexander one time early on remarked, no, made the mistake and remarked, that Fred was no Bogie while they were sitting at the counter of Dolly’s having their coffee and. Apparently this kind of remark was Fred’s pet peeve because he commenced to rail against the popular notion of what a private detective looks like, what his office looks like, and the real cases that he handles. They are not the murder cases of cinematic and book renown, the public cops, detectives handle that, well or poorly, but in some then twenty years in the business he had never seen any private detective brought in to solve a murder and only once had heard that a very rich guy who had the dough to do so and was frustrated with the public coppers and their inability to solve the kidnapping/murder of his young daughter actually had a private detective savvy enough to solve the crime, after two years on the trail.                   

 No the real work was bullshit stuff. Some barber from Gloversville whose wife ran off with a salesman and he wanted her back her, fast, maybe three days, and not too many expenses. Some “repo” work the average repo guys wouldn’t handle or wouldn’t be allowed by the insurance companies to handle. Back in the day a few Peeping Tom snooping around motels cases looking for adultery when the grounds for a civil divorce were harder to find. A lost dog or other pet once in a while if somebody was attached to the animal, although they usually found their ways home on their own or were never seen again. Looking for long lost relatives, usually fruitless since those relatives wanted to be lost from view. Maybe checking out a scam or two, flimflam stuff. Definitely not looking for lost falcons filled with riches and history with dead bodies and greedy people hovering around. Definitely not taking on some high-powered criminal gang when an old general with wild daughters one of whose husband is missing. Definitely not being employed by some man-mountain to find his long lost and wants to stay lost Velma. Definitely not trying to find some eccentric rich inventor guy whose thin shadow had disappeared in the mist and somebody liked that idea.                                 

 So that day Alexander got his comeuppance, got a first-hand real- world view of what private investigation was all about. Thereafter Fred, when the met for their coffee and at Dolly’s or sometimes when Alexander after work would go up to Fred’s office for a shot of whiskey from that bottle he kept in the bottom drawer of that snarled desk (and one of the few commonalities between real and film detectives) Fred would tell him stories about his previous cases, or cases that he had heard about from other P.I.s around the area when they ran into each other at some meeting or on a spree. Except the one time when Alexander became a moving part in a case that Fred would wind up getting involved in before the coppers stepped in. 

One day a guy, an ordinary looking guy, about thirty, fairly well-dressed, a sports coat and tie, trimmed hair and short beard, not from around Riverdale but with a New England accent, probably Maine, came in Alexander’s print shop looking for a customized job, a small job but in those days as people were self-printing more extensively the small jobs were drying up (fortunately the big commercial orders were still coming in at their normal pace). He wanted fifty copies of what he called a missing person’s poster, you know with photo of the person and description of last known place, who to contact and so on, done on the press and not the copy machine. No problem. Alexander handled the order while this young guy waited. 

A few weeks later the person who had come in with missing person photograph turned up dead, very dead along the bank of the Waban River. Not only very dead but very murdered from the bullet holes through his mangled soggy shirt. Chief Powers of the Riverdale Police came into Alexander’s print shop to find out what he knew about the situation since in the dead man’s back pocket there was a water-logged copy of the missing person poster that had his print shop mark on the right corner. Alexander told the Chief what he knew, said he wanted to help any way he could but the young guy was just a young guy and his description and demeanor would have fit a million young guys. As had the guy he was looking for. That pretty much ended Alexander’s involvement in the case, probably the case would go into those cold files that most murder cases go into if somebody doesn’t jump up and confess with all hands open.

Or so he thought. A few weeks later a young woman, Lara Barstow was the name she gave him, came into Alexander’s printing shop with a shopworn copy of the poster he had created for the murdered young man, and asked to see the proprietor. Since he was that person he introduced himself and asked how he could help her although he was a little suspicious that an average young good-looking woman like Lara would have any connection with the crime, or crimes associated with the young man for whom he had done the work or the young man on the poster. Lara soon cleared things up, “I have been to the police and they told me what happened to my brother Emmet, how he was found murdered out on the riverbank. They said that as far as they were concerned the case was still open but that they had no further leads to work on so that unless they got something that is probably where the case would stand.” [The police did not mention “cold case” file but Lara said she knew what they meant]. Lara then started to cry a bit and Alexander not knowing what to do offered his handkerchief and asked if he should call his wife to assist her in her time of troubles. Lara stiffened at that and told Alexander that she did not need that kind of help but that she was determined to find out who had killed her brother and asked if he had any ideas. Then Alexander, secretly thrilled at the prospect, told her that on the fifth floor of the building that they were standing in his friend, Fred, a private detective, had his office and that maybe he could look into the matter. Lara said that she did not have any serious resources (her word), meaning money but that if Fred as able to do something to find the murderer and clear up a legal situation then she would be coming into some funds. Alexander thinking to himself that this was starting to be something out of the movies let that statement ride only saying, “Let’s see what Fred says,” and led her to the elevator and the fifth- floor office. (On the way up she did not comment on the urine smell in the foyer, the seedy dilapidated aspect of the elevator and its slowness, or the condition of the outside building windows, broken panes letting the weathers in as they left the elevator that made him a little more wary since her whole demeanor was of some old-fashioned gentile upbringing but he figured she was desperate, concentrated on her task, or indifferent to such matter.

Fred, despite the seedy condition of his office, already commented on by Alexander and nothing had changed since the last time he had been up in the office for a few drinks so no further comment is necessary, was smooth affable charm itself when greeting and listening to Lara’s story. And listen he, they did for the story really did have a Hollywood feel to it.

“Emmet Barstow is, ah, was, my older brother, who had gotten into a lot of trouble when he was in prep school at Exeter Academy several years ago. I don’t know if I should tell you the nature of the trouble since it was a rather delicate matter.” Fred stopped her right there and said he needed to know everything, everything in this weak fact case, or he would not be able to help her. She continued, “Well, ah, see there was this other boy, this Prescott Devine, a pervert, you know, a homosexual, who tricked Emmet into having sex with him, having sex and taking photographs as it turned out.” [Fred and Alexander gave each other knowing eyes about what was to follow.] You know what happened next, Prescott forced my brother to continue with his wicked designs while in school and later asked for money to avoid a public scandal in our household. So Emmett paid, or rather my father paid before he died and after that Mr. Sidney, the lawyer who has handled our estate until we come of age, paid. Then Prescott fade from view for a couple of years until several months ago after my father died he showed up at our door looking for more money. Emmett gave him what he could but somehow he got wind of my father dying and remembered that Emmett was to inherit a large sum of money upon his death, something he had told Prescott when he was in the throes of love at the beginning [said bitterly]. The terms of the will were that Emmett would inherit almost everything when he turned twenty-five as long as he was alive, and if he were not then I would inherit. But only inherit if there was no cloud over his death. That part had been added only a few months before my father’s death, so he must have had a premonition of something happening.” She paused, then continued, “Emmett had been trying to find Prescott for a while after he had come to our house in order to tell him that he was no longer afraid of any scandal, that he would take his chances with society, our society which might be able to overlook what could be a youthful indiscretion, and maybe just a bout of loneliness. Somebody whom they went to school with told Emmett that Prescott was in this area living in Gloversville and that was why he had the posters made. He was going to distribute them around and the thousand dollars for information figured to draw somebody out who might know his whereabouts. That’s all I know until the police called to have me come and identify the body. The police have kind of let it go to hell and I need your help.

Fred wise to the ways of the world although not used to dealing with upper middle-class young women, as clients anyway except once he had a girlfriend from the leafy suburbs but the parents practically imprisoned her when they found out he did not have three names in his moniker, you know Ward Stewart Lawrence, stuff like that the Brahmins go for, told Lara he needed a one hundred dollar cash retainer before he could represent her in her time of sorrows. She opened her pocketbook, pulled out five Jacksons and they were in business.   

Fred said later that he sensed something was wrong from that moment, the moment she gave him the cash like she expected him to ask for cash rather than haggle over a check or something but Alexander said that was just Fred’s wishful thinking after the fact when the whole thing blew up in his face and the cops had to pull him out of the line of fire. To leave the reader in no suspense at this point Fred went out and did several days of investigation trying to locate the guy who told her brother that Prescott was in the area. He did locate him finally but the lad, a young man whom Fred using the old- time expression was “light on his feet,” and fearful to say anything at all. Fred pressed the issue though and the kid (Fred did not use that word) folded. It seems the kid, Fred said he would not use his name in order to get the information he wanted, also fell under the spell of Prescott, had his pants down more than once over the “crush” he called it, and had done Prescott’s bidding telling Emmett that Prescott was in Gloversville. A couple of days late Fred traced Prescott to a bed and breakfast place outside Gloversville. He figured that he would just go in and talk to Prescott but before he could enter the door to Prescott’s room there was a volley of gunfire aimed his way through the door. He got on the ground first and worked his way back to the kitchen where he called the cops, called the sheriff’s office because he was not sure Gloversville had its own police department. The sheriff came with a few deputies, and a few sharpshooters from the State Police SWAT team. After a couple of futile attempts at coaxing Prescott out they went in full blazes (Alexander said if anybody wanted to know the details of the firefight check with the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office they would have all the details). After a few minutes the firing from Prescott’s room stopped. The cops went into the room and recovered the body, recovered two bodies really, for the other body belonged to one Lara Barstow.

The way things figured out later piecing together everything found in Prescott’s room and later at Lara’ house what happened is when Prescott came to confront Emmett for dough he somehow caught Lara’s eyes, gave her a tumble or two, maybe more (whether he was bisexual or not who knows maybe the dough gave him some weird sexual energy if he was completely gay). Whether he was just working the scam of a lifetime for a lowlife like him or he had some affection for Lara who knows. What is known from some legal papers found at Lara’s house is they formed a scheme to kill Emmett and have her inherit the family money (when she turned twenty-five as well a lawyer handling the trust before that time). Prescott must have known from that scared  kid that Emmett was on his trail. They probably met somewhere and Prescott put a couple of nasty slugs in him and shipped him off down the Waban River and easy street. What fouled the whole thing up was the part about having to know the cause of Emmett’s death before the trust could even be touched in the future. The whole Lara tall tale story in Fred’s office was to see if they could find a fall guy, maybe some hobo or something. Not every criminal, smart or stupid always figures things out right but that what it looked like. Maybe Lara thought just hiring Fred would satisfy the terms of the trust. Who knows. But when Fred was able to find Prescott he, they panicked. And that was that. So Alexander forever after will be able to say he way part of solving a private detective-type crime. He was just glad, glad as hell that he had not accompanied Fred when he had asked him to go to Prescott’s room. He thought save that part for the movies.