Saturday, July 25, 2020

Yeah, No Question War Is Hell-With Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” In Mind

Yeah, No Question War Is Hell-With Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” In Mind 




By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell

As the readers of this site [this review initially posted on the American Left History blog and the on-line at American Literary Gazette site] may know I recently have retired, maybe semi-retired is a better way to put it, from the day to day, week to week grind of reviewing film old and young as I just hit my sixty-fifth year on this whacky old planet. That stepping aside to let Sandy Salmon, my friend and competitor from the Gazette, take his paces on a regular basis did not mean that I would be going completely silent as I intended, and told the site administrator Pete Markin as much, to do an occasional film review and general commentary. This is one of those general commentary times.

What has me exercised is Sandy’s recent review of Australian director Peter Weir’s World War I classic Gallipoli starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson. I take no issue with Sandy since he did a fine job. What caught my attention was Sandy’s comment about Archie’s, the role played by Mark Lee, fervent desire to join his fellow Aussies on Gallipoli peninsula as a patriotic duty and a manly adventure. When I did my own review of the film back in 1981 when it first came out I make a number of comments about my own military experiences and those of some of the guys I hung around with in high school who had to make some decisions about what to do about the war of our generation, the Vietnam War of the decade of the 1960s. 

While the action of the Australian young men itching to get into the “action” of World War I (which by the way we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the third year of this year) preceded us by fifty years a lot of the same ideas were hanging around our old-time working class neighborhood in Vietnam War times. More than a few guys like Jim Leary and Freddie Lewis were like Archie ready, willing and able to go fight the “red menace,” tip the dominoes our way, do their patriotic duty take your pick of reasons. Maybe in Freddie’s case to get out of the hostile household that he grew up in and maybe Jim like Archie a little for the adventure, to prove something about the questions he had about his manhood. I did not pick those two names out accidently for those names now are permanently etched on that hallowed black granite wall down in Washington that brings tears to my eyes old as I am every time I go there.       

Then there were guys like me and Jack Callahan, Pete Markin who didn’t want to go into the military, didn’t want to enlist like Jim and Freddie but who having no real reason not to go when our local draft boards sent “the letter” requesting our services did go and survived. The main reason that we did not want to go, at least at the time, not later when we got a serious idea of what war was about, was it kind of cramped our style, would put a crimp in our drinking, doping, and grabbing every girl who was not nailed down style. Later Pete and I got religion on the issues of war and peace and being on the right side of the angels on the question, realized that the other options like draft refusal which might have meant jail or fleeing to Canada were probably better options. But we were like Archie and Frank in Gallipoli working class kids even though we had all been college students as well. When in our past was there even a notion of not going when the military called, of abandoning the old life in America for who knows what in Canada. We did what we did with what made sense to us at the time even if we were dead-ass wrong.         

And then of course there is a story from our town like Frank Jackman’s who grew up in a neighborhood even down lower on the social scale than ours, grew up in “the projects,” the notorious projects which our parents would threaten us with if we didn’t stop being a serious drain the family’s resources. Frank somehow was a college guy too and like us “accepted” induction although he had more qualms about what the heck was going on in Vietnam and about being a soldier. But like us he also accepted induction because he could see no other road out. This is where the story changes up though. Frank almost immediately upon getting to basic training down at Fort Dix knew that he had made a mistake-had no business in a uniform. And by hook or by crook he did something about it, especially once he got orders for Vietnam. The “hook” part was that through a serious of actions which I don’t need to detail here he wound up doing a little over a year in an Army stockade for refusing to go to Vietnam. Brave man.  The “crook” part was also through a series of actions which need not detain us now, mostly through the civilian courts, he was discharged, discharged from the stockade, honorably discharged as a conscientious objector.            

Archie, Frank and their Aussie comrades only started to get an idea, a real idea about the horrors of war when they were in the trenches in front of the Turks also entrenched on Gallipoli peninsula and being mowed down like some many blades of grass. Archie and most of the crew that joined up with him were among those blades of grass. It was at the point where Archie was steeling himself to go over the top of the trenches after two previous waves had been mowed down and then being cut down by the Turkish machine-gun firing that I realized how brave Frank Jackman’s actions were in retrospect.


In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)- A Kerouac/Burroughs Joint Effort From The Pre-"Beat" Days




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

And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, Grove Press, New York, 2008


In the past I have looked at Jack Kerouac’s densely-packed explanations of his early days in such thinly-veiled autobiographical novels as “Maggie Cassidy” and “Visions Of Dulouz”, detailing his leap from working class Lowell to the bright lights of New York City in the very early 1940s. I have also gone on and on about the importance of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in the modern American literary canon. Here, in “Hippos” (for short), we are treated to both a very, very thinly- veiled novel about the fate of their mutual friend, Lucien Carr, and his troubles with the law as a result of his killing of an older man who was seemingly psychotically sexually attracted to the young man.

The novel is meant to work at the level of straight forward, straight talking exploration of the milieu behind the Carr crime and in the process gave this reader a very interesting take on war time New York, the goings-on of the emerging “Beat” crowd and their antics, and a look at the budding literary careers of two stalwarts of the American literary canon. None of those antics, however, are remarkable or really much different from the youth adventures of other writes except the always surprising New York City night life in war time. Parties, men who want women, dope, booze, jazz, blues, women who want men, men who want men, women who want women, more booze, more dope, and a few more cigarettes. Sounds very familiar. What makes this story a cut above the rest for an early literary effort is the crime story embedded in the overall scheme of things.

Does this joint effort work? Certainly this novel tells me that both authors are “literary” men destined for bigger things, even this early on. The literary device of telling the tale from two perspectives that do not necessarily give the same emphasis to events is interesting. However, whatever reason, literary or confessional, that drove this joint effort describing a story that both were personally involved in (including some criminal complicity, after the fact) there is not enough of either man giving his all to the telling. As community-oriented (fellow “beat” community-oriented, that is) as Kerouac and Burroughs were something is missing here. And what explains what is missing is the hard fact that “beat” writers, whatever their philosophical inclinations were primarily loners, at least loner writers. See if you agree.

Note: Although this novel has been touted mainly as a prime example of an early “beat” work the real virtue of its publication is the Afterword where William Burroughs’ literary executioner gives a very detailed and important description about how this “lost” work came to see the light of day. For “beat” literary scholars presumably already familiar with the Carr case in the careers of the authors this is priceless. Even I was fascinated by the twists and turned needed to get the thing published at all.

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-“The Drugstore Cowboy”, William Burroughs’-“Naked Lunch”

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-“The Drugstore Cowboy”, William Burroughs’-“Naked Lunch”

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

Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs, Olympia Press, 1959


As I have explained in another entry in this space in reviewing the DVD of “The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg”, recently I have been in a “beat” generation literary frame of mind. I mentioned there, as well, and I think it helps to set the mood for commenting on Jack Kerouac’s ‘mentor’ William S. Burroughs and his famous (or infamous) work “Naked Lunch”, 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”, Jack Kerouac. And, just as naturally, when one thinks of Kerouac then Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and a whole ragtag assortment of poets, hangers-on, groupies and genuine madmen and madwomen come to mind. They all showed up, one way or another (under fictional names of course- Burroughs as Bull Lee), in Kerouac’s “On The Road”. So that is why we today, fifty years after its original publication (and only after much literary and governmental controversy), are under the sign of Burroughs’ minor classic “Naked Lunch”.

Minor classic? Well, yes. The various sketches, pieces and partials that make up the commentary in this science fiction-like exposition is filled with “weird " characters and likewise is filled with future prophecies that became, in some cases like AIDS-type diseases, realities at a later time. No question this is a difficult book to get through cold sober. In fact I put it down a few times before I completed it back in the days. But look at it this way, if Kerouac represented a different way of telling a story through his use of spontaneous writing Burroughs also showed innovation by taking the haphazard, the derelict and the off-beat and made literary music out of it.

Maybe not your music, or for that matter mine, but surely music nevertheless. This “novel”, moreover, extols thing that today are rather taken for granted like personal (and in the book and in Burroughs personal seemingly excessive) drug use, homosexuality, the use of ‘obscene language’, the dehumanization of modern society. Sound familiar? Of course, but Burroughs said it when it was not fashionable to do so. No wonder he was the ‘mentor’ for those young kids, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, etc. when they hit New York in the mid-1940s looking for “something”.

Friday, July 24, 2020

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)

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

On The Road, Jack Kerouac, Viking Press, New York, 1957


As I have explained in another entry in this space in reviewing the DVD of “The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg”, recently I have been in a “beat” generation literary frame of mind. I mentioned there, as well, and I think it helps to set the mood for commenting on Jack Kerouac’s seminal ‘travelogue’, “On The Road”, 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, Jack Kerouac. And, just as naturally, when one thinks of Kerouac then Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and a whole ragtag assortment of poets, hangers-on, groupies and genuine madmen and madwomen come to mind. They all show up, one way or another (under fictional names, of course), in this book. So that is why we today are under the sign of “On The Road”.

I have also mentioned elsewhere in this space that my appreciation of Jack Kerouac did not come from being a latter-day devotee of his spontaneous prose writing style or his standoffish, sideline view of life and consciously apolitical lifestyle, as was emphasized in a famous segment on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” public television show where he went out of his boozy way to dump on the counter-cultural movement (“hippies”, okay) of the 1960s. From early on in my youth I was more likely to be immersed in reading things like “The Communist Manifesto” (if only to dismiss it out of hand-then) and had no time for reading a “beat” travelogue like “On The Road” although I was personally struggling along those same lines to ‘find myself’ (sound familiar?) . Later I would devour the thing (repeatedly) along with the rest of his major works like “Dharma Bums", "Visions Of Cody”. “Big Sur”, “Doctor Sax” and others.

To appreciate Kerouac and understand his mad drive for adventure and to write about it, speedily but precisely, you have to start with “On The Road”. There have been a fair number of ‘searches' for the meaning of the American experience starting, I believe, with Whitman. However, each generation that takes on that task needs a spokesperson and Jack Kerouac, in the literary realm at least, filled that bill not only for his own generation that came of age in the immediate post-World War II era, but mine as well that came of age in the 1960s (and perhaps on later generations, as well, but I can only speculate on that idea here).

The big different between Whitman and Kerouac though for me was that those old pent-up energies, frustrations and fears (of aging, of not having sex, of the bomb, of industrial society, etc.) of Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s character), the legendary Dean Moriarty (the real life “beat”/hippie legend Neal Cassady), Carlos Marx (super-poet Allen Ginsberg) and the supporting cast were familiar, very familiar. I would argue that such a story could only have been written at that time when automobiles, highways and a good “thumb”, or fast feet to “ride the blinds” met , and we have been living off the crumbs of that adventure ever since. Not bad, Jack, not bad at all.

Note: I, on re-reading the book very recently, was struck by something that never even came to my attention when I first read the book in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and on later re-readings. Although this may be a 'search' for America it is very much a man’s book, young or old. The women in the book, and I believe in the “beat” movement itself, seemed to be mere appendages of some male, or washing dishes or as sex objects. Now this book was written well before the rise of the women’s liberation movement and one would not expect to see a great deal of male sensitivity, especially from a guy coming out of the French-Canadian/Catholic milieu of a working class mill town of the 1940s and 1950s. However, I would be interested in knowing how women today, or who read it back then, would react to it. Mainly, in my circle, the women think, with the obvious acknowledgement of the politically incorrect caveats mentioned above, that it is great literature. I agree.

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-“Big Sur”'- A Film Review

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-“Big Sur”'- A Film Review




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.           

A "YouTube" film clip for the movie trailer of "One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur”.

DVD Review

One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur”, Jack Kerouac, his “beat” friends, and some latter-day literary followers, Kerouac Films, 2008


No one who knows this space, or at least knows this space since sometime last year needs to be reminded of my admiration for the literary work of the “king of beats”, Jack Kerouac. I have reviewed most of his beautifully, if painfully, written works that illuminated the middle third of the 20th century for those of us who had hungry “be-bop” rhythm- craving ears to listen and blossoming word- starved eyes to read. On the top of the pyramid, way up on top as it turns out, of course, is the master work of beatitude, “On The Road”. That mad adventure of a Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady-mastered-minded, now very lost hitchhike old road, fast car-driving, white-lined, two-laned road America, even at a remove, gave us a way to plod through those lonely Eastern (or Western) nights when the road was dark and we wandered to find some light, even if only a flicker from someone else’s lantern in the distant skyline. Thanks, Ti Jean.

In a very direct sense, but a bad, bad sense, as this documentary, poignantly at times, makes very clear, that vision projected out beyond those lonely, hard fought roads was Jack’s downfall. Jack’s vision of the pitfalls, pratfalls and punkishness of the modern world, as filtered through the stream-of-consciousness prism of a medieval-craving mind, crushed him beneath the weight of his new found notoriety, fame, and media and fan targetability after the too, too belated 1957 publication and positive reviews (and hurtful negative reviews, as well) of “On The Road.” Some writers might have craved the limelight generated by that notoriety; swinishly bellied-up and hogged it; cleared everyone else away from its reflected glow; asked for more, hell, demanded more; or, at least, wrapped it around themselves for the entire world to see. Novelist Norman Mailer, Jack’s near contemporary, comes readily to mind.

But not Jack. He, frankly, wrapped himself around that old favorite of an older generation of American writers, alcohol, to stop the ringing in his head that all the notoriety produced and that was fogging up his mind from creative activity. And, maybe, wrapped himself, as well, around his ever-hovering mother’s shield, which could also help explain his later literary and personal decline. But that is a separate story, and a lesser one for the subject here. The long and short of it was that Jack, San Francisco-ed, West Coasted, toasted, and roasted as “king of the beats” had to get away, away from the crowds, away from the questions, away from the acolytes. And get away not just anywhere but, like a lemming to the sea, to his Breton-rooted ocean. Well, before they became some kind of Mecca for the ill-at-ease of the world such a place in Northern California would either be Mendocino or Big Sur. Here, it comes up Big Sur courtesy of poet, bookman, and City Lights Bookstore entrepreneur, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And what comes out of it, beyond a deeper, deeper, drinking problem (to be kind) is a secondary masterpiece of Kerouacian word play and thought, the novel/confession/diary/ cry in the wilderness, “Big Sur”.

This documentary, including a run through of the cast of usual suspects seen in other, earlier such efforts reviewed in this space; his surviving (as of 2008) old “beat” buddies and old flames (including old, best buddy and inspiration Neal Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, keeper of the Neal "flame"), new aficionados, creative personalities influenced by Jack’s work, like Tom Waits and Dar Williams, and the usual crew of “talking heads” who add “color” to such productions walk, talk, and cry their way though the creative process that lead to “Big Sur”. Some of it is over-blown, some mere trade-puffing. However, collectively, they have some very decent insights into what Jack was trying to do, trying to work through, and trying to break out by his various sojourns to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur in an attempt to figure out his new world reality.

As a fellow aficionado I am here to say they all get part of the story right, including Lowell’s Paul Marion who has assigned himself the task of being the local “keeper” of the Kerouac flame. But, I am still left with a hole in my head about what the sodden Jack was all about in “Big Sur”, which when all is said and done, is not a masterwork on the level of “Road”, other than as an example of the maddening descend into hell. Unless great works can thrive and survive the bouts with alcohol. It is certainly left as an open question, this film commentary aficionados’ novel puffing aside, about its world view value, at least in my mind.

To give my two cents worth I do not believe that Kerouac ever got over his big man in a small pond status in youthful football-drenched Lowell and certainly never broke, despite Buddha-tranced, Desolation Angel momentarily escape, from that damn Catholic thing that drove, and inhibited, his work. I know that Catholic weight-heavy chain by heart, and his Gallic-derived version which is even worst, as well. One quick ride up the road to Lowell convinced me of that- Lowell is still that old beat mill town that Jack left long ago. But here is what you don’t realize until you get up close- there are about eight zillion Catholic churches there. Well maybe not that many but the place reeks of ritual, relics and that everlastin’ guilt. Guilt for living, guilt for not living, guilt at maybe living. Jesus, how did he get out alive, except by pure writerly inspiration. So watch this thing but just don’t get carried away with the “skinny” from the talking heads and other aficionados about “Big Sur’-go back to the roots and read the earlier Lowell-based stories, like “Maggie Cassidy”, for that.

Hey, She Ain’t No Lady-Redux-In Honor Of Rita Hayworth

Hey, She Ain’t No Lady-Redux-In Honor Of Rita Hayworth






From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin

[Dream sequel: Whiskey breath, rotgut whiskey fire breath and the bloated aftertaste of beer chasers, in need of a shave, maybe two with his five o’clock shadow although the time is still before noon, maybe a haircut trim, and a cold shower wouldn’t hurt after last night slept along the skid row docks near Benny’s Pub. He, Brendan Bradley, fresh off the ‘Frisco boats, the stinking oil tankers, walked, walked shamble walked, headed uptown, along the cobblestone pavement with its rutted indentations that bothered the hell out of his worn out feet, and his life. He heard the sound of Mayfair swell horse hoofs beating their time on the Central Park cobblestones behind him. He turned around to place the sound and there she was, blonde, naturally blonde he thought but he was willing to wait on that question.

Her carriage, one of those rent- by- the- hour tourista things that destroyed the quiet and mucked up the roads of half the big cities in the world, passed by almost tumbling him to the ground as it brushed beside him. He caught his balance just in time. She ordered the carriage stopped, waved a slight, very slight wave, like she had being doing to men since about, about eternity. And like eternity he came hither. Upon his approach she gave him a look, a look only a woman- hungry man can know. She asked for a cigarette, although he could see, see clear as day, that she had an enameled cigarette case sitting right on her lap, probably filled with expensive exotic cigarettes of unknown origin. He also could see, see clear as day, that she has a very, very expensive wedding ring prominently displayed on her finger. He hesitated for just a moment. Just that moment when he knew, knew, hell, knew as clear as day, that she was poison, well-wrapped poison, but poison. She would lead him to unknown lower depths, maybe even to the gallows. He offers a cigarette, a Camel…]

A few days later Brendan, hell let’s not be formal, everybody, every shipmate, every barroom boon companion, every bar girl from ‘Frisco to the Faroes called him Brownie, was sitting on the mussed up bed of one very blonde (question answered) Victoria Smythe, Mrs. Victoria Smythe (yes of one of the branches of that well-known high society New York Smythe family, if you are interested) mused that life takes some funny turns. A few nights back he was, newspaper for a pillow, sleeping the sleep of the damned (damn poor, he smirked) down in Skid Road wharves half an eye opened to the exploits of roaming jack-rollers. Last night, hell the last few nights, though he had definitely moved up the social ladder about fifteen steps, and moved up them in the arms of the previously mentioned Mrs. Smythe who just then was combing her hair not twenty feet away from him before her majestic vanity.

He, maybe anticipating her, was reviewing that first meeting, that first Central Park meeting, and that first offered cigarette hoping that he would not rue the day he did so. He laughed. A down and out seaman, “Brownie” Bradley, hits New York looking for… something. And he finds it without much trouble, although in the end it may be nothing but trouble.

Enter Victoria Smythe who just happened to be slumming on a per diem horse and buggy ride in Central Park and who, as fate would have it, a not uncommon fate at least in Central Park, bumped against a mere plebeian walker none to steady on his feet. Milady Smythe comes to the rescue and he/she/they are immediately smitten. Brownie paid the ticket and took the ride, despite that bell in his head ringing that please, please she is poison, and even a fool could tell that. But, no, old Brownie was bound and determined to pursue this deadly course, to play his hand until the end, also a not uncommon occurrence when one is smitten, although it is not always with blondes.

Of course, as he put his head down on those downy pillows to try to think things through, problem number one was that said Victoria was married, despite the messed up sheets he was sitting on, very married to a well-known banker, Arthur Winslow Smythe, from the great banking family branch, an older man with some serious physical disabilities and a perverse mental make-up. She made no excuses that she had married old Arthur strictly as a gold-digging proposition, he, Arthur, knew it, accepted it, accepted the ten thousand other men, and had made provision for that in his will on the off-chance that one Victoria Meacham got , well, as he called it “a little frisky.” Otherwise she got everything, everything he owned.

Naturally young, attractive, dear Victoria was fed up. Probably fed up from day one the way she pillow talk told it. Fed up with cranky, feisty, grabby Arthur in an almost murderous way. At least that was the way she had said it last night before the sheets got mussed up, although she laughed at the thought of murder and dismissed it out of hand. Brownie thought then though that he detected a little evil in the laugh but the whiskey, high shelf -bonded whiskey, Arthur whisky, not in need of beer chasers, and those pastel sheets got in the way. He thought though she would be crazy to upset the apple cart with the gold-plated set-up that she had going for her.

Problem number two, a more immediate problem, a problem of where he fit into the gold-plated set-up, was that Victoria and said hubby were going on a long sea voyage via the Panama Canal to their home port, ‘Frisco, on their yacht. Last night out of the blue she had practically taunted him with her purred “Hey, Brownie , you’re a sailor,” (but strictly playing Mrs. Smythe at that moment as the mister was sitting right across the dinner table), “ why don’t you come along as a crew member?” Okay Brownie, second chance, please, please don’t do it. Remember the bells? He signed on, no questions asked. Damn, he thought, after-thought once the Haig fog had worn off and the pastel sheets had faded in the morning sun glaring through the bay window. But from then on you know he was a goner.

Why? Well, up front, old Arthur has a partner, Grimes, who was also under Victoria’s spell, at least enough to try to assist her in getting rid of the old goat by any means necessary. See Grimes wanted the firm to himself and was willing to ally himself with the devil herself to get it. A little Victoria perfume, a little scotch (actually a lot of scotch), and couple of views of Victoria’s sheet collection and he was busy making the funeral arrangements, complete with wreath, for his dearly lamented partner. I don’t have to draw you a diagram on this proposition. Brownie knew nothing of this, was to know nothing of it, and was probably better off not knowing, that sweet very blonde Victoria was working all the angles. Grimes, of course, was more than delighted by Victoria’s new found acquisition, a skid row bum, perfect.

Here is the “skinny” on the plot to do in one Arthur Winslow Smythe, banker, in. Poison. Poison, pure and simple, except not some exotic snake oil stuff, or some chemist’s special blend, or anything like that. No, nothing but coffee or actually the caffeine in coffee. See the physical maladies that old Arthur had required him to take about twelve mediations just to allow him to operate without pain on a daily basis. The problem was that the various combinations were so delicately balanced that any extra stimulant would wreak havoc on his heart.

So the idea was that someone, and we now know who that someone is, and it is not Grimes, and it sure as hell isn’t Mrs. Smythe, is going to deliver the fatal dose (actually about six caffeine pills) to our boy Arthur when he is “pretty please” asked by Victoria to bring Arthur his nightly “meds.” All of this to be done during that leisurely trip to ‘Frisco. Sweet. And, of course, as a mere crew member Brownie can gain easy access to Arthur’s room on his Florence Nightingale mission and nobody will think anything of it. Even sweeter. And if anything gets screwed up we all know who the fall guy is.

But as such things do, the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. First, Grimes winds up dead, very dead. How? Well, Arthur might have been old, might have been perverse, and might have been susceptible to random acts of murder but he did not get where he was by playing the fool. Grimes had left one of his expensive cigarette butts (Orient’s Special Blend) in the bedroom ashtray of one Victoria Smythe after he had mussed up her pastel sheets one night during a planning session. The next morning Arthur, coming in to wish his lovely bride top of the day, spied it.

He then, suspicions aroused, caught on to the plan to do him in by hiring a detective to follow Grimes (and another one on Victoria, smart guy) and waited to play his hand out. One night late at the office down in Wall Street, after luring Grimes there on a business discussion, he just shot Grimes point- blank as he entered his office. Nerves of steel, nerves of steel not counted on by our co-conspirators. Then he went into his office and took, took about twelve caffeine pills, along with his regular medications. They found him the next morning slumped over his desk.

So Grimes was out, but so was Victoria. See, that will Arthur left behind stipulated that if there was any peculiarity about his death Victoria would get nothing, nada. Not one dime. They never did figure out what killed old Arthur but it sure was strange the way he died. And the fingerprints on his killer gun, and the ballistics, sealed it. Victoria, when last seen, was headed to cheap street with a one-way ticket, walking. Brownie? Well Brownie decided that New York City was just a little too small for him and his ways just then. Life’s lesson learned- he found out soon enough that not all femme fatales are on the level when the heat is turned up. Love, or what passed for love, will only take you so far though, and then justice, rough justice anyway has to come into play. Still, if you asked Blackie in the sober light of day whether he would do it again, would offer that Camel, hell, you know the answer. When there is a femme fatale around stand in line brother, just stand in line.

When Lady Day Chased The Blues Away, Again And Again-“Billie Holiday: Embraceable You”-A CD Review

When Lady Day Chased The Blues Away, Again And Again-“Billie Holiday: Embraceable You”-A CD Review 




CD Review

By Music Critic Seth Garth

Billie Holiday: Embraceable You, Billie Holiday, 2 CD set, Polygram    

Everybody, at least the everybodies who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, had at least heard the sad life story and junkie death of the legendary blue singer Billie Holiday. Knew that information either from having read her biography, the liner notes on her records (vinyl for those younger readers who have not become hip to the beauties of that old-fashion way to produce recordings in the current retro revival of that method), newspaper obituaries, or from the 1970s film starring Diana Ross (lead singer of Motown’s The Supremes). So everybody knew that Lady Day had come up the hard way, had had a hard time with men in her life and had plenty of trouble with junk, with heroin. Had turned her into some hustling gal with dark lights out of a Nelson Algren story about her daddy making her blues go away, had the “fixer” man making the pain going away for a moment. (I believe that the Prez, the great saxophonist Lester Young who himself blew many a high white note out to the China seas as the phrase went on the West Coast when he was “on” gave her that name. Put lady and day together and it stuck. He backed her up on many recordings, including here, and in many a venue, including New York cafĂ© society before they pulled her ticket. The name fit her as did that eternal flower arrangement, sweet gardenia speaking of sexual adventures and promise, in her hair)     

Yeah, that is the sad part, the life and times part. But if you listen to this CD under review like the other ones in this series and other compilations that I am reviewing at this time while I am in a “from hunger” wanting habits mood about Lady Day’s work like I get into every once in a while about music that moved, moves, me, spoke, speaks, to me. If you listen through this double CD you will also know why in the first part of the 21st century guys like me are still reviewing her work, still haunted by that voice, by that meaningful pause between notes that carried you to a different place, by that slight hush as she envelopes a song which kept your own blues at bay. I repeat kept your blues away whatever she suffered to bring that sentiment forward.

That last statement, those last two sentences are really what I want to hone in on here as I have previously since Billie Holiday is an acquired taste, and a taste which grows on you as you settle in to listen to whole albums rather than a single selection spending half the night turning over vinyl, flipping tapes, changing CDs if you don’t have multiple CD recorder, or grabbing the dial on an MP3 player. Here is my god’s honest truth though. Many a blue night when I was young, hell, now too, I would play Billie for hours, tune that vinyl over in my case, and my own silly blues would kind of evaporate. Nice right.

Here is the not nice part, maybe better the not respectful part for a sanctified woman’s voice and spirit.  Once a few years ago I was talking to some young people about Billie and, maybe under the influence of the Diana Ross film or from their disapproving parents, kind of wrote her off as just another junkie gone to seed. I shocked them, I think, when I said if I had had the opportunity I would have given Billie all the dope she wanted just for taking my own blues   away. That is why we still listen to that sultry, slinky, sexy voice today. 

Is everything in this CD or in her overall work the cat’s meow. No, toward the end in the 1950s you can tell her voice was hanging by a thread under the strain of all her troubles, legal and medical. But in the 1930sand 1940s, the time of her time, covering Cole Porter, Gershwin and Jerome Kern songs with a little Johnny Mercer thrown in, the time of Tin Pan Alley songs which seem to have almost been written just for her she had that certain “it” which cannot be defined but only accepted, accepted gratefully. 

Some of the songs here may be a little more uneven that her later work when she teamed up with serious jazz and blues players like the aforementioned Lester Young blowing out high white notes to the China seas while she basked in the glow of the lyrics. But just check out Our Love Is Here To Stay, One For My Baby, the title track Embraceable You and Day In Day Out and you will get an idea of what I am talking about. And maybe get your own blues chased away    


The Boy With Two Left Feet-With Fred Astaire And Ginger Roger’s 1935 Film Roberta In Mind

The Boy With Two Left Feet-With Fred Astaire And Ginger Roger’s 1935 Film Roberta In Mind






By Film Critic Emeritus Sam Lowell


Remember the expression made famous, or infamous depending on your perspective, about old soldiers never dying but just fading away. Well it appears that yours truly, Sam Lowell, now supposedly placed “out to pasture” is still taking every opportunity to sneak a comment or quasi-film review as he fades into the sunset. Today’s comment concerns a film review that new film critic Sandy Salmon did a few days ago on the 1935 film Roberta starring the prolific dance team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire with Paris and high fashion as the backdrop. Whatever the backdrop, whatever, as Sandy pointed out, the scriptwriter put down for plot the whole exercise was strictly as a vehicle for Rogers and Astaire bursting into song and/or dancing to the high heavens. Take that for what it is worth but what interests me is a comment Sandy made about his own youthful, well, two left feet, which made his social life, meaning his high school date life rather tenuous. Today I join the club, the club of two left feet dreamers dreaming that they were sweeping some damsel off her feet, or at least keeping off her feet, Fred Astaires.        

Naturally a story goes with it. See in high school I was sweet, okay, okay I had a “crush” on this girl from my sophomore English class, Theresa Wallace, based on the great conversations we had about literature mostly I think then on the work of Thomas Hardy and various other English authors that I, and she, were crazy for. I think she liked me too although I was a little shy and backward about picking up any feminine hints and furthermore had heard nothing on the high speed grapevine which would convey that information with such candor that it would be the envy of any professional intelligence organization like the CIA or NSA today . The big thing that I was interested in was whether she was taken, “going steady” in the terms of the day. That question got answered in the negative fortunately for in our neighborhood, among the corner boys in the know, if a girl was taken then that signaled “hands-off” as a question of honor although I later, too late, found out that tradition was honored more in the breech than the observance. The big thing here was that Theresa was “single.”         

We were having a conversation during lunch break one day, don’t ask me what the gist of the conversation was, when out of the blue Theresa mentioned that he parents were really strict, were hard-shell 12th Street Baptists which I guess then was pretty serious stuff although I had my own problems with my Roman Catholic religion so I wasn’t in a position to evaluate the seriousness of her family’s religious bent. What she then said which gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach was that they would not allow her to go out on dates, not with boys, not on double dates, nothing except church sponsored socials heavily chaperoned. The next thing she said though sent me to heaven or something like that, happy anyway. She, after something like a civil war with her parents when she described the situation to me, had persuaded them to let her go to the Spring Frolic, the big sophomore class dance. She had to go alone or with her girlfriends but no boys were coming to the door and no boys were to take her home. I guess from the restrictions it was a close thing whether they would let her dance with boys at the dance.

The important thing was that she was wondering whether I was going or not. Now usually I avoided school dances (church ones too) like the plague after what happened in seventh grade at the Christmas dance which I will describe a little shortly. My idea for Theresa before she told me about her parents strictures was maybe ask her to the movies or to go to Doc’s Drugstore to listen to the jukebox but not to a dance, no way. But Theresa gave me such a smile while she was asking if I was going or not it put me in a quandary. Then she said although I couldn’t pick her up she would meet me at the dance and we could have a few dances together if I liked. If I liked. You know I was going to the dance after that invitation come hell or high water.                
      
That brings up the why of my serious avoidance of dances. Back in seventh grade I was something of a good guy for girls to talk too without being fresh, showing some respect. For that I caught the eye of Betsy Binstock, the prettiest girl in seventh grade, who came up to me one day around Thanksgiving and asked me if I would take her to the Christmas dance. You know what I said so we don’t even have to go into that. I was thrilled but I also knew that I knew nothing about dancing except some silly stuff I had seen on American Bandstand where the kids were really cool in their dance steps. So I, after my first full-press getting ready for a date (mouthwash, deodorant, hair oil, etc.) picked up Betsy and we walked the half mile or so to the junior high school we attended. The dance, as always, was held in the gym festooned to try to hide the fact that it was a gym and not a dance hall. Unsuccessfully. I was excited just to be seen with Betsy and I noticed guys, guys I hung around with too, checking me out on my good luck. Once the dance began there were several songs played on the cranky record player which because we are talking about the pristine age of roll and roll which did not require dancing close together I was able to get through.

Then the other shoe fell, fell on Betsy. The junior DJ who was working the record player played a slow one, played Save The Last Dance For Me (of course I would remember the name of the song that would do me in). So we started to dance which Betsy was very good at. Needless to say I was not and accidently tripped over her feet causing her to fall. That fall was the bitter end. For the rest of the evening-the very long evening- Betsy made a point of limping every chance she got. Worse, worse in the seventh grade social universe, she let Lenny Balfour take home. Done for.

With that sad ass backdrop story in mind I decided that in the few weeks remaining until the Spring Frolic I would take some dance lessons from a friend of mine’s older sister. I swore him to secrecy and he held up his end of the bargain. His sister did the best she could and although I had improved somewhat every step I took was cause for a nervous breakdown on my part, maybe hers too. So the big night came. I was dressed to look good (what the hell you do learn some social graces for if not for being around girls, women) and Theresa came in a little later with a girlfriend looking I swear like a delicate bud, like some Botticelli Venus. We both blushed a bit when she spotted me. Once again, pretty much the norm in rock and roll times at dances, the first few were fast ones where you could just gyrate on your own and cause no pain. Just before intermission the paid profession DJ played a slow one to end the first half of the dance. Played Moon River I think. Things did not go well so I will confess to a little forgetfulness on the song played. But here is why things did not go well. Theresa stepped all over my feet. At intermission both of us flustered Theresa said maybe we should go down to the nearby beach instead of staying at the dance since she said she had something to explain to me.             


As we walked down to the beach Theresa, half in tears, told me because of her family’s religious views she had never really learned how to do any close dancing. She had asked her girlfriend, and had sworn her to secrecy, to teach her some steps, but she just could not get the hang of it and had been worried that I might find fault with her since I was such a good dancer. (She didn’t know only because of her being all over my feet I didn’t get a chance at hers.) She was sorry that she had two-left feet. I mentioned, no, I confessed to her, my own fragile efforts. We laughed. Then I suggested maybe we should start a club for people with two-left feet. She replied “with only two members.” Oh, yes, yes indeed. That remark got us through high school together-even through the senior prom.