Friday, December 12, 2014

'Do Not Sell at Any Price': A masterful exploration of an arcane musical world

Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records
Amanda Petrusich
New York

Balance is the key here, in the best non-fiction I’ve read this year.

“Do Not Sell at Any Price” is an exemplary work that demonstrates that a non-fiction narrative can be just as compelling as any fictional one. By virtue of solid research and investigation, coupled with good writing, author Amanda Petrusich creates, rather than glib feature writing, authentic insights into far more than the specific topic at hand.

“Do Not Sell” delves into the cloistered and idiosyncratic world of music collectors – seekers of vintage music on 78 rpm records. Between 1925 and 1948, these brittle shellac discs were the way music was recorded, vended, and preserved, produced by a profusion of companies large and small. In those days of cultural and communication isolation, vast amounts of marginal, eccentric, and original performers were captured. The savants that collect these sonic rarities are obsessed figures, some possessed with a quasi-messianic sense of mission to rescue these lost voices from oblivion.

Petrusich brings the scene to life with an impeccably balanced approach equal parts research, interviews, profiles, and critical analysis, ensconced in a first-person framework as she goes along on the quest with some of her subjects, sometimes hilariously. She goes so far as to learn how to scuba-dive so that she can search the muddy bottom of the Milwaukee River for some of the fabled lost Paramount recordings. (Save the receipts; I believe those lessons ae tax-deductible.)

Most important of all, Petrusich is wise to herself. She states early on, “I wanted collectors to reveal their desires and methodologies so I could dissect their work and devise grand statements about our cultural moment. In response, collectors sneered, chortled, or told me to fuck off.” From the get-go, Petrusich simultaneously acknowledges and lets go of her preconceptions – then gets on the ground and saturates herself in the details.

Petrusich’s voice is here, but it’s not cloying or cute, pompous or sententious. As one should, she asks good questions, listens well, and pulls her conclusions from the evidence and her experience. She brings to life the characters that inhabit this alternate universe and gives them space to express themselves – and they are quite eloquent.

Remember, these fanatics aren’t academics but hobbyists – living outside the mainstream of cultural dialogue, creating their own canons and alternative histories, sometimes sharing their thoughts with others, sometimes remaining clapt in near-complete isolation, inhabiting what seems to be a self-constructed dream world, addicted to control over their basement-level kingdoms. “. . . collecting had clearly become . . . a functional way of rebelling against mainstream culture. . . . rejecting a society that felt homogenized and unforgiving,” Petrusich writes.

Says collector Ian Nagoski of his ilk, “’ ‘Zwigoff and Crumb and innumerable others, these guys are definitely discontents in a Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents kind of way. They’re looking at the world and seeing it as untenable. The world is sick. And yet here is this thing that affirms that there’s something about it that’s beautiful. But it’s forgotten, or lost, or separate from day-to-day reality. But if you could just put it back together, then you could reconstruct this gone world, this kind of life that was once worth living, and make that into your own life, and then it would be okay or tolerable for you.’”

One of the most interesting considerations Petrusich brings out is the concept that the historical narrative is always in flux, subjective, squishy – determined by accidents, destruction, bias, prejudice, and the sheer inability to deal. Cultural worth fluctuates like stock prices. The vital expression of the culture lies first here, and then there, and over there where you never expected it to manifest (that my childhood comic-book heroes are now seen as the foundation of a world-beloved secular mythology seems to me ridiculous and awesome, simultaneously).

She quotes another collector, Nathan Salsburg, “’Another danger of the canon being having been engineered – accidentally or on purpose – by collectors is that scads of things were excluded, either because they didn’t conform to a collector’s taste of because there just wasn’t enough time or space for anyone to properly process them.’”

The paradigm of the curator-as-impositioner-of-significance-meaning-and-context is, of course, Harry Everett Smith, the legendary compiler of The Anthology of American Folk Music, quite accurately described by Greil Marcus as “an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on stylistic shifts within an archaic musicology.” This 1952 creation helped spark the folk revival and blues renaissance, both of which folded into rock – and still surfaces in genres as diverse as grunge and Americana. Smith’s achievement was to select and assemble an intuitive masterpiece – a narrative of outcast voices summoning raw feeling and captivating sounds. Since then, supplemental and alternative compilations have emerged. Companies such as Revenant, Dust-to-Disc, and Yazoo and individual efforts such as Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Good Time, and End Time Music and People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs make the case that there is much material to be processed yet.

Petrusich is not an ironic observer. She can hear what the enthusiasts share with her, describing the raw, unmediated sound of the turn of last century, before media surrounded us. “And I understood, for a moment, what collectors meant when they moaned about what was lacking in contemporary music: that pure communion, that unself-consciousness, that sense that art could still save us, absolve us of our sins. We know better than to expect that now.”

There is something to be said about the parallel I pick up here between collecting and the act of creating itself – another lonely occupation populated by shall-we-say-unique-types who dredge for signs of significance, and reveal their insights . . . or don’t. The nature of obsession drives most creative types inward, and the shelter of eccentricity often protects the fragile. What is an artist but one who, unsatisfied with things as they are, crafts their own worlds? What do you call someone who discovers a new set of meanings – a visionary or a nutjob?

But I digress. “Do Not Sell” does more – it makes the reader come to terms with his or her own acquisitive tendencies (confession: I have stacks of 78s, and 45s, and LPs, and cassettes . . . it was difficult for me to throw out my 8-track tapes). Most importantly, it inspires us to seek out the sounds that are the basis of all this fuss. Few of us have the wherewithal to match Petrusich’s subjects, but the digital revolution means that nearly all the musics of the world can be enjoyed, absorbed, passed on. This book ties it all together.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A salute to Dennis

Dennis Oviatt on his last day at the helm of Cafe Food. (All photos by/courtesy of Bonnie Chaim)

Here’s the thing. I don’t think that Dennis Oviatt’s Café Food ever got any press until the day it closed.

He spent 21 years running the eatery in the Aspen Place shopette at 2095 30th St. in Boulder. For a full 40 years it occupied the space, under three owners before Dennis as well. (The site is being bulldozed to create new Google office space.) When he closed on November 21, most of his many faithful customers came by to get one more magnificent lunch from him.

 His menu was simple – soups and sandwiches. Yet I and other regulars could go day after day, gulping down his signature borscht, or his vegetarian chili, or his clam chowder. His sandwiches had the same ingredients as those at any chain sandwich place. Yet they were a thousand times more delicious than the usual fare, more filling, more satisfying somehow. And I would crawl over broken glass to get one of his famous German crusty rolls – sometimes we’d just buy a bag of them to munch on. How did he do it?

I think it was a function of Dennis’ unique character. He was completely honest, for one thing. If he thought you looked terrible, he said so. If he disagreed with your order, he’d try to get you to change it. He made you bus your table. And, if he was feeling lighthearted, you could joke and laugh with him, get into a delightful conversation that made you wish you didn’t have to sit down and eat.

Dennis was for real. He cared about what he was doing. He never took a day off. He came in, he set up, he served along with an ever-changing roster of assistants, he cleaned up, he went home. Day after day, in serene consistency, he fulfilled himself by making good food for people in his own modest establishment.

The reason why he never got any press? He didn’t advertise. This drove every single ad rep in town crazy, and they all eventually stopped coming by and trying to sell him and became regulars as well. Dennis had all the business he needed, and didn’t see any reason to bring in more. He was immune to every sales pitch, technique, contract, and offer. He wouldn’t even try some advertising for free, on spec, something a media company just doesn’t do until it has tried everything else.

Well, the system does not know what to do with people who won’t advertise. This is the life blood of any media enterprise, so inextricably bound up with the business of news that the mechanism hardly recognizes a story that doesn’t have some kind of profit motive behind it.

What motivation is there to cover the activities of any business save to promote it? What leverage does any story’s subject have if he or she is not, in the end, selling something? Given the state of things here in the post-journalistic age, reporters are mostly just content creators for the bar down the street, the favored cause, the politician in sync with the publishers’ agendas, the institutions they’re indebted to for information.

The late Bill Vielehr was little-known, too. He sculpted for decades in his little rattrap studio at the end of Pearl Street in Boulder, getting a commission here and there, gradually increasing his popularity He kept his head down, scraped along, kept making work. He kept all his rejection letters in a drawer in his office. It contained more than 1,400 separate expressions of disinterest. 1,400. He was still going strong when he died suddenly on October 11.

What Dennis and Bill had in common was the knowledge of what they were good at, a dedication to doing the best work they could, day and day out; and a sense of proportion – being content with working to the limits of their capabilities, but no further. Who can say what worth it is to craft huge, shiny, serrated sculptures? What’s the value of a quiet little lunch spot? Who’s to tell these guys that they didn’t dream big enough, or were on the wrong track? And who cares if neither of them got a write-up until their work was done? They fed us.

Bill Vielehr at the Boulder International Film Festival, 2014.
At our best we measure ourselves against the template of our ambitions on a daily basis. Motivated properly, we work as hard as we can to fulfill our lives, to fill them with meaning. Hacking away at stories here at my desk, dropping them into the media stream, hoping they reach those who need them, I feel like I have some sense of what these guys went through. Dennis and Bill toiled away in obscurity, and affected far more people than you might think. I still love to watch the kids playing among Bill’s sculptures in the park here. I will always be able to taste that crusty roll.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

5 Early Poems


Baking bread honestly
Shatters the light
By strength of grace
So that it must creep
Tenderly along the walls
Of the morning kitchen
Brown and gold caressing
All reflecting the oh brave
Scent of fullness.
Pregnant, eternal moment
Grants quick to firm
Makes even stone
Slip like water
Under the throb and breath
Of light discordant, glorious.



There is nothing at the top
but light out cold screaming
and wind torrential, the rock
that suffers nothing and avoids nothing.
We cling, conquerors!
Only the snow moves, weaving
into an abyss.
What challenge is this?


The city uncorks its pigeons
Tattooing silhouette,
Impertinent and soaring
The blazing, glittering banners
Weaving improvisation
Above bones of steel.


decay and criticize
the phantoms who flicker
and return to wombs of ash.
laugh and lop
at unhurried warm life
chastise the flesh
threaten the sky
make death from baby's breath
shake disaster out of ingenuity
Daily mortify. innocence
with blind whips
is handled cruelly. it's suicide
and screams look like laughs


Dream #4

The moon probes with fierce light
the childlesss woman, bare and lost
who speaks with lucid hatred,
donates chrysanthemums, and sense-
les, grins more frightfully.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Love

Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll in "The Prisoner of Zenda" -- the romantic paradigm.
Love, o love is sweetly flowing
On its banks are lilies growing
And the waters all bestowing
Love, love, beautiful love.

Come ye children, sweetly gather
Learn to bless and love each other
It will bind your hearts together in
Love, love, beautiful love.

 Shaker song

First of all, this not about filial or fraternal love. This is about the love you sign up for.

I had planned this to be to be a rollicking survey of my romantic relationships. After a short time, it became clear that would be sad, painful, and embarrassing. I have been a romantic fool.

In fact, if I look at it from a crazy, non-constructive way, my every romantic relationship up to the present one has been a failure. Which is how I looked at it. And, what’s even less helpful, the details of these failures are mostly locked away inside me. I learned little over a remarkably long period of time with a number of different beloveds.

I know nothing about women. Ask around. Particularly women. My conceptions of love were formed by poets and paper-heart makers, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. As far as I can tell, my ancestors felt brief urges of passion, mated, and then settled down into monochrome normality. (After they died, I found out about their deeply repressed, tragic emotional lives. Still waters, etc.) The particular example my parents set was not particularly comforting or helpful. As a kid, when I thought at all about girls I cued on love songs, romance films, and storybook endings. The peculiar cultural window I looked through made me model myself much more on Ronald Coleman than Peter Fonda. You can guess the results.

When I began grappling with the opposite sex (fortunately, at 15 I was 6’3” and weighed 150 lbs., which made it easy to fight off my advances), bliss and disaster alternated. My first love played the alto sax, which probably says a lot about my devotion to Art Pepper. She loved marshmallow crème, laughed at my jokes, and was a great kisser.

But I began a long tradition of finding someone who could bear the extravagant weight of my urgent, undeveloped, and unmitigated emotional demands. I was scrawny and needy, and socially retarded. No one could more theatrically misinterpret reality than I could, and still can. I could perform love, I could act the swain. I wrote poems, sang songs, acted like a clown, ached, fought, made love, burned with despair. But I still hadn’t a clue.

In addition, be narcissistic and bipolar impairs selection skills. For years I found myself involved with women who were dangerously unstable, coldly remote, or simply baffled and increasingly enraged by the gap between my occasionally charming initial self-presentation and the swamp of dysfunction I would unleash as soon as she relaxed. After which I would stagger away from the burning crash site, wondering what went wrong.

Wanting is a kind of thirst that is satisfied only shortly. In my case, it has been largely poisonous. Desire is theft. Love is music. And I can barely tell them apart. What’s love, then? Would true love prevail?

Approaching the 20-year mark of my (so far) successful second marriage – successful denoting purely that it is still in effect – I can say that I am just grateful I haven’t been beaten to death in my sleep yet. (A displaced paramour once pulled a gun on me, a unique and refreshing experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.)

After many years, it finally is what it is. Little is like we thought it might be, and we are very different than we imagined we might be. Life has ground away at us, revealing ourselves to each other as completely as two people can. We have seen the best and the worst of each other, and I think that if you can do that and not flinch, and keep looking into the other’s eyes, you have something.

Real love is forged by the demands of necessity. Real love mysteriously accrues as the years are lived together. It’s no musical, no slow-motion gambol at waves' edge. You have to be damn stubborn and endure.

At the same time, I am learning to let go of how I think things should be between us, of creating some kind of static template of relationship satisfaction. Developing, despite myself, some compassion.

And humility. Another annoying problem is that someone that close to you can call you on your shit. Every time. There’s no place to hide. And so, by dint of the constant erosion caused by being wrong, only over the course of the last decade have I learned that I may actually BE wrong at times and, even worse, that my wife is right. And of course, once one person might be right . . . you can probably see how trying this has all been for her, she’s explained it to me a thousand times.

Love is a verb that must be incessantly acted upon, never shifting from present to past tense. Infatuations just happen. Love is a job, and its own reward. The tiny pleasures and hard-won satisfactions of each day are the rewards of working together to create a life and a home together.

When I keep my head down and keep pushing through, somehow it works. It’s a closeness and peace that flares up protectingly when times are tough. It can’t be erased or taken from. It’s knowing who I can count on, and finally accepting that I can be counted on, too. Maybe that’s what love really is for me – knowing that I am capable of transcending my own selfishness and stupidity, at least with my single someone, at least some of the time.

Love isn’t a condition. It’s an action. It’s maddening, it’s complex, it’s contradictory, it’s earned.

Next time: Work

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

CULTURAMA: 12 great French composers

I don’t despise the French,

Allow me to apologize. I know it’s pretty standard to hate them. They’ve always been good to me, though – very tolerant of my gangster-film French and American enthusiasm.

I particularly love their classical music. Normally I don’t ascribe to the virtue of one nation’s culture over another, but something about their music is special. Maybe it’s the dynamic tension between the huge cultural institutions and oversight France produces, and the counterbalancing impulse not only to rebel against conventions, but to disregard them entirely. Keeps things fresh.

Sometimes this combination of gutsiness and playfulness can backfire, leading to thin, arch work that doesn’t resonate. Still, the batting average is pretty damn good, and the dozen listed here are consistently rewarding to hear.

Here’s a subjective list of my 12 favorites. Please note that there are many that almost made it, and are certainly worth listening to – Halevy, de Machaut, Delerue, Auric, des Prez, and more. I am counting out Chopin and Stravinsky – each has typed himself unmistakably as a son of his country of origin. AND there are many French composers that drive me NUTS – Gounod, Massenet, Rameau, Lalo, Lully, Ravel, Boulez . . .

So here we go.

Marin Marais (1656-1728)

Master of the viola de gamba, he was not afraid of complexity and dissonance, and created conceptual pieces such as “Le Labyrinthe,” “La Gamme,” and the “Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille.” A busy guy, he had 19 children. His life was horribly misrepresented in the film “Tout les Matins du Monde.”

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He hid under his mentor Sainte-Colombe’s special practice treehouse in order to steal his bowing moves. The little sneak.


Sonnerie de St-Genevieve du Mont-de-Paris
Suite from “Alcyone”
Le Labyrinthe

Francois Couperin (1668-1733)

Called Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from his musical relatives. It’s unknown whether this bothered them tremendously. An adventurous keyboardist who fused French and Italian styles and who vastly extended the expressive quality of the harpsichord. His work inspired Bach, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Ravel.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: To sell some of his early sonatas, he packaged them under a fake Italian name – Italian composition was all the rage and a French composer of the time couldn’t get arrested. They were wildly successful.


Pieces de clavecin
Two Mass settings for organ

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

For some reason, most classical music lovers refer to the “three B’s” – Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. What about Berlioz? He was the first French Romantic. He invented modern orchestration (his ideal orchestra was 467 strong and included 30 pianos, 30 harps, and 12 cymbals); he was a masterful conductor; incredibly literate, a devotee of Virgil, Goethe, and Shakespeare, his criticism and memoirs are still instructive and enjoyable.

But somehow he squeezed “Symphonie Fantastique,” “Harold en Italie,” the song cycle “Les nuits d’ete,” “Messe solennelle,” “L’enfance du Christ,” “La damnation de Faust,” and the magnificent grand opera “Les Troyens” – the last so grand that it wasn’t performed uncut until 147 after its composition.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: Always falling in love, he basically stalked his first wife, actress Harriet Smithson, for years until she gave in. It didn’t work out. He planned to murder a fiancée that rejected him. Five years before he died, he wrote: “My contempt for the folly and baseness of mankind, my hatred of its atrocious cruelty, have never been so intense. And I say hourly to Death: ‘When you will.’ Why does he delay?” Not a happy guy.


Les Troyens
Symphonie Fantastique

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

The funniest of all classical composers, Offenbach could mock anything and get away with it. He composed more than 100 comic works; his final work, “Les contes d’Hoffman,” was decidedly serious but still delightful.


Orphee aux enfers
Le belle Helene
Les contes d’Hoffman

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

“Carmen.” That’s all you need to know. The birth of real passion and verismo in opera with an unforgettable and complex central figure.


Jeux d’enfants
Symphony in C

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)

Although he is better-known for his somewhat fluffy “Requiem” and “Pelleas et Melisande,” his piano pieces are fascinating, as are his songs, and chamber pieces. His work is clear, unified, as graceful as falling water. He was a marvel at the organ, but despised it, and left behind no compositions for it.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTE: He lost a job at a regional church as its organist when he showed up to play for Sunday mass still in his evening clothes from the night before, having never gone to bed.


Chanson d’Eve
Piano Trio
Works for solo piano

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

“For better or worse Claude Debussy must be seen as perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth-century music.” – David Mason Greene. His ears, perched on his bumpy oversized head could hear what others could not, and got it down on paper.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He was, according to Mary Garden, who originated the role of Melisande in “Pelias et Melisande,” a “very, very strange person.” His funeral procession moved through the abandoned streets of Paris during a German bombardment of World War I. He was played, oddly enough, by Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s fanciful documentary “The Debussy Film.” His wife had previously been Faure’s mistress.


Images for orchestra
Etudes for piano
La Mer

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

A free spirit, he is still ahead of his time. His work, embossed with absurd titles such as “Cold Dreaming,” “Four Flabby Preludes,” and “Desiccated Embryos” was alternately brilliant deconstructions of staid musical forms, and new, unbound work that didn’t obey harmony, rhythmic pattern, or any other musical norm. Ravishingly beautiful.

QUALIFYING ANECDOTES: He purchased 12 identical gray corduroy suits, and simply rotated through them day after day. He made sketches of imaginary buildings and kept them in a filing cabinet. Some of his best compositions were found and published after his death – they had fallen behind the back of his piano and Darius Milhaud found them there after Satie’s death.


Works for piano

Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957)

Like many of the nationalist composers of his time – Bartok, Janacek, Kodaly, Dvorak, and Smetana – Canteloube was a much a musicologist as a composer, traveling and researching regional, vernacular music with vigor. His “Songs from the Auvergne” took nearly 30 years to compile and complete.


Chants d’Auvergne

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

One of the most knowledgeable, conductors, and teachers in history, Boulanger was an incredibly gifted interpreter of music. She trained, among others, Copland, Glass, Gardiner, Quincy Jones, Carter, Barenboim, and Piazzola. In her own right, her delicate songs and chamber pieces are wonderful – and unjustly overlooked.


3 Pieces for Cello and Piano
Fantasy for piano and orchestra

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Absolutely true to himself, Poulenc could write both the most absurd and transgressive works (“Les mamelles de Tiresias,” in English “The Tits of Tiresias,” after Apollinaire, whom Poulenc met shortly before the latter’s war-wound-related death) and the most movingly spiritual (“The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” “Litanies a la vierge noire”). “I wanted music to be clear, healthy, and robust,” he wrote.


The Dialogues of the Carmelites
Les mamelles de Tiresias

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Still far ahead of us. His slippery, spiky, otherworldly journeys can drive you mad, but if you sit down and push through them, the listening will reward you. He could and did absorb Western and non-Western styles; like a sculptor, he subordinated the elements he needed and used them to create a singular voice. He was a masterful organist. His study of birds led to many of his most striking compositions, such as “Oiseaux Exotiques” and “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” He was imbued with a profound sense of God, and this intense spirituality permeated his meditations, such as his “Concert for the End of Time,” his nature studies such as “From the Canyon to the Stars,” and opera and oratorio such as his epic “Saint Francoise d’Assise.” He said, “I want to write music that is an act of faith, a music that is about everything without ceasing to be about God.”


Catalogue d’oiseaux
Des Canyons aux etoiles . . .
Saint-Francois d’Assise

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

CULTURAMA: "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Perfect fools

Comedy is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Therefore, Shakespearean comedy carries the highest degree of difficulty possible, for performers and audience members alike.

Luckily, Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, actually funny. It takes an astute director and ensemble to flesh out the promise of those gags and the real feelings couched in that antiquated language. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is blessed with that – and it’s triumphantly hilarious, one of the best shows they’ve staged in recent memory.

This show will cure anyone with Shakespeare-itis. You know if you’re afflicted – your eyes begin to roll back into your head when you hear iambic pentameter, doublets and hose give you the conniptions, and you fall into a narcoleptic coma well before the end of Act V.

Well, there are reasons the Bard is the Bard. He knows how to tell a story, he knows how to write dialogue, his characters are lively and intense. No amount of horrible English classes or other forced indoctrinations to his work will change that.

At CSF, everyone from director Lynne Collins down to the humblest supernumerary is focused on the same thing – making us laugh. They succeed splendidly. Collins has set her ensemble free: free to find the funny and work it. The dreaded Shakespearean language barrier is vaporized; you can follow the action with the same kind of relaxed clarity the players being to their performances.

The production is set in summery Spain in the mid-1930’s, a time when liberalism and conservative values warred bloodlessly, until the region tipped into civil war at the end of the decade. The warm, bright colors of Andrea Bechert’s attractive, straightforward set, anchored around a functional fountain in its center, give the proceedings a cartoonish flush.

The gist of the matter is love lost, found and confused. Geoff Kent and Karen Slack are perfectly matched as the witty, warring Benedick and Beatrice, two madcap personalities who are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other. Neither is afraid to bend the play’s language, play with its rhythm, bring the audience into their confidence, or break up a speech with an apt bit of business or touch of physical comedy.

The play’s second, “serious” couple, Hero and Claudio are equally well-drawn by Caitlin Wise and Ben Bonenfant. The paterfamilias of the piece, Leonato, is played so adeptly and with such gravitas by Sam Gregory that he seems to gather the moral focus of the piece. Whether the trickster or the tricked as the plot demands, he radiates authority and emotion in clear and ringing tones.

Steven Patterson is just great as Don Pedro, the brother-in-arms of Benedick and Claudio. His rough-hewn, teasing soldier’s wit is pitched perfectly. The biggest surprise of the night is Michael Kane. He begins the evening as the peevish villain of the piece, Don John (his agonized melancholy is a great choice for the character) and then reappears, unrecognizably, as the affable, demented and stooped constabulary sidekick, Verges.

His crime-fighting partner is Chip Persons, as wonderfully daft a Dogberry as I can remember seeing. Clad in beret, luxuriant mustachios, and crossed bandoliers, he murders the language and the crowd with his stylized gestures and blissful ignorance.

It takes great diligence to strip away the layers of scholarship, and the intimidating reputation of Shakespeare, to get to the essence of his work and make a compelling show out of it. “Much Ado” does. Anyone who needs a laugh should snap up tickets for this show as soon as possible.

"Hell's Hinges"

This analysis first appeared in Senses of Cinema in June of 2005.

Hell’s Hinges
(1916, 64 min.)
Directed by: Charles Swickard, (William S. Hart, Clifford Smith)
Written by: C. Gardner Sullivan
Produced by: Thomas H. Ince
Cinematography: Joseph H. August

It seems highly unlikely now that William S. Hart could ever have achieved the iconic status he possesses in cinema culture. Even during his heyday, he was viewed by some critics and moviegoers as stolid, horse-faced, with an emotional disposition of slight but disquieting constipation (1).
However, an aggregation of personal qualities and external circumstances propelled him to the forefront of the national consciousness. In 68 films created over a mere 11-year span (1914-1925), he crafted an authoritative and compelling archetype, and created a moral/mythic context for film Westerns that still defines the genre today.
“Hell’s Hinges” is his most emblematic film, one whose simple power and apposite impulses transcends its most egregious clichés. It is at once reactionary and revolutionary, a film in which deeply felt piety gives its bearer license to unleash Armageddon – an emblematic American gesture that would find its way into other genres, and even invade the historical realm.
Like many who upheld the mythos of America’s Old West, Hart was an Easterner. He was born in Newburgh, New York, in 1864. His father was an itinerant miller, and his impoverished family traveled widely during his childhood. Some of this time was spent in the West and Midwest, at the tail end of the frontier period.
Though it is likely that his contact with this rapidly vanishing culture was glancing and superficial, the shy, daydreaming youth later inflated these memories, beefing them up into a recalled childhood that teemed with intimate contacts with Indians and famous frontiersmen. Hart would parlay this sense of anointment into a weighty sense of self-importance and authenticity in his work.
Hart spent nearly 25 years on American stages, working himself up into the leading ranks of Broadway performers. Adept at Shakespeare, he made his name as the original Messala in the first theatrical version of “Ben-Hur”. Then, in 1905, he filled his first Western role – that of the villainous Cash Hawkins in a production of “The Squaw Man.” From then on, “audiences … associated him with cowboy characters.”(2)
In 1913, Hart was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio, when he saw his first Western film. “It was awful! … I was an actor and I knew the West … The opportunity that I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door.”(3) Within a year, Hart set out for California and the movie business.
By the time “Hell’s Hinges” was made, Hart had appeared in 25 films, and captured the audience’s imagination, becoming one of film’s first genuine stars. In this, he was fortunate to fall in with pioneer film producer, and former fellow thespian, Thomas H. Ince, who applied the techniques of Ford’s assembly line to the nascent movie industry, cranking out a massive amount of product in an efficient manner – presaging the Hollywood system (4).
Given his head (and grossly underpaid) by Ince, Hart brought new qualities to the Western, which previously had been known best for chases, scenes of gunplay, and the broad emotionalism of actors such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson (another New Yorker, nee Max Aronson). Although the theme of the bad man achieving redemption through sacrifice was not unknown in the Western, Hart’s restrained gravity on screen gave new weight to as-yet-uncliched figure of the domesticated outlaw.
Hart’s subdued intensity was a marked change from the over-the-top histrionics of his predecessors. His practiced skill at manipulating an audience was honed through his incessant film work. Though his hamminess breaks through at times, the essential, “manly” stillness of his screen persona would be imitated by countless followers – most notably John Wayne.
Hart’s performances were also imbued with the sentiments of the Victorian era – giving a strangely stilted, almost Puritanical bent to even his most vicious characters. In the Hart universe, women are either catspaws of evil or vessels of light, to be spurned or worshipped. Children are devices to rouse pity and inspire sacrifice. In “Hell’s Hinges,” the simple cowboy film becomes a vehicle for an epic confrontation between good and evil.
The actions of men, or their tragic inability to act, dominate here. “Hinges” opens with the depiction of an anti-hero in unique garb – that of a minister. “Bob” Henley (Jack Standing), seen preaching to an assembly of adoring women, is characterized in the film’s intertitles as a mother-dominated, “weak and selfish youth.”
His superiors see seem as unable to stand up to the harsh demands of a city parish, and decide to send him West, “where the people live simply and close to God.” This is in keeping with the common cultural assumption of the time that the West was a more “real,” elemental place, simpler yet more challenging, a place where Darwinian processes could work themselves out unhindered. (Henley, told of this decision, fantasizes briefly about ministering to some lovely, flirtatious senoritas.)
Accompanied by his not-so-subtly-named sister Faith (Clara Williams), Henley finds himself in, not Hell, but a remarkable facsimile thereof. (The brother/sister relationship eerily echoes Hart’s own life. Frequently engaged, briefly married, he spent most of his life with his sister Mary Ellen, who jealously tended him. (5)) An introductory gunfight, taken in an overhead long shot, emphasizes the chaotic, antlike scurrying of the town’s inhabitants.
As was common in the Old West, Placer Centre – better known as Hell’s Hinges – is dominated by the pleasure palace of Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth), who is characterized with casual racism as part Mexican, part snake. As the town’s Mephistopheles, he will bring all his evil talents to bear on destroying Christianity and its followers.
Hart is Miller’s confederate Blaze Tracey, who is indicated as wicked mainly by smoking, drinking, and grinning. (He shoots up a tin can that’s been decorated with a caricature of the new preacher – a nice metaphor for the relative flimsiness of Henley’s character.)
Tracey’s resolve to run the preacher out of town is stymied by his instant attraction to Faith. His poleaxed gaze at her is accompanied by the intertitle: “One who is evil, looking for the first time on that which is good.” At that point, the film’s double set of parallel actions kicks into gear. Henley’s fall is inevitable, as is Tracey’s rise and redemption. Later, in contrast to Henley’s salacious earlier fantasy, Tracey has a vision of the proverbial old rugged cross.
Like a war campaign, the town’s two sides invade each others’ territories. Miller’s soused and rowdy patrons swarm into the barn in which the town’s churchly folk, the “petticoat brigade,” hold their first service – until Tracey forces them out at gunpoint. Later, when Henley is seduced by Miller’s Dolly (Louise Glaum), the church folk, led by Tracey, march into Miller’s saloon as a body and retrieve their fallen shepherd. (One of the strongest shots in the picture is an angled shot that of Tracey marching down the main street toward the camera with the unconscious Henley draped over his shoulders.)
The spiritual coterie builds its church, with Tracey’s help – his conversion process is punctuated by a simple, affecting scene of him reading the Bible, cigarette in one hand, bottle of whiskey at his side. Ironically, Henley’s turn to drink renders him a near-imbecile, and when the town rowdies shout, “To hell with the church! Let’s burn her down!”, Henley gleefully snatches up a torch and leads the way.
A pitched battle results in Henley’s death, the expulsion of the faithful, and the immolation of the church – in one of the film’s many powerful images, Faith weeps over her brother’s corpse in the foreground, while behind, smoke boils and hurtles, wind-whipped, from the isolated figure of the burning house of worship.
The final sequence is undoubtedly what propelled the film to eventual inclusion on America’s prestigious National Film Registry in 1994. “Killin’ mad, and with a gun in each hand,” Tracey, who’s been conveniently out of town during the battle, hears of its outcome from a ragged band of refugees (what happens to the expelled “petticoat brigade”? we are never informed) returns to settle the score.
His extermination of Miller is offhand – blink and you’ll miss it. Filled with a new-found, (self) righteous vengeance, Tracey becomes a bloodthirsty, vindictive embodiment of both the “social gospel,” a popular 19th-century kind of spiritual Manifest Destiny, and its coefficient, “muscular Christianity,” which basically gave its proponents license to whip the tar out of scoffers, nonbelievers, and those of other faiths.
Rivetingly, Tracey backs the saloon’s ne’er-do-wells into a corner and shoots down the oil lamps, turning the building into an inferno (“Hell needs this town, and it’s goin’ back, and goin’ damn quick!”) Shooting down those who try to bolt, he holds the men at gunpoint until the last possible second, then allows them to flee. Remaining behind, Tracey then seems to break focus, wandering distractedly, the flames leaping up behind him. Some judicially placed flares of combustible material to the rear give Hart a hellish nimbus. It’s almost as though his descent into violence has temporarily transformed him into a demon as well, later echoed in Eastwood’s similar climax in 1992’s “Unforgiven.”
Hart strides out of the building and into the streets, moving toward the camera robotically, a death-dealing machine, like some ur-Terminator. Cowpokes and dance-hall girls scatter amid the swirling smoke, “like vague demons in some primitive hell,” (6) as the entire town burns to the ground. There is redemption for Hart alone, and it’s savage. In a peculiar foreshadowing of the Vietnam experience, he destroys the village in order to save it.
No wonder so many claimed the director’s credit for the film – although Charles Swickard is officially credited, it is generally acknowledged that Hart directed at least most of the film, with the help of long-time assistant Clifford Smith. Ince took credit for helming the fire scenes, (7) but the extraordinary strength of the film’s compositions can probably credited to Colorado-born photographer Joe August, who shot over 40 of Hart’s films and went on to be an Oscar-winning cinematographer of such Hollywood classics as “The Informer,” Laughton’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Gunga Din.” (8) The climactic fire sequence was shot “day for night,” although prints without the colored gels that indicate day and night scenes make this difficult to remember.
At film’s end, Tracey takes up Henley’s body, and Faith’s hand, leading her into the distance. Though there is a conventional happy ending in sight, what’s gone before has tainted it, and thrown the film’s premise out of joint. Slaughter and wholesale destruction is sanctified by religion … or is it? In this wildly popular film, the audience got to have its cake and eat it too – a dangerous addiction that would crop up, for better or worse, again and again in American cinema.

-- Brad Weismann

Brad Weismann, a cinephile and former comedian, is a journalist, arts writer and playwright who lives with his wife and children in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

1. As cited in “Shooting Cowboys and Indians,” A.B. Smith, pg. 183

2 Smith, pg. 160

3. “My Life East and West,” Hart, pgs. 198-199

4. “The Complete Films of William S. Hart,” Diane Kaiser Koszarski, pg. xv

5. “William S. Hart: Projecting the American West,” Ronald L. Davis, passim.

6. “The Western,” Fenin and Everson, pg. 91

7. “The War, the West and the Wilderness,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 270

8. Arthur Edelson,

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Belonging

Part of an ongoing series.

CAVEAT LECTOR: This story contains toxic levels of self-pity. Forewarned is forearmed.

" . . . the school would impose a discipline of speed and uniformity, and those individuals which would not or could not meet the school's requirements would be killed or lost or left behind. The overfast would be eliminated by the school as readily as the overslow, until a standard somewhere between fast and slow had been attained. Not intending a pun, we might note that our schools have to some extent the same tendency. A Harvard man, a Yale man, a Stanford man -- that is, the ideal -- is as easily recognized as a tuna, and he has, by a process of elimination, survived the tests against idiocy and brilliance. Even in physical matters the standard is maintained until it is impossible, from speech, clothing ,haircuts, posture, or state of mind, to tell one of these units of his school from another. In this connection it would be interesting to know whether the general collectivization of human society might not have the same effect. . . . The slow must be speeded up or eliminated, the fast slowed down. In a thoroughly collectivized state, mediocre efficiency might be very great, but only through the complete elimination of the swift, the clever, and the intelligent, as well as the incompetent. Truly collective man might in fact abandon his versatility."
John Steinbeck, "The Log from the Sea of Cortez"

"Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." -- Wallace Stegner, "Angle of Repose"

Why does the very first memory have to be of exclusion, abandonment, scorn, and isolation? Just lucky, I guess.

I must have been four years old or so. I was playing on a wide, quiet, leafy street lined with big beautiful houses, stoops, wraparound porches. This would have been Monmouth, Illinois, where my family lived for a brief time. A bunch of neighborhood kids and I were playing hide and seek. I was nominated as it, first. They ran and hid. And stayed that way.

I finished counting. I searched and searched. They were gone, I never did find out where. Or why they left me. “Olly olly oxen free!” I called over and over and over, to no effect, until I was hoarse. No kids reappeared, no adults emerged to find out what was the matter. I don’t remember the aftermath. It was a scenario that would repeat itself throughout my life.

Now, looking at my account of this little incident a half-century later, it seems ludicrous. How could such a small thing have affected me so strongly? But hurt it did, the worst kind of hurt. It was a burning, palpable, shameful, lingering kind of agony, the kind that I internalized, roasting and crackling away inside me, a living perpetually stoked hell, one that kept me awake at night, wondering what kind of atonement, what fundamental change, what pretzel shape I would have to contort myself into in order to be accepted, to life the curse.

True, I did not have a lot going for me at the time. I was four, for fuck’s sake. I was puny, with no social skills, and little common sense. I was horribly near-sighted and didn’t realize it until two grades of agony and not being able to see what was going on around me had only augmented people’s idea that I was a congenital idiot. I had a hyperactive imagination and mouth, so that when I articulated whatever was going on inside me I was stared at like I was a little nutjob, or told to shut up. Whatever I was, the message I got was that it was not OK.

It extended to my extended family. I was one of a horde of male cousins, all of whom were outgoing, well-adjusted athletic types who all grew up and became shatteringly normal. I was a creepy little twerp.

I made friends here and there, usually fellow freaks. It seems that when a kid is an outsider, he or she is tagged with a radioactive signal that kids everywhere can pick up on immediately. I was soon the pariah of any neighborhood into which I moved. I pretty much learned to duck any group of two or more kids coming down the street toward me. At school, at camp, in church, on the playground, I stuck to myself.

I bonded much more easily with grown-ups, mainly teachers, but that had its obvious limitations. By the time I was mid-way through junior high school, I was thoroughly miserable, so tense that my head was permanently skewed to one side, pulling my hair out in patches, pretty much ready to be institutionalized.

Thank God for music, and theater. We didn’t have enough money to afford instrument lessons, but I could sing, which took me out of myself and allowed me to integrate my efforts, however briefly, with a larger group in the pursuit of beauty. For the first time I was literally and figuratively in harmony with others. I took to it immediately, hard. Also, I auditioned for the lead role in “The Music Man” and somehow nailed it. I could perform. I had integrity onstage, in the spotlight. I was suddenly somehow engaging, talented, entertaining. I was hooked.

This opened a treasure box for me. Humanity wanted something to do with me. My presence was needed. I told jokes that people got, I shared feelings that friends understood, I came up with ideas that people wanted to help make tangible. I could pitch in and be welcomed. It was great. With the crazy, dysfunctional home life I endured at the time, it kept me out of the house for long hours and probably saved me.

It didn’t last. I resumed my outsider status in college. I couldn’t take the super-serious business of becoming an actor . . . seriously. I couldn’t join a group, I couldn’t network, I couldn’t do the things I needed to do to advance myself. I wandered all over New York City when not in class, on my own, toting a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter so that I could spend the rest on theater, galleries, museums, films . . . learning much more than was probably good for me. God takes care of idiots, which explains how I was able to hang out in places such as the Bowery, Harlem, Old Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen, and Tompkins Square at all hours of the night and not gotten my throat slit.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was suffering a kind of slow-motion nervous breakdown. My family at home blew up, our finances went south, and I quit school, coming home to catch-as-catch-can work in menial jobs and small roles in local theater. It took trying standup comedy to lift me out of myself again and put me in another brother- and sisterhood that I could hang with. With the help of plenty of booze and pot. Until, of course, the maximal limit of my talent was reached and I was slotted into the proper designation.

Of course, hand in hand with this were the repeated attempt to go straight, as it were. Time and again, I would latch onto “regular” jobs in various organizations, looking for a stable career path, a future, trying to fit in with the little cliques and kinship groups that are a part of every workplace. No matter how hard I worked to prove myself, how violently I suppressed my natural tendencies, how badly I ingratiated, it never worked out. How come?

It seems that every group has two conditional elements: a hierarchy, and a need to be taken seriously at some level. You pay proper obeisance to the hierarchy. You reinforce everyone’s sense of identity by obtaining a place in the given constellation of relationships and inhabiting it. If you stayed stuck at the bottom rung of acceptance, so be it. You were not meant to rise, or to alter the balance. When you have fully internalized the code of that particular subgroup, you may be allowed to enter the inner circle. Or not. It’s all dependent on the needs of the group, not the individual.

The behavior patterns, attitude, language, priorities, beliefs, of any given group are codified. These must be maintained as well, or the coherence of the group is threatened. Laughter is nooooot welcome. I was doomed from the start, if you think about it. With humor as my lifelong sword and shield, the tool of dissection of stupidity and cruelty, I couldn’t resist poking holes in the flimsy schemes and structures established to maintain group identity. The impulse to martyrize myself was minimal. I just couldn’t not tell the unjustly dominant to go fuck themselves. It wasn’t a perverse impulse to be a naysayer, a rebel, an antihero. Hey, I would still sell out, given half a chance! Cheaply! Give me a call!

The groups to which I will always belong are those you can’t get thrown out of – the belligerent, the disaffected, the exiled, the strange, the scorned, the discounted, the addicted, ruffians, no-goods, cranks, eccentrics, losers. The fraternities of the terminally insolent, such as comedians, journalists, recovering addicts, and others who well good and finally don’t really give a shit what anybody from the land of consensual reality thinks.

50 years later, this meditation is still ragged and incomplete. I can still feel the pull, the urge to communicate, reach out, make contact, belong, albeit from a safer distance, behind the keyboard. For decades I’ve had the image in my head of me standing outside, looking through the window at the party inside. Tapping, tapping, tapping. Olly olly oxen free.

But there’s no inside or outside, that’s all an illusion, although it is one that hypnotizes us all, the big game that you ignore at your peril, that will keep you marginalized, unemployed, and castigated. Rules that kill.

Life, however, unmitigated wonderful real life, is what is what it is. Irreducible, it can’t be denied you, and if you open up the channels dammed by self-contempt, the waters of life flow to you and through you. Then you bloom, then you feed the sky with your beauty. Then you generate thunderheads and pour down life on the other parched souls and give them hope. The circle of green widens, and the nasty little bastards who want things their way and their way only can only hang their over the fences they built to keep you all out and jaw impotently.

Maybe I had to go through what felt like death in order to know how to live. If you don’t like your society, create your own. I have. It has two rules: don’t be a jackass, and lighten the fuck up.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why should you go to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival?

Photo by Zachary Adams. I pulled it from Geoffrey Kent's Facebook page. Thanks guys!

Out here in the provinces, theater is an upper-middle-class affectation, or something you take your grandma to once a year -- at Christmastime. You can slag the hordes in only for some traveling Broadway fare, usually. There is a niche culture of dedicated theatergoers in the area, but anyone in the biz without a stellar and spectacularly overworked marketing department to lean on will tell you that it’s catch-as-catch-can out here. There are many quite talented practitioners here, in all departments, but for most of them it’s a hobby that has to remain its own reward.

Despite the crowings of anxious promoters, various local bureaucrats and Chamber-of-Commerce types, regional cultural mandarins, big-box cultural p.r. guys, and the like, the situation is, was, and always will be desperate. The mainstream critical/press apparatus that used to fuel interest in and dialogue about the arts has pretty much suffered the fate of the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Es ist ganz und gar todt!

In Boulder, you can begin to redeem this situation by going to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Now everyone groan, both the populists who think the fare is too highfalutin’ for today’s audiences – and all the inhabitants and supporters of smaller, edgier local companies such as the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, square product theatre, LOCAL Theater Company, and the ones I forgot, who may be sick and tired of the attention that does get lavished on this institutionally supported annual event.

However, there are seven reasons, two of them the same, why you should go.

1.      It’s Shakespeare. Can you do Shakespeare? No, you can’t. Few can. It’s HARD. I know, I tried. I could get through about two minutes tops before either I or the audience started laughing uncontrollably. During the big stabbing scene of “Julius Caesar.” These CSF guys can do Shakespeare, usually pretty well. It’s not community theater. It’s not dinner theater. It’s not musical comedy. It’s the not the reworkings of beloved American classics, or any other kind of crap that’s not even close to Shakespeare but that nervous admins think will put asses in the seats. It’s almost certainly going to be at least tangentially Shakespearian. The new kids running the show at CSF actually care deeply about Shakespeare and are going balls-out to do a great job. And that’s important. See #7.

2.      It’s classy. In theater, the audience is king. (OK, except in experimental theater.) Who doesn’t want to be treated like royalty? Both the indoor and outdoor venues at CSF are very nice. Yes, the seats at the Mary Ripon Outdoor Theatre are made of huge slabs of rock, BUT – they have these cute little seatbacks they hand out free, and they used to CHARGE for those. Isn’t that nice? Someone tears your ticket, they smile, they give you a program, they help you find your seat. Who does that anymore? And you can pack a picnic dinner, eat on the greensward or lawn or  in front of the theater before the show, pound some wine and beer . . . crawl into the shrubbery and burn one . . . I’m pretty sure you can pass out in the grass if you like. Just pay for your ticket first, they need the money.

3.      It’s fun. Be aware, they will not throw your Frisbee back. However, in Shakespeare actors are usually stopping every once in a while to confess their plans to you, or tell you how they feel. Sometimes they blow horns and such and run up and down the aisles. Theater is supposed to involve you. Only in the 19th century did the deadly tradition of sitting absolutely still and indicating your approval with APPLAUSE and APPLAUSE ONLY begin. Shakespeare is theater from the time when the audience and the players fed off each other. YOU CAN REACT. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO ENJOY YOURSELVES.

4.      It’s violent. Hey, did you know that Shakespeare was the Tarentino of his time? “Titus Andronicus” makes Martin McDonagh look like Oscar Wilde. And one of the gang this year at CSF is Geoffrey Kent, aka The Fight Guy. He is the president of the Society of American Fight Directors, and he really know how to put on swordplay, mayhem, and the like, plenty of which litters “Henry IV,” which hits the CSF stage this summer. So you’ve got the whole “Game of Thrones” vibe going on. In fact, why didn’t the marketing department use that? “The original Game of Thrones.” Should be bloody . . . awesome. (To be fair, Part II, which they’ve only staging three times as opposed to eight for Part I, is a lot less bloody, more like: King Henry IV: “You’re not a good son.” Prince Hal: “Yes I am!” King Henry IV: “You want to steal my crown.” Prince Hal: “No I don’t, Dad.” King Henry IV: “Where’s my damn crown?” Prince Hal: “IT’S RIGHT HERE, DAD.” Meanwhile, Falstaff’s all like, “Ooo, I’m a cheeky bugger, I am. I’m a right old rogue!” King Henry: “You better shape up.” Prince Hal: “OK, I will.” Falstaff: “Crikey, dun’t look good for yours truly, do it?”)

5.      It’s educational. Did you know that the appreciation of Shakespeare has been ruined by more middle-school English teachers than any other factor, according to my unscientific conjecture? It’s true. The only way you are going to knock that resistance and misperception out of your head is to see the stuff, live, as God intended. In this world in which our collective cultural consciousness has shrunk to the size of a mouse’s foreskin on a subzero street corner, Shakespeare is the last bastion of something in the arts we can and should all hold as common coin. If you know something about him and his work, you mark yourself as an educated individual who cares more about the bottom line and what the score is. At the very least, it increases your chances of getting laid to a nominal degree.

6.      It’s important. You should know how to see a play. It’s the second-oldest form of entertainment. It’s the root of every other art. America will never have a repertory theater company on every block, or a symphony orchestra that has to turn down an endowment because it simply doesn’t know what to do with all that money. We will not as a nation, forego the Super Bowl to watch an especially riveting episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” Motels will never hang fascinating original paintings on the walls of their rooms (except for La Reve in Pasadena, you should really check it out). But you need to develop the capacity for taking art in and letting it make you feel and think. It takes discipline and effort. Some people think art is the pickle tray in the buffet of life. It’s not, it’s the entrée. It’s like water and air and food and shelter and warmth and love. Which leads to

7.      It’s Shakespeare. There’s a reason why he’s the Quesarito of English literature. He’s a four-tool player. He knows how to tell a story, or at least borrow some really good plots. He delineates character like no one else – you really feel like you can see clearly inside everyone on stage. Every character that’s not purely a walk-on functionary has dimension and depth, and, like real people, contains and expresses contradictions and unresolved ambiguities. He’s not afraid to go for the really big questions underneath any given issue – he’s dealing with life and death, sin, guilt, dishonor, love, loss, death, a constellation of the aspects of human existence, which means his subject matter is always relevant and never gets old. And the language, the language. There’s a reason why it seeps into everything we say and write. It’s so damn apt and compelling, so much so that it will still lift me out of myself, although I’ve heard it or read it a thousand times. It’s sheer beauty.

Every time you get a chance to experience Shakespeare done well, you get to experience the human soul in high gear. The gateway is right here in the midst of us, and we are lucky to have it. It’s called the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. You really should go.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness: Drugs

Part of an ongoing series. Next chapter: fitting in.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Drugs

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” – Neil Gaiman

Ah, chemical indulgence and its aftermath. How many meetings have I sat in where fellow survivors retailed their horror stories, their brushes with death and dismemberment, with a perverse undercurrent of pride?

And it’s true that I share that survivor’s arrogance. Often we talk of only switching our addictions to an addiction to recovery, of the obnoxiousness and upstaging, overbearing nature of our self-righteousness, as though we were veterans of a war we waged against ourselves, memorializing like Henry V presages at Agincourt: “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars./And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’” But, like I’ve said before, I’d rather hear you pompously hold forth on your sobriety than keep your hair out of your face while you puke.

This discussion is fraught with perils. Me writing about this topic, or declaring my ever-recovering status, is seen by many as a violation of a key principle of anonymity in the recovery community, particularly if such writing is a play for public approval, or for the gain of influence, or for financial reward. I firmly reject any and all three of those possible outcomes, which are pretty damn unlikely anyway, based on my track record.

I hope to make amends as well, though – not just to the many individuals I have damaged, worried, alienated, or pissed off down the years. I hope to expiate my thoughtlessness, my bad behavior, to raise the pall of oblivion that hung over me for decades, to the universe at large. I can do it because I have a gift for expressing myself. I hope to convince you, if you ever feel tempted, not to start bad habits or to drop them, somehow, if you can. I can only tell my story.

Like most people, I had absolutely no intention of winding up here. There is a marked genetic predisposition for addiction in my family, passed down on both sides. My father drank himself to death, basically, and cigarettes accompanied my parents from morning ‘til night, including at the dinner table and on long car rides with the windows rolled up. I was steeped in booze and smoke from birth, like an indolent whiskey keg in some bar’s basement.

This is no attempt at an excuse. Any apology that is followed by a “but” is not an apology at all. Given the example that ground away at all of us every day growing up, I should perhaps have been more resistant to alcohol than I was. I know I swore I would never drink or smoke.

And, beyond isolated trials in high school, I did pretty well. My college roommate basically ran a major distribution point for marijuana on the Lower East Side from our dorm room, but I stuck to the straight and narrow.

It wasn’t until I finally entered the real world via massive nervous breakdown after college that I began to drink and do drugs. My unprepared soul’s collisions with reality, my nightly climbs onto the stage to feign outgoing sociability as a comic, my confrontation with absolute poverty and life a step from sleeping in the alley, all pushed me into the arms of Morpheus. Here’s a basic rundown of abuse, by category:

Tobacco: Disgusting, but tempting. The pain, inability to breathe, and periodic bronchitis didn’t stop me from this affectation for decades, until long after my father’s chain-smoking antics were curtailed by Mr. Death. There is something so assuring and sexy about the cigarette! Blame Bogie and other black-and-white film stars. Too bad it kills you. I smoked, in turn, a pipe, cigars, and cigs. Favorite brands: The tasty Balkan Sobranie, Camels, and a horrible discount, now-discontinued brand called Barclay. It was all about the look . . . and the way it kept me from swallowing my anger, snapping and lashing out at people.

Stimulants, club drugs, dissociative drugs: Nope. Never appealed to me. No painkillers, downers, uppers, anything. I took speed once while working an all-night shift at Yellow Cab. It worked fine until I came down, whence I fell into a fit of suicidal depression. Somehow I have saved my life to date by not taking anything that could kill me IMMEDIATELY.

Cocaine: Same thing. Tried it twice. Each time, I felt like Superman for 10 minutes, then nothing. It was so expensive at the time (the ‘80s) that I considered this is a swindle. Also, my penis shrank to an almost undetectable size (I mean even more than usual).

Inhalants: No, but I knew a lot of people who liked amyl nitrate. Tried it once. It was painful, a heart attack in a vial. Yikes. Nitrous oxide? Helium? Spray paint? Just weird.

Opioids: Fortunately, I numbered among my friends a few survivors of heroin, and their testimonies, along with my marked aversion to sticking anything into me, especially something pointy, kept me miles safely away from ever contemplating heroin, opium, etc.

Hallucinogens: Well. It took a long time for the doors of perception to open for me. When they did, I was fortunately in good company and under friendly supervision – although spending my first night on them atop a wind-swept microwave transmission tower overlooking the Front Range with no safety railing was probably not such a great idea. I always treated them as journeys unto themselves, not accompaniments to a night out or a social occasion. While not indulging too much in either acid or ‘shrooms, I think that the experiences did leave me with at least a marginal benefit, an ineluctable and lingering sense of the positive interconnectedness of all life, and an awareness of a larger universe, for which I am grateful. What they did NOT do, for me at least, was provide specific insights that had portability into non-altered life. Like so many other supposedly creative people, the reams of notes I would take while tripping would, on examination in the cold light of day, be either incoherent or banal. Plus the experience was awfully wearing on me. Psilocybins are mellow and gentle, lasting only a few hours; LSD, vastly more dangerous in my mind as it is manufactured by humans and therefore completely untrustworthy from batch to batch, is a hard-edged taskmaster that scoops you up and works you for a dozen hours at least. In both cases, you are trapped in the experience once you begin – no sobering up, no stepping off the moving vehicle. (I became the go-to babysitter for people who were having a bad trip or who were, God forbid, dosed as a prank, back when that was considered funny and not a crime.) Both kinds of trips were exhausting, and I ended up feeling like I lost something proportional to whatever it was I gained.

Weed: As, yes. My favorite. If there was anything designed to fit my neural receptors, it was marijuana. It relaxed me, it made me funnier, more spontaneous, social, outgoing, empathetic. I could live and work in the real world with calm and assurance. I thought. It was a part of our rebellious young culture growing up, a brotherhood, a common sacrament. It was cool. Did it save me? In some ways. Perhaps. For a time. In fact, it pushed my fear away but did not diminish it. It preached oblivion to me, lowered my resistance to other drugs, kept me stupid, froze me to change. I had my own foot on my own neck and didn’t realize it. For decades, it was a daily part of my life, all day long. (I found out later this is common for only about 2 percent of the population, and about half of all smokers nationwide). I was addicted. I was not OK without it. My life revolved around its acquisition and use. Now, of course, it is available everywhere – an irony not lost on me that makes my occasional craving for it all the more pathetic, and makes my arrogant little pride about not going there anyway more precious. When I finally stopped, all that fear reared up and bit me in the ass, and it took a great deal of time to get over that. However, I could remember my dreams again, in more ways than one.

Booze: The killer. I feel worse about this than any other, as I should have known better, based on family history. I learned that the human capacity for self-deception is boundless. I became a wino. I wound be being able to (or unable not to) drink a bottle in about 20 minutes; a magnum was a challenge not a deterrent. The brands got cheaper and cheaper, the drinking started earlier and earlier. A huge side effect was a zone of amnesia that would envelop the time before, during, and after drinking, to the extent that there are now huge empty patches of memory in my life. I have potentially almost killed myself, my companions, even my children; I will never know for sure. My apologies and amends continue to this day and stretch to the end of my foreseeable existence. This was by far the most difficult thing I ever accomplished (TO DATE: never ever ever say that you are cured or a former alcoholic; I have seen many many people prove the adage that you are only one drink away from being back in the shit again).

I don’t know how I did it. According to the 12-step program I have followed, I didn’t do it at all. My simply willing to stop never changed anything. It was only a surrender of a kind that made it happen. All I know is, I stopped feeling like a victim. I stopped figuring I deserve to get wasted, since life sucked so hard. I took responsibility for, not the choice I made to use, as having a choice implies that I was or am in control, but for forgiving myself for being stupid and scared. It was only when I got real about feeling worthless, incompetent, and unlovable that I realized that I was none of those things. It’s not all about me; it’s not about me at all. I got out of my own way.

Now I live one day at a time; under stressful circumstances, an hour at a time or five minutes at a time. I avoid the past like the plague. I am never interested in the hazy good old days. I stay out of bars and cocktail hours. I avoid crowds. I read, I write, I work in yard. I love my kids, my wife, my family, my friends. I feed my soul with art, music, baseball. I have the strength to take care of myself and make choices that won’t harm myself or others, to the best of my ability. I found a God that works for me, and I pray a lot. It makes some people uncomfortable. Tough shit. I am still only beginning to figure out who I am and making sense of my life. Tough shit! I laugh at myself, and go on.

And life is bearable. It still sucks sometimes. I am still an idiot. But when I think something, I remember it, and I am capable of transmitting to others. When I feel something, I am really feeling it. I can help other people now.

There is no shortcut to enlightenment. Maybe there is no enlightenment. But I am really here. Right now. I am part of life, and it’s all the more precious to me because I almost destroyed it. Cheers!

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...