No Direction Home

I’ve not posted in a while, but not because I’ve stopped working. On the contrary, forward! (“Forward,” by the way, is the official motto of Wisconsin, a state I’m inordinately fond of.)

For the record, I’m revising my upstate New York thriller, and writing and co-producing another short this summer. Enrico Cullen’s A Man Full of Days, a film I helped produce and wrote about in the past, is getting screened May 20th at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York.

I’ve also been cherishing a book by Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan In America. Wilentz has a personal connection to the subject – his father and uncle, Elias and Ted Wilentz, ran the 8th Street bookshop back when Dylan lived in Greenwich Village – but he doesn’t just shake his family tree for some connections that yield some Dylaniana. He places Dylan at the heart of a complex mid-century cultural circulatory system, with arterial connections both unsurprising and astonishing. There is Ginsberg’s influence, sure, though I wasn’t aware of the extent to which Ginsberg felt Dylan was the inheritor of the Beat mantle. There’s also Brecht, Aaron Copland, and Marcel Carné (?!).

Wilentz says Dylan loved seeing contemporary world cinema, films now regarded as the golden age of arthouse. He apparently liked Shoot the Piano Player but found Last Year at Marienbad impenetrable. My kind of cineaste! Among Wilentz’s many insights, he points out that most commentators, and Dylan himself, regard his period from 1967 to ’73 as “fallow” years. All he did was make John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, appear in a Sam Peckinpah film, publish a book of poems, and write a catalogue of songs that would later appear as Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes. To most people , these would be great and highly productive years!

"You can never step into the same river twice."

“You can never step into the same river twice.”

Like everyone else around me, it seems, I tuned into Serial late this past fall, the podcast produced by This American Life. It was so widely written about, I had nothing to say about it, but for me, like many others I’m sure, it was the gateway podcast. Now I’m in the habit of listening. The one I’ve really taken to, and gotten a few friends hooked on, is The History of Philosophy, Without Any Gaps, an exhaustive series of 18-or-so-minute-long talks about the major ideas in Greek, Arab, and Western philosophy. I never thought I’d find Heraclitus’ notion of one-ness so riveting during a train ride home at night.

The Jinx was good, but Going Clear, the HBO doc about Scientology, spoke to me more. During my end-of-winter getaway to DC I had dinner with some dear old friends I’d worked with at an environmental organization many years ago. The subject of how we felt the organization had taken advantage of our idealism and goodwill came up – it came up, in fact, because I brought it up. I was gratified to find agreement all around. Pores gushing open with white wine and garlic, one person asked, tongue half in cheek, “Did we join a cult?” Another took her at face value, and pointed out that our elders at the time were all of 26 years old themselves. The group’s worst sin, she felt, was the prohibition against quitting, which seems to me a fairly accurate indicator of the four letter C word: If you’re staying because you fear the social ostracism you’d suffer if you left, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a cult.

God bless screenwriter Paul Haggis for speaking out in Going Clear. Of all the first-hand testimonials, he’s the only contributor with a successful career and credential besides Former Scientologist. He has something to lose. I know a kind septuagenarian from Texas who met her husband of 50+ years in postwar Los Angeles, the place and time where Scientology started, but she was at a Christian evangelical camp. It sounds like an atmosphere teeming with spiritual seekers, and it only makes sense. World War Two boomtown after the boom, depressed economy, rootless Okies realizing there is no home to go back to, hundreds of miles from the nearest family members, PTSD and copious sunshine. Fertile ground to plant a loopy religion.

This spring I’m also doing something any norteamericano my age should have done 30 years ago. I’m taking Spanish 101.

Couldn't put it down.

Couldn’t put it down.

I’m a quick study with the structure of languages, being a classics minor in college. I can look at most romance languages and deduce what the subject is, what’s a real verb versus a participle, and what adjective agrees with what noun, but conversation is a totally different matter. I waited till my 30s to take a French class because I dreaded that awful feeling of being asked a question and not having the vocabulary to answer it. It’s like opening a toolbox and seeing no tools in it. Spanish of course comes up much more often in this hemisphere. On top of its practical applications, it is without doubt good for the mind and the soul to get reduced to not just a total dummy but a quaking mess every once in a while.

On my way to Spanish class every week, I’ve gotten in the habit of stopping for a beer at South, a bar in my neighborhood: Having a round first helps loosen the tongue-tied inhibitions. And the bartender at this joint on this night is Rosie Schaap, author of the memoir Drinking With Men.

Of all the narratives I’ve followed this blogless spring, Drinking With Men came easiest. Schaap tells the story of her life by breaking it down into eight or so periods of being a regular at various bars. She portrays bar life as a society with loosely codified rules, then decodes them for us. She’s an economist of the moral currencies of bars who estimates their values by recounting the times she either broke or followed the rules. Though it comes up plenty of times, the matter of gender isn’t the main focus of Drinking With Men. Bar life, as she describes it, is full of warmth and (as much as I hate the abused word) community.


I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City

The tributes to Nelson Mandela, and inspiring quotes of his, are all over the place. For web content providers, it’s tricky to know how soon is too soon to offer more complex commentary on a politician and his legacy. On the one hand, you want to be the first to say anything; on the other, you get mileage (or maybe clickage) out of joining the love fest, and the days between a death and a funeral are usually not the ones when people want to hear about the complications.

Hats off to Thinkprogress for being the first to put together a list – though must everything be a list? – of how forthright Mandela was about challenging U.S. imperialism and corporate interests. The Nation went even further, pointing out some of his major shortcomings as post-apartheid leader, then spinning it to say that the fact that we know any dirt on him is a tribute to the transparency of the South African regime he helped create.

I’ve always felt that here in the U.S. we looked at the South African struggle through the lens of our own Civil Rights movement. As if apartheid was like Jim Crow but more intense, because it’s in Africa and everything’s more intense there, right? Well, not exactly, because for one, that’s not how Mandela understood it. For two, we do him a disservice by equating his journey with ours, when we have been so devastatingly bad at achieving racial justice beyond the most obvious steps of ending legal segregation, and most of that got done fifty years ago.

This morning my friend Rosie Schaap posted the video “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” on her Facebook page.

I saw this when I was a teenager in a suburb in New Jersey in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen. It mentions Mandela only in passing: though he was a huge figure, it wasn’t at all clear at the time that he would ever walk out of jail. By comparison, it makes the M.L.K. connection very explicit.

More than anything it strikes me as a time capsule of 1980s pop music, especially of the New York scene. When the music world was fracturing along racial lines, here was a deliciously high profile yet low-fi, inter-racial musical rally that called out Ronald Reagan by name. Unlike most cause songs, it brought people onto the dance floor. The premise was sort of ludicrous: Was Lou Reed’s phone ringing off the hook with offers to play at African resorts? But it was easy to get one’s head around, and it certainly helped politicize me, among many others. Long live South Africa!