Springsteen on Broadway: Magic in the Night


“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. In case you haven’t figured that out by now.”

The self-deprecating joke Bruce Springsteen tells to open Springsteen on Broadway sets the tone for much of what follows over the next two hours. The greatest storyteller of his generation in rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen draws on his autobiography, Born to Run, and a personally curated set of songs from his catalog to tell the story not only of his own life and times, but the life and times of all of us who have taken the long journey with him.

Most of the show’s humor—and there is plenty of side-splitting, joyous laughter in the show—is at his own expense. The chronicler, defender, and voice of working class Americans—who by his own admission has never worked an honest job in his life. The guy who wrote Racing in the Street and too many other songs celebrating cars and driving to count—who, by age 21, still didn’t have a car and still didn’t know how to drive. The songwriter who couldn’t wait to get out of the dead-end town he grew up in, Freehold, N.J., who wrote such scathing lines describing it as “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we’ve gotta get out while we’re young”—who today lives 10 minutes from his childhood home.

But he also delves deeply into his difficult relationship with his late father, Douglas, who worked a series of odd jobs over the years, from factory work at the rug mill and the Nescafe plant to driving trucks, buses, and cabs, and who remained a mysterious, dark, and often absent presence in his son’s life.

And in a segment that moved me to tears, he talked about the pride, the joy, and the hope that his mother, Adele, has always brought to his family, and how she always had his back—even when the depression his father battled throughout his life threatened the fragile bonds of his family.

“Truthfulness, consistency, professionalism, kindness, compassion, manners, thoughtfulness, pride in yourself, honor, love, faith in and fidelity to your family, commitment, joy in your work, and a never-say-die thirst for life. These are some of the things my mother taught me and I struggle to live up to,” he said.

And I choked up, as so much of what he said described my own mother, who died six years ago. And my own struggles to live up to the things she taught me.

That’s always been part of the deal between Springsteen and his fans. In 1975, John Rockwell, the New York Times chief rock critic at the time, wrote of Springsteen’s music: “Hearing these songs is like hearing your own life in music, even if you never lived in New Jersey or made love under the boardwalk in Asbury Park.” (For the record, I have done one of those things.)

That connection has only strengthened through the years, as Springsteen has moved on from the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll as set down by Chuck Berry (RIP) in the 1950s of cars and girls to more mature themes of love and trust and betrayal and the loss of loved ones (another cathartic segment of the show centered on the outsized role that the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, played in Bruce’s life, and how he seeks to keep alive the spirits of those who have passed on) and how to live with integrity and how to keep the demons at bay and instead hold fast to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

In this age of spoilers, I will resist the temptation to share details of specific songs and stories, since the official opening isn’t until Thursday night, Oct. 12. And letting the show unfold before you as Bruce conceived it is part of the power of the performance.

The show features Springsteen, dressed in his trademark, dark-colored, working man’s garb, alone on stage (his wife, Patti Scialfa, comes out to join him for two songs) against a dark, urban-industrial backdrop. It is adorned with a microphone at center stage and a baby grand piano to the left, which Springsteen alternates playing with an array of acoustic guitars brought to him by a stagehand.

The Walter Kerr Theatre, which has fewer than 1,000 seats, creates an intimacy that hasn’t been possible since his early days playing small clubs. It is as close as you will ever come to having Bruce in your living room. Whether the mood is somber or ebullient, the lighting by Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz creates exactly the right atmosphere.

The sound is simply superb, and the show features reimagined versions of songs Springsteen’s fans know by heart in ways that spark fresh insights and understanding. In an illuminating interview Bruce did with New York Times critic Jon Pareles recently, Springsteen explained it this way:

I’m playing familiar music, but I believe it will lead you to hear it with very fresh ears by the context that I set it in. I always make a comment that when things are working in art, one plus one equals three.

And that’s what happens throughout Springsteen on Broadway. One plus one equals three. The songs and the passages from the book create a third, new theatrical experience that is the most profoundly moving I have ever had on Broadway—or in any theater.

There is magic in the night.

And even in these dark and trying times, there is light. There is also a train pulling out of the station, bound for the land of hope and dreams, if you have the faith to climb on board.


Idiot Wind Blows Through Concert Venues


Emmylou Harris, in the voice of an angel, recounted a tale so horrific that it would make the devil himself feel shame.

I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?

At least I believe those were the words she was singing. I could only make out every second or third word, at best, because the people in the row behind me at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia were talking and laughing loudly throughout the song. Just as they had since they arrived midway through the opening set by Carlene Carter (3rd generation member of the legendary Carter Family and daughter of June Carter Cash, who collaborated with the night’s headliner, John Mellencamp, on his latest album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies).

And just as they continued to do for the entire set by Emmylou, a Country Music Hall of Fame artist who has graced several of the finest albums of the past 40-plus years with one of the most gorgeous voices on the planet, moving seamlessly between country, folk, rock, and other genres.

Now 70, she is a beautiful thread that weaves together Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Conor Oberst, Neil Young, Rodney Crowell and so many others … not to mention her Trio collaborations with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. And she has written songs of uncommon poignancy that stir the souls of those willing to listen.

Mansfield Frazier is one such soul. Five years ago, the former Cleveland newspaper editor wrote a piece for the Daily Beast that expresses the profound effect hearing Emmylou Harris sing “My Name is Emmett Till” on the radio had on him. Frazier was 12 years old in 1955 when details of the unspeakable torture  inflicted on the 14-year-old Till for the “sin” of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi made national news, one of the sparks that lit the Civil Rights Movement.

Frazier, who is African-American, writes:

“But 56 years later, I listened, transfixed, as Emmylou Harris sang her version of the story with heartbreaking tenderness, and I was awestruck that a 65-year-old white woman, born and bred in Alabama, would have the compassion and the courage to perform this song in front of a country-and-western audience—in Nashville no less. Her sincere voice and remarkable words evoked such long-ago memories that I could feel a huge lump in my throat.”

I urge you to read Frazier’s heart-rending, yet ultimately hopeful, column. It is proof that, for those with ears to listen and a soul to understand, music has the power to confront hate and awaken “the better angels of our nature.”

But that only happens if you listen. And increasingly, I have found that fewer people are listening to artists at larger venues. Perhaps I was just unfortunate enough to be in the wrong row at the Mann, with the lone group of loud-mouthed, self-absorbed jerks directly behind me. But from the loud buzz I could hear even when the idiots behind me were momentarily quiet to take a breath or gulp a beer, I doubt it.

‘A few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice’

In talking with music-loving friends, I’ve heard plenty of similar discouraging stories. It’s reached the point where that bastion of good manners and taste, NPR, recently felt compelled to address the musical question: Can I Ask Loud Talkers At Outdoor Concerts To (Please) Shut Up?

Personally, I don’t even consider that a question. Being NPR, of course, their answer is more refined and thoughtful. Stephen Thompson writes in his column, The Good Listener:

“As for what to say and how to say it, be polite and friendly, stick to “I” statements as much as possible (“I’m having trouble hearing the show…”), and try to be as brief and direct as possible. Speaking a few soft words in pursuit of quietude is no vice.”

Well, yes, you could do that. It’s certainly an impeccably reasonable way to approach the situation.

‘I hope the music isn’t interfering with your conversations and phone calls!’

But I must confess I took a decidedly different tack when Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played the first concerts at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia back in 2003. I was sitting in the second row of the upper deck with my wife, and in the row directly in front of us was a younger group that had obviously been tailgating in the parking lot for some time before the show began.

When the show started, they hardly seemed to notice. They continued yelling back and forth, up and down the row, and talking loudly on their cell phones. I finally lost it when Bruce went into a fierce, full band version of “Lost in the Flood” from his first album. When the song ended, I reached down and grabbed the two guys in front of me roughly by the shoulders, leaned forward between them, and, with what I’m sure was the full Jack-Nicholson-in-The Shining crazy in my eyes, said: “I hope the music isn’t interfering with your conversations and phone calls!”

In my defense, I did use an “I” statement. Although I’m pretty sure that’s not quite what The Good Listener had in mind.

Stunned, they stared at me like I was a lunatic (which was probably a fair assessment) and then started stammering about how they loved Bruce and were listening and hadn’t spent the entire show talking to each other and on their phones. That was when I noticed that virtually the entire row in front of me really was all one group. Once they got over the initial shock, they all turned around and started shouting at me that I was trying to spoil their fun because I was old and it was my problem, not theirs. Besides, they said, nobody else was complaining.

It felt like it was about to get uglier fast, when an amazing thing happened. The people next to my long-suffering wife and I and the folks in the row behind us—all strangers in the City of  Brotherly Love—started yelling back at the front row that they had, indeed, been acting like jackasses and ruining the show for them. With the numbers suddenly on my side, the front row sulked back in their seats, and were noticeably less obnoxious the rest of the show.

Later, the most drunk guy in the group looked over at me, glassy eyed, and said: “I hope I’m never as old as you.” I smiled, and replied: “I hope you never are, too.” He looked confused as to why I was agreeing with him. I doubt it ever penetrated the fog.

I’m not proud of the way I handled the situation, and don’t recommend this approach to others. There have been several times since when I’ve had to ask people to pipe down, but I’ve managed not to do it in such an aggressive, confrontational manner.

‘The fault is not in our stars …’

I have several friends who love music, but have given up on going to concerts at larger venues because of the routine rudeness they so often had to deal with. I know even more people who have given up going to movie theaters for the same reason.

I understand their decision, but chafe at the idea that people who are really passionate about the music should be the ones to stay home. Especially since, unlike most of the real problems facing the world, the answer is simple: If you have no interest in hearing the opening acts, stay out of the venue until the headliner shows up. And if you have no interest in actually listening to the headliner, then save yourself a ton of money and don’t go to the show.

Of all the things that divide us as a people these days, I must admit the one I find most mystifying is that there are actually people who think nothing of spending upwards of $100, plus shelling out for a half dozen or more $10 beers or even more expensive cocktails, to go to a concert and not listen to the music. It’s like they’re at their local bar, and the performers are the jukebox (or nowadays, Sirius or Pandora) playing in the background as they regale their friends with tales of work and the absolutely fascinating things that have happened in their lives that week.

When I see these people at shows, talking loudly to one another or on their cell phones, paying little or no attention to the stars on the stage, I can’t help but think of the words of one of Emmylou’s former singing partners, the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

You hear a lot of complaints about stars who go through the motions, failing to perform with the passion and energy and artistry expected. That certainly hasn’t been the case at most of the hundreds of shows I’ve seen. And from what I could tell, Carlene Carter, Emmylou Harris, and John Mellencamp were at their best in Philly, delivering passionate performances and engaging (or at least trying to) with the audience. Dan DeLuca’s review in the Philadelphia Inquirer certainly confirms that.

For me, it’s a simple matter of respect—for the performers and for the music. Buying a ticket doesn’t entitle you to be a jackass.

I’m also reminded of a line by another pretty fair writer, William Shakespeare: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves …”

Coda: My Soul’s Got Wings

Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter join John Mellencamp and his band for a spirited version of “My Soul’s Got Wings” at the Mann Music Center In Philadelphia on July 6, 2017.

Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now


“If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.”

I heard the Poi Dog Pondering song U Li La Lu only once on the radio a quarter of a century ago, but that line has always stuck with me. I don’t have a tape deck in my car any more. But if I do get to choose the last singer I hear before shuffling off this mortal coil, it will be Van Morrison.

More than any other artist, Van’s music has been an integral part of my life since I was a kid. As the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in his famous liner notes for the 1972 two-record Them collection: “We have grown up to Van Morrison: gone through make-outs and periods of adolescent darkness, found rock poetry sans pretence in his lyrics, turned up our radios a little louder (as he counseled in “Caravan”) every time he came on, heard in his music hit singles and sheer art (though never “Art Rock”) and gorgeous combinations of the two.”

Yes. That’s exactly right. I have grown up to Van Morrison. I loved Gloria and Here Comes the Night, the hit singles from his first band Them that made the U.S. charts in 1965 and 1966, and first heard Brown Eyed Girl while on vacation on Cape Cod in the summer of ’67. Those “sha la las” blasting from a tinny transistor radio delivered fully on the promise of the title of Van’s first solo album–Blowin’ Your Mind. I remember the  transcendent experience of hearing Astral Weeks for the first time, and I remember playing the Moondance album over and over during my own periods of adolescent darkness.

I remember listening to Period of Transition in 1977, as I got dressed on my wedding day. I remember a harrowing weed and beer fueled high-speed car ride with friends from my first newspaper job in Dover, Del., in 1978 to see Van at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., on the Wavelength tour. It’s a wonder that Poi Dog Pondering lyric didn’t come true that night.

I remember listening to Into the Music as I drove out to Port Mahon along the Delaware Bay to do long runs while training for my one and only marathon in Montreal in 1979. Well, you get the idea. Whatever was happening in my life, there was always Van Morrison. And that’s still true today.

When I first heard Brown Eyed Girl, I had no idea just how restless and brilliant and contrarian and creative Van Morrison would turn out to be. Or that he would still be making vital music at age 71, and that I would still be listening to it in my 60s.

Today is Van’s birthday, and he’s celebrating his 71st year the same way he’s celebrated every year since 1964: By recording music and playing live shows. His new album, appropriately titled Keep Me Singing, comes out Sept. 30 and he’s already released a video of the first song off the record called Too Late:

Like Van said in Into the Mystic, it’s too late to stop now. That we have had this singular voice in our lives for so long, when so many others have been silenced prematurely, is our good fortune.

Greil_Marcus_Van_300pThe renowned rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book of essays on listening to Van Morrison’s music titled When That Rough God Goes Riding, writes “Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. But what is that voice for?”

Marcus, a serious and scholarly critic with a contrarian streak as deep as Van’s, writes off large portions of Van’s catalog–especially the 15 albums over more than 15 years recorded from 1980 to 1996. Even writing about Van’s first solo album in 1967, Marcus sniffs: “The bright, bouncy Brown Eyed Girl was Morrison’s least convincing recording …” So much for Van’s only top 10 hit.

If you love Van Morrison’s music, as I do, reading When That Rough God Goes Riding will alternately elevate and infuriate you. That’s what great criticism is supposed to do: challenge your thinking and help you see things in a new light. Marcus’ book, which borrows its title from a song off the 1997 album The Healing Game, holds Van Morrison to a standard precious few could ever hope to attain and absolutely nobody could possibly maintain over a half century of writing and performing: the soul-searing peaks of revelation that mark his finest work.

Listen to what Marcus has to say about Astral Weeks, which has lost none of its astonishing power since its 1968 release:

It was forty-six minutes in which possibilities of the medium–of rock ‘n’ roll, of pop music, of what you might call music that could be played on the radio as if it were both timeless and news–were realized, when you went out to the limits of what this form could do. You went past them: you showed everybody else that the limits they had accepted on invention, expression, honesty, daring, were false. You said it to musicians and you said it to people who weren’t musicians: there’s more to life than you thought. Life can be lived more deeply–with a greater sense of fear and horror and desire than you ever imagined.

Better yet, listen to Astral Weeks, because what Marcus’ book does best of all is drive you back to the music. With Astral Weeks, Marcus writes, “Morrison’s music opened onto the road it has followed since: a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps, and snares down the middle.”

Since 1964, it has been one of the pure joys of my life to go down that road with him. And you know what? It’s too late to stop now.


The Warner Brothers ad for Astral Weeks, from Rolling Stone magazine. I’ve kept it in the album sleeve for almost 50 years.

Coda: Van Morrison and Bob Dylan

I saw this BBC special about Van Morrison when it aired in the early 1990s, and still have a VHS recording of it (although currently not a VHS player). The opening scene features Van and old friend Bob Dylan performing “Foreign Window” and “One Irish Rover”together on a hillside in Athens–two gods of rock mythology in the setting of the gods of Greek mythology. This clip also features Van and the Chieftans performing Raglan Road.

Coda: Van Morrison Live at the Filmore East September 1970

Van, in all his revelation.

Coda: Poi Dog Pondering U Li La Lu

If I should die in a car wreck, may I have Van Morrison on my tape deck.

Christopher Jones, Phil Ochs, and the Chords of Fame



So play the chords of love, my friend

Play the chords of pain

If you want to keep your song,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame

The brilliant, but troubled, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, who later descended into alcoholism and manic depression before taking his own life at age 35, warned of the dangers of playing the chords of fame.

Christopher Jones, the promising young actor who took the starring role that Ochs turned down in the satirical 1968 teen rebellion film Wild In The Streets, turned his back on fame just as his star was reaching its peak, and went on to live a quiet life until his death from cancer in February 2014 at age 72.

The story of Christopher Jones should be the stuff of legend. Instead, it’s largely forgotten. A charismatic young actor with smoldering good looks, hailed as the next James Dean, becomes a leading man on TV by age 24 and quickly parlays his success into starring roles on the silver screen—and then, before he turns 30, walks away for reasons that have never been fully explained.

And never looks back.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the Charlie Manson cult murder angle? More on that in a bit.

For the next four decades, Jones lived off the money he made as the star of the ABC TV series The Legend of Jesse James, which lasted only one season, and a tantalizingly brief movie career that included starring roles in the cult classic Wild In The Streets, the John LeCarre spy thriller The Looking Glass, and David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter. He also was a painter and a sculptor, a devoted father, and—by his own account in rare newspaper interviews—happy.

So today, on what would have been Christopher Jones’ 75th birthday, we would do well to remember the actor who decided not to play the Chords of Fame.

‘A Leader of Men and of Little Girls’

Born William Franklin Jones on Aug. 18, 1941, he had the southern gothic version of a Dickensian childhood. The family initially lived above a grocery store in Jackson, Tennessee, where his father was a clerk. When Jones was just 4, his mother, an artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital, where she died 15 years later. Jones was sent by his father to live in in a children’s home in Memphis.

At 16, with permission from his father, Jones joined the Army, went AWOL, and did a short stint in prison. Like so many before him, he made his way to New York City, where he studied painting while working odd jobs until he won a small role on Broadway in the 1961 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. It got him noticed, and he auditioned at the famed Actors Studio. He wound up marrying Artistic Director Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan Strasberg. (They divorced in 1968.)

In 1965, Jones landed the starring role in The Legend of Jesse James. That’s where I first saw him, and became an instant fan. Jones played the outlaw as a good-hearted Robin Hood who robbed and killed only to right injustices. I watched every episode, and was among the thousands of young people who were crushed when the show was canceled after one season. The show led me to read up on the real Jesse James, which provided a valuable early life lesson that TV and reality are distant cousins, at best.

Wild_In-The_Streets_300pJones soon landed the starring role in Wild In The Streets, an American International Pictures exploitation film about 24-year-old rock star Max Frost, a “leader of men and of little girls,” as the off-screen announcer intones, who spearheads a teen rebellion that results in 15-year-olds getting the right to vote and Frost carrying every state but Hawaii as the Republican nominee for president.

That’s right, Republican nominee. It seems that in this crazy, totally ridiculous satire, the GOP is desperate enough to offer its presidential nomination to an unhinged celebrity. If you think Donald Trump is unstable and unpredictable, wait until you meet Max Frost, who accomplishes his government takeover by having his young “troops” dump LSD in the Washington, DC, water supply and, upon taking office, sets 30 as the mandatory retirement age. “Who, after all, do you think caused all of our troubles? Those who are stiff, baby, but not with love—with age!” At age 35, everyone has to go to an internment camp, where, as Frost explains, “We’re going to psyche ‘em all out on LSD, babies!”

Truth in advertising: “Perhaps the Most Unusual Motion Picture You’ll Ever See” Watch the trailer for Wild In The Streets.

The film features a stellar cast given the material, including Hal Holbrook as an ambitious young congressman who forms a Faustian pact with Frost and his teen followers to advance his own campaign for U.S. Senate; Ed Begley as California’s distinguished senior senator, who just doesn’t understand what’s the matter with kids today; Shelley Winters as a psycho, abusive mother who’s even more twisted than Angela Lansbury’s Manchurian Candidate mom;  and a very young Richard Pryor as Stanley X, an anthropologist and author of The Aborigine Cookbook who is the drummer in Max Frost’s band. It also includes cameos by Walter Winchell and Dick Clark as TV news announcers.

Unusual? I guess you could say that.

‘Once You’re In, You’re In’

Phil_Ochs_Patriot_300pOn screen, Jones is every bit the pop star he portrays, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Yet, as I watched the movie again last night, I couldn’t help but think what it would have been like if Phil Ochs had said yes.

Ochs, a passionate, literate, and wickedly funny folksinger and political activist, loved Elvis, James Dean, and John Wayne. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about him. In his excellent biography, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, author Michael Schumacher writes about Phil’s passion for movies, and how he harbored the faint hope of one day acting in films himself.

At one point during this period, Phil was offered the lead role in Wild in the Streets, a feature film about a rock ‘n’ roll idol who is elected President of the United States. (Ochs manager) Arthur Gorson had disapproved of the movie’s right-wing message, and had discouraged Phil from accepting the part. The movie went on to become a major hit, and twenty-five years after the fact, Michael Ochs still stewed about his brother’s rejecting the opportunity to star in the film.

“I was not managing him at that point,” Michael stated, “but if I had been, I would not have let him turn it down. Yes, it was right wing, and it was against everything he believed in but he still should have done it. He loved the movies and wanted to be in them, and this was his chance. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

He’s right. But as Max Frost and the Troopers sang, nothing can change the shape of things to come. Jones, who did say yes when the role was offered, went on to make the sexploitation farce Three in the Attic with Yvette Mimieux; The Looking Glass War, based on a John LeCarre Cold War spy thriller with Anthony Hopkins; A Brief Season, an Italian film that I don’t believe has been released in the U.S.; and Ryan’s Daughter, the Irish epic by Doctor Zhivago director David Lean that stars Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Sarah Miles, along with Jones.

‘It’s Too Late to Fall In Love with Sharon Tate’

And here’s where the Charlie Manson cult connection comes in. It was during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which was going to be Jones’ ticket to major stardom, that word came of the Tate-Labianca murders. In what I’ve long thought is the best opening line in rock history, the late writer, rock star, and poet Jim Carroll wrote: “It’s too late, to fall in love with Sharon Tate.” That proved to be literally true for Jones, who told a British interviewer in 2007 that he had fallen in love with the actress—who was the wife of director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child at the time—in Rome earlier in 1969.

News of her grisly murder by Manson family members on Aug. 9, 1969 devastated Jones, and he suffered a breakdown. He was barely able to finish the film, and walked away from his Hollywood career when it finally wrapped. Jones, who turned down Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 entreaty to play The Gimp character in Pulp Fiction, only appeared once more on screen, in a small role as a favor to old friend Larry Bishop (who played The Hook in Wild in the Streets and was the son of comedian Joey Bishop) in the 1996 movie Trigger Happy.

Over the years, Jones hinted that there was more to his decision to still the Chords of Fame than Sharon Tate’s murder. He told the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”

So happy 75th birthday to Christopher Jones, who chose to play the chords of love instead of the chords of fame. I only wish Phil Ochs could have been so fortunate.

Coda: Phil Ochs

Chords of Fame from Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

Coda: Christopher Jones

Watch the premier episode of The Legend of Jesse James from September 1965.

Max Frost and the Troopers perform “Shape of Things to Come.”

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?



The author, right, talking with Jumpsuit Elvis at the finish of the 1996 Elvis International 5-K, in front of the wall surrounding Graceland. Photo by Roark Johnson.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, I flew out to Memphis for Elvis Week on Runner’s World magazine’s dime to do a story on the annual Elvis International 5-K race. I toured Graceland and Sun Studio and drove down to Tupelo, Mississippi, to visit the shotgun shack where Elvis was born. I hit Beale Street and saw the Memphis Horns playing in a bar after getting their star on the walk of fame, and caught a set by the legendary Rufus Thomas in a small hall at the end of Beale Street with maybe a dozen other fans.

And yeah, I ran the Elvis 5-K race that finishes at the gates of Graceland. It remains the best assignment of my life, one that allowed me to indulge three of my obsessions at the time: music (and more specifically the cult of Elvis), running, and writing. It also was the story that showed me that Kerouac really was onto something with his idea of spontaneous prose. Running with either a notebook or tape recorder on a hot, sweaty, August morning in Memphis were never options I considered. So I stashed a notebook in my car before the race and, once I wrapped up running and reporting, headed straight to the parking lot and started writing. Not just notes, but the story.

As true and accurately as I could, I wrote what I saw, heard, felt, and thought before, during, and after the race. Runner’s World had agreed to send me to the 1996 race, on the 19th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it could publish the story a few months before the huge 20th anniversary Elvis Week extravaganza in case runners wanted to make it a destination race. That meant I had a few months to turn in the article. I typed out my hand-scrawled version after I got home, and then over the weeks and months that followed, tried several different approaches.

As the deadline approached, I went back to my original version and realized it was much better than any of the more polished, later rewrites. With a minimum of editing, that’s the version I turned in. And that’s the version that Runner’s World printed.

Normally, in this age of wonders, I would just link to the Runner’s World archive of the article online. But like a lot of publications, RW doesn’t have issues from before the current century available online, so the article only exists in print copies of the magazine.

So here it is, exactly as it was published in the May 1997 issue of Runner’s World magazine. I am eternally indebted to then-Executive Editor Amby Burfoot for allowing me to do this one.

And in case you’re wondering, the race is still going strong. The 34th annual race (it started five years after Elvis’s death) was held this past weekend on Saturday, Aug. 13. For more info, or to start planning if you want to run the race to be held during the events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the King’s death in 2017, visit http://elvispresleyrunandwalk.com/ .



The sun begins its slow ascent through the early morning Memphis haze, heralding the start of another sultry summer day. Once, within the walls of his beloved Graceland, Elvis Presley would have begun his own slow climb up the stairs to bed after another sleepless night of racquetball, private movie screenings, fireworks or gospel singing. But not this morning.

Looking resplendent in a white jumpsuit with gold embroidery, accented with a bright red scarf, the King strides purposefully through the race registration area, which has been set up in the shadow of his beloved Lisa Marie—the jet plane, not the daughter. He picks up his race packet—“Thank you. Thank you very much”—and joins the sea of more traditionally attired runners parading slowly up Elvis Presley Boulevard to the starting line of the Elvis Presley International 5-K.

It’s his race. The rest of us are just running in it.


Walking the quarter-mile from Graceland to the starting line on Timothy Drive, it all seems more than a little surreal. And it’s not just Jumpsuit Elvis. Speakers mounted on the lead truck blare the soul-stirring strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which once let the faithful know that Elvis was not only in the building, but was also about to take the stage. The soaring theme song segues into “That’s All Right, Mama,” the song a 19-year-old Elvis recorded just a few miles away at Sun Recording Studio back in 1954—the song that started a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, on the road to Graceland.

At most summer races these days, wraparound shades (the kind sported by Lynn Jennings and Steve Scott) are all the rage. But not here. At the starting line of the Elvis 5-K, aviator sunglasses—the kind favored by the King in the ‘70s—are the defining fashion statement. Many runners—women as well as men—also sport bushy black fake sideburns, tacky even by Elvis souvenir standards.

The prerace nervous tension is broken by the starting gun. Slowly and fitfully, some 4,300 runners and walkers—the largest field yet—surge up the slight hill toward Graceland Drive, where the race course turns right just before Graceland Elementary School. The streets in the neighborhood are lined by red-brick ranch houses and other neatly kept middle-class dwellings. It looks like any other southern suburban neighborhood, until you remember that these were Elvis’s neighbors.

They live close enough to have been scared silly the night Elvis and the boys got carried away shooting off fireworks in the backyard and accidentally set off the entire stockpile of explosives. They could have heard the gunshots ringing through the night as Elvis and his buddies took turns target-shooting on the makeshift firing range that had been his old smokehouse. And maybe, just maybe, on a soft, still summer night, they might have been able to hear Elvis and friends gather around the grand piano off the living room, singing gospel standards into the wee hours of the morning.

Such reveries are broken by the guy barking splits at the mile marker. A few yards past, there’s a water stop with Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” from a portable cassette player. Even the weather, it seems, listens when the King sings.


As the course winds through the neighborhood behind Graceland, close to the 2-mile mark, I notice a positively ebullient runner ahead of me. He’s running back and forth across the course, high-fiving the sheriff’s deputies who are handling traffic control for the race. As I draw closer, something about him looks familiar. Black hair. Aviator sunglasses. A wide glittering blue belt with sparkling silver stars. Could it be?

Of course. This is Sensible Elvis, wearing a singlet and shorts instead of a jumpsuit. “You’ve got a lot of energy for a guy who usually goes to bed about now,” I remark as I pull up alongside of him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of rest lately. I’ve been sleeping for 19 years,” he replies in that familiar drawl.

I remember how the second floor of Graceland remained closed to visitors when I took the tour the previous day and—calling upon those fine instincts honed by 20 years as a newspaper reporter—decide to take a shot.

“Upstairs? On the second floor?” I ask.

Elvis smiles conspiratorially. “Yeah. But don’t tell anyone.”

“No problem,” I say. (Mental note: Find the first pay phone after the finish line and call the Weekly World News.)

I move by Sensible Elvis, following the course as it turns back onto Graceland Drive, heading toward Timothy Drive. Considering that there are more than 4,000 people tromping through the neighborhood, the course is astonishingly quiet. The runners are the only ones up at this hour. A handful of residents—including a few blessed souls who have turned on their sprinklers to cool the participants—come out to watch, but most remain safely inside, seemingly oblivious to the grand spectacle passing by their closed doors.

Back on Timothy Drive, the course slopes downhill to the starting line, then climbs up to Elvis Presley Boulevard. As I make the turn onto the street of dreams, I think of songwriter Paul Simon’s line, “I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” Simon may have had some deeper metaphysical idea in mind when he penned the line, but on this morning it is quite literally true. And what a reception it is. Three of the street’s four lanes are closed. The road is lined by fans (in town for the Elvis Week celebration), runners who have already finished and their friends and families. And best of all, it’s all downhill for the final two-tenths of a mile to the finish at the gates of Graceland.

The crowd roars as I pick up the pace, and I think, Gosh, this is great. But suddenly I realize the cheers are not for me. They’re for him. As the fans scream louder, I hear—just a few steps behind me now—that familiar drawl, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” No way. Not today. It may be his street—heck, it’s his race—but I’m not going to let Elvis beat me. Imagine explaining to your running buddies that you got outkicked by a guy whose idea of carbo-loading involves deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I unleash what’s left of my kick and hold off Sensible Elvis to the finish. In the chute, I turn around, high-five him and say, “Great race, King.” Gasping for breath, he replied (what else?), “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

I grab a cup of water at the end of the chute and walk back to the finish line. A few minutes later, Jumpsuit Elvis comes across in a scene reminiscent of John Wayne. Elvis is leading the Marines. As they have every year since the race started in 1983, some 150 Leathernecks from Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron 901 run the race in formation, keeping step to the bark of the drill sergeant’s cadences. Afterward, I track down Jumpsuit Elvis (okay, he’s pretty easy to find) and ask him about the race.

“I forgot how hot it gets here in August,” he says. “I’ve been away for a while, you know.”

My heart sinks. “Up on the second floor?” I ask.

“No. Up north,” he says.

Elvis looks at me and grins. “I can’t tell you that,” he says. (Never mind, operator. I guess I won’t be needing the number for Weekly World News after all. Thanks anyway.)


There’s nothing left to do but stroll over to the postrace party, held in the pavilion next to Elvis’s airplane museum. There’s a live band playing country and rock, a clogging demonstration and plenty of food and drink. Some runners even find the energy to hit the dance floor.

I spy Sensible Elvis in the crowd and learn that he is really Seth Zamek, from Jackson, Tennessee. “I’ve been here a couple of times,” Zamek says. “This is the first time I dressed up, though. I had to do it.”

I look around for Jumpsuit Elvis, but he’s left the building. As I dig through my race packet, though, I find a clue to his whereabouts.

It’s a coupon, good for one free Quarter Pounder with Cheese at any Memphis-area McDonald’s. Somewhere under the “golden arches,” a man with black bushy sideburns, aviator sunglasses, a sparkling white jumpsuit and red scarf is taking a bag from the clerk behind the register. And in a soft, slightly slurred drawl, you can hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

From Runner’s World magazine, May 1997


American Tragedy: A Look at the Opioid Epidemic

In the iconic film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West conjures a field of red poppies to thwart Dorothy’s entry into the fabled Emerald City, and foil her return to Kansas. Today, poppies like those are inflicting a plague of opioids across America, feeding an addiction epidemic that doesn’t discriminate based on race or income, or distinguish legal drugs (like those that took the life of actress Judy Garland) from the illicit. But thanks to a partnership between Alvernia University and Caron Treatment Centers, there is hope for some, and training for the next generation of addiction counselors.


I wrote the cover story for the new issue of Alvernia Magazine looking at the national opioid epidemic through the eyes of a smart, funny woman named Jennifer who lived through the hell of addiction for two decades before finally getting clean six years ago (sadly, her brother wasn’t so lucky), and through the experiences of the dedicated professionals at Caron Treatment Center (and the faculty and staff at Alvernia University who have taught and trained many of them) who help people put their lives back together.

It’s a harrowing tale, and it’s easy to get discouraged when confronted with the devastating statistics and the damage done. But it’s also a tale of life and hope.

I’d like to thank Steve Thomas, a wonderfully gifted designer who I had the intelligence to hire for his first daily newspaper job at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., way back in the early 1990s, for a dazzling cover design and splendid layout that surely wasn’t helped by my writing so many damn words.

It’s always nice to work with old friends. Especially when they’re really good at what they do.

Ali and Mailer: Shadowboxing with Immortality

I remember sitting in the kitchen of my parents home in Wilmington, Del., on that momentous March night in 1971, listening to the radio for the round-by-round bulletins from Madison Square Garden, where the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was taking place.

I was rooting for Ali, just as I had rooted for Joe Namath over Earl Morrall and Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl III the year before, and just as I would root two months later for Marty Liquori over Jim Ryan in the Dream Mile at Franklin Field.

Like so many of my generation, I favored the brash, colorful, anti-establishment types, whether in sports, music, movies, TV, or writing. Lennon over McCartney. Jack Nicholson over John Wayne. The Smothers Brothers over Bonanza. And Norman Mailer over … well, just about everybody else. In my mind, then and now, Mailer was to writing what Ali was to boxing: simply The Greatest.


So when news came over the radio waves that Frazier had rocked Ali in the 15th round, sending him to the canvas, I felt disoriented and queasy. Sure, Ali had gotten off the canvas to finish the fight, but Frazier was the new heavyweight champion of the world. The only consolation was that it was clear even from listening to the fight that it had lived up to the hype, that it was truly something special.


So was the piece that Mailer wrote about it—10,000 words written in two days, which appeared first on the pages of LIFE magazine under the headline “Ego” (with ringside photography by Frank Sinatra) and, a month later, as a $1 Signet Special paperback titled King of the Hill. It’s a breathtaking exposition on Ego, boxing, African-American identity, what it means to be a man, and, yes, The Fight. That Mailer framed the article around the construct of Ego, which he called “the central phenomenon of the 20th Century,” makes perfect sense. After all, it was Mailer who wrote early in his career:

The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.

Even Mailer, in his later years, admitted he had failed to achieve that revolution, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or Ego.

Mailer had an abiding admiration for prizefighters and the price they paid to contend at the highest levels, and he brought a pugilist’s mindset to writing. He even had his friend José Torres, a former light heavyweight champ and Boxing Hall of Famer, school him in boxing in exchange for instructing Torres on writing. Yet, Mailer only wrote one other book about the sport he loved passionately—the highly acclaimed account of the 1974 Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, titled The Fight.


It is a splendid book, one of the best ever on boxing, but I have always preferred Mailer’s coverage of the first Ali-Frazier fight. The piece is classic Mailer, brimming with passion, energy, intelligence, immediacy, and sheer audacity. The fact that it holds up so well 45 years later is a testament to Mailer’s genius. As we mourn the passing of Ali today at the age of 74, it is worth remembering how Mailer described him in the aftermath of the Fight of the Century:

He is America’s Greatest Ego. He is also … the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th Century, he is the prince of mass man and the media.

While Ali was certainly one of the most polarizing figures of his time, with his embrace of the Nation of Islam and principled refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, the fight against Frazier in Madison Square Garden changed the way America saw him and set him up to become the most popular athlete in the world.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and Mailer saw it clearly as the fight happened:

Yes, Ali had never been a street fighter and never a whorehouse knock-it-down stud, no, it was more as if a man with the exquisite reflexes of Nureyev had learned to throw a punch with either hand and so had become champion of the world without knowing if he was the man of all men or the most delicate of the delicate with special privilege endowed by God. Now with Frazier, he was in a sweat bath (a mudpile, a knee, elbow, and death-thumping chute of a pit) having in this late year the fight he had sorely needed for his true greatness as a fighter six or seven years ago, and so whether ahead, behind or even, terror sat in the rooting instinct of all those who were for Ali for it was obviously Frazier’s fight to win, and what if Ali, weaknesses of character now flickering to the surface in a hundred little moves, should enter the vale of prizefighting’s deepest humiliation, should fall out half conscious on the floor and not want to get up. What a death to his followers.

But when Ali did, in fact, wind up on the floor in the fight’s final round, he summoned the courage to get up and was still standing as the bell rang. And long before Ali-Frazier II, or the Rumble in the Jungle, or the Thrilla in Manilla, or carrying the Olympic torch in Atlanta all those years later, Mailer saw the future:

The world was talking instantly of a rematch. For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well …

For more than four decades, that’s exactly what we’ve had in Muhammad Ali: a national hero who was hero of the world as well, the most recognized and beloved athlete on the planet. His final years were marked by quiet dignity in the face of debilitating disease, and he remained a beacon of perseverance and principle and pride, a shining symbol of freedom to the end.

And now he’s gone. But Ali’s legacy is assured, here in the land that had such a passionate love-hate relationship with him, and around the world. In terms of Ali’s continuing ability to inspire and challenge, death has no sting. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it can’t float like a butterfly, either.


Put Your Money on the Bar, and Listen to Sinatra


I grew up in White Plains, New York, in the 1960s, reading Pete Hamill’s columns in the old New York Post. It’s hard to imagine now, after all these years of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing bludgeoning, but at the time, the Post was the great liberal, working class tabloid, featuring the best writing I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. Hamill, who holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, was a huge influence on my decision to go into newspapers in the mid-1970s, and I have read almost everything he’s written—newspaper columns, magazine articles, novels, essays, screenplays and more—over the years.

I also grew up listening to Frank Sinatra on WNEW-AM which was always on the radio in our kitchen, especially when the legendary William B. Williams was on the air with his Make Believe Ballroom. Sinatra was one of the first things my father and I agreed on, and it remained a shared bond until he died.

So it’s no surprise that my favorite book about Frank Sinatra is Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, originally written in 1998, shortly after Sinatra died, and re-released last fall as part of Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration. If you love Sinatra, this book is indispensable.

At just 180 pages, it’s a book you will come back to year after year, and each time, it will reveal new insights about the man and his music. It’s not a biography. It’s really more of an extended essay, a very personal perspective not only on why Sinatra matters, but why he will continue to matter. As Hamill writes:

The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relieve the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect.’ In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.

“That mysterious quality that makes the listener more human.”

I have never read or heard a better description of Sinatra’s genius, and why his music has mattered so much to me almost my entire life. This is an intimate book, one that takes you into the smoky backroom at PJ Clarke’s as Sinatra holds court, and into the back seat of a limousine as it rolls through Central Park in the wee small hours of the morning in New York. On the pages of Why Sinatra Matters, you encounter an artist and a man you will like very much, as Hamill did.

You will love this book for its passion, its honesty, its keen appreciation of art, history, and culture, and perhaps most of all for the understated brilliance of lines like this: “If you loved someone who did not love you back, you could always walk into a saloon, put your money on the bar, and listen to Sinatra.”


One of my prize possessions: a signed copy of Why Sinatra Matters, with words to live by.

So today, as we mark the 18th anniversary of Sinatra’s passing, listening to his timeless music still represents the ultimate triumph over the banality of death. William B. Williams is long gone, but living in the Philadelphia area, I’m lucky enough to have the ageless Sid Mark still on the air in his 59th year doing an all-Sinatra radio show. (You can listen live on soundsofsinatra.com Sunday mornings from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

Since the anniversary of Sinatra’s death falls on a Sunday this year, Sid was on the radio this morning, as he has been for almost six decades, talking about his old friend and playing his music for fans young and old.

I’m also spending time today with Pete Hamill’s wonderful book. Hamill turned 80 last year; I turned 60. Both of us grew up listening to Sinatra on our parents’ radio. So did my daughters. (With Sid Mark filling the role that William B. Williams played in my parents’ home in White Plains.)

I have no doubt that in the decades to come, future generations of listeners will grow up discovering and embracing that mysterious quality that makes them more human.

Coda: Remembering Frank

This is a very good interview with Pete Hamill on McGraw Milhaven’s radio show on St. Louis station KTRS on the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth.



Dead Flowers for the Decadent and Depraved

For the Kentucky Derby, as with many recurring events in my life, there are certain rituals that must be observed.

Mint juleps, however, are not one of them. Not that I really mind mint juleps. But just as Jack Nicholson, in the classic diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, tries unsuccessfully to order a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad because what he really wants is a side order of wheat toast, I simply prefer my mint juleps without the mint. Or the simple syrup. Or the crushed ice.

Unlike Jack, I do manage to get my bourbon—Maker’s Mark has long been preferred in my family. If I’m feeling extravagant, maybe I’ll put an ice cube or two in it. Provided they’re very small ice cubes.

Over the years, I have found that bourbon is the perfect complement to one of my favorite Kentucky Derby rituals: spending time with the late Hunter S. Thompson’s savagely funny and enduringly influential magazine article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, first published in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970 and reprinted almost a decade later in the essential Thompson collection, The Great Shark Hunt. (Read the article in its entirety on Grantland, which sadly has joined Scanlan’s in the literary boneyard where great writing goes to die.)


For years, the annual Run for the Roses would compel me to pull Shark Hunt off the shelf for a return trip to the Big Bang of Gonzo Journalism, what the novelist William Kennedy, a longtime friend of Thompson’s, called “the great mother lode. Hunter had discovered that confounding sums of money could be had by writing what seemed to be journalism, while actually you were developing your fictional oeuvre.”

Thompson, in a letter to his editor and mentor, Warren Hinckle, writes: “I just read over the Derby article for the first time and it strikes me as a monument to whatever kind of limbo exists between humor and tragedy.

Indeed. Hunter S. Thompson’s writing during his creative peak (which I would date from the publication of Hell’s Angels in 1966 through at least Shark Hunt in 1979, with flashes of brilliance from the 1980s until the end in 2005) proved to be a singular achievement. While Thompson spawned several generations of imitators, none have even approached his genius.

What far too many fail to realize is that Hunter S. Thompson was a gifted prose stylist who worked hard at his craft, at least until the point where the legend consumed the writer. But even in his declining years, before he turned his shotgun on himself in the dead of a cold February night in Woody Creek after football season was over, Thompson still loomed large over his legion of would-be successors, stomping them into the terra.

The Derby article also is significant because it marked the first time Thompson worked with the British artist Ralph Steadman, who would prove to be his perfect creative foil. The pairing of Thompson and Steadman did for publishing what the teaming of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger did for music.

Making Bets

In recent years, I have altered my ritual slightly, thanks to the release on CD of a dramatized reading of the Kentucky Derby piece that features an eclectic all-star cast that includes Tim Robbins as Thompson, Ralph Steadman as himself, Dr. John as the character Jimbo, jazz singer Annie Ross as the motel desk clerk, and SNL alum Will Forte as the car rental clerk.

Released in 2012 on Paris Records, the CD features a score composed and conducted by the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. It’s a marvelous production, bringing Thompson’s viciously chaotic comic scenes to life while hewing to the sacred text. I highly recommend picking up the CD for your collection. It’s also available to those of you on Spotify as well as to the masses on YouTube.

I’ve found it to be the perfect soundtrack on my annual drive to the Valley Forge Turf Club, my nearest OTB, to make my bets on Kentucky Derby day. Which brings me to the other essential musical accompaniment to the Derby: Dead Flowers by the Rolling Stones.

Well, when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby day
I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away

Yes, Keith and Mick knew a bit about the decadent and depraved … I may not make my Derby day bets from a rose pink Cadillac, and fortunately I’ve never shared Keith’s one-time fondness for the needle and the spoon. But I have always loved this song, which inhabits that same limbo between humor and tragedy. No Derby day is complete without it.

So enjoy your mint juleps and My Old Kentucky Home. I’ll be in my basement room, the one with the Elvis bar, with Maker’s Mark, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. And a bouquet of Dead Flowers.

Coda: More Dead Flowers

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Dead Flowers is that it’s so damn good it could have been written by the late Townes Van Zandt. It wasn’t, but he did cover it. And it’s his version that plays over the closing credits in The Great Lebowski:

And check out this version from 2002, featuring Keith and Willie Nelson with Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III tearing it up. Often, these all-star jams add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. This is the rare exception:

Remembering Richard Fariña, the ‘Wild Colonial Maniac’


Iain Matthews, left, and Andy Roberts perform at  the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., during their tour supporting “Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina.”

This spring, singer-songwriter Iain Matthews and multi-instrumentalist Andy Roberts, performing as Plainsong, toured the U.S. together for the first time since 1971. That was the year Matthews, with Roberts playing acoustic guitar on the studio sessions, released his debut solo album, the brilliant If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, featuring two songs by the preternaturally gifted songwriter and novelist Richard Fariña.

That album was my first exposure to Fariña, which seems only fitting, since for most of my life, I have seen—or, more precisely, heard—Fariña’s songs through Iain Matthew’s recordings. Of course, in 1971, Fariña had already been dead five years.

This Saturday, April 30, marks the 50th anniversary of Fariña’s fatal motorcycle crash on a winding, fog-shrouded road along the California coast outside Carmel. Half a century gone, to paraphrase Phil Ochs, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s along with Fariña, Eric Anderson, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and a guy named Dylan, among many others.

At the time, I was a huge fan of Ochs, especially, and Dylan, but somehow missed out on Fariña entirely. I was hardly the only one.


Richard and Mimi Farina. From liner notes booklet with Plainsong’s “Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina.”

A folksinger, songwriter, novelist, poet, playwright, and storyteller with few peers, the guy Bob Dylan wanted to be and friend of author Thomas Pynchon, Fariña was just 29 when he died. He and his wife, Mimi (Joan Baez’s younger sister; they shared both radiant beauty and radiantly beautiful voices) had two Vanguard records to their credit, and just two days before his death, his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me was published by Random House. In fact, he had been to his first book signing for the novel right before going to a surprise 21st birthday party he threw for Mimi, where he hopped on the back of a Harley with a guy he barely knew, handed his car keys and wallet to Mimi, and roared off into the evening, never to return.

been_down_so_long_cover_200pThe novel was a literary tour de force, one that caused his former Cornell classmate and friend Thomas Pynchon to write him a letter exclaiming, “Holy shit man. How would ‘holy shit’ look on the book jacket? What I mean is you have written, really and truly, a great out-of-sight fucking book … I will get up something phrased more acceptable to the family trade and all. But to you, wild colonial maniac, about all I can say is holy shit …”

The reclusive Pynchon, a pallbearer at Fariña’s funeral, later wrote a heartfelt and highly personal remembrance and appreciation of his friend in the introduction to the 1983 Penguin Classics edition of Been Down So Long.

Reading Fariña’s book, which the San Francisco Examiner astutely wrote put him in “the company of Kerouac, Kesey, and Pynchon,” and listening to the fewer than three dozen songs he recorded, it is tantalizing to ponder what further wonders he might have unleashed on the world had he not impulsively climbed onto that Harley.  Instead, for most of the past 50 years, Fariña has been remembered, if at all, as a cult artist from the Swingin’ Sixties.

positively_fourth_street_200pIt took David Hajdu’s critically acclaimed 2001 book Positively Fourth Street, which tells the story of the Village folk scene through exquisitely drawn accounts of the lives of Dylan, Baez, and Richard and Mimi Fariña, to bring Fariña and his prodigious talent into focus.

Through the years, Iain Matthews, who first staked his claim as one of the finest vocalists of his generation as a member of Fairport Convention on their early albums, has quietly kept Fariña’s eternal flame flickering, recording several of his songs on solo and Plainsong albums and performing them in venues around the world.

Plainsong_Reinventing_Richard_200pLast fall, Plainsong—which originally formed in 1972, disbanded, reunited in the 1990s, and then went out on a farewell tour in 2012—went back into the studio to record Reinventing Richard: the Songs of Richard Fariña. Released last fall, it’s the reason Matthews and Roberts returned to America to play together for the first time in 45 years.

Here they are, from a recent house concert, performing Mimi and Richard Fariña’s best-known song, “Pack up Your Sorrows.”

The duo’s return to the States was well worth the wait. The new album lives up to its ambitious title by liberating the songs after being trapped in amber for 50 years on Vanguard Records, which I don’t believe has ever even remastered the two albums Richard and Mimi Fariña recorded while he was alive—Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind—or the third, posthumous record released after his death, simply titled Memories.

As wonderful as it was seeing Matthews and Roberts playing together, breathing new life into Fariña’s catalogue in a recent show at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Pa., my hope—and I’m guessing theirs as well—is that the album will inspire generations born long after Fariña’s departure from this world to check out his music and his writing. Just as Matthews learned of Fariña through legendary record producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, REM, and so many others), and just as I learned of Fariña through Iain Matthews.

I remember buying Iain’s second solo album, Tigers Will Survive, in the early 1970s, and being blown away by House Un-American Blues Activity Dream. I noticed the songwriter was the same guy who wrote two songs I loved on Matthews’ first solo recording—Reno, Nevada and Morgan the Pirate—and I wondered who this mystery man was and what else he had written.

Of course, the internet was barely a gleam in Al Gore’s eye at the time, so I managed to piece together an idea of Fariña as viewed through a glass darkly, from visits to record stores and the odd story in a music magazine. Thankfully, it’s all so much easier now.

There are only a few televised performances of Mimi and Richard Fariña that have survived, mainly from a short-lived Pete Seeger folk music TV show called Rainbow Quest. Check out this scorching version of House Un-American Blues Activity Dream that shows what Andy Roberts means when he says Fariña “played the dulcimer with attitude—not folk-style, or pseudo-classical—but a full throated folk rock strum that drove his and Mimi’s music like a banshee.”

It was years after I was first introduced to Fariña through Iain Matthews that I learned Matthews had actually first started singing Reno, Nevada while he was still with Fairport, at a time when he went by Ian MacDonald and the band still had its original female vocalist, Judy Dyble (who was replaced by Sandy Denny, the tragic queen of British folk-rock.)  Check out this 1968 video,featuring Iain and Judy on vocals with a searing psychedelic guitar solo by an impossibly young Richard Thompson.

Most of the time, I still feel like I can only glimpse Fariña through a glass darkly. He’s been dead 21 years longer than he was alive. Twenty-one … the age Mimi was celebrating on Richard’s last day on earth.

But there are times—listening to Plainsong’s Reinventing Richard or the other songs Iain Matthews covered through the years, or reading Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, or going back to the three records Mimi and Richard left behind—when I see him more clearly.

I had one of those experiences this week listening to a 51-year-old album in my car, captivated by the interplay between Richard and Mimi’s voices, and by the interweaving of his full throated dulcimer and her sophisticated, creative acoustic guitar, creating a sound that Richard once characterized as “weaving modal memories.”

It was a cool, grey spring morning. The album was Celebrations for a Grey Day. And that’s exactly what it felt like.

Fore more on Fariña, read David Barnett’s excellent appreciation in The Guardian: Richard Fariña: lost genius who bridged the gap between beats and hippies