Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Now

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“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.

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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.

Are You Running with Me, Elvis?

 

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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/ .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.)

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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’

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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.

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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 raconteur 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. This one features Richard on harmonica, Mimi on guitar and Seeger on banjo, all having a ball with “Joy ’round My Brain,” released on the Memories album.

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 three-song 1968 video (Morning Glory, Time Will Show the Wiser, and Reno, Nevada), featuring Iain and Judy on vocals with a searing psychedelic guitar solo by an impossibly young Richard Thompson. Reno, Nevada starts at about the 7:00 mark.

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. I got lost in the interplay between Richard and Mimi’s voices, and by the interweaving of what Andy Roberts called Fariña’s “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”  and Mimi’s sophisticated, creative acoustic guitar. The result was 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

Hello, It’s Me

When I left my job as editorial director after a decade at Lehigh University in 2012, one of the reasons was to finally have the freedom and time to write about the things that have not only interested, but driven me for the past four decades. As usual, life didn’t go the way I planned.

Between my work at SCP, a socially responsible communications firm in Wayne, Pa., and freelance assignments, my time was pretty well booked with paid work that I liked doing. So trust me, I’m not complaining. And I’ll share some of that work on this blog as well.

During my almost 18 years in newspapers, the thing I probably enjoyed most was editorial writing. As my mother would tell you if she was still with us–and oh, how I wish she was–I’ve always had a big mouth. So journalism was a natural, if not preordained, career path, particularly in those heady post-Watergate days for someone who got his feet wet in politics as a student volunteer for Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.During my newspaper career, I won awards for editorial writing in Delaware, Florida, and Pennsylvania, which only encouraged me to heed the advice of one of my heroes, the late singer-songwriter-activist Phil Ochs: “When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

Over the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve had a lot of things to say that I never got around to writing about. Maybe, as the criminally underrated Paul Revere and the Raiders said, that’s a good thing.

But I figured I should find out, one way or the other. So here goes. From a Pawned Smith Corona lifts its title from a song by the artist whose music has meant more to me than any other, the late Warren Zevon.

As the subtitle of the blog states, much of what I write will involve music, politics, writing, and sports, and the ways they intertwine. My first real post will go up tomorrow. It’s a mix of politics, Irish history, and music. And it’s about one of my heroes. Kind of like a Black 47 song.

See you then.