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 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.



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 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

Song of Bernadette


Bernadette Devlin, MP, speaks during a civil rights rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in June 1971.

“We were born into an unjust system; we are not prepared to grow old in it.”

The fact that Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has grown old enough to celebrate her 69th birthday today is all you really need to know about her courage, tenacity, and toughness. And the fact that Northern Ireland, the land in which she lives, is no longer as brutally unjust as it was in her youth is testament to her unyielding commitment to fight for equal rights and justice, whatever the cost. As McAliskey would be the first to say, that fight is by no means over. But I shudder to think what the country of my grandfather, whose name I proudly bear, would look like today if not for Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, after whom my oldest daughter is named.

Not that my grandparents—who sailed on separate ships four months apart from Liverpool to America in 1920 and were married on Ellis Island so my grandmother would be allowed into the home of the free—or their relatives who stayed behind would have been fans. Quite the opposite. They were Protestants and Orange loyalists. I grew up in a different country, in a different time, and from an early age, I have believed that pitting working class Catholics against Protestants was a cynical and deadly strategy to keep those at the bottom of society from realizing who their real common enemy was.

Born in 1947, Bernadette was the third of six children. Her father, who taught her Irish history  when she was still a child, died when she was 9, leaving her mother to raise the children on welfare, a dehumanizing experience that helped shape Bernadette’s worldviews. Her mother died when Bernadette was 18. She was attending Queen’s University, and helped care for her siblings as she got involved in the budding civil rights movement.

“It wasn’t long before people discovered the final horrors of letting an urchin into Parliament.”

In 1969, at the age of 21, Bernadette Devlin—a fiery speaker, socialist, republican, and civil rights activist—stood for election in the Mid-Ulster District, and became the youngest female ever elected as a Member of Parliament (MP). It’s a distinction she still holds today, almost half a century later.

She also became an international sensation, the wee girl in a miniskirt storming the stuffy chambers of Westminster. The media coverage was almost universally condescending and insulting, but Devlin handled it with an aplomb and professionalism that her inevitably older male interrogators lacked. During her five years in Parliament, she literally and figuratively fought for the rights of oppressed working people. She stood with Catholic residents trying to end the occupation by British troops during the August 1969 Battle of the Bogside, and was convicted in 1970 on charges of inciting rioting. Devlin spent four months in prison while still an MP.

In January 1972, she walked across the House of Commons and, in what she called a “proletarian protest,” punched British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling after he defended British paratroopers who fired on unarmed civil rights activists in Derry on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In the video clip above, when one of the media horde presses Bernadette on whether she would apologize to Maudling, she replies: “I’m just sorry I didn’t get him by the throat.” Fourteen people died of the wounds inflicted by the troops, and history has proven Devlin—who was the only Member of Parliament to actually witness the massacre—correct. However, the arc of the moral universe is indeed long as it bends toward justice: It was November 2015 before the first soldier was finally arrested in the killings. More significantly, while the British government has offered apologies for the murder of innocent civilians, no government official from the time has been held accountable.

Devlin had a child out of wedlock—causing a scandal that harmed her political support at home—before marrying Michael McAliskey in 1973. She lost her seat in Parliament in 1974, but continued to remain active in socialist and republican politics.

Play the video above to hear Black 47’s Change, a song inspired by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey that originally appeared on their third album. Read Larry Kirwin’s blog post, “Bernadette and Change.

“To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”

Bernadette Devlin wrote those words in the Foreword to her autobiography, The Price of My Soul, published in 1969. On a cold January night in 1981, they very nearly proved prophetic.

She was in bed, her 2-year-old son, Fintan, beside her, when gunmen burst into McAliskey’s Coalisland home and riddled her body with bullets. Her husband Michael, who had gotten out of bed when he heard a noise at the door, also was cut down in a hail of gunfire—including a bullet to the head.

As McAliskey told the great New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin in an article that ran in People magazine, of all places, a few months later: “I did a mental runabout to see if I was shot where it would kill me. If I found the worst spot, then I could concentrate on it and stay alive for the children. I found I was having trouble breathing. So I concentrated on breathing to stay alive. I kind of shifted myself over to the bed and pulled the baby down, with the cover. I wrapped the cover over the two of us and just stayed on the floor and made sure I could breathe.”

As they fled the home, the gunmen were immediately caught by British paratroopers, who just happened to be in the neighborhood waiting for them—40 miles away from their barracks, in an area they rarely patrolled.

“The soldiers were there to make sure that the gunmen got into my house and that they were caught on the way out,” McAliskey told Breslin. “The gunmen were set up and so were we.”

Miraculously, both Bernadette and her husband survived the attack, and within six weeks, she was out of the hospital. Unbowed, and on crutches, she announced that she was running for a seat in the House of Commons. However, she dropped out to support jailed IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who won the election, but soon after sacrificed his life as part of a campaign to shame the Brits into recognizing the H-Block inmates as political prisoners.

It was not the first, nor last, time that the British demonstrated that when it came to Ireland, they were beyond shame.


Bernadette Devlin McAliskey speaks in 2007 on the 91st anniversary of the execution of James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Irish Rising.

In the years since the gunmen burst into her home with guns blazing, McAliskey  has continued to fight the good fight, including standing up in the past decade for the rights of gays and lesbians to march in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, another battle that was only won this year.

She has lived an extraordinary life, one filled with passion and purpose, and has inspired thousands around the world. Count me as one of them.

In 1982, just one year after the assassination attempt, my wife, Cathy, and I were considering names for our first-born daughter, and we quickly settled on Bernadette. For me, naming her for someone who had demonstrated such courage and perseverance in fighting for equal rights and justice seemed a fitting way to honor one of my early political heroines.

And this is one of those places where politics and music intertwined so beautifully to make it clear we were making the right choice. Both Cathy and I love The Four Tops song, Bernadette.

And you can never go wrong listening to Levi Stubbs.

This is my debut post in From a Pawned Smith Corona. Most of the rest will be considerably shorter. Scout’s honor.

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.