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.)

Kentucky_Derby_Cover_400p

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_Andy_Roberts_650p

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_Mimi_Farina_650p

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

Song of Bernadette

Bernadette-Devlin-MP-Trafalgar-Square-060171-650p

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_connolly91st_2007

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.