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                                  Anderson Valley Advertiser  -  1996

THE ANNIVERSARY HUSTLE

Another How to Tip for the Aspiring young writer by Clay Geerdes

 

10 is a maybe. 25 is good. 50 better, 75 even better, but 100th is tops. I hit with every anniversary article I ever wrote from Little Orphan Annie’s 50th to the 50th of Superman in 1988 and the 50th of Wonder Woman in 1991. 1995 was chosen as the 100th anniversary of the American comic strip and I blew it. The whole thing came up during my slump. I just couldn’t write about The Yellow Kid and the Pulitzer-Hearst comic strip wars when my gut was aching and I wasn’t sure I’d last to collect my social security.

            Newspapers keep files, lovingly known as morgues, and getting together enough copy to fill a daily means having a lot of filler available in case some natural disaster or corporate scandal doesn’t happen to rev up the city room. A freelancer working the anniversary hustle need only know a little basic math and be glib enough to rewrite a few forgotten news items from the distant past. If you’re sitting around wondering about 1996, ask yourself what happened in 1971 and you’ve got a 25th anniversary item. What happened in ‘46 will give you a 50th. 1896 will give you a 100th. The baby boomers are 50 this year! Get thee to a typewriter. Hey, this is the 12th anniversary of the AVA!     

            Hell, what happened to you is probably as interesting as what happens to most celebrities, but if you want to sell the item or see it printed best attribute that juicy anecdote to someone notorious like Madonna or Michael Jackson. People have a way of thinking celebrities are the major wits of our time, when the truth is, most of them, like politicians, have writers on staff. Writers you never heard of authored most of the lines attributed to celebrities. Surprise. Bob Hope, Jay Leno, David Letterman--all have writers.

            I recommend the anniversary hustle to aspiring writers everywhere. Anniversaries appear upbeat even when they’re not. Think of the fanfare that accompanied all the TV nostalgia re the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki last August. The networks got the opportunity to drag out all that vintage newsreel footage of history’s biggest blasts. All very upbeat stuff. Mega-orgasms for the masses. France thumbed its nose at the rest of the world by resuming nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Mushroom clouds. Shock waves. Megadeath underwater. Radiated sterilized islands. Boom! Boom! Boom! Oh, how we danced on the night… If you are interested in a different take on the subject, however, I recommend Takashi Nagai’s incredible first-person account of what it was like underneath the bomb, THE BELLS OF NAGASAKI [1946]. This is an amazing account of a Japanese doctor and his fellow doctors and nurses who survived the blast and went about their area trying to do what they could for the dying. I made the mistake of visiting the museum in Nagasaki when I was there in 1956 and I’ve never forgotten the horror of those giant blow-ups of people whose faces were melting off. Nagai’s account brought home to me that there were thousands of ordinary people vaporized off the earth when the atomic bombs were dropped. Some to be sure were involved in making munitions, but most were regular people like you and me going about their everyday tasks as they tried to survive a long and devastating war. Nagai, incidentally, like the majority of those who lived in the Urakami district of Nagasaki that Thursday, August 9, 1945, was a Christian.

            While it’s conventional to mark anniversaries at 5, 10, 25, 50, 75, and 100 years, it’s not cast in granite. I can write an article about the 62nd anniversary of Li’l Abner and the decline of political satire in the daily strips, rehash some of the gossip about Al Capp [Alphonse Kaplan], a one-legged legendary cartoonist who at one time or another tried to jump the bones of no less than Shirley Temple and Goldie Hawn. Somebody would print that. Hell, Li’l Abner tried to run for president in the last election under the guise of Ross Perot, n’est pas? This year marks the 455th anniversary of the assassination of Francisco Pizarro, a greedy mass murderer who was off’d by his own soldiers for not sharing the Incan gold. It’s the 78th anniversary of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in a basement in Akaterinburg. Bullets bounced off the chest of Tsarina Alexandra, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and when her body was stripped and tossed in a nearby mine to rot with her family and servants, Alexandra was found to have 18 pounds of diamonds sewn into her bodice. Hey, 1996 marks the 40th anniversary of the outlawing of LSD! And next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Howdy Doody, first telecast on December 27, 1947. I’ve got my article ready for that one, heh! heh!

 

 

THE LOWER DEPTHS AND SINKING

A guided tour through a Marvel comic book soon to be released as a major motion picture

By Clay Geerdes

Goodbye, yellow brick road.

--Elton John

What's okay for the kiddies these days? Well, I decided to take a look at an issue of Clive Barker's PINHEAD. This is an Epic comic, but Epic is just a division of Marvel, so it's a Marvel comic. I picked up the 5th issue. There are no adults only disclaimer on the cover, no notice that the comic is for mature readers, nothing to warn the unwary parent that the product may not be suitable for a kid reader. Now, I don't know if kids even read comic books anymore. I doubt that most can be torn away from their Sega/Nintendo joy sticks long enough to read anything, so perhaps all comics are now assumed to have an adult readership and I am the anachronism. Whatever. I go on. The splash for this issue of Pinhead shows a big blue humanoid kissing a prone naked redheaded woman. An erect sword dominates the center of the drawing in case you failed to get the message. In panel two the woman tells the blue creature to her let "feel the gods within" him. And by panel two she is up and putting on her top. A few panels later the woman is standing and telling the blue one that his "strength has sated" her as no one else's could. In other words, he was great in the sack. This scene would have meant so much to me at the age of eight. I’m sure I would have understood all the neo-Freudian subtleties.

The woman appears to be a normal human, yet she is having sex with a freak with six little swords stuck in his bald head. Kind of makes you wonder, huh? Now this woman who was praising the blue one’s power on page three is saying she would like to see “an ending of strength, of power” on page six, which would be a contradiction anywhere but in this pseudo-fantasy world. On page eight, a giant pink creature punches a woman in the breast with his right hand and knocks her down. She is a servant to the red-haired woman. When she tries to help the girl, the pink creature says “move aside, whore.” Tsk! Tsk! And you thought the kids learned that kind of talk from rap CDs or MTV. A page or two later, a child is drugged and throw into a flaming pit as a human sacrifice. Two pages later the pink creature smashes a blacksmith in the jaw with a stone hammer and burns him to death. A moment later the redhead attacks her blue seducer with a knife. A skeleton calls her a slut, falls on her, and pushes her into a fire where she burns to death. She's called a priestess, of course, but she's a woman, and as she burns in the flames the skeleton rips out her heart. The death of the priestess pisses the blue guy off and he chops off the left arm of the pink guy. In case your old eyes are getting a little weak, the character is turned toward you and blown up to half page size so you can revel in the bloody gore that exudes from the shoulder and arm socket. This is followed by a splash page with the blue pinhead smashing his right fist through the body of the pink demon. The episode ends with a pinhead holding a bloody bone as blood drips from his lips. The book is filled out with a few pin-ups tossed in for the gratification of the reader. One shows a pinhead carrying the corpse of a blonde woman--his lunch?

And people call the fantasies of Robert Crumb misogynistic! PINHEAD is just one of a long series of demonic manifestations that have appeared in straight comics since the revival of CONAN back in the seventies. But Robert E. Howard was a pretty good story teller and when Roy Thomas translated his work into the early stories illustrated by Barry Windsor Smith the material retained its interest for me. PINHEAD is a dreadful imitation of an imitation with some of the worst writing I've ever suffered on the comic page. Who is editing this stuff? Where is Spelcheck? 

I've always felt sword and sorcery was a copout. You see a beautiful woman and she is suddenly torn to pieces only to turn into some weird beast and the idea is that she was simply enchanted, under some witch's spell, her form changed like that of the frog prince or the beast in Beauty and the Beast.  What is manifest; however, is an attitude toward women, an anger toward them, a revenge motive. This is logical. Most comic books are aimed at adolescent boys and in the clutch of puberty women are strongly desired and as strongly feared. A boy wants, but fears rejection, so he gets angry and seeks revenge against those girls he fears would reject him if he had the nerve to approach them.  This complex of emotions underlies nearly all comic book fantasy. The woman is drawn perfectly. After all, she is the artist's fantasy first of all and only shared with others as an afterthought.  The male allowed to approach her has to be more perfect than she is, a superbeing, a superhero, the opposite of the ordinary number-crunching nine-to-five worker.  The frustrated reader would like to kill that beautiful redhead and rip out her heart, but he settles for a comic book and accepts symbolic gratification.  This was always implied or inferred in comic book stories, but in PINHEAD nothing is latent, subtle, or left to the imagination. That slashed arm is a blatant as John Wayne Bobbitt's dick.  All of the male expressions in PINHEAD are angry and mean, all of them! The only soft expressions come from the women and there are only a few of these. I found nothing in this comic book that I could identify with, no character that even remotely represented me.  My honest feeling when I finished with the book was: why would anyone want to publish this rot? My second reaction was anger at the publisher's cynicism in assuming this second reaction was anger at the publisher's cynicism in assuming this was appropriate subject matter for all ages when the only child shown in the story is thrown into a pit of flames and burned to death as a human sacrifice.

Naturally, PINHEAD has been filmed and will soon be showing at the local mall. I’ve seen the preview and no, I will not be reviewing the film. 

 

 

PICTURESQUE BERKELEY: JUNE, 1996.

In the nature of a travelogue by Clay Geerdes

 

Much of Berkeley’s image for outsiders is based upon the few blocks of Telegraph Avenue between the UC campus at Bancroft Way and Dwight Way, an area which is your basic student ghetto, a string of coffee shops, pizza joints, used book and record shops, and odds and ends boutiques. Because of the continued presence of a few street people, outsiders, tourists, parental visitors [who used to stay in the Berkeley Inn back in the twenties, a building which was, indeed, built for them] and other timid souls are afraid of the area and avoid it the way they would the Skid Row in their own community. The mother of a friend of mine came to visit for the first time and when he took her for the tour of the Telly she was most frightened by a handful of pierced punks and baldies sitting on a trash can near Blondie’s. She didn’t even see the local schizoid hypoglycemics sucking the last drop of sugary water from the bottoms of tossed cups and bottles, the hairy wonders who often throw temper tantrums when they can’t find anything edible in those stone garbage cans. These, of course, are Reagan-Bush leftovers, marginals released from local mental hospitals and left to fend for themselves. Most of them pose as artists or street poets or musicians and you can read about them annually in THE TELEGRAPH AVENUE STREET CALENDAR produced by Bruce N. Duncan, major chronicler of the local maginals since the early eighties when he routinely spent most of his welfare money publishing the TELE-TIMES. My friend’s mother wasn’t frightened or intimidated by these folks, because she didn’t hit the street when they were making their rounds and the pierced teenagers, loaded down with their expensive leather and studded cuffs and silver eyebrow, ear, and nose jewelry, the gross gang with the vegetable-dyed pink and blue hair who did scare the polyester off her, could have been from her own burb. They are not from Berkeley; these well-to-do fashion mongers BART in to spare change for beer, gross-out the tourists, and have a good time at other people’s expense. A few are visually skinheads, but not the political variety; I’ve seen no Nazi memorabilia hanging around their necks. There is always a group of conformists like this, isn’t there? When Beat was in circa 1948-59, it was black berets and little Van Dyke beards and sandals; then it was long hair and love beads and ankhs in the mid-sixties, then shaved heads and human ugly art punks out of England in the seventies; each teen generation thinks it has cornered the market on rebellion. Or the expression of rebellion via unorthodox costume-ry. Today, of course, they are simply doing what they are told by clever marketeers, namely Warner Brothers, MTV, et al. I just step around the pieced gang and continue on my way, but tourists, seeing them for the first time, think these people are symbolic or symptomatic of Berkeley or the ‘weirdness of California.’ Hey, the majority of the people who live in this town I have called home for 26 years are as normal and conservative as anyone in Fresno or Lincoln, Nebraska, or Cleveland, Ohio. Think on it. Real street people haven’t got any money for leather clothes and silver earrings and tattoos and they have no interest in them. If they’re on the street spare-changing, it is because they need money to buy food or crack as their habit may be. A real street person isn’t going to sprawl on the sidewalk in front of Noah’s Bagels in several hundred bucks worth of leather sticking his feet out on the walk to bug those trying to walk by--that’s YOUR teenager out to piss off the adult public. A beggar needs your coins and knows bugging you isn’t the way to get them. Big difference between street people and homeless people, too. It’s rare to see homeless people on the avenue, very rare. Most of those who beg along the street are pros who BART in for the gig or suburban teenagers goofing off.

            It’s mid-June of 1996. I’m standing in the doorway of Moe’s Bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley waiting for a friend. Across the sunlit street, seated at one of the smoker’s tables on the sidewalk near the entrance to the Med, poet Julia Vinograd, clad in her usual long black dress, raises a metal ring to her lips and blows a stream of tinted bubbles into the air. I read her 41st book of poems, SPEED OF DARK, the other day. My favorite is “Laugh Tracks” in which Julia talks about people who are afraid to laugh alone. I’m not one of those. I hate laugh tracks and seldom watch sitcoms for that reason. I glance inside at the cash register where Moe is ringing up a sale as he talks to the two men who sort books behind him. I used to walk into Moe’s and find him at the end of a trail of foul-smelling cigar smoke which began in the front of the store, but Moe has quit his cigars, more in deference to his health, I’m sure, than to city laws he has routinely scoffed at, but he’s still easy to find because he carries on a running conversation throughout the day and never lowers his voice. One can browse the basement and hear Moe’s opinions from the upstairs area. No magazines down here this year, because Moe got tired of messing with them, but you can still get your AVA at Pegasis on Solano or at Black Oak Books on Shattuck. Whether they will order THE REALIST or not is something else again. There is a nice bench where the magazine shelves used to be and I think this is a move in the right direction. I always enjoyed sitting at a table in the basement of City Lights in North Beach and reading through all those Pocket Poet books. For many years, Ferlinghetti provided our alternative library. HOWL certainly wasn’t in the San Francisco City Library in those days. More chairs, Moe. Don’t let Barnes and Noble and Borders upstage you.        

            Fred Ross, current owner of Cody’s, put in a magazine room, but it is mostly a hangout for people who sit on the floor and read stuff like WIRED and DETAILS. For a short while, there was a nice coffee shop in part of Cody’s, but it’s gone. You could sit upstairs at a table and look down into the main section of Cody’s and watch the furtive looks of thwarted shoplifters. The place just didn’t catch on and the area is now used as an expanded section filled with children’s literature. Annually, some reporter from the local UC paper will follow Moe as he shelves mysteries and novels, listening to the latest version of his success on Telegraph. He was a pioneer in the used book business and you’re old Berkeley if you remember the days when Moe handled used records in his basement. The writer scribbles it all down in a notebook and Moe will be quoted or misquoted in an upcoming issue of the DAILY CAL. As I shift back and forth between Julia and her bubbles and Moe and his lectures, I realize I am standing between two Berkeley traditions.

          The man most successful at buying and selling used records is Ken Sarachan who razed the old UC Corner and built himself a glass palace.  We were all surprised when he moved his Rasputin Records from that glass building at Telegraph and Durant to the corner of Channing and Telegraph on September 28, 1995.  He has moved 7 times since opening in 1970, each time to expand. In the renovated building that used to house Miller’s Outpost, Sarachan has about 50 percent more floor space, about 24,000 sq. ft. [Daily Cal., 9/28/95, p. 1].  In November of 1995, he was using his glass palace as a junk store, selling cheap clothes and old vinyl records. It is now leased to a company that sells UC sports clothes. I think it would make a great night club. Soft lighting. Tables on the second floor. Live music. A view of the street action below. Ah, what do I know? Students’ idea of night life is chewing pizza at Blondie’s [also owned by Sarachan] or listening to whatever group is playing in the basement at Larry Blake’s. Sarachan, incidentally, owns the property that was once home to the Berkeley Inn, which was razed a couple of years back and remains a fenced-in vacant mud hole to this writing. His major competitor, Amoeba Records, was trying for the corner, but Sarachan won out and Amoeba expanded in the other direction, knocking out a wall and moving into what used to be a good shoe store, then a comic book store. I’m on and off with Amoeba. When I walk in there and have to listen to some blaring illiterate rap with a muthafuckin’ this and a muthafuckin’ that, I just turn around and walk back out the door. Not that cacophony isn’t the rule in this area, because half the cars that pass up Telegraph toward the campus have the same rap blaring at everyone in quadraphonic stereo.    

            For a long time, the toilet art of Richard List was displayed behind the wrought iron fence constructed to keep street people from building a tent city on the cite of the Berkeley Inn so customers eating those huge salads across the street could feast their eyes on toilet bowls with pink seats, but in June of 1996, there was nothing there. Street art is difficult to maintain. An artist routinely does an elaborate chalk drawing near the entrance to the Print Mint poster store, but his beautiful sketches last only a few days. I walk by there on Mondays and Fridays. Always interesting to see the chalk art phenomenon, because it is for the few who happen along when it is there; as far as I know there is no record of these sidewalk paintings at all. I’ve yet to see the artist snap a photo.

            Last summer Guy Colwell painted a large canvas in the area near the flower seller outside Cody’s and was kind of artist-in-residence at the Med where folks could see and buy his beautiful miniatures. While all classes of people stroll along Telegraph, a particular kind of person goes to gallery shows, and Guy told me he enjoyed encountering regular people on the street, seeing their immediate reactions to his work, and talking to them about life and art. He wrote and illustrated a series of comic books in the early seventies. His INNER CITY ROMANCE comic ran several issues and demonstrated a great deal of insight into the way people lived and worked in the sixties; his stories deal with what the counter-culture was actually like in California in contrast to the surface pop images repeated again and again by newspapers and magazines. Guy took on sex, sexism, and the beauty cult in his DOLL series for Rip Off Press in the eighties. He has refused to censor his work sexually or politically and his drawing style is unique, his figures never stereotypes. You won’t find any traced figures or objects in a Colwell painting, no photorealism. His work always says something about the social order and the difficulties human beings have dealing with racial inequality and corporate greed.

            If you haven’t been to Berkeley for awhile, you may not know that Leopold’s records closed on February 16, 1996. Originally one of six nonprofit stores opened by ASUC as SOB [Students of Berkeley, Inc.], Leopold opened with The Missing Link Bicycle Store, Durant Clothing [Sheep’s Clothing], and Dirty Rainbow art supplies. Named after Russian composer Leopold Stokowski, the store was known for a short time as The Leopold Stokowski Memorial Services Pavilion but soon reverted to Leopold’s. Bill Robbins was manager during the 70s. Robbins sold the store to the Record Factory in 1985 when he became an orthodox Jew and could no longer participate in a business that was open on Saturday. Record Factory went under and sold to Wherehouse in 1986. Wherehouse filed bankruptcy in August of 1995 and closed 50 stores. In typical corporate fashion, Leopold’s customers and employees were given no notice. One day it was there, the next it was gone like the old Blum’s on Shattuck and Center. Under Robbins the store was responsive to community needs and often trained people off the street to work there, but under corporate rule it  became as bottom line oriented as any other business and its unique nature was lost [Daily Cal., 3/12/96, p. 1]. THE GOOD GUYS closed in Berkeley the same month, indicating lack of a market in the area, particularly for the larger TV and stereo systems pushed by the chain. Uncle Ralph’s folded and is gone from Telegraph, so where do the students get their CD players and VCRs?

Even Whole Earth Access [corporate name, Basic Living Products, Inc.], founded in 1978 by Eugene and Larry Farb and their wives, Toni Garrett and Laura Katz, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy [April 24, 1996].  Reason: “the Whole Earth chain has been struggling in an increasingly competitive retail environment dominated by such stores as Target and Wal-Mart [Oakland TRIBUNE, 5/2/96, p. C-1.].” Whole Earth was no longer price competitive by 1996. I found it interesting that Uncle Ralph’s, Good Guys, and Whole Earth were shooting for the limited PC computer market when everyone around here knows that Macs are sold to students for a 40% discount. The last time I walked around looking at those PC clones at Uncle Ralph’s I thought, hey, open your eyes, guys; most of the incoming students at UC are carrying Powerbooks and Notebooks; they don’t even use the large desktop models anymore; laptops are ubiquitous in spite of those shitty screens.

            I think the students bring their CD players, TVs and VCRs with them when they move into the dorms or frat and sorority houses and they don’t buy new ones until they graduate and enter Yuppie-dom. CDs, on the other hand, must sell as well as pizza in this town; how else explain the enormous success of Rasputin’s and Amoeba, both of whom have supermarket sized stores with three floors of CDs?

            For a long time the City of Berkeley has had a policy against giving space to the big chain stores, but this changed in the past decade and, while there is still no McDonald’s or Wendy’s on Telegraph near the campus, the town now has three Walgreen’s drugstores as well as Barnes and Noble and Blockbuster Video.

            I stroll across Bancroft and walk around the student union building. A tour guide is giving a group of young Asians the UC rap. That’s Sproul hall named for Gordon Sproul and that’s Wheeler Hall up there, named for Benjamin Ide Wheeler who used to make the rounds of the campus on his white horse and Strawberry Creek runs under this bridge and. Ah, well, there wouldn’t be anything here but a bedroom community for San Franciscans if the campus had located elsewhere. I walk down the steps to lower Sproul passing some idiot drumming on a couple of five gallon cans. The distinction between noise and music is lost on so many these days.

            Outside Yogurt Park, I watch a couple of bicycle cops leisurely licking away at their frozen yogurt. Marty Piscovich opened the little shop in 1978. There’s a short line inside and a few people waiting at the take-out window. The place is right across the street from the Durant dormitories and I can’t recall ever seeing it empty. You can get frozen yogurt and pizza, staples of the student diet, just about any hour of the day or night in Berkeley. On Friday and Saturday nights the area fills up with suburban teenagers and cruisers.

            I walk down Durant to the car. No ticket. No broken side window. No slashed tire. No popped trunk. Great! It was someone else’s turn today. On the other hand, I have to get gas on the way home and what if I get carjacked--Clay! C’mon. All right. Geez, I’m just trying to give the folks the straight dope on what it’s like to live in this town. I mean I could be driving down the wrong street and get in the crossfire during a drive-by shooting. Clay! You cut that out. Okay. Okay.

 

 

BRANDO

A reaction of sorts by Clay Geerdes

 

When I was a kid my mother often said, “Don’t you talk back to me!” and I had to shut up because she was bigger than me, but after I grew up I discovered that the essence of public writing is talking back and that’s what I have always done.

            So does Marlon Brando. I can’t remember enjoying an autobiography as much as I did his SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME [New York: Random House, 1994, just remaindered for $5 at Moe’s, so go over there and get one since that’s cheaper than the paperback will be.]. I don’t know whether to call myself a fan of Brando or not, but I guess part of me is or has been in the past. I’ve seen nearly all of his films.  The aspiring actors I knew in college were hardcore fans. A number of us worked at the Rincon Annex in San Francisco circa 1961 and it was common for us to talk endlessly about theater and drama while sorting and tossing parcels. Everything Brando said and did influence my would-be actor buddies even though they were still carrying spears in junior college Shakespeare productions.  I saw all of this with the detachment of an older student and I realize now there is a big difference between people who go right from high school to college and those who work and spend some time in the service first. I had been in the Navy for four years traveling all over half the world before entering college at the age of 24. The young actors, poets, folk musicians, and dancers I worked with were looking for identities and saw possibilities in screen images like Brando’s sensitive biker from THE WILD ONE [1951] or James Dean’s troubled teenager from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. I had a leather jacket long before that movie came out and I wore it because it was damned cold in Nebraska in the winter. After the movie came out, some people began to associate leather jackets with rebel bikers, but I didn’t see any bikers around my neighborhood. Never saw any until the Hell’s Angels began to hang out around the panhandle of Golden Gate Park in the mid-sixties. By 1961, I knew who I was and what I wanted to do and, while I got a kick out of some of the accesses I saw triggered by Hollywood-promoted teen rebellion, I had intellectual aspirations and no inclination at all to dig out my old high school leather jacket and run around hitting on small town waitresses. I wanted out of the working class, not back into its escapist fantasies.

            Brando’s book is candid and honest. He never tries to make himself a hero or a star. He readily admits if he hadn’t fallen into acting as a way of making a living in the movie business he would have spent his life working in a factory. He had no formal education, yet he shows himself to be well read and solid in his personal and political beliefs. His chapter on the devastating violence and cruelty routinely practiced toward Native Americans from Columbus to the present is one of the best summaries I have read on the subject, including the fine chapters in Howard Zinn’s PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.

            Brando never sought celebrity-status and always hated it. He tells a number of stories of being hounded by paparazzi and stalked by women. His attitude is well expressed in this comment about Elvis: “For some reason celebrities of a certain kind are treated as messiahs whether they like it or not; people encapsulate them in myths that touch their deepest yearnings and needs. It seems to me hilarious that our government put the face of Elvis Presley on a postage stamp after he died from an overdose of drugs. His fans don’t mention that because they don’t want to give up their myths. They ignore the fact that he was a drug addict and claim he invented rock ‘n’ roll when in fact he took it from black culture; they had been singing that way for years before he came along, copied them and became a star [218].”  Brando thought the academy awards were a total fraud and when he was nominated for one, he sent an Indian woman to get it, assuming this would be a way to get the message out to the American public. She wasn’t allowed to read her speech, only to adlib a few lines, which convinced Brando he was right. He hated giving interviews: “When I first became an actor, I had tried to be open and honest with reporters, but they put words in my mouth and focused on prurience, so after a while I refused to do it anymore. I was tired of being asked the same inane, irrelevant questions, then seeing my answers distorted. It grated on me that movie stars were elevated into icons: Hollywood was simply a place where people, including me, made money, like a mill town in New England or an oil field in Texas [223].”  Brando often came into conflict with the studio system and he had little respect for it. When he was working in Tahiti on MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, MGM messed up and lost a lot of time and money, so they passed the buck to Brando, instructing their press flacks to make him sound like an eccentric, unreliable actor. Sound familiar? Read the tabloids. It’s always the actor’s fault when a film goes over budget, never the studio. Brando says “…I’ve never met a studio that had the integrity to stick to the truth if it was able to make more money by distorting it… [270].”

            Brando talks about his sex life, but he turns a lot of his affairs into humorous anecdotes and he does not discuss his wives or his children, preferring to give them the option of telling their own stories should they choose to do so at some time in the future. Until recently in publishing history it was considered indiscrete to talk about one’s sex life in a biography because there is no way to avoid violating the privacy of the partner or partners. There have been rumors and tabloid stories about Brando’s varied sexual tastes and these are amply covered in unauthorized biographies by Peter Manso and others. I think Brando chose to talk about some of his affairs and ignore others because he felt there were more important things to discuss, that his involvement with the social issues of his time was more important in defining him than his sexual affairs.

             BRANDO is a gutsy, straight-forward, never-boring, fast-moving, no-bullshit rap about one man’s life in weird America, a man who put his money where his mouth was--Brando was on the Selma march with Martin Luther King, at the ‘fish-in up in Seattle when the local tribe tried to get back their salmon fishing rights; this is the story of a man who did a lot more than just talk a good game. His biggest disappointment was discovering that people didn’t really care about the misery in the world. When he made a documentary on starving children in India and offered it free to various networks, they wouldn’t show it. He had always believed that people would rally and want to help if they knew about the misery suffered by many, that it was a matter of getting this information documented and shown; well, he was right about the few, but wrong about the many, because most people are self-centered and as unconcerned about the plight of hungry foreign children as they are indifferent to the attempts of various American Indian activists to reclaim some of the land stolen from them by the U. S. government. Brando fought against the entertainment orientation of Hollywood for many years, but never succeeded in getting anyone to make the kind of socially relevant films he thought would enlighten everyone. In the end he retired to his Tahitian island, Titi’aroa, taking fewer and fewer movie roles. His past few years have been filled with family tragedy, a son sent to prison for manslaughter, a daughter committing suicide, and it is likely Brando’s book would have had a different tone had it been written after these events. As it is, SONGS MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME is mostly upbeat, humorous, and, in spite of the corruption of Hollywood and the American government, optimistic. The reason for that optimism was the happiness Brando found among the Tahitian people. The contrast was stark. He had seen people in New York and Hollywood who had fortunes, owned castles and yachts, had access to everything material, yet they were the unhappiest people he had ever seen. The Polynesians had only what nature provided and they went around smiling and happy all day.

 

 

 

MID-OCTOBER: 1996 by Clay Geerdes

 

In the summer of 1995, I had begun to feel weak and tired a lot of the time. When I went uptown to Berkeley with my neighbor for our tour of the bookstores and record shops, I hardly had the strength to make it the three or four blocks up Dwight to Telegraph. Sometimes, I would have to go into Moe's and sit down and rest in the basement before I could get on with the day. If I looked at the books on the higher shelves, I felt dizzy. I knew something was going wrong with my body, but I was 61 and I just thought I was beginning to feel my age. By early 1996, I had begun to feel some pain in my abdomen. It came and went and I was working in a stressful job so my first thought was an ulcer. The pain always seemed worse when I was working at the door of the club and I sat there and massaged my tummy while the loud music bombarded my ears. By summer of 1996, I was aware that I had a lump where my colon was and I began to suspect I might have a tumor. I had a couple of bad spells with serious abdominal pain, but continued to put off dealing with it, partly because I had no medical insurance, and partly because I was still hopeful that it was nothing more than an inflammation or an ulcer that would eventually heal itself. After all, I'm not a drinker or smoker and I take all the vitamins and try to eat well. My friend only buys organic fruits and vegetables and we eat mostly chicken and fish, rarely red meat. I couldn't see myself as a victim of cancer.

            But as October moved on, I was getting worse. My lump was larger. I had little interest in food. I was tired out most of the time. My pain was increasing and even though we were in the middle of the flu season, I began to doubt that I had the flu. I started checking my temperature and realized it was running well over a hundred. I had constant diarrhea and I was becoming dehydrated. I was not sleeping well and on the morning of October 14 around four a.m, I woke up my friend and told her we had to go to the hospital. I had been told that Alta Bates had a low income clinic and I knew if we went there well before the morning traffic I had a good chance of getting in for some medical help. My friend drove me there and I was the only person around at that time. It was about 5 when we checked in. I was well treated, the young intern realized I was tachycardic and dehydrated and I was examined and put to bed. As the day progressed, I was given a CAT scan and Dr. Calvin Benton told me what I had suspected, that I had a tumor in my colon. He said it had begun to leak and the area around it was infected, that I would need surgery. By 5 that afternoon I was on my way to the operating room. After about three and a half hours, I was out of surgery and in ICU. Dr. Benton had saved my life. In a few more hours, I would probably have had peritonitis and gone into shock.

            At 62, I had been healthy most of my life and the only surgery I had was a tonsillectomy when I was 12. What was unusual to me about this experience was my lack of any stress or fear. Once I was in the hospital, I felt I was on the right track and I had no feelings of apprehension. I was calm and relaxed when I was on the way to the operating room. This was not routine for me. I've never been a particularly brave person. I worry about walking around my own neighborhood in this era of crack houses, teenage gangs, and drive-by shootings. I was always in a state of apprehension at my job, because I worked at the door of a club and anyone could come through that door at any time and hold me up or shoot me. Yet I was riding on a bed through the corridor of the hospital on my way to serious surgery and I felt no fear at all. I had no way or knowing whether I would make it through and come back. For all I knew, I was on my last ride. But I really have no fear of death. No regrets about my life. I've had a lot of careers and done a great many things and all of them were satisfying. I was a sailor in my youth and I traveled to many different countries. I studied for several years and taught college for seven years. I dropped out of teaching and became a photo-journalist. I wrote thousands of magazine and newspaper articles and drew thousands of cartoons. I was a columnist and a drama critic in San Francisco during the early seventies and I saw many ballets and operas. During my writing career I met many scholars and celebrities. Through my friends in animation and cartooning, I became involved with promotion and I put on several successful conventions. I had a good time doing all of it. I didn't make a lot of money, because I followed my own interests rather than accept the limitations of the nine-to-five world.

            My friend had just had cataract surgery and was out of it when she went into the operating room so I was a little surprised when I was rolled in fully conscious. Everyone was all scrubbed up and waiting for me. Someone said there was a plank on one side for my left arm and another one on the other for my right arm and I thought, well, that's it then, crucified. That flashed me back to my youth when I was president of the college age group in the First Baptist Church. I haven't been to church in about 35 years, but all the imagery returned for a brief moment, then someone said they were going to start feeding the anesthetic through my I-V and the next thing I knew I was back in a hospital room.

            When I became fully conscious, I was in the same frame of mind I was in before I went into surgery. I had survived. I became aware of the various drains on my body, the worse of which was the nasal one, and I could hear the continuous beep beep of the I-V and the battle that was in progress with the nurses and an Alzheimer's patient in the bed next to mine. The man was 92 and he had injured his pelvis in some way and he had to be restrained because he kept trying to get out. He was incontinent and kept wetting his bed so they put a condom cap on him and as soon as they did it and left I heard him tear it off. They went through this about three times, the nurses having to change his bed each time. There was a T-V across the room near the ceiling and I had a remote which controlled it, and buzzed the nurse. All I wanted to do was sleep the first couple of days, but I soon learned that was not easy to do. Hospital routine came first. Every two hours, the bright lights went on and a nurse took my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature and wrote it down on a clipboard. At 4:30 in the morning, someone woke me up to draw some blood. The blood went up to pathology where it was tested and a report prepared for the doctor who would come in around eight to do his rounds. Everything was complicated. If I had to go to the bathroom, I had to call the nurse to help me. She had to unplug my I-V and help me roll it the eight or ten feet to the bathroom. Since I was on I-V, there was nothing there but water most of the time, but I had to go every two or three hours. I had a plastic pee bottle hanging on my bed. It was marked on the side in centimeters. The staff kept track or everything that went into or came out of my body. When the I-V bag was empty, the mechanism beeped and the nurse came and replaced it. With two of us in the room, one or the other's I-V seemed to be beeping all the time. If the I-V quit for some reason--air in the line, whatever--it set off a different type of alarm, one which continued until the nurse came in to check it out and re-set it.

            While I had a great deal of discomfort, I did not have any serious pain. I don't know why not, but the expertise of the surgeon certainly had more than a little to do with it. He had removed my tumor and some intestine and connected me back up, relieving me from the misery of dealing with a colostomy bag and a second surgery. The discomfort came from the I-V in the back of my left hand, the nasal drain in my left nostril, the large clamps across my abdomen, necessary to hold the muscle together while it was healing and the drain in my right side. That little plastic bottle was a total drag, because when it filled up, it was heavy and it hung down from my body when I went for one of my walks through the corridors with a nurse. I always reminded the nurse to empty that little bottle before we strolled down the hall. If she didn't I had to reach down and carry it so that it didn't weigh my tummy down.  Pleasant moments: those when the drains were removed. Especially that nasal drain. That was misery of the first order. I got a dry mouth and throat from it and when I had to cough I was afraid I would strangle. I cheered when Dr. Benton removed it. Again when he took out the side drain.

            I remembered the CAT scan. That was a funny experience. They rolled my bed down the room, then put me on a thin conveyer belt with my feet toward a large round device. The technicians went into a protected room and I was moved into the scanner. Since the x-rays were only of my abdomen, I was only part way inside and I could look up and see some of the controls. DONT' BREATHE! yelled a computerized voice. So I stopped breathing while the x-ray was on. BREATHE! yelled the voice, and I let out my breath. This went on for quite awhile, because they took a lot of x-rays. After awhile, the voices quit and I just watched the control and held my breath accordingly. Finally, they were finished and they pushed a button that conveyed me out of the machine. I was moved back onto the bed and taken back to a room. On the ride, I was thinking about a book I had read that correlated x-rays with cancer and I was wondering if my cancer came from some chest or dental x-ray I had years ago. 

            In my recovery room, morphine was connected to my I-V and if I wanted a hit all I had to do was push a button. I hit it a couple of times the first night not because of pain, but because I thought it would put me to sleep, but it was a total dud, so I gave it up after a few more tries. When a nurse checked it, she said I had used less painkiller than any patient she could remember. Morphine is named for Morpheus, the God of sleep and change. What a misnomer. What the drug did was give me some incredible visions. Hallucinations. It was very psychedelic. I felt like I was taking off, leaving the earth, flying; all the time I was seeing these intense complex Breugelesque images, all in technicolor. It was much better than T-V. I thought about Mick Jagger singing about Sister Morphine while I was seeing all that great artwork on the screen of my mind. I was pleasantly distracted by the drug, but wide awake.

            Now valium. The worse pain I experienced in the hospital was the valium shot. It was okayed by Dr. Benton after a few nights, so the nurse came in about ten to inject it through one of the ports in my I-V, and she told me it might burn a little, but I never expected what happened. I thought my entire left hand and arm were on fire! And it lasted about a minute which is a long time. I did sleep pretty well on the valium, but the next night when the nurse asked me if I wanted my valium shot, I had to give it a lot of thought before saying okay. I figured it was a trade-off. No valium, I would probably be awake most of the night. Not because of the patient next to me, because by then the Alzheimer's case had been moved and I had a room mate who remembered the old protest days at UC Berkeley, a guy who had been through a lot of the same adventures I had. No, I just opted for the valium because I had slept fairly well the night before.

            As soon as the drains were gone, I settled into hospital routine fairly well. I liked most of the nurses and I never gave them a hard time. I knew they had a rough enough life without my contributing to their misery. I had some nice conversations with a few of them while they walked me around the halls of Alta Bates, showing me the views from different windows. I passed a lot of empty rooms during those walks and one nurse told me the hospital was about 70% full. I was in a two-bed room just in front of the nurses' station on the sixth floor. When I was released from my I-V, eating was something of a joke. I was on a liquid diet which meant beef broth and watery apple juice and warm jello. I was getting vitamins and minerals, even trace minerals, from the I-V and I went to a diet of salt and sugar the last couple of days. I went home to a diet of good homemade chicken soup, yogurt, fresh fruit, and real fruit juice.

            I had a strong support group through my ordeal. My close friend, Clara, came to visit every day, her children all came to see me and I was reassured by their warmth and their company. My sister called every day. My brother called. My close friend and computer buddy, David, stopped by almost every day. I know what happened to me has been a lot harder on my family and friends than on me. They suffered the stress of not knowing whether or not I would survive. They had to sit and wait. At the same time, my experience has unified us. As I have been many times in the past, I was a catalyst again. Friends came to see me in my bed and I reassured them that the worst was past, that I had come through the surgery, was feeling clear-headed, and would be back to normal soon. I still have cancer and I know there are treatments down the road, but I am not pessimistic and I refuse to be. If I only have a few years left, then I intend to enjoy them; it's never been my style to mope around and make life a bad trip for others. I don't know why I have come through this or why I have the optimistic view I have about it all, but I assume there is something left for me to do in this life and I am sure that whatever it is will be revealed to me as the weeks pass.

 

 

 

THE COCKETTES

A memoir by Clay Geerdes

 

Hallowe’en, 1969. The Bitches’ Christmas. Before a midnight showing of an old movie, Hibiscus, Tajara, Sandy and a few others get up on the stage at the Palace Theater near Washington Square in San Francisco’s North Beach. They danced around to the music of the Rolling Stones and camped it up for the audience. Steven Arnold, manager of the Nocturnal Dream Shows, always claimed The Cockettes appeared to him fully costumed in a dream. Actually, The Cockettes appeared on Haight Street along with thousands of other drop-outs and freaks during that period when free acid was plentiful courtesy of the CIA’s covert MK-ULTRA program. They didn’t think of themselves as Cockettes anymore than anyone thought of him or herself as a hippie or flower child or any other media label. Mostly artists and actors and musicians and people searching for roles and identities, these people found theirs in old second hand stores and dime store basements. It was a time when people were throwing off the restraints of parents and authority figures, growing their hair long, listening to music soon to be labeled acid-rock, and spending a great deal of time in meditation and contemplation and very little time doing any actual work. Hibiscus and his friends were street queens, out there, not in the closet, overtly gay. Hibiscus went around giving head onstage that night at the Palace. He was public at a time when San Francisco’s gay community was still covert. If you wanted to see traditional drag, the standard transvestite show wherein men dressed up like Judy Garland or Marlene Dietrich and sang their hit songs, you went to Finocchio’s on Broadway; you didn’t go to a Nocturnal Dream Show. The straight gays had their Hallowe’en party at Bimbo’s, mock couples, evening gowns and tuxedos, wigs, all very conservative and quite well-to-do. Further down the street, The Cockettes were beyond drag, living pop art, dime store hip, multiple images. Hibiscus might toss off a Bette Davis line, but he would be wearing a gold evening gown with a bosom created by a pair of giant golden balloons as he camped it up. Drag singers did their best to look exactly like Marilyn Monroe or Mae West, but from the beginning The Cockettes designed new images for themselves.

            The Nocturnal Dream Shows continued for a couple of years, but competition developed in the ranks of the players. Steven Arnold pushed for more organized shows and when Sebastian, manager of Secret Sinema on Seventeenth Street in the Mission District, took over, he tightened things up; His Cockettes would become a regular feature at the Palace and the movies would be dropped. The musical shows were modeled on old movies from the 40s, the dance numbers a simplified version of Busby Berkeley’s complexly choreographed works in films like THE GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. It was, with a few talented exceptions, still amateur night every Saturday at midnight at the Palace, but now there was more pressure on the people collectively known as Cockettes, named after the New York City Rockettes, and some handled it well, but most didn’t. In that strange group, some were educated, some weren’t, some had day gigs and did the shows as a lark; others lived on welfare and hung out in the Haight. Marshall owned the Third Hand Store on Haight and many of the costumes in the shows were compiled from the antique clothes hanging on the racks in his place. Everyone hip wore those old clothes during the sixties. They were still very cheap, only a few bucks if that; the antique hustle had not begun. Copies of MODERN SCREEN still sold for a dime at Peggy Caserta’s In Gear. Remember Peggy? She wrote that book about her affair with Janis Joplin and called it GOING DOWN ON JANIS. Today, all that second hand junk sells for collectors’ prices. What wasn’t found at Marshall’s was available in Woolworth’s basement down on Market Street. For less than a dollar, Wally got all the glitter and face paint he needed as well as a few little pink and blue plastic baby rattles to jazz up his costume. Wally was an ex-cheerleader from the University of Wisconsin, a verbose witty gemini who always had a fast comeback. The drag competition between him and Hibiscus was one of the highlights of the various Cockette reviews. Hibiscus came on in gold and Wally walked down the aisle of the Palace as the Red Queen of Mars. Both had headdresses over a foot high. Wally’s giant nipples were red flashlight bulbs built into a light balsa wood frame. They flashed on and off alternately, powered by a built in battery. For a Christmas show, Wally turned himself into a Christmas tree and came down the aisle with a set of colored lights wrapped about him. On Hallowe’en, he used two little toy Jack o’lanterns for breasts and for a fifties parody he cut a football in half and made it into a pair of bullet breasts reminiscent of those deceptive falsies so popular with the flatter of chest circa 1951. 

            As soon as The Cockette shows began to show signs of organization principles at work, Hibiscus and his friends left. They did not want to do what they considered commercial shows, or Establishment cop-outs. They weren’t into it for the money and they didn’t like what Sebastian was doing with the scene. Hibiscus renamed his group the Angels of Light and announced they would continue to do free shows around the Haight. Hibiscus simply didn’t want to rehearse. He hadn’t dropped out and left New York for the Bay Area to get back into another structured scene. He wanted a free form show where he could drop acid, make up an outrageous and ridiculous costume, go onstage, toss off one-liners, flash his cock at the audience or try to cop the joints of young boys onstage. The organized Cockettes couldn’t operate like that under Sebastian. They had a script, lines to run, musical numbers to memorize and rehearse, blocking to work out, stagecraft to deal with, and a sense of responsibility to each other. You couldn’t perform on acid. You couldn’t perform well on any kind of drugs, but most of the Cockettes were semi-stoned during the shows I saw and photographed. They routinely smoked joints in their dressing rooms before the show and a number were into quaaludes. I saw various people do a line or so of coke, but I never saw anyone shoot up, though I know there were heroin addicts involved in the scene because Rumi died of an overdose of smack. Hash was common. A number of people had water pipes in their pads and the joints that made the rounds at some of the parties were treated with hash oil. People discussed various drugs like Nepalese Temple Balls, Peyote, Mescaline, Psilocybin; even Yage which Allen Ginsberg talked about after William Burroughs had gone to South America to get it from a Shaman. It was, for sure, a drug scene, and some Saturday nights it would be hard to tell whether the actors or the audience were higher. I watched gallon jugs of Red Mountain make their way up and down the front rows, joints being handed back and forth, people swallowing whites or whatever with swigs from their antique store hip flasks. I worried about those people who cavalierly drank after taking ‘ludes, because I had seen the result too many times. Methaqualone, followed by alcohol, often caused the sensation of suffocation and I remembered driving a student home one night in Fresno sometime in 1966 while a couple of people held her in the back seat as she freaked out at the top of her lungs. She had followed a couple of reds with a couple of drinks of some kind and blew her cranium totally. It took a couple of hours to calm her down and, of course, no one wanted to 911 her because that would have meant a bust for all concerned. Her freak-out started in the Caffé Midi and I was there that evening and I had my car so my help was enlisted. My inclination was to take her to Emergency, but her friends begged me to just get them to her apartment and they would cool her out and help her to come down. She was all right a couple of days later when I saw her on the Fresno State campus, but I always worried about all those drug combos my students were experimenting with. 

            The early Cockette shows were not really shows at all, just people camping it up onstage. Those who successfully separated themselves from the audience and held the stage became the Cockettes, while the others who might hung around onstage for awhile then drifted back to their seats remained the audience, the chorus. As the shows gained form, they were more coherent, but they were less outrageous and the people who had started to come to the Palace expecting to see a lot of nudity and sexual hi-jinx onstage quickly discovered Sebastian’s Cockettes were more Rockette than Cockette. The music improved and became quite good with the torch singing style of John Rothermel and the piano styling of Scrumbly and Peter Mintun.

            The problem with organization was the actors began to believe their own hype, to think they were talented in ways they were not. By the time a New York trip was suggested, many had talked themselves into believing they would be successful there. Cockettes with stars in their eyes. Well, everyone enjoyed the trip and had a good time at the Chelsea and they got lots of ink and attention, but the show was a total bomb and after their return the group drifted into obscurity.

            Near the end of its run, John Waters came to the Bay Area with some of the people from his Baltimore theater company. Waters was interested in making films, but many of his people were into theater. Babs Johnson, best known as Divine, was his star. She guested in a couple of the Cockette shows, Vice Palace, and Divine Saves the World. Sylvester was on the scene by then and while she was never a Cockette, she put on a concert or two at the Palace and got the same audience. From L. A., Sylvester James soon had a record contract, singing with the Hot Band. By the time of these concerts the lobby of the Palace had become a scene, hence record company promoters tried to book their new acts in to get them exposure. It was a strange trip. During the evening, the audience was all Chinese, and sometimes when we sneaked onto the balcony shortly before midnight we saw the students from a Chinese high school demonstrating their martial arts routines as part of their graduation ceremonies. By the time the Chinese audience began to file out, the lobby was filled with Cockette groupies, many of them well-to-do women from the peninsula. I say women, because that’s how it was. For some reason women liked to hang around the gay scene. They were often referred to affectionately as ‘fruit flies.’ Others who might be in the lobby were actors from various North Beach shows like The Committee or dancers from clubs like the Condor. Carol Doda came over some evenings. She was the first dancer to become a local star by dancing topless. In June of 1964, she put on designer Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit and did a little dance at the suggestion of promoter Davey Rosenberg. Before long, she became the first to have silicone injections and implants, blowing her breasts up from 32s to 44s. There were jazz musicians from various clubs, poets, pizza makers, bakers, drug dealers, pimps; the Palace lobby was a place to be around midnight and if the show was good, that was all right; if it was shitty, who cared? There were as many people in costume in the audience as there were onstage and it all seemed like a fantasy continuum, no restraint, the responses unrepressed, everyone laughing and having a good time. Well, not everyone, there was always that silent steely-eyed military contingent near the back, furtive, watching, misinterpreting, perhaps hating--after all, any Cockette show was a tweak of the cock at the straight world and that world didn’t like it.

            To promote one of the shows, I was hired to do the photos for a COCKETTE PAPERDOLL book. John Flowers did the minimal text. We did the shoot at Sebastian’s Secret Sinema one afternoon. I shot the actors against plain backdrops and during the whole thing we hung out in the alley. Well, people passing along at either ends, the Latino and black folks who live in that area around Valencia Street, began to notice this weird group and a few of them came down the alley to confront us. I anticipated trouble, but nothing happened. They were just curious. There I was taking a series of shots of Goldie Glitters in a pair of panties and a dress of some kind for a paper doll page and I had been shooting theatrical photos for so long I was jaded. Drag queens, topless dancers, strippers at the O’Farrell, political activists, it was all focus and click to me. The reactions of the locals gave me some perspective on the gig and I had to laugh about it all. Inside, we were cracking up. People would stop at the end of the alley and stand there with their mouths open. There was Wally in a pair of giant red balloon tits and people couldn’t even figure out what he was. Out of make-up Wally looked like any other gay boy on Polk Street, but when he was in full drag there was nothing to match him. He liked patriotic colors. In several shows he put red, white, and blue glitter in his beard. He never stopped improvising. Wally turned himself into living art, a walking collage, a pin cushion of pop art.

            People tried to define the Cockettes, to pigeonhole them, but it was impossible. In some of my own articles I referred to them as a gay theater commune, but that wasn’t true. The majority were gay, but there were straight men and women in the group. There were married men and women in the group. There were more or less married or committed gays and lesbians in the group. There were blacks and whites. There were young people and older people. There were people who sang well and others who were tone deaf. Some lived communally with groups, while others shared apartments or had their own rooms. Dusty Dawn had a child, Ocean Michael Moon, and Scrumbly’s Pam was pregnant; indeed, one of the more outrageously skits in one of the shows had Pam singing a song while several other Cockettes tried to undress her. Some of the people were handsome or pretty, while others were pockmarked and homely. Like any theater company, there were Cockettes who were anorexic and bulimic, others who over ate and ballooned beyond their costumes. It was an up time for gays. Gay liberation had been around for several years. The Folsom baths were flourishing. There were dance contests on the bar at The Stud. There was artistic activity from the San Francisco Art Institute to San Francisco State College. Among the Cockettes were people who considered themselves painters, poets, abstract expressionists, happeners, lyricists, and there were parties all the time. In spite of the rivalries, I remember a lot of camaraderie. There was a whole different consciousness in that period before AIDS and I hope I’ve been able to preserve some of the spirit of that time here. Hibiscus, Sylvester, Divine, and Johnny Rothermel are all dead now. I was told Martin Borman died this year in New York. Blithe spirits all. Well, it was the best of times. May they all rest in peace.

 

 

 

DAVID NADEL [1946-1996] by Clay Geerdes

 

What have they got?

Guns for you!

What are they for?

To murder you!

 

--Vito

  Free Store, 1977

 

While I was flying back from my visit to Clinica Diagnostica in Playas de Tijuana, David Nadel was getting ready for another routine Thursday evening at his Berkeley club, Ashkenaz.  He had booked Haunted By Waters who drew about 50 people their first gig and was expected to do about the same this time. I’m sure he was anticipating another routine, boring Thursday as he made up money bags for the bar and door and finished up his personal chores before coming down to get ready for the band. Edwin was working the door and Speedy was in the Walgreen’s lot. But more people showed up than expected, over a hundred, and during the early part of the second set, a drunken Latino man made a disturbance among the customers. David asked him to leave, and then had to call the police to deal with him. The man continued to make threats, returned to the club at ll:30 and had to be put out a second time. He said he was going to get a gun and David closed the door and hung around with Edwin. It was not unusual for someone to threaten David. Or Edwin. It happened numerous times over the years and they didn’t think much of it. They even joked about it.  David often got into it with macho young guys, and he had had his share of pushing and shoving matches, not to mention a few serious fights, so he had decided it best to call the police to deal with gate crashers and those people who think it a sign of manhood to give employees and other working people a hard time. He called them on Thursday, December 19, 1996, but the police didn’t help. They talked to the Latino, but did not arrest him or take him away from the club; instead they crossed the street and harassed some homeless people who were hanging out on the sidewalk where they could hear the music from the club. The Latino returned, walked to the door of the club, and knocked. When David opened the door, he was shot through the left eye socket and fell to the floor in front of Edwin’s desk. Tim Doyle, an ex-Berkeley high school drama and dance teacher, heard the shot and hurried over to David. He held his head in his arms and David asked: “What happened?” Tim told him he had been shot. There was blood running down the side of his head. Edwin Thaxter told me a slightly different version. He said David talked to the guy outside, and then came in, and a moment later there was a knock on the door. David opened the door and the guy was there aiming his pistol. At first, Edwin thought he was shot and he leaned down below the top of the desk. He felt around for blood and realized he felt no burning sensation then sat back upright and saw that David was lying on the floor in front of him. A woman with a cell phone called 911 and the medics came and took David to Highland Hospital where he was hurried into the trauma unit. Dr. Campbell examined him and sent him for an immediate CATSCAN, then consulted with Dr. St. John, an ophthalmologist, about the possibility of surgery to remove the bullet, but it was not possible due to hemorrhaging and swelling. The bullet had entered the left eye socket, went diagonally through the brain and lodged near the base of the occipital lobe making surgery virtually impossible. Within a short time, the ward was besieged by people trying to find out about David. The phone lines were jammed and it became harder and harder to get through to anyone who would release any information. Tim, a longtime friend of David, returned to the club to field calls. Hospitals are prohibited from giving out patient information to any but family members and they did not realize they had a Berkeley celebrity among them, that David had thousands of friends and as word spread among them they would try to call or see him. David’s brother, Ron Nadel, flew up from Los Angeles to represent the family. David remained on life support until early Saturday morning because he had donated his organs and they were being removed for transplant. His heart is now beating in the chest of a 22-year-old man. He was pronounced dead at 10:A.M. Ron allowed the people who were at the hospital to come into the room and say goodbye to David.

            Ashkenaz as we knew it came to an end on December 21, 1996. Stories appeared in the CHRONICLE, 12/21/96, p. A-17. “Popular Night Club Owner Shot,” TRIBUNE, 12/21/96, p. A-9. EXAMINER, 12/21/96, p. 1. Obituaries appeared in the Sunday TRIBUNE, p. C-1, and EXAMINER, p. C-12. Willie Monroe did a nice TRIBUTE to David and his club on Channel 7’s main news. The Rainy footage showed people bringing flowers and candles to place in the doorway of the club. The evening shows were cancelled and a memorial for David was scheduled for Sunday evening, December 23rd, to be followed by another memorial on January 18 and 19, 1997 [Noon until late evening each day with music by many of the bands helped by David].  600 or more people toured the club that evening. Asha Goldberg and Richard Kaplan read Kaddish for David from the stage. Some people talked about forming a group to buy Ashkenaz in order to continue the tradition David began. That same day, police announced that a $5,000 reward had been posted for information on the location of the murderer [CHRONICLE, 12/24/96, p. A-13, TRIBUNE, 12/24/96, p. A-8]. Anyone knowing the identity or the whereabouts of the killer should call the Berkeley Police Department.

            Osha Neumann was quoted in the TRIBUNE: “He was fiercely committed to creating a safe, non-sexist, non-racist space for people to dance and listen to music. He died defending what he loved. He was single-minded, like a train on a track. He did not go for this yuppie Berkeley, liberal bull. He knew what side he was on in the old sense of the political left. He was not afraid to say it [C-1].”

            David always expressed his political feelings in the editorials he wrote on his monthly calendar. This was his final editorial: “Corporate capitalism many times has laid itself open for all the world to see its ugly basic tenets--the exploitation of people & the earth’s resources so as to squeeze every drop of profit out of life. In the 1930’s when working folks fought for better wages, working conditions & health care, corporate capitalism responded with violence, injunctions, & jails to crush worker’s strikes & unionization attempts. In the 1960’s the system exposed itself again as it invaded Viet Nam for cheap tin, tungsten & rubber, killing 1/2 million Vietnamese and 60,000 Americans. The corporations literally followed the troops in. And now the world-wide rape of the earth’s resources by global corporate earth suckers has continued to where even the remote parts of the earth show pollution. Cancer clusters are everywhere! A clean environment & capitalist exploitation of the earth is a contradiction! Let us outlaw greed (tax the rich ‘til there ain’t no more rich), spread the wealth around, slow down…for fear we irreparably foul our nest to where cockroaches inherit the earth.”

            David’s last banner, which appears near the top of his building at 1317 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, California, reads: TAX THE RICH ‘TIL THERE AIN’T NO MORE RICH.

            My own friendship with David Nadel, a man who was like a brother to me, began in 1977 when I booked the Free Store Theatre Company into Ashkenaz. I was working as photographer and publicist for Vito at that time and we were touring the parks in the Bay Area with what was basically a guerrilla theater vaudeville show similar in some ways to those presented annually by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. David and I found we had a lot in common on a personal and political level and we were to work together in various ways throughout the seventies and well into the nineties. He and a number of fellow folk dancers started Ashkenaz as a folk dance collective in March of 1973. Inspired by Ted Sofios’ San Pablo taberna, Aitos, the basic concept of Ashkenaz was to establish a venue which would feature a different kind of folk or ethnic dancing each evening, culminating with an International night on Saturdays. The format of each evening was the same. A lesson was taught by a professional teacher like Ted Sofios, Neal Sandler, or Ruth Browns and the balance of the evening was a record party with dance records played by the teacher or someone hired for that purpose, usually someone capable of leading the dances and maintaining the ambiance of the evening. The record collection was donated to the club by John Fitts. The Saturday night celebrations featured a band like Nisava and the club was often filled to capacity for shows done by Westwind, Khadra, Kitka, and other groups. David Nadel loved to dance. He was probably happiest when he was out on the floor dancing with his friends, doing the complex figures of a Balkan or Macedonian dance. For awhile he danced with the Westwind Folk Ensemble and he once considered directing the company, but turned his energy to developing Ashkenaz instead. I remember him on the dance floor with Pat Rather, Steve Wong, Richard Kaplan, Neal Sanders, Eric Shutter, George Chittendon, and Paul Palmer--too many people to mention.

            David was interested in all kinds of music. His was a true catholicity of tastes. He could listen to a country string band or a jazz ensemble and be equally interested. The only kind of sound he turned down at Ashkenaz was Rap and that was more a reluctance to deal with the type of audience it would attract than a rejection of the form. He began to expand in the early 1980’s and was soon booking African bands, Reggae from Jamaica, music from Brazil, and Cajun which was to become the staple by the mid-1990’s. By the time of David’s death, Ashkenaz had become home for Cajun bands like California Cajun Orchestra, Bayou Pon Pon, Tee Fee, and Froglegs.  Weekenders like Zulu Speer, Tropical Vibrations, West African Highlife, and Katoja drew monster crowds and paid the bills. Ashkenaz become home for many local people who did not want to go back to their rooms or small apartments. They could come to the club for a small fee and spend the evening in David’s living room. He always thought of the club as his own home, because he lived in a small room upstairs. The bar was actually his kitchen and after a gig at night he would eat the tofu sandwich and other items used in the bar display during the evening. During the day, his office was a madhouse of activity, usually with a lot of rapping on the phone re local political issues like the battle over People’s Park, the move to democratize the regents, and the oppression of Food Not Bombs by various police agencies. Political calls intersected with calls by agents trying to book their clients into the club. David required anyone wanting a gig to call him on the first of the month. He made a list of the calls and phone numbers and when he was ready to schedule, he would call them back and start juggling dates on the schedule. The calendar, like everything else displayed in the club, was in David’s own handwriting. He didn’t like the technocratic present and preferred older things, including some pretty funky ancient sound and recording equipment. He sent things away for repair rather than buy something new. He disliked anything digital and never had a computer or a fax machine in his office. He hated plastic and routinely bought metal topped honey and sugar dispensers from antique stores rather than buy the cheap ones at a dime store. He didn’t like computerized ads or flyers and his method of advertising a band was to put a picture in the center of a page and write the basics in his own hand, then run off some copies and put them on the shelf to be sent out with his monthly mailing. He was unresponsive to suggestions of modernization or upgrading. People often complained of the heat, so David put in several large fans, but he refused to have the club air-conditioned. If he decided to do something a certain way, that’s the way it was done thereafter, forever. He wanted everything natural in Ashkenaz. No plastic. No naughahyde. No glitz or glitter. No mirror ball above his dance floor. His chairs were old and wooden, most of them donated or found in second hand stores. Everything sold at the bar had been checked out carefully to determine that there were no artificial preservatives within. He bought only organic supplies which he sold at a loss, making what profit he made on beer and wine. His was a non-smoking club from day one, long before the entire city went that route. He was as loyal to the people he did business with as he was to the other people in his life. He preferred to deal with small businesses rather than chain stores and only bought from the chains as a last resort.

            David was a vegetarian and his vegetarianism extended beyond his bar. People who had weddings or benefits at Ashkenaz were told that only a vegetarian menu was acceptable. They were not to bring any meat into his club, and he would often drop by to check the food table to make sure his wishes were honored.  When David found evidence that some rats were wandering around the club in the wee hours of the morning, he thought about getting a cat to patrol the studio, then vetoed the idea when he realized that cats were not vegetarian. Couldn’t have a meat-eater wandering the premises. Stand-up comedians that played the club often poked fun at David’s eating habits with tofu jokes and one evening comic Bobby Slayton sneaked a big Mac into the club, pulled it out during his act, and slapped the patty up on the wall behind him right among David’s collection of political posters and picket signs. I don’t think David looked at anything but that meat patty all the rest of the evening and he hurried to get it out of the club right after Slayton left the stage. David had a great sense of humor and we often joked about his vegetarianism along with everything else. When he was thinking about getting the cat, I drew a little comic book for him about a character called VEGGIE THE CAT.

            At the club, David was the original one man band. He did everything. When an employee didn’t show up for work, he worked the shift. If something was broken, he fixed it. It someone lost something, he took them up to the office to look in the big cardboard box he kept at the top of the stairs. He wouldn’t keep the lost and found downstairs where some employee could handle the chore. It had to be in his office, right behind his desk. Anything that wasn’t claimed in 30 days was donated to the free box in People’s Park, the one the University kept taking out and the one David rebuilt and replaced six times until they gave up and left it alone. An inventive carpenter, most of the jury-rigs around the club were his handiwork. He had an old upright piano and he didn’t want to keep it onstage, because there were shows that required the entire stage area so he kept it stored against a side wall and only put it onstage when it was required. In order to move the piano on and off stage by himself, he designed a winch and pulley. He made a couple of heavy planks with grooves in the center for the piano wheels, then he would push the piano over to the bottom of these planks, turn on the winch, hook it to a metal ring on the end of the piano, and the pulley would move the piano up the improvised ramp onto the stage. This worked fine, but the piano fell over and crashed one afternoon. David just had it repaired and it continued to be there when Moe Hirsch played his Dixieland jazz gigs with Joyful Noise. People often wonder about the locked toilet boxes at the club, well, there was a wing nut sneaking in there and pulling out the guts and David got tired of fixing the innards of his three downstairs toilets so he designed a metal band and padlock structure that would keep the nut out. In the front studio--there are three main spaces at Ashkenaz, the front studio where the evening dances or concerts are held, the back studio where smaller events or meetings are held, and the sound room where bands rehearse--David designed the cabinet and the book which contains the complete history of the club in photographs and reviews. Below are binders which contain all the flyers or ads put out by the club filed by date. David kept everything pertaining to the club and anyone doing research could find the information right there in that cabinet. The photos show the evolution of Ashkenaz from a communal warehouse, a little collection of hippy shows with a small dance floor, to the club as it is now. The left wall inside the front door is covered with photos of many of the musicians who played the club over the years, folks like John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Queen Ida, Joe Higgs, O. J. Ekemode, Danny Poullard, and Rosa Montoya and Cruz Luna. The south wall of the large room is covered with mirrors and a ballet bar.

            David became radicalized in the late sixties and he felt his political activism was more important than his club. Most of us would disagree, because we see the club as his major contribution to the community, but he was always restless and did not feel complete as a person unless he was involved in various causes. He was anti-apartheid and supported the movement against it. He was upset by homelessness and slept in Provo Park with others who were protesting the city’s attitude toward homeless people. He opposed the loitering laws designed to keep homeless people and beggars away from the doors of shops, particularly along Telegraph Avenue and one time he dressed up as a homeless person and sat down near a doorway on Shattuck Avenue waiting for the police to come and arrest him. David supported People’s Park and spent several years fighting against what he considered the continuing encroachment of the University of California in league with various corporations into the Berkeley community. Every weekend he manned three tables in the park and passed out information about the crooked activities of the Board of Regents, who were always called ‘Corporate Thugs’ in his monthly editorials. The Regents ultimately SLAPP sued David to try to deactivate him, but it didn’t work. He fought the suit and organized further until the University finally gave up. They got an injunction against him in the end, but no punitive damages. When he failed to get his day in court, David put up a sign on his club, stating his position.  He tried to sue the University for libel, but the suit was refused by the court. Well, they had made defamatory and libelous statements about him, accusing him of things he didn’t do during the park battle, things he had videotaped proof he didn’t do. David’s technique was passive resistance, never violence, and video footage of the park battles of 1991 proves this. To protest the installation of volley ball courts in the park, he chained himself to a tree in the park and the police had to use bolt cutters to get him loose and drag him off to Santa Rita. When we were talking about that experience, he told me the only thing they gave him to eat was a bologna sandwich. I asked him what he did with it and he said he saved it for someone else. He looked forward to justice, to having his day in court, but he never got it. In retaliation, he kept track of every trace of scandal that touched on the Regents or the University or any of its teachers or administrators, publishing a UC SCANDAL SHEET on the back of his monthly calendar up until the time of his murder. Any organization that needed help had only to ask David. Ashkenaz did benefits for Food Not Bombs, for Radio Free Berkeley, the X-Plicit Players, and organizations and causes too numerous to list.

            I remember David getting out his table spoons and sitting in to play rhythm with the Arkansas Shieks while Bob Black called a square dance. I see him dancing around the floor, lifting and stamping his foot in unison with Paul Palmer and Steve Wong. I remember him patiently teaching a small group of people to clog during a Saturday afternoon workshop. I remember the one woman he truly loved and how upset he was when she realized he was married to his business and decided to leave him and go to live in the country. I remember the look on his face when he got a letter from her sometime later with a picture of her baby. David loved children and always let them run around the dance floor of the club, but he would never marry and have a family of his own. I remember walking down Polk, Grant, and 24th Streets in San Francisco during the time when David was looking for bands to perform at the club. We hit all the street fairs. In those early days, it was punk music by X-Ray Ted and Psycotic Pineapple. I was with David at the Coyote Ball when we saw Queen Ida for the first time. Ida kicked off the Cajun/Zydeco scene which grew to faddist proportions by the mid-1990’s. I remember David, grinning, laughing at some corny joke, telling me one he heard from Richard Kaplan. I remember him in a rage when someone he had trusted betrayed him and was spreading lies about him around town. David wasn’t a simple man. He was complex. He would argue with you until you dropped, but an insult on a personal level was the end for him. Anyone who insulted him was out of his club and a letter to that effect put in the drawer of the desk. After a time, he would accept an apology and allow the person back in, but it had to be an apology he believed. He was in a forgiving mood this past year and he told me he was letting various people back into the club, some he hadn’t spoken to in years. He gave all of himself to his club and the causes he believed in. He was never flaky or wishy-washy. He didn’t compromise where his politics were concerned. He thought of The Naz as his living room and the dancers who came there as friends over for an evening of entertainment.

            Every New Year’s Eve for the past 23 years, there has been a large reunion of folk dancers at Ashkenaz. David bought horns and other favors, put up balloons and streamers, often groaning that he would be glad when the holidays were over, but enjoying himself at the same time. Two or three folk dance bands rounded out the roster and along about 11:30 in the evening David wandered around smiling and passing out confetti for people to throw on the stroke of midnight.

            There will be a New Year’s Eve party this December 31st with bands like Edessa, Ziyia, Anoush Ellas, Joe Finn and other folk musicians, but Ashkenaz as we have known it ended on December 19, 1996. The club may continue in some form, but it will never be what it was, because there is no one who could replace its creator, David Terence Nadel, friend, brother.

            There won’t be any confetti this year.

 

 

 

FORENSIC FANDOM by Clay Geerdes

 

Come up to the lab

And see what’s on the slab!

 

--Dr. Frank N. Furter

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

 

A little romp through the graveyard, skeletons dancing in the moonlight, some tales from the crypt, or the vault of horror revisited? Perhaps a stopover in the twilight zone; sounds like fun for forensic fans, but Bill Maples’ anecdotes and stories are all documented in police and court files and most of them prove the cliché that truth is a hell of a lot stranger than fiction. William R. Maples is the forensic anthropologist who personally investigated the deaths of people as diverse as Francisco Pizarro, President Zachary Taylor, and Tsar Nicholas II.  Maples has had more to do with identifying the remains of soldiers missing in action in Korea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and other scenes of U. S. battle than any other medical examiner. Maples called his autobiography DEAD MEN DO TELL TALES [with Michael Browning, New York: Doubleday, 1994] and it’s one of a kind, grosser and more detailed than the two tomes of L. A.’s Thomas Noguchi. This is one my fellow armchair detectives will not want to miss, particularly after the frustrating ordeal of the 1995 O. J. Simpson trial, where good solid scientific analysis was tossed out the window in favor of blatant racism.

            For you lay folks out there, a forensic anthropologist is a bone specialist, one who analyzes remains or cremains and determines the cause of death. It’s not an old revered profession, rather a line of work which evolved out of murder. As the number of murders has increased in our time, more and more medical examiners are needed, but this does not mean they are hired or that those who are hired are adequately trained. Maples’ specialty developed out of necessity. In the early thirties, the FBI took their problems to the Smithsonian Institute, because there were cultural anthropologists there who could identify bones and deduce what had happened to them in life. I know, I know, you thought these folks just dug up old dinosaur bones and wired them together for museum exhibits, well, that is certainly one of their interests but not the one that is going to pay for the rent and groceries.

            Maples’ cases, the more famous of them, have been covered on television, but his versions are fascinating to read. For many years, it was rumored that President Zachary Taylor might have been poisoned with arsenic, but no one exhumed the body and did the analytic work to prove the idea one way or another. Easy to check out, because arsenic remains in the bones for years after death, so it was only necessary to get permission and hire the experts to do the work. So how do you start? Surprise. All you need is permission from the senior surviving family member. The remains of all relatives belong to the family forever. Taylor’s descendants were traced and gave permission and the project moved ahead under Bill Maples’ supervision. Yes, the U. S. government tried to intrude, and no, they didn’t get anywhere. Ex-Presidents still belong to their families, not to the government. Taylor was exhumed, samples taken and analyzed, and, no, he didn’t die of arsenic poisoning. Case closed, though the rumor, I am sure, will linger on.

            Well, in most detective stories, the cops find the bodies and call the medical examiner and the bodies are taken to the lab for autopsy and analysis and those of us who enjoy procedural mysteries relish the science used to determine what actually happened. For us, Maples is a goldmine of inside information. A cop hands him a small piece of something and is surprised when he touches it with his tongue, then explains that it’s a piece of rock, not bone because bone would adhere to the tongue. Rock doesn’t. Maples glances at a corpse and finds dead maggots and explains that maggots cannot live underground. I didn’t know that. What this tells him is that the body was exposed for a day or so before someone buried it, just long enough for the flies to lay their eggs in the exposed wounds. The larvae hatch in about 24 hours and begin to eat the flesh. Nor does decay take as long as you might think. “The minimum time of total skeletonization is not nine years, nor yet nine months, nor even nine weeks; it may occur in nine days or thereabouts [36].” Temperature and exposure are major factors. “A buried corpse may last nearly forever in icy ground [36].”

            Think suicide is easy? Just eat the old gun and check into the pearly gates? Maples tells the story of a hapless lawyer who decided to end it all. “When the police came to the room and took the gun from his hand, the wounded man was still very much alive, still able to look at them, follow them with his eyes. The shooting occurred late in the afternoon and it was my duty at the hospital to remain with him, during a painfully slow death watch, until he died at last, sometime after midnight. The investigation revealed that the unfortunate attorney had put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and fired five times. Two bullets had exited from the side of his face, two more exited his cranial vault near the top of the skull, and the fifth bullet remained lodged in his brain. It is not unusual for autopsies to disclose multiple gunshot wounds in suicide victims, although these occur most commonly in wounds of the torso. For a man to shoot himself five times in the head and live as long as this lawyer did, was rare indeed [78].”

            Some of the cases that came to Maples appeared to be suicides, but were later determined to be accidents. I thought this one was cute: “A poor soul, for whom pain and pleasure were obviously closely akin, attached an electric train transformer to his penis with alligator clips and was in the habit of administering mild shocks to his genitals. Regrettably, on one occasion--the last!--the transformer shorted out, and he received the full 110-volt household charge. He was instantaneously and ignominiously electrocuted. This case, when presented at one of our meetings, was interesting because the parents of the deceased had removed all evidence of the transformer before the police investigators showed up. They were understandably horrified and chagrined to discover their son dead under such sordid circumstances and did their best to conceal the manner of his death. But alligator clips leave very characteristic marks and these were plainly visible at the autopsy. After a few shrewd, discreet questions on the part of the investigators, the unhappy parents broke down and revealed the full, shabby truth of the matter. The death was ruled accidental [84].” Great plot for MURDER SHE WROTE, huh? I can see Jessica standing there explaining it all to an inept cop. “Ah, yes, inspector, but those strange dark marks on the boy’s testicles were made by alligator clips!” We should live so long.           

            Those who followed the DNA evidence in the Simpson trial will be interested to know that “the shafts of human hair are largely composed of dead material, devoid of significant amounts of DNA. Only hair plucked by the roots from the scalp can be tested for DNA with any real hope of success [267].” I recommend Maples’ extended discussion of DNA. The first novel to deal with DNA in a criminal case was Joseph Wambaugh’s THE BLOODING and since that time a lot of progress has been made in the technique.

            William Maples is based at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, and there is a lot of great dark humor in his auto-bio. I’m sure he intended some of it, because he shows himself to be a man with a good sense of humor about his gruesome occupation, but he comes up with lore you have to laugh about in spite of yourself. Like this: “Silicone breast implants are a funeral director’s nightmare, as they tend to pop open and melt messily all over the inside of the retort [the area where a corpse is cremated]. Hence, no effort is spared to detect and remove them before the rest of the body is burned. If they are not subjected to fire, these bags of silicon are wonderfully indestructible and will long outlast their owners. I have found breast implants around scattered skeletons that have decomposed in the open. We had a case in central Florida in which we were examining a female skeleton and its personal effects. One of my female graduate students, who had led a sheltered life, was watching while I found and poked a breast augmentation implant. It jiggled like a jelly-filled bag. ‘I don’t understand,’ the student said innocently. ‘What’s a jellyfish doing this far inland?’ It took her a long time to live that error down [139].”

            And my cartoon-y mind goes mad with stuff like that. I see a family out on one of those Neptune cruises on the Bay. They move under the Golden Gate Bridge and open the container to spread the beloved’s ashes on the waters, someone prepares to recite one of the loved one’s favorite lines of poetry, and off into the drink plop two shining bags of silicon.

 

 

 

HEAT

Review by Clay Geerdes

 

It’s called HEAT. A long, tedious, boring, fatuous, vapid, empty, degrading, brutal, nasty, depressing non-thriller centered around a couple of baggy-eyed, tired-out method actors [Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro] who alternate between love scenes with women half their ages and shooting scenes ten times longer and louder than necessary. It used to be glamorous old geezers like Gary Cooper, Walter Pigeon and Cary Grant mugging onscreen with women young enough to be their granddaughters, now it’s craggy geezers like Pacino and DeNiro who look like they are nearing the last stages of serious liver malfunction. Pacino plays the good cop in this cliché-ridden melodrama and gee, his young wife [number 3] is having a hard time adjusting to her hubby’s word schedule. He’s always hanging out at a crime scene exchanging witty repartee with his fellow officers while she’s trying to keep dinner warm on the kitchen stove. Tsk! Tsk! Why don’t I feel any sympathy? Because these are the days of cop show saturation and any woman who marries a cop has grown up watching this situation on her little pink bedroom tv and knows exactly what she’s getting into. Pacino has a teenaged stepdaughter who is having emotional problems, but we have to guess what they are because the script jumps so quickly from beddy bye to bloodshed we have little time to deal with the girl’s problems. We get the idea she likes her step daddy, but when Pacino returns to his hotel room after splitting up with wifey 3, guess who is floating in a bathtub full of bloody water? Now if, indeed, she liked her step daddy, why would she lay that on him? If the beef was with her real daddy, wouldn’t she slice her wrists on his doorstep? Real ER stuff here, friends. Pacino ripping up hotel towels to use as tourniquets. Tying the girl’s arms and legs. Carrying her into the hospital. Yelling for a doctor. Real soap op. Wife in tears. Pacino trying to look stoic, but having a hard time dealing with a role in a film that seems to jump from stark realism into grotesque parody at the whim of the gremlins behind the camera.

            Ah, don’t ask for script continuity here, folks. Only the cretins who wrote and produced this dog know the answers and they forgot to put them onscreen. Sure, I’ll give you an example. DeNiro, the bad guy who just robs and kills because that’s the only thing he knows how to do, goes to a hotel and blows a guy away. To cover himself, he has tripped a fire alarm, so there are people and vehicles everywhere. Think of Manhattan or Montgomery Street in San Francisco at five minutes after noon, and then try to accept that good cop Pacino shows up at the hotel, spots DeNiro, and chases him. Now, These are a couple of tired-out, puffy, long-in-the-tooth males here, not young in-shape aerobic studs, and the idea that they could run a couple of blocks without wheezing and coughing is ludicrous enough, but to suggest that Pacino could spot DeNiro in a crowd, chase him a couple of miles across a pitch dark field [without a flashlight yet], and shoot it out with him, putting three right in the center of his chest, well, pigs can fly and let me introduce you to an angel I know. DeNiro climbs over a wall and jumps into the darkness and runs and there is no way that Pacino could have known which way he ran. The scene is lit by the large lights on planes, which adds to the absurdity. This is cut and paste here, no continuity. Both actors would have been [no doubt were] blinded by the glare of those lights and had they run at high speed through a pitch dark field they would have run into things, fallen many times,  stepped into potholes, and ended up playing their final scene in intensive care at some hospital. 

            If this were a film about a couple of magicians or psychics, it might have a touch of credibility, but it’s supposedly a realistic cop drama and one has to ask how the good or bad guys knew all of the things we were told they knew. Anyone who watched the O. J. trial last year and saw how incredibly inept the Los Angeles Police Department was in handling that case will have to consider HEAT total comedy.

            It’s ROMEO AND JULIET on the tarmac. Three hours of unrelieved human misery and horrible histrionics by Pacino, spiced with more automatic weapons fire than Desert Storm. Can a movie that ends with Pacino and DeNiro holding hands at the edge of an air strip be all bad? Of course it can. No stars. Empty chair. Clay says go back and watch LETHAL WEAPON again. 

 

 

 

MEMORIES

Review by Clay Geerdes

 

Is the memory of something having happened the same as it having happened?

--Edward Albee

TINY ALICE, 1965

 

Let’s face it, the human body runs on memory. Everyday we have dozens of experiences and discussions in which memory plays a critical role; hence it is not at all surprising to find there are people who now specialize in memory. They study it, conduct experiments about it, keep detailed records of the behavior of their patients and themselves, and they publish monographs and books about the subject. In the past few years, memory hit the public psyche in a major way when various adults went public with their memories of childhood incest and physical abuse. Day care centers were shaken up and a number sent into bankruptcy when the parents of a few children charged owners and teachers of sexually abusing their children. Dr. Lenore Terr discusses all of these and numerous other subjects dealing with memory in UNCHAINED MEMORIES: TRUE STORIES OF TRAUMATIC MEMORIES, LOST AND FOUND [New York: Basic Books, 1994].

            Memory is tricky and fascinating and we all like to play around with it, writers perhaps more than lay people because it is our stock in trade. Ironically, the computer has enhanced our understanding of memory and the way it functions. Hey, RAM is short term memory, while ROM is long term, right? Works the same way in the human mind upon which the model was based. Short term memory is what you need from the grocery store or meeting someone for lunch; long term is something you consider important and want to remember for a long period of time. Long term memory is your life history, the organization of your personality, the critical events of childhood which collectively make you who you are. There are things you want to remember, memories you enjoy, the ones you often recall in your daily reverie or fantasy life, and there are things unpleasant and disturbing which you do not want to remember. The latter are seldom called to mind willingly though they may recur at any time given the right stimulus. Memory is subject to only a limited amount of control. Memory can enhance or torture.

            I got into a lot of heavy emotional scenes with my mother and other family members back in 1983 when I decided to research my family history. I was still troubled by pockets of anger, hostility, and outright violence which I felt were related to unexplained situations from my childhood. My mother’s ways of dealing with what she considered were unpleasant memories was not to think or talk about them. Keeping it all secret would negate the effect, she assumed, but that was never true for me. That secretive attitude caused me serious conflicts and insecurities. I wanted to know the truth. I remembered my father’s rage over an abortion his sister had, one for which he blamed his brother-in-law. I was ten or eleven years old and all I experienced was his hostility, his threats to “kill that son-of-a-bitch.” I knew my aunt had lost a baby in a fall down some stairs, but I didn’t really understand what an abortion was, certainly none of the religious and abstract thought that surrounded the idea. I never got any answers from my mother. She “didn’t want to talk about those days” and didn’t see any reason why I wanted to “get into things that happened so long ago.” The conflicts were never resolved for her any more than they were for me, but I wanted to get it all out in the open and deal with it, while she was committed to a lifetime of repression and secrecy. My dad died in 1949 and my mother had solidified his memory for herself and she wanted it to remain intact. I continued to have unresolved conflicts with him until I got in touch with his other sister and a few remaining relatives who restored him to me as a person.

            The event that I recalled must have taken place around 1944, but I have no way of determining the exact time or year. I would have been the observer, not a participant, because my parents always excluded me from anything they considered “adult.” I felt the emotions and remember the intense of feelings of anger and rage that crossed my father’s red face. I don’t have the space to give you all the details here, but I’ll tell you how it came out and not leave you scratching your head. Things like cancer and abortion were unmentionables in 1944, not the subject of public talk shows the way they are today. I learned from a great-aunt that my dad’s sister didn’t abort that baby [She had a number of abortions, there being no adequate birth control at that time.] because her husband didn’t want it, but because she had had an extremely difficult child birth experience with her second child and couldn’t face the ordeal again. My dad’s anger was misplaced. He had always taken care of his little sister after the early death of their mother when he was seven and part of his anger toward his brother-in-law was related to his overprotective nature. My dad’s other sister confirmed the story. She said my uncle wanted this child; he already had two girls and he wanted a boy to carry on his family name. Now my dad didn’t completely misinterpret what had happened, because his sister let him think it was her husband’s fault. My dad had gone to St. Mary’s in Sioux City, Iowa, for a few years and he had assimilated the Catholic attitude toward divorce as a serious sin. His sister couldn’t tell him the truth for that reason and when he assumed her husband caused the abortion because he didn’t want any more children she left it at that. The memory was traumatic to me because of the violence expressed by my dad, not because I was personally threatened. Ultimately, that abortion memory made me a genealogist and resulted in a fairly complete family history.

            Lenore Terr discusses false memory syndrome, memories we think of but cannot really verify, based perhaps on events related to us by parents or friends. She will often ask children to talk about their first memory and it is usually something that happened after the age of three when they have learned to verbalize; memories prior to that are sensual and imagistic, not articulate. When I think of my first memory, I realize it is probably a false one, because I have a family album filled with snapshots of me at just about every stage of my life.  I see myself sitting under a poplar tree in my Lindbergh aviator’s cap, but I don’t remember anything about that particular day. I couldn’t even say who took the snapshot with the Kodak. I often sort my memories by using the pictures. When I remember something that doesn’t exist in the album, I know I am dealing with a real memory. In her chapter on the child star, Dr. Terr shows how easily a child can be brainwashed by a determined mother out to win a lawsuit. When the child was asked directly about what happened, she told the truth. Nothing had happened. No doctors had molested her in any way. Terr was called in as a memory expert and asked to go over the tapes made by the girl and her mother. After listening to the mother lead the girl through a series of absurd events, she concluded the girl had not been molested and the entire scenario was scripted by the mother who had learned about prior lawsuits against the doctors. The jury voted against the mother. Terr makes the one critical point about any child molestation case; if it has happened the child will have a strong physical and emotional response. She goes into this in detail in her account of the case of Jessica Franklin Lipsker who remembered one day that she had witnessed her father rape and murder her girl friend, Susan, in Foster City, California.

            Fans of the crime stories of James Ellroy will enjoy the chapter in which Dr. Terr interviews Ellroy about the murder of his mother in 1958 and the parallels between that murder and the Black Dahlia case that occurred in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Ellroy consented to this discussion of the way he has used the memory of his mother’s murder in his fiction over the past two decades. Incidentally, if you’re still thinking of the Dahlia case as an unsolved mystery, you might want to read Janice Knowlton’s DADDY WAS THE BLACK DAHLIA KILLER. New York: Pocket Books, 1995. In another case of recovered memory a la Lipsker, Janice says she saw her father kill Elizabeth Short in January of 1947 and the book is filled with enough evidence to convince me. Ellroy was obsessed with the Dahlia and wrote a book about the case as well as referring to it in several of his other mysteries. There is still a lot of debate over the validity of memories which resurface after many years of repression, but the jury believed Jessica Franklin Lipsker and put her daddy away. As of this writing, George Franklin is to be retried in September of 1996.

            The crux of the current debate over memory is summed up by Terr: “one side says that people can’t be made to recall sexual abuses that didn’t happen, and that attempts to disprove these abuses are attempts to victimize the already violated. The other side says that false memories happen all the time: People are remembering what their therapist or their self-help group suggested to them [UNCHAINED MEMORIES, p. 160].” And I know there are times when I remember things from many years ago as though they just happened and other times when I am standing in the kitchen in front of the piano saying to my friend, “What did I come in here for?”

 

THE BOOK OF MR. NATURAL

Review by Clay Geerdes

 

Mr. Natural invaded the public consciousness in 1967. Suddenly, this little bald guru in his white robe was everywhere. His creator was known simply as R. Crumb, who said he heard the name Mr. Natural on the radio as a kid growing up in Philadelphia and Cleveland, though visually, the character had several precedents in comic strip history:  the Professor in THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS, Sappo in Segar’s THIMBLE THEATER, and the little hitchhiker from Gene Ahern’s Squirrel Cage strip who uttered the enigmatic words NOV SHMOZ KA POP. An underground cartoonist named Jaxon, whose character for a University of Texas fanzine called THE ICONOCLAST was called God Nose, has said Crumb appropriated God Nose and turned him into Mr. Natural, but this is unlikely. Jaxon published GOD NOSE in the early sixties in Texas, doing a limited edition zine called GOD NOSE circa 1964. Crumb was never in Texas during that period and GOD NOSE wasn’t widely distributed until it was reprinted in comic book format later in the decade. Crumb drew his Mr. Natural in the mid-sixties and it’s more likely that he and Jaxon were influenced independently by Sappo or earlier prototypes of the character.

Mr. Natural appeared for the first time in May of 1967 in Brian Zahn’s YARROWSTALKS, a quasi-underground newspaper, and, as was the practice of the time, other underground papers reprinted Crumb and within a couple of months Mr. Natural was known throughout the urban areas of the United States and Europe. The character appears on the cover of the first issue of ZAP COMIX, a drawing reworked from an idea Crumb had for SLUDGE COMICS in one of his sketchbooks. ZAP was not published until February 25, 1968, and by then the hip public was well prepared to receive it. Crumb owes his rapid success to the well organized underground press distribution network.

Crumb did not jump full blown into his role as cartoonist. He was influenced by the strips and comic books of his childhood. On the cover of ZAP 1, Mr. Natural is driving a weird vehicle down a city street. It’s the type of car Bill Holman might have drawn in SMOKEY STOVER, one of the strongest influences on Crumb. Next to Mr. Natural sits a woman in a flower pot hat. There are four children in the back seat, meaning one of the five little Crumbs is missing. The woman asks “I wish somebody would tell me what diddy-wah-diddy” means. Mr. Natural answers with a line attributed to Fats Waller: “If you don’t know by now, lady, don’t mess with it!” This exchange reflects Beat culture, familiar to Crumb from his days in New York. In the fifties white students had begun to listen to black jazz and to pick up the patois affected by the musicians. Norman Mailer discussed this trend in his essay, The White Negro, but what it amounted to was an attitude. If you were hip, you listened to jazz and pretended to understand its subtleties and complexities; at the same time, you rejected your square parents and their tendency to prefer the banalities of Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller. This is reflected in Crumb’s FRITZ THE CAT which was published serially in CAVALIER Magazine and collected in paperback circa 1968. By then, black hepcats had metamorphosed into white hippies and squares had become straights.

Crumb’s cartooning style was right out of the thirties and forties. Compare his work with that of Bill Holman and Billy DeBeck and Rube Goldberg and Gene Ahern. To see what Crumb definitely didn’t like, take a look at a Marvel or DC comic from 1967. He wanted to move comic art back to an earlier time and make a new start. What he wound up doing was using an earlier style and filling it with contemporary themes. He often spoke through Mr. Natural, but it is never true to say this or that character is the spokesman for the artist; it’s all him, not just part of it, he is all of the characters from the simplest to the most complex and there is always an element of self-parody in every cartoonist’s work. At times Crumb used Mr. Natural to reflect his father’s attitude, at times his own, at still other times Mr. Natural symbolized Crumb’s fantasy self, the self-assured, aggressive, omnipotent one, usually in contrast to the real Crumb, shy and insecure and uncertain as Flakey Foont. Compare the dialogues of Smokey Stover and the fire chief with those of Mr. Natural and Foont and you will get a feel for the way Crumb’s cartooning sense developed. Crumb’s older brother Charles was the prime mover in his childhood. Charles organized Bobby Crumb and Max and Carol and had them drawing little comic books for his Animaltown series. Crumb always wanted to please his brother and years later, as he told Terry Zwigoff in the film, CRUMB [1994], he could feel Charles looking over his shoulder as he drew. In some of the dialogues between Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, Charles plays the role of Mr. Natural to a Flakey Crumb.

THE BOOK OF MR. NATURAL reprints all of the Mr. Natural strips and stories to date, giving the reader a complete history of this complex and contradictory character. In this collection, one finds Mr. Natural capable of a wide range of enigmatic behavior and any attempt to classify him would be pure speculation. In some stories he has supernatural powers. He can fly like Superman or ascend to the astral plane through meditation.  Though he is often called a guru, he has certainly taken no vow of celibacy, because he has sex with numerous women; nor is he a man of peace. He is, rather, often angry, hostile, particularly with Flakey Foont and various women. Indeed, the first image of Mr. Natural shows him walking through the desert daydreaming about a roast chicken. Had you been sitting on the sidewalk on Haight Street in front of the Psychedelic Shop in 1967 reading this story out of YARROWSTALKS, that drawing alone would have had you laughing, because the people you saw on the street in robes were members of Krishna Consciousness, called the Hairy Kirshnas by most, and you knew they were strict vegetarians. No meat served at Kirtan.

Crumb took LSD for the first time in 1965 and he has said all of the characters he began to draw after that period came to him as a result of the experience. He started his career using cartoon characters to express his ideas and fantasies, but as he grew older he began using a caricature of himself more and more often and this cartoon of himself is most common in his recent work. While most cartoonists prefer to hide behind their characters, Crumb has moved in the opposite direction, openly expressing his thoughts and feelings in his work; it is doubtful that one can find a cartoonist who has been more honest about his personal life than R. Crumb.

 

 

THE PROLETARIAN NOVEL

Have the Plutes won?

Review by Clay Geerdes

 

Somebody has been making holy asses of us policemen…At the time of the harbor strike I went to see old man Hammond [owner of many of the lumber ships]. He told me to take a bunch of my men, arm them with clubs, go up to Liberty Hill and break the heads of the Wobblies. I replied that if we did that, they would burn down his lumber piles. ‘They will do it anyway,’ he answered, but they didn’t. Not an overt act have they committed…We policemen have been made the tools of the big business interests who want to run things. I’m ashamed of myself for consenting to do their dirty work. The big fellows in this town can do anything they like and get away with it, but the workers can’t even think what they want to think without being thrown in jail.

 

--Police Captain Plummer, in charge of                                                                                     the waterfront strike detail, Los                                                                              Angeles, California.

 

With the world now controlled by an international capitalist oligarchy, the proletarian novel has all but vanished from the scene.  The form peaked with John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH at the tail end of the Great Depression in 1939 and a contemporary reader would need a glossary, dictionary, and an encyclopedia to understand this chronicle of an Oklahoma family headed down Highway 66 to encounter a gang of corporate cops in a California Hooverville. Today’s reader is more likely to recognize that famous queen, John Edgar Hoover, than to recall hapless economist Herbert Hoover, one of history’s presidential failures. A Hooverville was a hobo jungle. It wasn’t a shanty town because there were seldom any shanties, just vehicles, maybe a lean-to here and there, some cardboard boxes and makeshift furniture put together from fruit crates. The folks who wound up spending time in these makeshift villages were drawn to California by advertising flyers sent out by California fruit growers in search of cheap labor. When major parts of Oklahoma were wiped out by the dust storms of 1937, people saw these flyers, piled all their things on the old tin Lizzie and hit Route 66. Those who didn’t starve along the way got to the California border only to find that too many people had responded to the advertising and no more workers were needed, hence the Hoovervilles. These newcomers, called “Oakies” by the haves, had no place to go back to, so they were not quick to leave in spite of the billy clubs and guns of the California cops. Steinbeck, a Monterey valley boy, was able to capture the reality of this journey from Oklahoma to California by going along. He washed dishes and worked on the farms and lived the life of the people he wrote about. No escapism here, no entertainment; the proletarian novel was a slice of real life and it was anything but pleasant.

            Working people haven’t disappeared, but books about them are rare these days and even rarer on pre-decided ‘best seller’ lists. Most contemporary literature like contemporary media in general is a composite apologia for capitalism with the worker’s viewpoint conspicuously missing. If you want to hear that voice, you have to go a long way back and look at the work of Jack London, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Jack Conroy, and others. It might surprise you to learn that you’ll have a hard time finding the more radical writings in print or even on the shelves of the libraries. A friend of mine read a biography of Upton Sinclair a few months back and got interested in his work. He wrote over a hundred books in his long lifetime, yet when we started to look for some of them we found only a couple in print and only two dozen or so in the library. Today a computer system keeps track of books that are checked out and when a book doesn’t circulate over a certain period of time it is destined for storage in the basement or elsewhere to make room on the shelf for one that is being read. You’ll find copies of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat packing industry, THE JUNGLE [1906], because this book is kept alive by college English teachers who use it as an example of the muckraking novel of the period; none of his other books is taught around here. If Sinclair was on the scene today, we would be reading an in depth study of the effects of corporate downsizing on an American community and a lot of discussion about why there has been no general strike against corporate union-busting in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton era; instead, we get a continual diet of heavily-biased cop shows which depict working people as criminals or passive victims of others in their class. When any kind of union activity is covered on tv or in the corporate papers, it is usually a strike and the emphasis is on the discomfort caused the public, not the basic reasons for the strike. Reagan was presented as a hero when he broke the airlines strike. All those poor people stuck at the airports could now get to their vacation spots. TV News is one thing, but the programs are quite another. In spite of the fact that most of the people who work behind the scenes are union members, try to think of any incidents on the shows when one of the stars was a union member even on those shows marketed to the working class. Did Roc ever go to a union meeting? Was he a union member? Is Al Bundy a union man? Why not?

            I grew up hearing about John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther and the Wobblies and the AFL [American Federation of Labor] and it is strange to hear little or nothing about the unions today. The silence of the workers in the face of all this republicrat propaganda is scary. The few TV NATION shows Michael Moore was able to produce last summer were a breath of fresh air, but I was not surprised to see TV NATION missing from the schedule, particularly after Moore got on Gingrich’s case for looting the treasury for 10 billion a year in corporate welfare while he running around lobbying to get young mothers off the dole.

            There are proletarian works around. You just have to know where to look for them. Last night I finished reading Eugene Nelson’s BREAK THEIR HAUGHTY POWER: JOE MURPHY IN THE HEYDAY OF THE WOBBLIES and what impressed me most about this colorful history of a Wobbly organizer riding the rails in the early days of the union was the optimism of Joe Murphy in the face of incredible greed and brutality. Murphy left home as a teenager and set out to see the world without a dime in his pocket. He rode the rails and his first contact with members of the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World--always known as the Wobblies, or the Wobs] was hopping a freight and getting thrown back off into the dust when he failed to produce his red card. Murphy identified with the idea of a universal brotherhood of workers, with the One Big Union, and he joined as a boy. The Wobs would ride into a town, check with other members to see where the work was, then get jobs on a local farm or in a mine. Once hired, they would talk to the other workers about the conditions, try to sign them up, and hence expand the membership of the union. Farmers needed the migrating workers then as they do now and they would hire a gang to work the harvest at so much an hour plus room and board. The deal might be a twelve hour day at 40¢ an hour plus meals and board. The contract was a handshake. When the work was done, the workers got paid and hit the road to the next job. All well and good, but the reality was something else. The owners wanted the most they could get for the least they had to put out and some were greedier than others. Many provided nothing but a bare floor to sleep on and passed out dirty lice-infested blankets. The food might be good the first day, then terrible the next. The workers might be pressured to work faster than they were capable and under conditions that were dangerous. A man crippled during the harvest had no insurance and no income. The owner certainly took no responsibility although he caused the unsafe conditions in the first place. Workers were often cheated. Nelson tells the story of Murphy and a group of men hiring on to harvest some wheat and when the job was done the farmer said he didn’t have the money to pay them and would have to give them IOUs, which meant he got his wheat harvested for nothing. When the men protested, he brought out his armed sons, beat up some of the workers and chased them off the property. The men stopped a couple of miles away and tried to decide what they would do. Murphy told them he would take care of it. A bit of Wobbly justice. Late that night he went back to the farm under cover of darkness, carefully lead the animals out of the barn, set fire to it and rode off over the fields. He sold the two horses he had taken to a farmer twenty or thirty miles away and got his pay.

            Murphy was living the life of a migrant farm worker during the 1920s while many people were buying stock on the margin and living high off the hog in the cities. There are a lot of stories about flappers [young rich girls who bobbed their hair, wore tube dresses and no underwear, and drank and smoked far too much, little birds flapping their wings] and their sugar daddies [old executives spending the money they stole from their underpaid workers], but very few about the lives of workers like Murphy. Ah, well, your average reader of today likes to think of Pocahontas as a clone of Barbie rather than a raped 12-year-old Indian girl. That $20 Pocahontas t-shirt was sewn by an 18¢-an-hour slave in a foreign sweat shop, but no one wants to read her story.

            The roaring twenties, huh? The only roaring Joe Murphy and his buddies heard was that of the train engines. I recommend this biography to anyone interested in what real life was like during the twenties and thirties. Nelson includes a lot of Murphy’s lore. Skid Road, for example, in Seattle, was the area where the loggers used to skid the logs down to the waiting docks. Later, this became Skid Row. Occasionally, the Wobblies got into sabotage to help the cause when capitalist firepower proved too heavy. A sabot was a wooden shoe and it was said that the French often threw a wooden shoe into the machinery when they felt that management wasn’t acting fairly, hence the term sabotage. While working and organizing for the union, Murphy became a boxer, sailor, and all around tough guy. Soon fellow workers were calling him Kid Murphy. One of the things the Wobs routinely did was attack speakeasies [blind pigs] where workers got drunk and lost what little money they had. Because of his size, Murphy often led these prohibition time attacks. I’ll share one of his stories with you here: “I had been told of the notorious speakeasy in Everett with a gigantic whale penis on display but I had to see it to believe it. The huge phallus seemed to stretch across one whole wall. The rest of my bunch had taken on two other bars and only I and a big logger named Sven entered the place. While Sven lumbered up to address the owner, I began to tack up one of our ultimatums on the wall. Suddenly I saw two big bouncers coming at me. I looked around for a weapon, a chair or a bottle of booze. Then my eye lit on the grotesque whale penis. The two thugs closed in on me. Jerking the phallus from the wall by one end, I swung it toward them for all I was worth. I hit them both just right, on their Adam’s apples just below the chin, and they went down in a heap. Then I swung the hugh phallus again and busted out the big front window into a thousand flying pieces. It ended up knocking down a cop who had just arrived on the scene, then skidded into a milk wagon. Sven and I faded off down the street [p. 185].”

            BREAK THEIR HAUGHTY POWER was published by Ism Press, POB 12447, San Francisco, CA 94112. Drop them a line and get their order list. For the current state of the unions, see the series currently running in Z Magazine. The IWW story covers the period from 1905-1933.

 

 

 

CONFESSIONS OF A GHOST WRITER by Clay Geerdes

 

Some of my favorite writers when I was growing up in Nebraska were people whose real names I never learned until years later. From the time I discovered his first paperback western, I was an avid fan of Max Brand and I only learned in my fifties that the creator of Destry, Silvertip, and hundreds of other characters was Frederick Faust [1892-1944] who went to the college where I did my graduate study [UC Berkeley]. Faust was on the staff of The Occident in 1915 and he discovered at a young age that he was living in the golden age of pulp fiction, that there were literally dozens of titles out there, all of which were open to freelancers. The pay was a penny a word which means the poor soul who suffered writer’s block never made zip-shit in the game, while masters like Faust who had the gift of writing race horse prose made a very good living. Faust, known as ‘Fabulous Faust’ or ‘Heinie’ Faust was one of the fastest and most prolific writers who ever tortured a Smith-Corona. For years, he wrote a novel and a number of short stories every week! Entire issues of Western pulps were scripted by Faust and his editors, to make it look like they had a stable of writers instead of a single speed demon chained to his typewriter, began to run Faust’s novelettes under a number of different names.

            Nothing new about this usage of pseudonyms [false names], but lots of regular folks often misinterpret the reason for the practice. While Faust’s editors simply wanted the readers to think they were getting a wider variety of authors, the practice began for other reasons. When Edward Stratemeyer invented names for his writers along with the characters for his series books, he did so for pragmatic and economic reasons. It was his practice to write the first few stories, then to farm outlines out to freelancers at a flat fee. In 1926, for example, he restyled his successful Rover Boys into the Hardy Boys, invented Franklin W. Dixon as the author, and had the new series on the market by 1927. In the last year of his life, 1930, he invented Nancy Drew and cast Carolyn Keene as the author. Dixon, Keene, and countless others were pseudonyms or house names, as they were known in the trade. They were copyrighted and owned by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Series continuity was assured via multiple anonymous authorship. Anyone could write a Hardy Boys’ or Nancy Drew adventure and recently some of the anonymous freelancers who wrote the stories from the outlines of Stratemeyer or his daughter, Harriet Adams, have been telling students they created the characters. This is not true, of course, but ego will have its due. Though dozens of writers and artists have worked on SUPERMAN since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster borrowed the parameters of the character from Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel, GLADIATOR, Superman, Lois Lane, and the other characters were still the invention of Siegel and Shuster, not those who worked on them later. The same is true of Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer invented the character, actually based on Ruth Fielding, an earlier woman detective, and he outlined the first five stories. When Harriet took over the syndicate upon his death, she made Nancy her own project and hired the writers who filled in her father’s outlines. These people had a lot to do with various developments in the characters, but they were never free to change the basic structure. A scene in which Nancy might have smoked a joint or partied with a motorcycle gang would never appear in the final draft of a series book. The ghost writers got an outline, filled it in with what was acceptable, sent in the manuscript, and got $125 for all rights. The house names worked for the syndicates and against the writers, because the books were reprinted hundreds of times over the years and the writers never got an additional penny. All the profits went to the company.

            And you folks thought writers made up those fake names so they could cheat the IRS, huh? Sorry to disillusion you about that. I’ve used a lot of pseudonyms in my own writing career, but whatever name ran on my articles or stories I always got a 1099 every February listing all fees paid me during the year by the publisher. My publishers were responsible for the pseudonyms, incidentally; not me. When I was a professor writing for the Los Angeles FREE PRESS at the end of the sixties, I used my own name. Underground papers had less academic status than popular magazines and a number of teachers who wrote for them used pseudonyms just as a number who wrote popular mysteries used fake names on these to protect their reputations. Hey, as a prof, it’s not just publish or perish, it’s publish in the correct quarterlies or perish. And how do you get into those quarterlies? When I was doing grad study in the UC’s English Department, I read for a prof who was editing AMERICAN LITERATURE. He liked a paper I wrote on some aspect of Melville’s MARDI and said I ought to submit it to AL. Well, I was polite and said fine, I would do that, sir, but I already knew the reality from him. AL had a five year backlog, which meant I wouldn’t see my article in print for years! I used to talk to guys about their publications and I’d hear about so-and-so who had something on Pound’s last CANTOS coming out in several years. It was a joke. I enjoyed writing.  I wanted the freedom to write about anything I thought and felt and I wanted to see it in print right away, not years in the future.

            Believe me, folks, those profs who are writing pop mysteries under pseudonyms, enjoy inventing complex crimes and solving them; they do their academic articles and books out of necessity, often hiring grad students to do the shit work. I should know. I’ve done a lot of academic research for money and got no credit for it.

            Pseudonyms can work for a writer. It’s not always the company who gets the best of it. Say you’ve got a good story and you sell it to a pop mag as a western. What’s to stop you from rewriting it as a medical tale or a space story? What was STAR TREK, but WAGON TRAIN in space? When Faust was writing for the pulps, he could rewrite and resell his ideas as many times as he could type them and he only had a manual typewriter. With a word processor, today’s freelancer can produce a single manuscript and reformat it as many times as he can sell it. As long as you are not selling to a competitor, the pop mag editors could care less. Magazines in Los Angeles used to buy the same articles I wrote for the FREE PRESS. They re-titled them and used different photo layouts, but they didn’t even bother to rewrite the leads. As for the papers, the system was designed so that any underground paper could reprint anything that ran in any other underground paper. FREE. For the writer this meant one check and no second or third rights, no royalties. Writing for those papers was automatically a labor or love.

            Well, you ask, if I didn’t use any pseudonyms, why were they used? I wrote for KNIGHT during the early seventies and, while they wanted a sex slant on most of their features, the editors were influenced by the kind of political action that was happening in the streets around them and they wanted to appear to be on top of it all so they needed some quasi-political stuff to sweeten the table of contents. I had invented a street persona through which I saw and wrote about anti-war protests, demonstrations, marches, be-ins, love-ins, etc. and they liked that persona, so for awhile I made a lot of sales. One editor knew his publisher was politically conservative and might not like what I said in some article about fascist trends in American politics and he concluded that he might lose me as a contributing writer if he published the article under my name so he suggested we use a pseudonym just in case. This way, if the boss saw the piece and said who is this leftist-commie-pinko-hippie-scumbag and what is he doing in my magazine?  He could just apologize and say he wouldn’t buy anything more from him. I could still go on writing for KNIGHT under my own and other names. 

            There are numerous reasons for using pseudonyms. A writer might use a false name to hide from a negative past. Ex-convicts often change their names when they get out of prison. Mystery novelist Anne Perry committed a murder with a friend when she was fifteen years old. Perry served six years and when she was released at the age of 21, she took a new last name and started her career as a mystery writer, using the form to exorcise the demons from her past. Instead of changing their own names, novelists normally change the names of the people in their books, which may fool the public, but certainly does not fool the people upon whom the fictional characters are based:  friends, family members, and others. Someone in the family usually knows who is who and what secrets are being revealed. Academic writers use pseudonyms to separate their formal research from their hobby. Oxford mathematics professor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson invented Lewis Carroll to be the author of his ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Evan Hunter chose Ed McBain as the pen name for his 87th Precinct stories and put his real name on what he considered to be his more serious novels, the first of which was THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE [1954], a precedent of the musical WEST SIDE STORY. While he was teaching, Stephen King wrote his early horror fiction under the name Richard Bachman.

            One other reason for using pseudonyms comes to mind; it’s fun to invent not only the story but the type of character who would write the story. Just as J. D. Salinger had a good time inventing Holden Caulfield to tell the story of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, so do journalists like yours truly enjoy making up names to go along with the prose we write. The sixties and seventies were the great period of the sex tabloids like KISS and SCREW. In San Francisco, a couple of guys started the San Francisco BALL. I met one of these guys on my North Beach rounds and he asked me to contribute. He said I could make up any name or names I wanted because none of the writers were using real names. I knew the publication and it was gross as hell, but the idea of being able to recycle a lot of my photos and prose as parody appealed to me and I wound up writing a lot of funny stuff that would have been unpublishable anywhere else. I always enjoyed writing about sex, but I was totally incapable of writing pornography. It’s true. Through some of my L. A. editors I had contact with porn publishers in the southland and they paid anywhere from $400 to a grand for little quickie novels. Sounded like easy money to me when I was behind in my rent circa 1971 so I sat down at the portable Underwood and gave it a shot. About 40 pages in, I realized it wasn’t happening. I was bored. I could run off at the mouth for fifteen or twenty pages poking fun at the sexual excesses of the sixties and the weird things non-Californians thought about the way we live out here [you know, cults, nightly orgies, etc.], but porn novels had to be serious and I couldn’t do it. I got so far then fell into lampoon and self-parody. It might surprise you, but the most successful writers of these books were women, though the names on the covers were always male. One woman I knew in Berkeley made $5 or $6 grand a year cranking out these little gems, most of them with a bondage and discipline theme. Petite woman. Dressed plain. Quiet. Never heard her say a bawdy word. Imagine a young Anais Nin writing DELTA VENUS in Paris in her youth.

            Pseudonyms are often used to hide gender. I hereby confess to being in several women’s magazines under a feminine byline. Kosher. After all, in the 19th century, writing was considered a man’s game. George Eliot and George Sand were both women. They used men’s names to beat the system. I used a woman’s name to beat another system. Writers who try to avoid gender distinction often use initials on their work as they do in their telephone listing. As the use of initials is often classist [FDR, JFK, RFK], this is often considered an affectation. Sinclair Lewis poked fun at T. S. Eliot through his poet character T. Cholmondeley Frink in BABBITT.  Ethnic background may be a factor in the use of a pseudonym.  A Jewish name on a manuscript means rejection by an anti-semitic publisher. For years, Jewish actors had to change their names in order to work in Hollywood. Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis. Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen. Amos Jacobs became Danny Thomas. A pseudonym or stage name is almost de rigueur for an actor while it may simply offer a useful option for a writer.

 

 

ROLLS-ROYCE MEMORIES: Memoir

By Clay Geerdes

 

Looking through one of my photo scrapbooks, I found several pictures of Rolls Royces. I’ve been fascinated with the Rolls for well over twenty-five years. That feeling goes back to one day when I went out to Herb Westdorf’s place in Richmond. I was writing a regular column for COAST MAGAZINE at the time, 1971 or ‘72, and people were always suggesting ideas to me. I perked up when I heard about Westdorf. Turned out he was one of the few mechanics left in the entire world who could build a Rolls Royce from scratch. Rich people from all over the country had to go to Herb or someone like him when their vintage RR’s needed a repair. I drove out there to his house in the hills. It wasn’t hard to find the place, because there weren’t many houses in that area with two or three RR’s sitting around on the property. I found Herb pondering the massive engine of a Phantom II. Sitting nearby was a sparkling radiator. A rich dude from Arizona had shipped the car to Richmond and he rode with it on the flatcar all the way. The ‘57 grey Silver Cloud nearby was Herb’s own. Beatle John Lennon had a paisley Silver Cloud. It belongs to the Smithsonian Institute now. Tom Sears had a ‘52. I shot a picture of fan dancer Sally Rand standing in front of his car while it was parked on the sidewalk in front of the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. I don’t know what it had to do with promoting THE BIG SHOW OF 1936, which is why Sally was in town, but there it was and we shot the picture. All kinds of memories drifted through my stream-of-consciousness as I looked through Herb’s own album in his living room. He’d been written up in the Sunday supplements a number of times and was no cherry when I showed up to hear all of his old Rolls tales.

            I just hung around and listened. Herb was involved with the cowboy from Arizona and I didn’t intrude. Looked like an ordinary dude, but it cost him five grand to get his Phantom II to Westdorf’s and it would cost him about as much for the radiator. Herb made that radiator and it was a beauty. I’d like to have it sitting in my living room right now. I always loved the damned things. During that short period when Volkswagen ripped off the design, I was running around with my friend Debbie Marinoff, who drove a yellow beetle with a Rolls radiator. RR’s legal beagles soon put a stop to those plagiarized radiators, but it was fun while it lasted. A lot of people had license plate frames or bumper strips that said MY OTHER CAR IS A ROLLS ROYCE, but I wasn’t into that; I wanted the real thing or nothing. Someone noticed it was noon and suggested lunch and I thought it might be time for me to make a quiet exit, but Herb told me I was welcome to come along and told me to get in. I wasn’t about to pass up a ride in that Silver Cloud. It would be my first and only.

            We went to a strictly upper crust Giant Burger down in smoggy Richmond, California, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief, because I had no idea how I would deal with lunch if we went to some fancy hotel dining room. I had one credit card, but I’m sure it was maxed out or would be when I faced the monthly bills. A Giant Burger, I could handle. Didn’t even bother me to eat one of them then, though today I would look upon it with horror. White bread, hormone polluted high fat meat, sprayed lettuce--Yuk! There were four of us at that tiny lunch counter, Herb, me, the Arizona Kid, and another Rolls owner whose name I never knew. We all had GBs and fries and cokes and Herb picked up the tab. He had to, because rich guys never carry any cash and GB doesn’t take plastic. Outside, I got one of my prize photos, three vintage Rolls-Royces parked in a square around that little junk food palace.

            Back at Herb’s I thanked him for the tour of his place and his memorabilia, had a last look at that shiny new radiator, hopped in the ‘67 Opel I was driving and headed back to Berkeley. Problem was, I now had a Rolls-Royce Jones. I spend the next few days in the library going through the biographies and picture books and lost myself in the lore of the early days of the automobile. It was Frederick Royce who built the prototype of the car, the “little Rolls,” and Charles Stewart Rolls who raced and promoted the car in England and the United States. Today, we’re so used to seeing auto fantasy ads on billboards and tv, it’s easy to assume ‘twas always thus, but ‘twasn’t. Cars were the plaything of the rich in the early days. Each one was custom built, usually by the owner. The transition from the horse and buggy to the automobile was not easy and it was fought as hard as many technological innovations are today. You might think it was easy to add an engine to a carriage and get rid of the horses, but it all took time. Cars were promoted to the young from the earliest days through racing. Every young mechanic who came up with a new design got his car into a race with someone else. Rolls brought the car Royce built to the U.S. and started racing it and he was winning fairly regularly around 1908 and sales began to increase. There was no factory. Each car ordered was custom designed for the owner. Specialists made each part. The engine was built in one place, the chassis in another, and a carriage was ordered from a carriage maker.

            Various parts of the early cars came from carriages. Things evolved. We take them for granted today, but the early mechanics didn’t think of things like fenders and bumpers until they were forced to. The early cars were open and the roads were unpaved and often muddy, which meant the driver and his passengers were going to get gravel or mud thrown up into their faces by the wheels. At first, the inventors wore heavy rain slickers and goggles to deal with this. It took several years for them to realize a fender over the tire would solve the problem. Cute, huh? A fender because it was designed to fend off the mud or gravel. The early cars didn’t even have windshields. A lot of wind and dust and gravel and mud hit the faces of those wealthy boys before they got wise and designed a sheet of heavy glass to shield them from the elements. Early cars had running boards. Why? Because footmen rode on the running boards of carriages, then hopped down to open the doors for the rich, but footmen did not ride on the running boards of cars; the running boards no longer functioned that way and gradually they disappeared but it took many years. Gangsters rode on the running boards as they shot it out with the FBI in countless 1930’s movies, but today’s cars not only have no running boards, many of them do not even have viable bumpers. The bumper was not considered necessary in the early days because there were so few cars it was extremely remote that they would ever run into one another. By the time Henry Ford was churning out Model-Ts or Tin Lizzies for the masses, the bumper was as necessity as a horn. Today, the horn is just annoying to most of us, a weapon in the hands of a smart-ass yuppie who wants to double the speed limit and kill anyone who impedes his/her BMW, but in the early days the horn was needed to warn people and animals that a car was coming. People seldom fenced their property and what roads there were ran through or around the fields. Grazing animals often stood in the road as they ate. Horns helped, but not much, cows being the stubborn creatures they are. The large black iron bumper on the front of a train engine is called a cow catcher because it was not at all uncommon for a grazing cow to ignore the blast of the engineer’s whistle and go on chewing.

            Ah, well. Waxing nostalgic there for a moment. Royce and Rolls created some of the most incredible cars ever made in their heyday, cars that would become multi-million dollar collector’s items. Even before the oil fields came in, Arabian sheiks who got their weight in diamonds and rubies each year bought fleets of Rolls-Royces. Many Hollywood stars owned them in the thirties. One-upmanship ruled. There were RR’s with solid gold fixtures, many with precious jewels inlaid in the dashboards. A dashboard might be polished mahogany or oak. Some millionaires had miniature RR’s made for their children to peddle around. The man who made the car a success was Charles Stewart Rolls, a fabulous character in his own right, an adventurer who never stopped looking for the next great high. He was an expert balloonist who went up every chance he got. He raced the Rolls and won on many occasions. When he heard the Wright brothers had a viable airplane, he couldn’t wait to try it out, but it proved to be his last adventure. Rolls taxied to the end of the runway and the plane failed. He was killed in that crash in 1910. I haven’t looked up his dates, but he was about 31 as I recall.

            A few years back I went to the yearly car show over in Brooks Hall in San Francisco and I stopped by the RR exhibit. It was roped off, of course, not wide open to the public like the normal cars, nevertheless I had a look at the sticker price. $172,000. Sleek and blue, it looked like an oversized Mercedes. A salesman gave me a critical look, but I just grinned and said I was a writer and a Rolls fan. I asked him if it would be all right for me to sit in the driver’s seat for a moment and after hesitating a moment he said, sure, and opened the door for me. I climbed in and settled down into that soft beige leather and just sat there for a few seconds thinking of the great RR’s of the past, the Phantom II’s, the Silver Ghosts, the Silver Clouds, then I climbed back out into reality, thanked the man for his indulgence, and strolled over to have a look at a $220,000 Ferrari.

            Thanks, Herb, for the ride--and the hamburger.

 

 

 

SERIES BOOKS by Clay Geerdes

 

It would be possible to write modern series books for young people, but the writer[s] would have to start their own publishing business, because mediocrity is entrenched and banality is not about to surrender its strangle-hold on the adolescent psyche. Is the world ready for a pregnant Nancy Drew and a couple of Hardy boys who carry designer condoms in their wallets? I had to yawn over the recent front-page to-do about the new San Francisco library refusing to put Nancy Drews on the shelf because they were series books. This is the ultimate in bibliological hypocrisy when one considers shelves loaded with the pap of pop cult hacks like Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon. This crap is sold to adults and is filled with absurd plots designed to prove the thesis: whether you’re rich or poor, you’re a psychological fuck-up. Nancy Drew and the Gee Whiz boys are just outmoded suburban retards, but I suspect most of us recall their quirky adventures with a trace of a smile, and I see no reason why the library can’t stock the recent Drews along with what are basically adult series books by Steele, Krantz, et al.

            There is nothing new about this series book debate. Back at the beginning of this century when Lyman Frank Baum had a hit with his WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, he got into it when the libraries refused to stock the sequels. Librarians had the same argument then as they have now. Series books were basically the same book written over and over and they had better use to make of their limited shelf space than to fill it with Baum’s fantasies about the daughter he never had. Ah, yes, ‘tis true, folks. Baum had four sons in a row and no daughter. He was on the road selling China for a while and he entertained his boys when he was home by telling them stories about little Dorothy Gale from Kansas. Dorothy was seven, incidentally, not the teenager she became in the MGM movie, and Baum lived in North Dakota at the time, not Kansas. His stories were often gory and violent, but all of this was excluded from the 1939 movie. Baum wrote 14 books about Oz before his death in 1919 and his work was continued by Ruth Plumly Thompson and numerous others. THE GIANT GARDEN OF OZ, the most recent book about Oz was written and illustrated by Eric Shanower.

            Baum did not win the series debate with the libraries. It was many years after his death that his books began to appear on the shelves of some libraries in the children’s section. For a long time, series books were not reprinted, which meant the first printings were soon valued by collectors, giving libraries another reason not to stock them. Collector’s item books are routinely stolen from libraries, particularly those worth the big money. And early Oz books now sell for large sums. The books you will now find in local libraries are recent reprints. The Oz reprints by Emerald City Press are the real thing, the text as Baum wrote it, but a lot of the recent Nancy Drews have been restyled, which means in the jargon of the trade that someone has gone over the book, updated the fashions, cars, slang, etc., so that Nancy is modern and with it. The plots have changed very little, meaning Nancy retains her WASPish personality and the stories are quasi-racist. In 1995, she went to college. Best recent source of information on Drew is Karen Plunkett-Powell’s THE NANCY DREW SCRAPBOOK [New York: St Martin’s, 1993].”

            While Baum created a fantasy world in which the characters and events were fanciful and abstract, series books about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were always based in middle class reality. Magic was routine in Oz, but if something appeared to be magic in Drew, the mystery was solved in the end and what appeared to be magic turned out to be an illusion based upon something concrete. Not that the Hardys and Nancy lived in a real world; they did not, the middle class world created for them by Edward Stratemeyer in the 1920s was as big a fantasy as Oz. Hey, everyone was white and well-behaved and the servants were faithful and there were no homeless people riding the rails. Nancy began her career with THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK in 1930 the year after the stock market crashed; that event would have had a serious effect on the lifestyle of Nancy’s father, Carson, but if it did, the young reader never heard anything about it. Realism you found in the books of John Steinbeck and others. The young were to be cushioned against it. Well, it worked. I read the Hardy Boys as a teenager and enjoyed every one of them.

            Let me confess here that I wrote a couple of books about these characters just for the exercise, but I found I could not accept the simplicity of their lives. Fenton, Frank, and Nancy were never in any real jeopardy because their parents or the cops or some authority figures were always there in the wings ready to save them. That was not my reality. When I got in a scrape as a teenager, I was up shit creek if I couldn’t figure my own way out. And I had to deal with sex in my books. I couldn’t believe in a bunch of teenagers who never wanted to get it on. I was thinking about sex by the time I was nine or ten and when puberty hit I was obsessed with it. To me, The Hardy Boys lost their credibility because they were never horny or told a dirty joke. I know what we talked about when I was a teenager and I know what I thought about and when I wrote my versions I had to put it all in. Unpublishable stuff, huh? For sure. I mean, imagine Nancy Drew buying some sanitary napkins or Fenton Hardy scheming on a cheerleader, bringing her back to his house when his parents were away for the day. Fact is, series books work okay until puberty, but after that, they don’t work quite as well.

            Just the same, the Berkeley Public Library has Nancy on the shelf and the San Francisco library may cave in. Most of the letters that followed up the story were strongly pro-Drew. Series books create faithful fans and Nancy Drew has her fan clubs.

 

 

The Death of Superman [Jerome Siegel: 1915-1996] by Clay Geerdes

 

 Jerome Siegel got together with Joe Shuster, a Cleveland high school buddy and aspiring cartoonist, and they proceeded to write and draw the first story of an invulnerable extraterrestrial who could leap tall buildings with a single bound and make life generally miserable for all criminals. They got the idea for Superman from GLADIATOR, a novel written in 1930 by Philip Wylie.   Jerry and Joe put a costume on Hugo Danner and Superman was born. It was not an immediate success. Didn’t sell at all. They wrote the first story in 1932, but it wasn’t until June of 1938 that National Periodicals [called DC comics after the success of Detective Comics in 1939] ran Superman as the cover story in ACTION COMICS. By then Siegel and Shuster had been sending comic book stories around for several years; SUPERMAN was just one of them. They got a check for a little over a hundred bucks and were happy to sell what was by then old stuff to them. DC bought all the rights with that check and Superman became a megastar in the 1940’s, making a ton of money for DC, but the creators got nothing extra. It wasn’t until 1975 that DC finally agreed they ought to have something. That something was quite small, but it was better than nothing.  Jerry Siegel spent most of his life working for the post office in Los Angeles before he began to get some of the recognition he deserved. He was honored and given an Inkpot Award at the San Diego Comic Convention in the summer of 1975 and a year or so later he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame along with Joe Shuster.          Jerry Siegel died on Sunday, January 28, 1996, at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 81 when his heart quit on him. His creation was known worldwide in 1996 and it’s probable Jerry saw the latest adventure of Superman on TV the week he died. On February 11, the latest Superman [Dean Cain] married Lois Lane [Teri Hatcher] and I think this would have appealed to Jerry. There was always a lot of the romantic in him.

            When I was a kid reading those early Superman stories, I always wondered what kind of guy Jerry Siegel was. When I met him I was surprised to find him a foot shorter than me; after all, Superman is so much bigger than life, you think maybe there is some relation between him and his creator, and--there is, but it’s a fantasy one. Jerry was always the little guy in school, the shrimp who got shaken down for his lunch money; his partner Joe wasn’t any taller, but Shuster’s shoulders were as broad as those of Kirk Douglas.  Jerry and Joe developed a fantasy self no one would ever push around, a guardian angel of the universe. I don’t think it’s sad that Siegel and Shuster never became the darlings of Oprah and Geraldo. That wasn’t their scene. Neither was a celebrity.  When I saw them in San Diego, they were shy, quiet, friendly guys, anything but glib. Neither was comfortable in the limelight. Both were pleased with the belated attention given them for their work, but neither was up to the oratory and wit expected of celebs. So Ironic seeing Siegel sitting there at a table in the DC exhibit. He hadn’t worked for the company in forty years. Dozens of others had written and drawn Superman stories. There was Jerry sitting around guys who had made fortunes off his character. People were even asking him to sign recent Superman comic mags he had nothing to do with.

            ‘Twas ever thus. Thanks, Jerry, for one of the great fantasies of my childhood, for the times I put on a towel and flew around the back yard or put my feet up on the handlebars of my Schwinn bike and flew down Madison Avenue to play the pinball machine at Harold’s, for all the times I came home with gravel burns on my knees or elbows from a playground fight and knew I could grab one of your comic books and Superman would help me get revenge on all the assholes that bugged me around grade school; Ah, Jerry, the suits made the big money off your character, but you died the richer man. Many generations of us will never forget the legacy you left us.

 

 

 

SMOKING TV by Clay Geerdes

 

The overall purpose of TV, radio, magazines, and major newspapers is to sell you corporate products and the correct attitude toward those products--you’re supposed to love your corporate supplier as a junkie loves his dealer. The same suggestive techniques used on you in tv commercials are used in sitcoms and other programming--why would you think otherwise in a world where part of the operating budget of all major films is derived from pre-sold advertising?  It is no accident when a character uses a specific product or wears a brand name. Embedding ads into movies is not new, but it has escalated in our time to the point where many films are nothing but a series of commercials with a superficial plot spliced in to blend them.

            Excluded from television by law for many years now, the tobacco industry has begun an aggressive campaign to re-infect the little screen. In an episode of THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, an innocuous sitcom about four aliens who land on earth and decide to take on human bodies and live like humans for a time, the high commander discovers the joys of cigarette smoking. All through the episode John Lithgow is shown smoking one cigarette after another, inhaling, enjoying every poisoned puff, and there is no negative commentary to balance this paean to the carcinogenic lifestyle. The fade out is accompanied by that naive thirties lyric Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette. On CYBILL telecast February 19, 1996, a nun arrives to take a piano lesson from Cybill’s daughter, Zoe. The nun lights up a cigarette and Zoe reads her the riot act and makes her smoke out on the balcony, but it is nonsmokers who are ridiculed and pictured as intolerant, making this a pro-tobacco episode. This recurred on April 26, 1996, when a young woman in a commercial smoked on the set and Cybill complained. That same evening on a DAVID LETTERMAN special, Letterman tells a little boy that Santa brought him a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes in prison and it was “the greatest Christmas present he ever got.” Letterman is often shown smoking a cigar on his late night talk show, making it a pro-smoking event.

            That same month, February of 1996, MURPHY BROWN did a show inspired by Mike Wallace’s 60 MINUTES episode on the whistle-blowing doctor now taking on the Tobacco company he worked for. The BROWN sitcom opened with old black and white footage of people lighting up and smoking to the lyric Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. While it was not overtly pro-smoking, I noticed certain things that bothered me. Mainly, the whistleblower was played as a foolish clown, someone to laugh at, not take seriously, and the message was very clear: if you work for the tobacco industry and you blow the whistle on any of that industry’s illegal practices you will be fired, blacklisted, lose your home, and basically be ruined. Now I don’t live or work in a “tobacco friendly” state [Murphy’s term] and I am free to keep tobacco out of my house and life, but I could not help but think of those people who are enslaved to the industry and the effect that segment of MURPHY BROWN would have on them. Hey, it was crystal clear that the whistleblower was not a role model and the show was filled with overt threats about what would happen to anyone who decided to take on the tobacco fascists and their corporate lies. While the episode ended with mock-anchor Jim Dial resigning rather than continuing a career with a station that would give in to corporate blackmail, the overall impact of the show left me with a negative feeling. Perhaps more so because I know CBS [channel 5] has recently been taken over by liquor and tobacco interests and since that takeover I have seen drinking and smoking heavily promoted on all the entertainment. As much as I enjoy CYBILL, it’s still a promo for liquor. We always see Mary Ann at her wittiest with a glass in hand and you can bet your ass we are not going to see any of the reality of alcoholism--you know, the smell of vomit all over the place, the smashed dishes and furniture, the broken teeth and black eyes, the abused children, the carnage on the freeways, and the endless lies…

            The tobacco gangsters got a bit of a black eye when they failed to come up with a good answer to critics who called them out for selling nicotine addiction to little kids via the lovable cartoon image of Joe Camel, but, hey, these guys are just trying to make a buck. If they can’t run ads like the ones they used to run on tv all the time--remember those dancing boxes of OLD GOLD cigarettes--they’ll buy major interests in the movie companies and the networks and enforce the use of cigarettes on the big screen. How many times did John Travolta light up in BROKEN ARROW? Why is the first image in the CITY HALL preview a shot of Al Pacino smoking? When BROKEN ARROW makes it to the little screen, will the smoking commercials be cut? Of course not. Not only will the tobacco gang get their ads run on the little screen, but they’ll get a lot more than fifteen seconds.

            Am I biased? I sure as hell am. I don’t like seeing smoking glamorized in advertising. I hate seeing young people smoking. At my age, I have seen too many of my friends die from the carcinogens in tobacco. Cartoonist Dave Sheridan, who drew a lot of funny underground comic books like MOTHER’S OATS back in the early seventies, was a heavy smoker and one day he got a pain in his back. He thought it was just too many hours at the drawing board working toward a deadline, but he went in for a checkup and found out he was terminal. His cancer was inoperable and he died within a month. Before my mother died a few years ago I used to fly to Nebraska to visit with her a couple of times a year. She lived in a retirement condo and when we walked around the halls I could hear the coughing and choking of the old smokers on their way to miserable deaths from lung cancer and emphysema. One of mom’s close friends was a lively little woman who was 95 years old. She had to walk around with oxygen tubes up her nose, because she had emphysema. She never smoked, but her stupid husband smoked in her face all the time and she got the disease from second-hand smoke. My sister has been to a couple of funerals this year of railroad workers who died of lung cancer. I could go on and give many more examples, but you know all of the famous ones, Bogey, McQueen, and John Wayne. Suffice it to say that I hate the tobacco industry for the lies they have told people over the years, for addicting young people who don’t know any better, for contributing to the deaths of many people I cared about. I was very pleased to hear that three states have filed suits against the tobacco industry to recover the costs of medical care for dying smokers.

            It’s time the tobacco gangsters were called to account.

 

 

 

UNDER THE FREEWAY: FROM OEDIPA TO WANDA by Clay Geerdes

 

Schadenfreude-- “Like Adolph Hitler, Springer is easily tickled by what the Germans call Schadenfreude, the feeling of joy at another’s misfortune.”

 

-Thomas Pynchon

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, 1973, p. 526.

 

Also, I saw your issue of November 14 that year and read where Mary Lowry was writing about reverse Schadenfreude and it came to me that the reverse of Schadenfreude would be Gluckschmerz, i.e. a feeling of pain at someone’s else good fortune

 

-Wanda Tinasky

 

 

Was Oedipa Maas the precursor to Wanda Tinasky, an earlier version of the infamous 76-year-old bag lady with the penchant for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and old movies who began living beneath the bridge near Fort Bragg, California, in the early 1980’s? Sure, why not? In literature, particularly that genre created, assembled, and manufactured by Thomas Pynchon, one is always free to speculate. In THE CRYING OF LOT 49 [1966], Oedipa leaves her disc jockey husband and goes to California to administer the estate of Pierce Inverarity, who turns out to be one of the richest men in the world. Oedipa, however, goes to see a little theater production and becomes distracted by a reference in the play to the Trystero. Unable to get this word/idea/symbol out of her mind, she spends the rest of the novel in search of it, discovering during her quest an underground postal system through which the marginal people of America communicated with one another to the dismay of the power elite. In search of WASTE [We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire], Oedipa explores various parts of California during the acid era, the mid-sixties. What keeps her moving is the horn symbol she sees everywhere. She has to know what it all means, but no one can tell her the answer; those she encounters either do not know or will not say, and, of course, one says the obvious: “Has it occurred to you, Oed. That somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died [167]?”

            As an ex-sailor who spent a couple of years at sea, I was not mystified by the horn symbol at all. I know what it means to get “on the horn [148],” and I knew throughout that the horn was actually a Boatswain’s pipe, used for everything from waking up the crew to announcing knock off ship’s work or the serving of chow. The shrill sound of the Boatswain’s pipe means Attention and it got Oedipa’s attention and kept it all through LOT 49. Pynchon was a sailor for a couple of years in his youth and no doubt he thought it humorous to juxtapose nautical jargon with the various civilian dialects making the rounds in California during the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury. Poor Oedipa. She keeps getting knocked off course as she makes the rounds of sixties characters like John Nefastis who likes to have sex during the news of Viet Nam and China. She/Pynchon has contempt for the professorial make, however, and he and his mock hip-ness are rejected. As she leaves Nefastis snaps his fingers “in a hippy-dippy, oh-go-ahead-then chick fashion he had doubtless learned from watching the TV [108].”

            Why is Oedipa in Berkeley? Well, she has come to visit a particular antiquarian bookstore [Most likely Serendipity on Shattuck, though it is unnamed] to see if they have a copy of the rare play she saw performed when she was in Southern California. The reader can date LOT 49 from the internal references. Since the Viet Nam Day Committee is mentioned, Oedipa’s visit occurs in the late spring or early summer of 1965. I was often on campus that year and could follow Oedipa around as she walked through Sproul Plaza. There were ‘suds in the fountain.’ That would be the fountain named for Ludwig, a dog who played in the water there just about every day that year. People poured some soap in to make the suds and Ludwig would splash around and make bubbles. LOT 49 is impressionistic and often nonlinear, quite in phase with it’s time [the reader is referred to Marshall McLuhan’s UNDERSTANDING MEDIA or to the writings of just about any acid-head of the mid-sixties; basically, what happens in the reader’s head as Oedipa drifts from bourgeois housewife to wandering flower child is as much a part of the experience as the printed words on the page.].

            THE CRYING OF LOT 49 is a philatelic adventure story, a journey through the evolving underground of the sixties, but expect not the neat resolution of a Nancy Drew tale here, because nothing is ever resolved in the world of Pynchon. Oedipa ends up an alien, estranged from her ex-husband who has become an acid head and disc jockey [one of Pynchon’s favorite goals for himself at the time], cut off from mainstream America, unsure of her new direction; after all, in the end she is sitting at the auction waiting for the stamp auctioneer to cry Lot 49, but we never learn the meaning of this group of forged Trystero stamps, and Oedipa never gets back to taking care of Inverarity’s estate. She’s just waiting for Godot or waiting for trial like Kafka’s Joseph or perhaps Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

            Pynchon’s an Easterner. He writes from the East, not the West, and when he writes about California he is seeing it not as a long time native but as a tourist. I was born in Sioux City, Iowa in the early thirties, but I have lived in California for over thirty years, so it was fascinating for me to follow Oedipa Maas around while she was in San Francisco and Berkeley. I enjoyed her visit to a gay bar on Broadway in 1965. A Pynchon invention, because the street at that time was controlled by a couple of macho Italian brothers and all the clubs were topless and hetero that year. There were gay bars in San Francisco, but they were in other neighborhoods, not North Beach. There was one lesbian bar near The Committee on Broadway near the end of the sixties. Had there been any others, I would have known about them because I covered the strip regularly for my column in COAST MAGAZINE.

            Oedipa tweaked my memory when she was wandering around under the Embarcadero freeway contemplating the WASTE cans. I knew that area quite well. It was nostalgic for me to read about it in LOT 49 because I not only worked for the Rincon Annex of the U. S. Postal Service for two years while attending San Francisco State College, but I had a part time job for the company that leased the parking lots under the freeway. Each afternoon I went down there and made the rounds, checking to make sure there was a valid parking ticket on the seat of each car. If there was no ticket on the dash, I slid a small manila envelope under the windshield wiper informing the owner how much money to leave.  I wrote the license numbers on a clipboard, which I picked up from a small shanty on one of the larger lots. I walked Oedipa’s route five days a week and grew to recognize the people who hung out in the area, the bums, hobos, World War 2 vets cadging cigarettes, drinking T-bird or Ripple, the aged wrinkled prostitutes with too much dime store make-up and nasty tempers, the homeless and the unemployables who were not destined to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Once in awhile, one of the guys would trap a pigeon and sterno-roast it. Squab a la freeway. Someone would always drift away from the group and waddle toward me. It was either pony up half a buck or stand there breathing the deadliest breath in the inner Mission while the alkie made up a hard luck story to earn the coin. I usually moved fast and dodged the old boys, none of whom had the energy to run me down. By the mid-sixties, the time frame of LOT 49, younger people began to show up in the Bay Area in search of free LSD and some of them probably wandered down from the Greyhound Depot on 7th in search of a free place to crash. The majority headed for Haight-Ashbury and the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, but it was logical for some to try to find an unclaimed spot under the freeway. I suspect some of them ran into Wanda Tinasky who would have told them she was thinking of heading up North where there were trees and sky and breathing room. 

            That area is gone now. Redeveloped into history. They filmed BULLITT down there and you can see how it looked during the chase scene that ends when Steve McQueen drives his unmarked car off the freeway and into the second floor windows of an old hotel that stood next to the Y. The unfinished Embarcadero freeway was torn down and all the buildings in the area have been razed. The Rincon Annex is a shopping center full of expensive yuppie stores now. When I worked down there, jazz and blues music drifted out of doorways. People hung out at the old YMCA and played pool. The hole in the wall café on Spear near Mission where post office workers like me ate our roast beef sandwiches in 1961 is long gone. The place had a short run as a gay bar and I suspect Pynchon was thinking about this bar when he wrote LOT 49.

            Pynchon only wrote from a woman’s viewpoint in LOT 49, not in any of his other books, V., GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, or VINELAND, and when he wrote Oedipa into being he used a lot of his own experience, including making her the same age as himself, 28. From internal references in the letters written by Wanda Tinasky to Bruce Anderson, editor of the AVA, circa 1983-85, one might argue that Pynchon decided to continue this feminine version of himself as the writer of those letters, to age her to 76 and project her as having been an actual member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater in 1938.  For me the best evidence is:  the reference to schadenfreude, the fact that Pynchon and Tinasky both worked for Boeing during the same time period, numerous internal references to old Hollywood films and actors from the same period, namely, Garbo, Welles, Lugosi, et al., and an overall rambling stream-of-consciousness filled with references to television and popular culture. I think the Oedipa Maas who passed through the Bay Area in 1965 became the Wanda Tinasky who wrote the Tinasky letters in 1984-6, during the time Thomas Pynchon began to think about and write the early portions of VINELAND. It seems quite possible to me that writing the Tinasky letters stimulated the completion of VINELAND; after all, the author had been silent for nearly a decade since the publication of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW [1973], his cartoon-y novel about rocket science in 1945-6. I think bringing Wanda to life in the letter cols of the AVA fulfilled Pynchon’s need to express himself on a lot of issues he could not justify putting into one of his books. Pynchon has consistently hidden from his readers his entire creative life, never giving interviews, never appearing on talk shows, probably paying his agent to keep him out of the limelight, and while this is his prerogative, it has kept him from the intellectual give and take experienced by writers who take their licks from the critics and the public. A man with this type of reclusive personality profile would enjoy participating in a debate where his identity was unlikely to be revealed. He would also enjoy the vicarious experience of putting on a dress and smashing through the front window of a country bar with a bank of television cameras capturing it all for National TV, so ‘fess up, Tom, Wanda, Oedipa, Zoyd; come out from under the bridge.

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