Norman Mailer’s Birthday

People’s CIA

Norman Mailer is probably the only man in America who could give himself a birthday party, charge $50 a couple admission to the posh inner sanctum of the Four Seasons, secure a packed and hungry house, and leave at least a portion of those in attendance feeling, as one chic young woman in a black velvet pantsuit put it, eyebrow arching/burgundy fingernail plucking her guitar-string-thin mouth, “Well, there goes one more culture hero down the drain,” not 10 minutes after she had declared breathlessly, “I would have come 1000 miles for this — wouldn’t have missed it for the world — maahhvelous!”

He gives rise to that kind of social schizophrenia, Norman Mailer does, whether by diabolical intent or by some weird Pavlovian psycho-stimulus/response over which he has no control. No matter, really. It was in the air Monday night at the Four Seasons, thick among the hanging copper rods over the bar, thicker still among the seated watched and the cruising watchers, positively zero visibility around the bubbling pool in the middle of the room in which Mailer delivered his “announcement of national importance (major)” as was advertised in purple print on more than 3000 invitations to the affair. Proceeds from the birthday part were said to be destined for “the Fifth Estate,” an organization, or foundation, or publication, or something, anyway, about which no one seemed to know much.

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And so there was a bit of mystery attached to the event, a Mailer touch of course, leaving those people wondering where the hell their $50 was going, all the same sucking them in as surely as if the price itself were a magnet or great vortex, a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort. At its center was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing the man, making him quiet and still. It was too much to pass up, the possibilities were too enormous, we could watch a man celebrate his birthday as a knave and a fool both, and of course a year from now see him come back strong, admire him for making clear to us once again with the printed word our own weaknesses and strengths whereas we could only poke pins in him, in the voodoo doll he always seems to make of himself in public. And so some 600 of us gathered to go through all the bullshit we knew could be expected to herald Norman Mailer’s 50th birthday.


Christ, here I am blithering about killing Norman Mailer in order to figure him out, running on about schizophrenia and mystery and fog and … next thing I know I’ll be using words like “dark,” and “evil,” Mailer will be faced off against Nixon in a dewy glen, pistols at the ready, the spirit of America flying with the bullet which is aimed straightest and truest at the heart of the other man. It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him. The impulse is there, hanging over the page like a great vulture … Pay homage to me, it says, beak droopy in a crooked grin; pay homage with your sweat and your name come hell or 6 a.m. Fuck up and pay the price I have paid before you. Stumble and suffer. Okay, vulture.

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The time has come. Someone is banging on the microphone, readying the crowd for The Announcement. The Introduction:

“Hey, what is this?” coughs Jimmy Breslin, disheveled, gruff, impatient with the noisy crowd. “The place sounds like a reform Democratic club over a Chinese restaurant on Broadway.” Breslin introduces Mailer as “the one person whose ideas will last.”

The Applause: Heavy Whistles. Everyone has come in from the other room, and they seem prepared.

“Can everyone hear?” asks Mailer, looking fit, grinning in that squinty way of his. It seems everyone can. “Then I know if I hear people talking, they are simply not interested in what I have to say. All right. Must size up the opposition. I want to say I’ve discovered tonight why Richard Nixon is President. I’ve been pondering it for many years, you know, and having written a book on the subject, I’ve given it some deep thought. But I realized tonight that I found myself being photographed more times than I can count, and I couldn’t see. You see green after a while, you see red, you see your own mortality. I know why he is President. Richard Nixon has gristle behind the retina.”

The Laughter: Medium. Restlessness. They know he has not called this convocation to joke about Nixon’s eyeballs.

The Dirty Joke: “A man goes in a restaurant, an elegant place not unlike the one you’re in now, and he sees his ex-wife across the room. They eye each other for a while, and finally he decides he must cross the room and speak with her. ‘Darling, you’re being wonderful,’ he says. ‘And you’re being splendid,’ says the wife, who was recently remarried to a much younger man. ‘Darling, I have a question to ask: How does your young husband like sticking it up your worn out old pussy?’ ‘He likes it fine,’ she replies, ‘once he gets past the worn out part.’

The Laughter: Hisses, boos, some scattered giggles, snickers, guffaws. “This is terrible,” says an irate woman. “He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. A woman would never get away with shit like that.” The point, of course, is that Mailer didn’t either.

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Mailer recovers nicely from the joke and tells the crowd that he had asked Frank Crowther, who had organized the affair, to give him some examples of the worst things people were saying about it. “Mailer is throwing this party in order to pay for his vasectomy,” was the worst retort.

The Notion: The Fifth Estate, reports Mailer, was widely predicted to be an organization to defend the press. It will be nothing of the sort. “I wanna start a foundation,” says Mailer, left arm pumping defiantly at his side, “with a few people who would be willing to explore this notion: I want a people’s FBI and a people’s CIA to investigate those two. The notion I have in mind is let’s get a steering committee together to find out if there’s any interest in this: is there, one, a plot going on behind the scenes in American lives, two are there many plots, or three, is there no plot? It will obviously have to begin as a completely sober organization. Let’s look into the idea that we’re all living a scenario that we’re writing only a part of … the entire government of the United States is conceivably being managed secretly. Now. I’d like some questions, a critical question.”

The Response: “Norman, what about paranoia?” Laughter. People are talking with each other all around the room. He is losing control of the crowd, and he knows it. “He’s doing a vasectomy on his own mind,” says a woman near me. “Honey, why don’t you wear something groovy like this?” asks her husband, fingering the necklace of the woman next to him. Finally he announces he’ll give the crowd 30 minutes to consider his “notion” and then take “serious” questions again.

“I think it’s rather sad,” says a British investment banker standing next to me. “I’m interested in what he had to say, but no one gave him the chance.”

Mailer leaves the podium and begins pumping hands in the middle of a pack at least 10 deep. He smiles, not broadly, not contentedly. Bravely. He has taken his “notion” to this crowd, and though they didn’t reject it, they didn’t give it a proper hearing. With only New York professional boredom as a foe, Mailer had nothing substantive, nothing solid to push up against. Inevitably, the confrontation Mailer had hoped for became mushy, with no real energy or form on either side.

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Later on, I approached Mailer with the idea that his “notion” would have been more interestingly delivered, and most probably better received at a Lion’s Club luncheon in Effingham, Illinois, than thrown in the gaping maw of The Big Yawn.

“I did it the only way I knew how,” he replied. “The history of the world is a history of people doing things the only way the know how, and I’m no different.”

A crush of people pressed between us, and I began edging away. Suddenly his hand snaked through them and gripped me firmly by the arm. “Come back here,” he growled. “I’m not finished talking to you. You’re not supposed to walk away from your commanding officer like that. I’ll bet you never tried that at West Point.” I had to admit I hadn’t. Then I noticed his smile. It wasn’t the playful grin so often worn when he was harangued crowds and created scenes in the past.


There is and always has been a solid totalitarian streak running through the heart of Norman Mailer. He is a leader, and because he cannot lead with commands or orders, he must lead with ideas. Many of them have taken the form of the written word; many have damned and condemned the forces of totalitarianism as only one who truly understands it could. Still, there is something lacking in the force of the written word which can only be found in placing oneself in physical command of a situation. This Mailer has often found it necessary to do, and the conflict both within himself and between him and those he has attempted to command with his ideas has formed the center of some of his best work.

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And this is the dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche which is not completely yielded to. There is a visceral, almost sexual excitement about command and control. Yielded to once, the desire to lead is never lost. It can only rarely be replaced with the impulse or willingness to follow. And yet there is the inner knowledge that such an admission violates all manner of logic, has its distasteful moral aspects, borders virtually on the edge of a peculiar form of madness: the willingness, or drive, to take responsibility not only for oneself, but for others. The great generals of the past killed themselves inside while in command of divisions, corps, armies. And perhaps their eventual deaths were more suicidal than one once thought.

With the failure of the government to fully prosecute the My Lai and LaVelle affairs, not to mention the Watergate case, the old requirement that he who accepts responsibility for other men or for a unit is “responsible for all that unit does or fails to do” has finally fallen completely by the wayside. And perhaps in Mailer’s desire to establish a “people’s FBI and People’s CIA,” there is the subliminal urge not only to plumb the new origins of control in American life, but to help rediscover and re-establish the old. Though he may occasionally pretend to the contrary, Mailer is hardly one to throw order away in favor of chaos. He is, after all, the man who marches armies of words across fields of paper.

My grandmother is an admirer of Norman Mailer, and watching him on the Dick Cavett show one night several years ago, she remarked out of the blue, “That man reminds me so much of George Patton.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she replied it was in his writing, but was far more evident in his personal manner. “They are almost the same person, in some ways,” she said, she who knew Patton through my grandfather and through lord only knows what intuitions come upon in situations and places now unknown.

Stick that in your craw and chew on it, vulture. ❖

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday

1973_Village Voice article by Lucian K Truscott IV about Norman Mailer 50th Birthday


Bob Dylan Comes Back From the Edge

Wandering through the crowd during intermission at The Concert last Wednesday night, one got a sense of why it must have been an agonizing decision for Bob Dylan to go on tour for the first time in eight years, of why “the Big Apple” has been dreaded as much as looked forward to. Old friends of Dylan were there, and so were many who remember him from basket houses on MacDougal Street and Gerde’s Folk City over 10 years ago.

The things Dylan must like about New York City — he has mentioned it in nearly every interview he has given — were here to haunt him as well as help him. He can walk through the Village without being noticed, and if he is recognized, no one makes a big deal out of it. He can jam with John Prine at the Bitter End without being mobbed or driven crazy by autograph-glom­mers or teenyboppers. Here he can raise a family in the same old ten­sion and peace and quiet and noise of the city which gave him the images and experiences for songs like “Visions of Johanna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

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But the peculiar schizophrenia of stardom has a way of coming back around like a death-dealing boomerang. The city that ignores Bob Dylan on the street is perfectly capable of leaving him equally high and dry on a stage. And though that did not happen on Wed­nesday night — he had the crowd on its feet, screaming, stomping, and clapping at the end — there were those among his friends and long­time admirers, among those who hold him most dearly, who were, if not disappointed, at least a bit deflated after their first evening in years with Bob Dylan. It was great to see him again, but the years had taken their toll. There was something missing — maybe in us, maybe in Dylan — and no one knew exactly what it was.

Dylan said, “I’m honored to be here,” and sang six classics: “Everybody must get stoned” drew screams and more lighted joints from an already grass-soaked audience. Even the youngest of those present could remember the many weeks “It Ain’t Me Babe,” sung by Cher, was number one on the top 40 charts. And Time and Newsweek have printed that great line. “There’s something hap­pening here/and you don’t know what it is/do you/Mr. Jones?” so many times, it is probably imprin­ted permanently on the American psyche.

Yet Dylan’s stage fright, as the Band reminded us in its first solo number, was painfully evident. “Lay Lady Lay” which reviews of the Chicago and Philadelphia con­certs have described as taking on the old “Dylan Edge,” was simply rushed, hurried through and cast off like the last tune in a long, tedious rehearsal. Dylan was scared. What appeared at first to be new sparkles and flourishes on a laid-back country song was really his nervousness showing through.

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Dylan attacked the mike, his brow furrowed, mouth working madly from side to side, and “It Ain’t Me Babe” was coughed out between gritted teeth. On “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan’s insistent, pounding grand piano work rushed the song to the point of impatience. Garth Hudson’s organ fills disappeared in a bad sound mix. Dylan rose up and banged down, running wildly along the keyboard, driving the Band brilliantly, forcefully, but just too goddam fast.

But it was on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that whatever was bothering Dylan came through most clearly. The song is a beautiful one, ablaze with painful autobiographical images and self-­exploration. On record, Dylan’s voice searches its way through the lyrics, finding one color here another there. The emotional con­tent of the song is as much in the way Dylan sang it — in the depths of his voice — as in the depth of the words. And listening to the song as I write this, I am reminded that Dylan’s magic was in large part this: the mix of lyrics and vocal coloration. The galaxy of emotions he could plumb between the boundaries or one song was greater than any rock and roll artist who came before him or has come along since. His voice is truly [one] of the great rock and roll instruments.

On Wednesday night, the song was rushed through, along with the others, so much chaff to be brushed aside in search of solitude. Dylan struck a pose — tough, defiant, almost mean in its intensity — and sang without searching. His emphasis — or was it reliance — on highs permeated the song. He would raise a verse to a fever pitch, drop it, then raise another, screaming into the mike, he gazed above the heads or the crowd intent and serious, then he’d back off. It was automatic, studied. Dylan wouldn’t let the song carry him as much as he carried the song. He refused to search back through the lyrics for the experiences and feelings which gave it birth, allowing him to bring it back to life again.

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Dylan was afraid, that was for sure. But “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” showed he wasn’t afraid of us, the audience. It was himself he feared — the process or going back over those songs which bore the pain of becoming Bob Dylan, the highs, the lows, all of that life, which was living on the edge. He seemed unwilling to go through it all again in song, dredging up that which was better off left behind. The funny thing was, one could hardly blame him.

The Band played alone to a warm reception, and then Dylan returned to sing “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” He wore a black tuxedo and a silver and black ruffled cowboy shirt. The trousers of the tux hung loosely — almost baggy — giving him the appearance of a young Charlie Chaplin, legs spread wide, elegant in his awkwardness.

After intermission, Dylan return­ed alone to sing five acoustic numbers. “The Times They Are A-Changin” ran fast, and brilliantly embellished harmonica breaks drew extended applause. “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” and then “Gates of Eden.” Like “Tom Thumb…” the latter was sung with an intensity which bordered on anxiousness: My notes made toward the end of the song read: “What made song great on record — he was calling on something w/in him, bringing it out… in performance he leans on drama… teeth gritted, lips contorting 2-3 times on one vowel, bitten off… overdramatized.”

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“Just Like a Woman” followed, and it was sung slower, more con­fidently. “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” was done with lovely, hypnotic speed, sung up and out and proud and sane. It seemed that Dylan had hit a stride, that he had found his voice, a way to cope with standing naked before 20,000 pairs of eyes. “It’s Alright Ma” was markedly different from the original, but for the first time all night I had the sense that the song had grown, not shrunk. Dylan’s comfort came through nobly, he dropped his tough front, and even in the clippedy clip way he ran down the words one could feel him feeling his way, wringing the song, and himself, almost dry. He must have felt good, because he swag­gered a bit when he took his bows, lifting his hands in a triumphant wave.

The Band came on again for several numbers. They took no chances with the crowd. Every song sounded just like the record, and they sustained the tension of each song right up until the last chord. The tone of Richard Manuel’s voice, I have in my notes, was “precise and coarse, as op­posed to Dylan — changing, unpredictable, solitary, weird.”

Dylan returned and ran through a slow version of “Forever Young,” from his new album, as well as “Something There Is About You.” Then he and the Band broke into “Like a Rolling Stone,” the lights came up, and all hell broke loose, kids in the aisles, all the magic and madness of one of the all-time great rock and roll songs. They didn’t rush the song, but didn’t loaf either. It came off perfectly, a real New York song bringing back everything the crowd had come to hear: all about innocence and discovery, self-imposed hardship and coping, a romantic vision or a romantic period in the lives of many in the crowd. Jesus, it was great.

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Dylan’s appeal was always, and still is, to the white middle class. The concert crowd came dressed shabbily, elegantly, all the ways that people who can afford the choice turn themselves out. They lit up $40 an ounce grass, snorted coke, flashed gold rings and fancy boots, wore pre-faded jeans and ex­pensive Indian jewelry, snapped pictures with the most expensive photographic equipment money can buy. Any Dylan fan who griped about the $9.50 high ticket, or who called on millionaire Bob for a “free” concert is guilty of not having listened to the songs they were screaming for all night. For the songs of Bob Dylan are thick with all the contradictions, all the weirdness and schizophrenia of growing up middle-class, of looking for romance in poverty, on the highway, or bumming around and returning to from whence he (and they) came.

Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine, “Now it’s the me again.” If there is one thing true about Bob Dylan over the years, it’s that he is in never ending state of flux. There is no new Dylan or old Dylan or country Dylan or Edge Dylan. There is simply Dylan, and listening to him live gives one some idea of the dimensions of his brilliance, fallibility, strength, weakness, pain, and triumphs. He has been constantly growing and expanding, just as he grew in concert from a faulty, un­certain start to an incredible, fiery end. If he at times disappoints his critics, he never has ceased to amaze them.

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And finally, watching and listening to Dylan the other night — and on records since then — has made me realize how desperately we want our heroes to be self-destructive, as if only by living recklessly can they show us their essential humanity, their impermanence and mortality. I remember when “Nashville Skyline” and “Self Portrait” were released, how the critics and the fans seized on them to prove that Dylan’s long absence from the scene, his retreat to Woodstock, had mellowed him out, left him without the old edge he showed in “Blonde on Blonde” or “Highway 61 Revisited.” God, how they moaned and groaned, as if Dylan had somehow deserted, never to return. Here was Dylan singing country — which had roots in racism and bigotry, the critics chanted. And here was Dylan on “Self Portrait” rhyming “moon” with “June.” All of it was inex­cusable, without redeeming value. Where was the old Dylan, with his moral lefts and protest rights, his haunting images and incisive social criticism?

It’s an old story. We read about Zelda and Fitzgerald now, and shake our heads and say, Christ, what a shame, but what a life they led! And we read about Jackson Pollock, and shake our heads and say, gee, too bad about his drinking and his craziness, but look at all the fantastic art he produced! Now the same sort of head-shaking and tongue-clucking appreciation is being shown for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. One figures everyone would be more happy with Dylan’s extensive, if uneven, body or work if he, too, were dead. Then we couldn’t lean back, turn up the volume, and talk among ourselves about all the speed and acid he must have done, back in the days when he wrote the songs we remember him best for.

Well, life sometimes doesn’t work out that way. Despite the morbidity of hero worship, our expectation is that the great should live up to our worst fantasies and best lies. Bob Dylan has simply settled down with a wife and kids. He eats vegetables. He drinks wine. By all counts, he dotes on the goodness and wholeness of family life. In his most recent songs, he appears to thank his wife for saving his life.

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One can hardly blame Dylan for having opted for life, for having quit his life out there on the Edge — all the late night craziness and running around, the terrible manic existence he is said to have before his motorcycle accident. On Wednesday night, he seemed skit­tish, of the past which stares him in the face every time he runs back through the stark chronicle of his life in song. And so some of those songs were performed, not sung.

“But who can blame him?” said one old friend of his. “At least he took his chances, pushing things, letting it go. The Band just did their records. Dylan wouldn’t settle for that.”

So as usual, Bob Dylan is growing in his own way, at his own speed. The songs on his new album, the laid-back celebrations of being a father, life at home, and his ongoing love ballad to his wife, they all seem so calm, so content and full. The craziness, the pain, the weirdness — all are missing. Perhaps someday we’ll catch up. And maybe then, we too will stop acting forever young, and have it within us to wish it on someone else.


Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square

Sheridan Square this weekend looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of “gay power” erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen.

The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning. “I’m a faggot, and I’m proud of it!” “Gay Power!” “I like boys!” — these and many other slogans were heard all three nights as the show of force by the city’s finery met the force of the city’s finest. The result was a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the Village and became street people.

Cops entered the Stonewall for the second time in a week just before midnight on Friday. It began as a small raid — only two patrolmen, two detectives, and two policewomen were involved. But as the patrons trapped inside were released one by one, a crowd started to gather on the street. It was initially a festive gathering, composed mostly of Stonewall boys who were waiting around for friends still inside or to see what was going to happen. Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a “Hello there, fella.” The stars were in their element. Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic. “I gave them the gay power bit, and they loved it, girls.” “Have you seen Maxine? Where is my wife — I told her not to go far.”

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Suddenly the paddywagon arrived and the mood of the crowd changed. Three of the more blatant queens — in full drag — were loaded inside, along with the bartender and doorman, to a chorus of catcalls and boos from the crowd. A cry went up to push the paddywagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen. With its exit, the action waned momentarily. The next person to come out was a dyke, and she put up a struggle — from car to door to car again. It was at that moment that the scene became explosive. Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows, and a rain of coins descended on the cops. At the height of the action, a bearded figure was plucked from the crowd and dragged inside. It was Dave Van Ronk, who had come from the Lion’s Head to see what was going on. He was later charged with having thrown an object at the police.

Three cops were necessary to get Van Ronk away from the crowd and into the Stonewall. The exit left no cops on the street, and almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving. The reaction was solid: they were pissed. The trashcan I was standing on was nearly yanked out from under me as a kid tried to grab it for use in the window-smashing melee. From nowhere came an uprooted parking meter — used as a battering ram on the Stonewall door. I heard several cries of “Let’s get some gas,” but the blaze of flame which soon appeared in the window of the Stonewall was still a shock. As the wood barrier behind the glass was beaten open, the cops inside turned a firehose on the crowd. Several kids took the opportunity to cavort in the spray, and their momentary glee served to stave off what was rapidly becoming a full-scale attack. By the time the fags were able to regroup forces and come up with another assault, several carloads of police reinforcements had arrived, and in minutes the streets were clear.

A visit to the Sixth Precinct revealed the fact that 13 persons had been arrested on charges which ranged from Van Ronk’s felonious assault of a police officer to the owners’ illegal sale and storage of alcoholic beverages without a license. Two police officers had been injured in the battle with the crowd. By the time the last cop was off the street Saturday morning, a sign was going up announcing that the Stonewall would reopen that night. It did.

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Protest set the tone for “gay power” activities on Saturday. The afternoon was spent boarding up the windows of the Stonewall and chalking them with signs of the new revolution: “We Are Open,” “There is all college boys and girls in here,” “Support Gay Power — C’mon in, girls,” “Insp. Smyth looted our: money, jukebox, cigarette mach[ine], telephones, safe, cash register, and the boys tips.” Among the slogans were two carefully clipped and bordered copies of the Daily News story about the previous night’s events, which was anything but kind to the gay cause.

The real action Saturday was that night in the street. Friday night’s crowd had returned and was being led in “gay power” cheers by a group of gay cheerleaders. “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We have no underwear/ We show our pubic hairs!” The crowd was gathered across the street from the Stonewall and was growing with additions of onlookers, Eastsiders, and rough street people who saw a chance for a little action. Though dress had changed from Friday night’s gayery to Saturday night street clothes, the scene was a command performance for queers. If Friday night had been pick-up night, Saturday was date night. Hand-holding, kissing, and posing accented each of the cheers with a homosexual liberation that had appeared only fleetingly on the street before. One-liners were as practiced as if they had been used for years. “I just want you all to know,” quipped a platinum blond with obvious glee, “that sometimes being homosexual is a big pain in the ass.” Another allowed as how he had become a “left-deviationist.” And on and on.

The quasi-political tone of the street scene was looked upon with disdain by some, for radio news announcements about the previous night’s “gay power” chaos had brought half of Fire Island’s Cherry Grove running back to home base to see what they had left behind. The generation gap existed even here. Older boys had strained looks on their faces and talked in concerned whispers as they watched the up-and-coming generation take being gay and flaunt it before the masses.

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As the “gay power” chants on the street rose in frequency and volume, the crowd grew restless. The front of the Stonewall was losing its attraction, despite efforts by the owners to talk the crowd back into the club. “C’mon in and see what da pigs done to us,” they growled. “We’re honest businessmen here. There ain’t nuttin bein’ done wrong in dis place. Everybody come and see.”

The people on the street were not to be coerced. “Let’s go down the street and see what’s happening, girls,” someone yelled. And down the street went the crowd, smack into the Tactical Patrol Force, who had been called earlier to disperse the crowd and were walking west on Christopher from Sixth Avenue. Formed in a line, the TPF swept the crowd back to the corner of Waverly Place, where they stopped. A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay powerites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue. The street and park were then held from both ends, and no one was allowed to enter — naturally causing a fall-off in normal Saturday night business, even at the straight Lion’s Head and 55. The TPF positions in and around the square were held with only minor incident — one busted head and a number of scattered arrests — while the cops amused themselves by arbitrarily breaking up small groups of people up and down the avenue. The crowd finally dispersed around 3.30 a.m. The TPF had come and they had conquered, but Sunday was already there, and it was to be another story.

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Sunday night was a time for watching and rapping. Gone were the “gay power” chants of Saturday, but not the new and open brand of exhibitionism. Steps, curbs, and the park provided props for what amounted to the Sunday fag follies as returning stars from the previous night’s performances stopped by to close the show for the weekend.

It was slow going. Around 1 a.m. a non-helmeted version of the TPF arrived and made a controlled and very cool sweep of the area, getting everyone moving and out of the park. That put a damper on posing and primping, and as the last buses were leaving Jerseyward, the crowd grew thin. Allen Ginsberg and Taylor Mead walked by to see what was happening and were filled in on the previous evenings’ activities by some of the gay activists. “Gay power! Isn’t that great!” Allen said. “We’re one of the largest minorities in the country — 10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”

Ginsberg expressed a desire to visit the Stonewall — “You know, I’ve never been in there” — and ambled on down the street, flashing peace signs and helloing the TPF. It was a relief and a kind of joy to see him on the street. He lent an extra umbrella of serenity of the scene with his laughter and quiet commentary on consciousness, “gay power” as a new movement, and the various implications of what had happened. I followed him into the Stonewall, where rock music blared from speakers all around a room that might have come right from a Hollywood set of a gay bar. He was immediately bouncing and dancing wherever he moved.

He left, and I walked east with him. Along the way, he described how things used to be. “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” It was the first time I had heard that crowd described as beautiful.

We reached Cooper Square, and as Ginsberg turned to head toward home, he waved and yelled, “Defend the fairies!” and bounced on across the square. He enjoyed the prospect of “gay power” and is probably working on a manifesto for the movement right now. Watch out. The liberation is under way.


Why the Generals Won’t Save Us From Trump

You want to know where we are? We’re driving down Route 1, the road leading west out of Mosul toward Tal Afar, a desert town in Iraq of about 200,000 filled to its bursting mud-brick walls with smugglers, criminal gangs, insurgents, thieves, and murderers. And you want to know what we’re doing here? You’re going to love this. We’re looking for General H.R. McMaster, one of Trump’s generals, the supposed “adults in the room” who will save us from Trump, his lunatic advisers, and the gaggle of right-wingers and mendacious billionaires stuffed into his cabinet.

To hear Thomas Friedman tell it, it’s like the West Wing is a teeter-totter, with the wild-eyed Trump true believers and apologists on one end and Trump’s generals jumping up and down on the other, trying to level things out and keep them sane. In the New York Times, Friedman published an open letter to Trump’s generals — National Security Adviser McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — along with CIA Director Mike Pompeo (“first in your class at West Point,” noted Friedman) and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (no military background, but one of Friedman’s “few good men” by virtue of having run one of America’s largest companies). Friedman’s request? “Collectively or individually sit the president down” and talk some sense into him, get him to apologize for accusing Obama of wiretapping him, and, while they’re at it, why not get him to release his tax returns to finally clear up lingering questions about Russian influence. Because? National security! Because? They’re “the five adults with the most integrity in the Trump administration.” Because? Generals!

Our military has produced over the past seventy years a new breed of general officer. They’ve been called soldier-statesmen, and in the case of both Mattis and McMaster military intellectuals. Mattis, who earned four stars and the nickname “Mad Dog” as a Marine, had several combat commands in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he is said to really stand out from the pack because he really, really likes to read books and carried Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in his kit bag on every one of his combat tours. He also replaced General David Petraeus (about whom more later) in 2010 in overall command of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. McMaster, a graduate of West Point, earned a master’s and Ph.D. in American history from UNC–Chapel Hill, where his thesis became the 1997 book Dereliction of Duty, which took the then-unprecedented step by a military officer of criticizing the way the military’s high command fought the war in Vietnam, alleging that their dereliction was that they failed to speak truth to power to either Johnson or Nixon.

But the problem with Trump’s generals started decades ago, when they were lieutenants and captains and they put up signs in their company orderly rooms. You know what those signs said? “CAN DO!” That’s the essence of the modern military ethic. When you are told to, say, go to Mosul or Tal Afar, salute and say, “Can do!” When you’re told to bring democracy and the American Way of Life to Iraq and Afghanistan, salute and say, “Can do!” You go over there like a good general and you set up a headquarters and you bring in a few hundred truckloads of white gravel and you create your own reality.

Commanding others to create their own reality is part of what makes the generals all too well suited to the Trump administration. You look out at the desert in Iraq and imagine it as a Little America, so you give an order to create the world in your head, and the white gravel gets dumped on the desert floor.

I was in Iraq as a journalist in 2003, less than nine months after the invasion. I awoke on my first morning in-country on the eighth floor of an old Saddam office building out at Baghdad International Airport and looked out the window to find a copy of a base camp in Vietnam. Endless rows of tractors, and bulldozers and backhoes and tanks and armored personnel carriers and temporary barracks and gigantic DFACs — dining facilities run by KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary that had the contract to build America’s presence in Iraq.

And down there next to the DFAC, right next to my building, what did I find? A Burger King and a Pizza Hut. And hundreds of thousands of yards of bright white gravel, so you didn’t get dust and sand in your eyes when you were walking from your air-conditioned barracks over to the Pizza Hut for a medium with extra sausage and pepperoni. As I stood there in the window, gazing upon the Little America before me, I turned to the first lieutenant behind me and said, “We’re in fucking Vietnam.”

“Yep,” he said.

“We’re fucked, aren’t we?” I asked him.

“Yep,” he replied. Then we went down to the Burger King and ordered.

A few days later I flew from Baghdad to Mosul, to General Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division headquarters in a walled compound, the remnants of which are still there. White gravel everywhere? Check. Huge KBR DFAC mess hall serving Hershey’s ice cream and burgers to the troops? Check.

Inside the old Saddam-era palace Petraeus had seized for his headquarters, the general proudly showed me the ballroom where, a couple of times every day, he attended a Battle Update Briefing. He took me to one such briefing. Behind us an amphitheater had been constructed of scaffolding atop which sat several levels of young staff officers with laptops. These were the soldiers who reported two or three times a day on the status of the “battle” out there on the other side of the walls protecting the compound. In front of us were three large flat-screen TVs connected to the laptops so the staff officers could put up their PowerPoints and report on operations and intelligence and logistics — all of the usual military metrics by which modern wars are measured. In Vietnam, the staff officers reported to military geniuses like General William Westmoreland on the body count. In Mosul, most of the young staff officers reported on how many tons of garbage had been collected that day, and how things were going with the sewer construction, and how many Motorola handheld walkie-talkies had been distributed to the Iraqi police force. Oh, yeah, they also uncovered and disabled a few dozen IEDs that day and arrested a couple of suspected insurgents.

When the Battle Update Briefing was over, Petraeus, looking proud of his staffers, asked me what I thought. I told him it made him seem more like a CEO than a general, which didn’t make him happy at all.

In 2006 McMaster became famous for his command of an armored cavalry regiment that succeeded in pacifying the outlaw town of Tal Afar, about fifty miles west of Mosul. A PBS Frontline documentary praised his accomplishment, and a New Yorker story that year focused on his Tal Afar campaign as the kind of counterinsurgency operation that might turn the war in Iraq around. You remember turning the war in Iraq around, don’t you?

Out in Tal Afar, at the airport compound where McMaster established his headquarters in 2005 in furtherance of his career-enhancing pacification of the outlaws and killers, I was having breakfast at the huge KBR DFAC one morning, seated at a table with a bunch of dusty unshaven soldiers who had just returned from a mission in Sinjar, yet another outlaw town a few miles to the west, near the Syrian border. On the wall in front of us was a large flat-screen TV. Most of the TVs I saw in other DFACs were tuned to ESPN Classic, but on this morning, the TV was tuned to C-SPAN and up there on the screen was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, famous among the pro-war pundit class as one of the three architects of the war in Iraq.

Feith was giving a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in real time, running his mouth about strategic footprints and the tactical qualities of the projection of power thereof, when one of the dusty unshaven soldiers turned to me and asked, “Sir, do you have any idea who that stupid fucker is?” I explained that was Douglas Feith, one of the architects of the war. The soldier picked up a piece of toast with butter and jam and threw it against the TV screen. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid-ass piece of shit,” he yelled. Soon the others were throwing toast and eggs and little plastic jam containers at the screen and yelling at Feith. Finally one of the KBR civilians came over and turned off the TV. It apparently wasn’t a very good idea for one of the architects of the war to be explaining to these soldiers why, exactly, they were over there projecting tactical power with their strategic footprints in Sinjar.

When General George C. Marshall became Truman’s secretary of State in 1947, he had been the Army chief of staff who led the way to the defeat of both Germany and Japan in World War II. The combined efforts of Trump’s generals to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up losing both of them.

So what do you think? You think Mattis and Kelly and McMaster are going to save us from all the loons down there on the other end of the Trump cabinet teeter-totter? You think when Trump decides to, say, send a couple of American artillery batteries into Syria to shell Raqqa, as he did a few weeks ago, that they’re going to “speak truth to power” and ask President Trump what’s going to happen when those artillery batteries pull out? What’s going to happen when those five thousand American troops currently stationed in Iraq pull out? What’s going to happen when President Trump decides it’s about time to send a few missiles into North Korea to teach them a little about the American Way of Life? You think they’re going to get together on their end of the cabinet teeter-totter and jump up and down and say, “Wait a minute, sir! We’ve made this mistake before!”?

Or do you think maybe they’ll stand up and salute and shout the words that made their military careers: “Can do!”?

If you are looking for an answer, you’ll find it over in Tal Afar, in the Iraqi desert.



Leon Russell in the Dark

In the spring of 1971 Bill Graham announced that he would be closing the Fillmore East. Graham told the press it was all about changes in the concert promotion business and the music industry, but I knew he was just tired of the bullshit. I remembered a bitterly cold Friday night in December of 1968, when a group of tough-looking longhairs calling themselves the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were handing out flyers on Second Avenue demanding free shows at the recently opened Fillmore. And there was Graham, inside the venue, furious: “For all I care this community can fucking shrivel up and die if they continue to let themselves be represented by that bunch of cheap-ass chickenshit punks.”

It had been three years of that for the great impresario of live rock music, though things had changed on both sides of the equation: Promoters were shoveling crowds into cavernous spaces like Madison Square Garden, and the audience was no longer a bunch of psychedelic kids — now it was a mob of hungry consumers who screamed “more” as a demand, not a plea.

Or that’s what I said in my obit for the Fillmore East in the Voice. My editors and I wanted the piece to come out before the place closed in June, so I headed over to 6th Street and Second Avenue on a May afternoon and spent a couple of very pleasurable hours talking to Bill. The week after he made his announcement about the closing, there he was on the front page of the Voice, flipping the bird in a photo by Fred McDarrah.

Graham was a tough guy. Grew up in the Bronx, where he landed at age ten after fleeing Germany and the Holocaust. In the Sixties rock scene he was the man everyone hated, a capitalist building a business out of rock ‘n’ roll freedom. He opened the Fillmore East in 1968 as an extension of his empire in San Francisco. It had been built as a Yiddish theater in 1925, but Graham transformed it into the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll: two triple-bill shows a night, crowds of 2,500, the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, countless Dead shows. If the Sixties revolutionaries thought Bill Graham was a capitalist pig, well, they were in for a rude awakening as the Seventies rolled on.

Before it rolled on much further and the Fillmore closed, I asked Bill if I could take in a show, you know, for old times’ sake. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come by this Friday? We’ve got a good show: Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, and Donny Hathaway.”

I was there. Leon Russell was as hot as he would probably ever get — he’d played with everybody as a session guy in L.A.: Aretha, Sinatra, the Stones. But he’d stepped out into the spotlight leading Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band the year before, and they’d recorded the double album there at the Fillmore East. As for Taj Mahal, he would have been a pleasure to hear anywhere, but especially at the Fillmore, where he could let loose and be himself. I wasn’t that hip to Donny Hathaway, but if Bill said I would dig him, who was I to argue? He was Bill Graham. He would know.

He gave me a couple of house seats — I wasn’t with anyone this time, just by my lonesome reporting on the demise of one of my favorite music haunts, but apparently house seats came in pairs, so I took them and gave one away to somebody with a balcony ticket. I never took my seat anyway, preferring to watch the show from the wings.

I was standing there at the side of the stage, watching the end of Taj’s set, when I felt something poke my left arm.

Bill Graham (left) displays his favorite finger.
Bill Graham (left) displays his favorite finger.

Now, you’ve got to see things as I saw them in order to understand what I’m going to tell you, which is to say you can’t see anything at all. The Fillmore East was utterly dark. No lights at all in the auditorium. None. And the only light on the stage was a pin spot that caught Taj from roughly his neck up. Enough of the spot bled over to the sides that you could make out the six tubas behind him. That’s right: six tubas. Like I said, at the Fillmore, Taj could be Taj, and on this night, Taj was sitting on a stool playing his guitar with six tubas behind him. I felt something bump my elbow and I looked to my left. I couldn’t see a thing back there behind the curtain that was shielding me from the audience. Then I heard Bill’s voice:

Lucian…that you? he whispered gruffly.

Yeah, Bill, I whispered back.

Here, he whispered. Hold Leon for me.

And he handed me Leon Russell, his arms into my arms, just like that. Leon was either drunk or somebody had given him a line of smack or both, but in any case he was dead to the world in every way but actual death. I mean, racked-out. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120, 130, so it wasn’t a big effort taking him from Bill.

I was standing there in the dark — I could see neither Bill nor Leon, you understand — and I whispered, Bill, what am I supposed to do with him?

Shut up, man. A quiet growl. Taj is finishing his set.

We stood there for a moment as Taj finished his last number and the stage blacked out. The Fillmore didn’t have a curtain to hide the changeover between bands. Instead, there were three performing stages on large metal rollers. When one act’s set was over, they would black out the stage, wheel away the first band, and push the stage with the next into position.

At the Fillmore, if you were second or third on the bill, you didn’t get an encore, so that was it for Taj. His set was over. The crowd erupted in applause, but over that sound I heard Bill: Listen to me, he snarled. When Leon’s stage comes into position, I want you to take him out there and put him on his piano bench, understand?

But Bill…he’s asleep!

Just do what I say, he shot back.

So I stood there holding Leon as his stage was maneuvered into position. I couldn’t see a thing. I heard the voice again, this time more of a gruff stage-whisper, the applause for Taj having died down: You know what to do. Just carry Leon out there and put him on his bench.

But Bill, I can’t see anything, I whined. Leon was getting heavier.

I heard the sound of metal wheels on wood grind to a halt. Silence.

Go! came the order. Watch out and don’t trip over the lip of the stage.

But Bill, I protested…


So I stumbled forth, but I still couldn’t see a thing. Bill was back there offering direction — I never understood the meaning of a stage-whisper until that moment — Step up! Now! To your right! A little to your left! You’re almost there!

I could hear musicians off to my right quietly tuning their instruments, and I saw one or two teeny little red lights on the fronts of amps. But nothing else. Then my knees hit the piano bench, and again came that gruff whisper: Put him on the bench!

I eased Leon out of my arms onto his piano bench. His head fell forward and just missed the keys and instead landed on the edge of the piano’s music stand.

I heard Bill’s instructions: Put his hands on the keys! I tried to put his hands on the keyboard, but his long brown hair was in the way, and his hands kept falling back in his lap.

But Bill! He’s asleep!

Stop worrying, do what I tell you, and get your ass back here! The growl was louder now. He was losing his patience. We’ve got a show to put on!

I struggled with the hair and the flopping head and the loose hands, but finally I got Leon’s fingers in the vicinity of the keyboard with his head resting on the music stand and felt my way back toward the wings. Everything was still blacked out and I nearly fell stepping down from the rolling platform. I heard Bill’s mic stand scrape the floor as he stepped out to announce the next act over the PA:

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Leon Russell!

The light-booth guys hit Leon with six giant Super Trouper spots. About fifty zillion lumens rousted him. He began pounding the keys:

She came in through the bathroom window…

With the lights up I could see Bill now grinning at me as he got off the hippest line I ever heard. Ever.




When Bob Dylan Practiced Downstairs

The year was 1974 and things in New York, in a word, sucked. The city was in financial meltdown. Bankruptcy and the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” were only a year away. Maybe the meltdown was part of the reason Bob Dylan was back in his townhouse on MacDougal Street, just north of Houston. He and his wife Sara were on the rocks after almost a decade together. A melting-down city and a melting-down marriage.

At the time, I lived in a $200-a-month loft on the fourth floor of 124 West Houston, on the edge of Soho, then still an industrial wasteland. Dylan had a practice space on the first floor, right around the corner from his MacDougal Street residence. When I’d rented my loft three years before and the landlord informed me that Dylan was on the first floor, I found it completely unremarkable. You read about how Dylan had decamped from New York in those years — first for Woodstock, then Santa Fe, then Malibu — but he was so much a part of the fabric of the city that there was never a sense he’d left. Of course when I rented a loft on Houston Street, Dylan would be in the building.

When you walked in the lobby you could hear him sometimes, composing music and trying out lyrics. There was only a thin Sheetrock wall between Dylan’s studio and the lobby, and Dylan had an upright piano right against that wall. I knew this because I had given him a hand moving amps and other equipment in and out of the studio. One day, on my way to work at the Village Voice, I found a folding chair on the street and stashed it under the stairs so I could pull it out and sit there, inches away from Dylan, and listen to him writing at the piano.

That’s how I first heard him working on something extraordinary in the summer of ’74: the songs that would make up Blood on the Tracks. “Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” “If You See Her, Say Hello.” Our auteur of adolescent angst was trying to put his life back together at the piano.

Dylan had always had a way of distilling being young and living in New York City. His songs piled up images, metaphors, hints about his life. Trying to read into them, we could also read who we were. But this was something entirely different. This was Dylan without the cloak of lyrical mystery. This was how he felt unfettered, who he saw looking in the mirror. He was doing in public something we had all gone through in private — breaking up with a lover, bleeding anger and regret, love and loss, and pain. Lots and lots of pain.

One afternoon I came downstairs and heard him working on something new, so I got out my folding chair and listened. He was writing his midlife masterpiece, “Idiot Wind.” He had that melody down, with its mix of wistfulness and acid resentment, but he was having a hell of a time with the lyrics. He would sing a verse and, dissatisfied, bang his fists on the keyboard. Then he’d take a moment and start again.

He knocked out the refrain quickly, his anger bubbling up in raw bile. “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth.” Vicious stuff. I sat and listened as he struggled with the reckoning, that there wasn’t just one idiot to blame.

Idiot wind

Blowing through the buttons of our coats

Blowing through the letters that we wrote

(Bang bang on the keyboard…another pass…bang bang…what next?)

Blowing through the dust upon our shelves

Then the banging stopped, and — so quietly I could barely hear him through the thin wall — he caressed the keys as he wrote the final lines of the song:

We’re idiots, babe

It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

That fall, the Voice sent me to the Middle East to cover terrorism and various wars. Dylan began recording Blood on the Tracks in September in New York, then redid five of the ten tracks in Minneapolis in December. I returned from the Middle East in January ’75. He released Blood on the Tracks on January 20, to almost universal acclaim — his best album in nearly a decade, since Blonde on Blonde in 1966. I quit the Voice that summer. I was freelancing for magazines, spending quite a bit of time on the road. Then one night when I was back in town, a friend called and told me to come over to the Bitter End (it had been rechristened the Other End then, though it was the same place and they’d change the name back down the line). Dylan was showing up every night around midnight and jamming.

It took us only a short while to realize he was auditioning a band. I heard him telling his friend Bob Neuwirth one night between sets that he wanted to travel the country in a bus, like the country and rhythm and blues guy did. They would call it the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Somehow it was magical and ordinary at the same time. All I had to do was walk around the corner, up Thompson Street to the Bitter End on Bleecker, sit down and order a drink and listen. Joining in were Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, an old friend of Woody Guthrie’s. But Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson was there as well, along with T Bone Burnett — tall and thin, more or less a complete unknown in those days — and Rob Stoner on bass. One night, Dylan sang a song that he’d written that afternoon, “Abandoned Love.” His tone was easygoing, playful, like the Dylan of Freewheelin’, though the lyrics revolved around disappointment. “I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me,” it went. “Won’t you let me in your room one time before I finally disappear?”

A shifting crew of others would come on board as the band took shape: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Ronee Blakley (one of the stars of Robert Altman’s Nashville, which was released that June), and my old pal Kinky Friedman. Some mornings around five o’clock, we would all walk over to my loft at 124 West Houston, and I’d fix eggs and bacon and toast and coffee for the band and they would talk excitedly about the upcoming tour.

Smith and Dylan at the Bitter End. By the end of the year, she would release <i>Horses</i> and he would embark on the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Smith and Dylan at the Bitter End. By the end of the year, she would release Horses and he would embark on the Rolling Thunder Revue.

One night that summer, Patti Smith was at the loft eating leftovers from my dinner, a habit she had gotten into a couple of years before when she was sleeping on sofas around the Village, scrambling, cadging drinks at Bradley’s, trying to make her way as a poet and wanting badly, so badly, to turn it all into rock ‘n’ roll. By that summer, it was happening. She and her band gigged regularly at CBGB, and her first album, Horses, would be released that December.

It got to be about eleven, and I was checking my watch. Patti asked where I was going. I told her about the Rolling Thunder practices at the Bitter End. “Oh, man, can I come?” she asked eagerly. “I’ve never met Dylan. Will you introduce me?” Sure.

So we walked over and I made the introductions in the little backstage room. Patti was then like she is now — gutsy, not to be denied — and Dylan clearly knew who she was. She asked if she could get up with the band. Amused at this seemingly frail waif, Dylan said yes, and after a set break, they huddled onstage, looking for a song they both knew and settling on “Money,” Barrett Strong’s Motown classic. Bob sang backup. Patti sang lead, and man, you could hear that she knew the subject matter — which things are free, and which things cost, and how you can get lost between those two poles. Her heart was up there in her throat, where it’s been ever since.

How could we have known we were sitting there at the Bitter End watching a future National Book Award winner sing “Money” with a future Nobel laureate in literature chiming in on backing vocals?

That fall, the Rolling Thunder crew rented a couple of Winnebagos and started out in small theaters in the Northeast, ending up in front of thousands in arenas and stadiums. I hit the road freelancing. The Rolling Thunder Revue stayed out through the fall and so did I. The next time I heard from Neuwirth was early December. They were in town playing the Garden. I had returned from an assignment just in time to miss their last show and the backstage passes he had left for me. My answering machine was filled with messages from Neuwirth asking where the hell I was, and even more from friends marveling that Neuwirth had announced a song we had written together, which he sang with the rest of the band backing him up.

The next morning, Neuwirth called. They were staying at some hotel uptown. “Hey man! Let’s get together — what are you up to tonight?” I explained I was going to Norman Mailer’s annual Christmas party. “Hey man, I know Norman! I did sound on his cop movie, Wild 90! Can I come with you?” I’d have to ask Norman, I told him.

When I gave Mailer a call, he laughed. “Yeah, I know Neuwirth. He’s the one who screwed up the sound on Wild 90! You couldn’t understand a word anyone said. Sure, bring him along.” No sooner had I called Neuwirth back with the news than the phone rang. Bob wanted to come. He’d never met Mailer. I called Mailer again. A pause. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve never met him.”

“You mean to tell me the two most famous Jews in America don’t know each other?” I asked. Mailer laughed. “I guess if you put it that way, yeah.”

I told Neuwirth to show up at 124 at eight and we’d drive over to Brooklyn Heights together. About 7:30 the doorbell buzzed and I looked out the window. Parked down on Houston was one of the Winnebagos.

Downstairs, the Winnebago door opened and there they were: the whole tour. “Hey,” I said, bewildered, “this wasn’t the deal.” Dylan shot me a sheepish look. “When they found out where we were going, everybody wanted to go. C’mon, man. Everything will be cool.”

So off we went, somehow finding a place to park the bus in Brooklyn Heights. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was about to crash Mailer’s party with the entire Rolling Thunder tour in tow. Dylan and Neuwirth were Mailer’s guests, but the rest of them were with me, and I was responsible. So I stopped before we got off the bus and addressed the whole group. I told them this party was a big deal and there would be no rock-star fucking-around. Don’t insult anyone. Don’t get drunk. No drugs. If anyone misbehaved, I would personally put them back on the bus. I asked if I had made myself understood. There were some very pissed-off looks on some very famous faces, but everyone nodded.

A few minutes later we were filing up the narrow stairs to Mailer’s place. Someone ahead of us was taking the stairs very, very slowly. I was in the lead, Dylan right behind me. A voice came from behind us down the stairs. “Hey, man! Get a move on! Who’s holding up the show?”

I stopped and turned around. “Who said that?” No one raised a hand. “All right, we’re not going another step until I find out who’s the wiseass.” A hand went up. Dylan glared at the guy and said, “That’s Lillian fucking Hellman, asshole. Get back on the bus or go back to the hotel.” Dylan had recognized her from behind. That was my first hint that Bob Dylan, though maybe not in his element, knew the territory.

Mailer greeted us at the door. I wisecracked that the big moment had arrived for the two most famous Jews in America. Tentatively, they shook hands, then Dylan looked up from under his flat-brim tour hat. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I really loved your first book, The Naked and the Brave.” For a split second, Mailer thought he was being put on and his eyes narrowed, and then Dylan looked him full in the face and stuttered, “I meant The Naked and the Dead, man.” Mailer broke into a broad grin and threw an arm affectionately around Dylan’s shoulders as Dylan introduced the rest of the band. Mailer welcomed each warmly, then said, “Come with me, Bob. I’ll introduce you around.”

Dylan was clearly nervous. This may have been the first time in forever that he wasn’t the most famous guy in the room. Over there stood Jackie O. With a single breath she took up half the oxygen in the place. Cus D’Amato was talking with fight promoter Bob Arum, Muhammad Ali having just departed for another party. Joe Heller leaned against the wall over by the bookshelves, and nearby Mario Puzo huddled with Peter Maas, doubtless talking Mob stuff. Over at the bar stood enough literary lions and lionesses to stampede a herd of wildebeests, among them Susan Sontag and E.L. Doctorow.

Eventually someone buttonholed Mailer and he wandered off to greet new guests. For a while Dylan moped around with no one paying much attention to him, until finally he saw a familiar face: Jann Wenner, the founder and editor of Rolling Stone. Dylan accosted him angrily, wanting to know why Wenner had put him on the cover of Rolling Stone rather than Hurricane Carter, the subject of Dylan’s latest hit. I thought for a second Dylan was going to cause a scene, then Jann cut him off so cleanly he might as well have used a scalpel. “Because you sell magazines, Bob, and Hurricane Carter doesn’t.”

A few of the band members were getting bored and started to nag Dylan about leaving. But he blew them off. He was just getting started. It soon became evident, as I observed him across the room, that these literary figures — huge, large, not so large — were heroes of his. He had read and admired their books. Now was his chance to talk with them, ask how they came up with this theme or that allegory, a literary allusion or a particularly rich and memorable descriptive passage. Writers love to talk about themselves and their work, and this was Bob Dylan grilling them! The party went on and on, the lights of downtown Manhattan twinkling across the river. I remember standing for about an hour around 3 a.m. listening to Dylan and Mailer heatedly discuss one of the lesser-known campaigns in World War II.

As we got back on the tour bus at about 5 a.m., Mailer was standing at the door holding a bottle of bourbon, imploring us to stay.

We reached Manhattan and everyone was hungry, so we went to the Bitter End and Dylan banged on the door and woke up Paul Colby, the owner, who lived above the club. He brought in a cook who fixed breakfast for the whole tour. Before we ate, Neuwirth raised a glass and announced, somewhat sarcastically, “Let’s toast The Writer!” This was a nickname he had given me some years before, as a not-so-subtle reminder that I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roller. I didn’t belong up on the stage. All I was was The Writer.

Ironies abound. There were at least a half-dozen major writers at Mailer’s that night, including Mailer himself, who were known to be convinced they deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, a few even subtly campaigning for it every year. To them, Bob Dylan was a pop-culture figure — famous, influential, a singer and songwriter, not one of them. Not a novelist or essayist or poet. Even now the literary ducks are nibbling at Dylan’s ankles as if his songs are somehow a lesser art than poetry. As if it matters.

Most of those literary giants at Mailer’s that night went to their graves still longing for the Nobel they felt had been denied them. And who is our Nobel laureate in literature today?

Bob Dylan. The Writer.

Lucian K. Truscott IV is writing an online memoir:


Long Island Death Metal: Donald Trump Panders to the Middle-Age Wasteland

Donald J. Trump brought his campaign here to the heart of Long Island last week with a huge rally at the old Grumman Aircraft plant on Route 107. But he may as well have taken the night off: He had the 10,000 attendees locked up already. Locked up in the same way they are locked up on a Long Island that long ago lost Grumman and most of its manufacturing base; locked up in service jobs without benefits or union protection; locked up in suburbs that were avatars of the future back in the Fifties and Sixties, but are now fraying at the edges with peeling paint and potholed streets and strip malls featuring nail salons and dojos and we-buy-sell-gold shops. The Teenage Wasteland that Voice writer Donna Gaines chronicled years ago in her classic book set on Long Island has since morphed into a Middle-Age Wasteland, only now it’s only more tattered, more broken, more… wasted.

“The weird thing is, half of my friends from the island could be there at the Trump rally and half could be outside protesting,” said Donna, an old friend, when I spoke with her last week. “Trump is appealing to values that suburbia breeds out of you with separation and alienation. He’s reminding people that things used to be different when they were on top. He’s promising them that they will win again. He’s giving them hope.”

They sure as hell need it. Bethpage used to be the red-hot center of the economy out here. The sprawling Grumman plant with its enormous hangars generated jobs across the island — all the way out to Sag Harbor, where I live. Down on the dock, the Agawam factory used to make parts for Grumman Aircraft; it closed years ago when Grumman did. Tourism stepped in to rescue the economy of the East End of Long Island, but no similar salvation arrived for the West, for places like Bethpage and Ronkonkoma and Babylon. Driving to Bethpage last week, I was hammered by the pathological despair of the sprawl at every exit off Route 27. Used-car dealers offering no-money-down, guaranteed-approval loans cozied up to furniture stores with “SALE SALE SALE” banners so faded you know they’ve been up for years.

Making the turn for Bethpage, you’re within rock-throwing distance of Levittown, which became the very first suburban development in the country when it was thrown up with two-by-fours and plywood after World War II. Then the beacon of a hopeful future, today it’s a suburban backwater among the island’s thousands of other suburban backwaters. You can smell the depressed economy coming from the greasy exhaust fans of the fast-food joints along 107; you can see it in the sparsely filled parking lots in front of the mini-malls. Indeed, you can feel it through the suspension of the car as it bumps and jerks and shimmies over unmaintained streets. This is the place Trump came to last Wednesday to present his vision for the future to his adoring fans, for whom a Trump rally seems to occupy the same mental space as a Slayer concert.

The Donald must have known these were already His People, because he spent not his usual hour-plus but just 37 minutes reminding them of his magnificence and exhorting them with promises to win again and build that wall and get rid of those illegals and keep out all those threatening Muslims.

What he didn’t bother with was the fact that the people he despises are already right here in Bethpage, a few hundred yards from the hangar where he was spreading the word. Right over there, a wife can pick up a salwar kameez for her husband or he can buy her an elegant Gul Ahmed-stitched lawn dress at the Salai Junaid Jamshed Boutique. Across the street is the Madina Kabab House, where you can eat an excellent plate of beef tikka and lamb kofta and spicy brown rice with shredded carrot and raisins; and next door is the Madina Market & Grocery, where the selection of nuts fills a counter about twelve feet long. Riding the shuttle bus to the Trump rally, I heard a couple of guys behind me complaining about how the Mexicans were taking over the pizza joints. “One of them comes up from Mexico and he takes a job washing dishes and a year later he owns the place,” one of them said. “They’re taking our jobs.”

No, dude. They’re taking the storefronts. They’re starting businesses. They’re building the American Dream.

That dream ended at least a generation ago for the Trump fans. These were guys, largely, who came from families with fathers who had good union jobs, who bought the little houses in Levittown, who worked hard and provided for their families. Who got ahead. Last Wednesday, Trump addressed a hangar full of guys, largely, for whom that dream was dead before they were born. So they cheer when he hits his heavy metal high notes about building the wall and running out all those people who are Taking Our Jobs.

But it’s not just about Trump speaking his truth to underemployed white guys. It’s about a physical world that surrounds you, in places like Bethpage, with a palpable sense of doom. I could take a yellow highlighter and draw a line on a map from Bethpage straight through Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Allentown, Harrisburg, Carlisle, and on down through Hagerstown, Winchester, and Roanoke, to Bristol and Knoxville and into Cookeville and Nashville, and every single place that highlighter passed through would look pretty much like Route 107 and the neighborhoods surrounding it.

The middle class has been sold a lot of horseshit over the last 40 years or so — that if you worked hard and played by the rules and increased your productivity and took whatever crumbs the swells brushed from the tablecloth, you would be rewarded with enough of the American Dream to keep you and your kids contented, even happy. But perhaps the biggest bill of goods it was sold was the Bush-named “ownership society,” the fantasy that you could earn enough to own your own little piece of Planet America. But the thing is, owning a house isn’t worth much when the house starts to go to hell and the neighborhood falls apart and you can’t keep shocks on the car because of the potholes at the end of the driveway. If it’s all falling apart, physically, right in front of your eyes, you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to check your bank balance. Hell, you don’t even have to watch Fox News. All you have to do is look around you.

Bethpage is us.


The Masses Are Revolting: Why the Have-Nots in the Hamptons Are Pulling for Trump

Spring has sprung and it’s morning in America out here on the East End of Long Island. Crocuses and daffodils are pushing their way through the grass and along the bay in the boatyards; caulk is filling popped seams in burnished teak decks; bottom paint is being rolled and the bright, sunny air is filled with the thwack-thwack-thwack of nail guns and the screech of circular saws cutting two-by-fours and “renovating” mini-McMansions all over town. But there’s another screech we’re hearing on our televisions and smartphones: the sound of Donald Trump’s fans at his rallies around the country. That sound is getting a lot louder. And more hostile.

Politics is largely a local enterprise in the Hamptons. We have our zoning disputes and our building moratoriums and our fights over how best to control the herds of stunted deer thundering through our towns on tiny hooves, chomping our rhododendrons and denuding our forsythias. Our parochial political battles are normally enough to keep us busy over coffee in the morning and drinks at happy hour. But this year, national politics has invaded our pleasant little corner of the world, and what do you know? A lot of people out here are really, really happy about it. That’s because a lot of people in the Hamptons are supporting Donald J. Trump.

You wouldn’t normally put the words Hamptons and Trump together unless you were wagering on the guest list for a fundraiser at, say, Howard Stern’s East Hampton estate. But these aren’t normal times, and our man Trump is not a normal candidate. And the people supporting him are not to be found out there on the grassy expanses of Hamptons lawn parties. No, you are far more likely to find them, as I have, downtown in Sag Harbor at the LT or the Corner Bar. Trump’s people out here aren’t in the bought-and-paid-for, outright racist 25 percent who responded to his early campaign dog whistles like Labradors in a duck blind. His Hamptonites are by and large male and middle-aged or older, and they work with their hands for a living: They run machines in the factory on the Turnpike, or they paint houses and they repair plumbing; some of them work for the big landscaping companies that trim the Gin Lane hedges and mow Sagaponack lawns. They tend to occupy the next 25 percent, in other words — the people a suddenly gentler Trump is working to win over now, those who feel left out and left behind economically, whose thirst was supposed to be quenched by Reagan’s trickle-down economics but who have been waiting nearly forty years for the first drop to fall.

Many of the people who hire Trump’s legions out here run hedge funds and investment banks and real estate investment trusts. Most are Republicans, very wealthy Republicans, and as we know, these Establishment Swells are not happy with Mr. Trump — a while back they dispatched a well-dressed poodle called Mitt Romney to warn everyone how dangerous he is. But the people who work for Establishment Swells in the Hamptons, they like Mr. Trump a lot. You want to know why? Because after decades of promises and kabuki economics, they’ve figured out that the only trickle that’s ever reached them has been from a busted pipe after a winter freeze at one of the Swells’ summer houses, when they were called in to clean up the mess.

The working guys out here like Mr. Donald J. Trump because he is the only candidate on the Republican side who isn’t going to touch Social Security or Medicare — programs they know work because they’ve watched their parents benefit from them. They like him because while he may be another filthy-rich guy (and boy, do they understand rich guys!), he’s against the trade deals and the tax cuts that have made the rich richer and the working guys madder and, yes, poorer. Inflation-adjusted median household income in this country has dropped 10 percent between 1999 and 2014. Foreign trade with Pacific Rim countries cost 2 million jobs in 2015, god only knows how many million more before that.

But it’s not just the working guys out here in the Hamptons who are responding to Trump’s style of populism. Morning Joe Scarborough, bless his heart, seemed to suffer some kind of seizure on Meet the Press recently when he suddenly blurted out: “It never trickles down!” A bewildered Chuck Todd looked on as Joe continued, “Those people in Trump’s crowds, those are all the ones that lose the jobs when they get moved to Mexico and elsewhere. The Republican donor class are the ones that got rich off of it because their capital moved overseas and they made higher profits.”

I know what you’re going to say. Bernie is against rapacious trade deals and he wants a bunch of pie-in-the-sky dream programs and if Trump weren’t in the race these voters might go for him. But Rubio? Dead. Kasich? Dead. Cruz in his cowboy booties from Texas? You’ve got to be kidding. Trump is a New Yorker. He’s as familiar as the front seat of a pickup. His sentences may be strung together like a maze of copper pipe, but these guys understand copper pipe. His hair may look like a frozen tequila sunrise, but these guys like tequila. And his ego may be the size of New York State itself, but they’ve had their fill of the bullshit that’s been shoveled at them over the past forty years. The working guys out here are sick of watching the Establishment Swells use Citizens United as a garage sale where you go to pick up the occasional used politician. When Trump stands up on a stage and points to his opponents and tells the crowds they are bought and paid for, they know he’s right. When he tells the crowds over and over again that their government is filled with fools who make bad deals, they know he’s right — because the deal they’ve been dealt is the worst one of all. And when he says he can solve government gridlock in Washington because he’s flexible and he’s willing to deal across the aisle, they say let’s give him a chance — nothing else is working.

It’s their party now, Trump’s and his voters’, and every time he wins another couple of primaries and the power brokers wince and whine and plot and plod against him, the guys down at the LT raise a glass to Donald J. Trump. Out here in the Hamptons, the guys who keep the schools running and the pools burbling and the lawns mowed and the hot water flowing want a four-wheel-drive candidate with big, shiny exhausts belching smoke and massive bumpers knocking shit out of the way and giant knobby tires crushing everything in their path, and they are delighted that what’s getting crushed the most is the Republican establishment. The Swells have been shafting them for decades. All they’ve ever done for the working stiffs out here is toss them a few jobs and then make them wait and wait and wait to get paid. They’re tired of waiting. A while back a guy over in Southampton turned himself into a local hero when he decided to stop waiting: He had a landscape business and had been cutting some Swell’s Gin Lane lawn and trimming his hedges and pruning his bushes and the guy just wouldn’t pay up. So one night the landscaper hooked up a disc plow to his tractor and plowed under every inch of that Gin Lane estate, hedge to hedge.

To the guys down at the LT, that’s what Trump is doing to the Establishment Swells. They don’t want him at their lawn party, so he’s plowing them under. Out here in the Hamptons, there are a lot of people who like a guy willing to drive his tractor straight through the establishment. Even if he does have a tequila sunrise on his head.



How Antonin Scalia’s Death (and Life) Is Exposing Cracks in the System

Imagine with me, if you will, a trip through the Halls of Justice: That light down there at the end of the Hall is a door beyond which a long black car awaits. Imagine climbing into its leathery recesses and being driven to a nearby tarmac, where you are greeted by a corporate Gulfstream or Learjet and whisked away, recumbent on still more buttery leather, to capacious hotel suites in Palm Springs and Park City and Napa and Jackson Hole; in San Juan and Sydney and London, Lisbon, and Lima; in Innsbruck and Zurich (three times in the last few years!). And then imagine this: You won’t have to lift a single thick, soft, pink finger in the direction of your wallet, because all your expenses are paid.

Now imagine doing this 258 times between 2004 and 2013 — 23 such jaunts in 2014 alone. You’re wined and dined by wealthy corporate chieftains and partners in powerful D.C. law firms, people like your “friend” C. Allen Foster, a principal in the white-shoe Washington shop of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

You’re often taken on “hunting” trips: After you are led into one West Texas field, game birds are released from nearby pens; you shoot them out of the sky with your expensive shotgun. Back at the baronial “hunting” lodge you enjoy a savory meal prepared by a gourmet chef, followed by dessert and maybe port wine and cigars in big leather chairs next to the roaring fireplace. There you sit, discussing World Affairs and Big-Time Politics with 35 or so other swells, your confreres in a secret hunting society called the International Order of St. Hubertus, a cabal founded in Austria in the 1600s whose motto is “Deum Diligite Animalia Diligentes,” which translates to “Honoring God by Honoring His Creatures.”

Now imagine retiring to the presidential suite and lying back on a king-size bed and crossing your hands on your chest and not waking up. Ever. Imagine having your death certificate signed by someone 65 miles away who never laid eyes on your dead body. Imagine never having an autopsy performed and having your unexamined body spirited away in a silver Cadillac to another jet before making the journey back to that great Hall of Justice, where it will lie in repose until you are hauled away in yet another long car and buried in the ground.


Got all that? Congratulations, you now know what it felt like to be (and then no longer be) the Pope of Capitol Hill, His Honor Justice Antonin Scalia. He earned $220,000 a year yet lived like a Trump — wallowing in a swank, all-expenses-paid lifestyle for his seemingly endless thirty-year tenure on the Supreme Court. The only thing missing was a little white glassed-in Popemobile to ferry him to the fields where he did his killing. And all he had to do in exchange for this life of marble and gilt was sit there swaddled in his black vestments and produce reasons for voting the way he was expected to vote.

Scalia’s benefactors were doubtless pleased by his career on the Court, but they sure as hell aren’t pleased with his unexpected passing. Justice All Expenses Paid heard Gabriel’s trumpet precisely one year too soon for their tastes. After all, the person tasked with appointing his successor is a black man the St. Hubertus types have no respect for and whom they do not trust; meanwhile, the person most likely to be the GOP’s nominee to replace him is a bloviating bivalve whom they trust and respect even less, if that’s possible.

In truth, however, they are impaled on the horns of a dilemma created nearly 250 years ago. Think about it. Practically our entire system is a series of gigantic rolls of the dice, depending on elections to fill the two main bodies through which we exercise self-governance and do stuff like nominate and confirm Supreme Court justices. And although there was a lot of high-minded speechifying and writing by the Founding Fathers about the necessity of a well-informed electorate, as we can see — daily — this concept has been completely jettisoned by at least one of our political parties. “I love the poorly educated!” burbled Trump last week.

Last Thursday’s debate showcased the party’s race to the bottom in its scramble for gullible dummies. The Washington Post has been using the Flesch-Kincaid grade level index to measure the speeches given by candidates: After the South Carolina primary, that analysis put Trump at a fifth-grade level, Rubio at eighth grade, and Cruz, the Harvard man, way up there at ninth grade. The same assessment done after the Nevada caucuses had Trump at a second-grade level. On February 25 the Donald redeemed himself, climbing a full grade level. Asked how he would deal with expelling so-called illegal immigrants, Trump explained: “They will go out. They will come back. Some will come back.” He then reprised his nuanced position that “We will make America great again!” Again. And again. And again.

[pullquote]Our republic depends on who gets to appoint the next justice.[/pullquote]

The point has been made before that the Republican Party has by tradition had little patience with the democratic process. So what do you do when you don’t trust the process and you want to win at all costs? You put in the fix. Indeed, the recent history of the GOP is a series of blatant attempts to short-circuit the electoral process, from the passage of so-called voter ID laws in state after Republican state to the cynical gerrymandering of congressional districts to safeguard their margins. And now we have the devolution of political rhetoric to the level of schoolyard taunts soaked in blatant appeals to racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

There is only one teensy little weakness in this plan to turn the elections into a Republican casino where the house always wins: demographics. It is one of the delicious ironies of American political life that the Republican primaries are exposing older, white, undereducated, angry voters as not just the “base” of the party, but the party itself. There aren’t that many of them now, and there will be fewer and fewer of them as the years and decades tick by. And the demographic scale is a lot harder to fix than a Florida vote count. Its numbers are fixed on a higher plane. Cemeteries will swallow up one older angry white voter after another. Immigration will swamp reactionary Republican chances by polluting the electorate with more and more and more brown and black people who cannot be trusted to vote the way the angry white guys want them to vote. Trump promises to Round Them Up and Send Them Back, to Keep Them Out by building a wall across our southern border, but not even Trump can build a wall tall enough to stem that inexorable tide.

The Republicans know there remains at least one place in our little-R republican system where scale-tipping is easy as pie. The firewall they have been working on building for about thirty years is around our third branch of government, the courts, and most importantly the Supreme Court. They have done this by appointing water carriers like Justice All Expenses Paid to do their bidding. This is why you saw the temper tantrum thrown less than an hour after Justice Scalia was pronounced dead. Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell’s pledge that the upper chamber would not take up any nominee for the Court put forth by President Obama tells you everything you need to know about the way the Republican Party intends to deal with its inevitable demographic demise. They’re going to try to do what they do best: put in the fix.

They’ve been at this since they tried to put Robert Bork on the Court back in 1987. And the subsequent results speak for themselves: In Shelby County v. Holder, they negated the only clause in the Voting Rights Act that had any teeth. In Citizens United, they loosed corporate and big- donor money into the political system. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supremes upheld an appeals court ruling overturning a ban on handguns in the federal city (a ban that had fed the right-wing delusion that what guns really protect you from isn’t a burglar or mugger but your own government, as it tries to take them away). They opened the door to weakening the First Amendment with a decision in the Hobby Lobby case that pretty much allows you to invoke religion to justify not following the law. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber, they severely limited the ability of workers to sue employers under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In Walmart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, they refused to certify a class-action suit by 1.6 million women claiming gender discrimination in hiring and promotion. And they are poised to take on two issues we have thought for decades to have been settled: the right of workers to form unions and bargain for wages and working conditions and the principle of one man, one vote.


The cover of the March 2, 2016, <i>Village Voice</i>
The cover of the March 2, 2016, Village Voice

And they’re just getting started. Obamacare, Social Security, Medicare, Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage, civil rights — the list of their targets is precisely as long as the progressive agenda. It was Scalia, you’ll recall, who recently suggested from the bench in a case on affirmative action that black students might do better going to colleges that are less challenging than, say, the University of Texas. It’s a certainty that a Republican dream court will keep capital punishment in place — and as long as you’re killing these guilty bastards, what’s wrong with torturing them beforehand if it’s all done in the name of “national security”?

The Supreme Court is the Republican Party’s kind of democratic institution. It isn’t subject to those dumbass voters you have to cozy up to every couple of years. It’s not answerable to anyone except itself. All you have to do is load it up with a few more gun-totin’ zealots like Scalia, a man charged with defending the division of church and state who couldn’t help braying about his Catholic faith even as he was deciding cases like Hobby Lobby in favor of the religious faithful on spurious constitutional grounds.

If we ever needed a mass movement in this country, it’s now. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of our republic depends on who gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, and the one after that, and the next one, too. If we don’t stand up for ourselves now, we may as well sit back and watch this country fade away into a miasma of decay, corruption, military intervention abroad, and xenophobic hostility at home. We’ll be letting the angry white guys dictate where this country is going for the next two or three decades — and that would be a dark and dangerous place. It’s time for a general strike and a march on Washington. It’s time for shoes on the ground.



Donald Trump and the Joys of Toy Fascism

It’s scallop season again here on the East End of Long Island. Out on the Peconic you can see solitary fishermen in small boats with low gunwales assiduously dragging the bay bottom with iron-tongued dredges that scoop up scallops and deliver them to bushel baskets, whence they make their way to our frying pans bubbling with butter, thence to our mouths, where they deliver a salty sweetness quite unlike any other. It’s a magical time. The sun is low, but what little light there is gives everything a gentle, wintry feel. People have talked about the light out here on the East End for decades. They say it’s why artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella and more recently Nathan Joseph and David Slater and Tracy Harris settled out here. I’m not an artist, so I wouldn’t know, but it is said that this light offers a special way of seeing colors. In the summer, they sparkle; now, as winter sets in, they glow.

The light might not have much to do with why the rest of us ended up out here, but the way of life does. This time of year, it’s slow. People wander the narrow streets of Sag Harbor following dogs as they sniff their way through the fallen leaves. Downtown, the chairs and tables of the sidewalk cafés have been stored away in basements, and happy hours at the bars and restaurants flood the sidewalk with yellow light as night falls. You can even find parking spaces on the main streets of Sag Harbor! Out on Scuttle Hole Road, the blue and green potato trucks are parked next to their potato barns, the last harvest of the season having taken place a couple of weeks ago. A few weeks back I saw a sign over on the North Fork announcing, “Last Turnips Day — Get Yours Now!”

But as usual, politics roils the waters. Over in East Hampton, locals are fighting the hideous racket made by the Gulfstreams and helicopters of hedge-funders who reside behind hedges as they text Loaves & Fishes to deliver $100-a-pound lobster salad to their shingled McMansions. Here in Sag Harbor, locals have seized control of the city council and the architectural review board has passed a building moratorium in an attempt to rein in the millionaires, who have been “renovating” the village into something akin to a gated community in a suburb of San Diego — with the real estate prices and political leanings to match.

Over in Amagansett on Further Lane and out on the beach in Sagaponack there are doubtless some swells who are filling the bank accounts of the super-PACs and presidential campaigns, but we get only occasional glimpses of them as they exit their Audi R10s and sweep into the American Hotel with Very Expensive Leggy Blondes on their arms. Perhaps with all their “very serious political connections” they know more about what is going on out there beyond our bucolic musings and parochial preoccupations. But even the nail-pounders and wrench-twisters and fishermen and farmers and writers out here have a sense that the politics of the nation are exuding an unfamiliar stench: Fascism is in the air. It’s a special kind of gold-plated fascism, a fascism with a special orange color, a fascism with special turned-out lips, a fascism with a special voice, a fascism in a special shiny suit, a fascism that rides around in special big black cars and flies around in special big private jets, a fascism that arises not from ideology but from a special sort of privilege and a special sort of resentment unique to New York City: outer-borough resentment. In short, it’s from Queens and it’s Donald Trump’s kind of fascism. It’s Toy Fascism.

Everything about Trump is toy. He has Bratz girlfriends and Barbie Doll wives with very long legs and very tiny waists and very large breasts. He plays G.I. Joe when he talks about ISIS. His buildings are glass-enclosed Erector Sets. His Miss Universe pageant was always a double-A farm team for the Big Leagues of the Trump Bedroom. Even his books are toys — volumes of pretend “writing” sandwiched between covers intaglioed with a pancaked, hairspray-drenched Trump. In an age of rock-star politics, Trump is the John Mayer of presidential candidates. He opens the squared circle of his little mouth and what comes out bears as much resemblance to American statecraft as Mayer’s lovelorn reveries do to rock ‘n’ roll. Turning on the TV and finding Trump at a rally is like going to a Rolling Stones concert and discovering Journey on the stage. Your brain seizes up and you hear a voice in your head screaming, Can this be real? And you actually hear an answer: No! No! It can’t be!

But it is. It’s the “Trump” we’ve seen for all these years on the covers of his books, on the Page Sixes of the tabloids, oozing his way into our living rooms in color on our televisions. He’s not a real live breathing human being with stuff like sweat glands and the occasional stubble of a beard, even a teeny doubt in his mind. No, what we are watching every day is a “pageant Trump,” and it’s why the national political press has been so confused. Covering him is like covering the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It’s supposed to be hot and sexy and fun and irresistible, but it turns out to be just a bunch of pneumatic posing — all feathers and sequins and nylon and cheap lace from China, as sexless as one of Trump’s silent wives.

The pundit class has been having a really, really hard time with him, haven’t they? Every time they’ve got Trump “figured out,” every time they think they’ve finally nailed him, he slithers from their grasp, boards his private jet (don’t you wish Trump’s lips were stenciled on the tail, the way the Stones’ lip-logo spat its attitude from their touring plane?), and flies away to yet another rally that is sure to be crowded with frothing fans carrying Magic Markers in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Please, Mr. Trump! Sign my chest! Let me get a selfie next to your orange scowling face!

The so-called pundit class is having a problem with Trump for a very simple reason. He corresponds to no one they’ve ever known in politics. His campaign corresponds to none they’ve ever covered. His voters aren’t supporters. They are followers. Fans. They don’t respond to him politically. They don’t listen expecting to hear positions or policies. What they expect to hear is the orchestral swoon of political arena rock — the power-chord promise and vibrato-vectored big sound of greatness! I’m the biggest! I’m the best! I’m the wealthiest! I’m the American Idol! The pundits get nowhere when they try to convey the hollow empty soullessness of it all, because you can’t tell the truth about John Mayer. You can’t make an argument against a fan’s taste. All you can do is stand back and gape in abject amazement as they line up to buy the T-shirts and the lapel buttons and Trump Red Ties, as they sit for Frank Luntz–led focus groups and expound on how nothing matters but Trump. Not politics. Not policy. Not truth. Not logic. Not the guy pulling the strings behind the screen of the reality show they’re watching. Just the guy who’s winning. Just Trump. The busiest guys at the big Trump rallies have to be the guys at the door shaking everyone down for Confederate flags. It’s OK to pound on the occasional Black Guy. It’s OK to scream like banshees when the word Muslim is flung from the stage like a lightning bolt. Racism is OK when it’s thinly veiled. But the Trump people must live in total fear of the night all the networks show a few Confederate flags flying out there in fan-land. It’s the big no-no, because it would give the pundits a window they could actually see through. No Confederate flags…but keep watching. Trump’s toy fascism is only a whisker away from the real thing.

So far, Trump has been able to carry it off. He’s stirring up the masses with outrage. He says something outrageous, and his fans parrot him with outrage of their own. Then he escalates the outrage. He says John McCain is a pansy, and the pundits are shocked, but then it’s OK. Then he wants to register Muslims, and the pundits haul out their pocket Constitutions and wave them around, and then that’s OK. Then he promises to bring back waterboarding, and the pundits loose the dread words George W. Bush at him like poison arrows — and waterboarding goes back down the memory hole. Now he wants to ban all immigration by Muslims, and a couple of Ivy League law professors write op-eds saying it might not be all that illegal. Once again, the pundits have put down their pens.

But you have to wonder — stop me if you’ve heard this before — how much longer he can pull this off, how much further he can take it. A recent poll reveals that something like 65 percent of Republicans think barring all Muslim immigration is a wonderful idea. I am beginning to think that you could get 65 percent of Republicans to agree to almost anything, and Trump knows this deep down in his soul. What’s his next level of outrage? Is he going to suggest arresting suspicious Muslims because they look like they might be planning a terrorist attack? Is he going to suggest holding people behind bars without charges? Is he going to advocate that the shoot-on-sight tactics used by inner-city police forces against black youths be used on itinerant Muslims simply because they’re seen walking down the street in a heavy jacket that might be concealing a suicide vest? Again, when, exactly, does Trump’s toy fascism become the real thing?

He has begun to use one of the classic tactics of real fascism already. Trump comes up with fake problems and then presents fake solutions. Remember Syrian refugees? The biggest danger to our nation since Ebola! Easy fix! Ban all Syrian refugees! Meanwhile, the visa system appears to be having real problems, since one of the San Bernardino terrorists got in on a so-called “fiancée visa.” But do you hear any solutions from Trump? Not a peep.

What’s getting lost in all of this Trump-driven panic about Muslims is what Christians (in the main) are doing every single day. According to PolitiFact, 24 Americans have been killed by terrorists in the past decade. Two terrorists killed fourteen in San Bernardino. It’s being called the first terrorist attack since 9-11. Twenty-four dead in fourteen years.

Meanwhile, more than 300,000 people died in this country by gun violence over the past decade — either homicide, suicide, or accidents. That’s 4,000 times as many deaths from gun violence as terrorism. There have been more gun deaths since 1968 than in all of our wars since 1776. 1,396,755 died in our wars. 1,516,863 died by gun violence in the U.S.A. In 2013, more preschoolers (82) than police (27) were killed by gun violence.

Trump is whipping up a frenzy over fourteen deaths when guns wielded by American citizens have quite literally taken hundreds of thousands of lives over the past decade.

His prescription of forbidding Muslims from entering the country does not address the problem we have with people getting killed every single day — Americans using American guns to kill other Americans. Where is Trump’s solution to this very real problem? Hiding out somewhere under that hair-helmet, apparently.

This is the problem with his toy fascism: toy solutions to toy problems, but when real problems arise demanding real solutions? Nothing.

Trump is the Wonderbra of American politics. He pushes everything Up and Out and In Your Face. But you know what’s left when the Wonderbra comes off, don’t you?

Donald J. Trump sure as hell does.

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