How Jim Bouton Lost His Fastball and Found Inner Peace

At nine on a damp Wednesday morning I ride the empty subway to Shea Stadium to watch Jim Bouton throw his improved knuckleball. A couple of you may not know that Jim Bouton is adorable and beloved and presents the sports news on CBS at 11 every weeknight with a winning blend of ragged directness, muscular intelligence, moral fervor, political conviction, maverick independence, and waggishness. My friend Martin says that Jim Bouton is endearing and seems to take chances. My cousin Jonathan says Bouton is refreshing, a jock who realizes there’s more to life than the stupid game of his choice. My friend Rhoda says that Bouton’s politics are good and he has a neck as big as her thigh. At a party a married couple say to me in unison: “Oh, Jim Bouton.” What’s his appeal? My analyst says: “He’s a regular person.” On television Jim appears to be wearing hairspray, but he may be doing that to make an ironic comment on our society.

In 1963 and 1964, his peak, Bouton pitched 41 winning games for the Yankees, twice in the World Series. When he retired five years ago he had just finished losing two games for the Oklahoma City farm club of the Houston Astros. His book Ball Four was out then, generating controversy, seeming to betray the trust of certain teammates, causing the baseball commissioner to hop back and forth from one foot to the other with rage, getting good reviews, and selling well. Bouton was 31 and a marginal player, quitting to enter what he called “the communications field.”

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At Shea Stadium a thin man loudly promises to introduce me and unlocks the waiting-room door. I share the room with some amenities, luxuriant plastic philodendrons in a wall planter, and assorted chairs. Bouton when he arrives his blue CBS baseball uniform looks rather slight and very tidy, like a well turned out child. We walk through the locker room, where several half-dressed men croak out obligatory challenging laughs. “Our ultimate fantasy,” Bouton says to me, looking cheerful and mannerly. “A girl in the locker room, with the linament and everything.”

In the dugout Bouton says he got through every spring by telling in himself that someday he’d be back in baseball. In Canada during vacation he felt his knuckleball in his fingertips. In August he played in Oregon — with the Portland Mavericks, “a sort of dirty dozen” — and did okay. Today he’ll pretend to show his colleagues his pitch while playing a mock game and making a little film piece, basically about himself, for his spot at eleven. Many may know — because Bouton has often mentioned — that he learned the knuckleball from instructions on a cereal box when he was 10. He’d like to try to go back to baseball — not for 10 years, maybe for a year or two even if in the minor leagues — “to satisfy the things I want to satisfy inside myself.” He made a few calls around for the spring, to the Yankees, the Mets, and the Phillies, none of whom had called back yet.

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Shea Stadium circles around and above us, broad and empty, the rows of seats banked up in sections of pale color, then the panel of blinding lights, then the gray sky. Various CBS softball players and a couple of former big-league players in uniforms start throwing balls around. “Keep em up, Jim, I haven’t got my cup,” says the umpire, looking enormously pleased. “Cup is your, the inset that you wear in your supporter,” Bouton says to me, rapping himself in the groin. “Got a cup?” a man calls over the field. “Got a saucer?” A woman sits in the dugout and slings her arm around former big-leaguer Duke Carmel’s beefy shoulders and fingers the back of his haircut. “We treat nice girls nice,” says Duke Carmel. Bouton sits on the bench and pulls down his pants to palpate his pulled muscle. Duke Carmel pats Ron Swoboda’s velour behind. From the dugout the men are small on the field but their faces are clear. This must be it, the baseball world, the famous cool sweet simplicity out here, the ball thudding with a light sound into the mitts, the grass, the space, the wide sky, the rough genial heartbreaking camaraderie, the men like boys. The planes arcing overhead are deafening. Jim Bouton looks around with a look of sweet distracted happiness. “These guys just wanted to come out to Shea and horse around,” he says. “Did you guys order a crowd? Hey, Ron, is there a plaque in the turf in right center field commemorating your World Series catch? Recessed in the grass? Hey, Ron, when was that catch? I mean the time of day and all that?”

Bouton gives me his wedding ring to hold, inscribed: The Greatest Thing… Love 12/12/62. He tells me about growing up. So small in the fifth grade he had his own little white uniform. Everybody else wore gray. He thought he was going to be a midget, he looked like the batboy. He wasn’t like those guys like Tom Seaver, who grew up as stars, who knew they were going to be good, they just didn’t know how good. Big strong kids. They didn’t know whether to be good big-leaguers, or great big-leaguers, or great minor-leaguers. For Bouton all that was beyond dreams, and when he made the team it was a wonder. A wonderland. His first day with the Yankees he put on his Yankees uniform and came out and sat there in the dugout for two hours all alone, smiling at the pigeons.

Bouton looks dreamily out over the field at Ron Swoboda. “I had a lotta traumatic experiences in high school,” he offers, watching Swoboda. He was a three-sport star in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “about to realize my high school greatness,” when his father was transferred and he found himself the south side of Chicago full of big, black, mature kids: “Everybody was big, The whole school. They called me warmup Bouton. They’d bring in the left fielder to pitch, the right fielder, the catcher, somebody would come outta the stands and pitch, and I would warm up. I was Warmup Bouton. The most miserable year of my life.

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“I thought I couldn’t do anything. In the summer all the kids played ball and I worked at the A&P. In the back, stamping prices on cans of peas.” He pumps his fist up and down from the elbow, stamping cans in the air, bitterly grinning. “Two for 35 on the baby food. I was really down.”

Bouton pitches until he gets three pictures of Swoboda striking out, and Swoboda interviews Bouton on the field. I throw the ball with three fingers, Bouton tells him, because I was 10 when I learned it off the back of a cereal box.

Jim Bouton and I walk to his car, a little Renault. He strolls around to my side to open the door. “This is a funny car,” he says, “You have to unlock it from this side. I’m not being polite.”


At CBS Ron Swoboda and Jim Bouton lean in their chairs in a little darkened interior room to screen today’s film. On the wall, a bleached color picture of Swoboda repeatedly swinging, sometimes hitting, whirling, bulging, incredible. Fuck and shit, Swoboda and Bouton yell, fucking camera didn’t follow the ball! They sound outraged and look cheerful, staring and side by side. Below the picture of Swoboda steadily swinging, a television set is on with the sound off, so that as Swoboda whirls, pale and powerful, Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in a high headdress slumps in her massive throne, small and willful and defeated, in black and white. Turns her eyes down. Takes the delicate slowly slithering asp in her hands and places it on her white breast almost with a look of welcome. Her handmaidens, broken with grief, rest their bent curly heads on her knee. The gates shudder with the battering ram of Cleopatra’s enemies. Shit and fuck, shitfuck, fuckshit, Bouton and Swoboda shout to the moving picture, as Claudette expires: “Overexposed! Overexposed!”


Bouton in his office gives an interview. “Tennis players!” he yells into the phone. “The lineman makes a bad call, they go into the locker room in a huff! They grew up on country clubs! They grew up on canapés, these guys! Hors d’oeuvres! They’re really not real athletes! I mean, be honest, you take the starting lineup of the Cincinnati Reds, or any basketball team, Dave DeBusschere and those guys, if all those guys spent the same amount of time on the tennis court do you really think that those big-time tennis players would’ve winded up being the best tennis players? Right. They wouldn’t be. They’d be home in tears. It’s Ping-Pong! It’s just big Ping-Pong outdoors…

“No. Nobody disparages hockey players. Not even Sumo wrestlers. (Hehheh) There’re a lot of things to admire about a hockey player, they earn their pay… Jesus, I dunno, these sound like essay questions. I dunno what Shakespeare would say about hockey.”

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Bouton is at the rodeo rehearsal at Madison Square Garden filming himself riding a Brahma bull. He says he loves the way people respect you when you try to do what they do. With these great cowboys, he loves the look they get in their eyes, their accents, the way they giggle and poke each other. While he’s doing it, he says they welcome him. He feels like a cowboy himself.

Inside the Garden the arena floor has been taken down to dirt, and three little buffalo loiter in a corner while a small orchestra thumps out “Careless Love.” Bouton has been lowered onto the back of the bull, let out of the gate, and smashed onto the ground within three seconds. He sits in the locker room with his wife, Bobbie, and his three kids and their two little friends, on a bench next to the hanging rows of brilliant scarlet and green satin shirts of the cowboys, looking pale and fragile and happy. He is waiting for somebody to tell him where they keep the soap and towels. He keeps telling everybody what one cowboy said about the mud on his Western shirt: “Whah, Jayim, that thair’s clean boolshit, that ain even hit th’ ground yayet.”

In the car four kids and I crush together hotly in the back. Bouton’s daughter Laurie rides backward in the front seat gazing in my face. Michael, who is 11, comments on the scene: “Those two old men turned their heads when that lady walked by. And wasn’t even too pretty either. Hey, topless! My kind of show!” Michael tells me about his father, for my article: “He was born in St. Barnabas, was it? St. Bernard. He grew up dreaming to be a baseball player. He got his dream and he couldn’t believe it. And now he can’t believe it either: He can’t pitch anymore. He’s trying to get back. That’s the story of his life.”

At Roosevelt Hospital Bouton is wincing, smiling, and moving carefully. Emergency rooms, he says, remind him of a Nichols and May routine. “Age?” a man says through a glass partition. “36, going on 12,” says Bouton, leaning on the man’s windowsill, full of grace under pressure.

Jim Bouton is at a nice low level of celebrity where people don’t rip off his arms and legs but where he is recognized often enough so that he moves freely around a friendly city. He very much enjoys being recognized. Outside CBS, a short round black man in a flowered shirt blocks our path. He looks up into Bouton’s face with a tender glance. “The baseball man?” he says. “You that — baseball man?” He shakes Bouton’s hand. He walks along next to us, leaning in and reaching across Bouton to hold his hand. He hugs Bouton, wrapping his arms about his body with gentle confidence and lowering his head to lean it against Bouton’s chest as we walk along. Bouton waggles his fingers and protests in murmurs as he and his fan and lover dance together down the sidewalk, but his fan never understands that Bouton’s chest hurts, and he relaxes his embrace only after he conveys to Bouton that he loves him.

Jim Bouton takes a shower. He carries his shoes and hairdryer and I carry some clothes on hangers to help him because some cartilage has pulled away from some bone in his chest. We find a dressing room for “As the World Turns,” with a fuzzy orange carpet, a round sink, a black leather couch, and bed. I take off Jim Bouton’s tooled leather pointy-toed cowboy boots he got at the rodeo last year. I unwrap his wide Ace bandage, rolling around and around his chest, bumping his helping fingers, dropping the little silver clips on the rug. I feel warm and protective and safe and nervous. He needs me, but not much. He is hurt, but only slightly. A direct, decent, vigorous man, vulnerable yet comfortable in the world. A devoted outsider like me. Jumpy with chutzpah. Also once a short boy. They always had a touching quality and terrific intensity and drive, and humor, and a soupcon of totally understandable ruthlessness. When grown they recall their childhoods. I never met a formerly short man I didn’t like. He pads to the bathroom, grimacing and limping almost imperceptibly in a delicately understated and aesthetically pleasing way, as I reach a pitch of quiet sexual agitation. I have been reassured by meeting his calm wife, his friend for half his life. She ignored me. I have been cheered by meeting his children, spirited, brace, truth telling, sloppily dressed, unrepressed. I felt legit. I yearned to be part of that family, back there in the steamy car, riding, Jim Bouton my patient father and husband and lover. “I’ll meet you after,” I say, glancing around as if deranged. Bouton grunts. “Up to you,” he says from the bathroom. “I could change in here.”

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Bouton often says that he enjoys things. I enjoy signing autographs, he says. Being well-known. I enjoy crude jokes, locker room humor: Somebody calling somebody a dildo, stuff like that. About beaver-shooting, going up on a roof and spying on women, or the tape recorder under the bed: It’s a traveling world, Bouton says, the world of the salesman, of the Shriners on convention in Des Moines. It’s the world of any man when he’s out of town and with his peer group. Not a male thing, a group thing. I admit that was part of the attraction for me. I admit I miss that. It was humorous. I would never by myself go up on the roof of a hotel, I’d feel — weird; none of us got sexually excited by anything we saw, it was just — the funny bizarre nature of it, our being in a group and all of us doing it together. I could go back to it, very definitely.

I enjoy trying to do the things that other people can do, Bouton says. Bullfighting, oh, Christ, was that exciting. I was so frightened I could hardly operate. That’s what makes it interesting, to see if you fear is so great that you can’t function.

I enjoy cutting film, he says, I enjoy the pure abstract concentration of ball playing, the making the mind blank, the instinctive movement. Enjoyed acting. Enjoyed being a delegate at the 1972 convention, it was an intense emotional experience and I felt like I was part of something important. Caucusing. Making deals. Smoke-filled rooms. Some radicals.

I enjoy being the underdog, Bouton says. You have to’ve been the underdog and prevailed to know how satisfying that can be.

Overall, of course, what Bouton enjoys is the company of other men. He has always thought about Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner and all those people: “Your Show of Shows!” Those funny funny men! God, he would’ve loved to be a part of that group.

Women’s liberation, Bouton thinks, will mean women being able to get that same incomparable group experience for themselves. Germaine Greer already told me my book treated women as sex objects, he says to me. I told Germaine Greer that women use men sexually as much as men do women, one-to-one. On the road, we were the ones who wanted the meaningful relationships! The girls were coming up to our rooms and comparing our performances and grading us against hockey players and basketball players and keeping diaries — we were being used! But women should be able to travel in groups and horse around together too. I’d love to see that. Once they can talk openly about sex with their girlfriends, the next logical step is comparing notes, and the next logical step is to — I would wish that for them.

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Over and over Bouton has love being a brave amateur learning from pros. It makes for great funny dialogue, he says, looking incredibly pleased: “Naaow, dohn grab the hohwns, naaow, Jayim.” In fact Bouton even loved the way his wonderful father used to intercede for him with his mother. Loved being on the same basketball team with his brothers. Loved setting up bowling pins with his brother 20 years ago, throwing in a pin to give some lady a strike, speeding up incredible goddamned dragging slow ladies night.

You insist on being a maverick, I say, but to me you look exactly like one of the boys.

They wouldn’t say I’m one of the boys,” he says. “I was always — I was a Communist! The only reason I’m one of the boys now is that I was successful: instead of being weird, you become ‘eccentric.’ I’ve felt comfortable even though I didn’t fit in, just being around, just being part of the scene, even though they didn’t accept me totally. I don’t need to be accepted totally. I’ve always liked them more than they liked me.”


‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’

‘Let’s Get a Rip Torn Type’
March 27, 1969

If you want to laugh at an actor named Rip Torn, that’s your problem. Born Elmore Torn 37 years ago in Temple, Texas, he was nicknamed Rip around the house as a kid. Grown up, he sees no reason to change it just because it reminds some people of Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. He knows how good he is.

Rip is also the most paranoid man I’ve ever met, so paranoid that after receiving his second “Obie” in a row for directing Michael McClure’s The Beard — the first was for the role of Marion Faye in Norman Mailer’s Deer Park — he suspected it was all because the CIA was setting him up for some sinister purpose.

“ ‘Have you seen Hud?’ Paul Newman asked me after it was released. ‘I hope you like it,’ Newman said, ‘because Hud is you.’

“I didn’t think that was too funny. I was broke as usual at the time and I thought Paul might at least have laid a percentage on me. Also, if I ever wanted to make a western, everybody would say I was doing a Newman number. But when I saw it, it wasn’t me at all. I told Paul, ‘I’m a very complicated guy — I can only get about 10 per cent of me, how come you think you can get it all?’ ”

We are in a room which, if it were together, would be his study. Books, records, beer cans, overflowing ash trays, sporting equipment, and excess furniture clutter everywhere. It is dark and needs a painting. Looking out through battered and crooked black rimmed glasses, Rip reminds me of a shy, vulnerable little boy with insensitive parents, looking for empathy.

The sign over the bell says “TORN PAGE.” He and Geraldine occupy three floors of a brownstone which they just purchased (with her money the rumor goes) in the West 20s. They have three children: Angelica, five, and four-year-old twins, Jonathan and Anthony. The house is a swept, lived-in mess geared for kids. There are crayon scrawls all over the walls, toys in every corner and underfoot.

As a young boy, Rip loved to go fishing. One day he had no bits and, when his line tangled on a rock, he pretended it was a fish — gritting his teeth, bracing himself, fighting it acting it out. A group of people across the stream started shouting encouragement: “You can get him, boy… hold on now… you can bring him in…”

“Not catching any fish isn’t so bad if you enjoy fishing,” Rip says.

At 16, he and a bunch of Texas buddies went through a season of playing the “coon game” across the tracks, hitting black cats on the head with socks full of bars of soap.

The expression “red-ass” started in Texas A and M, military college. “It gives me the red-ass,” they say in the army. Rip remembers his backside looking “like oozing plasma” from being hazed with shaved down baseball bats. Texas A and M teaches a man how to make pain. Manhood through brutality. Can you take it, boy? “End as a Man.” Rip learned fast. After two years he dropped out.

Believing firmly in Louella Parson’s vision of Hollywood, he hitched there. He had grown up with weapons and thought nothing of the unlicensed pistol in his pocket. Arriving in L..A., and mistaking it for civilization, he went to the police station to turn it in, asking them to certify that it was his so he could ship it back to Texas for safekeeping.

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Instead he was booked and charged with eight unsolved robberies committed with the same type weapon. He in no way resembled the suspects, but it took two days in jail to clear the matter up, and then they confiscated his pistol. That was Rip Torn’s welcome to Hollywood. It’s enough to make a guy paranoid.

The first Hollywood party goes like this. Scott Brady was starring in Light Up the Sky at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. A little man was trying to change a tire on a big car in front. Rip helped him. The guy was the set designer at the theatre and invited him backstage. There he met Scott Brady and went to his party. He got completely bombed like everybody else and passed out with an unconscious girl on top of him. It might have become a real orgy if everybody hadn’t started retching, groaning, and puking all over the place. The hors d’oeuvres, it turned out, were tainted.

He sold magazines on the road. “I was good at it. I’d knock on the door and say, ‘Hi.’ Then I’d just stand there — no pitch or anything — and there would be this silence. The woman might say something like, ‘Oh, I know, you’re Louie’s boy aren’t you?’ I’d say, ‘No ma’am, I’m one of the boys from the district high school.’ I’d tell her that I had only 20 minutes to win this watch. I talked faster and faster and of course she bought something. Then I’d ask if she had a friend who could help and… It was terrible.

“I got fed up. I was selling this family in Salt Lake City. They were interested in me on a truly human level — nice people. I finally said, ‘Look, you don’t want these magazines. What do you need $35 worth of magazines for?’ I walked out of their house and tried to get involved again. The next customer was a little old lady who reminded me of my grandmother. I always like to talk to old people anyway — see what’s on their minds. She made me a lemonade and I sat on her rocking chair and we talked. I decided to quit right then.

“I hitched some more; down to Mexico, I was a chauffeur in L.A. for a while, a counterman. I was a plumber and really had my hands in shit… By the time I got back home, I was in such bad shape my own mother didn’t recognize me. I hadn’t eaten in three days. ‘Lady, do you have any yard work?’ I said as a joke. She didn’t even know who I was.”

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“Hey Ripper! Good to see ya, boy. How the hell are ya?” Coming out of McGinnis’s Broadway restaurant, Rip is greeted by Pat Hingle’s Texas twang. They embrace.

Hingle was Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and is a frequent guest star on television about whom people say, “He’s a good actor… what’s his name again?” Rip and Pat Hingle have a lot in common.

They are both from Texas, and studied at the University of Texas drama school, where people in the department thought Rip had no technique. “I wasn’t phony enough. But sometimes I’d have a moment on stage that was so real it made them forget the fact that I was terrible.”

A few years later, Hingle was rehearsing in Cat and called Rip, still in Texas, to tell him they were casting the understudy to Ben Gazzara. He came right up. New on Broadway, he got a lot of funny takes: “Your name is what? Rip Torn??!! Do you know Buck Naked… Brick Wall… Chan Delier…?”

“No I don’t,” he said pleasantly. “But maybe you’ve heard of my cousin.”

“Who is that?”

“Fuck You.”

After a lot of static and perseverance, he finally read. Years later, Molly Kazan told him that his reading that day was one of the most electric moments she had ever seen on stage. That was before Rip broke his personal management contract with her husband, Elia Kazan, by saying; “I can no longer live suspended by the web of your whim.” He hasn’t had a manager since.

Hingle is on his way to read a voice-over for a television commercial. “Damn, I wish I could get me some of those,” Rip says. “You’re good at it — you do what they tell you. My trouble is I always want to read my own wav.”

“Sorry about your play,” Hingle says.

The Cuban Thing had closed the night before. Rip had the lead, although his name was listed alphabetically on the marquee. (He doesn’t believe in solo bows; “they destroy the unity of the company.”)

Two years ago, he promised Jack Gelber, who wrote and directed the play, that he would do it. He kept the promise, even though it meant turning down two film offers — which is one reason he isn’t a celebrity.

The reviews were universally rotten; “I had a premonition, but everybody is always saying I’m paranoid, so this time I asked a friend — a psychiatrist — to come opening night and protect my sanity. Afterward he told me how much he liked the play and the performances. Then I said, ‘Okay… what do you think of… these?’ I shoved the reviews at him.

“He was stunned: ‘This isn’t what I saw,’ he said. ‘These reviews have nothing to do with the play. I don’t understand.’ I said, ‘Now you know what I’ve been talking about.’ ”

“My friend was really at a loss. He said, ‘If your talent was more conventional, or if you were more conventional as a person, maybe they could take it. But the combination of the two is too much for most people.’ ”


The health officer at the Mexican border suddenly pulled his gun and badge on Rip. “Secret Service,” he said.

Rip flipped, he shouted, “Okay… go ahead, bust it down. Let’s go the whole route here — hub caps, engine, whatever you want. Let’s get it over with… I don’t give a shit. You ‘re not going to find anything.”

“Then why are you screaming. I’m trying to be nice and you yell at me.”

“Nice? If you’re trying to be nice, why did you pull your gun? And what the hell is this all about anyway. Every time I come across the same thing happens.” It was the third time.

“I really don’t know,” the agent said. “Maybe it’s those roles you play… all those perverts, subversives, and criminal types. You’re very convincing, you know. Anyway, somebody put you on our list.”

Paranoid? Maybe. It is a little hard to believe that all the persecution Rip feels has occurred. But there are certain men who attract bullies, whose stance puts people up-tight. He’s like a gunfighter; people feel obligated, somehow, to challenge him to a draw. Then there are the roles.

He was Tom Junior, a sadistic Southern bigot, in Sweet Bird of Youth, eventually replacing Paul Newman in the lead as Chance Wayne, an aging, desperate gigolo on the make. His Marion Faye was a true freaky, pot-smoking pimp with faggot tendencies and rumors that he was really all those things flew around the Village during the run. In series guest spots, he is typed as a hood, outlaw, and general bad guy. His Roberto, in The Cuban Thing, was considered pro-Castro.


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Pat Hingle inspects Rip’s right ear on Broadway. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says.

“No, there’s not even a scar… Look.”

Rip’s role-playing got him into the hospital last summer. The New York Times reported it as follows: “Norman Mailer and Rip Torn, the actor and longtime friend of the author’s engaged in a perhaps overly realistic struggle before the cameras… Mr. Torn was acting out one of the several cinematic assassination attempts against Mr. Mailer, who played Norman T. Kingsley, a famous movie director contemplating a race for President.

“According to eyewitnesses, he crept up behind. Mr. Mailer and shouted, ‘Norman T. Kingsley, I have something for you.’ Then he hit him three times on the head with a child’s toy hammer. Mr. Mailer turned and grappled with his assailant as the cameras continued to grind. In the struggle, Mr. Mailer bit Mr. Torn on the ear.”

“I told Norman we shouldn’t’ contribute to the bullshit number that’s going down in the press,” Rip said. “It’s just a dumb misunderstanding. It wasn’t the bite itself that bugged me, it was the fact that anytime the human tooth gets into you, you are going to have an infection. It’s the most virulent bite of all… I told Norman that.

“ ‘Are you trying to say my bite is the most poisonous bite?’ Norman said. You know how he is; he’s always got to be number one.

“ ‘I just said the human bite is the most poisonous — but I won’t take away from you the honor of being the most virulent of all.’ Anyway, he’s still mad at me. I think he wanted it to be unexpected, but not all that unexpected, you dig?

Nobody’s role was clear. I just assumed I was to be the one to finally make an attempt on his life. I was functioning completely as an actor and I assumed he would just topple and act it out. He didn’t do that at all — he went right into reality… How about a blast?”

“No thanks, Ripper, I’m late.” Hingle flags a cab. “Give my love to Gerry.”


“I said to Gerry the other night…” Rip is just back from California where Gerry is making a film, passing through on his way to direct The Beard in London “…I said ‘I’ve done everything possible to root out my love for you, and it’s beaten me, I can’t kill it.’ ”

Rip loves to lay some out-of-sight statement on you and then stare (I always lose) until you feel paranoid yourself questioning it. “Why do you want to root it out? Is love a weakness or something?”

“Yeah… I think it is. Look baby…” I can understand why a director I called yesterday refused to say anything about him except “he’s a hostile, paranoid bastard,” and hung up. Rip looks like he wants to hit me. “…Love in this society has only been some kind of creep sentimental punkdom. You know that. We’ve all been brainwashed.”

“Don’t get involved with that dreadful man!” Gerry’s friends said when she started seeing Rip. They were in Sweet Bird at the time and, in another of those role extensions, people took him for Chance Wayne using an aging actress — Gerry is now 44 — as a ticket to stardom. They have been together nine years.

She is intensely loyal, much more disturbed about the ear incident than Rip. The first chance she had, she said to Mailer, “Hello Norman, how’s your appetite?” He didn’t answer. She continued, “Well like the movie says, you are what you eat.”


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Another rumor — Rip “ran off” with Mike McClure after The Cuban Thing closed. Rip may or may not be a hostile, belligerent, paranoid bastard, and he may or may not be one of the best actors in America, but one thing he isn’t is a faggot. I tell him about it.

“You know what that is?” I pour some wine. “Wishful thinking.” He stares me down again. “Here’s where it’s at — Eitel, the director in Deer Park, has a tough line after Marion makes a pass at him. He considers it for a while and he’s tempted but he finally says no, because that’s what the machinery wants us to be — faggots. If you’re a faggot then they’ve got you nailed. They can put you away, dismiss you. You’re a faggot. I’d like to meet the guy who told you that. Mike’s my brother, and I guess the idea of two strong cats making it together turned him on. Here’s another story that came back to me. Some big English director — I won’t mention his name — was asked, ‘Do you know Rip Torn?’ He said, ‘My dear, I’ve had him.’ And I’ve never even met the cat.”

Rip looks disgusted. His bag holding important personal papers fell off the rack of his big bike on the way over. He discovered it in front of my place. Instead of retracing his route right away, he’s lounging comfortably in my easy chair drinking wine and rapping. Julie, a small girl who has been sitting silent, listening somewhat in awe, offers to go out and look for it. He says fine, draws her a map of the route, and, although she has no driver’s license and has only driven a bike once — a small Honda at that — offers her his key. Fortunately, she has enough sense to refuse it.

The loss of the bag has put him extremely up-tight. He drinks and talks fast.

On politics: “Nixon is a motherfucker triumphant. Yeah. But you know, when he makes that victory salute — he’s got his arms up and his shoulders are around his ears — there must be some part of him that’s embarrassed about the spectacle he’s making. It’s not really a full take like ‘come on, give it to me and I’ll die for you.’ It looks more like they coached him but he really can’t make it. He’s a bad actor.”

“Then there’s Humpty Dumpty. I said to Mailer that George Wallace would chew Humpty Dumpty and Icky Dicky right up if they ever got together. He said, ‘No, they would work out a deal with him and then slowly poison him…” Rip starts to choke from laughing.

On acting: “A guy talked to me about doing a TV series when I was in L.A. last month. I told him I had already served my years soldiering for my country. Why should I sign up for five more years of bondage? Of course for that bondage you’re made a millionaire so it’s not bad bondage. There’s nothing wrong with it except that I don’t dig it. For a lot of people, though, it’s the prize.

“Some people say about me, ‘Why isn’t Rip bothered by not being a star?’ I know I can be a star, I just don’t choose to be. But I could dig it in a way; there’s a motherfucker triumphant residing in all of us. I could go for the total number.

“Once I was driving down Sunset Strip to Malibu. There are packs of cars, you know, with the lights. I decided to lead the pack. There were all these hand-tooled jobs and me — I was driving this Mickey Mouse car… That’s why Paul Newman said I’d never be a star in Hollywood. I came rolling up to his house driving a Rambler. He was appalled. He said, ‘Man, a Rambler!? Don’t you know you can’t drive that kind of car and be a star?’ I hate to say anything bad about Paul… He was so beautiful with McCarthy…”

“Writers are usually interested in me. They hope, because they dig me as an actor, that they will be the one to make me a star — give me the vehicle to ride — Like James Earl Jones and The Great White Hope. Jimmy and I are close. We’re about the same age and… he’s beautiful. I can talk about this now, because he’s mentioned it already. Years ago, I tried to have about eight or ten actors admitted into the Actors Studio. At the time there was only Sidney Poitier and Diana Sands and I said that the Studio was just a microcosm, a reflection, of the whole corrupt Broadway scene.

“They only let in one or two — its the same old shit. I wanted to break the whole color thing in the theatre. Jimmy was finally brought in as an observer. I remember talking, arguing with the powers at the Studio about him. I said, ‘This guy is a boss actor.’ They said, ‘He’ll never be a star.’ ”

Rip is by now flat-out — his intelligence, intensity, pride, paranoia, his deep bitterness. “The formation of the Actors Studio Theatre was made possible by the inclusion of Gerry and myself on the Board of Directors. Kazan went to Lincoln Center, and I knew that wasn’t the place to go. Tennessee Williams said, ‘Baby, what do you want to go to that model prison for?’ And Jimmy Baldwin said, ‘I’m not going to go there and be the nigger in the window.’ They didn’t have to tell me that, I was already on my own course of action…

“Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie came out of the Actors Studio Theatre. I played Lyle, a Southern white cracker, and I didn’t pull back on it, didn’t come on and wink at the audience and say, ‘This isn’t really me, you know.’ There were nights when I thought some cats were going to come up on stage and lay me out.

“People freak out at the truth. That’s why they kill. They’d rather kill than admit they’ve been caught up in a stale game and instead of being toughs, they are punks. They want to kill the person who brought that pain to their consciousness.

“LeRoi Jones was talking to me about my Lyle. He started laughing. He realized he was talking about me to me, but I wasn’t there you see. And all of a sudden he saw that I was there and it kind of embarrassed him. ‘You punky cracker,’ he said to me. LeRoi is hip enough to know that I wouldn’t have been able to do that if that was where I’m really at. I’m not saying it didn’t cause me tremendous pain — it did…”

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About Norman Mailer: (They have made up.) “He’s beautiful; he’s such a beautiful cat… I really love him. One time we got blasted at Casey’s bar after a performance of Deer Park, and he asked me — he caught me completely off guard. ‘You have an older brother?’ I said, ‘You, you are!’ ”

About himself: “In the American sexual/political ethic, they nail cats that speak the truth as fags, or some other sexual aberration. Then they can dismiss the truth on that level. I’m willing to lay the book of my life out to any of those bullshit artists… Let’s face it; the words I say can sign my death warrant. But I’ve done it so many times, why shouldn’t I do it now? The Confederacy has won. The United States is the South. The South has risen again and they control the military, the Congress… they control the country. And their aim is to control the world. Their axis is our South, South Africa, Rhodesia, Spain, Germany — and an awful lot of people in between… are you going to print all of this? I mean these are tough things to say…

“At least people will know I’m still alive. Terry Southern told me a funny story. He worked on the screenplay for a movie called The Cincinnati Kid. The producers were sitting around trying to cast one of the roles, a bad-ass type. Somebody said, ‘What we need is a Rip Torn type.’ Terry said, ‘Well, don’t think I’m trying to be weird or anything, but why don’t we get Rip Torn?’ They looked at him like he was some kind of nut. I guess they figured I was in jail or dead or something.”


Julie comes back without the bag. “This sort of thing happens to me every time I’m about to leave the country,” Rip says, draining the last of the half gallon of wine which was full when we started.

I realize I’ve crossed from role to reality myself; by now I consider Rip a friend rather than a subject. He is as large as life and my life is larger since meeting him.

Maybe it’s the wine, but I feel close enough to tell him this: “Look, man, if you’re a loser it’s your own fault. Your bag with all your identification and papers falls off your bike and instead of going back to look for it, you sit here drinking wine complaining for an hour. Then you send Julie out for it; you should have gone yourself. You even offer to let her use your bike. That chick can’t drive a bike. She doesn’t even have a driver’s license. She’d have cracked it up and then you would have been more paranoid than ever.”

Rip stretched out on the couch, listening to my little lecture. He starts to raise the left corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile and then laughs out loud. “I don’t give a fuck,” he says.


Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

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So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

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Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

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Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

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Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

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To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara


Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century.

With Aretha passing this week at the age of 76, I thought of her scene in 1980’s Blues Brothers, a vastly underrated musical comedy that visually centers everything good about this country around the art and personal struggles of roots musicians like Aretha, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.

Aretha — lithe and gorgeous in her waitress uniform — portrays the hardworking owner of a diner who performs a forcefully kinetic version of “Think” to warn her man not to leave his job in the kitchen to rejoin the ragtag Blues Brothers Band. Aretha (reportedly frustrated in her lifelong desire for a movie career) acts her ass off, giving this cameo role layers of depth and verisimilitude that director John Landis could not have anticipated. Her onscreen transition from solicitous waitress to battle-ready matriarch is a switch every black woman learns to flip to protect herself and her family. With every shoulder roll, emphatic shout, and perfectly enunciated ad-lib, Franklin — with three fierce customers/backup singers bearing witness — demands respect, cooperation, and common sense from the feckless men who threaten her domestic tranquility. The symbolic setting is an immaculate blue-collar work space in which Aretha looms larger than life, ruling with regal physicality as she brings one of the few songs she actually wrote to vivid life. It was electrifying for me to watch her compress all the dignity, delight, and despair of being black, female, and working-class into that one brief performance. It prefigured every Destiny’s Child hit, every riot grrrl anthem, and every female-empowerment video ever broadcast on MTV. The scene tells a universal story in some of its particulars. But also a profoundly black story.

The truth is, Americans born or transplanted into a United States reshaped (but not completely redeemed) by the civil rights decade of the 1960s no longer operate from the same intergenerational memories of fighting the kinds of embedded racism that American blues and black gospel evolved to combat or transcend. Despite the malicious intent of Jim Crow–era segregation, it unintentionally helped black leaders better organize, protect, and uplift future generations by keeping black wealth and genius circulating within predominantly black enclaves. It’s worth remembering that before civil rights organizations decided to focus on persuading whites to like, respect, and hire us, black Americans dedicated more of our resources toward cultivating neighborhood institutions and helping one another. In fact, before federally mandated desegregation, black American talent and entrepreneurship was almost wholly devoted to promoting black socioeconomic networks and self-reliant black excellence. From the late 1800s through the early 1970s, black newspapers, fraternities, and colleges groomed the self-aware black elite that ultimately produced social change through the agency of catalytic individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and…Miss Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin performing at a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden

Aretha Louise Franklin was born into an educated, religious family in 1942 — one year before a series of “hate strikes” by white autoworkers refusing to ply their trade alongside newly hired black mechanics touched off violent race riots that tore Detroit apart. Aretha’s brother Cecil, a college history major, once asked their preacher father why he moved his growing family from relatively progressive Buffalo to a church serving a city seething with racial tensions. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, a persuasive “singing minister” who infused his sermons with practical advice and philosophical metaphors, reportedly responded: “My job was to tend to the spiritual needs of the black community…but I also saw the need to raise everyone’s political consciousness.…Moral justice and social justice cannot be separated.”

Born in the Deep South, the Reverend Franklin used his ministry to support both labor organizer A. Philip Randolph’s and the Reverend Dr. King’s political agendas. As King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference transformed a 1954 bus boycott into a national crusade for equal rights and justice, Aretha’s stature within the black community rose alongside her father’s, with both becoming associated with the core leadership of the movement. Aretha’s inspired singing at rallies, at fundraisers, and on the radio during the increasingly turbulent 1960s and ’70s affirmed both her blackness and her activism as virtues. It was a civic responsibility she shouldered proudly.

During the 1940s and ’50s, independent black record companies (often housed in back of neighborhood record stores) sometimes pressed spoken-word albums for famous traveling preachers, as well as singles by gospel and r&b acts. After moving from Buffalo to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the mid-’40s, Reverend Franklin partnered with the nearby owner of Von/JVB Records to release both his best sermons and the earliest recordings featuring his daughters. All of Aretha’s four full siblings were musical, her two sisters frequently joining her in the studio or on the road. But while the Reverend Franklin deliberately steered his other children toward college degrees, leaving them music as a part-time pursuit, Aretha was allowed to focus exclusively on music.  

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A Memphis-born, Detroit-bred musical prodigy who was improvising complex chords and riffs on the family piano at seven, Aretha was also a shy, somewhat introverted middle child. At the age of ten she lost her mother to a heart attack, and high-profile friends of her father’s, including gospel star Clara Ward and blues great Dinah Washington, became mother figures who nurtured and encouraged Aretha’s talent. She would grow up to cover tunes made famous by both women. Miracles co-founder Smokey Robinson, a childhood friend of Aretha’s brother, told biographer David Ritz that they would be listening to Sarah Vaughan records at the Franklin home, only to be surprised by a still preadolescent Aretha matching Vaughan note for note. “Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer,” Robinson recalled, “yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Raised by her charismatic father to accompany him on piano and sing during church services, at twelve Aretha joined her dad on the road as part of his popular “traveling religious service.” When celebrity guests like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine dropped by to spend time with the reverend, he would proudly wake Aretha up to sing for them. In this way “Ree” achieved early recognition as one of the best of a whole generation of r&b singers who learned to move a crowd by channeling the Holy Spirit. But unlike many gospel singers who switched to “worldly” music, Aretha didn’t suffer the usual “shunning” by gospel fans when a former musical minister chooses to sing about anything other than God. In 1972, when Aretha and the Reverend James Cleveland recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace for Atlantic, she insisted the music be part of an actual worship service in a church, just like she and her dad used to do. Perhaps Ree got a pass because her father was still bringing people to Jesus; perhaps it was because of the spiritual aura that surrounded even her songs about passionate love and heartache.

At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was successfully shopped by her father to John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had previously signed Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. Born with perfect pitch and the spooky ability to learn any song or mimic any vocal delivery by ear, Aretha had already been a strong draw on the national gospel circuit for five years. Among her many early mentors was Cleveland, a master choir director who expanded her knowledge of arranging and production techniques. Ironically, her ability to do so many things so well was to delay Aretha’s rise to secular fame. Able and willing to go in multiple directions, she couldn’t decide exactly how to market herself. At first, she and her father were certain that, since Columbia was already home to Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis, it would prove the perfect launching pad for an emergent Queen of Pop Soul. But they had failed to consider that an old, established label like Columbia might be slow to understand the changing tastes of a growing youth market.  

Seeing her as an artist with Nancy Wilson potential, Columbia had Detroit’s teenage powerhouse recording mostly standards and cabaret blues material, with arrangements too sedate to appeal to hormonal postwar teens already consuming savvy Motown dance hits and sexy doo-wop. So after eight albums in six years that earned critical acclaim but negligible public response, Aretha left the home of Mahalia for Atlantic Records, the rocking house that Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Drifters, and a deal with Stax Records had built.   

In the age of Auto-Tune it can be hard to imagine a time when all live singers were expected to have perfect tonal control of their own voices; yet this was what church training sought to instill. Vocal technique was used to facilitate communication and rapport with the audience. Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato — even lyrics and emotional intensity — according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require. Gospel went beyond the more cerebral sonic explorations of jazz to connect with primal levels of instinct and psyche that would subsequently infiltrate pop music via the sister genres of r&b and rock.

Franklin, with her husband and manager Ted White, signs with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler on November 21, 1966.

Black life in America has always generated its own soundtrack. Different styles — from circle shouts to work songs to jump blues — were spread first through live performance, then via various fixed and electronic media, as a way to give voice to our collective trials and triumphs as a people. Under the severe restrictions of slavery, which only slightly loosened and shifted after manumission, black music needed to serve as both protest and catharsis, allowing us to vent the most complex and nuanced emotions — ideally, as soon as they were felt. This is why first gospel, then r&b, became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. And why Aretha, with her church training, became acknowledged as “the voice” of that movement. Released in 1967 with a sound that wedded the poppy verve of Motown to the sultry syncopations of Stax and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, Aretha’s titanic Atlantic debut served to further consolidate and strengthen the collective dream of a successfully integrated United States.

Aretha’s particular musical gift was a deeply intuitive form of interpretation that made her recordings of “Spirit in the Dark,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” sound impossibly intimate and omniscient. As with her cover of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha didn’t have to write a song in order to make it her own. Her vocal performance implied not only that she understood what her listeners were feeling, but that she somehow also understood everything any listener would ever feel. This is an illusion, of course, but one so convincing that the bewitching appeal of it never fades. It is perhaps this almost telepathic rapport Aretha can build with her listeners, as she adds layers of meaning to each phrase, that facilitates spiritual healing in church settings. It is certainly one of the factors that lifts her best recordings above those of her peers, and from there, beyond category.

As the “civil rights decade” transitioned into the “black-power decade,” all music became more political. Singer-songwriters like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield produced protest and empowerment anthems. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From took Motown into the political arena. White pop musicians from Elvis to Joni Mitchell included anti-war and ecological themes in their set lists. Within this increasingly topical and diverse musical atmosphere, Aretha’s signature renditions of “Respect,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” were especially valued for their political subtexts as well as an ability to encourage fallen fighters not to give up hope. As a child in the Sixties and Seventies, I watched nightly news broadcasts in which political violence seemed to be everywhere, at home and abroad. People were frightened and angry. But the musical response to my trepidation was not the destructive rage of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but softer, sweeter, more constructive songs. Aretha’s choruses exhorted us to have courage, to endure. Lyrics like “Baby, baby, be strong/Baby, baby, hold on” would thread their way through “Lose This Dream” like the balm of Gilead. 

Throughout her career, Aretha moved effortlessly between overtly evangelical recordings like 1987’s double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, gutbucket soul, delicate Bacharach-and-David ballads, and provocative blues-rock covers, as if to show those who would come after her how it should be done. Will today’s stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé even attempt to replicate the diversity of Aretha’s catalog? Would their existing audience tolerate such a move? 

Fans line up for a concert by Aretha Franklin at the Apollo Theater in New York on June 3, 1971.

The creative intimacy and competitiveness of the pre-digital music scene was such that all the great bands and singers knew and admired one another. They made a game out of covering each other’s hits and vying for critical acclaim. Did Aretha envy Dionne Warwick’s and Roberta Flack’s pop singles? Did Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, or Gladys Knight ever strive to snatch Aretha’s crown as Queen of Soul? They were each talented and shrewd enough to keep us guessing with every new album and live performance.

No matter how far into secular music Aretha’s contracts with Columbia (1960–1966), Atlantic (1967–1979), or Arista (1980–2003) would take her, gospel would continue to characterize her sound, whether she was recording the Chic-influenced “Jump to It” in 1982 for writer-producer Luther Vandross or duetting with Whitney Houston in 1989 on an underground dance remix of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” produced by Clivillés and Cole of C&C Music Factory. Indeed, Aretha’s extraordinary ear and willingness to experiment led to many interesting singles that kept her sound relevant. She duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” in 1987, and with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in 2006. Her legacy of delivering pop, gospel, and r&b covers that blow the doors off the originals goes all the way back to 1967’s distaff take on Otis Redding’s “Respect.” And even in her later years, Aretha managed to astonish, taking both a 1994 cover of the Clivillés-and-Cole deep-house classic “A Deeper Love” and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the top of the Billboard dance chart.

In 1980, Clive Davis signed Aretha to Arista Records, one of the few major labels willing to invest in legacy soul divas despite the recording-industry recession of 1979 and the rising popularity of the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. This happened to be the same year Aretha’s performance of “Think” in The Blues Brothers put her golden pipes back on the radar of a teen audience. Protest music, which had been an organic and central part of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies, became a more random, scattershot affair for recording acts in the 1980s. Political songs were often created more to shock or provoke than to make people think and act in more conscious ways. For every trenchant rap like “The Message,” club track like “Beat the Street,” or ska broadside like “Ghost Town,” there emerged dozens of mindless ditties about little or nothing. Topical lyrics in general became darker and more bitter. Without a progressive social context or a community mobilized around higher ideals, entertainment becomes rather hollow. Soulless. (The Eighties were additionally tough on Aretha and the Franklin family, whose patriarch had been shot in a botched robbery and would remain in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.)

To update Aretha’s appeal, Davis resolved to integrate her approach to easy-listening standards on Columbia with the party-hearty stance she took toward gutbucket funk and soul on Atlantic. The resulting synthesis included a touch of Brill Building swing that managed to respect Franklin’s iconic position among older fans while hoping to catch precocious younger consumers. Interestingly, this was the same AOR fusion Arista successfully used to launch Dionne Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston in 1985.

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Near the end of the Eighties, as vocals and instruments couldn’t sound more robotic, the stylistic pendulum began to swing back toward Aretha’s richly human modes of expression. In 1991, TLC, an Atlanta girl group that featured two young singers and a rapper, asserted their feminism and sexual freedom with the same unabashed candor displayed on “Chain of Fools.” T-Boz, whose throaty contralto makes up in precision what it lacks in range, always reminds me of Aretha’s sly lower register. In 1988, Tracy Chapman’s first album harked back to the wry folk wisdom and compassionate insights of Aretha’s solo work on piano, while in 1990 Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love revived the unbridled passion that shaped Aretha’s early recordings on Atlantic. Neither the neo-folk singer nor the pop-soul princess shares Aretha’s timbre — only a recognizable portion of her unique sensibility. In particular, her resilience.

Mary J. Blige, as Puff Daddy’s favorite protégée, strove to voice the hopes and realities of her embattled generation as Aretha had done. But it was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello who came closer to having all the skills Aretha brought to the stage. Erykah Badu came out of Texas in 1997 with the perfect voice and attitude to reinvent r&b in her own spooky punk soul sister image: irreverent, sardonic, a woman in control of herself and her men, and completely indomitable. Badu is Aretha as she liked to see herself…unbreakable. Remember those busy runs toward the end of “Respect” and “Think,” where Aretha ad-libs all kinds of sass? The diva is in the details, and nobody can throw shade into a vocal aside any better. It’s a side of the singer people are often too worshipful to talk about, but it’s an important aspect of her inner strength. She’s survived enough genuine tragedy and heartbreak in life to be allowed to own her moments of bitchiness or depression. But like many women she chooses to tough it out, refusing to be portrayed as weak or vulnerable in any way.

Two years ago, the Knowles sisters put out two albums attempting to set new standards for contemporary post-hip-hop soul. Like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, they want to deepen the lyrical discourse. Maybe even discuss some kind of social revolution. To focus attention on mood and meaning, both Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table apply a skeletal approach to melody and harmony. But the feeling conveyed within the compressed scales and digitized atmospherics Solange uses throughout A Seat at the Table is as stark and moving as anything heard on Aretha’s first live album, Aretha in Paris. It’s almost as if both women studied the palpable acoustic space surrounding the tiny combo on that stage and found a way to re-create those aural textures in a digital setting. Lemonade, in its themes and ambition, may have reminded listeners of Lauryn Hill’s deeply personal 1998 opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or even Alicia Keys’s solo debut. But what I hear in all three productions are aspects of Aretha channeled through each performer. They are heirs to Aretha and the black church in the best possible way, in that they haven’t forgotten that healing comes from not being afraid to reveal your naked heart.

Slowly and quietly, the past few decades saw increasing numbers of younger artists drinking at the font of Aretha’s legacy: Cheryl Pepsii Riley released a moving version of “Ain’t No Way” in 1991, and both Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige managed to cut successful new duets with her. But leave it to the feisty septuagenarian to have the final say on who’s zoomin’ who, by cutting the 2014 concept album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which entered Billboard’s r&b chart at No. 3. Part tribute, part cutting contest, the album shows Franklin bringing all her emotional intelligence plus a shrewd sense of historical perspective to some of the biggest singles the original performers ever had. Adele, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington, and Sinéad O’Connor come together in this context as an intriguing gallery of idols and competitors.

Aretha’s reputation within the pop-music establishment is so undeniable as to render any accounting foolish. But the accolades are not why we love her. None of the presidential, civic, municipal, or international awards that came her way explain why this woman had the power to move us so much. I celebrate having been a witness to her life, and mourn her passing because she was special, and we may not see her equal again. Aretha didn’t give many interviews, nor did she explain herself much. But the quote that most reveals the inner thoughts and depths of feeling that fueled her ability to touch an audience came from an interview she gave Essence magazine in the 1970s:

“Being black means being beautiful,” Aretha said. “It also means struggles and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain, and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.”

Aretha Franklin prepares to perform during “The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2015.

Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.


Harlan Ellison, 1934–2018

Most of the early obits about award-winning writer, teacher, activist, and legendary cultural gadfly Harlan Ellison center on a long biographical checklist. His beloved father died when he was young; he was bullied daily at grammar school in Painesville, Ohio; he became a serial adolescent runaway; he took on diverse working-class jobs to survive; he served two unhappy years in the Army, then was expelled from Ohio State University for insubordination; was fired from Disney on his first day there as a writer after making playfully profane jokes about the animated characters trademarked by the Mouse House. None of these details speak to what Harlan would have called “the work”; and I would say, as Ellison sometimes did, only his work matters.

Of course, for Ellison the work was conceptualized as more than the millions of words he put on the printed page; more than expanding the style and relevance of genre literature by unleashing close to 2,000 essays, short stories, teleplays, op-eds, novellas, and nonfiction pieces on the world. In addition to becoming the de facto leader of the American wing of the (predominantly British) new wave science-fiction movement after editing two groundbreaking Dangerous Visions anthologies, Ellison also felt a calling — an ancillary vocation — to follow his moral compass into volatile struggles for social justice. Ellison marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; he protested to support ratification of the ERA; and he went public about getting a vasectomy in the 1970s to take more personal responsibility for the privilege of sexual freedom. Yes, he could be combative and litigious, but he was also charitable and astonishingly generous with his time and resources, especially to young writers he believed had talent. Frequently invited to lecture at colleges and appear as a controversial pundit on late-night talk shows during the Reagan presidency, Ellison considered himself a champion of the underdog. Yet he had little patience for underdogs too afraid to fight back. Ellison could be loudly critical of those who remained silently complicit in their own oppression.

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Last Wednesday, Ellison — who had been recovering from a stroke over the past two years — died quietly at home in Los Angeles at the age of 84. The man had a larger-than-life reputation for being “cantankerous,” an accusation he proudly appended to the title of one of his last story collections. It is tempting to dwell on what Harlan Ellison did when not behind his typewriter, because his famously volatile personality is the stuff of cocktail party gossip and bohemian legend. But for colorful anecdotes you can search out several biographies, or Ellison’s own editorial commentaries and journalistic essays. For this eulogy, however, I would prefer to concentrate on what was most admirable about the man’s fiction.

Ellison, like many modern fantasists, chafed at artificial qualitative distinctions still made between so-called literary fiction and fantastic fiction. Homer and Shakespeare wrote about witches, magic, and monsters without the academy dismissing their works as “light entertainment.” (Was Kafka a fantasy writer because he wrote a classic about a man who literally turns into a cockroach?) Given the immensity of his output, no one is trying to say that everything Ellison ever wrote was a work of genius. Even the most gifted wordsmith can generate uneven product, and practices constantly to perfect his craft. That said, the consistency with which Ellison wrote smart, complex stories in his own unique voice stands out as proof that he belongs in the mainstream literary canon as much as Poe, Camus, Baldwin, or Austen.

Most of the hundreds of stories Harlan Ellison gave us over the years revolved around the many ways in which people could help or hurt one another. Accordingly, he was responsible for one of the first short stories that ever made me cry. I remember being ten and hunched over a paperback containing “Blind Lightning” (1966) in the children’s room of a small public library when tears began pouring down my face as the alien protagonist repeats the phrase: “Show me a star.” This simple request — the inspired parting gift of a dying Terran astronaut — would transform the alien’s life from one of fear and darkness to one of unprecedented opportunity. This motif of compassion emerging in the face of fear, struggle, or loss would be a recurring theme in Ellison’s fiction, and the one that probably resonates most with his readers.

In “On the Downhill Side” (1972), Ellison again uses compassion to drive a plot. Essentially a ghost story set in the steamy, picturesque French Quarter of New Orleans, “Downhill Side” is a parable about an overly romantic man wooing a woman too withdrawn and afraid to love. Trapped in a purgatorial afterlife, these two crippled souls must join forces to become psychologically whole before they can seek human rebirth. Every descriptive element in this story is unusually lovely. Ellison describes the color of the female ghost’s eyes as “a shade of grey between onyx and miscalculation.” He telegraphs the basic innocence of these disembodied characters by saying: “I knew she was a virgin because she was able to ruffle the silken mane of my unicorn.” Closely observed minor details make Ellison stories more intimate, so he name-checks both the world-famous Café du Monde and the aspirational lace curtains prized by Louisiana’s Irish immigrants. This is Ellison at his elegiac best, giving fragile emotions like pleasure, hope, and regret a local habitation and a name.

And yet the highest-profile Ellison stories, like “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1973) and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), examine tougher, more heartbreaking choices than the options explored in “Blind Lightning” or “On the Downhill Side.” Ellison (who survived his time as an adolescent runaway only to infiltrate a 1950s street gang to write an exposé on teen violence) had personally seen and experienced enough brutality to bring terrifying verisimilitude to published work that slants more toward the categories of horror fiction and murder mysteries. The explicit tortures devised for the last living members of the human race by the sentient computer in “I Have No Mouth” will make readers queasy but also reveal a reader to him or herself. When Ellison explains why the supercomputer hates mankind, and why it destroyed all but a captive remnant of humanity via nuclear armageddon, he portrays the relationship between the computer and its human victims in a new light. Human nature, not the artificial intelligence humans built, is still the real problem. As we are told in Sartre’s No Exit, humans habitually choose to torture one another. Petty rivalries and cruelties don’t disappear when people face larger existential threats; instead these personality flaws simply become more subtle, more diabolical. The difficult choice offered in “I Have No Mouth” is to rebel against the hardwired egoism and selfishness of human nature, even when there is nothing to gain but the salvation of people other than yourself.

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Many Ellison stories forcibly immerse us in the results of selfish decisions because he wants us to contemplate how and why people make the choices they make. (His investigative nonfiction and his early rock ’n’ roll novel Spider Kiss (1961) were equally insightful, and well worth revisiting.) Caring too much, feeling too deeply, giving the impression that he walks through life as if he were one huge exposed nerve — these are the most identifiable characteristics of Ellison’s writing. Ellison wants readers to feel what he feels, and this motivation has resulted in some of the most memorable (if harrowing) fables crafted by any writer in any genre.

If you need an example of just how Ellison transposed similar themes into disparate literary contexts, just juxtapose his famous Star Trek teleplay “The City on the Edge of Forever” against his obscure civil rights–era parable “Daniel White for the Greater Good” (1961). In the former, Ellison creates a time-travel episode in which permitting the death of a woman who is universally loved and admired will keep the Nazis from winning World War II. In the latter, Ellison takes us to a small Southern town where black civil rights leaders have to decide if they are justified in not turning over an unrepentant serial rapist and murderer to a white lynch mob, when protecting a single black criminal from racist vigilantism might destroy their ability to protect the rest of the local black community. In both narratives, the choices offered to protagonists speak less to the idea of personal heroism, and more to the philosophical debates about complicit behavior and moral relativism crucial to political decisions made now in the Trump era. The key question is always: What exactly is being sacrificed?

Earlier this year I spoke briefly to Ellison and his wife by phone. He had been cordial and funny as we caught each other up on recent events. We first became friends in 1974, when he was one of my instructors at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and he was kind enough to let me know several times over the years that he was proud of how I turned out. So I was dismayed, but not surprised, to hear news of the inevitable. Harlan inspired me to be brave because he himself was fearless. He taught me the only thing worse than coming face-to-face with evil was failing to confront and defy evil. Future generations can judge the man for themselves as the internet is full of Harlan Ellison performance art, from vintage interview clips to the celebrated “Pay the Writer” rant excerpted from 2008’s biographical film Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

But all we really need to know about Harlan is in the following quote he gave Writer’s Digest in 2004:

“People do things out of fear; you know what I mean: [that] they’ll lose their jobs, their rep will be ruined, no one will love them, their family won’t be able to eat, blah blah blah.… I’ve never had those paralyzing fears. I’ve been on my own since I was a kid, on the road at age thirteen, and I bypassed all the early middle-class crap that programs us to be shivering, rationalizing chickenhearts.… You can’t allow yourself to be frightened; not if you want the writing to have heat and reason and passion.”


“Thanks Man!” Remembering Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit

My most prized possession is a small tan poster that hangs on my wall just feet from my bed. It’s a drawing of a long-bearded man with a hat emblazoned with the word “JOHN” in all-caps. But beside him reads “THANKS MAN! Scott” in scribbled handwriting.

It was given to me by Scott Hutchison, frontman of Scottish indie rock outfit Frightened Rabbit, after his solo show on October 14, 2014, at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He was performing under his Owl John moniker, and had just come off the stage, sweaty and multiple whiskeys deep, making a point to talk to every fan that came up to him. I held back at first, too nervous to approach my favorite lyricist of all time. Never mind the fact that I had interviewed him a few weeks prior. I couldn’t move a muscle.

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Finally swallowing the lumps in my throat, I mentioned that it had, in fact, been my voice on the phone. Before I could finish my sentence, his face lit up and he gave me a giant hug, thanking me profusely, mentioning that he could tell that I “gave a shit.” After a minute or two, I encouraged him to talk to the others in the growing line behind me. He told me to meet him backstage for some wine.

I was dumbfounded. One of my favorite musicians wanted to hang out with me? I couldn’t believe it.

We ended up over at Mission Dolores for a few more drinks and I remember almost feeling let down by how normal he was. The guy who had written The Midnight Organ Fight — still my favorite album of all time — just wanted to talk about burritos and his girlfriend. But more importantly, at some point in our mutual drunken haze, he told me to keep pursuing writing, saying that my piece on him was one of his favorites.

At that point in my life, I was very recently unemployed, and had yet to be paid a single cent for my words. Scott Hutchison gave me the confidence to keep pushing to make it as a writer, no matter how difficult and scary it seemed then. Without him, I doubt I’d be writing these words today.

I interviewed Scott twice more over the next few years, most recently about the tenth anniversary tour of The Midnight Organ Fight, which hit the Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg in late February of this year. In that conversation, I asked him the same question I had asked him twice before, one that I designed especially with him in mind almost a decade earlier: “How do you manage to sing these ultra-personal songs night after night in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people?”

This time Scott gave me a variation of the answer he’d given me before: “Who is the protagonist? It’s not me. It’s going to be them. It’s their life. They projected their lives to these songs and that makes me very proud that a song can be specific, yet universal enough that it can allow people to walk into their own experience. Yes, they’re singing these lyrics that are personal to me, but they are not considering my life too much.”

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That is why every tribute written about Scott’s passing feels so deeply intimate; his brutally honest and strikingly heartfelt lyrics soundtracked our lives, got us through our worst breakups, and pulled us out of our lowest lows when we needed something, anything, to grasp on to. It’s why it’s nearly impossible to write about Frightened Rabbit without first mentioning some random memory we associate with their music.

And Scott’s been there for me for years. He was there when my freshman year roommate first played me “My Backwards Walk” in the dorms. He was there when my friend Jenna died, and our mutual friend Travis and I listened to “Poke” in silence while driving back from a concert a couple of weeks after the funeral. He was there when my friend Elli left Berkeley to study abroad in Scotland for a year, and I’d play “Scottish Winds” each time I knew she was tuning in to my college radio show. He was there when I was terrified and left my native Bay Area and moved to the East Coast, listening to “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” on the flight to calm me down. He was there when I was broken up with for the first time in New York, using his “All is not lost” refrain on “State Hospital” to get me through it.

He was there for me then, and I know he’ll be there for me in the future. He’ll be there for all of us in the future.

I’ll never hear his voice again on the other end of a phone call, never again get a sweaty hug from one of the few musicians I felt like I could call a friend. But some kid experiencing his or her first heartbreak will find The Midnight Organ Fight and it’ll show them that they’re not alone. Because, for as personal and specific as Hutchison’s lyrics were, they are universal and applicable to all of us, no matter what we’re going through.

In his song, “Head Rolls Off,” Scott sang, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth.” He made colossal changes to my personal world, influencing my career and life in ways I didn’t think possible for a musician from halfway across the world. And for that, all I can say is “THANKS MAN!”

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operated 24/7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.


Body of Missing Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison Is Discovered

On Thursday night, police in Edinburgh, Scotland, announced that they’d found a body in the search for Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison, who had been missing since early Wednesday morning. Hutchison, 36, was last seen leaving the Dakota Hotel in South Queensferry, at 1 a.m., after posting a series of messages that left his family and bandmates concerned for his well-being.

“Be so good to everyone you love,” the first tweet said. “It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.” Several minutes later, he posted a second tweet: “I’m away now. Thanks.”

According to the Guardian, police discovered the body at 8:30 p.m. on May 10 in Port Edgar. His family were notified, and released a statement that they were “utterly devastated” by the loss.

Since he began performing as Frightened Rabbit in 2003, Hutchison has consistently written about his struggles with anxiety and depression, endearing him to a generation of indie-rock fans. This spring the band toured in celebration of the tenth anniversary of their seminal album The Midnight Organ Fight, which Hutchison discussed with the Voice.

“People started to come to me and talking about really personal, emotional subjects that they may not have told their closest friends, but they were telling me about them,” said Hutchison. “I didn’t know how to deal with it at all. Due to the personal nature of that record, an expectation of me had been built up in the listener’s head a lot of the time and I was very keen not to disappoint.”

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On May 9, Frightened Rabbit posted a message on the band’s social media accounts asking for help in finding Hutchison: “We are worried about Scott, who has been missing for a little while now. He may be in a fragile state and may not be making the best decisions for himself right now.”

In their statement Friday, Hutchison’s family wrote, “We are utterly devastated with the tragic loss of our beloved Scott. Despite his disappearance, and the recent concerns over his mental health, we had all remained positive and hopeful that he would walk back through the door.”

“He was passionate, articulate, and charismatic, as well as being one of the funniest and kindest people we knew. In addition to his musical success, Scott was a wonderful son, brother, uncle, and friend. Despite whatever else was going on in his life he always had time for those he cared for.”

“Depression is a horrendous illness that does not give you any alert or indication as to when it will take hold of you,” the statement said. “Scott battled bravely with his own issues for many years and we are immensely proud of him for being so open with his struggles. His willingness to discuss these matters in the public domain undoubtedly raised awareness of mental health issues and gave others confidence and belief to discuss their own issues.”

UPDATE – 5/12/11, 10:145 AM: Hutchison’s bandmates in Frightened Rabbit issued the following statement:


The World of Cecil Taylor, 1929–2018: An Appreciation

It was the night Garth Brooks played Central Park: August 7, 1997. While a throng of 750,000 crowded into the North Meadow, and who knows how many others watched live on HBO, I crammed myself into the claustrophobic basement of the Village Vanguard along with a hundred or so other contrarians to see Cecil Taylor.

The pianist, then 68, began with the kindest, most delicate of notes, about three or four, with his right hand, and then commenced his assault on — or rather, exploration of — the piano, not only its eighty-eight keys and three pedals, but its guts and frame itself. Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jackson Krall joined in, and for the next hour they unleashed a torrent of sound: confrontational but sensitive, free-form but collaborative, turbulent but rhapsodic. It all washed over you. Taylor ended, solo, with those same three or four genteel notes, and without saying a word, left the stage. It was the equivalent of a mic drop, and the audience erupted. It was an experience, conceptually stimulating with an inherent drama, and even though he didn’t read his poetry or engage in one of his modernist dance maneuvers, it was as much performance art as it was a simple concert or a gig. There was a second set, but I was spent, and anyway there was another group of like-minded souls lined up the narrow staircase waiting to get in.

By then, Taylor, who passed away on Thursday at his Brooklyn home at age 89, had begun to receive his due. He was the recipient of a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1990, and won a MacArthur grant the following year. But it wasn’t always like that. It rarely is for those who go their own way.  

Taylor was a native New Yorker, born in Long Island City in 1929, and by the early 1950s he was studying Stravinsky and Bartók at the New England Conservatory. In 1956, he recorded his first album, Jazz Advance, a relatively conventional recording compared to what was to come, but even then his take on Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” is mind-bending.  

By the early 1960s, he’d begun a run of fabulous albums — The World of Cecil Taylor, for one — for the visionary label Candid, where Nat Hentoff, the longtime Village Voice writer, served as the a&r director. “I am not afraid of European influences,” he once told Hentoff. “The point is to use them, as Ellington did, as part of my life as an American Negro.”

Taylor’s marriage of a certain European aesthetic with an African-American one put off large portions of both audiences as well as its gatekeepers. He was an abstract artist when black music was seen as entertainment, something either dangerous or merely fun. As Val Wilmer wrote in her 1977 book As Serious as Your Life, recently republished in a new U.K. edition, “The music of Cecil Taylor is not a particularly encouraging backdrop for sexual overtures.” At a certain point in the 1960s, he was forced to wash dishes and do odd jobs to pay the bills.

“The epicurean aristocrat of the piano,” as the critic Howard Mandel called Taylor, in Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz, “reviled by jazz’s canon-makers as if he were the Marquis De Sade.”

Taylor and Ornette Coleman were the twin spires of the free jazz movement — Taylor played at Coleman’s memorial three years ago at Riverside Church — or, as A.B. Spellman wrote in Four Lives in the Bebop Business, “They were the first two musicians to appear on the scene who placed themselves totally outside the mainstream and had the temerity to suggest that all the assumptions of hard and cool bop would have to be overhauled before the individual voice could once again replace the cliché in jazz.”

And as the saxophonist Jimmy Lyons told Wilmer, “Playing with Cecil made me think differently about what music’s about. It’s not about any cycle of fifths, it’s about sound.”    

In a career that touched on seven different decades and that included poetry and dance — he often collaborated with the dancer Min Tanaka, the subject of the documentary The Silent Eye, by Amiel Courtin-Wilson — his mark has been profound. Virtually any musician who played free is indebted to Taylor. He’s influenced too many pianists to list.

In 2016, not long after the new Whitney Museum opened in the Meatpacking District, it made one of its boldest moves by featuring Cecil Taylor. But the octogenarian pianist was not only featured in concert — the entire fifth-floor gallery was given over to exhibiting his life’s work: album art, poetry, documentary clips projected on a large screen in the center of the space, archival texts, and listening stations with headphones for museumgoers to take in his world of sound. 

When friends pose the question, “What was the best live show you ever saw?” I don’t hesitate. For me, it is unquestionably that August night in 1997. It doesn’t exist in photographs or on YouTube. It’s only a memory. And a beautiful one.


Goodbye, Dollface: Remembering Cynthia Heimel

Cynthia Heimel, who throughout the Eighties and Nineties wrote regular columns for the Village Voice on sex, lifestyle, feminist issues, and more, passed away on February 25, at the age of 70. Below is a remembrance from Peter Occhiogrosso, who worked with Heimel for several years during the Seventies at the Soho Weekly News.

The first time I saw Cindy Heimel, she was sitting at a light table in paste-up at the Spring Street office of the Soho Weekly News, wearing a blue-patterned wraparound dress that looked at once funky and archaic. (Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress was already on the market at the time, but Cindy’s version — part wrap, part jumper — looked like it came from a Salvation Army thrift shop, and possibly did.) As we got to know each other, it became clear that she wouldn’t be relegated to pasting up ads for long. As Music Editor, I gave Cindy (I called her Cynthia only in jest) assignments for which she turned in unaccountably witty pieces that went beyond what I had imagined for the story. Before long, her acute eye for detail and synesthetic understanding of language led her to be named Features Editor and, then, Centerfold Editor.

Cindy returned the favor by assigning me quirky pieces outside my realm of music. These included an interview with a German-born psychic from Canada who went by the name of Swami Narayana. I was sure that Swami was a con. He wore a huge moonstone ring that he rubbed while he gave me my first-ever past-life reading, envisioning me as an Italian harpsichordist giving out literary-inflected teas — sure to appeal to my extensive fantasy life. But he also knew about a childhood ailment in one of my ears that had almost left me deaf. He advised me to see a chiropractor about my recurring back pain, opening my eyes to alternative healing, and suggested I also take up swimming to help my back. I did both, and continued doing them for many years. Meanwhile, Cindy went on to write riotously funny stuff, including a centerfold series called “Short Pants Romance,” title cribbed from Dylan and enormous fun to read — until you recognized yourself unflatteringly but accurately portrayed in her weekly roman à clef. And she continued to flourish after the paper closed, turning out books with titles so hilarious that you didn’t need to read any further, like Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Goodbye!

Cindy Heimel’s writings nailed the painful contortions women go through.

With her 1983 book Sex Tips for Girls, Cindy predated women’s-sex-life commentator Candace Bushnell — whose columns led to the HBO series Sex and the City — by more than a decade. She was also funnier and sharper-witted. Considered a feminist, she was always a humorist first. She nailed the painful contortions women go through, convinced of their need for male companionship, but she also showed empathy and even compassion for the way men were ensnared in a commensurate addiction to women. And there was always the unexpected, like this riff, from the chapter “I Wish I Were a Lesbian”:

“If I could be a Lesbian, I could have chocolate cake every night and still get laid! Men, who have sex glands in their eyes and centerfolds in their hearts, are strange, deranged, picky, and exacting about women’s bodies. Other women are not! Other women would be empathetic about cellulite and bad-hair days! Plenty of Lesbians are fat and loved!”

Cindy and I lost touch after the Soho News closed and she later moved to Los Angeles. Recent news of her declining health, particularly cruel in the final year, when her mounting ailments appeared to rob her of her acerbic voice, was sad beyond reckoning. I realize how much I owe her, not only for her constant infusions of humor but also for her astonishing enthusiasm in the midst of our often-discordant lives awash in so many forms of overindulgence. After I interviewed that German-Canadian psychic, Cindy sent me to cover a “psychic fair” in a Midtown hotel that turned out to be as enlightening as it was preposterous. But maybe she knew something I didn’t. At the time, I was a recovering Catholic and a hard-core secular humanist; now, forty years later, I’ve been engaged in research about the scientific nature of the human soul, the continuation of consciousness, and proof of the afterlife. I’m not sure what Cindy would have made of the accumulating evidence that consciousness exists separately from the brain and continues after death (sorry, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and all those others who still insist that “When we die, that’s it”). Would Cindy have laughed at the idea of ongoing evolution, or come up with a witty line that acknowledged the possibility — while wondering why someone who had lived the nightlife for so many years was now fascinated by the afterlife?

Indeed, as I’ve learned, what the modern mystic Edgar Cayce called “soul development” apparently escalates after death as we learn how we could have done things differently, and what unexpected potential awaits us. Cindy, who adored the Algonquin Round Table era and film noir, for instance, might now be discussing all this with some of her favorite writers — Margaret Drabble, P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout. And chatting with friends who have preceded her, like Sarah Longacre, another key member of the Soho News, who took the characteristic photo above. Practicing for a softball team that rarely won a game in the Publishers League, in an empty lot at Houston and Mercer Streets (now the NYU Coles gym), Cindy’s enthusiasm flowed the same way she created hilarity: by finding the heartbeat underlying the rowdy contradictions of life. “Hello, dollface. Get me Rewrite!” she would sometimes say into the phone for no particular reason, except that she liked the way it sounded. It’s a sound I’ll miss.