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Quickly: A Column for Slow Readers

Many years ago I remember reading a piece in the newspapers by Ernest Hemingway and thinking: “What windy writing.” That is the penalty for having a reputation as a writer. Any signed paragraph which appears in print is examined by the usual sadistic literary standards, rather than with the easy tolerance of a newspaper reader pleased to get an added fillip for his nickel.

But this is a fact of life which any professional writer soon learns to put up with, and I know that I will have to put up with it since I doubt very much of this column is going to be particularly well written. That would take too much time, and it would be time spent in what is certainly a lost cause. Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces — it abounds in snobs and critics. That many of you are frustrated in your ambitions, and undernourished in your pleasures, only makes me more venomous. Quite rightly. If I ever found myself in your position, I would not be charitable either. Nevertheless, given your general animus to those more talented than yourselves, the only way I see myself becoming one of the cherished traditions of the Village is to be actively disliked each week.

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At this point it can fairly asked: “Is this your only reason for writing a column?” And the next best answer I suppose is: “Egotism. My search to discover in public how much of me is sheer egotism.” I find a desire to inflict my casual opinions on a half-captive audience. If I did not, there would always be the danger of putting these casual opinions into a new novel, and we all know that a terrible thing that is to do.

I also feel tempted to say that novelists are the only group of people who should write a column. Their interests are large, if shallow, their habits are sufficiently unreliable for them to find something new to say quite often, and in most other respects they are more columnistic than the columnists. Most of us novelists who are any good are invariably half-educated; inaccurate, albeit brilliant upon occasion; insufferably vain of course; and — the indispensable requirement for a good newspaperman — as eager to tell a lie as the truth. (Saying the truth makes us burn with the desire to convince our audience, whereas telling a lie affords ample leisure to study the result.)

We good novelists also have the most unnewspaperly virtue of never praising fatherland and flag unless we are sick, tired, generally defeated, and want to turn a quick dishonest buck. Nobody but novelists would be asked to write columns if it were not for the sad fact that newspaper editors are professionally and obligatorially patriotic, and so never care to meet us. Indeed, even The Village Voice, which is remarkably conservative for so young a paper, and deeply patriotic about all community affairs, etc., etc, would not want me writing either if they were not so financially eager for free writing, and a successful name to go along with it, that they are ready to put up with almost anything, and I, as a minority stockholder in the Voice corporation, must agree that this paper does need something added to its general languor and whimsy.

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At any rate, dear reader, we begin a collaboration, which may go on for three weeks, three months, or, Lord forbid, for three-and-thirty years. I have only one prayer — that I weary of you before you tire of me. And therefore, so soon as I learn to write columnese in a quarter of an hour instead of the unprofitable fifty-two minutes this has taken, we will all know better if our trifling business is going to continue. If it does, there is one chance in a hundred — make it a hundred thousand — that I will become a habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night. ❖

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MAD Magazine: Eclipsed by Madness?

[ Editor’s note: Last year we told a coworker that the move to L.A. wouldn’t work — maybe the Dodgers and Giants could withstand relocation to that tainted lotus land that is California, but Mad magazine was just too much of a New Yorker to find harmony amid the perfected people. With the announcement that Mad will from now on feature mostly reprints, the postwar generations who had their bullshit detectors tripped for the first time by the magazine’s parodies of pop culture, politicians, priests, and other purveyors of dubious promises are left with only endless permutations of Alfred E. Neuman. The first painted portrait of the magazine’s gap-toothed mascot appeared on the cover of the December 1956 issue as a write-in candidate for president. Who knew that some six decades later we would need Alfred’s candidacy more than ever.

Here at the Voice archives we love old newsprint, and so have dug into our own yellowing volumes to seek a downtown take on that “usual gang of idiots” who once toiled away on MADison Avenue. In 1989, culture critic Geoffrey O’Brien reviewed a collection of the four-color Mad comic books, which were printed from 1952 until 1955. (Starting with issue #24, the publication was transformed into black-and-white magazine, a format change that proved wildly successful: By 1973 sales of individual issues had passed the 2,000,000-copy mark.)

The early Mad comic book was sui generis partly because, as O’Brien observes below, “In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen.” That insight, from exactly three decades ago, sounds quaint in our own age, when the artists and writers of Mad can no longer compete with the madness of reality. —R.C. Baker, July 9, 2019]

Stark Raving ‘Mad’: Harvey Kurtzman’s Laugh Riot

By Geoffrey O’Brien
October 1, 1989

We live in strange days: within a floodlit mausoleum of show business, the hours are measured by the anniversaries of music fes­tivals and movie premieres, by the birth of Mickey Mouse and the death of Elvis. All that was once disposable is frozen into monumentality — and in the age of mechan­ical reproduction that makes for more mon­uments than even the previous century had to contend with. One might well wonder how we got here. A major piece of the story can be found in The Complete Mad: itself a monument but a welcome one, 12 pounds of budding media awareness, a guided tour of early ’50s image glut conducted in a mood far removed from today’s mournful nostalgia.

Who would have imagined, when Mad began publication in October 1952, that 37 years later we would have its first 23 issues preserved for us in this boxed, hardbound, full-color facsimile, annotated with Talmu­dic devotion? Certainly not Mad’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, or the extraordinary artists who helped realize his vision of American pop culture; it would have been an altogether different magazine if they had. “We were working by the seat of our pants,” Kurtzman remarks in an interview in The Complete Mad. “I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. All I was doing was ‘funny.’ Funny. Gotta make it funny, gotta make me laugh, gotta tickle myself.” The out-of-control things that happened in the pages of the early Mad were of the sort that occur when people are not erecting monuments. “When you’re desperate to fill space, you think of outrageous things.”

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Mad was engaged in an elaborate practi­cal joke at the expense of the available cul­ture, covering billboards and movie posters and comic strip pages with graffiti that were more entertaining than what they de­faced. Today’s Mad — the black-and-white magazine which has carefully replicated the same formulas for the past 30 years — is so much a part of the landscape that it is hard to re-create the impact of Kurtzman’s origi­nal color comic-book version. Without ven­turing into obscenity, blasphemy, or revolu­tionary sloganeering, it managed to anticipate all the assaults on public taste that were to follow. (Kurtzman himself left Mad in 1956, following a dispute over finan­cial control, and was replaced by Al Feld­stein; the magazine was never quite the same, and Kurtzman’s own later ventures, though often brilliant, never achieved such popularity.)

In this boxed form Mad stands revealed as a perfect postmodern epic, decentered, multi-referential, inextricable from the par­ticulars of its place and time. To read it adequately we would in theory have to re­-create its original circumstances, watch the same television shows, listen to the same jukeboxes (for a hundredth chorus of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”), scan the same comic strips. Intertextuality can go no further. Mad’s guiding principle was spillover: the TV programs on neigh­boring channels blended, the separate com­ic strips on a page began communicating among themselves. Everything got thrown into the soup. No figure was allowed to dominate a space for long: the foreground action was forever being upstaged by clus­ters of microscopic idiots grimacing or wav­ing absurd placards, like bystanders grin­ning at the camera on TV news. It was an aesthetic of interruption and intrusion. Mad’s panels retained the classicism of tra­ditional comics only to subject it to re­morseless pummeling. The foursquare frame persisted, with Superduperman poised heroically in its center, but the walls and floors could be seen collapsing all around him.

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In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen. It was an era of oddly unconscious abeyance and dereliction. Not long before, popular art had gone through a series of more or less concurrent Golden Ages: of the movies, of jazz and the big bands, of radio, of the pulps and the comics. But a slow unraveling had begun. The forms that had seen the country through depression and world war seemed to have lost the effortless confidence that had given them the air of a national religion, a precar­ious unity of spirit encompassing swing rec­ords, Jack Benny, and Terry and the Pirates.

The postwar period’s most brilliant man­ifestations — bebop, film noir — were already marginal. At center stage a warped stiffness seemed to have taken over. The Red Scare generated such movies as My Son John, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and Red Planet Mars, gibbering studies in deception and religiosity whose every frame seemed grotesquely off-key. The bestseller list al­ternated between billowing clouds of spiri­tual comfort (The Silver Chalice, The Gown of Glory, A Man Called Peter, The Power of Positive Thinking, This I Believe) and the sustained paranoid outbursts of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Television was exemplified by variety and quiz shows of trancelike somnolence (The Arthur Murray Show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, I’ve Got a Secret, You Asked for It) and trans­planted radio serials like Gangbusters and The Lone Ranger. As for Hollywood, it of­fered little beyond Martin and Lewis, Ab­bott and Costello, the desperate grandiosity of 3-D and Cinerama, and, for the Saturday afternoon crowd, cheapo adventure flicks like Son of Ali Baba and The Battle at Apache Pass. The comic strips, in the meantime, persisted without change, as Skeezix, Dick Tracy, and Orphan Annie lived on in a world where nobody ever got older.

In that strange era before the dawn of media self-consciousness, evidence of men­tal fatigue was everywhere. Humor consist­ed of Jack Benny and Bob Hope recycling their old routines or Donald O’Connor locked in conversation with a talking mule. The real humor, however, was in all the places it wasn’t supposed to be: in the lurid solemnity of movie posters, in the sancti­monious hucksterism of advertising, in the unquestioned formulas that governed com­ic-book plots. Plainly people had gotten so used to grinding the stuff out that it had been a while since anyone actually looked at it.

Mad was like the lone giggle that subverts a hitherto respectful audience into uncon­trolled laughter. Well, not exactly lone. The Warner Brothers cartoonists had created a parodistic parallel world throughout the ’40s, and since 1950 Sid Caesar and Imo­gene Coca had been broadcasting Your Show of Shows, to be joined in 1952 by The Ernie Kovacs Show and Steve Allen on To­night. More remotely, there was the linger­ing influence of the Marx Brothers and of S.J. Perelman’s fantasias on the themes of pulp fiction and advertising. Before long Stan Freberg would bring another medium into the picture with recorded parodies like St. George and the Dragonet and an echo­-ridden Heartbreak Hotel. None of these could top Mad’s secret weapon: its explo­sive visual presence. You might not find it funny, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it; its graphics changed the tone of a room just by being there.

By adopting the form of a comic book, Mad had the advantage of surprise; like a sniper firing from an unsuspected position. Comic books until then had fed the same material over and over to an audience limit­ed in age and influence, rarely reaching anyone outside that audience except for crusading congressmen, psychologists, and clergymen. No comics were more targeted than those of Mad’s parent company, EC (Educational Comics), creator of the most morbidly explicit horror tales, the most in­ventively apocalyptic science fiction, and the most harrowing and socially conscious crime stories, all of them written and edited by the brilliant and astonishingly prolific Al Feldstein. When Harvey Kurtzman joined EC, he had the advantage of working with a staff that had already mastered the sharp and savage tactics of The Vault of Horror and Shock SuspenStories.

Kurtzman, a Brooklyn-born journeyman gag cartoonist in his late twenties, was re­markable for his combined mastery of writ­ing and drawing. A perfectionist in matters of detail, he habitually sketched out each story frame by frame, allowing artists small leeway in interpreting his layouts. Initially he edited a pair of war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, notable for their sober restraint and morally serious tone in contrast to EC’s usual sardonic Grand Guignol. The Civil War issues (re­printed as part of Russ Cochran’s EC Clas­sics series) demonstrate an eye obsessed with fusing swarms of historical detail into impeccably harmonious sequences of frames; if Kurtzman had not been a great humorist he could clearly have been a great propagandist. The distinctive styles of his artists (Wallace Wood, Will Elder, Jack Da­vis, John Severin) are, although still appar­ent, carefully held in check. Kurtzman’s directorial control of his comics’ overall look was unchallenged although sometimes resented.

Mad started routinely enough, with farci­cal variations on standard comic-book plots, hit its stride with the “Superduper­man” and “Shadow” features in the fourth issue, and grew steadily more experimental as long as it was under Kurtzman’s editor­ship. In the meantime it became a success of cultlike intensity, trailed by a pack of imitations — including EC’s own Panic, which featured the same artists as Mad but under the guidance of Al Feldstein. Judging from the issues reprinted by Cochran, Pan­ic had a rougher edge than Mad; the vio­lence in its Mike Hammer and This Is Your Life takeoffs is almost on a par with one of Feldstein’s horror comics. There is not a trace, however, of Kurtzman’s flair for fan­tasy and pure nonsense, or of his capacity for bending the comic book form into unex­pected shapes.

Kurtzman didn’t have to invent his hu­mor, it was already there. “I was always surprised at how people living and working in different places around the city would be thinking the same thing. We were a product of our Jewish backgrounds in New York; we were in the same city living in different boroughs, yet we were having the same ex­periences. It was bizarre that at Music and Art in the lunch room we’d carry on and do our satire parodies… I remember specifi­cally sitting around in the lunch room doing the ‘operating scene,’ or better still, doing the ‘airplane scene,’ the German ace going down in the Fokker in flames… You’d see a movie, and you’d make fun of it, and 20 other guys who saw the same movie, and who had the same kind of Jewish direction of thinking would come up with the same scene.”

However familiar its tone was on the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, for most of its readers Mad was a new noise: noise about noise, about the noise that had been going on in every form of public entertain­ment and information but had never been labeled, an encyclopedia of what had been bombarding people’s eyes and ears. Reading Mad was like watching a documentary about how it felt to be on the receiving end of everything that had not yet been named the media. To children growing up in the ’50s, Mad provided the reassurance that someone else was watching, someone else had seen what it looked like. The specific content of its satire was not as important as the simple acknowledgement that we were all soaked in mass-produced words and images.

Whether parodying comic strips (Prince Violent, Manduck the Magician), movies (From Eternity Back to Here, Under the Waterfront), or TV shows (The Lone Stranger, Howdy Dooit), Kurtzman reiter­ated a single point: just because this stuff was everywhere didn’t mean it was real or normal. He got off on the sheer oddness of, for instance, comic strip conventions: that Mickey Mouse wore white gloves or that the characters in Gasoline Alley aged at drastically different rates. For a ’50s child, who unlike Kurtzman and company had not been reading the same comics since the ’30s, the most anachronistic aspect of Mad was its loving assault on the funny papers. By 1954 who knew or cared about Smilin’ Jack, Gasoline Alley, Mandrake the Magi­cian, or even Flash Gordon or Little Orphan Annie? For Mad’s makers, however, this was home base, the root of their aesthetic education.

Television was a more alien presence for them; it’s fascinating to see how they ren­der the actual retinal impact of the TV image, complete with wavering horizontal lines, reception problems, and the test pat­terns that persisted before and after the shows. Mad’s TV parodies almost invari­ably ran in black-and-white, because that denoted television: TV was still visible as something other, a rackety and unsightly intrusion.

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When all else failed, Mad relied on a rep­ertoire of instant laugh-getters. These in­cluded a select list of words (furshlugginer, potrzebie, halvah, blintzes); names (Melvin Coznowski, Alfred E. Neuman), expletives (of which “Hoo-hah!” and “Yech!” were early favorites), and a few standard syntac­tical ploys. Kurtzman relied heavily on the “but mainly” construction, as in: “We are giving special attention to T.V. because we believe it has become an integral part of living… a powerful influence in shaping the future… but mainly we are giving at­tention because we just got a new T.V. set,” or “Once more I go to fight for law and order… for justice… but mainly for add­ing the sadistic element that is such a vital part of comic books!” With slight variations the cadence was good for a thousand gags, as in Flesh Garden’s declaration: “That’s the trouble with us earthlings! We always assume that alien creatures are hostile! I refuse to kill said alien creature in the belief it is hostile! I will kill it just for fun!”

That this was Jewish humor was a well­-kept secret; to most of Mad’s readers, judg­ing from the letters pages, halvah and blin­tzes were nonsense words springing from nowhere. (The “bop talk” intervals and passing references to Charlie Parker must have been equally arcane to many.) As Kurtzman has noted, however, the in-jokes underwent a peculiar alchemy in their pas­sage to the outside world:· “Of course these names come out of the artist’s, the author’s experience. But when they turn into things like furshlugginer or potrzebie they take on an air of mystery… These were personal real things to us that we were talking about, and private in a sense, and so they imparted a sense of intrigue; the audience would be touched by this mysterious arrangement of sounds.” A new in-group was forged, with furshlugginer and potrzebie as its shibboleths.

Kurtzman’s Mad had one underlying joke: What if the hero turned out to be a jerk? All the heroes, whether Superduper­man or Flesh Garden or the Lone Stranger, were the same, lecherous, avaricious cow­ards, betraying every ideal to stay on top and most of the time losing. If they won, it was in demonic fashion: Bat Boy in Bat Boy and Rubin turned out to be a vampire bat, and Teddy of Teddy and the Pirates ended up operating an opium smuggling ring with his fellow pirates.

Although much has been made of Mad’s satirical bent, its jibes tended to be quite mild; Kurtzman’s takes on the hypocrisies of television, advertising, and the funny pa­pers would not have stirred controversy if couched as essays in The Saturday Review. His rare forays into politics — notably the routine in which Senator McCarthy became a panelist on What’s My Shine? — were sig­nificant not so much for what they said as for raising the subject at all. Kurtzman’s humor was less satire than formalist deliri­um; much of the funniest stuff, the send­ups of such items as picture puzzles or Rip­ley’s Believe It or Not, had no real point beyond a pleasure in their own gratuitous­ness. He loved particularly to parody print media; through his work small children un­consciously absorbed lessons in typography and layout, and beyond that the underlying lesson that format is content. The formats he played with included the Daily NewsThe Racing Form, movie ads, the posters for the Miss Rheingold contest, 3-D comics, fill-in-the dots and “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzles, the ads in the back of comic books. The tiniest visual details were significant: changes in typeface, the spacing between letters, the relative size of different elements on the page.

Mad had an air of chaos just barely held at bay. Crazed as it might appear, there was always the implication that things might get much worse. In every frame the forces of coherence fought a losing battle against entropy. The jokes stepped on each other’s toes, one gag shoved another out of the way, voices drowned each other out in violently escalating shouting matches. In the final frames of the Julius Caesar lampoon — in­tended as a self-referential commentary on Mad’s own methods — Marlon Brando as Mark Antony and James Mason as Brutus metamorphose rapidly into Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick, and Rip Kirby, while Marilyn Monroe rips apart the frame to reveal Donald Duck and Goofy underneath (“Here everyone whips off rubber masks and you find out the hero really isn’t the hero… the villain really isn’t the villain… I’m not really your MAD writer… mat­ter of fact, this MAD comic book isn’t really a MAD comic book…”). In “3-Dimen­sions!,” a dazzling exploration of the double vision and general disorientation produced by 3-D comics leads into more basic questions of perspective and reality. Holes are ripped in the frame, one page collapses onto another, and the last page of all is an empty white space.

No two people will agree on just how funny Mad was, but it always hummed with energy and it always looked great. The Complete Mad presents the splendors of Elder, Wood, Davis, and company as they have never been seen before, to such effect that the humor is almost swamped by the magnificence of the drawing. (In particular, the love-it-or-hate-it all-out ugliness of Ba­sil Wolverton’s monstrous candidates for Miss Potgold take on terrifying propor­tions.) While Wallace Wood and Jack Davis executed Kurtzman’s ideas with wonderful fluency and humor, Will Elder was Mad’s other guiding genius. Eider’s eerie ability to appropriate the style of other cartoonists is amply displayed in his parodies of Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, The Katzenjam­mer Kids, and Archie, but beyond mere mimicry there’s a blast of wildly destructive humor. If Kurtzman was the satirist, Elder was the anarchist: “I always wanted to shock people… I was the Manson of the zanies.” Elder’s vision of Archie and Jug­head as sullen juvenile delinquents becomes genuinely ominous, while his transforma­tion of Mickey Mouse into the vengeful, stubble-faced Mickey Rodent cut too close for the “Walt Dizzy” people, who threat­ened legal action.

The Kurtzman-Elder collaboration can be seen at its best in Howdy Dooit, with its commercials for Bupgoo (“Bupgoo makes a glass of milk look exactly like a glass of beer!”) and Skwushy’s Sliced White-Bread (“If it’s good bread — it’s a wonder!”) and its maniacal contingent of children in the “Peewee Gallery,” an underage mob ready to overwhelm the repellent “Buffalo Bill.” When Buffalo Bill asks one sinister-looking youngster what he wants to be when he grows up (“A police chief? A fireman? A Indian? Or, [hot-dog], maybe a jet-fighter pilot? Huh?”) the boy replies: “Please, Buf­falo Bill, don’t be juvenile!… If one had the choice, it would probably be soundest to get into a white-collar occupation such as an investment broker or some-such! Of course… advertising and entertainment are lucrative fields if one hits the top brack­ets… much like Howdy Dooit has! In other words… what I want to do when I grow up, is to be a hustler like Howdy Dooit!” To which Bill replies: “But child… Howdy Dooit is no hustler!… Howdy Dooit is a happy wooden marionette, manipulated by strings! Howdy Dooit, child, is no merce­nary, money grubbing hustler… I, Buffalo Bill, am the mercenary, money grubbing hustler!” Seizing a pair of scissors, the child cuts Buffalo Bill’s invisible strings. As Bill falls limp and vacant-eyed to the studio floor, a raging Howdy Dooit screams for the cameras to cut.

The humor to a large degree was about the uncanny skill of the artists. Their abili­ty to summon up the “real” figures of tele­vision, movies, and comic’ strips and force them to do outrageous things provoked a manic glee. It was the revenge of the car­toonists, and every reader got a jolt of sub­versive satisfaction from it. That Mickey Mouse and Archie were not really the targets even a child could begin to grasp. Mad made it clear that all the images and characters were made by people — and that what was made could also be unmade. They took them apart before our eyes, put mustaches on them, made them speak Yiddish or pig latin.

The world Mad caricatured no longer exists, but the Mad of the ’50s still seems remarkably current. After all, the Age of Parody that it helped kick off — the age that extended through Lenny Bruce, The Realist, Zap Comix, Blazing Saddles, and Saturday Night Live — ended only recently. It ended when the potential targets of parody, from Ronald Reagan and Joe Isuzu on down, finally worked out how to short-circuit the process by deliberately making themselves parodies in advance: pre-caricatured, as jeans are preshunk. Presumably some future Kurtzman is working on the problem right now.

The problem of distinguishing parodies from the real world had been broached from the beginning in the pages of Mad. It was another unusual, perhaps unintended dimension of that reading experience. For me, as for many of Mad’s youngest readers, the objects of parody were altogether unknown. Although I could follow them when it came to Captain Video, The Lone Ranger, and Howdy Doody, I was at sea on everything else and besides no one had explained what a parody was. Slowly, by a painstaking archaeological process, I divined that something else was being referred to, but it was no easy matter to reconstruct the unknown referent, to re-create, say, Little Orphan Annie from “Little Orphan Melvin” or the McCarthy hearings from Mad’s conversion of them into the quiz show What’s My Shine? It was a peculiar education, learning about the world from the image it cast in Mad’s deforming mirrors. It was also an education from which one never quite recovered, for by the time those original models were at last revealed, they had acquired in the uncovering a haunting and perpetual aura of incongruity.

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MAD MATTER

The Complete Mad. Notes and Com­ments Edited by John Benson and Written by John Benson, Bill Mason, and Bhob Stewart. Published by Russ Cochran (P.O. Box 469, West Plains, MO 65775), $30 each; $130 for boxed, four-volume set. Pre­vious generations had the Harvard Classics and the Encyclopaedia Britannica to adorn their sitting rooms; we have this luxurious full-color reproduction of the entire 23-is­sue run of Mad in its original comic-book format. Mad was America’s secret weapon against the stultifying cultural climate of the early ’50s, a high-intensity mix of warped takeoffs, eye-popping graphics, and just plain rowdiness. One can wander around for days in this fun house, happily mingling with Melvin of the Apes, Starchie, G.I. Shmoe, and a cast of thousands. Russ Cochran, who has previously issued black-­and-white reprints of the complete EC comics line, caps the series with this mag­nificent set, cheap at the price.

Two-Fisted Tales (EC Classics #3). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. Kurtzman’s war comics, carefully re­searched and often somber, were designed to counteract the gung-ho unreality that prevailed (and prevails) in the genre. This reprint assembles the pieces of an uncom­pleted Civil War project which for commer­cial reasons stopped short at the fall of Fort Donelson. The vigorously orchestrated graphics by Jack Davis, Wallace Wood, and the rest of the future Mad crew inject life into the irreproachably “educational” material.

Panic (EC Classics # 10). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. EC’s home­grown imitation Mad almost looks like the original — not surprisingly, since it used vir­tually the same artists. On closer examina­tion, however, the layouts are more predict­able and the humor more bludgeoning, with a predilection for editor Al Feldstein’s brand of horror. This edition reprints the first two issues complete, focusing on Mick­ey Spillane, This Is Your Life, The African Queen, and Broadway realism (a rather philistinish dig at Williams, Miller, and Inge); best of the bunch is Will Elder’s free-form rewrite of The Lady or the Tiger?

Flash Gordon: The Complete Daily Strips, 1951–1953. By Dan Barry and Harvey Kurtzman, with Frank Frazetta and Jack Davis. Kitchen Sink Press, $13.95. Kurtzman explores his comic strip roots in a revived Flash Gordon strip he wrote shortly before the inception of Mad. Includes an interview with Kurtzman and samples of his rough sketches.

Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. By Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen Sink Press, $29.95; $14.95 paper. This reprint of a scarce 1959 Ballantine paperback is highly recommended for a taste of Kurtzman on his own and at his sharpest. The standouts in this set of four extended fables are “The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Ex­ecutive Suite” (a bitter firsthand report on lechery, penny-pinching, and general mean-­spiritedness in the lower reaches of the publishing world) and “Decadence Degen­erated” (a caricature of the Old South based on Kurtzman’s wartime experiences in Par­is, Texas).

Goodman Beaver. By Harvey Kurtz­man and Will Elder. Kitchen Sink Press, $9.95. The naive go-getter who made his first appearance in Jungle Book continues his pilgrim’s progress through contempo­rary chicanery. The strip ran regularly in Kurtzman’s magazine Help!, a failed ’60s bid to recreate the success of Mad. After that, Kurtzman and Elder went over to Playboy with the long-running but disap­pointingly low-energy “Little Orphan Fan­nie” feature.

My Life As a Cartoonist. By Harvey Kurtzman. Pocket Books, $2.50 paper. Don’t expect too much revelation from this slim paperback, aimed at younger readers; Kurtzman’s interviews in The Complete Mad are a lot more revealing about the magazine’s origins. The book does at least offer a short course in cartooning, including advice on brushes and inks. — G.O’B.

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Our Nixon: Whose Life Was It Anyway?

1. Nixon is Everywhere

I’m going to put on an old record, if you don’t mind. Let’s see if I remember how this damned hi-fi works. The needle’s kind of scratchy, but — ah, there we go. You’ll rec­ognize those gliding saxophones, noncha­lant and sprightly. The voice, which has a vintage Buick’s lazy swagger — bourbon-ma­hoganied; Camel-catarrhed — belongs to an approximate contemporary of Richard Nix­on’s. I’m playing an alternate take of Frank Sinatra doing “Witchcraft,” of which, as it doesn’t exist, I own the only copy.

Those wiggling fingertips
Dartin’ eyes that never quit, ah
That sweaty upper lip … lt’s —

Saturday, September 20, 1952; Eugene, Oregon. The Republican nominee for vice president chuffed into town aboard his campaign train, the Nixon Special. Two days earlier, the New York Post had re­vealed that the junior California senator had had a secret fund set up for his benefit by his Orange County backers. The follow­ing Tuesday, he would appear on TV, hag­gardly protesting not so much his inno­cence as his virtue, his wife’s virtue, his little daughters’ dog’s virtue — the Checkers speech. But on Saturday, in liberal, colle­giate Eugene, the depot crowd included hecklers with picket signs. According to Roger Morris in his magisterial Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, “Two junior college students carried one reading ‘WILL THE VEEP’S SAL­ARY BE ENOUGH, DICK?’ ”

I’m a great admirer of the Morris book, but I’ve always been miffed about that “ju­nior college” crack. At the time, my father, who was holding up the right end of the sign — in the photo in our family album my mom’s face at the other end is obscured­ — was regarded as one of the University of Oregon’s most promising graduate students in American history. He was there on the GI Bill, having, like Nixon, been in the Navy during the second World War.

Nearly 20 years later, my father, by then in the Foreign Service, got sent over to the White House to brief President Nixon on some bit of diplomatic twaddle. At least as Dad reported it to us that night, back in the D.C. suburbs — we’d lived like kings abroad, only to learn on coming home that we were middle-class: bummer — he’d spent the whole interview being disconcerted at how Nixon, whose well-drilled memory for faces was famously prodigious, kept looking at him with the strangest smile. Bracing him­self for the presidential question that never came — “Where have I seen you before?”­ — my father glumly pondered the effect of his answer: “Probably on one end of a 15-foot sign.”

We all laughed. We’d been raised as sec­ond-generation Nixon-haters. Our cat, a tangle of Siamese nerves that Dad had named Checkers, was probably around somewhere, looking panicked.

Vaulting into the bridge, Sinatra’s confi­dence breasts the pumping horns like whitecaps:

And al-though-my-kids-are-reading Ca-MUS —
When you de-stabilize Chile
My heart says “Yes, indeed, Tricky —­
Pro-ceed with what you’re making us do,” yes — it’s

Nixon …

On November 8, 1972 — the day after Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection victory over George McGovern — my father was in Bethesda Naval Hospital, dying. I went to his bed in the intensive care unit, telling myself that he ought to know about the results. He’d raised me to believe that such things were important, and I suppose that, for reassurance’s sake, I needed to hear that he still thought so.

“Well, Dad, it’s all over,” I said. “Nixon won.”

My poor father! He was zonked on a smorgasbord of painkillers. Hopelessly con­fused, his yellowed vague eyes wandered around. But somehow he knew that he ought to respond, and finally he beseeched his brain into remembering how. Here’s what he muttered to placate me:

“Awful man.”

It would probably please him to know that those were the last words I ever heard him speak.

But many years later, in Los Angeles, I was telling an editor that I thought a certain obstreperous celebrity’s behavior was Nix­on-esque. Judith looked at me fondly, for which I’m grateful to her. And then she laughed: “Oh, Tom — everyone reminds you of Nixon …”

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2. Yorba Linda

The Roger Morris biography is the best Nixon book, surpassing even Garry Wills’s great Nixon Agonistes, because Morris is the only writer to recognize Nixon’s story as fundamentally Californian; that’s to say, a tale of the West. It’s true that Garry Wills can write rings around nearly everybody, but the problem is that Wills can also write rings around himself.

California is where beginnings end. To get there, we devastated a continent, butch­ering its inhabitants as we went. We’d used Africa as a human meat locker. Incredibly, we now spend our time fretting over just where we lost our innocence.

But the Nixons missed the epic; missed the, shall we say, glamour. The Nixons came over after the Mayflower, on boats whose names no one remembers. The Nix­ons followed the wagon trains out West, looking for a good spot to put a grocery. The Nixons looked upon the vista that left stout Cortez agape, and thought, Now here’s a place for the grocery; vistas are nice, but we’re too poor to enjoy them. There have always been more Nixons among us than pioneers.

Yorba Linda, California, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, is one of the bleakest, butt-­ugly places I ever care to see. In hot weath­er, it smells seared, as if whatever was real­ly there burned long ago, and this is a substitute. The people are very nice in a wan way, sort of like they worry what you’ll do if they aren’t.

At 10, writing to his mother — the family having moved to Whittier by then — Nixon produced his first contribution to the Nixon legend: the Good Dog Letter.

Dear Master,

The two boys that you left me with are very bad to me. Their dog, Jim, is very old and he will never talk or play with me.

On Saturday the boys went hunting. Jim and myself went with them. While going through the woods one of the boys triped and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him. He kiked me in the side and we started on. While we were walking I saw a black round thing in a tree. I hit it with my paw. A swarm of black thing came out of it. I felt pain all over. I started to run and as both of my eys were swelled shut I fell into a pond. When I got home I was very sore, I wish you would come home right now.

Your good dog,
Richard

Whatever else this is, it’s certainly what Morris calls it: “the pitiable cry and fantasy of a lonely boy.” By adolescence, though, nothing shows but determination — a deter­mination that often seems to precede any purpose, even as it precludes any satisfac­tion. At Duke, where he studied law in the ’30s, Nixon was known as “Iron Butt” for his punishing study habits. For the rest of his life, he treated intellectual diligence as a form of toughness. It was the credo of a man who staked more on his will than his gifts, considerable as those gifts were; he was, after all, the brainiest president of this century. (Only his hero, Woodrow Wilson, comes close.)

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When Nixon, as a young lawyer, started wooing Patricia Ryan, he would chauffeur her to Los Angeles for her dates with other beaus, and then grimly return to collect her afterward. There is no record of whatever self-immolating thoughts he may have had in the interims.

Like her husband, Pat Nixon came from near penury — worse in her case than his, actually. In a rare slip of self-discipline, she once bridled at Gloria Steinem — “I never had it easy, I’m not at all like you” — having incorrectly but revealingly assumed that Steinem was born privileged. During Nix­on’s presidency, she was, like him, widely derided. But she must have been a woman of considerable forbearance and courage. One fact that never came out until her death last year from lung cancer was that she’d been a furious closet chain-smoker­ — as, for that matter, was (is) Jacqueline Kennedy.

During World War II, Nixon served as a supply officer in the South Pacific. You sort of want to picture him standing on shore, watching as swank Jack Kennedy’s PT boat flashes by. But for what it’s worth, Nixon’s unglamorous labors were undoubtedly more help to the war effort. This also seems to have been the only period of his life when he was relaxed and socially at ease: being Lieutenant Nixon took the chore of being Nixon out of his. hands.

Like most idylls, it couldn’t last. Today, no one thinks of the late ’40s as years of revolutionary ferment, but in many ways they were. Spawned by the wartime economic boom, armed with the GI Bill, Ameri­ca’s modern middle class had reached the scene; before settling down to enjoy their hard-won tract homes and TV sets, the newcomers conducted their own reign of terror. While postwar politics are usually described exclusively in terms of Cold War paranoia, most of the red-baiting and witch­hunting was under way well before the Russians ever got the bomb, in the overlooked interlude when the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. Something else was go­ing on, or also going on — the dislodging of an old order, in this case of the patrician gentleman’s club that had assumed that running the country was its preserve, with the traditional cry of “Treason!” as the pretext. In Nixon — “the ultimate self-made man,” as Garry Wills called him — the newly assertive postwar middle class found its churlish cynosure, a Robespierre of the raw new suburbs.

Back in Whittier, some well-heeled local Republicans, the self-styled Committee of 100, recruited the returned vet to run for Congress against the local squire, amiable, pipe-smoking Jerry Voorhis — who’s gone stumbling off into history’s footnote-hills without ever having known what hit him. As he always would, Nixon ran hard and ran dirty. But to him, smearing Voorhis as a fellow traveler probably didn’t even seem vindictive — just diligent. Campaigning, which he hated, was a test of his mettle, and he would always rather get caught sin­ning than relenting.

The Hiss case came in ’48. Like all Nixon’s subsequent crises — his favored term for situations involving himself — it took shape as both a morality play and an oddly inverted class struggle, with psychological underpinnings that were all out of whack with its surface dynamics. I might as well admit that if anybody can get me rooting for Nixon, it’s Alger Hiss. Elegant, well-con­nected, and supercilious, the accused Sovi­et agent was a New Deal golden boy, an iron of the Establishment. Yet what Nixon the glowering bourgeois avenger had against him wasn’t his betrayal of his class, but his class. The outsider was saving the Establishment from the insider: Nixon’s so­cial resentment fostered not radicalism but militant conventionality, because he saw going against convention as being itself one of privilege’s hoity-toity prerogatives.

Once again, Nixon cut corners, diddling the evidence even where the unriddled truth might have won the day for him. The congressional prosecutor, not the defen­dant, was the one who behaved throughout as if the pack was breathing down his neck, and desperate remedies were in order to compensate. Even as president, Nixon would cling to nailing Hiss as what a later generation would call his defining moment, in self-apostrophizing language that the same generation might also recognize as less appropriate to a political vendetta than to a therapeutic breakthrough.

1950: the Senate race. He ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas — another upper­ crust darling to be given her comeuppance, attacked as the “Pink Lady,” sent reeling. Even if the charge wasn’t true, she, like Voorhis and Hiss, deserved to be brought down for having made him feel small.

Just two years later came the vice-presi­dential nomination, the slush fund, Check­ers. After the success of Nixon’s speech had cornered a furious Eisenhower into keeping him on the ticket, Ike patronized him even as he welcomed him: “You’re my boy.”

He stayed that for the next eight years, doing the partisan chores Ike disdained, feeding the faithful the partisan red meat Ike despised. His reward was the 1960 presidential nomination, and Ike was grudging about giving him even that. After Nixon lost that November, Jack Kennedy is said to have delivered a famously cutting dismissal:. “No class.”

In 1962, Nixon ran for governor of Cali­fornia and lost, disastrously. Nobody be­lieved he had any interest in governing Cali­fornia. (They were right.) After his defeat, he lost control. He met the press, and saw a swarm of black thing. “You won’t have Nix­on to kick around anymore,” he told it.

3. Hate

How wrong he was, and still is. We’ll never get done kicking him around.

Oh, how we hated him! New Frontier parents and their New Left kids can agree: nobody was ever hated with the zest we brought to hating Nixon. Joe McCarthy aroused too much fear for hate to gain ascendancy; Ronald Reagan mostly inspired an Invasion of the Body Snatchers dread that one day we’d relax our vigilance and end up liking him, as lulled as everybody else.

But hating Nixon was lovely. You felt good about life when you hated him. There are still millions of people in their forties and older whose political self-esteem is founded on their hatred of Nixon. (I hated him first. Well, I hated him more.)

Yet it had a special emotional timbre, this hate. It meant a lot to us. It was savagely contemptuous, without managing to sound dismissive. It insisted on finding him not only wicked but ridiculous, not only evil but absurd. It was strident and obsessively ran­corous, but we’d have been baffled had any­one suggested that there was, or could be, anything excessive about it. It was strangely reassuring, because so long as we could hate him, we had no doubts about our­selves. It was appealingly familiar — he’d al­ways been right there in our faces, as grasp­able as themorning toothbrush. It was —

Intimate.

The obituaries are calling Nixon’s psy­chology a riddle and a mystery, paradoxical and baffling. That’s a laugh. He lived ex­posed to us. We knew him like the backs of our hands. Maybe we hated him, but most Americans had a hard time pretending that they didn’t understand him. Then again, we also had a good time pretending that we didn’t understand him — but well, whatever, never mind.

That callow, censorious tyro in ’50s newsreels, making his voice empty to make it sound big, whose ghastliness was that he was behaving like a gangster in hopes of winning America’s approval and knew no other way of winning it: Savonarola as a go-­getter. The self-consciousness, lashed by in­visible whips, that made him seem most hypocritical when he was trying to act hu­man, eyes flickering with a baffled suspicion that these atrocious shenanigans were what some sadist had devised as the native clog dance of congeniality. That awful, grimac­ing discomfort with himself — holding his body, as Greil Marcus once described Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel, as if it were an enormous clubfoot. The wonderful actor Lane Smith, who played Nixon with beauty in an otherwise dithering miniseries The Final Days, remarked that mimicking Nixon’s body language left him with back and muscle cramps for months. And geez — don’t you wonder what it did to Nixon?

He was our ugliness; we knew it all along. “Sir, there’s a cancer on the Presidency,” said John Dean in the Oval Office one day, doing his lickspittle best to ignore the heav­ing, purple-fisted mass of malignancy that sprawled across the desk from him, forcing itself to blink out an ingratiating smile through its ooze.

He was what we’re like when we’re alone; he was always alone. Nixon went through life clutching his brain like a pis­tol — only a pistol, when everyone else had been given brand-new machine guns! How unfair! That must be why he refused a res­pirator at the end. He wouldn’t have want­ed to face the world weaponless.

“Who could love Duddy Kravitz?” asks Duddy Kravitz, scathingly. Who could love Nixon? (His daughters did. And Pat, I sus­pect, understood him — which is a form of love.) He seemed to like playing the piano. Otherwise, the record of his life includes not a single instance of public warmth, ease, enjoyment, pleasure, humor. (He couldn’t laugh at himself — too many others had.) Only the resentment was authentic. Those who saw him in private recall ges­tures of awkward kindness that usually, touchingly, took the form of consolation. Alexis de Tocqueville, so often nudged awake by quote mongers like me that he has yet to get a decent night’s sleep in the grave, said that he’d seen more unexplained personal unhappiness in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

Nixon had devotees: William Safire played Bernstein to his Charles Foster Kane. He had peers, who accorded him a grudging professional respect. Did he have any friends?

Garry Wills once confessed his puzzle­ment that Nixon, a certified intellectual, chose to surround himself with thugs. (Sheesh — didn’t Wills go to high school? I know why.) As president, his idea of relax­ation was to hang with Bebe Rebozo, whose brains were in his tan: a good-time dullard, pure Miami — a bit like Brezhnev. I often wonder what they talked about when they plodded the beach at Key Biscayne, Nixon in sand-filled wingtips. Was it like Of Mice and Men: “Tell me again about the Demo­crats, Dick.” Or perhaps more wistful: “Tell me what it’s like to have fun, Bebe.” Tell me what it’s like to be stupid.

What was Nixon to his fellow WASPs? Why, don’t you know? He was our Jew — our Wandering Jew. Of course, we had to revile him, in his stubborn industry, his bleak and somehow sinister tenacity, his loneliness. That could, incidentally, account for Nixon’s own coarse and somehow over­acted, overcompensatory anti-Semitism; it would have been just like him to recognize the affinity and, not needing any more es­trangements, shrink from it. If anti-Semi­tism is the socialism of the ignorant, as Sartre once said (Farrakhan should really bone up on his Sartre: loads of good stuff there, I imagine ), then hatred of Nixon, in its virulence, often ended up looking and sounding uncannily like the good liberal’s substitute for a pogrom.

It served the same purpose, anyway — that of redefining the troubling self one so inchoately despises as Other. Consider how determined we were to deny Nixon not only dignity but humanity: Plastic man! Hollow man! (Self-manufactured man!) We needed to see him as a golem, because only that would absolutely prove that he was no kin to us. If nothing else, we gave him the bitter right to ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” And to warn — skipping down to the next entry in my Bartlett’s — “The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

The Shakespeare character to whom Nix­on was most often compared used to be Richard III, but that was just liberal lazy­-mindedness taking a cheap shot: same first name, they’re both wicked, yar har har. He’s Shylock, isn’t he?

Here’s dignity at last. Shakespeare had set out to write a crowd-pleasing anti-Se­mitic caricature. But then, carried away by the humanity of this genius, he created lit­erature’s first great antihero instead. Maybe we, in our inadvertent 40-year collaboration with Nixon, did the same; what dark gran­deur. What drama he gave us. (They were crises.) He never let us down: he was our Nixon every minute, the poor man. He nev­er stopped working at it, no matter the circumstances. “Do you know why Bach is better than Brahms?” the grizzled, not-a-­crook former president demanded of a star­tled Gary Hart not too many years ago, when they were seated together at a state funeral. “Bach is tougher than Brahms.”

How we needed him. When Nixon re­signed, longtime liberal shill Richard Good­win made the perfect comment. “Now I know how all those kids felt when the Bea­tles broke up,” he said.

4. The Nixon Presidency, 1969-74

Driving home the afternoon of the day Richard Nixon died, I heard the truculent, slurring voice of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant on a D.C. oldies station. “No, Wa-tergate it does not bother me,” Van Zant, who’s dead as a doornail himself, was sneering. “Does your conscience bother you — tell me true  …  Sweet Home Alabama …”

Granted, in northern Virginia, where I now reside once again — I last lived here the year Nixon resigned — you can hear “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio pretty near every day of the week. We have no songs of regional pride of our own, having no region­al pride. (We’re about to prove this with our Senate race.) But last Friday, I couldn’t help wondering if some DJ was offering up a tribute.

Remember the Silent Majority? You probably do: they haven’t shut up since. Gore Vidal was the first to note that Nix­on’s coinage had been Homer’s term for the dead.

Truculent was the word for them. Nixon diehards often seemed moved to support him out of pure spite, relishing how he stuck in liberal America’s craw. They didn’t really act as if they liked him any better than we did; they just enjoyed the perversi­ty of rooting for him anyway, because they knew that liberal America scorned them as much as it scorned him. How sad for Nixon that his admirers held the same opinion of him as his enemies. Having internalized the elite’s contempt — liberal America’s great sin in the ’60s, as stalwart Ronnie Van Zant well knew — their only available substitute for the pride they’d been denied was to say that they liked being trash, and give the finger. Nixon was the finger.

Yet however enthusiasticallv his followers adopted his sense of rankling injury as their own, Nixon — as he well knew — remained a supremely unlikely, discomfited vessel for Jacksonian populism, even of this revanch­ist, mutually debasing sort. His vision of governance, after all, was loftier. The last American president to unqualifiedly en­dorse the Great Man theory of history, he believed in mighty captains, like the primar­ily European statesmen he took as his benchmarks: De Gaulle, Pitt. He dreamed of a wise and splendid equanimity, nobly steering the nation.

Instead, Nixon brought the idea of lead­ership into possibly permanent disrepute in this country. The loss may be accounted more his tragedy than ours because he was the one who revered it. As we fumble to­ward alternatives (First Actor? Chief Clerk?), everyone since has seemed to be impersonating a president, with variable as­surance and conviction. Whatever else you think of Nixon — or of the notion of mighty captains, for that matter — he’d have had no trouble conversing as an equal with Riche­lieu or Disraeli; that can’t be said of his successors. “The last of the titans,” a friend who’d always despised him surprised us both by blurting one afternoon a couple of summers ago. We laughed ruefully.

In office, Nixon had one moment when he was able to realize himself as the hero he’d always dreamed of playing on the world-historical stage. That was the open­ing to China. Elsewhere, for all his skill, the foreign-policy record is too grim to be grand. Chile was a crime; Europe, by and large, a blunder (declaring a “Year of Europe,” as Nixon and Kissinger did, is a dead giveaway that slights were the norm). And then there was Vietnam.

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One interpretation of Nixon’s conduct of the war has it that he staunchly undertook the ignominious chore of extricating us from the unpopular commitment his predecessors had made. The other sees him as a monster, awash to his hips in blood. But what if they’re both true? The invasion of Cambodia, the mining of Haiphong harbor, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi — or “the bombing in the second half of December 1972,” as Kissinger delicately puts it in his Diplomacy — all these were defended as necessary pressures to force the enemy to negotiate. But Nixon, with his fetishistic phobia about being called a quitter, would not have been Nixon if he hadn’t secretly nursed a wild, mad hope that the next throw of the dice would achieve the impossible instead, and win the war outright. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Asian, paid with their lives for his iffy self-esteem.

Domestically, the policies he tried to pursue cut just as harshly against his private grain. Having squeaked into office largely through pandering to racial backlash, he sought to govern according to a perceived consensus that had, in hindsight, an unexpectedly liberal hue. From our post-Reagan vantage point, it’s astonishing how much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Nixon left intact — and not just from caution, but on principle. Meanwhile, in the basement, his men were drawing up the wiretapping or­ders and the enemies lists.

All right, then: Watergate. Listen, kids. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Nixon was unjustly hounded from office — that’s a bunch of horseshit. But don’t ever let anyone one tell you that it wasn’t done with glee, because that’s a bunch of horseshit, too. That pious guff in the history books about dark days, anxious conclaves, somber pomp? Nonsense! We were euphoric. It was a two-year joyride. Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

But —

“But you said she was dead,” Dorothy blubbers.

“That was the Wicked Witch of the East,” says Glinda, in the dulcet simper of the ineffable Billie Burke. “This is the Wick­ed Witch of the West …”

(I bet you think I just mean Reagan. You’re wrong.)

Still, for Nixon’s sake, two questions need to be asked. First off: was he great?

I could take the easy way out, but … Swallowing hard, I will say that I often suspect he was. But then, I also think that until this country learns how to say “great” and “awful” in the same breath, it won’t ever understand its history worth a damn. (Until, that is, we admit that Dorothy Gale of Kansas, who is all of us, has a thing for dressing up as· th,e Wicked Witch of the West. Now you know.)

The second question: was he crazy?

In America? Compared to whom? Mi­chael Jackson? Stonewall Jackson? Cotton Mather? Henry Batshit Adams? Ernest Hemingway? Good old Bill Faulkner, who once snapped at his tearful daughter that nobody remembered Shakespeare’s chil­dren? Abraham Lincoln, one of Nixon’s more maudlin attempted self-identifications, who if he were alive today would be getting Prozac slammed into him by the bucket load? Death-loving, pill-popping JFK?

Elvis?

5. Jesse Milhous Presley

I have the photograph on a T-shirt I bought at the Nixon Library, where it’s sold with this rubric: “The President and the King.”

As they shake hands, Elvis looks pretty zonked. Greasy eyelids, puffy jowls. That stupid championship belt. Nixon looks un­comfortable, and what else is new?

They could be brothers.

Elvis, of course, never knew his twin Jesse, who died at birth. Nixon’s fun-loving big brother Harold, the family darling, died of TB at 24. Both Elvis and Nixon doted on their mothers, calling them saints. But they both heard trains in the night.

Good boys gone bad. One was best when he was bad, but never believed it. One was bad even when he was good.

I often used to think that Sam Shepard should have written this play back in his prime. When he did, it was his prime: True West. Two brothers fight it out over which of them is the other.

Elvis, despite being Nixon’s junior by a good many years, is clearly the older brother: been there, done that. They younger brother has had to build a personality from negation, out of the bits and scraps of empty space the older one left free. It constricts him. By now, he often mistakes the constriction for skin.

But if they’re brothers, then they must be sons. It’s obvious Elvis is the Prodigal Son. For him, they killed the fatted calf. Judging from his waistline, he’d already eaten it, all by himself. Slurp! Yum!

Though forced to embrace him, the younger son feels scalded. But I’m the Good Son, he thinks. I’m the one who stayed. I did all they asked, terrible though it was. Where’s my fatted calf?

Tonight, alone, his floodlit brain will screech: What more do they want from me! But they never wanted him.

For that, how they will pay.

There was one other big difference between these men.

Never thinking twice about it, the King believed in the American Dream.

The President, to his despair, could not.

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6. I Am Nixon

Really, it’s the funniest thing. Turn on the CBS Evening News. Doesn’t Dan Rather look and act just like his old nemesis, Richard Nixon?

But then, a couple of days a week I can’t be any too sure I’d buy a used car from myself, either.

Last Sunday, I called my mom, and her husband answered. Don is a cheerful Re­publican; he and my Democrat mom con­stantly spar. (They still argue about FDR at Yalta. They’re nuts.)

“So are you in mourning?” I teased him.

He chortled. “No. But your mother’s all broken up.”

What’s to become of us, now that Nixon’s gone? (My wife just came by: “I’ve got to check the papers. It’s been three days and maybe he’s risen. If anyone could do it …”)

I wonder what music they’ll be playing for him Wednesday afternoon, on that seared lawn in Yorba Linda. Something tougher than Brahms. I somehow doubt it will be this — though we could all sing along, to the tune of “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw the Wicked Witch
Alive as you or me
“But Witch ” I said, “you’re 10 years dead”
“I never died,” says she
“I never die,” says she

But what’s going to be on your head­stone,  old artificer — old Scratch? HERE LIES A SWARM OF BLACK THING. LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD. I think that I would nominate the words Nabokov used to end The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we are both someone whom neither of us knows.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

He Died Two Decades Ago, but Ol’ Blue Eyes Still Resonates

Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) has been part of America’s soundtrack for almost eighty years, having released his first single, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” in 1939, when he was the vocalist for the Harry James Orchestra. America’s other crooner of the century, Bing Crosby (1903–1977), pithily summed up Ol’ Blue Eyes’s pipes: “Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime — but why did it have to be my lifetime?”

It was always thus, and Sinatra continues to draw new fans, sometimes ones that are almost as bigger than life as he was: Aaron Judge hit a home run in game 2 of the 2018 American League Division Series, and after the Yankees closed out the victory the colossal right fielder strode past the Red Sox clubhouse with a boombox blaring Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”

In 1995 Sinatra turned eighty, and to mark the occasion the Voice’s inimitable jazz explicator Gary Giddins edited a twenty-page special on the Chairman of the Board. In a sidebar, Giddins lays out the stellar qualifications of the contributors he gathered to pay tribute to the musical legend, noting that most of them “earn all or part of their livelihoods as musicians. Steve Allen, who last wrote for the Voice in the early ’60s, is a man of parts who virtually invented the TV talk show and used the medium to introduce numerous musicians, from Bud Powell and Art Tatum to Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.” Indeed, Allen’s contribution doesn’t mince headlines, titled as it is “The Greatest Singer of Them All.” The former TV host is a little less direct about the vocalist’s personal shortcomings: “So — as regards Sinatra, are all the stories about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semipsychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.”

Giddins also gives a shout-out to Mary Cleere Haran as “the finest cabaret singer of her generation, and possibly the wittiest ever.” Haran (1952–2011) certainly could turn a phrase, whether on the stage or the page. Reviewing Frank’s turn as the lead in the 1957 film Pal Joey, Haran writes, “Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too respectable, conventional, decorous, and polished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance.”

In his own piece, Giddins explores the boss of bosses’ emeritus standing: “Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octogenarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Probably nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally undermines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and promotes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply signify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future generations, Sinatra is one entertainer who instilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physical violence per se, though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more general sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan–on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes.”

Here we present the entire twenty-page supplement, chockablock with still more witty contributions — Sinatra’s Top 10 songs, tales of trombone solos and seriously swinging jazz — as well as ads from the period, all testament to the enduring fascination we still have for the self-taught balladeer from Hoboken, New Jersey.

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Who Needs Halloween When You’ve Got Feiffer and the Bomb?

Here at Archives Central we decided to take a look at how the Voice has covered Halloween over the years. We discovered that during the paper’s earliest decade, All Hallows Eve was not yet the national blowout of altered-state alter egos it has since become. But in the October 29, 1958, issue we found house cartoonist Jules Feiffer deeply concerned with a horror the entire world has lived with since 1945 — nuclear annihilation.

Feiffer (born 1929, in the Bronx) found in the Bomb the ultimate bogeyman for those neurotic New Yorkers who have been his stock-in-trade characters since his cartoons first appeared in the Voice, in October 1956. Feiffer’s vision of a “bomb that will blow up the whole works,” which could be used as a “deterrent for peace,” beat Terry Southern and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to the punch by half a decade.

Below, in glorious black and yellowed white, all four pages of Feiffer’s “BOOM.”

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Those Bicoastal Dodgers: Losing to the Yanks, Winning Hearts — And Breaking Them, Too

[We have to cop to a bit of Yankees bias here at Archives Central, and so admit that the Fall Classic starting tonight is a case of poxes on both houses. That said, we find ourselves hating the Dodgers a shade less than the Sox and have taken a look into the green volumes of bound newsprint to see how Voice writers of yore approached the bicoastal Boys of Summer. We found a few gems, including a piece from the “only Dodger fan in Yonkers” and another about a novel seeking to redress the perfidy of the Brooklyn team’s move to Los Angeles in 1957.

But let’s start with a great year for the Yanks — because why not? It’s the October 30, 1978, issue of the Voice, and writer Clayton Riley zooms in on L.A. Dodgers captain Davey Lopes stepping up to the plate: “Maybe this exceptional sorrow is always in his eyes. Tonight, however, he’s made it clear he wants to live higher and stronger for the friend and mentor he affectionately called the Devil… Jim Gilliam, who replaced immortal Jackie Robinson at second base in old Ebbets Field.”

Much baseball history crosses in those two sentences. Gilliam had replaced Robinson at second base in 1953, when the All-Star veteran moved to playing third and the outfield. Robinson had famously broken through baseball’s color line in 1947, when the Dodgers were still Brooklyn’s beloved bums. Gilliam, also black, was a teammate who, unlike Robinson, made the move from Flatbush to the City of Angels, leaving behind a trail of broken Brooklyn hearts. After his playing days, Gilliam was the Los Angeles Dodgers first-base coach, and he had passed away two days before the 1978 Series opened. Riley’s chronicle of that championship battle reminds the few who might have forgotten just how stellar Yankee third basemen Graig Nettles’s was during the Series: “Nettles clearly established that he had taken away a vital portion of the field for the right-handed pull hitter, which was to say most of the Los Angeles team.” In Yankee centerfielder Mickey Rivers, Riley found “a man who certifies the premise: There are answers in the universe we simply shouldn’t question.”

This was the second straight Series between the Dodgers and Yanks, and L.A., anxious to avenge their ’77 loss, went up 2-0. But the Yanks took three in the Bronx and finished the deal back at Chavez Ravine. Riley writes, “Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers, who would lose the final, devastating ballgame at Los Angeles, brought a measure of reflection to the work when he told a reporter that he felt no exceptional pressure on him as he went out to face the Yankees.

“Try feeding six kids in America on a small paycheck,” said Sutton. “That’s pressure.” —R.C. Baker]

 

Next we turn to the January 28, 1980 issue where contributor Joel Oppenheimer opines on the superiority of the Dodgers’ Duke Snider over the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays of the Giants when all three played center field here in New York in the 1950s. The article takes a more personal turn when Oppenheimer reminisces about pitcher Rex Barney’s odyssey in a Dodgers uniform—including the last time the right-hander wore one.

Finally, we take a look at a “lovely idea for a book, and I’m furious that David Ritz had it instead of me.” It’s the June 16, 1981 issue and Dodger fan Oppenheimer is lamenting that he did not conceive of The Man Who Brought the Dodgers Back to Brooklyn, a novel with a title that tells it’s tale. Oppenheimer worries, however, that “the rest of the world may not let it stay just a novel,” because a New York State Senator is agitating to rebuild Ebbets Field—but with Astroturf instead of grass. “The whole notion leads me to propose a corollary to my thesis that all things new are bad: all new versions of old things are even worse.”

 

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John Wilcock, 1927–2018

By the time he was sixteen, John Wilcock was already working as a reporter on his hometown paper in Sheffield, England. (He dropped out of school to take the job.) As related in the lively biographical comic  John Wilcock: New York Years, 1954–1971, he soon found his way to Canada. In the comic, Wilcock states, “But 1950’s England and Canada felt stuffy and stagnant. And still relatively young and not wanting to waste my life, I soon took the plunge to the U.S.A., specifically New York.”

Such quotes match the life that followed. Wilcock shortly acquired a cheap ($46 a month) Greenwich Village apartment and spent his evenings drinking beer and chasing skirts. Bored by the local paper, The Villager, which consisted of “mostly bridge club party reports” and “an insipid column, ostensibly written by the editor’s CAT, named ‘Scoopy Mews.’ CAN YOU IMAGINE?,” Wilcock put up a notice in the Sheridan Square Bookshop seeking partners to start a more inspired publication. He shortly met up with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, and they batted the idea around for a number of months while Wilcock worked freelance writing jobs. Eventually he, Fancher, Wolf, and novelist Norman Mailer joined together to publish the first issue of the Village Voice, in October 1955. On early mastheads, Wilcock is listed sometimes as “News Editor,” other times as  “Associate Editor.” He was also a regular columnist with a dream beat: basically anything he wanted to write about as the nascent counterculture was bubbling up in downtown New York. Wilcock wrote about other writers, actors, artists, computer-dating pioneers — he riffed on whatever struck his fancy: “How about somebody advertising a few things for The Man Who Doesn’t Have Everything?”

But Wilcock seemed to be forever restless, and complained in print that he was not “regularly employed.” So in the December 5, 1956, issue, we get not only one of his typically free-ranging columns but also a genuinely bizarre full-page ad featuring the headline “Editor-writer Available.” Wilcock notes that, for a substantial workload of both writing and editing, he was making $25 a week at the Voice. As ever at the paper, wages were an issue. Beyond the printed references, statistics, and sample lead paragraphs, readers were also treated to a photo of Wilcock standing atop the Washington Square arch. The man always aimed high, literally and metaphorically.

Six months later it was announced in the Voice that Wilcock had “joined the staff of the New York Times’ Sunday edition in an editorial capacity.” It was also noted that the energetic reporter “will continue to write his regular page-two feature, ‘The Village Square,’ for which he has a wide following among Voice readers.”

Curiously, around this time Wilcock would use an image of himself with his back to the audience. Was he being arrogant? Melancholy? Perhaps he was contemplating what it would mean to actually leave the Voice one day. (The pose might remind Philip Guston fans of the painter’s portrait of his friend the composer Morton Feldman, after the two had had a serious falling out. The threads of those days are deeply entwined: Ads for Guston exhibitions at the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street can be found in these same early editions of the Voice.)

And since Wilcock remained with the paper as the counterculture began heating up, he got to take part in what became a venerable Voice tradition: contributors bashing one another in print.

In the July 11, 1963, edition, Wilcock reports from Paris, writing a scathing review of the artist Allan Kaprow’s performance at a press conference: “The sheer monotony of it all eventually proved too much for me. If performers must feel obliged to make explanatory statements about their work — in advance — are we to conclude that art is unable to speak for itself?” (Kaprow was known for his seminal 1958 essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” which, among other concepts, discussed Pollock’s dance around the canvas as he flung paint upon it and envisioned performance, events, and physical activities that would replace objets d’art.) Wilcock goes on: “Kaprow, a pioneer of Happenings, forecast his own absorption into the System two years ago when he wrote in Art News: ‘…Some of us will probably become famous. It will be an ironic fame fashioned largely by those who have never seen our work. The attention and pressure of such a position will probably destroy the majority of us as it has nearly all the others…’ ”

A few weeks later Jonas Mekas, one of the Voice’s film critics and explicator of underground movies to the masses (or at least to however many of them were reading the paper), took issue with Wilcock’s put-down of Kaprow, noting that his fellow Voice author must have written his critique under trying circumstances, “Because, as I was told by someone who was present at the events Wilcock described, his Voice report sounded like the job of a ‘stupid, conceited jerk.’ ”

Not unpredictably, Wilcock responded tout de suite —or what passed for swiftly in that age of slow-traveling periodicals and international mail routes — from Tokyo. His “Dear Sir” letter to the Voice editors appeared in the September 5, 1963, issue:

As far as we can ascertain, that was the end of that particular feud. But in the future we will surface more Voice features from this singular founder of the paper, a writer and editor who not only had a hand in the creation of the godfather of the alternative press but also helped launch the Underground Press Syndicate, which was a loose consortium of alternative papers; the East Village Other; and, along with Andy Warhol, Interview magazine.

Wilcock was sui generis, a character in the best sense of the word. He was driven to be what he lived. The week after Wilcock’s letter appeared excoriating Mekas, the film critic happened to quote the underground filmmaker Jack Smith in his column: “Movies aren’t just something like I came to; they are my life. After [making the underground classic] ‘Flaming Creatures’ I realized that that wasn’t something I had photographed: everything really happened. It really happened. I — that those were things I wanted to happen in my life and it wasn’t something that we did, we really lived through it; you know what I mean?” There is no doubt Wilcock knew what Smith meant. Smith had to make films; Wilcock had to invent a new kind of newspaper, and he and his partners gave us a new way of looking at the world.

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Six Decades of Labor Day Leisure in NYC

In the late 1950s the Voice was often only twelve or sixteen or twenty pages, not yet the cultural juggernaut it would become in the next decade. But Jonas Mekas was already covering movies that were not coming from Hollywood, and over Labor Day weekend in 1959 he was alerting readers to films from the “new French wave,” such as The 400 Blows, The Cousins, and Back to the Wall, a “coldly, clinically executed thriller, impersonal, grim, humorless, too humorless.”

If that didn’t sound fun enough, you could at least go to the “Cool Brooklyn Paramount” (it was air-conditioned) on Flatbush and see Kim Novak in Middle of the Night. There were also plenty of Bergman flicks in town, but if that was also just too grim, you could head to the Greenwich theater (also “Air-Conditioned”) for Billy Wilder’s uproarious Some Like It Hot.

Come 1968, with the counterculture in full bloom, you could spend the weekend shopping for groovy threads in the East Village: velvet shirts at the What-Not Shop on St. Marks Place, Cossack shirts and dresses at Eko on Second Avenue, and hand-embroidered and beaded dresses at the Secret Garden on East 5th Street. And if you were looking for a gross of black lights, all you needed to do was head over to the Gelb Fixture Co. Inc., on Avenue A.

Well…the Seventies. September of 1978, to be exact. Still hadn’t seen John Belushi’s rollicking turn in Animal House? Better that than the unintentionally laughable Jaws 2. And Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band featured everyone except any of the Beatles. The result was predictable.

Ten years later jazz is representing all over town, although the Blue Note and other clubs were dark on Labor Day Monday. But you know what you could do back then, after a late night in the East Village? You could still go to Yaffa Cafe. Man, do we miss Yaffa.

Come 1994 and movie theaters are for losers. All you need is a VCR and the Tower Outlet on 4th Street and Lafayette. What better way to spend a three-day weekend than plowing through Ambulance, The Big Sweat, Batman II, Caddyshack II, The Cemetery Club, Crocodile Dundee II, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Joey Breaker, Uncommon Valor, Whore, “and tons, tons more!!!!”

C’mon — what do you expect? This wasn’t Kim’s…

And for the new millennium? Wigstock. Sure, the move to the West Side piers had sapped the event of its original Tompkins Square Park/Eighties exhilaration, but a girl could still dream, no?

 

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The Blob That Launched a Passion

In 1959 Jill Johnston was a married young mother who had just begun working in what she herself later termed “the minimal and margin­alized field of dance criticism,” most notably writing reviews for the Village Voice. But she broke through many of the limits of standard criticism, using her column to cover not just dance but her own interactions with the emerging scene of artists, writers, dancers, and provocateurs who were staging performances at the socially progressive Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. By 1964 Johnston (1929–2010) was divorced and her writing was becoming ever more adventurous. As she wrote in a later bio, “Though a surpassingly partisan critic, standby of everything avant-garde, I retained the more objective vision of capturing movement on the page.” By 1973 she had long been publicly out as a lesbian and that year she collected a number of essays from her Voice columns into the book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution.

In 1979 she wrote a wild ’n’ wooly memoir for the paper about another cultural love affair, this one with the visual arts. Early on she writes, “I saw art everywhere because I had it on my mind constantly. I took photo-mental shots of images all along the way. I have the modern, decadent, and pretentious idea that art is whatever I say it is. When you see the view all the way around that means you’re still on top of the world. Even conceptual artists have to conceive…. I met one little boy who said he just realized everything has color in the world except the wind.” In the essay (reproduced in its entirety below), Johnston remembers a 1963 Fluxus performance at Carnegie Hall in which an electric fan had rustled sheets of music: “Those were the days when art as we (thought we) knew it was being redefined by lots of people or at least by artists.”

It was a blob that first got Johnston involved in art criticism. She’d read an article that pissed her off, and she fired off a response: “The reason I wrote my passionate letter to Art News was that I felt personally offended by John Canaday’s equation of Pollock’s dripping with a blob. This was as much as I knew. But Tom Hess at Art News replied immediately to my letter, asking me if I wanted to apply for a position as reviewer. I was astounded and delighted and wrote back right away accepting his offer to apply for such a position. Due to a blob, it could be said, I became an art critic. Due also to the hated Canaday, it might as well be noted. In a hated profession, I had an excellent start. I was already taking sides, and I knew nothing about my subject.”

It’s no surprise that Johnston, who sought to capture “movement on the page,” was caught up in the rhythmic physicality of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases. Beyond her dance criticism she was happy to express her own carnality in an infamous performance at the 1971 Town Hall debate between the always pugnacious Norman Mailer and such feminists as Germaine Greer and Jacqueline Ceballos. Johnston began to read an extended poem, and the artist-writer Rosalyn Drexler, covering the event for the Voice, documented Mailer’s reaction: “Norman said, ‘You may use your time like the flight of birds, but I’ll have to call you in ten minutes.’ Jill took fifteen, and even then had not finished her statement. Norman tried to stop her from continuing by asking her to ‘be a lady.’ Diana Trilling had not spoken yet. Some of Jill’s partisans in the audience urged her to go on…others shouted for her to sit down. Finally, Norman asked for a show of hands and then for another vote, with the audience yelling yeas, and then nays. The nays were louder and took it, the way they take everything. I hadn’t known there were that many nays in the auditorium, I thought we had banished them to the suburbs. But Jill wasn’t finished, she had planned a ‘Do it…Don’t talk it!’ demonstration with two of her girl friends. They came up on stage and proceeded to caress and embrace one another and to roll on the floor in a playful simulation of play.”

By the early 1970s Johnston had long since moved on in her enthusiasms: “Blob art was an old-fashioned rectangular canvas hanging in a museum or a rich collector’s house.” In this “blob” essay, Johnston’s prose — as it often did throughout her career — veered into off-kilter, evocative verse: “If all went wrong, I planned to see the Pope in Chicago. When I called Mark in Petaluma he said he was loading 50,000 pounds of steel on a truck to go to Chicago for a show there October 5 and that the Pope writes poetry. Then somebody else told me the Pope doesn’t like modern art. I should definitely go to Chicago.” Johnston retains a quaint notion of not identifying some artists who are her friends, noting at one point, “During the ’60s when I wrote the sort of art criticism defined as encompassing objects or events called art I was corrupted completely by my inability to distinguish friends from art works.” The “Mark” above is undoubtedly Mark di Suvero (born 1933), well-known for his soaring metal sculpture and also as the founder of Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. The Pope in 1979 was John Paul II.

In 1964 the underground auteur Jack Smith wrote an essay for the Voice, which — in what was most assuredly not infinite wisdom — the editors rejected. At one point Smith appealed directly to our shared corporeal experience: “You are led by your bodies, Village Voice Readers, whether you know it or not — Most of the terrible tensions of your lives come from the discrepancies between what your bodies ask of you and your crabbed gratifications.”

Like Smith’s films, Johnston’s criticism sought to fill that gap.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES show-old-images

Where Were You When Elvis Died?

[Editor’s note: Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. It took more than a week for Lester Bangs’s obituary to appear, but it was worth the wait to watch the passionate critic zero in with trademark intimacy: “Where were you when Elvis died? What were you doing, and what did it give you an excuse to do with the rest of your day? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the future when we remember this grand occasion. Like Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, it boiled down to individual reminiscences, which is perhaps as it should be, because in spite of his greatness blah blah blah, Elvis had left us each as alone as he was; I mean, he wasn’t exactly a Man of the People anymore, if you get my drift. If you don’t I will drift even further, away from Elvis into the contemplation of why all our public heroes seem to reinforce our own solitude.” (That last line fascinates on its own merits, but even more so considering the serendipity of the Voice’s front page that week, which featured two of the biggest heroes of modern times, the fictional Superman and the always larger-than-true-life Muhammad Ali, who were starring in an oversize comic book. The King was in worthy company.)

The full text of Bangs’s farewell to the King follows below. But if you’re so inclined, read it in the original, yellowed newsprint. And, if you read nothing else, read the last paragraph, as succinct a summing up of this weird, flawed country — which gave the world rock ’n’ roll — as you’ll find anywhere this side of Steinbeck, Baldwin, or Didion. There are two big typos in the original conclusion that we’ve fixed in the live text, artifacts of the Voice’s always hectic Monday night closes and whatever drug du jour was fueling the copy editor — but you’ll figure them out.

The main thing is, Bangs nailed us 41 years ago, and if anything, he is even more on the money today. —R.C. Baker]

How Long Will We Care?

By Lester Bangs

Where were you when Elvis died? What were you doing, and what did it give you an excuse to do with the rest of your day? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the future when we remember this grand occasion. Like Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, it boiled down to individual reminiscences, which is perhaps as it should be, because in spite of his greatness blah blah blah, Elvis had left us each as alone as he was; I mean, he wasn’t exactly a Man of the People anymore, if you get my drift. If you don’t I will drift even further, away from Elvis into contemplation of why all our public heroes seem to reinforce our own solitude.

The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience. Those who indulge in it will ultimately reap the scorn of those they’ve dumped on whether they live forever like Andy Paleface Warhol or die fashionably early like Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. The two things that distinguish those deaths from Elvis’s (he and they having drug habits vaguely in common) were that all of them died on the outside looking in and none of them took their audience for granted. Which is why it’s just a little bit harder for me to see Elvis as a tragic figure; I see him as being more like the Pentagon, this giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary.

Obviously we all liked Elvis better than the Pentagon, but look at what a paltry statement that is. In the end, Elvis’s scorn for his fans as manifested in “new” albums full of previously released material and one new song to make sure all us suckers would buy it was mirrored in the scorn we all secretly or not so secretly felt for a man who came closer to godhood than Carlos Castaneda until military conscription tamed and revealed him for the dumb lackey he always was in the first place. And ever since, for almost two decades now, we’ve been waiting for him to get wild again, fools that we are, and he probably knew better than any of us in his heart of hearts that it was never gonna happen, his heart of hearts so obviously not being our collective heart of hearts, he so obviously just some poor dumb Southern boy with a Big Daddy manager to screen the world for him and filter out anything which might erode his status as big strapping baby bringing home the bucks, and finally being sort of perversely celebrated at least by rock critics for his utter contempt for his audience.

And Elvis was perverse; only a true pervert could release something like Having Fun with Elvis On Stage, that album released three or so years back which consisted entirely of between-song onstage patter so redundant it would make both Willy Burroughs and Gert Stein blush. Elvis was into marketing boredom when Andy Warhol was still doing shoe ads, but Elvis’s sin was his failure to realize that his fans were not perverse— they loved him without qualification, no matter what he dumped on them they loyally lapped it up, and that’s why I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for all those poor jerks than for Elvis himself now. I mean, who’s left they can stand all night in the rain for? Nobody, and the true tragedy is the tragedy of an entire generation which refuses to give up its adolescence even as it feels its menopausal paunch begin to blossom and its hair recede over the horizon — along with Elvis and everything else they once thought they believed in. Will they care in five years what he’s been doing for the last 20?

Sure, Elvis’s death is a relatively minor ironic variant on the futureshock mazurka, and perhaps the most significant thing about Elvis’s exit is that the entire history of the ’70s has been retreads and brutal demystification; three of Elvis’s ex-bodyguards recently got together with this hacker from the New York Post and whipped up a book which dosed us with all the dirt we’d yearned for for so long. Elvis was the last of our sacred cows to be publicly mutilated; everybody knows Keith Richard likes his junk, but when Elvis went onstage in a stupor nobody breathed a hint of “Quaalude…” In a way, this was both good and bad, good because Elvis wasn’t encouraging other people to think it was cool to be a walking Physicians’ Desk Reference, bad because Elvis stood for that Nixonian Secrecy-as-Virtue which was passed off as the essence of Americanism for a few years there. In a sense he could be seen not only as a phenomenon that exploded in the ’50s to help shape the psychic jailbreak of the ’60s but ultimately as a perfect cultural expression of what the Nixon years were all about. Not that he prospered more then, but that his passion for the privacy of potentates allowed him to get away with almost literal murder, certainly with the symbolic rape of his fans, meaning that we might all do better to think about waving good-bye with one upraised finger.

I got the news of Elvis’s death while drinking beer with a friend and fellow music journalist on his fire escape on 21st Street in Chelsea. Chelsea is a good neighborhood; in spite of the fact that the insane woman who lives upstairs keeps him awake all night every night with her rants at no one, my friend stays there because he likes the sense of community within diversity in that neighborhood: old-time Card-Carrying Communists live in his building alongside people of every persuasion popularly lumped as “ethnic.” When we heard about Elvis we knew a wake was in order, so I went out to the deli for a case of beer. As I left the building I passed some Latin guys hanging out by the front door. “Heard the news? Elvis is dead!” I told them. They looked at me with contemptuous indifference. So what. Maybe if I had told them Donna Summer was dead I might have gotten a reaction; I do recall walking in this neighborhood wearing a T-shirt that said “Disco Sucks” with a vast unamused muttering in my wake, which only goes to show that not for everyone was Elvis the still-reigning King of Rock ’n’ Roll, in fact not for everyone is rock ’n’ roll the still-reigning music. By now, each citizen has found his own little obsessive corner to blast his brains in: as the ’60s were supremely narcissistic, solipsism’s what the ’70s have been about, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of ‘pop’ (huh?) music. And Elvis may have been the greatest solipsist of all.

I asked for two six-packs at the deli and told the guy behind the counter the news. He looked 50 years old, greying, big belly, life still in his eyes, and he said: “Shit, that’s too bad. I guess our only hope now is if the Beatles get back together.”

Fifty years old.

I told him I thought that would be the biggest anticlimax in history and that the best thing the Stones could do now would be to break up and spare us all further embarrassments.

He laughed, and gave me directions to a meat market down the street. There I asked the counterman the same question I had been asking everyone. He was in his fifties too, and he said, “You know what? I don’t care that bastard’s dead. I took my wife to see him in Vegas in ’73, we paid $14 a ticket, and he came out and sang for 20 minutes. Then he fell down. Then he stood up and sang a couple more songs, then he fell down again. Finally he said, ‘Well, shit, I might as well sit singing as standing.’ So he squatted on the stage and asked the band what song they wanted to do next, but before they could answer he was complaining about the lights. ‘They’re too bright,’ he says. ‘They hurt my eyes. Put ’em out or I don’t sing a note.’ So they do. So me and my wife are sitting in total blackness listening to this guy sing songs we knew and loved, and I ain’t just talking about his old goddam songs, but he totally butchered all of ’em. Fuck him. I’m not saying I’m glad he’s dead, but I know one thing: I got taken when I went to see Elvis Presley.”

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I got taken too the one time I saw Elvis, but in a totally different way. It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ’65, never even came close.

There was Elvis, dressed up in this totally ridiculous white suit which looked like some studded Arthurian castle, and he was too fat, and the buckle on his belt was as big as your head except that your head is not made of solid gold, and any lesser man would have been the spittin’ image of a Neil Diamond damfool in such a getup, but on Elvis it fit. What didn’t? No matter how lousy his records ever got, no matter how intently he pursued mediocrity, there was still some hint, some flash left over from the days when…well, I wasn’t there, so I won’t presume to comment. But I will say this: Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the ’60s.

I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man — Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truckdriver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Obviously sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates. That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many. And this after a decade and a half of crappy records, of making a point of not trying.

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

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Lester Bangs's Elvis Presley obituary in the Village Voice