Richard Nixon’s Real Motive Was Tyranny

Despite all the Watergate disclo­sures, despite the now-public re­cord of perfidy, crime, and repres­sion, we have not yet taken the measure or Richard Nixon’s vil­lainy. In an odd way, the Water­gate scandal, in the very process of exposing that villainy, diminished and domesticated it. What, after all, was Nixon’s intention when he covered up the Watergate burgla­ry — to safeguard his reelection, a political motive so commonplace that the very people who hated Nixon the longest were the least moved by his Watergate doings. They saw no essential difference between the young Nixon who red-­baited an election rival and the president who committed a number of crimes to avoid losing a number of votes. We have been in danger of remembering the first American president who ever harbored despotic ambition as just another crooked office-seeker in the long gray line. If so, the danger is past, thanks to a 32-year-0ld New Yorker staff writer (and native New Yorker), Jonathan Schell.

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In THE TIME OF ILLUSION (which Knopf will publish early in January — it first appeared as a six-part article in the New Yorker, last summer) Schell, the author of two books on the Vietnam war, has done what no Watergate expositor has done or could do. He has shown for the first time that the story of the Nixon administration, told fully from start to finish, from Judge Carswell to Judge Sirica, is nothing less than the tale of a tyrant’s rise and fall. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon. It is not the least merit of this powerful and perceptive book that we learn why Nixon thought he was telling the truth.

In January, 1969, when the 37th, president of the United States took his solemn oath of office, the American Republic presented a spectacle which filled him with personal loathing and high stra­tegic fears. Nixon believed, or eagerly chose to believe, that the United States was in dire peril, its security radically impaired, its defense against Communist aggression perilously weak. Nixon’s fears were not based on anything either Russia or China were doing or threatening; both had been not­ably docile for years. Nixon’s fears, according to Schell, were entirely theoretical. They were based on an elaborate strategic doctrine first espoused by Presi­dent Kennedy and distinguished both by its rigorous internal logic and its complete want of common sense. It is known, says Schell, as the “credibility doctrine” and Nixon’s adherence to it was immediately attested by his appointing its chief intellectual sire, Dr. Henry Kissinger, as his chief foreign policy adviser.

According to the credibility doc­trine, the only way the United States can forestall world-wide Communist domination without resort to nuclear warfare is to present to the totalitarian enemy an “image” of national “toughness” so ruthless and frightening that the masters of the Kremlin will think twice about reaching for global hegemony, thus sparing the human race from nuclear destruction. The price for this would be trifling — the occasional “limited war” in remote places to demon­strate America’s “determina­tion,” its “will and character” as President Nixon was to put it.

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By the time Nixon was elected, however, the credibility doctrine had developed a serious hitch. Be­sides omitting all human experi­ence except the 1938 Munich Pact, the doctrine had overlooked two salient domestic truths: (1) that the American people were not as “logical” as Dr. Kissinger, and were unwilling to offer up their sons’ lives indefinitely so that America might look “determined,” and (2) that the American people still had a voice in their own affairs. Specifically, as Schell rightly emphasizes, the American people wanted out from Vietnam, and by 1968 had proven themselves powerful enough to prevent a war president from seeking reelection and to exact from the new incumbent a hedged-about pledge to get us out.

In voicing their opinions and exercising their liberties however, the American people had committed the gravest of offenses in Nixon’s eyes: They had undermined America’s “credibility.” How would America project an image of toughness and determination when the body politic was corrupted by antiwar sentiment, by “neoisolationism” and war-weariness in general? How could America prove its credibility as the foe of totalitarian designs when the electorate was not only weak­-kneed and corrupted, but free to express its views? “It was Ameri­cans, not Russians or Vietnamese, who aroused the bitterest hatred in the administration. There might be foes abroad, but the ‘vultures’ and ‘eunuchs’ were all at home.”

Given the new president’s ad­herence to the credibility doctrine, given his absolute faith in its logic, Nixon felt compelled, in Schell’s words, to “make war against the American people” and against their ancient liberties in order to save America from Americans. This is Schell’s brilliant and fruitful thesis. At one stroke, all the deeds and misdeeds of the Nixon administration, its public policies and private machinations, its siege mentality, its secrecy, isolation, and obsessiveness, and, above all, its despotic ambitions, fall into place as intelligible elements of a consistent, compulsive strategy: to force a war-weary people to appear as ruthlessly tough and bloody-minded as the credibility doctrine required them to seem.

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How an American president and his henchmen waged war against their fellow citizens is the story Schell unfolds, and no brief sum­mary can do justice to Schell’s skill and intelligence in telling it. Consider, for example, what the White House conspirators re­ferred to as the “Presidential Offensive.” This was the bitter assault on the peace movement which the administration launched in late 1969 and conducted with increasing frenzy through the 1970 elections. At the time, the cam­paign alarmed and puzzled the commentators and since they could imagine no motive for dubi­ous presidential deeds save cheap electioneering, it was taken for granted that Nixon was simply trying to pull together an alleged “Republican majority” (in the 1970 elections Republicans lost 11 governorships). In fact, as Schell shows, the “Offensive” was dictat­ed, not by election tactics, but by Nixon’s overall credibility strategy, that of recreating the national image of toughness.

Knowing he could never hope to revive prowar sentiment, Nixon was attempting, with all the massed power of his office, to arouse what might be called anti-antiwar sentiment. Exploiting and provoking every rancor and re­sentment infecting American hearts, the administration un­leashed them like firebombs against the organized peace movement, which was variously held to be the advance guard of foreign Communist governments, of “rad­ical-liberals,” of the Democratic party, of a sinister “Establish­ment” and by the time of the 1970 elections, of nothing less than our entire corrupt “permissive soci­ety.” By silencing vocal antiwar critics Nixon hoped to repair somewhat the prevailing image of national weakness; by creating an atmosphere of rancor, hostility, and “hard-hat” nastiness, he hoped to arouse a kind of left-­handed support for terror-bombing, “incursions,” and nastiness in general. As Schell very shrewdly points out, even Nixon’s appoint­ment of Judge Carswell to the Supreme Court was part of his campaign of rancor. By deliberately provoking the Senate to re­ject a southern appointee, Nixon intended to fire the wrath of the South and so pump sectional bitterness, too, into the general emotional tumult.

The Presidential Offensive proved a limited success. Only a totalitarian dictator, wielding the weapons of terror, is powerful enough to make white appeal black by fiat. The more Nixon tried to turn America into the appanage of the credibility doctrine, the more impotent he felt himself to be, the more obsessed he became with his “enemies” the more se­cretive and lawless grew his tactics. “The most powerful men in the country — men armed not only with the great, unimpaired constitutional powers of their offices, but with an awesome array of new powers — had, in their own minds maneuvered themselves into the position of victims, whose rights were menaced by usurpers in television studios, rambunctious citi­zens in the streets, upstart congressmen, and saboteurs in the federal bureaucracy.” The more Nixon felt his “rights” being infringed, the more he was determined to concentrate all national power in the bunkers of the White House.

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What Nixon ultimately sought, says Schell, was power so great that he and he alone would repre­sent America. His power would be such that his own ruthless will would be the nation’s one will, his “toughness” the sole image of the national character. Congress, the press, the people, all the institu­tioos of a free republic were to be cowed or corrupted into silence and impotence, capable no longer of marring the image on which national survival ostensibly depended. At the end of Schell’s long and complex narrative we know beyond all doubt that this was Nixon’s mad final ambition, and that he had almost achieved it when the Watergate scandal broke and turned his ambition to dust.

One difficult and nagging ques­tion only does Schell leave unresolved in his narrative. The question, to put it starkly, is this: Did Nixon aspire to a presidential dictatorship because of his fanati­cal devotion to an abstruse stra­tegic doctrine or did he cling to that doctrine, with all its despotic implications, because he harbored despotic ambition? At first Schell gives an equivocal answer: “When President Nixon arrived in power, it seemed, he entered a realm of complex and demanding global military strategy … It was as though there were an isolated world of cold, abstract strategic theory which endured unimpaired from administration to administration.”

Well, is there or isn’t there? The Founding Fathers, who took poli­tics more seriously than theories, would not have equivocated this way. Here was an American ruler willing to destroy liberty in Ameri­ca in order to avert a danger which was entirely theoretical and, at best, remote. Indeed, the enemy was so far from our gates that Nixon visited their capitals to swap toasts, compliments, and trade agreements. Here, moreover, was a ruler who amply revealed a despot’s passion to control every­thing in reach (including the dura­tion of applause at the 1972 Repub­lican Convention) quite apart from any “global military strategy.” The Founding Fathers, I believe, would have concluded in a trice that Nixon’s tyrannical ambition was primary and that the credibil­ity doctrine, consciously or semi- consciously, provided the fuel upon which it fed. Of course Nixon would see himself as the national savior. Does anyone suppose that any man would lay siege to a 200-year-old republic armed with anything less than a savior’s pre­tensions?

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While reading The Time of Illu­sion I wondered why Schell had hedged. I thought perhaps he was reluctant to unsettle his narrative with that harsh, half-forgotten po­litical truth which the founders never forgot for a moment: that the love of lawless power is a genuine passion of the soul and though it appears in many guises — nation-saving is the gar­den-variety — it requires no politi­cal explanation, least of all by dubious talk of an “isolated world theory.” Then in a final chapter devoted to the credibility doctrine Schell cleared up the puzzle in a manner I can only describe as astonishing.

In this chapter, a sort of appendage to the book, Schell comes to the defense of the credibility doctrine. It is, he says, the first and only “sustained, intellectually co­herent attempt to incorporate the implications of nuclear weaponry into national policy.” He believes that the rulers who adopted it­ — Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon­ — were honestly, responsibly, and courageously groping for a means to stop communism without re­course to nuclear war. He believes further that if these three ruled in isolation from the people it was because the people, wallowing in consumer pleasures, lacked their leaders’ courage to stare mega-death in the face.

What is astonishing in this is its sheer credulity. Schell is ready to admit that the credibility doctrine is flawed even “on its own terms.” He grants that much of it is “pure guesswork.” But his criticism is mild and his heart is plainly not in it. Understandably so, for if the doctrine is flawed on its own terms, if its arguments consist largely of guesses, why on earth does he think Nixon was compelled to believe it. There is nothing compelling about a syllogism with a hole in it or an argument propped up with conjecture.

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The truth is, the credibility doc­trine is scarcely more than a concoction of begged questions, official effrontery at its worst. Its essential ingredient is not, as Schell supposes, the fact of nuclear weapons, but the old tattered Cold War assumptions about America’s need to stop a Communist drive for world domination, a mouthful of begged questions if ever there was one. Masked behind its fancy verbiage, the credibility doctrine lays d0wn the ridiculous proposi­tion that the only way America can show its will to fight for its vital interests is to show its eagerness to fight for nothing. The credibility doctrine did not provide Kennedy with a rational means to avert nuclear war. It provided him in 1961 with a handy rationale for reviving armed intervention and for fabricating endless foreign “crises” (“tests of will” as Ken­nedy called them) at a time when the old Cold War ideology was crumbling and Cold War passions waning. What “credibility” pro­vided Richard Nixon the reader of Schell’s book can judge.

Here, in all fairness to Schell, I must cease and desist. The final chapter of The Time of Illusion forms no essential part of the story he tells. He is rather like the author of a first-rate novel who foolishly appends to his narrative an afterword stating his “credo.” Such being the case, we ought to follow D. H. Lawrence’s advice about Tolstoy: “Trust the tale and not the teller,” for no one has told the story of the Nixon years with a tenth part of Schell’s intelligence, penetration, and eloquence. ❖

Walter Karp is author of “Indispensible Enemies,” an analysis of American politics.  

FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

A Farewell to Machismo

Yeah, the Kid is his name
And he’s too tough tuh tame,
He’s the fastest, the meanest, the best!
Jist blam! blam! blam!
And he don’t give a damn!
He’s the Savior of the West!
He’s the Savior of the West!

— Robert Coover, “The Kid,” 1970

For me, the Kid was machismo, and he’s almost gone now, and Goddamnit, in a lot of ways, I’m going to miss him.

I know: The style was full of exaggerated masculinity; peacock pride; brutal vanity and the lan­guage of stunted boys. And the Kid, carrying the baggage of that style, is riding out of town at last, leaving the women and freeing the men from the force of his pre­sence; it was one of the longest, most violent visits in history. The Kid always wore the mask of chiv­alry, appearing tough, resourceful, brave and solitary, and his image seduced generation after genera­tion of Americans, including mine. Statesmen and steamfitters, prizefighters and presidents, foot sol­diers and Harvard men: few were immune.

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And now, at last, it’s over; the chivalric mask has been removed. In the end, we saw Richard Nixon’s features crawling underneath: we saw the dead of too many wars speaking from the eyes of the Kid; we saw marriages dissolved into bitter personal history, bodies lying on the streets of a dozen cities, macho princes filling up the prisons, all of them moving around behind the mask. The Kid could not stand exposure. Battered by long attack from the female citizenry, deprived of crucial support from some of the men, and worst of all, subjected to laughter, the Kid is riding off into what might prove to be a permanent sunset.

It hasn’t been easy. In some ways, the Kid has been central to being an American, affecting men and women almost equally, deeply integrated in the American character. The Kid, after all, was a product of the American frontier, rootless, without limits, making law with his cock of a gun, and moving on. The reality of the fron­tier was barbarity in some in­stances, banal in others. But le­gends, as constructed by Ned Buntline and made into poetry by John Ford, are always more powerful than facts. Those popular legends — of which the Kid with his code of machismo was the centerpiece — created the images by which American men were mea­sured. They taught at least five generations of American women their place (as whores or school-teachers or mothers, but seldom anything else). And far more important, these legends became, the spine of the American ideology, frequently superseding capitalism and democracy for several generations of American foreign policy makers. American statesmen, American presidents, and American spies were Americans before they were anything else; that means they were educated to respect and emulate the Kid.

And it is no simple thing to damn them for this. After all, the Whole Macho Thing was one of the most attractive life-styles ever con­structed. For me, it was Shane riding in from nowhere to clean out a corrupt town. It was the Contin­ental Op wiping out Poisonville. It was Gary Cooper, standing alone before hostile guns at high noon. It was Robert Jordan on the side of his hill, with his wounded leg and his machine gun, waiting for the Fascists. I was there with all of them; they peopled the empty spaces of a young man’s mind. I walked out on the tarmac of the Casablanca airport with Bogart and stood with him in the fog, as the woman he loved flew off to safety, while he lit another Camel and started his beautiful friendship with Claude Rains. I was in the upper deck of the Polo Grounds, cheering in the steaming New York night, while Ray Robinson flicked away the blood from the gash over his brow and called on himself to come on and knock out Randy Turpin in the 10th round. They were heroes, muy macho, and I loved them all.

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The macho style was careless, death-defying, existential, and it had its own Pantheon: Edward R. Murrow, the trench coat pulled tight, the cigarette dangling from the long piano player’s fingers, describing the Blitz from the roof of the BBC in London, oblivious to danger; Jackson Pollock, grizzled, swaggering, hard-drinking, bust­ing open the timid traditionalism of American painting, scoring one-round knockouts over the children of the School of Paris, carousing with Franz Kline at the bar of the Cedar Street Tavern, surrounded by the art history majors from Wellesley and Sarah Lawrence; Dylan Thomas destroying his gorgeous sullen art with drinking and whoring until he landed in his final bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For a kid growing up in America, they were the models: Along with John Garfield, with the gentle eyes set in the face of a tough Brownsville Jew, dying in bed with a woman who wasn’t his wife; Pete Reiser, smashing his beautiful talents against the walls of Ebbets Field; Charlie Parker, reinventing jazz on the tiny stages of the 52nd Street clipjoints, his arms scarred with heroin tracks, dying with his Countess; Beau Jack, Stanley Ketchel, Babe Ruth, Rocky Graziano (“I brung home the title to Noo Yawk, Mal”) lighting a Pall Mall in the dressing room, swallowing a beer, as they worked on Zale down the hall). And Hemingway.

“I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev,” Ernest Hem­ingway told Lillian Ross in 1950. “Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. Nobody is going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy.”

That was the precise tone of the later, debased Hemingway, the Hemingway that Norman Mailer once described as “the cavalry of American letters,” and the Hem­ingway who became the central figure in the modern American macho style. That style was boast­ful, competitive, full of sports met­aphors, because sports had be­come the arena for acting out the legend that had once been very real on the frontier. Hemingway became the poet of machismo, the chronicler of bullfighters, deep sea fishermen, hard drinkers, saloon brawlers, and wasted soldiers. Two generations of American writers were forced to confront him: They emulated him or re­belled against him, but they had to deal with him, because in Heming­way, they were dealing with a deep, ferociously strong compo­nent of the American character itself: the Kid.

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“Hemingway’s he-man performance was, among other things, a means of combatting the American stereotype of the writer as a sissy,” the critic Harold Rosenberg has written. “… One might say that each of his novels origjn­ated in a new choice of male makeup.”

And there was a strain of theatricality in everything that Hemingway did from the time he arrived in Key West in 1928. He became one of the country’s first media heroes, a development that coincided with the triumph of the gossip column and the rise of the picture magazine, and he worked hard at it, dropping notes to Leonard Lyons, posing for photographs with giant marlin, or slaying water buffalo. Other photographs showed him at the front in Spain, or drinking with the partisans after liberating the Ritz in Paris in 1944. Growing older, the broad-shoul­dered body thickening, the moustached face finally assuming a full white mask of beard, as he made the transformation from Ernest to Hemingway to Papa. There were many people who thought the whole performance was ludicrous; critics like Edmund Wilson made more serious observations, pointing out that as the media image grew, as the focus shifted from the writing to the Hemingway persona, in short, as the macho image overwhelmed the scared young poet of World War I and the young man who sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, the art itself was being ruined. Certainly the Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” would have snickered at the Colonel Cantwell of “Across the River and Into the Trees.” If you looked closely at the photographs, only Hemingway’s eyes — increasingly uncertain, vul­nerable, and remorseful — indicated that Hemingway himself knew what was happening to him.

Because central to the macho style was performance. The macho man should be able to climb into a ring with a hangover and a bad stomach and win the title: he should be able to drink and whore all night and still work a typewrit­er the next day: and more than anything else, he must always be capable of an erection. It is a young man’s style; it doesn’t encourage a writer to grow old and write masterpieces; it does not teach anyone to embrace weak­ness, most importantly, one’s own. All that business about Grace Under Pressure is the code of the Kid: it leads to a brief performance, a culminating explosion of violence, and a slow ride out of town. And in some way, Hemingway was our best writer of West­erns. It is no accident, perhaps, that when he reached for that last shotgun, he was living in Idaho.

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When I went looking for a defini­tion of machismo for these notes, it wasn’t easy to find. The new Ran­dom House Dictionary talked about “maleness, virility, male domination.” There was nothing at all in the Webster’s New Third International, and the Oxford En­glish Dictionary described a vari­ety of birds, from the “macho mullett” to the British puffin. In defining the word “macho,” the Velasquez Spanish-English Dic­tionary was more helpful, if some­what comic: “1. male animal; in particular, a he-male or a he-goat. 2. A masculine plant. 3. A piece of some instrument that enters into another; a screw-pin. 4. An igno­rant fellow.”

All of the above might apply, of course, but no dictionary definition could come close to explaining what machismo has been in action. One thing is certain: machismo kills.

“We know that men stand a 500 per cent greater risk of a coronary than women,” writes Harvey E. Kaye, M.D. in his book, Male Survival: Masculinity Without Myth, “and, in the past two de­cades, deaths from heart attacks have jumped 14 per cent among men aged 25 to 44, while declining among women in the same age group.” Kaye, whose book is one of several recent volumes dealing with what he calls The Masculine Mystique, goes on to say: “Characterized by intense striving for achievement, competitiveness, aggressivity, impatience, a pre­emptive speech pattern, and a constant awareness of the pressure of time and responsibility, the can­didate for a coronary is a living embodiment of the ideals of the Mystique.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

In “Naked Nomads,” his recent study of unmarried men in Ameri­ca, George Gilder also shows the effects of macho pressure on single men who are asked to perform to impossible standards as “swingers” and sexual athletes, and cool urban versions of the Kid. He quotes studies showing that single men are over 30 per cent more likely than married men or single women to be depressed; 30 per cent more likely to show ‘phobic tendencies’ and ‘passivity’; and almost twice as likely to show severe neurotic symptoms. They are almost three times as prone to nervous breakdowns.”

And certainly married people are in some trouble with machi­smo. Male possessiveness, and its dark side, sexual jealousy, are central to the macho style. And in the United States, jealousy is a killer. One New York homicide detective told me that “jealousy kills more people in New York than heroin,” claiming that in his expe­rience, two thirds of the city’s 2000 annual homicides can be traced to jealousy. Impossibly high stan­dards of male performance have also contributed to the wildly esca­lating rate of family abandonment, and the resulting social disorder and swollen welfare rates about 700,000 women and children with­out an adult male in the household in New York City alone. The male who finds that his life simply cannot measure up to the standards imposed on him by movies, television, and some literature can solve his problems with violence, the passivity of alcohol or drugs, or with flight. The macho style, trapped in an eternal adolescence, usually sides with Huckleberry Finn, urging us all to light out for the Territory. Take the Struggle somewhere else. Start all over again. The Kid is never asked to fully understand another human being, to learn to love a woman raise a family, admit human frailty and weakness and fear.

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But if the macho style can be killing on a local, domestic level, it becomes almost suicidal on an international scale. And there is no way to disguise the fact that the same myths that formed the rest of us also formed our recent presi­dents. The first champion of the macho style in this century was clearly Theodore Roosevelt (who was, incidentally, the president when Ernest Hemingway was growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, and who was one of the early examples of the rough-riding, war-hardened, big-game hunting style that Hemingway exemplified later; in some photographs, Hemingway even looks like Teddy Roosevelt). Consider this passage from Roosevelt:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place all never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Jason Miller quotes these words  in a crucial scene in his play about the failure of machismo, “That Championship Season.” Worse, they were quoted with approval by two recent American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. But when you examine the words, they are so clearly foolish, so dangerously romantic, that a high school student should recognize the horrors they might bring to a nation that believes them. Who, for example, are “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat,” those to whom, presumably, no credit belongs? Einstein? Freud? Leonardo da Vinci? Jonas Salk? Bud­dha? Walt Whitman? Karl Marx? Tolstoy? These are the words of a football coach, the “winning-is­-the-only-thing” credo of a Vince Lombardi, whose courage is al­ways of the sideline variety, growing stronger with each mauling yard earned by the players who suffer the actual pain.

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What they are in reality are the romantic words of a man who needs glorious rhetoric to cover up murderous reality. Roosevelt was the champion of the American Empire; he clearly saw it as an American right to grab Puerto Rico and the Philippines, to carry the message of a burgeoning American capitalism to the far corners of the earth. He didn’t have the power then, but he certainly had the words. Imperialism is the ultimate form of machismo: aggressive; possessive; competi­tive; fearful of appearing impo­tent; its malign reality covered with the language of chivalry, talk of duty, honor, and courage.

In the era of Roosevelt, it was necessary to create a rhetoric to justify the killing of Indians, the robbery of the American land, and the terrible working conditions in the great cities.

The macho style served that purpose for almost a half-century to follow. If the American male was made to believe that it is somehow “manly” to endure discomfort and pain, then he could go down to the coal face every day and believe he was doing something valuable. If World War I had been explained as a struggle for colonial markets, Woodrow Wilson would not have been able to raise an army to go to Europe and fight; call it a “war to save democracy” and the volunteers would line up in the millions. The American male was given some small edge: He could enforce monogamy on his wife, have her as his possession, and perhaps even beat her up once in a while. (The ultimate macho advice was once given to me years ago: “Kid,” he said, “never marry a girl you can’t knock out with one punch.”) Women were generally kept off the job market so that they would not compete with men as a source for cheap labor, and discriminatory laws were passed almost everywhere to make certain that women were treated as slaves and/or children.

The result was that men did all the terrible jobs. Men fought the American wars. And machismo, elaborated and codified as the cen­tury grew older, became the domi­nant force in our foreign policy. When an aroused United States reacted passionately to Pearl Harbor, the earlier events behind the quarrel with the Japanese were forgotten — the struggle for raw materials and markets in Asia­ — and the duty of every American male was to enlist. In the words of one song of the era, it was time “to knock those Japs/down to their Jap-a-knees.” When the war was over, when the survivors moved through the ashes of Hiroshima and Dresden and Nagasaki and Berlin, the United States was the greatest power on the earth; the Kid ruled the town.

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But with great power came the macho style, and the macho style requires enemies. You cannot be the toughest gun in town unless there are other people in town, and the romantic nature of the argu­ment requires that the hostiles be the epitome of evil. The results are familiar: the rise of the Central Intelligence Agency, populated by romantic anti-Communists who had started out in the OSS, and were soon engaged in gunfights in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, and a hundred other places; Cold War with the Soviet Union, which had its own macho types sitting at the feet of Stalin in the Kremlin; the attempt to impose order over all forms of nationalist revolution; commitments to fight against any­one who tried to overthrow a colonial power; the still-puzzling war in Korea. The War Department changed its name to the Defense Department, but the people were the same and the weaponry grew enormous. Presidents other than Eisenhower, who had been a general, and, therefore, understood better the limitations of the mili­tary mind — seemed in awe of the men with the scrambled eggs on their hats who walked so briskly, so efficiently, in such manly fash­ion through the corridors of the Pentagon. By 1960, the stage was set for tragedy.

“The main thing implicit in the Pentagon Papers,” Daniel Ellsberg once said, “is a great and sometimes irrational fear of losing; both the decision-maker’s fear of appearing irresolute or ‘soft,’ and his perception of the American voter’s inability to accept de­feat.”

1975 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about the discontents of machismo

So John F. Kennedy, who had written a book about political courage, and who had grown up in the Hemingway era, went to Vienna and met Khruschev. Somehow his manhood was thought to be at stake. And soon the troops were moving to Berlin, and to Southeast Asia. He could not ap­pear weak. He could not let Khrushchev think of him as a boy. The Americans financed a botched invasion of Cuba. They moved more strongly into the civil war in Vietnam. And then came the Mis­sile Crisis. In the recent television version of the events, called “The Missiles of October,” it was clear how the entire crisis was a ques­tion of proving masculinity. To prove he was a man, Kennedy risked the obliteration of the Earth. It was chilling and foolish, a 13-day exercise on the brink of doom, about a relatively minor episode (Cuba, which, after all, had been invaded two years earlier by American-financed Cuban exiles, certainly had a right to arm itself defensively against the United States, and if the Americans had the right to place missiles in Tur­key, on the border of the Soviet Union, then the Soviets had the right to place missiles in a friendly country near the border of the United States). But Kennedy seemed prepared to risk everything, and all accounts describe how cool he was during the events, how he displayed Grace Under Pressure. Fortunately for the earth, Khrushchev was not so dedicated to macho principles; he was willing to back down, to be reasonable, to display simple human fear about the consequences of the nuclear poker game.

Unfortunately, the Missile Crisis was seen by many observers as a triumph for the macho style. Clearly, it helped propel us into the quagmire of Vietnam. When Ken­nedy was assassinated, and Lyndon Johnson came to power, the decision-makers in the White House, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, Robert McNamara, the CIA peo­ple, and Johnson himself seemed convinced that If You Stand Up To the Communists They Will Back Down. Nobody passed the word to the little men in the black paja­mas. They fought on, and the Americans plunged deeper into the war. By the winter of 1965, it seemed as if a Western were unspooling Johnson’s head, and his cavalry was plunging into the fray against the hostiles. Americans, after all, went West to get to the Far East; the new frontier seemed to be located somewhere in the Mekong Delta.

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Billions of dollars were thrown into Vietnam. Almost 55,000 Americans died there and another 200,000 were wounded as 2 million young Americans fought across swamp and highland. Johnson destroyed himself politically. His Great Society programs died and the money went to Asia, and the once-mighty American dollar started to shudder, as the Treasury printed paper to pay for the war, because Johnson refused to ask the Americans for a tax increase.

Richard Nixon arrived in the White House but nothing changed. He said he was not going to be the first American president to lose a war. America would not become “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Nixon surrounded himself with macho types: Bob Haldeman was tough; John Ehrlichman was tough; John Mitchell was tough. Antiwar demonstrators were “bums.” They talked to each other, as the White House tapes showed later, in a curious private language, partly derived from sports, partly form the Pentagon, and the rest from the advertising business. They were all tough. Yeah.

Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, and later secretary of state, was Henry Kissinger who actually described himself in an interview with Oriana Fallaci as “a gunfighter” striding into town alone. Nixon invaded Cambodia. His attorney general tear-gassed and arrested antiwar demonstrators. When Nixon took a strange late night journey with his chauffeur to talk to antiwar demonstrators during one of the moratoriums; he tried to talk to them about football. They were flabbergasted.

And while the bombing continued, while thousands died, and Nixon talked about how terrible it would be for the United States to be “defeated” or “humiliated” or turned into a “second-rate power,” his vice-president was roaming the country attacking the “effete” intellectual snobs. Nixon had picked Agnew, he explained, because he had been a “tough guy” with black leaders when he was governor of Maryland (he didn’t know, presumably, that Agnew had also been a pretty tough thief), and because Agnew was capable of “forcefulness” and had a “strong-looking chin.” For as long as it was possible, Agnew carried your Nixon’s domestic policies, creating enemies when none existed intellectually mugging those who disagreed with the Nixon administration. It was no accident that when Agnew wanted to abuse Republican Charles Goodell in the 1970 New York senatorial contest, he described him as a political “Christine Jorgenson.”

It lasted for almost five years. The war ended after the murder­ous Christmas bombing of 1972 when Kissinger was finally able to negotiate an American retreat “with honor,” a peace that left the war going on, but at least took American bodies out of the way of Vietnamese guns. And at home, Watergate had already happened; Agnew resigned and was saved from the penitentiary through a deal. The cover-up was begun, and then started to unravel, and finally Nixon was led away in disgrace to his Elba in San Clemente. No more phone calls to football coaches. No more tough speeches to hand-­picked audiences. Only silence, as his followers, those champions of the macho style, enter and leave their various prisons.

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Vietnam and Watergate proba­bly finished off the Kid. But there were other forces at work too, all of which led to the decline of the macho style. In literature, Joseph Heller demolished the Hemingway ethos in “Catch-22” (although Yossarian’s final decision — to make a separate peace — was es­sentially no different from the de­cision made by Frederick Hemingway in “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), Hemingway’s last novel be­fore he became a celebrity). More important perhaps was the rise of rock music; rigid codes of dress fell away as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones took center stage in a generation’s con­sciousness. “Gates of Eden” was a long way from the Man in the Arena. The Beatles grew their hair long and in a single year changed the way young men had worn their hair for a half-century; through the Nixon years, all of his young men, like Haldeman himself, made a point of wearing their hair in the short ’50s style, as if telling the young that power was clearly masculine, and you proved it by the way you chose to look. Mick Jagger sniggered, and did his epicene dance.

More important was the way women were changing. The Pill had opened up an era of freer sexuality, and women were increasingly demanding the same rights as men. From the publica­tion of Betty Friedan’s “The Fem­inine Mystique” in 1963, the basis of male-female relationships was brought under the most stringent examination in memory. Many men resisted from the beginning, but others saw it clearly, if not immediately, that equality for women was certain to lead to an expansion of the humanity of men themselves. The docile, submissive woman was going out of style quickly; in sexual matters, women were more aggressive (in some cases scaring some men into bouts of impotence); more important, women started moving into politics, demanding that their voices be heard on matters other than specifically “women’s issues.” In literature, hundreds of novels by women seemed to appear, explaining their lives in ways that men had never seemed capable of un­derstanding before; Erica Jong became a best-seller by writing the sort of book Henry Miller had written in the past. Joyce Carol Oates exploded all over the place, issuing a stream of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays that made her a major writer in a space of a few years. There were, of course, problems. If American male writers had always had trouble fashioning believable female characters, women seemed to be having the same problems with creating male characters. But the change had begun. The future appears rich and fecund.

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But all of this is a continuing process, and the Kid is still with us, if not as powerful a figure as before. He hasn’t yet left town. The vast American public still prefers its movie heroes in the old style, and Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, and Warren Beatty are in the classic mold. Women stars are more visible on television than in movies, and the only woman among the top-10 box office stars is Barbra Streisand. A lot of people laughed at Gerald Ford’s “WIN” button, but still talk yearningly about the need for a charismatic leader in 1976. Some of the best young American writers — Thomas McGuane, Tom McHale, Jim Har­rison, Don DeLillo — work out of the Huck Finn tradition, their books full of football players, fishermen, rock ‘n’ roll stars, and other lone men struggling with problems of courage, honor, and sexuality. In sports, Muhammad Ali remains a superstar, although he is the only one of the current world boxing champions who is an American; professional football, which be­came the repository for most of the theatrical macho brutality of the late ’50s and ’60s is still drawing big crowds, but doesn’t seem to be as packed with win-or-lose emo­tions; baseball, that lone holdout from a gentler era, seems to be making a comeback.

There is, in fact, a growing conservatism, some of which can be traced to an exhaustion with the issue-oriented life-styles of the ’60s, and the rest to the growing economic recession. The rock music industry is having its tro­ubles, and with the Beatles a thing of the past, and the Rolling Stones only sporadically active, the time when rock stars could determine the way people dressed and acted seems behind us. When Dylan  made his triumphant tour of the United States last year, the audiences seemed restrained and even middle-aged. On the campuses, short hair is back in fashion and there has even been a resurgence in fraternities and sororities. The National Equal Rights Amend­ment, which seemed such a cer­tainty to pass a few years ago, is now in trouble.

But there have been some important changes, and they seem permanent. When President Ford tried to make the defense of Cambodia a question of national honor the American people refused to go along; some 78 per cent of those polled by George Gallup said they didn’t want to support the Lon Nol regime any further, and all the talk about the “fall” of Cambodia, or it “loss” to the Communists was simply shrugged away. It will be a long time for an American president will able to raise an army to fight a distant war over something as abstract as honor, courage, or some specious commitment to a dubious ally.

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Men are no longer afraid to ad­mit that they don’t want to die for their country, or for any other good reason either. The current assault on the CIA and the FBI can be seen in one light as another example of the fall of the macho hero; the last James Bond film did not do well at the box office, and it is difficult to imagine a film being made today in which the hero is a member of the CIA or the FBI. Very few Americans today would cheer for a man who steals, cheats, burglarizes, or kills for a Higher Purpose. And there has not been a hit Western since “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which parodied the form, so that even the Western, that most enduring American legend, seems to be a vanishing form. Those changes seem permanent.

And yet … There is something odd and appealing about all those movies I see late at night. We have changed, but those movies remain the same: documents of old emotions, heavy with nostalgia. None of us, men or women, will be able to live with those emotions again. They are finished, as dead to our time as Trilby and East Lynne. The Kid doesn’t work for us anymore. He’s left town for good. I guess what bothers me is that we never got a chance to say goodbye. ❖

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Girl Groups: How the Other Half Lived

Of all the genres of rock and roll, girl group rock (“group” is merely a con­vention — the operative word is “girl”) is the warmest, and probably the most affecting. The style flourished between 1958 and 1965, “bad” years of rock and roll; it went into eclipse when the Beatles invalidated its premises of contrivance and manipulation and the soul beat invalidated its sound. These days the soul beat is worn out and contrivance, never absent, has re­surfaced; so has the style. The Three De­grees, who first attracted attention in 1970 with a remake of the original girl group hit, the Chantels. “Maybe,” took over the charts last year with their traditionally submissive, pining, lovely “When Will I See You Again?” Bette Midler led cheers for the Shangri-las and the Crystals; Bonnie Raitt unearthed the Sensations’ “Let Me In.” David Johansen pledged his love to the Shangri-las, the Angels, the Cookies, and the Toys. Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, notable 13 years ago for making the worst of all girl group records, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” held on and grew up to become a good womans group. Barry White offered Love Unlimited. Bruce Springsteen swallowed the style whole and produced his magnificent anthem, the soon-to-be-released “Born to Run.” And the hit of the summer, the Beach Boys’ 1967 “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is classic girl group rock if anything is. The style is stretching, and as happened 15 years ago, all of rock is more lively because of it.

Girl group rock does not, of course, take in all female rock and roll singers. Big Mama Thornton does not fit. Neither do Dionne Warwick, Jackie DeShannon, Aretha Franklin, Betty Wright, Jean Knight, Mary Wells, or even the Supremes. These singers are either too mature, too sophisticated, too assertive, or too classy; they lack the inno­cence, the inability to comprehend disaster and the need to replace disaster with para­dise, that is the essence of the style. Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” fits, not be­cause it is part of this world view, but because it was very self-consciously an instance of girl group rock in rebellion against itself.

Which meant a producer playing tricks with the genre. This music is, first and foremost, producer’s music: He wrote or commissioned the songs and created the sound; all the lead singer had to do was win your heart. Almost none of the singers celebrated below prospered outside of the care of the one producer who developed their talents in the first place — the relationship was that dependent. Darlene Love, the finest, now earns a living backing up Sonny Bono. The astonishing Arlene Smith had more natural talent than any of them, yet she failed after leaving George Goldner; not even Phil Spector, who should have been perfect for her, could get Arlene the right sound. Girl group records were based in the relationship of a young girl and an older man (white, until Berry Gordy) who put her on a pedestal and held her in thrall; out of that relationship came some of the most urgent and intense rock and roll ever made.

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The songs most often celebrated a shad­owy male of wondrous attractiveness, and on a superficial level, such figures surely re­presented the producer’s or the lyricist’s fantasy of himself. (Girl group writers Carole King and Ellie Greenwich handled melodies, not words.) But the male hero was, on paper, a little too much. Without the passion of the girl singer to make him real, the boy became (as in Shadow Morton’s witless “The Boy,” which the Shangri-Las sang as if they were near death from bore­dom) a silly, overblown joke on the man who fantasized him — and not a hit, either. The boy came to life only if the girl singer breathed life into him. In the end, he was her creation, not the writer’s. The fantasy be­came not self-serving, but utopian.

In the early ’60s, tough male singers were in decline. Their replacements were as sen­sitive as they were unexciting; they made no demands because they spent all their time begging girls for sympathy. And so, in these years, not only were girl groups the most powerful female singers on the radio, they created the most powerful male figures in rock: the subjects of their songs. The fine, fine boy, the boy who’ll love walking in the rain, the leader of the pack, the angel baby. Eve’s ribs, every one of them.

Except in a couple of vaguely social pro­test Crystals lyrics, where we find the hero poor and downtrodden (a type who reap­pears in “Leader of the Pack” and is stood on his head in “The Boy From New York City” — where he he has grown up to be a pimp), the male of this vision simply is. He is so mythical that when the Crystals meet him in “Da Doo Ron Ron,” even though “he makes her heart stand still,” somebody else has to tell her “that his name was Bill” — he’s too cool to talk. Hair color, height, clothes, walk, and other conventional pop details are almost always missing — to the point where the following dialogue crops up in the Shan­gri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”: “What color are his eyes?/I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.”

I suppose it represents some kind of death of innocence in the genre that “The Boy From New York City” is replete with the minutiae the other songs omit — on this disc we find out about everything right down to the contents of his wallet. Here, one might think, the girl has given up on the image of the boy and finally has to get down to business: survival in the urban Jungle.

Otherwise, the lyrics do little more than vary the Search for Perfect Love and the Attempt to Bring It Home to Meet Mom and Dad. Beyond this attractive and timeless theme, what were girl group records? Beau­tiful construction, rich immediate sound, unbelievable expressions of desire, and a staggering demand for life — all riding on the voice of a single girl driven by the voices or her sisters in the chorus.

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Here, then, is the best of girl group rock:

THE CHANTELS: “I Love You So” and “If You Try”

(1958 — “I Love You So” reached number 42 on the Billboard charts; “If You Try” was a cut from “The Chantels,” their LP on End) They were five young black girls from New York City, lead singer Arlene Smith was 14 years old. Their producer was George Goldner, who began his career in rock ‘n’ roll with the Crows’ “Gee” in 1954, and later made a pile off Frankie Lymon. Every record cut by Phil Spector goes straight back to him: “Without George Goldner,” Spector said. “there would have been no rock ‘n’ roll.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Goldner was the archetypal cigar-smoking Jewish businessman who took black singers off the street, hustled, bought, stole, pleaded, and hyped to put their records across and then left them behind. He died only a few years after Frankie Lymon; he died poor, still looking for one more hit.

He was a magnificent record producer The sound he and arranger Richard Barrett worked out for the Chantels was simple: one very steady drum beat; rolling piano triplets climbing up and falling away, over and over again; a little guitar; a virtually inaudible bass. In the nave, a pleading choir from four Chantels; at the pulpit, Arlene. And some­how, the sound was huge, overpowering, like Judgment Day.

1975 Village Voice article by Greil Marcus about Girl Groups

Goldner drove Arlene mercilessly. She would sing the songs he gave her and he would curse; she would sing again and he would scream and order her out of the studio. He kept at it until the tears were coming, until she was ready to do anything to get away from this terrible man, and then Goldner, fully aware that he had before him the greatest voice in rock ‘n’ roll, would turn his back, shrug his shoulders, and let her sing it one last time. And that was the take he was reaching for. Arlene, just a little girl really, scared, agonized, would sing for her life.

On “I Love You So,” the massed voices of the girls speak the title softly, fading the sound into the entry of an unbelievably full voice that repeats those four words with a power that is beyond any possible expecta­tion. Arlene dives headlong into the song, cries, weeps, struggles, and finds herself. As the song levels out, somewhere between heaven and earth, Arlene half-sings, half-­talks her way through one of the most erotic passages in rock ‘n’ roll, and she is sure of herself now: “Well, you know … how much I love you …” But the listener has never known anything like this. She envelops you, smothers you, hits an ending, drops down, and then flies all the way up again. The record fades and Arlene just has time to make her last class at junior high.

“If You Try” was her masterpiece. Again, an intro, this time with a piano really driving forward, Arlene catches the song when it’s already in flight and never lets go, calling out her message to all those lovers who might, if she can get through to them, avoid the mistake that has wrecked her life. By the time she reaches for and sails past the high note that forms the center of the song, she is singing her soul as she never will again. The Chantels are flowing, nothing can stop them, Arlene goes higher, and higher, and she’s gone.

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(1960 — Number 5.) Formed in 1955, they came and they went. This one freak remake of “Earth Angel” took them to the top and that was enough to keep them going for five more years, when they finally gave up. Rosie had an eerie little-girl voice: she sounded as if at the age of eight she really had seen all there was to see. If she was ridiculous, she was ghostly, too. It worked — that pristine guitar intro, the famous off-key sax break that never really turns into a solo. Rosie pleading, Rosie loving, Rosie in a dream world all her own. Girls used to sing it at high school dances and everyone in the room instantly fell in love. “Angel Baby” still sounds like a visit from another planet.

THE SHIRELLES: “Tonight’s the Night”

(1960 — Number 39.) They were the real class of the girl groups. I once played “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” eight hours straight and the song just kept getting better; this too is a more than perfect record, perhaps the sexiest ever made. All you need is the title and some vague memory of the rise and fall of Shirley Allston’s singing to know what happens here. “I don’t know … well, I don’t know right now … well, I love him so …” One big question mark. Strings up, strings down, a faintly latin rhythm led by a few cracks on the guitar, stops, pauses, and you linger, waiting for Shirley to give in. Does she? It doesn’t matter.

CLAUDINE CLARK: “Party Lights”

(1962 — Number 5.) There’s nothing at all to this record after the first five seconds or so, but those five seconds have enough emotion packed into them to last the average rock ‘n’ roller a whole career (which is what they did for Claudine  — she never made the chart again). That beginning is The Party — ­house busting wide open, music sailing out the window, bottles and bodies and Buicks on the lawn, the good times rollin’ like they never did, and our girl is stuck right next door, imprisoned by her evil mother. “But mama, everybody in the Crowd is there!” Peeking through her window she can see that “they’re doing the Twist … the Mashed Potatoes!” (Must be her favorite.) Well, it doesn’t matter: she’s not getting out. But the way she wails in those first few moments is all that counts: “I see the party lights!”

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THE MARVELETTES: “Beachwood 4- 5789”

(1962 — Number 17.) Unlike the Supremes, this Motown group never made history, just a few wonderful records. This was the best: “Beachwood (note acute current surf music reference — that sold records) 4-5789, You can call me up and have a date, any old time.” Which is to say that Berry Gordy made a record that told any lonely boy what he dreamed was true — that there were girls out there who could be had for the asking. All over the country girls and boys picked up their phones and dialed, just to see what would happen, and what happened was that a lot of people had to get their numbers changed. That’s my idea of a rock and roll culture, if you can call it an idea.

THE CRYSTALS: “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”

(1962 — Number 11.) A dramatic fanfare. One long note on a saxophone, then a com­pletely confident female voice announcing over the rumble of too many drums: “I always dreamed the boy I loved would come along, and he’d be tall and handsome, rich and strong. Well, now that boy has come to me — but he sure ain’t the way I thought he’d be!” And so, the saga of Phil Spector began. In one swoop, pianos, more drums, more sax, the full assault, and, holding on to the explosion, the leader Darlene Love, so proud of herself and her boy she can’t hold back anything at all. No excuses, no regrets, all he’s got are unemployment checks, but she loves him, and you’d better believe it. The Crystals tossed out lines and Darlene threw them back with a smile that stretched all over America in 1962.

THE CRYSTALS: “Da Doo Ron Ron”

(1963 — Number 3.) Nothing like it any­where. Spector’s sound was meant to obli­terate everything in its path, to insure that nothing — not a headache, or bad breaks. or bad brakes — could compete with his record. This was not merely commercial, this was Spector’s aesthetic: he had created something beautiful and he wanted it to get the attention 1t deserved.

The hookline on “Da Doo Ron Ron” — ­more like a battering ram — has never been touched. A sax blares out a single note three times as the pressure builds, and then all is lost in an absolute cataclysm of sound and emotion. The record is three minutes of pure force; there is so much love in this record it sings all around you. Spector once said that some people — old rock ‘n’ roll singers — cut records; other people — like the Beatles — cut ideas. But “Da Doo Ron Ron,” he said, was both He added, with typical humility, that those artists who could make records and ideas would rule the world: making noise like this must have felt like that.

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THE CHIFFONS: “One Fine Day”

(1963 — Number 5.) A hit at the same time as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and played one after the other they still make the best twosome in rock and roll. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote “One Fine Day”: you can hear King’s phrasing in every nuance of the singing. She might also be responsible for the stunning piano notes that kick the song off, disappear, and return to break the disc in half and carry it off. The piano on “One Fine Day” is life at its best, that’s all. And the theme is so simple: One fine day, everything will come true, and the girl who’s singing might even believe it, for a moment.

THE RONETTES: “Be My Baby” and “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”

(1963 — Number 2 and Number 39.) “Be My Baby” is all momentum. You can hear where Dylan got the feel of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “One of Us Must Know.” Ronnie wasn’t the singer Darlene Love was (who is?), and the production is dominant, finally making Ronnie’s need all but superhuman. Brian Wilson’s favorite record, for any who still think “Pet Sounds” sprung full-blown from his head.

“(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up” is all Ronnie: she’s saucy, teasing (she pauses in the middle of her plea to seduce her boy­friend) and her voice snaps like a whip. No heartbroken need-nymph this time, she knows how good she is; this girl is in complete control, because she knows the best part of breaking up is … what else?

DARLENE LOVE: “A Fine, Fine Boy”

(1963 — number 53.) Not a well known Spector record, but his best. Darlene never sounded more pleased with herself; there isn’t a hint of pain or longing anywhere on this disc. She’s got what she wants and she knows what it’s worth; after about 10 sec­onds, so do you, and you’ll never forget it. The verses sum up everything Spector want­ed to say about life (“He even takes me places and buys me things/But love is more important than a diamond ring”), but it’s the chorus that puts you away. The already fast tune picks up speed, churchbells ring (no metaphor), the whole record seems to physi­cally jump. Darlene shouts out the cues and merges with the Crystals for the response:
Oh, he’s got a sweet kiss and a true heart/And something tells me that we’ll never part/He’s got a sweet sweet kiss and true heart/And he’s fine, fine, fine/I know he’s — fine fine fine/ Let me tell you he’s — fine fine fine/ And he’s a — fine fine boy.” What could be better than having someone sing about you like that — unless it was having someone like that to sing about?

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LESLEY GORE: “You Don’t Own Me”

(1963 — Number 2). The opening, very dramatic: the Last Fight Between Boy and Girl. No compromising. Lesley lost her boy in “It’s My Party” and got him back with “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” but now, the final question: Is he worth it? Lesley did this number in the TAMI Show; these days when on screen Lesley is about to begin this song, just a hint of the melody, not a word, is enough to set the audience screaming, not just because it’s a feminist manifesto years before its time, but also because the crowd recognizes it as a truly great song. It’s not certain Lesley does — the movie version is sung with an uncertain little smirk (Don’t take this too seriously, boys, of course I’m yours), but she doesn’t drag it down. All those fine lines (“Don’t put me on display …” ), her last surge for youth and freedom as she speeds off into the night, tough enough to break her date if that’s what it takes, made it a harbinger of things to come, but no one has matched it yet.

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: “Wishin’ and Hopin'”

(1964 — Number 6). Complete submis­sion — the other side of the girl group persona taken to its logical extreme. Wear your hair just for him; change your walk, talk, clothes, and whatever else you can think of; become a slave; you’ll love it. Dusty’s singing is very delicate, as if she’s afraid she’ll break; like Arlene, she’ll never get another chance; and she just wants to save us from her mis­takes.

THE RONETTES: “Walking in the Rain”

(1964 — Number 23). What a gorgeous re­cord. We learn a little more about The Boy — he needs more than a touch of sen­timent; he must be strong enough not to be embarrassed by romance. The lyric offers one of the great rock subversions of grammar: “Johnny? No, he’ll never do/Bobby? No, it isn’t him too.” It won Spector his only Grammy — for the thunderclaps.

DARLENE LOVE: “Christmas (Baby Please Corne Home)”

(1964 — from the LP, “A Christmas Gift for You from Phillies Records”.) All those songs of girls pining for Their Boy or The Boy were mere warm-ups for this aston­ishingly powerful record. As with “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Spector gives us not a moment’s peace; he crashes an entire orchestra into the very first notes,, then pulls it away for three stately bass patterns. The orchestra begins its charge back, and Darlene grabs the mike and screams, “CHRISTMAS!” like she’s announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The intensity is overwhelming: she’ll die if her boy doesn’t make it home in time. She does everything she can do to make you believe her; there’s a sax break, and you need it to catch your breath; and then Darlene is pleading with even greater urgency, de­manding, insisting, begging, and the Crys­tals are right with her: “PLEASE (please) PLEASE! (please) PLEEEEEEEEZE­BABY PLEASE COME HOME!” And he never does and the record is over.

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Is there something that will wrap up the social, political, and sexual meaning of a girl group rock? I’m not sure there is. Every time I try to draw a lesson from these wonderful records, it seems to defraud them, to be beside the point. At least, my points are beside theirs. What do they all come to? I don’t know.

But I do know this. If you listen to the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Any­ more,” cut in 1965, you will find that the lead singer’s voice, from its tone to its phrasing, exactly matches, down to the most subtle inflection, the voice of Patty Hearst on the tapes she made with the SLA. ❖

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Willie Nelson & the Outlaws of Country Music

AUSTIN — It is a strange, almost schizoid vision in the white heat of the Texas noonday sun. From the open stage we look out into the aerial blaze, then down and out across the littered remains of a scrubland meadow wherein 70,000 children loll in their bare minimum plus beer, cooler, stash, cowboy hat, and auto keys. They have cast themselves adrift into the blissful squalor of the rockfest Good Life on this proud, official state of Texas governor-de­signated Willie Nelson Day, and Wil­lie is playing for them now. It is the Fourth of July. Pride is every­where — rebel yells, Texas Lone Star State flags, Willie’s name. Every­body looks to be having a very good time. Willie’s annual picnics are infamously stoned. Nashville is horrified. Willie is 42 years old, and he is singing about the pain of an old divorce — one of his own songs — with a lyric so depressingly accurate that while the music is quite thrilling and the song a masterpiece of form, you. still have only two basic choices if you know what it’s about: face the pain or hit the intoxicants and wallow in it.

The crowd hears this musical, wound in waves across the strewn meadow, and sways along, and there is an atmosphere of cozy, communal good feeling.


There are four basic forces at work here. First is Willie Nelson, who is country music’s most profound chronicler or life’s more-than-little ups and downs, and a hippie of sorts.

Second is Austin, Texas — population 350,000, 10 per cent black, 12 per cent Mexican, 50,000 college students, bastion of liberalism in cowboyland, chief industries education and government, chief sports football, politics, and music, a damn fine place to retire to (especially if you’re under 40) — which has clasped Willie forever to its bosom, and is also, not incidentally, the most enthusiasti­cally undiscriminating audience this side of the Vatican. Austin is to Nashville and country music in 1975 what San Francisco was to Los Angeles and pop in 1967 — a refuge and musical breeding ground: a Scene. Nobody records in Austin, nor does much business there. It is, simply a playground.

Thirdly, there is Nashville, which is everything that Austin isn’t. Though laced with a few watering holes for the “new” country scene (Waylon Jennings, Willie, Kinky Friedman, Krisanrita, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Sammi Smith et al, most noticeably Tompall and Waylon’s sanctuary hidden behind Music Row), Nashville in general is not too receptive to the sound and image of the Country Outlaws or whatever you want to call them. That’s why Willie left town after a long career of feeding songs to the “stars” while his own records (and his own identity) were never given the promotion they deserved. Like he sings in “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a song written in Nashville and addressed to an estranged lover: “I’m writing this song all about you … I’d like to get even … with you ’cause you’re leavin’ but sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”

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Nashville is caught in its own mess — basically a matter wherein country country music owns the so­cial ethic but none of the financial power, which is held by those record companies, artists, and publishing houses that are fortunate enough to be dealing in the highly lucrative business of country-pop. Country pop is anything that comes out of Nashville and makes it onto the pop charts — which means about five times the revenue you can make on a country chart entry. Country-pop is what has become known as “The Nashville Sound,” a formula for suc­cess in a cultural climate that leans towards music that is soft, instant, mellow, and catchy. Country-pop is Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo: slick and smooth but none too profound. Country-pop is Nashville’s best bet for the future. In hard times like these, it is the only course which makes sense to the company accountants. And that leaves Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and many other Fathers of Country Music — the real, old-line honest stuff — out in the cold when it comes to record-pushing time. It also offends the hell out of the Outlaws.

In country-pop Nashville, hillbilly funk bites hard on its tongue in the cause of family entertainment and those big AM markets. It also labors under the weight of a private/public double standard which has come along with the popification of real, hard country music à la Hank Wil­liams and Jimmie Rodgers. You can say it to your friends, but you can’t sing it so’s the public might hear. And if, perchance, you are not of that particular persuasion, you can get shut out so quickly, and with such little apparent disturbance of the waters, that likely as not you won’t know it until the money dries up and the doors begin to close in your face. You can say that in Nashville, people can’t stand to be impolite. You can say it that way, or you can say that there’s enough hypocrisy in Nashville to make a rat puke. Laid-back Nashville is dead serious.

And in Nashville, there is a terrible shortage of places to play, to get that mainline fix of live audience acceptance. The Opry lumbers on within the framework of its own identity crisis, but the real picking gets done in studios, homes, and motel rooms. In Texas, it’s different. It’s also different in style. If you’re from Texas (like Willie and Waylon and Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe Shaver) you’re automatically OK. If you’re not but would like to be, it’s like Willie sings it on his new (and brilliant). “Red Headed Strang­er” album: “It’s nobody’s business where you’re going or you come from … You’re judged by the look in your eye.” Texas is the West, where intuitive mysticism rules from the bright white sky, and the unwritten laws are made to be broken with style. Nashville is like a hillbilly lawyer; Austin is more akin to the OK Corral.

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That was thirdly. Fourthly, there are the Nashville Outlaws themselves, who —with the exception of Nashville’s hard core of supreme talent (George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Thompson, Conway Twitty, and the aforemen­tioned Fathers of Country Music)­ — are the only country artists worth constant attention. On the sidelines of musical worthiness, you can also count the small amount of country­-style talent that makes it through the L.A. record mill — currently Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris — and the few wild cards in Nashville’s deck (Mickey Newbury, Hoyt Axton, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Darrell, Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Moe Bandy, Freddy Fender, Stoney Ed­wards, Ray Stevens, and a few more. Then there’s Merle Haggard, who is a world unto himself and acts that way, and that’s about it.)

The Outlaws, though, are (being outlaws) a breed apart, and their place in the musical development of country music is, like their place in its current sociology, an interesting blend of past and future.

Whereas most of Nashville’s country-pop product is based on the simple, clean song structures of Hank Williams and cut with the influences of mainstream American pop, the Outlaws’ roots lie more in the direction of Jimmie Rodgers (whose blues influence was quite obvious and specific). Bob Wills (who first wed country and blues and jazz into a giddy, semi-free-form brand called Western Swing), and Elvis Presley and his cohorts at Sun Records (that’s rockabilly: country meets r&b). That’s the past. The futuristic elements of the Outlaws’ work are futuristic only insofar as they go beyond majority Nashville’s development. Mainly it’s a matter of instrumentation. recording tech­niques, and lyrical content. Put up against modern rock/pop music, the Outlaws’ style is distinctly “old”­ — more akin to Elvis end Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins than Elton John or the Rolling Stones. Put up against modern Nashville pop, their style is hard, spare, and honest. No banks of violins (they use fiddles now and again); no Jordanaires; no oceans of brass. The Outlaws go further back into country’s roots and further for­ward towards basic rock & roll than most country musicians dare or would want to. Theirs is a meetmg between the hard musical core of country and the more sophisticated lyrical sensibilities of modern rock.

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While the most popular Nashville country-pop songs are created by a well-worn process whereby the songwriter’s mind is lit up by some everyday experience or current so­cial theme and then, by a form of déja vu resulting in the solid-gold realization that this happens to everybody, moved to write a country song (with hook, and keep it simple), the songs chosen by the Outlaws are usually quite specifically personal and not at all facile. They reflect a complex reality hitting psychologi­cal home base on multiple levels with a subtle emotional economy. To put it more simply, the Outlaws’ ranks are filled with American poets. Put together with the music — straight c&w, blues, Tex-Mex, West­ern Swing, and rock & roll — the the result is music that moves you as it moves you. The Outlaws chronicle the hard edges of American life and sing the psychology of white soul, no holds barred. They do for the country what Lou Reed does for the city. The suburbs take care of themselves.

The Outlaws will take their songs from wherever they can get them (including genuine freaks like Shel Silverstein and quite a few other well-educated converts to their ranks, plus the more sophisticated Nashville mainstays like Harlan Howard), but Billy Joe Shaver, Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Alan Reynolds, Steve Young, Lee Clayton, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement are the outstanding writers of the genre. Currently, Waylon Jennings must be considered its most compelling onstage performer. Willie Nelson, however, is the one man in whom it all comes together. I’d make a case for Willie being the best songwriter working in America — bar none, in any field — at the drop of a hat. And thank God for whatever kept him alive until he hit Austin and found some kind of personal peace.


Willie Nelson is a calm, decent man, a pillar of quiet strength, a survivor. His life history reads like some appallingly accurate soap opera of the mind and his songs — especially the older ones like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t it Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Night Life,” and “Touch Me” — chronicle its progress like so many late-night barroom crises. Now Willie moves amongst a  family of supportive personnel — some of whom may shoot each other occasionally, but what the hell — ­that’s Texas — and we are faced with the prospect (already realized in “Hands on the Wheel,” the joyous finale of the “Red Headed Stranger” album) of hearing his genius applied to both sides of the life-and-death game. Listening to “Red Headed Stranger” — the almost unbearably poignant, superbly performed tale of a cowboy who murders his sweetheart and her new lover, wanders the land in a black rage (“Don’t boss him, don’t cross him, he’s wild in his sorrow, he’s riding and hiding his pain. Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, just wait for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again”), and eventually finds happiness with new woman­ — you are struck by three basic thoughts. First is the fact that this particular musical masterpiece is the best cowboy movie since “High Noon.” Second is the realization that Willie and his gut-string, Spanish­-style amplified Martin are wedded more comfortably and with greater emotional impact than any other musical combo that comes to mind. Third is the image of Willie’s smile.


It is dark now on the Fourth of July. Doug Sahm has floated “Mendocino” out into the crowd and made us happy that he’s still making music even if he has given up on the music business. The Pointer Sisters have sashayed through their act with stunning styles, blowing quite a number of lily-white minds. Krisanrita are hidden away in the dark someplace, having made out once again in the eternal Willie Nelson Picnic backstage Winnebago contest. The Charlie Daniels Band has provided enough boring boogie to flatten an elephant. The picnic pro­moter is trying to persuade his guards to let him through the stage door. And news of Jack Clement’s move from Nashville to Austin has given rise to intriguing speculations on what might happen if he gets it together to build a superior recording studio out there on the ranch. Willie, bless him, is smiling. ❖


In Memory of Max’s Kansas City

On the last Wednesday of Advent, toward Midnight, I had the urge to and did taxi down to Max’s Kansas ­City for a nightcap with a lady friend who happens to write a column of witticism and miscellany in an underground magazine for the wealthy. Arriving at a portal which one invariably felt had been entered once too often, we were nevertheless ­greatly disappointed, almost heartsick, to find the premises dark, the glass doors latched, and an ignominious “closed” sign scrawled on a torn scrap of cardboard the only explanation.

The next morning readers or the New York Times would learn that the restaurant was closed on account of darkness, foreclosed by Con Edis­on after a series of unpleasant oc­currences: the withdrawal of Max’s creator Mickey Ruskin from man­agement and controlling interest: the accession of one Donald Soviero who changed the policy from Steak and Chickpeas to Steak and Lasag­na; and the very late recoupment or Max’s by Mr, Ruskin due to an escape clause in Mr. Soviero’s Chapter 11 agreement under which the new owner was entitled to pull out if it happened that his Sicilian cuisine did not reverse the restaurant’s fortunes.

But alas, we no longer read the Times since that publication in­creased its cost of home delivery, and so we would have no way of knowing, except by grapevine, that Mr. Ruskin had repossessed a res­taurant which owed some $13,000 for heat and light, that apparently Mr Ruskin was unwilling or unable to submit to the pains in the ass neces­sary to raise that much cash, that he had returned the keys to the rental agent, and that most likely we had seen the last of Max’s Kansas City.

“Shit!,” hissed the lady. “How will I ever find N—?” [ed. note: unclear]

The latter was a person whose acquaintance the lady had made in the back room or the restaurant the previous Saturday evening, an acquaintance which had bloomed into intimacy since. And although I had not expected to revive any particular friendships that evening, I nonetheless experienced quite similar emo­tions.

And as the cold wind blew one wondered where to go. The lady, recovered somewhat from her loss, suggested we give the bar on the next comer a try. “I hear they have a new policy,” she said.

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The Barn at 19th and Park had never had a policy as far as I could tell. A big, empty room with vaguely rustic decor, it had been a faint presence for years, principally when the cigarette machine at Max’s was out of order, but it was, invariably deserted except for a few lonely men at the bar.

Although, if the reader must know, the person my companion had hoped to meet at Max’s was in fact the object of an other than natural admiration, nevertheless the Barn did not appear to be the sort of depths which maintain such desirable denizens. Putting it bluntly but aptly my friend said, “I’ll never get laid again.” Hyperbole? To be sure, but grown from a hideous grain of truth, for it seemed that Max’s was the last refuge for a certain type or variety. Bars, like magazines, breakfast cereals, and just about everything else, were becoming frighteningly specialized. Yes, you have your stewardess bars, your blaring homo discotheques, your blaring hetero discotheques, your after hours glitter clubs, your hooker bars, coke bars, leather bars, up the ass to the elbow bars, but where oh where is the melting pot where something unclassified might turn up, where brilliant conversation might exist side by side with shameless cruising? Where might my lady friend and I both go to have a fair chance for success in satisfying our divergent but mutually supportive habits of social intercourse? Elaine’s? McSorley’s? The Eagle’s Nest? Maxwell’s Plum? Le Jardin? We think not.

Variety, that spice of life, was oddly enough the exclusive domain of Max’s Kansas City. No matter how awful the crowd was, and it was in recent years heavily intolerable, one might still expect the occasional nuggets of intelligence and/or beauty. A Junkie might try to steal one’s coat, the men’s room floor might be awash with urine, the la­dies’ room might be filled with preening boys, a person of indeter­minate gender might stumble across one’s table in the torpor of a seventh Quaalude, and yet quite often some­thing else might happen to tip the scales of enjoyment the other way.

Max’s heroically mixed quality had, after all, led to such meetings as Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, Candy Darling and Divine, Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas, Sargent Shriver and Jackie Curtis, meetings which might not have a settings today. And although one could not immediately recall any of the great things which had been said there, one was nevertheless confident that they had been said, and even though in the annals of memory the great nights had all merged into one vague recollection, one knew that there had been nights of greatness. Yes, when it was bad it was very, very bad, but when it was good it was fabulous. What happened?

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According to Mickey Ruskin “any club starts off at the top and works its way to the bottom.” Mickey saw Max’s heyday near the beginning 10 years ago as corresponding to the Golden Age of Hard Edge and Color Field Painting, and his biggest thrill was not when Mick Jagger or Robert Kennedy walked through his door, but when de Kooning slipped in almost unnoticed.

Where the stars gather the mobs are sure to follow and the stars are forced to move on. For years though, Max’s was perversely successful in terms of exclusivity, no because you had to be somebody to get in, but because the stars weren’t bothered, and because of Mickey Ruskin’s lower East Side sphinx quality at the door every night and because of the authority with which he wielded such deadpan phrases as “It’s too crowd­ed, come back in an hour girls.”

“Can I see your I.D.?” or the ever­-popular “Sorry, couples only,” to singles and couples alike.

Perhaps Mickey wanted his place in the sun with his children and his wife and his ex-wives and his friends, and found it increasingly boring to come in every night when in his mind he was left with “the hangers-on of the hangers-on.” He was openly con­temptuous of the latter day glitter kids and used to throw out the New York Dolls all the time just a year ­before they became the place’s most famous regulars. But even to the ­end, Max’s was a place where Alice Cooper, David Bowie, or Mick Jagger could drink in relative peace, and where a good customer could feel at home

Aside from the large debts incurred by Mickey’s failed attempts at expansion (Max’s Terre Haute, a singles-type place uptown, and Levine’s, a Jewish-Canadian cuisine restaurant-bar opened in partnership with artist Les Levine and intended to shelter Mickey’s original painterly crowd after the accession of the Factory demimonde at Max’s), there was also the case of the Max’s Kansas City Credit Plan.

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Many, many people ran up tabs, some great and some small, and Mickey in his ghoulish deadpan would constantly threaten them with the law. 86 or death, but never was it said that Mickey went through with ­any such measures, particularly with friends and regulars. At any ­rate, Mickey’s fiscal policies did contribute some fine moments. He knew how to run a joint by barter. It was almost Art Welfare. Plenty of people actually lived off the barbecued ribs, fried chicken, and chile served free at the afternoon Happy Hour. One wonders where they’re eating now.

For the last few years, Mickey stayed away from Max’s more and more, holed up in the mountains, flying to the Coast, or touring in Florida with Max’s softball team. Meanwhile, numerous circles and sub-circles of the New York nether­world drifted through that space, making Max’s on Saturday night an almost impassable jungle of the lat­est mutations in nightlife cultures all decked out in their artifacts. Horrible? Of course, but not without its fascinations, even to the last. Still, the interlude of Sicilian cuisine was not a pretty sight and friends gener­ally stayed away. One did not blame Mickey when, with the help of diarist Rene Ricard, he oh so tenderly took down the historic landmark red fluorescent installation by Dan Flavin from its corner of the back room. That was really the end of Max’s.

Supposedly the big lesson we learned in the ’60s was that Art is Anything. Could that have been a ruse? An excuse for the intrusion of certain techniques of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism into workmanship and marketing? Ob­viously if that lesson had been learned well Mickey Ruskin would have been recognized as a Restau­rant Artist, he would have been reviewed in the Times and inter­viewed in Art Forum, and when Max as was beset with financial difficulties, the New York State Council of the Arts would have declared Max’s Kansas City a work of Art, the greatest example extant of The Golden Age of Hard Edge and Color Field Dining and Drinking, not to mention its contributions to Pop Art nightlife, and Mickey could have received grants, and Vice President Rockefeller would own a booth and Frosty Meyer’s drinking tab would have been taken care of in perpetuity in exchange for the fiberglass worm hanging over the middle room, and John Chamberlain and Larry Poons and Neil Williams and all the Abstract Expressionist Heterosexual Alcoholics would have their own bar stools and all they could drink and the Flavin light in the back room could have been declared a land­mark by the City of New York and receive electricity free in perpe­tuity.

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Is the closing of Max’s Kansas City an act of political terror by the forces of Art Detention? Who is Donald Soviero and why  didn’t he pay the light bill? If the New York State Council on the Arts, the Ford Foun­dation, Governor Carey, Collector Rockefeller, or anyone in their league of appreciation were to express interest in Restaurant Art, a first step could be made toward establishing Max’s Kansas City as a Private Non-Profit Funded Institution with credit for all members and Mr. Ruskin as curator. Max’s would be not unlike a museum, to a limited extent the principle patrons of the club would be considered The Col­lection and to a certain degree they would be on exhibit to the public who would be strictly limited in access, paying full prices, and observing the “couples only” rule whenever nec­essary.

If you are interested in the ideas of Socialized Nightlife or Art Welfare keep the letters coming. Remember, “Billions for tequila but not one red cent for defense!”

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Led Zeppelin Zaps Kids

Kyle from Rockford, lllinois is the last one in the men’s room as the houselights go down in Chicago Sta­dium. Robert Plant shakes his long, golden mane while the amplifiers burst forth with Led Zeppelin’s ode to their music, “Rock and Roll,” but Kyle is chugging a Budweiser and changing his shirt. Off comes the J. C. Penney mandala print; on with the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “I just bought it,” he says, as he pulls out a fistful of White Owl joints. We smoke one, and it’s just like doing tobacco in the high school john. I put the butt on the sink after each inhale, in case the law or a teacher, comes in.

But this is no extracurricular ac­tivity: for this high school genera­tion, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English. “People are desperate for tickets,” says Perry, a New Yorker recently out of high school. A friend of his was punched in the stomach when a Gimbels Ticketron line became unruly. (Zeppelin play six New York arena concerts: the Garden February 3, 7, and 12; Nassau Coli­seum Feb. 4, 13, and 14.) A number of Chicago fans camped all night in near zero temperatures before tick­ets went on sale. Eleven persons were arrested outside Chicago Stadi­um Monday night as they attempted to sell $8.50 tickets to undercover agents for up to $100 a pair. In Boston, fans lined up three days early for tickets, possibly due to a communications breakdown. The hall’s beer supply was seized, bottles thrown, furniture destroyed, and an estimated $50,000 in damages result­ed. Like other recent concerts in socially disturbed Boston (Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five), Led Zeppelin’s appearance was cancelled. The group, however, should bear at least ­some of the blame for hyperactive customers and inflated scalper prof­its. Recent tours by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones resulted in an equally intense demand for tickets, but no incidents, since their tickets were sold by mail order with a limit of four per subscriber. Our New York friend was deprived when a person in front of him on another Ticketron line bought the 35 remaining tickets. Assuming the buyer wasn’t an agent for everyone in his home room, he stands to gross up to $1750 at top scalper rates.

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Nevertheless, a case could be made for Led Zeppelin as the most popular rock ‘n’ roll group of all time. The band rose from the re­mains of the Yardbirds, one of the more hallowed first generation En­glish groups and source of three of the best electric guitarists in rock: Eric Clapton, who left to form Cream; Jeff Beck, whose short-lived Jeff Beck Group introduced a frustrated soccer player named Rod Stewart; and Jimmy Page, around whom ex-Yardbird manager Peter Grant formed the new band. The three other members were John Paul Jones, a bass player and keyboard artist with impressive arrang­ing credentials (Stones, Donovan), and two unknowns, drummer John Bonham and lead singer, Robert Plant.

What the band created was no less than the aesthetic peak against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured. Rather than re­viving Chuck Berry tunes or early ’60s American rhythm ‘n’ blues hits, as the Stones and Beatles had done on their earliest albums, Led Zeppelin chose as reference points on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon, but without paying the kind of strict homage to the form common among English blues bands. They mutated the blues into a mega-amplified, manically surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form. As their discography grew, so did their ability as both writers and performers. While each very popular hard rock band has usually come up with one great song on which to hang their reputations — Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — Led Zeppelin has created at least half a dozen masterful songs, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and their piece de resistance, “Stairway to Heaven.”

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Though they’d sold millions of albums, and had evolved from pur­veyors of well-honed frenzy to artists capable of both passion and subtlety, they were scorned by the intelligent­sia because their early sound was associated with other enormously popular but markedly inferior groups like Funk, Sabbath and Pur­ple. There was another problem with critics, most of whom had grown up on Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, who refused to believe that a great group could be created after the early or mid-1960’s. Jimmy Page’s Yardbird experience gave the band some critical legitimacy, but they were never quite trusted by those distanced from the life-style of the enthusiastic new rock audience. For the first three and a half years, piqued by the critical shafting their albums received in publications like Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin did vir­tually no interviews. When Stone editor Jann Wenner saw some of the digits projected during the press offensive engineered by their 1973 tour’s ace PR man, Danny Goldberg (now vice-president at, 24, of Led Zep’s Swan Song Records), he offered the cover of the magazine and writer of their choice for a Rolling Stone interview. Unimpressed, the band refused.

After all, who needs publicity when you’ve got the numbers? Each of Led Zep’s five albums (a sixth, “Physi­cal Graffiti,” will be released this month), has sold over one million copies, with Led Zeppelin IV (which bears no real title, and is sometimes referred to by its catalog number, SD 7208) over two million in Ameri­ca, nearly four million worldwide. By contrast, the Rolling Stones, since joining the same record company (Atlantic distributes both Roll­ing Stones Records and Swan Song) have only one album over a million; in some instances, Led Zeppelin albums outsell the Rolling Stones by nearly two to one. During Zeppelin’s last American tour, in late spring and summer 1973, they broke the Beatles’ record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. In July 1973, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa, Florida. A bliz­zard of favorable publicity fell from the tour for the first time in the band’s history. Soon after, Swan Song Records was formed.

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“They felt that by using the busi­ness wisdom that had guided them, they could help other acts they believed in build their careers,” Danny Goldberg comments. This kind of vice-presidential philosophy has been heard before, but it is true that some of the label’s first signings, like Maggie Bell and the Pretty Things, have caused more interest among critics than among consumers. More than good karma, however, greeted the label’s first release by Bad Company, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the Led Zeppelin organi­zation, there is little distance be­tween the business and creative sectors.

Example: after what the band considered a dismal opening night in Chicago (the tour had begun a few nights earlier in Minneapolis), the Zeppelin team met to analyze the situation. The four musicians met with manager Grant, who guides their adventures in the money jun­gle, and road manager Richard Cole, who directs a small battalion of equipment movers, sound engineers and lighting personnel. Plant, who did have the flu, was told that it didn’t help audience spirits when he said so from the stage: 20,000 fans who’d waited two years to see their favorites didn’t need any shortcom­ings rationalized in advance. Jimmy Page, who jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, couldn’t really execute the involved improvisations on his tour de force, the six-year-old “Dazed and Con­fused,” so the tune was dropped temporarily and replaced with “How Many More Times,” another bit of bluesy freneticism from the first album. They hadn’t performed the song live in five years.

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Before the second Chicago show the band seemed enthusiastic. Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine. Amidst the backstage clatter, I asked Plant whether reports about violence on the ticket line made him fear that they could lose control of a crowd on this tour. “No. There’s no violent energy here,” said Plant, who tends to be a bit of a flower child, staring at me with meditatively clear blue eyes. “Violent energy can only be created. Some groups do it, know­ingly or unknowingly, and send out negative energy. Because we’ve got a sizable audience, people may think we’ll bring out violence, but it doesn’t happen.”

There must be a difference be­tween “peaceful energy,” the band’s declared spiritual intentions, and vi­olent music, which is what Led Zep­pelin unleashes from the stage. They play it with finesse, exuberance and charm, but that mass audience is there for 30,000 watts of rock ‘n’ roll, which almost by definition appeals to its aggressive, rebellious instincts. There is both pain and pleasure in heavy rock’s searing decibels, and mixed with unjudicious amounts of drugs and alcohol … Robert, you’re being naive.

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Plant is the visual center of the act. He wears tight blue jeans, and clearly no underwear. He wears a sort of Sino-Afro print vest that seems six sizes too small; he is the only male rock star who flashes tit and gets away with it. Although he does a brief peace rap before “The Song Remains the Same,” there is little of the cloying pretension that often goes along with such introduc­tions, partly because one is so dis­armed at finding spirituality mixed with sexuality in Plant’s projection, and partly because the audience does seem to be as well-behaved as any I’ve seen at an arena event, be it hockey, basketball, or rock ‘n’ roll. When someone throws a lit joint on the stage, Plant picks it up, looks at it, says “I’ve got a bad throat and all, but I might as well.” He takes two quick tokes. “Now we’re gonna play a new track, and it’s got nothin’ to do with that at all.” Should a superstar smoke dope on stage? Plant has the touch of a politician, standing firmly on both sides of the issue.

Page is the musical magnet of the stage show. Though Led Zeppelin is known as a guitar band, Page dis­plays few of the egocentricities of other acts oriented to lead guitar. He can be flamboyant, especially when using the double-necked, eighteen­-string guitar, but he plays with the efficiency and restraint of the studio musician — which is how Page began his career, on some of the great singles sessions of English rock with bands like the Kinks, Stones, and Who. Page’s subtle virtuosity is the key to Led Zeppelin’s strength. With only three instrumentalists, Page is attentive to Bonham and Jones’s firm rhythm control, while simul­taneously venturing out, adding width to the spectrum embraced by Plant’s plaintive vocals. After a par­ticularly incisive display, a fan exhi­bited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a roll of toilet paper. Bonham takes a turn in the spotlight with his “Moby Dick,” which some have hailed as the only interesting twenty-minute drum solo outside West Africa. Let’s just say (since I am no fan of the form) that it is not boring, with Bonham changing time, color, and maintaining a kind of melody, until he does away with sticks altogether and pummels his drums with his open hands. At the least, very effective showmanship.

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The highlight of the set came with “Stairway to Heaven,” a patiently weaved (nearly eight minutes on record) musical tapestry that proves that Led Zeppelin has the ability to remain a viable creative force long after “heavy metal” goes the way of other pop fads. One fan finds this tale (based on Celtic myths) so enchant­ing that she asked me to listen “extra hard and bring some of it back” when they played the tune. Although a top-forty FM station in Miami plays it as often as any of the hits on its playlist, and it is among the most requested songs on a New York oldies station, it has never been released as a single. Partly on the strength of the song, the album on which it appears, Zeppelin IV or SD 7208 continues to sell at the rate of 15,000 copies a week, though it is nearly four years old. “I overcame my dislike for Led Zeppelin when I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ” says New York fan Perry. “I hadn’t liked that blatant heavy metal stuff. But I said, wow, if they’re capable of this!” Indeed, “Stairway” will prob­ably stand with “In the Still of the Night,” “Satisfaction” and “Hey Jude” as one of the great oldies-but-­goodies of history, to be remembered even after we all find out what it means, as the song says, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Which proves that you don’t have to have grown up with Elvis and the Beatles to cherish oldies worthy of their gold. ❖

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Elton John: The Little Hooker That Could

There is something wondrous about Elton John, and something monstrous. The preeminent rock star of the ’70s seems out of time, untouched by the decade’s confusion. Unlike most of his compeers, he consumes music omnivorously — his tastes suggest fuel rather than food — and he pursues this fame with such single-minded compulsion that to accuse him of escapism sounds silly, like accusing a runaway freight train of antisocial tendencies.

Always the metaphore that arise are mechanical. As the great inheritor of Philadelphia pop-rock, in which rock and roll ceases to be an uncontrolled natural force and turns into a product understood and exploitable, John’s records are artifacts rather than expressions of a palpably vital individual. Of course, they share this artifactual quality with some of the best popular music of our time — he exquisitely crafted recordings of Randy Newman or Paul Simon or Steely Dan, or of the current kings of Philadelphia soul, Gamble and Huff. But with such artists the metaphors are from nature — what they create is like a fly preserved in amber. What Elton John creates is more like a Coca-Cola sign.

Not counting a soundtrack and a live album and a greatest hits and a collection of early efforts as yet unreleased here, John’s newest LP, Rock of the Westies — number one, of course, containing one number-one single so far — is the ninth album (including one double) the singer-songwriter has loosed upon the American public since the time of his debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in August, 1970. By the standards established for today’s pop, such productivity is gross, proof in itself that Elton must be doing something wrong, and the alacrity with which he works is equally suspect. The songs begin with lyricist Bernie Taupin, whom Elton met in 1967 by answering a want ad; although the two once spent a lot of time scuffling and still tour together, they rarely see each other socially any more. Taupin will write the lyrics for an album over a two-week flurry, spending perhaps an hour on each one, and send them on to Elton, who works out chords and melody for each lyric unchanged, a process that usually takes less than an hour. Recording takes a few weeks at most. John has said he believes pop music should be disposable; the way he grinds it out, he might pass for a garbage processing plant.

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Yet there are few people who like rock and roll, or any pop music, who remain unreached by Elton John. It’s not just that he’s so pervasive, although that helps; quite simply, the man is a genius. No matter how you deplore his sloppiness, or his one-dimensionality, or his $40,000 worth of rose-colored glasses, you will find yourself humming “Take Me to the Pilot” or “Bennie and the Jets” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Not all of them, perhaps; maybe not any of those three. But the man’s gift for the hook — made up whole or assembled from outside sources — is so universal that there is small statistical likelihood that one of them hasn’t stuck in your pleasure center. Or your craw. Or both.

For of course a good hook does not guarantee aesthetic merit — it is merely a means to aesthetic merit, and far from a foolproof one. The chorus of “Take Me to the Pilot” is as compelling a melody as John has ever concocted, but the lyric is gibberish, and every time the melody leads me to the gibberish I resent it more. Or again: John’s affected pronunciation of discard (“disz-gard”) is a kind of hook in itself, and also a turn-off in itself. In “Bennie and the Jets,” on the other hand, the way some fairly standard notions about rock stardom are embodied in the music — the whole damn song is one enormous hook — makes them vivid and convincing.

Hooks are integral to hit singles; they are what makes disc jockeys and radio listeners remember a record. The heedless fecundity of John’s recording habits tends to produce hit singles; one cut or another is bound to be right because it’s all so hit-or-miss. So when John is praised critically, it is usually as a singles artist. Inevitably, though, some of John’s monster singles present him at his most monstrous — not so many any more, granted, but you can’t just disregard (or diszard) those that do. His Greatest Hits is a hodgepodge. But there is a compensation — John processes so much music that it is possible to sort out the garbage on that jumble of long-playing discs by analyzing their hook content.

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On his two worst albums, Madman Across the Water and Please Don’t Shoot the Piano Player, hooks are both rare and dull; the same goes for at least half of the double-LP, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the second side of Caribou. On the two early song-poetry efforts, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, the hooks are often there, but the way they drip with nasal sensitivity (wiped by Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral embroidery) you wish they weren’t. A similar sensibility reemerges in a less fulsome musical context on Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the autobiographical bildungselpee of earlier this year, but the concept fails, and its failure as a whole diminishes its better parts.

That’s already six and a half discs gone, but what’s left is at least five years worth of good rock and roll. Honky Chateau, album number four, which announced John’s and Taupin’s escape from the excesses of their own romanticism, sounds even crisper today, when you can be sure it wasn’t a fluke. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (number six) is uneven but goes places, including not only “Bennie and the Jets” and one of John’s two hit Rolling Stone rip-offs, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” but also the unheralded “Your Sister Can’t Twist.” This raver is one of John’s masterpieces, overlaying surf-sound harmonies and midway organ on an intensified send-up of Danny & the Juniors’ “At the Hop,” itself the most intense Philadelphia pop-rock record ever made. The first side of Caribou (number seven) leads off with an even nastier Rolling Stones rip-off, “The Bitch Is Back,” and never lets up. My favorite cut is called “Solar Prestige a Gammon”: “Solar prestige a gammon/Kool kar kyrie kay salmon/Hair ring molassis abounding/Common lap kitch sardin a poor floundin.”

Which brings us to Rock of the Westies, which I didn’t like when I first put it on and now think is Elton John’s best album. This is nothing new. Despite his considerable commercial skill and fabulous commercial success, John does not suit my (rather permissive) notions about how an artist should behave, and although (or perhaps because) he is five years younger than me, he is not a child of the ’60s the way I am. He threatens me, and like most people I know I tend to fear and distrust him, so I write him off all the time. On this record I took a blasé approach, comparing him to the Bic pen, a formerly dependable product which can no longer be counted on to write every time.

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Then, in a bad mood one night, I lay down and read the lyrics along with the music. I grew angry. Not that the lyrics were bad in themselves; in fact, they were Taupin’s best batch ever, maybe a real goodbye to the yellow brick road. Taupin had written about race and class before, but not with this sort of toughness and clarity and irony; there was even a contribution from a woman, backup singer Ann Orson, about the contradictions of working-class marriage, the first outside composition ever to appear on an Elton John album. But the music … arghh, the music. This Bic was not only writing, it was leaking on my shirt; between the band’s machine-tooled hard rock and Elton’s automatic good cheer, it was crossing the fucking words right out.

The next day, you guessed it, I found myself singing not one but three or four of the tunes — the “Take Me to the Pilot” effect, in a way, although rather than leading me to gibberish the music was, in effect, the gibberish itself. I’ll shake this off, I said to myself, but I could not resist playing the record again … and again. Both sides. Hooked again.

Only one of the nine songs on the album bothers me much any more, and even that one I’m not sure about. The title is “Billy Bones and the White Bird,” with lyrics that more or less match, and the hook is the only one I noticed before reading the words — Elton chanting “check it out” over an echo-ish Bo Diddley shuffle, very contemporary-sounding, and therefore irrelevant to the old-salt spirit of the lyric as I understand it. With Taupin, that last is an essential proviso — half the time he does not bother to make himself understood, which given the middlebrow claptrap he is capable of when he does (“Hollywood made you a superstar/And pain was the price you paid”) often seems a blessing — but what made this album different was that it applied in a new way. The difference was irony — the lyrics were clear to begin with, but shifted nuance over repeated listenings. And as I listened I found their toughness and clarity and irony enriched by the music and by John’s abiding high spirits.

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“Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” is the greatest in a long line of south-of-the-border songs that began with the Robins’ “Down in Mexico,” because the nastiness of the slumming impulse underlying such tales is implicit in the marimba accent of the band’s own funk and the Spanish accent John assumes when quoting the avenging boyfriend (“he was so macho,” Elton whimpers). The faked-up Caribbean inflections, both oral and instrumental, of the hit single, “Island Girl,” imply a naive racism belied by the impassive but sage cruelty of the lyric’s conclusion — that is, the “inappropriateness” of the music ultimately elaborates the song’s irony. In contrast the temper of both “Street Kids” and Ann Orson’s “Hard Luck Story,” fired by the band’s drive, cuts through John’s arbitrary ebullience, giving us a glimpse of its works that only does the songs credit. And on “I Feel a Like a Bullet” Taupin finally justifies his penchant for mixed metaphor by providing Elton with an alibi: “You know I can’t think straight no more.” Some variation on that line would have improved a lot of their songs.

None of this analysis is meant to imply vision or intent. John and Taupin are such good partners because they share, over and above their commercial energy and a certain generalized ripe sentimentality, a blankness of artistic personality. Although it is only Taupin’s lyrics that can elevate John’s music to anything more than the most trivial aural diversion, John seems as indifferent to their quality as Taupin himself does to what they contain.

Don’t get me wrong — Taupin can be an excellent lyricist, and it’s a very good thing that he writes for John. Captain Fantastic excepted (and even that had its share of moments), his relative anonymity has saved his superstar mouthpiece from the onanistic banality of superstar lyrics; because he can walk the streets like a real person, it’s no strain for Taupin to write songs that are actually aboutthings. But Taupin’s wide-ranging historical and cultural subject matter, added to the old romantic staples, serves only to redefine the meaning of commercial songwriting in this time; he treats the various social issues with no discernible commitment or consistency. For all we can tell, they might as well be moon-June-spoon.

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And this, how-you-say, impartiality is perfectly suited to John’s singing, which is not interpretive in any ordinary sense of the term. The man has a ballad voice, which is adenoidal and sensitive-sounding, and a hard rock voice, which is adenoidal and insensitive-sounding, and he can simulate a few surface effects, like the accents which adorn this album. In its way, his style is quite distinctive — that is, his vocal timbre is unmistakable — but it is indubitably mechanical. Its automatism is best demonstrated by that song I quoted from Caribou, “Solar Prestige a Gammon,” which is written entirely in words that only sound like words or that can’t possibly mean what they seem to mean. Needless to say, John sings it with all his usual cheery conviction, which I assume is his way of telling us something.

If you like, what it tells us is monstrous. Such arrogance. That mindless cipher makes untold millions a year; that pudgy robot is a hero and an object of fantasy sex. But to say that Elton John lacks the lineaments of a conventional artist is not to say he is a cipher; to say that his singing is mechanical is not to declare him a robot. He is a star because people love his music and are immensely attracted to his immense vivacity. The best way to explain him is to steal an idea from Greil Marcus: Elton is the superfan, the ultimate music consumer. This is literally true — his collection of popular records is almost certainly one of the largest in the world, and he seems to listen to all of them. Who knows how much of his listening he puts to use? The most remarkable proof is on this record, which involves his first major personnel switch since the departure of Paul Buckmaster: a half-new Elton John Band. There is a tendency to forget Elton’s musicians; since he is a machine, it can’t matter who backs him. But that was a good band, and it does make a difference, because these guys kick more ass than the old guys. An especially useful addition is a second keyboard man, James Newton Howard, whom Elton found on an all-instrumental solo LP released awhile back on Kama Sutra. I played that record when it came through and dismissed it, but Elton heard something there. That is the superfan’s reward.

And finally, the superfan’s reward is the fans’ reward. Elton is our tabula rasa — the very sureness of his instinct for sales make him a kind of one-man Zeitgeist. If he can be maudlin or stupid or hedonistic or self-indulgent — the new album is very tight until the song endings, which tend to repeat the same riff ad tedium — so can we, and those of us who reject those flaws in ourselves will reject them in him as well. But if he can produce incisive music without even willing it, as seems possible, well, perhaps there is more room for optimism there than in the strivings of a lonely artist. Maybe, in fact, Elton John isn’t out of time at all. Maybe he is one small indication that some things about the times are already aright. ❖


The Fatal Consequences of the Secret Life of John S. Knight III

On December 7, 1975, three men entered the Philadelphia luxury apartment of John S. Knight III, bound him, gagged him, robbed him, and murdered him. Knight was special projects director of the Philadelphia Daily News, heir to the Knight-Ridder newspaper fortune, an honor graduate of Harvard and Oxford, a collector of modern art, and a friend of Henry and Cristina Ford.

When police conducted an investigation into the murder, they discovered sexual paraphernalia in Knight’s apartment which indicated Knight’s blue blood had more than a tinge of lavender. They also discovered that one of the assailants was Felix Melendez, hustler, procurer, and sometime lover of Knight. It took the final violence to bring Knight out of the closet.

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As expected, the gay press underplayed the Knight murder. An angry article in Gay Community News quoted a media spokesman as saying “Knight’s interests were not the normal average interests of a gay male at all.” I wish somebody would tell me what those normal average interests are. Another quote by a tambourine thumper in the same story was “No one knows the number of gay people who will be negatively affected by the murder.” Could that mean turn heterosex­ual? Give up fucking? Let the dishes pile? The Los Angeles Advocate, which, in the January 14 issue ran 238 classified ads for”model/masseurs,” headlined a news brief “Murder Probe Angers Gays.” Later on, we learn the anger was at the revelation by police of the homosexually incriminating evidence in Knight’s apartment. “Police sources said they found photographs of nude young men along with a diary that recounted ‘intimate homosexual encounters between Knight and various male prostitutes and hustlers.” Since when has the Advocate been so moralistic about nude young men and hustlers’?

If the motive was robbery and, lo and behold, the victim happened to be homosexual, I can see it strictly as a case of murder. But if the killing was an act of passion precipitated by jealousy and the victim’s gayness, or a get-rich-quick scheme to rob a closet homosexual, what else do you call it? Parcheesi? No matter how you slice it, the Knight murder comes out gay.


John S. Knight III was the 30-year-old son of the late John S. Knight and the only grandson of 81-year-old John Shively Knight, newspaper patriarch, modern day Citizen Kane, whose empire of  35 publications is the largest in the country. Columnists at the Daily News who knew young John wrote odes. Larry McMullen claimed, “I made him too simple. Now that he’s dead, I have come to know that he was more complex than that.” Jonathan Takiff, the News‘s theater critic, panned “Murder Among Friends” which opened the night following Knight’s death. “The last thing I wanted to see was a murder mystery with frivolous comic overtones … Never have I felt that killing was amusing. And just now, the tragic, senseless death of a friend and fellow newspaperman has left me baffled, bitter, and shocked.”

Knight’s death was shocking, the circumstances behind the killing macabre, and the underlying social implications horrifying. The killing took place on a Saturday night. The evening started with a dinner at La Truffe, a fine French restaurant on Front Street. Knight had been to South Dakota a few weeks before — he was a huntsman and had shot pheasant and arranged for four of the birds to be roasted and served in a wine sauce. His guests were Ellen Roche, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Janensch (Janensch was Knight’s boss and is the managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News), and Dr. and Mrs. John McKinnon. If the dinner had a purpose, it was to celebrate the McKinnons’ visit to Philadelphia (Dr. McKinnon and Knight had been roommates at Harvard). According to Janensch, there was just enough to drink. Everyone had a nice glow on but no one was drunk, and “the evening was one of the most pleasant imaginable.” Around midnight, the Janensches said goodnight, took Ellen Roche to her car, leaving Knight and the McKinnons free to return to his $1050-a-month apartment at the Dorchester on Rittenhouse Square.

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Once home, Mrs. McKinnon retired to a guest room. Her husband and Knight drank brandy and reminisced ahout college days. The phone rang a couple or times. Knight explained to McKinnon that the caller was someone who procured women for him. About 2:30 a.m., McKinnon retired. A half hour later, the doorbell rang, and Knight answered: it was the phone caller. Knight explained he couldn’t let him in — he was entertaining guests. The caller pleaded with him and made a ruckus in the hallway. Knight eventually opened the door, and the man pushed past him, followed by two other men. According to a statement made later by one of the men, 25-year-old Steven Maleno, the man who made the call was Isais (“Felix”) Melendez. Melendez and the third accomplice, Salvatore Soli, forced Knight to his bedroom and began to beat him. Knight was a strong, muscular man and didn’t give in easily, but the intruders, using belts, ties, and socks, eventually tied his legs and hands behind his back and gagged his mouth. They then started ransacking the apartment. At this point, Maleno claims, they discovered the McKinnons in a guest room at the far end of the apartment. Mrs. McKinnon was ordered naked from her bed. She was forced to open drawers in Knight’s desk, which were searched for valuables. Mrs. McKinnon remembers that two of the men had handguns, one had a shotgun.

According to Salvatore Soli, Felix Melendez “was marching up and down with a spear in one hand and a scuba-diving knife in the other.” Soli decided to return to Knight’s bedroom to check him out. He saw Knight on the floor “looking like he was asleep.” About 90 minutes into the holocaust, the Dorchester’s night attendant came to the apartment door and complained about the noise. Felix Melendez told him that hc was Knight’s brother-in-law and that they were practicing karate. Maleno and Soli opted to get the hell out with the goods they had collected. Melendez remained guarding Mrs. McKinnon, who somehow persuaded him to untie her. When he did, she ran to the guest room, grabbed one of Knight’s hunting rifles, and gave it to her husband. Dr. McKinnon allegedly had been asleep through much of this. The doctor rushed into Knight’s bedroom and attempted to revive him. As he leaned back from his efforts, he saw a man standing on Knight’s bed. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,” the man screamed. McKinnon and the man wrestled. The assailant pushed the doctor into another room and fled.

Meanwhile, Mrs. McKinnon, now covered hy a robe, had escaped to the outside hallway where she waited for an elevator to take her to the main lobby and safety. Just as the elevator opened, the man leaped into the car with Mrs. McKinnon and attempted to stab her. She kicked at him and was finally able to run off the elevator when it stopped at the third floor. By the time the police arrived, the attacker had vanished.

In Salvatore Soli’s statement to police, he said that when he and Steven Maleno were out of the Dorchester, Malena told him, “Felix stabbed the guy.” Maleno claimed that Melendez confessed he had stabbed Knight five or six times. Police reports said that Knight had died of knife wounds, four in the back and one in the chest. The wounds in the back outlined compass points: north. south, east, and west, and appeared ritualistic.

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The following day, the story broke in the media. Identities of the assailants weren’t known. Composite sketches of three white men — one with a skullcap, one with a Zapata mustache, one with a Gainsborough Blue Boy haircut — were distributed to detectives. Mrs. Mckinnon told police that one of the men had needle marks on his arm. She said she was certain another was a homosexual.

Evidence in Knight’s apartment indicated that he moved in three worlds: the world of wealth and comfort to he was born, the creative world of artists and writers, and the underworld of teenage hustlers. He kept the worlds separate. Recordings of gay encounters with Knight’s own voice (one contained “moans and screams” that led a police official to suggest the recording may have been made during a “sadomasochistic sexual encounter”), a diary, and Polaroid photos of nude young boys were clues to a life that Knight kept buried by day and hidden by night.

Billy Sage appeared on the scene, like the bereaved widow of a daddy who died too suddenly to remember his sugar in his will. Sage, now 20, spoke freely of a relationship that to began when Sage was 16. Sage boasted how he taught Knight to “be aware,” how he always beat Knight at wrestling because he was stronger, how Knight “financed” him and then suggested that he settle down with a good woman when Knight moved from Detroit to Philadelphia (Sage later married), and how Knight continued flying Sage to Philadelphia for weekends.

By Tuesday, December 9, the heat was on the gay world. Detectives appeared in bars, questioning owners and patrons. Hustlers in Center City were treated to the third degree. Dennis Rubini, a university professor, past president of Philadelphia’s Gay Activists Alliance, and active in sadomasochistic “consciousness raising” was picked up because he resembled a sketch of one of the men. Rubini was taken to Homicide, fingerprinted, photographed, and submitted to a polygraph test. He was asked if he had or ever engaged in “abnormal sex.” Rubini replied, “My definition or society’s definition?”

On Wednesday evening, a news conference was called by Chief Inspector Joseph Golden. In the proud manner of a father about to announce the marriage of a favorite daughter, Golden announced the identities of the men sought in the Knight murder. He announced that all three were residents of South Philadelphia and that warrants had been issued for their arrests. Five hours later, Steven Maleno telephoned police saying he wanted to surrender. He said his father and his brother persuaded him it was the right thing to do. Eight hours later, waiting for Maleno’s arraignment at police headquarters, word filtered to the press room that Felix Melendez, a “homosexual procurer,” had been found with a bullet through the back of his head near the site of a Boy Scout reservation in Camden.

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December 11. Rittenhouse Square is quiet. A police car is parked in front of the Dorchester, its occupants on the 23rd floor still sifting through the debris of Knight’s possessions. Amazing how life goes on. No signs in the lobby proclaiming “we had a heavy one last weekend.” Well-turned-out women chat with each other about the soaring price of avocados. Amazing, too, how easy it is to slip into the Dorchester. The doorman outside is interested in hailing cabs. The concierge at the front desk will put through a house call only if you ask him. The woman in the front office has her nose in her books. I show her the police photos of Knight’s accused assailants. She recognizes Felix Melendez immediately. She says she has seen him with Knight in the building on several occasions. She calls the mail attendant have a look. He also recognizes Melendez. They shake their heads. The world’s gone cuckoo.

I leave them and poke around the neighborhood. Pretty town houses, interspersed with high-rises. Sort of Brooklyn Heights without the dogs. Faked up old-world charm mixed with new-world gelt. Plenty of gays, laundromats, fish restaurants, boutiques, yogurt pal­aces. Knight with his millions bought his medicine and shaving supplies at a wholesale outlet three blocks from the Dorchester rather than at the retail store in the building. He bought his sex toys at the Pleasure Chest. He bought his tricks on Spruce Street, a couple of blocks away. In the park, too. It’s a self-contained neighborhood.

The house where I stay is near the Dorchester. It belongs to a young man who majored in German at college but is making a living as a house painter. Often this young man gets assignments from Andrew Liberty. Liberty decorated Knight’s apartment and was his closest friend in Philadelphia.

At the time, Knight struck Liberty as sophisticated but not ostentatious. His clothes were quality and English-tailored but well­worn. He looked like a compact teddy bear and acted slightly reticent. Knight told Liberty that he knew no one in Philadelphia. They struck up an immediate friendship.

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They began lunching at the Latham. Three-hour talks that began with furniture, shifted to psychology, and ended with self-revelations. Layers of Knight’s personality unfolded. He told Liberty about his background at Harvard and Oxford, about his travels, about the call he received from an anonymous tipster when he was working the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. The call described the mental problems of then Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Thomas Eagleton. Knight initiated a series of articles that forced Eagleton off the McGovern ticket and won the Knight-Ridder papers a Pulitzer prize.

As their friendship developed, Knight opened up about his relationship with his grandfather. The old man worshipped Knight and clearly, wanted him to take over the newspaper chain. But first he wanted Knight to learn the business from the ground up. So, at the Detroit Free Press, Knight delivered papers by truck to familiarize himself with routing. He covered the police heat, wrote editorials, and toiled in advertising, which he hated, always keeping in touch with Knight Senior. Knight once invited Liberty to accompany him on a visit to grandfather’s winter estate in Bal Harbour, Florida. This visit never came off.

In Philadelphia, the young heir earned a weekly salary of $350 and worked eight-hour shifts. He moonlighted a review of the Rolling Stones when they played town, an achievement he was exceedingly proud of. Music was his love, just as hunting was his hobby (he would not shoot deer because he couldn’t stand to see their eyes), weight lifting his tsuris (he had a weight problem but was strong enough to bench press 250), and cooking his way of communicating. Two weeks before the knifing, he had Andrew Liberty and a friend up for “the best breakfast of my life: freshly squeezed orange juice with Dom Perignon, Canadian bacon, filet mignon and eggs, coffee.” Generous to a fault, Knight nevertheless was shrewd with money. He traded his speedboat for an original Picasso print on the theory that the boat would depreciate while the Picasso increased in value. Money meant security. Lately he felt very secure: His Philadelphia bank account showed a total of a million and a half. Rarely did he keep more than $200 in cash at the apartment. He drove a workingman’s 1972 Grand Prix. Politi­cally, he was moderate leaning toward conservative. His upbringing was Republican. Grandfather was a Nixon supporter until the last election. In a conspicuous spot in a walk-in closet, Knight kept a photo of himself with Nixon. That it was in the closet, Liberty thinks, was a statement.

And then there was the gay thing. “I suspected it,” says Liberty. “He was beating around the bush and I brought it up. One night he said, ‘look, I’m new in town, I’m a newspaper man, I should know the nightclubs. You know them. Why not take me around?’ I said, ‘John, what gay clubs do you want to see first?’ So we went on a tour, the Steps, the Allegro, the PBL. We drank and talked and danced a little, but there was a holding back. John compartmentalized himself. His life was like a long hallway with a lot of closets. None of the closets were connected, and each time he would have to go back to the hallway to get from one to the other.”

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The gay thing gnawed at Knight. It bothered him because of his stature, the potential publicity, and the possibility that if Grandpa found out, he’d get cut off. Consequently, he dated “respectable” women. Bright women who were his social equals. Eventually, he thought he’d marry.

The men he dated were overaged children. “He would find a poor waif,” says Andrew Liberty, ”and father him.” Knight’s own father died in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II a couple of months before he was born. Billy Sage was typical of Knight’s relationships with males. So was 20-year-old Felix Melendez, whom he knew four months. Knight looked for the baby face and the big blue eyes. If they didn’t speak proper English and were poverty-stricken, they’d get points. He’d take them to the Dorchester, give them food, let them fool around with his stereo and camera equipment, talk to them like a father, wrestle with them — and then down to the nitty-gritty where paternalism took the form of incest. Never would Knight seek out a male peer as a sexual partner. He considered himself bi. Openly gay was threatening. Gay liberation was something he couldn’t espouse. He admitted that he’d be hypocritical if he did. Yet he knew that the sexual part of his life was fly-by-night, destructive, impossible to reconcile even with the help of an analyst. He acknowledged the hypocrisy of his life.

The night before his death, Knight phoned Liberty and asked him to come over to watch Tora! Tora! Tora! on television. When the film ended, Knight bubbled like a schoolboy because McKinnon would be visiting with his wife and staying for the weekend. He assured Liberty that McKinnon was straight as an arrow. Would Liberty join the party for dinner the following night’? Liberty said he’d love to but had another engagement. At 2:00 A.M., Andrew Liberty said his last good­bye to John Knight.

Early Sunday morning, the phone rang with the news that Knight had been murdered. Liberty thought the call might be a joke. He drove to the Dorchester. The first words from the police were “Did you know John Knight was a homosexual?” They let him into Knight’s apart­ment. The place was in shambles. Blood on the navy-blue rug, metal lamps crushed, plants torn, clothes scattered, glass shattered. “The stench of death surrounded me,” says Liberty, “and my reaction was hate. I lost my orientation. I got sick. Two days ago, we were sitting here drinking champagne.”

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The early patrons at the 247 Bar are drinking beer straight from the bottle. Mark Segal, Philadelphia’s Gay Raider, tells me Knight was a patron. He tells me the bar is pseudo S&M which means that it tries but doesn’t quite make it. Vinyl as opposed to leather. Stances instead of stunts. Mark tells me to use his name. They know him there. They know Mark everywhere in Philadelphia. He’s the one who burst in on Walter Cronkite during a newscast to protest lack of gay coverage. He also handcuffed his wrist to a camera on “The Mike Douglas Show.” I mention Mark’s name. The manager says he doesn’t want to talk about Knight. I amble up to the bar. Place myself near a distinguished-­looking cowboy. Ask the man if he’s been following the Knight murder case. “Was there a killing?” he responds. “I’ve only been here a week. I’m from Baltimore. My business is in Baltimore. How terrible. A homosexual murder?” He lights a Salem and gazes at my lower lip. I smile and move on to a younger man dressed in flannel and jeans.

“Do you live in Philadelphia?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“Come here often?”

“I’m a Republican and I don’t have much time for fun.”

“What do you make of the Knight murder?”

He shrugs and soliloquizes about hustlers, talking about gay people in the third person plural. “Keep away from the hustlers,” he advises. “Gay people are unreliable.” I’m not sure whether he’s serious or joking. Then he asks if I’m gay.

“What do you think?”

“Are you political?”

“Yes and no.”


He gulps his last drop of Schlitz and disappears into the night. Feeling like a fish out of water, I stare at my soda glass, stand alone for a while, and become increasingly depressed. Memories of what it was like sixteen years ago in Montreal when each night I’d toddle out of my parents’ home in suburbia, take my Hillman Minx downtown to the Tropical Room, nurse a gin and tonic, play the mirror game, and listen to “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” When the last call came, I’d leave with whatever was left and interesting, but more often than not by myself. It took a long time to learn another song. Ten years. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”

Desist. Do your duty. Flee. I ask the bartender if I can have a word with him. He stops polishing the counter. He’s got that Paul Bunyan look, the look that’s popular on Christopher Street. I identify myself. I ask if he had seen Knight during his visits. He replies, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turns his back and continues polishing. I’m alone in the bar now, except for three gigglers and a Hell’s Angel candidate. The music is “What I Did for Love.” Yesterday is not much different from today.

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Flash forward a week. They’ve seized Salvatore Soli in Miami. I think if I were Salvatore Soli, I’d flee to Miami, too. It’s chilly in Philly. I read Soli’s story and decide to call my parents in Florida. They want to know when I’m coming to visit them at their new house on a golf course. They want to know what I’m up to. I ask if there’s been anything about Soli’s capture in the Miami papers. My father’s heard about the tsimmes. He tells me I should move from my cold dump in Manhattan. He’ll help with the rent.

Parents, commitments, obligations, umbilical cords that are tough to sever even after the prodigal son leaves home. Do orphans and bastards have it easier?

Soli’s parents live in South Philadelphia in a two-story house. They were closer than Dun is to Bradstreet. Mama says her 37-year-old son would call her every day no matter where he was. He hadn’t called since the Knight murder. Mama Soli went on television and pleaded “Salvi, please come home or get in touch with me … Let me know you’re all right. You may be dead like the other boy [Melendez].”

A mother’s tears were less effective than a stripper’s fears. Linda Mary Wells, an 18-year-old blonde “burlesque dancer” met Soli, Felix Melendez, and Steven Maleno a few days before Knight’s murder. She told detectives she was with the group in Philadelphia on December 6 when Melendez said he knew a “friend” from whom they could get money. The “friend” was a homosexual. Soli had a habit of beating up homosexuals. Maleno had a habit of rolling them. Melendez had a habit of pimping for and/or fucking with them. What could be more natural than a rip-off job on a Saturday night?

So the men took off for an area somewhere near Rittenhouse Square. Several hours later, according to the young stripper, Soli and Maleno met her and told her that Melendez had gone berserk. Later that night, they met Melendez and questioned him carefully about what had happened at Knight’s apartment after Soli and Maleno left. The men had coins, rings, bracelets, and other items Wells assumed were taken from Knight.

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For the next few days, Wells and Salvatore Soli took it on the lam, checking into an assortment of motels in New Jersey. Wells was frightened. She imagined if she didn’t play her cards right, she’d end up in the can or at the bottom of the river. On the night of December 11, near the time Inspector Golden was announcing the identities of Knight’s alleged assassins, Wells said that she, Soli, Maleno, Melendez, and two other people drove to a “wooded area” in New Jersey. Steven Maleno and Felix Melendez got out of the car. Moments later, she heard three shots. Maleno came back alone. “You didn’t see a thing,” she quoted Maleno as saying. Later that evening, she and Soli set out for Florida. Soli’s car broke down near Florence, South Carolina. They boarded a Greyhound bus, arrived in Miami where Soli shaved his mustache, dyed his hair strawberry blond, sold some of the jewelry for $150, and bought a pair of platform shoes (Soli is five feet four). On December 14, Wells called Miami police from the South Winds Motel. She told them she was traveling with a hunted fugitive and was “panicky.”

Linda Mary Wells was described by police as a “juvenile” who was a “chronic runaway.” A neophyte on the bump-and-grind circuit, she was billed as “Tarri” at the Troc in Philadelphia. The Troc’s manager claims he’d like to have her back. He’d make her an attraction on the order of Fanne Fox. “Linda Mary Wells,” he says, “reminds me of the ‘Woman in Red’ who turned in John Dillinger.”

On her return to Philadelphia, Wells collapsed and had to be carried by stretcher from the plane. Several hours later, she appeared in court. She was charged with assisting a fugitive in an unlawful flight. She explained her parents would supply an attorney from Syracuse. Bail was set at $100,000. Soli was held without bail. He has a record going back to his teens, mostly burglary and drug convictions. (Track marks are evident on his right arm, as is a tattoo that says “father and mother.”)

Soli’s mother showed up at the hearing in a wheelchair. The same day, the Philadelphia papers reported that John Shively Knight, editorial chairman of the Knight-Ridder Newspapers, would be marry­ing again after the first of the year. His third bride. Mrs. Frances Elizabeth Augustus, seventy-four, is the widow of a Cleveland mil­lionaire and former president of the National Council of Boy Scouts.

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Earl Wilson remembers old man Knight as “tough” and a “playboy.” Wilson worked for Knight in 1935 covering the state legislature in Ohio for the Akron Beacon Journal, the first newspaper in the Knight chain. Years later, Knight asked Wilson if he’d return to the Journal as an editor. Wilson had had a whiff of Broadway, so declined the offer (Wilson’s Broadway column runs in the Philadelphia Daily News).

Wilson also remembers Knight’s eldest son, John S. Knight, Jr. (the murder victim’s late father). Tragedy has always haunted the Knight clan, he claims. Just look at the record.

Knight’s first wife, Katharine, whom he married in 1921, died eight years later of a brain tumor. They had three children. John, Jr., died in 1945, Frank died — also of a brain tumor — in 1958, Landon suffered an attack of infantile paralysis when he was young and is paralyzed from the waist down. He is president of the Portage Newspaper Supply Co., part of the Knight organization. Knight remarried in 1932. His second wife, Beryl, died last August. “Knight is bearing up rather well,” claims the present publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal. Yet an acquaintance in a top-level job at the Detroit Free Press reiterates the fact that all of the old man’s hopes and dreams rode on his grandson.

Newpapermen who have worked for old man Knight describe him as close-mouthed, well-dressed, defiant, and aggressive. They say he’s puritanical when it comes to sex. Vigorous and athletic, he still works out with a set of barbells each morning and rides his bicycle for a couple of miles near his Akron home. They say that editors and writers on all the Knight-Ridder papers have substantial freedom. The one thing Knight insists on is reportage that tells both sides of the story and writing that produces short sentences. His column, “The Editor’s Notebook,” has appeared in his papers off and on for years. Though generally conservative in tone, many of his columns argued against United States involvement in Vietnam. In 1960, he told a New York Herald-Tribune reporter, “I’m going to vote for Nixon and will probably support him. I like Nixon, but I must say he hasn’t fired me up very much.”

What did ignite Knight was a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press condemning conditions at Wayne County Jail. The articles were supervised by John Knight III and led to a prison cleanup. Grandpa burst his buttons with pride; It was chip-off-the-old-block time.

To most of the newsroom staff at the Detroit Free Press, Grandpa is an enigmatic distant figure, a cross between Santa Claus and God, while Grandson was the sleek-haired, ordinary-looking Joe who happened to be an heir and kept to himself.

Once, though, Knight Jr. dated the newsroom’s gorgeous recep­tionist. “All men lusted after her, but when John took her out, he never made a pass, which made her think she was a front. This woman was accustomed to the type of man who’d buy her a drink and rip her clothes off.”

Knight treated Billy Sage as a back-street romance, but there were occasional phone calls and sometimes they were spotted on the street together. A co-worker guessed there was something gay about the coupling, but there was no office gossip to that effect.

The Detroit Free Press employs open gays and has run editorials and pro-gay stories, including a piece on lesbian mothers. None of these stories were initiated by John Knight III during his four years at the paper.

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At the Philadelphia Daily News, Managing Editor Paul Janensch beckons me into his office. He leans back in a chair, hand behind his head, and asks if I’ve read his paper’s coverage of the Knight killing. Janensch was Knight’s boss and frequent lunch companion. He and his wife were among Knight’s dinner guests that fateful night.

Sure, I’ve read the coverage. Would Janensch care to comment on a report that Felix Melendez knew that the McKinnons were set to spend the weekend with Knight, that Melendez suspected Knight and McKinnon of being lovers, and, in a jealous rage, killed Knight? “Judging from the few hours we spent together, there was no indication of a romance between McKinnon and Knight.” says Jannsch. “None at all. There was nothing more than a conventional friendship.

“In fact, revelations of Knight’s homosexuality took us all by surprise. We just assumed that he was straight. Everybody we’d see him with was from the straight world.

“I think if John’s grandfather discovered his tendencies, he’d certainly be upset, but I doubt if he’d do anything drastic. I think he’d want to help John and send him to a psychoanalyst.” I leave Janensch’s office wondering why I didn’t tell him I’m gay. Why shouldn’t he know it? I get better interviews when, en passant, I put my cards on the table. Maybe he thinks I’m a closet case.

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The sorrow and the pity with Knight was not that he used hustlers. It’s that he was unable to sever himself from the umbilical cord that bound him to a patriarchal society. Cut it, and there was the possibility of losing his patrimony. To go against it would be to go against everything he was ever taught in all those fancy schools. For Knight to accept what he was meant he might not be accepted by the hierarchy that expected greatness of him. Greatness meant strength. Strength meant masculinity. Masculinity meant heterosexuality. Heterosexuality meant facade. Maintain facade for the world to see. Cheat in the dark abyss of your soul. Cheat in a dimly lit backyard.

Of course, there’s no telling what might have been had Knight played another card. Impossible to surmise whether he’d meet his equal at the Pines or if he’d search the Rambles for a Billy Sage replacement. The truth is, when you’re rich and the sex urge beckons, it’s easy to dial a whore. But there are as many varieties of male hustlers as there are Baskin-Robbins flavors. Many call themselves “models.” They’re not the runaway kind.

Hustlers who advertise in the Advocate are the household variety. Some are college kids who need the bucks to get them through school. Some are recession victims. Others are actors and dancers who can’t hold steady jobs because they need time for auditions. Still others are lazy and find whoring a way to pay the rent. They sit at home, wait for the phone to ring, and charge $30 to $50 a throw. The majority are gay and claim to be “versatile.” They find hustling a way of meeting interesting men they wouldn’t ordinarily meet. A house hustler is usually between 18 and 30. If he’s good, he’s not bothered by age or weight or kink. Unwashed bodies bother, as do obscene phone calls and bargaining. The house hustler is usually safe.

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The street hustler has a tougher time of it. Lilly Law is always there, breathing down the neck. A kid can freeze his ass off and come up with a $10 john, if he’s lucky. Generally, street hustlers are sexually passive, hate what they’re doing, hate who does it to them. Many are straight scrawny kids who still find hustling better than working the messenger route. They are younger than the house models. Often, they have nowhere to live. Pill-popping and hard drugs are part of the scene. Homophobia is, too. Like: “I hate it but I’m doing it and if I continue doing it, I may turn out to be one of them.” It is not uncommon for a straight street hustler to turn gay. More common, though, is when a straight street hustler becomes monetarily and especially emotionally dependent on one man who is nicer to him than anyone else he knows. The hustler can become possessive and demanding. Indications are that that was the case with Felix Melendez and John Knight.

Felix Melendez was a regular at Fifteenth and Spruce. I talked to straight hustlers who knew him, a gay hustler who claimed he balled with him, and a groupie who swears on the Liberty Bell that he and Felix climaxed simultaneously more than once. Felix obviously liked John Knight. Andrew Liberty claimed that he had been in Knight’s apartment at times when Melendez called. Knight had spoken about him. Melendez’s name was in Knight’s diary. Melendez also received frequent phone calls from Knight at the apartment he shared with a baker in South Philadelphia.

Where Melendez actually met Knight is not known. But in the summer of ’75, Felix had already taken that 15-minute bus ride from the tight-assed machismo of South Philadelphia to the cellophane glitter of Center City. He had the face and body to stop traffic. He was purchasable — and cheap.

Background? Felix was born in North Philadelphia, the son of an itinerant Pentecostal minister from Puerto Rico. He left home in 1972, quit high school, and joined a Neighborhood Youth Corps center in South Philadelphia. His co-youths found him warm-hearted, full of life, and fun. So did Donna Leone, the daughter of a truck driver. In November, 1974, she had his baby. He wanted to marry Donna, but her father told them to wait until he made something of himself. Felix told his poolroom and pizza parlor pals that he would “be somebody, just wait and see.”

Just wait and see.

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A faded blue poster of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus decorates the saloon window on the corner where I get off the bus. The poster announces a rummage sale at the Church of Our Lady of something or other. Philip Janison, the lover of Gay Raider Mark Segal, meets me at the corner. We’re a block away from his house. It’s the neighborhood where Soli, Malena, and Melendez lived. It ain’t “The Philadelphia Story” or Grace Kelly. We do a walking tour.

Philip is slight. Wool hat, scarf, and heavy winter duds cover his tiny frame. Prominent are two buttons: “Gay Rights Now” and “I Am a Zionist.” (He’s Italian, but there are no buttons that read “I Am an Italian Zionist.”) How does he get away with it? “I carry a Mace gun.”

As we walk, he explains the makeup of the neighborhood. Reactionary. Mostly working-class Italians. Countless two and three­-story houses, identical in design, forming a monotonous architecture interrupted only by a candy store or a social club or church. The houses are immaculate. Obviously, the women spend hours scrubbing and sweeping their parcels of concrete and asphalt.

Mayor Rizzo hails from South Philly. He’s the big hero, supported by most of the natives. They love it when he returns in a limousine and waves at them. “Rizzo claims he supports a gay rights bill,” says Philip, ”but he’s unable to get it out of committee.” Rizzo’s power is strong enough, however, to allow recently deceased City Councilman O’Donnell to run for office. The man was one of Rizzo’s allies. Believe it or not, the dead man won the race.

Family honor is big in South Philadelphia. “People are into protecting relatives. You call someone’s sister a whore and you find your head smashed in.” The Mafia family is taken for granted. They support the community. Better the Mafia than the liberal politicians, is the feeling. Tradition has it that a young man “investigates” the family about the time he has his first lay. Some of the great hoods in the city hail from South Philadelphia.

Everyone accepts the drug problem. There’s not much you can do about it. Few accept blacks. On the block where Philip Janison lives, a black family moved in. “Nigger” was painted on their front door. They moved after six months.

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Homosexuality in the neighborhood means drag queens. Philip is a problem because he isn’t obvious, but is open about his lifestyle and appears on radio and television shows. Philip’s family is having a tough time living with Philip’s gayness. He claims his father calls Mark Segal “your Jew faggot leader.” Once he pulled a gun on one of Philip’s gay friends and ordered the man out of the house. There’d be far less of a problem if Philip were effeminate. Then you’re not bothered, es­pecially if you grew up in South Philadelphia. You’re considered a freak of nature. Machismo is all.

The streets arc quiet. The weather’s below freezing. It’s early noon. We pass the saloon where Maleno hung out. Philip points out the last house where Felix Melendez lived. The blinds are drawn at the home of Salvatore Soil’s parents.

Evening now, and I’m alone outside the Pullo Funeral Home. There’s a small congenial crowd hovering around the entranceway. I decide to go in.

I bow my head and nod solemnly at the pomaded mortician’s aide at the door. He gestures for me to sign the Felix Melendez guest book. I don’t. I find a seat near the back of the parlor. The mourners are mostly young girls in mini-skirts, craggy-faced mamas, babies, and teenaged boys with Philadelphia Flyers jackets and acne. They occupy twenty rows of bridge chairs which come to a halt a yard away from an open casket. There’s sobbing. A young girl whimpers and a baby cries and another girl cries and another. Who are they? Friends of Donna Leone? Past acquaintances from the neighborhood center? They make me feel out of place and I am out of place, conspicuous to myself because I shouldn’t be here, somewhat guilt-ridden, somewhat paranoic.

I notice a plainclothesman from police headquarters. He notices me, too, and his eyes hit the floor. Another intruder, I think, thank the Lord.

The place soon fills to capacity. From where I sit, it is difficult to see Felix Melendez’s death-face in the open coffin. There’s a line of fifteen people waiting to get a view. One of the viewers is a repeater. I get in line.

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The moving to the coffin is a slow process. Once there, the procedure is to look at the body for as long as you like, then get back to your seat or leave the parlor. Most of the viewers sneak a quick glance. One viewer gazes and prays for what seems an hour. The line in back of me is long.

Now it’s my turn. The coffin is plushed up with white silk-satin. Melendez is clad in a tan summer suit. He is long and lanky. His tie is tied in a tight Windsor knot. His hands are folded across his chest. His hair is sleeked back. The cosmetician has done a remarkable job restoring whatever damage the bullet wound did to his head. He looks like a waxwork of Rudolph Valentino. He sports a half-smile. Or is it a silent snicker?

Enough. My eyes shift to his shoes. Cheap, with those tiny ventilated airholes. Heels in A-1 condition. Big feet. No sign of socks.

Below his feet is a pretty heart-shaped bouquet of white gladioli. Tied to the bouquet is a card. The card reads “Daddy.” That’s all. “Daddy.”


The gladioli and the Daddy card were buried with Felix. ❖


Charlie Parker: The Man and His Music

August 29, 1975, marks the 55th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth and follows, by five months, the 20th anniversary of his death. There will be the usual tributes on radio, a memorial concert at Avery Fisher, and acknowledgements in jazz publications. Yet to most Americans, Parker’s name means little and his music less. Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses. Some observers, having noted the belated recognition of Scott Joplin and Billie Holiday, suggest that Charlie Parker’s time will come as well.

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But this seems unlikely. True, Supersax, a band that plays transcriptions of Parker improvisations but without Parker’s expres­sive immediacy, is enjoying moderate popu­larity. Steely Dan, a rock group, has record­ed “Parker’s Band,” a stringing together of Parker cliches, which, in the absence of a liner annotation, is unlikely to be recognized as such by most of its fans. There is abundant movie material in Parker’s story and several books have been inspired by him, but there is little in his music to provide a foothold for mass acceptance, despite his own commer­cial recordings with strings and Latin rhythm. For that matter, the popular successes achieved by Ellington and Armstrong were unrelated to their best work. Moreover, if Parker was the pivotal figure in the founding of modern jazz, he was also the central force in moving jazz from the dance floor to a plateau where it had to be attended as an art or not at all. Parker was not a self-conscious revolutionary and though he evolved his music logically from prevailing jazz styles, he brought the music into an elitist arena where few swing fans were prepared to follow.

The music Parker innovated in conjunc­tion with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and others is still known by the onomatopoeia bebop. But bop was not created in a vacuum. Such epochal Parker-Gillespie masterpieces as “Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Koko” define a very different tableau from that imagined by Lester Young or Roy Eldridge, yet the styles of the younger players were originally mod­eled after their idols. Bop became a tradition unto itself when a new wave of players came along drawing exclusively on the achieve­ment of Parker’s generation. The originators of bop, however, were intimately involved with the playing of Young, Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Charlie Chris­tian, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Blanton, Teddy Wilson, and other masters of the swing period. They must certainly have recognized the falsity of some of the claims made on behalf of bop.

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It is easy enough to recognize bop as a style of music different from, say, swing or avante-garde, but attempts to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of bop can be treacherous. We hear a great deal about the complexity of bop, for example, yet nothing in its fabric was foreign to Ellington. Much has been made of the intensity and speed demanded by most bop compositions, but speed was also endemic to Eldridge, Tatum, and Armstrong. Bop musicians have been credited with first superimposing their own compositions on familiar chord progres­sions; but earlier examples of this practice include Benny Moten’s “Moten’s Swing” (based on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), Sidney Bechet’s “Shag” (”I Got Rhythm”), and Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” (“Rose Room”). Most dramatically, bop musicians are said to have been the first to improvise on chords, rather than simply embellishing the given melody. Almost any handful of classic jazz recordings from the ’30s will refute this.

Another area of confusion concerns the relationship of bop to the big bands. The instrumentation of the Charlie Parker Quin­tet — sax. trumpet, piano, bass, drums — became the standard instrumentation for jazz until the ’60s, but it wasn’t the nature of the beast that required a small-group context nor did the musicians reject big bands entirely for musical reasons. The key figures in bop were actually trained in big bands: Parker with Jay McShann, Gillespie with Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon with Armstrong, Max Roach with Benny Carter. Economic considerations have played a de­cisive role in every phase of jazz. The shoestring labels that recorded bop were hardly able to offer a musician the freedom to hire 15 men for a record date. But bop, like most schools of jazz, aspired to larger en­sembles. Gillespie formed a big band as soon as he could get the backing, Woody Her­man’s second herd was a bop band, and Tadd Dameron, the preeminent composer-ar­ranger of the movement, wrote for orches­tras whenever possible. Parker himself toured with a string ensemble of his own vo­lition.

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The distinguishing characteristics of bop are immediately recognizable. The absence of vibrato and tonal coloration is necessitat­ed by the blazing tempos and the many-noted character of the solos. The techniques with which a bop solo is constructed might be discussed in jargon like flattened fifths, the higher intervals of chords, diminished scales, and chromaticism, but while the musician has to understand these terms, the listener doesn’t. In order to hear the melo­dies of a bop improvisation, one simply has to become familiar enough with the idiom to hear the component phrases of a solo. There is no greater melodist in jazz than Parker.

The central innovation in Parker’s music was rhythmic. Swing rhythm was exemplified by the Basie band’s brisk 4/4, with each beat evenly accented. The soloist seemed to be confined by the bar lines, or, in the case of an advanced player like Lester Young, to float above the chomp/chomp/chomp, knitting his melodies into four-bar phrases, and booting them along with riffs. Lester’s two choruses on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall con­cert, are representative of his alternation of rich, fluent melodies and repeated rhythmic phrases. By contrast, listen to Parker’s 1946 “Lady Be Good” solo, recorded at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Essentially, he adopts blues diction to the pop song form, but in his use of space (the first phrase is followed by a full rest) and in his variety of note-values (from whole notes to 32nd notes), he opens up the time, establishing rhythmic freedom rather than coursing over the 4/4.

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With the arrival of bop, the bassist be­came the time-keeper and the drummer was free to dispense “bombs” in response to the soloist. Young improvised in a situation governed by the time, while Parker made himself the focal point around which the time coalesced.

Parker’s need for an alert drummer is seen in the performance of his blues, “Cheryl,” at a 1949 Christmas eve Carnegie Hall concert — available on several pirate labels but never legally issued. In the fifth measure of the fifth chorus, Parker ends his phrase on the third beat. He repeats this for several measures until the drummer, Roy Haynes, responds by accenting the third beat and suspending the fourth. They play in this fashion throughout the following chorus. Another aspect of his music — the sometimes satiric quoting of familiar melodies to en­hance his solos — is illustrated by the same piece: he paraphrases Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza, an ingenious reminder that all styles of jazz are bound by the blues. (On the studio version of “Cheryl,” he quoted the New Orleans standard “High Society.”)

Neither Parker nor Gillespie considered themselves revolutionaries in the sense that they wished to destroy anything. If their music was rhythmically unsuitable for jit­terbugging, it was nonetheless an inevitable and heartfelt extension of the jazz they had grown up with and cherished. Critical feud­ing in the press, esoteric discussions of technique, and even the fashionable accou­trements of the period — goatees, berets, shades, and drugs — obscured, for many, the blues-based strain underlining their music. Parker might well have voiced the “confes­sion” once expressed by Stravinsky: “The novelty of the ‘Rite’ consisted, not in the writing, not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity. I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.”

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Parker’s mature style was intimated in his earliest recordings, with the Jay McShann orchestra. On “Swingmatism” he played 16 bars and a pickup measure replete with Lestorian triplets and a rounded intonation. With “Jumping Blues,” his personality became more apparent. His chorus begins with one of the many phrases that would become the meat, and eventually the cliches, of modern jazz. Little Benny Harris, the trumpeter-composer, extracted this phrase and extended it into “Ornithology,” a classic bop theme based on “How High the Moon,” (The first few notes in both are the same.) Parker’s recording of “Ornithology,” five years later, revealed his fully matured ability to dance into solos with rhythmic ideas that complemented those of the composition. Ironically, he brought the “Ornithology” lick back to the blues when he re-recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1953, tossing it into the theme statement. The solo on this version of “Now’s the Time,” an especially gay and insouciant invention, begins with another phrase which had become a cliche, the one he had used to begin the original version of that blues, in 1945. Parker knew he had become an “academy” and he enjoyed it.

Charlie Parker’s chief legacy is his records, and there is a sizable number of them considering the brevity of his career. Won­drous as the individual masterpieces are, the sum of his work is even more impressive. He was nothing if not an expressive player and the more we listen to him, the more vivid his vision becomes. For if there is a light side to his music — the clean order and virtuosic structuring of solos, the lovely ballads­ — there is also a dark, nightmarish side. Parker was a heroin addict most of his life. His body was so ravaged at his death that a doctor, filling out a report, estimated his age at 60 rather than 34. The horrors he lived were transfigured into music. The best known example is “Lover Man,” recorded during the breakdown which landed him in Camarillo for a year. He could hardly stand or fill his horn with air, yet he created fleeting moments of dynamic tension and surprise. In his 26th to 27th measures, he tenuously shapes a comely melody that sways and finally dips to the lowest note of the solo. This yearning, frustrated side of Charlie Parker is revealed more fully in some of the private tapes and broadcasts now surfacing. It is disgraceful that the work of a great artist should be shoddily pack­aged, indifferently treated, and unpaid for, but this emerging cache of tapes cannot go unattended simply because they’re being issued illegally. There is a newly discovered 1949 Brooklyn broadcast of “Cool Blues” which tells us much about the longing in Parker’s music, and prefigures the breakthrough in expressive techniques of Ornette Coleman.

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Even Parker’s legitimate recordings are in dubious hands. The Dial sessions have been expertly issued in a six-volume variorum edition by Spotlight, a bootleg outfit. The Savoys remain scrambled. Too many of the Verves, including “Lady Be Good,” are unavailable.

Charlie Parker’s music was delirious, funny, wise, terrifying, tragic, funky, sad, exultant, wistful, haunt­ing, electrifying. His is one of the monumental achievements in contemporary art, and still it is consigned to the shadows. ■


Journalists at Play: the (MORE) the Merrier?

This year’s (MORE) Convention con­tained a number of serious elements:

  • the image and employment of women
  • the press and Indochina
  • the Indian movement
  • public broadcasting
  • minority coverage
  • the CIA
  • the nursing home scandal
  • self-censorship
  • conglomerates and book publishing
  • investigative reporting

But anyone who thinks the (MORE) Con­vention is a serious event in itself might consider that at this year’s gathering it was also possible to:

  • see three movies
  • meet Judy Collins
  • dance to the music of the Deadly Nightshade
  • get drunk every day without moving out­side the conference area
  • get hit in the face with a whipped cream pie
  • take a mallet and test your “Media Heavi­ness” on a device patterned after a test­-your-strength machine at a carnival
  • get stoned on not one but three drugs simultaneously, to the point at which the entire convention became a hallucinative blur.

So much for seriousness.

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(MORE) has been holding its annual A.J. Liebling Counter-Convention for four years now. The first one had something of the excitement of a countercultural event. The second rode on the crest of the Woodward­-Bernstein revelations and had a speedy, hustling, status-conscious quality that some said was directly attributable to the conven­tion’s being held in Washington. The third, held last spring back in New York, was galvanized by the prospect of the impeach­ment hearings. If you were a journalist, you didn’t really want to be anywhere else any of those weekends.

This year’s convention started out with some of the same crackling atmosphere of expectation, but it never really jelled. There was no single issue, like Watergate or impeachment or Vietnam, to serve as a focus of energy and talk. If there is a single big story it’s probably the economy, and the press hardly has a grip on that. (The one panel that touched directly on the subject, a discussion of business reporting with Emma Rothschild, Chris Welles, Leonard Silk, and other, was thinly attended.) Maybe that’s why the convention this year felt more like a party than ever before, a big, busy party that doesn’t really go anywhere and that lasts a little too long.

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Thursday night 8 p.m. — I enter the Commodore and on the mezzanine level the first thing I see is Relaxation Plus, a handsomely appointed massage parlor that offers, among other things, the use of its “Exciting New Infinity Room.” According to some leaflets circulating around the convention registra­tion area some distance off, Relaxation Plus offers “magnificently provocative girls” and “an unparalleled bacchanal” with “the wildest fantasies and mirrored gardens.”

The ballroom and foyer area where the convention started out was more crowded than Relaxation Plus. About 200 people showed up, mostly women, and waited an hour to see the movie “Antonia.” The first person I saw was a woman from my old consciousness-raising group. The second was an old boyfriend. The third was another friend, a playwright whose contempt for journalism knows no bounds. Mildly amazed, I asked him if he was going to register. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard there were a lot of parties.”

A few minutes later Dick Pollack, the editor of (MORE), remarked, with some wonderment, that the New York Times had listed the convention in that day’s Going Out Guide. One imagines an update of the famous Arno cartoon; Midwestern tourist husband to Midwestern tourist wife: ”Oh look, mother, let’s go down to the Commodore and hiss the journalists.”

It is worth wailing for “Antonia.” Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow’s film about the conductor Antonia Brico and her frustration at not being able to get conducting jobs primarily because she’s a woman. “A violin­ist can at least play for himself, alone in his room,” says Antonia at one point, in fierce distress, “but the orchestra is my instrument.  If I can’t get jobs, I can’t play my instrument.” For a moment, the well-worn topic of sex discrimination takes on stinging reality. I leave immediately afterward, while everyone is waiting for Judy Collins to show up.

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Friday 11 a.m. — I have managed to sleep through the opening of the first day, and run into Bella Abzug, the keynote speaker, in the lobby. “Have you spoken,” I ask. “Of course I’ve spoken,” she says. “You missed me! I was first.” And then grinning, she says, “I’m always first,” and bustles out.

The women’s conference is held in a long room, with panelists at one end facing an audience of perhaps 300, nearly all women. I take notes, but they’re not worth repeating. The fact is, the women’s conference is dull. It’s essentially a rerun of the Women in Media conference held last December, which was good then but seems a little stale this time around. The broad topics, employment and image, are broad; discussion is necessarily superficial. In the employment panel, a half-dozen women from places like Newsweek, Newsday, and the Long Island Press report on the status of their various anti-discrimination suits; after awhile, one EEOC case sounds much like another. A lot of specific workshops would have been better, where people could argue and get some hard information and advice.

Also by setting up a separate day, Women in Media gave (MORE) an excuse to leave women out of most of the rest of the conference. On More’s program, the women’s panels aren’t even described, and a check of the rest of the program yields the following irritating statistics: out of 106 panelists, 86 are men; out of 20 panels, there is one all-woman panel, entitled “Invading Male Turf”; there are seven all-male panels none of which is entitled “Invading Female Turf.” The (MORE) Convention, this year more than last, looks, as one woman reporter said, “male and pale”; there is even a token panel on minority coverage called “Token Assignments.” Reading the program, one wonders what this self-styled “counter-convention” is supposed to be counter to.

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Friday 12 noon — Kathie Sarachild, a film editor and a founding member of Redstockings, one or the first radical women’s group, takes the open mike to announce that Redstockings is holding a press conference in an upstairs meeting room. The subject of the press conference, she says, will be “Gloria Steinem’s 10-year association with the CIA.”

What followed was one of the most bizarre and grim events I’ve ever witnessed. It was also perhaps the only actual news occur­rence the entire weekend, although the daily papers seem to have ignored it.

They weren’t the only ones. When Sara­child made her announcement, there was a stunned silence in the room, then some minor crowd buzz, then nothing. The next person in line for the mike took it and started talking. I think about unions, and the conference proceeded as before. Maybe it just didn’t interest them that a major radical feminist group was attacking the editor of Ms. maga­zine on serious political grounds; maybe it was just too weird to take. In any case, few people followed Sarachild out of the room.

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Upstairs, about 30 people gather to hear what Redstockings has to say, and to read the 16-page newspaper-format press release they’ve distributed with the headline “Restockings Discloses Gloria Steinem’s CIA Cover-up.” Five members of the group sit facing us and looking serious. Since many people in the room are aware of Steinem’s previously publicized CIA connection as director of a CIA-backed research foundation, the ironically named Independent Re­search Service which sent American students to world youth festivals in 1959 and 1962, someone asks what the Redstockings have that’s new. They say two things:

1) Steinem’s “Who’s Who” entry for 1968-69 lists current membership on the Board of Directors or the Independent Re­search Service and notes that she was its director from 1959-62. In the 1973-74 entry, there is no mention of her board membership through 1969 and the directorship is listed as lasting from 1959-60.

2) In a Times interview in 1967, Steinem is quoted as saying that in working with the CIA she was never asked “to report on other Americans or assess foreign nationals.”  Redstockings contrasts this note with an excerpt from the Research Service’s report on the Vienna Youth Festival in 1961, which lists brief political and biographical descriptions or a number of the participants.

As cover-ups go, this one seems to be small beer: the offending pamphlet is 14 years old, and dropping embarrassing infor­mation from one’s “Who’s Who” entry may not be candid, but it’s anybody’s preroga­tive.

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The press conference continues in a con­fused and slightly tense way. Someone final­ly asks if Redstockings is saying Steinem works for the CIA or that Ms. magazine is a CIA front (the press release makes reference to Ms.‘s “curious corporate financing”). Sarachild says no, they’re simply “raising questions” about that. There is a peculiar moment when someone asks if Redstockings has confronted Gloria Steinem with their information, and if not, why not. “We wanted to bring it to you first,” says one of the women, “since you as the press are the representatives of the people.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard a radical describe the press so kindly. The Redstockings insist that it is not their business to confront Stein­em, it’s the business of the press, and that’s why they’ve called the press conference.

Maybe so, but the whole thing has an unnecessary air of McCarthyism about it. What could have been a legitimate attack on Ms. and, for that matter, Steinem’s politics, which many radical feminists regard as frustratingly reformist and even reactionary, has been cast in such a way that it looks sly and paranoid. It also looks very personal. At one point, a woman in the audience suggests that because the 1967 Times article describes Steinem as a “30-year-old free­lance writer,” she lies about her age, and the Redstockings agree. (Steinem turned 40 this year, a fact she consciously publicized.) And the Redstockings describe Steinem’s career repeatedly as having been “made” by Clay Felker (whose job as an editor of the CIA-fi­nanced delegation’s newspaper at the 1962 Helsinki festival is made much of in this connection, although the Redstockings stop short of charging Felker with knowledge or the CIA involvement). Sad days, when fe­mininists can’t give a woman credit for her achievements — whatever they may feel about her politics — but must attribute them to a man.

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I prepare to leave, feeling depressed and wishing that one of the most important radical feminist groups in New York had chosen to announce its resurgence in a better way. Before I go, someone in the audience who knows l work at The Voice comes up and says, “Did you know you were working for the CIA,” No. I say, but I have in my hand a list of names …

Friday afternoon’s session of the Women’s Day is too much like Friday morning’s. Two interesting things happen. One is when Wilma Scott Heide, a kindly looking gray-haired woman who’s past president of NOW, calls for an action to temporarily sabotage one network — that is, put it off the air for awhile by zapping its transmitter. This is not what you expect from kindly looking gray-haired past presidents of NOW. When she asks who would be willing to work on such a project, about half the room stands up.

The other interesting thing was the pies. The afternoon panel is drawing to a close, and Marcia Dubrow, a reporter from Reuters, is making an announcement. Sud­denly her face is covered with whipped cream. There is movement at the dais: then another panelist’s face is covered with whipped cream. Then three women grab the microphone, shout ”We’re from the humor liberation front,” and run out of the room, spraying shaving cream on the walls as they go.

Wondering why women are throwing pies at other women when they could wait a day and throw them at men, I investigate. It turns out the pie throwers are advertising their forthcoming book, a collection of humor by women, which they are going to call “Titters.” Yuk yuk. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I stepped out of the house and slipped in a pile of my neighbor’s dog’s leavings.

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Friday night — dinner at the Oyster Bar with friends. We discuss the liberal elite bias of the (MORE) Convention. In addition to slighting women and various minority groups, (MORE) slights the Daily News, New York’s biggest newspaper. Ellen Cohn, a Sunday News magazine columnist mo­derating the Invading Male Turf panel, has taken a lot of ribbing from News colleagues, many of whom feel left out. No wonder. The New York Times has 16 representatives on (MORE) panels this year, the Washington Post six. The Voice four. The News has two, including Ellen; the New York Post has none. Neither the News nor the Post is represented on a panel called “Why the Working Man (sic) Hates the Media,” al­though those are the papers, of course, which most “working” people (as opposed to us idle executive types) read.

Later Friday night — two dimly lit, large rooms have been set up with bars, nightclub­ type tables with little lamps, and piped-in rock music. The Deadly Nightshade, a women’s rock band, will play later. I prepare to go home with a firmly fixed image in my mind of half the New York press corps and assorted freelancers standing around like sophomores at a college mixer. Then I run into some people I know and decide to stay; we spend the evening gossiping and standing around like sophomores at a college mixer.

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Saturday afternoon — I go to the critics panel to hear Pauline Kael, Jules Feiffer, and John Leonard talk about criticism under the mildly hilarious orchestration of moderator Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. Feiffer sounds gloomy, announcing that “there is no such thing as seriousness anymore, no one takes criticism seriously, very little means anything to us anymore.” He considers this the effect of the war, which has numbed people’s minds and destroyed our sense of good guys and bad guys. “Criticism, like so much else in America,” he concludes. “has been Vietnamized. I want to welcome you all to San Clemente.” Kael jumps in immediately, dis­agreeing with everything Feiffer has said (“I think he must be speaking out of some very personal despair”) and doing it with such quivering intensity that it’s evident seriousness is alive and well. Then Leonard talks about the pressures on a daily book reviewer that makes reviewing “not exactly a noble calling” (this was aimed at Kael), but “more like the work of  a sports columnist.” Then they talk about the func­tion of the critic, and Feiffer takes issue with Kael’s remark about his personal despair, and it’s all pretty interesting. Most impor­tant, it does the one thing that a panel of writers talking should do: it makes you want to go home and write.

Outside, I run into a half-dozen people who say I’ve missed the best panel, in this case, the one on investigative reporting. I would worry, but people say this to each other at the (MORE) Convention every year.

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This year, the (MORE) Convention has something called a Media Midway set up in the lobby outside the meeting rooms. It consists of the following things:

  • a life-sized photographic cutout of Elaine Kaufman, the woman who owns Elaine’s, a status restaurant for writers and other famous people. Next to the cutout is a sign saying, “Get your picture taken with Elaine.”
  • A game called “Spot the Typos,” which features some pencil, and a couple of bedraggled copies of the New York Post.
  • A game called “Test Your Headlining Skill,” with copies of the Daily News for reference.
  • The aforementioned Media Heavy machine. For 50 cents, you take a mallet and hit a lever that will make a ball shoot up a chart. Depending on your heaviness, you may ring the gong at the top. At the top of the chart is “$500,000 Book Advance,” with “Pulitzer Prize” just below, and “White House Correspondent just below that. In the middle is “(MORE) Contributing Editor.” At the bottom, just below “Copyperson,” is “Rock Critic.” Nobody is testing his or her media heaviness while I’m around, but the gong has been going off all afternoon.


There are more panels until dinner time, but I miss them in order to talk to some women about the Redstockings­-Steinem business. One of the women reports that a number of radical feminists met the night before to discuss the aftermath of the press conference. There was a lot of ar­gument over the pros and cons of the Redstocking action, and it sounds like a good meeting. I’m cheered simply to hear that radical feminists are meeting again

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Saturday evening — After dinner, a party, the location of which has been posted on the bulletin board. The party, in case anybody asks, was not put on by (MORE). Refreshments were joints, hash brownies, and balloons or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide makes you feel blissful and induces a mild trance. The party had some of the atmo­sphere of a friendly opium den, with people sitting around looking dreamy.

After about an hour of this, I go back down to see Studs Terkel get the annual A.J. Liebling Award and to hear the big Saturday night panel. This time it’s on self-censorship, and the star lineup includes Brit Hume, Carl Bernstein, and Dan Rather. The panel is well under way when the hash brownie suddenly hits with a vengeance. I concentrate on staying upright in my chair, while the panelists talk turns to gibberish in my ears. I ask a clear-headed companion if the panelists are being interesting. “No,” he says, “they’re being boring.” Then I ask him if there isn’t an odd roaring noise in the room, praying that he will say yes so I can stop wondering if the roaring noise is just the sound of my brain disintegrating. My brain is not disintegrating: the noise is the roar of the crowd, which is getting louder and louder and threatening to drown out the panel entirely. It seems the bar has opened halfway through the panel discussion, and peo­ple’s desire to party is overcoming their desire to learn about self-censorship. Finally, the roar wins, and the panel shuts down.

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A party follows, which is much like the party the previous evening. Dan Rather drifts by at one point, talking to someone. A dozen people surround him as he moves, hanging on every word like a school of hungry fish. They look as if any minute they might start taking eager bites out of him. Someone is introduced to me who says something pleasant about my work. I can’t for the life of me think what to say back: finally, after a long and ghastly silence, I remember that the words one says under these circumstances are “thank you.” I manage to get them out, but she’s looking at me funny, as well she might. I get another word out — “good-bye” — and then get the hell out of there so I can go home and sleep off the brownie. I remember the last time I was this stoned: (MORE) Convention 1973 Rolling Stone party. That time the culprit was California joints the size of cigars. Hallucinatory. Everyone’s cars turned to fur, and every time David Halberstam spoke, a podi­um seemed to form in front of him.

Sunday — Sunday is quiet and subdued. The Media Midway is dismantled, there are no bars in evidence. People go around to the various literature tables set up outside the meeting rooms and pick up free copies of things like Seven Days and the Soho Weekly News and a beautiful slick magazine called Lithopinion. A man distributes the Redstockings press release/newspaper.

Like a lot of other people, I drift in and out of all the panels. Jack Newfield and John Hess talk about the nursing home scandal. Gay Talese talks, rather solemnly, about sex and journalism; Nora Ephron and David Obst give discouraging advice to hopeful freelancers. All the panels are mildly interesting; none of them seems more than that, except the panel on the assassination of JFK. It is well attended, and when the famous Zapruder film is shown, the room goes still.

Outside, in the lobby, they’ve opened up the bar again.