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Post Office Reform: Sleet and Rain and the Whole Damn Thing

“For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery.”
— Thomas Pynchon, “The Crying of Lot 49”

Good news for the enemies of government. The machinery is on the fritz. In fact, the people in Tom Pynchon’s novel would do well to employ an underground mail system to get their letters delivered; the chances being statistically verified at eight to five that the covert route would beat the postal service by a day and a half. If life would follow art …

No such luck. Despite the ever increasing number of suggestions that the postal service be interred in a burial mound of old undelivered shut-off notices, the prognosis for a full, rich, if somewhat deficit-ridden life remains constant. Far too many powerful interests feed off this par­ticular salt lick for anything like serious reform to take place. So, despite the fact that the postal ser­vice gives the sloppiest service to those people who foot the largest share of the bill —the first class mailers — the chances of open competition or the purchase of the mail-handling franchise by private enterprise is absolutely nil. So what else is new?

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Not much, except the whole blundering process is going to cost a good deal more next year. For one, the four postal unions, representing some 700,000 postal employees, are currently negotiating a new con­tract. Their minimum demands, once all the dust settles, will include an 11 per cent pay increase, the retention of the current cost of living increase clause, and a continuation of the no layoff provision. How much will all this cost? About five cents for every letter you send.

A government-run Post Office was provided for at the beginning of the nation’s history because of Ben Franklin’s influence. Presumably at one point or another the goddamn thing worked, but that was well before my time and since the 1960s the latest news on the postal front has always been bad. If there is one single reason for this phenomenon, it is probably the fact that early on our political leaders decided that the Post Office was just a jim-dandy place to squirrel away all the patronage bloaters too dumb to put in more prominent positions. As a result, the postal service hierarchy often resembles a ward of lunatics let loose on a three-day pass.

Partly in response to this sorry state of affairs, but more with an interest toward saving their political skins, Congress passed a Postal Reorganization Act back in 1971. Prior to the act, Congress had sole control over the price of a postage stamp and the salary levels of postal employees. It should come as no great surprise that both were kept at unnaturally low rates. But there were a couple of unfortunate side effects to this stinginess. Postal workers were making less than the national average income and the postal service was running at a deficit of $1 billion annually.

In the winter of 1971, New York City based postal employees went out on a wildcat strike which began to spread across the nation. Howls went up from the business and com­munications communities, and sud­denly the Nixon plan to make the postal service a public, nonprofit corporation seemed like a hell of a good way for our fearless legislators to wash their hands of a messy situation. They passed the bill instantly.

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Unfortunately, the only thing the act effectively reorganized was the way the postal unions bargained collectively with their employers. Whereas prior to reorganization, the four unions used to lobby pay raises among the various members of the Post Office subcommittees, now they were free to bargain with the post-master general directly.

Allowing postal officials their own heads has subjected the postal ser­vice to an unending series of unmiti­gated disasters. Take, for example, labor negotiations. Prior to reorgan­ization, Congress used to jerk around the postal unions, playing off their demands against those of the special interests, the second and third class mail users. At the end of the year the postal workers were lucky if they wound up getting any raise at all. Occasionally he would be lumped in with other federal employees and given a 5 per cent boost.

Starting in 1973, however, the unions got to negotiate with the postal service directly. They walked away from the bargaining table with a cost of living increase (one cent an hour for each 0.4 per cent increase in the Consumer Price Index) added on to the $1100 a year pay increase. In two years of spiraling inflation the cost of living clause has netted the postal workers a startling $1250 in salary increases, making the 1973 pay package worth close to $2500 or a 25 per cent increase.

Another clause negotiated into the 1973 contract with the consent of the hapless postal administrators was a “no layoff” clause. This guaranteed full employment to 700,000 postal workers, despite the fact that the country was already slipping into an economic recession back in ’73. But perhaps the most devastating effect of the postal administration’s handling of labor relations was the overall militancy among postal em­ployees it helped to nurture. Instead of fighting the 1970 strike (which was patently illegal), postal officials used the strike the get Congress to pass the Reorganization Act. Once the bill was signed by Nixon, these same postal officials refused to press any charges against union leaders or assess any fines against union trea­suries despite the fact that both options were available to them under the law. Predictably, this has led to the general viewpoint among postal workers that if they don’t get what they want at the bargaining table they can always go out on strike.

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Caving in to strike tactics has hurt the more stable leadership of the postal unions almost as much as it has hurt the postal service. Within the National Association of Letter Carriers, union president James Ra­demacher has survived two consecu­tive challenges to his leadership from members of the New York local of the Letter Carrier’s Union, the same local that led the wildcat strike in 1970. The issues, naturally, are that Rademacher and his associates are too soft and the contracts they win are “sellouts.” This, in turn, forces Rademacher to resist even the slightest management demand and sets the stage for an even more expensive contract settlement than the one Rademacher won in 1973.

If the postal administration’s efforts to keep down salary increases have proved less than blinding, its efforts to reduce the amount of labor required to deliver the mails are absolutely hilarious. For instance, there is “Mech and Tech,” the postal program of mechanization and technological development.

The nickname is entirely appro­priate, since the whole program is run like a vast vaudeville comedy routine. Mech and Tech was first instituted back in the 1950s by Arthur Summerfield, who was Eisenhower’s postmaster general. The idea was to make the canceling, sorting, and distribution of mail as efficient as possible, while at the same time cutting down on the amount of labor needed to get the job done. Before the Post Office was made an inde­pendent agency in 1970, as much as 82 per cent of its budget was at­tributed to labor costs.

As you might have guessed, Mech and Tech hasn’t worked out too well. One problem is that, back at the beginning, a decision was made to build the system piecemeal instead of designing a completely integrated system. Because of this decision, the letters just sorted at a rate of 40,000 a minute by the latest whoopedo spin­dizzy have to sit around in trays until some guy decides to pick one up by hand and place it on the conveyer belt heading for their next mechani­cal operation. Systems like this give time and motion men nightmares.

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Then there are the machines themselves. One of the oldest is the Mark II letter canceler. It whips letters along a narrow chute, crushes their contents, and hopefully, cancels the stamp. While watching several in action, I saw four different envelopes systematically ripped apart. A trash basket was thoughtfully placed next to each machine just for such emergencies. The man guiding me around the Post Office assured me that each letter would be taped back together at some point later in the day. By hand, no doubt.

People at the Post Office assured me that the Mark II was a Stone Age vintage machine compared to some of their later models, and indeed it is. There is the Ziptronic Mail Translator, a semiautomatic mail sorter that deposits a letter in front of the eyes of keypunch operator at the rate of one a second. He in turn punches the keys that send the letter on its way to one of 277 geographically divided bins. Ideally, the operator can sort 3600 letters per hour. In reality, the figure is more like 1700. And of that 1700, a General Account­ing Office study found, the error rate may be as high as 17 per cent. One step up from Ziptronic is the AOCR (I don’t care what the hell it stands for), a $3 million momma that auto­matically reads the typewritten ad­dresses on the envelopes, shoots them off to the correct bin, and cancels the stamp at the same time. Ideally, it is able to handle 86,000 pieces of mail an hour but it keeps getting jammed up, its accuracy rate is subject to question, and it still requires 16 people to operate it. Some other day I’ll tell you about the air blower.

The net result of all this idiocy is that the postal service has invested in a multibillion dollar Mech and Tech program that has more bugs in it than a mattress in a Bowery flophouse. It doesn’t work. There is little chance it will work at any time in the foreseeable future. And mean­while the percentage labor costs the program was designed to cut down on has risen from 82 to 85 per cent.

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Another postal service brainstorm that was supposed to cut down on expensive manpower is something called “the Kokomo Plan.” The plan, first tested out in Kokomo, Indiana, involves the standardization of mail delivery routes through the use of computer programming. The Post Office sent out a small army of time and motion men to study the routes walked by mail delivery men. The idea was to come up with a nation­wide profile of what the most effi­cient delivery routes would look like in all cities of 50,000 people. Once the computer profile was developed, the postal service could then feed all the existing routes throughout the country into the IBM mixmaster and out would pop new more efficient routes that would eliminate up to 15,000 unnecessary jobs.

The Letter Carrier’s Association took one look at the Kokomo plan and went through the roof. Even though the ’73 contract guaranteed the postal service the right to make work adjustments without union approval, the union voted last August at its national convention to strike if the Kokomo plan was implemented in any other city. The letter carriers’ reaction was not difficult to under­stand. Back in the old days, before the postal service administrators gave away the store, one of the attractions of postal work that compensated for the low pay scale was the relatively easy work load of the mailman. I know this for a fact because I worked as a letter carrier some years back in a suburb of Chicago. As a temporary employee, I was assigned to deliver the mail on routes where the regular mailman was on vacation. While occasionally I got caught with a difficult route that took almost all day to deliver, most of the time I had all my bundles finished by two or three o’clock in the afternoon. Since I never had the same route more than two or three days at a time, I was always unfamiliar with where I was going. The regular mailmen, who did the same route every day, year after year, finished in half the time, an accomplishment they would periodically brag about. When the time and motion men started following letter carriers around the streets of Kokomo, no doubt the work process was  ­slowed down considerably. But it is difficult to hide a three or four hour gap in time no matter how slow you walk. The specter of losing their sacred three-hour lunch breaks scared the bejesus out of most of the mailmen.

A more legitimate concern, as far as the mailmen were concerned, was the possibility of the postal service screwing up the routes so badly that you would need King Kong to carry the mail sacks. A computer program is only as good as the numbers you put into it. Given the postal service’s track record with “Mech and Tech,” it isn’t difficult to imagine a poorly laid-out national route profile that would take an average mailman 10 or 12 hours to deliver.

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Whether or not the letter carriers’ objections to the Kokomo plan are reasonable, they have proved suffi­ciently strenuous to sidetrack the Kokomo plan indefinitely. Instead of forcing the issue at the bargaining table, the postal officials agreed to cancel plans to implement the study in Providence, Rhode Island, a few months ago. For the time being, the Kokomo plan is dead, the mailmen still have their three-hour lunches, and the public is still paying for some 15,000 extra mailmen.

If the poor blighters who run the postal service haven’t had much luck cutting down on manpower costs, it follows that they’ve made little headway in trimming the annual deficit that the Congress just as annually makes up with our tax dollars. Prior to the 1970 Reorganization Act, the Post Office was running at a deficit of some $1 billion a year. The act, among other things, was touted as a way of making the postal service self-sufficient by 1980 or 1984, depending on the sense of irony of the expert you happen to talk to. Since even Congress couldn’t swallow the idea that one piece of legislation would wipe out all that much deficit overnight, one of the provisions of the bill called for an annual govern­ment appropriation of 10 per cent of the postal service budget. This money was to cover the so-called “public service” costs of delivering the mails. The appropriation was supposed to fade out gradually over the course of 10 years until the government no longer contributed any tax dollars to the postal service and it was run self-sufficiently like any other business. Five years later, the annual deficit is now more like $1.5 billion.

The reason for the growing deficit is quite simple. The rate structure of the postal service overcharges first class mail users and undercharges almost free riders. For example, nonprofit religious publications pay perhaps a penny or two for the privilege of sending out magazines. At a recent congressional subcommittee hearing, John Fink, president of the Catholic Press Association, stated, “We cannot estimate how many religious publications, will cease to exist if second class mailers are forced to pay their own way … ” Mr. Fink went on to explain that he believed religious publications shouldn’t have to “pay their own way” because they were needed to “continue to have an impact on the moral fiber of the country.” Sans moral fiber we could probably have a nine-cent stamp.

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The postal service rate structure must also take into account its own well closeted monster, parcel post. As anyone who has ever availed themselves of the service can tell you, parcel post employs several thousands of men and women who, for one reason or another, take great delight in crushing, tearing apart, or completely destroying the most sturdily wrapped packages. Due to this strange preoccupation on the part of its employees, the parcel post division of the postal service has lost some 40 per cent of its business to private firms in the last 10 years, notably United Parcel. The only way it can continue to keep its remaining package business is to keep its rates low, forcing private companies to stay competitive. At current low rates, it’s unprofitable for UPS and the other private carriers to skim off much more of the parcel post’s busi­ness. Naturally, the low rates result in larger deficits, higher appropriations, and increasingly expensive first class stamps. But if the postal service raises its parcel post rates it will lose more business, and, since the union contracts call for a no­-layoff clause, they can’t correct the loss by laying off employees.

The way the managers of the postal service decided to get themselves out of this particular bind was to invest in a $1 billion mass mechan­ization scheme for parcel post. Unfortunately it doesn’t work any better than the Mech and Tech program for the other classes of mail.

Hence, there is currently a bill in the House Post Office Subcommittee that would increase the annual ap­propriation for public service costs from 10 to 20 per cent. The dream of a self-sufficient postal service is about as practical as chasing down the Holy Grail. A General Accounting Office study a while back claimed that if the Post Office ever was put on a self-sustaining basis, given the current trends, the price of a first class stamp would be some­where between 35 and 40 cents.

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Which brings us to the infinitely interesting proposition of what the hell to do with the Post Office. The most reasonable suggestion so far proposed is to allow private companies to get into the mail delivery business. This solution is not without drawbacks. While it is certainly likely that private firms could deliver mail more efficiently than the postal service (trained chimps would probably run a close second in this regard) it is also just as likely that private firms would not deliver mail up back country roads or even from one small town to another. This would lead to skimming and leave the Post Office with uneconomical mail routes and bigger deficits.

No basic reform of the Post Office is going to occur because a great many powerful interests —  the unions, the newspapers, the advertisers, the churches, etc. — pretty much enjoy things the way they are. Congress will no doubt pass some bill raising the level of government appropriations. And despite some setbacks, the postal service will certainly raise the price of a first class stamp. The unions will raise the salary levels of their members, which in turn will increase the deficit. Back to square one. ■

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The Eight and a Half Cent Hustle

A Postal Rate Commission’s law judge recently let the cat out of the bag when he ruled that the price of a first class stamp should be reduced to 8 1/2 ¢ and the pricing structure for other classes of mail should be increased. The judge claimed that under the current rate structure. first class mail users are paying part of the freight for the other classes. A lot of people in postal circles have been aware of this for many years but law judge Seymour Wenner was the first government official to admit this publicly.

For years the postal service has been using a cockeyed accounting system in order to figure out what rates should be charged to each class of mail. The 1970 Postal Reorganization Act specifically states that all classes of mail must pay their full costs and no one class could make up for another. But the postal service’s accounting system is so designed that fixed costs, such as overhead, are not attributed to second or third class mail or parcel post. In accounting circles such a system is not considered kosher. This is what the judge objected to. Does this mean the price of a first class stamp is going back to 8 1/2 ¢? Don’t hold your breath. The judge’s ruling is not binding. It will slow down the postal service’s announced plans to up the first class stamp to either 13¢ or 15¢ for six months or so, but the boys at the postal service are very good at getting around reality. The judges ruling will barely slow them down.
— P.T. 
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Valley of the New York Dolls

The first time I laid eyes on the New York Dolls, they were drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. David Johansen had lost the high heel from one of his shoes. He said, “I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss,” while inside the club, the group’s managerial brain trust planned the conquest of blue dawns over racetracks and kids from sweet Ioway. The rest of the band — Johnny Thunders, Syvain Sylvain, Jerry Nolan, Arthur Harold Kane — talked happily about early days spent practicing in a bicycle shop near Central Park. And me? I’m a fool. My heart went out to the hopeful sounds. We all thought the group would achieve success through the purity of their rock ‘n’ roll art.

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None of the above is true, of course — my apologies to Chandler and Kerouac — but some of it is, or could be. There was always a sense of American mythology about the Dolls, and those of us who spent three years of our lives working with them had to believe they were more than just another rock ‘n’ roll group, albeit the most misunderstood of recent times. We learned to measure our nights by Dolls concerts, spent even our holidays going to and from, and Mick Taylor’s cryptic putdown — “They’re the worst high school band I ever saw” — only further convinced us how right we were. Johansen shot back: “No — we ‘re the best high school band you ever saw! The kids will love us!” and the point seemed settled. For, after all, the New York Dolls tried to hit the longest home run in American rock ‘n’ roll: they tried to impose themselves upon a nation’s musical and cultural consciousness in much the same manner as had the Rolling Stones 10 years earlier.

***

Johansen: “In the beginning, we weren’t very good musically. That’s why we put up with each other. We were all fabulous people … We’re a lot faster than the Stones” … Laughter. “At least, younger.”

***

For all their claim to being a band of and for kids, the Dolls rarely listened to Top 40 music — like them or not, no one could accuse them of creating that music industry euphemism for art, “product” — and their notions of technique mirrored more the tough sparseness or Hammett, the avant-garde fragmentation of Burroughs, and the cruel inward-eye of Nathanael West than the easy flow of media favorites. The fact that AM radio reacted to their songs as if they had dropped from some alien sky was not, in the long run, surprising. Johansen-Thunders did not have the breadth of Jagger-Richards. While the Stones could have written “Bad Girl,” the Dolls could never have brought about “Moonlight Mile”: they lacked the smoke and duski­ness, and their nocturnal sojourn through the desert took them far too close to a deli for the tastes of most of Middle America. Whereas the work of the Stones could encompass the broad human comedy of a Breughel or a Bosch, the Dolls proved to be subgenre miniaturists. They were unquestionably brilliant, but finally too spare, too restricted, to reach the hidden places in suburban, small­-town hearts. In the end, they rode on real rather than symbolic subway trains to specific rather than univer­sal places, played for an audience of intellectuals or kids even farther out than they were; and, when they eventually met the youth of the country, that youth seemed more confused than captivated by them, and could no more imagine itself a New York Doll than it could some exotic palm tree growing in Brook­lyn. The Dolls appealed to an audience which had seen the end of the world, had in fact bought tickets for it but probably didn’t attend because lhere was something even funnier on television that night.

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Dave Marsh, who loved the group, put it best when he wrote: “The New York Dolls are the dead end of the ’60s approach. They presume a closed community of rock fans, a limited field with common interests closely held. The new kind of rock singers are different. They know how much greater the stakes are, for a rock star who wants to count, but they also know there isn’t any way to focus upon them, to make the meaning of having the whole world up for grabs come home.”

***

Nolan: “I suppose everyone will be like the Dolls in a few years. Like a fad. The public and people in general always pick up things from leaders, rock groups especially.”

***

To be the neo-Rolling Stones of the 1970s was to be a not-to-be, and, after two albums and much notoriety, the Dolls broke up in the final weeks of April; the legendary desserts having forever eluded them. If truth be known, the news of their death hardly produced a ripple throughout the nation they sought to win. Their demise was taken as inevitable. The dreams of rock ‘n’ roll’s Dead End Kids burned out like a green light bulb on someone else’s marquee, and nobody particularly noticed any loss of illumination. That must have been hard for the band to take, but per­haps no harder than some of the dates they had been forced to accept to remain even nominally solvent in the later stages of their existence. Somehow, everything had gone monstrously wrong, and, like characters in some tragicomic version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” everyone closely involved was innocent, everyone guilty. The only solution, finally, was to walk away from it, but none of us — musicians, man­agers (Marty Thau, Steve Leber, David Krebs), myself (the A&R man who signed the group to Mercury Records) — really could,

***

August 7. 1972: I see Dolls at Mercer Art Center, want to sign them to wary Mercury.

Late August: Dolls ask Merc for $250,000 deal. Merc blanches, sends in more scouts.

September 24: Merc VP Charlie Fach sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on three hours late. Fach stays 15 minutes, says no. I persist.

October 1: Merc VP Lou Simon flies in from Chicago main office, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on two hours late. Simon loves them, says nothing until he checks the current political climate in Chi, then says no. I persist.

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October 8: Merc A&R man Robin McBride flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on one hour late. Thunders, wearing platform basket­ball shoes, kicks a hole in stage. Kane’s bass comes unplugged: he plays last four songs wlthout making a sound. McBride says no. I per­sist.

Late October: Dolls turned down by every major label, go to Europe. Merc President I. H. Steinberg and Fach see them in London, say no. I persist. Steinberg becomes enraged, calls Dolls worst band he has ever seen, says I must be crazy. Dolls original drummer Billy dies in England in what is usually ref erred to as a drug-related incident. Nolan re­places him.

Late 1972: I keep trying to con­vince very leery Merc.

***

The Dolls first performance had been in July at the Diplomat Hotel in the seedy Times Square area (“You all know Times Square,” Johansen used to chide his audience. “It’s where we all met.”), but it was at the Mercer they gained their reputation in a series of concerts which built in momentum until the nights one spent there with 600 similarly delirious people simply were not sane. Those vivacious evenings were like a be­nign “Clockwork Orange” filmed in a packed-to-the-rafters Hollywood Mutant High wired for massive sound. There was something mar­velous about the band’s all-out as­sault, fashioned as it was from wit, homage, honesty, self-parody, urban cunning, and the virtuosity of crude­ness.

The Dolls and their early following were those kids who used to sneak into the Fillmore East every Satur­day night; years later, when their musical time came, they couldn’t wait to build their own homemade rocket ship and send it flying toward the moon on a return trip to innocence. If the fuel was more amateur energy than professional talent — well, one had to make do with what was at hand, surely the primary law of the streetwise. And it was a wondrous thing to see the group play rock ‘n’ roll with the enthusiasm of five people who felt and acted as if they had just invented it, hadn’t quite worked out the kinks yet, but what matter? — it was raw flash, honest fun, erotically direct, and seemed to define them to, and make them inseparable from, their own kind. While they invented nothing, they did present a peculiar vision — lost youths roaming the nighttime city “looking for a kiss, not a fix,” cosmic jet boys “flying around New York City so high,” the teenager as group Frankenstein — and carried the music back to simpler times: there were almost no solos, and everybody played and sang as hard as they could until they got tired. Which wasn’t often. Although some found their world dangerous and offensive — and not at all the dark side of sentimentality — it never seemed threatening to me. It must have been like this in London when people first heard the Stones, I kept thinking, secretly ruing the day when the Dolls would become stars and go public.

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But when the Dolls left their milieu in New York City (the Mercer Art Center, Kenny’s Castaways, et al.) something was lost. The many times I saw them in big halls in front of crowds of several thousand, the essence of their particular insular magic somehow became diluted. Even at the Felt Forum, in their first “legitimate” concert before 5000 “normal” people (most of whom came to see Mott the Hoople), the band appeared nervous, ineffectual, and — how can one say it? — some­what lost and harmless. Defanged. They never quite succeeded in find­ing a way to convey their intimacy and personal charm to a larger audience which ofttimes regarded them as technically inept, emotionally silly freaks — or worse. If there were ever to be a meeting between performer and potential fan, work needed to be done. The Dolls were something special. They required specific, sensitive handling and firm control. Unfortunately, they did not always get it.

***

January 30, 1973: Merc head of publicity Mike Gormley flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Kenny’s Cast­aways because he wants to, says yes. I am shocked. Gormley’s memo reopens Dolls case.

March 20: Dolls and Merc agree to a deal.

Late June: Dolls finish first album with Todd Rundgren producing. Mixing takes less than six hours. Johansen calls Rundgren “an expert on second-rate rock ‘n’ roll.”

July: Johansen falls asleep in Chi in front of Merc brass at special meeting to discuss Dolls. Steinberg isn’t sure whether or not to wake him.

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September: Dolls play Whiskey and Los Angeles for first time. Five hundred kids line up each night. Thunders falls in love with groupie queen Sable Starr; they become rock ‘n’ roll punkdom’s Romeo and Juliet. Sylvain stays in biggest suite in hotel for week. How? I ask. “It was the room right next to mine,” he says, “and it was empty so I just stayed there.”

September 23: Johansen arrested in Memphis for stopping Dolls music while cops beat up a kid. He asks cops what they’d do if he were Elvis. “We’d love to get him!” cops reply.

Late 1973: Dolls named by Creem readers as Best New Group and Worst Group of Year. Despite Rundgren, the first album, “New York Dolls,” sells 100,000 copies.

***

“The Dolls are a vicious kick in the face to all that’s careful, passive and polished about today’s popular music. The record companies, most of which have a great investment in exactly the kind of music the Dolls are rallying against, have naturally been turned off …” (Bud Scoppa, Penthouse)

Kane, the shiest of the band, after having seen me for at least eight months: “Hi. I’m Arthur.”

***

If the Dolls were difficult to work with at times, it was because they understood nothing of the music business and recording, seemed naive or unable to learn about either, and were rarely encouraged to ex­hibit any kind or self-control regard­ing the bankbook or the clock. To say that their record company thought them a mere critics’ hype, did not understand them, and eventually grew to hate them would be an understatement; but, at the begin­ning, Mercury provided handsomely for the group’s every whim. Management started well, too: Thau, the band’s Napoleon, and Leber, their legal adviser and financial wizard, showed obvious devotion. As the months passed, trouble set in. The problems with Mercury rarely involved the Dolls personally, but had to do rather with mutual contempt among the men at the top on both sides, opposite viewpoints, management’s apparent disdain for necessary budgets and deadlines, the record company’s inability to get the group much AM or FM airplay, and — last but not least — money.

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The clash between the Dolls and Mercury was finally a classic confrontation between two immov­able objects: a company reluctant to spend any more money and a band that did not know how to stop spend­ing it. Thau and Leber’s penchant for potentiality required huge sums for bad-boy image-building and Stones­-style high living, while Steinberg preferred to drop anchor until the bottom line told him when to raise it. A hot war was being waged. Further, Thau and Leber had begun to quar­rel, a situation which proved very damaging at a time, when the band needed all the outer stability they could get. The bills were pilling up, and the hands at the controls had suddenly become fists.

One can learn much about the trouble among musicians, manage­ment and record company in these excerpts from a confidential report written by Patrick Taton, a Mercury employee in Paris, concerning the group’s 1973 French tour:

“November 28: Arrival at Orly. While camera went into action, Thunders got sick right on the airport floor and had to leave the scene for a minute to pull himself together and make a decent come­back. We spent the afternoon taking pictures at the hotel. The Dolls gave us a hint as to their drinking capacities, which we had to discover at out own expense. In the afternoon, Thunders got sick again and had to be replaced by one of the road managers for photo purposes.

“November 29: Press interviews began with the group, their ‘friends,’ and managers gulping down cham­pagne and cognac at an incredible speed, while we from Mercury were seated in the other corner of the bar. I was surprised when a not-so-sober Thau came up to us to remark that we weren’t really interested in the Dolls because we weren’t taking part in the interviews. When the interviews were over, I picked up the bill, which was incredibly high for so short a time. When I told Thau about it, he replied with utmost contempt, ‘Peanuts for a band like that!’ and continued with some of the most insulting remarks I’ve ever heard about a record company and its executives.

“Next was a live concert at Radio Luxembourg. Although they had been requested for rehearsals at 17:30, the group were not ready before 19:00 and went to the studio in a frightening state of drunkenness­ — one of the most nerve-shattering experiences of my ‘business’ life.

“December 2: Olympia concert. Surprisingly enough, by the time we went to pick them up at their hotel, the Dolls had already set up their gear and rehearsed. The hall was nearly sold out, and the evening ended in a triumph with two encores. The band were then taken to a top restaurant. They invited their friends — over 50 people altogether — all of them lavishly drinking cham­pagne and cognac, making an in­credible show of themselves, engaging patrons, and leaving us with a very nice bill.

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“December 3: The day started with the news that Thau and Leber had gone back to America. The group were penniless and urgently requested an advance before they would fulfill their commitments: pure blackmail. The Dolls had to go to a TV studio for a very important show. Believe it or not, it took us over three hours to get them out of their rooms while a frantic and irate producer was calling the hotel every five minutes, threatening to cancel the program and never again work with Mercury. Also, the band’s equipment was set up five hours behind schedule. Finally, after a few minor incidents, the show was taped.­ It was a success from the first minute. The audience reacted very strongly to the storm of noise pro­duced by the group. There was even a fight, a thing that pleased the Dolls very much, although they found French kids not so tough as those from New York.

“December 4: The band were ready to leave, but they had no money with which to pay their bill (rooms, drinks, numerous overseas telephone calls): over $3500. Stuck again. If I may offer a personal opinion, the New York Dolls are one of the worst examples of untogether­ness I have ever seen. Johansen is a very intelligent guy. Sylvain is really clever and nice, the others are quite kind in their own way; but put them together, add their managers (each of them doing his own thing), mix with alcohol, and shake, and you’ve got a careless, selfish, vicious, and totally disorganized gang of New York hooligans — and I’m really sorry to say so.

“Despite all this. I believe we have managed to do good business.”

***

Sylvain: “I want a Cadillac car. Or a Rolls. I don’t care. I’m just dying for a car. I’ve had three cars, no license. I guess I’m a lucky person.”

Johansen: “I used to be lucky. What happened? I grew up. It changed everything.”

 ***

In 1974, the Dolls released a second LP, “Too Much, Too Soon,” pro­duced by Shadow Morton. It sold about 55,000 copies, and, like the first record, made the charts and appeared on almost every major crit­ic’s best-of-the-year list. Not bad for a new band, under the most convivial of circumstances; but the Dolls, un­fortunately, were mired in the worst. Thau and Leber split, the group not talking much to either party; and Steinberg, all ire and ice, demanded the repayment or certain loans and a third album, to be made only when management and monetary problems were rectified. They never were, of course. The band had no money, and their destructiveness and unpunctuality had alienated many promoters who no longer wanted to book them. Leber valiantly put together a lucrative tour of Europe and Japan. Krebs persuaded Jack Douglas to produce the third album, but the Dolls themselves­ — disillusioned and no longer trusting anyone — didn’t take the offers seriously, and everything eventually fell apart. Legally, the group couldn’t break free from any of their contracts. There was not much left to do but to go home and die.

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The Dolls did make one small comeback, a series of concerts at the Little Hippodrome earlier this year, but even these did little but add to the misconceptions which had always surrounded the band. In the early days, they were constantly referred to as a glitter group, a fag band, five transvestites who played inexpedi­ent rock ‘n’ roll and who were very offensive onstage. Needless to say, all of these “charges” were false. None of the group is homosexual, nor did the band ever dress as women. The infamous cover for their first LP was conceived as a deliberate eye­ catcher — the ultimate satirical statement on makeup and glitter (the group appeared as they natu­rally look on the back of the jacket — ­but somehow all too many people again failed to recognize the Dolls’ nihilistic riff raff sense of humor. At the Little Hippodrome, the band tailored their comeback around the comic conceit of what it would be like to see a rock ‘n’ roll concert in Red China, and, true to form, were quickly branded as Communists by many in the audience. With that maximum absurdity, perhaps it was indeed time to quit.

***

The dreams of so many good people died with the New York Dolls. I can still remember the night we finished the first album. Thau and I raced over to Mercury to have two acetates cut, and later we listened, the ghostly sounds of more than a year’s worth of the  group’s concerts ringing in our ears. I put the dub on the turntable, sheer terror in my heart. Thau, who had discovered the band and had cared enough to spend the very best of himself and all of his money on the project, felt the same. It meant so much to us then. I think both of us suddenly realized that everything had, to some degree, passed out of our hands and into the hands of those kids from sweet Ioway whose legion ultimately said no! in thunder to the hopes of the New York Dolls. As Jean Renoir remarked: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

***

I think those kids from sweet Ioway were wrong, or rather per­haps that they never really had a chance to encounter the group on any significant level: on the radio or as part of a major tour. Instead, the band’s philosophy or instant stardom and limited, headliner-only bookings proved to be the stuff of dreams. Even a cult favorite must eventually face the nation as a whole, but the Dolls never played by the rules of the game. Neither did the Velvet Under­ground, and their contributions will last. At times, when I am feeling particularly perverse, I can’t blame either of them.

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The New York Dolls sang and played terrific rock ‘n’ roll — their own and other people’s — and, in a better world, “Personality Crisis,” “Trash,” and “Stranded in the Jun­gle” would have been AM hits. (Perhaps two new songs, “Teenage News” and “Girls,” will correct the deficit on some future Johansen LP. ) Individually, each of the group will be heard from again — Thunders and Nolan have already formed a band called the Heartbreakers, Johansen and Sylvain have several plans, Kane is supposedly in California­ — but no matter. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” someone once said. The Dolls went out with their high-heeled boots on.

They did it their way and got carried out dead, but with their pride intact. True, they did not grow old with the country, but that’s probably the country’s loss, not theirs. Corporation rock ‘n’ roll, wherein musicians like Bachman-Turner Overdrive are more gray-flanneled than the businessmen who kowtow to them, is so formularized, homogen­ized, and impersonal it must surely cause the death of anything that is at all out of bounds, mythopoeic, and rebellious. The Dolls were alive.­ Perhaps it killed them not to become stars, darkened their personalities, drove some of them into private worlds; but at least they had the courage to become figments of their own imaginations —and those creations were not altogether devoid of nobility. I will cherish always the friendship of each of them. Their last words on record were: “I’m a human being.”

***

”Listen, bucko, these are the New York Dolls, the sweethearts of Babylon themselves, the band you’re gonna love whether you like it or not …” (New Musical Express)

***

I do not claim they were the best, but the New York Dolls are still my favorite rock ‘n’ roll group, although I will understand if you do not like them. I will understand, but deep down I will not want to know you. ♦

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

Categories
Environment From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The 10 Most Likely Real-Life Catastrophes

Previews of Coming Disasters

Catastrophe is in the air: the sense of it is almost palpable. It is our entertainment, our fear, our fantasy, our future. We have come to expect calamity as a matter of course.

Apocalyptic ages before us be­lieved in the end of the world, but then it was a question of man’s damnation and God’s will. Nobody carries signs today saying “Repent, the End is Near” — they don’t need to. So what else is new? we’d say. There is something frivolous about our rapid change from confidence into fear of our scientific accom­plishments, in our swing back to Original Sin, even in our safe en­joyment of film spectaculars like “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno.” We seem to accept the immanence of catastrophe yet at the same time refuse to take it serious­ly.

Perhaps that’s because we lack experience. It used to be said that Americans didn’t understand war because their homeland had never been ravaged by one. A broader generalization is that we have been mostly spared from catastrophe. Disasters — explosions, plane crashes, ship sinkings, major fires­ — we’ve had aplenty, but never a mor­tal blow. Consider the casualty fig­ures in what have become our legendary calamities, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which killed from 452 to 700 people or the Johnstown flood which claimed 2200. That the numbers look big is a dead giveaway.

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A real earthquake in terms of victims occurred on Jan. 24, 1556, in Shensi Province, China: 830,000 dead, mostly in landslides. In Cal­cutta, in 1737, an earthquake and a cyclone teamed up to take 300,000 lives. Floods? If the Mississippi overflows its banks there is much lamentation and discomfort but not as much as there was along the Yangtze in 1887 when almost a million people perished. Nor let us for­get Noah. Dr. Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin believes that the story of Noah is  based on a Sumerian folk hero who lived 5300 years ago in the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers and that rains and flooding were so extensive and long-lasting as to change the face of Sumerian society.

At many times over the centuries it must have seemed to those in the middle of nature’s tantrums that whatever the world was made for, it wasn’t people. Three cyclones — or hurricane-type storms — struck what is now Bangladesh in 1965, killing almost 60,000, but that was only a prelude to the cyclone of 1970 that took 225,000, mostly by drowning. It also destroyed the rice crop at har­vest time, contributing to uncounted deaths by starvation. Nature has lost none of its punch. (The 1970 Bangla­desh storm may not have been the worst there. An 1876 cyclone killed between 100,000 and 400,000.)

Those who happily slight science and technology, whose idea of pro­gress is the natural food shoppe and the “Whole Earth Catalog” might ponder what are horribly called disease vectors. The “Black Death” or bubonic plague is thought to have killed 25 million in Asia and Europe in 1340s, three million in 1898-1908 in China and India, and two million more in India in the 1920s. There were four major outbreaks of cholera in Europe during the 1880s with many millions dead — almost one million in 1831 alone. Smallpox in Brazil killed three million in 1560 and Cuba lost a quarter of the world’s population, and the influenza pan­demic of 1917-1919 may have been the single greatest catastrophe in histo­ry, killing perhaps 30 million world­wide and 548,000 in the U.S. Note that the number of humans existing was smaller when these epidemics occurred, and that they claimed statis­tically large portions of the popula­tions.

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A particularly eerie affliction struck down whole districts of Western Europe and England in 1200 A.D. A grain fungus grows in continuously wet and mild weather, as then oc­curred, and a few blighted grains in a sack are sufficient to cause a disease called St. Anthony’s fire, which, despite its romantic name, causes convulsions, abortion, the hands and legs to turn black until fingers and toes fall off, and eventu­ally death. But if the blighted grain is stored damp, and there is no other choice, a by-product is produced which we know as LSD. People in other words went to the grave “high.”

Think of that! There they were, extremities turning black and fall­ing off, then dying without under­standing what was killing them or why they had what must have seemed a mystical experience to boot. Surely, they would have asked what was going on. Disease was hardly understood — and certainly tripping wasn’t. In this condition you would, would you not, ponder the mood of the Almighty?

Not today. Today we are causally minded — we understand the reasons for things (or think we do), which may be why we have ceased to believe in and need God, once the all-purpose reason. Understanding confers on us the gift of foresight, the ability to reason in front, to anticipate at least a little of the future. That is a brand-new tool, and per­haps some of the seers and sages who employ it err on the side of pessimism and overstate the hazards ahead. Nonetheless, possible catastrophies predicted far outdo those of the past, either because the population is larger or because man­made dangers have been added to natural ones. Some of these conceiv­able events would directly threaten human survival, and we are right to worry. The question is whether we worry enough. Let us give form to a dozen of what might be calamities to come.

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WEATHER WARFARE
Probability: Uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elim­ination of mankind.
Timetable: ?

Wars, since they are intended to kill, usually fail to be counted as catastrophes. But in the past, wars, no matter how devastating, always ended sooner or later and normal life resumed until the next one. This is no longer true: at least four kinds of warfare could alter planetary conditions for some time to come, perhaps forever so far as humanity is concerned.

Of the four, three are too familiar to need explication — chemical, bio­logical, and nuclear (reducing the ozone layer, increasing radiation, perhaps depleting atmospheric oxygen) warfare. The fourth, using the environment itself for hostile pur­poses, is potentially the most dangerous. Dr. Edward Teller has said that weather war would be the “last” war, meaning that there might be nobody left to fight the next one.

As brought out in 1974 Senate hearings under Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, the U.S. practiced weather warfare over the Ho Chi Minh trail from 1967 to 1972. The weapon was cloud-seeding and the objective was to soften road surfaces, cause landslides, wash out river crossings, and maintain damp soil for long periods of time. Apparently the program achieved suc­cess, for rainfall in some areas increased 30 per cent or more, with subsequent declines in North Vietnamese traffic. (The Soviet Union has accused the U.S. of having tried to tamper with the weather in North Vietnam too, but we have denied it.)

But the rain-making in Asia was primitive alongside more sophisti­cated possibilities of weather war: “aiming” hurricanes; causing rain to be acidic to knock out equipment; forming or intensifying fog; starting fiery cyclones called “fire storms”; producing earthquakes; detonating atomic devices in the ice pack which, falling into the sea, would cause massive tidal waves; manipulating electrical properties in the atmosphere so as to interfere with normal electrical processes of the brain and bring about disorientation and derangement; inflicting ditto on the enemy’s navy with oceanic vibrations; breaking a window in the ozone layer which would intensify hard, ultra-violet radiation on enemy territory, perhaps destroying all forms of life and turning the land into a desert. Such warfare might be slow­ and insidiously difficult to detect. Weather warfare should not be dismissed lightly: Jacob A. Malik, the Soviet ambassador to the UN made a speech there in 1974 warning of the dangers.

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INADVERTENT CLIMATE MODIFICATION (COLD)
Probability: good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Immediate future.

Much impressive data shows that the world’s climate is becoming  colder of itself, after a time of ex­ceptional warmth. Periods of greater or lesser cold have, of course, been normal throughout history. This new cold, however is different in two vital ways. First, the favorable growing conditions that existed between 1900 and 1910 in­creased the food supply and en­couraged the vast population increases that occurred in places like South Asia. The coming cold would mean heavy rains in the northern temperate zones, reducing the food supplies, and subtropical drought further reducing it. Casualties from famine would be immense.

Second, and even more ominous, man has been changing the atmosphere. From power plants, mills, autos, furnaces, slash-and-burn farming (practiced in most places on earth ), even from millions of feet tramping on dry soil, particles are thrown into the air forming what is called a “particulate cloud.” This cloud, virtually world-wide, blocks incoming solar radiation sufficiently to add to the cooling already underway, with the result of a further decline in mean annual temperature. A drop of only 4-5° F. (2° C), believes Dr. Bryson, foremost proponent of the cooling hypothesis, would be sufficient to initiate a new Ice Age.

INADVERTENT CLIMATE MODIFICATION (HEAT)
Probability: Fair to good
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead to elimination of mankind 
Timetable: 25 to 250 years.

Will the world end in a shiver or a sweat? Another harrowing view holds that the long-term trend is toward heat — far too much of it.

Man-made heat is still only a frac­tion of that received from the sun but is growing exponentially and may become a pollutant that must be reckoned with. According to Dr. Thomas F. Malone. Director, Hal­comb Research Institute, Butler Uni­versity, we may face one of the major policy decisions of all time. “I refer to the limited capacity of the biosphere to absorb heat … Simply put, the concentration of heat discharged into the atmosphere may turn out to reach a high enough val­ue within the next hundred years that we will have to place restraints on the population, on the population distribution, or on the energy con­sumption per person. The policy im­plications for the world, and in par­ticular for our nation, which has such a high consumption of energy per capita, are obvious.”

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According to one calculation, man-made emitted heat will equal absorbed solar heat in 250 years. Mean annual temperature will then have risen from the present 58° F, to 190° F, a level incompatible with human life as we have known it. But as Dr. Robert Heilbroner points out, time may be shorter than that be­cause of sharply rising energy use (meaning heat) and increasing pop­ulations that will need more energy still.

Nor is this quite all or it. Atmo­spheric carbon dioxide is also increasing because of the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 has an important role in the “heat budget,” as it’s called, because it prevents heat from escaping into space, a beneficial function so long as there isn’t too much heat and too much CO2. If man-made heat became an impor­tant factor, and a dense CO2 blanket prevented it from escaping, global heat could rise rapidly, especially if the cooling period ended. In that kind of world, it might be against the law to light a match.

DESTRUCTION OF THE OZONE SHIELD
Probability: Highly uncertain
Possible Magnitude: Elimination of all life
Timetable: Starting now

About 20 miles up in the stratosphere hangs a thin layer of ozone that absorbs ultra-violet radiation from the sun and makes life on earth possible. Scientists are deeply concerned that man could destroy this vital shield with nitrous oxides from sub and supersonic aircraft, from the space shuttle, from nuclear explosions or even nitrogen fertilizer. At the moment, the number one hazard is thought to be chlorofluromethane (Freon), a million tons of which are manufactured a year for use as the propellent in aerosol cans and as a refrigerant. Eventually this gas drifts up and destroys ozone. Best estimates say that the Freons already released will deplete the ozone shield three to six per cent. A reduction of only five per cent would cause 8000 new cases of skin cancer a year in the U.S. If the ozone layer were further destroyed, results could include widespread cancer, the disruption of agricultural produc­tion, reduction of the oxygen supply (through the killing of phytoplankton in the ocean), plant and animal mutations, and a global desert.

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PEACETIME NUCLEAR CALAMTTY
Probability: Uncertain
Possible magnitude: Elim­ination of higher forms of life  
Timetable: For the global catastrophe, 40 years minimum.  

The well-known doomsday clock on the cover of the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” stands at nine minutes to midnight. When created, this clock ticked away the likelihood of atomic warfare between major nations. Now it must measure as well the potential threat from a starving Third World nation that has acquired nuclear power, and from accidents among the 24,000 breeder reactor nuclear power plants that will be required to provide all the world’s primary energy a century from now. Under present conditions, with nuclear power plants constructed under U.S. safety standards, the “maximum credible” accident, ac­cording to a 1957 AEC study, would kill over 3000 people, injure 40,000, and quarantine agriculture over a 150,000 square mile area. But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club predict 120,000 people killed or made seriously ill. The probability of such accidents in­creases with each plant that is built. The combination of threats from accidents and deliberate acts in han­dling the 15,000 tons of plutonium required for 24,000 plants is so great that the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Philip Handler, has warned: “Somehow, the world must skip the breeder reactor and go from petroleum and coal — liquid, gassified, and solid — to fusion and/or solar energy or it is inconceivable that the human race will avoid a worldwide calamity on so large a scale as to jeopardize the continuing future of our species.”

NEW KILLER VlRUS
Probability: Remote
Possible magnitude: Hundreds of millions dead
Timetable: Any time

Epidemic diseases, man’s greatest killers, remain possible, though we think of them as part of the past. New strains of influenza, for example, can occur and vaccines are only marginally effective and probably couldn’t be produced in time to help against a mass outbreak. Further, amid the famine and collapse of the social order many forsee in parts of the world, preventive measures might not be implemented and mil­lions could perish.

An utterly new man-made virus for which no immunization or cure existed, would be a graver menace still. From working with DNA, a molecule that stores and transmits information, scientists have come to believe that genetic engineering, though filled with hopeful possibilities for curing genetic diseases and deficiencies (or even make possible, say, human beings with chlorophyll in their skins who could take energy from the sun, like plants) could lead, by accident or design, to a new incurable disease. So serious is this possibility considered that, last July, pioneers in the field, through the National Academy of Sciences, asked for a voluntary world-wide ban on aspects of DNA research because of its “unpredictable ef­fect.” This February, DNA researchers will meet to try to find a solution to their problem (This may be the first time in history that scientists accept restrictions on the freedom of research other than ex­perimentation with humans.)

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CALAMITOUS EARTHQUAKES
Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 560,000 deaths plus
Timetable: Any time

Out of the 100,000 earthquakes a year, a few will be major. The only question is where they happen and how many die.

Two large cities located on faults are San Francisco and Tokyo. If a quake of the magnitude of the one that shook Alaska in 1964 (magnitude over 8.6, 20 times larger than the magnitude 8.3 of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake) property damage has been estimated at $10 billion and casualties up to 250,000 and higher if Crystal Springs Dam broke, flooding San Mateo (this dam, however, sur­vived 1906), or if high-rise buildings performed poorly. The problem with San Francisco is that the fault has been locked: instead of slipping slowly, the fault and its “tribu­taries” have not moved since 1906 and a potential movement of 13 feet has been accumulated. By way of comparison, the 1923 Tokyo quake moved nine feet.

As for Tokyo, despite the quake that killed 56,000 in ’23, construction is not much different. The population is, being much larger, and, according to Japanese estimates, 560,000 plus could die in a big quake, espe­cially if (as is likely) a tsunami also occurred, flooding the extensive sub­way system and underground com­mercial development. (Tsunamis can travel at 600 mph; in 1923, one hit Japan twice, having crossed the Pacific and bounced back again.) At Tokyo, a major quake has happened at least once within every 69 years.

Japanese, American, and Russian scientists are all working on earth­quake warning systems, and these illustrate catastrophe problems rather vividly. Suppose the scientists were certain, which they are not, that such a system would work. Would anyone pay for it? And, if it were developed, what would be done? Would politicians, who might be long out of office when E-Day came, warn the public and begin precautionary measures now? Would the public credit scientists, especially as they couldn’t forecast the quake to the precise hour, day, week or maybe even month? Proba­bly not. Today, houses are built, and people live in them, right along the San Andreas Fault.

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CATASTROPHIC HURRICANES
Probability: 100 per cent
Possible magnitude: 1 million deaths
Timetable: Any time

High concentrations of populations in low-lying coastal zones along established hurricane paths add up to calamity. Dr. Neil Frank, head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, has estimated that a 40-foot storm surge in Bangladesh (all too possible) would kill one million.

In the U.S., too, terrible things could happen. A hurricane with a central pressure of less than 26 per inches, wind in excess of 200 miles per hour, and tides of 25 or 30 feet 30 feet could easily kill tens or thousands if it struck Miami with little warning. In the Tampa-St Petersburg area, planning officials estimate, as many as 100,000 could die in a major storm. Always, people are reluctant to evacuate an impending storm path until the last minute, figuring the hurricane will miss them or that they can ride it out. In this region especially, last minutemanship will cause tragedy because of the inade­quacy of roads leading to higher ground, much new housing which might not take the effects of flooding, and the advanced age of the popula­tion, making them less mobile.

Even if we could eliminate hurricanes we wouldn’t want to since hurricanes are important in terms of rainfall. Casualties, though, could be reduced with the proper land-use policies, construction codes, and so on. With cloud-seeding, hurricanes may yet be controlled. In the mean time …

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MASSIVE FAMINE
Probability: Almost a certainty,
Possible Magnitude: 50 million deaths a year
Timetable: This year? 

Although people have starved ­— and starve now in Asia and Africa ­— the world has simply never known famine on the scale predicted for the coming decades. It is completely outside our experience and almost beyond our imagination. Vast though they may be, the political, moral, and ethical questions that must de­velop from this catastrophe remain almost unexplored.

If there should be severe drought in 1975, Green-Revolutionist Norman Borlaug has estimated that as many as 50 million children would starve unless there were a world “food bank” available. In a normal, non-drought year starvation is a closely related cause for about half of all child deaths in the poor countries. (Famine deaths mean children)

In “Mankind at the Turning Point,” Mesarovic and Pestel divide the world into 10 regions with alternate scenarios for each. With severe but feasible adjustments nine of these regions can survive a decent standard of living assuming that food production keeps up with population increase: this is nowhere guaranteed. But for South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — formerly Ceylon) the prospect is gruesome. For this region alone, the following projections ap­pear reasonable:

  • In the next decade: five to seven million child death a year; 20 to 50 million during drought years unless world “foodbank” available.
  • In the second decade: eight to 12 million during normal year.
  • In the third decade: 20 to 30 million during normal years.
  • After: Decreasing fatalities because of population decrease; hence shortages considerably reduced.

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The tremendous calamity could be prevented or ameliorated if the birth rates were greatly reduced in these countries, but the probability of that happening is a virtual zero, short of the development and universal acceptance of a miracle contraceptive. In fact, the social disorganization that is likely to accompany the famine may make birth control harder to accomplish. Several decades of exceptionally favorable weather could change things too, but as we have seen the prospect is for more, not less, drought, and if the droughts were exceptionally severe the pro­jected numbers of dead would have to be upped. Besides, if famine were averted by increased food produc­tion, populations might increase still further, raising the specter of famine.

Ninety per cent of the world’s surplus grain is produced in North America and this grain could meet worldwide food shortages if a way could be found to pay for it. (The only feasible means, probably, of giving it away would be to socialize agricul­ture and sharply lower the American style of life, which seems unlikely.) But people thus saved from starvation will continue to bear children at the rate of 45 per thousand (compared to 17 per thousand in the U.S.) and by the end of the century, even under various optimistic assumptions, the Asian food shortage would be greater than the total North American grain production.

Triage, or simply letting those least likely to survive die, has been suggested as the best policy, but such an act, or lack of one, would certainly require a hardening or what moral sensibilities we have and an almost complete change in exist­ing ethics. Besides, triage assumes the chosen victims will meekly accept their fate, and that notion does not correspond with human nature as we know it.

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STEADY-STATE ANARCHY
Probability: Good
Possible magnitude: Universal
Timetable: 20-100 years 

In a time perhaps not too distant the world might return to barbarism — or greater barbarism than it now displays — and if we do not classify such a future as a catastrophe then we lack all faith and pride in our civilization.

Any calamity that placed more stress on the world’s delicately bal­anced social system might cause it to crumble altogether. Consider a rise in global temperature. The obvious answer would be to reduce the consumption or fossil fuels, but who would cut back? Suppose the U.S. issued a call for a worldwide energy-­use reduction of, say, five per cent. Third World leaders would inevitably respond, “Who, us? You use a third of the world’s energy as it is. You cut back.” They would tell us, further, that attempts on their part to curtail the output of energy would lead to 1000 guerrillas for every one that exists now, to the collapse of all even vaguely democratic Third World governments and eventually of the West, for how could democratic governments survive in a world of military-Socialist states?

Suppose further that our own gov­ernment then asked or demanded that we reduce energy use by per­haps 25 per cent, an amount large enough, at any rate, not only to decrease thermal output but to set an example for the rest of the world. Would Americans comply? Considering the resistance already met (including the President’s) to the most modest proposals for curtailing energy use, it appears unlikely. We might well expect a reaction far stronger, uglier, and more stubborn than that recently encountered by the attempt to secure racial balance in the Boston public schools — a simple social change by comparison. There might well be an armed insurrrection followed by a right-wing gov­ernment, itself doomed by global antagonsism.

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But it’s not necessary to conjure up a severe climate change to arrive at much the same result, for mass famine could do it. The rapidly increasing populations in the poor countries have less and less to eat. They do not get much help from the rich. (The U.S. recent contribution to Pakistan earthquake relief was $25 thousand, compared to Saudi Arabia’s $10 million.) Military govern­ments come to power and refuse to let their people starve while others remain relatively prosperous. They want their share even if what Heil­broner calls “wars of redistribution” or nuclear blackmail are required to get it. A nuclear bomb is hidden in a freighter in New York harbor and set to detonate at X harbor if 10 per cent of the national wealth isn’t pledged in time — a sort of Patty Hearst-SLA model. One way or another, national wealth would be redistributed inter­nationally.

It would not seem likely, in the general poverty of the world, that what we have known as Western civilization would long endure. Most of the proud accomplishments of bourgeois society would be seen as wasteful, expensive, and deeply un­fair, since it would not be the lot of Global Everyman to enjoy or even understand them. The skills and talents which would be permitted to exist would be only those narrow scientific and technical ones which directly and manifestly aid in human survival.

Rather than speculate endlessly, let us point to just one more possible consequence of massive famine. Suppose even looting the treasures of the rich proves to be insufficient medicine, as well it might for if the rich no longer have wealth, they cannot buy what the poor lands need to sell. We could reach a condition of steady-state anarchy: totalitarian nations everywhere, each engaged in continual attempts to raid and pillage others, no matter what their ideological stripe, just to get enough to eat, a sort of post-industrial Stone Age, in which nations would gra­dually break down as entities, fol­lowed by the collapse of regional governments and perhaps local ones. And this state would be steady, that is, it would last until … Oddly, this confirms a physical prediction of how the world will end. The universe, it seems, tries to break down the enclaves of order that represent so­ciety and indeed our world. The universe, it seems, will not be satis­fied until complete disorder is reached, and complete disorder, in these terms, is simply random par­ticles, all exactly the same.

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***

Now then, are you shocked?

No. Numbed, maybe, not shocked.

That is part of the problem. How can we have this doomsday con­sciousness and yet do nothing about saving ourselves until maybe too late? After all, at least some — in fact, most — of the coming catastro­phes could be avoided, or the con­sequences minimized, given battle plans and the will to carry them out.

One reason, perhaps, is that we don’t really take the future seriously, do not really believe that anything very severe will happen, or do not care: (Apres nous, a catastrophe.) If this is true, we must account for our present anxiety on other grounds. The psychologist Leon Festinger has developed the theory of “cognitive dissonance,” holding that the mind will always try to square antinomies. If people are already anxious, and can neither rationalize away or face squarely the cause of their anxiety, they will find something exterior to be anxious about, in order to achieve consonance. Thus the fear of future catastrophes is not anxiety-provoking at all but anxiety-justifying. What then really frightens us?

Certainly the economic and political-condition of the world cannot be reassuring, even for those who experience it as a purely national or personal malaise. Many may be heading downhill and it worries them. But let us focus on just one aspect of our present response to future catastrophe.

A sociologist, Charles E. Fritz of the National Academy of Sciences, specializes in disaster response. Contrary to the rusty canards about behavior, people act splendidly dur­ing a disaster or catastrophe, he says. With exceptions, of course, they don’t loot, flee the scene in panic, or become hysterical (as in the movies.) On the contrary, people pull together and quickly move toward the center of the trouble instead of away, and so on. Team spirit is such that they organize and rebuild fast, like Germany and Japan after World War II. There is, of course, psychological pleasure in such an effort. In Britain today there is a real nostalgia for the war, when Britons felt they had a collective purpose.

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This sort of response is so univer­sal as to amount to human nature. It is different, however, before the disaster, because then the culture operates. People cling to their cherished routines, habits, and be­liefs. They won’t recognize what’s in store, even when the signs are man­ifest showing what Fritz calls “a tendency to interpret disaster clues within a framework of normal ex­pectations.” The expectation we cherish most and the habit we most blindly stick to, is the ability to consume. We practice consumption like circus animals trained to dance, and without consumption what would we do, strive for, be?

So, we do not prepare for the storm because we would have to change our habits, our goals. And that is too hard and too painful. We know we should change and so, we are fright­ened. For unlike catastrophes of the past, the new ones demand foresight and preparation.

Given the nature of the challenges and the likely shape of our response left to itself, the finale seems more or less inevitable. Plato, in “The Republic,” theorized that only philosopher-kings were fit to rule. We shall have not a philosopher, but an ecologist king, a scientist! He will tell us what to do, direct our activities, supervise our habits, punish us if we refuse to obey orders. Perhaps a quondam freedom of speech will survive, or some foofaraw about voting, but down the road lies tyran­ny, however benign.

And after that? Will the last man on Earth please turn off the lights? ♦

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

1975_VILLAGE VOICE article on coming plagues, climate change and other disasters

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Elvis Presley as Moby Dick

Writer Greil Marcus, a passionate student of our nation’s past and a madman for rock ‘n’ roll music, has in Mystery Train: Images of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (Dutton, $8.95), set out to define that heady space where our history and our art merge into a single, durable vision of our country — a vision that is capable of illuminating the deepest and darkest recesses of our collective democratic soul. Mystery Train is determinedly and proudly in the tradition of such ground­breaking works of American cultural criti­cism as Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renais­sance (the first two of which Marcus draws from in his work); as his predecessors sought to understand Poe’s nightmares or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in terms of our most substantial national myths, so Marcus attempts to place such songs as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” The Band’s “Across the Great Divide,” and Elvis Presley’s early efforts for Sam Phillips at Sun Records into the same broad cultural context.

Marcus believes that rock ‘n’ roll no more deserves to be pigeonholed as a transient manifestation of “youth” culture than Huckleberry Finn deserves to be thought of as an adventure tale for 10-year-old boys. To prove his case, he forces his chosen musicians to carry the weight of much of American history, literature, social thought, and even geography to see if they can do so without collapsing under the stress. To a great extent, Marcus’s heroes come through very nicely indeed, and Mystery Train, which runs the risk of reading like a literary man’s pretentious effort to rationalize his craving for pop, instead has a humbling effect. At the end of the book, we, like Marcus, appreciate that we have only begun to hear what the most popular music of our time is telling us.

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Marcus has chosen to organize his book around a handful of artists who “share in their music and in their careers … a range and a depth that seem to crystallize naturally in visions and versions of America: its limits, openings, traps”; after giving Mystery Train a “backdrop” in the form of brief essays on two rock ‘n’ roll ancestors, “howling tomcat” Harmonica Frank (Marcus’s quintessential Huck) and bluesman Robert Johnson (his Ahab), he goes on to The Band, Sly Stone, and New­man, before wrapping up with his climactic (and lengthiest) section, “Elvis: Presliad.” Throughout Marcus writes in a forceful, enthusiastic, almost driven style — he grabs his subjects by the lapels and shakes them until their vital organs tumble out — and his frame of reference is so vast that he never runs out of connections worth making between the music he loves and just about anything else that matters in American art and life.

Marcus finds (brilliantly, I think) an aesthetic link between Music from Big Pink and Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller; he traces the legend of Staggerlee beyond the music of Johnson and Stone to the lives and politics of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver — and then even further, into the black Superfly exploitation movies of the ’70s; Raymond Chandler is brought to bear on New­man, and all over the book there are whispers from Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention graceful invocations of the Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Gilded Age. It’s a measure of how long and rich a view Marcus takes of these musicians and, concurrently, a vindication of the value he places in their work, that it never becomes necessary to shove Water­gate or Vietnam into our faces to give the rock of Mystery Train its share of meaning.

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In all of his subjects, Marcus finds both a quest for that freedom that Americans regard as a birthright and a realization (tragically late in some cases) of the dread and terror that lie behind the face of that dream. Each of the book’s protagonists have, in their music, reinvented unique pieces of the American mythos that set them apart from each other (from The Band’s vision of a joint-stock American community to Newman’s synthesis of the Southern California polarities represented by the Beach Boys and Nath­anael West). In the end, it is only Elvis who can bind Marcus’s entire litany of images together.

That’s why the “Presliad” is the knockout section of the book; if Newman is, as the author indicates, his Bartleby, then Elvis is most certainly his Moby Dick. “Beside Elvis,” Marcus writes, “the other heroes of this book seem a little small-time. If they define different versions of America, Presley’s career almost has the scope to take America in.”

Marcus’s writing about Presley reaches a pitch of ecstasy, horror, and understanding that diminishes the prose of the book’s previous chapters as effectively as Elvis diminishes the subjects of those chapters. For Marcus, Elvis is the man who has best redeemed “the grandest fantasy of freedom,” but he has done so at the expense of resolving all the vital American tensions (“it is rather Lincolnesque; Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform The Union” ) — finally to end up in “a world that for all its openness … is aesthetically closed, where nothing is left to be mastered, where there is only more to accept.”

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It’s a frightening dramatization of the ultimate bankruptcy of what this country teaches us to live for. But even now, as Elvis goes through the motions in Vegas, Marcus catches flashes of hope: “And so Elvis Pres­ley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture … success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him … “

The electrifying beat of the “Pres­liad” aside, Mystery Train is not without its problems. Marcus has a tendency to repeat himself and to oversell a beloved song with superlatives; he has included some cutely labeled digressions that don’t successfully sidestep the fact that the book often doesn’t work as an organic piece of writing. (To his credit, however, he has thrown most of his more conventionally inbred rock criticism into the annotated discography that follows the main text.) At the most substantive level, he has neatly avoided taking on any American myths that might raise the disturbing, Fiedler-esque questions about our culture’s peculiar relationship to sex. I also wonder whether rock fans who are not well steeped in what universities call American Studies (which Marcus has taught at Berkeley ) are going to have a lot of fun with Mystery Train — the book isn’t written down to anyone — but maybe the very success of Marcus’s mission makes that beside the point. While our literature undoubtedly adds resonance to the best of our popular music, and vice versa, Mystery Train just as strongly suggests that, for many Americans, rock ‘n’ roll on its own, even when it’s heard in a cultural vacuum, may not be doing such a bad job of keeping our democratic vistas intact.

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Elvis Presley, Philosopher King

Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no mat­ter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long­-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (they finally found some­thing to name after him: a highway), and even a president. (Nixon had Elvis over to the White House once, and made him an honorary narcotics officer.) The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heartthrob, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.

Twenty-one years ago Elvis made his first records with Sam Phillips, on the little Sun label in Memphis, a pact was signed with Col. Tom Parker, shrewd country hustler; Elvis took off for RCA Victor, New York, and Hollywood. America has not been the same since. Elvis disappeared into an oblivion of respectability and security in the ’60s, lost in interchangeable movies and dull music; he staged a remarkable comeback as that de­cade ended, and now performs as the tran­scendental Sun King that Ralph Waldo Emerson only dreamed about — and as a giant contradiction.

Elvis gives us a massive road show musi­cal of opulent American mastery; his ver­sion of the winner-take-all fantasies that have kept the world lined up outside of the theatres that show American movies ever since the movies began. And of course we respond: a self-made man is rather boring, but a self-made king is something else. Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture — he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, conde­scending, materialistic to the point of insan­ity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw, shucks,” says the country boy; it is all a joke to him, his distance is in his humor, and he can exit from this America un­marked, unimpressed, and uninteresting.

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You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his worst music and in his best; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic. It may be that he never took any of it seriously, just did his job and did it well, trying to enjoy himself and stay sane — save for those first Tennessee records, and that night, late in 1968, when his comeback was uncertain and he put a sear­ing, desperate kind of life into a few songs that cannot be found in any of his other music.

It was a staggering moment. A Christmas TV special had been decided on; a final dispute between Col. Parker (he wanted 20 Christmas songs and a tuxedo) and producer Steve Binder (he wanted a rough, fast, sexy show) had been settled; with Elvis’s help, Binder won. So there Elvis was, standing in a studio facing TV cameras and a live audi­ence for the first time in nearly a decade, finally stepping out from behind the wall of retainers and sycophants he had paid to hide him. And everyone was watching.

Sitting on the stage in black leather, surrounded by friends and a rough little combo, the crowd buzzing, he sang and talked and joked, and all the resentments he had hidden over the years began to pour out. He had always said yes, but this time he was saying no — not without humor, but almost with a wry bit of guilt, as if he had betrayed his talent and himself. He told the audience about a time back in ’55, when cops in Florida forced him to sing without moving; the story was hilarious, but there was some­thing in his voice that made very clear how much it had hurt. He jibed at the Beatles, denying that the heroes who had replaced him had produced anything he could not match, and then he proved it.

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Slow and steady, Elvis rocks into “One Night.” In Smiley Lewis’s original, it was about an orgy, called “One Night of Sin.” Elvis cleaned it up into a love story in 1958. But he is singing Lewis’s version, as he must have always wanted to. He falls in and out of the two songs, and suddenly the band rams hard at the music and Elvis lunges and eats it alive. No one has ever heard him sing like this. Shouting, crying, growling, lusting. Elvis takes his stand and the crowd takes theirs with him, cheering for what they had only hoped for. Elvis has gone beyond all their expectations, and his, and they don’t believe it. Every line is a thunderbolt. AW, YEAH! screams a pal — he has waited years for this moment, and as the song ends, Elvis floats like the master he is back into “One night, with you,” even allowing himself a little “Hot dog!” singing softly to himself.

It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.

“One Night” catches a world of risk, will, passion, and natural nobility: something worth searching out within the America of mastery and easy splendor that may well be Elvis’s last word.

 

They called Elvis the Hillbilly Cat in the beginning: he came out of a stepchild culture that for all it shared with the rest of America had its own shape and integrity. It was, as southern chambers of commerce have never tired of saying, A Land of Contrasts. The fundamental contrast, of course, could not have been more obvious: black and white. Always at the root of southern fantasy, southern music, and southern politics, the black man was poised in the early ’50s for an overdue invasion of American life, in fan­tasy, music, and politics. As the north scur­ried to deal with him, the south would be pushed farther and farther into the weird­ness and madness its best artists had been trying to exorcise from the time of Poe on down. Its politics would dissolve into night­riding and hysteria: its fantasies would be dull for all their gaudy paranoia. Only the music would get away clean.

The north, powered by the Protestant ethic, had set men free by making them strangers: the poorman’s south Elvis knew took strength from community. This com­munity was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that drama­tized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom, and shelter.

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Music was also an escape from the com­munity, and music revealed its underside. There were always people who could not join the community, no matter how they might want to: tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals. The most vital were singers; they bridged the gap between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself, and the outside world and the forbidden; they were artists who could take the community beyond itself because they had the talent and the nerve to transcend it.

Jimmie Rodgers was one. He was every boy who ever ran away from home, hanging out in the railroad yards, bumming around with black minstrels, pushing out the limits of his life. He celebrated long tall mamas that rubbed his back and licked his neck just to cure the cough that killed him; he bragged about gun play on Beale Street; he sang real blues, played jazz with Louis Armstrong. There’s so much room in this country, he seemed to be saving, so many things to do — how could an honest man be satisfied to live within the frontiers he was born to?

 

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By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hank Williams had inherited Jimmie Rodgers’s role as the central figure in country music, but he added an enormous reservation: that margin of loneliness in Rodgers’s America had grown into a world of utter tragedy. Williams sang for a community to which he could not belong; he sang to a God in whom he could not quite believe; even his many songs of good times and good lovin’ seemed unreal. He was a poet of limits, fear, and failure; he went as deeply into one dimension of the country world as anyone could, gave it beauty, gave it dignity. What was missing was that part of the hillbilly soul Rodgers had celebrated, something Williams’s music obscured — the feeling, summed up in a sentence by W. J. Cash from “The Mind of the South,” that “even the southern physical world was a kind of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance”; that even if Elvis’s south was filled with puritans, it was also filled with natural-born hedonists, and the same people were both.

Growing up in Hank Williams’s time, Elvis was attuned to the complexity of his inheri­tance; he was a dreamer, and he looked for ways to set himself apart. Always, Elvis felt he was different from, if not better than, those around him. He grew his sideburns long, acting out that sense of differentness, and was treated differently: in this case, he got himself kicked off the football team. High school classmates remember his determina­tion to break through as a country singer; with a little luck, they figured, he might even make it.

But you don’t make it in America waiting for someone to come along and sign you up. What links the greatest rock ‘n’ roll careers is a volcanic ambition, a lust for more than anyone has a right to expect; in some cases, a refusal to know when to quit or even rest. It is that bit of Ahab burning beneath the Huck Finn rags of “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, the arrogance 0f a country boy like Elvis sailing into Hollywood, ready for whatever kind of success America has to offer.

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Rock ‘n’ roll caught the defiantly unrealis­tic spirit of such ambition on records and gave it a form. Instead of a possibility within a music, it became the essence; it became, of all things, a tradition. And when that form itself had to deal with reality — which is to say, when its young audience began to grow up — the fantasy had become part of the reality that had to be dealt with; the rules of the game had changed a bit, and it was a better game. “Blue Suede Shoes” had grown directly into something as serious and com­plex, and yet still offhand, as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which asks the musical question, “Why are you stepping on my blue suede shoes?”

Echoing through all of rock ‘n’ roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out. It all sounds simple, obvious; but that one young man like Elvis could break through a world as hard as Hank Williams’s, and invent a new one to replace it, seems obvious only because we have inherited Elvis’s world, and live in it.

***

There are four of them in the little studio: Bill Black, the bass player; Scotty Moore, the guitarist; in the back, Sam Phillips, the producer; and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, Elvis Presley, just 19. 1954.

The kid with the guitar is … unusual, but they’ve been trying to put something on the tape Sam keeps running back — a ballad, a hillbilly song, anything — and so far, well, it just doesn’t get it. The four men cool it for a moment, frustrated, talk music, blues, Cru­dup, ever hear that, who you kiddin’ man, dig this. The kid pulls his guitar up clowns a bit. He throws himself at a song. That’s all right, mama, that’s all right … eat shit. He doesn’t say that, naturally, but that’s what he’s found in the tone; his voice slides over the lines as the two musicians come in behind him, Scotty picking up the melody and the bassman slapping away at his axe with a drumstick. Phillips hears it, likes it, and makes up his mind.

They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says; Elvis sings along with himself, joshing his performance. They all wonder, but not too much.

Get on home, now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this. White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just … too weird?

Sam Phillips released the record; what followed was the heyday of Sun Records and rockabilly music, a moment when boys were men and men were boys, when full-blown legends emerged that still walk the land.

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It was an explosion, and standing over it all was Elvis. In the single year he recorded for Sam Phillips, 10 sides were released; about half derived from country songs, the rest took off from blues. The blues especially have not dated at all. Not a note is false. Nothing is stylized. The music is clean, straight, open, and free. Rockabilly was a fast, aggressive music: simple, snappy drumming, sharp guitar licks, wild country boogie piano, the music of kids who come from all over the south to make records for Sam Phillips and his imitators. Rockabilly came and it went; there was never that much of it, and even including Elvis’s first Sun singles — all the rockabilly hits put together sold less than Fats Domino. But rockabilly fixed the image of rock and roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out. It was the only style of rock and roll that proved white boys could do it all — that they could be as strange, as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly walking America’s airwaves as if they owned them.

Elvis’s rockabilly (the blues of “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train,” the country of “You’re A Heartbreaker,” and the others — ­the music he left behind when he moved to RCA) deserves close attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he has sung for have lost — youthful exuber­ance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? — but because this is unquestionably great music. It is emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, of his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.

Too much has been made of Elvis as “a white man who sang black music credibly,” as a singer who made black music accept­able to whites; this and too many whites trying to do the same thing have corrupted any sense of what Elvis did do, of what was at stake in his personal culture. Most white blues singing is singing at the blues; what comes out is either entirely fake, or has behind it the white impulse to become black: to ask for too much without offering anything in return.

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Real white blues singers make something new out of the blues, as Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Elvis, and Bob Dylan have; or, they sing out of a deep feeling for the blues, but in a musical style that is not blues — not formally, anyway. For Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out, as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.

Singing in the ’50s, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records topped the rhythm-and-blues charts; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in Ameri­can music are just not that simple. Elvis drew power from black culture, but he was not really imitating blacks; when he told Sam Phillips he didn’t sing like nobody, he told the truth. No white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it, since Jimmie Rodgers; instead of following Rodger’s musical style, as so many good white singers had, until it simply wore out, Elvis followed Rodgers’s musical strategy, and began the story all over again. His blues were a set of sexual adventures, and as a blues-singing swashbuckler, his style owed as much to Errol Flynn as to Arthur Crudup. It made sense to make movies out of it.

There is a deep need to see Elvis (or any part of American culture one cares about) starting out in a context of purity, outside of and in opposition to American life as most of us know it and live it. Even RCA first presented Elvis as “a folksinger,” and it is virtually a critical canon that Elvis’s folk purity, and therefore his talent was ruined by (a) his transmogrification from naive country boy into corrupt pop star (he sold his soul to Colonel Tom, or Parker just stole it) (b) Hollywood (c) the army (d) money and soft living (e) all of the above. But when Elvis left Memphis to confront a national audience as mysterious to him as he was to it, he had to define himself fully, and he did it by presenting his authentic multiplicity in music. I am, he announced, a house-rocker, a boy steeped in mother-love, a true son of the church, a matinee idol who’s only kidding, a man with too many rough edges for anyone ever to smooth away.

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Inevitably, his multiplicity opened up the possibility that he could be all things to all people, but his eagerness to prove it, with records like “Something for Everybody,” destroyed his ability to focus his talent. He wound up without a commitment to any musical style; his music lost that dramatic shape Sam Phillips helped give it. And his ambition, the source of so much of the intensity and emotion he put into his early music, plainly outstripped itself. Two years after making his first record he had won more than anyone knew was there; he had achieved a status that trivialized struggle and made will obsolescent. His success turned his life upside down; from this point on, he would have what he set out to get, but he’d have to reach for the energy and desire that made his triumph possible.

These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage show documentary “Elvis On Tour,” we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue. He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun Records was long ago blown into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.

And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all-live-in-per­son, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic — that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill far beyond anything else in our culture.

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At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place; a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burn­ing desire to get rich, and to have fun, a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. He has long since become one of those symbols himself.

Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-ef­facing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democ­racy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: No limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.

All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. “I must have been mad,” he would cry, “I didn’t know what I had — until I threw it all away.”

And then, with love in his heart, he would laugh. ♦

This piece is condensed from a 25,000 word essay on Elvis Presley from “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” to be published May 8 by E. P. Dutton and Company.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Hunter Thompson on a Bat: Fear and Loathing in Mayfair

The famed Gonzo journalist, Hunt­er Thompson, travels the world in search of stories. Currently he is sending dispatches back from South­east Asia to Rolling Stone. Wherever he is, though, Thompson is often more interesting than the story he’s covering. Jon Bradshaw, a British journalist and author of “Fast Company,” a book on gamblers, writes about a few days in the life of the Gonzo journalist — Thompson’s story, in this case, was never delivered, and Rolling Stone wrote off $10,000 in expenses.

We were somewhere deep in Berkeley Square in a dive decorated to look like an early ’30s cocktail lounge when the malaria began to take hold. Dr. Gonzo leaned wearily against the bar and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Great creeping Jesus,” he screamed, “it’s the cold sweats this time. They’re the fucking worst. This town is diseased. You’d think they’d protect tourists from vicious bugs. The fucking things are everywhere. Ralph, Ralph, where the hell are you? I need a fucking doctor. Immediately!”

Ralph Steadman, artist and amiable patriarch, sat next to Gonzo at the bar scanning the gigantic drinks list. “Have a drink,” he said. “This list says you can have anything from Tequila Sunrises to Scorpions. Have them both. They’ll do you some good.”

“I’ll have three Bloody Marys,” said Gonzo to the startled barman. “And I want a lot of lime in them. The little fuckers hate lime. Takes the poison out of them. And Ralph, if that doesn’t help, I’ll need a doctor. I think I need a doctor anyway. I need a massive jolt of tetracycline.  I know. I’ve had malaria before. It’s not the sort of thing you fuck around with.”

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Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Steadman had flown into London two days before from Zaire where they had gone to report the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight. Now, sitting in this darkened bar, the talk, whenever Gonzo could take his mind off his galloping malaria, was of the fight and their deadline for Rolling Stone the next day. “Shit, I’ve got 10,000 words to write for tomorrow,” said Gonzo, “and I haven’t even started yet. There’s not a lot of time and what do I come down with in this poxy town. Fucking malaria.”

According to the heated accounts of the intrepid duo, Zaire had been an ominous assignment. They had had to fight their way out of the country — “hand-to-hand combat” is how it was described — just manag­ing to catch the last plane out to Lagos and New York. At Kennedy airport, customs officers confiscated a pair of Gonzo’s recently acquired elephant tusks, though he managed to retrieve them by sneaking into the customs shed when the officer had his back turned. In New York, they learned that John Daley, one of the fight’s promoters and a key figure in their story, was in London and would talk to them there. Arriving in London, they learned that Daley had flown to New York. Now, hunkered down in Brown’s Hotel, they seethed and awaited his return.

“We’re lucky to be alive,” said Steadman. “Zaire was a narrow escape. Quite naturally, when we get off the plane and walk into Brown’s at nine in the morning, Hunter orders three Bloody Marys, a dozen beers, a bottle of Scotch, a bottle of Wild Turkey, and the number of the nearest brothel. They thought he was crazy and it was all downhill after that. Last night he was accused of trying to rape one of the maids and of shooting pigeons on the window ledge with a Magnum .44. This morning I find him in bed with a girl. At some point during the night, he had drawn a swastika on her ass in indelible ink. She dropped her draw­ers to show it to me. She said she would wear it forever. I don’t know how much longer London will put up with us. I don’t like it. We’re getting a lot of weird looks in the hotel lobby.”

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Dr. Gonzo orders another two Bloody Marys and says he’s going to the toilet. “Keep your eye on the bartender,” he says to Steadman on the way out. “I think he’s trying to cheat me on the lime. If he doesn’t put in enough, shoot him.”

“How long can he go on like this?” someone asks. “Well,” says Stead­man, “it’s not good. I’d say another 50 years. He’ll beat himself to hell, die peacefully in his sleep at 90, and everyone will say he got exactly what he deserved. But he’s never been this bad. I’ve never seen him go this far before. Christ, in Zaire he was an absolute menace.”

Dr. Gonzo returns to the bar, takes a sip of his drink, and glares at the barman. “There’s not enough lime in here,” he says. “Do you want the little bastards to escape?” He is wearing Levis, a checked shirt, a kind of smart Canadian lumber­man’s jacket with an obscure foreign press badge on the pocket, tennis shoes, and tinted glasses. Balding, he has the look of an elderly athlete with perhaps another season in him.

“Shit, I feel terrible,” he says. “I haven’t slept for three days. And now this malaria. I deserve better things. Ralph, goddamnit, get a doctor, will you? I want him here now. Tell him to bring some tetracycline with him. I know how to deal with this thing. And I’ll need some coke. I may as well take every precaution I can. It’s a fucking twisted world we live in. I need protection.” Steadman goes to find a telephone.

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“I need an Irish coffee,” he says to the barman. “But I don’t want any scum on top. Just whiskey, sugar, and hot coffee. I’ve got the cold sweats. Jesus, l’m beginning to have visions.”

“How was the fight?” someone asks.

“What fight?” mumbles Gonzo, swilling down the Irish coffee. “I never saw the fucking fight. Who won? I don’t like fights anyway. Thirty minutes before it started, I gave our tickets to some crazy wino I found in the hotel lobby. My mind was on other things, important things. I’d bought $1000 of grass the day before and was ripped off. It was bad stuff. Ugly. So I cast it over the waters of the hotel swimming pool and went swimming until the fight was over. Under the circumstances, it was the only thing to do. It’s not the sort of country in which you have a lot of choices. A savage place filled with a lot of malignant mutants, I was lucky to escape with my life, believe me. Thirty years of hard labor at best. You’re looking at a man who has looked into the face of death — and then kicked him in the balls. I’m lucky to be here. Listen, one night, kicking down the door in my hotel room, because I’d lost my key, I heard this awful growl in the hallway. It was pitch dark because the fuses had blown. I flashed a light and there was Foreman walking down the hall with a huge German shepherd beside him. I thought I was having hallucinations. I wasn’t. He walked up and down that dark hall every night — brooding. It was all like that. It was a savage place.”

Steadman returned to say the doctor insisted on looking at Gonzo personally at six that afternoon. Steadman himself would have to leave. The art deadline was immi­nent. There were a lot of lunatics in San Francisco screaming like ban­shees for the cover and Steadman didn’t want to be too late. He begged Gonzo to take care of himself, to go back to the hotel, lock himself in, rip out the telephone, and do some work. Gonzo nodded and ordered another Irish whiskey.

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“Are there any girls in town?” he asked when Steadman had gone. “I want to rape someone. I need about 113 orgasms before I can do any serious work tonight.” He looked out the window. “What’s the penalty for rape in Berkeley Square?” he asked.

Two Irish whiskeys later, he seemed to have forgotten girls and began to talk of tailors. He needed a suit, he said, possibly two. “Let’s get a few bottles of beer and find a tailor. We’ll need something to drink while I’m being fitted. You know what tailors are like. Mean bastards. Never keep drink on the premises.” He turned to the barman. “Bartend­er,” he shouted, “I’ll need eight bottles of beer, Tuborg will do, and a brown paper bag to transport them.” He reached into his wallet, extract­ing his last bill — a Zaire 10-franc note. “Look at this,” he said. “You ‘re not allowed to take the fucking currency out of the country. I forgot. Good thing they didn’t find it on me. The penalty’s life imprison­ment.” He handed the note to the barman. “Bartender, here, I think this will just about cover the beer. If there’s any change left, keep it, you deserve it. You have a dirty job. You must get a lot of maniacs in a place like this.” The barman elected to consult the owner. “If they cause any trouble,” whispered Gonzo, “we’ll take both the bastard’s outside and execute them. Castrate the fuckers. On second thought, it might be easier to shoot them. We don’t have a lot of time.”

But the owner was persuaded, and, taking the Tuborg in a blue polythene bag, we set off for the tailor’s. In the back room of the tailor shop, the proprietor listened patiently. “Listen,” said Gonzo, sipping beer, “it’s ridiculously simple. I need two suits, one maybe in white and one in black. You can put in some stripes if you like, or some polka dots, but nothing fashionable. They have to be boss gambler’s suits. That’s the main thing. I use them on my lecture tours. They have to create an imme­diate effect, you understand. Give me a pencil and I’ll draw them for you.”

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After a loud and complicated con­versation and a series of surrealistic drawings, the wild-eyed tailor began to scream.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I’ll tell you where to go. Go to Hollywood and look up one of the studio costumiers. They’ll have ex­actly what you want, whatever that is. They’ll probably even have it in stock. Try MGM. They did a lot of Mississippi gambler pictures.”

“Christ,” said Gonzo out in the street. “There’s a lot of hate in this town. A lot of dingbats and freaks. We’ll have to be careful. It’s a weird place. That tailor should be locked up. He needs electric shock treat­ment right away. That’s my advice. Zap him a thousand volts twice a day. He’ll never make it otherwise. Did you see his eyes? Ugly. Really ugly.”

Memories of the rest of the day are extremely hazy. At an Italian res­taurant, Gonzo offered the proprietress the opportunity of an afternoon in bed with him in exchange for a free meal. The doctor provided him with a battery of pills, an ounce of coke, and vials of vitamin B-12. We finished off the bottles of malt whiskey and Wild Turkey in his room at the hotel and arranged with an escort agency for five girls to meet us at midnight. Toward eleven in the evening, we attended a crowded din­ner party in Belsize Park. We had only been there for 15 minutes when Gonzo began to growl, his eyes shifting to the top of his head. “What sort of weird place have you brought me to?” he shouted. “They don’t have any ice in this joint, not a cube. And worse, there’s no whiskey. Christ, you can’t take any chances in this town. You’ve got to carry your own booze with you at all times. Let’s go out and get some drink. Where the hell are we anyway?”

At this point, a chubby but pretty girl, who at some particularly decadent stage in her life had read a few of the doctor’s mad scribblings, offered to take us back to her flat promising as much whiskey as we could drink. En route in the car, Gonzo extracted the vials of Vitamin B-12 from his pocket. “Shoot some of this,” he said, “it’s a great high. Keep you going for days. It’s absolutely essential. Keeps your mind on the key issues.”

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The girl — she was called Sara or Emma or Annabelle, we were never certain — had a penthouse flat in Bel­gravia. She provided whiskey and a lot of ice. Gonzo produced his coke and passed it round on the end of a switchblade. For about five minutes it was peaceful. But Gonzo, now into his third Scotch, suddenly asked the girl if she would like to be raped. “You’ll like it,” he said. “You have that look about you. I always recog­nize it immediately. You can see it in the eyes. It’s a fearful look.”

The girl giggled but declined. “Why use violence?” she purred. “Can’t we just fuck normally?”

“Normally?” he shouted. “What the hell does that mean? Are you some sort of weird freak? I want to rip off your clothes, rape you, tear you limb from limb, and throw you into the street. You’ll like it. Believe me, goddamnit, I’m an expert. I know what I’m doing.”

This time, the girl did not giggle. Rather nervously, she suggested it was time for us to go and edged toward the telephone. “No, I think you’d better leave,” he said. “I’m beginning to like it here. You can have my room at Brown’s. It’s a nice hotel, a little crazy, a lot of freaks in the lobby and roaming the halls, but perfectly safe, I’ll stay here. Just show me the bedroom before you go.” The girl, however, seemed ada­mant and began to scream. Filling her crystal glasses with enough whiskey to last the journey, we left. Gonzo left her a five-franc note for the glasses. “Shit,” he said, on the way back to Brown’s, “have you ever run across a weirdo like that before? A raving lunatic. Must be the lack of sun. This is the coldest town I’ve ever been in. My soul is cold. And all these crazies running round. How do you manage it? I couldn’t live here unless I was heavily armed at all times. Wouldn’t be safe. There are a lot of weird hostilities here. I can feel them everywhere.”

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Dr. Gonzo’s hotel room looked as if it had been burgled only moments before. There was litter every­where — empty whiskey bottles, numerous files on the fight in Zaire strewn on the unmade bed and the floor, clothes, newspapers, maga­zines, and a purple bra which had been ripped in half. “The maids don’t set a foot in here anymore,” he said. “They’re terrified. I’ve only been here for two days and they sent me the bill this morning. Is that normal?” On the desk was a large IBM typewriter which had been sent over by Rolling Stone. “On that machine,” he pointed out, “I can type as fast as I can think. And I’m going to have to think fast. I’ve only got nine hours till my deadline.” Above the desk on the wall, Gonzo had pasted a large poster of the fight and perching precariously on one of the pictures was a long sign which said, “Anger— High Voltage.” The room looked like that of a man who had been there for several months.

In the bathroom there was about a half an inch of water on the carpeted floor. “Look at that,” he shouted, “there’s no overflow outlet. Every time I turn on the bath it overflows onto the floor. The guy below must be going crazy. Two days of that and I figure the water must be over his head by now. And the miserable geek hasn’t even bothered to inform the management. Stiff upper lip. The English are crazy.”

Toward 3 a.m., the savage drama was coming to its end. All the whiskey had been consumed and four hysterical phone calls to the night porter had failed to provide any more. Gonzo now decided that he would have to return home immediately. “Shit,” he screamed, throwing his mess into a battered case, “I can’t get anything done in this town. There’s nothing left to drink in the whole country, the hotel is repressed, the streets are filled with bands of armed masturbators. It’s a twisted place, teetering on the brink of insanity. It’s ugly, very ugly. There’s only one thing to do. Go home. I’ll never work otherwise. Great creeping Jesus, it must have cost Rolling Stone $10,000 already on this story. I’ll have to give them something. I should’ve hired some­body to write the fucking thing and saved myself a lot of trouble.”

He banged the telephone receiver up and down. “This is Dr. Gonzo,” he said, “I want you to get me on the first plane out to Woody Creek, Colorado. Lean on those fuckers at the airport. Get heavy. Offer bribes. Just get me on anything going west. Get me on anything going west. And be quick about it, goddamnit. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan Goes Public

It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth’s club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar — a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis — and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off — not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he’s not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he’d known all the tracks on Hunter’s (or was it Mott’s) first album. Unbelievable.

This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan’s need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him — even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that’s stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it’s going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars’ groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated — commonplace almost by definition, since they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.

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The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band) — four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.

The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan’s best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January — and then didn’t play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and by the dovetailing delicacy of “Tangled Up in Blue” (lost love recalled) and “Buckets of Rain” (love’s loss foreseen) — stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: “Tangled Up in Blue,” which cannot describe the facts of his life, and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.

That’s the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who’s always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it’s meaningless to call it Dylan’s best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.

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Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.

Dylan’s alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood — the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded — he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.

Unlike many people I admire, I’ve never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening — even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days — and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it — a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it’s as precise conceptually as anything he’s done — the many voices of love, something like that — and there’s no way it won’t rank high in my year-end top 10. But it’s a half-measure.

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The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, “Down in the Flood,” was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, “Going to Acapulco,” has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.

Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic “Yazoo Street Scandal” was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan’s abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman’s office. They weren’t ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn’t care less whether they’re only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.

The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term — just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn’t show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.

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But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can’t believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it’s just too loose to break much. Over the years it’s been the more writerly “serious” songs that people have talked about — not only “I Shall Be Released” (omitted here), but “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Nothing Was Delivered” — and to this group can now be added “Going to Acapulco,” which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about “going to have some fun” that he anticipates the watchtower: “Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks.”

Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others — especially “Tears of Rage” — it’s all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan’s work; even Greil Marcus’s comparisons to the likes of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: “I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake”? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”? What are we to make of Turtle, “With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk”? And why don’t you get that apple off your fly?

These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as “Going to Acapulco” is a dirge about having fun, so “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band’s more conventional (“realistic”) approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1983 as it did in 1967. The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don’t have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I’ve been playing it too repeatedly to find out.

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What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album’s release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it’s nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of “Please, Mrs. Henry,” he’s really there.

The night after Dylan’s impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn’t expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music — Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on “Angel Baby” qualifies as a blessed event — and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I’m happy too. Good music happens there.

When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won’t be what I mean. I’ll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands — I hope millions — of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published in 2018.

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COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

John Belushi: He Who Laughs First

It’s not easy to offend. We’re so tolerant, the folks in the National Lampoon Show can’t even get a summons for burning dollars on stage. They’ve got to go a long mile to pass the limits of acceptability where satire begins. But there al­ways are limits. Our ever-so-liberal consciences finally shudder at mockery of the blind, paraplegics, blacks, Jackie Onassis. We’re horror-struck by our laughing. The sane agree: they’ve gone too far.

Too far for the Lampooners means something different: when the audi­ence stops laughing. Laughter, according to the director-star co-au­thor of the National Lampoon Show, John Belushi, is good. If they’re laughing, even if they hate them­selves for laughing, they’re having a good time.

Belushi is a satirist not because he’s mean, he says, or neurotic, like many satirists, but because he likes to make people laugh. He likes to laugh himself. The touchstone for all his material is whether he and his friends think it’s funny. Unlike mass-market comics, who must gear their message to their audience. Be­lushi trusts his material to find its own audience of kindred spirits. He does not want to browbeat or abuse or humiliate his audience, merely to communicate with them via laugh­ter, not preach to them (although some of his skits bear a moral load), but share with them the way he is.

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On stage, Belushi plays the ma­lignant hulking heavy — the security officer checking the audience for exportable aliens, a greedy Cypriot archbishop advertising his Big-Ma­karios hamburger chain, the macho stud who thinks he can seduce a girl by insulting her. His cherubically overripe face is made sinister by a beard and eyebrows that he will suddenly arch almost out of his skull. (In college he played Cardinal Wool­sey.) In “Lemmings,” the previous National Lampoon show, which parodied the rock scene, he “did” macho of machos Joe Cocker. It’s no surprise that when 12 years old. Belushi’s idol was Brando, whose “The Wild One” he tried to imitate. (By imitating Brando’s performance as a gay in a subsequent film, “Re­flections in a Golden Eye,” Belushi happened on his startling Truman Capote imitation. One wonders from these multiple mirror tricks whether a Capote might not always be hiding inside a Brando, and vice versa.)

Belushi is so aggressive in his act, one is surprised by his mildness and modesty. Now that the National Lampoon Show is closing for a breathless nine-month tour with a new cast, he is just another out-of­-work actor waiting by his telephone praying producers will not oblige him to come to them. In two years in New York he has never had to audition and the prospect unnerves him. “Because you’re in a revue, they think you can’t act. You’re not serious. I did serious acting in col­lege and stock companies. I can do it. But nobody believes you.”

Complaining, though, is not Belushi’s way. When asked, “Does that bother you ?” he shrugs, “Yeah, it bothers me,” as if his being bothered was both obvious and unimportant. What matters is his good fortune. Born in Chicago in 1949, he grew up studying Brando. At the University of Illinois, he formed a satirical skit group. He also did serious acting. He left college in his Junior year, when he discovered Second City in Chicago, where the likes of David Steinberg. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin got their starts. It amazed him that the kind of skits he had been doing as a lark could be considered serious work. He joined. One day a director called, looking for someone who can “play an instru­ment, do imitations of rock stars, improvise, do comedy.” “I can do all of it,” said the unabashed Belushi, and landed the role of the announcer in “Lemmings.”

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Next came the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which he acted in and helped write, and of which he later became Creative Director. The show was a popular success but offended too many sponsors to maintain the requisite advertising, Then came the present National Lampoon Show, which Belushi directed, having de­vised it with his other original cast members.

Belushi is grateful to the National Lampoon organization but not uncri­tical. “It’s a security trap. Good money, a lot of freedom. They let you write your shows and put them on with no hassles with producers or red tape. They spend as much as you need. But it gets so you can’t escape. Nobody considers you legitimate because you’re National Lampoon.” Now the Lampoon wants Belushi to help write a movie, but Belushi isn’t sure. There’s still that Brando dream glittering in his eyes.

It’s not going to be easy for him. “I couldn’t stand acting in a lousy play,” he says. “I like acting on my own stuff because I know it’s good.” He is uproariously critical of bad acting, especially of the overacting of the Negro Ensemble Company, which he parodied in a skit called, “Raisinette in the Sun — or, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Act.” If I were a director, I’d be wary of Belushi, not because he’s difficult, but because his standards are high and his wit lacerating.

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He has another revue he could do, but he’s tired, for now, of revue work, although that may be just post-closing doldrums and not a per­manent attitude. The single route of the stand-up comic he avoids like death. “I hate clubs,” he says, almost shuddering, “the noise at the bar, the talking. When I was at Second City, I met Shelley Berman for a few seconds on an airplane. Because Berman used to be at Sec­ond City, I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m at Second City now.’ He looked at me for a moment and said, ‘stay out of the clubs.’ That’s all. Then he said it again, ‘Stay out of the clubs.’ ”

Nightclubs, for Belushi, mean iso­lation, hostility, standing alone on stage and trying to communicate with a boozy crowd who couldn’t care less. The joy of theatre for Belushi is social: working and laughing and inventing together. Al­though he occasionally sits down and writes out a solo piece, most of his writing is improvisational, which, he says, “is as much writing as sitting down at a typewriter. You suggest something, you do it, then you work on it, remembering the good beats.”

Most of the hysterical high-points of the National Lampoon Show were developed improvisationally. For in­stance, having Jackie Kennedy on a celebrity panel show was one person’s idea. Having a starting gun was someone else’s. Having Jackie, in her unforgettable pink pillbox hat and dark glasses, duck under her seat at the sound of the gun, was yet another person’s idea.

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I asked Belushi if the Jackie skit wasn’t “too far.” He shrugged: “Everybody laughs,” as if laughter were the ultimate justifier. Strange­ly, it is. If the skit was merely cruel, as many people thought “The Dead Sullivan Show” was, then one couldn’t laugh, at least not healthily, wholeheartedly. The Jackie moment is not laughing at assassinations, but at our absurdly reverent attitude toward the woman. In laughing at her, we reduce her to a more human, familiar size. Similarly, the skit about Mary Tyler Moore as a blind girl is not cruel to the blind but equalizing, making them no more sacrosanct than the rest of us. Blind people who’ve “seen” the show, says Belushi with a grin, come up afterwards saying it was terrific and they know even better blind jokes and thank God someone was finally  treating them like the rest of the world.

To be a successful satirist, one must love life. It is the love that tells you when is “too far.” I know John Belushi is compassionate because his depictions of monsters are less horrible than pitiable. His insight into the weakness hiding behind the stone appearance should stand him in good stead if he ever gets his chance to play the hero, the Brando.

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Now What? The City Can Still Make It, But Not Alone

The quick question: Why is New York City going down the drain? The quick answer: Because, as a conscious matter of national policy, the nation is abandoning its central cities. President Ford’s “drop dead” speech last week made this perfectly clear — but it was only the latest manifestation of a policy that has been operating for years.

Here, for example, are two quo­tations that speak volumes about the decline and fall of the nation’s first metropolis.

In his 1949 love song to New York, E.B. White caught the post-war promise of the city when he wrote:

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; it is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along without inflicting the event on its inhabitants…”

But 20 years after White, writing in the same literary vein, Fred Powledge drew the opposite conclusion as to New York’s humanity:

“New York has become irredeemably, irretrievably rotten… There is nothing an individual citizen can do that would make New York more livable for more than an instant, not even if he is the mayor.”

Now, five years later, New York heads toward collapse helped im­measurably by a president who apparently feels it is not only good politics but good policy to let the city go down.

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How is it the city’s image re­versed itself so dramatically in one generation, White to Powledge? How could the center of the New York region — one-tenth of the na­tion — come so suddenly to its knees? If the ’50s saw 60 percent of all the new office construction in the United States concentrated be­tween 42nd Street and 59th in Manhattan, and assessed valuation zoom accordingly, how did the property tax fail to yield enough to meet budgetary requirements? When federal aid throughout the ’60s grew and grew, why did the ’70s find the Bronx being abandoned?

More fundamentally, when the same years saw NASA shoot off billion after billion into space, and the Pentagon spent 10 more in Vietnam, while federal taxes were cut and farm support sustained, how did cities get it in the neck?

Partial answers flood in these days: The poor minority did it by their unproductive presence. The unions brought it on by their incessant demands. The welfare mess spoiled everything. The politics­-as-usual of the city’s leadership let the people down. The indifference of the urban private sector turned out to be suicidal. Each deserves due weight.

A more fundamental force is at work, a profound, intellectual, and ideological antipathy to cities in general — and New York in particular. Going back over 200 years of history, Morton and Lucia White documented this philosophy in their historical survey of The Intellectual and the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright. And the beating goes on. In recent years, the case against the city has never been more elo­quently and persuasively advanced than by Edward Banfield in his work The Unheavenly City and Patrick Moynihan, among whose prolific writings one must choose “Maximum Infeasible Par­ticipation” as the most damaging to the need and validity of public action.

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Banfield lays the blame for city problems squarely on the poor. Moynihan, in theory and policy advice, is less certain — but he is clear that public action, government action cannot save the cities. Taken together, Banfleld’s proclamation that the condition of the poor is irretrievable, and Moynihan’s scorn of the efficacy of government in any field save foreign affairs have cast a pall over urban public policy that has immobilized thinkers for the past eight years.

But at bottom, even if bold new plans had been advanced from scholars’ studies and university centers, the likelihood of their suc­cessful adoption would have been small. For the twin consequences of the concentration of the poor, the black, and the brown in the central city and the simultaneous diminution of America’s prospects for continued growth and expan­sion rendered impractical the poli­tics on which urban policy was built in the 1960s.

The “old school politics” of America are essentially distribu­tive and majoritarian. That is, an administration in power assumes relatively fixed resources and shifts them among interest groups to achieve majority support. His­torically this amounts to a judicious (although not always just) balancing among farmers, businessmen, and labor. In the ’60s, stimulated by John Kennedy’s ca­pacity to ask new questions, a “new school politics” emerged — innovative rather than distributive and minority-oriented rather than majoritarian. Its practice was based on the circumstances of a vastly growing national income­ that one did not have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Therefore, when Lyndon Johnson simultaneously moved in 1964 to secure Kennedy’s long-sought tax cut and begin the Great Society, he was inviting new programs for the minorities —­ Model Cities, the War on Poverty, compensatory education — without taking away anything from the majority — distributive politics­ — health insurance, highways, heart-stroke, and cancer. So long as Vietnam was not overwhelming in its demand on the Treasury, the strategy was plausible, and indeed in New York City it was working. So what happened?

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The Nixon years. Indifferent both to cities and tax policies, faced with deficits he could not manage, resorting to impound­ments of funds appropriated for domestic programs — President Nixon almost unwittingly exposed the vulnerability of an innovative program that did little or nothing for the majority of urban resi­dents. For while Headstart, local clinics, and model neighborhoods began to give power and support to the urban minority, it left un­touched the needs of the urban majority. That failure proved crucial in New York City, in particu­lar, in Ocean Hills–Brownsville and the subsequent school controversies, in the bitter disputes in Forest Hills over new public housing that marred Lindsay’s last years, and in the housing abandonments that began in the outlying boroughs where the “working” Americans lived.

The rage that grew found its most fiscally damaging expression in the militant unionism and wild­cat strikes that have tormented the city administration. For the large­ly white and ethically oriented union membership in the fire, police, and sanitation departments are truly the backbone of the city. Throughout the last 10 years, the members perceived city program after program designed for the poor and the minorities and noth­ing in tangible support for Nixon’s “silent majority.” So new wage and salary demands appeared the only way to get a fair share of the urban purse.

Can we be generous to our ma­jority and innovative in our urban politics, and still save New York City and the day? I think the answer is yes. Here are four prop­ositions — two orthodox, two more radical, none especially accept­able these days.

First, adopt a national income and job program. Accept the fact that the needs of the poor are not a function of the place where they live. Enact a comprehensive federal income maintenance, job opportunity program, fund it nation­ally and stay with it nationally, so we support our citizens wherever they are.

Second, provide a special general purpose federal grant-in-aid to large cities over and above current revenue sharing. The cruel decep­tion of revenue sharing (heralded as it was, as returning money without strings to the grassroots,) was that it left the local governments with the obligation to con­tinue federal programs and the taxpayer with the belief that local taxes could be cut. Only in the richest suburbs could these goals be met. What central cities need is a dividend, as the Conference of Mayors suggested last summer, recognizing the special costs cities sustain given their densities and service requirements and the spe­cial needs of their poor.

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Third, undertake urban land reform. Henry George was by and large right when he ran for mayor of New York at the turn of the century on the single tax program. Taxing mostly improvements of land and not land itself enriches the speculator and never recap­tures the incremental value that city government investments and services bestow. By failing to acknowledge that government investments in roads, water and sewer lines, and community facilities are the prime determinates of land value, we lose the chance to make public investments self-sustaining. Instead our present local tax development and zoning policies often yield windfall profits to the banks and industries and still allow them the power to negotiate as to the conditions for public solvency in New York City.

Thus, a city location generates overwhelming advantages to particular private businesses — the home offices of giant corporations, communications, garment trades, specialty stores — through what economists call “external econo­mies of location.” But, simultaneously, each private economy is likely to generate public diseconomy of massive proportions. Example: build the World Trade Center towers, with real estate write-off, appropriate depreciations, and a high density of tenants and customers. A giant step forward for business. Calculate the demands on public transportation, public safety, and public health­ — and the city doesn’t need it.

So, on reflection, the basic mistake of urban renewal since E.B. White wrote in 1949, was that the city did not acquire the land it sponsored — at the tune of two­-thirds of cost. Instead, it sold it to private developers. If the city had leased and taxed on the basis of income received, New York’s municipal poverty might have been relieved by the midtown development and the hidden social benefits realized as well.

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Fourth, establish a metropolitan financial district. We should not rely on the complicated interac­tions of federal and state tax levies and subsequent grant distributions to local governments; to tap su­burban resources for central city needs. Indeed, theoretically admirable as the one-man-one-vote de­cision of the Supreme Court was, it replaced farmers with suburbanites in Congress and state legislatures, which then continued the anti-city voting tradition. A metro­politan financial district, ether building on the authority and powers of an existing metropolitan agency, or by interstate compact, could provide revenues appropriate to the services suburbanites receive and introduce at least an element of equalization among America’s 1400 or so separate ju­risdictions.

This district practice was estab­lished on a small scale when Long Island was transformed from farm to suburb 30 years ago. It could be applied more generally, and as a quid-pro-quo include a metropolitan council or assembly empowered to review the city’s own budget. Limited as such ar­rangements are compared to structures in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nashville-Jefferson County, Miami or Toronto, they would at least acknowledge the metropoli­tan interdependence in a fiscal sense.

One proposition or four, in whatever combination and whatever tone, the political lesson here is that at a time when resources are limited and tempers short, majority-innovative politics ought to be the rule of urban policy. If cities are to be saved and their critics confounded, the nation must be­come engaged. Regulation as a governmental device will need to take the place along side of subsidy in suburb as well as central city. Most of all we need to bring our most precious urban possession — ­land — back into the public domain where it was in colonial America. As a starter at any rate, for Manhattan, we all need a piece of the rock.

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Robert Wood is president of the University of Massachusetts and the author of “The Political Economy of the New York Metropolitan Region” (Harvard University Press, 1961).

 

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

What Ford’s Crucifixion of New York Will Mean

You can bet your sweet life the politicians will be the ones least affected. Even after the full brunt of Ford’s crucifixion of New York intrudes on the lives of all of us, the rhythms to which politicians dance will continue to play. In some Brooklyn clubhouse, a young Abe Beame will still kiss arses in order to get ahead. Somewhere in Manhattan, another John Lindsay will plot ways to come to the public’s attention with promises of new leadership and schemes for spending money we don’t have. Fixers like Pat Cunningham and Meade Esposito will still meet for lunch and launch little deals to make themselves a little richer. And them is which one. It will also be regular, will hang around hoping to do favors in return for a suck on the public tit. Default will change none of this.

Our lives will change, not theirs.

It won’t happen right away. Like the stock market crash of ’29, the event itself will cage massive headlines but the actual reper­cussions will be felt only gradually. Think of a tooth going bad. At first the pain is slight and sporadic. As it slowly worsens, you first try rubbing it, and when that fails you try keeping it away from any contact. And all the time the level of pain keeps mounting until you lie awake at night and dream of taking it between your fingers and ripping it out of your mouth. Which is about the time most people go to a dentist. Only there won’t be any dentist for the kind of pain default is going to bring. It will just go on, getting worse and worse until whatever losses leaving New York will entail begin to pale by com­parison to the kind of life staying here will require you to live.

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A lot will leave, just as many have left already. You can expect a big run on three-room apartments in Westchester and Jersey. Especially Jersey. For those who stay, default, and more specifically the second year, say, after default occurs, will warp our lives with days of mounting disappointments, the endless toothache of our years. All we ever really asked of the miserable sons of bitches who run this city is that they let us live our lives in peace. With default, they have stifled all hope for that one, pathetic plea.

Nobody knows for certain what the city will look like after de­fault’s slow squeezing process tias shifted into high gear. All one can do is give the outline and make some rough educated guesses. But the picture is going to be an ugly one.

There will be no such thing as an elected democratic government. That’s for sure. In fact, the process of changing over from elective government to dictatorship by executive fiat is practically complete already. Having spent much of October in California, I returned home one Sunday night recently to discover some peppery little weasel of a face on the eleven o’clock news explaining to a press conference what City Hall’s latest scheme avoid the inevitable was all about. I didn’t have the slightest idea who this runt was who was speaking for New York City. Nor do much care to find out. The important fact was he wasn’t Abe Beame. While I think Abe Beame has been a despicable mayor, I much crave is and how he got into power. The man on the TV screen stand-in for the faceless forces that have taken over. As I sat watching this nameless usurp­er I remember thinking, if it weren’t for his business suit this city would have all the trappings of a banana republic. So they don’t have very far to go before the takeover is complete.

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What will be interesting to watch is how they handle the touchy question of politics. For example, will some executive overseer de­cide along around January that a special presidential primary in April is no longer cost effective and order it suspended? After de­fault, it’s entirely possible that some outsider will have precisely that kind of power. It’s clear already that if they decide to, the board of overseers could order the legislature to revise the election calendar. After last month’s performance in Albany, they could order the whole.state legislature to jump oft a cliff and the only question our elected officials would ask them is which one. It will also be interesting to see whether our overseers allow New York to host the Democratic convention. Since the latest estimate of what that will cost the city is $3 million (it’s going to cost $5 million by next July, you wait), they may just decide to cancel the contracts. That’s the way junta generals function in a banana republic.

They will, in all likelihood, allow elections for mayor in 1977. By then the, process of gutting any semblance of real power from the office of mayor will have proceeded uninterrupted for three full years. The mayor’s job will be so meaningless it won’t matter to the overseers who winds up holding it. Conversely, anyone who bothers running for the job has got to be a moron. It’s not so much a question of whether or not they will hold the elections as whether anybody will bother to vote. Maybe they’ll make us vote just like they do in most functioning dictatorships.

But the important changes will come in the quality of life we, the community called New York City. Will be made to endure. What will the institutions that affect us most in our daily lives look like two years after the city defaults? Behold some of the “temporary inconveniences,” as our idiot pres­ident so inaccurately described them.

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Schools

Education is not an essential service according to the Presi­dent’s men in Washington, and when the overseers get through with our education system, it isn’t going to be an essential service to kids or parents either. Nobody knows for certain what the class sizes are like this fall. Al Shanker­ has been soft-pedaling the violations of his contract because his only other option is to strike again. Al doesn’t want another strike. But current class sizes are going to look heavenly compared to what awaits us a couple of years down the road. Classrooms with 40, 50, maybe 60 kids per teacher will become the norm. The schools will be stripped of security guards, and if your child, isn’t brilliant enough to make one of the special high schools, the only thing he or she will learn in 12 years of public education is the finer aspects of self-defense. High school graduates who can read and write will become so scarce, the paper will do a feature piece every time they find one.

We have to assume that everyone who can afford a private school already has his or her kid enrolled in one. The next step is for parents who can’t afford five grand extra for private schooling to form their own cooperative schools. Middle-class parents still fanatic over the need of their children to know how to read and write will start taking off half days to teach the kids themselves. After decades of 110 Livingston Street, we’re heading back to the one-room schoolhouse with a dozen kids of different ages. Slowly these ad hoc efforts will develop into a more formal relationship. The parents will rent storefronts and hire a teacher. There will be a lot of unemployed teachers around. The poor and the working-class kids will have no choice but to attend public schools, however. Scratch the old notion of a free public education so anyone can rise above his humble origins. It’s just too costly.

Welfare 

They won’t abolish welfare because of a legal technicality: federal law prohibits it. But they could decide to do away with Home Relief. That’s the part of welfare the federal government doesn’t support. The costs are split 50/50 by the city and state, and 145,000 people — mostly older people not yet eligible for Social Security — are in this category. So are jun­kies, the unemployable, ex-cons — in short, the rock throwers. Cutting Home Relief would save the city $86.3 million a year. Such a cut would be mirrored by an increase in crime, notably street assaults, since this is the only type of crime the underclass is capable of carry­ing out. As for the old people, you can look for a big run on cat food and a weekly report by the Health Department on the number of deaths due to starvation.

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Crime 

It’s so obscene you almost want to snicker. No, they probably won’t cut the police force, not substan­tially at least. That might produce some real savings. Instead, the overseers will order across-the­-board budget reductions, and whatever slim chance a criminal has of being prosecuted in this city will go right out the window. It’s happening already. The Manhat­tan D.A.’s office had a federally funded “major felonies program” whose cost to the city was supposed to start picking up this year. The program guaranteed that a major felony crime would receive special attention in the D.A.’s office and not be allowed to slip away like your ordinary run-of-the-mill felony. Now the program is scheduled for termination because the city doesn’t have the dough. No doubt the overseers will rail as mightily against crime as our poli­ticians do now. That doesn’t cost any money.

One cop to a police car is also in the cards. The cops will get more timid than they already are and more of them will die. More citi­zens, too.

Transportation

Right now it’s a footrace be­tween those who want to cut trans­portation completely and the riding public, who are more and more turning to private transportation because the subways and buses aren’t safe. After default the budget cutters will take a decisive lead. They won’t close the system entirely. Just shut it down after 8p.m. like they do in San Francisco. They’ll stretch out the night bus service so no one will bother using it and then turn around and say, “See, no one wants it.” End of night bus service. Not that all that many people will be affected. By the time night service is terminat­ed there won be all that much to do downtown, and it will be worth your life to go there, what with all the cops driving around in their cars looking to stay alive. Give it five years, and the city won’t have any night life to speak of. This should make the people of Staten Island happy since they won’t have any night ferry service by then. There’s already talk about cutting it, and the big slash in the ferry budget hasn’t even been made yet.

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Sanitation 

If you want your garbage picked up, you’ll have to do it yourself. But not right away. Like transpor­tation and education, garbage collection will go gradually, merely escalating an already existing trend. First they reduce collections to twice a week, then three times every two weeks. To the point where huge mounds of gar­bage become commonplace, the way filth in the streets became commonplace five years ago. Around then, block associations in the better neighborhoods will start making arrangements with private carters. For five bucks a week per person the garbage gets picked up. By then, of course, the block associations will also be responsible for street safety (already a reality on parts of the West Side) and education of the kids. Block associations are going to be very prominent in people’s lives as the city government gra­dually collapses. It’s called “Balkanization of the City.”

Commerce

To knock out a boxer you kill the body. To knock out a city you strangle its money supply. That’s how they, the rest of the country, will destroy us. With luck, our banks may avoid total collapse. But the money they will have tied up in defaulted New York City notes will no longer be available to city businesses. Two people decide to open a restaurant. They put together some cash, go to their local bank, fill out the forms, and, then wait. A pleasant bank manager will finally call them in and say, “Your loan has been approved. Come back in two years, and we’ll give you the money.” The same type of thing will happen to people who want to buy homes or expand their businesses. Whatever is left of the home construction industry will shrivel up and die. Companies looking to expand their market will do so in Omaha. You don’t have to be a life-long friend of bankers to see where this trend will lead. Just visit Detroit any night after 5 p.m. It’s a ghost town. Open restaurants are like the old tollhouse back in the 1800s, one every 10 miles or so. No gas stations open. No theaters. No tourists. Just prostitutes and porno houses and a lot of empty streets.

And empty office buildings. If you think a lot of companies are moving out of New York now, wait until two years after default. The highways will look like they did in France after Paris fell to the Nazis. Already companies can’t get their best executives to move to the company headquarters in New York. Wait until the ones who are here start to quit rather than continue living in town. Watch the TV networks. When they leave, the advertising people will leave with them. And once the ad people go, the rest of the communications industry will have no choice.

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Rent Control

If you don’t see any connection between the city default and the end of rent control, look again. Better yet, take a look at the lead editorial in Barron’s last week. Actually there is no connection, but the real estate people know a golden opportunity when they see one. The argument goes something like this: we have all this abandoned housing not paying any real estate taxes because the city has rent control. Take away controls and you not only get more taxes but you save on the salaries of the people who were hired to enforce the rent control laws. The argument is spurious, but that’s never stopped the real estate peo­ple in the past. The only thing that has is the politicians knowing that if they ever voted to do away with rent control entirely, the public would lynch them. But a board of overseers is not subject to such primitive persuasions. So all they have to do is wear us down.

And that they can do. If anyone had tried upping the fare to 50 cents last January they would have been booed off the stage. But a nine-month steady diet of crisis stories so blunted the public’s will that when the fare raise finally came hardly anyone bothered to protest. The same type of process is taking place with tax increases. By next month Carey will be calling for new taxes and passing them with a minimum of opposition only because the public is too weary to seriously object. Given time, the same techniques will work with rent control. The same kind of logic will also collapse the housing code. Don’t enforce it and not only can you cut back on housing inspectors, you can also clear court calendars of all those messy housing cases, which in turn allows for the laying off of more judges and court personnel.

City Construction Program 

Forget it, there won’t be one. It’s hard to imagine what use the overseers will come up with for a school or a firehouse that is only 70 per cent constructed, so the chances are such structures will just stand vacant and uncompleted. It will give the kids a place to play, which they will need because we’re going to have an awful lot of closed parks. While these buildings slowly mold into sad eyesores, the real devastation will come in that part of the city’s construction pro­gram designed to bring in new industries or save old ones. According to the Times, there are already 11 construction programs endangered by the present cut­backs. After default, not only these but any other construction pro­gram in the city will be halted. Just another way to sap New York’s vitality. You halt pier construc­tion, and the boats go to Boston or Philadelphia or Jersey. You squelch plans for an industrial park, and the industries that were thinking of locating there go some­where else like Atlanta or Houston, and 500 more people line up for un­employment.

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Museums, Libraries, and Parks

Do I have to say it? Culture has never been high on anyone’s list of necessities, even less so on a list made up by the Babbitts that run this world. The only reason the rich have contributed in the past to the extent they have was because of the tax write-off benefits. Since there will be no shortage of write-offs after the city defaults (Beame and Carey notwithstanding, the rich hold most of the city’s notes), we will get an accurate picture of just how much culture means to our ruling class. As for that part of the city’s budget that supports our museums, etc., forget it. They’ll close the Coney Island Aquarium, the Hall of Science, and the Muse­um of the City of New York outright, since these are almost totally supported by the city. To the extent that the other institutions — ­the libraries, the Metropolitan, Mu­seum of Art, the Bronx Botanical Garden — are dependent on city funds, their programs will be cur­tailed. A little change in the law and you’ll see them starting to charge for the use of libraries. Of course, if you don’t have a buck to rent a book, they will probably let you read it for nothing between the hours of two and five on alternate Tuesdays.

Miscellaneous Services

It’s hard to get specific here but only because it’s difficult to know what services haven’t been cut already. An editor at The Voice told me last week to check and see what would happen to school crossing guards once the city defaults. Nothing will happen to them because they were all chopped last month in an earlier wave of cut­backs. The same could be true, and certainly would be true, of day­care centers, senior citizens pro­grams, street repair, sewer construction and maintenance. Right now, whenever the city experi­ences heavy rains, whole sections of Staten Island and Queens flood out. Default will bring a certain amount of equality to this phenom­enon. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere up in Albany there’s a bureaucrat laying out plans for the scrapping of the Medicaid pro­gram, and a few years from now it will be considered normal for city hospitals, the ones that are left open, to practice triage.

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But the saddest part of this story is the fact that none of it ever had to have happened. With just a minimum of leadership the morons that have run this town for the last 20 years, New York could have prospered. But they were too busy. Too busy making accommodation to the civil service union leaders, who were part of their team rather than their adversaries. Too busy making deals with the real estate people so the tax rates on downtown building were septs artificially low. Too busy throwing up 110-story tributes to their own warped sense of destiny. Too busy making speeches about how much they were going to do for us next year, after we reelected them, to bother doing anything right then and there to stop the city from slipping through their fingers.

Even now, good leadership could pull us through. Instead of calling for demonstrations in the street, which won’t change a goddamn thing, we could start fighting the people in Washington who are indeed kicking us in the groin. We have lots of government buildings in this city. We could take them over. We pay an awful lot of taxes to the federal government, we could stop it. If our governor and mayor let us, we could shut down the goddamn government in this town. They have a lot of gold down in the Federal Reserve Bank on Pine Street. We could take it and hold it. Ring the place with New York City cops and let the courts sort the mess out for the next five years or so. We could go over to Brooklyn and grab one of their goddamn precious aircraft carriers, tow it out into the harbor, and pull the stinking plug on it. Then maybe they’d start to negotiate with us. Right now there’s no negotiations. We’re just on our knees begging. And like any beggar, the best we can expect is a dime toward a 25 cent cup of coffee.

Instead of sending busloads of people to Washington we should send busloads up to Pocantico Hills and sit in with some style.

But none of that is going to happen because the leaders we have are the reason we’re in such a sad and sorry shape. The notion of Abe Beame taking on the bankers is ridiculous. Abe Beame is nothing more than a bank employee on temporary leave. The notion that Hugh Carey would take on Rockefeller is absurd. Carey would love to do nothing more than build another Albany Mall in Brooklyn. He just doesn’t have the chutzpah to do it. And the supposition that the rest of the country is going to come to the aid of the city is the biggest joke of all. Ford knows this. They hate New York precisely because we have always been the capital city, like London or Paris or Rome. Live in Chicago awhile, and you’ll see how much the idea that they are the “the second city” preys on that city’s mind. They hate New York because they know that even if we sink into chaos, Chicago will always be a second city.

What Carey and Beame have done is to couch the whole discussion of the city’s fiscal plight in a set of absurdist distortions. Going to one of their press conferences (when they let Beame hold a press conference) is a little like attending a Genet play. The joke is not in the play, it’s in the audience. Yet these are the leaders we have chosen. Perhaps what is about to happen to our city is the retribution we must pay for electing these people to public office year after year. I don’t know. What I do know is that now is the time to look closely at whatever grandeur there remains in New York. For soon enough it will pass away.