Inside George Carlin’s Head

HOLLYWOOD — Energy spills out. George dressed all in blue, his thin blue frame moving, jerking, limping, dancing, slurching — George being an ant —slurching along a sidewalk — eyes crossing, hair splayed out all into the wind, hands moving, smoothing the hair back, smoothing the hair back, always smoothing the hair back — the grossest of crossed eyes like ­some satanic yogi master, eyes all crossed looking at the third eye — up toward the secret of the golden flower — gold records — millions of them selling all across the country — five records in the last four years and every one of them gone to gold.

George Carlin at the Roxy, now slinking like a cat — cat colliding with a big glass door — cat recoiling, straightening — cat trying to ­keep its cool — look like he really MEANT to do that — proud cat — saving face — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” —  screams George — “FUCKIN’ MEOW!” Funny as hell — the audience is roaring. Funny? Why is that so funny? Goddammit, that’s what we all want to scream out every time we’re trying to keep it together and we fuck up, blow it and can’t show it, can’t let on — have to keep on keepin’ on — George up there saying it for us: “FUCKIN’ ME — that’s ME. Me hurtin’ — ow! ow! ow!” Thank you. George — the guy in the front row laughing — just knocked over his martini glass — the girl with the blonde hair in hysterics — collapsing on the stage.

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George Carlin is funny. He’s really very funny. George being a kid, George being a dog, George being the guy by the watercooler with freshly picked snot on his fingers and the boss just comes along — tryin’ to hide the snot­ — shake it off — get rid of it — whaddya do? “Can’t wipe it on the walls­ — and the furniture is full” — “I say — PUT IT BACK!” (Pause while the audience takes that in — ­howls — squeals) — ” Jacques Cous­teau tags ’em and puts ’em back!”

We’ve met before. That was George’s starting point. How are you doing? he asked the audience at the Roxy, throwing the respon­sibility for our reactions right on us. Are we going to be a good audience tonight? Will our section win? Will we be a credit to our row? — So we’re laughing al­ready — we’re on stage, too. There. Right there. We are IN this show.

Funny. I sat in a crowded room of people — mostly young — but not the campus crowd, more a Hol­lywood Scene — and they laughed their heads off. I sat through two shows. The first one I was down there in the ranks and everyone was laughing except the critic for the L. A. Times who thinks he’s supposed to be critical so he was miserable and downed four double brandies and his girlfriend was miserable too because she really wanted to be laughing and she’d start to and then she’d glance over at him and stop herself so as not to appear to be such an asshole as to laugh at something that wasn’t funny enough to suit her date.

George Carlin running down all the places we’ve met before. “Stoned in the supermarket — you smoke eight joints and bring $200 — frozen-food aisle — God it’s cold!­ — uh — honey — I’ll be over by the bar­becued chickens — get the Rocky Road ice cream — see you later­ — Dropping stuff back after you’ve got six carts linked together and you know you’ve gone too far — va­nilla extract in with the Brillo — the ham goes back with the frozen waffles — liverwurst slices — half of them are gone now — tucked in behind the please don’t squeeze the Charmin — don’t worry honey­ — they have these little men with purple fingers who come around at midnight and straighten it all out.”

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“We’ve met in the cookie section —  in any head neighborhood — looks like a WAR ZONE — half the packages are open! — and all the GOOD cookies are gone! — where are the Mallomars? — the Mallo­mars never even make it to the store, man — people are lining up outside at the truck!”

We’ve met on the radio dial (“down towards the hopelessness of 540 — why do they stop there?­ — what kind of great stuff are they keepin’ from us down at 310?”), in the classroom (“Farts — farts are great — kids love ’em — look at it this way — a fart is just a shit without the mess!”), tripping on sidewalks, on the Monopoly Board, comparing dogs: “Animals: — the new people from the church have dropped by for a spot of tea and there’s the dog in the corner and he’s LICKIN’ HIS BALLS! And what’s even more amazing: NO ONE LOOKS AT HIM! There’s this perfectly spectacular thing going on in one corner of the room and no one says a word! If I could do that myself, I’d never leave the house!”

We’ve met before, he says, and he draws everybody in. He really does, me too. I’m laughing my head off. But when I go to talk to him — that’s different.

I have a theory about why George Carlin is funny. It has to do with words. Kids and words. We’re sitting in Little David Records, in the back room, and George has his feet propped up on the big round table and he’s smoking and drink­ing Heinekens and club soda (se­parately — he’s alternating) and he’s not saying anything. He says there’s nothing to talk about any­way since I haven’t seen his show yet.

I say well yes but I’ve listened to his albums — I even designed one once — the “Class Clown” album. Doesn’t matter, he says — doesn’t count for anything — ya hafta see the show.

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So I launch into my Pet Theory Number One on what makes things funny. I came up with this about a year ago one time when I was stoned. It was important to me at the time because I am hardly ever stoned, so it took on great significance (hold on — I’ll get to it in a minute), but later, thinking about it, it occurred to me that George is about 39 now and he’s been stoned continually from the time he was 16 (except recently — that’s the main news about George Carlin, folks — George Carlin has cut out coke and he’s HARDLY EVER STONED!) — so he must be having these great significant revelations CONTINUALLY — and in fact, lis­ten to his records, he sure is.

“Nixon is the perfect symbol for the country — looks like he hasn’t taken a shit in a month — he’s just not a regular guy — every four years he gets the runs — ‘Look! He’s running again.’ ”

“Getting high on the plane — they always tell you — ‘please get ON the plane’ — ‘Fuck you,’ I tell them — I’m getting IN the plane — ­let the DAREDEVILS get ON the plane.”

Well, my weird idea about words: When I was stoned I sud­denly saw this magic plane I used to go to all the time when I was very little, before I learned to talk. A fantasy place — a great spot — full of alleyways with pink and purple trees, high white blossoms, shapes all changing. I went there every night, walked down the street, checked out the new buds on all the branches. Great place. And I had buried it for all these years.

Then I saw picture diction­aries — first the word written out, then the picture, then, tagged to every word, a FEELING that I had about the word, and a kind of COLOR that went with it! Eerie. Every word I ever learned was there, all tagged and colored. Then I was in New Rochelle Public Library, staring up at the stacks on the mezzanine. Staring up the way I used to when I was just a little kid. And I knew that those white stacks with the dark alleyways between them looked to me like the radiators in my house — the high white pipes and the dark dark spaces, scary spaces, in between them. The spaces, and the pipes repeating and receding when I looked down them from one end.

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Then I saw that every word I had ever learned repeated and receded like the radiators, like the stacks. That every word I ever learned was surrounded by auras, feelings, colors — echoes of the hundred thousand times I ever had made contact with that experience before it boiled down into one dinky, distillate, poor-excuse-for-the-re­al-experience WORD.

And then I felt, knew, experi­enced, that the worst trauma in the world for me as a kid hadn’t been being weaned from the breast, or being rejected by my father — or whatever they say on psychiatrists couches years later — the real trau­ma was having to learn WORDS, having to come up with the right WORDS for everything.

And more than that: SANITY was coming up with the right word. Anything that had no words for it was (bad, naughty, unresponsive, irresponsible, antisocial, immoral, and) INSANE. That’s why I buried my magic secret nighttime gar­den: there were no words for it. It was “crazy” and it had to go.

So here I am making an asshole of myself running on to George Carlin who God knows is a busy man — 10 shows at the Roxy this week, plus shows with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, a Perry Como special, prison benefit at San Quentin on the weekend, one film­making session coming up on Fri­day, and four days of shooting for a Mac Davis special coming up next week — then off on tour — and here I am.

I push on — the thing is, I tell George — the reason kids like word jokes so much — the reason they think it’s so hysterically funny when you point to a cup and say “tree” or point to a car and say “potato” — is that it’s a relief from the trauma of having to get the words all right — it kind of makes a little space for kids to get back to that great live conscious BEING place where they were when they were still preverbal.

Stop. End of Theory Number One. Look up. This man must think I’m nuts. Where’s he at, I wonder. I look at him across the table.

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George Carlin looks like Christ in my “Bible Stories for Children” ­book that I used to sneak peeks at when I was supposed to be going to Ethical Culture Sunday School and singing songs by Pete Seeger and being a rationalist. Carlin also reminds me of somebody in my second-grade class — a class-clown type — maybe it was Pete McSweeney — but anyway there were a lot of Irish and Italian Catholic kids on my block and I used to walk home with the girls and memorize their catechisms and wish I had a white organdy dress like they had to wear to Confirmation. Where I grew up, the Catholics weren’t simply win­ning — they had WON. In fact the only distinction of any meaning was between the Irish Catholics, who had mothers who were thin, and the Italian Catholics, who had mothers who were fat. My mother was thin, and only a little Jewish, and I did NOT FIT IN.

And we all knew it.

And now here I am and there’s George Carlin and I feel like­ — THERE’S A PROBLEM. Not only because he looks like Christ on my secret book, but because — I feel like he is Of-the-People, By-the-People, and For-the-People — and I know that even though he may secretly find me in the dark when we play Spin-the-Bottle at my birthday party, out on the playground. when we’re choosing sides for baseball, he’s going to pick me LAST.

So I look up. “Yeah,” says George about my word theory. “Yeah” — (he’s almost smiling) — “Yeah — that’s really good. That bit about words being the real trauma — that was really fun.” He does a bit about kids, he says­ — another about words — and there’s a piece about kids’ words — I’ll see that in his show, he says — It’ll answer all my questions.

But I have one more question — I ask him whether he’s consciously worked out any theories about why all this is funny.

No, he says — it’s just INSTINCT — something he’s al­ways known — something that just occurs — “Because the creative child in me is — very active — and really rules the roost — and the three qualities that go into creativity you know — or spontaneity — are three qualities that are present in CHILDHOOD — the most creative state — they are INNOCENCE, CURIOSITY, and ENERGY.”

Most people, when they have a little faint stirring of the “creative child state” — they bury it — they’re afraid of it.

“Right,” says George. “They fear the child.”

And then I said “Okay — you’re excused from class,” and then he grinned (for the first time) and said “Oh Wow, Golly! I get to go home early!” and then he gave me a nice little kiss (like Pete Mcsweeney used to do in Spin-the-Bottle) and said “Thanks for the Good Vibrations” and I was on my way.

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Funny — he wasn’t even funny. Not in person. That is — not with me. And he isn’t funny talking with me that night either, talking be­tween shows. He’s straight, serious, full of “answers-to-test-­questions type analysis.” But then in walk the executives from Little David records — Monty Kay, Jack Lewis, Burt, and Ben — and the whole scene changes. “Hey it’s da first team!” calls out George, coming on mannish-clannish macho. “The fuckin’ Regulars — da varsity squad is here!”

Right — I knew it — he’s picking them for baseball. Where’s he coming from? I go back and listen to his records:

“I grew up in a little Irish neighborhood, right next to Har­lem. On one side, Columbia and everything connected with Columbia — Juilliard, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Riverside Church, St. Luke’s Hospital, St. John the Di­vine — all that stuff on one side — one the ether side” (long pregnant pause — mean deep voice) “HARLEM. We used to call our­selves ‘White Harlem’ — sounded BAD you know; ‘Hey man, where you live?’ — ‘White Harlem’ — oh! — sounded so FAGGY — to us anyway — Faggy had nothing to do with sex — a fag was a sissy — a fag was a guy who wouldn’t stay out late of go stealin’ or hitchin’ on trucks or something — ‘Aw go home, you fag — go home, fag — it’s 10 o’clock — the big fag’s gotta go home!”

“Queer — we knew what a queer was — a queer was the word we learned right after we learned ‘homo’ — ‘Ah — he’s a queer! — he’s a HOMO — yeah, yeah!” — A FAG was a guy who wouldn’t go downtown with you beaten’ up queehs! —part of that Irish Street Macho.”

Irish Street Macho — so that’s it — George simply doesn’t relate to women the way he relates to men — and he isn’t funny with women because he doesn’t have to be.

“Bein’ funny on the street. It was good to be funny on the street, especially if you weren’t one of those big fighter dudes and you were tired of running — it was good to be funny — would save you from an ass-kicking if some guy from another neighborhood came around — who’s gonna kick a guy who’s making cross eyes and screwin’ up his mug and going GAURRGHHH!!!? — ‘Lay off him, Charlie — don’t touch that one — it’s bad luck to hit a guy like that.’ ”

Girls — that is, women: girls and nuns and mothers — girls are not gonna kick you in the ass down on the street so GIRLS ARE NOT THE PROBLEM! You do not have to be funny when you talk to girls! (And he can’t think of any other way to be with them either, except kind of nice and POLITE, so the conversation kind of FALTERS — ­which it certainly did with us.)

Actually I did all the talking, and then I said ‘Okay — you’re excused from class — you can go home early,’ and he said ‘Oh wow golly,’ and that was right because he was being like a good little boy come to take the test (“all interviews are like tests,” says George) and I was being like a teacher/nun.

First it’s just that put-down feeling — and then it’s the typical Jew­ish psych-the-whole-thing-out ap­proach. Well, the man’s had a tough time of it keepin’ up the Irish Macho business — doesn’t deal with women anyway — they’re not on his album either — everything else is there — cats, dogs, farts, football vs. baseball, news, weather, dirty words, masturbation — he does try on that one to take the woman’s view — but it just doesn’t have that authoritative ring — the albums have an almost VIRGINAL quali­ty even when he gets into what he calls the “more gushy areas of universality” he doesn’t tread on SEX — when I him how his sex life with his wife was, he just said “fine” — kept it private — not that he should do anything else — it’s just that there’s been very little that he HAS kept private — his stock-in-trade is to talk about all the things people never talk about — all the forbidden subjects — so why not this one? but no — I sense it — this one is off limits.

But these thoughts all come later. Right now it’s Wednesday night, and I’m out there in my row at the Roxy, laughing like crazy, and George has gotten into his kid thing just like he said he would­ and h0w he’s getting into his words thing.

“Words are great — in the beginning was the word — GOD got to choose the first one and he got the best one — they had words — ‘my word’ — word for word’ — word contradictions: ‘jumbo shrimp;­ well, which is it for God’s sake?­ — let them make up their minds!­ — smithereens — why is it always talked about in plurals? — ‘Hey Johnny — look! Just found that smithereen left over from last year’s explosion!” — dirty words — finding the middle ground — somewhere  between ‘bloomer’ and ‘cuntlapper’ — the FUCK — substituting the fuck for the word kill  —’ to fuck a mockingbird’ ” (George makes an obscene gesture — grinds his groin (“where does my groin end and my loin begin?”) and stretches out his hands — to fuck a mockingbird — hold gently by the wings.’ ”

Words. So George is running through all this and now he’s kind of wriggling and talking about this kind of shaking that happens to you when you take a piss — “what does that mean? — TAKE a piss? you don’t TAKE a piss — you leave one” and he’s saying “What is that? — that shaking? — There’s n0 WORD for it — I call it the PISS QUIVERS” and suddenly I hear him saying, “Kids really like word jokes because they’re so hassled  learning words.”

Hey! How ’bout that! So George was really listening to my Pet Theory Number One! — and I suddenly get a glimpse into where George gets all his stuff — he gets it everywhere — anywhere — all day long!

I check out Carlin in “I Ching” and it comes up with a hexagram called INFLUENCE WOOING — and I realized that the word influence (in—fluence) literally means “a flowing in” — and in Chinese the  hexagram mean “general,” “universal,” and also stimulating” — thus conjuring up a picture of an individual being open to currents from all sides, being stimulated by them, and stimulating them in his turn.

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And it seemed to me that George was very much like that: he is open to every twist, weirdness, irony, surprise, delight — when I talked to him between the shows again, a bit of that exchange had been incorporated by the second show! If so, if he does that with me, he must do that with everyone, continually. Everything get worked in, a constant process, like the building of a shell.

“I noticed you worked in that thing about kids learning words.”

“Oh yeah.” George looks pleased, grinning. “Yeah, I’ve already started to work that in.”

Backstage at halftime — George sitting very quiet at an old oak desk, sitting in an old oak chair­ — like school. Heineken’s again. Club soda with a red straw. A lemon.

Interviews: George Carlin re­minds me of Joni Mitchell — who says all he has to say is in his work — there isn’t anything else to say — the rest is mainly filling up the spaces — showing up for the blue book and then saying­  — what? — well — not NOTHING — but saying all that left-brained, logi­cal, after-the-fact type stuff­ — polite analysis to satisfy the questioners — theories and reasons.

He wears blue because it’s like Mime, because he’s striving for “stark contrasts, stark emotions, classicism.” His work is new all the time (although he’s always using “old” material) because he changes the “order, the intonation, the choice of words, the look you give after you say it — you must have the feeling you’re kind of thinking of it for the first time — so you remember the JOY of thinking of that joke — that way you can say it again like it’s half — half not SPONTANEOUS or NEW — but just — half SURPRISE — you know — you have to feel the AWE!”

Does he ever worry about run­ning out of funny things to talk about?

“No — not really — I’m getting into other forms — I’m getting into creating on the typewriter, too­ — and through film — but rapping — it always will sustain me — I wouldn’t want to chase the same goal all the time for the next 20 years — but I’ll alway be able to do some rap­ping.”

Right now, what turns George on is: he’s getting into film — “Everybody has a path — I’m get­ting to another level. It’s just not out there on the table yet to show everyone, but we’re filming here Friday night, for instance, to have the basis for a lilm — It’s something — ­you don’t really want to talk about a lot, cause it’s just an embryo­ — but it’s a very healthy one.”

No doubt it is. Reports vary, but George is estimated to be raking in anywhere between $300,000 and $1 million a year these days. But he can’t stay on the college circuit forever — he’s surfacing — that’s why he’s playing at the Roxy this week, even though the money isn’t anything like what he’d be making in a bigger hall. “I want to reach these people — the Hollywood In­dustry people — I’m a kind of secret success to them. They know I’m doing well, but they don’t really know what I do.”

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I point out that he seemed to do less playing with the audience than he used to do two or three years ago.

“Well there was a real need to establish that in myself then — that moment-to-moment, let’s look at the event — heehee — you and I are here — and I’ve done a lot of that­ — I’ve felt those feelings — and I’ve established that kind of feeling about myself — so those things fade — they come and go. As they’re needed — This is all such a basic — psychological trip — you know — like that word is really good in terms of the process because you’re really just telling — you’re doing analysis up there, of sorts. You can’t help that-the things that are most significant about you are bound to surface — without your  even knowing it — or WITH your knowing it — whatever …

“So you go through stages just as you do in your own thinking — in your little fears — your experiments — all the various things that make up people — you know — happen there too as you develop your career — you grow — and grow up, you know. I’m kind of reaching young manhood again now for the second time — for four or five years now I’ve been acting out my adolescence in public — in terms of almost everything that applies to that part of your life: dress, and irreverence, and language, and drug experimentation — and alienation — and now that’s kind of rounding out in me.”

I ask him — George — what is the payoff?

“The payoff,” he said — “was getting people to stop for 10 minutes on the street corner and just PAY ATTENTION. Power — power to get the fuckers to stop and HEAR ME, HEAR ME FOR CHRISSAKES HEAR ME!”

And so he did it — did it as a kid — does it — does it far longer and longer periods of time — more and more people — worked it to perfection — well, not quite perfection — ­and that explains what he was saying in the break between the shows.

“It’s really funny— wanting to do those extra 30 minutes” (he had to cut the show down at the Roxy, to fit in two performances in one night) — I feel like — gee — you ought to know about my neighborhood — I got some really nice stuff on that that’s a lot like this other thing — you’d really like it — I got this rap on death — lexicon on death and violence — ‘that kills me,’ ‘that slays me,’ ‘that wipes me out’-nice stuff-missed that­ — couldn’t fit it in.” That bothered him — can’t say it ALL.

And what if he DID?

Power — PROOF — the money’s nice, he says. The life-style’s nice — being popular is nice — that’s getting closer to it — yes, he likes that — but the best part — the ATTENTION. “They’re all listen­ing to me! Wow.”

But how does he DO that! What is he selling that we pay so much attention?

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George Carlin is funny. Congenitally, genetically funny. He’s got these harty-har-har chromosomes and genes. Then there’s environment, too — lots of Irish Catholic Macho street kids learned to be FUNNY not to get their asses kicked in when some big tough fighter dude from the next block’s gang came sauntering down the avenue — but Carlin’s FUNNIER THAN THAT. Carlin is TRANSLUCENTLY funny.

Nouns and verbs and participles and arms and legs all dangling, gerundives, possessives, mostly subjunctives — what if? — and subjectives — MY story — MY street — MY class — Corpus Christi — Sister Marie Richard — my best masturbation stories that I traded with my old pal Bill — statements — periods — ­long periods of waiting, chewing, digesting, puking, processing, wasting away, the shitty parts, the pissed-off places, the stopping and the belching, farting away the time of day, the night, caffeine in his blood, caffeine, coke, grass, speed, beer, caffeine in the skin, the bones, the arteries, humor in another vein — no bones about it­ — the starting IS the stopping.

Translucent: the whole process is revealed. Translucent. That’s what it is — He’s crawled inside his own body, his brain — he’s let us see it — see the insides — see the blood swishing, turning — the snot running, the shit, the farts, the balls, the cock, the eyes, the brain — and once in a while — maybe — more and more — once in a while — the heart.

He gets high and we get high. Trippy, tripping — but mostly it’s that he sees right through himself. (“Hey! They’re all listening to me! Wow!”) and we see right through him. George Carlin seen as a pane of glass — set against the black background of general world TOTAL CHAOS. He becomes a mirror — and we see ourselves.

We look pretty funny too, God-dammit.

Cracks us up. ❖

1976 Village Voice profile of George Carlin

Best of Spring CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Sylvester Stallone Story: ‘Rocky’ KOs Movie Biz


We are very tight on the sensual face of a young man. His mouth alternately curls, sneers, pulls tight in a grin as he talks. His dark eyes glitter, go distant in repose, grow old as tombs in the young face. Sometimes the face freezes, as if poised for sex or perjury. This is our hero, SYLVESTER STALLONE, called “SLY” by his friends. He is an actor. He is a writer. He has just finished starring in an extraordinary prizefight film called Rocky, which he has written for himself. The film will open in New York on November 21. Preview audiences have been ecstatic. They say he will win the Academy Award.

STALLONE: Yeah, Rocky. I wanted it to be real, but I also wanted to take it beyond just realism. To add fantasy. In real life, the climactic fight between Rocky and the champion probably would not have gone on that long. I mean, they were both basket cases. But for dramatic purposes, I wanted to make it an actual physical poem in a sense; there is a meter, a rhythm, It’s like a Mother Goose tale written in concrete.


The camera pulls back to reveal Stallone sitting over a lunch of vegetables: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes. His neck is thick. He has the developed chest and upper arms of a weight lifter, which he is. He doesn’t smoke.

STALLONE: That’s where I see the drive of my writing. I want to bring forth these toys. I want to give people those visions they had when they were younger and everything seemed more playful and they were all more vulnerable. The All-American thing. Why not? I grew up rooting for the Dodgers, and it was great: The music was great, the food was great, everything was fine. They may be false images and idols, but I want to drag them back to the foreground because without a sense of optimism, without a sense of a positive future, it’s just …


Stallone continues to talk as we see brief glimpses, of him growing up with his family and friends. The early years are in Hell’s Kitchen. Then a move to Silver Springs, Maryland, where his parents open a gymnasium, then to a dreary section of Philadelphia. The parents bicker. There are cuts of young Sylvester in a variety of foster homes. The parents divorce when he is 11. Children laugh at young Sylvester, because he so thin he even develops rickets. He becomes a solitary, lifting weights to build up the spindly body and providing himself a private form of meditation. At 16, he has been kicked out of 14 schools; his father becomes rich, owner of a chain of beauty shops. His mother is still around. Stallone watches his friends and sees their lives start to settle.

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STALLONE: They just said to themselves, you know I’m 22 years old, and I’m gonna get married to some girl named Dollie Mud and retire at Takawana Street and live under the bridge and smell fish for the rest of my life. It just inflamed me that people could start preparing their spiritual coffins at such a tender age. I didn’t want to go that route in my life or in Rocky. You have to try. That’s what Rocky does. It’s his golden shot and he’s gonna take it. It took me a long time to shed my heavy pessimism. I carried it around like a banner for years. I was so goddamned defensive because people had always con­sidered me a rather muscular mono-minded greasy-teeshirt slimy-type neighborhood guinea. One thing was true: I had always worked on the physical aspect because I figured that my body was just a device to carry my brain around, but if I’m going to walk around, I’d like to have some nice equipment. That’s all. But some people figured right away that the larger your arm gets the more diminished your mind. I hope I’ve put some chips in that myth. [He noshes cucumbers and sips from iced tea.] Kids didn’t articulate it that much. I mean, they’d just say things like, ‘Ooohhh, here comes the tough guy. Please don’t hit me, please’ — and I’d just be walking into a room. The teachers would be part of it. They would say, ‘Okay, today we are having a fire drill. Everyone goes out and Stallone, you hold the door.’ During recess, I was the guy who carried the equipment out. That type … I only lived a year in Philly. I worked for a pizza company there, living with my parents, who were, I think, trying to perfect the art of estrangement. Every other day they were on the move. They’d check out and then come back, and I’d wander around Philly.

Stallone looks out the window into the sunlight. We are on the lot at M-G-M in Culver City. Technicians, and extras walk by in the hazy, polluted sunlight. Stallone’s brown eyes go soft with memory.

STALLONE: I would ride the subway. And when you sit in the subway and look through the windows it’s almost like a picture screen. You see all of these images whipping by. And I kept looking over the rail and seeing this one place, this little microcosm, this teeming-humanity kind of a place called Fishtown. It was never getting better. It was like someone pulled the plug on this place. And I thought, what about the people that are in it? Obviously they don’t care, they’re going down with it. And it was like a big balloon going down, an entire neighborhood starting to deflate. So, one day, I took a walk down there and, man, I tell you. I met or four women on the corner and they might have had four teeth between them. The were a mural of homemade tattoos, and they had cauliflower ears that looked like matching sets of raw oysters. And all that hit me. All of that. It ended up in Rocky. But I still hadn’t thought of writing. That was later.

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A younger Stallone moves through a variety of bucolic Swiss scenes. He is a weight lifting instructor, a jock, living in an all-girls school in Leysin. The mountains look as if they had been scrubbed that morning by a half-million industrious Swiss.

STALLONE: [Smiling.] My mother had a lot to do with what happened. She was always a woman who was out of place and time. She was a very flamboyant person and still is. But she married my father and was forced to live in a very provincial town in Maryland, and I think a lot of her of frustrations for the theatre, and the life of the celebrity, returned to me. So, from early on, I became what is known as an incorrigible child. I wasn’t cool; I wasn’t a bully. But I did the thing with the air out of the tires, the stolen hubcaps, fights here and there. But nothing like throwing gasoline on a woodchuck —that wasn’t my style. But then I went to Switzerland. I got there because my mother was a great con-artist and she got me in as a physical instructor. This was in a school for extremely wealthy and professsionally spoiled children. The Shah of Iran’s kid. The kids from the Hershey fortune, the kid whose father owned the Kimberly mines. The town was like one of those small objects you buy at the zoo for $4 and you turn it over and the snowflakes come down. I didn’t want to ski. I just wanted to get loaded and play pinball machines. Essentially, I was the imported American sheep dog for these little lambs, these girls. I mean it. My room was strategically located at the end of the dorm, and I was supposed to keep away these hordes of marauding mountain climbers. I mean it, they would come from England and Scotland and these places and, during the day, they would climb mountains, and at night it was like Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. They would climb the frigging building to get to these girls. It was my job to chase these guys away and yell profanities, like, ‘I’ll get your mother for this!’ and crap like that. Until I realized it was more profitable the other way. I mean, one of the girls would say, ‘Listen, for 100 francs, maybe you could go blind for five minutes …’ By the end of that year, I had gone blind so often I could pay my own tuition — $6000 — and Prince Paul of Ethiopia and I had become such good buddies that we opened a clandestine, after-hours secret hamburger restaurant. I came back later like the most gauche American tourist. Ten watches, you know … But something happened there: they needed a body for a play. A warm body. I mean, if you could breathe, you got the part. It was Biff, in Death of a Salesman, and I realized, hey


The images of snow, pine, mountains, rich girls, pinball, and Swiss watches dissolve into the flat, hot beaches of Florida under a scalding sun. Stallone moves through the campus of the University of Miami.

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STALLONE: When I came back to America. I went to a place that was just the opposite. What is Florida? One inch above sea level? [Pause] Boy, was that bad. I learned it is actually possible to function without brain waves for two years. I was signed up in acting classes, and they said to me, ‘Whatever you do, keep your night job. You don’t have it. They don’t need surfers on Broadway.’ In classes they would do scenes. But I didn’t want to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar Named Desire. Everyone who came in the door was Brando. He’s three feet tall and he’s doing Brando. Another guy is nine feet tall, with one arm, and he’s doing Brando. Everyone is doing Brando there. But I had started to think that the proof of whether you’ve got a real artistic bent is whether you can write your own material and perform it. Well, I wrote some things, and they immediately took offense. They said, ‘Forget it. You stink. Why don’t you try for a scholarship in Pool Service or something?’ They said it was all over. So I hung around a while and then went home.


Stallone now moves through a darker landscape: fire escapes, dirty streets, a walkup apartment, roaches, and booking offices. We see him move through audition after audition. We also see him start to write.

STALLONE: After a while I just jumped in my ’61 Hupmobile, or whatever it was — something brown with four wheels. I head for New York and just molt for four months. Then I had my first audition. It was for Sal Mineo, for Fortune in Men’s Eyes. And he says, ‘You’re not cool enough for this part. You’re not tough enough.’ [Pause] Here’s a guy I could actually maneuver into a square knot, and he’s telling me I’m not tough enough. Well, the rejection process started weakening my confidence. I was 22. I was realistic. I would say to my friends, ‘What happens if you are going to fail? Did you ever think about failure?’ They’d say, ‘No. No. I can’t bear it. It’s impossible, man, it’s not … no way!” Right then I said to myself, They have no options. But the only option I had at that point was writing. [Pause] I said to myself, I am failing at acting; I might as well fail at writing, too. I might as well make it a Triple Crown of failure. And I started to write. It wasn’t as difficult as I was told it would be. I was always fairly glib. The William Morris Agency took me on — as a writer. They wouldn’t touch me as an actor, although I would go up there with a big hat, a poncho, anything to show I wasn’t a bookmark. But they said, ‘no. He’s a writer. Writer mentality.’ So rather than do a swan dive out the 19th floor in frustration, I decided to be a writer for a while. I must have written a million words; two novels, in a Dos Passos style, very quick, lot of dialogue, not much description of why a door is peeling. They weren’t too good and I started writing nothing but scripts and learning all the time.

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Stallone looks like a Salvation Army reject, turns into 56th Street, stops in front of posh French restaurant.

STALLONE: The second script I wrote was called Promises Written on Water — how’s that for pretension? It was a title that had nothing to do with the story, but I liked the sound of the words. You know. I was 23. Anyway, Otto Preminger was going to option it and he invited me to lunch at this upper-crust French restaurant. I had never been in such a place. They didn’t even want me to walk in front of the place, I’m in such bad shape by then. I mean I’m living in some rundown hotel where everyone is short. I don’t know why, but they are all short and carry canes … So I went in there and met with Preminger. And, after a while, he said, ‘I would like to do this script. Now, as a writer what would you want a week to do the rewrite?’ My esteem was so low — my clothes smell, and I smell — and I think about it, and I say, “Seventy dollars?” Well, his chocolate mousse shot out of both nostrils. He said: ‘Vot? Seventy dollars?” [Laughs] Well, that was such a turnoff to him that he never did option the screen play. [Laughs] And, you know, I was pushing! I would’ve settled for 40.


We see Stallone move through a variety of jobs: chopping fish in a market, working in the zoo at Central Park, standing outside Walter Reade’s Baronet Theatre in an usher’s uniform, taking a few bucks to slip people in to see M*A*S*H*. He sells a couple of scripts to TV’s Touch of Evil series. Then we see him begin to get very small acting jobs: in Woody Allen’s Bananas, in Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jack Lemmon. And he gets his first starring role: in Marty Davidson’s Lords of Flatbush. He is beefier than he is now, playing a leather-jacketed punk with great swagger and street style.

STALLONE: I just had withdrawn into my apartment in New York and said to hell with it, I will write for other people. And that’s the way it was. [Pause.] Until a friend called me up one day and asked me to help him audition for this picture, The Lords of Flatbush. So I helped him. I got the role and he didn’t. So I scraped the paint off the windows and let the sunlight in. I got my phone connected. Then, when Lords of Flatbush came out, I thought, Hey, I should at least get a walk-on on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But nothing! Zippo. Zippo. [Pause.] So it was another two years of hot and cold running rats, and roach souffles. But I kept writing. My wife, Sasha, would type them. It was like a factory. I just kept at it. I think weight lifting helped give me the concentration, the discipline, and I kept going.

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But we see Stallone start to get some jobs: he plays Frank Nitti to Ben Gazzara’s Capone ; he is in Death Race 2000. He leaves New York and settles into California. Still writing. He and his wife live in a tiny apartment, in the land of swimming pools, studios, Hollywood trade papers, and thwarted hopes. We see him finally, at one point, holding a finished copy of his latest script. It’s called Rocky. This is July 1975. Violins begin to build.

STALLONE: I had formulated the story in my mind for several months, so it didn’t take me long to put it on paper. Three or four days. I knew where I was going. I mean, I had already written it 10 times up here [Taps his head.] I knew the time was right for a film about heroes, and the ring was the place for — well, they’re like the modern-day gladiators. And I brought it over to Chartoff and Winkler and I find myself sitting with Gene Kirkwood — he ‘s a producer who just went to work for them — beside the pool, and he ‘s reading it. He flips every page and he says terrificterrificterrific, terrific, terrific, you hear “terrific” 126 times. I’m just waiting. And he finishes and says, ‘Never make it. Bad. It’s a good script, but it’ll never get made.’ [Pause.] I was waiting for that and, of course, I was gonna drown him right there. Just tie him to his beach chair and submerge him. But he ran it into Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. I knew their reputation. They were very tough, astute businessmen. Give me facts, give me figures. So I gave them the script and they gave me a figure. The figure was around a hundred grand. He breathes out hard. At that time, I had about $106 in the bank. And we had a baby on the way and a dog who was beginning to eat my television. So the script went around to several of the important people at the United Artists hierarchy and they said: ‘Okay we like it — Burt Reynolds is perfect !’ It was like someone put my heart through a wringer. I said, You don’t understand, I wrote this for me, I tailored it, I sent this script to a perfect Italian tailor, perfect dimensions. It’s me. No. It’s all me. No. It’s mine. [Longer pause, remembering what happened, savoring it.] Another offer came back. $180,000. Right away, the eye fell out — bong! — the ear filled up, my body started to function very oddly with these figures. A hundred and eighty thousand dollars. Christ … Then an outside source, who will remain nameless because of embarrassment, wanted Ryan O’Neal in it, and offered in excess of $250,000, close to $300, 000. For a script! [A beat.] But what do I play in it? Well, you play nobody. You play a memory. You disap­pear. You take a vacation to Colma and that’s it. You just take the money and run. And I knew if I did that, then the whole thing I wrote about in the script was totally false, too. The picture was about taking that golden shot, in the face of adversity. So I hung on and hung on and hung on, and they realized that this guy’s not gonna give it up. Finally, they said, ‘Well, if you can make a movie for a million, not a penny more … ‘

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So, they make the film. We see Stallone working with director John Avildsen, a scrappy bantam of a man who in Stallone’s phrase “could get knocked out by a punching bag,” but fights for every foot of film. We see Stallone in a gymnasium in the San Fernando Valley, training to get in shape for the actual shooting. We see Avildsen and Stallone reject the conventional staged fights of the stuntman, and Stallone choreographing the entire climactic fight: punch by punch, on 14 pages of tightly written script. We see them shoot four and-a half days of exteriors in Philadelphia, and then a return to Los Angeles for interiors, the only way to make the grueling 28-day shooting schedule. Off-camera, Stallone fights every day with producer Bob Chartoff and then paints his portrait, in harsh black and white; the picture now hangs in Chartoff”s office. For two straight days, 12 hours a day, they shoot the film’s final fight, in which Rocky, the unknown club fighter called “The Italian Stallion” gets a shot at the crown of an Ali-like heavy-weight champion of the world. Finally, the film is finished And it is shown in screening rooms in California, and at a sneak preview at the Baronet, where Stallone was once an usher, and the crowds love it. It’s one of the best boxing movies ever made — maybe the best — but it has other qualities: heart, humor, intelligence, optimism, and a superb performance by Stallone. The word is every­where. Stallone is a star. A new star. As big as Brando, maybe. And a writer, too Maybe even a director. But big. The picture will be huge. The violins build and build. And we


Stallone is now going through another of the many interviews that will be part of his life in the years ahead In a series of cuts, we hear him talk on a number of sub­jects.

SCREENWRITING: I believe that writers are the whole backbone of the movies. They are the Whale. A great actor can’t carry a bad script, but a great script can carry all unknown actors.

TELEVISION: TV has really hit puberty. The hair is beginning to grow and curl, the testicles have just about dropped. I think it’s going to get a little mucle now.

THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN MOVIE RENAISSANCE (DeNiro, Coppola, Scorsese, Pacino, Vaccaro): Look, I’m only half Italian. But, do you think it’s pretentious to say that Italians as actors and artists tend to be more passionate than their Anglo counterparts? They seem to have a different energy. Jesus, I don’t want to offend anybody, but they just seem to be the symbols of today’s man — today’s urban man.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717766″ /]

OTHER ACTORS: If I’m ever in a position to do anything about it, I will always go with unknowns. ‘Cause there’s nothing more shattering than to know that you’re ready, you’ re primed — it’s like you’re ready for that major fight — and it’s being canceled and canceled and canceled. That’s like Purgatory. You end up in this vortex of self-destruction, with a chafed elbow, leaning against some bar. Telling about how it could have been. “I could have been a contender …”

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: I’m going to promote the film until February, and then I’m going to do this film — about Edgar Allen Poe — which is in a classical category. It will once and for all get me out of the goon category. I hope. The goon category isn’t bad. But I just don’t want to be cemented into that category forever. It’s like The Cask of Amontillado. Aaaargh …

It is late now. Stallone appears talked out. He gets up, looks out into the lot, and sees Robert DeNiro walking by, with tissues under his chin to keep his make-up from smearing his shirt. DeNiro is making New York, New York, on another part of the M-G-M lot. Martin Scorsese is directing him and Liza Minnelli. Stallone smiles. He doesn’t comment. He turns, the eyes twinkling.

STALLONE: You know what I want to be? Boy From Hollywood Makes Good! I’m serious. I live here now. It’s always Boy From Washington, D.C. Guy From Idaho Makes It In Tinseltown. [Laughs.] I want Boy From Hollywood Makes Good.

He smiles. John Avildsen is waiting in the other room. Irwin Winkler steps in to say hello. They all look pleased. There are posters commg for Rocky. Good news about previews. Stallone laughs as we



Good Morning, Mr. President!

1. A conservative is a man who does not think anything should be done for the first time.     Frank Vanderlip 

2. A liberal is a radical with children and a house.

3. A politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man.     ee cummmgs 

4. A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.     Jimmy Walker 

5. Abstain from beans.     Aristotle (From ancient times this phrase has been subject to two interpretations: 1) Don’t eat beans: they’ll make you fart. 2) Don’t take part in politics [beans were used to cast your ballot in ancient Greece]. Actually, of course, the two meanings are the same.)

6. An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.     Simon Cameron, Republican boss of Penn­sylvania, about 1860

7. An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public.     Talleyrand

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8. At three o’clock Thursday afternoon
will walk on the
Handbill printed by opponents of TR during the Republican National Convention of 1912.

9a. Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the White House?     Mark Hanna, 1900 (referring to Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination for the vice-presidency)

9b. Now look, that damned cowboy is president of the United States!     Mark Hanna, 1901 (after the assassination of McKinley.)

10. Don’t put no constrictions on da people. Leave ’em ta hell alone.     Jimmy Durante

11. Every Republican candidate for president since 1936 has been nominated by the Chase National Bank.     Robert A. Taft, 1952 

12. Every time I bestow a vacant office I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.     Louis XIV

13. Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft.     State senator George Washington Plunkitt of New York and Tammany Hall, 1905 

14. Ez to my princerples, I glory
In hevin’ nothin’ o’ the sort;
I ain’t a Whig, I ain’t a Tory,
I’m jest a canderdate in short.
James Russell Lowell. 1848  

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15. Generally, young men are regarded as radicals. This is a popular, misconception. The most conservative persons I ever met are college undergraduates.     Woodrow Wilson

16. I always voted at my party’s call
And never thought of thinking for myself at all!
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the ruler of the Queen’s navee!
W. S. Gilbert, H. M. S. Pinafore

17. I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was that all saloon keepers were Democrats.     Horace Greeley, about 1860

18. I never trust a man unless I’ve got his pecker in my pocket.     Lyndon Baines Johnson

19. Henry Clay: I would rather be right than be president.
Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, in reply to Clay’s words:
The gentleman need not worry. He will never be either.

20. It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.     Mark Twain, 1894  

21. It is a fine thing to command, though it be but a herd of cattle.     Spanish proverb

22. It’s all so solemn. Somebody will get up and say: “I thank the gentleman for his contribution,” when all the guy did was belch or gargle. Now I’m all for back-scratching, but I’d like to see a wink once in a while.     Representative James Tumulty, Democrat of New Jersey, 1955. 

23. Let 100 flowers bloom.     Mao Tse-tung
Let 100 flowers be drowned in manure.     Stalin
Let 100 flowers be exported.     Fidel Castro
Let 100 flowers be DDT’d.     Senator Joe McCarthy
Let 100 flowers be shot.     Enver Hoxha
Let 100 flowers be smart bombed.     Kissinger
Let 100 flowers be sold.     Richard Nixon
Let 100 flowers be rented.     Nelson Rockefeller
Let 100 flowers be dropped.     Gerald Ford
Let 100 flowers be dried.     Senator James Buckley
Let 100 flowers be fired.     Mayor Beame 

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24. More men have been elected between Sundown and Sunup than ever were elected between Sunup and Sundown.     Will Rogers 

25. One out of four U.S. Senators is a millionaire.     AP report, 1971
In the highest lowest places O
I’ve heard that premise defended:
Rich men can’t be bought: No!
(But they can be rented.)
Tuli Kupferberg  

26. Open each session with a prayer and close it with a probe.     Representative Clarence Brown, Republican of Ohio.

27. Reactionary concepts plus revolutionary emotion result in Fascist mentality.     Wilhelm Reich

28. Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.     Mark Twain, 1882 

29. Socialism changes its color according to its environ­ment. For the street corner and the clubroom it wears the flaming scarlet of class war; for the intellectuals its red is shot with tawny; for the sentimentalists it becomes a delicate rose-pink; and in clerical circles it assumes a virgin-white, just touched with a faint flush of generous aspiration.     Ramsay Muir, 1925

30. Some defeated candidates go back t’ work an’ others say th’ fight has jest begun.     Kin Hubbard

31. That the politicians are permitted to carry on the same old type of disgraceful campaign from year to year is as insulting to people as would be a gang of thieves coming back to a town they had robbed, staging a parade, and inviting citizens to !all in and cheer.     Edgar Watson Howe  

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32. The dispensing of injustice is always in the right hands.     Stanislaw Lee

33. The necessary and wise subordination of the military to the civil power will be best sustained when lifelong professional soldiers abstain from seeking high political office.     Dwight D. Eisenhower 

34. The only crack that got under his skin was Secretary of the Interior Ickes’ comment that “Wendell Wilkie is just a simple barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”

35. The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool. With the grand opportunities all around for a man with political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent.     George Washington Punkitt 

36. There is always some basic principle that will ultimately get the Republican party together. If my observations are worth anything, that basic principle is the cohesive power of public plunder.     Senator A. J. McLaurin, Democrat of Mississippi, 1906. 

37. Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.     Dwight D. Eisenhower  

38. Today the world — tomorrow the United States!     CIA

39. Upon the slightest resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, annoyed, hunted down, pulled about, beaten … sold, be­trayed … bound, imprisoned … judged, condemned, banished … shot … sacrificed … that is to be governed.     Pierre Joseph Proudhon

40. Vote for me and I’ll fuck you forever.     Hip politician

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41. We always contribute to the funds of the political parties for their election campaigns in the states. Where the issue is too uncertain the (sugar) trust subscribes to the funds of both parties, in order to have some influence on the winning side, whichever it may be. Henry O. Have­meyer, 1951 

42. We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future, unheeding of our individual fates, with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!     Theodore Roosevelt, 1912

43. We’d all like t’ vote for th’ best man, but he’s never a candidate.     Kin Hubbard  

44. The constitution provides for every accidental contin­gency in the Executive — except a vacancy in the mind of the president.     Senator John A. Sherman, Republican of Ohio.

45. What a man that would be had he … the least knowledge of the value of red tape.     Sydney Smith 

46. When change of rulers happens to a state
‘Tis but a change of name unto the poor.
Phaedrus, about 25 B.C.  

47. Who are they, as bats and night bogs, askant in the Capitol?
Are those really Congressmen? are those the great judges? is that the President?
Then I will sleep awhile yet — for I see that these States sleep.
Walt Whitman, To the States, 1860  

48. Ye could waltz to it.     Finley Peter Dunne, referring to the oratory of Senator Albert J. Beveridge, Republican of Indiana.

49. You don’t set a fox to watching the chickens just because he has a lot of experience in the hen house.     Harry S. Truman (on Vice-President Nixon’s candidacy for the presidency, 1960)

50. You tell me where a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.     Mark Twain. 


The Butch Fantasy: America Goes Punk

Inside Keller’s, the air is stained with sweat and beer. Outside on West Street, a silent chorus line of denimed young men grip their beer cans and lean on fenders.

One man in the crowd seems overcome with joy. It is quite incongruous. He is large and well-built, like many of the others, but instead of the usual tight jeans he wears loose pajama pants, and instead of the usual crew cut he sports long blond locks that shake every time he moves. Which is often. He is doing some sort of demented psychedelic jig in the midst of this inebriated circle, and as he moves into the light you can detect something fetid in his ro­bustness. He has the air of one who sucks avocado pits for a living. Obviously from San Francisco.

On the Bowery, a mile and half across town from Keller’s, a smaller stand of denimed young men maintains an equally silent and hostile vigil outside CBGB, the biker hangout turned punk-rock capital of the world. Like their counterparts by the docks, these young men on the Bowery have mastered the art of aggressive lounging. It is waiting and not waiting at the same time, spurred by the realization that there is nothing to do except nothing, perfected by generations of rednecks who guzzled beer and collected dust by the side of the road. There is no remnant of a hippie dancing outside CBGB; if there were, one of these punks might make as if to beat him up. Punks love to threaten hippies, at least theoretically, but the butch numbers outside Keller’s merely suffer them in silence. The butch code prohibits violence outside of sex; the punk code promotes violence in place of sex.

The Bowery and West Street never cross. They are parallel boulevards which traffic in mythic projections of masculinity. These projections depend on swagger, beer, blue jeans, seaminess, nihilism and the threat of violence —   sexual violence with gays (how inappropriate the terms sounds for a butch), fraternal violence with straights. As one who does some hanging out on both sides of town, I have occasionally become confused. But is this really my fault? Of course not. It’s the natural response of one dropped into mirror worlds.

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Christopher Street started going butch about three or four years ago, after an extended femme phase dating from the Stonewall Rebellion of ’69. The countercul­ture was reasonably tolerant of femmes — it was pretty femme it­self, after all — and in a couple of years femme chic became an item to compete with bell-bottom jeans. But about the time pugnacious straight kids started camping about in satin tights and feather boas, short hair and Levis started cropping up on Christopher Street. Now, insiders say, the butch look has peaked among gays and is ready to be replaced by a mysteri­ous “something else.” If so, that can only mean its imminent em­brace by the rest of the country.

The beginning of the end proba­bly came when the Eagle’s Nest started playing disco music. The Eagle’s Nest, named after Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden, is the premier leather bar in the country. Once you could go there and watch a leather man grab another butch number by the crotch and squeeze until the guy was writhing on the floor; you knew the leather man had picked his slave for the night. Now you see more shorts than leather, as many hairdressers as cowboys.

It’s hard for a regular to feel ­intimidated at the Eagle anymore. It’s even harder at the Anvil, which stages a show-biz version of what used to go on all around you at the Eagle. It’s out of the ques­tion at the Stud. The Stud has a poster of Fonzie on the wall and is more likely to be filled with pretty boys than leather ones. They con­verge around a pool table in the front room (where the bar is) and around each other’s crotches in the back room (where the sex is). The Toilet, as the name implies, is a specialty house. You can check your clothes for $1, take a seat on the john and revel in the golden showers of a pack of beefy studs. Most visitors, prefer to keep their dollar and their clothes. Those who suffer inhibitions about urinating down a human throat have to content themselves with a tiny sink by the toilet-room door.

The streets, the piers, and the bars along the waterfront form a sordid world, romantic in its grim­ness, so stark and primitive it seems utterly surreal. Despite the trendies, the Dickensian murk re­mains. Walking down to the Eagle at night is like stumbling onto a deserted set: Walled in by empty warehouses, cut off from the river by the silent edifice of the elevated highway, picking your way through the shadows, you feel trapped in a cul-de-sac with only one exit available. So you open the door on the corner and enter a dimly lit room filled with strutting specters from a working-class past. It’s a vision of industrial America in a postindustrial age, a corroded vision which even the Ashcan School could scarcely have imagined.

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Legs McNeil, the resident punk at Punk magazine, is sitting in a Penn Station bar, trying to explain what it means to be a punk. “It’s just being a normal person,” he says. “That’s what we are — normal people. We’re not perverts.”

When we left Punk‘s editorial offices — Tenth Avenue at 30th Street, only a few blocks above the leather turf — Legs started telling me about this dream date he’s just had in Cheshire, Connecticut, where he’d grown up. He took this girl to the swamp where he’d massacred frogs as a kid and the two of them got it on on a railroad track. The only drag was that his girl friend kept getting bitten on the ass by mosquitoes. The mos­quitoes didn’t bother him. What’s a few mosquitoes when you’re get­ting laid on a railroad track?

Legs agrees that the macho stance is gaining popularity and attributes it to a natural return from the excesses of the counterculture. The counterculture at­tempted a yin-yang symbiosis of male and female; now that’s breaking up and the male is com­ing out on top. “Punks are, like — ­the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks,” he says. “The macho thing is cool. It’s not so cool to go around busting heads, but … when it happens, it happens.”

Still, punks might not be con­sidered “normal” by some people. Legs grins, “My mother thinks I’m sick,” he admits “But, look — parents thought Elvis was sick; parents thought the Beatles were sick. What do parents know? Parents even thought the Stones were sick.”

Legs suddenly grows pensive. “You know … Mick Jagger might be sick. David Bowie’s real­ly sick. He’s such a faggot.”

Faggots are sick. Legs does have some friends who are faggots, but they don’t go around talking about it all the time. They’re cool. You have to be cool to be a faggot. The ­butch guys? “They’re nuts! Those guys are Nazis! They’re weird! The stories you hear about ’em — like those s&m places where they beat the shit out of people. Nobody can convince me that that’s nor­mal.”

I ask Legs about the Go Club, the notorious band of south Village punks who have gotten some bad press lately because of their al­leged involvement in various local beatings, etc. He hasn’t heard of them. But he does recall walking down Bedford Street late one night and encountering a sidewalk full of tough-looking guys who didn’t seem too thrilled by his presence. So he moved off the sidewalk and continued down the middle or the street. “I guess maybe I respected their code that way,” he offers.

Maybe they thought you were a fag, I suggest. Lotta fags in that neighborhood, you know.

He hadn’t thought of that. The notion disturbs him. “I don’t think so,” he says at last. “My leather jacket is different from a fag’s.”

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Remember high school? Punks are like the guys we used to call greasers, although the updated version no longer uses grease. The stereotype casts them as street­-smart roughnecks whose goal in life is to get drunk, have fun, and look for an opening. Greasers have been around all along, but their numbers were depleted and their self-image badly battered ey the mass hippie conversion of the ’60s. Now they are coming out of the closet, as it were, nudged by a rapid succession of media images: Bruce Springsteen, Fonzie, the Beatles revival, Dion’s return, even Neil Sedaka’s (Sedaka was never a punk, of course, but his syrupy crooning fills a romantic void for chicks who know they’re chicks). The number of punks who consider themselves punks is still fairly small, but all that remains is for media image to reshape reali­ty. The long-haired kids who form the norm in every high school outside Manhattan might see themselves as latter-day hippies but they have a lot more in common with punks.

The international HQ of punks­ — their Eagle — is CBGB. CBGB is a dangerous-looking place which is really quite safe, a former Hell’s Angels hangout on skid row on the edge of the Lower East Side. The choice of locale is ironic: punks on the Bowery, broken youth stumbling into the home of broken age; gays on the waterfront, pretend men swaggering around the empty workshop of real ones.

The Bowery is home to kids whose masculinity is almost as heavily stylized as anything you’d see on the waterfront — to people who, in Nietzsche’s phrase, have been “dipped into the ether of art.” For some, it’s a literal home; for others, less adventuresome, it’s the Haight-Ashbury of ’76. They come in from the Island to listen to the CBGB bands. They’re not greasers any more than the gays on the waterfront are stevedores, and they don’t listen to greaser music. They prefer power-chord brutality and atonal disconnected­ness to streetcorner harmonies and shoo-wop heartache. But they’ve consciously adopted the style and the pose of greasers, updating where necessary.

At the moment, CBGB’s influ­ence is restricted to New York and its patronage is restricted to a few. Still, says Punk magazine’s editor, the idea is “definitely hitting a nerve.” If it hits the right one, CBGB could become the Cavern of a new generation. The Ramones could become its Animals. And Punk could become its Esquire.

Punk magazine was started last winter by John Holmstrom (a former student at the School of Visual Arts), Legs (who made educational films for the state of Connecticut after failing to get a high school diploma), and a third chum from Cheshire, Ged Dunn. They had just made a short film called ”The Unthinkables” — a takeoff of “The Untouchables” — and decided to do a magazine. Now, with five issues and a growing circulation, they find themselves at the forefront of the punk rebellion. They’re not quite sure how they feel about it. When asked if he thinks punks will be as big as hippies were, Legs says, “I hope not. That’d be a drag, like being a hippie in ’65. We do wanna take over the world, though. We wanna be able to do whatever we want.”

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Legs draws an analogy between, punks and gangsters. especially the kind of gangsters you see in Jimmy Cagney movies. Gangsters become gangsters, he points out, “because they want to be like everybody else [i.e.. rich] and that’s the only way they know how.” Punks are natural hustlers. They don’t wear sneakers and dirty blue jeans by choice; what they really want is smoking jack­ets and Havana cigars and a Lear jet and a cellar full of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and a Swiss bank account and lots of beautiful women. If you had to form one image which would capture the punk cold, it would be this: a kid with dirt under his nails and ripped Levis around his ankles, jerking himself off while staring into the pages of Playboy.

Rock is as central to punks as sex is to butches. Each is a com­mon language and a means of escape. For butches — the majority of whom are successful, affluent achievers — sex is a ticket into sleaze, into a Dionysian playland where anything seems possible. But punks already live in sleaze. For them, rock is a ticket out, because it looks like the quickest and easiest war’ to get rich and famous.

Life is like a giant high school: When you get rich and famous, you become a senior. Never mind that any number of punks don’t even get to be seniors in high school. So what if you spend three years in 10th grade? As much as a punk wants riches and fame, he also wants to be a kid forever. Either option offers shelter, and rock stars have both.

John Holmstrom, sees the punk as a tragic figure — cold, violent, alienated, frustrated, nihilistic, self-destructive, yet undeniably romantic. Holmstrom is the editor of Punk magazine. A few years older than Legs, he sometimes got threatened by greasers as a teen­ager because of his long hair and hippie wimp attitude. “You’ve got to be really naive to be a punk,” he says. “It’s really violent, and you’ve got to be naive to be into vi­olence.”

Holmstrom has an ironic de­tachment which Legs, the gung-ho professional, lacks. Holmstrom sees the reality: that most punks grow up to be pathetic figures if they aren’t pathetic figures al­ready. Legs, like all punks, wants only fantasy. “That’s why today’s movies are so bad,” he says. “Who wants to know about reality? We want the good stuff. You have to create the most dangerous and threatening illusion.”

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Stripped to its essentials, Legs’s dangerous and threatening illusion is the same as the Eagle’s, the same as John Wayne’s, the same as any man’s. It’s what a man has to create to be a man. A man acts out his vision of how a man is supposed to act, and the careful cultivation of fear provides just enough stimulus to provoke the best performance. Too much fear, and things might get out of hand; too much fear, and he might not act like a man is supposed to act.

This dangerous and threatening illusion is especially what a work­ing-class man has to create to be a man. The popularization of butch implies that it’s what a lot of nonworking-class males want to create, too. Unlike greasers, the punks of the present are frequently from comfy, suburban, middle-class homes. For these people, being a punk means rejecting mid­dle-class softness for lower-class virility while fighting for upper­class luxury. It’s almost like the voluntary poverty of the late ’60s, except that hippies thought they could transcend poverty; punks want the challenge and the strug­gle of transcending poverty, in a more concrete way. Money is to daydream; virility is to flaunt. And in the absence of real money, a strutting pose is what connotes virility.

There’s a basic elitism at work here, not only among bourgeois “punks” but among butch gays as well. The blue-collar guys — the hardhats, the rednecks, the shitshovelers — are perceived as noble savages, as primitives uncorrupted by money and status. The real blue-collar guys may be trapped by convention, religion, and right-wing politics, but the stud liberal living out his he-man fantasies has none of those bur­dens. He’s either a kid or a faggot; he doesn’t have in-laws. It’s a white man’s fantasy. You don’t see many black punks on the Bowery or many black cowboys on Christopher Street. Butches see other races as exotic, like Leni Riefenstahl among the Nuba. (I have a friend who spent months at the trucks trying to find a genuinely scuzzy Puerto Rican kid, but every one he picked up turned out to be a medical student.) Punks simply don’t see them at all. “We’re not racist,” says Legs, “we’re just more into our own thing. It’s like saying to an Italian, ‘What about Polacks?’ ”

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Racism is the final badge of manliness, the final link between the intellectual gay or the suburban kid and the macho preserve, of the all-American shitshoveler. If you make that link — and it’s not hard for any white — you’ve made the working-class connection you need to be a man.

Nevertheless, a real gap re­mains: Working-class America just can’t meet the expectations of these self-conscious poseurs. I don’t know about the truck drivers you know, but the truck drivers I know all have bulges in their waistlines, not their crotches. Working-class America needs a little polishing up.

Which is just what the new butch could accomplish. It’s a difficult job, because it demands a self­-consciousness that most straight, white, male Americans are reluc­tant to embrace. They might be willing to put on a white belt and matching loafers in the name of fantasy, but a leather jacket? Punks are too self-conscious; after all, greasers, with their combs and their switchblades, were symbo­lized as much by vanity as by violence. Punks are too rebellious and too juvenile for adults, and maybe too urban for kids.

For years, kids across the country have been getting off on shitkicker bands like the Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. Not only is their image anti-urban (and, by extension, anti-intellectual as well); it has the­ added advantage of not demanding  a clean break with the Woodstock heritage of the ’60s (since long-haired are now an accepted phenomeoon). Evangelical punks have an uphill fight, because they demand just that break.

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The prospects for proselytizing leather don’t look good either. But butch gays do provide a choice; they’re not locked into the leather look. There’s the construction-worker look, the cowboy look, and the truck-driver look. Forget con­struction workers: too prosaic. Scratch the cowboy looks; it may sell Marlboros, but most Americans couldn’t drive a horse to the corner store. But truck drivers? They have possibilities.

Truck driving is a supremely American activity. Its very existence is a monument to Manifest Destiny; if the country weren’t so enormous, it wouldn’t be any big deal. It looks dangerous, but just dangerous enough to provide a thrill. It’s romantic, but it’s inescapably masculine. It’s a job for the independent man. It’s lonely sometimes, but there’s always the truck stop just down the road with the cute little waitress — fleeting contact, no deposit no return. With the right sales medium, truck drivers could be as big in Middle America as they are at the Anvil.

Enter CB radio, the hula-hoop of hi-fi. CB is the perfect medium for selling butch to the silent majority. It has the lure of technology and gadgetry, but it’s also linked with traditional American values like freedom and rootlessness and red­necks. It couples the shelter of anonymity with the warm, cozy feeling of companionship. It offers all the rituals of a select society, with a secret mumbo-jumbo any­one can learn and a zipless antenna the whole freeway can envy. (How long before antenna on the left means dominant mama and antenna on the right means submissive good buddy?) It’s as American as Betty Ford. It’s truck driving without the truck.

Like rock and sex, CB. is both a medium of communication and a means of escape — a ticket to a fantasy world where men are men­ and chicks are chicks and humping is humping. To some of its habitues, CB radio must become public-access reality. But for most, its public-access Marlboroland. So what if the bulge is in your waist? Switch the dial: Suddenly you’re on I-15, pushing a load of goldfish to San Bernardino, and there’s smokeys on your right and a convertible full of naked cheerleaders on your left and you’re about to screw the double nickels and cream all over the speedometer. All in the comfort of your own living room.

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Let’s face it: Butch is every­where. The President’s sons have become the biggest source of celebrity beefcake since Marlon Brando. An ex-leatherneck does a soft nudie for Playgirl and a hard one for a gay pornzine. Rugged young studs do for cigarette sales what buxom girls did 20 years ago. Harold Rosenberg once described masculinity as “a myth that has turned into a comedy” — and where there’s a comedy, somebody has to sell the tickets. There are bucks to be made out of this: so let’s not waste any time.

I have this friend who is addicted to Locker Room. Locker Room is the patchouli oil of the ’70s. It’s a colorless liquid that comes in a little vial and is supposed to smell like those places where men put on their jocks together. And it does. The funny thing is, one whiff of it from the open vial sends you reeling, just like amyl nitrate. Masculinity works the same way. Especially if you bottle it. ❖


Does Queen Out-Led Zep — Or Out-Uriah Heep?


Two months ago Warner Com­munications pulled its latest exec­utive shakeup, moving David Geffen from Elektra/Asylum to the board of directors and replacing him with former Warner Bros. Records head, Joe Smith. Smith mapped out his priorities immedi­ately: three of the label’s acts­ — Queen, Jackson Browne, and Or­leans — had to be million-sellers. The Queen campaign, which began in earnest behind their just-re­leased “A Night at the Opera” album and last week’s four-show stand at the Beacon, presents Smith with a familiar problem — ­how to transform mass success in England into mass success in America.

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For Queen itself, the big push began when the band took on Elton John’s manager, John Reid. Right now they’re arguably the most popular ’70s band in England, ri­valed only by Bad Company in the reader polls. Their latest single, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is the lon­gest running British number-one in ten years. Lead singer Freddie Mercury, who claims that the band’s groundswell “is an exact replica of Led Zeppelin back in 1969,” became notorious in his homeland for his chest wig and perennial codpiece bulge, both central to the band’s stage presence. Queen evokes the Zeppelin image through the tension estab­lished between Mercury and lead guitarist Brian May, but Mercu­ry’s untrammeled pretense and histrionic vocal arrangements push them into Uriah Heep territo­ry. Their heavily theatrical stage act and costuming is closer to the art-rock look of bands like Genesis than the British blues-star look of Led Zeppelin, and Mercury’s ugly sexuality makes them at once post-Bowie glitter and post-Zeppe­lin heavy metal. Mercury plays a dumber version of Bowie’s cul­tured stud, May a mutant Page with less control. With Queen, con­fused image takes precedent over content.

Which is where they run into problems. May is the natural lead­er — his musical ideas have consis­tently been the band’s most inter­esting over their four albums. In fact, he assembled the prototype, then called Smile, along with drummer Roger Taylor in 1968. But when Smile failed, May rea­lized that his artistic ambition in­terfered with his desire to become a rock star. Enter Mercury, cul­tivated punk, ex-art student who was, in all but reality, already a rock star. He had the idea for Queen before he ever met a group that fit into it.

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Taking the music for granted, Queen made no effort to play the local dance circuit most groups cut their teeth on and hooked up with producers John Anthony and Roy Baker, who identified Queen with the lush, theatrical sound of Trident Studios and added occasional flashes of studio eclecticism reminiscent of the Move. As heavy metal, Queen had no real British contemporaries, yet as art-rock they weren’t as delicate as Yes and Genesis, priding themselves on their avoidance of synthesizers. Thus they became the most pre­tentious metal band extant — pretty impressive with Deep Purple and Uriah Heep around.

The only problem was that they were terrible live. Opening for Mott the Hoople at the Uris Theatre right after the release of “Queen II” they were described by one Mott fan as “three lobotomies and a novocaine junkie.” Though May had hepatitis at the time, he couldn’t have accounted for that bad a performance all by him­self.

But after several years of tour­ing they’ve become more comfort­able on stage and some talent shows through — for all his excess Mercury is a clear-voiced singer with good range and feeling, while Meadows and bassist Deacon John pound out a more than capable bottom for May’s electric metal drone. Mercury sticks to his front-man role live, leaving May to control the band’s sound and in the process eliminating much of its stylistic confusion. The set has several great moments of sheer sonic intensity, but the overall unevenness of their material triv­ializes the impact.

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If May’s stage control carried over into the studio Queen would be a lot better off. “A Night at the Opera” may be commercial, but it’s still a lousy record. May’s songs, with the exception of “Good Company,” reflect his inability to dominate the band conceptually as Page does. And Mercury’s confu­sion has never been more apparent. He contributes another Black Sabbath posture, “Death on Two Legs,” a stiff, campy attempt at humor, “Lazing on a Sunday Af­ternoon,” and that ridiculous single, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Any band that enforces an “operatic” concept with lines like “Galileo figaro — Magnifico … mama mia” must be kidding, but Mercury still takes himself too seriously to carry off such a pompous joke. ❖


Ted Gross: How Did He Get From City Hall to the City Morgue?

I used to feel that I belonged on the Harlem streets. To me home was the streets. I suppose there were many people who felt that… You might see somebody get cut or killed. I could go out in the street for an afternoon, and I would see so much that when I came in the house I’d be talking and talking for what seemed like hours. Dad would say, “Boy, why don’t you stop that lyin’. You know you didn’t see all that. You know you didn’t see nobody do that.” But I knew I had. 
— Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land

It wasn’t so much that Ted Gross actually publicized himself as a “street nigger” as that he never objected to being lionized as one. When people asked him where he was from, he would proudly tell them Harlem, not so much with a smile as with the smugness that comes with viewing oneself as special — a chosen survivor of deprivation. As it was, most people just assumed when Ted said he was from Harlem, that he had grown up in the streets. He thoroughly enjoyed the mystique it swathed him in in white society’s eyes, and the acceptance — the sense of commonness and belonging — it gave him with blacks. The only problem was that after a while Ted, too, came to accept the masquerade or perhaps he never saw that it was one — right up to the time he suffered the type of violent death accepted as part of the street life.

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Ted Gross’s death was more than just a sudden, inexplicable tragedy. Nor was it the death of just another black street hustler. It wasn’t that simple because Ted Gross was no ordinary street hustler. His background contained more book than street learning; he was more house than street nigger.

Gross’s upbringing was decidedly middle class. He spent part of his youth in the East Harlem middle-income Riverton housing development, where the community’s elite lived. His mother, Gerty West Brown, was a socially conscious, upwardly mobile black woman who later became one of the founders of HARYOU, a social-services organization. His father was a schoolteacher. From the time he was seven, Ted lived outside the city. He attended private secondary school in rural Virginia, did his collegiate studies at Shaw University, and, later taught primary school. In the early ’70s Gross began his rapid ascendancy in the John Lindsay administration, rising to become commissioner of the vast and troubled Youth Services Agency. In 1973 he was indicted for taking bribes and misspending close to $400,000 in ­taxpayer’s money. Gross pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. He was released on parole late in 1974 and began a steady decline that culminated in his death on June 9, 1976.

It happened on a deserted thoroughfare in Brooklyn early one Sunday morning when Gross, sitting in his late-model Citroen, was gunned down from behind by a man he had met and befriended in prison. Aided by two strokes of good fortune, police investigators were quick to make an arrest: A woman companion of Gross’s who was also shot survived the fusil­lade and identified 21-year-old Kenneth Gilmore, an ex-drug ad­dict and ex-convict who had already done time for manslaughter, as the assailant. Three days later, Gilmore surrendered to authorities in Charleston, South Carolina.

The arrest, however, answered few — if any — of the myriad ques­tions raised by the murder and by the extreme reluctance of the police to discuss the case. What was Ted Gross involved in that finally took his like?

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When the story broke in the local dailies there were intimations that Gross had been involved in criminal activity. The Daily News story mentioned drugs and numbers. One theory postulated that Gross’s death had been ordered by someone high in the narcotics world. Although they had the suspect identified as the triggerman, the police had little else. They didn’t know what had precipitated the shooting and so went off chasing any leads that emerged, many of them blind, most just fruitless.


I had more than a passing inter­est in Ted Gross. I had never met him but had, even in Newark, where I worked at the time, heard about his exploits in the New York City government. I remember once attending a meeting with Amiri Baraka and hearing several blacks discuss how Gross was messing up, buying boats, parading around in fur coats, flaunting white women, and pretty much playing the role blacks had just fought and died in the streets across the country to shake off. Another time, I recall watching a group of black and Puerto Rican kids from the South Bronx on the Dick Cavett show accuse Gross of taking better care of his dog than he was of them.

But it wasn’t these isolated incidents alone that interested me. Neither was it the fact that his name had been tied to drugs and numbers, though that was surely fascinating. What was more puzzling was the fall. Few blacks I know saw it as anything more than further evidence of the white conspiracy against competent blacks who, the rhetoric went, “get too high in the system.” There was more there than that, I suspected. The evidence that sent him plummeting out of office was unequivocal.

But drugs? Numbers? How? Why? I realized that the search would perhaps help me resolve other questions left over from my own childhood — a youth that held painful memories of friends who had died of overdoses or in the crossfire of street violence, or who had just never escaped the magnetic pull of the street life. Deciphering the guarded code might explain what had killed, physically and spiritually, some of my friends — and Gross.

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Ted’s friends and relatives are reluctant to talk about him. There is a disturbing realization by those who considered themselves his intimates that no one really knew him. Everyone I talk to possesses a fragment of recollection that, in light of all that has passed, is clearly not the total picture. Moreover, there is the unsettling thought that there is even more corruption than they will ever know.

His mother, I sense, feels an enormous, brooding compassion for her dead son. Distraught by the murder and the suggestion of drugs, she went around defending his honor by telling friends that it was a government plot to destroy him. When I arrive at her apartment on the upper tip of Harlem one night to keep our appointment, a young girl answers the door and tells me Gerty is not home. I linger in the lobby a while, then call upstairs. Gerty answers the phone. She tells me that she changed her mind about the interview and won’t be giving any for a while.

Initially, all my attempts at interviewing street people who knew Ted are defensively rejected. Street people will talk about anything but dope. It is everywhere, but the answers to probing questions flow with a lot more difficulty. Writers and narcotics cops ask questions. In the eyes of street people, both spell unwanted attention and trouble. The streets are silent. Most of the people I know from Harlem, or those who hang out but don’t live there, grow quiet and hesitant when I mention the name Ted Gross, except to make it clear that they don’t know anything, don’t know anyone who knows anything, and wish I wouldn’t pursue the story. Even Harlem cops won’t talk about the case. Several people ask me not to take notes during interviews, and just about everyone I talk to asks that his or her name not be mentioned.

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In a Bronx bowling alley that Ted frequented, a man tells me that Gross could not have been involved in dope. “To sell dope,” he says, “you have to hate people. I don’t think Ted could have hated the same young cats he tried to help when he was in office.”

It’s a fair theory, but it’s flawed. There is already evidence that Ted had been involved in dope. And besides, selling dope in no more difficult than sending nameless people off to fight secret wars. You don’t have to face the helpless victims. It’s easy.

I decide to pursue the drug angle if only to establish to what extent Ted had been involved. I go to the office of city narcotics prosecutor Sterling Johnson, half expecting to be searched there, given recent disclosures that Harlem’s major drug dealers have put out a $100,000 contract on Johnson’s head. The story broke in the New York Post, despite Johnson’s request that the reporter not write it, and was more recently alluded to in a New York magazine piece.

I ask if the allegations that Gross was involved in dope are true. Johnson says they are. How involved, I ask. Johnson hesitates, then says he can’t answer that since it might compromise ongoing investigations. He quickly asks me if I know who James Mosley is.

I do. Mosley was indicted along with Gross in the YSA scandal. At the time, police called him the bagman in the kickback deals. Mosley is also the owner of the Bronx bowling alley where Gross bowled on Wednesday nights and where Kenneth Gilmore worked as night manager. Mosley and Gross were close friends at one time and were still on good terms when Gross was murdered. According to newspaper stories, Mosley had turned state’s evidence against Gross in the YSA scandal, a charge he later denied. But I don’t think Johnson is about to tell me something I probably already know.

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“Mosley is a close associate of Pete McDougal,” he says. When I show no sign of recognizing the name, Johnson continues, “McDougal was recently acquitted on a major drug charge.”

The McDougal case was no ordi­nary drug bust. Ten men were named in the massive indictment in a case involving well over 50 kilos of heroin. Of the 10 men including McDougal who were indicted and later acquitted, one was subsequently murdered, another was shot when word circulated that he was a police informer, and a third has turned up missing.

McDougal, Johnson says, is also an established numbers runner in Harlem. “Ted Gross associated with these guys,” says Johnson. “If you saw a guy with faggots all the time, what would you say? Ted was a flashy guy. He liked to hang out with the big guys. He had a jones for the street and fine women. When you hear a name like Ted Gross associated with Mosley and McDougal, you pick that up right away because of who he is. His name came up frequent­ly enough for us to know it wasn’t casual or chance meetings. He was always seen at the bars, clubs, night spots with these guys.”

Johnson tells me that the drug business in Harlem is [so] vicious now that the so-called black mafia has forced out the Italian families who once held tight control over drugs and numbers. Recently things have been complicated by the emergence of a new generation of young blacks who have begun to encroach ruthlessly on the older generation. The old rules no longer apply, and people are dying with alarming regularity.

I ask Johnson if he’s surprised that Ted Gross was killed.

“No,” he says. “I’m not shocked.”


Ted has been dead a week. As I walk back from another tense and unproductive interview, I stop at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street before going down into the subway. The corner is quiet. The languor at dusk will soon build to a disquieting frenzy as night, high humidity, and a mass of hu­manity descend on Harlem’s streets. I watch the faces of the people passing the intersection. People in Harlem always seem to be living life at its most violent extremes. In the group experience of blacks in this country, every­thing is being tried, everything is being felt, but this is especially true in Harlem. This was the Har­lem Ted Gross wanted so much to feel he was a part of, the Harlem he was born in but never really made it in. I search the faces of passersby, looking for what Ted Gross sought here.

I grew up in Newark, not Har­lem, but the streets are the same wherever you find a concentration of blacks living in urban pockets of tenements and projects, and so are other constants: drugs, women, numbers, violent death.

Heroin was the big thing when I was young. We had a lot of names for it, but horse was the most popular. Most of the guys I grew up with couldn’t wait to rush out and start using it. If you weren’t doing dope — mostly just snorting it — then you weren’t hip, and to be accused of being unhip was to be a social pariah.

Just about everyone wanted to be part of the street. It was the first social environment many of us came in contact with, which held out a chance for acceptance and possible success. And though it was insulated, it was, neverthe­less, exciting and alluring. Sure, there were dangers, but that was part of the glamour.

There is no ritual to street life but there are rules. They are un­written and unspoken, but all who drift into or grow up on the streets quickly learn them. Primary among these if you are doing or dealing dope is the understanding that death is always waiting. Life spans in the drug trade are fright­eningly short, determined by a law of diminishing odds: The more successful one is — or the longer one stays in — the greater the like­lihood of never getting out un­harmed. Few die natural deaths. It is not uncommon now for newcom­ers to the business to make big money and quit early, attracting little attention from the narc or competitors. There are, however, those who, for whatever reason, choose to ignore the rules and their instincts and stay longer than they should, or start when they shouldn’t — according to several of his friends, Ted was one of them.

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It is well over a month after Ted Gross’s death before bits of infor­mation about the last three years of his life begin to emerge — from the time he began serving a 16-month sentence in prison until his murder. I get conflicting pictures of Ted in prison. Some sources describe him as constantly brood­ing and often by himself, suggest­ing that he was not making a successful adaptation to prison. Others, however, describe his prison stay as merely uneventful. Sid Davidoff and Barry Gottehrer (special assistants to the mayor at the time Gross was YSA commis­sioner), who saw Gross frequently in prison, recall he was coping reasonably well. “He had the in­tellectual tools that made it poss­ible for him to deal with physical confinement,” Gottehrer tells me.

The truth is that he did, in fact, experience alternating periods of high spiritedness and severe depression. He blamed himself for his family’s deteriorating condition, particularly his daughter’s emotional problems. At other times he was lively and active in prison programs. At Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Storm­ville, New York, he belonged to what the inmates called the “think Tank,” an inmates’ group that arranged for visiting speakers and helped inmates adjust to incar­ceration. Gross also turned to handcrafts, creating works of glass that he would send to his close friends.

One ex-convict who was in prison at the same time tells me that Gross commanded a great deal of respect from the other inmates. “The cat didn’t come across as an inmate the way he handled him­self. In fact, a lot of the younger dudes used to call him Mr. Gross.”

The first year Ted spent outside of prison was difficult and cata­clysmic. His family was fragment­ed. His daughter required psychia­tric counseling. His wife was emotionally tense from the pressure of keeping the household in­tact while Ted had been away. Ted’s first job after he left Green­haven was selling advertising space for the thousands of cement trash containers that had sprung up on street corners around the city. He was on a work-release program at the time at a facility based in Harlem. Several of his Lindsay administration friends say he often called, seeking con­tacts and potential clients. The job didn’t pan out however — the com­pany eventually ran into financial trouble, and its New York opera­tion folded.

Ted must have thought he had achieved redemption when, after he left the work-release phase of his parole, he secured a job with the Department of Corrections, assigned to the state Chaplains program. Reverend Earl Moore, who hired Gross, tells me that Ted was in his element again, working as a liaison between prison in­mates and their families. He pro­vided counseling for inmates and was wheeling and dealing, just like in the Lindsay days — until a Daily News reporter who learned of his new employment wrote about the irony of an ex-convict working for the corrections department. The story generated enough pressure from high up in the corrections hierarchy to get Gross fired.

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“He was so broken up,” Rever­end Moore recalls, “that he sat in my office and cried. He even of­fered to work for nothing, but he still had a family to take care of.”

After that Ted drifted. And at some point his anxiety intensified. He tried to start a gypsy-cab com­pany, a venture that never got off the ground because the cars he bought wouldn’t run and he didn’t have enough money to repair them. He acquired a franchise in an adhesive glue business in New Jersey, but it was obvious to those around him that he found it unsa­tisfying employment. “This is a cat who used to make $35,000 a year, lived like he was making $85,000, lived in a brownstone, had all the finest women, a boat, fur coats. He was a star. He couldn’t work like that,” says one of Gross’s acquaintances.

Mostly, he spent his time trying to make fast-buck deals here and there. His operative theory was that if he could start several small businesses, he could make a tidy profit. And, in dope, he could make an even bigger one.

Gross’s re-emergence into the street culture had not been met with overwhelming acceptance. He still had numerous friends and acquaintances, but inside the nar­cotics underworld to which he aspired he was anathema. His cre­dentials were, in the street sense, flawed, his tenure in the Lindsay administration having marked him as a different animal alto­gether. His crime — “the white man’s crime,” says one acquaint­ance — was not the stuff of which street legends are made.

Also not in Gross’s favor was the embarrassing fact that he had no money. He came out of prison owing thousands in back taxes on his house in addition to owing on a tidy mortgage. There were also thousands of dollars in long-over­due parking fines and hefty credit­-card bills.

To get money Ted began borrowing from friends and selling nonexistent shares of the glue business, in an attempt to scrape together enough to buy his way into narcotics. Money or no, another man tells me, Ted had no chance of cracking the big-time drug mar­ket. He was intemperate, impetu­ous, kaleidoscopically wild. His instincts for the business were wrong. One man who says his association with Gross was fre­quent, though not intimate, tells me of one occasion on which sev­eral young Harlem dealers were discussing the cutting and distri­buting of a good portion of heroin. At one point, the man says, Gross interjected a suggestion about some facet of the distribution that betrayed his ignorance. Suddenly, everything went silent — it was clear to those who were there that Ted was a rank amateur. He was embarrassed.

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Unable to dent the inner circle, Ted fell back on dealing with the marginal characters, satellites or­biting on the periphery of the drug traffic. Even there, it was possible to turn a fast dollar. It takes only a small initial investment. One can, for example, parlay a purchase of $3000 worth of dope into a profit of close to $15,000. Reinvesting $10,000 of that can reap you a windfall of $50,000. One man tells me that Ted Gross was just begin­ning to master this pyramiding formula when he was killed.

Ted Gross had, indeed, been a manchild who mistakenly thought he had found his idyllic promised land in the ghetto subculture of hustlers and pushers, fast money and fast women. But the fact is that Ted had come to the street life late, ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of living on the treadmill of a fantasy. By the time he had graduated from Shaw, Ted had spent 15 of his 22 years away from the street. In a way, Ted Gross was actually just living his Harlem childhood for the first time.

Gross was of that Harlem gener­ation which painfully gave birth to Malcolm X and a whole movement of black pride and social and polit­ical activism. Many who had grown up in the streets went through a metamorphosis, trading partying for politicking, numbers for nationalism. Ted missed that, too. Instead, he came back to a Harlem again benumbed by ne­glect and overrun with dope.

No one who knew him could fail, in some way, to be affected by Gross’s vitality. He was highly articulate and impassioned, drawing people into the center of himself. The immediacy, the impatience, the tumult of his emotions — all were staggering. He was driven, it seems, by a need for constant attention and a gluttonous hunger for approval. He was in fanatical pursuit of affection. And the street, to a certain extent, provided that. But Ted Gross was also a naive man, flirting with self-destruction. And the street provided that, too.


‘We’ve Got a Contender’

This month the city is making a manic attempt to convey its bygone grandeur. On the Fourth there was more white flapping in the harbor than on sheet-airing day in a whorehouse. And mid-month the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will arrive to honor the man who wind-sprinted through the primaries, the Georgia Preach.

That old slattern Broadway will be gussied up in an attempt to remove its younger sisters from the streets. But it’s all cosmetic. The sounds of decay and death will be excluded from the mindless chatter inside the Garden, while the insistent offstage reverberations remain as ominous as those in “The Cherry Orchard.”

The one vestige of our halcyon days resides in the Bronx — the Yankees. By playing majestic ball and with some front office high­handedness, the team resembles the pin-striped aristocracy of old. True, the city floated the ballooned price for refurbishing the stadium, and owner George Steinbrenner seems to fit the mold of the boardmen who have always run the Yankees.

For openers, he was convicted for illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign, but Jimmy Bres­lin tells us in his book on Water­gate, How the Good Guys Finally Won, that Steinbrenner might have been the first whiff that aired the Nixon stink.

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According to Breslin, Steinbrenner (always a large Democratic contributor) padlocked his checkbook in ’72. When he was asked to explain his new-found frugality, Steinbrenner told the Democratic alms-seekers that the Nixon forces had threatened him with an extensive audit of back income taxes if he didn’t make a large contribution to CREEP. Breslin reports that this incident and others like it led House Speak­er Tip O’Neill to the conclusion that the Nixon gang was into knav­ery not yet conceived by the other side of the aisle.

After being suspended from baseball last season (in reality he was as excluded as Robespierre), Steinbrenner’s first edict this year was that the Yankees’ hair should be shorn. (I have come to believe that a darning egg is an erotic symbol in the Midwest.) Then there was the flap over the stadi­um’s financing, the city’s reneging on the promise to rebuild the area surrounding the park, and the Yankees playing feudal barons in determining who should be allowed to rent the stadium we paid for (the Moonies, passing tonsorial muster, were approved).

So taking all these overtures, the Yankees seem (on the surface) their old nasty selves. Such pre­ludes don’t kindle passion, espe­cially in the heart of an old Nation­al League rooter. But my Giants are long gone, and one can’t go through life listening to Tony Ben­nett warble about coronary dis­placement.

And so we are left with the Yankees, a situation akin to the old dilemma of being stranded on an island with a nun.

The Yankees have been adopted as our surrogate gun to instill fear into the hinterlands. Survival, not grand passion, is the issue. There is precedent for this. Surely no one believes that the hard hats found anything in common with William Buckley. Indeed, Buckley was the archetype of the kid they used to chase home from school, but they needed a verbal gun to tangle with their antagonists. So be it with the Yankees. During our sad interlude their foreboding pin stripes are the symbolic gate that is holding the tiger at bay.

The aristocratic trappings aside, the Yankees have changed. Stein­brenner has surrounded himself with solid baseball men. He hired Gabe Paul as general manager from Cleveland, and Paul is a freewheeling trader and an astute appraiser of personnel. Many peo­ple credit Paul with putting to­gether the pennant-winning 1961 Cincinnati Reds, and he is the man who hired Pete Rose. Since he joined the Yankees in 1973, Paul has swapped flesh with the abandon of a harem master.

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Only two of the current Yankee starters — Thurman Munson and Roy White — are products of the Yankee system. Indeed, not since Victor Frankenstein scoured the countryside has a monster been created from so many divergent sources. The Yankees’ current credo is similar to that of Emma Lazarus.

Then there is the matter of race. The Yankees of yore, when they were a whale of a team, bowed in pigment to Moby Dick. The cur­rent team has five black starters, and on a day when Dock Ellis and Elrod Hendricks are battery mates, seven of the starting nine are black! Moreover, they have abandoned their traditional white centerpiece — the man on the wed­ding cake — in centerfield. Once the province of Di Maggio, Mantle, and Murcer, centerfield belongs to Mickey Rivers, and backup is Elliott Maddox.

But obtaining the players is one thing. Getting them to function tandem is quite another. It is here, that the Yankees rolled the dice by hiring Billy Martin. No more fatherly “Iron Major” Houks or bland Bill Verdons. The front office stooped to conquer when they anointed Martin — tough, streetwise, and unpredictable and skitterish thoroughbred who was fired by three teams after he had led them to winning seasons! (It should be remembered the Yankees once exiled Phil Linz for playing a Goddamn harmonica a bus!) Amazing that the Wasp Yankees would hire “Billy the Kid,” “The Brat,” the tough “dago.” Martin, who punched out Jimmy Piersall, who made headlines with his birthday brawl in the Copa and was traded shortly thereafter from the Yanks, and who as a manager at Minnesota “put out the lights” of Dave Boswell, one of his best pitchers. To the old Yankee brass, Martin would be considered a guttersnipe. To the current front office, he is seen as the premier skipper in baseball. It’s a good tout. Con­sider:

Martin, like Eddie Stanky, always exceeded his soupcon of talent with brains, aggressiveness, and a penchant to fade the action when the stakes were high. Branch Rickey once said about Stanky that he couldn’t run, throw, or hit, but he was the best damn second ba­seman Rickey every saw. Casey Stengel said that Martin was the smartest player he ever had, and his record as a player is telling.

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Martin holds a lifetime batting average of .257, while in World Series play he hit .333. In 11 years as a player — 3419 at-bats — he hit 64 home runs, in 99 at-bats in four World Series he hit five. His home run percentage in regular season play was 1.9 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent in the Series. In the 1952 Series he made the famous catch of Jackie Robinson’s pop fly to save the Series for the Yanks. In 1953 he won the Babe Ruth Award for the best player in the Series batting .500 by going 12 for 21 including a double, two triples, two homers, and five RBIs, plus 1 stolen base. Martin fit the Hemingway canon of grace under pressure.

In 1968, serving as a coach for the Twins, he was offered a chance to manage Denver in Triple-A ball. Martin said he didn’t want the job (“I liked the security of a third base coach”), but his second wife Gretchen insisted he take the chance. Rumor had it Minnesota was giving Martin a last meal —­ they were looking to dump him and felt his fiery nature would add discord to an already floundering minor league club. He took over a seven and 22 team and transformed them into a 65–50 winner by season’s end. The next year Minnesota, with Billy’s cherry pie all over its face, hired him as the manager of the parent club. Minnesota won the divisional championship, and Martin lost his job. The end result might be characterized as a case where the operation was a success but the doctor died.

Martin sat out the ’70 season and in ’71 took charge of the Detroit Tigers, leading them to a divisional championship in ’72. He lost that job in September ’73 and a week later was hired by the Texas Rangers, whom he led to a second place finish. In 1974 he won the Manager of the Year Award but was fired by Texas in July of ’75 when he was picked up by the Yankees.

It seems that in the baseball world Martin is someone with whom you have an affair or a fling but never a relationship. His fire makes him irresistible to Geritol owners, but Christ, a steady diet? He suffers the fate of many lovers — his spirit, his unorthodoxy leads to coupling, but the constant heat burns the union to ashes. Like a frisky terrier, the hope is always to channel the spirit “construc­tively,” but Martin refuses to be housebroken. He has warred with owners, general managers, players, umpires, and the press. Martin is not your man if your ­ultimate aim is to get him to piss ­obediently on a paper in the corner.

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But Gabe Paul, by the nature of his trades, seems to fathom Martin’s personality. Martin says his managerial philosophy is simple: take it to the opposition, force them to make mistakes. And in concert with Martin, Paul has fashioned such a team.

It is similar to the team that Leo Durocher demanded and got when he became manager of the Giants, and the comparison doesn’t end there. Durocher and Martin wedded by baseball genius, cocki­ness, quicksilver tempers, a gam­bler’s instinct, and desire to win that exceeds Chuck Colson and his supine grandmother.

To past Yankee teams, the steal, the hit and run, the squeeze were proletarian gambits to be used occasionally (more to alleviate monotony, one suspected, than of necessity). When Yankee runners reached base, they waited there with the hauteur of a man who is always assured he can commdeer a cab in the rain. The trip home was guaranteed by a Di Maggio, Henrich, Mantle, Berra, or Maris. Under Martin, everyone carries a token.

Even Martin’s room in the club­house lacks grandeur. With its white pocked cement walls, it looks (fittingly enough) like the inside of a bunker. The furniture is functional Ramada Inn, and the sterility of the walls is interrupted only twice — by a plastic Pepsi-Cola clock (it compounds more than interrupts) and by a photo of Casey Stengel doffing his cap.

Martin sits behind his cluttered desk. He is lean, and the only validations of his brawler’s rep are impressive forearms and outsize bony fists for a man of his build. But it is his dark, on-the-prowl, pit-boss eyes (every sonnuva bitch is pocketing an ace) and his long nose that predominate.

Alfred Manuel Martin was born May 16, 1928, in Berkeley, California, to a Portuguese father (Marteen) and an Italian mother. Eight months after his birth his father cakewalked, and this psychic blow may have led to the physical ones he later visited on others. The “Billy” came from his grandmother’s calling him “bello” (“beautiful” in Italian).

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Martin’s mother still lives in Berkeley in the oldest house in the city, but it is difficult to imagine Martin as anything other than a New York Italian. His style de­mands such designation. Two other out-0f-towners come to mind in their personification of the city; Leo Durocher (Springfield, Mas­sachusetts) was as much Brooklyn as the trolley car, and Toots Shor (Philadelphia) seemed like the Jewish Jimmy Walker.

In an interview Martin has a sense of self-presence. There are theatrical props: half-lens glasses lie on his desk, and he puffs on a large U-shaped pipe — scholarly ar­tifacts to offset his tough image. But then they are more than props, since even his critics admit he is an ardent student of the game and an organizational wizard. G.M. Jim Campbell of Detroit said, after firing him: “Foul line to foul line, Billy was exemplary.”

Indeed, Martin is so much for “the club” he really doesn’t think outsiders should intrude in its do­main. When asked if he is doing anything to fill the gap at shortstop (collectively, Mason and Stanley are hitting about 60 points below Ty Cobb’s best season), he shoots back, “Who says there is a gap?”

When informed “the press” for one example, he retorts, “If writers knew any Goddamn thing, they would be managers.”

When questioned if there is bad blood between him and Elliott Maddox, Martin says that’s “in­ternal stuff — nobody wants to read about that.”

He will tell you he never embar­rasses any of his players in public: “That’s bush.” Criticism, when it comes, usually comes privately, first from one of his coaches, and if that isn’t heeded, he will step in.

Probably no other manager in baseball controls more aspects of the game. Martin does it all: shifts the fielders, calls pitchouts, and nobody runs without his okay. On any other club such adept runners as Rivers and Willie Randolph would have a carte blanche go-­sign. When Rivers (possibly the fastest man in the game) was asked about this, he answered abruptly: “Ask Billy. He handles everything. I just do what he tells me.”

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But Martin’s tutorial style is liberating to others. Oscar Gamble says he never played for a manag­er who utilizes his players more, and Greg Nettles (with seven sto­len bases) says no other manager ever thought of giving him a go-sign!

Martin has been quoted as say­ing a manager of his sort can change the outcome of 20 to 50 games. He also has been quoted as stating that the secret of managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four who are unsure. But then Martin changes quotes as quickly as signs.

He now says the manager does more work in the clubhouse than on the field. It is in the clubhouse that personalities have to be assuaged, and where one must stay on top of “little problems.”

Martin, who said in his playing days that he was “the proudest Yankee,” sees baseball as an ex­ample for life. There is loyalty on a team, and that is an attribute he cherishes. When Casey Stengel (whom he considers the greatest manager he ever saw) didn’t back up Martin after the Copa incident, he didn’t talk to Stengel for five years. Martin simply commented, “I was mad. It takes me much longer than other people to get over things. That’s the way I am.”

Now he pays the ultimate hom­age to Stengel by imitation. When he walks to the mound, he sticks his right hand in his back pocket just as his mentor did, and he has even adopted Stengel’s funny little trot.

To Martin, the business world could learn much from the club­house, because it is there you find “pride, desire, self-sacrifice — like the Marine slogan of ‘Semper Fi­delis.’ ” Such attitudes coincide with Martin’s Catholicism. He is a churchgoer and wears a gold cross on his cap. Churches and club­houses give the same security as a ring of wagons — you always know where the enemy is.

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But the interesting side of Martin is his dark unpredictability. He exudes a scent of danger, as Sonny Liston did in private and Norman Mailer does at a literary function. One waits for a stroke of irratio­nality, a physical move. And Mar­tin is well aware of this, since he gives imitations of sportswriters avoiding his eyes and shuffling their feet.

But when he strikes out, he is not beyond smoothing it over with diplomacy. When Bowie Kuhn killed the Vida Blue deal, Martin said the decision was “worse than Watergate,” a comment that must have driven Steinbrenner to dis­traction, considering his recent history. But Martin viewed the remark as his inalienable right: “This is America. You can say what you please. Kuhn’s decision had nothing to do with ethics — it had to do with money. If we got Blue and three minor-league players who couldn’t play for $200,000, nothing would have been said. Ethics weren’t involved.”

Billy the Kid has his code, and those who cross him will be dealt with. This time around, one feels he’ll survive because he respects Paul as a peer, not some bump­tious millionaire who bought a club as a toy to tinker with. Paul is a church elder.

One also feels Paul must re­ciprocate, because this complex individual has imprinted his per­sonality on the club, making it function like so many Billy Mar­tins. Martin also must be viewed as an alchemist, since players such as Rivers, Chris Chambliss, and Ga­mble are playing the best ball of their careers. Dock Ellis has re­discovered his arm, and Lyle has reignited his old spark. The result is that the Yankees are breezing toward a pennant despite a titanic hole in their infield and an outfield with arms so weak they would be granted immunity to play catch in the Hall of Mirrors.

But what about all that self-sa­crificing, Semper Fidelis razzma­tazz? Is this the message we want to give to the burghers out there? Take heart. When asked if he still drinks with his players, Martin replied with a side-pocket grin, “I’m from the Abe Lincoln school. You know what he said about General Grant? ‘Find out what he’s on, and give it to everyone else.’ Maybe that’s what the other owners should do — find out what shit I’m on and give it to their managers.”

Are you listening, America? We’ll tell you — “Billy Boy is here.”

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Theater Uncategorized

Joe Papp Crowns Himself 

At the top of a Central Park hill, sweating in the cruel afternoon sun, some 50 young men are fran­tically waving banners, thwacking at each other with sticks, and hauling a huge wooden tower around. Furiously concentrated, seemingly oblivious to the heat, they respond to shouted commands from a man in a white shirt. Joe Papp, rehearsing Henry V, is once more leading his troupe.

Though he directs his followers with the single-minded intensity that young Henry brought to the fields of Agincourt, Papp carries 54 years. And despite his relentless omnipresence in the American theatre scene, his energies are not limitless. Three or four hours into rehearsal, the heat begins to get to him, and he removes his shirt. Suddenly, King Henry vanishes. Revealing, in an old-fashioned sleeveless undershirt, Shmuel Papirofsky’s aging boy.

Joseph Papp is both: the leader operating with what one critic called Henry’s “brilliance of inspired efficiency,” and the street-smart survivor of an impoverished Williamsburg childhood. There, as shoe-shine boy, chicken-plucker and — with his father — as a push­cart peanut vendor, life was work. It still is. The GI Bill and the Actors Studio may have provided a path to affluence, but the habit of struggle is ingrained. Henry’s leadership, in a mystery obscured by the centuries, was a function of his noble birth; Papp’s, perhaps no less mysteriously, is a triumph of the will.

“This play is really a study of leadership,” he said during a din­ner break, “of the leader of a major organization — a president, maybe — anybody that is in charge of men. It’s the third time I’ve done this play, and I’m doing it again now because I’ve learned a great deal about leadership since the last time. Now Paul Rudd, who’s playing Henry, doesn’t know any of that yet. He’s still really beginning; I gave him his first job, in the ensemble, only a few years ago. So I have to teach him about leadership. My authority has to be gradually transferred to him. For instance, I have to let him talk directly to the ensemble — direct them, almost — until he begins to feel like a king. A king, right. This isn’t some fucking Ei­senhower. He’s got to feel about his men the way I feel about the people in this show. Their souls are their own, but their duty is to me.”

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For Papp, leadership is not sim­ply a matter of hortatory rhetoric, but an all-consuming attention to detail. During a brief break in rehearsing Henry, three men in suits suddenly appear at his side. Carrying proposed illustrations from the adventurous ad agency of Case & McGrath (“I picked ’em myself,” says Papp. “Everyone said I was crazy to take a firm that hadn’t done theatre before, but they’ve been great.”), they retreat with Papp to the upper reaches of the Delacorte Theatre where he critically examines their work. Pleased with the illustration for Henry V, he nonetheless insists that a new model be brought in to pose for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, then dis­misses them. “And don’t,” he adds as they turn to make their way down the aisles, “Say ‘The Public Theatre.’ Say ‘The New York Shakespeare Festival.’ The theatre’s only a place; the festival is the organization.”

The New York Shakespeare Fes­tival is a somewhat anachronistic misnomer for an $8.5 million com­bine that, like Papp, came up from poverty. From its exceedingly unprepossessing origins in a black Presbyterian church located between Avenues C and D on the Lower East Side, the Shakespeare Festival is at once the hottest ticket on Broadway (A Chorus Line), the establishment (Papp’s operation at Lincoln Center), six theatres and workshops at the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street, and, of course, free Shake­speare in the park. In addition to the plays and playwrights he de­velops himself, his tentacles reach out to regional theatres as far away as Minnesota and snake through the city’s ethnic and avant garde companies. At his command, a play may begin in a workshop at the Public Theatre, be staged by an independent company as an Equity showcase, move back to the Public for a full-dress run, and then leap to the high-risk, high-profit commercial center of Broadway. And when he scores, Papp scores big. Including film rights and touring companies, A Chorus Line alone should pump more than $6 million annually back into the festival. And because the parent organization must by law be nonprofit, that money can only be used for still more expansion. As a result, The New York Shakespeare Festival, already the single most important force in contemporary theatre, will inevitably grow more powerful. With Joe Papp as its undisputed leader.

He is the organization’s engine; money is its fuel. Over the years, the festival has run up a sizable deficit (“We have about a million dollars in unpaid bills,” he says calmly), and the profits from A Chorus Line could put it firmly into the black for the first time in its history. “But that,” he points out, “Is what you call a very uncreative use of money. So I said let’s not pay the bills. Let’s take it and bang it into something that’s important for us. And that’s writers.”

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Thus a sizable chunk of the Chorus Line profits will go to a new festival enterprise: a play­wrights-on-payroll project. “Lis­ten,” he edges forward in his chair, “we’re going to have maybe 20 people who’ll be able to write plays for a living. Not a big living, but a real one, maybe as much as $10,000 a year. Plus — and this is the advantage of the payroll arrange­ment — unemployment, hospitalization… The kind of stuff that writers never get.”

It all sounds marvelous, but the stratagem behind it is classically expansionist: Never get out of debt, always use any new money to grow, always have a reason to ask people for even more. Become indispensable, then force people to keep you going. This sequence is part of the Papp armamentarium.

Years ago, he hustled some money to buy the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and turn it into a collection of theatres. (“We kept a landmark from being torn down: people were glad to help us do that.”) He made it a genuinely exciting space with theatres of different shapes and sizes, poured every available dollar into renovating it, and created a place where a playwright’s dreams at least had a shot at coming true. Then he cried poor. Using the press — and the romance surrounding the free Shakespeare in the park — which, of course, could have gone on without the Public Theatre — he pressed the city for help. He got his financial backers — the Upper East Side cul­tural establishment, who were also John Lindsay’s constituency — to lean on the mayor. Finally he sold the buildings back to the city for $2.6 million, then leased it from them for a dollar a year. With all that capital — and six theatres for only a dollar a year — he expanded again, this time by underwriting productions at other companies.

If that all sounds more like Sammy Glick than like Henry V, it should, for there is at least a side of Papp that is as success-obsessed as Schulberg’s slum kid who made it big in Hollywood. That Papp surfaced in his aborted attempt to organize a Broadway season for his playwrights last year, essentially reducing the Public Theatre to a mere workshop. His increas­ing use of the Public Theatre as a prestige-conferring showcase for companies which developed their styles apart from him — this year’s Beckett performances by Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines troupe was only the most notable example — shows that side as well. Like David Merrick scouring London theatres for Broadway vehicles, Papp patrols the avant-garde. As a result, though the Public Theatre may be full of treasures, many theatre people see Papp more as a claim jumper than a pioneer.

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But it isn’t that simple. He isn’t that simple. Just when it seems that he has overreached himself and allowed the entrepreneur to overwhelm the experimenter, he suddenly relocates his original obsession and pursues it with the same relentless drive that pro­pelled him out of the jungle of Williamsburg. And through the only slightly more polite jungle of Manhattan theatre.

In those moments, though Papp is no less driven, “making it big” has less to do with Broadway marquees than with an almost abstract search for quality. The search is still single-minded, but it contains an element of detachment that makes it almost noble.

This Papp emerges as he directs Henry V. Not so much in the collision of the French and English forces as in the victorious king’s romantic byplay with Katherine of France. Their romance, which dominates the play’s final act, has been a perpetual problem for Shakespeareans, causing centuries of critics to echo Dr. Johnson’s strictures: “The truth is that the poet’s matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skill­ful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity.”

And yet, as Papp develops the scene, its tenderness becomes unpredictably affecting. At first, he works with Rudd, setting the tone of Henry’s speeches, seeing their flatness as part of a deliberate effort not to overwhelm Katherine with his newly proven magnificence. “No, no, Paul,” he counsels, “what you’re trying to do here is comfort her, make her a little more at ease.” As Rudd gradually finds his way inside the lines, Meryl Streep’s Katherine begins to respond in kind. Sud­denly, the electricity between them is palpable, and Henry is at once king and lover.

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“I’d wanted to play Henry for a long time,” says Rudd, “so I had my own ideas pretty well established, but there’s no other director in the theatre who could give me what Joe has. He identifies so strongly with the character that what I’m learning is Joe’s own understanding of himself. He’s deepened, not changed, the Henry that I’ve thought about. Now, those human moments — when he’s alone, with his brothers, or with Kate — those are more mature than I could have imagined.

“The strength that’s in Henry normally doesn’t come across in those scenes, so you don’t understand why his soldiers followed him the way they did. In this play, you will. Henry — and Joe — find a specialness in people and use it to make them rise to their capacity. We’ve done the battle scenes hundreds of times now, but the ensemble will still do everything he asks them. There are guys flinging themselves around in ways you wouldn’t believe, all for him. And by opening night, they’ll be doing it for me — for Henry.”

Papp has always been among the most physical of directors, and bodies were hurtling across his stage and bashing into one another when O’Horgan was a harpist. Actors do what he demands —­ and perhaps more than they ima­gined themselves capable of — because he expects it. And because — like Henry in the play Papp has returned to more than any of Shakespeare’s other histo­ries — he is quick to reward loyalty. And to punish any flagging: “There are 60 guys in the ensem­ble — and they’re all damn lucky to be there — so if I see someone sitting on his ass behind me smok­ing a cigarette when other people are out there moving the tower, he’s through. That’s all.

“But there are, every year, one or two who emerge, who become leaders themselves. They’re a lit­tle hungrier than the others, maybe, but whatever it is, they must be supported. Right now, I guess I believe in individuality more than anything else, and I’m gonna respond to anyone who shows that kind of individual drive.

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“It’s a critical time now — a per­fect time to be working with Henry V — because right now we’re going through a time of no leadership. I’m not a political director in any simplistic sense; ideology per se I find boring in life and boring in the theatre. Like with Jimmy Carter, there’s an unknown there, and it’s the unknown that interests me. The predictable is the worst thing on stage or in life. So I don’t find his smile negative; I find it,” he pauses, “interesting. I want to know what’s behind it, of course, but I already know that he’s a man who’s certain what he wants — and is prepared to go out and get it.”

He could, of course, be talking about himself. Eating dinner in a small Italian restaurant near the park, seeming to forget his striped bass while he gestures with a focused intensity, he is charming. He is also, I suspect, fully as calculating as the masquerading Henry V walking among his troops. One can never forget that Joe Papp is one of the two people to face down Robert Moses and get away with it. And that the other — Nelson Rockefeller — has a lot more going for him than any kid from Wil­liamsburg ever did. If ever a man was prepared to go out and get exactly what he wanted, it is Joe Papp. And so one wonders, as one does with Jimmy Carter, about the vision behind the smile.

So does Papp. On Henry, again: “For the six months before we started rehearsal this time, I immersed myself in history. I was trying to find the reasons why a small group of men could overwhelm a host 10 times their size. I know about the shape of the harbors, I know about the geogra­phy at Harfleur, I know how many people it took to maintain a siege, I know the accuracy of a long bow. I knew all about medieval arms, everything like that. But I still find the roots psychological. I know why Henry won and the French lost: A leaderless group can al­ways be defeated by a small number of men supported by their own self-assurance and faith in their leader.

“But the leader has to have faith in himself. And that’s why the most important scene in the play is when Michael Williams — and this is the first time in non-comic English theatre where you have common men with two names — questions the authenticity of the war. It’s a turning point because Henry­ — whose father stole the crown­ — needs to feel that his cause is pure. And there he is, on the eve of the most important battle in his life, and he thinks he’s doing pretty well, and there’s this one son of a bitch questioning everything. All of a sudden, he’s got to ask himself, ‘Must you be pure? Do you have to be impeccable?’ ”

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That question is one that Papp is struggling to answer for himself. Sometimes, as when he defends his Broadway adventure by arguing that it was the only way for his playwrights to make real money, the attempt seems a contrived rationalization for his own ambi­tion. At others, he seems genuinely striving for a kind of purity rare in the theatre. Or anywhere.

Certainly Papp’s energies and fiscal razzle-dazzle are a key ele­ment in New York’s fantastic explosion of minority theatre. Woodie King, whose New Federal Theatre has consistently developed new black and Puerto Rican playwrights and actors, is only one beneficiary of the Papp largess: “When we did Colored Girls at the Federal, it cost us about $8,000; Joe put up half of that. Right now, it’s at the Public, making a little money for the first time, and we’re getting half of those profits to put back into other new productions. And when it goes to Broadway in the fall, we’ll still have a piece of it. But it’s not just that he’s abso­lutely fair as far as money goes —­ though that’s rare enough, right — ­it’s that he had the guts to go with that play from the beginning. He’s a leader, not a follower. Even if Colored Girls hadn’t been a success, it would always be a bench mark for any play that really was built on poetry. And he was eager to be out there with it.”

That sort of putting one’s money where one’s ideals are has long been a mark of Papp’s operation, but it paradoxically grows more difficult as there is more money to spread around. It’s a long way from the basement of the ghetto church to the marble excesses of Lincoln Center, and the sheer size of the operation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, there is just too much to keep track of, and bureaucracy perforce replaces personality. With the routinization of charisma, the obsessive search for quality quietly ends. “Inspired brilliance of efficiency” becomes, as it did for Henry V, meaningless.

Papp knows that — he is tormented by it. “I need,” he said, “a course of action to believe in.” But as he left the restaurant, he began to walk faster. “It will take me,” he said as he crossed the street against the light, “exactly seven minutes to get back to the theatre from here. And rehearsal is set to start up again in five.” By the time he reached the edge of the park, he was running. Still.


Lou Reed Rising

Naked Lunch Becomes TV Dinner: The Rise of Punk Rock

No “legendary” rock band of the 1960s has proven more legendary than the Velvet Underground. The name alone (before it was abbreviated by fans into “the Velvets”) carried a special resonance, evoking Genet decadence, whip-and-leather s&m, Warhol chic, and European ennui. And even though other urban bands (the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Rascals) were more commercially successful at the time, the best songs of the Velvets (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Waiting for the Man,” “Beginning to See the Light”) have an emotional texture and a sharply defined drive which propel the songs beyond the time in which they were written.

Yet when one tries to think of the Velvet Underground photographically, one draws a grainy blur. The great rock stars of the ’60s live vividly in our memories through their photos; one thinks of the Beatles first in their suit-uniforms, then in their glossy Sgt. Pepper outfits, of Hendrix in his black-nimbus Afro and layers of scarves, of countless shots of Jagger pouting and preening and hip-thrusting. Yet the Velvets, except for the imperially lovely Nico, seemed not to occupy visual space at all. Even when one listens to their live albums now, it’s impossible to imagine what they looked like playing their instruments — they don’t come into focus. This shadowiness makes the power of their music all the more provocative since it means that not theatricality but its absence is what gives that music its current urgency. The Velvets didn’t have a strong stud-star at center stage (as did the Stones and the Doors) and didn’t provide a good-vibes community atmosphere (as did the Dead and the Airplane) and didn’t attempt to stagger the audience with histrionics (as did Alice Cooper and just about everybody else). What makes the Velvets vital now is not only what they had but what they lacked: stylishness, ornamentation, politics, and a hedonistic ethos.

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I first heard the Velvet Underground in the record library of Frostburg State College in western Maryland; the album, their first (with a jacket painting by Warhol), was the only rock album in the entire collection, and that distinction intrigued me. Yet, except for their chanteuse, Nico, and her ghostfloating vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” except for Reed’s quirky phrasing and John Cale’s merciless viola on “Black Angel’s Death Song,” the music was unenthralling. The liner-note quotes about “three-ring psychosis” and “Warhol’s brutal assemblage” described a realm of experience that was for me as faraway and nocturnally exotic as Apollinaire’s Paris, or Brecht’s Berlin. At a time when the most popular bands on campus were corporate entities like Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was difficult to connect with a band that dedicated songs to Delmore Schwartz. What I didn’t know at the time was that the Velvet Underground had already disbanded, that they had left behind not one studio album but four; only when I came to New York and discovered a dingy copy of White Light/White Heat in a Canal Street 99¢ bin did the music of the Velvets hit me with its careening bloodrushing force.

Now, three years later, their music is even more compelling. And though the Velvets were either ignored or denounced in their prime — they go undiscussed in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City and Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock, and even in Stephen Koch’s vertiginously brilliant book about Warhol their music is described as “the hideous ‘acid’ maundering … of insufferable navel-gazing guitars” — it’s clear now that they were the supreme American avant-garde band. With the Warhol affiliation no longer impinging upon their aesthetic, the music can be freshly heard and appreciated for its radical primitivism. “Sister Ray” is still throbbingly dissonant, a river of electronic fever, and the best of Loaded is as vibrantly alive as if it had been recorded last week at C.B.G.B. by white-shirted kids with virginal Stratocasters. This is true precisely because the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative. The Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, the Grateful Dead — all were more experimental, eclectic, and orchestrally inventive, yet there’s something wanly dated about their music now … it’s as pale and faded as old Peter Max posters, or discarded copies of the EVO. Once the values and sentiments of the psychedelicized counterculture lost their sway, the audaciousness of the music seemed sheer pretentiousness — intricate toys being passed off as sacerdotal gifts. The desire for community was so fervent, and the reverence for pop stars so fanatically intense, that when John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Elvis … don’t believe in Beatles,” people reacted as if he had said something shattering, something revolutionary. If someone next week sang, “I don’t be-Aretha … don’t believe in Roxy,” he’d earn a tempest of derisive laughter. And rightly so.

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Well, the Velvets never fell for the platitudes of transcendence (via acid) and community (via rock) which distance us from so much of the Sgt. Pepper era rock. The dynamics of the Velvets’ music — its disorderliness, loneliness, melancholy, abrupt joyfulness, claustrophobia (contrasted with the wide blue vistas of much post-Woodstock rock), chiaroscuro shadings (contrasted with the Peppery psychedelicized rainbows), antihedonism, and druggy wistfulness — are consonant with the tensions of the Ford era. Though there’s a pull of litany in their songs, the Velvets were never purveyors of salvation — they were always too thoughtful, too tentative. Their modest expectations, their distrust of charisma (both political and cultural), and their disdain for grand gestures are attitudes congruent with the apolitical politics of Jerry Brown. (Is this why Alexander Cockburn plays “Sister Ray” at least five times a day?) It’s a leaderless time, and the Velvets never believed in leaders; their music always stressed survival over community. Even their most beautiful love songs (“Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) were about the distances between people — about the inability to penetrate the mystery of the other. The drug they sang about was not a vision-inducing agent like acid, or a partytime pass-it-around substance like pot, but the drug that most completely isolates one from others: heroin. The Velvets’ music was about nihilism, the nihilism of the street, and this barely bridled energy — what John Cale called “controlled distortion” — is expressed cinematically by Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah novelistically by William Burroughs, musically by post-Velvet rockers like Patti Smith (who sings “Pale Blue Eyes” more passionately than Lou Reed ever did), Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Dolls, Talking Heads, and Television.

The Heads and Television may even be more commercially successful than the Velvets originally were because both are more melodic, more visible (unobscured by multimedia effects), and more photogenic. The Heads look like a still from a Godard movie (“La Chinoise,” maybe) and Tom Verlaine looks like Artaud from Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” But since they’re as yet unsigned, the underground-rock breakthrough which is most precipitous is embodied in a wonky little wacker named Jonathan Richman, the auteur-alumnus of a Velvet-influenced band called the Modern Lovers.

This Jonathan Richman, a feral child of Rocky and Bullwinkle, will soon be shuffling his way across the FM dial and into America’s bruised bosom. Richman has already received moderate airplay and modest notoriety with his soupy contributions to Beserkley Chartbusters, Vol. 1, particularly his witty celebration of highway life called “Roadrunner,” which offers a fine antidote to Springy’s overripe imagery. An album of keen documentary interest has just been released which may make Jonathan Richman a household name in every household in which Mary Hartman is the smiling madonna. It’s called Modern Lovers and it’s a demo tape produced by ex-Velvet John Cale for a Warner Bros. album which was never made. The Velvet influence is reflected not only in the music (the organ work, for example, is strongly reminiscent of “Sister Ray”) but in the expression of angst.

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Fascinating is the contrast between the New York of Loaded and the Boston of Modern Lovers. Where the cityscape of the Velvet Underground is cluttered yet lonely, Richman’s ironic rhapsodies about Boston conjure up a city which is somnolently empty, a city visually and aurally impoverished.

I’m in love with the modern world
Massachusetts when it’s late at night
And the neon when it’s cold outside
I got the radio on
Just like a roadrunner

(“Roadrunner”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan’s Music)

And here is Richman faced with the mysteries of amour at his local bank:

There’s only three in the other lines
In my line, well, I count eleven
Well, that’s fine cause I’m in heaven
I got a crush on the new bank teller
She looks at me and she knows

(“The New Teller”/Jonathan Richman/Jonathan Music)

Small wonder Joni Mitchell is having sleepless nights …

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Yet when Susan Sontag wrote that new art is painful because it hurts having your sensorium stretched, she was anticipating Richman’s effect. For he has an unforgettable voice: off-key, off-pitch, so achingly widehorizonly flat that it makes a Rothko painting resemble a lunar landscape by comparison. When he performed last year at C.B.G.B., he lazily strummed his acoustic guitar and yammered mindlessly on about Love, wonderful Love, and how wonderful it is to have a girlfriend to share Love in the Modern World with, strum strum strum, and after the audience gave him exaggerated bravos, he performed his special version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the third or fourth time.

Wedded to such an instrument of torture, Richman’s Weltschmerz-pose could make him a sui generis rock star, though we’ll have to wait until his first solo album is completed for Beserkley Records before we’ll know if he can stretch himself, or if he’s just a dandy with a gift for punky pinched irony.

Punk humor, a healthy parody of rock machismo, can be found in the music of the Dictators (who sing: “The best part of growing up/Is when I’m sick and throwing up/It’s the dues you got to pay/For eating burgers every day … “) and the leather-jacketed Ramones, in the Daffy Duckery of Patti Smith, in magazines like Punk and Creem, and in television heroes like Fonzie and Eddie Haskell. It’s a style of humor which reverses banality, thrives upon it, and enjoys juxtaposing it with high culture references in order to create a comically surreal effect.

Of course, the rock-and-roll regent of punkish irony is ex-Velvet Lou Reed whose solo albums include Transformer (with Reed’s most popular song, “Walk on the Wild Side), two live collections, Sally Can’t Dance, Berlin (my favorite Reed work, a misery-drenched masterwork: sunless, spiteful, and cold-bloodedly cruel), and Metal Machine Music, a two-record set of such triumphant unlistenability that it crowned Reed’s reputation as a master of psychopathic insolence. What Reed learned from Warhol (though he could have learned it equally well from Mailer or Capote) is careermanship: making yourself such a commanding media figure that even when your latest work is a pathetic package of retread riffs and coffee-grind lyrics, people will still be intrigued by the strategy behind it.

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In the forging of an emblematic identity, Reed not only turned himself into a clown but into a cartoon. When he played with the Velvets, he looked like a bright brooding college kid in sweater and slacks; now, in the premiere issue of Punk magazine, a hilarious interview with him is interpolated with cartoons showing him grumbling, sneering, wrecking television sets — transformed from Joe College into a metamphetamine W. C. Fields. The diva of American rock critics, Lester Bangs, has described the decline of Reed’s artistry thusly: “Lou Reed is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … ” Bangs sees Reed’s post-Velvet career as one long graveyard stroll, noting that after the breakup of the Velvets, “People kept expecting him to die.”

Instead, he became a death-artist, a performer in pursuit of ultimate separateness (a pursuit very much like Warhol’s futile quest for perfect pristine stillness), and after absorbing chemical cannonades which left his brain as battered as Charles Bukowski’s face, Lou Reed survived and parodied Death on the Installment Plan. “Heroin,” for example, was a song which was dropped from the Velvets repertoire for a while because too many people embraced it as being pro-smack, when in fact Reed intended the song as a sort of exorcism. Yet only a few years later Reed would not only perform “Heroin” in his solo act but would take out a syringe, wrap the microphone cord around his arm, pretend to shoot up, and hand the syringe to someone in the audience. When Cher said that the music of the Velvet Underground would replace nothing except suicide, she was unknowingly anticipating the rue-morgue antics of Lou Reed and his progeny. Just last week I heard one of New York’s underground bands, the Miamis, do a song glamorizing the La Guardia bombing incident, and at one point the lead singer proclaimed, “There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander!” Maybe he and Reed should take a ride in De Niro’s taxi …

Where Lou Reed used to stare death down (particularly in the black-blooded Berlin), he now christens random violence. Small wonder, then, that his conversation ripples with offhanded brutality: though he probably couldn’t open a package of Twinkies without his hands trembling, he enjoys babbling threats of violence. One night, when a girl at C.B.G.B. clapped loudly (and out of beat) to a Television song, Reed threatened to knock “the cunt’s head off”; she blithely ignored him, and he finally got up and left. No one takes his bluster seriously; I even know women who find his steely bitterness sexy.

After dumping all this dirt, I have to confess that this walking crystallization of cankerous cynicism possesses such legendary anticharisma that there’s something princely about him, something perversely impressive. There’s a certain rectitude in Lou Reed’s total lack of rectitude: one can imagine him sharing a piss with Celine in some smoky subterranean chamber, the two of them chuckling over each other’s lies.

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In the absence of Celine, it’s encouraging news that Reed and John Cale may soon team up again, for Cale could force Reed to exert himself, and Reed’s presence could help raise Cale’s visibility. Though Cale is currently touring with the Patti Smith Group, doing a rambunctious miniset along with the encore numbers, he’s still a tiny figure in the rock tapestry. The post-Velvet career of the classically trained Cale (he studied with Aaron Copland) has been stormy, flamboyant, and fueled by alcohol. But his output has been prolific: Vintage Violence, Church of Anthrax (with avant-garde composer Terry Riley), Fear, Slow Dazzle, and, most recently, Helen of Troy. Where Reed did his deathwalk by looking like an emaciated survivor out of The Night Porter, Cale went the rock-Dada route — performing cunnilingus on a mannequin during a concert, playing guitar in a goalie’s mask, lurching around with Frankensteinian menace. Like Reed, Cale has been treated as a joke yet, unlike Reed, his latest work is worthy of serious attention — Helen of Troy is a classic of drunken genius. The album lacks the stylishness of his earlier work and at first listen, everything seems askew — the mixing is odd (the bass dominates, the vocals seem distanced), the pacing seems muscle-pulled, the lyrics offhand then arrowy — and then the sloppiness shapes itself into force and beauty. Island Records has not yet decided whether or not to release Helen of Troy in America. Which is indecision bordering on criminal negligence. In the meantime, seek out the album through stores which deal in English imports and see if it doesn’t haunt your nights like a reeling somnambulist from the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Indeed, the Velvets and their progeny are all children of Dr. Caligari — pale-skinned adventurers of shadowy city streets. Richard Robinson, author of The Video Primer, has a video tape which shows Lou Reed and John Cale rehearsing for a concert to be performed in Paris with Nico. After Reed runthroughs “Candy Says,” they perform “Heroin” together: Reed’s monochromatic voice, Cale’s mournful viola, the dirgeful lyrics (“heroin … be the death of me …”), the colorless bleakness of the video image … a casual rehearsal had become a drama of luminous melancholia. What was blurry before became indelibly vivid, and the Reed/Cale harlequinade melted away so that one could truly feel their power as prodigies of transfiguration. For them — as for Patti Smith, Eno, Talking Heads, and Television — electricity is the force which captures the fevers, heats, and dreamily violent rhythms of city life, expressing urban disconnectedness and transcending it. Electricity becomes the highest form of heroin … listening to the Velvets, you may have been alone, but you were never stranded.


Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat

Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976

Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-­read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.

Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Mov­ies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one­-dimensional. Reading is an isolat­ed activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.

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Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.

Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.

Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for genera­tions to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowl­edge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.

This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.

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To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.

Spit has got to fly.

Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying hon­esty.

To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.

Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.

Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personali­ties makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reac­tion and I’m running around play­ing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.

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If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an an­ecdote out of my past to a con­trived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”

A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immedia­cy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concen­tration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.

As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.

At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-­praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a fam­ily of hardhats in Co-op City.