The 50 Most NYC Albums Ever

March 7, 2014 Update: We’ve added more albums that didn’t make the cut: The Most NYC Albums That Didn’t Make Our Most NYC Albums List.

For the past week we’ve been locked in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, subsisting on nothing but Russ & Daughters’ lox, listening to the best records about, by, and for New York City through headphones endorsed by Lou Reed. Our mission: to come up with a list of the 50 Most NYC Albums Ever; albums born of the five boroughs that best capture what it’s like to live, love, struggle, and exist in the sprawling, unforgiving, culturally dense metropolis we pay too much to call home. The albums we finally agreed upon capture everything from the unaffected cool of the Lower East Side to the horn-spiked salsa of Spanish Harlem and much more. So let’s get to it. Here, now, the 50 most quintessential New York records. Apologies in advance for The Muppets Take Manhattan not making the cut.

Contributors: Rae Alexandra, R.C. Baker, Lilledeshan Bose, Jonah Bromwich, Tom Finkel, Kat George, Beca Grimm, Chris Klimek, Brett Koshkin, Nick Lucchesi, Anna Merlan, Phillip Mlynar, Chris Packham, Albert Samaha, Alan Scherstuhl, Elliott Sharp, Brittany Spanos, Tessa Stuart, Eric Sundermann, Katherine Turman

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs might not be the hipster band du jour anymore, but Fever to Tell is still a perfect downtown New York record, gritty and artsy and stylish. Karen O has always sounded (and dressed) like the most inaccessibly hip girl at the art school party, but Fever’s appeal is also about the genuine substance locked inside layers of noise and attitude and snarl. O’s lines here are plaintive and written to cut like diamonds, like when she addresses a string of no-good lovers in “Y Control,” rebuking both them and herself: “Well I’m just one poor baby/’Cause well I believe them all/Wish I could buy back the woman you stole…”

Jay Z – The Blueprint (2001)
Jay-Z famously mocked Nas for having a “one hot album every 10-year average.” And yet Jay himself has only reached the height of his potential three times in a nearly 30-year career. The highest of those heights was The Blueprint, an imperialistic rap album built upon a New York sound that subsumed whatever else was in its path. Released on September 11, 2001, The Blueprint is a reminder of a New York that still seemed invincible, the city where the American dream was available to anyone with a hustle and the heart to see it through.

Jim Carroll – Catholic Boy (1980)
With his New York drug-drawl and angel-headed hipster-hustler lyrics, poet-turned-musician Jim Carroll spoke-sang with an urgency that belied his drug of choice. “Crow,” about muse and friend Patti Smith, is a gift, as is Bobby Keys’ sad sax on the spare, mysterious “City Drops into the Night.” But it was a litany of especially New York deaths — by subway, The Tombs (jail), and “heroin in upper Manhattan” — that made “People Who Died” an unlikely hit. Carroll’s perfect phrases and phrasing make his recorded debut both a literary and musical gem.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012)
Despite her Las Vegas past and L.A. crass, Lana Del Rey is still the queen of Coney Island. The self-appointed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”‘s massive debut stirred discussions of authenticity while delivering a surreally romantic worldview of a futuristic Guys and Dolls New York. Even the male subjects of her songs create a composite of the quintessential young New York hipster, from his blue jeans to his apathy and bad reputation. In her way, this New York singer embraces a dreamier ideal of life in the city.

Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album (1988)
1988’s The Whitey Album is what happens when you take two essential NYC musical icons — underground masters Sonic Youth and pop queen Madonna (last name: Ciccone) — add punk legends like Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, and mash the whole thing together in an avant-garde experiment. Madonna’s “Burning Up” and “Get into the Groove” are both covered here, and while the latter is a wall of kaleidoscopic distortion and electronic claps, the former is infused with a distinctly Velvet Underground flavor, to really hammer the inherent New York-ness of Whitey home.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is not only important to New York, but it changed the way we think about rap and music as a whole. Something about the way this guy’s flow — a smooth, almost mumbling menace — made you feel like you could bench-press 17 cars with one arm. Famously shot nine times in his hometown of Jamaica, Queens, before his come-up, 50’s brash, unapologetic “How to Rob an Industry Nigga” is a man rapping without fear. He had nothing to lose, and the city to gain.

West Side Story – Original Cast Recording (1957)
Maybe it’s the ’57 Broadway cast record with the extra swears. Maybe it’s the cleaned-up movie version with Natalie Wood swapped in for Carol Lawrence. Either way, this ever-lovin’, mother-buggin’ masterpiece still thrills and fascinates. Here’s Leonard Bernstein, the most beloved American composer of his day, clanging jazz against classical against the Tin Pan Alley tradition in an attempt to capture that thing that lowbrow pop nails harder than upper-crust art: the feel of the street. Young Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are like shards of smashed bottle, and the brittle, hilarious “America” remains stunning: the experience of new immigrants examined in the showstopper of showstoppers.

Jennifer Lopez – On the 6 (1999)
Jennifer Lopez’s On the 6 was famously named for the train she would ride into Manhattan from her native Bronx, you know, before she was a super-famous millionaire pop star with questionable movie credentials. The album is a bridging of worlds — it’s a broken-hearted Jenny from the Block’s ode to unreliable love and undeniable passion (New York in a nutshell), and it marries a distinctly Latin sound to poppy r&b. On the 6 sounds like humid summer nights in New York, between the sloshing of open fire hydrants and the shouts of drunk lovers fighting on the street.

Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Paul Simon is the consummate pop songwriter of the Baby Boom generation, and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in early 1970, was the kazillion-selling capstone of that generation’s defining decade. Both artists grew up in New York, and the arterial blood of the city courses through every groove of Bridge’s being. Speaking of grooves, most listeners today are denied the original vinyl release’s full effect: Side one opens with the title cut, a deeply layered tour-de-force production that crescendos over its entire five-minute duration; Side two starts with the album’s other heavily produced, five-minute entry, “The Boxer,” whose symbol-laden Simonic lyrics tell a classically New York story of small-town boy beaten down by the big city.

Mountain – Climbing (1970)
More cowbell? No, it’s perfection kicking off the now-classic rock staple that is “Mississippi Queen,” a heavier-than-thou, Southern-inclined, blues-rock groover created by New York’s own Leslie Weinstein (West), a guitarist so talented Jimi Hendrix cited him as an influence. The musical behemoth of Mountain formed in time to play Woodstock, and were broken up by ’72. Still, ballsy if nuanced rockers including “Never in My Life” and “Sittin’ on a Rainbow” hail Mountain as America’s answer to Humble Pie.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
From a cover shot on a West 4th Street corner with Suze Rotolo to lyrics that spoke of hitting an unknown road, social change, and the poetry of love, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan located the voice of a young folk singer having finally settled in a thriving capital of youth culture and music. Though Dylan’s self-titled debut featured the legendary talking blues track about relocating to Greenwich Village, “Talkin’ New York,” Freewheelin’, with memorable songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” did more than just speak on Dylan’s experience — it spoke for a shifting city and generation.

Ka – Grief Pedigree (2012)
Ka, the O.G. of Brownsville, drops knowledge with a seen-it-all monotone, lyrics spare and vivid. It is a voice of disillusionment, of resignation. The era of New York’s urban blight — the setting for so many of the city’s hip-hop masterpieces — ended years ago, washed away by the waves of development and crime fighting. Grief Pedigree tells the stories that haven’t changed. Ka’s lessons address causes and consequences that spin the cycle of struggle. For there is choice — “Do them years or be a snitch… Turn the other cheek or pop the trunk” — and then there is fate — “Had a cold heart ’cause my apartment was freezing.”

Richard Hell and the Voidoids – Blank Generation (1977)
For a Jewish kid born in Kentucky, Richard Hell created one of the most representative records of articulate and primal New York punk. From the cacophonous opening guitar salvo of “Love Comes in Spurts” (all hail Robert Quine’s staccato, edgy, jazzy guitar), Blank Generation is sublime. Hell’s urgent delivery and often sarcastic piss-taking is so beautifully bratty and smart, perfectly suited for scene classics like “Down at the Rock & Roll Club.” Hell, still one of New York’s most beloved denizens, hasn’t made music for way too long. Well, we’ll always have Blank Generation.

Billy Joel – 52nd Street (1978)
Billy Joel has never been afraid to whack everyone over the head with his affection for this city — most memorably with 1976’s “New York State of Mind” and 1983’s “Uptown Girl” (which was an education to the rest of the world about NYC’s class system). But it was on 52nd Street that he got to the core of his hometown, effectively capturing the strut of the city, the conflicts and beauty within it and paying homage to its love affair with jazz. But the jazz nods weren’t the only reason this album was called 52nd Street — that’s also where Joel recorded it and where his record label’s offices were at the time.

Saturday Night Fever – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977)
Saturday Night Fever cannot be separated from its tough Brooklyn backdrop, no matter how many disco lights you shine on it. So when you’re listening to this soundtrack — whether or not you’re watching Tony Manero strutting down the street with subway trains rumbling over his head — it is impossible to think of anything but New York City. The fact that soundtrack-dominators the Bee Gees hail from Australia? Utterly irrelevant. Thanks to the movie, every song on this record screams NYC, with a healthy smattering of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge thrown in.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)
When a proud New Yorker named Stefani Germanotta arrived on the scene, she was a breath of fresh air in a Disneyfied pop landscape then rehashing the tamer moments of the genre’s history. Lady Gaga threw in our faces the excesses and the drama of celebrity and wealth. Her aptly titled debut, The Fame, gave us Lower East Side grit dressed in Upper East Side pearls, and the world ate up every nugget of pop goodness she supplied with her string of singles that included “Poker Face,” “LoveGame,” and “Paparazzi,” birthing both the spectacle and the illusion.

George Gershwin with the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra – Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Brooklyn-born pianist and composer George Gershwin debuted “Rhapsody in Blue” on February 12, 1924, at Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall. Gershwin played piano along with Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra. Sousa and Rachmaninoff were there. The piece has since become synonymous with the city, thanks to numerous pop culture references, including the heroic opening scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; when you hear “Rhapsody in Blue,” you think of the New York skyline. Just like the city, Gershwin’s composition is dazzling, unpredictable, frantic, and serene.

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They Might Be Giants – Lincoln (1988)
Boasting the only near-hit single to dream about the DuPont Pavilion Flushing’s 1964 World’s Fair, these Brooklyn stalwarts’ 19-track Lincoln is like some everlasting art-pop pi–ata: No matter how long you hit it, it’s got more candy and curios to give. Spiky and sprightly, as craftily allusive as the East Village performance scene it sprang from, Lincoln belies the band’s reputation as crafters of kiddo earworms — instead, they’re design-oriented post-punk intellectuals with supreme melodic gifts. And the Dial-a-Song service teased in the liner notes was tipping the world to the 718 back when Ludacris was a virgin.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1980)
Double Fantasy is the last album John Lennon released in his lifetime, created as his return to music-making after five blissful years as a stay-at-home dad and meant to reflect his love story with Yoko Ono. A few weeks after its release, Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment. No one can separate the songs in this album from Lennon himself, and it’s even harder when you realize just how sentimental he was. The expressions of love in “Beautiful Boy” and “Woman” are almost cheesy, and hearing how happy he was “dreaming his life away” makes his sudden death even a bigger travesty. Of course, he was already a legend, but just thinking of the giant void he left and the what-might-have-beens make this album such a sweet sorrow.

Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet (2001)
Lest there be any confusion: “It’s Time to Party” and “Party til You Puke.” Andrew Wilkes-Krier’s 12-song debut is monomaniacal in its focus and commitment to pure, unabashed Neanderthal rock, as winningly performed by a smart guy. There are no hidden agendas: “I Love NYC” is homage to his adopted home town, while “Don’t Stop Living in the Red” is another clue to the motivational speaker he would eventually become. A.W.K. doesn’t fight for his right to party — it’s sanctioned from above, everyone is invited, and on I Get Wet, the inclusionary positivity is impossible to resist. Fuck the guilty pleasure: This is just pleasure.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Various Artists – No New York (1978)
It was 1978 and Brian Eno was in the city working on the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. In May, he attended a no wave festival at Artists Space, in Tribeca, and he liked what he saw. So Eno pitched a no wave comp to Island, and, for whatever reason, they bought it. Four bands, four songs each. Contortions. Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Mars. DNA. No New York captured the sonic side of the scene in all its violent, disruptive, and sublime brilliance. It remains the defining statement of one of the city’s most disturbingly creative moments.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2007)
LCD Soundsystem’s expertly calibrated contribution to the canon is made of tin cans and tinsel, tightly coiled guitar strings and kalimba keys, asphalt and skyscrapers. Sound of Silver was engineered to sit on a shelf next to the Velvet Underground and the Talking Heads, but the city, while being the album’s raison d’tre, is mostly evoked, not named. Maybe that’s because Murphy is saving it all up for the record’s final number, “New York, I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down,” a critique most stinging for its casualness. Murphy peels off indictments of Bloomberg, of boring people in bars, of hype and mediocrity in measured tones seething toward a sudden, cacophonous crescendo, distilling all our disappointment and resentment and unflagging devotion to this city into a single 5:35 song.

Art Blakey – A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 (1954)
There are hundreds of jazz LPs that belong on this list, plus thousands of sides waxed back before “album” was a word applied to record-making. Few, though, capture the bustling, joyous urgency of an era as well as this killer Blue Note date, an evening distinguished by Pee Wee Marquette’s pipsqueak intro, Blakey’s glorious time-keeping and time-dicing, three ace compositions by pianist Horace Silver, and the peerless, lyric flights of the doomed Clifford Brown — heartbreakingly, he’s named here by Marquette as “the new trumpet sensation” just two years before his death. His soloing sounds fully matured here, and Blakey’s bandleading still sounds state of the art. How ’bout a big hand now?

Sonny Rollins – The Bridge (1962)
You know this story? Three years after Saxophone Colossus, the LP that showed him just to be what its title claimed, the bold-toned reedman chucked stardom and went off the grid, Dave Chappelle-style, preferring to hone his art before the audience that meant the most: himself. Rollins sorted out his soul beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, blowing for up to 15 hours a day, emerging three years later with The Bridge, a superb quartet session alive with all the truth and soul he’d been searching for — exactly what he needed to keep up with Coleman and Coltrane. Jim Hall’s guitar proves a stellar foil, and a tender “God Bless the Child” is as blissed as bop gets.

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
This is what it sounds like when you realize the way you dressed as a teenage theater tech became your uniform as an adult. Turn on the Bright Lights has shed none of its sleek, brooding sensibilities in the 12 years since its initial drop. Paul Banks’s heavy velvet voice cradles your ear as a stranger’s armpit does your head on a packed weekday morning L train. The skittering cymbals flicker like ash from a hand-rolled cigarette out an illegal cab window and down the BQE. Ah, romance.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
Even with production by pop sensibilist Todd Rundgren, New York Dolls is a snotty, sassy, dirty collection of aural swagger and evocatively sexy, supremely satisfying rock ‘n’ roll filth. David Johansen and Johnny Thunders were the guttersnipe version of Jagger and Richards; oft-imitated and venerated. But despite the calculated creation of the Dolls — who are best on their pure punk spewings like “Trash” and “Personality Crisis” — Johansen’s nasally angst and brazen strut are revelatory. Music to get fucked up and fuck by, preferably in the bathroom of a LES dive. How do you call your lover boy?

Joe Bataan – Subway Joe (1968)
Only in New York does it make perfect sense that the original “King of Latin Soul,” Joe Bataan, was the progeny of a black mother and a Filipino father. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942, Bataan created a distinct style — an amalgam of pop, boogaloo, Motown, salsa, and soul — while trying to find a place in the music world. By melding Latin sound with English lyrics, Bataan popularized the term “salsoul.” The result? Gems such as the 1968 album Subway Joe, which begins with a quest for Chinese food and a scuffle over seats in the subway. It’s an eight-song set so tight, so finely hewn with tales of life in the ghetto, and so godamn danceable that it cemented Bataan’s place in history and turned him into New York canon.

Afrika Bambaataa – Death Mix (1983)
The birth of hip-hop is one of New York City’s favorite fables: Kids in the blighted Bronx of the ’70s rose up from the rubble by cannily spinning snippets of other artists’ music and rhyming over them at rec rooms and block parties. Death Mix is that story in record form. Reputedly captured live at James Munro High School in the Bronx, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his partner in breaks DJ Jazzy Jay rummage through their crates while members of the Soul Sonic Force talk hype into the mic. (Some pressings also add extra routines from the Cosmic Force.) Death Mix is the ultimate wallflower recording, offering a funky peek into the nascent hip-hop scene.

Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel (1986)
Perhaps more than any other New York hardcore band, Cro-Mags have the most tumultuous and talked-about history, due to well-publicized feuds between members John Joseph and Harley Flanagan. But the Cro-Mags were in sync long enough to record 1986’s Age of Quarrel, a 15-song crossover opus inspired by Motošrhead guitars and featuring Joseph’s rat-a-tat lyrics about life on the Lower East Side. It’s the sort of stuff that still gets charged punks diving off stages at Cro-Mags shows in modern-day Williamsburg. Today, you can find Joseph giving punk-rock walking tours downtown and guiding tourists past former squats and dope spots captured in those streetwise lyrics.

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
New York is a fierce town, unrelenting, full of scowls and sidewalk shoulder bumps, an 8-million-member ruckus. Some people just can’t handle it. Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers captures the city’s noir and the instinctual hustle it breeds. Iron-hard bars over menacing beats. A sizzling stew of crooked wisdom and dark humor, with a dash of full-throated madness. The gods of Shaolin proclaim their mastery of this cesspool, drawing a thick line in the dirty snow: Stand with the Clan in the front or with the punks in the back.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Joe Cuba Sextet – Wanted Dead or Alive (1966)
By easing off the brassy horns up front and interspersing piano or vibraphone leads instead, Joe Cuba invented his own self-described “bastardized” version of salsa called boogaloo. Dabbling in English lyrics helped to transcend the cultural crevice, and it wasn’t long before his group made their way up the charts with “Bang Bang.” An infectious crossover hit that leaves listeners shaking their hips to a rolling piano riff. Alongside similar tunes like “Push Push,” it was Wanted Dead or Alive that opened the door to a new, brilliant world of Latin sounds.

Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs for Drella (1990)
The only thing capable of reuniting Lou Reed and John Cale after the acrimonious dissolution of the Velvet Underground was the death of their mentor, Andy Warhol. 1990’s Songs for Drella (Andy’s nickname among the denizens of his Factory, conflating Dracula and Cinderella) chronicles the Pop genius’s conquest of the Big Apple, from his determination to leave Pittsburgh in “Small Town” — “I hate being odd in a small town/If they stare let them stare in New York City” — to Lou’s genuine anger in “I Believe,” when the rocker channels Warhol’s electric-chair paintings by fantasizing about would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanis: “I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself.” The closing ballad, “Hello It’s Me,” featuring Cale’s angelic viola, expresses the ultimate measure of success in New York: “They really hated you/Now all that’s changed.”

Sonic Youth – Goo (1990)
There’s nothing as quintessentially alt-New York as watching Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” video, directed by renowned modern artist Tony Oursler (a fellow New Yorker), inside the Whitney Museum. But Goo is a record that has NYC woven into its fabric from start to finish. “Kool Thing” was written by Kim Gordon after she conducted a disastrous interview with LL Cool J for Spin magazine, thinking they would bond as fellow creatives from the same city. Instead, he said things like, “The guy has to have control over his woman.” Cue amazing song on an already dazzling album.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981)
Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places opens with “Going Places,” where the chorus buzzes out a mantra every New Yorker believes to their very bones: “Believe me, you know/When you leave New York you go nowhere!” With that, Kid Creole and the Coconuts proceeded to create a pastiche of sound — disco-funk, pop-rock, calypso-reggae — that could be considered a metaphor for New York’s own diaspora. August Darnell, after all, was born in Montreal, and grew up in the Bronx, in neighborhoods where both English and Spanish were spoken. As he told the New York Times, “To me, the beauty of music is its possibilities for mutation, and that mutation represents a larger ideal: global coexistence.”

Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)
The consoling New York fantasies of ninth-grade Midwestern introverts involve graduating and moving to the big city, reinventing their personas and histories, and becoming cool, self-actualized urbanites that nobody from high school would even recognize. Madonna’s whole career has been characterized by the continuous reinvention of her image and music, and on Like a Virgin, it was happening from track to track. Her capitalist “Material Girl” persona is miles away from the ambiguity and innuendo of the title track. The pre-Auto-Tune honesty of “Angel” finds her fearlessly trying to hit some low notes just barely within her range, but with so much swagger you almost don’t notice — and that’s a pretty New York thing, too.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)
Disillusionment, lethargy, and effortless cool are the ingredients that carried Is This It?, an 11-song collection of ragged, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Originally pegged to a garage-rock revival alongside bands like The Hives, The White Stripes, and The Vines, The Strokes now seem clearly singular, a band that combined glamour and grit, that was theatrical without sounding contrived. The Strokes, like the Stones before them, remain underrated songwriters. But they live and die on the genre’s fundamentals, the transition from quiet to loud, unbeatable melodies and an attitude that comes with being among the last of Manhattan’s bona fide rock stars.

Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978)
Ever perverse, Mick Jagger denied the hometown crowd a prideful cheer when, recording the live ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’ at Madison Square Garden in 1969, he substituted “Strollin’ on the boulevards of Paris/as naked as the daylight I will die” for those infamous original lines in “Honky Tonk Women”: “I laid a divorcée in New York City/I had to put up some kind of a fight.” But Glimmer Twins Jagger and Keith Richards reveled in Gotham’s edge, never more so than on 1978’s punk-inflected, disco-infused Some Girls, where opening track, “Miss You,” finds Jagger driven mad by lost love — “I’ve been walking Central Park/Singing after dark/People think I’m craaaaa-zeeeee” — before losing it completely on the album’s finale, “Shattered”: “My brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan.”

The Ramones – The Ramones (1976)
Henry Rollins once said: “Ramones music is a mineral — naturally formed. To mess with it, you are immediately meddling with forces far greater than you.” Indeed, the Ramones’ self-titled debut remains a force of nature. No album before or since has so seamlessly combined every element of rebellious teenagehood — hedonism (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), open-hearted love songs (“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), unhinged violence (“Beat on the Brat”) and youthful exuberance (“Blitzkrieg Bop”) — and made it sound so appealing. This three-chord masterpiece remains timeless, despite so expertly capturing the true essence of the trash and treasures of the Lower East Side in 1976.

Tito Puente – El Rey Bravo (1963)
The timbales-playing bandleader laid down what is perhaps his best-known material as nothing more than filler. “Oye Como Va” was pounded out to round off a plethora of some of his best works like the internationally inspired “Tokyo de Noche,” featuring the handiwork Johnny Pacheco on flute. But it would take another eight years for a fledgling guitarist named Carlos Santana to cut a cover version of “Oye Como Va” that would send legions scurrying back to Puente to mine similar inspiration.

Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)
Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a sort of sonic version of Times Square. Sure, it use to be rough, scary, and crammed with crooks. Then it got cleaned up. But it’s still in Manhattan, so it keeps crackling with energy and entertainment. Lead singer Debbie Harry is our Dorothy Parker, Clem Burke our Keith Moon. Plus, producer Mike Chapman showed squares that disco is only as cool as the people who make it. The kids changed their clothes but kept their attitude, and became the first group from CBGB’s to sell without selling out. And you know what? It was a gas.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
In a post-Horses world, punk had found its poetry and dove into the work of some of the literary world’s earlier rebels — young French poets. Suddenly, the Bowery became electrically romantic, and CBGB legends Television were the stars. Fronted by Tom Verlaine, who took his stage name from one of his influences, Paul Verlaine, Television made music for another side of the East Village’s sleaze and pontificated on its scummy inhabitants on Marquee Moon, a collection of songs that were a swirling shock to the musical system. As the scene transitioned into a post-punk sound, Television made it all worth watching and, of course, listening to.

Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
Biggie Smalls understood the grind: the stress-filled days; the roads forged from desperation. “Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell,” he rapped, “That’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce and wish you wasn’t livin’ so devilish.” Ready to Die is a meditation on struggle, on the make-it-here-make-it-anywhere come-up every New Yorker strives for. The despair of Brooklyn slums makes the triumph of Manhattan penthouses all the sweeter. But the gate between the two New Yorks is thin — all desire entrance and few make it through: “Either you slingin’ crack rock` or you got a wicked jump shot.” The lure of the pleasures can turn boys into demons and leave those who falter lying in bed with a phone in one hand and a pistol in the other.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963)
Can speakers sweat? The sound of a man on his knees tearing his throat bloody to get you off, Live at the Apollo remains the sturdiest of pop cornerstones. It’s the foundation of great soul shouting, of drill-the-band tightness, of church-as-orgy and orgy-as-church, of much of the Apollo’s legend, of Brown’s rep as showbiz’s hardest worker, of the very idea of an album as the record of a performance you wish to hell you could have caught, and of letting the groove ride out toward the full-fledged funk it would become a few years later. So raw you might want to dab it with iodine, it would stand as any other performer’s crowning achievement — and Brown was just getting started.

Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
That oft-repeated quote ascribed to Brian Eno about how everyone who bought The Velvet Underground’s low-selling, Warhol-produced debut formed their own band might be true, but it implies the record is great on account of its vast influence instead of its own nigh-inexhaustible sensual and literary merits. “Sunday Morning” lulls, “I’m Waiting for the Man” churns, “Femme Fatale” warns,”Venus in Furs” reveals a forbidden world, and that’s just the first four songs, none of which are “Heroin” or “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” No debut was ever so confident or uncompromising.

Harlem River Drive – Harlem River Drive (1971)
The cultural and ethnic mixture of New York is one of the defining reasons for our city’s greatness. Bandleader Eddie Palmieri knew this when he brought together a group of musicians from different backgrounds to forge an amalgamation of salsa rhythms with the funkier leanings of then-current soul and jazz music in 1971. Jimmy Norman would lace the group together with lyrics about the world around them on songs about broken homes and broken windows and attempting to rise above it all with a musical patois that every New Yorker and beyond could relate to.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Someone somewhere once decided to call Patti Smith the “godmother of punk,” but it’s better to think of her as its high priestess, and of Horses, her debut album, as its primary religious text. How else, than with divine assistance, could you explain her seamless track-to-track transition from spitting, wailing, feverish on the opener (her reimaging of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”) to delicate and demure, reciting poetry to a soft piano soundtrack on “Birdland,” before morphing into a mortician to deliver the haunting “Elegie.” What would this list look like without her? We can only be thankful that we’ll never know.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
The cusp of the ’90s saw Long Island power-troop Public Enemy, once righteous hometown heroes, being hit by criticism and controversy off the back of Professor Griff’s perceived anti-Semitic statements. Chuck D’s reaction channeled the aggressive antagonism of a scorching hot New York City summer as the Enemy’s third album constantly teetered at boiling point, not least with “Welcome to the Terrordome” sounding like a violent out-lashing of pent-up anger. The set was capped by the climax cut “Fight the Power,” itself previously heard in Spike Lee’s turbulent Bed-Stuy-set Do the Right Thing. Call it incendiary Rotten Apple rap.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
In many ways, Paul’s Boutique is the Beastie Boys’ thesis. It didn’t offer the feelings of anger and pent-up hooliganism Licensed to Ill conjured, but with Paul’s, the boys proved they had more than cans of Budweiser up their sleeves. What the album made clear was that these dudes were smart. The chaotic, sample-savvy production exposed the many layers lurking beneath the surface, and the album is New York — loud, smart, opinionated — from top down.

Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man (1971)
From the album’s opener, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” there was no mistake. A slinky bass-lined shot had been fired and the world was listening. Funky jazz rhythms forged by the hottest hired guns of the days laid beneath politicized lyrics that covered everything from plastic people and corrupt cops to drug use and relationship woes. It was a proto-rap assault spit out like steam bursting from the strained seams of life. By anyone’s measure, it’s fair to say that hip-hop as we know it today would not exist without this album.

Nas – Illmatic (1994)
From Illmatic‘s opening verse, Nas sets the stakes. Within seconds he’s facing death, caught off guard when the guns are drawn. “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin/Pick the MAC up…” This is Nas’s New York, the blocks and corners of the Queensbridge towers, but it could be any housing project in the five boroughs. It’s a New York of snitches and stick-up kids and smoke-nice rocks. Nas spares no details in his storytelling, a brisk 10-chapter narrative setpiece taking us through the fear and despair and arrogance and joy and camaraderie and nostalgia and hope that make up the essence of adolescence inside the chaotic blight of early ’90s New York City. Through it all, the simmering danger never leaves. It lingers as the backdrop, a state of mind, because “shit is real and any day can be your last in the jungle.”

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums:

Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die
The Top 20 New York Hardcore and Metal Albums of All Time
The Top 20 NYC Rap Albums of All Time


Andy Warhol’s Wigs: Guy Trebay’s Thoroughly Entertaining Takedown of the Icon’s Late-Period Hairpieces

The Voice got 12 mentions in The Andy Warhol Diaries (1989), the daily dictations his former secretary and collaborator Pat Hackett took down every morning from November 1976 until the artist’s death. Some of the Voice references are newsy (“I was also on the front page of the Voice, photographed next to the empress of Iran for an article about torture in Iran,” reads the entry from November 9, 1977), others acknowledge the publication in passing as part of the city’s downtown fabric. (In explaining the location of where Lou Reed’s summer of 1978 apartment, Warhol clarified, “It’s on Christopher Street, between Sixth and Seventh, sort of where the Voice used to be.”)

But one entry in particular sticks out. Warhol began his April 12, 1983 recollection by relaying, “Everyone was calling because the Village Voice ran a three-page putdown of my wig. It was a write-up of the Studio 54 party for our TV show.”

A three-page putdown of Warhol’s wig in the 1983 Voice? Has to be amazing. So we dug through our bound-galley archives and found the piece. It was a Guy Trebay dispatch from Studio 24 that ran in the April 5, 1983 issue. (And not to bruise Andy’s ego, but it was only one page.) The relevant passage:

So I am standing at the edge of a crowd watching on a huge screen Andy Warhol’s TV, because the party is celebrating the contract Andy Warhol has signed with Madison Square Garden Cable TV and Andy Warhol is on the screen interviewing either Hall or Oates, I hope I never have to learn which, and two things occur to my Irie self in the midst of these people. One: New York has become a town full of provincials, fleeing the mini-protectorates of the NATO alliance, and Two: Andy Warhol needs a new wig.

That old one is getting on my nerves.

There is in New York a cult that has watched the evolution of Andy Warhol’s wigs with a mixture of wonder and indigestion. These same people have also been known to cast an appraising eye on world affairs, but foremost in their minds are the Wigs. Silver white and choppy. Dead white to set off the sandblasted skin. Yellow-white (left lying within leg-lifting aim of Archie? Remember Archie, the dachshund as accessory?) Dove gray. Then Clorox gray, then soot white, then white in any of several shades, all the while with the part moving up the scalp, then sliding down again to a point just above the ear, wisps of the real brown stuff left sticking out underneath. (And underneath? Is it a Hubert Humphrey horseshoe of naked scalp? Or an Elton John/Paul Anka thatch of sore surgical plugs?)

So. On screen, in a doorway, a snowy day, in the wind, waiting with Hall (Oates?) for a tour bus (airbrushed eagles on the side) is Andy (of Warhol’s TV fame) in a wig that seems to have black roots woven into it, kind of hiked up, too, so the bangs fall into his eyes and the dark hair shows on the stringy nape of his neck. Yick! Barf! Sweet mother of mercy, somebody call a specialist — Way Bandy. William Shatner. George Clinton — before this goes too far.

I’m serious!

Round of applause, please. Written in a blog-less world, no less.

Warhol’s real-life “specialist” was actually Paul Bocchicchio, owner of the West 42nd business Hairpieces by Paul, who personally delivered Warhol’s wigs to the Factory for the last decade-plus of his life. The woven-roots effect Trebay mocks was, according to Warhol researcher Thomas Kiedrowski, a deliberate effect. He writes in his book Andy Warhol’s New York City: Four Walks Uptown to Downtown, “At home [Warhol] spent hours dyeing the lower portion of the back of each wig a dark color, giving it the appearance of real hair sticking out at the back–even though his gray hair also poked out from under the back of the hairpieces.”

Yick, barf, wow.


Andy Warhol’s New York, 25 Years On

The Pope of Pop’s last week with this mortal coil began, more or less, on Valentine’s Day. It was a Saturday in 1987 during an otherwise routine collagen treatment when Andy Warhol complained about his gallbladder, an irascible organ he’d begrudgingly dealt with for years—at least since ’73 or ’74—and had since placated with doctor’s visits, prescriptions, and dietary adjustments. But a week or so prior to this appointment, the abdominal pain had returned with such a vengeance that he had been forced to cancel post-dinner plans to see the Bette Midler movie Outrageous Fortune. (“It wasn’t much,” he later sniffed.) But now the discomfort had returned violently enough that the man who prided himself on not letting on when something was wrong was forced to admit that something was.

Warhol would spend the following day, Sunday, in bed. He missed church—which was atypical behavior for the practicing Catholic—but stayed awake long enough to catch himself on television, which was not. On Monday, the 58-year-old dutifully saw his chiropractor but felt unsteady enough to cancel a week of personal-training appointments. On Tuesday, the public figure joined Miles Davis in a fashion show at the Tunnel and wore alligator, lace, and fur designs he would later joke made him look like Liberace. Friends could tell he felt poorly, and he went home immediately after the event.

By Friday, Andy Warhol was in what was then New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. By Saturday, surgeons had removed his gangrenous gallbladder, and that night, he was alert enough to watch television and make phone calls. But something happened in the dark, and by 6:31 the next morning, he was dead.

Andy Warhol died on February 22, 1987. In other words, 25 years ago, the famous man who had famously written his own script finally had it taken away. New York City is, of course, a different place than it was then. But nothing has changed so drastically that the creator of the Can That Sold the World has stopped being one of New York City’s most deeply abiding myths. “I never understood why when you died, you didn’t just vanish, everything could just keep going on the way it was, only you just wouldn’t be there,” Warhol once wrote. And he didn’t, and it did, but he is. Which leaves you to wonder, a quarter of a century expired, what does Andy Warhol’s New York City look like today?

Thomas Kiedrowski, a thirtysomething Boerum Hill resident, has devoted more than two years to trying to answer that question. Warhol’s legend shaped his vision of New York City, and he wanted to see where these extraordinary events had transpired. Drugs and self-preservation and Wikipedia are unreliable narrators, plus Kiedrowski admits that he’s “kind of a Doubting Thomas,” so he dug through phone books, excavated newspaper clippings, and interviewed as many of Warhol’s remaining friends and associates who would talk. Based on his research, he started giving occasional walking tours, all of which culminated in last summer’s publication of Andy Warhol’s New York City: Four Walks Uptown to Downtown, a pocket guidebook of 80 addresses.

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When we meet in a Starbucks on the corner of Lexington and 87th Street, Kiedrowski is as excited to discuss Warhol as most new parents are about their babies. (Maybe even more.) The first place Kiedrowski likes to take people, as a kind of contextual prologue, is 1060 Park Avenue, a distinguished-looking Upper East Side apartment building with a green-awning entrance and an adjacent doctor’s office, where Truman Capote lived with his drunken mess of a mother in the early ’50s. A sickly, awkward, working-class Slovakian outcast armed with $200, visual-arts talent, and a terrifyingly possessed quest for fame, Warhol relocated to New York from Pittsburgh at age 20. Soon after, he became interminably fixated with Capote, a New York transplant whose first published novel, 1948’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, had recently propelled the young Louisiana-born author to literary stardom. Warhol not only shared characteristics with Other Voices‘ sensitive, effete 13-year-old protagonist, but he also became infatuated with the author’s seductive dust-jacket photo, a controversially “suggestive” (and suggestively gay) portrait. This infatuation became so utterly overwhelming that Warhol adopted a stalker-like persistence, writing fan letters, calling Capote’s home, and waiting on the sidewalk outside this concrete building, slavishly, for hours. Kiedrowski says in a reverent awe, “You can just see him standing here!” (I didn’t.)

Our next stop is within walking distance, St. Thomas More Church, located at 65 East 89th Street, a Roman-Catholic ministry that dates back to 1870 and still holds regular services. On the sidewalk outside the gates, Kiedrowski emphasizes the thing anybody who has ever heard of Andy Warhol knows: Every single action—from where the man worshiped to where he ate—was carefully premeditated and designed to place him in the company of the world’s most spectacular humans. For example, St. Thomas More was conveniently also Jackie O’s parish—John F. Kennedy Jr.’s memorial service was held there in 1999. “I’m Catholic and go to church at St. Thomas More,” reads a Warhol interview Kiedrowski has just pulled out from a black binder. “They have those rock masses. I take [my dog] Archie with me every Sunday, but we’re usually late.”

We traipse over to the far more crucial 1342 Lexington Avenue townhouse near 89th Street, which Warhol bought around 1960 after his commercial-art career had become sufficiently lucrative and lived in until 1974. Julia lived in the basement, near the kitchen; upstairs is where Warhol would create many of his early masterpieces: the Campbell’s Soup Cans, the first run of Marilyn Monroes, his Liz Taylor tribute. Today, 1342 Lexington is one of seven buildings that form the Hardenbergh/Rhinelander Historic District: Architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, who is also responsible for the Plaza Hotel and the Dakota, designed the brick-faced brownstone. The most recent owners weren’t keen on having fans stop by: Eventually, they put the property on the market at an asking price The New York Times reported as $5.99 million. This past December, it went for $3.55 million. There are no curtains nor window fixtures—it doesn’t look like anybody has moved in. (In contrast, Warhol’s Firehouse Studio on East 87th, which he rented for $150 from the city and where he painted the Death and Disaster series, recently sold for $33 million.)

As a volunteer tour guide, Kiedrowski is more focused on the New York City of Andy Warhol that still exists, rather than what has vanished. For example, he doesn’t drag his followers to 216 East 75th Street to see the razed site of the second-floor rental Warhol briefly occupied alone, until his mother, Julia, unexpectedly arrived from Pittsburgh one day, effectively plopped down with all her possessions, and decided to stay with her youngest son—for what would ultimately be almost 20 years. We don’t trek down to 26 East 55th Street, where Hugo Gallery stood until 1955, the site of Warhol’s crush-funneling first solo exhibition, Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote, a collection that opened on June 16, 1952, and didn’t sell one piece. Or 125 West 41st Street, where the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque once was, the Jonas Mekas screening-room precursor to the Anthology Film Archives that showed Warhol’s experimental projects like, say, the Paul America–starring My Hustler, advertised in 1966 as “Surf, sand, and sex on Fire Island.”

“I just don’t want people to have the impression that he’s not really around,” Kiedrowski says in a tone much like he is speaking of God. “He’s everywhere.”

An incomplete list of other Warholian settings: The West Village’s original Kettle of Fish—a MacDougal joint where Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Edie Sedgwick collided for a night—is now the Saigon Shack, a glass-fronted restaurant that promises both an espresso bar and a Vietnamese kitchen. An epochal den of iniquity, Max’s Kansas City is now a Bread & Butter, an all-purpose deli/buffet with the unintentionally nostalgic motto “Habits To Be Made.” Café Bizarre, the 106 West Third Street West Village joint where Warhol famously first saw the Velvet Underground, is an NYU law school building, D’Agostino Hall. The St. Marks 19-23 complex that held the Dom and Open Stage—the setting for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Warhol’s multimedia VU stage show—and later Electric Circus is now chopped up into a Chipotle, a Supercuts, and a Grand Szechuan above a neighborhood market. (The Velvet Underground, by the way, is suing the Andy Warhol Foundation over licensing its banana to iPod and iPad cases.)

Where the first Silver Factory once stood—231 East 47th Street, between Second and Third avenues—there’s now nothing more than an ugly parking ramp. In the summer of 1974, Warhol moved his base of operations from the Decker Building, where he was shot by Valerie Solanas, to 860 Broadway, called “860.” (“‘Factory’ had become ‘too corny,’ he said,” writes former secretary Pat Hackett in the introduction to The Andy Warhol Diaries. “And the place became simply ‘the office.'”) Inhabiting that space now, above a Petco, is brand-licensing agency the Joester Loria Group. Brownies, a health-food restaurant Factory workers frequented and where Warhol often sent assistants to pick up carrot juice or tea for him, is now Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café.

The Pyramid Club still exists.

You would think that Warhol’s most famous Manhattan haunts would be preserved—at least to some degree—especially because they’re fossils of a fastidiously documented life. Specifically, the Factories. But none of them are. Or the White Factory, the Union Square West sixth floor where, shooting him three times and debilitating him so severely, his body required five and a half hours of emergency surgery, Solanas, a frustrated actress, gunned down Warhol in 1968. A building that looms so large in American-contemporary-cultural-history memory would, it seems reasonable to think, still bear scars of this radical episode. At least, you know, a plaque somewhere in the Decker Building: “ANDY WARHOL WAS SHOT HERE.”

You would be wrong. That is provincial thinking, the sort of small-minded “Home of the World’s Biggest Ball of String” nostalgia people like Andy Warhol were trying to escape by moving to New York City. This isn’t Gettysburg or, for that matter, Midnight in Paris.

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Here’s what happens instead when you go into the Decker Building: The lobby is locked. But if you stand there long enough and pretend to look in the brightly lit windows of the first-floor Puma store, eventually delivery guys or North Face–clad mouth-breathers will hold the door for you. The sixth floor is where it happened more than 40 years ago, and the space has since been divided into two spots. The halls are narrow, there is cat-puke-colored carpeting, and there are big, thick industrial doors. Inside, it’s an old building, landmarked. In the back, you might hear voices and laughing, and if you knock, and knock, and knock . . . no one comes.

But then again, what else did you expect? Warhol wanted it this way. “My ideal city would be completely new. No antiques,” Warhol proclaimed in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again). “Old buildings are unnatural spaces. Buildings should be built to last for a short time. And if they’re older than 10 years, I say get rid of them. I’d build new buildings every 14 years.”

Here is an incomplete list of the places you can still find overt references to Andy Warhol in the New York City streetscape: At 57 East 66th Street between Madison and Park avenues, a five-story Federal-style brownstone that was Warhol’s home from 1974 to 1987, there is a commemorative plaque by the front door. Outside the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street, Andy Warhol’s face appears in ghostly newsprint; someone has added a monster face. And until May, find the cartoony chrome Rob Pruitt statue of Warhol in Union Square, which has elected a temporary peer of Gandhi.

And there is 57 Great Jones Street, near the corner Bowery, formerly the Andy Warhol Building, where Jean-Michel Basquiat fatally overdosed, upstairs, in August 1988. With death shrines comes the temptation to assign profound meaning to coincidence. But there are incontrovertible facts. One of those is that Basquiat, a dope-shooting vampire, and Madonna, a studied health fiend, had a legendary fling in the fall of 1982, and here, today, directly across the street from Basquiat’s loft, there is a poster advertising Madonna’s upcoming takeover of Yankee Stadium, almost exactly 30 years later. Another is that there’s an impassioned hand-scrawl to the right of the 57 Great Jones entrance where Basquiat died that reads, rather sweetly, “SAMO LIVES ON.” And a third, drawn near a fluorescent row of spray-painted stencils that say “LAST CELEBRITY,” someone has conveniently added, “WARHOL 4EVA.”

That is what Warhol’s New York City looks like 25 years later.


Rick Meyerowitz’s ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’—A Graphics Bonanza

“If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”

Your reaction to that headline, accompanied by a deadpan photo of a floating Beetle, says much about your age, politics, and sense of decorum. This 1973 parody of a Volkswagen ad that touted the Bug’s buoyancy is lovingly reproduced in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, an oversize tribute to National Lampoon magazine’s elaborately art-directed satires.

The fact that Teddy’s political career wasn’t completely ruined after he caused a young staffer’s death by driving his car off a bridge, in 1969, speaks volumes about the Kennedy family’s influence. The ad parody, on the other hand, makes you proud—sort of—to be an American. Had one satirized Hitler in such a fashion, the next stop would be Dachau. (Though Volkswagen—born of the Führer’s promise of a “people’s car”—did sue National Lampoon for unauthorized use of the VW logo.)

Launched in 1970, the Lampoon was soon notorious for its shocking (some might say tasteless) imagery, such as Kelly Freas’s 1971 cover painting of Lieutenant William Calley aping Alfred E. Neuman over the line “What, My Lai?” That Vietnam massacre was revisited in a 1973 article featuring Ron Barrett’s startling photo collages, “Wide World of Meat.” Similar to feminist artist Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era cut-and-paste images of upscale American homes haunted by victims of military atrocities, Barrett juxtaposed a slab of meat garnished with olives against the villagers’ mangled bodies and the caption “Meat Lai thrills a hungry nation.” Such take-no-prisoners satire made these savvy marriages of text and image more indelible than the political actions of the ’70s fine-art world, as when sculptor Robert Morris closed down his Whitney exhibition to protest the bombing of Cambodia.

In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, illustrator Alan Rose recalls that the Lampoon‘s stories were “visually driven,” the graphics allowing less educated readers (as opposed to the magazine’s white, mostly male Ivy League editors) to enjoy spoofs of such ancient texts as “The Code of Hammurabi.” Artist Randall Enos illustrated that Babylonian law code with slapstick drawings of the king chopping various appendages from hapless slaves and oxen rutting with temple prostitutes.

Elsewhere in the volume, author Rick Meyerowitz notes that, like Goya, the cartoonist Charles Rodrigues often “left the viewer unsettled.” And laughing: In a typically scabrous panel from 1986, one beefy babushka grouses to an even frumpier companion, “The Soviet Union has to be the worst Goddamn place in the world to be a transvestite!”

Lampoon-style humor has been swallowed whole and regurgitated by comedic mainstays from Saturday Night Live to South Park, but the original magazine’s graphics still pack a punch. Mara McAfee’s Norman Rockwell–inspired painting of newlyweds brawling across the cover of 1979’s “Heterosexuality” issue should convince even the most hysterical straights that if gays want marriage, by God, they can have it.

Underground Gallery: London Transport Posters, 1920s–1940s

Eye-catching graphics sprouted beneath London’s streets shortly after the First World War—modernist posters informing Tube passengers about museum shows in Piccadilly Circus and ducks frolicking in Kew Gardens. Edward Johnston’s bold, 1918 Underground logo of a red circle bisected by a horizontal blue bar has since withstood numerous variations, notably the hollow outlines employed by László Moholy-Nagy, an artist well known for his ghostly photograms.

Graham Sutherland’s 1938 painting of a bucolic scene materializing in a gray office includes a newspaper clipping cajoling commuters to “Go into the country now. Do not wait for Easter. It may be snowing.” The poster’s claustrophobic tone and surrealistic rending of space would be ratcheted to intense heights a few years later in the paintings of Sutherland’s close colleague, Francis Bacon.

The Blitz spawned terrific design, as Londoners navigated a city blacked-out against Nazi bombers. James Fitton’s luminous 1941 “Wear or Carry Something White” envisions pedestrians shrouded by a plum-colored night. Another admonishment from that same year couldn’t be more British: “When coming up from a brightly-lit below-ground station pause and let your eyes grow used to the gloom.”

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, 212-708-9400. Through February 28, 2011


Voice Writers Wrangle Over Michael Jackson in 1987

I’m White!

By Greg Tate
September 22, 1987

There are other ways to read Michael Jackson’s blanched skin and disfigured African features than as signs of black self-hatred become self-mutilation. Waxing fanciful, we can imagine the-boy-who-would-be-white a William Gibson-ish work of science fiction: harbinger of a transracial tomorrow where genetic deconstruction has become the norm and Narcissism wears the face of all human Desire. Musing empathetic, we may put the question, whom does Mikey want to be today? The Pied Piper, Peter Pan, Christopher Reeve, Skeletor, or Miss Diana Ross? Our Howard Hughes? Digging into our black nationalist bag, Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war–another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.

To fully appreciate the sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy you have to recall that back when he wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi. (My own mother called Michael pretty so many time s I almost got a complex.) Jackson and I are the same age, damn near 30, and I’ve always had a love-hate thing going with the brother. When we were both moppets I envied him, the better dancer, for being able to arouse the virginal desires of my female schoolmates, shameless oglers of his (and Jermaine’s) tenderoni beefcake in 16 magazine. Even so, no way in those say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud days could you not dig Jackson heir to the James Brown dance throne. At age 10, Jackson’s footwork and vocal machismo seemed to scream volumes about the role of genetics in the cult of soul and the black sexuality of myth. The older folk might laugh when he sang shake it, shake it baby, ooh, ooh or teacher’s gonna show you, all about loving. Yet part of the tyke’s appeal was being able to simulate being lost in the hot sauce way before he was supposed to know what the hot sauce even smelt like. No denying he sounded like he knew the real deal.

In this respect, Jackson was the under-weaned creating of two black working-class traditions: That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race’s passion for song, dance, sex, and spectacle. Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy–at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.

Slavery, minstrelsy, and black bourgeoisie aspirations are responsible for three of the more pejorative notions about blacks in this country–blacks as property, as ethnographic commodities, and as imitation rich white people. Given this history, there’s a fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal. Berry Gordy, burghermeister of crossover’s Bauhaus, walked that line with such finesse that some black folk were shocked to discover via The Big Chill that many whites considered Motown their music. Needless to say, Michael Jackson has crossed so way far over the line that there ain’t no coming back–assuming through surgical transmutation of his face a singular infamy in the annals of tomming.

The difference between Gordy’s crossover dream world and Jackson’s is that Gordy’s didn’t preclude the notion that black is beautiful. For him the problem was his pupils not being ready for prime time. Motown has raised brows for its grooming of Detroit ghetto kids in colored genteel manners, so maybe there were people who thought Gordy was trying to make his charges over into pseudo-Caucasoids. Certainly this insinuation isn’t foreign to the work of rhythm and blues historians Charles Keil and Peter Guralnick, both of whom write of Motown as if it weren’t hot and black enough to suit their blood, or at least their conception of bloods. But the inter-mingling of working-class origins and middle-class acculturation are too mixed up in black music’s evolution to allow for simpleminded purist demands for a black music free of European influence, or of the black desire for a higher standard of living and more cultural mobility. As an expression of ’60s black consciousness, Motown symbolized the desire of blacks to get their foot in the bank door of the American dream. In the history of affirmative action Motown warrants more than a footnote beneath the riot accounts and NAACP legal maneuvers.

As a black American success story the Michael Jackson of Thriller is an extension of the Motown integrationist legacy. But the Michael Jackson as skin job represents the carpetbagging side of black advancement in the affirmative action era. The fact that we are not producing young black men and women who conceive of their African inheritance as little more than a means to cold-crash mainstream American and then cold-dis–if not merely put considerable distance between–the brothers and sisters left behind. In this sense Jackson’s decolorized flesh reads as a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: Stop, the face you save may be your own.

Three years ago black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram apartheid. Never mind how many of those kerzillion LPs were bought, forget how much Jackson product we had bought all those years before that–even with his deconstructed head, we wanted this cat to tear the roof off the all -time-greatest-sales sucker bad as he did. It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something. Oh, the Pyrrhic victories of the disenfranchised. Who would’ve thought this culture hero would be cut down to just the times. To those living in a New York City and currently witnessing a rebirth of black consciousness in protest politics, advocacy journalism (read The City Sun! read The City Sun! and the arts, Jackson seems dangerously absurd.

Proof that God don’t like ugly, the title of Michael’s new LP, Bad (Epic) accurately describes the contents in standard English. (Jackson apparently believes that bad can apply to both him and L.L. Cool J.) No need to get stuck on making comparison’s with Thriller, Bad sounds like home demos Michael cut over a long weekend. There’s not one song here that any urban contemporary hack couldn’t have laid out in a week, let alone two years. Several of the up-tempo numbers wobble in with hokey bass lines out of the Lalo Schifrin fakebook, and an inordinate number begin with ominous science fiction synthnoise–invariably preceding an anticlimax. Bad has hooks, sure, and most are searching for a song, none more pitifully than the fly-weight title track, which throws its chorus around like a three-year-old brat.

The only thing Bad has going for it is that it was made by the same artist who made Thriller. No amount of disgust for Jackson’s even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller Everything on that record manages a savvy balance between machine language and human intervention, between palpitating heart and precision tuning. Thriller is a record that doesn’t even know how to stop giving pleasure. Every note on the mutha sings and breathes masterful pop instincts: the drumbeats, the bass lines, the guitar chicken scratches, the aleatoric elements. The weaving of discrete details into fine polyphonic mesh reminds me of those African field records where simultaneity and participatory democracy, not European harmony, serve as the ordering principle.

Bad, as songless as Thriller is songful, finds Jackson performing material that he has absolutely no emotion commitment to–with the exception of spitefully named “Dirty Diana,” a groupie fantasy. The passion and compassion of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” seemed genuine, generated by Jackson’s perverse attraction to the ills of teen violence and teen pregnancy. There was something frightful and compelling about this mollycoddled mama’s boy delivering lapidary pronouncements from his Xanadu like “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby.” While the world will hold its breath and turn blue in the face awaiting the first successful Michael Jackson paternity suit, he had the nerve to sing “The kid is not my son.” Not even David Bowie could create a subtext that coy and rakish on the surface and grotesque at its depths.

Only in the twisted aspects does Bad, mostly via the “Bad” video, outdo Thriller. After becoming an artificial white man, now he wants to trade on his ethnicity. Here’s Jackson’s sickest fantasy yet: playing the role of a black preppie returning to the ghetto, he now only offers himself as a role model he literally screams at the brothers “You ain’t nothin’!” Translation: Niggers ain’t shit. In Jackson’s loathsome conception of the black experience, you’re either a criminal stereotype or one of the Beautiful People. Having sold the world pure pop pleasure on Thriller, Jackson returns on Bad to sell his own race hatred. If there’s 35 million sales in that, be ready for the hills ya’ll.


The Boy Can’t Help It

Guy Trebay
September 22, 1987

There’s no longer any question that Michael Jackson is America’s preeminent geek. Even New Yorkers, who traditionally give a lot of latitude to the strange, can’t seem to get over the inscrutable and surgically airbrushed creature Jackson’s become. It appeared that, in the weeks following release of Bad and his primetime video, all you heard people talking about on radio, on the subways, and the streets was the sad gnome with the Porcelana complexion, the dated dance steps, and a terminal case of Jheri curl.

“I think Michael went too far in the white direction,” said John Hightower, portaging his Peugeot to work last week on the subway. Hightower and some fellow bike messengers were wedged into the last car of the IRT #6.

“Jackson had some kind of face peel,” Hightower added. “They had it in the News.”
“You mean,” asked a dark-skinned companion, “I’m that color inside?”

“To get that, man,” Hightower replied. “They’d have to peel you to the bone.”

The damn-with-faint-praise consensus on the subway that morning was that Jackson’s video was dramatic but too Hollywood, despite the New York locations, and that the song was okay though not remotely bad.

“And another thing,” said Hightower, “it should have been starring another person. Michael just looked too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains.”

As the Def Jam rap groups promoted the Madison Square Garden finale of their nationwide tour, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins had one message for Michael Jackson fans. “We just want to say,” Hutchins admonished the WBLS audience one Tuesday afternoon, “you got to stop wearing those gloves and those leg wraps and those greasy looking curls because YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF JERKS.”

Hutchins and the members of Stetsasonic were in the studio giving a chaotic interview, when Jackson’s album came up. “We really don’t like to dis another artist,” said a member of Stetsasonic, before the rappers launched into a capella version of Jackson’s song in lisping falsetto. When DJ Bugsy dropped the needle on Whodini’s new tune, “Be Yourself.”

“You know the part I couldn’t look at was when Michael kept grabbing at his nonexistent crotch.” Jackson’s gender and virility were the topics during a break in rehearsal of Travis Preston’s Paradise Bound, Part II, a boom-box-and-chorus piece created for the Bandshell in Central Park. Sitting in the hot sunshine on Wednesday, some cast members couldn’t keep their minds on the performance. They were debating whether Michael and his sister Janet Jackson had ever been seen together at one time.

“I don’t think he exists,” said a singer. “I think he’s her. Or she’s him in drag.”

“Oh, no,” said Christine Satchell, a young actress from the Bronx. “That’s Michael. He just wears a lot of makeup.”

“That’s the problem, said another actor, “he’s jumping around singing, ‘I’m Bad,’ and then they breaks and Michael asks, ‘Can I borrow your mascara?'”
Everyone agreed director Martin Scorsese should have hired an actor for Jackson’s part.
“Like who?” a bystander asked.

“Oh, anybody,” said the singer, “just so he looked like a man.”

On television, Jackson provided comics with a weeklong gift of nasty riffs. Mining the limitless trove of Jackson’s peccadilloes, the funnyman cracked wise about the singer’s pet chimpanzee, the special language he invented to talk to his menagerie, and the life-sized mannequin of Elizabeth Taylor that he reputedly dresses every day. Jackson has become a monologist’s dream. Jay Leno scored the capper with a joke involving Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to purchase the Elephant Man’s remains. During his nightly stint, Leno broke up the Tonight Show millions with news that the Elephant Man’s descendants had made a counteroffer for the purchase of Jackson’s original nose.

Jackson hysteria attained a memorable plateau with the People and Rolling Stone covers, but a more lasting contribution to schlock journalism was the Daily News’s takeout entitled “Wizard of Odd.” On the second day of that three-part series, the newspaper included now notorious before and after pictures of Jackson’s transformations under the knife. With arrowed captions readers got to follow the surgical reduction of Michael’s upper lip, his nose, his lower eyelid, the addition of cheekbone implants, and the artfully cleft chin.

“People think he’s a big mystery,” said midtown news vendor Dalaedeet Singh. “Like Howard Hughes. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, we sell out very quickly.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the new album, at least not in Thriller terms. Bad’s initial sales surge leveled off swiftly after its August 31 release. “Under three million,” said one spokesman for Epic Records. “In excess of three million,” another claimed.

“Eh,” said Phil McGowan, soul music salesclerk at Tower’s flagship store on lower Broadway. As Bad blared from speakers mounted beneath a stupendous cutout of Jackson, McGowan said, “It’s selling okay, but a funny thing happened. The Michael came in and we got a new shipment of Prince at the same time.” He motioned to eight boxes of unsold Jackson. “Prince sold out in a couple hours. Michael’s still kind of sitting in the stacks.”


Man in the Mirror

By Stanley Crouch
November 17, 1987

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose, to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old.


Impolite Discourse

To can the first-person taboo and proceed to the main event: Fuck yes I have a personal interest in the books that follow. Not just because all involve rock criticism and I am Der Dean (sorry, it just came out of my mouth on two A&M gin-and-tonics, 12-step here I come), but because in two of the three I am explicitly and persistently attacked. So, having been offered extra space by this journal’s editor in chief—he wanted a cover piece, me scowling in my Special Ed T-shirt: IF MELTZER DISSES THE DOLLS AGAIN I WILL FUCK UP HIS HARD DRIVE—I would be disingenuous not to address a couple of grating factual issues.

Listen up, Jim DeRogatis. When I threw that piece of pie (not my “dinner,” the food line was long) at Ellen Willis, it wasn’t because, as Willis with her Handy Dandy Theory Generator lets you suggest, I wanted to maintain the sexist status quo of “gender relations in rock-critic land.” The motives I experienced were no more noble but a lot more personal, and to find out what they were (and then assay their credibility) you need merely to have asked. I know you’re big on journalistic ethics, so write this one on your wrist: Check The Source. (It’s real useful when you have an unidentified third party provide uncorroborated off-the-record poolside repartee by someone—not me, Neil Strauss, remember?—who makes you so jealous you could shit.) (Reached by telephone, DeRogatis denied that he was jealous of Strauss.)

As for Richard Meltzer, right now let me say this. Meltzer complains, bitterly, that “30-40 times” over “seven years,” he asked me and the true inventor of rock criticism, Richard Goldstein, whether he could “FUCKING WRITE FOR THEM” (i.e., US, presumably HERE). I don’t recall this, and neither does Goldstein, not least because neither of us was a Voice editor until 1974. We could put in a word for someone we loved, as I did for my dear friend Tom Smucker, an equally eccentric and valuable voice back then, and when Goldstein had his own mag briefly, Meltzer was in it. But we couldn’t assign until we became editors. Whereupon we acted. Meltzer led the second music section I edited, 8/8/74 (Vince Aletti on the J5 got 8/1), one of his three appearances before 10/1.

I dunno—maybe Meltzer’s from Triton and I’m from Uranus. ‘Umble Queens boys though we both were, at some one-on-one level we never did relate. Which is why Meltzer has it 180 degrees wrong when he begrudgingly allows as how I liked him “personally . . . and to some degree professionally.” Truth is, I considered Meltzer an antisocial jerk, and please read “Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century” before calling me a goody-goody. As a writer, however, I thought he was terrific. And it turns out he was only warming up.

In a famous phrase—it rhymes—James Wolcott once dubbed Lester Bangs, the subject of DeRogatis’s Let It Blurt, and Meltzer, whose “rockwriting” has now been collected as A Whore Just Like the Rest, “the Noise Boys.” And while Bangs’s drinking buddy and Meltzer’s drinking best friend Nick Tosches serves asterner muse, his bedrock faith in “the saxophone whose message transcends knowing” places The Nick Tosches Reader in the territory even though it’s less than half music writing. The three never blew the same horn; as DeRogatis quips, they were “individually dissimilar.” But they were all partisans of rock at its noisiest—culture as ecstatic disruption. “Fuck the tradition, I want the Party,” Bangs declared in 1971. “A touchstone of genuwine liberation,” Meltzer recalled in 1986. Maybe even, as Tosches recollected in the forced tranquility of 1991, “a cold hard blue-veined cock right up under the tie-dyed skirts of benighted sensitivity.” And the minute rock stopped delivering the requisite Skullbustium, the Noise Boys shouted their pain. As usual, Bangs was softer on this than the other two, enmeshed in a life-drama of musical betrayal and reconciliation until he goddamn died. But like Meltzer and Tosches, he dreamed of escaping rockcrit and becoming a “real writer.”

Tosches has succeeded royally. A master crime reporter whose manner yokes Homer, Hemingway, and some ’60s tit magazine I’m not literate enough to ID, author of a comical, biblical Jerry Lee Lewis bio that trumps Albert Goldman coming and Peter Guralnick going, he is just shy of famous—his Dean Martin book on its way to the movies, an investigative assignment inflated into the current The Devil and Sonny Liston. Meltzer has failed brilliantly. A writer of barbwire hilarity and recondite formal daring whose Kantian yawp doubles back on itself three times a sentence as it blows all decent expository standards up the hemorrhoids of history, he’s pure cult figure, so strapped for cash he’s still compelled to concoct a dadaist preview squib for 75 of the San Diego Reader‘s niggardly Georges a week. Bangs should be so unlucky. When he died in 1982, he was still churning out record reviews as he dreamed of (and worked on) novels, memoirs, stream-of-consciousness screeds, and treatises exposing man’s inhumanity to man. Although his legend as a substance-ingesting fabulous character exceeds Tosches’s and Meltzer’s combined, nothing in his work or story, including the craving for transcendence all three have known too well, suggests that he wouldn’t rather be alive.

Instead he got his best-of early: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited (solely) by Greil Marcus, published in what would have been Lester’s 39th year, 1987, and not yet pecked to death by the many geese who’ve stuck their yellow noses in. And now he gets a biography as well. The legend is a lousy substitute for the words—my best hope for Let It Blurt is that it will spark a second anthology. Still, DeRogatis has gathered his facts with gusto. As someone who knew Lester, I found the account of his early years poignant and then some, and, whatever my quibbles, the rest of the narrative is readable, scrupulously researched, and fair enough—affectionate without romanticizing Lester’s tragic, destructive . . . not “excesses,” to hell with that, vices. Wonderful photos, too. But—well, here comes the first person again. Early on, DeRogatis quotes me as saying, “His critical ideas were not the strength; it was the language that was the strength,” then stoutly ripostes, “I disagree.” I braced myself, but the follow-through never came. The few ideas DeRogatis cites at all—boo irony, boo academia, the beauty of ugliness, rock’s democratic imperative—are elementary. Even Bangs’s style is barely explored; I wonder how many who weren’t there will suss that he was one of the funniest writers on the planet. The book’s few striking critical insights come from interviewees, particularly Meltzer. And be this journalistic principle or intellectual aptitude, it has as its consequence a response to Let It Blurt that assumes Lester’s writing and raves on about his legend.

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It was to refocus on his words that this piece was initially conceived. Just how good was Lester Bangs, and why? Marcus, that sobersides, famously claimed of Psychotic Reactions: “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to believe that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.” Note that this is not the same as claiming Bangs was the best writer in America—but Marcus wouldn’t mind if you got that idea. On the other hand, after Meltzer belittlingly compares Bangs to such “dregs of beat” as Ray Bremser and Ted Joans, he doubles back, grandly and slyly adding: “(He also of course found USE for Céline and Bukowski.)” No admirer of Bukowski or fan of Céline, I don’t find that especially far-fetched. Then again, I do have a weakness for record reviews, and would be hard-pressed to gainsay some lit crit who found Bukowski and Céline more “relevant.” But Bremser and Joans? In my dream world, even a lit crit could make that call. And although Tosches pumps Meltzer’s big Bangs piece as the class of the field, I prefer his own little one, which fondly sums up the “hayseed” ‘s three obsessions—writing, music, and communication—and concludes: “he was a nice guy.”

This basic observation doesn’t partake of DeRogatis’s “St. Lester,” a straw myth no one believes in. It simply respects the openheartedness people fell for, in person and on the page. Meltzer is so set on reestablishing the self-abuse, hostility, egomania, and b.o. the nice guy and his legend made too much of that he short-changes the sweet stuff, and so there’s something conflicted about his g’bye. Lester’s writing—his self-mocking confessionals, left-field generalizations, free-form metaphors, effortless epithets, and boffo laugh lines, all flowing like a river of Romilar or a Coltrane solo—touched readers in a place his legend never reached. Between the two he became more notorious and beloved than Meltzer ever could be while ringing changes on a method of outrage Meltzer isn’t crazy to think he got to first. But Meltzer has never come near Bangs’s well-nigh Dickensian flow—few have. And for a long time he didn’t approach Bangs’s heart either. It was his heart, heart that never compromised his tremendous intelligence and always fed off his humor and his endless love of music (here signifying merely “his subject,” or “the world”), that made Bangs the wonder he was.

One rock and roll thing about Bangs was his gift for juicing commonplaces—hype! alienation! spontaneous bop prosody! (youth! sex! the big beat!)—with the freshness of his idiom and the intensity of his convictions. That’s why I believe his language subsumes his ideas. But he was also a gusher of musical connection and description who in the right mood could hear just about anything. In the right mood, Meltzer can be an even better, very different critic-qua-critic. The Nick Tosches Reader, however, gives us something else—a great music reporter, with narrow tastes and an overview captured in its entirety by the title of his Bangla Desh putdown: “The Heartbeats Never Did Benefits.”

As a devotee of the journalistic collection as a literary genre, yes I said yes I will Yes to the Michele Sindona prolegomenon, the Carly Simon interview, the Burroughs-Hoover tour de force, the meta-ironic send-up of Love Story, the awesome George Jones profile The New Yorker rejected in its infinite gentility. In toto, however, this 593-page monster is a bold-faced mishmash, full of dull stuff (much of it from men’s magazines, although the stump-fucking fantasies ’tis rumored he penned for Penthouse Forum are absent) calculated to prove how much realer a writer he’s become. In controlled doses I love the high-low particularities, heroic rhythms, and sardonic bite of his prose. But after 593 pages—plus the skillful 1988 literary thriller Cut Numbers and The Devil and Sonny Liston heaping contumely on Muhammad Ali and the pinkos who love him—I was plumb worn out. If you believe Philip Roth, Peter Matthiessen, and Hubert Selby, Jr. are our only great living writers, Der Dean isn’t gonna stop you from making “There is no new thing under the sun” your fucking mantra. But a writer who prides himself on going against the grain should recognize that anyone who devises a fresh way to say the world cannot change will eventually be rewarded by rich people who hope he’s right. Tosches’s novel-in-progress looks strong. I sincerely hope it goes against the grain. And if instead he gets mired in his “vision,” he was still right to forsake rockwrite. The passion is not in him.

With Meltzer this is a far more complicated question. Although I helped select him the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ music critic of the year for 1995, that three-article submission was all I’d seen of his non-Voice journalism since he moved to L.A. in 1975; I didn’t even know he’d published 1988’s accurately entitled L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas. So I downed that 246-page collection after polishing off the 575-page A Whore Just Like the Rest, and as a fan of the genre enjoyed it fine—the hamburger reviews, the boxing piece, the sexcapades, and especially the tender “Silent Nite(s)” and the nothing-happened ” . . . and Crazy for Loving You” toward the end. But A Whore Just Like the Rest is so superior to this alien-in-paradise miscellany as to render Meltzer’s vituperative contempt for current music and its criticism something like a tragedy.

Now, since almost all the many things Meltzer says about me and mine are, not to call him a bad word, misunderstood or misremembered—Stranded, Greil’s Aesthetics of Rock intro, my Little Richard T-shirt, my intimacy with his oeuvre, and his place at the Voice (where I’ll give him half of Eric Dolphy)—maybe he’s equally untrustworthy across the board. But though Meltzer does go on about Truth, he’s not in the trust business. He’s selling ideas by the bucketful, mockery of that there, jokes for jokes’ sake, a word born every minute, a childish refusal to curb his orality, his own pud-pulling, panty-snagging genius. He wasn’t a token of my tolerance, much less (so defensive!) “a vulgar exhibit” in my “proto-multiculture briefcase.” He was an essential argument, the most extreme available, for what I’ll retrospectively dub impolite discourse, a concept that encompasses all rock criticism then and (Anthony DeCurtis excepted) much of it now—only marginally more unacceptable to literate bowwows than Tom Smucker or Ed Naha, but manifestly more brilliant and offensive, hence much harder to take. If you weren’t threatened by noise, Meltzer wouldn’t bother you. If you were, you would have to confront the likelihood that this Yale-dropout barbarian could beat you at Scrabble with one hand and finish off your Jack Daniel’s with the other.

Egomaniac that he is, Meltzer doesn’t want to be anyone else’s argument, certainly not mine. Yet the disgracefully cheap Voice was the nearest thing to a money gig available to a guy whose behavior and oeuvre were epitomized by his great line in a Redd Foxx review: “(Tastes rather like beef Redd and the texture sure beats sushi!).” Subject of sentence: assholes. His writing wasn’t and isn’t unpublishable, but at its straightest it’s extremely eccentric—not even dollar-a-word stuff, especially given the author’s kneejerk contempt for all editors. Impressed by the literary bad boy Tosches nails as a “con man,” Meltzer has never understood why he shouldn’t achieve fame and fortune commensurate with William S. Burroughs’s, and his failure to do so, while improving his politics the way poverty does, has further curdled his always bleak media analysis. This analysis never made him any easier to assign, not because media-bashing is verboten (these days it’s the tedious coin of the rockcrit realm), but because music critics are supposed to be interested in music and Meltzer started with the rock-is-dead shit in 1968. Young people scoff when I tell them this, but although he flirted with country and fell for punk and remains an avant-jazzbo, Meltzer repeats the date many times in A Whore Just Like the Rest—all but 18 pages of which were published 1969 or later.

Professional ressentiment fed this conceit—his topic, stolen by hustlers! But basically, the egomania involved was spiritual. Rock had been Meltzer’s whole world—no one has ever heard the Beatles better—and when the illusion faded he blamed rock rather than contingency, mortality, life. As a result, A Whore Like All the Rest is rife with pans of meaningless music he may not even have heard, especially in the early ’70s and again in those squibs, my favorite of which boldfaces the Cigar Store Indians (?) in an addendum to a list of 55 extinct soups: Olive and Watercress, Spaghetti and Mole, Fat-Free Pantyhose, Chicken with Starch, Dawg . . . Yet for all his utterly fucked, generationally banal inability to hear Sonic Youth, Youssou N’Dour, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Mouse on Mars, or Juliana Hatfield, the music criticism here has so much vitality—an offhand take on his friends the Blasters, an insulting dead-on description of Lester’s voice, a rave about the Germs (who I hate), the Bud Powell fantasia mit dump memoir he gave the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the aleatory “Ten Cage Reviews” (his last true music column at the Reader, which fired him before he got his award). There’s more, too—Voice stuff he hates/resents, the two other AAN submissions, jazz writing I’ve only heard about.

Meltzer used to spew everything first-draft. But in the late ’70s he started “composing” laboriously, and while his prose still has the old jismy dazzle, it’s also clearer, denser, less shticky. It’s not all equally good, though. Journalism is that way, and although Meltzer insists indignantly that he’s not a journalist, all the ’90s stuff here, including a left-of-rad rant on the ’92 riots, first appeared in the Reader. Maybe he can generate novels, memoirs, stream-of-consciousness screeds, and treatises exposing man’s inhumanity to man. But the great virtue of journalism is that it gets writers out of themselves. Nothing will stop Meltzer from writing about himself; nothing ever has. He’s always performed great tricks with his egotism, and from somebody who’s become a much nicer guy, personawise—vulnerable, compassionate, evincing considerable, how about that, heart—we wouldn’t want it any other way. But since I’m convinced he and music still have something special going after all these years, I would like respectfully to suggest that somebody assign him, I don’t know . . . some jazz reviews? He needs the money. A second collection is probably too much to expect in this media economy; this one’s miracle enough. But you never know.

One more thing. Possessed of his own Handy Dandy Theory Generator, Meltzer suggests in the long, climactic “Vinyl Reckoning” that me and Marcus give everything we praise “COOTIES.” We devalue it, scare the uncontaminated away. That wasn’t my intention; I loved his book long before I got there. But if I’ve made his head itch, well, as we used to say at Junior High School 16: “SUF-FUR!”


What the Iran-Contra Report Leaves Out

The Right’s Stuff: What the Iran-Contra Report Leaves Out
December 1, 1987

When the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair was released last week, the presidential spokesmen shrugged. They knew that the debate would not stray beyond a certain boundary: did the Reagan administration merely make mistakes, or did it commit crimes? To confine itself to this question, as the Report does, is to elucidate the scandal’s parts while leaving the whole incomprehensible.

What is missing, perhaps inevitably in a bipartisan congressional investigation, is any serious attempt to situate the dense description of events in history and politics. But because the Report offers such rich detail, a deeper understanding may be drawn from its 690 pages. Set in the ideological climate of the Reagan White House, the Report chronicles the pursuit of rightist obsessions by officials contemptuous of democracy and law­ — and how they almost got away with it.

Like the hearings that preceded it, the report omits much important back­ground. The interlocking careers of such figures as William Casey, John K. Singlaub, and Richard Secord, for example, are barely mentioned. The history of U.S. covert action — and the place of these people in that history — is absent.


In other words, the Enterprise’s his­torical roots are not explored, its bu­reaucratic implications — such as the conflict between the covert operators and the Pentagon brass — are not mentioned, and the political bombshell of the right’s effort to scrap the Constitu­tion remains unexploded.

While acidly criticizing the disdain for democratic checks evident among the chief actors, the Report shies away from admitting that the “scandal” amounted to a temporarily successful coup d’état. The authors make some worthy recom­mendations for avoiding certain specific abuses in the future, but most are simply ways to enhance congressional power. The underlying premises of covert action are not questioned but affirmed, as is the need for a democratic nation to engage in secret operations — just as long as the appropriate committee chairmen are duly and promptly informed.

Unlike the Watergate investigation, there will be no dramatic denouement; unlike the Church committee probe of the intelligence community, there will be no major reform or reassessment. With Casey dead and Reagan immune from impeachment, all that may be left is the indictment of the foot soldiers. A series of successful prosecutions by Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh might have a deterrent effect, but even that’s not like­ly — especially given the possibility of a presidential pardon before Reagan leaves office.

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Congress is unable to prevent another Iran-contra affair, the report asserts, be­cause it “cannot legislate good judgment, honesty, or fidelity to law.” But the re­port never confronts the motivating force behind the criminality, influencing every­thing but hidden in plain sight: rightist ideology. Indeed, the “minority report” appended by the conservative Republi­cans, dismisses the White House’s gross abuses as a few “mistakes.”

The right’s scorn for governmental process is fundamentally an ideological impulse, rooted in the old McCarthyite notion that agencies like the State Department obstruct the holy rollback of Communism. Without examining that impulse, it is impossible to see why the affair’s principals blithely resorted to lying, illegal secrecy, misuse of government assets and, finally, obstruction of justice to achieve their ends. And that is why the president himself, governed by the same perspective, still sees nothing to de­nounce in the conduct of his faithful friends. As the report demonstrates with­out explicitly saying, an extreme devotion to the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” even­tually corrupted nearly every federal agency whose top officers were aligned with the New Right.

This pattern of wretched excess extended into the White House, where Oliver North, Faith Whittlesey, and Patrick Buchanan held sway; into the CIA, where William Casey struggled to make the bureaucracy serve his ends; into the State Department, in the persons of Assistant Secretary Elliott Abrams and Ambassador Lewis Tambs; into the Senate, which made little effort to restrict covert adventures until last year, when the Democrats won control; and of course into the Jus­tice Department, headed by Ed Meese and his aides, which consistently placed political considerations above the law.

What was the Enterprise created by Casey and his surrogates, and what was its purpose? The ideological engine of the Enterprise was “rollback,” the right’s long-standing dream of turning back So­viet influence on the edges of the Evil Empire. Because the existing institutions of government were inadequate to that task, and because the policy itself lacked broad popular support, the U.S. required, in Casey’s words, a “freestanding entity” financed independently of the Congress, that could wage covert guerrilla warfare across the globe.

Their aspirations for worldwide “low-­intensity conflict” could only be achieved, the devout Reaganites eventually real­ized, outside the realm of public debate and congressional oversight. The Reagan platform had pledged to revitalize the CIA and expand covert operations, but this wasn’t accomplished by repealing the restrictive laws of the 1970s. Instead, the covert operators simply turned the CIA into a branch of their private, “off-the-­shelf” spy network, beyond the reach of post-Watergate reforms.

The headlines the day after the report’s release proclaimed what had been obvi­ous for many months: that while Ronald Reagan was oblivious when it came to the most sensitive matters, what he did know he repeatedly lied about. But Reagan’s terrible shortcomings as president, only recently understood by most Americans, are yesterday’s news.


But while the press, and the Con­gress, focused attention on the al­ready wounded Reagan, one man at the center of events got away unscathed. At this writing, George Bush is likely to be our next president, and it is significant that for such typical Enterprise operators as North and Rodri­guez, the vice president (and former CIA director) was and is the preferred candidate.

Despite the evidence presented in pub­lic testimony, newly discovered docu­ments, and depositions regarding Bush’s role in both the Iran arms deals and the contra operations, the Report essentially ignores the vice president. His key advis­ers never testified in public. His own role was never probed; his cloak of political protection never withdrawn. The com­mittees’ repeatedly stated position is that no one could ever remember what Bush thought or said about the Iran-contra af­fair, an assertion not supported by the facts they developed.

Bush has adamantly denied knowledge of and participation in the contra resup­ply policy. As the contra operation broke apart last year, there was considerable scrutiny of the relationship between the vice president’s office and Felix Rodriguez, a Cuban émigré and ex-CIA em­ployee. The Bay of Pigs veteran knew Bush’s national security assistant Donald Gregg, a former CIA official, from the days when both served in Vietnam.

In late 1985 Rodriguez went to El Sal­vador to help the Salvadoran air force with his personal specialty — “long range reconnaissance patrols” against the leftist guerrillas. While in El Salvador, Rodri­guez was approached by North to help set up the air resupply operation run by Gen­eral Secord; by the spring of 1986, he had become indispensable.

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During this crucial period Rodriguez met with the vice president at least twice, and maintained close contact with Gregg. On one occasion Gregg’s assistant, Colo­nel Sam Watson, visited El Salvador to discuss counterinsurgency operations. Rodriguez did not like Secord or his sub­ordinates, and he had several confronta­tions with North. During the summer, he became so angry about how the Enter­prise was run that he went directly to the vice president’s office to seek help.

Bush acknowledges meeting Rodriguez, but says he knew nothing of the contra resupply operation. Gregg has said, “Members of my staff and I maintained periodic contact with Felix Rodriguez, but we were never involved in directing, coordinating, or approving military aid to the contras in Nicaragua. Nor did I or members of my office know of the diver­sion of funds to the contras.” Gregg first denied ever discussing contra operations with Rodriguez, then corrected himself, admitting that on August 8, 1986, Rodri­guez had “shared his personal concern with me regarding the informal contra supply organization he had observed [italics added] in El Salvador.”

This version of events had to be changed again when, during the course of the congressional hearings, the commit­tees unearthed a document that raised more questions about the vice president’s role. In a scheduling proposal dated April 16, 1986, Gregg requested a “meeting with Felix Rodriguez, a counterinsur­gency expert visiting from El Salvador.” The purpose was “to brief the Vice Presi­dent on the status of the war in El Salva­dor and resupply of the contras [italics added].” Under “Background,” the pro­posal said, “The Vice President has met previously with Mr. Rodriguez during his visits to Washington and will be interest­ed in the current information he will be able to provide.”

Bush denied discussing contra aid with Rodriguez, and both Gregg and his depu­ty Watson discount the schedule propos­al’s telltale reference to contra resupply — which was retained through several drafts and found its way into a final memoran­dum given to the vice president. But Phyllis M. Byrne, an assistant to Gregg, told the committee in a sworn deposition that “the purpose of the meeting was given to me by Colonel Watson.” She added, “I don’t believe that he gave me those precise words, but he did tell me —­ the resupply of the contras was the phrase that he provided me.” It is hardly credible that Byrne just added the contra reference to the memo by herself.

The denials of both Gregg and Bush are now further eroded by the committee report, which reveals for the first time that in 1982 Gregg, as head of the NSC’s Intelligence Directorate, was deeply in­volved in organizing early contra opera­tions. Gregg was also the author of a never-signed presidential finding that would have provided CIA paramilitary support to forces inside Nicaragua.

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Bush has also sought to extricate him­self from the Iranian quicksand that en­gulfed the White House. Last December, in an interview with Time, he said, “The problem on all this, of course, is the per­ception that arms were traded for hos­tages. The President is absolutely, totally convinced in his mind that that isn’t what happened. I know him, I know what his feeling is on this. I have heard what he said, and I accept it.” In an August 1987 Washington Post interview, Bush lamely explained that he did not know that Shultz and Weinberger had objected to the arms sales.

“If I’d have sat there and heard George Shultz and Cap [Weinberger] express it strongly, maybe I would have had a stronger view. But when you don’t know something, it’s hard to react.… We were not in the loop.”

But the Report cites a “White House log” showing that Bush attended the Au­gust 6, 1985, meeting about the Iran arms sale with the president, Weinberger, Shultz, Robert McFarlane (who was then national security adviser), and Donald Regan, then White House chief of staff. At that meeting, Shultz told the presi­dent the Iran deal was a “very bad idea,” and that despite talk of better relations, “we were just falling into the arms-for-hostages business and we shouldn’t do it.” Weinberger, at the same meeting, also opposed the sale. He and Shultz argued that it would contradict U.S. policy that aimed to persuade other nations to ob­serve an arms embargo against Iran. None of the witnesses could recall the vice president’s position.

There is other evidence that contra­dicts Bush’s public statements on his involvement in the Iran arms sales. In the same Time interview, the vice president explained, “What we in this administra­tion have tried to do is reach out to moderate elements in Iran. Now the dilemma we’re in is that in the hearts of the American people is a hatred and a detes­tation of everything that the Ayatollah Khomeini stands for. I feel that way myself.”

On February 8, 1987, two months after he made this statement, the Washington Post published the transcript of a memo­randum by Craig L. Fuller, Bush’s chief of staff, along with the details of a secret meeting at the vice president’s hotel suite in Jerusalem between Bush and Amiram Nir, a top Israeli official involved in the arms deals. Nir told Bush, “We are deal­ing with the most radical elements” in Iran because “we’ve learned they can de­liver and the moderates can’t.” In his top secret memo of this encounter Fuller wrote, “Mr. Nir indicated that he had briefed Prime Minister Peres and had been asked to brief the VP by his White House contacts [italics added].” Nir’s White House contacts were at the Na­tional Security Council. Bush’s only known response to Nir’s report that the U.S. was dealing with radicals, not moderates, was to send a copy of Fuller’s memo to Oliver North at the NSC.

A Report footnote also suggests that Bush knew more than he says. In 1976, CIA deputy director of operations Ted Shackley attempted to recruit Albert Ha­kim as an intelligence source, using Se­cord as an intermediary. Shackley’s friend Bush was then the director of the CIA.


The confusion over “radicals” versus “moderates,” like the entire arms­-for-hostages deal, arose in the absence of any consistent U.S. policy toward Iran. That vacuum was eas­ily filled by a group of Iranian exiles with their own special interests, whose machi­nations were assisted by the Israeli intel­ligence services.

The story begins with the arms mer­chant Manucher Ghorbanifar. Before the 1979 revolution, Ghorbanifar had been managing director of an Israeli-connected shipping firm in Iran. He is rumored to have maintained connections with both SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and Israeli intelligence — although according to the Report neither of these relation­ships has ever been confirmed. Members of Ghorbanifar’s family were involved in an unsuccessful coup against Khomeini in 1980, and thereafter he sought repeatedly to curry favor with U.S. intelligence agencies. By 1981 the CIA had dropped Ghorbanifar as an informant, on the grounds that he was solely interested in promoting his own financial enrichment. He persistently importuned American agents, becoming so obnoxious by 1984 that the CIA put out a “burn notice” warning the intelligence community that Ghorbanifar “should be regarded as an intelligence fabricator and a nuisance.”

Ghorbanifar sought to enlist former CIA official Theodore Shackley as a con­duit for an arms-for-hostage trade, but when the State Department turned down that offer as a “scam,” he fastened onto Roy Furmark, an American businessman associated with Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and a former law client of CIA director Casey. Furmark introduced Ghorbanifar to Khashoggi, who sent Ghorbanifar to meet several times with a group of Israelis that included Al Schwimmer, an adviser to Prime Minis­ter Shimon Peres, and Ya’accov Nimrodi, an Israeli businessman with previous ser­vice in the government. In April 1985 Ghorbanifar proposed that he be permit­ted to purchase TOW antitank missiles for Iran from Israel, and in return, he would obtain the release of William Buckley, the CIA station chief held hos­tage in Beirut.

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It was also in the spring of 1985 that Michael Ledeen, a self-styled terrorism expert, attempted to persuade national security adviser McFarlane to employ him as an informal liaison for Israeli in­telligence about Iran. The NSC staff was hesitant about using Ledeen but im­pressed by his access to Peres, and he was eventually authorized by McFarlane to make contact with the Israeli prime minister.

In May 1985 Ledeen met in Israel with Peres. Ledeen says the hostages were not discussed, but the Report notes that an Israeli official “recalls Ledeen telling him about offers by various Iranians to help get the hostages released.”

According to Ledeen, Peres asked him to tell McFarlane that the Israelis wanted to sell artillery equipment to the Irani­ans, but would only do so with U.S. con­sent. McFarlane gave Ledeen approval for a single arms sale, “but just that and nothing else.” According to the Report: “One of the Israeli participants reported to another Israeli participant, however, that the authorization conveyed by Le­deen from McFarlane was for a transfer of TOW missiles” — a far more sophisti­cated and dangerous weapon.

While aiming to gain credit in the White House, Israel also pursued its own interests by manipulating the muddled captains of the Enterprise. The Report’s chronology makes clear that while the Israelis pushed hard for weapons sales, they were simultaneously negotiating with North for cooperative intelligence ventures with the U.S. This must have been especially tempting since the Israeli intelligence services are hampered by few of the democratic restrictions in place here. The Report shows that the Ameri­cans considered a diversion of Iranian arms sale profits from the beginning and that the Israelis proposed to spend some of their own take from the arms sales on joint covert operations.


The uproar over the “diversion” last year, and the subsequent focus upon it by the press and Congress, suggested this was a novelty. Yet if the switching of funds from arms sales to covert operations was “a neat idea,” in North’s juvenile idiom, it was probably not a new one. What better method could there be to raise millions for secret projects — or to conceal them from the prying of both Congress and the intelligence bureaucracy?

Tantalizing reference to a similar scheme, involving several Iran-contra fig­ures, is made in Manhunt, Peter Maas’s book about the Edwin Wilson case. Maas provides an important, if briefly noted, clue that was apparently missed by the congressional investigators. In the early days of the Reagan administration, ac­cording to Maas, Michael Ledeen told a federal prosecutor investigating billing abuses in arms sales to Egypt that the missing funds “might have gone for a covert operation.” Ledeen was attempting to protect his friend Ted Shackley, and Shackley’s associate Tom Clines, from indictment in the scandal surrounding the Egyptian-American Transport Services Corporation, better known as EATSCO. Perhaps there was something to Ledeen’s story, since the EATSCO case was settled with a fine and no crimi­nal prosecutions.

The Report does show that some type of diversion had been discussed within the White House as early as 1985. General Singlaub proposed a diversion scheme to both North and Casey in a memo prepared by his associate Barbara Studley.

Weapons dealer Studley framed her 1985 proposal using Reagan Doctrine buzz words. Her “objective” was “to create a conduit for maintaining a continu­ous flow of Soviet weapons and technology, to be utilized by the United States in support of Freedom Fighters in Nicara­gua, Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, etc.” Soviet bloc matériel was compatible with weapons and ammuni­tion captured by the “freedom fighters.”

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Though the Studley scheme was never implemented, Israel was already involved in a similar plan to use arms sales to finance covert operations. According to the Israelis, North proposed in early Oc­tober 1985 that excess funds from the TOW missile sales be used to support “pragmatists” in Iran. By the end of November, the Enterprise had received a portion of the arms sales proceeds. At North’s request the Israeli intermediaries paid Secord’s Lake Resources account $1 million from the proceeds of its August­-September TOW shipments.

North and Secord both said the money was to cover the Enterprise’s expenses in arranging five shipments of HAWKs to Iran. But when the deliveries were stopped after one shipment, the Enter­prise held $800,000 in unexpended funds. North then received Israeli permission to use the $800,000 for “whatever purpose we wanted,” and he told Secord to spend the money for the contras.

According to the notes of an Israeli Defense Ministry official who met with North on December 6, 1985, the NSC aide said he needed money and intended to divert profits from future Iranian transactions to Nicaragua. Three days later North recommended to his boss John Poindexter that the U.S. take con­trol of arms sales from Israel, and use “Secord as our conduit to control Ghor­banifar and the delivery operation.” This mechanism was adopted in the intelli­gence finding signed by the president on January 17, 1986.


Among the Report’s accomplish­ments is its painstaking audit of the Enterprise’s finances. Its authors understood that the unseen movement of money made the En­terprise a scandal and a threat to demo­cratic order.

North testified that as early as 1984, CIA director Casey wanted to set up “an overseas entity that was capable of con­ducting operations or activities of assis­tance to U.S. foreign policy goals that was… self-financing, independent of appro­priated monies,” and thus beyond con­gressional oversight. The Enterprise was in fact a maze of different companies, created at the direction of North, Hakim, and Secord by William Zucker, a former IRS lawyer living in Switzerland who had worked for Hakim for two decades.

The operation was made up of three kinds of firms. First were the disposable “collecting” companies that received funds for the overall operation. When a collecting company became too visible, it could be jettisoned and replaced. The col­lecting company fed money into a series of “treasury” companies, each one as­signed to a different part of the world. These regional accounts would then fi­nance the activities of “operating” com­panies: for example the Udall Corpora­tion, which built the secret airstrip in Costa Rica and owned the aircraft used in the contra resupply effort; or Toyco, which bought and sold weapons for the contras.

In 1985 and 1986, revenues of the En­terprise totaled nearly $48 million. They poured in from the wealthy American contributors recruited by Carl “Spitz” Channell, from countries like Saudi Ara­bia and South Korea, from arms sales not only to Iran but to the contras, and even from sales of weapons to the CIA.

And while the secret effort to resupply the contras on the southern front — the major stated purpose of the Enterprise — never materialized, the “owners” were be­coming wealthy. In its two-year history, the Enterprise’s income exceeded expen­ditures by $12.2 million, out of which Secord, Hakim, and Clines dealt them­selves “commissions” amounting to $4.4 million.

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Hakim and Secord took an additional $2.2 million for personal business ventures and expenses. Another $4.2 million was held as “Reserves” for future projects, and $1.2 million remained as undistributed cash at the end of 1986 when the scandal was exposed. Had the contribution from Brunei solicited by Abrams not been misplaced, the Enter­prise would have been $10 million richer.

But in addition to profiting from the Enterprise, Secord and Hakim had their own business agenda. They wanted to manufacture submachine guns through a partnership called Tri-American Arms. In its initial phase, this project was to manufacture 4000 guns for the contras. The projected investment cost was $3 million; the projected profit, $4.2 million. The partners also planned to purchase timberlands in the American Northwest, with a loan collateralized against Enter­prise accounts. They discussed invest­ments in biotechnology, and in the “bulk manufacturing of opium alkaloids.”

In addition, the partners wanted to buy into Forways, a military spare-parts firm in which Zucker already was a 25 per cent owner. At the same time negotiations for the Iran arms sales were going forward, Hakim gave a set of Forways catalogues to the negotiators with an optimistic remark: “Once things get going then we will be able to sell directly from Forways.”


To Secord and Hakim, the Enter­prise meant money and, in Se­cord’s case, a chance to revive his career in special operations. But for their sponsors in government — North, Casey, Poindexter, and perhaps the president — the Enterprise represent­ed something much larger: an unaccount­able mechanism for working their will outside the strictures of public opinion and congressional sanction.

The Democratic majority’s anger about this secret government is reflected when the Report says that it “violated cardinal principles of the Constitution.… The Constitution contemplates that the Gov­ernment will conduct its affairs only with funds appropriated by Congress. By re­sorting to funds not appropriated by Congress — indeed funds denied to the ex­ecutive branch by Congress — Administration officials committed a transgres­sion far more basic than a violation of the Boland Amendment.”

Yet the committees demand no sanc­tion against Ronald Reagan for the abuses committed under his authority. And when administration officials first deceived Congress about secret activities in Nicaragua back in 1985, the congres­sional response was feeble. The only re­maining barrier to the Enterprise’s as­sault on the law was the Justice Department, which the Report makes plain was utterly compromised under the direction of Attorney General Meese.

Meese was a poor constitutional watch­dog even before the Enterprise got under way. The Report examines in some detail his response to Oliver North’s ludicrous scheme to ransom the Beirut hostages using two Drug Enforcement Administra­tion agents and unappropriated private funds. After the CIA and the DEA re­fused to cooperate, North turned to Meese for help. On June 10, 1985, he prepared a memorandum for the attorney general explaining how a private dona­tion of $2 million would be deposited in a secret account “to bribe those in control of the hostages.” Meese complied with North’s request that the two DEA agents be detailed directly to the National Secu­rity Council. “No notice of any kind was provided to Congress about this opera­tion,” concludes the Report, “and no de­cision was ever made by the President that prior notice should be withheld or delayed. Thus, the failure to notify Con­gress of the DEA covert operation violat­ed the law.”

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But this tale, as Chapter Five of the Report explains, was only prologue to the Justice Department’s mishandling of sev­en other investigations that, “if pursued, would [have] expose[d] the NSC staff’s covert operations.” Among those stymied cases was the probe of contra gunrunning and mercenary recruitment by the U.S. Attorney in Miami, the subject of exten­sive coverage by the Voice, whose key details are largely confirmed in the Re­port. As a result of intervention by North and Poindexter, all seven investigations were to some degree hampered or de­layed. Inexplicably, the committees let Meese and his subordinates off lightly, laying the blame for obstructions of jus­tice on North and the NSC staff, and adding, “We do not mean to impugn the integrity of the law enforcement officials involved.”

Although the Report offers a devastat­ing, step-by-step chapter about Meese’s bungling — or coverup — of the early inves­tigation of the Iran-contra diversion a year ago, the sharpest criticism of the attorney general is to be found in addi­tional comments signed by House Judi­ciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino and three other Democrats. “As the chief law enforcement officer of our country,” they note, the attorney general “bears a special responsibility — not only to uphold and defend the Constitution, but also to assist the President in seeing that our laws are faithfully executed.… Yet, when one reviews the Attorney General’s conduct during the Iran-Contra episode, it is impossible to avoid questions about his actions.”

Even Rodino and his colleagues refrain from joining the recent chorus of calls for Meese to resign. Instead, they confine themselves to recommending a series of new congressional investigations of the Justice Department. At least one such probe is already under way in Rodino’s own committee, where crime subcommit­tee chairman William Hughes has been taking testimony about the Miami gunrunning case.

The Report’s flaccid handling of Meese reflects a wider passivity among congres­sional Democrats that, in some ways, is the unmentioned culprit of the Iran-con­tra affair. Fearful of being red-baited, and checked by the gag rules of its own intelligence committees, the Democratic ma­jority in the House allowed Oliver North to run amok long after his activities in Central America had been exposed by the media. The Republican minority claims in its dissent from the Report that leaks of classified information should be the chief future concern of lawmakers. But if future intelligence abuses are to be checked, both Democrats and Republi­cans committed to constitutional pro­cesses will have to worry less about Capi­tol Hill leaks, and more about White House lies.

The ideologues and operatives of the New Right have lost a few friends, but they have by no means abandoned their covert methods or bloody aspirations. They merely await a more hospitable cli­mate, perhaps in the next administration. The committees’ investigation and the Report itself leave a critical question un­answered: Will anyone in Congress be prepared to restrain a government head­ed by George Bush? ■

Research: Jeff Nason, Frédérique Press­mann, William Hollister, Jason Moody 


It’s Alive! Our Richard Nixon Problem… and His

It’s Alive! Our Nixon Problem… and His
September 1987

Richard Nixon represents the dark side of the American spirit.
—Bobby Kennedy

A face is raining across the border
The pride of history, the same as murder
Is this living?
He’s been careering…
—Public Image Ltd., The Metal Box

Shades of the ad campaign for Poltergeist II: “He’s Back.” Newsweek, in that halcyon time between the ’84 election and the mo­ment when Ed Meese, turgid Pillsbury doughboy turned ashen, appeared on TV to announce the contra slush fund. On the cov­er, the most painfully tweaked smile in U.S. politics still seems jerked into motion with pliers. But there’s something foreign, too, hard to pin down — a willingness to let the eyes’ slitted shrewdness gleam true, unfettered by earnestness.

The look isn’t victory. Nixon was forever in sick transit then, apprehensive that the real star’s broken leg would heal, the under­study get yanked back into the shadows. This face is fulfillment. There had been cravings in him only Watergate could satis­fy. Now he’s won on his imperative to be, in some unique sense incompletely understood by himself, the politician as modernist — to lay bare his own process, apostrophize the drama of his self-enactment, and then to rub everybody’s nose in his outraged conviction that there was nothing in his character he had not been driven to. (If Nixon is the politician as modernist, he is also, peculiar­ly, the modernist as fatalist.) The point isn’t that we now approve, or even forgive him; the point is that we haven’t been able to deny him. The artificial man has finally been ratified as authentic.

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The public rehabilitation of Richard Nix­on has so far proceeded on two separate but related tracks. The first, which the Iran­-contra scandal has accelerated, boils down to the argument that while the man may have been a real scum-blob at everything else, he was a master in foreign affairs. “Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, ­in their day,” writes William Pfaff in a recent L.A. Times op-ed piece, “had coherent ideas about where they wanted the country to go. You might not have liked the ideas but there was an intelligence at work.”

The second track, more oblique, derives from the conventionalizing impulse of history. It’s possible now to see the Nixon years discretely, as an era. With that has come permission, in both the media and academia, to tot up his achievements, impact, and so on, in neutral tones, while treating the Nixon persona and the contemporary re­sponse to it as happily no longer at issue. It’s the final “new Nixon,” the first to get rid of the one element that always gummed up the others — his damnable present-tense thereness, his ineluctable Nixon-ness.

This has understandably confused some people. Nixon himself, meantime, with his superbly expedient sense of the moment — he has always treated all his opportunities as necessities, all his talents as survival skills — seized at once on Reagan’s stumble and his own new dispensation, writing an op-ed encyclical on foreign affairs (remem­ber my competence) in collaboration with Kissinger (and people still wait for a Beatles reunion? Sheesh) which had none of the edgy tone characterizing his public utter­ances since The Accident. Suddenly, he had the loftiness of Marlon Brando addressing Superman from beyond the grave — it was the closest he’d ever come to enjoying him­self in public. Nixon’s hope has been that history would vindicate him; now, seeing that the vindication might not be posthu­mous, he’s acting out all the serene sagacity he was never able to simulate convincingly as President, hoping that, by reverse osmo­sis, his image now will become his image then. He’s a go-getter about posterity.

Rating Nixon’s foreign-policy skills as brilliant isn’t completely unfounded. He studied hard and certainly had the best in­tellectual equipment of any recent Presi­dent. But it’s still a staggering overestima­tion, confused by the sonorities of Nixon and Kissinger’s methodology — both men flexed the language of Realpolitik with the witless relish of schoolboys who’ve just heard about Machiavelli — into ignoring that the method was valueless outside of a few carefully chosen set-piece applications. Meantime, it let the rest of the world go hang.

The problem with the larger convention­alizing of Nixon, his reinterpretation into historical normality, is that it underesti­mates him — in a special sense that illus­trates the gap between factual and figurative significance. This country has always had a genius for shying away from its more telling self-images. Our leaders, like our culture, have the job of dissimulating not only about what we do but also about what we’re like. Something cracked with Nixon, though; the most notorious liar to occupy the White House was the one who most helplessly acted out the truth.

Stephen Ambrose, in Nixon: The Educa­tion of a Politician, stops short of the Presi­dential years, which are to be covered in a second ‘volume.’ But he’s got more than enough on his hands in the story on Nixon’s [illegible], his self-armoring as the total political cyborg, and his rise to prominence as the bizarre, homily-mouth­ing Iago of the schizo ’50s. While Ambrose’s previous subject Eisenhower was securing his grip on the national lack of imagination, the Nixon counter-myth congealed, to re­main remarkably unchanged for two de­cades — Tricky Dick, Uriah Heep, the man you wouldn’t buy used cars from, inspiring a loathing more inchoate, and a loyalty more grudging, than shambling, unabashed Joe McCarthy ever called forth.

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Ambrose, it’s clear, felt the Republican substitute for the loathing: distaste. But in the interest of a middlebrow conception of historical objectivity, he’s put that aside, adopting what he doubtless considers a more judicious perspective on the man. You can almost feel his relief at discovering that one can put together a plausible Nixon by treating the facts and events of his career at face value, ignoring the obsessive subtext. At times, Ambrose’s reticence can be useful. If he’s unable to appreciate, much less con­vey, the full, magnificent ghastliness of the Checkers speech, The Honeymooners on tri­al for its life, he’s good at detailing the grind of conjecture and strategy that went into it — for Nixon, even trauma has to be one-­tenth inspiration, nine-tenths perspiration.

Ambrose performs a disservice to literal-­minded history, however, when he fails to address the documentable fact that Nixon, throughout his career, made people feel different about him than they did about any other politician. Concluding (with much regretful throat-clearing) that Nixon’s elec­tions to Congress and Senate were, well, yes, “dirty” campaigns, Ambrose remains head-bangingly unaware that they were dirty as a kind of impersonal, implacable given, which was what nobody had ever seen before. More fundamentally, Ambrose lacks any gift for presenting Nixon as a talismanic, poetic figure — which he assuredly is, for all that his soul is prose. Nixon in power, mouthing obscenities which came stuffily to him, chumming around with Bebe Rebozo, un­able to have faith he was President, is one of the great native parables, right up there with fat Elvis on drugs and Howard Hughes spooning down vats of ice cream while end­lessly rerunning Ice Station Zebra.

We acknowledged this at the time — at least to the extent that our relationship with him was always ironic. We never stopped being aware that the content of his presence in our lives was unrelated to the formulas in which it was presented to us. Not hypocrisy, exactly — more the permanent consciousness that even what was sincere in him would perforce come out willed, impersonated, made specious in its expression even if it hadn’t been in intent. Nixon made knowing­ness about him take precedence over know­ing him. What stayed secret was that, even though disbelieving him as an organic hu­man being, we felt ours was the greater intimacy.

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Still, the compulsion to scorn or despise Nixon, at one point the single most reflexive act for a big part of the U.S. electorate, had a quality of protesting too much, because it denied that intimacy its suggestiveness. We recognized him and didn’t want to; repre­hensible as his actions were, they weren’t the basis for people’s feelings about him, only the occasion. Both the pro-Nixon books and the neutral ones seem fundamen­tally uncomprehending, but anti-Nixon lit­erature — except for the books on Vietnam and Watergate, in which outrage turns grim­ly solemn — have traditionally been shrill and equally inept at grasping him. The classic text is still Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nix­on: The Shaping of His Character, hell-bent on insuring that Nixon remains not only a grotesque — which she didn’t have to worry about — but an absolutely sui generis one.

In almost any work that deals with it, the startlingly barren California of Nixon’s rear­ing — by parents so mired at the shabby­-genteel level that even the Depression made no visible impact on their fortunes — sounds a lot like Dorothy’s Kansas, except that no one ever thought of it as home. There’s a fascination in the Quakerism of Whittier, so inapplicably transplanted from its pastoral certainties to the hardscrabble of the part of the country where one’s place in the scheme of things is always most unsettled. In its inability to broach worldly topics, Whittier Quakerism might almost have been calculat­ed to instill in a young man (a) an impres­sion that spiritual matters were supposed to be non sequiturs in relation to the rest of life, (b) a sense of an oppressiveness that could nonetheless not be made to seem ma­lignant, and (c) a conviction that ambition provides no freedom of action but must be channeled into serving the status quo.

The family life, too, is thick with rich indicators, available for pulpy or elegant use, as the writer chooses: the polarities of cantankerous father and “saintly” mother, the trauma of two brothers — one a family pet, the other a family hero — dying before Nixon was out of college, the hints that father Frank was a dreamer too inhibited to realize he was one.

Brodie picks up on most of the obvious stuff — notably the famous “good dog” letter, written when Nixon was 10, which in its relentless, hostile self-abnegation (“one of the boys triped and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him. He kiked me in the side and we started on”) has entered folklore as the first smoking gun of his career. She goes wrong by having her hypothesized Nixon, whenever faced with a choice between doing good and doing smarmy, coolly and con­sciously choose villainy every time, for no other reason than that’s the kind of son-of-bitch he is. All the evidence pushes toward the far more horrifying conclusion that Nix­on honestly believed himself more acted upon than acting, indeed that, by his own lights, the way of things never allowed him any choice at all. It doesn’t really matter whether he’d have done differently if the world had been arranged otherwise; in his character, “otherwise” never had room to exist.

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Garry Wills, whose Nixon Agonistes, de­spite its attempts to sound more systematic than it is, contains the best and most per­ceptive writing on Nixon, has remarked that he was probably a fairly decent sort until Murry Chotiner and his Orange County ilk got hold of him. As far as it goes, this may be true, but it doesn’t feel quite right — largely because there was never a time in Nixon’s life when he felt someone or something hadn’t gotten hold of him.

The only emotion he has ever been able to express credibly in public is resentment. It energizes his tone into uncharacteristic viv­idness, with the live-wire twitch of true jammed-up fervor: “If the American people understood the real character of Alger Hiss, they would boil him in oil.” Invariably, the feeling is tied to privilege, even when privi­lege doesn’t seem like the relevant provoca­tion. You can track Nixon starting from an unexceptionable generality, then suddenly rounding toward home, in his comments to Ken Clawson after the resignation: “What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid… [But] if you are reasonably intelligent and your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut perfor­mance, while those who have everything are sitting around on their fat butts.”

You have to wonder how “those who have everything” got into the scheme, since Whittier wasn’t exactly one of their play­grounds. But substituting elites in general for rich kids in particular clarifies things­ — and also suggests the element of self-deny­ing convolution in Nixon’s truculence, be­cause he had good reason to feel that his merits included him in an elite, too.

Ambrose, who’s often helpful on this level, reminds us that Nixon was a highly endowed, unusual child from early on — articulate, prodigiously retentive, mentally alert. (He won a scholarship to Harvard, no mean trick in 1930, and only his family’s strait­ened finances sent him down the street to Whittier College instead. A Harvard Nixon conjures up might-have-beens that boggle the mind.) But his upbringing and circum­stances, girded about with relentlessly level­ing, increasingly hollow imperatives of duty, service, and obligation, offered no special dispensations for the exceptional. Nor — al­though he was later to describe his decision­-making process as “creative” — does Nixon seem to have had the kind of imagination which would let him look past that blocked­-in horizon and invent a role for himself.

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Instead, he would invent a self to fit the roles others defined — travestying even what elements of the genuine article he did use by bending them to expedient ends. In the opening of Nixon Agonistes, it’s startling to read of a reflective, almost professorial Nix­on, contentedly discussing manifest destiny and Woodrow Wilson with Wills. But the point — though Wills, usually astute in such things, doesn’t comment on it — is that Nix­on simply had Wills’s number and was serv­ing him exactly the dish he’d ordered. Material independence, which Nixon characterized as the freedom to do nothing, honestly does not seem to have excited his envy very much. But intellectual independence, the ability to think as one liked, for its own sake, and to follow a course determined only by that, must have struck him as an unfair exemption from the rules. He had to have sensed that he was extraordinary given his awkwardness and unsociability, there was little else for him to forge an ego from. But as far as he could see, the only way for the extraordinary to assert itself was by signing up for service to the ordinary.

He brought a perverse energy — with Nix­on, you can never quite say “relish” — to the job of turning the constrictions on his char­acter into the substance of his character. But he never believed it; believing it was another luxury. He claimed to have faith in the U.S. piety that honest hard work alone can bring you the world, yet his defense for everything he did was that his rivals held all the cards — he had to take unfair advantage just to keep even.

More than he realized, he exposed the lie in capitalist democracy, the myth of self­-determination — don’t hate those above you; next year, you’ll be one of them — that has kept both the middle and the working class­es denying their identity and traducing their own interests. On the one hand, in Nixon’s logic, the decent, modest, hard-working folk — the “little people,” the silent major­ity — are bound by the rules; on the other, because they’re underdogs, they can justifi­ably break the rules. He himself was to be­come the mythic concentration of every small businessman and office striver who frantically cuts corners, diddles the books, baits-and-switches his colleagues, all the while thinking — often with self-pity, some­times with honest rue — of what fair and decent fellows they could be, if only their backs weren’t pressed to the wall. They won’t even have to cheat on their taxes, once they’re big guns like those rich, morally inferior bastards who have accountants to do it legit.

The greatest service that U.S. democracy provided for the class system was to leave it unacknowledged. Back in bad old Europe, class distinctions forged class consciousness; those at the bottom knew exactly where, and with whom and against whom, their interests lay. But tell them the hierarchy doesn’t exist, that everything’s up for grabs and my God, what a quandary that puts them in; just look at them all milling around. Rebellion gets diverted into envy, and yet the scheme of things won’t give even that any tangible buttress of validity — the most pervasive emotion in the country, it’s also an emotion forever in blind search of its own cause, which may explain de Tocque­ville’s remark that he found more unaccountable personal unhappiness here than anywhere he knew. What gives the envy spectrum its final bizarre touch is that of course the genuinely rich and powerful, fall­ing for their own platitudes, feel it too; Nel­son Rockefeller’s public career was one long exercise in it, which — given the circum­stances — could only baffle him and us both.

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At the same time, the purest conformity often manifests itself as rebellion, rebellion into conformity, against a usually miscon­strued, at times flat-out fantastic “they.” All that frustration has to go somewhere, and just as the competitive ethic demands rivals, its ideological dimension requires enemies. One of Nixon’s first public speeches, when he was in his teens, was for a Kiwanis Club oratory contest on the theme of the Consti­tution. Others had spoken in praise of its benefits; Nixon warned darkly against those who misused its privileges, seeking to under­mine it. Even Ambrose, looking around Whittier in vain for the bomb-throwers, wonders what his grounds were. But it isn’t peculiar that Nixon’s speech won.

Still, his own relation to the values he lived by was never harmonious. Much in Nixon’s make-up, with minor changes in its angle of deflection, could suggest the forma­tion of a great nay-sayer. But in the U.S.A., those most obstructed by the system be­come its greatest boosters, to keep their san­ity — if its values weren’t omnipotent, how could they have been made to suffer so? Nobody had to co-opt Elvis; he was there first. Nixon the unwitting potential radical grew up to be Nixon the patsy, Nixon the stooge, and by so doing joined the majority. Ambrose, seeking to dispute the myth that Nixon was invented, politically speaking, by a cabal of Orange County millionaires, points out that the committee which solicit­ed him to run for Congress was in fact com­posed of anti–New Deal businessmen, “men who really hated FDR, far more than the corporate heads, who after all had cut their own deals.…” But the millionaires, or cor­porate heads, didn’t have to go hunt out a Nixon. The undergrowth would toss one up to them, ready for use.

The distinctively modern aspect of Nixon is that he can’t help betraying an awareness of the artifice in himself. He’s fascinated by it, always seeking to make explicit how the thing was put together, as if sensing that this fabrication is the real subject of his life, the experience corresponding to what in more traditional heroes’ lives would have been the formation of their character. Ambrose quotes a Tom Wicker review of Six Crises (“the book’s great lack… is any significant, disclosures about Nixon the man — what he really felt, thought, believed, what he really was”) before indignantly marshal­ing a covey of dissenting voices to claim that, on the contrary, the book “revealed a veritable passion for self-analysis” (Fawn Brodie). But Wicker and Ambrose are both right, because Nixon’s self-analysis, while indeed obsessive, is invariably, of a persona, not a person — out of a conviction that, “Nix­on the man” has always been irrelevant.

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For all Nixon’s unseemly pride in manipu­lating the contraption that was himself (reading him on the subject of his mental mastery is like listening to a gun nut exhibit his collection), his intense self-alienation re­calls Greil Marcus’s description of the dehumanized Professor Unrat, at the end of The Blue Angel, “holding his body as if it were one enormous clubfoot.” Physically, it came through less in clumsiness (he let Spiro bounce the golf balls off bystanders’ heads) than in a compulsion to second-guess and calibrate his own moment-to-moment presence. The habit became a national joke, and writers never tired of describing it (“SMILE, said his brain; FLASH, went the teeth” — Mailer, in Miami and the Siege of Chicago). He could hardly walk into a room without experiencing the paralyzing sensation that he was on camera. Nixon looked peculiar only because he was the first to express that condition and all too painfully embodied it.

Most of us make Checkers speeches, to the brain’s fourth wall, every day of our lives, but we would shudder at making them in public. It isn’t professional; we aren’t ca­reering. In a sense, those who insisted that “it didn’t start with Watergate” had a point. But they went back to Johnson, Roosevelt, when they should have gone back to Kafka, and Nausea, and maybe the moment when Al Jolson, in The Jazz Singer, cemented the last brick into the modern age by turning to the camera and exclaiming, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.”

Nixon struggled — not entirely dishonor­ably, despite the Roadrunner collapse at the end — against yielding to outright nihilism. But he could never make a dent in the ano­mie that had been his birthright. He was the first political representative of the newly widespread, post-World War II rootlessness: if Whittier qualifies as roots, then we’re all natives. Every politician, and certainly any President, claims dozens of associations, sentimental attachments, bondings, which they don’t authentically feel in themselves; Nixon, I think, was the first who could claim none, except for maybe football, that he did feel. By the time of the invasion of Cambo­dia, he was turning for sustenance to Pat­ton — the movie, not the general.

By now, of course, rootlessness has been rationalized, assimilated as the norm. Most of us take it for granted that we have to pick and choose what we identify with, and that most of it is synthetic. The old organizing entities — religion, family, community — are either debilitated, or suspect, or just not comprehensive enough to define anybody’s world. Among Presidents, you can trace a direct development from Johnson (bluffing his roots into more than they had been, and then trying to sham his way out of them, but all as the occasion warranted), to Nixon (able to make nothing from nothing), to Reagan, for whom synthetic identifications are authentic. But Nixon didn’t know that; when the old continuities cracked, all that was in him was the fracture.

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The subordination motif in Nixon’s ca­reer — never making any autonomous choice but forcing the fluids of his ambition through the coils wound by larger forces, other authorities — continues up to and beyond his election as President. During his near-decade as Eisenhower’s veep, the sub­ordination was literal — and, in terms of Eisenhower’s handling of him, an apotheosis. Wills’s chapter on Eisenhower, among the best things in his book, is still an eye-opener to one in the habit of thinking of Ike as a befuddled caretaker, a less destructive Rea­gan. Eisenhower knew exactly what he wanted from Nixon — to act as a lightning rod, be the Republican Party partisan that Ike neither was nor wished to be, and gener­ally do all the rough-and-tumble political dirty work Ike took care to avoid. (Which is incidentally a more useful role for a vice-­president than any of his successors have come up with.) He also knew the measure of his man: Johnson humiliated Hubert Humphrey for kicks, but Eisenhower humiliated Nixon pragmatically. Only management of a masterfully wily order could sustain a prom­inent and active lieutenant without allowing him even the dream of an independent pow­er base.

It was the paradigmatic relationship of Nixon’s career. Ike always made it clear that Nixon was pigeonholed: he kept him dangling after the Checkers speech and again when it came time for the 1956 vice-presi­dential nomination, with the suggestion “Chart your own course.” (Nixon’s refusal to chart anything seems to have been what quietly decided Eisenhower that he lacked presidential mettle.) Years later, on what should have been the most fulfilled night of Nixon’s life, he felt compelled to tell the 1968 Republican convention, “Let’s win this one for Ike.” (And who knows? Nixon may even have been conventional enough to feel sure, more sure, he’d made it on the day his daughter married the boss’s grandson than on the day he moved into the White House.)

While Nixon got elected with relatively few political IOUs — though the one to Strom Thurmond pretty much cleaned out the pot — no one has entered the office so literally less his own man. Luckily, constric­tion — the constriction that let him rational­ize himself — hemmed him in on all sides. He inherited a morass of a war; no one could blame him for starting it, and if he just hung in there long enough, no one could blame him for losing it, either (25,000 more U.S. casualties, untold Vietnamese, and all of Cambodia paid the premium for his blame­lessness). The economy was so far off the tracks that he could justify even his most cynical proposals as emergency measures, reluctantly taken. Domestic dissent and black rebellion were so widespread that his need for a “they,” for enemies who would compel him to strike back, righteously and underhandedly at once, was finally sated and gratified beyond his wildest dreams. In a sense, Watergate’s predominance in Nix­on’s second term, after the last ’60s fires had sputtered out, was the only thing that could have prevented his Administration from lapsing into inertia, because the prerequisite for his approach and abilities, the one set­ting in which he knew how to operate, was a trap.

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The final constriction, driving him from political life for good, turned out to be Con­gress and the will of the citizenry. This would sound like a line from the hoariest civics speech if it weren’t being resurrected by Nixon’s defenders, and of course Nixon himself, as a means of exculpating him — ­creating the ultimate Nixonian stab-in-the-­back theory to make large claims for, and explain the brevity of, his successes in for­eign policy, the one field in which he was supposed to have had the freedom to act as he wished. At the most basic level, the argu­ment runs that he started wonderful things, and would have completed them, if we only hadn’t used that flimsy Watergate pretext to bring him down in his prime. The argu­ment’s advocates usually leave unsaid that Nixon preferred foreign policy because there the Executive can often act unilaterally, un­burdened by the strictures of democracy.

The most recent book to take up this gauntlet is C.L. Sulzberger’s slender, wide-­margined, wide-eyed tome The World and Richard Nixon, which might be worth note only as a curiosity if it didn’t contain some of the most deliciously inadvertent high comedy I’ve ever read. Sulzberger is a vora­cious power groupie, a Plaster Caster of statesmen’s skulls; he makes Arthur Schlesinger look like a nun. Peaking early, in “Lunch With the World”; (not the chapter’s real title, unfortunately), C.L. breaks bread and chats about Nixon with various foreign luminaries, culling such gems as Hirohito’s admission, with an “admiring chuckle,” that he sees the “connection” between Nixon’s Russia and China overtures. Sulzberger chuckles, too, even when snacking alone. He quotes in full a ponderous memo he wrote Nixon on what our next move should be in Chile; his own account makes clear to every­one but him that his suggestions got used, if at all, as wallpaper. His pontifical urge is simply dazzling. He quotes Nixon on Kent State: “When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” This is delirious on its own, but Sulzberger continues: “And one might add: When tragedy got out of hand it invited disaster.”

I don’t know which is better — tragedy unwilling to act responsibly, or that “And one might add.” If this is the Establishment that Richard Nixon kowtowed to, craved approv­al from, resented, and worked for as butcher’s boy all his public life, there are elements of pathos and burlesque in his story, and ours, far beyond what we suspected.

Sulzberger and his ilk praise Nixon’s di­plomacy as pragmatic, experienced, and flexible. But it was determinedly “conceptu­al” — pure mental flexings and superstruc­tures, impervious or grudging to whatever did not fit the grand design he’d drawn for the history books. Nixon’s insecurities, which only let him believe his own stature when he was dealing with the very largest issues, negotiating with the biggest opposite numbers, found a perfect complement in Kissinger’s grandiose theoretical frame­works, the academic’s version of hubris, which ruthlessly jammed the world into his vessels, leaving him fuming when it wouldn’t stay put: “I don’t see why we should stand by and let a country go Communist just because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

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The Nixon-Kissinger foreign-policy blue­print was brilliant, if you accepted that there were only five countries in the world: the U.S., Russia, China, at times a shiny gadget store known as Japan, and a hazy, intermittent Brigadoon yclept “Europe.” The other 120-odd nations were dispens­able, obstreperous annoyances at best. And, because Nixon and Kissinger’s vanities compelled them to concentrate all conduct of diplomacy in their persons, there was no U.S. policy, even at the monitoring or care­taker level, toward those areas of the world they had no personal brief for. Even at their favored great-power level, they insistently cast things in terms of tour-de-force “his­toric initiatives,” tableau effects, seldom the unglamorous, patient, day-to-day continu­ities and receptivities involved in developing long-term relations.

If the high points of the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy tend to all thunderclap and no rain, their record in the Third World is one of ignorance and indifference, compounded by hasty and incompetent rushings-in after the unwatched pots, to their aggrieved sur­prise, boiled over. Their trademark is a sudd­en and brutal assertion of U.S. predominance in countries they had not previously shown the remotest interest in: thuggishly in Chile, with squalid ineptitude in Angola and Cyprus, hysterically in Portugal (Kis­singer, always more in love with his ability to make analogies than with their aptness, denouncing Mario Soares on the spot as a “Kerensky”), with incalculable short-sight­edness in the “tilt” toward Pakistan, which alienated India, the region’s giant, for the sake of ensuring a friendly halfway house for Kissinger’s China trip. After four years of near-total silence, in 1973 Nixon-Kissin­ger abruptly declared a “Year of Europe,” announcing their conclusion that it was time for the U.S. to step back in and decide everything; they couldn’t understand the European fury at both the tokenism and the presumption. Even Europhile-Nixophile Sulzberger has to confess that the NATO alliance was left in a shambles at the end of the Nixon presidency, and has not yet recovered.

Of the triumphs, Kissinger’s years of well­-publicized shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East now look the most suspect — particu­larly since they culminated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Sadat had decided he would have to fight anyway. More damag­ingly, their intent never went beyond the tactical — to make sure that the U.S. main­tained its influential position in the area. The actual issue was never addressed, even though the Israeli grip on the territories occupied in 1967 was considerably less adamant than it is now. Especially given Nix­on’s leverage over the Israelis after Yom Kippur, a great opportunity was squandered without ever having been recognized. The China opening still looks impressive, though more for removing a festering sore from U.S. domestic politics than for any great advantages that have accrued abroad. Like the once-celebrated détente with the Sovi­ets, it seems to have been engineered with an eye more for the history books than for anything that might occur before they’re written.

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What you end up with in Nixon the diplo­mat is the same as with Nixon the everything else: not a statesman; but an incredi­ble simulation. He mimicked his own conception of what a world leader should be like. Today, he’s still mimicking, turning his status as a historical figure into a new ca­reer, new strivings — though he seems at long last grown accustomed to the prospect that the past is his only future. (It wasn’t always so; among the most curious products of his retirement is a book called Leaders, which is supposed to be a chattily Ei­senhowerian reminiscence of the great statesmen he has known. But at every op­portunity, discussing Adenauer, De Gaulle, whoever, Nixon diffidently, and almost touchingly, inserts a mention that they all came back from what seemed complete po­litical oblivion and made their greatest con­tributions when in their seventies — why, even their eighties. You have to shake your head: not only because he just never gives up, but because nothing in him is not strate­gy.) Of course, “accustomed” does not mean “reconciled,” never with Nixon; that’s just another role that’s been forced on him, one that took longer to suss out than most, and somewhere deep inside him is this ticking: Bush will falter. Kemp’s as dumb as Rom­ney. Dole…

Which doesn’t mean we have to take it seriously. But what one has to understand is that for Nixon, exposure — even when it’s as total as Watergate — has always been a purification rite. The dismantling that begins renewal. He did it first in ’52, when he put what little residue of private life he had on public show in the Checkers speech, and dared anyone to say that he had not sacri­ficed his all to us; he did it again a decade later, letting his accumulated bitterness and hostility — not just toward “the media,” but toward Eisenhower, Whittier, life — show with “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” thus clearing the decks to make the next campaign seem a heroic comeback, not a lame reprise. Nixon’s best-hidden yearning is that, knowing we will never like him, he hopes that he will excite our pity and be saved. To stand with all his fabrica­tion of himself revealed is the closest he can come to making a case for himself — to say, but look at what they have done to me, imagine my agony at being forced to wear this mask. He wants us to see the pain in his charade. I suspect that the reason he would not, could not, destroy the Watergate tapes was that to him they were precious testimo­ny to the pain: he honestly thought that, hearing the inflictions on him, the corners he’d been forced into, we’d feel the awed compassion that we do for Job.

Salesman Job. The criminal as victim, as disbelieving witness to himself. The hyena in the mirror, asking you to feel sorry for him. Nixon’s mistake was believing that identifying with him would bring compas­sion; we identified with him all along, and that was why we’ve done our best to vomit him out. He deserves the epitaph that Va­lery once gave Stendhal: we will never be done with him. But until — well, never, the most demanding, difficult acknowledgment his fellow citizens, who elected him President twice, could make of him is a comment that completes the Bobby Kennedy line I started with — the half that Bobby was wise­ly demagogic enough to leave unsaid. It’s the quotation from Lord Jim that was once ap­plied to Nixon by Tom Wicker, certainly no fan: “He was one of us.” ■

Fun With Dick

NIXON: The Education of a Politician. By Stephen Ambrose. Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

RICHARD NIXON: The Shaping of His Character. By Fawn Brodie. Simon & Schuster, $8.95 paper.

NIXON AGONISTES. By Garry Wills. Men­tor/New American Library, $5.95 paper.

THE WORLD AND RICHARD NIXON. By C.L. Sulzberger. Prentice Hall, $18.95.

LEADERS. By Richard Nixon. Warner Books, $17.50; $3.95 paper.


Pentecostals in Heat

“Pentecostals in Heat”
May 12, 1987

Sex as a Last Rite

“It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” St. Paul said. But, if men cannot be pure, “let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, who knew those New Testament words well, found that the solution was not so simple. A bigamist at the age of 17 and later twice-wed to his teenage cousin, Jerry Lee had been marrying and burning, burning and marrying for most of his life.

He had been pumping piano and sing­ing for even longer: pumping and singing and burning and marrying. In the sum­mer of 1957, when he was 21, his record­ing of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” brought him fortune and fame. That for­tune and that fame seemed to be bound­less. In December “Great Balls of Fire” rose high on the pop, country, r&b, and British charts, and it was believed that Jerry Lee was destined to seize the throne of Elvis, who soon would be shorn and shipped to Germany. But, that same December, Jerry Lee took as his third wife his cousin Myra Gale Brown, age 13. A few months later, at the start of a British tour, which was to give England its first shot of living rock ’n’ roll, that marriage, hushed until then, was made into a public outrage by the slavering British press. After two shows, the tour was aborted — “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS,” the London Daily Herald gloated — and Jerry Lee returned to America, which had seen him off in glory but which now, with prurient glee, threw stones of revilement and scorn. So it came to pass, in those distant days when impropriety was to popular idolatry a poison rather than a perfume, that Jerry Lee Lewis, less than a year after he had risen, fell.

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He rose again a decade later — this time a country star — and, a decade after that, once again fell. There were no more big hits, country or otherwise. Fame became abject notoriety; his life, a tattered side­show attraction. People no longer much followed his music. Instead, they followed his careening, downward rampage. It wasn’t his records they heard on the ra­dio; it was news of his shooting his bass player in the chest (“Look down the bar­rel of this,” Jerry Lee had told him), of his being arrested outside Graceland for waving a pistol and drunkenly calling for Elvis, of the IRS seizing his property to satisfy liens exceeding his worth, of his lying near death in a Memphis hospital, his guts eaten away by whiskey and pills.

But always, throughout it all, he pumped and sang, burned and married. His cousin, “that bitch” Myra Gale, divorced him in 1971, claiming in her bill of complaint that she had been the victim of “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable” and that her husband had threatened to “hire people to throw com­plainant in the river and to throw acid in her face.”

Later that year, Jerry Lee married Jaren Gunn Pate, a Memphis divorcé pregnant with his child. They separated, reconciled, sued each other for divorce, reconciled, separated, sued again. In the spring of 1979, a few weeks after Jaren charged him with “cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, habitual drunkenness, and habitual use of drugs,” Jerry Lee was asked if he knew any more about women now than he had known two decades earlier? “Yeah. Pussy is pussy.”

Awaiting her final settlement, Jaren testified that when she called Jerry Lee to discuss money, he told her not to wor­ry, because “you are not going to be around very long anyway.” Her final set­tlement never came — at least not the one she sought from the court. On June 8, 1982, she was found dead in a Memphis backyard swimming pool.

Almost a year later, on June 7, Jerry Lee married Shawn Michelle Stephens, a 25-year-old cocktail waitress from Gar­den City, Michigan. The marriage lasted 78 days. On August 24, Shawn’s mother got a call from one of Jerry Lee’s min­ions. “Shawn didn’t wake up this morn­ing,” the caller said.

There was blood on Shawn’s hand, in her hair, on her bra, on a lamp, on the carpet; bruises on her arms and hip. There appeared to be dried blood beneath her nails; and the ambulance man saw bright red claw-marks on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand that morning. But the autopsy report, which made no mention of blood or bruises, attributed Shawn’s death to an overdose of methadone, one of the sundry drugs kept in plenty at the Lewis mansion. Jerry Lee said that, yes, he and Shawn had bickered, but it was not serious. “I was in no mood to argue. All I wanted to do was watch Twilight Zone,” he told the Enquirer.

The night after Shawn’s body was found, her sister Denise telephoned Jerry Lee from Michigan. “Your sister’s dead,” he slurred. “Your sister’s dead, and she was a bad girl.”

That same night of mourning, Jerry Lee made a call to a local bar in search of hypodermic needles. “Goddamn cops cleaned me out,” he griped.

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Shawn’s remains were laid into the dirt in the Lewis family cemetery near Ferri­day, Louisiana, where Jerry Lee was raised. It is the cemetery where his mother and his father lie, along with the brother he never knew, killed by a drunk­en driver when Jerry Lee was two. It is the cemetery where his two sons lie: Steve Allen, drowned at the age of three in Jerry Lee’s Memphis swimming pool on Easter, 1962, and Jerry Lee Jr., killed on a Mississippi highway in the Jeep his father had given him in 1973 for his 19th birthday. (A third son, Ronnie Guy, born in 1955 of Jerry Lee’s second wife, had been long ago forsaken as the bastard of her adultery.)

Eight months later, 0n April 24, 1984, Jerry Lee got married for the seventh time. He was pushing 49. His new bride, Kerrie McCarver, was 22. “JERRY LEE LEWIS’ BRIDE REFUSES TO LIVE IN HOUSE OF DEATH” was the headline of the May 8 issue of Rupert Murdoch’s Star. Jerry Lee’s sister Frankie Jean was quoted as saying that Linda Gail, the youngest Lewis sibling, “told me she saw demons at the house.” Frankie Jean told the Star, “There’s something wrong there. I’m going to take a Catholic priest there — I believe God can do anything.”

Jerry Lee perceived the satanic that year, too. As he saw it, Devon Gosnel, the U.S. attorney prosecuting him for federal tax evasion, was a “demon-possessed lady.”

Then again, all his life, there had been demons. Always, everywhere, demons.

He had been raised up believing in God and the Devil, in salvation and damna­tion. God, he believed, had blessed him with a talent most rare. (“There’s only been four of us,” he would say, again and again. “Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s your only four fuckin’ stylists that ever lived.”) But the Adversary, he believed, had claimed him along with that talent.

“Man, I got the Devil in me!” he had howled in the Sun studio that summer of his ascent, 1957, bemoaning the sinful­ness of the music he was making.

That howling never ceased, but only grew more miserable with the passing of years. “I’m draggin’ the audience to hell with me,” he would say. “I’m a sinner, I know it. Soon I’m gonna have to reckon with the chillin’ hands of death.” Through drinking and drugs and graveyard darkness, he seemed intent on deliv­ering himself to those chilling hands, but it was as if he bore the curse alluded to in Revelation: “And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” So, more and more, he made his hell on earth, and his music and his life, what was left of them, became a de profundis wailing — abandon and guilt, self-damning joy and lamentation — from the hellfire deep within him.

A Curse on the Kennedys 

Ask Jimmy Lee Swaggart, and he would tell you, too: Jerry Lee is damned.

They are cousins — born the same year, baptized into the same Assembly of God church, brought up together in Ferriday. They share a middle name in honor of the parish patri­arch, their uncle Lee Calhoun, on whose piano they both learned to play. But one of them followed God. He spoke in tongues and preached the gospel. The other followed Satan. He pumped and sang, married and burned.

Jimmy Lee, too, was tempted to make the Devil’s music, but he was strong. In that year of his cousin’s ascent, Jimmy Lee was approached by a beast. “He had the body of a bear,” Jimmy Lee recalled, “and the face of a man. The expression on his face was the grisliest I had ever seen. The beast was the picture of evil.” Invoking the name of Jesus, Jimmy Lee vanquished it. On the first day of the next year, 1958, he became a full-time evangelist. “Glory! Praise the Lord!” he cried. “Jerry Lee can go to Sun Records in Memphis, I’m on my way to heaven.”

As his cousin’s name passed from fame to infamy, Jimmy Lee seemed to find that preaching about Jerry Lee was a good draw, and he continued to do so for many years to come. He, too, felt that Jerry Lee was dragging his audiences to hell. Just look at “Jerry Lee Lewis’s mother,” he exhorted in a 1969 sermon LP called What Shall the End Be? (Sub­title: “Is There Really a Curse on the Kennedy Family?” Answer: Yes). She was “lost, away from God, goin’ to rock ’n’ roll shows and drinkin’ her cocktails, and she used to be saved and filled with the Holy Ghost.”

While Jerry Lee fell and rose and fell again, Jimmy Lee rose and rose and rose. His gospel albums sold in the millions. (The second, God Took Away My Yester­days, was made at Sun Records with the help of Jerry Lee and with Scotty Moore engineering.) It got to where he had to work out royalties with the Almighty.

“Now about these record albums,” the Lord said to him.

“Father,” he bargained, “would you take 90 per cent and let me have 10 per cent?”

Or so it is written in Swaggart’s 1977 autobiography, To Cross a River.

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In 1969, he began broadcasting his syn­dicated radio show, The Camp Meeting Hour — “I want you on the radio,” the Lord had told him — and, in 1973, he made his move to television, again at the behest of the Lord. Eventually, he be­came the most popular evangelist on TV. His weekly show attracted more than a million households, and, by 1986, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, based at his 270-acre headquarters in Baton Rouge, was bringing in $140 million a year.

As Jerry Lee descended further and further from grace to perdition, Jimmy Lee made televised pleas for the salvation of his soul, dedicated hymns to him, peered into the TV camera and cried out, “Why do you drink? Why do you take the pills? Why, Jerry, why?” And Jerry Lee, all the while, would attest to the truth of Jimmy Lee’s words. “That man is a powerhouse for God,” he would say. “Jerry Lee Lewis,” on the other hand, he would say of himself, “is a sinner, lost and undone, without God or His Son.”

“I made a promise for Jerry Lee,” Swaggart says near the end of To Cross a River. “I will not be satisfied until I know he has entered the Kingdom of God.”

A third cousin, Mickey Gilley, born in Ferriday the year after the other two, also found fame and fortune pumping piano and singing. Mickey, however, seemed to be obsessed neither by God nor by Satan; and, unlike his cousins, he never gave the impression that he was here as an ad­vance-man for the Beast of Revelation. Mickey said that after reading Swaggart’s autobiography, he called him up to congratulate him and to compliment him on its sincerity. “Thank you,” his cousin told him. “I really haven’t had a chance to read it myself yet.” (Swaggart and arch­rival Jim Bakker of the PTL shared a common coauthor, Robert Paul Lamb of Charlotte.)

But when Swaggart preaches, his sin­cerity is what raises him above the rest of the TV evangelists. He believes in the palpable everlasting flames of hell. Fur­thermore, he will tell you who’s going there — Mother Teresa, the Kennedys, this uncle, that cousin — as no other mass-media preacher will. He sells the Holy Ghost in his sermons the way Jerry Lee sold it in his music: as something to fear and surrender to. To be sure, both of them — the self-sanctified and the self-­damned — share the same terrifying es­chatology, the same fulminous vision of good and evil embattled in darkness and light. The only difference is that they preach it from opposite shores of the river they call salvation: Lord and Lucifer unto themselves.

Yodels From Hell

As last year neared its end­ — Swaggart’s most prosperous year yet — Jerry Lee was checking himself into the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs. It was, he said, a final resolute attempt to save himself. Then, little more than a day lat­er, there came the news that he had fled the joint. As to where he had fled, it can be said with surety that the American recording industry did not much care. After 30 years in the business, he no longer even had a label. He was a ghost. He had once said that it troubled him to be called a legend, because he had always figured that to be a legend you had to be dead. Of course, he had been right; and he was a legend now for sure.

The world was ga-ga for Springsteen’s box. Rock ’n’ roll, or something like it, was now the official music of our debtor republic; and Bruce, the apotheosis of fruit-and-fiber soulfulness, was its Lee Iacocca Jr. “Born in the U.S.A.” and Chrysler’s “The Pride Is Back/Born in America” campaign were as one. Even President Reagan’s sixth State of the Union Address, January 27 (the night before Jerry Lee’s latest bride gave birth to Jerry Lee Lewis III), seemed to be inspired by the Boss. It was like a Springsteen concert, with Ron declaiming the political equivalent of “I wanna know if love is real” and his idolators swaying and cheering in mooncalf unison, red ties round all their necks instead of rags round their noggins.

Maybe the truth of the matter was that rock ’n’ roll is impossible in an age of safe sex.

Then, through rain and snow and gloom of night, from Bremen, West Ger­many, there arrived a parcel of consider­able weight. I opened it and beheld what was in it. Now here was a box. Soon, there came a second box, and then, in time, a third and final box. With each box covering a span of years — 1963-68, 1969-72, and 1973-77 — this collection from Richard Weize’s Bear Family, called simply Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer, com­prises all that Jerry Lee recorded in his 14 years with Smash/Mercury, with the exceptions of The Complete London Sessions of 1973, available on two separate Bear Family albums, and the Memphis Southern Roots sessions of the same year, forthcoming. The boxes’ 31 LPs contain close to 500 tracks, some hun­dred of which are released here for the first time, and all of them digitally repro­duced from the original masters. Each box includes a book by Colin Escott, de­tailing the years covered, with a discogra­phy and a lot of pictures. Each box retails for more than a hundred dollars (avail­able from Down Home Music, 10341 San Pavlo Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530). But this is not only the most ambitious, com­prehensive, and expensive collection of its kind. If you like rock ’n’ roll or coun­try music — or, for that matter, drunken yodeling or the Holy Ghost or the Devil or whatever — it’s also the best of its kind.

Jerry Lee devoured everything that came his way and transmuted it into something that was — just ask him — irre­futably his own. Others in his family spoke in Pentecostal tongues, but his was a musical glossolalia. Al Jolson’s slick vo­cal audacities, Jimmie Rodgers’s blue-yo­deling, Freddie Slack’s boogie-woogie, Hank Williams’s stark gutbucket ulula­tions, a myriad hymns and sinful blues — ­it all came together inside him where the Devil and the Ghost were, and it all came back out, in a storm.

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One of the best instances of that storm is his performance at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, in the spring of 1964. Whether or not these are the most remarkable live recordings in rock ’n’ roll, as has been said, they are doubtless the most manic. To hear the band behind him trying to keep up with him as he jolts and rushes like a rat on fire, to hear them become more and more confused in the wake of his headlong frenzy, until finally, lost and flustered, the multifarious noise of their own bewilderment becomes a frazzled din as he bursts off alone toward what more resembles a Methedrine sei­zure than a song — to hear this is to un­derstand the difference between rock ’n’ roll and a Chrysler commercial. To hear him halt in the middle of it all to croon “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to the screaming German crowd is to understand the dif­ference between rock ’n’ roll and Jerry Lee. Just as prodigious (and far better musically — he has his regular, American band with him) is his performance later that year in Birmingham, Alabama. In­dicative of his contrariness, here, in Hank’s home state, he doesn’t sing “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but instead premieres his version of “Hi-Heel Sneakers.” Back in the studio in January 1965, he goes from a speeded-up rendition of the Mid­nighters’ “Sexy Ways” (which somehow ends as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”) to the classic honky-tonk weeper “The Wild Side of Life,” and from there to Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop and Fly.”

He released his first all-country album that year, Country Songs for City Folks, but it was not until 1968 that he began to veer noticeably away from rock ’n’ roll toward country — at least in his record­ings. “Another Place, Another Time,” the first of the long series of country hits that were Jerry Lee’s resurrection, sounds as fine now as it did almost 20 years ago, a barroom lament in the classic tradition that knifed through the soft Nashville music of its day. The same is true of most of his other country hits; and his versions of “Born to Lose,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “There Stands the Glass,” and “Waitin’ for a Train,” though not hits, are among the best recordings of his career.

During this time, the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was in his thirties, his voice was at its peak. The youthful tenor of the Sun days was completely gone. But then, slowly, his voice began to show the rav­ages of 20 years of one-nighters and heavy drinking. “He sounds like Beelze­bub,” a friend said after talking with him one night back then. But that ravaged voice somehow suited him, for his music itself was beginning to sound like Beelzebub’s basement tapes. More and more, as his singing came to embrace the less-­exalted vocal arts of croaking, cackling, calling out one’s own name, groaning, whistling and yodeling off-key, his piano­-playing grew evocative of that old upright that plays by itself in the haunted house. Except that Jerry Lee himself began to look like he could haunt houses for a living, this later phase of his music was quite nearly as captivating — though not nearly as salable — as what had come before, especially in the context of country music, where originality is measured by the cut of one’s bluejeans. His suppressed 1975 version of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” with its mumbled taunting of El­vis, is a good example of the Beelzebub phase. The effect of his voice and piano playing, both shot to hell, was as creepy as it was funny. It was also why produc­ers and record companies backed off.

Of all the music here that has not been heard before, the most intriguing and the best is the album of spirituals and preaching that Jerry Lee recorded at a Memphis church in December 1970, the month after Myra Gale sued him for divorce. Not only is it far better than his previous gospel album, In Loving Memo­ries (which sold only 43,000 copies — the reason Mercury never released this one), it also affirms that Jerry Lee, as he had always claimed, could have been a first­-class fire-and-brimstone pulpit man him­self. As far as I know, it also includes the only recorded instance of his avowing “I’m goin’ to heaven!” rather than to that more familiar place.

He jumped off that heaven-bound train a few months later. “Satan,” he would say, “is the man that has power next to God… power more than Jesus. He tempted Him for 40 days and 40 nights,” he would reflect aloud — “and he nearly got ’im!”

The Big Vagina

“Ubique daemon!” Salvian the priest had cried a long, long-time ago, and it still was true: The Devil is everywhere.

Tammy Faye Bakker saw him: “I put my hands out and said, ‘In the name of Jesus, you have no power over me, Satan.’ And it was like Satan was trying to kill me.” Then Tammy Faye checked into the Betty Ford Clinic, not long after Jerry Lee slipped out, and she saw Satan no more.

Her husband, Jim Bakker, the head of the PTL empire, was himself no stranger to the Serpent. Questioned by the IRS about unaccounted revenues of $14 mil­lion, his defense was that “the Devil got into the computer.” He ended up beating the rap. But, this past March, when it became known that the Devil had gotten into his britches as well, Reverend Bakker did not get off so easy.

“HOTEL ORGY — FORCED INTO SEX WITH TWO EVANGELISTS,” swooned the New York Post, its day made.

On December 5, 1980, the story went, Jessica Hahn, a 21-year-old Pentecostal church secretary, was lured from her New York home to Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel in Clearwater Beach, Florida. The man who brought her there was Bakker’s PTL cohort and fellow evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, whom Jessica had known since she was 14, when she had baby-sat his son. Fletcher told her he and Bakker were doing a telethon in Clearwater, and they’d both like her in the audience.

In the hotel room, Fletcher gave her a glass of wine — drugged, she later claimed — and brought Reverend Bakker to her, then left them alone. “I didn’t know women from New York were so beautiful,” Bakker said, standing there, all five feet four inches of him, a WASP Froggy the Gremlin in a white bathing suit.

“Tammy is very big,” he told Jessica. The look in his eyes conveyed the woe in his heart. Verily, spake those eyes, it is a terrible thing when a man’s wienie and the asphodel of his wife’s earthly beauty were as a lone plug nickel in a great collection basket, deep and wide. “She has made me feel very belittled. I don’t know how I will come out of it. I don’t feel like a man.”

Then his Song of Songs began. He shed his terrycloth suit, baring his belittled loins, and he was naked before her; and he undid her brassiere, beholding her breasts, which were like two young roes that were twins, which fed among the lilies, heh heh heh.

“He started almost from the top of my head and didn’t stop for what seemed like an hour and a half… he just did every­thing he could do to a woman… and he wouldn’t stop.… He had to keep finding new things to do. I just couldn’t stand him. I just wanted to pull out his hair.”

Then Bakker was gone and Fletcher was back: “You’re not just going to give it to Jim, you’re going to give it to me, too.” And the seeds of the two preachers were as one within her.

A few hours after her ordeal was over, Jessica turned on the TV. The flickering images of Bakker and Fletcher came to the screen.

“You had a good rest today,” Fletcher was saying to Bakker. “Yeah, I need more rest like that,” Bakker grinned. “The Lord really ministered to us today,” Fletcher went on. “We need more minis­try like that.”

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It was said that Reverend Bakker had been driven by jealousy, suspecting his beloved wife and coauthor (How We Lost Weight and Kept It Off, 1979) of fornicat­ing with her producer, forgotten pop star Gary Paxton, who had not much been heard of since his “Monster Mash” faded from the charts 24 years before.

“Did Tammy ever put her hand on your organ while you were driving?” Bakker reportedly had asked him.

Paxton would not comment to the press. “I’ll sue for slander” was all he said, then added: “My pastor said not to talk right now.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Faye’s philosophy gained currency: “l think every woman ought to wear eyelashes,” she asserted. “Jim has very seldom seen me without makeup and hardly ever without eyelashes.”

Bakker, joining his wife at the Betty Ford Clinic, maintained that he had been “wickedly manipulated” in a “diabolical plot” to take over his PTL ministry. He charged that the culprit of that plot was his fellow Assemblies of God minister Reverend Jimmy Lee Swaggart.

Swaggart, denying the accusation, denounced the Bakkers in his own inimita­ble way. They were, he declared, “a can­cer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ.” They had brought “terri­ble reproach to the Kingdom of God.” He referred to Bakker’s attorney, Norman Roy Grutman (who also represents Bob Guccione and Jerry Falwell), as a “porno lawyer.”

And if there was one thing that Jimmy Lee hated, it was porno. In his 1985 tract Pornography: America’s Dark Stain, he described publications that “offer advice to child molesters on how youngsters can most easily and safely be lured from play­grounds. Others discuss the joys of incest, and still others instruct fathers on how to clip locks on the labias of their little girls to ‘keep them all for you.’ ” But, to Jim­my Lee, pornography encompassed far more than the wicked lore of labial lock-smithing. Pornography was many things. It was “the chic California woman” in “a pair of short shorts, with several inches of derriere showing in the back and pulled up very tight in the front.” Rock ’n’ roll, too, was “nothing more than por­nography set to music.” And, surely, what went on in Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel was what Swaggart calls “pornography in the flesh.”

“Satan is, of course, the fundamental author of all pornographic material.” Thus, it was the Prince of Darkness him­self, not Jimmy Lee, who was to blame for Jim Bakker’s downfall.

On March 31, The New York Times concurred, sort of. On its front page that day, the results of a special Times/CBS News Poll were announced. Of those sur­veyed, “Forty-three percent said the devil was responsible” for the trouble of the Bakkers, “and 43 percent said he was not.” It was added that “the margin for sampling error for this group was plus or minus four percentage points.”

But, as Jimmy Lee and Jerry tee sure­ly knew, you couldn’t render the Devil fit to print no matter how many decimal points you rattled and rolled.

Author Nick Tosches (r.) and subject Jerry Lee Lewis (l.)

Cocksucker for Christ

By the time the third and final Jerry Lee box arrived from Ger­many, around Easter, Jim Bakker and his million-dollar racket were down the drain, all for a shot of sperm. They were yester­day’s news. In late April, there were new accusations: Reverend Bakker had sung his Song of Songs not only to Jessica but to sundry whores as well, and he had — ­with or without makeup, it is not clear — ­lain with his fellow man, contra naturam, a cocksucker for Christ. Here in the U.S.A., where the pride was back, even our pharisees, even our Borgias were bland little men. Ronald Reagan — or Bruce Springsteen, one or the other­ — declared May 7 to be National Prayer Day and appointed as prayermaster Jerry Falwell, the smiling superstar Baptist now heading the PTL. Praise the Lord, pass the lubricant, Endust to Endust, re­bate to rebate. Selah, Selah.

But Jerry Lee, in the music and the madness in that box, was still kicking, even if he was dead to the world, the world dead to him. And that kicking, I’m sure, will prevail after the Swaggarts and the Bakkers and the Falwells have faded and been forgotten. There is more of the Devil and of salvation — of the power of the eternal idea of those forces — implicit in that kicking than in all their crying unto heaven combined. And in this age of safe sex and safe rock ’n’ roll, the fire in that power seems hotter than ever before.

It is hotter, certainly, than any fire in the soul or in the crotch of Reverend Bakker or Tammy Faye, the likes of whom threw stones that springtime long ago; and it is still hot enough, after all these years, to frighten and scorch them all — raving, demon-grappling Swaggart and fawn-eyed Falwell, too. They are the ones who have offered themselves to God, in public, like whores. But what God would want them? One that wears a moneybelt, false eyelashes, and does the monster mash? The Bible, in a verse such preachers rarely quote, damns priests who “teach for hire,” prophets who “di­vine for money.” Burnt offerings, not prayers or cash, were what the Lord told Moses to give. Jerry Lee’s burnt offer­ing — himself — may in the end get him a lot closer to heaven than either he or those on the other side of the river might imagine. Then again, heaven may turn out to be Room 538 of the Sheraton Sand Key Hotel. In the words of Isaiah: Who the fuck knows?

If there is something to be learned from all of this, other than that virgins should keep their “labias” locked in the company of evangelists, it is that Jerry Lee and the Devil have succeeded where Jerry Lee and his wives have failed, in making pretty music together, and that pretty music, at any price, is pretty music all the same. Whether love is real has nothing much to do with anything. It’s whether the Snake is real that matters. That and royalties. ■


Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Revolution
March 1987

When I was a child, and Rosa Luxem­burg’s name was spoken, I heard a thrill of awe in the speaker’s voice. Who was she? I asked. A great socialist, I was told. She criti­cized Lenin, she was assassinated. For years I thought the Soviets had murdered her. I wasn’t so far off. The German Social Demo­crats shot her in 1919, but Joseph Stalin had her “excommunicated” in 1931. Rosa Luxemburg was destined, come any revolu­tion, to be killed by the authorities or de­nounced early as a counter-revolutionary.

Much has been written about Luxemburg, almost all of it by historians or political scientists out to attack or defend her criti­cisms of the Bolsheviks; the woman herself remains shadowy, abstract. Now Elzbieta Ettinger has written a biography rich in psychological insight and sexual perceptive­ness. Rosa Luxemburg: A Life allows us to see politics emerging from the influences and predilections that shaped a remarkable personality. Ettinger has lived long and inti­mately with her subject; she persuades us that she knows her well and loves her even better. We come to believe in Rosa because Ettinger neither apologizes for her nor whitewashes her. She lets Rosa speak for herself.

She was born Rozalia Luksenburg in 1870, in a small city in Russian-occupied Poland, to a family of secular Jews. The father did business in Yiddish, but Polish was spoken at home. The Jewish holidays were observed, but the mother read Polish and German literature. Town life was domi­nated by Jewish Orthodoxy and Polish ha­tred, but the Luksenburgs wanted an educa­tion for the children. When Rosa was three years old the family moved to Warsaw, and the education of the children began in earnest.

In 1873 the Poles were a humiliated peo­ple, their country split up among Russians, Prussians, and Austrians, their language outlawed, their aristocracy impoverished, their intelligentsia scattered. In Warsaw, the Poles hated the Russians, the Russians hated the Poles, and everybody hated the Jews. Ten years before, the Luksenburgs would have been forced to live in the Jewish quarter. Now, they were free to live outside the quarter but only in certain neighbor­hoods, and only on certain streets. There were other restrictions: Jews could do busi­ness, but not enter the professions; their children could attend school, but only under a rigid quota system. The Luksenburgs set­tled in, though little Rosa was apprehensive: She felt the excitement and anger of the big city. When she was five years old, it was discovered she had a congenital hip disloca­tion (a common occurrence among female infants). She was put to bed for a year with her leg in a cast. When she got up, one leg was shorter than the other.

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So there she was, among the Russians and the Poles: a cripple, a Jew, a girl, with a mind that ran ahead like the wind, a defen­sively arrogant tongue, and a hunger for the world. She went looking for what she need­ed, and she found it among the illegal stu­dent socialists of Warsaw. Here, in the so­cialist underground, she opened her mouth to speak (she was 16 years old) and, sudden­ly, thought and feeling were hers to com­mand. Just as the one who will become an artist or a scientist discovers a live connec­tion with the inner life or the physical world, so Rosa discovered in socialism her own expressive self. The experience was exhilarating. More than exhilarating, it was clarifying. The discovery centered her, and the clarity became addictive.

She was sent to Zurich to study when she was 19, and she never went home again. Zurich was crawling with socialist exiles from all over Europe. She registered as a student in natural science, but the German socialist club — with its library, reading room, and lecture hall — became her true university. In the autumn of 1890 she met Leo Jogiches, a Lithuanian Jew three years her elder and already a famous revolution­ary. To Rosa, Jogiches seemed straight out of Dostoevsky — brooding, angry, unreach­able; given to secrecy and conspiracy; bril­liant at politics, hopeless at love; devoted to Bakunin’s definition of the revolutionary as a lost man: “He has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion — ­the revolution.” Rosa was enraptured and, in his own depressed way, so was Leo. Intellectually matched, each recognized in the other the missing half. Rosa had passion and eloquence, Leo a genius for strategy. She could talk and write, he could think and plan. The deal was this: They would make the revolution together late at night in a furnished room, then she’d go out and deliver it while he directed her performance from headquarters (that is, the room); between the two of them they’d make one fantastic socialist.

The 23-year-old Rosa climbed up on a chair at the Congress of the Second Socialist International and appealed for recogni­tion of the anti-nationalist Polish Marxist Party she and Leo Jogiches had just found­ed. This is how she was remembered at the meeting: “Small, with a disproportionately large head, she had a fleshy nose in a typically Jewish face.… [S]he walked with a pronounced limp, heavily, haltingly. At first glance she didn’t make an agreeable impres­sion, but after a short while one saw a wom­an bursting with life and spirit, endowed with a remarkable intellect.… She de­fended her cause with such magnetism in her eyes and in such fiery words that the majority of delegates, captivated and spell­bound, voted in favor of accepting her mandate.”

When she was 28, Rosa and Leo decided that she would move to Berlin to be close to the center of European socialism, the pow­erful German Social Democratic party. He would remain behind and direct her prog­ress from Zurich. Three weeks after her ar­rival, she addressed Polish-speaking, workers in Upper Silesia. Speaking more eloquently than ever before, Luxemburg made the workers feel that they lived on a grand scale of deprivation and injustice, history and heartbreak. They cheered and ap­plauded her, covered her with flowers, and spread the news about the astonishing wom­an from Poland. She knew then — and for the rest of her life — she had the power to hold a crowd. She returned to Berlin in a blaze of personal victory, the darling of the party elite. Karl and Luise Kautsky became her family, Clara Zetkin her best friend, Au­gust Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht her respectful colleagues.

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This early success in the German party was a joy to her. When she’d first arrived in Berlin, she’d written Leo of her determina­tion to be brave and courageous, but she also kept reporting migraine headaches and stomach cramps. Now, after Upper Silesia, she was exultant, felt sexually desirable and gloriously intelligent. Also bold and funny. When Karl Kautsky suggested that she help him edit the fourth volume of Das Kapital, she refused and wrote to Leo: “Knowing full well that neither our contemporaries nor posterity would ever learn of my silent contribution to Marxism, I told him straight out, I’m nobody’s fool! Of course, I put it in an elegant form… I advised him to buy a Remington typewriter and teach his wife to type.”

Leo, meanwhile, sitting in Zurich, fainting with hope and ambition for her progress, was not impressed (he never was). He re­sponded only with letters of criticism, correction, and instruction. (“You missed some spelling errors,” she replied scornfully. “You also missed the point.”) But the letters flew back and forth, an endless attempt by each of them to control and manipulate, seduce and provoke.

She and Leo had become lovers in the summer of 1891, and they were to remain locked in an extraordinary symbiosis for the rest of their comparatively short lives. She wanted everything: sex and literature, marriage and children, walks on a summer eve­ning and the revolution. He hated daylight, sociability, and sex. He lay on the bed in the furnished room, chain-smoking, depressed for weeks and months on end, waiting for the revolutionary structure to form itself so he could exercise power behind the scenes. She accused him of coldness and rigidity, he accused her of frivolity and lack of disci­pline. She said personal happiness and the revolution were not mutually exclusive. He told her sternly this was nonsense.

He shut her out of his inner life, and Ettinger shows beautifully how the longing for intimacy with Leo held Rosa’s attention with the same unwavering power as did the revolution. Had he denied her consistently, she would have left him, but he didn’t: He gave her just enough to keep her coming back for more. He feared losing control over her, she feared losing contact with him. Each wanted from the other what the other could never give, but neither stopped want­ing it.

Thousands of letters passed between them. These letters are the relationship. He sends political analysis, she sends a demand for love. He sends advice, criticism, instruc­tion, she sends a storm of abuse over his emotional stinginess. “Your letters contain nothing but nothing except for The Work­ers’ Cause,” she rails at him early in their relationship. “Say something nice to me!” Ten years later she is writing: “When I open your letters and see six sheets covered with debates about the Polish Socialist Party, and not a single word about ordinary life, I feel faint.” This goes on letter after letter, year after year. She couldn’t believe that Leo would not finally respond to her request that they “shape a human being out of each other other,” live a regular life of mutual work and open love, devoted in harmony to the task before them. They remained as they were for 25 years: he depressed and withholding, she hungry and demanding.

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In 1897, Eduard Bernstein delivered the first severe blow of revisionism to Marx. Rosa determined to answer it. She and Leo worked feverishly (in it together, then as ever) to clarify their ideas and her writing. (“Speed is essential… Help!” she had written him, and he did.) “Social Reform or Revolution” appeared in seven newspaper installments in September 1898, and was immediately declared a comprehensive refutation. Rosa was elected editor-in-chief of one of the major socialist papers in Berlin.

She settled down in Berlin, taught at the party school, wrote and lectured endlessly for socialism and the revolution. Her writing is distinguished by a knowledge of art, histo­ry, and literature, her speech made vivid by strength and immediacy of feeling. Her criticism of party writing is amazing. “I think that with every new article,” she advises her comrades back in Poland, putting out The Workers’ Cause, “one should experience the subject matter through and through, get emotionally involved, every single time, every single day. Only then will the old, familiar truths, expressed in words new and bright, go from the writer’s heart to the reader’s heart… The goal I set for myself is never to forget to reach deep into my own self, to be enthusiastic, inspired every time I put pen to paper.”

Because she never failed to “reach deep into her own self,” Luxemburg’s sense of the revolution remained remarkably whole and alive to the touch. She never lost sight of what she was fighting for, what socialism meant to her, what price she was willing to pay for it. Her position was often lonely but always independent. She thrived on the independence. Then suddenly it turned to isolation.

Her faith in international socialism grew desperate as Europe drifted toward war in 1914, and the mental paralysis of the theoretical socialists became apparent. Once the war broke out, German, French, and Austrian Social Democrats, one and all, abandoned the idea of the international working class and supported their own countries. ­Luxemburg remained adamantly opposed to the war — any war. She broke with the German party and helped found the Spartacus League, the self-declared only true Left. (Later, Clara Zetkin said that at the time Rosa had been on the verge of suicide.)

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All was in chaos, the left plunged in disaster like the whole of Europe, everyone scattered and running. Rosa was arrested for the third time and sent to prison in 1915, where she remained until the end of World War I. Always before, prison had been something of a lark — visitors, books, good food, fur­nished cells — but now it was different. The party, in more ways than one, was over. Slowly, she was worn down. Her hair turned gray, and she began to grow confused in spirit and will. Her letters from prison are still filled with her changing moods, but beneath the life-giving excitement over nature, art, and history, a current of despair had begun to flow. Nevertheless, she read and wrote incessantly (Rosa Luxemburg depressed is like a thousand others operating on all cylinders), and in the summer of 1918, while still in prison, she completed a 60-page pamphlet called The Russian Revolution that has insured her place in modern political thought.

She knew Lenin well, and from the beginning was immensely drawn to him. She loved his fierce intellect, his fantastic will­power, his shrewd grasp of Russian reality. She felt more at home with him than with the urbane and theoretical Germans. But early on she sensed that if he could make a revolution, it would be a troubling one. In 1904, she wrote a paper on the Russian Social Democrats in which she said no to glori­fication of the proletariat and distrust of the intelligentsia, and above all no to the gath­ered authority of the party. Lenin “concen­trates mostly on controlling the party, not on fertilizing it,” she wrote, “on narrowing it down, not on developing it, on regiment­ing and not on unifying it.” This, she thought, did not bode well. When the revo­lution came, and the Bolsheviks assumed power, how she suffered. Those close to her begged her to remain silent, but she could not. A year after Lenin had taken control, and only six months before her death, she wrote from her prison cell:

[Lenin] is completely mistaken in the means he employs: decree, the dictatorial power of a factory overseer, Draconian penalties, rule by terror… Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free exchange of opinions, life dies out in every public institution and only bureaucracy remains active… [Lenin and his comrades] have contributed to the cause of international socialism whatever could possibly have been contributed under such fiendishly difficult conditions. The danger begins, when they make a virtue of necessity… Freedom only for the supporters of the government… only for the members of the one Party, no matter how numerous is no freedom. Freedom is always for the one who thinks differently.

Now, indeed, she was alone.

Luxemburg was released from prison on November 10, 1918, and went immediately to Berlin. The city was in chaos: armed citizens, drunken soldiers, fighting everywhere, Germany’s defeat a rage and a confu­sion from which the people could not emerge. In a desperate attempt to save the failing monarchy, a Social Democrat had been named chancellor, but Friedrich Ebert was like no Social Democrat any of them had ever known. Luxemburg felt she was staring into space. With Jogiches and Karl Liebknecht at her side, she struggled to make the fledgling Spartacus League into the revolutionary group she yearned for, thinking it would assert socialist authority peacefully. Her efforts were doomed. Ebert had made a deal with the army to rid Germany of the ultra Left, and then the young Spartacists themselves had turned rancid. They wanted power now, and they wanted it violently. Day by day, Luxemburg watched control slip from her grasp, along with every hope of a democratic Left. On January 15 the police came for her. She thought she was being returned to prison and was actually relieved; the last two months had been a waking nightmare. She got into the car without a protest. She was taken to army headquarters for identification, then re­turned to the car, where she was shot in the head. Her body was dumped in a Berlin canal. Two months later, on the trail of her murderers, Leo Jogiches was beaten to death in an army barracks on the edge of the city. The men who killed them both were members of the Freikorps. Fourteen years later they became the Nazi police.

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Ettinger focuses with skill and intelli­gence on Luxemburg’s relationship with Jo­giches, returning again and again to their unceasing struggle. She persuades us that here, in the letters Rosa wrote to Leo over 25 years, the power and originality of Luxemburg’s political spirit are to be found, maturing and taking shape. Ettinger em­phasizes — and rightly — Luxemburg’s sense of displacement, the depth of homelessness that made her believe “home” was to be found in a great cause, one that would allow world and self to merge, and emerge. She also tries to explain why, for Luxemburg, the cause had to be socialism.

Rosa’s early life had made her violently anti-nationalist and she was, I think it safe to say, a self-hating Jew and a self-hating woman as well. She carried her lack of sym­pathy for the Jews into more than one polit­ical battle, and her distaste for Clara Zet­kin’s feminism was notorious. She takes her place beside Karl Marx and Simone Weil, whose hatred of their own Jewishness is startling to read of now but understandable when taken in the context of its moment. These were people who longed to stand on the stage of the world. Jewishness dragged them down into the provincialism of a de­spised social reality without a movement of protest grand enough to satisfy large emo­tional ambitions. And if Jewishness was the ghetto of social protest, imagine how wom­en’s rights must have struck Luxemburg. Only if she’d been born 50 years earlier (or later), and on the other side of the Atlantic, might feminism have inspired her with a sufficient sense of grandeur.

So she made the socialist movement her home. As they all did. Everyone who came to Marxist revolution felt the same urgent stirrings driving them on. Luxemburg, how­ever, was one of the few who understood early (Kollontai was was another, Bukharin an­other) that it was home they were looking for. Socialism was to be the home human beings had been denied, the civilized and civilizing atmosphere where the brutishness of life would be dissolved, where defensive behaviors would cease and unresponsiveness die out.

She understood also that socialism had to be made from the inside out. She knew that if the socialists gave up sex and literature while they were making the revolution, there would be no home to occupy when they got there. What she wanted with Leo, in the here and now, was that they make a socialist home within themselves, for each other, to keep alive the promise of a new world. She knew that if they went under­ground inside themselves, they’d end up making police-state socialism.

This was Luxemburg’s single most impor­tant insight: The revolutionaries must re­main human throughout their struggle. Oth­erwise, what kind of revolution would these angry, repressed people make? Whom would it serve? And how would life be better after­wards? These thoughts never left her. They are there, year after year, in her letters to Leo, in the reasons she gives for wanting them to be close and to love each other freely. Out of these thoughts comes her op­position to war, her criticism of Lenin, her description of why she reads Tolstoy instead of Marx in prison. In Rosa Luxemburg, the line between emotion and intelligence re­mained strong and direct. All her life it was the task of her intellect to explain what her gut told her was true.

Perhaps Jogiches did her a favor. He kept her lonely throughout all the years of politi­cal tumult. In her loneliness she never stopped being hungry for life. She equated her hunger with the life force of democracy, the spiritual value of the revolution. If she had “come home” with Leo, she might have grown fat and contented and, her hunger abated, not felt it necessarilry to keep feeding knowledge that grew like a weed inside her. Then again, perhaps not. It’s hard to imagine Rosa inert. She was born to respond to the world and to make it respond to her.■

ROSA LUXEMBURG: A Life By Elzbieta Ettinger Beacon Press, $24.95