Going Down With the Replacements

Not a Bunch of Loads

“Go ahead RJ, get the notebook out,” Tommy cackles. A bubble of beer hangs from his chin, but he doesn’t know about it. Four nights into the Replacements’ road trip and already things are getting ugly. The Replacements, four miscreants from Minneapolis, are setting up their equipment in a cafeteria at the Universi­ty of Windsor. Ill-humored after a pro­tracted shakedown at the border and feeling confrontational, they can’t get past the soundcheck before a guy with “student patrol” on his T-shirt complains about the volume. The alcohol the pro­moter foolishly left for them in the dress­ing room before the soundcheck only for­tifies their hostility.

With me making eight (for a week) in their seats-six-comfortably Econoline, the Replacements are worming their way around the Midwest, out east, south to Georgia, and eventually to California, promoting their new album Let It Be. They figure they’ll come home broke as they left.

The ride from the cafeteria to the hotel is a crusade — we get lost and then turn around only to get lost some more. Everybody’s babbling, everybody’s experienc­ing preshow panic: how can we get away with it tonight? The manifold sprang a leak first night out of Minneapolis, and it fills up the van with a carbon monoxide cloud. But the band’s already addled, so it’s no big deal.

Guitarist Bob Stinson has hidden the scotch on singer Paul Westerberg. Not that there’s more than a trickle left to conceal. “You’re not going down on us tonight, are you?” shouts drummer Chris Mars, the only one keeping sober this trip, as he grabs Paul around the neck. “I am going down tonight without you if I have to,” Paul says, sounding a little sad at the prospect. “But it would be nice if we went down together.”

That night, Paul finds security in num­bers. Almost everyone in the band is crocked by the time the show starts. Af­ter putting on lipstick and eyeliner, vase­lining back their hair, and donning hippie overalls, they open with a heavy metal version of “The Marine’s Hymn” and close by passing around instruments to one another and more or less anybody who’s interested. Somewhere in between Paul says, “Fuck this rock shit, we’re a jazz band from now on,” and the band grinds out a few minutes of Holiday Inn lounge fusion. All this to a stupefied crowd, half of which has already split. After the show Westerberg is rueful that the Replacements hadn’t flopped more profoundly — if only they’d tried a little harder. That’s later on that night, though. Back in the van, still trying to find the crummy little hotel, Paul spits into the footwell of the van. In his lacon­ic, cartoon voice that seems to merge the sound of those two great Norsemen, Wal­ter Mondale and Lars the Janitor, he says, “I feel like I’m in another country.”

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They like Hydrox bet­ter than Oreos, but good people won’t hold it against them. On a great night or on a shitty one (but not inbetween), the Replacements are the most exciting, soul-searching out there band around. Their newest record, Let It Be, encom­passes hot-blooded country and rockabil­ly, Randy Newman pop and the all-out white noise that was always hardcore’s deepest (and sometimes only) text. They’re as giddy as kids standing up in the front car of a roller-coaster; and yes, they toss their cookies routinely, getting down to disclosures — not just of bad nights on their knees, but of why they do this to themselves in the first place. And why anyone would do such miserable things. All of this told in the plainspeak of a high school dropout afraid he might die, or simply disappear, before he knew what to do with his life.

There’s no hurricane’s eye with the Re­placements, just four forces pulling in different directions. Bassist Tommy Stinson, 18, has an “I Love ET” sticker on his amp, proudly calls himself a John Waite fan, and is the only band member who passes for cute. Gaunt, mop-headed, he tries to look sharp on stage, with his scissor kicks and rock-star stances. But why he’s so lovable is that pretty soon he just looks like he’s hurting, as if he knows that posing for pictures isn’t going to save him from anything. He really is a kid growing up in a band, and when he screws up, the group’s usually paternal. In contrast to Tommy, his big brother Bob, 24, is pudgy and cheerfully non­-plussed most of the time. If he were a cartoon, his eyes might be asterisks; if a moose fell into his TV dinner, he’d just ask for another one.

Most of what I learned about 23-year-­old drummer Chris Mars was from watching him work. Behind the drums he looks terrorized, teeth bared and eyes en­larged as if he were getting electroshock. He says even less than Bob, but his quiet isn’t puzzling — he’s clean-cut, almost in­visible. And then there’s singer Paul Westerberg, at 24 the most ambitious member of the band and the skinniest (there are fatter breadsticks around). “You should have seen him when I first met him,” his girlfriend says. “I thought he was going to die.” If Paul instigates a lot of the rabble-rousing, he doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much as his cohorts — he plays the sourpuss and the fool. Like the others, he never finished high school.

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“Yeah, I went to Catholic school all the way — all the way and nowhere,” he says. “I was constantly drunk and stoned, just messed with drugs and stuff. I did that all through high school, that’s why I think I have a real bitter attitude toward it now. It was the worst four years of my life.

“It was also bad because they would send kids from [alcohol/drug] treatment there, supposedly getting a good atmosphere. So you would have like half these goody-goody rich kids and the other half were these fucking loads from the inner city. I mean, being drunk every day in typing class and by the time you get your paper out the drill’s over.”

Part of the thrill of any Replacements show is that at any moment they may fall apart — fall on their face, fall off the stage, fall as they try to fly. They have no idea what success might be like, or how to crawl away from what they don’t like about their lives. And they know a plan doesn’t mean much by itself, not the way the pop marketplace is currently orga­nized. So most of all they caterwaul for all the stuff they don’t have and proclaim themselves the kind of wrecks that denial produces in the end. In short, the Re­placements are always making spectacles of themselves. Bob appreciates a good tutu, or a go-go skirt with a paisley top, as much as the next man. When the band played an all-ages show in Minneapolis to kick off their tour, he honored the event by wearing just a diaper, which kept com­ing undone as he walked around Minne­apolis after the concert.

Why this is affecting, and why it’s a pisser, is that the Replacements never look more like themselves than when they’re trying to look like someone else. Painfully regular guys, they take the stage and totter in the direction of their idea of pop stars. The Replacements’ role models are the marginal refuse of late ’60s and early ’70s rock — acts reacting against rock’s newly arrived-at art status (T. Rex, Alice Cooper) or bands so natu­rally disposable (the Sweet, the Grass Roots) they went nowhere critically. Paul, the band’s principal writer, says watching the Raspberries on Rock Con­cert in 1974 made him want to play music in the first place. With nothing original to say — and knowing it — the Raspberries wanted to be big anyway. They weren’t going to lie about it, so they sang about like wanting a hit and feeling confused about their lives, and like how great all those bands in the ’60s were. The Re­placements weren’t the only fans to catch a dose of catscratch fever from Don Kirshner, but they’re one of the few bands who aren’t embarrassed about it. There’s another difference, too — Paul writes better than Eric Carmen.

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But the Replacements’ love of ’70s grunge is veined with something more complicated, something less pleasant to think about, than fond remembrances. In the van the morning after a show featur­ing scads of covers, roadie Bill Sullivan mused, “Those people last night, they didn’t understand. They thought you were making fun of them.” To which Westerberg said, “Well, we kinda are.” True, but only inasmuch as the Replace­ments were making fun of themselves. Doing a soundcheck in Kent, Ohio, the band lashed into a vicious version of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and af­ter it broke apart Tommy leaned over to manager Peter Jesperson and said happi­ly (not smugly as some might suppose), “That was when dogshit was real dog­shit.”

Denying that there’s more than dogshit in such a song, or in themselves, is a constant. I got on the van with the Replacements wanting to know how a band with no money provides for itself, and how this affects their attitude and performances. What I came away with — hell, it’s blatant every show, and it fills up the van faster than the carbon monoxide­ — was a penetrating sense of obstruction, of being blocked, that made them willing to gouge into themselves to remove what makes them feel like things. I learned to judge a Replacements show like a scary movie — chart the splatter.

And there’s plenty of splatter, because these guys just naturally act like they’ve been barfed out of a particle accelerator. They are within the tradition of trouble­makers like Wynonie Harris or Jerry Lee Lewis, musicians who might flop or might instigate a riot and who do both for the same reason — to wipe the features off your face. The Replacements are balled-­up boluses of high hopes and low feelings, wildcat growls and boredom, longings they try to beat down with a stick but never quite can. It’s an unstable mix, and sometimes it pulls a show together, when it’s not pulling their lives apart.

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In 1979, the Stinson brothers were jamming with drummer Chris Mars at home — neighorhood kids, blammied and wailing on tunes by Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. (Tastes that haven’t disappeared by any means. Witness this exchange in the van, some­where between Boston and Providence. Bill Mack, driver/soundman, smirking while Elvis’s Sun Sessions blares from the box: “Aw, what is this shit?” Bob, “Yeah, turn it off. I’ve got this Johnny Winter tape.”) Paul Westerberg, a janitor at the time, would hear them through the basement window on his way back from work and hide in the bushes.

Before Paul, the band was happy with the singer it had — truth is, sometimes they say they’d be happier if they still had him. Paul was enlisted strictly as a guitar player. “I went in and I was the lead guitar player. Bob was rhythm, and we had another singer that they all want­ed to keep,” Paul recalls. “He was a friend of mine, and I told him that I loved him but the band hated him.” A few pep talks like this and the singer left. “To this day, I don’t think he knows,” Paul says.

The band started as the Impediments, and gig number one was in a halfway house for alcoholics. They came to the show pilled up and plowed and got thrown out. They were told they wouldn’t play again. The next day they became the Replacements.

They issued the splendidly entitled Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash in 1981, and though it’s brutal enough to harpoon a seaful of Moby Jacks (punk cut with Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreak­ers), it also reveals Paul’s knack for pop vernacular. “Shiftless When Idle,” if they’d taken the time, might have turned a few heads as a single, and the accompanying 45, the gruesomely blue “If Only You Were Lonely,” is as moving a honky­tonk tune as this decade has produced. A year later, there was The Replacements Stink, an appeal to hardcore’s troops; gratifying blare, it’s also the least of their records. And while last year’s all-u-can-­eat genre-smashing Hootenanny was mightily confusing at first, its pastiche of folk hokum, blues, and thrash-a-go-go serves both as a provocation to their fans and as an homage to the music the band likes.

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After an all-night drive to Columbus, the Replacements are tired and jittery for their first show on the road. Stache’s, the club they’re playing, is tiny and covered with the green carpeting usually found on putt-putt courses. Westerberg discovered not too long ago that he has pleurisy, and tonight it’s dogging him, causing his chest muscles to bunch up like wire cables. Before the soundcheck, he calls his girlfriend — “I told her everything was fine, that we’re all okay,” he says. “Already lying to her,” Tommy responds.

Halfway through the show, when they lace into Let It Be‘s magisterial ”16 Blue,” and Paul is so excited he pushes Tommy out of the way to turn up his amp, the song crashes away. Soon they shred “Take Me Down to the Hospital,” about that first pleurisy attack, and it’s obvious everybody in the club is either a true believer or another candidate for the emergency room. Some nights the band won’t connect, and people stand around like they’re waiting for a pizza, and if you think about the R.E.M. song where the rank and file of clubdom are compared to pilgrims you’d laugh a black guffaw. But there’s no laughter tonight, unless you count the fun Tommy’s having shouting along on “Hospital.” There’s a shocked sound rolling around the four walls as the set ends. Nobody feels like a stranger.

After the show, there’s time for anoth­er drink while the money is counted and the equipment gets put in the van. Tom­my’s made a friend he’ll have contempt for in the morning. Bill Sullivan’s got an electric cord in one hand, the other in a woman’s ass pocket. Paul’s nursing a carton of milk and just wants to get to sleep. Somebody passes out a fanzine, and somebody says the bar is closing.

And always pressing some flesh, maybe in the back of his mind counting the drinks everybody’s having, is manager Peter Jesperson. The band’s relationship with their label, Twin/Tone, and with Jesperson, has evolved from accidental beginnings. Trying to get a gig at a Minne­apolis club, Paul took a tape to Jesperson, the club’s booker who was also part owner of Twin/T0ne, a local compa­ny the band had never heard of. After playing the demo, Jesperson offered to record them. He became their manager at their second show, Paul says, “because we didn’t want to talk to the asshole at the bar.”

Late one night on the tour, outside a gyro joint, Bob complains about Jesper­son. He’s unhappy about how little the band makes, about Jesperson’s co-pro­duction on the new album. He says, “I just don’t know why he’s here.” “Because he liked us when nobody else did,” Paul replies.

The support’s been important, but the band’s antsy for change. They have what Jesperson describes as a “loose but perpetual” contract with Twin/Tone (he re­fuses to say whether they have a written agreement). By the band’s account, they haven’t seen any money from their rec­ords. “You know, none of us are whizzes at math or anything,” Paul says. “And they say to us, ‘You’re welcome any time you want to come look at the books.’ Well, Christ, I don’t want to see a page full of figures. We say, ‘Where’s our mon­ey?’ Twin/Tone doesn’t spend enough money to make money. They spend enough to get it out, the smallest amount necessary. It’s all they have, they say. I don’t know where the money is.”

Everyone on the tour collects a per diem, usually $15, though either a packed house or an empty one the night before can alter that. Twin/Tone fronted the group $500 to get out of town, which, along with the take from each show, is what the Replacements are rolling on. A band like the Replacements can expect to make anywhere from $200 to $1250 a gig. Once in a while — a single time in the week I traveled — Jesperson sends money home, to pay off the studio time, the pressing and mastering of the record, the van. But after springing for hotel rooms (this is the first tour the Replacements have not depended on the kindness of strangers for lodging) and gas and instru­ment and van repairs, there isn’t much scratch left. What they save up from their per diem is what the band members will take home. Out of this is born vari­ous strategies for economizing. Bob will politely ask anyone to buy him a drink. Paul sometimes eats about three bites a day. Occasionally there’s a splurge — a band-buy of food, say, or a case — which comes out of what Jesperson’s been holding.

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Which isn’t to say that the Replacements don’t make things hard for themselves. First, there’s the volume to consider, a prime reason some clubs decline to book them. Besides being one of the few acts to bring the cops to Maxwell’s for disturbing Hobo­ken’s nappytime, the Replacements have had a number of club managers yank the plug on them. Once in Oshkosh they were playing at 128 decibals, over the legal limit and as loud as the sound board could register, when an amp gave up with a column of smoke. The show ended, and they got extended applause. “The guy there keeps calling us to play there again,” Jesperson says with an amused look. Not always is the management so sensitive. At a Minneapolis show a man­ager came up to the front of the stage with a bouncer and shouted at Paul to either turn it down or get off. “Do we still get paid if we leave?” he asked, as the purple hose in the manager’s forehead throbbed a little more, and the band launched into “Shut Up,” only with Wes­terberg shouting, “Fuck you.”

Other tales of terror: the Cleveland jinx (thrown out of two clubs, one because Bob pissed on stage); a show in Virginia, where a crowd of hardcore kids, mad be­cause the band delivered their patented “pussy” set (country covers and slow stuff served up to knee-jerk thrashers), took it out on the van; an Ann Arbor date, er, performance art piece, consist­ing basically of tuning up, falling down, and starting maybe 20 songs without completing a one.

The point in running down this bad behavior isn’t in the details. I had heard many of these stories before, but it wasn’t until I was on the road with the Replace­ments that I began to see how depressing their untenable heap of ambitions and energy can get. Hootenanny sold only about 6000 copies, and they’re deep in the hole financing Let It Be. The record industry isn’t going to look at this band and see a stack of Krugerrands. When the Replacements came to New York and played for some a&r people at CBGB, they flopped. To me it seemed meaningful.

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New York was where they figured they’d be heard by some big label repre­sentatives — Warner Bros.’ Michael Hill was coming out and, because he was a fan, he had set up a meeting with the band once they got to town. According to Paul, nothing in particular happened. “I wasn’t expecting to sign a deal or noth­ing, at all. Basically we’re talking ‘in a few years.’ He didn’t say anything specif­ic at all. He just wanted to know if we had half a brain or if we were a bunch of loads. At this point he’d be embarrassed, it would be too much of a risk to bring some bigwig down and see these guys who could possibly fall on their face.

“Last night [at CBGB] was a classic example. We went up there and did what we wanted to do, and they [the record industry] wanted us to play our best songs as best we could. And we didn’t feel like it. And so they figure, ‘They’re a small-time bunch of amateurs.’ That’s one way to look at it, and that’s partly true. But I think it’s also the spirit that makes rock exciting and immediate.”

But if Paul and Jesperson say there were no big hopes for the meeting, I re­member the argument outside the gyro restaurant. Bob was complaining about the size of Twin/Tone’s operation. And I remember Paul saying, “Well, just wait until we get to New York. We’re going to talk to somebody from Warner Bros. there.” He wasn’t just placating an angry Bob. And then there was the show the night of the meeting with Hill. Shortly into the set Paul babbled, “You may have guessed tonight that we don’t want to play any of our own songs.” This was big­-league self-abuse: not the rocket ride that can make their covers go bang, more like an extended submarine fart. The audi­ence was howling at them, and the band couldn’t come up with anything to shout back. Finally, they stumbled into the Stones’ “Start Me Up,” with shit-eating grins I would swear were slapped over some raw feelings. And then Paul said into the mike, “Do we get a record con­tract now?” No, but Hill did say he had tried to get Rod Stewart to cover “16 Blue.”

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In the end, to be hon­est, the Replace­ments have to dis­tinguish what they want from what they want. They have folks on their side like R.E.M. and X, bands who talk them up in interviews. The last time the Replacements opened for X, the headlin­er added part of their own take to the Replacements’ cut. There is support for the band, and in their calmer moments they think they just have to find a way to stick together and keep on sucking car­bon mono before they start generating cash from it all. Except that there’s a song on Let It Be called “Unsatisfied” that questions what success will mean. When Paul sings “Everything you ever dream of, it’s right in front of you,” he’s not even teenage-miserable. He feels cleaned out like a fish, worrying that fans or money or some such shit won’t make him feel any better about himself — that his depression will last a long time, may­be until the permanent vacation.

Still, the Replacements deserve every consumer good they can cram down their cakehole, and it will be a more just world which will give them merely some of that. And an even juster one that will ease the vacancy that bunches up their chest mus­cles. But for now they have to contend with the fear of defeat that one way or another works its way to the surface of any great Replacements show and that sometimes gets broken in their effort.

And sometimes that fear just lays low, nibbles away at the band until they feel there’s nothing to do but get fucked up. That’s the way it was for the great trek through Canada. Driving from Windsor to Rochester through Ontario was the longest time I spent in the van with them. Fortified with more alcoholic Ca­nadian beer, they were mostly wrecked. There was tag team wrestling in the back — when we got to Rochester the proper response belonged to Bob, who lobbed a smoke bomb into the van and might have burned it down.

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It was fun. But better than fun was the larger-than-life wrestling with boredom that went down a few nights before in Kent, Ohio. We were at JB’s, a large, hops-soaked basement where, the band was told, Alice Cooper had played 15 years earlier. There was no sign for the place outside. The show wobbled at first, the band playing material from Let It Be not particularly well. Then something like the hootch and something like panic began to lay a finger on them. Songs started crumbling after a few bars; there was no agreement about what to play. “Hey, let’s pick a chord, guys,” Paul said. Nobody did. And then, to Bob, “Hey, you’re the guitar player,” trying to make him pick a song. So they tuned up for a few minutes instead.

Plink, plink. “We’d talk to you be­tween songs, but we’re not any good at it.” And then Paul cackled out of the side of his mouth, “Bob will start this next one for you right now. Watch him. Now … ” The audience had long ago stopped laughing at the patter. Now they’re yell­ing things like “Bark my hole” and “Fuck you.” Finally Chris kicked into the drum intro to “Billion Dollar Babies,” which made it nearly to the part where the vo­cal was supposed to come in before every­body in the band started cracking up too much to play. Plink. “We can do this all night,” Paul hooted. No shit.

There was an empty dance floor in front of the band. And suddenly the rest of the place was thinning out, too. What Paul once said on another stage must be running through his mind: “I can see some of you are still here. That means our work is not finished.” What followed, at a glance, was family-sized loathing — ­for themselves and for the audience, need it be said. But as they fell down the cis­tern, something pretty strange was also happening. The band essayed Bad Com­pany’s “Can’t Get Enough,” and the crowd wasn’t articulating too much any­more, they were making crueler animal-­like sounds. Next up was “Taking Care of Business,” only the real joke was it was a monster, and all at once the band wasn’t laughing exactly. They were … smiling. Hell, beaming. This was suddenly, unex­pectedly, really fun.

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And for as long as they kept officious­ness at bay, they were not even precisely the Replacements, they were just fans. When they took on “Roundabout,” Bob was smiling as much as he had the whole week, and he glowed throughout the Jose Feliciano, the DeFranco Family. I think they may have played some of their own stuff here, oh, and “Walk on the Wild Side.” Greil Marcus writes approvingly about Sonic Youth making rock so crude it was almost noise, but at JB’s the Replacements made Sonic Youth sound like the Dillards. This was gap-toothed noise laughing at music. It had been a while since the people who had thrown lit ciga­rettes and cans of soup and toilet paper had left, and everybody else now was ei­ther just tired, or, I think, subtly paci­fied. And happy, too.

“My Sharona” came then, and when I looked over, I saw the bartender shaking a tambourine and bopping from one end of the bar to the other. Eventually they got to “Breakdown,” and Jesperson sang every word from the back of the room. And then, pretty quickly, they found a way back, maybe found a new way, to being Replacements once again. And when they wailed on “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” it was maybe more fucked-up, and more moving, than ever. A friend in Ann Arbor a night later would tell me the Replacements were great because they had so many “objective correlatives” poking out of every song, like shrapnel in some Vili nail fetish, and maybe here was the biggest example of all. Westerberg at 20 writing about role-model Johnny Thunders, how his update of Hank Wil­liams’s life was appealing, and terminal. Built on the chords to “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star,” “Johnny” is a kid meditating on what’s not a kid’s theme: that what he loves — and it’s not really junk, it’s speed, wide-eyed and no pauses — may kill him. The Replacements are crucial because they proclaim their hunger, and they don’t shut up. From the mournful din of “Johnny” to Let It Be‘s expansive, calamitous variety, they’ve been even smarter than they have been stoopid.

Nobody else left once things got inter­esting at JB’s, but the band was getting tired. Still, the set never really “ended.” Somebody left the stage, Tommy and Bob sat down on the edge, and roadie Bill Sullivan took the mike to say, “Once again we’d like to thank you for that big Ohio welcome.” It cleared out briskly after that. ❖


Showtime! The Theater of Politics

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday, July 12, 7 a.m. Arrived from Newark three hours ago. I should be thinking about politics as theater. Again? Is it three hours earlier or 15 years ago? Did I ever believe the medium was the message? Consider spectacle (authoritarian, hierar­chical, scripted) versus spontaneous show (free spirited, multifocus, improvisatory). Consider Nuremburg rallies and fascist total theater. May Day rallies and Stalin­ist total theater? Jet lag is turning me into a Sontagite: aesthetically correct but no good. Yippies casting dollar bills into the Stock Exchange? Still no good, that was for the media. Everything is for the media? Back to sleep and troubled dreams of Wagner and Abbie Hoffman, Reagan and Jane Fonda.

My press credentials neatly clarified matters: for the “perimeter” only. The fringe, the outside, the spectator’s seat. The front-of-the-book men ferret out and analyze issues; Munk watches demos and parades. Base and superstructure, slight­ly muddled by the fact that the serious stuff is a performance, and the sideshows are serious.

At noon the National March for Lesbi­an and Gay Rights held a press confer­ence in City Hall directed at Jerry Fal­well’s descent on the city with his two-day training conference for the Moral Majority leadership. It was pious, proper, and moving. Harry Britt, the gay socialist member of the Board of Super­visors, denounced Falwell as a man whose words are spiritual but whose content is hate and divisiveness; the other speak­ers — Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyteri­an religious, city officials, a gay father, the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — talk about hospital­ity, tolerance, St. Francis, God’s family, the Family, and the-values-that-made-­this-country-great. The scripts were tac­tically sound, maybe a bit obvious, yet right and true. One speaker, Miriam Ben-­Shalom, hit another note, demanding to talk to Falwell, outraged, using impolite words.

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I wondered what tone the Sunday pa­rade would stress, made an appointment to talk with Britt, walked back down Market Street past a raucous picket line in front of Macy’s, another in front of the Emporium. Union Square was filled with gaggles of people yelling at each other, sectarians selling newspapers, a couple of punk types telling the sectarians that Hitler was your typical socialist, delegates and tourists walking purposefully looking, so to speak, neither left nor right.

A Falwell man said, “We will lose cer­tain freedoms by allowing homosexuality. If I have total freedom I can do anything to anybody. Roman society fell apart …” That’s their public style. A gay man proclaimed to the air, “Why, he’s Jerry Falwell’s husband!” An amoe­ba-faced suited man shouted, “Make it a felony,” but the Falwell fellow came back right away with “I don’t believe in that.” No one believed him.

I got press credentials at the Falwell conference and moseyed around the “New Traditional Woman” panel. Chil­dren sleeping on laps, on the floor. Speaker believes men should be true heads of household, women should have jobs if they must, but not careers they love. Everything was low-key, slow, bor­ing. Down in the lobby everyone peered out at a little demo and debated whether to go watch it. “I was on the other side in the ’60s, man, I don’t have to go see them.” “I hate confrontation, I’m a paci­fist at heart.” “I know a fellow who makes little bumper stickers saying ‘kill the gays’ and sells them. I mean, if you start talking like that …”

When I got back to Union Square, it was filled. No arguing. The crowd looked orderly, but then I could hardly see it through the masses of cops lined up like Rockettes, gripping their nightsticks, maneuvering skittishly on horseback.

The slogans moved from “women unite to fight the right” to “the only good pig is a dead pig.” Time warp. The cops moved from their rigid, fixed-face lineups, push­ing the horses right into the crowd on the sidewalk. Piles of garbage covered an in­tersection: looked like debris from a car­rot-juice maker, squeezed-out half or­anges, vegetable matter from a health food store. “It’s Chicago!” “It’s Buffalo, ’63, stupid.” I wanted to know what on earth happened in Buffalo, ’63, but some­one started setting off earsplitting fire­crackers. “What’s happening?” said a lady tourist to a lady cop. “It’s the moral majority versus the unmoral majority.” Of the latter, seven were arrested, at least one beaten, and the nurse who tried to help her was clubbed.

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I walked through Chinatown to North Beach, where I lived more than 20 years ago, and stood for a while in front of the old house on Powell. It looked the same. The rest of the neighborhood has gone neon tacky or genteel. Back near Union Square a circle of candles had been set up on a sidewalk by religious gays, men and women, singing Christian and Jewish hymns. One woman quarreled politely with me because my colleague Nat Hen­toff was going to address the Falwell con­vention tomorrow. When I walked back to my hotel, the cops were quietly trot­ting their horses toward their stables.

Friday, July 13. Called Britt’s office at nine to confirm interview. When I told him I wanted to discuss the class, gender, and race issues that are left in the gay community after gross discrimination had been eliminated by power in local politics, he said he’d give me half an hour. Ten minutes later, just as I was leaving, the phone rang. “I’m not willing to be part of a story on the splits and divisions in the gay community when you guys aren’t doing the job about us. Sorry about that.” Slam.

I walked off, muttering gloomily about the end of dialogue, to the Falwell confer­ence, to see what Nat was telling them about medical ethics. He was being intro­duced: “Nat Hentoff, who fancies himself an atheist …” Nat recapitulated his ar­guments (you’ve read them in the Voice) about infanticide and euthanasia. He had some good digs at Reagan and at profes­sional omertá, some friendly self-deprecation (“I’m the handy, ubiquitous athe­ist in this matter”), and an argument, which would have been fine had the seamlessness started a few months far­ther along the way.

Midspeech, two young women, neatly dressed like Moral Majoritarians, stood up in the audience and embraced each other. First like friends meeting after a long absence, then sexily. The spectators were appalled, in a repressed kind of way, murmuring and shifting. After a minute or so, the pair was quietly escorted out, chanting, “We are everywhere. We are your daughters and your sisters. Our daughters will be here and our daughter’s daughters.” Nat waxed sarcastic, “Today?”

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Maybe the women should have been more to the point and brought a poor, single mother with a severely handicapped child. Still, Nat wooed the audi­ence back to himself at the women’s expense. I was too angry to concentrate on the rest of the talk; my mind was on the company he keeps. So I left this confer­ence on “Being My Brother’s Keeper,” and went back to Union Square.

Where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — six men in giddily S/M nun drag — were exorcising Jerry Falwell. Sis­ter Boom-Boom (who, as Jack Fertig, ran for supervisor in 1982 and got 23,000 votes), sang “Your son will come out tomorrow,” and made terrible jokes. “The Moral Majority is here with Hell n’ Damnation! Hi Helen!” Falwell was stripped down to a black merry widow and stockings, and got it on with Jesus, in a Counter-Reformation loin cloth. There was something odd about an anti-Fein­stein song which seemed to say that her problem was female machismo, and something odder about a purification rite for Phyllis Schlafly by holding her down and tearing a rubber snake from under her dress. But what the hell.

A couple of hours later I went to Glide Churches’ “Celebrating the Poor” festi­val. Here the only question was whether the Reverend Cecil Williams was just putting on a show or doing good works and putting on a show. The church is a short walk and a different world from Union Square. An enormous line — 3000 people in the course of the evening­ — waited for food. I talked to a young woman out of work who said the food’s not just for the convention-time cameras; there’s a special meal once a week, and all the food’s better than the other soup kitchens. Williams gave the press lots of rhetoric while people with trays of food jostled around. At one point he stopped for a minute and yelled, “I wanna ask you, everybody, is anything better than Reagan?” And everyone shouted, “Yes.”

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Upstairs in the church proper, a multi­colored disco wheel turned among the stained glass windows, while the Glide Memorial Gospel Singers sat on the altar steps. The press milled around, waiting for a senator, a supervisor, a delegate, a Lefty, Godot (sorry). Vietnam vet Ron Kovick and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown came, Harold Washington and Dianne Feinstein didn’t show. I had to go see some theater. On a stage.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater was doing a “convention special” — apparent­ly the only topical work among the estab­lished theater groups. They promised it would be biting satire, sharp, strong, political. Maybe a Dying Pet Sale — “the misfortunes of my pets mean a bargain for you” — or the Piece and Pizza Coali­tion, or “Shop Without Guilt, Vote Without Fear,” are funny. They are as funny as it got. I left plunged in gloom, striding again through the wreck of my old haunts.

Saturday, July 14. Every community organization, union local, sect, countersect, and groupuscle was huddled in doors planning for the big parades tomor­row, so I walked around Golden Gate Park. A sign pointed me to Peacequake ’84: a rock band was playing in a dell for a smallish, friendly, stoned crowd that seemed frozen in time. Who’s Afraid of Thomas Woolf?

The San Francisco Mime Thoupe was doing their new show, based on A Christ­mas Carole, and propagandizing for voter registration. I don’t recall the SFMT ever taking a stand for the Democratic party before. I’ve seen a lot of Revolutionary Commmunist posters around town urging the People not to vote, and perhaps they represent a chunk of the radical commu­nity, but it was hard to believe that this nice young audience, mostly white and not particularly militant looking, was dis­affected from the electoral process.

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The plot concerns Ebeneezer Jones, an extremely upwardly mobile black lawyer in his thirties who’s too cynical to vote. Nixon appears, untwining tapes from his bulging pockets and shows Ebeneezer’s past (college radicalism), the present (Marcos, Pinochet), and the future — not a nuclear one, but the Supreme Court, convicting Jessie Jackson of terrorism and proclaiming that “Freedom Is Security.”

Some of this was funny, but it seemed a little flat and heavy-handed and with­out much physical pizzazz, though the music was good. I hope the Mime Thoupe hasn’t lost it’s dramaturgical verve by adopting sensible politics.

Spent the evening at a spectacularly catered party on a spectacular hill, a fundraiser for the Lesbian and Gay Pa­rade given by Lia Belli, who’s running for state senate. It was full of rich homosex­uals, which meant, of course, that there were three times as many men as women. I ate my fresh lichees wrapped in raw snow peas, and paté and brie and nectar­ines. I talked to a black lesbian activist mother, who’s running for the board of supervisors, and was tending bar. I was bemused. I went to a lot of other parties. They were not theater.

And nobody talked about anything. The spectacle was still to come; so was the substance. ■


Geraldine Ferraro: Her Brilliant Career

Last Thursday night I realized the Re­publicans were nervous for the first time in this election. I saw Pat Buchanan on Nightline sneer that Gerry Ferraro had “no experience” to be vice-president of the United States. Buchanan is the fellow who thought Spiro Agnew was a splendid choice for veep in 1968, when his only experience was in stealing. I also saw Phyllis Schlafly on television Thursday night; she was at the national convention of the Moral Majority, and she was say­ing that Gerry Ferraro is part of the “rad­ical-feminist wing.”

Caricature is the first refuge of nervous politicians. Gerry Ferraro scares the right wing because she is so mainstream Amer­ica. She is the mother of three, a former, prosecutor, a regular organization club­house Democrat from Archie Bunker’s district in Queens which went for Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Her reelection slogan in 1982 was “One Tough Democrat.” Yes, Gerry Ferraro is for the ERA and against the MX missile, and she has a decent liberal voting record. But she also got where she is because Tip O’Neill, Donald Manes, and a lot of very tradi­tional political animals understand that she is exactly the right woman to be the Jackie Robinson of politics.

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Her close friend Jimmy Breslin told me on the day she was picked: “This broad is just eight years out of the kitchen. She’s just starting to grow. She’s gonna be president.”

The first time I heard of Gerry Ferraro was in October 1978. She was running for Congress and Carmine Parisi called me up to ask if the Voice would consider endorsing her. At 2 a.m. that morning Parisi rang my doorbell and delivered a stack of information about his candidate. A few weeks later, the Voice published a brief editorial that said: “Geraldine Fer­raro is probably the best this district can possibly elect. She is a reliable vote for pro-labor, pro-consumer legislation. Her opponent, Republican Alfred Delli Bovi, is a little Nixon — ruthless, right-wing, and well-financed.”

As soon as Ferraro arrived in Congress, I began to hear how extraordinary she really was, how her learning curve kept going up, how she was the bridge between feminists and the white male club that rules the House. Last year Barney Frank, Democratic congressman of Massachu­setts, told me: “Gerry is the most effec­tive member of the New York delegation.”

Today there is euphoria and electricity. Today there is nervous caricature. To­morrow the country will see what the vot­ers in her Queens district saw six years ago.

Ferraro will now come under intense scrutiny. So will her husband John, who is in the real-estate business. Already, three reporters from other papers have called me and asked if John Zaccaro is clean. He is.

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Gerry Ferraro is a competent, complete person. And she is an instinctive feminist who was one of two women in her law school class.

When she worked as a prosecutor, peo­ple claimed she got the job because her cousin, Nick Ferraro, was the Queens D.A. But she did an excellent job, espe­cially prosecuting rape cases. I never heard of an instance where one of her cases was reversed.

Gerry Ferraro can’t elect Mondale. She can only help the ticket. The ticket is clearly in trouble in the South, in the West, with younger yuppie voters, with Jewish voters. But overnight I think Fer­raro brought Mondale from 20 points down to eight or 10 points down.

And should the ticket lose, then Al D’ Amato will become the most nervous Republican in the Senate, because his seat is up in 1986, and Gerry Ferraro will come after him next, in her 10th year out of the kitchen, and her learning curve moving off the chart. ■


Showtime 1984: Inside the Political Theater

Inside the Political Theater
July 24, 1984

SAN FRANCISCO — With the excep­tion of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, the big-name Democrats parading on TV here sound like third-rate sellers of soap. The Democratic Party remains the large­ly unimaginative political organization that began to lose its New Deal base years ago. But for the first time in recent memory there are signs of life within it, and stripped to its essentials, the fight pits the women and minorities, symbol­ized by Ferraro and Jackson, against the still-dominant conservative wing.

The question is whether Jackson and Ferraro will be consumed by the conser­vatives or stake out fresh ground. Just as the Republican Party was refreshed in 1980 with the raw energy of the New Right, the Democratic Party, buoyed by the feminist surge and black voter regis­tration, could begin to find itself this year.

Ferraro is best known as a team player, disciple of Tip O’Neill; unlikely to stray far from his beck and call. Mondale al­ready is flooding her with his own staff, but while Ferraro may appear to be a political pawn, the forces behind her as­cendancy are not so easily controlled.

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Since Jackson’s arrival in San Francis­co, he has sounded a note of reconcilia­tion. He pledged himself to resolve ten­sions between Jews and blacks and offered a public apology: “… if, in my low moments, in words, deeds, or atti­tudes, through error or temper, taste or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived anyone’s fears, I sincerely apologize.”

For weeks now, Jackson has been hold­ing secret meetings with Bert Lance. Lance and Jackson are negotiating the terms of the minority planks, and concocting the southern strategy for Mon­dale’s campaign. Jackson is thankful to be cut into the ruling party councils, and with his help Mondale gets a shot at an expanded black vote.

At first, Jackson negotiated with Lance over delegate questions. More recently, Lance sent his advisers to brief Jackson on the economy. Much pleased, Jackson responded by making Lance’s major pro­posals the centerpiece of his convention speech, at least in early drafts.

Thus, stuck incongruously into the midst of Jackson’s powerful, poetic rhet­oric, were Lance’s corny ideas about U.S. banks being in hock to foreigners. It is Lance’s theory that Reagan, in running up the deficit, has made the United States dependent on foreign bankers from whom the country must borrow to keep going.

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Roll Call of Shame

Consider the record of this party over the last four years — what Tom Hayden called neo-Reaganism. The list is telling:

Support for the MX; refusal to oppose the deployment of Euromissiles in any serious way; Democrats in Congress, in­cluding those with liberal credentials, re­peatedly declining to oppose Reagan on Central America, with the result that American-backed contras have laid siege to Nicaragua; standing with Reagan in El Salvador in the face of mounting civilian murder. Even as this convention opened, the party leadership is preparing to back President Duarte, under whose rule the terror in El Salvador has mushroomed.

The Democratic leadership stood with Reagan on the 1981 tax bill — legislation which transferred wealth from the middle class to the rich, and in the process virtually ended the corporate income tax. The neo-liberal wing of the party has, under Gary Hart, mounted a vigorous at­tack on the labor movement as a “special interest” — at a time when the unions rep­resent the only buffer between workers and the aggressive policies of corporate business.

Most recently, the House Democratic leadership created the umbrella beneath which the Republicans successfully pushed through Simpson-Mazzoli, which, among other things, would establish a “guest worker” program for foreign agri­cultural workers. This re-creation of the bracero program — which another era of Democrats fought to eliminate — threat­ens to wipe out the Farm Workers Union, and amounts to one of the most vindic­tive, punitive, racist measures in Ameri­can history.

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The New Democrats

Despite the choice of Ferraro, the Democratic Party has persistently fought the rise of women within its own ranks. Nevertheless, Ferraro’s emergence and the Jackson campaign represent a broad challenge to the rampant neo-Reaganism in the party.

For the women who have had to fight, kicking and screaming, to the top of the Democratic Party, Ferraro’s selection represents an immense victory, and the opening of what surely will be a wider struggle for economic equality.

Ferraro is much more than a feminist candidate. The daughter of an immigrant working mother, she speaks directly to the disenfranchised base of the Demo­cratic Party, the working women who have been most hurt by the recession and placed under savage attack by Reagan’s policies — the last hired and first fired who now populate the irregular work­force and are now a critical factor in American labor.

These women play a major role in the expanding lower middle class, which now consists of 72 million Americans — 30 per cent of the population. They come come from households with earnings between $6000 and $18,000 a year. Since 1978, the lower middle class has grown by a third. An increasing percentage of this class is made up of households headed by wom­en, most of them minorities. It includes millions of young people who have never held a full-time job; people who once held factory jobs and now work for less than $6 an hour in service jobs; and old people living on fixed incomes.

There are within this group enough people to elect a Democratic president, but until Jesse Jackson began his cam­paign in predominantly white New Hampshire you’d hardly have known they existed. It is absolutely true that without Jackson, Ferraro’s nomination would never have been possible. The feminist movement owes a great debt to Jackson, a debt that many women seemed incapable of recognizing in the early moments of this convention.

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Tough Talking Ferraro

Ferraro is a person of progressive polit­ical instincts. Here are a few points she made in an interview with the Voice ear­lier this year:

On the MX: “I have supported re­search and development. I have not sup­ported deployment because it is destabilizing.”

On Nicaragua (asked if she thought it was a Cuban or Soviet satellite): “They are a Marxist government. There is no doubt about that. I think our problem is, frankly, that we expect it to be a democ­racy the way we define democracy, and I don’t think that’s possible.”

On El Salvador: “I would insist that the U.S. government let the people know we expect them to get their own act together, within their own units, to put someone in charge of the government. And probably the most important thing is that they do something about the amount of killing that is going on there. I would exert pressure on them to clean up their act, or they would be without economic aid.”

In one speech this year, talking about the concept of comparable worth, which fundamentally seeks to redefine the so­cial utility of work (the most potentially profound economic subject the feminist movement has taken up), Ferraro de­clared: “A woman with a college educa­tion can expect lifetime earnings equal to those paid to a man who never finished the eighth grade. Groundskeepers are paid more than nurses. Parking lot attendants are often paid more than experi­enced secretaries. We entrust our chil­dren — our most precious resource — to teachers who frequently earn less than truck drivers.”

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A New Feminist Era 

Geraldine Ferraro is not just a sym­bol. Her nomination, as Frances Fox Pi­ven puts it, is a “signal,” a tremor from within. Ferraro’s nomination opens a new era of feminist politics, for the first time placing the genuinely radical perspec­tives of the feminist movement in a far broader national arena.

Comparable worth, for example, en­tails a restructuring of the American economy and could precipitate a struggle of serious proportions with the business community. It is because Ferraro is asso­ciated with these ideas that her candida­cy will in all probability undergo formi­dable challenge.

The vice presidency would be more than a symbolic job for a woman, It offers a forum of real power and, if gained, could spark a political groundswell.

The feminist movement has so far succeeded in spanning class divisions. Things are now apt to change. Its future political course will, in all likelihood, de­pend on how successfully it deals with potentially divisive splits — the extent to which, for example, white middle-class women reach out to include black wom­en, and the measure of cooperation shown to poor working women.

The Republicans already have begun to play on these potential divisions to split the gender gap vote and open a seri­ous attack on the feminists.

As with the environmental movement a decade ago, it is certain that the modern feminist movement will focus increasing­ly on basic economic issues — equal pay for equal work, redressing inequality in the workplace, the social purpose of work in general, the feminization of poverty. In short, Ferraro’s nomination should result in a bold, new opening for feminist poli­tics, and a new radical lens through which to view the economy. ■

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism

Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism
September 28, 1967

Mr. Morris B. Abram, President
American Jewish Committee
165 East 56th Street
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Abram:

I am in receipt of your letter making inquiry of SCLC’s position on anti-Semitism. First, let me apologize for being rather tardy in my reply. Absence from the city and the accumulation of a huge volume of mail account for the delay.

Serious distortions by the press have created an impression that SCLC was part of a group at the Chicago Conference of New Politics which introduced a resolu­tion condemning Israel and unqualifiedly endorsing all the policies of the Arab powers. The facts are as follows:

1. The staff members of SCLC who attended the conference (not as official delegates) were the most vigorous and articulate opponents of the simplistic resolution on the Middle East question. As a result of this opposition, the Black caucus modified its stand and the convention voted to eliminate references to Zionism and referred to the executive board the matter of final wording. This change was the direct result of the spirited opposition on the floor by Hosea Williams, Director of Voter Registration and Political Education of SCLC. Incidentally, I only attended the conference to make the opening speech and left immediately after. I had no part in planning the structure or policy of the conference, nor was I a delegate. If I had been at the conference during the discussion of the resolutions, I would have made it crystal clear that I could not have supported any resolu­tion calling for Black separatism or calling for a condem­nation of Israel and an unqualified endorsement of the policy of the Arab powers. I later made this clear to the press, but a disclaimer seldom gets the attention that an original sensational attack receives.

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2. SCLC has repeatedly stated that the Middle East problem embodies the related questions of security and development. Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable. At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony. Until a concerted and democratic program of assistance is affected, tensions cannot be relieved. Neither Israel nor its neighbors can live in peace without an underlying basis of economic and social development.

At the heart of the problem are oil interests. As the American Jewish Congress has stated, “American policies in the Middle East have been motivated in no small measure by the desire to protect the $2,500,000,000 stake which U.S. oil companies have invested in the area.” Some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples. The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who, in concert with the great powers, recognize that fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.

Neither military measures nor a stubborn effort to reverse history can provide a permanent solution for peoples who need and deserve both development and security.

3. SCLC has expressly, frequently and vigorously denounced anti-Semitism, and will continue to do so. It is not only that anti-Semitism is immoral — though that alone is enough. It is used to divide Negro and Jew, who have effectively collaborated in the struggle for justice. It injures Negroes because it upholds the doctrine of racism which they have the greatest stake in destroying. The individual Jew or gentile who may be an exploiter acts out of his greed as an individual, not his religious precepts. Just as a criminal, Negro or white — is expressing his anti-social tendencies — not the ethical values of his race.

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On the general question of anti-Semitism, I would like to quote a few paragraphs from my recent book Where Do We Go From Here:

“One fact is decisive for perspective and balance: the amount of anti-Semitism found among Negroes is no greater than is found among white groups of the same economic strata. Two polls cited by Professor Thomas Pettegrew and a very recent study in depth conducted by Dr. Oscar Lewis arrived at this same conclusion. These revelations should allay the alarm that has arisen from exploitation and exaggeration of the issue by some white and Negro publicists whose appetite for attention exceeds their attachment to truth and responsibility.

“The question that troubles many Jews and other concerned Americans is why oppressed Negroes should harbor any anti-Semitism at all. Prejudice and dis­crimination can only harm them; therefore it would appear that they should be virtually immune to their sinister appeal.

“The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. Jews have identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by their religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people.

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“It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway.

“Negroes cannot rationally expect honorable Jews to curb the few who are rapacious; they have no means of disciplining or suppressing them. We can only expect them to share our disgust and disdain. Negroes cannot be expected to curb and eliminate the few who are anti­-Semitic, because they are subject to no controls we can exercise. We can, however, oppose them and have, in concrete ways. There has never been an instance of articulated Negro anti-Semitism that was not swiftly condemned by virtually all Negro leaders with the support of the overwhelming majority. I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, be­cause it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”

Let me thank you for writing, and also for your consistent support. I realize that this letter is long, but I hope it will shed some light on what can be an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Martin Luther King Jr.


We Remember MOMA

1. The Permanent Point of View
By Kim Levin

When MOMA shut down entirely some months ago, it was hard not to read sym­bolic meaning into its absence, which seemed to confirm years of rumblings about modernism’s demise. While MOMA was preoccupied with matters of survival, the notion of being postmodern escalated to the level of cliché. But since renovation began four years ago, several varieties of newly traditional and neomo­dern art have emerged. It’s tempting to say that the new MOMA, purer and cleaner and twice its former size, proves that modernism didn’t die — it’s alive and well in MOMA heaven.

Yes, the new escalators are spectacular, though not as spectacular as the Beau­bourg’s, nor as radical architecturally. No playful exoskeletal ducts for architect Cesar Pelli. Simply the sleekest, most antiseptic, glacial, and elegantly under­stated Late Modern functional space — as befits its position as lodestar for early, high, and late modernist art. For museum practicality, it’s planned very well. If the big subject of conversation in the inter­national art world last week was who had an invitation to which of the various special previews, lunches, dinners, and black-tie affairs — a comically complex caste system — the question of who’s in and who’s out was paralleled in the exhi­bitions themselves, not just the big International Survey of Contemporary Paint­ing and Sculpture but in the permanent carpeted galleries too, and even more in the wooden-floored galleries of art from the ’60s and ’70s.

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The real question, though, isn’t who’s included and who isn’t but why. If any­one momentarily wondered whether the reinstallations would present a revisionist view of modernism, the answer is a re­sounding no. Even the one semifigurative late Guston is in the limbo of a hall, as are the Mexican social realists. MOMA is as traditionally modernist and as inflexible as ever. However, the permanent col­lection is installed much more intelligent­ly and sensitively, and there are some realignments. The early 20th century gal­leries not only hint at a relation between Seurat and the Douanier Rousseau (even in the absence of a major Seurat), but make a telling connection between Gau­guin’s exotic primitivism and Rousseau’s, with Rousseau now seeming the more radically modern. In the gem of a Cubist room, a 1914 Picasso painting with Rus­sian lettering is brilliantly paired with a 1913 Russian Constructivist sculpture (made of painted wood, cardboard, and eggshells) by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine. Picasso’s musicians lead inexorably to Léger and Brancusi, both of whom now speak eloquently (and naively) about automation and the utopian assembly-line dreams of modern times. I’m not cra­zy about the oval platform the Brancusis are on, but the Picasso room, the Matisse room, the Mondrian room, the De Chirico room (classic early modern ones with empty urban vistas and bottle green skies, of course) are all exquisite.

The sensibility that orchestrated all this — Bill Rubin’s — is a cerebral formal­ist one. The linear installation invokes orderly evolution and progress, from Eu­rope up a flight to America, from Ab­stract Expressionism — the abstract expressionist galleries are gorgeous and spacious — to the dubious glories of color field, with blatant signposts (Rothko, pre-black Reinhardt, Motherwell, an al­most all-white Al Held) along the way. The sculpture is mixed in just right, mak­ing sly but obvious points. It’s all been embalmed so fastidiously that it actually seems to live and breathe again. But even the Surrealists are made to look like solid formalists here, with Masson anticipating Pollock, Balthus hooked up with Ma­gritte and the fixity of both tracking back to Léger and Rousseau. That’s the glory of the installation, though: it wordlessly sets off trains of thought as you go. Line­ages and linkages that were never so ap­parent before line themselves up subtly, sometimes with stunning obviousness. And it’s witty: John Graham, odd man out, is in an anteroom by himself, the megalomaniacal Dali has a tiny fragile painted glass proscenium scene set into a wall.

The painting and sculpture galleries, telling a story, may stray slightly into the postmodern terrain of narrative. But there’s no room in these heavenly spaces at Neo-MOMA for a multilayered Pica­bia from the late 1920s (not to mention a pseudo-philistine one), or for one of De Chirico’s postmetaphysical antimodern paintings, such as the grandiose theatri­cal Capriccio Veneziana alla Maniera de Veronese now being shown just a few blocks away. Or for the unmodern non­structural aspects of Surrealist art that have something in common with very re­cent art. Or even — heaven forbid — for the casual leisure-time modernity of Raoul Dufy. Or for Miró’s unexpectedly great recent sculpture which is more var­ied and inventive and contemporarily rel­evant than I’d ever guessed. No monkey wrenches are allowed to disrupt Rubin’s neat historical progression. But for some of these problematic aspects of modern­ism that MOMA omits, current gallery shows are taking up the slack: late De Chiricos can be seen at their baroque and preposterous best and at their most questionable antioriginal worst in two differ­ent shows right now. There’s an exhibi­tion of Surrealist drawings, a lot of them and a lot of intriguing ones, on 57th Street, and also a big exhibition of Miró’s fertile and varied late sculpture. And fur­ther uptown the waters are being tested for Dufy.

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Back at MOMA, on the wooden-­floored spaces of the recent past, there’s nationalistic muscle flexing and a delib­erate misreading of the ’60s and ’70s that overemphasizes the sleek formal aspects. Lichtenstein’s Entablature, Oldenburg’s black ray gun, Yves Klein’s monochrome blue, and Arman’s ball bearings are cho­sen for spurious resemblances to former formalisms. There’s a dialogue in white­ness that extends from Malevich to Johns and Olitski. Robert Morris’s hanging felt makes you think back to Morris Louis’s brown veil. Richard Serra’s balanced lead and Joseph Beuys’s tubes of felt look more purely formal than they are, and Beuys’s accompanying sausages are tucked discreetly behind a wall.

And whatever became of Conceptual­ism? No evidence of it. Painting and sculpture, indeed. Not a nod to the fact that the artists who made these sleek objects were thinking about other things, or that the last thing on many artists’ minds in the ’60s and ’70s was painting or sculpture. No inkling that anything like Earthworks or Photo Realism ever exist­ed. Even the black and white Chuck Close is included for its gridding, not its imagery, as is made clear by its proximity to a LeWitt and one of Agnes Martin’s early white grids. Rubin’s installations emphasize the solidity of modernist art. But there are other aspects of which his installations give little clue. Modern art began with a crisis of the represented object (which Impressionists dissolved in light, Cezanne dissolved in anxiety, Expressionists engulfed in emotionality, Cubists shattered, and “non-objective” artists banished entirely). It seemed to end, more or less, with the crisis of the art object around 1970. Since then, art­ists have been moving beyond traditional notions of formalist modernism, seeking ways for all kinds of forbidden imagery to wriggle back in — dealing with bigger questions beyond the art object and a crisis of the image. It looks as if MOMA is not yet prepared to acknowledge that early, high, and even late modernism may now be a period style. Or maybe, by stiff­ening its back to the onslaughts against modernist orthodoxy and by continuing the illusion of normalcy, that’s exactly what the museum is doing. In any case, it’s a thrill to have this prime repository available again, and perhaps by its die­hard stance it will help us clarify newer positions. ❖

2. Temporary Misgivings
By Roberta Smith

If the renewed museum and restored collection have turned out better than expected, “An International Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” the inaugurating temporary exhibition, is somewhat disappointing, although its generous ecumenical spread seems in keeping with the celebratory tone of the museum’s reopening. This exhibition is both the New World’s first retort to the major international shows which have frequented Europe recently and MOMA’s first large-scale survey of contem­porary art activity since its 1971 “Infor­mation,” an extensive look at Conceptualism also organized by curator Kynaston McShine. As such it has had a mission nearly impossible from the out­set: in one fell swoop, to bring the muse­um assertively into the ’80s and to offer a viable alternative to the European ten­dency to feature the 30 or 40 greatest living white male artists.

To accomplish this, McShine has backed up a bit, starting with the second half of the ’70s and working to the pres­ent in rather random fashion, sticking close to painting and sculpture, the tradi­tional tools of modernism. There are examples of New Image and Pattern and Decoration intermingling with a couple of generations of international figuration (separated in the press release into expressionism, allegory, and metaphor, nar­rative and humor), plus a smattering of abstraction and sculpture.

The result is Whitney Biennial Inter­national Style — undeniable evidence of MOMA’s own role in spreading the word of modernism worldwide — or at least to the industrialized West. (Its 165 partici­pants herald from 17 countries, mostly the U.S., Germany, and the rest of Eu­rope, plus Australia.) And what dominates is an argument between ’70s plu­ralism and ’80s Neo-Expressionism’s national strains which rarely transcends its good, but complicated, intentions.

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Compared to recent European shows like “Zeitgeist,” this is an admirable attempt at an unbiased survey of the international scene without favor to any one style or nation. There has clearly been an attempt to include more women artists. (In fact, women are so astutely fea­tured — a big Elizabeth Murray next to a big Anselm Kiefer and similar juxtaposi­tionings — there seems to be more of them than usual; there are in fact only 14, or less than 10 per cent.) Also, unlike the European habit, this show is largely un­sanctioned by elder statesmen such as Beuys, Warhol, Twombly, or Stella: over half of these artists are under 40, many under 30. Thus the museum’s faith in the present and future is imbued with an American egalitarian look which proba­bly drives Europeans and would-be art stars up the wall. Many people will blame the one-work-per-artist/broad-overview formula as the culprit. But actually, even with its current framework, this exhibi­tion could have been much better. The possible corrections run the gamut from being entirely within McShine’s control, to being endemic to the museum.

First of all, this is an exhibition which, in attempting to please many different points of view, seems simply to have lost its sense of direction. There are easily 30 or 40 artists who could be eliminated from its rolls and never be missed. As it is, there are almost as many who will probably be overlooked due to the ex­treme crowding.

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Also, regardless of possible disagree­ments with the selection of individual works and artists, one has come to expect from McShine a kind of argument via installation which, after three viewings, seems to be missing here. He has inter­mittently matched things up but mostly studiously avoided the temptation (which in a less diverse show would prob­ably be commendable) — as if he wants us to see everything in isolation, for its own inherent value. It is revealing to see Oli­ver Jackson and Roberto Juarez grouped with Zakanitch and MacConnell; what seems to be the “humor” gallery of Mark Tansey, Steve Gianakos, General Idea, Italo Scanga, and Komar and Melamid is a bit obvious (and nonvisual, actually), but more of these kinds of juxtapositions are needed. It would have been instructive to see the Dutch expressionist Armando next to Susan Rothenberg, or Toon Verhoef next to Howard Hodgkin, or Ed Paschke next to Jack Goldstein.

Mostly the discrepancy in ceiling heights between the two floors of the ex­hibition seems to have been one of the primary placement determinants, result­ing in an unfortunate hierarchy of size — smaller works too often crowded together upstairs, larger ones more spaciously in­stalled below. Walking into the lower lev­el galleries it is clear how working in large size is (a) the best defense against curato­rial whim and (b) too often the only thing that Neo-Expressionism has going for it.

There are very few surprises — a beauti­ful Gerhard Richter, a startling Ger van Elk, a suite of Blinky Palermo’s small abstractions, but seldom do we encounter first-rate works under first-rate circum­stances. The grouping of paintings by Murray, Kiefer, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Francesco Clemente, and Sigmar Polke at the front of the lower gallery is the one exception, the show’s only exhilarating vista. Some of McShine’s new dis­coveries from abroad seem worthwhile: the English sculptor Richard Deacon, the Austrian Christian Ludwig Attersee, the Swiss team of Fischli and Weiss. But, although this show is overloaded with artists from the U.S., few Americans in the just-emerging range seem to have received comparable scrutiny. One can think of several auspicious debuts from the past few years in both one-person and group shows — Ira Richer, Carroll Dun­ham, Nancy Mitchnick, Nancy Dwyer, Barry Ledoux, Jeff Koons among them­ — unfortunately overlooked.

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In general, the show is on firm footing where consensus is bowed to, but it often falters on less predictable terrain. Other problems afflict its all-over impact as well, a major one being that artists are not always represented by outstanding efforts. (The barely average 1981 paint­ing by David Salle, in view of his recent triumphs, seems particularly unfortu­nate.) And Tony Shafrazi’s sin against Guernica seems to have made his artists untouchable. While one can sympathize wholeheartedly with the museum’s desire for revenge of some sort — this probably does the show more harm than good. A few raunchy graffiti artists would have been preferable to the quasi-graffiti cor­ner of Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Bruce McLean, and miles ahead of the truly pernicious academic mannerism of Carlo Maria Mariani — a mode of behavior the museum should no more endorse than Shafrazi’s.

In any event, to leave Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf out of what is clearly acknowledged as a survey of disparate current styles is inaccurate. This is not a show so much about standards as data; as a friend said, it should probably have been called “More Information.” (Along this line of thought, the low number of women is even more offensive: once more, men are shown to have a greater right to be just average and representative than women.)

Despite the diversity of this show, its most lasting impression is that Neo-Expressionism is easily the most interna­tional, easily disseminated style since Conceptualism — only more so due to its greater marketability. The older Germans have spawned younger ones who make them look good; and the effects of the Italians, especially Chia, can be seen from Spain to Australia. The way Neo-­Expressionism hooks into a widespread figurative mediocrity which has hovered beyond the fringe ever since the Mod­ern’s own “New Images of Man” exhibi­tion in the late ’50s only speeds up the process.

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Comparing “Information” to this cur­rent survey is a lesson in how profoundly the times have changed since the early ’70s, but the difference need not have been so great. McShine would have been truer to the present and recent past to include more of Conceptualism’s descen­dants — artists who, starting out in the late ’70s, insinuated both its criticality and its use of photography back into ob­ject making, back into visual experience.

The limitation of this exhibition to painting and sculpture is not strictly ad­hered to — there are actually a fair amount of large drawings and small in­stallations here and there. But the exclu­sion of established and promising artists currently extending the role of photography and the media in the arts — Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Le­vine, Richard Prince, and James Case­bere, among others — is undoubtedly the show’s biggest problem. It is more or less completely out of Kynaston McShine’s hands, for it stems from the museum’s traditional compartmentalization of me­diums, a compartmentalization which, with the new expansion, is only reinforced. This, more than any other short­coming of a handsome, wide-ranging show, gives hints of the problems the museum may have in housing the art of the late 20th century under its new roof. ❖