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The Sad, Strange Tale of Judas Priest

RENO, NEVADA — By the rolling green banks of the Truckee River, under a nearly full moon, a tall, vaguely Hispanic-looking man with beautiful shoulder-length black hair, a foot-long beard, and a perfectly re­laxed body comes over to tell me that Satan is walking proud these days. He slips his small U.S. Army pack off one shoulder, introduces himself as Jacob, then says he just missed the midnight bus out of Reno.

“Satan’s walking proud through the cities,” he amends himself, taking a deep whiff of grass and river. “That’s why I’ll only work migrant, out in the country. I know the joy of the mountain cat’s full belly,” he says with a devout smile. “And I know the pain of the deer that’s in there.”

It’s my third night in Reno, and before turning in I’ve come down to the river that cuts right through downtown for some fresh air. I was hoping to spare myself the 24-hour passion plays of the casinos, but there’s no escaping it here: Heaven and Hell are married on every 01her street cor­ner in Reno. A block down, across from the Washoe County District Courthouse where I’ve been spending my days watching the Judas Priest “subliminals” trial, a store­front window advertises summer cut rates for “QUICKEST MARRIAGES IN RENO”; a block up, the Truckee glistens weirdly as it cross­es under the Virginia Street Bridge — from all the wedding rings thrown in after quick­ie divorces.

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And Jacob, though his voice is warm and clear as a bell, has blue-green eyes that flash from one extreme conviction to another with a scary rapidity. I’ve gotten used to people like him by now, picking me out, of a neon-lit crowd of thousands on Sierra Street to announce the Apocalypse to, or spilling out of the casinos at 2 a.m. on a 90-degree Saturday night and offering to mow my lawn for $3

“I’m just here,” I tell him, “to cover the Judas Priest trial,” then instantly regret having dropped that particular name.

“Three times,” Jacob says stonily, “thou shalt betray me before the cock crows.”

While I consider the wisdom of pointing out that his Biblical quote concerns Peter, not Judas, Jacob continues:

“Oh, I’ll go to the cities,” he admits. “Salt Lake, Sacramento, Vegas. But I tiptoe through town. Satan’s walking around.”

“No. that’s Mammon,” he says matter-of-factly, as though I’d misidentified a crow as a raven. “Robbing, cheating, beating people up in the middle of the night’s no good,” I hear him say from 10 paces behind me. It’ll come back to you, sooner than you think. Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Life and death. The mountain cat’s joy”— he’s beginning to shout now — “and the deer’s pain. Gain and loss! People who want something for nothing will lose their souls to Satan!”

Reno, depending on how your cards are flopping, might or might not be a town for Satan, but it is a town for losers. You see your first half-dozen before clearing the plane’s disembark ramp, grim old ladies in bright holiday dresses feeding the 25-cent slot machines at three-quarters a pull Downtown, the slots become progressive, with red six-figure jackpot numbers “progressing” digitally and fast into the hundreds of thousands of dollars everywhere you look; before you lose all sense of the value of the money in your pocket, its obvious these beautiful numbers aren’t spelling anything but the losses, one coin at a time, of hundreds of thousands of people.

This is a fleeting awareness though, if you harbor the slightest conviction that life owes you something. Within hours of land­ing in this former whistle-stop on the Union Pacific Railroad, this three-square-­mile block of concrete and neon plopped in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountain­-desert range, you feel indignant, hopeful, and a little out of control every time you put a quarter in a pay phone.

By various estimates, 50 to 70 per cent of the people actually living in Reno and Sparks, the adjacent bedroom community, have moved here within the last 10 years. The migration pattern — families that failed elsewhere and have come to Nevada for a last chance — becomes clear quickly enough. To sit quietly for more than five minutes in a public place in Reno — be it a diner counter, casino lobby, or poolside at a $25-a-night motel — is to invite the person to your right or left to tell you his troubles. And, however dubious these confessions seem at first, the statistics are there to back them up: Nevadans — the last of the free thinkers — have among the five highest rates per capita of marriages, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, alcoholism, prostitution, cocaine use by adults, divorce, population growth, churches, legal handguns and rifles, incarceration, child abuse, teenage pregnan­cies, and successful suicides by white males ages 15 to 24.

Two “progressions” of that last statis­tic — Raymond Belknap, 18, by a sawed-off shotgun blast to the chin in a Sparks churchyard on December 23, 1985, and his best friend, Jay Vance, 20, who managed only to blow the bottom half of his face away (he spent three years enduring $400,000 of painful reconstructive surgery to his face before dying of a methadone overdose in 1988) — have led to the strang­est media circus (and what one Vegas book-maker called the “biggest crapshoot”) in Reno history: A multimillion-dollar prod­uct liability suit brought by three Reno law­yers against CBS Records and the band one recent critic called the “doyens of British heavy metal,” Judas Priest.

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Seven subliminal (audible only subcon­sciously) commands saying “Do it” were allegedly embedded on one song of Priest’s 1978 release, Stained Class — the album that was on Ray Belknap’s turntable the afternoon he and Jay formed their suicide pact. Coupled with four alleged “back-­masked lyrics” (audible only when playing the record in reverse) on three other songs— the exhortations “Try suicide,” “Suicide is in,” “Sing my evil spirit,” “Fuck the Lord, fuck [or suck] all of you” — the Do its, say the lawyers, created a compulsion that led to the “wrongful death” of Ray Belknap and to the “personal injury” of Jay Vance. The Vance family is asking for $5 million. The Belknaps for $1.2 million. “If you’re going to hurt someone,” jokes one of plaintiffs’ lawyers, “you’re bet­ter off killing them. It’s a lot cheaper.”

The suit was brought in 1986 after Jay, in a letter to Ray’s mother, Aunetta Roberson, wrote: “I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music such as Judas Priest led us to be mesmerized …” The lawyers initially cited the alleged suicidal content of the Stained Class songs “Heroes End” (“But you you have to die to be a hero./It’s a shame in life./You make it better dead.”) and “Beyond the Realms of Death” (“Keep your world of all its sin./It’s not fit for living in”). The suit seemed dead in the water, however, after the California Dis­trict Court of Appeal ruled that the lyrics of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” — cited in a similar suicide/product liability suit — were protected by the First Amendment.

The Reno suit made its bizarre beeline into the unconscious a year and a half later, when six Sparks metalheads, hired by plain­tiffs’ lawyers to decipher the lyrics of the entire album, reported concurrent, identical nightmares of going on killing sprees with semiautomatic weapons in their neighbor­hood shopping malls. On the advice of Dr. Wilson Bryan Key, the grandmaster of the subliminal exposé (his books, Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, The Clam­-Plate Orgy, etc., have sold over 4 million copies), plaintiffs’ lawyers hired a self-taught audio engineer named Bill Nickloff (then marketing personalized subliminal self-help tapes through his firm, Secret Sounds. Inc.) to examine a CD of Stained Class. Using his original “backwards engineering” process — by which the audio signal of a piece of recorded music is decon­structed into its component 24 tracks on his Mac II home computer — Nickloff “dis­covered the smoking gun”: seven subliminal Do its in the first and second choruses of the song “Better By You, Better Than Me.”

Key, a 65-year-old Henry Miller look­alike with a MENSA belt buckle and a young wife he is able to put to sleep with a simple posthypnotic suggestion, lives out­side of Reno, off a highway running through surreal, sage-scented moonscape that yields some very exotic roadkill. As he is quick to point out, the issue of sublimin­als and the adverse effect of music is not entirely without precedent. The Billie Holi­day ballad “Gloomy Sunday” was banned from the radio in the early ’40s when several war widows killed themselves after lis­tening. And the foreman of a jury in Penn­sylvania cited subliminals as a mitigating factor in the 1989 guilty verdict for Steven Mignogna, a 19-year-old metalhead who murdered two 10-year-old kids after 12 hours of listening to AC/DC, Ozzy Os­bourne, Mötley Crüe, and Judas Priest. Mignogna, who was defended by the Bish­op of Sardinia (then in Pittsburgh for medi­cal reasons), was given two consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty the prosecution had asked for.

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The Do its — uttered, said Nickloff, by a different voice than lead singer Rob Hal­ford’s — were allegedly punched into (or lay­ered beneath) the swirling chords of a Les­ley Guitar (a guitar played through a synthesized organ), a tom-tom beat and backward cymbal crash, and the prolonged exhalations of Halford’s falsetto rendition of the lyric, “Better by you, better than meee-uh! [Do it!]/You can tell ’em what I want it to beee-uhh [Do it!]/You can say what I can only seee-uhh [Do it!].” Nickloff also speculated that enhancements of the Do its had been spread across 11 of the 24 tracks by a second machine, perhaps a COMB filter. This he couldn’t prove, how­ever, simply by testing the CD.

Thus began a three-year hunt for the 24-track masters, not only of “Better By You” but of every other Judas Priest song, album, rehearsal, and live tape in CBS’s posses­sion. The song left a long paper trail, and discovery of the 24-track proved far easier than other Judas Priest masters (CBS said they still hadn’t located any others by the time trial began): The album’s only number not written by band members, it was added when CBS’s New York a&r men decided none of the album’s original eight songs had hit potential.

CBS located the tape in September of 1988: they delivered a safety copy to Nick­loff three months later — an “18-minute-like gap” that became plaintiffs’ second “smok­ing gun”: CBS, they alleged, had used the three months of studio time to cover up the embedded Do its. Nickloff asked for the original master, then refused to examine it when it arrived. The original tape’s zinc oxide, he said, had begun to flake (suspi­ciously so, he thought), and he wouldn’t accept responsibility for it.

A series of motions and court orders re­garding CBS’s cooperation in the search for other masters followed, leading to two years of immensely mistrustful exchanges be­tween plaintiffs and defense lawyers. It de­generated quickly into one of the most con­tentious suits since Bleak House‘s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: public accusations of complic­ity and conspiracy; shouting matches at prehearing depositions (Nickloff’s in partic­ular): detectives (including a former Scot­land Yard man) digging into the silt of CBS corporate policy and procedure, and the Oedipal dramas of the plaintiffs’ families.

It culminated in a 14-day trial, starting July 16, that featured exquisite dramatiza­tions of humility, rage, and bathos; incredu­lity and condescension; Rob Halford’s a cappella singing from the witness stand; the repeated playing of his ee-uh! heavy breath­ings that made the court stenographer cover her face in embarrassment; the defense’s strident attacks on the existence of a Freud­ian unconscious; and a Manichaean court­room divided between the local born-agains and metalhead autograph hounds.

Courtroom melodrama isn’t something that bothers a man like Ken McKenna. A lik­able, unabashed media animal (“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing since 1986,” he boasts), he’s the man responsible for the suit’s enormous publicity. The inevitable epithets — “tort twister,” “slip-and-slide man,” and “ambulance chaser” — only bring a bemused, faintly proud smile to McKenna’s lips, and he’s not one to linger on the moral or emotional aspects of a case. Not until closing statement time, that is. Then you realize McKenna’s a pretty corny guy — fond of homespun similes and homi­lies (“I guess the lesson to be learned from all this,” etc.), and the words “gosh” and “heck.” When the subject of his work comes up, his pudgy, angelic face (at 38, he still looks like his high school yearbook photo) takes on a devilish grin.

“I was born to sue,” he says in his well­-appointed two-story office in downtown Reno. “I didn’t know who or why or where or what I was till I discovered contingency law.”

At 8 a.m., sprightly during the first of several interviews he’ll be giving this Satur­day morning, he looks like he’s just stepped onto a budget cruise liner: blue shorts, salmon Polo shirt, a big well-scrubbed smile on his face, and a solid gold Mickey Mouse watch on his wrist. Stacked next to his Catalogue of Expert Witnesses (“The expert business is big-time bizarre,” he tells me) are heaps of anti-heavy-metal pam­phlets. I leaf through one with an R. Crumb-like cartoon on the cover, Stairway to Hell: The Well-Planned Destruction of Teens, while McKenna faxes a client. A beautiful epigram from Boethius — “Music is a part of us, and either ennobles or de­grades our behavior” — prefaces a chapter on backmasked lyrics that focuses on the alleged backward content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (“It’s just a spring­-clean for the May Queen” = “I live for Sa­tan … He will give you six, six, six,” etc.). Italicized in the first paragraph of text is the premise that drives the ultra-right’s fas­cination with backmasking: “Induction into the Worldwide Church of Satan is predicat­ed in the ability to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards!

McKenna (who represents the Belknaps), Tim Post (the born-again Christian repre­senting the Vances), and Vivian Lynch (who represents the estate of Jay Vance) deny identification with the anti-metal fa­natics, but that Southern California-based fringe (which Frank Zappa calls the “Or­ange Curtain”) is very supportive of the suit. Two of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. Robert Demski, medical director of a San Antonio hospice for troubled adolescents, and Darlyne Pettinicchio, a Fullerton, Cali­fornia, probation officer, were recommend­ed by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Re­source Center. Their testimony — Judas Priest’s music induces self-destructive be­havior by glorifying Satan — wasn’t allowed on record (Stained Class‘s lyric content was not at issue). Without Pettinicchio, howev­er, the metal link to the suicide probably wouldn’t have been made. It was through attendance at one of her seminars, or the reading of an anti-metal “police training manual” prepared by a disciple, that one of the detectives handling the shootings knew to advise Ray’s mother to hang on to the Stained Class LP on Ray’s turntable.

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“You can borrow that stuff if you wanna,” McKenna says, putting a heavy, distancing accent on the word stuff. Walk­ing me out to his porch after the interview, though, he can’t resist telling me that Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant did once purchase Aleister Crowley’s mansion. (McKenna isn’t far off: Jimmy Page, Zeppelin’s guitar­ist and a devotee of the Grand Old Man of English Satanism, did buy Crowley’s Boles­kine House, near Loch Ness, in the early 1970s.)

I stop to look at a gruesome photograph of a twin-engine plane’s wreckage in a copse of pine trees, given pride of place in his front office. That devilish smile comes to McKenna’s face as he tells me, “That’s two million dollars you’re looking at.”

Vivian Lynch, unlike McKenna, is a “lawyer’s lawyer.” A middle-aged woman who speaks in perfectly constructed, declarative sentences, she has a sober, battered look on her face, and pretty, penetrating blue eyes that become a rapid flutter of mascara and sky-blue eyeshadow whenever she concentrates on a point of law. Holder of the highest bar exam scores ever in Michigan and Nevada, she’s known among the defense team as the dragon lady, and several of their expert witnesses tell me how unnerving it is to be cross-examined by her. On both state and national amicus curiae committees, much of her legal work for the last two decades has been the drafting of other attorneys’ motions for the Supreme Court in Carson City. Entering the suit at the beginning of defense’s constitutional challenges in 1987, she has defeated every motion to dismiss, quash, and relocate that Reno and New York counsel for CBS have come up with.

Unlike McKenna, Lynch has no taste for publicity; she once left the suit for months, she tells me, when she felt that his media hi-jinks (particularly an interview given to the Enquirer) had crossed over into the jury-prejudicial. She also seems entirely un­motivated by Mammon: A supporter of Tipper Gore, she’s “in this suit for my children,” two of whom were “extreme me­talheads.” Lynch’s only appearance in the local headlines came in the first week of trial, when she asked bassist Ian Hill and guitarist Ken Downing for autographs for her middle son. (“My son wasn’t talking to me,” she tells me.)

When she pulls up to her office for our interview, one side of her pickup’s flatbed is stacked with Diet Coke empties, and the passenger seat of the cab has a three-foot stack of legal paper. When a local Holy Roller, overhearing us discuss the suit in a restaurant a few hours later, comes over with his two young daughters to testify that the “owner of a major U.S. record company belongs to the Worldwide Church of Sa­tan,” and that “my best friend’s brother jumped off the high bridge in Santa Barba­ra because of that company’s music,” Lynch hears him out patiently, then gives her address so he can send along his compi­lation tape of backward lyrics.

“I think that man’s insane,” I say when he shepherds his daughters from the restaurant.

“I don’t,” says Lynch, draining her third iced tea. “I think he’s tripping. Didn’t you sec how dilated his pupils were?”

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Even if McKenna and Lynch can prove the existence of subliminals on “Better By You” to Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead (both sides have agreed to forgo a jury in the trial), they still have to show the sublimin­als were the “proximate cause” of the sui­cide pact. Defense has argued that Ray and Jay decided to kill themselves because they were miserable. CBS’s three-year investiga­tion into the allegedly violent home lives of the boys focused on the marital history of Ray Belknap’s mother, Aunetta Roberson (three husbands by the time Ray killed himself), the religious conflict in Jay Vance’s life (his mother is a born-again Christian), the alcoholic and allegedly abu­sive tendencies of both boys’ stepfathers, and the bleak work prospects and fantasy­-ridden lives of the pair once they’d dropped out of high school in the first weeks of their junior years. The circumstantial evidence is enormous.

By McKenna’s and Lynch’s own lights, however, the families of Ray and Jay were enviable. McKenna’s first case was his brother Pat’s Murder 1 appeal, for the ex­tremely brutal slaying of a fellow prisoner while awaiting sentence on a separate mul­tiple-murder conviction. And though he seems an extremely peaceable man (and is remarkably polite and gentle with hostile witnesses), he is able to provide the most dramatic moment of the trial: At the end of his closing statement (which he prefaces by placing a two-foot by three-foot blowup of Ray Belknap’s 10th-grade yearbook photo on a table facing the court), McKenna’s soliloquy of a father’s rationalizing thoughts after striking his son (“I didn’t mean to hit him that hard”; “he was pro­voking me”; “I barely touched him,” etc.) has the entire court’s heads bowed (includ­ing Judge Whitehead’s) for over a minute.

“Following the defense’s logic,” says Lynch. “I should have killed myself 10 times over.” The eldest of three abused children, she and two younger sisters were taken from her parents when she was two years old and institutionalized in a Long Island orphanage till their teens. After be­ing sexually abused by a relative, a 14-year-­old Lynch and her two sisters moved into a Detroit studio with a single Murphy bed, and she went to work to support them. She went through Wayne State Law School on scholarship, saving money by memorizing textbooks and selling them back before classes started. Her own marriage, an ex­tremely unhappy one, yielded three chil­dren; she divorced her husband in 1972, four years after she’d come home from a day of practicing international law in New York. turned on the evening news, and saw her house being fired upon by tanks with 9mm anti-personnel weapons during the Detroit riots. (Weeks later, back in Detroit, she was bayoneted in the back while four months pregnant.) Four of the seven chil­dren she’s raised came from troubled households in Reno.

“The histories of the Vance and Belknap families,” Lynch tells me without batting an eyelash, “are certainly no different in kind or degree than what you’ll find across America. I can tell you for sure they grew up like most of the kids you’ll find around here.”

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The billboards along South Virginia Street arc as likely to read “HAVE YOU BEEN ABUSED?” or “DIVORCE?” — followed by a seven-digit number — as to announce Dolly Parton at the Sands, or next Saturday’s fight card at Harrah’s. Otherwise, South Virginia is a typical five-mile burger strip leading out of town: small businesses, chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, teenage boys screeching their tires on Saturday night till they find a girl or a fight; and the occasion­al mammoth concrete structure, like the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where Ray and Jay saw Judas Priest on its 1983 Screaming for Vengeance tour. It was a big tour for the band (the album was their first to hit platinum), and it meant a lot to the boys: Ray stole the six-foot tour poster­ — one fan described it as a mythic drawing of “sort of a tank with a bull’s face, horns, missiles, guns” — and taped it above his bed for a year.

When I go to meet Scott Schilingheyde, a high school friend of Ray’s, it’s in front of the enormous Peppermill Casino, all the way out of town on South Virginia. Scott, a striking 21-year-old kid with immaculately blow-dried shoulder-length blond hair, has driven from his mother’s house up in the Hidden Valley hills: he’s recently been pa­roled after two years in the Carson City penitentiary (for selling crank, a metham­phetamine), and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s “back in town.” Scott isn’t exactly scrupulous in maintaining his low pro­file, however: I can hear the Megadeth tape blasting in his yellow Le Mans from a block away.

It’s sadly easy to forget Scott’s tender age once you meet him: he seems far more like some hardened and prospectless maquis­ — come down from a Philippine hill town to talk to a very foreign reporter — than any American teenager I’ve met. The only clues to his age are his gape-mouthed appreciation of a 40-pound striper in the Peppermill fish-tank, and a fit of uncontrollable gig­gling when I ask it it’s true Ray and Jay played cowboys-and-Indians with live ammo (“Yeah, that sounds like Ray”). When he speaks of guns, prison, child abuse, and suicide, Scott sounds like he’s talking last night’s ballgame: “Ray and Jay weren’t all-out crazy, out-and-out violent people,” he says. “They did pretty much normal, crazy shit. They had normal prob­lems — Ray more than most. We all talked about suicide, all the time, but it was just tough-guy talk, weapons talk. They did it.”

Scott stonewalls when I ask what prob­lems Ray had: “Ray shelved that shit the moment he got out of the house, and I wasn’t allowed in there. Only Jay was. Those two were as close as close can get. I remember one time, though, we went up to shoot my brother’s gun and Ray had to go get some clothes, ’cause he couldn’t go home. I think we ripped some beers on the way up.”

“Did you guys steal most of the things you had?”

“No, no,” Scott shakes his head emphati­cally. “I think we bought our own ciga­rettes.” He blows out a long thin plume of Marlboro smoke. “Mom bought the jeans and T-shirts. We never thought much about food.”

“Did they do a lot of drugs?”

“Everything that came their way,” Scott says automatically. “Anything they could afford. Mostly, they drank a lot of beer.”

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On the day of his autopsy, the day after Christmas, 1985, Ray, six foot two, weighed 141 pounds; the only substance in his stomach was a stick of chewing gum, and his alcohol/blood tested at 0.098 (0.100 constitutes intoxication in Nevada). He wore blue jeans with long sweats under­neath, a gray Miami Dolphins “Super Bowl ’85” T-shirt with vents cut out, and brown construction boots with white socks. His belt buckle was shaped like a cannabis leaf. He had one tattoo, a green RB on his upper right arm (unlike Jay, who had many on his arms and upper body), and 25 small lacer­ations on his fists, from playing knuckles with Jay (punching each other’s knuckles to see whose bled first). Ray’s stepbrother, Tom Roach, testified that their former stepfather, Jesse Roberson, would take Ray to the garage, lock the door, and whip him with his belt till Ray could get the door unlocked and scamper back to his room, but no indications of that or any other beating showed up on the autopsy.

“Growing up,” Scott tells me, “Ray didn’t really have friends. He didn’t like no one, and didn’t like himself. He really hat­ed his red hair.”

The first and only person Ray ever really took to was Jay, whom he met in seventh grade. Jay, who’d been left back twice, had BMOC status with his two extra years, and his immediate love for Ray was an unend­ing source of pride. Ray was never at ease with girls, unlike Jay, who’d often find two girls waiting at his door when he came home from work. A pretty redhead named Carol did fall madly in love with Ray in 10th grade, and he left home to live with her for a week, but he could always be counted on to ditch her to spend the night with Jay. Their parents were pleased when the boys finally showed a sign of domestic­ity: shortly after leaving high school, they bought pit bull pups together (both of which had to be put down by the parents after the shooting).

Jesse worked at a Sparks auto parts shop for $20 a day plus commissions. Aunetta has worked for the past five years as a 21 dealer in a Reno casino for $35 a night and tips. Ray, who was good with his hands (he made a shelf for targets he and Jay would take up into the hills with them), loved construction work. On his last application form, he wrote that he had worked on a building site in Truckee, California, begin­ning as a laborer at $5.50 an hour and ending, a month later, as a $10.75-an-hour framer, but there’s no reason to believe this is true. His last job, feeding paper reams into a cutter at a Sparks print shop, paid 10 cents above the minimum wage, because he worked from midnight to 8 a.m. Two weeks before he killed himself, he was fired for refusing to work overtime. He’d lost the job before that, in a used furniture store, when he stole $454 from his boss’s desk and used the money to go see his real father in Oklahoma.

He liked to think of himself as a karate master and was very fond of his weapons: a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, a 12-gauge pump, a BB gun, and a two-foot-long hard-­rubber whipstick. (When Tom Roach was asked what the purpose of this whip-stick was, he answered, “It hurts when you get hit with it.”) Though Ray was terrible in school (in his two years at Reed High School he flunked all but two classes), he was by far the better pupil of the two. Both were good shots, and when not stalking Tom Roach with BB guns through the house (for liking “mellow” bands like Def Leppard and Night Ranger), they would often go up into the Sierras with their .22s to hunt quail, which Ray loved to eat spit­-roasted, or to a cave within the Sparks city limits, to nail bats to the wall with air-rifle shot. Two weeks before his suicide, police came to his house to investigate a report of “animal torture” — Ray had allegedly shot a neighborhood cat with a blowgun.

Other than the occasional trip to the mall, or a night of playing “terrorize the town” on South Virginia Street, Ray’s only regular activity was up in his room with Jay, “listening to Priest” and fantasizing about becoming a mercenary. They loved Priest, Jay said later, because they got pow­er from the music — amps was Jay’s word — ­and because their connection with Priest was “more intimate” than with bands like Iron Maiden, whose “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out sort of lyrics” left the two cold. If they had a credo to live by, he said, it was “Ride Hard. Die Fast.” In the hospital after the shootings, Jay used an index finger to draw the words Life sucks, when asked why they’d shot themselves.

Of the thousands of details that surface in the Judas Priest trial, two of the few that defense and plaintiffs don’t dispute is that Ray and Jay loved Judas Priest more than any other band (in deposition, Jay said he “would’ve done anything those guys asked me to do”), and that the two boys were inseparable. Several friends testify that when they met Jay after the shooting, the first thing he would ask was if they blamed him for Ray’s death. “I ran into Jay at a gas station one day,” Scott tells me. “But I didn’t know who he was till he started talking, ’cause he didn’t really have a face yet or anything. I couldn’t understand him either, ’cause his tongue was gone. I was angry at him, though. There’s nothin’ in this world so hard,” he says, clenching his fists, slowly, “that you gotta shoot yourself over it. Nothin’.”

“What’d you say to Jay at the gas sta­tion?”

“Nothin’. Just walked away. I never saw him again.”

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Growing up, Jay wanted to be a hunting or a fishing guide. Several early backpacking trips — in the desolation wilderness of northern Nevada, and on visits to a favor­ite uncle up in Oregon, along the Pacific Coast Trail — had a huge effect on him. He started doing gardening work in junior high school, and told his school psychiatrist he owned a few landscaping companies and had made investments in pieces of heavy equipment. As he began to realize he’d nev­er get through Reed High, his fantasy of enrolling in Lassen Gunsmith College up in Susanville evaporated; at the New Frontier drug program he lasted half of, trying to cure himself of a crank addiction six months before the shooting, he spoke indifferently of becoming either a mercenary or janitor. He studied typing and applied sci­ence after the shooting, and had plans to become either a physical therapist, or, once his tongue was rebuilt, a suicide hot-line operator.

Something went very wrong in Jay’s life in the first and second grades. One school psychiatrist called him hyperactive, another diagnosed him for Attention Deficit Disor­der: he repeated both years. His mother refused to give him the nervous-system stimulant Ritalin. “Those kids on Ritalin,” she says, “were just zombies.” She agreed to see the district psychiatrist after Jay tied a belt around his head and began pulling his hair out one day in second grade, but when the man came to see the home envi­ronment she wouldn’t let him in. Driving home after being expelled from school in the third grade, Jay became incensed when his mother wouldn’t listen to his version of the argument that had led to his expulsion, and wrapped both hands around her neck. A few years later, he went after her with a hammer, and again with a pistol a few years after that.

From the age of 10 till he dropped out of high school in the first weeks of his junior year, Jay spent his school hours in the Spe­cial Ed Room, alongside Down’s syndrome kids, paraplegics, and the severely impaired (he remembered befriending one speechless boy who’d swallowed half a bottle of bleach). Though he tested low on every proficiency and IQ test (he had big prob­lems with hand-eye coordination), when you read the sharp, direct responses he gave in depositions, you realize Jay was a quick-­minded and intuitive, if ineducable, kid who never had a chance in school.

From the age of 15, when he discovered Judas Priest, Jay had a Priest album or song for every mood and period of his life: Unleashed in the East, when be needed to “get amped”; Hellbent for Leather, to party; Screaming for Vengeance when he left school and for nine months lived-in as a baby-sitter for an older woman. Both he and Ray loved the early album, Sin After Sin, with its cover: a black figure with no face. He said they listened to the songs “Epitaph” and “Dream Deceiver” when they needed to cry: “Saw a figure floating/Beneath the willow trees./Asked us if we were happy/We said we didn’t know/took us by the hands/and up we go!/We followed the dreamer deceiver.”

“Jay recited those lines like scripture,” says Phillis Vance, who agrees to see me once I swear I’m not from “one of those smut magazines like the Enquirer, or that Rolling Stone” (which ran an even-handed piece a week before the trial began). “Me and Tony [Jay’s adoptive father] would be watching TV out in the living room and he’d be listening to Judas Priest in his bed­room, so loud that even through his ear­phones we couldn’t hear the TV. And if I’d go in and tell him to turn it down, he’d point that finger at me, just like Rob Hal­ford, and scream. ‘ON YOUR KNEES, AND WOR­SHIP ME IF YOU PLEASE!’ After he was born-­again, in 1983, he sold all 13 of their albums to Recycled Records. He stopped doing drugs for a while too. Either you worship Jesus Christ, or you worship Judas Priest.”

Jay later said it was Priest’s music that turned him, temporarily, into a white su­premacist. In school, his guidance counselor once sent him to the infirmary to have his left forearm PhiSoHexed, when the swastikas and the words Judas Priest he’d drawn on with black magic marker had caused a serious infection.

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The 23rd of December, 1985, a freezing, overcast day, began for Ray with a family trip to the Happy Looker hair salon in the neighborhood shopping mall. His four-year­-old half-sister, Christie Lynn, was getting her first haircut: Ray went home to get a camera, and on the way back to the Happy Looker decided, after years of wearing his long hair back in a bandana, to have it cut into a manageable buzz.

Though he’d recently lost his first pay­check in three weeks over a few games of pool at Doc and Eddie’s Tavern, he seemed to be in a good mood: all but one install­ment of the $454 he’d stolen from his for­mer boss was still owed, but he’d had enough money to buy Christmas presents for everyone. Not one to stand on ceremo­ny, he’d opened the records he’d bought for Tom Roach and a few friends (including the hard-to-find Stained Class LP for Jay) and listened to them. And Jay had a plan to get Ray’s paycheck back from the local con­tractor he’d lost it to: “I was going to stomp on him in the back of his knee, and I would crunch his knee to the concrete and then karate chop him in the back of the neck, and he would pretty much be helpless, at that moment, because I know karate.”

The day had begun for Jay shortly after noon: in a deposition given under hypnosis two years later, he remembered that “I saw my death and looked around.” He cleared his eyes, had a piss, and took a glass of chocolate milk from the kitchen to the bathroom. He drank the milk slowly as he sat under a hot shower for 20 minutes, then put the glass on the toilet seat while he washed his newly buzzed-cut hair.

The shootings might never have hap­pened if Jay hadn’t missed his ride to the printing press that day. In his hypnotic deposition, he remembered finding a note his mother had left in the kitchen, saying she was over at her sister’s house and to call if he needed another ride; Jay, however, couldn’t find or remember his aunt’s num­ber. Perhaps he didn’t want to: Jay hated his 12-hour shifts, which left him so filthy it took up to three hours to scrub the print­-ink off his forearms.

Ray was baby-sitting Christie Lynn and a few of her friends all afternoon, but he had time to pick up Jay in his mother’s car, then stop back at the Happy Looker to get his hair recut to look more like Jay’s. They drove back to Richards Way together and, up in Ray’s room, put on The Best of Judas Priest and Unleashed in the East. After a spat over the two joints of scrub-bud they were smoking (Jay was angry Ray had “stoled the pot from a friend of mine,” which Ray denied), they got to work on their first six-pack of Bud.

They left the room an hour later, Ray to tell his sister and her friends he was going to bust their little heads if they didn’t stop running around and slamming doors, Jay to get some more beer from the fridge in the garage. He ran into Ray’s pregnant half-­sister, Rita Skulason, in the dining room, yelling at Ray to stop messing with the kids, scowling at Jay as he came into the room. Rita didn’t like Jay at all, but Jay didn’t care: He was feeling good, and had realized he had no desire to be a printer’s appren­tice any longer.

When they got back to the bedroom, Ray had a big smile on his face from a decision he’d come to: not to wait until the 25th to give Jay his present. Reaching behind his stereo for the Stained Class album, he put the record on the turntable and gave the jacket to Jay, saying, “Merry Christmas, brother.” As the opening lyric of “Exciter” played: “To find this day,/We’ll surely fall,” Ray and Jay stood up and hugged each other, then started dancing around the room.

They listened to both sides of the record two to four times (depending on which of Jay’s depositions you read) before going back out to the garage for more beer. Rita was still sitting at the dining room table. She said that Jay came over and fondled her breast, though Jay later denied that: “Rita wasn’t the kind of girl you could do that to. She’d bust you in the mouth.” Per­haps the two boys were already considering suicide: Jay asked Rita if she was going to name her baby after Ray if something hap­pened to him. “Not unless it’s a goddamn redhead,” she said.

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A few minutes after they returned to Ray’s room, Jay’s parents showed up at the front door to drive Jay to work, but they were too late. “I was rocking out,” Jay remembered. Though Phyllis tried to rea­son with him, asking, “How’re you going to buy your cigarettes if you don’t have any money?” she and Tony were out the Bel­knaps’ front door a minute later, Jay right behind them screaming, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

It’s unclear how many more times they listened to Stained Class, and which song was on when Jay said to Ray, “Let’s see what’s next.” In depositions, Jay said it was the lyric, “Keep your world of all its sin,/It’s not fit for living in,” that led them both to understand what the message was: “The answer to this life is death.” Trying to comprehend what had happened to him in the year after the shootings, Jay went a half-­dozen times to see Susan Rusk, his former guidance counselor at Reed High; she re­members Jay mentioning that he and Ray had sat chanting “Do it, do it,” as they passed the album cover back and forth.

Ray, in any case, understood what Jay was telling him. “Yeah,” he growled, then offered his knuckles for Jay to punch. After rapping fists together, they were “psyched enough” to tear Ray’s room apart, smash­ing furniture and glass, including Ray’s prized full-length mirror. While Jay wedged a two-by-four under Ray’s door, Ray grabbed his favorite weapon, the sawed-off 12-gauge, opened his bedroom window, and crawled out.

By the time Jay had followed him out the window, Ray was already 20 feet down the alley behind his house, which led to the six­-foot wall of the Community First Church of God. Jay yelled at him to wait, and the two scaled the wall together. At 5:10 p.m. on the third shortest day of the year it was already pitch-black in the churchyard, and neither boy knew where they were. A neigh­borhood dog had begun to bark, and they were worried about the police coming. Nei­ther of them was old enough to be outdoors with a loaded gun.

Ray stepped onto a small, rickety carou­sel in the corner of the churchyard and loaded up with a single shell from his pocket. He looked terrified as he heard the gun cock. It was well below freezing, and both boys were wearing only jeans and T-shirts. In several depositions, Jay remembers say­ing, “Just hurry up” to Ray; Susan Rusk later testified that Jay told her Ray was going round and round on the carousel, chanting “Do it, do it,” and that what Jay finally said to Ray was, “Just do it.”

As the years went by, it was only in dreams that Jay could remember seeing his best friend kill himself, and inaccurately at that: In his dreams he remembered fire coming out of the back of Ray’s head after he shot himself; in his depositions, he testi­fied he had his back turned when it hap­pened. Two days after the shootings, how­ever, Jay told police he watched Ray sit down on the carousel and plant the gun on the ground between his feet. The coroner’s report located the entrance wound in the exact center of Ray’s chin, and Jay remem­bered that Ray’s voice was clipped when he said, “I sure fucked up my life,” because he had the gun’s barrel “so tight under his chin.” Jay watched in amazement as Ray reached for the trigger and pulled it. The buckshot imploded in Ray’s head, causing no exit wound, but spraying the carousel, the gun. and over three feet of ground with “an incredible amount of blood.”

Jay remembers “shaking real bad” as he grabbed the gun, uncocked it, and put the shell Ray had given him into the chamber. “I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I thought somebody was going to stop me.” He told police he only went through with his half of the pact because he was afraid of being accused of Ray’s murder. When he tried to put the gun in his mouth the blood on it made him gag, so he put it under his chin, then stood next to the carousel for a minute, perhaps two, thinking about “my mom, and people I cared about.” The gun felt greasy from the blood, and Jay’s hand-to-eye coordination failed him one last time as he pulled the trigger. The shot took off his chin and mouth and nose and missed his eyes and brain.

He remembered feeling weightless as he dropped to his knees, then face-first to the ground. After a long numbness, he felt a stinging sensation, as though someone had slapped him. “Then somebody,” he said, “turned me over on my back … and checked out my blood.” He remembers fighting with that person to get back onto his stomach. As he was placed into the ambulance and given an emergency trache­otomy. Jay had no idea he no longer had a mouth or a tongue, and couldn’t under­stand why the simple sentence, “I don’t want to die,” wouldn’t come out when he tried to say it to the paramedic.

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As you drive out from Reno to Sparks, the buffets broadcast from the hotel marquees get cheaper, the entertainers get older, and the hold-’em games go from $1-3-5 to $3-5-10. A suburban sprawl crawling up the side of a mountain. Sparks extends higher and seemingly at random with each year into the canyons and hillocks of the surrounding Sierras: endless streets of one-story houses with one willow tree on each lawn, a car or two in each driveway-and one four-wheel­-drive vehicle, RV, or big boat in every other drive. Most of the four-wheels have gun racks in the back.

Four doors down from Ray’s old house on Richards Way, I find the Community First Church of God. A 20-square-foot patch of grass surrounded by six feet of cinderblock (interrupted only by a chain fence on the east wall), it looks far more like a prison yard. Formerly a playground for Sunday school kids, it has a spooky, cloistered feel to it. The peeling, white­washed cross on the church roof is visible between two immense weeping willows hanging over a brace of swings; only one swing is still on its chain. Two feet from the sawed-off stump of a third willow is the small foot-pump carousel Ray was sitting on when he shot himself.

Among Jay’s endless nightmares after the shootings, many were filled with Old Chris­tian symbolism and stained glass. Though there’s no such glass visible from the yard, there are three cheap panels on the front of the church that are enough to give anyone nightmares. The last panel bears a striking resemblance to the Stained Class album cover (an android’s face being pierced by a bolt of something that leaves a red halo over the android’s head), which was put into evidence for its subliminal content.

Jay lay in the hospital for three months, getting daily injections of morphine and listening to the music playing over and over in his head. He got a friend of his to make a tape of Stained Class and played it for weeks, trying, he said, “to bury my grief for Ray. It’s real weird saying goodbye to someone.”

The extent of the reconstructive surgery was enormous. Doctors at the Stanford University hospital first took a piece of skin remaining from his forehead and graft­ed it onto the middle of his face, eventually to become a nose. The skin grew hair and needed to be shaved daily. After two years, surgeons began working on a pair of lips from skin taken from the smooth crease under the knee, and he was halfway toward his third and final chin when he died. A third of his tongue remained, but he’d lost his gag reflex, and would drool and swallow his tongue. He had only one tooth, and could eat only by using his thumb as a second incisor. When Jay went to watch McKenna and Lynch work on an unrelated trial, he was ejected from the courtroom for upsetting the jury; when McKenna’s young daughter first saw Jay, she fainted.

Because Jay wouldn’t be eligible for Tony’s insurance — to pay for what he called his “$400,000 face” — unless he lived at home, he stayed with his parents. Incred­ibly, Jay’s love life didn’t slow down: he turned down two offers of marriage, and a third girlfriend came to live with the Vances after she’d been booted out of her house on her 18th birthday. She bore a child of theirs a year before Jay died. (“I told the girl that I didn’t want them mon­keying around in the bedroom,” Phyllis Vance recalls. “Jay said I had forgotten to mention the garage, the front lawn, the backyard … “)

For three years, Jay was in almost con­stant agony: coupled with the initial trau­ma, surgeons had attached skin extenders to his face, pulling down on the single re­maining flap of forehead skin to re-form his face, which caused painful swelling. Jay survived numerous addictions to Percodan and Xanax, and often said that he hadn’t known what a “real drug addiction was like” when he checked into the New Frontier program for crank abuse in July of 1985. Just after the shooting, he’d begun injecting up to two grams of cocaine a day into his arm to ease the pain, but he’d been able to overcome that addiction by getting nerve-block injections (a one-and-a-half-­inch needle in the base of his neck).

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Despite being placed on suicide watch in Washoe Medical Center (Jay got enormous­ly depressed every year around the holiday season), he died of a methadone overdose on Thanksgiving Day, 1988. Though it’s listed a suicide, it isn’t clear how he got enough of the drug to kill himself, and Vivian Lynch, who represents Jay’s child, is considering suing Washoe. Phyllis Vance is convinced it was malpractice: “Jay felt he had everything to live for. He used to say that he was literally reborn after the accident.”

Before he died, Jay put his mother in the hospital on two occasions — during seizures of cocaine toxicity and withdrawal agony: He split her lip the first time; the second time he fractured her nose. “But we were never closer than after the accident,” Phyl­lis Vance tells me over Diet Cokes in her backyard, where we’ve come because she won’t let me, or her husband Tony, smoke in the house. “Jay would wake up scream­ing in blind terror in the middle of the night, and I’d be right there beside him. His face was so swollen he couldn’t see any­thing except what he’d seen in his dream, the same one, night after night: Ray blow­ing the back of his head off. He’d see fire coming out of the back of his head, hear the thud of his body, and he knew Ray was dead.”

Tony, sitting beside her, lights a Marl­boro and nods his head. I ask if he’d like to respond to reports that Jay’s was a violent home. “I remember one time,” he answers with a flat, emotionless voice, “when Jay came back from California with his eyes all glassy. I told him, ‘Show me your eyes’ and he wouldn’t. So I went into his room to punish him. He said, ‘Daddy, I’m too old for you to be spanking me.’ So, I haul off and belt him, two or three times, with my fist. I don’t know if it did any good,” he says, “’cause I never did it again.”

Tony’s a quiet, broad-shouldered guy, a Blackfoot-Cherokee from Kentucky who never seems at ease, either in the court­room or in his backyard. During the suit, defense lawyers often raised the question of his alleged alcoholism and gambling, and cite an incident where Phyllis pulled a gun on him when he tried to go out gambling with his overtime pay, but Tony didn’t drink until the Oakland GM plant he drove a forklift for closed down in 1979, and he didn’t gamble much till they moved to Ne­vada. “That gun thing only happened,” Phyllis explains, “because Tony was used to gambling with his overtime. After the acci­dent, though, we needed the money for Jay.”

A short, enraged-seeming woman with a strident voice and piercing stare, after an hour of talking with her in her backyard I’m able to see her for what she is: a power­ful and very angry mother who, five years later, finally knows why her son shot him­self. “One thing I’ll never be able to get over,” she says, with a sweet, mystified look, “is that he did it in a churchyard, and without even knowing where he was. Piece by piece, though, you put it all together, and you can finally stop asking ‘Why? Why?’ It was the subliminals.

Though I try to concentrate on what Phyllis is telling me, my eye keeps wander­ing across her yard. But for a few tons of concrete Tony laid down for Jay’s pit-bull to run in, it looks exactly like the First Community’s churchyard: a 20-foot patch of grass bordered by a six-foot-high wall, the sawed-off stump of a willow tree, and two big weeping willows overhanging a brace with only one chain swing left.

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By the last week of the trial, the horde of kids protesting outside the courthouse has dwindled to a few aging stoners with goa­tees and Motorhead and Houses of the Holy T-shirts and one 90-pound girl wearing white pumps, a white bustier, and jeans with a copper zipper that goes from front to back. Their tinny cries of “Let the music live” are drowned by the right-to-life pamphleteering of a slack-jawed scarecrow of a man named Andy Anderson, who’s been running for lieutenant governor of Ne­vada for several decades. (“But I still haven’t found the right man to share the ticket with.”)

Of the 75 media people who’d come to Reno from seven different countries, all three networks, four cable channels, and most of the major newsweeklies and dailies in the country, only four rather cynical stringers for the wire services and local pa­pers, three local TV and radio people, and a documentary team from New York sur­vived the first week of the trial, which be­came extremely technical once opening statements were read. Three-quarters of the testimony given was from “expert witness­es” — psychologists, audiologists, and com­puter experts for the most part — several of whom seem to have confused their testimo­ny for Oscar acceptance speeches. “We had a suicide shrink here last week,” one string­er says, “who thanked everyone in the Yel­low Pages for his long career. He was so deadly the bailiff was talking about putting speed bumps by the exit.”

The 83-seat courtroom, no more than half-filled till the last day of trial, is notice­ably devoid of metalheads, whose atten­dance was successfully dissuaded by Judge Whitehead’s strict dress-code order after the second day of trial. Other than Phyllis Vance (who comes every day, accompanied by a visionary-looking young man dressed in impeccable linen), there are very few “magic” Christians here, born-again or oth­erwise: a 15-year-old strawberry blond, who sits behind me, telling her rosary; the man whose friend’s brother jumped off the San­ta Barbara bridge (with his daughters); and one very anxious elderly woman, wearing the same emerald pants and midnight blue shirt every day, who seems poised to rise and object to every question posed by de­fense’s lawyers. (On the last day of the trial, she finally stands to say, “Please stop this! I have 25 children I work with downtown and someone has to care for them. Some­one has to stop this.” As she was led out, she pleaded, “Your honor, please put me on the stand. I’m an electronics expert too.”)

The empty jury room, formerly needed to handle the overflow press, has been given over to defense’s entourage for recess breaks: band members, U.S. and U.K. man­agement people, a half-dozen independent producers and recording engineers, a few CBS corporate types, and two very jolly 275-pound security toughs from Tempe, Arizona, Rick and Nick, who have the de­fense team addressing each other with “Hey dude.”

After a first decade of opening shows for bands like AC-DC, UFO, and Ratt, Judas Priest has been on a roll since their 1980 release, British Steel, the album that establishcd them as a hardcore metal band. They’ve been accused of glomming — a la Spinal Tap — from the metal trends set by other groups: Kiss’s leather and two-tiered stage sets; the guitar pyrotechnics, dry-ice smoke, mythic-medieval themes, and on­stage monsters of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath; and even some “hell-oriented themes” here and there, when bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, Scorpions, and Me­gadeth started hitting gold by reaching the various covens and Satanic wannabees across the country. But from the time Priest learned that heavy metal is show biz — and shed their ’70s kimonos and velvet robes for leather, studs, spurs, and choke collars; added smoke machines, whips, fire pits, flamethrowers. and a 15-foot robot that shot laser beams and lifted the two guitar­ists into the air during lead breaks; and began riding onstage on Harley-Davidson two-tone Low Riders — they have had their own sound and their own following.

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Skip Herman, promotions director and “morning mutant” DJ of Reno’s heavy metal FM station, made friends with the band in the early days of the trial, and has been hanging out with them near Lake Ta­hoe, where they’ve rented a suite of deluxe cottages. (Skip, who tells me, “This back­-masked stuff is all bull,” later invites me to his radio station to hear what are obviously unintentional reverse-direction lyrics on Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning”: “Death to all. He is the one. Satan is love.“) Over and above a mutual love for music, Skip shares Priest’s other guiding passion: golf. “They talk about the trial for the first two holes,” he says, “Then maybe a little music, girls, a lot of old times. Ian and Glenn talk about their kids. From there to the clubhouse, it’s nothing but setting up a good, steady tripod with your legs, and es­tablishing that perfect pendulum for your swing.”

“It’ll be another 10 years before I’ll even be able to spell ‘subliminals,'” Downing says as he signs autographs on the way into the courtroom. Halford and Tipton, howev­er, don’t see the joke. “It’s terribly wrong, y’know,” says Tipton, “for my family to have to turn on the tube, see this poor kid with his face blown off and have the finger pointing, ‘Judas Priest did this.’ I have a lot of work to do. but you can’t go ’round to court every day, sit down behind your law­yers. have the knife twisted in your gut for eight hours, then go home and pick up your guitar.”

“These people act like we drink a gallon of blood and hang upside down from cruci­fixes before we go onstage,” Rob Halford says. “We’re performers, have been for two decades. We do the show and we wear the costumes our audience expect us to.”

A polite, soft-spoken man with a slow, working-class Birmingham accent and bright, caricatural droopy eyes, Halford says the trial is “degrading and tedious,” but also admits it’s good publicity. “It’s been murder on my creativity as an artist, though. I can’t wait for this tour. I’m going to explode. You can’t fight back the way you should. because you’re in a court of law. Legal proceedings are so frustrating.”

The proceedings are also extremely class­ist — from plaintiffs’ evocations of CBS’s enormous capital resources (“and they still couldn’t find the master tapes”) to de­fense’s portrayal of the Vance/Belknap fam­ilies, the clipped King’s English spoken by half their witnesses, and the ridicule of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ credentials. Nickloff, for example, is often cited as “the marine biologist” — his major in college. The testimony given by Dr. Bruce Tannenbaum (Jay’s psychiatrist in his last two years) — that Jay wouldn’t have shot him­self without a subliminal command to Do it — is colored by several references to Tan­nenbaum’s dabblings in “jam essence” and “block flower” therapies, and his claim to be “the only white man ever to have en­dured the Native American’s fire-sweat ceremony.”

But there are even more unorthodox wit­nesses called, and by both sides of the bench: An advocate for subliminal self-help aids, who claims his tapes have been docu­mented to promote the regrowth of hair, enlarge breast size, cure homosexuality, and turn a local college’s worst football team in its history into a division contender; a To­ronto psychologist who recites the entire “Jabberwocky” section of Through the Looking Glass backward; and five friends of the deceased who contradict reams of evidence as to Ray’s and Jay’s whereabouts on December 23, 1985. One kid, whose testimony places Ray and Jay in his pickup a half-hour after the shooting, is asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mormon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar; whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his rul­ing is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute; entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please be seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the ”back­-masked lyric” “F— the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court), he sits impassively till 5 p.m., then whispers the day to a close without the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

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After Lynch files a Motion in Limine (asking to be awarded the decision outright, on 1he basis of CBS’s lack of cooperation in producing evidence) and a motion for sanctions (money), the first three days feature endless declarations of the impossibility of “punching” anything into a mixed-down two-track (or even 24-track) tape. Several witnesses cite CBS’s impossible task in locating the tapes (probably the first time in legal history an American arts corporation has argued for its lack of control of the matrix of production). Whole mornings and afternoons arc devoted to very unconvincing testimony as to the difficulty and scarcity of backward lyrics in the recording business, either phonetic reversals (lyrics forming a sensible fragment when played backward), or backward-recorded reversals (words recorded forward and added to the mix in reverse direction). After eight court-hours of such testimony (by men who engineered or produced such records as Electric Ladyland, four Zeppelin albums, The Wall, and lier Satanic Majesty’s Request), a 32-year-old engineer/producer named Andrew Jackson (called to testify because he served as assistant engineer on the “Better By You” recording session 13 years ago) is asked if he knows of any backmasked lyrics in the rock industry.

“Yes I do,” he says with a Cockney accent so thick he has Judge Whitehead straining to understand him. “I produced a band just last month had a song with the lyric. ‘And I need someone to lie on./And I need someone to rely on.’ Played in reverse that becomes ‘Here’s me/Here I am./ What we have lost./I am the messenger of love.'” (The singer memorized the backward phrase, with all its reversals and sibilants and plosives, sang it on one track, and that rack was used — backward — as a forward-running vocal overdub.)

“And do you know of any instances of backward-recorded lyrics in the rock industry he was asked by Judge Whitehead to show his glassy eyes “to the court” before he leaves the stand.

Whitehead, whose decision in the suit will set major precedent, is the last person in Reno I’d play cards with, for his eyes show absolutely nothing. An austere Mor­mon, with a quiet (almost inaudible) sense of his own dignity, he seems like a man who has grimly determined to catch more flies with honey than vinegar: whether he sustains or overrules an objection, his ruling is delivered with exactly the same measured deference, care, and consideration. His courtroom has a statewide reputation for running by the book and to the minute: entering each morning at precisely 8:45, he says. “Thank you, will you please he seated,” and clears his throat away from the microphone. But except for a question he’ll interject now and again, and the occasional wince when a witness refers to the “back-masked lyric” “F··· the Lord” as “Fuck the Lord” (after 11 days of trial, he still listens to that section of tape with his face averted from the court) he sits impassively till 5 p.m. then whispers the day to a close with­out the slightest clue as to what he’s seen, heard, or thought.

After Lynch files a Motion in Limine

“Yes, I do,” Jackson say with barely concealed pride. “A Pink Floyd song I worked on has the backward-recorded lyric: “Dear Punter. Congratulations. You have found the secret message. Please send an­swers to Pink Floyd, care of the Funny Farm, Chalford, St. Giles.’ ”

I get to hear two of the back masked lyrics and the alleged Do its on the antepenultimate day of the trial, when the court adjourns to a 24-track studio across town. Two of the stringers look harrowed as we enter a dark room that, through a two-inch plate-glass window, looks onto the console room the court is reconvening in. “We were in Carson City last month to report on a death-penalty execution,” one of them tells me. “It was set up just like this.”

From the four-foot UREI Studio Monitors in our room we hear the title cut’s first chorus, forward first:”Long ago, when man was king./This heart must beat, on stained class./Time must end before sixteen/So now he’s just a stained class thing … ” and then the reverse of the next line, “Faithless continuum into the abyss,” which is supposed to be “Sing my evil spirit.” Though it is a creepy sound, inhumanly high-pitched and extremely emphatic somehow, I can’t say I hear anything more than “S-s-eeg mahee-voh speeree.”

In the song “White Hot, Red Heat,” played next. I do hear something that sounds remarkable, like a dolphin saying “F-f-f-fuck the Lor … S-ss-suck-ck tolleyuse” When the lines, “Deliver us/ From all the fuss,” are played backward. Its existence is important to plaintiffs’ case, since they’ve argued that its backward appearance confirms the “message” of “White Hot, Red Heat.” Which desecrates the Lord’s Pray­er: “… Thy father’s son/Thy kingdom come/Electric ecstasy/Deliver us/from all the fuss …”

“Better By You. Better Than Me” is exactly the type of song Jay said he and Ray loved Judas Priest’s music for, “a steady, galloping rhythm … only changing for the chorus. [when] the beat would get more dramatic or more intensified.” After the screeching line. “Tell her what I’m like within/I can’t find the words, my mind dim,” comes the first chorus, with its pro­longed ee-eh, exhalation sounds. Though I don’t hear anything that sounds like Do it, there is an extra, syncopated beat falling just on the third beat of each measure, a discolike mesh of noise that has nothing to do with the musical/lyrical content of the song. It does sound — if not “punched in” — ­added on.

As the song moves into the second chorus with the lyrics,”Guess I’ll learn to tight and kill./Tell her not to wait until/They find my blood upon her windowsill,” the extra beat seem, to land with greater emphasis, more elaborated and groanlike with each ee-uh sound till, yes. I hear the words Do it — a, a kind of antiphonal chant — falling, with relative clarity, on the last rendition of “You can tell her what I want it to be.”

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The issue of backward masking seems resolved, forever, on the last day of testimony Halford, noticeably absent from court all morning, arrives late in the after­noon session with a large, black double­-deck, and a cassette. Put on the stand, he says that he’s spent the morning in the recording studio, spooling Stained Class backward would like to play what he’s found for the court. Ever the showman (Halford began as a theater apprentice in Birmingham and switched to metal when he realized he’d “stay in the limelight longer that way”), he asks if he can play the tape forward, sing the lyric once, play the “backmasked stuff,” then sing that.

Lynch objects furiously to the tape’s admission, and to Halford’s request to per­form for the court. Whitehead agrees there’s no need for Halford to sing again, then cracks his first smile of the suit. “I want to hear this though.”

“Some of these aren’t entirely grammatical.” Halford deadpans apologetically. “But I don’t think ‘Sing my evil spirit’ would”­

“Objection,” says Lynch.

“Sustained,” says Whitehead.

A blast of heavy bass and Glenn Tipton ‘s 32nd-note trill accompanies the fragment, “strategic force/they will not,” from “Invader.” Its reverse is the insane-sounding but entirely audible screech: “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” When Halford plays, “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, the backward, “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken,” has the courtroom howling. McKenna and Lynch are livid.

After a week of suspending my own dis­belief, I lose it completely when Halford plays his last discovery — the lines “Stand by for Exciter./Salvation is his task”­ — which come out backward with an emphat­ic and high-pitched, “I-I-I as-sked her for a peppermint-t-t/I-I-I asked for her to get one.”

The band is exultant after Halford’s perfor­mance. Up in their Reno counsel’s offices (on the 15th noor of the one bona fide office building I see in Reno), Downing and Ian Hill are talking of issuing a Greatest Hits album. Judas Priest: The Subliminal Years, their American manager is on the phone booking Tipton’s family on a morn­ing night to the Grand Canyon, and Hal­ford, giving an interview to the New York documentary team, lets his hair down: “I’ve never known such a lull in my sex­-life, y’now. I don’t think I’ve had an erec­tion since we’ve got here.”

I ride down with Ian Hill and Ken Down­ing to the bar in Harrah’s, where both they and their drink orders are well-known by the maitre d’. The two original members of the band (they dropped out of their second­ary school in Birmingham in the same year), and the only two members of the defense team that don’t seem compelled to shower plaintiffs’ every statement with scornful smiles, they watch the proceedings with a mixture of curiosity and incompre­hension till the late hours of afternoon, when they both look ready for a long nap, or a stiff drink. Over second Bloody Marys, I tell Downing I’ve noticed that his ears seem to prick up any time Ray’s or Jay’s name is mentioned in court. A 38-year-old man with a shoulder-length permanent and deeply receding hairline, he tells me that he’s been wanting to go to the churchyard the two shot themselves in.

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“I’ve got some strange feelings about those kids,” he says. “It’s not guilt, y’know, but I do feel haunted when I hear about their lives, ’cause they were the same as mine. I hated my parents, y’know, terribly. These kids just didn’t get to live long enough to put all that past them.”

“So you made up with your parents eventually?”

“Oh, I talk to my Mum all the time.”

“Is your father dead?”

“No. he’s alive. But I don’t talk to him. I don’t hate him anymore, though. I don’t feel that I ever really matured till I stopped carrying that anger around with me, and that wasn’t till a year or so ago. The music was the only real release, till then. I do feel angry, though, when they play all that back­ward surf music and talk about the harm our music did these kids, ’cause I think it was the best thing they had. I remember citing sophisticated stuff verbatim to my folks — like they say Ray and Jay did all the time — Hendrix lyrics like, and they’d look at me, like, Where’s all that coming from? My parents aren’t clever people, you know. They’re just people.”

Halford and Tipton, finished with their interview, come in with the security guys, Rick and Nick. Rick is opining on Neva­da’s other major court case — the libel suit brought by Las Vegas’s Stardust Hotel against the animal rights group, PETA — on our way into the adjoining three-star res­taurant. “Some guy slaps an orangutan in the face, and they’re asking for $800,000,000.”

I don’t remember much of that dinner, but I won’t forget the next morning’s hang­over soon. Between repeated calls for “one more bottle of this Chateau Neuf-de … POP!, Captain Bong,” to our suave Fili­pino headwaiter and leading a backward­sounding finger-chorus by everyone at the table on our Diamond Optic crystal wine-glasses. Halford, wfto sat at the head, regaled the table with recitations from his favorite Mafia movies. Rick and Nick or­dered the Chateaubriand for Two apiece, and I remember an argument starting when Nick told Rick he must have the plaintiff and defendant confused in the Vegas case. “It would have to have been the animal rights guy who slapped the orangutan.”

Ken, who sat to my left, ordered a second appetizer rather than an entree (he was worried about fitting into his stage clothes), and told me how much he hated secondary school. “I was all thumbs in Woodworking Shop. Metalworking, which is a biggie in Birmingham (Tipton worked for British Steel before joining the band), was even worse. The only thing I liked was Chess Club. where I got to beat up on the kids with perfectly pressed uniforms, and Cooking.”

“Why Cooking?”

“‘Cause you got to watch the girls bend over. I went to work as a cook after I left school, and loved it. I mean, how many people do you know, even at this age, who can bake an egg?”

Sometime between the third bottle of Moet and the warmed Grand Marnier, I remember a silver plate with an $800 check hitting the table. Happy Verdict, Captain Bong was written on the back.

On the long walk back to the lawyer’s office to get their dry cleaning, Ken and Ian looked thoughtful, and 1000 light years from home; riding up on the elevator, they both admitted they’d heard a couple of Do its in the recording studio on Tuesday.

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Judge Whitehead’s decision on both the suit and Vivian Lynch’s Motion in Limine and motion for sanctions was handed down two weeks after the end of the trial. An impressive document, it runs 68 pages, stopping en route to cite Sir Edward Coke’s 17th century interpretation of the Magna Carta and Thomas Payne’s and James Madison’s arguments for the right to trial.

After criticizing CBS’s actions in the dis­covery process, he awarded plaintiffs’ law­yers $40,000. Finding (I) that the 24-track of “Better By You” submitted by CBS was authentic and unaltered, he declared (2) that there were several Do its; (3) that they were subliminals; (4) but they were placed on the record unintentionally; (5) and that lack of intent establishes lack of liability under invasion of privacy theory; (6) that plaintiffs established a sufficient founda­tion for the effectiveness of subliminal stimuli, and that the decedents perceived these: (7) but that plaintiffs failed to prove these stimuli were sufficient to explain con­duct of this magnitude; and (following a lengthy disclaimer of any intent to demean the Vance and Belknap families) (8) that a number of other factors existed that explain their behavior.

Whitehead’s final findings concerned backmasked messages, which he rejected out of hand. Though he had “grave con­cerns” as to their possible use if perceived by the unconscious, he found no reason to believe they could be so perceived. And though he indicated his displeasure with heavy metal several times, he closed by thanking the members of Judas Priest for their courtesy during the trial. In Los Ange­les to film a video, Judas Priest has report­edly decided to call their upcoming tour “Subliminal Criminals.”

Vivian Lynch, reached for comment after the decision, felt Whitehead was wrong in construing this as an invasion of privacy case. “This is product liability. If somebody explodes in a Pinto, you don’t have to prove Ford intended that to happen.” She said she’ll be filing a motion for a new trial this week: “I feel Judge Whitehead’s find­ings were entirely correct. I’m appealing on his application of the law to his findings.”

She also expressed satisfaction with the trial: “We accomplished what we set out to: give congressional committees and state legislatures enough reason to take a solid look at what these subliminals are doing to our kids. And I’ve still got Jay’s daughter’s wrongful death suit to file against CBS. It’ll be the same thing all over again.”

McKenna was more succinct: “Hey man.” he tells me. “I’ll take the $40,000.” ❖

Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Godfather, Part III: Like Godfather …

First, the bottom line: If you’re an American, you’ll see The God­father, Part III … once. After all, Kennedys aside, the Corleones are the only royal family we’ve got and, as an update on the clan unto their third generation, Godfather III combines the anticipatory ap­peal of Fotomat-fresh family snapshots with the more civic in­terest inspired by the celeb of your choice on the cover of People magazine.

How could it be any other way? Almost a trailer for itself, The Godfather immediately estab­lished Don Corleone’s power over American popular culture (namely Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood) be­fore settling in to dramatize his son Michael’s Faustian bargain to revive the crime family’s fortune. Indeed, the feds have already done their part to raise Godfather consciousness by busting John Gotti only hours before the sea­son’s major movie event had its single, packed preview at Loews Astor Plaza. Although Godfather III is scarcely a comedy, the audi­ence chuckled throughout, with cynical pleasure and friendly derision.

Released in December 1974, The Godfather, Part II ended some time in 1959. When Godfa­ther III — which, in a wonderfully apposite bit of timing, comes out on Christmas Day — picks up the story 20 years later, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has gone straight, sort of. The obligatory opening rite of passage (a wedding in The Godfather, a first commu­nion in Godfather II) is here al­most a spiritual coronation, in which Michael, having divested himself of his illegal businesses and become a noted philanthro­pist, is receiving a personal deco­ration from a representative of the pope. Yes, the Godfather meets God the Father, or at least His Vicar.

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The previous Godfather films were ceremonial pageants in which delicately arranged histori­cal tableaux and exquisite loca­tions were inevitably seared by eruptions of fantastic violence. (Coppola naturalized the Cor­leone’s activities in part through the classical use of establishing shots.) Godfather III has consider­ably less finesse (there’s an at­tempt to rub out a virtual Apala­chin conference of mobsters where it literally rains bullets) but it doesn’t lack for ambition. Cop­pola and copilot Mario Puzo blast off for some cosmic Shakespear­ean netherworld of tearful solilo­quies and dynastic tragedy, where sister Connie (Talia Shire) comes on like a tarantella-dancing Lady Macbeth and Michael develops a soul. Although Talia Shire has compared her real-life brother Francis’s latest project to the ceil­ing of the Sistine Chapel, the overarching structure Godfather III more closely suggests is Michael Graves’s postmodern design for the expanded Whitney Muse­um: The earlier Godfather films are incorporated whole into a new baroque framework that not only returns the Corleones to Sicily for the ultimate climax but involves the Vatican and grand opera too.

As the action is deflected over­seas, motivations turn inward. Coppola and Puzo take a cue from the original Scarface by heightening the clan’s incestuous longings. Did you think The God­father and Godfather II were about violence, vengeance, crime, capitalism, America? Guess again. “The only wealth in the world is children” are the first words spo­ken in Godfather III, delivered by Michael in husky voiceover. As in popular Yiddish theater, the most intense relationships here are be­tween parents and offspring, sur­rogate or natural. Michael’s daughter Mary (Francis’s daugh­ter Sofia) is the chairman of his charitable foundation, their close­ness mocking Michael’s previous obsession with fathering boys. Meanwhile, Michael’s attempt to persuade his son Anthony (tenor Franc D’Ambrosio) to stay in law school rather than pursue a musi­cal career occasions the movie’s worst soap operatics.

Anthony is the first Corleone to ever sing. The film’s lengthy cli­max, admirably presaged by a choreographed whack mid-Feast of San Gennaro, brings everybody back to Palermo for a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. Nearly a half an hour, this somewhat dis­tended, impossibly convoluted set piece offers the bloodiest bit of backstage intrigue since Murder at the Vanities (not to mention a grandiose reworking of The God­father‘s single most admired se­quence). Still, the edifice is too ornate, the structure is too roomy, Godfather III resounds with ech­oes from previous films — sinister oranges, strategic cannoli, Diane Keaton. (Vying for most outra­geous are the fantasy that Michael and Kay were once a super-ro­mantic couple and their son’s ren­dition of “Theme From The God­father,” sung in special tribute to Dad.)

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The plot, such as it is, is notable mainly for its deadpan delirium. No sooner is Michael “blessed” than the Vatican bank goes broke and, perhaps having learned the lessons of New York City politics, the Don offers a bailout for a piece of the church’s real estate action. It’s the ultimate money­-laundering scheme — the Cor­leones merge with the pope. As Michael tells sister Connie, “The higher I go, the crookeder it gets.” Although this motif is reiterated in a minor key — priests and kill­ers are indistinguishable through­out — from a Catholic point of view, the high point of the movie is surely Michael’s confession, de­livered with appropriate pathos and tolling bells. (The scene drib­bles off, but the lucky priest is named pope.)

The Godfather films have thrived on meaningful casting (en­compassing a subterranean history of the Actors’ Studio) and if Michael is absolved, Pacino is de­nied Brandofication. Not that he doesn’t have a look. The movie’s unspoken premise is that the two decades between Godfathers II and III have somehow electrified the once icy Michael Corleone. Moving stiffly with a pitched forward lurch (as if to pull his plug out of a wall socket), hair brushed up to resemble the steel bristles on an industrial floor polisher. Pacino suggests and even acts like a wired Yoda. There are times when Godfather III bids to become three hours of Michael admonish­ing his obstreperous nephew, Son­ny’s illegitimate son, Vincent (Andy Garcia).

Although Pacino looks like John G0tti could eat him for breakfast, as the last of the Cor­leones, Garcia is an engaging, suave, loose-limbed show-off. He makes his bones when two killers invade the Lower Manhattan tenement where he is trysting with a winsome photographer (Bridget Fonda): his authenticity is vouch­safed when he bumps into Martin Scorsese’s mother on Elizabeth Street or carries on his uncle’s tradition by repeating the family lies to Mary, the younger cousin who adores him. Garcia struts through the movie’s first hour suffering under the delusion that this is a gangster film, rather than the surging symphony of guilt and ex­patiation that drowns him well be­fore the movie ends. The requisite veteran Method actor playing the requisite old mafioso, Eli Wallach flutters and sputters through a mediocre performance. The gang­ster of choice is Joey Zasa, a pub­licity-loving thug obviously in­spired by Joey Gallo and played, with impressively metallic sheen, by Joe Mantegna. “I’d like to get a little pin from the pope,” Zasa sneers, the Bad Fairy at one of the new Michael’s numerous love­fests.

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Still, the most amazing presence by far is Coppola’s 19-year-old daughter Sofia. (Clearly, the pope is not the only one to grant indul­gences.) In a deep and satisfying way, Sofia’s exotic full-moon face and awkward body language justify the film. From the moment she arranges her features for the first of many (no doubt necessary) close-ups, generous lips creased in a permanent, wildly expressionistic sneer, through her last Californiated line reading, she gives a performance that is gloriously be­havioral. “A bad actor,” Jack Smith once wrote, “is rich, unique, idiosyncratic, revealing.” Nothing in Godfather III has more to do with patriarchal power than Sofia’s uncertain glances off­screen; her seeming suspicion that the least important bit player with whom she shares a frame has more right to the camera than she; her fantastically repressed (hence totally affecting) love scene cum cooking lesson with Vincent. This is a woman cursed with two fathers — one who’s inside the narra­tive and another who rules the set.

To the degree that The Godfa­ther, Part III is Coppola’s person­al psychodrama, Sofia is absolute­ly essential. (Once you see the movie, it’s obvious why Winona Ryder — who was originally cast as  Mary and suffered some sort of breakdown during production — could never have played this part.) Sofia was the infant baptized in the celebrated penultimate sequence of The Godfather, it seems more than appropriate that the saga, which opened so evocatively with an appeal to Don Corleone for justice in the matter of a particularly vicious date-rape, would end with her pained, un­comprehending cry of “Da-a-ad!”

Model for the plutocratic family dramas and immigrant miniseries that dominated network televi­sion well into the ’80s, The Godfa­ther is so much a part of our na­tional identity it’s difficult to imagine that Paramount first envisioned the movie as a quick cash-in on a surprise bestseller. As reinvented by Coppola, The Godfather not only raised ticket prices to a new high of $4 but wound up grossing more of those inflated dollars than any movie in history (until surpassed by The Exorcist one year later).

These days, The Godfather is being called the greatest Holly­wood movie since Citzen Kane. It’s a sloppy judgment — Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, The Searchers, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels, The Naked Kiss, The Wild Bunch, 2001, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Last Movie not withstanding. The Godfather is not even really a single movie. Unlike any other sequel, Godfather II actually improved the orig­inal, as well as improving on it. Although Godfather II suffers from repeating too many of The Godfather’s narrative rhythms (a tic that becomes convulsive in Godfather III), it considerably enriched the first film’s allegorical history of America — from the Old World through the frontier settlements of New York and Nevada to the foreign frontier Havana, looping back in haunting post­script to a family dinner on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor

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If, in formal terms, The Godfather was Coppola’s Birth of a Na­tion — a family-centered period piece that, among other things, set out to redress perceived historical wounds and effectively restored classical Hollywood continuity af­ter the narrative breakdown of the late ’60s — then Godfather II was his Intolerance. Although depen­dent for his meaning on the first film, Coppola’s audaciously ana­lytical reworking of the material, a kind of archeological excavation that allowed the story to go simul­taneously forward and backward in time, and Robert De Niro’s brilliant interpretation of “Brando,” illuminated The Godfather and set it, so to speak, among the constellations. To find people who are unfamiliar with The Godfather mythos, you would have to look for them among the characters in Godfather III — ­which, in a sense, is part of that film’s problem.

Despite its unwieldy editing and somnolent second hour, en­cumbered by its tour-guide view of Sicily, Godfather III may be Coppola’s richest filmmaking since Marlon Brando capsized Apocalypse Now. That’s a back­handed compliment, I fear. But what does it profit Paramount if Michael gains a soul but loses his world? Michael’s redemption is presented as abrupt fait accompli: Mary’s innocence must be abso­lute. Devoid of social content, Godfather III represses precisely the period treated in Goodfellas, easy winner of the 1990 gangster-national allegory sweepstakes. Had Mary lived through the ’70s, she would understand her father only too well.

In leaping from period of con­sensus to period of consensus (the 1960-78 era signified only by the opening shot of the void around Lake Tahoe and a quick tour of the abandoned Corleone com­pound), Godfather III surrenders its claim on the historical imagi­nation. Although the movie is not altogether superfluous, it can’t help but suggest Mark Twain’s forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels or the bogus credit-crawl histories that American Graffiti made a cliché. In the context of its predecessors. Godfather III has its place — perhaps the longest, most expensive footnote ever made. ❖

Categories
From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

There’s Only One Diego Maradona

Meet Mr. June! It is Maradona, or, as he is more affectionately known by his millions of fans the world over, “The Divine Diego.” What a hunk! He is 25. Diego comes from Argentina, the country he will be playing for in the World Cup this month. But he plays professional soccer for a club in Naples, Italy. There he is called “The God of Napoli!” They even name their children after him! They buy Maradona wigs, and pizzas too. He loves the people, and they love him! Maradona earns $2 million a year, but it does not go to his head. He signs many autographs. “I came from a poor background,” he says, “so I understand how important soccer is to people.” As you can see from the photographs, Diego leads a very exciting life. In his spare time, Maradona is the UNICEF ambassador for the children of the world. That is just another reason why Armonda Diego Maradona is our Mr. June. Divine!

—  Tom Kertes, Mexico, 1986 

GENOA, 1990 — The Mondiale, a frus­tratingly ambivalent experience, sweeps you up in a corporate-fu­eled dolce vita, then wears you out in a morass of anticlimax and overkill. It leaves you lost on nar­row streets asking for directions to the stadium: the locals always as­sure you it’s straight ahead, can’t miss it, but inevitably it’s five ki­lometers off to the right, on the other side of a highway. In Nap­les’s enormous Stadio San Paolo, hundreds of Romanian fans sing­ing songs of the December revolu­tion wave their blue, yellow, and red tricolor; each flag has a big hole cut out of its middle, a re­minder that back home the fight for democracy is perhaps being lost. The national anthem is played. and the woman sitting next to me is on the verge of tears. “This is an important game for Romania,” I say to her in French after a decent interval, “for many reasons, no?” She looks at me enigmatically and says nothing. “Important,” I try again, this time with an emphasis just short of el­bowing her in the ribs, “because of the events in Bucharest — the miners, the government, the dem­onstrations … ” She half-nods noncommittally. I see from her la­pel pin that she works for Roma­nian state radio.

You get pumped for epiphany but end up with exactly what you would’ve expected in the first place. This is what happened to the United States national team. Prior to the selection’s departure for Italy nobody gave them a prayer, but in the last few days before their opening match the phrase “Miracle on Ice” began to appear in newspaper stories, and sportswriters, particularly those who know little about soccer, wondered how the young Ameri­cans might manage to steal a win or a couple of ties and sneak through to the second round. In the end, of course, the U.S. wound up finishing slightly ahead of just one of the other 23 teams, the all-amateur United Arab Emirates, and that’s exactly what everyone expected. Nevertheless, many American reporters who’d come to Italy felt betrayed. So last week at Florence’s Stadia Comun­ale, when the first U.S. players slouched into the interview room after losing their final match to Austria, the reporters asked them the inevitable “How do you feel’?” — a pointed question, since the Yanks had lost, 2-1.

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“We’re disappointed,” said de­fender John Boyle, offering the scribes just the note of contrition they were looking for. “We came to Italy with hopes of moving into the second round, but the loss to Czechoslovakia [a 5-1 debacle] surprised us. There wasn’t much we could do after that.” Jimmy Banks, another backliner, whose game-long battle with rugged Aus­trian attacker Andreas Ogris helped to make the match the roughest of the tournament’s opening round, apologized for al­lowing Ogris to score. So did Des­mond Armstrong, another culpa­ble defender on the play. The room was redolent with shame, hand-wringing, wincing accounts of shattered hopes, and then the reporters asked Tab Ramos for his assessment. “If anything,” said Ramos, “we learned that our soc­cer is closer to the rest of the world than most people thought.”

This was the truest response; for the Americans in this World Cup, God lived in the details. Like in the two goals they scored: Paul Caligiuri’s magnificent solo effort in which he ran past three Czechoslovaks to plant the ball in the net, and Bruce Murray’s op­portunistic garbage goal made possible by Ramos and Peter Ver­mes’s deft give-and-go against the Austrians. Armstrong’s little epiphany game against the Ital­ians, when, “I was able to mark one of the best forwards in the world [Gianluca Vialli], and he only got past me once. There are people back home aching to say they started in the World Cup in Rome against Italy, but only 11 of us did it, and I’m really proud that I’m one of them.”

The American team will get an­other chance in the Mondiale in four years, when the United States plays host to the world’s hugest, most terrifying sporting event. There is a great deal of pressure on the Americans to field a team worthy of the honor, but that’ll be a difficult feat as long as the coun­try remains without a viable pro­fessional league — or, as U.S. Soc­cer Federation president Werner Fricker claims, until the sport in America sheds its “suburban, up­per-middle-class” image and be­comes popular among “poor kids, who know what it means to strug­gle.” Right now, at any rate, the nation’s hopes lie in its players who are good enough to play in European leagues. Caligiuri, per­haps the U.S.A.’s steadiest player, is about to sign on with one of four fair-to-middling first division teams in the Italian League, the world’s best. Twenty-year-old goalkeeper Tony Meola, who per­formed bravely under siege but not as brilliantly as most observ­ers in the U.S. and Italy had pre­dicted, is also about to sign with a midlevel first division Italian club. Ramos, sometimes brilliant as a playmaker, sometimes guilty of tactically unsound individual­ism, is trying to work out a deal with Roda in the Dutch first divi­sion (a stumbling block is the $750,000 transfer fee the U.S. Soccer Federation is demanding  from Roda). And John Harkes, the the American revelation of the tournament for his fire and dogged pursuit of the ball, is negotiating with top teams in Austria  and Belgium. Five other players are talking to European clubs, but right now Caligiuri, Meola, Ramos, and Harkes are the nucleus of the ’94 World Cup team — and of the future of American soccer. “Some kid somewhere in the States is dreaming of playing top flight soccer in the U.S.,” as Caligiuri told a reporter from Rome’s Il Messagero, “and maybe some day that kid will realize his dream. I’d like to think that I will be one of the pioneers.”

It would be nice to end there, with the minor epiphany, but unfortunately the U.S. was one of only three small footballing countries that failed to impress (South Korea and the Emirates were the others). Costa Rica, for example, beat Scotland and Sweden and, most impressively of all, lost 1-0 to joyous and mighty Brazil. With the president and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez cheering them on, the Ticos rode the heroic goalkeeping of Luis Cabelo Conejo into the second round, where they finally fell to the Mondiale’s other beacon of civility, Czechoslovakia. Such was Costa Rica’s anonymity that Bob Hughes, soccer columnist for London’s Sunday Times and the International Herald-Tribune, praised the mettle of “this island team.”

On the other side of football’s third world, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions are now the darlings of the planet. Led by 38-year-old supersub Roger Milla, the Africans humbled defending champion Argentina and flashy Romania before beating the zany Colombians in two overtimes. I might mention here that there is only one city in all of Italy that does not seem to care about the World Cup: inward-looking, medieval Siena, which is preoccupied with the horse race qua internal warfare that is the Palio; no Italian flags in that city, just the banners of Siena’s 17 neighborhoods. Yet, at 7:40 last Saturday, moments after Milla had sealed a victory for the Indomitable Lions, a lone African holding a Cameroon flag strolled into the central square. With each café he passed, the Siennese applauded politely, a delicate rippling sound that wound slowly around the stately piazza.

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The Mondiale revolves around a different kind of world power, the Italians, the Germans, the Dutch — and also the Argentinians and Brazilians, whose encounter in Turin last Sunday marked the first emotional climax of the Mondiale. Thousands of Brazilian fans, some in carnaval fright wigs, some in drag, all in their national team’s yellow jersey, samba’d into the cavernous Stadio Delle Alpi to bury the archrival Argentinians and especially Diego Armando Maradona, the hated, fading prima donna who nonetheless is still the best player the world. Just one minute into the game Brazil established the tempo when Careca (Maradona’s teammate on Napoli, the Italian club champion) ran 50 yards through two Argentine defenders; his shot was just pushed wide of Sergio Goycoechea, the keeper. So it went for the next 70 minutes: Valdo, Alem, Branco, Dunga, Muller, a host of single-named Brazilian footballists, dazzling the crowd with im­possible individual maneuvers and visionary passes, strangling the Argentinian attack, shackling Maradona — but not scoring. The little Argentinian guy sitting next to me is emitting small, choked sounds. “Fifteen times Brazil could’ve scored,” he blurted. ”We are doomed.” Then, with 10 min­utes to go, the stocky Maradona makes one good play, feeding young blond beauty Claudio Can­iggia in the penalty area; Caniggia fakes Taffarel to the ground and … goooalllll! The little Ar­gentinian guy next to me is leap­ing up and down; on the field, Caniggia is mobbed. Maradona lies flat on his back in the corner, alone, his arms raised to heaven. The samba drums in the stands fall silent, the green and yellow flags droop. The game resumes: the Brazilian players are now in disarray, shouting at each other. They almost surrender another goal, but regroup for one last try, and behind me a woman is pray­ing in Portuguese. In the 88th minute Muller gets the ball all alone in front of the net — shoots it wide. The game end, Brazil’s eliminated. The stadium empties out, except for a few knots of leaping, singing, Argenti­na fans, the smiling golden sun on their light blue flags bouncing up and down joyously. Here and there a few Brazilians sit, in shock, staring out at the disas­trously empty field. Afterward Maradona appears before the press for the first time in weeks and is asked what he did on the winning pass. “I prayed to the Lord,” he replies. The defending champ is still alive.

That night in Turin the Argen­tines and Brazilians sat together in bars to watch West Germany trounce the disappointing Dutch in Milan. Then at the Turin sta­tion everyone — South Americans, Italians, Irish, Africans — piled onto the midnight train to Genoa for the next day’s Eire-Romania match (won by Ireland on penalty kicks, 5-4). Four young Napoli fans festooned in a crazy-quilt mixture of Brazil and Argentina garb serenaded the sleeper cars, singing “Un Maradona, c’è solo un Maradona” to the tune of “Guan­tanamera”; “One Maradona, there’s only one Maradona.” The train finally started to pull out. “Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina,” a couple of young men two windows down chanted to a fat man, dressed in Brazilian yellow and holding a Forza Italia flag, stand­ing near the end of the pier. “Ca-mer-un, (Ca-me-run.” chanted the fat man in response. Everybody cheered, and then the train pulled away into the night, on to the next game at the world championships of football. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Of Thangs Past

The Coolidge High Five (class of ’75) — Bayray, Romeo, Kidd Funkadelic, Tetragrammaton, and Homeboy — were cozied up around the back table at their fav­orite Japanese deli, winnowing down vessels of sake and brews­kis, and winding down the debate of the day. They’d spent this re­union haggling over future rela­tions with the hiphop nation. For these aging voyeurs of the move­ment their connection had been thrown into crisis by a recent and desultory gig at the Ritz featuring 3rd Bass, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest.

All the fellas had agreed on one point from the jump. Hadn’t no­body been looking for a second childhood, but when hiphop came along they had no choice but to get down with the program, same as their contemporaries, those equally long-in-the-tooth and ata­vistic elocutionists from the Pub­lic Enemy posse.

“Yeah I regressed,” confessed Bayray. “Regressed like a muh­fuhkuh who had neither a law de­gree nor proper home training. And was ready to fight anybody tried to tell me grow up, stop grabbing my dick in public and yelling ‘Yo, yo, yo, wotup Bee?’ All the hos in the house say, ‘La­dies.’ Excuse me, I mean all the ladies in the house say, ‘Ho.’ ”

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Kidd Funkadelic went for his. “It was like this for me, man: when the US Funk Mob folded, shut down, went bankrupt, got lawsuited tighter than an outta­-mating-season mandrill’s ass, what choice did funkateers like us have but to hip, to hop, to up and jump on the boogie of the bang­bang boogie to be? If it wasn’t for hiphop, all the brothers that didn’t sound like Michael now would be sounding like Lionel Ri­chie. Or worse.”

Romeo took his cue. “Freddie Jackson. Fat Luther.”

“Yo man, why you got to dog Fat Luther out? If Fat Luther ain’t dope then the Mona Lisa was a man. You know he got soul.”

“Right. Courtesy of Kenneth Cole. But what does the big boy know about gittin’ busy?”

“Word, brother,” came the af­firmation from the Darth Vader-­pitched pipes of Tetragrammaton. “Yet do I detect a certain disen­chantment with hiphop as heir ap­parent to the funk?”

“From my perspective,” ranted Kidd Funkadelic, “I’m seeing Black rock on the comeback trail, and you know that’s more me than hiphop. So I’m kinda like, ‘Fuck hiphop.’ It served its pur­pose in my life and I’m outta here.”

This last statement struck Homeboy like a paper cut on the chin. “Damn if you ain’t about a mercenary muhfuhkuh. I mean hiphop is Black rock too. I still hear more freedom and rebellion, not to mention raw funk, coming straight outta Compton and Long Island than outta Living Colour. Even if Living Colour is more threatening to white boy hegemony by virtue of (a) de-ghettoizing the whole concept of black music, and (b) housin’ that travesty, the Elvis Awards! My beef is, okay, you got De La Soul, Jungle Broth­ers, A Tribe Called Quest, and that whole new Afrocentric, boho hiphop posse and they’re progres­sive, but the muhfuhkuhs put on the weakest shows in God’s creation.”

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“Yeeeah,” slid in Romeo, “like that wack overpacked-ass show at the Ritz last month where you had some main ingredients like the JBs, the Tribe-sters, and 3rd Bass. Every one of them said, Throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care.’ That line is older than they are. The new school needs some new lines. And some lessons in show­manship. They got to understand when they step out on that stage they ain’t stepping into the spot­light, they’re stepping into that long shadow cast by the likes of Bessie Smith and James Brown. Because right now it’s all the pimp mentality muhfuhkuhs who put on the most slammacious shows in hiphop, like Big Daddy Kane. If Monie Love hadn’t housed the gig sitting in with the Jungle Brothers, I would have left mad instead of just depressed. Monie Love is gonna be a cold craaazy star! She’s my hero, my idol, nu­mero uno. She’s not a Puerto Ri­can, but for free I’d chauffeur her limo.”

“I hear these wild-assed West Coast boys Digital Underground throw down live,” offered Kidd Funkadelic. “Their videos are wicked. That album on Tommy Boy, Sex Packets, is a motor-boo­ty affair and a half. It’s like a hiphop follow-up to Parliament’s Trombipulation, right down to that elephantine nose Shock G be wearing. The ‘Humpty Dance?’ That mug drops bass on me like I thought only Bernie Worrell could. And yo, check ‘The Way We Swing,’ how they not only sample Jimi’s riff from ‘Who Knows’ offa Band of Gypsies, but they scratch it up. So bold I for­give the blasphemy.”

Homeboy kicked it. “Yeah, them Digital boys are total fools. Remind me of my glory days as a fiendish Q-Dog frat brother. But now that I’m older, wiser, and damn near senile, I don’t know if I can be down. All they be rapping about is rapping, partying, and fiending for that fantasy drug they’re hyping, Sex Packets. I can relate to them trying to sell people on the pleasure principle over crack — very Clintonesque, right? And OK, they’re knee-deep into funk. I mean ‘The Humpty Dance’ does get your ass wriggling like the Blob was busting down a slob on you in the backseat of a bubble-tire jeep. But I want to know their position on class-as opposed to ass-struggle. They’re not N.W.A., ‘life ain’t nothing but bitches and money,’ but life ain’t nothing but a bowl of orgies nei­ther. Great food jokes, however. ‘I’m spunky, I like my oatmeal lumpy … I get ridiculous. I’ll eat up all your crackers and your lico­rice. Yo Jal girl, come here. Are you ticklish? … I’m a freak. I like the girls with lhe boom. I once g01 busy in a Burger King bathroom.’

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“Well, yo, even though I didn’t care for A Tribe Called Quest live, their Jive/RCA album People’s ln­stinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is upliftingly dope. It’s so sweet and lyrical, so user-friendly. You could play it in the back­ground when you’re reading Proust. Their sound is so mind­-caressingly mellow, like old Jazz Crusaders with those motivatingly melodic bass lines and chestnut-­roasting Fender Rhodes chords. And they rhyme on some truly sui generis themes, like veganism and treating your woman right. Like their song ‘Description of a Fool’ basically busts this muhfuhkuh out for beating on his squeeze. Who ever did that on a hiphop record before? And this other jammie, ‘Luck of Lucien’ is a tes­tament to friendship, especially as far as its being a means for mugs to keep each other on the straight and narrow. It’s about how the Tribe adopted this sorta ignorant lumpen proletariat immigrant muhfuhkuh over from France to keep his ass from falling in with the wrong crowd. ‘Ham ‘N’ Eggs’ is the one about being vegetarians and shit. ‘A tisket a tasket, what’s in mommy’s basket.’ Some veggie links and some fish that stinks.’

“How you feel about ‘I Left My Wallet in El Segundo?'” chimed Kidd Funkadelic. “It reminds me of some classic Frank Zappa, like moving to Montana soon, gonna be a mental toss fly-coon. What I can’t figure out, though, is why my man Q-Tip, ostensible leader of the Tribe, left his wallet behind in the first place. Now that was some nonsense. Like Dr. Seuss.”

“So what’s the consensus y’all? Are these new-blacks the answer? Is hiphop as we knew it on the way out, or what?”

Before anybody could answer. Tetragrammaton went for his, quoting very, very loosely from his latest reading, Egyptian Mys­teries, New Light on Ancient Knowledge, by Lucie Lamy (Thames & Hudson, 1981).

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“Brothers listen: there is no doubt that we are dealing here with the incarnation — the becom­ing flesh — of the divine principle of light. This principle travels in a skiff in which rides Khephri, the scarab beetle, the future rising sun, framed by two Osirises sym­bolizing cyclic rebirths. The scar­ab Khephri is the preeminent symbol of the Dwat, the world of metamorphoses. He is found again where the divine entities must make darkness descend — as conducive to the germination of grains as it is to the development of the scarab’s egg enveloped in its dungball.

“In this time we must remem­ber that there can be no metamor­phoses without the destruction of the old form. The male with the voice of thunder reminds us that on one level the theme of the Egyptian Mysteries is the regener­ation of the sun. This is also the time in which we are told to ex­pect the annunciations of Tait, an Egyptian divinity of weaving. He will declare that the moment for the making of the cocoon, or the mummy’s wrap, is drawing near. Yes, the mummy’s wrap, itself a larval symbol of the transubstantiation of the flesh.”

Surprisingly, it was Bayray who immediately grasped the esoteric significance of TTGT’s ramblings and deciphered for the rest of the posse.

“Yeah, yeah I dig what you’re saying TTGT. That like with the emergence of hiphop bands like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, 3rd Bass, who are on that positive path to enlighten­ment, that hiphop has finally tasted the maggots in the minds of its less-evolved members so it’s gonna rise above it all or drown in its own shit. But even though they’re moving to a higher level of consciousness they’re all still in that dungball larva stage.”

“Brother Black that is precisely what I am divining.” ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Big Bang Boom

The Big Bang Boom
September 11, 1990

WEEDSPORT, NEW YORK — I’m here at the Weedsport Speedway waiting for something to blow. Who knows where it’ll come from? Who knows what it’ll be. There are guys behind concrete Georgia barriers darting around with lit flares. There are women at the far end of the track wiring rocket fuses. There’s a motorized digger drilling holes in the hardpack for mortar emplacements. It’s griddle hot, and shadeless as Arabia, out on the big tan oval of jigsawed dirt. Across the street is the Rainbow Lanes. Down the road is a True Gospel Church of Christ tent. Six miles west of the cornfields around the raceway is the century-old maximum-secu­rity prison where the electric chair made its debut.

From out on the speedway comes the madhouse whine of fuse ignition and a guy cackling, “We’re going to be shooting a lot of shit today!” I hear a boom and turn. Then the rockets began to fly.

It sounds like war, but these are just rec­reational missiles that seem to be skimming my scalp — fun rockets, the very best kind! That big boom? A beautiful shell going off. And this is the Pyrotechnics Guild Interna­tional, Inc.’s 18th Annual Convention, a gathering of 1000 people who’re never hap­pier than when they’re putting match to fuse.

It’s a strange place to find oneself on a hot summer afternoon, given the current state of the world, watching strangers play with gunpowder and ornamental warheads. Let’s just say I came with a friend, a ratio­nal urban professional whose life reaches a pitch of ecstatic unreason every Fourth of July. He’s a pyro, to use the lingua franca. At the moment he’s off buying fast-acting fuse called quickmatch to blast some rock­ets he’s got stockpiled at home.

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It’s important you know that this is not a group of George Meteskys. Not at all the sort of folks who smithereen cats with M-80s. This is not your Soldier of Fortune target group, either. Put them in fezzes, and you’d have a lot of Shriners: peaceable bourgeois folks in their comfortable middle years. They’ve come from all over the coun­try, even Europe, driving vans and semis and flying on commercial carriers with con­traband stowed in their bags. They don’t look like outlaw types. And in their own minds they’re not. Fireworks may be illegal in 37 states, but to a pyro the right to blow things up is as inalienable as an NEA grant.

“You here to write about us?” asks a plump sunburned woman from Colorado. “That’s fine. But just don’t use the B word. That’s very bad press.”

The B word, of course, is … Well, as I said these are hobbyists we’re talking about — rational, fun loving, pacific. As hobbyists go they’ve got an edge on, say, stamp collectors because the stuff they trade is dangerous and highly controlled. Some of it’s toxic enough to rot the brain. Some of it, when used in certain combina­tions, has what you might call volatile po­tential. Some of it, injudiciously used, could take your average Joe and send him jetting through space without benefit of a capsule.

These facts are not incidental to the gov­ernment’s fascination with pyros as a group. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms hovers over a pyro gathering like a grim shadow — worse yet, like rain. The feds know that most of the attendees are on hand for five perfectly legal days of seminars, a banquet, and schmoozing, five nights of the newest innovations, the latest “flitter” and stroboscopic effects, and a grand finale that includes ignition of the world’s longest string of firecrackers. They’re also aware that an awful lot of pyros have the chemical know-how to build rockets and shells in basement workshops, and ready access to controlled items like blasting caps, quickmatch, and black­powder. It’s perfectly obvious, even to me, that if you know how to build a rocket you also know how to make a B word.

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The blue bucket seats clamped to the bleachers have bolts in the center that come at you like a rectal thermometer. In the parking lot I pass a couple walking to the grandstand with their daughter. “Imo put her lady’s Smith & Wesson away until she’s old enough and gets out of college,” the wife says. The kid, a junior pyro, shoots her a Squeaky Fromme glare.

There’s one other spectator on hand for this afternoon’s session of “free shooting,” an hour when interested pyros can shoot off the stuff they’ve brought. Behind the grand­stand there’s a fenced area for Class C ex­plosives, light shells, and noisy backyard stuff. Out on the track is a separate area for Class B, the ballistics-level fireworks grad­ed, on a hazard scale, just below army mu­nitions and dynamite. “It’s gonna be a fine day,” says the man holding a Camel in a three-fingered hand. He lights up, drags hard, and exhales luxuriantly as someone shoots off a smoke bomb in the distance. Acid-yellow clouds waft our way and blend with the hot-dog aroma from the weenie shack. The man reads my creepy fascina­tion with his missing digits and nonchalant­ly says, “Lawnmower.”

Within an hour of my arrival, several people have delivered elaborate spiels on safety. From what I can gather, shooting off fireworks is no more treacherous than knit­ting socks, possibly less so since you can get a nasty rope bum skeining yam. Fireworks just get worse press. The all-time downer was a New York Times front page that tor­tured logic with the claim that fireworks killed more people between one January and December than botulism had. They never said how many people died as a re­sult of eating fireworks, but they did men­tion that there’d been two food poisoning fatalities that year and three firecracker deaths. “Lousy journalism, is what I say,” is the opinion of the woman who recounts the tale. “The worst that usually happens is a finger, at most an eye.”

As I sit in the bleachers on Wednesday afternoon reading from the Pyrotechnic Guild, Inc., rule book, which came with every conventioneer’s impressive registra­tion kit, I happen on article 6, part 20 of the Official Fireworks Safety Guidelines. This section, covering rules on Public Dis­play, is especially interesting. “At no time shall any person place any part of his or her body over the mouth of a mortar,” it says. I really have to give that one thought.

A white flash comes from the direction of the tree line at the north end of the speed­way, followed by a molar-jangling report. “Must have been a four-incher,” says the Camel man. Lighting his second butt, he blows out the match, then touches the tip to his tongue. “Can’t be too careful,” he grins.

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At this point I should declare my preju­dices and mention that, when I was 10, a man in a fast-moving Buick tossed a half-­mat of lit Black Cats at my feet. It didn’t seem like karma and it didn’t hurt me a bit, but the effect was nerve-racking — like be­ing machine-gunned, without the holes. Since then I’ve tended to prefer fireworks at a nice distance: the Macy’s display did me fine until the year I went to the East River and found the upper deck of the FDR Drive reserved for “special” depart­ment store guests. What are fireworks, I ask you, if not populist?

My buddy, however, is fanatic. He be­longs to that choice company that charts its Independence Day activities to coincide with the best displays. He whiles away the idle hours sussing out catalogue bargains, charting trips to scuzzy New Hampshire towns where the border is marked by ply­wood fireworks shacks. He can dilate on the differences in quality between shells called Overlord in Sky, and Double Drag­ons, and Autumn Drizzle. He’s on a first nickname basis with some of the finest Ma­fia steerers on Elizabeth Street, and has visited tenement apartments with enough fireworks inside to take out a city block.

He never thinks one Roman candle when he can think 10, fused together on an arma­ture to spurt in goofy orgasmic sequence. So for him, and folks like him, this conven­tion represents not just a once-yearly hud­dle of seminars on “energetics,” on new developments in “spin-stabilized rockets,” or “parlong stars,” or “go-getters,” but the rare, legalized chance to blow shit up.

The salesroom helps in that regard. Set up in an old, gray-painted Quonset hut be­hind the bleachers, the heavily guarded Class C shed opens each night at six. You can’t get in without your official badge, the one with tiny firecrackers imprinted on it fuse to tail. And there’s good reason. Inside the shed are folding tables thick with fire­works — both the finished products import­ed from Japan, China, South Carolina, and Macao, and the hard-to-get component parts. At a roped-off discount area, stacks of shopping baskets are provided for your “popping convenience.”

“The possibilities for mayhem are out­standing,” says one shopper amiably, mull­ing the purchase of several smoke bombs, each capable of releasing 40,000 cubic feet of smoke in 60 seconds. His hat reads “Support Fireworks, a Glorious American Freedom” and his arms are crammed with Twinkling Stars, Colorful Birds, Happiness Fountains, and Space Warrior Wheels. Checking out a 16-inch bazooka called Ae­rial Crossfire that looks impressive to me, he speaks like a highly discerning shopper. “Piece of shit,” he says. “Probably just Au­tumn Drizzle in a tube.”

Near the wall by the exit are several ta­bles covered with Ziploc bags. For pyros who roll their own, these ready stocks of zinc powder, aluminum, antimony, and sul­phur are reason enough to come. Frame wire and potassium perchlorate may not be hard to buy on the open market, but you don’t find good quickmatch at K Mart or Ames. And it isn’t every hardware store that carries smoke dye at just $8 a pound. “It makes a kind of muffled boomf” the saleswoman explains.

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In chemical terms, a fireworks explosion is a “highly exothermic redox reaction,” a phrase somehow inadequate to the beauty of smoke and flame in motion. I learn this during a crash course in the poetics of pyro­technica over three days in Weedsport, a snoozy, rundown farm town just west of Syracuse.

I learn many things, among them the fact that the aerial fireworks you see at public displays are called exploding bombshells; and that these are cylindrical or spherical containers made of paper and filled with pyrotechnic compositions propelled in a manner identical to a cannon ball being fired from a cannon. I learn that the typical bombshell casings are made of paper, that they are launched with an exploding charge of black powder called the “lift charge,” and that the cannon from which they are propelled is called a mortar.

Fireworks mortars were once commonly made of metal before the development of PVC tubing, the preferred tubing at the convention being “Pyro Pipe” from Mighty Mite. “Feel how smooth the inside is,” says a Connecticut man with Harpo hair, as he slips an arm elbow-deep into an eight-inch diameter tube. He encourages me to caress the tube, too. “Suitable for launching major rockets,” he says.

With nothing to impede a rocket as it exits the mortar, the launch goes smoothly and beautiful shapes soon appear in the sky. If burrs or other obstructions snag a rocket, a launch aborts, shells blow on the ground. This, in fact, happens one night during the three days I spend in Weedsport, when a six-inch shell blows up prematurely. Watching from the grandstand, I note sil­houetted shapes darting around in the dis­tance, see the red beacon of the flares they use in place of Bic lighters, and suddenly hear a gut-punch boom. The concrete barri­ers at the perimeter buck in place. The little flare figures scurry about. The announcer makes some clucking noises on the loud­speaker and people in the grandstand tense, waiting to hear an ambulance wail. But there is none. And seemingly no one is dead. Next morning when I wander out to check the blast site, I find a crater measur­ing fully six feet across.

“The term bombshell is used less fre­quently today amongst professionals be­cause of the negative connotations in the term bomb as an infernal machine or item of destruction,” reads a pamphlet written by Roger L. Schneider, Ph.D. From Schneider, a fireworks consultant with an admirably deadpan prose style, I glean much information: the devices called flash bombs are correctly termed “salutes,” for instance. Salutes explode in the air produc­ing a brilliant white flash and a deafening boom. The bursting of a single container to produce a colored pattern is called a break. Fireworks that explode and then shatter again to form new stars are the result of successive breaks.

Once airborne, timing fuses on each of the consecutively layered shells insure that they burst in rapid, distinct succession. According to Schneider, these multibreak shells are known as “sausages” but at the PGI convention people seem to call them multibreak shells.

Some shells have two breaks. Some have six. Some baroque numbers have as many as 10. Aerial shells at big public displays will often be packed in a larger shell whose diameter ranges from two to 12 inches or even larger. At the PGI convention there is a Japanese 24-incher, and another mam­moth, perhaps of world record size, that is 28 inches across.

The Japanese shell never lifts very far off the ground when they light it. And the second goes altogether unlit. An insurance company sent to check the situation de­cides at the last minute that Weedsport is too close to the New York State Thruway to permit detonation of an explosive device that huge: it might jerk a tractor-trailer full of Purdue chickens off the road.

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Arriving on Wednesday we have, by Thurs­day morning, already experienced more fireworks than most people see in a year. And I’m not talking sparklers and Bang Snaps.

After checking out a midday auction of fireworks paraphernalia in the Skaneateles Room of the Auburn Holiday Inn, I stop for a Coke at Sundaes ‘N’ Such in unscenic Weedsport. The college-aged waitress leans on the counter and mentions that she can see the nightly fireworks displays, not open to the public, from her bedroom window.

“You’re lucky,” I remark, adding, with newfound expertise, that the 100 cases of exhibition fireworks Hop Kee Pyrotech­nics, Ltd., is blasting were imported from mainland China especially for this show. “Not everyone gets to see this quality stuff,” I tell her.

“Not everyone gets five days of explo­sions all night long, either,” is her level reply.

Thursday evening begins with several hours of open firing, then a display by the amateurs of the Connecticut Pyrotechnic Association. There are two governing bod­ies in the fireworks trade. The American Pyrotechnical Association represents the industry and the big names like Grucci. The Pyrotechnic Guild International counts Grucci among its members but is mostly a guild of hobbyists.

“This will show you what you can do with $700 in fireworks, or a half a million retail,” says the announcer before Allan Klumac Jr. puts his flare to the fuse of a 15-minute display that starts with a “fountain” of spark rockets on an armature turned upside down. The idea of using fire to cre­ate the impression of falling water is an­cient. The Chinese did it first. Yet, as visu­al alchemy, this effect is perennially refreshing and extreme. There are other fantastic illusions, among them a line of sparking horizontal wheels, a grid of whis­tling rockets, an armada of helicopters linked with an umbilicus of quickmatch to lift off at once. Steven Spielberg himself couldn’t top it.

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Afterward, there is an hour and a half of competition — a critical nightly feature of the convention — when individuals who’ve constructed their own fireworks face each other down. “The enjoyment of fire­works … ought to be an education in the enjoyment of all worldly splendor. You pay your money … and you get an absolutely momentary pleasure with no nonsense about it,” wrote Iris Murdoch, with perfect accuracy, in Under the Net, going on to gasp that a good shell is “a spurt of absolute beauty.”

There’s little doubt in the mind of any­one here that fireworks, which the Japanese call “burning flowers,” is art, and that great fireworks artists are alchemical gods. I say this confidently after meeting a 43-year-old machinist from Whitman, Massachusetts. This man, who asks to remain nameless (“If you print anything about me, I could go to jail,” he says) makes a specialty of multibreak missiles. With his own chemical formulas, and miniature tools customized for the purpose, he constructs rockets in a basement workshop. The rockets are craft­ed with the kind of meticulous care you associate with crazy obsessives: packed and taped in casings he makes himself and binds with Christmas paper. The crossette pellets themselves are immaculate. And more elegant still is the way they explode with something close to absolute symmetry, a tough feat when you’re dealing with pel­lets of chemical fire exploding midair.

For this year’s competitions the man brought along a series of single-break shells. Before the evening show, he shoots off some multibreak rockets just for kicks. From the rear of the track he fires them in the general direction of a gibbous moon, and we stand around watching them arch and explode, perfect, white glittering trails in their wake. The breaks are crisp. The shells blow and hold their incandescence in ways that seem to contradict Newton’s law. There’s no mistaking a shell made by this man for anything as banal as a highly exo­thermic redox reaction. It’s clear to anyone watching that these rockets are his signa­ture inscribed on the sky.

“The Fourth of July was always my Christmas,” he tells me later in the Owasco Room of the Holiday Inn. As waitresses break down a party, he gives me his history in brief. “I used to drive all over the place to see shows,” he says. “I’d go anywhere. I said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to see what it’s like to light a rocket myself.’ Start­ing in 1980, I began following this guy who was in the business around obsessively, do­ing his scutwork just to be around fire­works. I dug mortar holes, lugged equip­ment. But he never let me even touch a fuse.

“After two years I gave up. I thought, ‘I’ve given it my best shot and I failed.’ By coincidence I met someone then who opened doors, helped me learn to load shells, taught me what flash powder was, and showed me the Pyrotechnica series of magazines, which is the Bible of the craft. I began to shoot some small shells in compe­tition. I entered them and when it was time for the awards part of the banquet, my name kept coming up.

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“As I got more experienced, I began to make small stars, then crossettes and tour­billions and colored stars with whistles. I’ve been doing machining since I was seven years old and it’s always been my nature to watch and work meticulously. If there’s anything different about my rockets, it’s that I pay exquisite attention to detail.

“I’ve thought about trying to do it for a living, but very few people can make it that way. The fact is I’m a toolmaker who makes rockets on the side. At night when I’m trying to go to sleep, I lie there and I dream about fireworks. I think up different effects, time sequences, and trajectories. It’s a crazy person’s hobby because of the ephemeral quality and all the hard work. To give you an idea, I had a shell entered in competition several years ago that I clocked at every minute of 40 hours to build. I went full-tilt on that one. I brought it to the show and it was beautiful. But the shell lasted 15 seconds in the air.”

On the evening that we talk, this man wins another competition for best individ­ual rocket in a field of five contenders. Then he heads for the stands with the other pyros to watch the show. By 9:10, the bleachers are filled with spectators for a demonstration of Hop Kee fireworks. The bleachers are also wreathed in rocket ex­haust, a pale gray smoke.

Hop Kee is a father-and-son outfit run by Wilson and Alex Mao. They’ve brought some hefty artillery from factories through­out China: six-to-10-inch shells, huge rock­ets, big ground cakes, things with brand names that suggest nothing so much as the Tet offensive. Conventioneers are given ratings sheets to score the effects of Thun­der Bird, White Horse, Red Lantern, and Linked Triad shells.

For 20 minutes or so, Hop Kee fills the sky with Dragon Eggs, Giant Red Peonies, Malachite Peonies, Blue Peonies, Yellow Peonies, and Clustered Camellias. Shells break into retina-shattering plumes, then quickly give way to the first report of an­other lift-charge. A bunch of Red Lanterns go up on huge concussions, burst and eject parachutes which rock hellish red embers to earth. A Silvery Swallow Shuttle blasts off and breaks into dozens of smaller shells of different colors. A group of Fairy Maidens zooms up with a fizzy, nattering sound. A Flying Willow shell scatters glittering motes above the track like crazed hatchery spawn. Host of Dragon covers the speedway with frenzied incandescent sperm.

By the time Prosperous Spring Over Grassland explodes I’m in a state of deliri­ous surfeit. Also slightly blind and near deaf. But the show isn’t over. There’s still a 4000-shot Swarm of Charging Wasps, a Bumper Harvest, a Spring Thunder, some Green Meteors, and Hundred Birds. A 200-shot laser shell whose name I miss shoots magnesium plumes that resolve in icicles of smoke. Against the black of the sky, the ghostly afterimages have an evocative effect that is clearly a result of watching too many bad Vietnam movies. “Well, the colors were wonderful,” says a nearby pyro, in patently underwhelmed tones. “But, you know, the breaks really weren’t that great.”

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For three days I’ve been hearing people whisper about the Super String. Now the day is here. “There’s nothing like it,” says a woman named Bonnie Kosanke. “I don’t really want to say it’s like an atomic bomb, but there’s this amazing quantity of energy consumed in one explosion. It makes this rolling sound you won’t believe, just like roaring flame.”

In a shed near the raceway gate, they’ve been gathering firecrackers for the big mo­ment. Vendors and conventioneers are hus­tled for crackers throughout the week. “It’s July 3 all over again,” says Ken Lupoli of Dapkus Fireworks in Durham, Connecti­cut, when he lays eyes on the 40-foot strings stretched on the smooth concrete floor. Un­raveled from the fat wheels that string crackers come in, the explosives are being aligned and stacked.

“These firecrackers really go like mad,” says a man in a T-shirt that gives a tele­phone number for “A Good Bang.”

“They’ve got that nasty, nasty fuse,” says a woman talking to no one.

Kids and women lay out and neaten the long strings, then cinch them in layers with twine. A sexy brunette in a pink polka-dot minidress scooches along with the Super String between her legs, patting the crackers straight. It is, in fact, a scene of pure Americana.

In a far corner are thumb-thick Celebra­tion crackers heaped in messy stacks. They’ll be piled on last. So far there are 340,000 crackers. By nightfall a world rec­ord is achieved: 1,500,000. “Stand behind a jet engine and you’ll get some idea,” says a bearded pyro named Richard Owlett.

“Unless the heat gets to all of them at once, and then bloof, mass destruction,” says the man overseeing the Super String. Kneeling nearby, Norman Cornellier of Cornellier Fireworks cuts even lengths of wire to bind the long strings into mats two crackers wide and five deep. Cornellier, I notice, is missing the ring finger and part of the pinkie on his left hand.

By evening the wind’s tracking from the northeast and the sky has a sinister gray cast. Sheet lightning cracks in what one hopes is the distance. And the bleachers are jammed. At 8:15, five thousand locals stream in for the only public exhibition of the week. The announcer heralds the Super String and someone blasts the Triumphal March from Aida over the speakers. With a Vanna White look-alike conducting, three separate lines of bearers troop into the are­na heaving the massive snake segments of Super String in a scene that’s demented Cecil B. DeMille. I spot my reasonable friend at the head.

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There’s a cherry picker waiting to hoist and join the three strings to a scaffold con­structed for the purpose. There’s a hook-­and-ladder from the Town of Brutus fire­-house standing by to put the fire out.

Earlier in the day someone had slipped into the shed and dropped off a cluster of firecracker wrappers, arranged prayer­-wheel fashion, with blessings and messages written on each. “Pray for all the souls of those who were killed by fireworks and that we learn from their unhappy end,” read one, “including Orville Carlisle, a wonder­ful old snort.” Another asked the fire gods to “Bless the Big Bang Boom.”

And I’ve come to feel the big bang boom could use the help. To hear pyros talk about it, fireworks stand every chance of going out of business, permanently, as part of the merry legislative trend to protect Ameri­cans from themselves and keep us available for Middle Eastern outings and Uzi target practice. “We don’t have the lobbying background like the NRA,” is how one PGI member explains it. “It’s cheap for the feds to win a big victory by wiping out fire­works, because it’s easy to do and it looks good.”

It wouldn’t look good to five-year-old Amy Powers and her four-year-old brother, Greg. Amy and Greg and their mom, Janet, snuck in from the public area and they’re sitting in a roped-off PGI section with a perfect view of the Super String. Amy and Greg and Janet are levitating with excite­ment. And their excitement is catching. Somehow the thought of this small family and the thousands around them riveted by the instinct to witness a big talking fire­-snake pumps my adrenaline to some state of atavistic thrill. The ghouls on Skull Is­land couldn’t have felt more primitive than I do.

A clutch of pyros who’ve paid for the privilege head for the fuses. They light the quickmatch bundles and run like hell. Then the Super String does something stupid. It refuses to start. It sputters, teases, jerks around. It’s an awkward situation, that ach­ing moment when you know the foreplay’s gone on too long.

At last a brave, foolhardy soul nips to­ward the fuse with a torch, and gives the thing a light. What happens next is simple enough. The Weedsport Speedway becomes a creditable imitation of a nuclear holo­caust, brain-searing noise and a wall of white flame so truly horrific that when it ends you are convinced that you have also. Then the last crackers sputter to silence. Firemen hose the ground. You pat yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re alive. ♦

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Malcolm X Factor

Looking For Malcolm: The Man and the Meaning Behind the Icon
May, 29, 1990

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

There I was, hanging on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, when a low-riding brother and his lady friend strode by, deep in discussion about some­thing very, very, very important. Words and emphasis were, of course, flying every­where, making it impossible to miss this: “That shit was Malcolm.” Meaning, I knew, hype, dope, nice, right, real, as in best. In the ever-evolving vernacular, Mal­colm X has come to mean the real (black) thing, the authentic (black) thing, as close to (black) integrity as close can be.

Just look at all the T-shirts, the buttons, the photographs, the records, the film and video appearances. Public Enemy’s sam­pling him, Spike Lee’s quoting him, Tracy Chapman’s showing him — the young and the black are loving him. Malcolm is to­day’s black hero, a black ideal for turbulent times: the steely mirror image we want our­selves to see. We think we want his words too: Pass the tables on the street and you can hear his words proving some sect’s point; listen to the radio, and Rev Sharpton or somebody else is invoking his name to prove somebody’s truth — our truth — in black soundbites, as black as kente cloth. We wear him this way to celebrate our­selves, because Malcolm was what we want to be — a Black person with integrity in a country that doesn’t value the quality very much, especially when its bearer is Black.

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But there are some hard-to-answer ques­tions floating amid the jubilation. Like: Do many of us know Malcolm story(s)? Like: What does “the real (black) thing” mean to us, anyway? Black Integrity has, after all, a very packed — and vague — significance in our collective consciousness, precisely be­cause we haven’t been able to, and maybe never will, figure out what we want Black to mean. What does Malcolm mean to us? And now we’ve gone and attached our strange notion of Black Integrity to Malcolm’s pho­tograph, and thereby constructed a compli­cated, and decidedly vaporous, memory: Malcolm the Essential Black Man, Malcolm the brown and determined and incorrupt­ible and empty face.

Take a step back and look and see: To­day, 25 years after Malcolm’s murder, home folk promote him as the truest black American that ever lived. So true, in fact, that his aspect has taken on an almost reli­gious significance. No joke: pause for a moment and compare the way many of us consider Malcolm to the way Byzantine churchgoers viewed their religious icons, images that flattened out and hid the per­sonalities of their original personages in order to better communicate an accepted religious message. Just as iconography in a Byzantine church reminds the viewer of a body of stories, rules, morals, et cetera s/he’s already supposed to know, Malcolm’s icon should front a traditional story agreed upon by the community. But the young leaders of our Black tribe have attempted to canonize Malcolm without theoretical, ideological, or religious grounding — with­out, in short, connection to, or reflection on, any community-made story(s) by which to define him.

Today Malcolm is, instead, a religious icon without a religion — a vague memory-­image invoked at gatherings and services and rallies as the epitome of the black fight­ing spirit, and by implication, of Blackness. Making little reference to his place in the flow of history, to the complexity of his ideas (which changed over the course of his life), or to his relationship to political pro­genitors, the community’s voices paint Malcolm X in (un)fairly simple, static terms: Malcolm was an African-style town crier who told the truth. Malcolm played the heavy to Martin Luther King’s softy. Malcolm was grass roots, while the other civil rights leaders were bourgie Uncles. Malcolm was “clear” when everyone else was cloudy. The descriptions tend to sug­gest a Black Integrity, an unexplained, and mostly romantic, concept.

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Any people that considers itself a people needs the kind of figure Malcolm cut in life, a figure whose first fidelity is to the tribe, and upon whose bones the tribe can always hang its clothes. Figures, for example, like the Byzantines’ St. George, who’s reappear­ing all over the Soviet Union’s Russian communities as a symbol of the life of the Russian tribe, showing that it still proudly exists. Use of symbols like Malcolm X and St. George allows members to proclaim themselves without explaining everything: Those who should know, know. You know? But fact is, Malcolm’s iconographic status among black people is, as of this writing, so unexamined by us, so unaccompanied by black story or exegesis, as to be nearly va­cant, and utterly manipulable.

And it’s being manipulated plenty. In these changing times, when my bourgie ho­mies from the Ivy League are in less contact with their poorest brethren than at any point in American history, when cleavages in “the black community” are as wide as they’ve ever been, Malcolm’s image pro­vides a stretched-out, nationalist umbrella for us all. This “unity” hides, rather than acknowledges, our own differences. Ah! but sneaking under that umbrella is oh so se­ductively easy — especially when taking out coverage from the hostile white world is as simple as buying a T-shirt. I own several, but I favor the one a friend gave me: on the front, Malcolm with an AK-47 and the words “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”; on the back, the pronouncement “IT’S A BLACK THING! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Never mind the fact that Malcolm purchased the gun to defend himself from black Muslim attack — just check out the message, people. The “you” on back is clearly whitefolk, who are being told that they are not part of the club because the club is black. So the shirt’s the badge. Of blackness. So there. Which makes it useful to a bad brown man leading a city just as badly as the bad pink man before him: Flash the Malcolm memo­ry and you’re as proudly black as the im­poverished and angry 20-year-old sister with a fifth-grade education and a baby with a hightop fade in her arms. Yes, yes, y’all, both the mayor and the sista (and her baby) are Black. But, so what?

If we are to treat Malcolm as a symbol of blackness — as, in fact, the Essential Black Man — we basically have to figure (I) what Black means to us, and (2) what Malcolm means to us and what he doesn’t mean. Do we focus on what we think is important about his life, without regard to how he changed over his lifetime? Should Malcolm the icon mean Malcolm’s life story or his politics? Or both? Wrestling with these questions might even help us figure out what we’re saying when we use the term Black. And maybe such discussion will move us away from the dubious religion of “essential Blackness,” and toward thinking that it’s all much harder than that — just as hard, in fact, as pinpointing a meaning to Malcolm X, or to the Black “we,” or to the Black “I.” These concerns are not as aca­demic as they sound.

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In a world where identity is so often a function of national/tribal allegiance, or of the denial of those things, the proclamation of “I am” without a nation, or an agree­ment not to have a nation, is bound to be so confused as to be, well, silly. We can’t know who “I am” is without knowing who we are. And, we can’t do shit without knowing who “I” is.

As it stands, the Malcolm icon assumes all kinds of undiscussed information, beg­ging the question. In these times, is black identity, as represented by Malcolm’s icon, an adequate instrument for negotiating self­-understanding, our survival?

Brothers and sisters, we need to talk.  

But how do we begin? First by checking out the the place where “Black” was con­structed: in white consciousness, in the white conflation of black resistance and black criminality. (The ancestors came here and then became Black.) Up jumped the Boogeyman: the evildoer from the dark side, the angry true-blood black alien who’s coming to get you (whitey), with cruel vengeance. Just look and you see him — and it’s invariably a him — stuck in all kinds of white conjuring, all over the white Ameri­can imagination. See: WhiteFilm’s King Kong and WhitePolitics’s Willie Horton and Whitefiction’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published just two years after Malcolm X’s assassination. “As a child I had nightmares about Nat,” said author Wil­liam Styron, who was raised in Virginia, close to where the revolt took place. “I grew up with the tale.”

Whereas Malcolm X learned about Nat Turner in prison. In his autobiography, Malcolm talks about what Nat Turner made him feel:

I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave­-master Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man … Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

A few pages later, Malcolm notes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself — or die.” Imbedded in his telling of the Turner tale is a dramatic rejection of the white construc­tion of Blackness, as well as a number of other radical projects: to resist white supre­macism, to reclaim the right to resist, to put fear in the hearts of white people, and per­haps most surprisingly, to tell the white man about himself. The Boogeyman figure makes, of course, this last desire only so radical — whites, after all, have seemingly enjoyed being thrilled by black anger. Even so, Malcolm spent a good amount of his thought (and time) making whites listen, and they did with much fascination. They could not ignore the Boogeyman actually speaking his mind before them.

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White attention and discomfort are the keys to understanding Malcolm’s signifi­cance in black eyes. To put it simply, the principal reasons behind Malcolm X’s suc­cess as a Hector of black self-respect, and particularly, of black male self-respect, were his attempts before white audiences to turn the unwanted Boogeyman into the proud Essential Black Man. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood,” eu­logized Ossie Davis at Malcolm’s funeral. Later, Davis said, “[He] was refreshing ex­citement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of whitefolks, to the smile that never fades.” Not only did Malcolm tell whites off, he heartily chastized black people for acceding to white ideas about African-Americans. In place of the white­-man’s Boogeyman, Malcolm put forward himself, and the Nation of Islam, as the real examples of the spirit of black resistance, the supposed “heart” of American black identity. In countless speeches, Malcolm announced “I’m a field Negro,” indicating to anyone with ears that he was proud of his resistant and basic blackness, his fightin’ Negro/Essential Black Man-ness.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malcolm’s icon finds its textual counterpart in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A smoothly laid-out, quasi-mythological ac­count of Malcolm’s life, the book resembles the Biblical Saul-to-Paul story — Malcolm as a lost man who finds his way to truth through two revelations: first, the embrace of his black Muslim identity; second, the embrace of human commonality.

“If it were not for that book,” Alex Haley told me, “by now I suspect Malcolm’s life would be a pastiche of apocryphal stories. A jello of stories.” The stories in Haley’s book come from one source, Malcolm X. “One of the understandings that we had from the beginning, and it was followed to the letter, was — and this was his stipula­tion — that the book would not contain any­thing he didn’t want in it. And I respected that absolutely,” says Haley. What resulted is a true autobiography, a life story almost entirely manipulated by its bearer, Mal­colm X, in order “to help people to appre­ciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people.” Malcolm’s project was to make his life, once written down, the prin­cipal testament to Muhammad’s Truth, a combination of holy text and ex-slave narrative.

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And thanks to this strategy, black folks who’re looking to put flesh to Malcolm’s icon (and many don’t even try) have a book that gives them — and particularly the black male — a model for being black. Inevitably the autobiography also suffers from the agenda; tailored to make points, the book ultimately fails as a comprehensive life-­and-times telling. Malcolm knew this, and offered, after his break with Muhammed, to remake the story along post-Nation, hu­manist lines. But Alex Haley vigorously dis­couraged his subject from making changes, suggesting instead that Malcolm tack on the story of his Mecca trip. That addition — a second strategy — confuses the first strategy by recasting Malcolm’s Black Muslim reve­lation in Black humanist light. What, we just have to ask is: what did Malcolm really stand for? Ultimately, the autobiography says too many different things to be politi­cally or religiously pedagogical, in a coher­ent way. And it ends up concealing Mal­colm X.

Read the autobiography alongside Mal­colm’s speeches, or against some of his var­ious proto-biographies, and its holes be­come plain. Just a few days before his death, Malcolm told a Harlem audience about the Nation’s — and his — involvement with the Ku Klux Klan:

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and there­fore lessen the pressure that the integration­ists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered. Now, this was in December of 1960 …

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What Malcolm relates in this passage is deep: In an effort to secure a separate black homeland, the Nation of Islam had taken part in secret negotiations with the Klan, when the group was killing black people. But this important event is absent in our collective (mis)understanding of the man, and in our projection of him. And though it doesn’t invalidate Malcolm’s spirit of resis­tance, it ought to force a rethinking of Mal­colm’s form of resistance: Is the kind of nationalism Malcolm espoused during most of his career naïve, and racist, by nature? Maybe. It’s plain, my people, that facts like these make any simple equations of Mal­colm and Black Integrity very foolish in­deed. And to figure things out, we need more than the iconographic flesh the offi­cial history — the autobiography — supplies.

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

What would help is some voices, voices that help us better see the actual man. Though Alex Haley’s epilogue gives an overview of Malcolm’s life and reveals the process of making the autobiography, Mal­colm’s book does not provide a second opinion of the man (how could we expect it to?). Thing is, the black intelligentsia has failed to fill the void, which has led to problems: On the one hand, Malcolm’s flaws — most notably his sexism — go unex­amined, and on the other hand, Malcolm’s legacy gets shaped by those who do choose to write about him. Inside the black com­munity there’s too little critiquing, and out­side of it, there’s more than we can handle.

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Malcolm’s attitudes toward women, for example, are perfect subject matter for a black feminist critique, but the critics are quiet, or being ignored. You only have to turn to Malcolm’s autobiography to eyeball Malcolm’s straight-up anti-woman senti­ments, but rarely are they acknowledged by the community. Listen to Malcolm, for in­stance, on why men visited the prostitutes he befriended as a young man:

Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagree­able and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. More wives could keep their hus­bands if they realized their [husbands] greatest urge is to be men.

Men see prostitutes because their wives, with their hen-pecking ways and their disre­spect for mens’ manliness, drive them to it. To this Malcolm later adds, “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: They are attracted to the male in whom they see strength,” a thought echoed in one of his last speeches. “[The press does] know that if something were to happen and all these [NOI] brothers, their eyes were to come open, they would be right out here in every one of these civil rights organizations mak­ing these Uncle Tom Negro leaders stand up and fight like men instead of running around here nonviolently acting like wom­en.” Again, women are weak. While Mal­colm’s sexist stance was shared by many of his contemporaries, his equating of the in­tegrity of black manhood with the integrity of the race makes the sexism more trou­bling. Is this the kind of thinking we cele­brate when we celebrate Malcolm X? Yes, if we don’t critique the man, and interpret his self-made history. We simply need more critiques.

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And the critiques must come from us, because we already have several non-Black voices framing Malcolm’s textual legacy. Most prominent among them is the Social­ist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group that has long embraced African-American strug­gle as revolutionary. In July of 1939, the SWP — with the encouragement of Trinida­dian Marxist C. L. R. James and the blessings of Trotsky himself — had adopted a res­olution entitled “The SWP and Negro Work,” which began: “The American Ne­groes, for centuries the most oppressed sec­tion of American society and the most dis­criminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary element of the population. They are designated by their whole histori­cal past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolu­tion.” The document goes on to argue that the SWP must help form this adequate leadership “through the work of the party among the Negroes and in wider fields in­fluencing the Negro masses to recognize in the SWP the only party that is genuinely working for their complete emancipation from the heavy burdens they have borne so long.” In one stroke, the SWP had begun, according to its own literature, “to present the only consistently revolutionary attitude to black nationalism when that tendency began to assume mass proportions in the 1960s.”

Through two decades the party diligently pursued its objectives, and when Malcolm appeared on the scene, they were ready. By covering Malcolm’s activities in their news­paper, The Militant, and, after his break with the NOI, by offering him places to speak, the SWP tried to help Malcolm throughout his career. The party even helped care for his family after the assassination. “Checks came in from all over the United States and [they] just said, ‘Buy milk for Malcolm’s babies,’ ” says Mal­colm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. “No strings attached.” Shabazz eventually signed an agreement permitting SWP’s Pathfinder Press to publish her husband’s speeches, many of which they have faithfully kept in circulation. They’re white, and they’re Marx­ists, and for 25 years they’ve been doing the most of anyone to foster Malcolm’s legacy.

Yo, we black folk should be ashamed. The SWP also does its critical work: in the form of introductions to the speeches Path­finder publishes, in the form of analyses of the man’s politics, in the form of discussion groups about the meaning of his life. They’re making a Malcolm all their own. It should come as no surprise, then, that their critical approach, while recognizing Mal­colm’s anti-white supremacy project, places emphasis on his last year, underlin­ing an increasing openness to the possibility of working with white revolutionaries, and of adopting ideas important to Trotskyites: anti-imperialism, internationalism, militant activism, and political organization. Ac­cordingly, Pathfinder’s flagship text, Mal­colm X Speaks, contains only one speech made prior to Malcolm’s break with the Nation, while their The Last Year of Mal­colm X provides an excellent explanation of the last year’s speeches from their own point of view. Can’t blame them too much; the’re just doing their jobs. And we aren’t.

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Brothers and sisters, we got to talk.

Surely, the words of a man held sacred by the African-American community should be considered by that community, and wrestled with by that community. Where are the Black Muslim speeches Malcolm made prior to his break with Muhammad? There are smatterings published in Path­finder’s books, or they’re out of print, or they (mostly) have never been published. And where are the black biographical maps that would interpret Malcolm’s words­ — and life — from “a black perspective?” Writing in the VLS (July, 1989), scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:

Although over 300 collective black biogra­phies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreat­ed the lives and times of other blacks.

The dearth of frank, black discussions of Malcolm X, is, to put it plainly, scandalous. The crisis of quiet in our community extends far beyond any discussion of Mal­colm X. We simply don’t talk honestly enough to one another — the legacy, perhaps, of always whispering when Massa was around. We’re still afraid of who’s looking. “Edit the negative and hold the line!” cries much of the local, and certainly the nation­al, black press. “Edit the negative!” And as a result, ain’t any national places for black writer/thinkers to lay down thoughts for general consumption. Let’s move toward a black perestroika. It’s a wicked irony that Malcolm’s legacy should suffer from our tendency to keep quiet: He spent, afterall, his lifetime trying to raise his (Black) voice. Ours, too. And so we answer with silence, out of fear (of whitefolks, of blasphemy, of tribal traitorism, of losing the badge, of splitting up the community), and we treat Malcolm’s image as a kind of precious cur­rency, hiding his philosophies and leaving his thoughts largely un-critiqued and unengaged.

If we talk, maybe we can put a story to his face, and maybe we can come up with a coherent meaning — a meaning for today — ­of Blackness. Look around, my people, and deal with it: Black masks just ain’t working right. We got to look at each other, and we got to check out the mirror, and we got to see what we see. Malcolm’s face is a fine place to start: We only have Malcolm, and ourselves, to fear. ■

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Revolution in D Minor: How the Czech Philharmonic Toppled Communism

Revolution in D Minor: How the Czech Philharmonic Toppled Communism
June 19, 1990

On December 14, 1989, the leading sym­phony orchestra of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Philharmonic, gave a concert at Smetana Hall in Prague. It was probably the most famous concert in the history of that country. The orchestra played Beetho­ven’s Ninth Symphony. Václav Neumann, the Philharmonic’s principal conductor, was at the podium.

People in the hall were delirious with happiness. The overthrow of communism was halfway completed, already the communists were vacating seats in the govern­ment, and leaders of the prodemocracy Civic Forum were taking over one post after another.

Mr. Neumann wore a big Civic Forum pin in his lapel. The last notes of Beetho­ven’s final movement, the “Ode to Joy,” with its parts for chorus and solo singers, died away, and Václav Havel came on stage. Mr. Havel was not yet the president of his country; a communist still occupied that office. But everyone knew that Mr. Havel was the leader of the Civic Forum and ought to be president, and probably would be soon enough, once the last of the communists were finally pushed out.

Mr. Havel introduced the new Civic Fo­rum members of the government, who were sitting in the audience. He introduced the new foreign minister, Jirí Dienstbier, an old jail-mate of Mr. Havel’s and a famous dissi­dent. Mr. Dienstbier was sitting in the box of honor. And at the sight of the victorious dissidents sitting in the hall, the audience, the musicians, the chorus, the solo sing­ers — everyone, thrilled, applauded ecstatically.

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Three tiny paragraphs about this concert appeared in The New York Times the next day. Naturally the Times concentrated on the important political leaders like Mr. Ha­vel and Mr. Dienstbier. But in the last of the paragraphs the article turned to the orchestra.

In the reporter’s stony prose: “The members of the Czech Philharmonic are among the heroes of what Czechoslovaks have tak­en to refer to matter of factly as ‘our revolution.’ They were the first artistic en­semble to go on strike and have played several concerts as benefits for striking students.”

That was the orchestra’s entire mention. Then the Times went on to other things. The concert, the conductor’s Civic Forum pin, Mr. Havel’s introductions from the Smetana Hall stage, the “exuberant” ap­plause from a “jubilant house” — these de­tails sparkled for an instant and disap­peared into the waterfall of amazing information that has come pouring out of the countries of Eastern Europe.

Historical events as vast as the overthrow of world communism can be analyzed on a cosmic scale, the way astronomers study the universe by peering at whole galaxies. Or they can be analyzed in miniature, by focusing on a molecule.

Here is an analysis of the fall of commu­nism that examines one droplet of informa­tion: the exuberant applause at Smetana Hall on December 14, 1989, and why it was directed not only at the dissident leaders and the new democratic government, but also at the people seated in concentric rows to Vaclav Havel’s rear — those other “he­roes” of “our revolution,” the symphony musicians of Prague.

The Communist Cell

The Soviet Army, as is sometimes forgot­ten, cannot be blamed for every black shad­ow that has fallen across the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Communism was export­ed to Eastern Europe from across the Soviet border, but it was a local product, too. A bright inner core of the big-city intelligen­tsia, the writers and artists, the concert­goers, readers of literary and philosophical reviews, student intellectuals — these peo­ple, in the aftermath of the Nazi occupa­tion, showed no little enthusiasm for the communist idea.

Bolshevik habits like ferocity and disci­pline struck them as practical virtues, nice­ly adapted to an age of fascism. And they saw in communism what seems impossible to remember today — a cultural ideal, not just an economic program. For these people were the partisans of civilization against barbarism, they upheld the old notions of the enlightened European intelligentsia, they were the champions of ever-expanding liberations in every field of life — except that civilization and barbarism had ex­changed their customary geographies, and the Paris and Vienna of the golden future were going to be, in the postwar imagina­tion, Moscow and Leningrad.

These communist sympathizers, circa 1945, were not exactly well-informed about the Moscow and Leningrad that really existed. Or possibly they did have an idea of Soviet reality and were not especially dis­turbed. Their revolutionary project was al­ways faintly ambiguous. Were commu­nism’s sympathizers anti-obscurantists in the great liberal tradition? Or were they obscurantists like their leader, Stalin? Were they fascism’s bitter enemy, or its twin? Progressives or reactionaries?

It was impossible to say. The communist intelligentsia was a new twist in the history of ideas. Yet in the atmosphere of the 1940s, in the institutional rubble left be­hind by the defeated Nazis, these people­ — communism’s most important social base — found themselves with a good deal of power. And with a helpful shove from the Soviet army, one country after another followed them into the radiant future, and a whiff of uncertainty about communism’s meaning and intent always lingered behind, like exhaust fumes.

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The communist experience of the Czech Philharmonic began in something of that spirit. The young Václav Neumann, the same musician who later became world famous as the Philharmonic’s principal conductor, organized the orchestra’s original party cell in 1946 by saying: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are forming the first communist organization in the Czech Philharmonic.” That was an odd way to usher in the new era, given that true Bolsheviks, enemies of the bourgeoisie, address one an­other as comrades, not as “ladies and gen­tlemen.”

Mr. Neumann was a true enough Bolshe­vik to put together a cell. But he managed not to be a comrade. The works he performed were those of the grand masters of the past, and he continued to wear the tails and starched shirts of ancient custom, and he would never abandon the Czech stuffi­ness that insists on “Mr., Mrs., Miss, ladies and gentlemen.” He was, everything con­sidered, bourgeois tradition’s stout defend­er — as well as Moscow’s. And in that same ambiguous way, the communist movement built popular cells all over post-Nazi Czechoslovakia.

A great bulk of the population leaned instinctively toward social democracy. And since the communists were not without a clever tactical sense, the party described itself as a sort of social-democracy-without­-bourgeois-illusions. The comrades spoke of a “Czechoslovak Road to Socialism,” something smoother and more civilized than the barbarous Bolshevism of the uncouth Soviet Union. By appearing to be democratic yet allied with Stalin, authenti­cally Czechoslovak yet pro-Soviet, refined yet tough, by cultivating the kind of ambi­guity that could prompt an earnest maestro into addressing his comrades as ladies and gentlemen, the communists managed to en­tice all but the shrewdest corners of the social democratic movement into a fateful­ly disastrous popular front. Large sectors of the working class joined with large sectors of the intelligentsia under communist aus­pices, and in a free election in 1946, the party managed to come away with no less than 38 per cent of the popular vote.

Had there been a second election a cou­ple of years later, communism would prob­ably have accumulated an absolute majority. Except that 38 per cent was quite sufficient, and soon enough the commu­nists did away with the bourgeois custom of free elections, and by 1948 the deed was done, not because of the Red Army. The Republic of Czechoslovakia metamorphosed into the Czechoslovak Socialist Re­public, member in good standing of the world communist movement.

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The meaning of communism’s rise to pow­er was not immediately obvious to most people (though there were a clear-eyed few who instantly fled into exile). The new gov­ernment expropriated the country homes of rich bourgeois and turned them into vaca­tion resorts for poor workers, which seemed, from a solidly progressive point of view, exactly what any decent person would have advocated. The communist notion of how to build an economy, the army-like system of administrative fiat, unwavering obedience, central planning, and mass ef­fort, worked well enough, so long as eco­nomic growth meant new steel plants and weapons factories. The economy under these principles expanded for a decade and a half even without the economists faking the figures.

Yet in the first years alone, the Czecho­slovak Road to Socialism — less smooth than anticipated — managed to execute 8000 people, according to literature put out by dissidents later on. The very first of the communist show-trials in Prague did away with the leaders of the duped and manipu­lated factions of democratic socialism. As many as 150,000 unfortunates ended up in prison, and the rest of the population found themselves dwelling among party cells and secret police informers and subject to less than civilized demands for conformity in every sphere of life and thought.

By the mid-1960s, the party’s own econo­mists began to notice that economic growth wasn’t what it seemed either (as one of those economists, the present ambassador to the U.S., Rita Klímová, has told me). The brute-force approach worked well enough at building steel plants, if you didn’t mind executing a lot of people, but was not so good at tuning the economy to any finer pitch.

The economy, having climbed upward for 15 years, began to climb back down. And when some of the top political leaders, not just the economists and technocrats, noticed the sorry effects of their own rule and tried to institute reforms — when Alexander Dubcek and his party comrades launched the “Prague Spring” of 1968 in order to liberalize their own system (though not so much as to permit opposition parties or normal democratic procedures) — in came the tanks and troops of “fraternal aid” from the Soviet Union and the War­saw Pact, and self-deception about commu­nism’s liberating potential became that much harder to maintain. The situation, as the Party leaders said, “normalized.” Nor­malization meant, after August 1968, that Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism was barely even Czechoslovak.

The Leonore Overture

The Czech Philharmonic, being a jewel of the national culture, not to mention a de­pendable source of six million crowns a year in hard currency, never had to endure the worst of these bleak developments. The party maintained its cell in the orchestra and ran the unions and controlled the con­cert halls, and by manipulating the differ­ent levers of power, had the musicians un­der firm control. Yet the Czech Philharmonic, like all the great orchestras in Europe, was by tradition a self-governing institution, and this tradition never entirely disappeared.

The communists asserted the right to veto any proposal made by the orchestra. But the orchestra retained a countervailing power of veto over the communists, which made for a bit of check and balance. Most of the elected positions in the orchestra fell into communist hands. But the musicians somehow kept the right to vote freely on one of the important jobs, the Representa­tive for Secondary Activities.

In most of the Czechoslovak orchestras, the secret police supervised the hiring of musicians in order to prevent anyone suspected of anticommunist sentiment from infiltrating, say, an important flute section. At the Czech Philharmonic, for instance, the police intervened to prevent the young winner of a cello competition in 1983 from taking a seat in the orchestra, due to the inconvenient fact that the cellist’s father had signed a notorious dissident manifesto, Charter 77, calling for human rights. Gen­erally, though, the Philharmonic retained the power to pick its own members, and the secret police didn’t interfere.

In that way, the Philharmonic never lost control over what was, after all, the main thing — its own musical quality. Yet it could hardly be said that members of the orches­tra were free citizens. Over the years, the party cell in the orchestra hovered between 10 and 20 people and was always active and strong, either because some musicians honestly upheld communist principles, or because the pressure to join the party was too great to resist. Mr. Václav Junek, the principal trumpeter (until he went on half­-time, due to age), was a communist of the first type, a man of stalwart Leninist principles who kept the cell in good repair as a matter of political commitment.

In recent times, the cell — or the “swine,” as I have heard them called (“There’s al­ways the chance of one of those swine recognizing your voice,” Julia tells Winston in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) — consisted of one flutist, one double-bassist, three cel­lists, five first violinists, and one second violinist, plus Comrade Junek. Strictly un­der the discipline of their own higher-ups in the party ranks, these 12 musicians domi­nated the orchestra, mostly by keeping tabs on their fellow musicians.

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The orchestra might travel to faraway con­cert halls in Switzerland, or further still, to remote New York, but not even distance offered relief. The Czech violinists or clari­netists who could be seen hurrying along Seventh Avenue or 57th Street on their way from the Wellington Hotel or the Holiday Inn to Carnegie Hall, canvas-covered cases beneath their arms, looking for all the world like free musicians from a free repub­lic, were under precise instructions not to engage in random conversation with strangers.

The bitterest injunction of all was not to converse with their own most fervent fans, the Czechoslovak exiles who flocked to Carnegie Hall in the hope of bathing their ears in Dvorák or Smetana, and who after­ward might want to stop by the dressing room for a nostalgic chat about the old country. Or, if such forbidden conversa­tions did take place, the musicians’ obliga­tion was to report on them right away. Perhaps to Comrade Junek in the trumpet section or to someone else in authority. Apart from the well-known members of the party cell, there must have been, as every­one knew, members of the secret police in the orchestra’s entourage, though possibly not among the musicians themselves.

It was not that if a musician fell out of favor with the party or showed a lack of enthusiasm for party projects, anything drastic was likely to happen. Repression was mostly a system of threats and infer­ences, like a color filter that could gradually make life a little darker. One of the orches­tra’s two harpists, Renata Kodadová, was invited by party leaders to establish a chap­ter of the Union of Socialist Youth, a com­munist enterprise. But Mrs. Kodadová, who didn’t approve of communist enterprises, indignantly refused — and found that her career as soloist dribbled to a halt, without any word of a blacklist ever being uttered. Invitations to perform simply no longer arrived.

Ludvík Bortl, the bass trombonist (a bass trombone is a regular trombone with extra heft and an extra tube), had a different problem. Mr. Bortl’s error may have been his patent honesty, which made him less than shy at expressing his democratic convictions. One day an anonymous letter ar­rived accusing him of embezzling funds from a recording contract — and for two years afterward, the police kept hinting to the trombonist about advantages he could enjoy by making himself quietly useful to the authorities.

Even Maestro Neumann, though he was an old-time parlor communist, had his dif­ficulties, just to show that no one stood above the party. Mr. Neumann’s error was to rush home to Czechoslovakia from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in East Germany at the time of the ’68 invasion­ — without fulfilling, according to the authori­ties, his contract with the same East Ger­mans who, from another point of view, had just invaded his country. Afterward Mr. Neumann could no longer count on official sympathy. He was invited to conduct the Munich Philharmonic at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, but on the day before his planned departure, official per­mission evaporated and the famous con­ductor found himself stranded — “desper­ate,” he told me — in his own country.

In order to go on a foreign vacation, orchestra members had to avoid arousing the enmity of the 12 comrades of the party cell. There was the fear that someone who fell out of favor might not, in a medical emergency, receive the best health care. There were the worries that everyone in Czechoslovakia had to entertain about their children — whether they would be locked out of higher education, the way that Václav Havel was as a young man, because of the anticommunist politics of his parents.

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How could orchestra musicians withstand a lifetime of pressures like that? They did it slyly, as Mr. Neumann now acknowledges, in musical code. Mr. Neumann and the orchestra became ever fonder of perform­ing works by Beethoven, notably the Leon­ore overture No. 3, which Beethoven origi­nally intended as the overture to an opera about liberals versus tyrants.

Did the authorities understand that refer­ence? Perhaps not, or perhaps they didn’t mind. Musical codes are notoriously unreli­able. Beethoven, the champion of freedom, was a favorite of the Czechoslovak dissi­dents, just as he was of the Allies in the Second World War, but then again he was a favorite of the Nazis, too. The conductor Herbert von Karajan conducted a Beetho­ven symphony back in 1938 to celebrate the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland re­gion of Czechoslovakia. Slippery Beethoven!

In any case, the Leonore overture kept turning up on the Czech Philharmonic’s program. Other resistance, if that word doesn’t overstate the reality, was merely social: when the orchestra traveled abroad, no one wanted to room with the 12 comrades. That was prudent, too, given that a fit of overly frank late-night soul-bearing might do your life no end of harm.

Overt political protests on the orchestra’s part were out of the question. But as disaf­fection with communism grew more acute in the Eastern bloc, some quiet or clandes­tine resistance was not altogether impossi­ble. Mr. Bortl, the bass trombonist, was the key figure, joined by younger musicians like Jacob Waldman, a baby-faced double bass­ist, and a few others. This inner nucleus of activists gathered a secret list of 20 or 25 orchestra members who could be counted on to contribute money for the samizdat, or underground, publications that dissident intellectuals were putting out. Fundraising was a daring thing to do and had to be gone about conspiratorially, with no one but the top organizers knowing which of the musi­cians figured among the contributors.

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A more public resistance, when it began, came strictly in the name of musical values, though the line between politics and music wasn’t always clear, given the communist predilection for politicizing the nonpoliti­cal. The party had its musical demands, its preferred or proscribed performers and composers, about which, normally speak­ing, the orchestra had very little to say. Mr. Neumann was eager to perform a sympho­ny by Miloslav Kabelác, but the censors pored over the score and discovered the irksome Babylonian inscription, “Mene, mene, tekel, ufarsin” — the Bible’s “writing on the wall” — and Kabelác’s symphony disappeared into the black hole of the unperformable.

Yet on other occasions the orchestra ex­ercised its ancient prerogatives and refused to be manipulated. In 1986, the orchestra and the government decided to commemo­rate the 90th anniversary of the Czech Phil­harmonic’s founding, a grand moment in the history of Czech music. The post office issued a stamp. The state television sched­uled a concert. But what was to be performed at the concert? Commemorative concerts, by tradition, are supposed to re­-perform whatever was played at the origi­nal event — in this case, Antonín Dvorák’s Biblical Songs, which the composer himself had led back in 1896.

Biblical Songs was not a happy title, though, in an age of official atheism. The communist authorities proposed some contemporary Czech and Soviet composers in­stead. Since the orchestra had a veto, it refused on grounds of strict tradition to perform anything but Dvorak’s songs and the rest of the 1896 program. This backed the government into a corner. But there was nothing to be done about it, and the cultural officials, furious, canceled the broadcast in spite of the postage stamp and the publicity.

The Bass Trombonist

It has to be asked why the difficulties between the Philharmonic and the commu­nists tended to revolve around television and radio broadcasts. The answer has to do with the one important post that remained fully under orchestral control, the Repre­sentative for Secondary Activities, whose business was nothing other than to grant permission for radio and television broad­casts, along with recordings. In its wisdom the orchestra managed to elect to this re­sponsible but not very fascinating job the capable bass trombonist, Mr. Ludvík Bortl, otherwise known for quietly tiptoeing among the musicians to collect secret funds for samizdat publications.

The bass trombonist saw to his duties as Representative for Secondary Activities with zeal. One day the Ministry of Culture, in its eagerness to impose politically reli­able conductors for broadcast concerts, in­vited the Philharmonic to perform under the baton of Milosz Konvalinka, the con­ductor of Prague’s National Theater orches­tra. Mr. Konvalinka was highly regarded by the cultural officials of the Communist Par­ty, but less highly by the musicians of the Czech Philharmonic. Mr. Bortl, on the or­chestra’s behalf, declined to permit the broadcast concert to go on with Mr. Konva­linka conducting.

The ministry was aghast. The orchestra declined? Mr. Bortl was called in for a dis­cussion with the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He and the orchestra manager received threatening phone calls. But there was no backing down: In the opinion of the musicians of the Czech Phil­harmonic, as expressed through their freely elected Representative for Secondary Ac­tivities, the government’s preferred conduc­tor was not up to standard, and the Philhar­monic would not perform, and investiga­tions by the police and threatening phone calls and requests to confer with the Cen­tral Committee simply had no influence on their decision.

In choosing the bass trombonist to be the Representative for Secondary Activities, the Philharmonic had selected the sort of man whom management never likes to see sitting across the negotiating table. Mr. Bortl’s big arms, when they weren’t holding his oversized American-made King trom­bone up to play, lay folded across a large chest in the gesture that communicates im­movability. He sat in the back row at con­certs and waited for the bass trombone part to turn up in the score, and from a place in the audience you could easily imagine, with a little knowledge of what he was like, that the Czech Philharmonic consisted of 95 or a hundred musicians made of flesh and blood — and one granite boulder.

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At negotiations, he had a zest for driving other people crazy by repeating himself with stubborn inflexibility. The most infamous example came in February 1987, when the orchestra went on one of its tours to the Soviet Union. The musicians were scheduled to perform a concert commemo­rating the seizure of power by Czechoslova­kia’s Communist Party in 1948, a festive holiday for all friends of the Czechoslovak Road to Socialism. The Soviet Union scheduled a television broadcast, and the musicians arrived in the hall and took out their instruments and the television crews completed their preparations, and the great revolutionary concert was set to beam onto the television screens of the Union of Sovi­et Socialist Republics.

Mr. Bortl, however, as the Representa­tive for Secondary Activities, wondered why the Czech Philharmonic, on its Soviet tours, was expected to perform without pay. Nonpayment for Soviet concerts seemed to him an offense to the orchestra’s pride. He explained to the Soviet officials that when the Czech Philharmonic tours the United States, it never plays for free. So why should the Soviet Union be any different?

After many decades of communist rule, this may have been a foolish question on Mr. Bortl’s part. It was gloriously naive of him to raise such an issue, or rather, disin­genuous, since every schoolchild in the Warsaw Pact knew perfectly well why the Czech Philharmonic was expected to play for free in the Soviet Union, namely be­cause Czechoslovakia no longer figured as a sovereign nation and the orchestra no long­er constituted an ensemble of free musicians.

Mr. Bortl nonetheless asked the question, and by doing so, posed a delicate problem. The true answer to his question could never quite be said aloud nor even whispered by a kindly Soviet concert impresario in a corri­dor conversation. Yet what was to be done? Mr. Bortl, declining to give final permis­sion for the orchestra to perform, kept ask­ing his disingenuous question. Some kind of response was required.

The Soviet authorities got angry. They threw up their hands: the concert was sup­posed to go on and there was no time for stupid bickering. But Mr. Bortl was immov­able. In the United States, the damnable man kept saying, the Czech Philharmonic never performs for free. So why should the Soviet Union … and so forth through his idiotic but unanswerable argument until, with chaos in the concert hall and five minutes left to go, a Soviet official came dashing into the theater, contract in hand specifying payment to that most irritating of orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic.

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In his own thinking, the struggles led by Mr. Bortl had a definite political dimen­sion, which he described, in the case of the Soviet television concert, as “our own, per­sonal, very little protest against totalitarian­ism.” But this, too, was never said out loud. His reasoning was always phrased either as a worker’s demand for pay, or as a musi­cian’s insistence on tradition. And if Mr. Bortl’s mosquito attacks on totalitarianism were never stated in political terms, nei­ther, on the other hand, did anything seem to be political in the difficulties that the orchestra began to encounter in its dealings with the Czechoslovak government.

To begin with, where was the orchestra going to perform? This question, which grew ever more pressing, seemed merely to reflect a government tendency toward bu­reaucratic inefficiency and poor planning, without political meaning. Bohemia (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, where Prague is located) used to be called “the conservatorium of Europe,” as Mrs. Koda­dová, the harpist, has told me. But in this century, nobody has bothered to erect any new halls in Prague. Nor has anyone re­paired the old halls. The Czech Philhar­monic traditionally performed in the Ru­dolfinum, named after the Emperor Rudolf, but in recent years the Rudolfinum had become so decrepit that nothing was left to do but pack up and move until grand-scale renovations could eventually be made.

The authorities, though, contrived these renovations in such a way that, when the work would someday be completed, computers and climate-control mechanisms would occupy crucial space in the cramped hall, which the orchestra would still have to share with the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Musical Arts. The computer­ized, air-conditioned concert hall was going to be a cattle car. So there was, from the Philharmonic’s point of view, no concert space for the time being, and there was not going to be a suitable hall in the future, and there were no plans for anything better.

The orchestra meanwhile scheduled its performances for Smetana Hall, a big creamy cavern, gymnasium-shaped, with skylight panes stuck in the ceiling like a giant emerald. Smetana Hall wouldn’t have been a bad place, except that the Prague Symphony Orchestra and other groups per­formed there, too, which made for a lot of traffic and inconvenience. Sometimes the Philharmonic was shunted into still another hall, the Zofín, doubtless the world’s most romantic concert auditorium, grandly lo­cated on a tiny island in the Vltava River. Only the Zofín, too, was pretty much in disrepair. Broken glass gaped from win­dows, stucco dribbled onto the grounds, the heating could not be counted on.

The musicians lugged their instrument cases across the stone bridge to the island auditorium, and they wore sweaters and coats to rehearsal and had to clear out be­fore a dance class got underway. Besides, the Zofín was too small for symphonic con­certs. So the problem of a concert hall was severe, even a little ominous. And in case anyone still didn’t get the point, the orches­tra office staff discovered, as the 1980s wore on, that the office, too, was less than securely housed.

An emergency eviction notice ordered the staff out of their own premises. The orchestra manager fought the eviction off. A second notice went out. Again the man­ager fought it off. He felt like he was “box­ing” for the orchestra’s life.

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The Petition

The orchestra’s uneasiness was not, of course, confined merely to the practical dif­ficulties of locating a decent hall and reli­able office space. The musicians had a sus­picion that musical quality in Czechoslovakia was slipping. The cultural grandeur promised by communism, the brilliance that was supposed to radiate from Moscow and Leningrad, the bright beam of communist civilization — this somehow cast a light that seemed to grow ever dimmer in the run-down concert halls of Prague. The Czech Philharmonic used to attract the greatest musicians of the world to perform as soloists or guest conductors. Was the orchestra imagining things, or were great musicians increasingly reluctant to perform in Prague? And if that was true, what was the explanation?

Different theories made the rounds. Some of the most influential orchestra members pointed, in their conversations with me, to Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy problems with Israel. In 1967, as part of the communist bloc’s anti-Zionist turn, the Czechoslovak government abandoned its historic sympathy for Zionism and came out in favor of Israel’s enemies, not just the peaceful ones. (It was Czechoslovakia that sent Semtex plastic explosives to Muammar Qaddafi for distribution to terrorist groups such as the Palestinian faction that appar­ently blew up the Pan Am jet at Lockerbie, Scotland.) And since people in Czechoslo­vakia never much approved of this anti-­Zionist development, there was, at any rate among the musicians, a resentment of the consequences that filtered back to Prague.

Great musicians like Erich Leinsdorf and Gerd Albrecht still came to perform with the Philharmonic. But there were others who held Israeli passports and could no longer visit Czechoslovakia, and still others who chose, in that case, not to. And since some of the best musicians in the world figured among those who took Prague off their concert tours, the members of the Philharmonic regretted the loss keenly.

There were other explanations for the orchestra’s gloomy sense of its position in the world. Mr. Neumann told me (through the double medium of a telephone and an interpreter) that getting musicians to Prague was not, in his opinion, the prob­lem. His own feeling about Czechoslova­kia’s decline was vaguer, though more poi­gnant. He was haunted by the worry that the Czech Philharmonic, in its appearances abroad, might be greeted with hostility.

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He pictured an audience somewhere in the West welcoming the orchestra with whistles of disdain and contempt — not because of how it performed, but because of the coun­try it represented. The fear was unreason­able; never once was the Czech Philhar­monic greeted less than warmly. But the worry did express the feeling of isolation that overtook the Philharmonic, the sense that grand vistas of culture and quality lay elsewhere and that the conservatorium of Europe had become a pariah even in the world of music.

Then again, these plaintive feelings were merely the musicians’ version of what ev­eryone in the Eastern bloc began to feel. Czechoslovakia under communism had be­come a country whose best writers were either in and out of jail, like Mr. Havel, or in exile, like Milan Kundera and Joseph Skvorecky. A full 500 authors, according to Mr. Skvorecky, came under a ban. The country’s best filmmaker, Milos Forman, emigrated to the United States. Its industri­al economy, one of the strongest in the world, degenerated into the third or fourth rank.

Even life expectancy, due mostly to de­cades of cheap brown coal and dead rivers, shriveled to a level five years below that of Western Europe. The sense of musical me­diocrity and isolation, the effort to intimi­date the bass trombonist with secret police investigations, the blacklisting of the harp­ist from her solo career and of the cello­-competition winner from his rightful seat, the canceled commemorative concert, the inability of Mr. Neumann to conduct at the Olympic festival in Japan, the chipping plaster, broken windows, shrinking space, the eviction notices — all this was nothing but the national predicament.

The move toward open politics, the prog­ress that would make the Philharmonic the first important sector of Czech society to go into open opposition, came only last year, in fitful steps. In January 1989, Václav Ha­vel was arrested yet again and condemned to four and a half months in prison, this time for laying flowers on the grave of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself to protest the 1968 Soviet invasion. And with Mr. Havel once again in jail, a petition began to circulate, addressed to the com­munist prime minister, requesting the play­wright’s release.

Naturally the bass trombonist, with his dissident connections, took his place in the ranks of secret petition-circulators. Togeth­er with Mrs. Kodadová and one of the bassoonists and certain of the others, he passed the document around to the more reliable musicians. But who would want to sign such a petition? A chair in the Czech Philharmonic was the best position any musician could dream of having. To play in a historic orchestra was an honor, not to mention a joy. Whereas to sign a petition, to court the wrath of the party and the government, to risk your hard-earned chair merely for a noble civic gesture — was that a sound idea?

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The petition clandestinely circulated, and each little group of musicians quietly went into existential crisis. Some musicians did sign, not just the young militants either. The silver-haired veteran cellist, Mr. Jan Stros, added his name, and there were, finally, 30 signatures on the petition. The organizers figured that if enough people got up their courage, the numbers would reach a critical mass, the orchestra would be un­assailable, and the petition could go public.

Mr. Bortl got along well with Maestro Neumann and hoped discreetly to ask him, too, for his signature, which would have heartened the timid. But Mr. Neumann who often toured abroad while guest conductors took over the orchestra, was in Vienna. Thirty turned out to be the upper limit. “Most of us,” as Mr. Stros recalled later on, “were afraid.”

Then the orchestra manager got wind of the document and brought it up at a general meeting. What was this idea of protesting, he wanted to know. Did the musicians un­derstand that the Czech Philharmonic was still trying to find a hall and the manager’s job was not made any easier by people going around signing petitions? Did the musicians understand that, if the petition went through their own wages might be in danger?

Mr. Waldman, the double-bassist, and some of the more militant and sophisticat­ed musicians regarded the manager as something of a bluffer. Wages were not, in spite of what he said, endangered; they came steadily from the state, no matter what. As for the hall, that particular sore point was not going to be resolved any time soon, no matter how cooperative the musi­cians became. The concert hall was a doomed issue, short of a Japanese investment.

But the manager’s statement had its ef­fect. Wages! The hall! A good half of the musicians who had signed the Havel peti­tion sneaked back to the organizers and asked to strike their names. Other signato­ries held firm, but the panic couldn’t be suppressed. The handful of remaining names was not enough to guarantee any­one’s safety, and the project of collectively signing the Havel petition in the name of the Philharmonic was shelved — a fiasco.

Mr. Bortl signed, in that case, on his own behalf, as a lone individual and not in any way as a representative of the orchestra. That was bad enough. From the City Com­mittee of the Communist Party came an invitation to come in for a discussion. His brother heard a rumor about the trombon­ist getting thrown out of work. Mr. Bortl was not, lucky for him, a soloist, and he had no trombone students on the side, which made him less vulnerable to official pressure. He did play sometimes in a quintet and had to wonder if it might somehow be made to suffer — though nothing like that came to pass. But already some of his colleagues in the Philharmonic recognized him as a marked man and stopped return­ing his hellos.

The failed petition nonetheless stirred up a feeling in the orchestra. For the first time since the stormy days of the Warsaw Pact invasion, the orchestra had tried to take an independent public position that had noth­ing to do with self-interest or money or musical values but was strictly political. And while the controversy over the failed effort was still vivid in everyone’s mind, a second more momentous development oc­curred. The revolutions in East Germany, Hungary, and even Poland were still in the future. But the Soviet Union, that glacier, was already beginning to show a few signs of change.

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Radicalism and Exhibitionism

In early 1989, as part of the Gorbachev reforms, the Soviets stopped jamming Ra­dio Free Europe. People in Prague had always listened to other, less important short­wave stations, like the Voice of America and the BBC. VOA was especially popular; people called it “Prague 3,” meaning the capital’s third station. But VOA devoted only so many hours to the Czech language, and its stories were too often about the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains and the exotic customs of the American Indi­ans, which was amusing and pleasant, but did nothing to inform the Czech people about their own circumstances.

Radio Free Europe, for all its origins in the CIA, was less of a propaganda station. Listeners could tune in a beloved Prague radio announcer who had fled Czechoslova­kia after the ’68 invasion and hear him read translated clippings from American jour­nals as far afield as The Village Voice and The Nation. RFE reported news of the dis­sident movement. People could learn what their own neighbors were doing, what argu­ments were being made, and whose famous or not-famous necks were being risked on the public behalf.

One day in June, Radio Free Europe’s Czech language broadcasts reported on a new dissident petition called “Several Sentences.” An announcer read the petition aloud —  and more important, read some of the signatories’ names, along with their pro­fessions. Listeners sat by their radios, trans­fixed. The announcer droned on, “So-and-­so, filmmaker; so-and-so, worker,” and as the names came sailing from the radio speaker, the listeners, each in the privacy of home, heard with astonishment the names of people they knew or respected, or at any rate the names of people from their own lines of work.

The kind of existential crisis that took place in the orchestra during the unsuccess­ful effort to gather names for the Havel petition now took place in society as a whole. Names floated from the radio, and individual souls sitting around living rooms wondered, “Should I, too, sign? Should my name, too, be broadcast over Radio Free Europe?”

No one doubted the risk in endorsing “Several Sentences.” In the performing arts, signatories of “Several Sentences” found themselves denounced over the offi­cial airwaves and blacklisted from Czecho­slovak radio and television. Everyone knew that the basements of Prague were full of coal stokers who used to be well-known intellectuals. Yet here came the RFE’s next broadcast, and the announcer turned again to the topic of “Several Sentences,” and still more names floated from the radio speaker.

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Among the listeners to Radio Free Europe were, of course, the members of the Czech Philharmonic. The musicians had gotten in the habit of tuning it in during their tours abroad, where they could receive the broad­casts without jamming, and they kept up the habit when Soviet interference miracu­lously disappeared. In October ’89, several months after “Several Sentences” ceased to be circulated, but while its signatories were still being singled out for punishment, the Philharmonic traveled to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, to perform under a guest conduc­tor. The musicians tuned in the news — and caught an amazing item. The name of their own principal conductor, Mr. Václav Neu­mann, came floating from the radio speaker.

Mr. Neumann was not himself a signato­ry. But like everyone else he followed the controversy over “Several Sentences” and he was infuriated at the official denuncia­tions of the very fine citizens whose signa­tures did go down on the civic manifesto. He was a little intimidated at the idea of making a protest of his own, since the retri­butions might endanger the orchestra and not just himself. Yet the itch was in him. He wanted to act; he only wondered how.

Czech television provided the answer. The television authorities invited him to give a telecast concert. Yet these were the very people, as he reflected, who kept broadcasting scurrilous slanders against the courageous signatories of “Several Sen­tences.” The television authorities had come to the wrong man at the wrong time. Mr. Neumann’s moment of moral courage had arrived. He informed the authorities­ — “with pleasure,” a delicious phrase — that he had no intention of accepting their invitation. Václav Neumann, principal conduc­tor of the Czech Philharmonic, a National Artist by decree of the government, a world figure, was not going to perform, thank you.

His refusal was in every respect a solitary act. Kurt Masur, the Gewanthaus conduc­tor from Leipzig, was not yet leading mass demonstrations in the East German streets. The violist who would soon enough become the secessionist president of democratic Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, was still unknown to the world. The leading conduc­tors and musicians of the Eastern bloc were holding no secret conspiratorial discussions arriong themselves. Mr. Neumann had sim­ply, on his own, reached his personal limit. And by October, while the members of the Czech Philharmonic were resting in their rooms at the Neuchâtel hotel, the news of this personal stand was beaming across the waves of Radio Free Europe to everyone who tuned in to the Czech language broadcasts.

What! The members of the Philharmonic couldn’t believe their ears. Their own Mae­stro Neumann on a one-man boycott? Per­haps the report wasn’t true. The concert tour took the orchestra to Stuttgart, West Germany, and only there was someone able to reach the maestro by telephone and con­firm the astounding broadcast. And at the news of this confirmation, a “fever” — that was the word Mr. Stros later used — broke out among the different circles of Philhar­monic players.

It is customary before rehearsals, when the Philharmonic assembles onstage, for of­ficers of the orchestra to address the ensem­ble on matters of practical business. At the rehearsal in Stuttgart, the Representative for Secondary Activities got up to say a few words. Staring up at him were the faces of his own friends and the secret donors to samizdat funds and the decent but fright­ened people who had discreetly begged him to remove their names from the Havel peti­tion. But there were other faces, too: the dozen “swine,” the people who turned their glance to the wall when he waved hello, the people whose political attitudes and re­serves of personal courage were, after years in the orchestra, still a mystery, perhaps even to themselves.

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To get up and speak to an audience like that was not in every respect an easy thing. Mr. Bortl was alive to the unhappy fact that while Václav Neumann was a revered ce­lebrity in the world of music, a figure of social weight, a person that Czechoslovakia’s government would never wish to of­fend, he himself, Bortl the trombonist, was not a celebrity, had no social weight, and was, on the contrary, the object of police persecution.

No matter. Mr. Bortl opened his mouth and began to speak. His talk was unprece­dented. Mrs. Kodadová, the harpist, think­ing about that speech several months later, after the revolution, considered it to have been an act of authentic heroism. Mr. Bortl reported Mr. Neumann’s boycott of televi­sion, which by then was no secret to any­one. He proposed that the orchestra should, in an act of solidarity with its principal conductor, join the television boycott. Not as individuals but all together, as an ensem­ble. And more: the orchestra should go fur­ther than Mr. Neumann and boycott radio, too, until the blacklist against the signato­ries of “Several Sentences” was lifted. Mr. Bortl was proposing, in effect, a protest strike on grounds that were explicitly political.

Did such a strike have any likelihood of success? The Representative for Secondary Activities was in no position to offer guarantees. Milan Kundera once wrote, in a polemic against Václav Havel, a cynical essay called “Radicalism and Exhibitionism,” about people with a fondness for glamorous gestures and lost causes. A Phil­harmonic protest might well be radical. But then again it might merely be spectacular, like some desperate East Berliner hurling himself over the wall. If the musicians adopted Mr. Bortl’s proposal, they would not only be, as The New York Times would later report, the single artistic ensemble in Czechoslovakia out on strike, they would be the only ensemble of any kind — artistic, industrial, academic, ethnic, religious, or political.

No great dissident movement was wait­ing to rally around the protesting orchestra. No one in Czechoslovakia was marching in the streets (though three days later, in Prague, the dissidents did get some 10,000 people out for a march — a paltry number compared to street protests elsewhere in the bloc at the time). And in that unpromising atmosphere, the orchestra proceeded to vote.

A full 97 musicians sat on the Stuttgart rehearsal stage, not counting the guest con­ductor and a soloist. Comrade Junek of the trumpet section set himself, of course, against the resolution. But where were the other members of the cell that Comrade Junek had done so much to consolidate, the cell whose history went back to Mr. Neu­mann’s fateful invitation to the ladies and gentlemen of 1946? Somehow this cell, in the aftermath of Mr. Bortl’s courageous speech, buckled and collapsed. (Later, after the revolution, with the Communist Party in disgrace and even considering changing its name, Junek himself, feeling betrayed by the Communist leaders, regretted his own vote against the resolution.)

Three of the musicians abstained. But the rest of the orchestra, all 93 of them, heroes, cowards, unknowns, voted — unbelievably! — with Mr. Bortl. The decision was just short of unanimous. And with the momen­tous vote behind them, the orchestra turned back to its rehearsal. The Stuttgart concert was performed, and the orchestra went about its Western European tour quite as if the meeting on the Stuttgart stage was noth­ing more than a business discussion like any other.

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The Revolution

The musicians returned to Prague after three weeks in Western Europe and had reason to know that their boycott decision was not, in fact, a bit of ordinary business. The leaders of the Communist Party took the trouble to articulate the matter with exemplary clarity. The director of the state radio, an object of the strike, explained that missed performances by the Czech Philhar­monic were nothing to regret since the or­chestra was not very good anyway.

The Ideological Secretary of the Czecho­slovak Communist Party, Jan Fojtík, har­rumphed and noted that the same Czech Philharmonic that was engaged in a protest was asking for a concert hall — and was go­ing to get “shit.” That was a shocking thing to say. The word “shit” from a high official had an intimidating quality, like a cop giv­ing the finger to a protest march. It was alarming. It convinced people that Czecho­slovakia was, just as everyone feared, sink­ing into savagery under rulers who lacked culture and education and who could no longer even open their mouths without butchering the beautiful Czech language.

Comrade Fojtík’s vulgar comment ap­peared in Tvorba magazine. Meanwhile ru­mor reached the orchestra that Fojtík’s mentor, General Secretary Milos Jakes, the party’s highest official, had decided to dis­band the Czech Philharmonic altogether­ — which seemed conceivable. For the link be­tween communism and the intelligentsia, the promise of communism’s cultural great­ness, the coming brilliance of the proletar­ian order — these things were no longer even a ghost of a memory. The Ministry of Culture, in those last decadent days of com­munist rule, was planning to sell off some of Czechoslovakia’s greatest cultural assets for hard currency — the magnificent Prague Judaica collection, for example, even if the collection was a thousand years old. What was a world-renowned orchestra to people like that?

Maybe other musicians, or the same mu­sicians in a less exalted state of rage, would have beaten a convenient retreat, figuring they had bravely made their point and had nothing more to win, except a reputation for “exhibitionism.” But by then, in those first days of November, the Berlin Wall had come down and the news spread across the eastern countries via American and British shortwave broadcasts, and the political air was electric. Or perhaps the explanation was that, among the musicians, Mr. Bortl’s speech on the Stuttgart stage had estab­lished him as the undisputed political lead­er of the Czech Philharmonic, democracy’s trombone.

In any case, the orchestra did not retreat. Messages went out to other orchestras around the world, appealing for solidari­ty — and statements of support promptly ar­rived, beginning with congratulations from the Kraków Philharmonic of Poland. The orchestra telephoned the press in Czecho­slovakia to announce the boycott and ex­plain its logic. The Czechoslovak press had no intention of publicizing the antigovern­ment actions of dissident organizations. The musicians followed up with letters, just so the reporters, those professional liars, could not pretend ignorance. Still, no an­nouncement ran in the press.

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So the musicians took a further step and prepared to communicate directly with their own audience, no longer in the sly code of the Leonore overture, but directly, and on the taboo theme of politics. The orchestra printed a special leaflet announc­ing the Philharmonic boycott, and the leaf­let went straight into the concert program for the homecoming performance, Novem­ber 16, 1989, at Smetana Hall.

The secret police, already suspicious, were lurking around the hall. But their in­formation was perhaps a little vague and they made no effort to stop the crush of concertgoers from lining up on the marble stairway to buy, for one crown apiece, the evening’s program. Or possibly the rebel program wasn’t even needed. The Philhar­monic’s audience, in the privacy of their own homes, had already heard the news over shortwave broadcasts from the West.

The musicians came marching from the wings onto the stage to take their seats beneath the giant medallion of Smetana and the organ pipes. And from the sea of wooden chairs on the unraked auditorium floor a huge, spontaneous ovation arose. Dr. Desidr Galski, Prague’s Jewish leader, who happened to be among the audience, recalled to me later how people jumped to their feet, which is a rare gesture at a Prague concert, merely at the sight of the musicians in their full-length black tails and starched white shirts.

“Thank you!” voices cried out. “Bravo!”

The next day’s concert was the first since the announcement of the boycott that was supposed to be broadcast over the official radio.

The 17th was also a day for student pro­test in Prague. The occasion was an official commemoration of a student who was killed by the Nazis. At least one of the musicians, Mrs. Kodadová, managed to at­tend. The harpist’s daughter, age 14, want­ed to march with the students, and since Mrs. Kodadová was already up to her el­bows in the Philharmonic boycott, she rath­er liked the idea of her daughter participat­ing too, and gave permission.

But since 14 is a little young to be left to the mercy of events, the harpist chose to walk at her daughter’s side, and the two of them went together with the 25,000 young people on the fateful day when the students sang “We Shall Overcome” in Czech and even in English. The police shadowed the marchers like a black cloud. And when Mrs. Kodadová figured that her daughter’s taste of life and protest had lasted long enough, she plucked herself and daughter from the ranks and went to Smetana Hall to dress for the evening concert and tune her harp.

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Naturally the Representative for Second­ary Activities refused to permit the state radio to broadcast the concert. So the deed was done. Again there was tension and ap­plause in the hall. And only afterward, when Mrs. Kodadová changed back into ordinary clothes and went out into the streets and saw that policemen and vehicles were prowling the downtown boulevards and the air was soggy with violence — only then did she have any idea that the student demonstration did not come to an end at the instant that she wisely guided her daughter away.

No, the students marched onward to Narodní Avenue, catty-corner to the House of Cuban Culture. The black cloud of policemen descended on them, plucking peo­ple from the ranks to be clubbed and kicked, and though later it was not clear if the beatings turned into killings, at the time, on the streets, the conviction arose that Prague had just undergone a Tiananmen Square assault and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had just commit­ted a massacre on Narodní Avenue.

Only this belief did not, in Prague, send the people into a terrified retreat, the way repression did in China. Hardly! The fear and timidity that had stung Czechoslovak eyes for 40 years, like coal smog or tear gas, were somehow wafting away. The students were calling for a strike. No one quite knew it, but the revolution had just broken out. The next evening Mrs. Kodadová had tick­ets to the Realistic Theater, but instead of seeing a performance, she sat in the audience while the actors endorsed the students, and even the theater director got up to say that, although he was himself a member of the Communist Party, having a dialogue with communists was impossible.

Mr. Bortl, jolted by news of the massacre, went about calling on his various political contacts. These turned out to be usefully widespread, not just among musicians. An actress telephoned to keep him up on the theater front. And since Mr. Bortl happened to know the family of a student who was thought to have been killed, his con­tacts extended into the student milieu too. The trombonist hurried over to a high school to pick up the new student literature.

In this way, conferring with the actress, rushing over to the students, Mr. Bortl put together documents from one and another of the mobilizing groups, and by Monday, when the Philharmonic assembled for a meeting and rehearsal, the trombonist was ready with strike literature and proposals. A full 267 people, musicians and staff, turned up at the meeting. The trombonist introduced some students to the orchestra. The students said a few words about their strike. And Mr. Bortl launched into another of his speeches.

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The Universe of Music

He read something that he called the “Dec­laration of the Czech Philharmonic,” which was the product of his weekend’s work. The declaration protested violence and lawless­ness on the part of the government. It put the orchestra on the side of the students and the theater people in their strike. It demanded that the authorities who partici­pated in violent repression step down from power. And it affiliated the orchestra with the committee that Václav Havel and the theater people and other dissidents had put together over the weekend, the new Civic Forum. The statement was not too radical, not too mild, and the whole of it was ap­proved.

Jan Buble, one of the reliables in the first violin section, took the declaration and went to the telephone. He called the Vienna offices of “Prague 3,” the Voice of Ameri­ca, to read the declaration over the phone lines, even if the secret police might have been listening in. And having done their civic duty, the musicians headed out to Wenceslas Square to join the first of that epic week’s mass demonstrations. They chanted at the Communist Party, “We nev­er wanted you” — an odd chant, perhaps not an entirely true one, given the long dialectic of Czechoslovak history, but sin­cerely felt. And as the musicians chanted, they glanced sideways at their own ranks, and they saw the orchestra’s communist collaborators, and the people, too, the de­feated swine, chanted along with everyone else and wore Czechoslovak flags pinned to their coats, quite as if the flag had always been their symbol of choice.

The Czech Philharmonic’s Civic Forum committee consisted of several of the old crew of dissidents, namely Mr. Bortl, Mrs. Kodadová, Mr. Buble, and Mr. Waldman, to whom were added Maestro Neumann and representatives from the office staff, the choir, and the regular soloists. This committee set about painting posters and placards, establishing contacts, gathering documents, and publishing statements of the orchestra.

There was the crucial business of spread­ing the news to the larger Czechoslovakia that lay beyond Prague’s Oldtown center. For how was the rest of the population going to receive reliable reports about the amazing events going on among the students and their supporters? Apart from for­eign bands on the shortwave dial, all media in Czechoslovakia were under Communist control, and if here and there a newspaper wrested a little independence (as the news­paper of the formerly puppet Socialist Par­ty began to do), no system was in place to distribute the uncensored press runs out­side of Prague. Information about the po­lice attack and the strike, if it was going to circulate at all, would have to spread per­son to person. So there was the additional task of loading the protest literature into cars and driving out of central Prague to any place where the strikers had contacts.

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Here again Mr. Bortl, by happy coinci­dence, managed to play a distinguished role. He had not always planned on becoming a professional musician. He played the trombone in dance bands when he was in school, but his studies focused on chemis­try, and afterward he went to work as a chemical analyst at the giant CDK works in the Prague suburbs. CDK is a complex of a dozen foundries and electrical plants with 25,000 employees who manufacture loco­motives, diesel engines, semiconductors and other industrial goods. The place is called “the workers’ heart of Prague.”

Naturally when the student strike began, the communists tried to prevent any sort of contact between the university rebels and CDK. The party brought out the People’s Militia to seal off the industrial center. But some of the workers were themselves active partisans of democracy, which meant that CDK was already, so to speak, infected. Besides, sealing off 25,000 people is not so easy. Workers, too, knew how to tune in a shortwave radio. They went home to fam­ilies that included students. And among the active ties between CDK and the student strikers was, as it happened, the energetic former chemical analyst, Mr. Bortl.

He picked up the student strike literature in central Prague and drove out to CDK to deliver it to faces familiar from the long­ago days, before his knack at the slide trom­bone brought him to the Philharmonic. Wednesday night he was out at the plant. And every afternoon, he and the other ac­tivists joined the students in Wenceslas Square and gazed up at the balcony of the Socialist Party newspaper and listened to the speeches that Mr. Havel and his little group of intellectuals and theater personal­ities delivered according to the staging in­structions of the country’s best theater di­rectors, through sound equipment that was set up by the cleverest of rock band technicians.

Those of us who observed the Czechoslo­vak Revolution on television thousands of miles away saw those rallies grow ever bigger — 200,000 people on Monday, more on Tuesday, 300,000 by Wednesday — and we watched that progress with a too-easy satis­faction. We believed, because it was thrill­ing to believe, that the demonstrators in the square stood in no particular danger and were, on the contrary, destined to win. We had watched the events in Poland, Hunga­ry, and East Germany, and we saw the crowds in Prague as part of a European panorama, and the grandeur and vastness of that panorama seemed to speak of his­torical certainty.

But that was not how things appeared to the hundreds of thousands who stared up at the Prague balcony. Those people had some inkling of events in other countries and they felt themselves to be part of an inter­national movement. Yet the panorama that seized their own attention was mostly one of repression and violence. What did we, who lived a continent away, know of the repressive mechanisms of Marxism-Lenin­ism in Czechoslovakia? The empire of the secret police was so extensive that in Prague alone, the Ministry of the Interior maintained no fewer than 272 safe houses.

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Friday’s police attack on the students promised to be, if events took a wrong turn, only a first step toward a larger “Chinese solution.” The people in the square shook their key chains in a tinkled mass exorcism of tyrants and demons, and they took en­couragement from their own growing num­bers, and their hearts pounded with indig­nation, patriotism, enlightenment, rebellion, rage — with revolution, in a word. But those people were also, most of them, in terror.

When they got home in the evening, the television preached to them not about in­ternational backing but about their own isolation. The country’s main institu­tions — the trade unions, political associa­tions, farm groups, ethnic and religious organizations, the clubs and professional societies, the bearers of national legitimacy, the establishment, the official culture — all stood in adamant opposition to the subver­sive goings-on in the square.

Still, not every important national insti­tution was the enemy of those daily demon­strations. The Czech Philharmonic, the movement’s friend, was as grand and na­tional and above-ground an institution as Czechoslovakia could claim. It was the establishment by definition. So the musi­cians, together with the striking actors, took up the job of infusing those thousands of demonstrators with a feeling not just of courage and stalwartness but with some­thing that could be called a sense of nation­al legitimacy. After voting the strike resolu­tion at the Monday rehearsal and adopting Mr. Bortl’s “Statement of the Czech Phil­harmonic,” the musicians put away their instruments in order to honor their own resolution. But on Wednesday morning the orchestra shifted course and the instrument cases opened again and the musicians tuned to the A above middle C and the orchestra prepared to play — not to under­mine the strike but to bolster it.

The guest conductor that week was scheduled to be one of Maestro Neumann’s protegés, the Czech conductor Libor Pes­cek. He and the Philharmonic’s artistic council looked through the repertory for appropriate works and settled on Má Vlast or My Country, the Czech classic by Be­drich Smetana. The orchestra performed four of the six sections of that work on Wednesday for a student audience at the chilly Zofín on the Vltava island. Then they set out to play it again Thursday morning at Smetana Hall, where the auditorium was heated and the musicians didn’t have to bundle up in sweaters and coats and there was plenty of room.

Tense and agitated students filed inside until the hall, as the official report of the orchestra later put it, was “completely packed.” The musicians laid the score across the music stands. Mr. Pescek raised his baton. And from the moment that he silently indicated the rhythm, in that sec­ond of stillness before the first note sound­ed, the world of politics into which the Philharmonic should never have had to en­ter, the world of declarations and strikes and committees — that world came, so to speak, to an end. The baton flashed, and the orchestra stepped as if through a door into that other, higher place, its home, the seat of its authority, the universe of music.

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God’s Warriors

Revolutions generate extreme and exalted emotions. But normally there is nothing in a revolution or in any other mass political event that can give voice to those emotions. If people march in the streets, they find that parades are inarticulate. They chant­ — and complicated ideas shrivel into jingles. Orators step to the mike — and grand phi­losophies turn into slogans. Something of the popular emotion may get expressed; not much. The whole experience is frustrating, like shouting through a muzzle.

Music, perfectly articulate, has none of those problems. Mr. Pescek’s baton came down, and the first notes of My Country leapt into life, and the dimunition or cheapening that happens to abstract ideas and principles at a scene of mass politics, the muzzling of emotion — none of that occurred.

Those first notes were a solo by Mrs. Kodadová and her fellow harpist, sitting in the last row to the left, behind the violins. Stately, luxurious harp arpeggios sprang heavenward, feathery and implacable, as if from sword-bearing angels. Nor was there any doubt about the specific significance of those opening declarations. Smetana, ever forethoughtful, dispelled all ambiguity by writing down a clear programmatic expla­nation, like a nail to keep the slippery meanings in place.

Did the student audience pay attention to that programmatic explanation? The mu­sicians had it uppermost in mind. Mr. Stros, the silver-haired cellist, in recon­structing that concert for me, spoke of it almost entirely in terms of the composer’s careful annotations. These were on a strict­ly national theme. Smetana was once, in his own student days, a revolutionary in the streets of Prague: he participated in the 1848 uprising against the Austro-Hungar­ian Empire. And though the 1848 revolt went down to defeat and Prague continued to languish under the rule of hated foreign­ers, the composer came away with his patri­otic feelings intact, along with the revolu­tionary notion that one day, wrongs would be set right.

The opening harp solo represented, ac­cording to his specifications, the harp of the mythological Czech prophet, Lumir. The musical phrase in that solo, the implacable and stately melody, evoked the castle of Prague, symbol and center of Czech sover­eignty. And those opening ideas — prophecy and sovereignty, gusts from the revolution of 1848 — blew like a wind through every­thing that followed.

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The orchestra had only to play the work exactly as on every occasion in the past. In the version of the concert that was told to me by Mr. Waldman, that is precisely what they did. The Czech Philharmonic is, after all, a professional orchestra at the highest level of artistic competence and can be counted on to adhere to the strictest tradi­tions and standards in even the most ex­traordinary of circumstances. The gorgeous melodies of My Country‘s early sections, “The High Castle” and “The Vltava” (bet­ter known by its German title “The Mol­dau”), the ecstatic surging scale that evokes Prague’s river, the Bohemian heartbreak­ — these were performed entirely as they have always been, with steadiness, nobility, and force.

Even so, the performance was not exactly ordinary, either. There was the question of where to put the intermission. In the count­less performances of Smetana’s classic over the decades, the procedure was generally to follow “The High Castle” and “The Vlta­va” with Part Three, “Sarka” — then break, with parts Four, Five, and Six to come after the intermission.

But was that procedure appropriate for Thursday’s concert? The morning hour, the audience of edgy students, the street clothes worn by the musicians, the improvised na­ture of the scene, the nervousness that ev­eryone felt, the attention to matters that had more to do with the crowd at Wences­las Square than with music — everything in­dicated a less than formal approach. Be­sides, a technical crew was accompanying the orchestra to record its performances, and the crew’s requirements, too, had to be taken into consideration. Given those fac­tors, the musicians expected to run through several excerpts, as at the previous morn­ing’s concert, and not bother doing a com­plete version.

The decision, once they were out on stage, was up to Mr. Pescek. But at the end of the second section and again at the third, the conductor’s black baton once more rose up, and the orchestra went on playing straight through to the moment at “Sarka” ‘s climax that usually marks the break for intermission. Again the baton waved. The orchestra plunged into the fourth sec­tion too. “From Bohemia’s Fields and Groves” — and only when that was completed did the musicians get a chance to catch their breath and wander into the wings for a few minute’s rest.

Yes, every note was exactly as Smetana indicated. But already the piece was com­ing out in a slightly unusual form. Then they were back on stage and Mr. Pescek’s baton waved again and the first tones of the fifth section. “Tábor,” sounded, and some­thing new cropped up in the performance, a sort of overtone never previously heard. In Mr. Stros’s estimation. Smetana’s program had everything to do with this. My Country, lush and mythological until that point, turns grim and militant with the opening notes of “Tábor.” There arc echoes from 500 years ago, from a medieval chorale sung by the 15th century followers of Prague’s most famous rebel, the religious reformer Jan Huss, who was burned as a heretic.

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The chorale was “Ye Who Are God”s War­riors.” It was not unlike Martin Luther’s terrifying hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” except older and bleaker. Huss’s most fanatical followers, the soldiers of Tábor, sang it when they marched into battle against anti-Czech and anti-Huss oppressors, and their message seems to have been, if you listen strictly to the melody: “Aban­don hope, anyone who opposes us.” The devil himself would quake at such a tune. Every note is a block of stone. No rippling ecstasies spring heavenward from the harps. There are boulders, one after anoth­er in rows and circles, like Stonehenge. “Stubborn inflexibility” was Smetana’s own phrasefor 1he messagein that Hussite hymn.

The initial tone in Smetana’s rendition was supposed to be a low, quiet, ominous D, played as if at a distance by the tympani, the bassoons, the cellos, and the double bass. Then the horns were supposed to sound a rhythm on a different note, the first stubborn rocks of  the Hussite melody, repeated softly on a never-varying discordant C, like this:

“Ye who who ARE … GOD’S …

“Ye who who ARE … GOD’S … ”

Except that when Mr. Pescek gave the signal and the first group of musicians bent over their instruments to produce the low, quiet, ominous D, the note did not come out as quiet as always, not, at least in the estimation of Mr. Stros. The musicians were ever so slightly too intense. The note was a tiny bit too strong, too heavy, too militant. It came out like a challenge. Per­haps the difference in sound would have been inaudible to most people even to mu­sicians. But Mr. Stros, who had performed those opening notes for decades, felt that ominous D like a jolt.

The low tone went on for two bars. Then the horns entered on the repeated discor­dant C of “Ye who ARE … GOD’S … ” But the horn players, too, were a little too intense.

Professionals, of course — some of the finest in the world. Yet those musicians were not, in fact, granite boulders, they were flesh and blood, and they were shak­en. In a matter of weeks, those musicians had, on the advice of a handful of orchestra politicos, taken their lives into their own hands; they had embarked on what would ordinarily have been a suicidal strike; they had seen their suicidal strike spread to hun­dreds of thousands of people; they had found themselves at the center of God alone knew what — a national uprising? A worldwide birth of freedom? An impending calamity on the scale of the Nazi takeover of 1938 or the Soviet invasion of 1968? And through all of those terrifying events, they had kept their fears to themselves and had gone about their protests and then their strike concerts with splendid discipline and control.

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To begin Part Five of My Country at that instant, to perform “Tábor” to an audience of the very students who had survived the police attack at Narodní Avenue and were now naïvely hurling themselves against the communist dictatorship, to perform the first ferocious notes of what was, after all their nation’s most historic and solemn call to arms — that was too much. In the experi­ence of those musicians, the political events had been, until that instant, half-articulate. But Smetana was perfectly expressive, and in bar three of Part Five, when the Hussite hymn began in a grim D-minor, he un­leashed the deepest feelings of those disci­plined symphony musicians.

So the horn players, too, pressing their mouthpieces to their lips, produced sounds that, at least in the veteran cellist’s estima­tion, were a little too determined, a little too much like a grim Hussite grunt. Those first musicians to begin “Tábor” had sud­denly, inadvertently, broken into a cry­ — though to be sure the cry was, in a technical sense, exactly what Bedrich Smetana had specified in his score.

Mr. Stros couldn’t believe his ears. And while still in shock over those strangely fervent first three bars, he heard a second sound, a rumble really, an indistinct loud­ness, huge and not at all musical. He tore his eyes from the conductor and the score and looked out into the audience. That single, piercing. anguished “Ye who ARE … GOD’S … ” from the orchestra passed through the hall like an electric boll. The noisy rumble was the audience’s response. The 1500 students, row after row, were shooting to their feet.

The students did, as it turned out, under­stand Smetana’s program notes. Nothing about that concert was a mystery to them. They shot to their feet to acknowledge the 500-year-old sacred battle song. And facing straight at the orchestra, row after row of solemn, frightened, determined students raised a hand above their heads and spread their fingers in the V-sign salute of the democratic revolution of 1989.

That single phrase from the agitated mu­sicians of their nation’s greatest orchestra made those students recognize that they themselves, in the circumstances of modem Prague, were God’s Warriors, and they stood at attention because they were ac­cepting their role, whatever the cost might be. For no one could imagine that a V-sign in November ’89 necessarily signaled vic­tory’s approach. The history of Czechoslo­vakia has not been such as to permit confi­dent eitpectations. The Táborite army of the 15th century went down to bitter de­feat, just as Smetana and the insurrection­ists of 1848 went down, and just as did every effort against the Nazis, too, then against the Communists — until that moment.

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Smetana’s program, faithful to his opening theme of prophecy and sovereignty, none­theless offered a prophecy that the defeated Hussites, having retreated for eternity to Blaník Mountain, would someday awaken and achieve the final redemption of their country. The last section of My Country evokes, as the composer explained, national resurgence: God’s warriors, singing the Hussite hymn, return at last for triumph and redemption. And with the students still on their feet, still saluting, the orchestra went from “Tábor” to begin My Country‘s sixth and final section, “Blaník.”

The same Hussite phrase, sounding this time almost like a march, introduced the section — loud at first, then tense and quiet, steadily advancing. Only to play those notes quietly, to control one’s instrument with unwavering precision — that was more than a human being could do in the face of an audience like those 1500 magnificent students. The violinists, when they went to bow a soft passage, found that their hands were shaking and the bows trembled on the strings. The windplayers put their instru­ments to their mouths, but their lip muscles were quivering.

The Czech Philharmonic was weeping. Yet it was playing. And at last the great symphonic poem that bad begun with implacable arpeggios from the courageous Mrs. Kodadová and her fellow harpist gave way, in the concluding passages, to Smetana’s final burst of national passion, and the rows of brass players raised their instru­ments to play, the trombonists lifted their golden horns, an oversized bell of a bass trombone pointed like a cannon out at the trembling, upright, saluting audience — and “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors” boomed with the spectacular solemnity of the Hus­site army rushing into battle. A million strands of tone and overtone, fireworks of sound, soared from the crowded weeping stage. “Glory Returns to Bohemia,” was the name that Smetana gave to these final explosive passages.

Mr. Stros, from the perspective of a cou­ple of months later, regarded that perfor­mance as the greatest experience of his life. “In such moments,” the cellist told me, “the nation realizes that it still exists.” Smetana himself had predicted exactly such a discovery, incredibly. “On the basis of this melody,” the composer wrote, referring to the motifs from “Ye Who Are God’s Warriors” in the sixth and final section, “will develop the resurrection and the future happiness and glory of the Czech nation!” How ridiculous those words must have seemed to anyone who bothered reading them during the century after Smetana set them down — how foolish of a composer to believe that melody could resurrect a nation.

Yet something like Smetana’s prediction did occur in the auditorium that bore his name. It was as if the great 19th century musician had written his masterpiece ex­pressly for the single concert that eventually took place on the morning of November 23, 1989. Or perhaps there was another way to interpret the morning’s events. Mr. Wald­man, when he spoke of that amazing morn­ing, recalled how, according to Hussite leg­end, merely the sound of that terrible hymn was enough to drive enemies from the field — a not unreasonable explanation for what turned out to have occurred. “We all understood the power of music,” Mr. Waldman told me.

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The CDK Workers

The stunned musicians and their audience, at the end of the performance, walked over to Wenceslas Square for another of the af­ternoon rallies that Mr. Havel and the dissident intellectuals were stubbornly running from their balcony at the Socialist Party newspaper. But the rally that afternoon proved to be a little different from the ones on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

During the morning, the atmosphere in Prague had somehow altered. The news spread that General Secretary Jakes, the Communist leader, that barbarian, the most hated man in Czechoslovakia, had resigned: the revolution’s first important victory. And the social composition of the revolutionary movement visibly changed. On previous days, the crowd at Wenceslas Square consisted mostly of Prague’s stu­dents, joined by actors and musicians and, generally, the intelligentsia.

But the agitation by some of the workers at the giant CDK works in the suburbs had continued; the leaflets smuggled in by Mr. Bortl and others had evidently begun to circulate, in spite of the People’s Militia; and on Thursday morning, while the con­cert went on at Smetana Hall, the political tensions at CDK finally overflowed. Lead­ers of the Communist Party went out to the plant, thinking to get up a progovernment demonstration.

Comrade Miroslav Stepan, the party boss of Prague, stood up to address the workers. It was an incredible moment in the annals of communism. Marxism-Leninism is, to make the most obvious judgment about it, a philosophy of oppression aimed against workers (though it didn’t begin that way)­ — but its special peculiarity is to blind its own proponents from ever quite recognizing that simple truth. “False consciousness” is Mr. Havel’s apt term.

Prague’s leading Communist visited the country’s largest factory complex believing that there, among the foundries and furnaces and the chemical tubing, were his stalwart supporters, his proletarian base, his legitimacy. Instead, one of the data pro­cessors and a couple of his friends went leaping through the corridors calling out to their fellows, and three or four hundred angry workers showed up at the Commu­nist meeting and broke it up with heckles and shouts.

The workers of CDK were not, as it turned out, the supporters of Comrade Ste­pan, an alarming fact, undetected by de­cades of Marxist-Leninist scientific analy­sis, as one of the Western reporters cheerfully noted. The three or four hundred hecklers swelled into two or three thousand, and the thousands headed out from the factory complex to the place where the na­tional fate was being decided, Wenceslas Square.

The distance was 10 kilometers, but in­stead of taking the subway, which would have been the normal way to go, they went on foot. Other people fell in with the line of march, which swelled the CDK delegation still more until, by the time the crowd reached Wenceslas Square, the outpouring onto the mall was immense. It was the Hussite army for real, as it seemed, not the student advance guard but the main corps, returning from Mount Blanik to redeem the nation. It was the working class of Prague.

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Until that afternoon, the balance of power in Czechoslovakia was far from clear, since no one knew what position the working class was going to take, whether the tradi­tional chasm between workers and the in­telligentsia could be bridged, whether the Communists perhaps did retain support in the industrial zones.

It was not as if anybody had ever taken a proper poll to find out what if anything in the Communist propaganda was true. Since 1946, not a single free election had been held. There was not a single free trade union, answerable to its members. The ac­tual opinions of Prague’s labor force were a mystery even to the workers themselves. Or perhaps the mystery can be stated a little more grandly. What exactly was the state of modem culture? The emancipatory impulse that ran like a current from Beethoven’s Leonore overture to the 1848 uprisings to My Country and beyond — did that impulse still exist? Is freedom merely a “Western” custom, unfit for the Slavic mentality or for people in other regions, something lacking in universality?

What evidence did anyone have that peo­ple in the eastern countries, Poland ex­cepted, despised their own totalitarian systems? Who can honestly claim to have seen the revolution coming? Any number of cat­aclysmic possibilities seemed far likelier than a democratic upsurge in Eastern Eu­rope. Nuclear war, if it had broken out, would have surprised no one. Doomsday books on that very theme have lined the bookstores for years. But where were the volumes that predicted the antitotalitarian revolution? Who can claim to have antici­pated a spontaneous march from the indus­trial suburbs into Wenceslas Square to sup­port a revolutionary movement led by a persecuted playwright?

The Praguers themselves, witnessing that huge congregation on the square, hardly knew what to make of it. Their own success seemed too incredible to believe. One tri­umph rose above of the last, like the climb­ing scale that Smetana used for his “Vl­tava” theme — the first demonstrations at the square, Thursday’s march of the CDK workers, the arrival Friday of the old re­form leader of 1968, Alexander Dubcek, the national two-hour general strike by la­bor on the following Monday. But afterward the scale began to climb back down, and the successes seemed to ripple away into the past — at least they seemed to in the eyes of the principal militants in the Phil­harmonic. And in that gloomy atmosphere, Mr. Bortl and a few others, sitting in one of the wine bars that are spread through cen­tral Prague, came up with the idea of ap­pealing once again to music by holding a further concert — the Philharmonic perfor­mance on December 14, the one that was finally reported in The New York Times — ­though not as a victory celebration. On the contrary, the idea was to fend off defeat by reviving some of the revolutionary spirit.

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The musicians put their idea to the main Civic Forum leaders, the leaders ap­proved — and only when the plans for the “Concert for the Civic Forum” were al­ready going into effect did the deeper reali­ty of what had already occurred in the week after the Massacre on Narodní Avenue be­come clear. The Communist Party, stalwart until that point, suddenly began to wobble, like a boxer who has been knocked out but stays on his feet for another few seconds. The Communists in the government one by one began to withdraw, the balance of seats passed to the Civic Forum, the talk of Mr. Havel becoming president got louder — and by then the concert, even before its first note was played, had changed meaning.

It was a victory concert. In token of that victory, the orchestra decided, through its Representative for Secondary Rights, to cancel the fateful boycott of state television and radio that had been approved on the long-ago Stuttgart stage. For what was the point in refusing to collaborate with a com­munist government when communism was already halfway gone? Why not invite the state television to come and record the im­pending triumphal concert? So the camera­men and the recording technicians took their place in the hall along with the faith­ful admiring audience.

The choice to perform Beethoven’s Ninth instead of Smetana again or Dvorak or some other Czech composer may seem a little odd, from a nationalist perspective. But nationalism, always significant, was never exactly dominant in the Czechoslovak revolution. My Country was a splendid and historic call to arms, the appropriate piece for a moment of crisis when everyone had to gird themselves against the possibili­ty of being swiftly massacred by the Peo­ple’s Militia. But exactly what did the musi­cians mean when they invoked Smetana’s call for “the resurrection and the future hap­piness and glory of the Czech nation?”

Everyone had a meaning of choice, and the meanings tended to stress themes and goals that went beyond mere nationalism. Mr. Stros, when he talked about politics, favored a Christian Democratic orientation and looked forward to the growth of a good solid Czechoslovak Christian Democratic party. Mr. Bortl, more in tune with the “antipolitical politics” of Václav Havel, felt himself to have gone beyond the conven­tional political ideologies — Christian dem­ocratic, social democratic, conservative, or liberal, not to mention communist. He was postideological. His historical heroes were “humanitarian personalities” like Dvorak and Smetana, or like Czechoslovakia’s pres­ident from earlier in the century, Tomas Masaryk. “Higher spiritual values” was the phrase that sprang from his lips.

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Maestro Neumann, the conductor of that triumphant performance, stressed values that were cultural above all — the ability to speak Czech properly, a knowledge of mu­sic, the sort of education and cultivation that communism had never been able to provide, despite the seductive promises of 40 years ago. And for people whose revolu­tionary thoughts wandered along paths like those, Beethoven — even granted the awk­ward slipperiness in matters of politics­ — was an obvious choice. Beethoven was above nationality or party. He was the com­poser of freedom, of pure idealism, of the transcendental sublime. Plus Beethoven was victory’s natural favorite, and never more than in the last choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.”

The applause that rose up in response to that performance, the ovation whose exu­berance was so great as to echo in the distant columns of the Times, the ebullient noise of the “jubilant house” — that ap­plause was nothing if not Prague’s shout of victory. It was an ovation for civilization and spiritual values, for freedom, for the notions that sound silly and abstract if someone extols them at a mass rally but are wonderfully lucid at a Beethoven concert.

Of course the ovation was also for the individuals who had managed to embody and express those philosophies and aspirations. It was for the celebrated conductor who had mounted a one-man boycott of state radio. Czechoslovakia’s leading play­wright came on stage. The ovation was for him, too, and for the years he had spent in prison, and for his ad hoc Civic Forum, whose nonideological doctrine of gentleness and tolerance had translated the spiritual impulse into practical action.

The playwright introduced the Civic Fo­rum’s new Foreign Minister, Mr. Dienst­bier, the veteran dissident, who sat in the box of honor. Vigorous applause greeted Mr. Dienstbier and honored him for his own time in jail, and for the new, non­-Soviet foreign policy he would conduct. Well-known émigrés, just back from exile, were introduced to the house. They, too, received a grand ovation.

The ovation was for the audience itself, the faithful music lovers, citizens of the conservatorium of Europe. It was for the chorus. And the ovation was, not least, for the people who sat in concentric rows to the rear of Maestro Neumann under the huge medallion of Hedrich Smetana — the anonymous members of Czechoslovakia’s leading symphony orchestra.

Nearly a hundred musicians gazed out­ward from the stage into the cream-colored cavern of Smetana Hall. Then the Czech Philharmonic, too, “heroes” of “our revo­lution,” the first ensemble in Czechoslova­kia to go on strike, the vanguard of the vanguard — they, too, an orchestra of free musicians, burst into applause. ■

 

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Václav Havel: The New King of Absurdistan

The New King of Absurdistan: Happy New Year with Dissident President Václav Havel
January 16, 1990

PRAGUE
I LEFT CZECHOSLOVAKIA for Italy in 1978, on a two-week visa, presumably to confer with the writer Primo Levi on my translation of his book, Il Sistema Periodico. I extended the visa for 10 years.

When I returned to Prague for the first time in 1988 — well before the recent wave of change swept the country — despite the protec­tion of my U.S. passport and a plentiful supply of Bordeaux on the plane, my palms were sweat­ing. Not a lot had changed. None of my friends were optimistic about the future except for Michal Kocáb, a rock star and composer who had always been banned, balancing between being a conventionally harassed/unconventional artist and a nonperson dissident. Just a week before, he had given an interview to a German TV station in which he brazenly pro­claimed that the “old farts will have to go.”

He was right. Last September I found myself in Prague again, with a bit less sweat on my hands, in an atmosphere that strikingly resembled the Prague Spring or 1968. The leviathan was deliv­ering its last kicks, while dissidents were participating in discussions at the universities and factories. The Central Committee members were leaking classified party information like sieves. So many people predicted changes — usually an economic depression, perhaps a change of political leadership within two years — that I stopped asking whether and started ask­ing how.

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At his favorite pub, Na Rybárne, Václav Havel was drinking beer with a dozen friends, toasting Martina, a fragile woman who had just become a political widow (that morning her husband, Char­ter 77 dissident Sasa Vondra, had reported to prison for a two-month sentence).

“Communist officials,” Havel mouthed into his beer stein, “are worried about two things: one, they think I am compil­ing a list of artists who will not be al­lowed to publish, direct, or act when things turn around and today’s dissidents are in power, and two, that the offspring of Communist parents will not be allowed to go to college.”

A woman with a generous décolletage and a mini-tape recorder sat on his right hand — a reporter from the increasingly independent Socialist Party official daily, Svobodné Slovo. Sitting on the outer edge of the table, I listened to Havel’s story about the holiday chain of visits to wom­en admirers, which ended with him being ferreted out by journalists and falling into a sewer.

“And, as I was down there groping for my life in the shit,” he deadpanned, “I thought about the headlines for [the offi­cial Communist daily] Rude Pravo: DISSIDENT SCUM DIES THE WAY HE LIVED.”

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AS THE ABSURDIST playwright surfaced as the likeliest candidate for King of Ab­surdistan last month, I landed there with my friend Bonnie Stein.

The Civic Forum offices have moved twice in the first three weeks of the revo­lution, and are now at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, manned mostly by stu­dents. The atmosphere is one of jubilant disorganization and bohemian messiness. Many of the protagonists, including Václav Havel, invoke the ’60s when they talk to us, but it is hard to tell whether they refer to the reform movement that led to the Prague Spring or the omni­present ghost of flower power. While they profess that words like socialism, cap­italism, right, and left have become empty shells, love, democracy, gentle­ness, trust, ecology are sacred invoca­tions …

The premises used to belong to the Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship Society, and our friends repeatedly stress the irony with a childish glint in their eyes.

Phone lists, messages, slogans, en­larged political cartoons, and three incongruous neckties are tacked to the walls. Much noise has been made about Havel’s crossover into the realm of ties and suit jackets, but many have shared in his new sartorial sophistication. (“When we start­ed the Havel na Hrad [presidential cas­tle] campaign,” says Havel’s speech watchdog, Petr Oslzly, “we polled some ‘normal’ people about what they would like [Vaclav] to change about himself, and many responded he should wear a tie. Then some workers from a garment factory brought us five ties, and since he had already found one of his own, we keep them in the office as an emergency tie pool. Whenever anybody needs one, he borrows it off the wall … “)

In the office: one copier, a peach-faced guy Friday pecking at a brand-new com­puter, and too few overloaded phone lines. Jan Urban, old friend and Forum spokesman, fills us in on all the madness while we help him and a bunch of stu­dents carry a half-ton safe five flights up.

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“This is what I have to do between Round Table meetings with the powers­-that-be,” he sighs. “Must be a punish­ment for not accepting all those lucrative job offers. Yesterday, it was the chief of a TV department, and today, an ambassador. Persecution forced me to become a dissident, now all I want to do is to finish this spring cleaning and be my own man again.”

Katherine, a medical student, climbs over the resting safe. “There is a man downstairs that absolutely has to speak with you or, he says, the Forum in his town is doomed.”

The antiorganization character of the Civic Forum, with its policy of nonparty nonpolitics, intensifies the natural revo­lutionary sloppiness to create a sense of being too busy to breathe. Guests and Civic Forum leaders alike often stop to wonder aloud, “How could we have possi­bly won? We are just lucky that the Com­munist Party turned out to be in a much bigger mess than we expected.”

Visitors are loosely frisked in the post­er-covered entrance hall. Two baby-faced policemen and a mug-faced plainclothes detective have taken positions by the doorway. They are armed, refuse to di­vulge their names, but they are here at Forum request after some threatening let­ters and phone calls. At best, their screening helps to check the stream of well-wishers and gawkers. Any half-seri­ous terrorist carrying an expired East Pe­oria sanitation department union card could dance all the way to Havel’s door.

ON THE FRIDAY BEFORE Christmas, we watch Havel spar with journalists at a press conference in Laterna Magica Theatre. On periodic pilgrimages to the chief dissident during the last 20 years, the media have had (but did not always pub­lish) a rambling statement. Now, he dodges their questions in public, and the aura of persecuted innocence is fading.

“The reason I am doing this press conference is because many journalists have asked me for interviews,” Havel says. “And I am sorry to say that if I did this for everyone who wanted me to I would only have time to comment on the revo­lution, not participate in it.”

When a two-party political system is mentioned, Mr. H. seizes the opportunity to outline his ideal of non-politics politics:

“Personalities should play an increasingly important role in the future, and political parties should have a lesser role. According to me, political parties should be reduced to mere clubs, in which political personalities are born and find their platform. But I think political parties should not directly wield power, because that is one of the methods by which the powers-that-be become anonymous. In my opinion the only way of saving this civilization is to liberate the human being from manipulation by all megastructures which modern man has created, and which now are in the process of destroy­ing him.”

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“What was the last artistic work you were able to complete,” I ask, “and when do you see the next one coming?”

“My last play is called Slum Clearance. It is supposed to be produced in New York sometime soon. I wrote it two years ago. Last year I started another play, but I have never been able to finish it be­cause, as you see, history has overtaken me. But I do believe the moment will come when I will be able to complete it.

“I’ll be happy when my popularity dis­sipates because it is slightly complicating my work.”

While our noncandidate offers nonanswers and one-liners to journalists ­and speaks convincingly of new, “legible” parties to machine workers in Presov and ironworkers in Kladno — his aides are learning the art of making nonstatements and strategic leaks. On December 23, one tells us about an old Czech tradition of eating snails on the day before Christ­mas. “This is very confidential,” we are told, “but Klasterni Vinarna (Cloister Wine Cellar) at lunchtime is the best place to observe such a tradition.”

We take the hint and wait in ambush for our playwright on the day before Christmas Eve. Havel strides in with an enormous bouquet of red roses. By some fluke we manage to get past John Bok, Havel’s private iron curtain. Mr. H. smiles, and begs for pity — this is the first personal moment he has had in six weeks. He is visibly exhausted, but glad to make an exception from the no-inter­view policy for us. Any other time but now. How about after Christmas?

We enjoy our expensive lunch, fried breadcrumbs laced with snail slivers, crowned with a chambered nautilus.

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FOUR DAYS LATER, on December 27, we enter the crowded waiting room of Ha­vel’s office in the Civic Forum building with a flower for the playwright. Havel expects to be named president in two days, after which he will leave for a tour of the two Germanies — instead of Moscow, the traditional destination of inaugural state visits.

“Mr. President” — John Bok’s tongue slips, as many have since Havel’s adversaries in the Federal Assembly, only one week earlier, beslobbered one another in unanimous praise of their archenemy — ­”Mr. President will see you in a few minutes.”

The office is filled with the familiar faces of Havel’s entourage, all busily writ­ing, listening to tapes, editing, whispering. In an adjacent nook, Havel confers with Eda Kriseova, his spokeswoman.

Havel greets us with a warm handshake and attentive, blue eyes. The walls of the office are covered with posters and photos. There are two intriguing recent gifts: a plaque of the Bill of Rights from a U.S. senator (no one can remember who), and a watercolor with a calligraphic inscription from Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, dedicated to Václav Havel.

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VÍT HOREJS: Mr. Havel, we have followed your work in New York and enjoyed your plays at the Public Theatre. First of all l want to know something about you. What is the driving force behind Václav Havel

VÁCLAV HAVEL: That is easy, I can even answer you in English. I don’t know. [Laughter] But for your purposes, I must say something. I do not consider myself a very strong or courageous man. Others may judge my courage. I did not invent the complications in my life, neither pris­on nor presidency. Fate, in its weird, tortuous way, has placed me in these predicaments.

HOREJS: What will be your priority as president of Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: If I am president, I must lead this country toward free elections and insure that the road be peaceful and fair. The same ideals of love which carried through our merry revolution should guarantee that the elections will not be sullied by intrigue and ambition. And I will also contribute to strengthening the authority and credibility of Czechoslovakia in the world.

HOREJS: You said that you would agree to be president temporarily until the free election period. How do you expect to make the difficult adjustment back from politics to art?

HAVEL: If all goes the way I wish it to, I will be a temporary, one-task president. And then, I would like to work some­where in the theater and devote myself to my literary work. That doesn’t mean that I will resign from my civic-minded duties. If the motherland wants or needs me again, I will be at her disposition until the end of my days.

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HOREJS: What are the similarities between your political work and your work as a playwright? How does one influence the other?

HAVEL: I, myself, don’t have any con­scious intention to transpose theater into politics or to carry politics into theater. Nevertheless, I have observed that our revolution, thanks to its heavenly direc­tor and not to me, has several elements of classical drama and theater of the absurd. It is, in fact, actually quite closely related to a theater experience.

HOREJS: You mentioned a new play that you have been, or rather have not been, writing for a while about an aging dicta­tor who loses his power and becomes ri­diculous. Do you intend to finish this play, and if so, do you think it will change now?

HAVEL: I started to write this play a year ago, in the fall. I didn’t finish it, then I went to prison, and then this [revolution] started. There was so much other work to do that I didn’t get back to it at all. Nevertheless, I returned to it for 10-days just before the revolution, and I found out that suddenly the material had some­how become very distant, and I was up with it. And that next, I need to start, as we say in Czech, “in a green meadow.” With completely different material, and I intend to throw this one out.

HOREJS: When you were in prison did you spend most of your time thinking about politics or about artistic work? Or how bad the food was? or what?

HAVEL: I had a great deal of time to think about many things. [Havel has spent a total of five and a half years in prison through four prison terms. The longest sentence was for four and a half years.]

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HOREJS: Are you familiar with the work of the writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is running for president of Peru? Should artists be, in general, more involved in politics?

HAVEL: As far as I know he is the only writer running for presidential office to­day — if we don’t count the presidents who write to celebrate their own glory. I feel even from some of his interviews that I read some parallels between his situa­tion and mine. Should I be president, it may be hard to find time to visit him in Peru. But perhaps he will find time to visit me here. And if he doesn’t find the time, at least we can exchange letters of condolence.

HOREJS: What do you think of Shirley Temple Black? Do you know her old films? What about her as a choice for U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia?

HAVEL: I know her, and I think she is certainly congenial enough for an ambas­sador. My wife knows her films more than I because she is kind of a film buff. Mrs. Black even gave me a book of her memoirs, and I have a videocassette of her old movies. When l have a free week­end, which I cannot expect to happen too soon, I would love to watch one of her old movies.

HOREJS: I am sure that you are busy and have many travel plans and invitations. Do you plan to visit the U.S. soon?

HAVEL: If Mr. Bush invites me, I would be glad to oblige. But at the most for two days. I don’t have time for any long visits.

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HOREJS: Yes, it would be nice if he does invite you. In the U.S. during the presi­dent’s last two months of his term, he is usually considered a lame duck. Since you will probably only serve a few months, do you think [Czech politicians] will try to stall decision-making, or prevent you from achieving your goals?

HAVEL: I am well aware that although I am a shy and polite person, if I am elect­ed, I will be a strong president. And I will not allow anyone to drag their feet on my programs.

HOREJS: In your essay “Words on Words” [Slovo o Slovu, an acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksell­ers association], you mention how words like “socialism” and “peace” may become billyclubs that a government uses to beat the population into apathy. You say that even a ward like “perestroika” could be­come a billyclub. We have noticed that in many of your political speeches you have had to simplify your thoughts. Do you think there is a danger now or in the future that your words could run away from you, be subject to corruption, and no longer under your control?

HAVEL: Of course there is such a danger, and I must be constantly on guard against that kind of thing. Mainly, I expect that there will be a free society with an opposition that keeps tabs on me, to notify me of such a danger should I not notice it myself. Right now this danger exists from a purely technical viewpoint because I have to repeat myself in steel foundries and the public squares, etc. Not everybody can follow everything, and I must get the message across somehow. The TV speeches are not enough for this, because not all people have the time to watch them. I try to vary some ideas, and don’t think that these words are becom­ing so stiff that they lose meaning by repetition.

HOREJS: Who are the writers and play­wrights in the U.S. that you admire?

HAVEL: Since I was young, I have highly valued American literature and have read all you can imagine, from Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg to Norman Mailer. At the moment, I can’t say that there is one writer that has had a direct influence on me. Of course there have been tons of indirect influences.

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But perhaps more than American liter­ature, it is the American atmosphere that has affected me since 1968, when I trav­eled there. Now I realize that there are numerous parallels between the ’60s in America and Czechoslovakia in the ’80s. I could illustrate with hundreds of cases, and I feel that the soul of the ’60s is being revived by us here today. In our country, in a different form, more articulately. And in that way I am influenced by America. I was in the U.S. for six months in ’68, and experienced such things as the very impressive student strikes.

Our revolution had a number of steps that were in some way preparatory states. One of these was, for example, the Joan Baez concert in Bratislava. She invited us there and spoke from the stage about Charter 77, and we agreed with many friends that the spirit of the ’60s was somehow revived there with Baez, a sym­bol for the non-violent ’60s peace move­ment. [In fact, that concert was stopped by the authorities and resulted in many arrests.]

HOREJS: We see that your staff is getting you ready for the TV interview. Have you anything else for us?

HAVEL: Yes, I would like to send greetings to all the Village Voice readers. And espe­cially please give my regards to my good friends, Joe Papp and Susan Sontag. Tell them to visit soon.

RITA KLIMOVA, THE NEW Czech ambas­sador-designate to the U.S., can’t make it to Havel’s presidential inauguration. We accept her invitation to watch it on TV in her home not far from the parade ground where the largest democracy demonstra­tions occurred in November. A round­-faced, vivacious mother figure, she was expelled from the party in 1970, then fired from her job as an economics pro­fessor. “They almost didn’t expel me,” she says, “but I convinced them that I did not agree with the [1968] invasion, and I had been going to [dissident] meetings.” In the Forum’s early days, she han­dled foreign journalists and interpreted for Havel, for no pay. Her English has a slight New York ring to it, leftover from childhood days when she and her family were refugees from Hitler living on Riverside Drive and 149th Street.

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Seeing Havel on TV in a beautifully tailored suit, tie, and dapper overcoat sends her rolling with laughter.

“Poor man! He hates this kind of thing. He must be so uncomfortable!”

Then, before you could say “dissident,” all the president’s enemies elect him by a suspiciously unanimous show of hands. Havel gives the shortest acceptance speech in history from the Prague castle balcony, then marches in front of the army, inspecting the uniforms of the pal­ace guard who parade in his honor. The irony of the situation sends us all into gales of hysterical laughter. But the bot­tom line is crystal clear: He is President! The only president in living history who, in one breath, can quote John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, and Immanuel Kant.

The next day, the Forum receives 200 calls about Havel’s too-short inaugura­tion trousers. The public is keeping an eye on him, supporting his claim that they scrutinize his mistakes.

We are invited to spend New Year’s Eve with Havel … and about 500 of his clos­est friends. Held in the tacky 1880’s Iron­workers’ Palace of Culture, a ballroom vaguely reminiscent of the Ritz, the party is sponsored by the “Society for a Merri­er Present.” Guests at this New Year’s bash include all Prague’s beautiful people, artists, Charter 77 signatories, and a handful of flashy foreigners: filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci; writer/professor Arnost Lustig from Washington University; and Metropolitan Museum chairman William Luers, a former ambassador to Czechoslovakia from the U.S., and his wife Wendy.

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Havel is guarded by six guys whose born-again smiles do not betray their black belts in karate. It is a party, definitely not a press conference, and Václav is The Good King: relaxed, smothered in kisses and well-wishes. Amid bubbly galore (the Czech and Russian Romanian champagne ran out before midnight) and waves of laughter, Bonnie sneaks in a couple of questions:

BONNIE STEIN: Happy New Year! So, How does it feel to be president? 

VÁCLAV HAVEL: [Smile, kiss.] Feel? Did you say feel? I have no idea. I have had no time for feelings.

STEIN: How was your meeting with Mario Soares, the Portuguese president?

HAVEL: He is the first president to visit me here, and to support me openly since last month. He and the students sent us 5000 roses. Mr. Soares has also been in prison, so we had an interesting exchange about our mutual experiences. And he gave me an automobile.

A 1989 RENAULT 21.

Havel is jovial and more like his old self, although he does wear a suit and has to slip away for an hour at midnight to Wensceslas Square, where 100,000 of his subjects wait to cheer in the year with him. The resemblance to the monarchy is uncanny.

By 4 a.m., we are wishing for even a fiberglass East German Trabant to putt-putt us home. With no taxis or public transportation available, we walk for a chilly mile, then thumb a ride from a moonlighting BMW with a well-pickled driver.

Everything is anticlimactic after the presidential New Year’s speech, which be­gan: “You didn’t elect me to tell you more lies.” Austerity is in the air. Even Rude Pravo, the communist daily, is downs­caled to half its size at double the price. The joke going around Prague: “Rude Pravo has gotten so small that those who read it can’t even hide behind it any­more.”

Still, at last the old saying has a new twist: “Now the dissidents can fart without getting arrested.” ■

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Little Richard: Frutti

Frutti

December 11, 1990

What, If anything, can we regard as being ”true” about a documen­tary? A number of things, maybe. One thing for sure: the documen­tarian reconstructs the subject in his/her image.

Impossible to imagine attempt­ing authorial distance ( control) over the aura that is Little Rich­ard. Which William Klein does not. Which is why The Little Richard Story ( 1980) is a great, great film. Klein is dumb, nearly stu­pid, in the face (startling), body (possessed), voice (singular) of Richard, the self-proclaimed ”Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who changed everything. The first mu­sical icon to exclaim/proclaim the persona of ”bad nigger” (greasy skin, greasy hair, loud), Richard was a sexual menace too (faggot in eyeliner; big faggot in stretch pants). In fact, what Klein shows in his nearly perfect, essayistic form is just how nightmarish his image might seem to you, the prototypical American. Whose black nightmare is Richard? Yours? And do you like it?

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Klein opens these questions up, making them more than reflec­tive, by visiting Macon, Georgia (Richard’s hometown), where one hears the voices of women — of which Richard’s is a loving trib­ute. Working in a world they did not make, these women make it over by wailing, really mourning, the conditions — racism, sexism, class discrimination. Listening to them, we realize Richard had nothing to lose by crying so loudly too. Who would listen?

All those people and voices and language peculiar enough to be called ”different.” But by whom? Whose history is it, anyway? Klein says: not mine; it’s too com­plicated to be mine; but the colors and sounds are beautiful.

“The Little Richard Story”
Written and directed by William Klein
Film Forum
December 7 through 10

Categories
Equality From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks

Dead Boys: Fast Sex and Slow Suicide on the West Side Docks
January 30, 1990

AT TWO A.M. THIS BILIOUS TUESDAY, Pookie hops off the low wall of the pier and fastens a moistened forefinger to his ass. “Fsssssssss,” he goes, flashing his frog-eyed crack grin, “I’m hot like a full-time motherfuck.” On the instant, all the pretty cars come courting, making the hairpin turn at the north end of the dock. A black Saab swings by, a silver Volvo hard behind him, slowing to get a load of the short, plump kid with the sort of epicene beauty peculiar to boys of a certain age. At the back of the pack, the guy in the blue Town Car leans on his horn.

The Town Car pulls up; its passenger window whirs down. A broad, pink man with a polished skull peers out, composed as a corpse in his Chesterfield topcoat. “Aren’t you freezing in that little thing?” he inquires. “Aren’t you hot in that big thing?” says Pookie, popping his head in. “I don’t recall seeing you out here before.”

“And might not see me out here again, so best pick up while the iron is hot. Is your iron hot, love?”

The Pink Man’s eyes play up and down the boy. “How old are you, 15?”

“At least!” Pookie trumpets. “Plus tax.”

The Pink Man frowns and looks away awhile, performing his moral arithmetic. “Get in.”

Pookie jumps in. In the eight or 10 seconds it takes the Town Car to hit the exit. Pookie is across the seat and in the Pink Man’s embrace. “That’s a fuckin’ yo-yo right there,” sneers Georgie, who at 18 looks spent, his face cinched up like an old canvas bag. It is impossible to tell whether his is the voice of experience or envy. “I told him, ‘Stay in the loop till you know the game.’ Instead, he’s gonna bust right outta here with a stone-cold freak. I laugh if he come back here with a knife in his chest.”

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IF YOU ARE SITTING on that wall at two in the morning, the cold and damp on you like a molestation, chances are you aren’t one of the sleek-skinned kids who turns up here on weekends for the party off of Christopher Street. Chances are even better that you aren’t one of the buttoned-down 20-year-olds hustling a place like Rounds on 53rd Street, pre­senting your business card — Professional Escort — to the Aquascutum crowd. No, the chances are you are what they call a “dead boy” down here — a throwaway be­tween the ages of 16 and 20, homeless and hungry and, like as not, in ill-health.

According to Covenant House, the ex­perts by default, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 adolescents on the streets of this city: the kids from the Koch pest­-houses like the Martinique, the Prince George; the kids off the Greyhounds, flee­ing predaceous families; and the kids shot out of the foster care system, New York’s sprawling pathology factory. The most desperate of them eventually land with a thud on the docks, where not even the salt in the air can preserve them.

For the past several months, these kids have talked to me about certain johns who heal them up as a sort of postsex purgative; about the perils of sleeping amongst the crazies at the shelters; about the crackheads and dealers who ride herd on the scene, picking kids off on the fly. But in a sense all of this is overkill, because if you stack it up together and pile on things like polyaddiction and double pneumonia, the sum total will not finish off as many of the kids I spoke to as their numb indifference to AIDS. According to the CDC, the number of kids nationally between 13 and 19 with full-blown AIDS cases has more than doubled in the last two years.

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Everyone on the docks has a pocketful of condoms. Project First Step, the outreach arm of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, dispenses them nightly with the strenuous injunction to please use them. But pull a kid aside, out of earshot of the pack, and he’ll tell you that (a) he doesn’t need them, (b) the johns won’t wear them, and (c) a rubber these days is just a bargaining chip — “they’ll give you five, maybe 10 more bucks to let ’em do it skin-on-skin.”

“In the first place, I fuck, I don’t get fucked,” harrumphs Arnie, the tall, haggard kid to whom Covenant House intro­duced me. “In the second place, I get sucked, I don’t suck. Does it sound to you like I need to put on a bag?” Actually, I tell him, it sounds like he needs to put on two.

“Nah,” he sneers, sliding down in his seat. “I’ve been out here running game going on like six years now. And every time they test me…” he clucks, giving me his stagey grin. “Clean as the Board of Health.”

“Twelve per cent of the older kids who come into our system test positive for HIV,” reports George Wirt, Covenant House’s tireless VP of Communications. That figure is staggering, matched up against the national infection rate of 4.3 per thousand, but, as Wirt says, “You really can’t even go by the 12 per cent. Most of the kids who’ve been out there hustling for any length of time don’t even come into our system. The real number has got to be significantly higher.”

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Covenant House is itself a telling gloss on the problem. For all its celebrated good works — and even its detractors agree that life in this city would be un­thinkable without CH’s interventions­ — the agency is notorious for giving gay kids a hard time. At the crisis center on 41st Street, effeminate boys are thrown in with the hardass straights, with the predictable result that some “get raped, or beat up, or harassed to no end,” says the director of another agency who de­clined to be named. And Joyce Hunter, the director of social services for the He­trick-Martin Institute, a small but ex­traordinarily effective agency whose charter is the protection of gay and lesbi­an youth, tells the story of a kid who once called her in desperate shape. “I referred him to Covenant House. Where else could I send him? He said, ‘If that’s the best you can do, I’ll take the streets,’ and hung up. That call still haunts me now. It’s why we decided to start this agency.”

And even as Covenant House beats the drum about teenage AIDS, it stands on its refusal to hand out condoms. Instead of safe sex, it preaches abstinence to these kids, proving that Catholic obscu­rantism isn’t dead, it’s just gone private sector. This isn’t to scapegoat Covenant House, which recently opened up a floor for homeless kids with AIDS, and is re­viewing its policy of lumping gays in with straights. The point is that, outside of a cluster of small agencies, these are kids without a port in a perpetual storm.

“No one’s set up for what’s about to come down,” warns Wirt. “Nationally, there’s God knows how many kids infect­ed right now. You’re going to need a whole array of new responses once those cases incubate.”

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Certainly, the old responses aren’t working; Covenant House loses two of every three kids who come into its care. The up-at-six-lights-out-by-10 Boys Town lifestyle can’t begin to compete with the street kid’s “deathstyle,” as Tru­dy Peterson, the director of the Streetwork Project, calls it. Peterson, a vivid blonde woman in her middle forties who’s been working with these kids for almost 20 years, says that what they’re aggressively engaged in these days is a kind of “slow suicide. ‘I’m gonna take a bunch of drugs, and I’m wiped out, and my immune system’s crazy, and it’s five degrees out, and… I’ll get in this car with three guys, knowing they’re sadists and will abuse me…’ ”

Kids are, by definition, creatures of the moment, oblivious to their mortality. But on the docks, the denial is double-walled. Behind the customary teenage omnipotence is the thick shale of grief and rage. “Virtually every kid I see here is a badly abused child,” explains Elizabeth Mas­troieni, Covenant House’s straight-shoot­ing AIDS educator. “So many of them were sold, or seduced, or beaten by their parents, or just flat-out abandoned… For a lot of [the kids], hustling is really a reenactment of what they grew up with, only now they’ve got the control. Instead of lying in bed helplessly waiting for the parent to come in, now they’ve got the power to say yes or no — and get paid money to do the thing, on top of it.”

By CH’s estimate, there are a million homeless kids hustling sex in this coun­try. In New York, they happen to be largely black and Hispanic, but in Miami and Fort Lauderdale they are overwhelm­ingly white. And in L.A., reports Wirt, just back from a fact-finding trip out there, the kids are in flight from split-­level houses. “We’ve never seen anything like it. There are little cities of kids thing under the Santa Monica Freeway.”

Nor does the thing hang neatly on the peg of sexuality. For every boy on the dock who acknowledges he’s gay, there’s another who’s vehement that he’s “got a girlie in Queens, and a little baby on the way.” No, the only thing these kids can be said to have in common is that they’ve been sabotaged by the very people life appointed to protect them.

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I WILL LIVE TO BE a hundred,” declares Diego, a sweet, expressive kid who bends like an antenna against the breeze. “I won’t get no disease, no one can’t hardly hurt me, ’cause life already used up all its bullets on me. If it wanted to finish me off, it woulda did so when I was four.”

We are walking the dock this balmy October evening, enjoying the false blan­dishments of Indian summer. Around us, the johns are positively buzzing, brought on by the mild air and some hallucination about romance. Diego ticks off their pre­dilections as they go by. “That one likes to get beat up a taste, got his own little custom-made paddle.… The blue Regal, he wants you to fuck his ugly wife for him, then go out and eat Mexican food with ’em after. And this knucklehead, he’ll take anything he can get, but what he really wants is for you to piss on his windshield. From his lips to God’s mouth, I say.”

We had been talking about his child­hood a moment ago, so when I tell him that his thing is evasion, he laughs out loud. “Oh, I can skate alright, honey! I’m the black Dorothy Hamill!”

 

The story that he unfolds is like so many others you hear that you catch yourself wondering if these kids share notes. There was his airtight relationship with his adoring mother, “who was to me like a saint, an angel on earth”; the fa­ther, a mailman who was so mean “he used to bite the dogs”; and there was Diego’s own sense, “from as early as I can remember,” that he’d been singled out of the family for the old man’s abuse. “I’m sorry, but I have to laugh,” he says, not laughing. “You’re going to beat my ass with a broom handle for something as two-cents as slurping my milk — and then an hour later come in and lay down with me? I know it’s not polite to say something against your family — but for that man, they should’ve brought back lynch­ing, baby.”

And your brothers and sisters? I ask. Did they come out of it alright?

“Pshuh,” he snaps. “They’re as happy as larks. Far as they’re concerned, none of this ever happened.” He pauses, peering down at the bright pageant of Christo­pher Street. “I guess I had to take the weight for the good of the family.”

That isn’t self-pity, it’s guilt, and it’s the deadliest addiction down here — this attachment to the idea that you’re the proper target of life’s sadism. Why, for instance, aren’t these kids selling crack instead of their bodies? Because dealing is an act of violence perpetrated against others; hustling your body to men who won’t wear condoms is an act of violence against yourself, a carrying-out of the sentence handed down in childhood. “Why the fuck should I hassle ’em to wear a rubber?” shrugged Chris, a very stoned metal kid in heavy leather. “I’m gonna be dead in two years, anyway.”

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ONE NIGHT IN LATE September, perhaps my second on the scene, I was walking up the dock taking the lay of the land when I heard someone shout, “YO, YOUR BACK!” I wheeled and saw three kids coming straight for me, closing hard and fast as linebackers. I froze, bracing myself for the hit, when a second shout brought them up short. They veered off right, hurling glares over their shoulders, and hopped the divider onto the highway. I put my heart back inside my chest and went to thank my benefactor, a squat black kid in two-tone denims sporting a fat welt over one eye.

“Ah man, fuck you,” he sneered, “I shoulda let ’em jay you, only I don’t need no 20 cops down here. I got like 60-something cents in my pocket tonight.”

I explained what I was doing, and of­fered to buy him dinner. He asked to see my press card. “Oh, this’ll make someone a nice souvenir. But you bullshittin’, I know you got back-up somewhere. You ain’t really out here by yourself.”

I assured him that I was, and on foot, to boot.

“Look around you!” he guffawed, sa­voring my stupidity. “You see all these hardnut crackheads? They ain’t here to get laid, they’re here to get paid, if you know what I’m talking about.”

There were kids sprawled sullenly on the hoods of cars; kids roaming the piers in packs of three and four, or huddled like cabals around someone’s boombox. Only at the far north end could boys be seen standing by themselves, arms across their chests in desultory attendance. “This ain’t Shangri-la anymore, this is 42nd Street South,” said Aubrey. “Any­thing up there, you can buy down here now. Drugs, car stereos, a whole trunk­load of guns — anything you want, except for pussy… but check back for that on Friday.”

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The joke reverberated. Just that eve­ning, I’d been talking to a couple of retail­ers on Christopher Street, whose bitter suspicion was that the cops were quietly redlining the West Village, pinching all the pandemic sins of Times Square down here. “Doesn’t the Sixth Precinct ever patrol this place?” I asked Aubrey.

“To protect who?” he snorted. “Ain’t nobody out here but a bunch of fags and baseheads.”

And into which of the two groups did he fall?

“Neither, nor,” he declared. “I’m a man with a plan. One day real quick, I’m gonna just… disappear.”

There was some thunder in that word, too. Trudy Peterson, whose love for these kids suffuses everything she says, told me that the hardest thing about her work “is that these kids just disappear. We don’t know if they went down to Florida to hustle, to Puerto Rico and their grand­mothers, or if they’ve been taken up to some rooftop by a gang and raped.”

Aubrey did in fact disappear — on his own steam, I hope — but not before I ran into him again that Friday night. He was standing by himself, looking like hell in a red hood, skeed off his ass on a crack­-and-smack jam. “Come here,” he said, hugging me. “I wanna show you something freaky.”

We walked down to the second pier. He pointed to a crawlspace about 40 feet out, where a kid was sound asleep perhaps a yard above the tide. “I never in my life been that fucked up,” he marveled. “I hope whatever he do tonight, he don’t roll over. That’d be a wet dream-and-a-half, boy!”

He was still tittering about this 10 min­utes later, wondering whose life would pass before your eyes if you drowned out there, your own or Charlie the Tuna’s, when the laugh suddenly caught in his throat. “Ho, shit, here comes the fastest way to die.”

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He pointed discreetly with his chin to a baby Benz sedan. which was circling the dock slowly, in a sort of taunting, Dave Parker trot. Its windows were down, revealing three b-boys in black, fronting enough gold to float a municipal bond issue. They sprayed the scene with their 12-gauge glares.

“Which one’s the dealer?” I asked.

“What, are you gonna go interview him?” he sneered. “Yo, man, quit lookin’ at ’em! You got detec written all over you. If they see me even talking to you about ’em…”

We averted our eyes as the Benz made another pass, then peeled out onto the highway, serenading us with the gentle strains of NWA:

Fuck the police, and Ren said it with authority 
’cause the niggers on the street is a majority
A gang is with whomever I’m stepping
And a motherfuckin’ weapon is kept in
A stashbox for the so-called law
Wishin’ Ren was a nigger they never saw…

“That was Markie’s crew,” said Aubrey. “He’ll send ’em after you if you’re like even five minutes late — and those niggers don’t even play.”

“Does Markie run the show down here?”

“Not really, he stays on the uptown tip. But some of these hardnuts go up and get 50 bottles [vials] offa him, then smoke the shit and don’t come back with the $200. That’s how niggers get shot down here.”

“Are there a lot of kids getting shot?”

Aubrey fixed me with his ready glare. “All these motherfuckers they be pulling out the river — what do you think, they fell off their yacht?” He wagged his head sadly, then murmured, “Dag, but that Benz was slammin’, though. All the mon­ey I made out here… I coulda bought that car three times.”

“Where is it all now, Aubrey?”

Wise and world-weary and, like so many street kids, theatrical, he waits two beats before saying, supremely, “Me, I might be crazy, but I ain’t stupid. I pay homeboy in full.”

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“THERE ARE KIDS TURNING up dead all over the city,” says Covenant House’s Mastroieni. “Sometimes, when cops find a body in a lot or a construction site, they’ll know to call us first. We keep a file on every kid we see here… very often, we’re the only ones who can identify a kid — or care to.”

A kid running the docks, she points out, is terribly vulnerable, the perfect crime waiting to happen. “They work by themselves, they’ve got no I.D., [and] they’re high out of their minds most of the time.… If you’re a dealer and a kid stiffs you, you can make a quick example of him for $20. And if you’re a john and you want to take a kid to Jersey and bury him — well, it’s not like he’s got a partner jotting your license number down…”

“Please understand that we’re trying to maintain good relations with the police,” says Mastroieni. “And generally we do. There are some very honorable cops out there, cops who tip us off when they see one of our kids where he isn’t supposed to be. But most of them?” she sighs. “Most of them don’t give a damn about these kids. As far as they’re concerned, who­ever’s killing them is doing the Lord’s work.”

How does a skinny 17-year-old stalked by johns and dealers defend himself? By arming himself, quite literally, to the teeth. There isn’t a kid out there without a gun or a knife, or at any rate a single­-edge secured in imaginative places. Bob­by, a delicate kid sitting on the hood of a Dodge, showed me how to conceal a razor blade between cheek and gum (“Keep the sharp side down, and don’t smile too much”). He told me what had happened to him and his lover, Raymond. They were walking west on Charles, “drinking a beer and smooching to try and stay warm,” when suddenly they were set upon by a carload of kids. “I’m not saying they didn’t fuck me up good — they did­ — but I know at least one of those boys will never forget me. I cut his shit from yay to yay, and the blade was rusty, too.”

Raymond, however, came away so banged up he had to go back to Puerto Rico. “He was really a nice guy, and I never expected that… I never had no one treat me with that respect before. And between us, we had like a little room in Flatbush. It wasn’t much, but at least I wasn’t out here till no four a.m., trying to get someone to take me to his place so I could catch a shower.”

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IF IT’S FAIR TO CALL kids living from trick to trick slow suicides, what do you call the grown men who cruise them? Write a piece on the johns, implored one outreach worker after another, meaning by all means bash those bastards. But the request betrayed a certain curiosity as well — who are these men, and why are they out sniffing after kids — and sad, sick, addicted kids at that?

“Ninety to 95 per cent of [the johns] are married men with families,” says Pe­terson. “They’re Boy Scout leaders, store managers, executives — men with money… One kid said to me, ‘You know, they open up their wallets to pay me, and I see pictures of their children in there and I think, if they’re paying me to do this, what are they doing at home to their own kids?'”

At 3 a.m., when the exchange rate on the pier is a bottle of crack for a blowjob, it’s the john who like as not is supplying the crack; the john who spurns the kid’s choke roll of condoms; the john who boosts the ante from sex to sadism. Al­most every kid I talked to, from the piers to Port Authority to the loop on 53rd Street, said he has at least one regular who engages him to do the “wilder thing,” i.e., the sort of act that only the most unfettered mind could construe as carnal. There is Peter, the lantern-jawed kid in greasy jeans, whose “Friday guy” forks over $200 to be yoked to two poles in the back of his van and have his nip­ples pierced with an ice pick. There is Maurice, who gets paid “stoopid money” to shit on a hot dog roll and make his client eat it.

I want to make it thuddingly plain that we are talking about so-called straights here, men whose sexuality is the ticking bomb under their two-family colonial. “Some day,” Peterson worries, “some guy’s going to wake up with AIDS, and give it to his wife. Then he’s going to come over here with a gun and shoot 10 street kids.”

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Given the fixity of their death wish — ­there are johns buying boys with conspic­uous lesions on their arms — it is impossi­ble that “some guy” hasn’t already awo­ken to that discovery. But what Peterson is putting her finger on is the john’s ca­pacity for projection, driving the stake of his self-loathing through the hearts of these kids. “With the transvestites, you know, the johns like to punch them in the crotch,” says Mastroieni. “The kid’s roll­ing around in agony, and the john’s up there laughing, going, ‘Hey, I just wanted to make sure you were a boy.’ ”

The other fraction of the john popula­tion, out gay men, tend to be vastly more benign to the kids. Many form attach­ments to their “steadies,” bringing them home for several days or even a stretch of weeks before the thing craps out over drugs or house rules. They’ll take a kid out to dinner, or occasionally pick him up a shirt, no small favor for someone who’s been wearing the same thing all week. Whether it’s empathy or romance or a rescue fantasy, something quite the ob­verse of sadism seems to obtain here.

The kids I spoke to were by and large grateful for these affairs, but the experi­ence of being cared for was also terrifying to them. On the one hand, they’re hungry for it, no matter how long they’ve been out here; on the other, they’re clinging fast to their hard boy swagger, to that uptown street affect by which they sur­vive. “I do what I gotta do,” goes the dogma of West Street, “but I damn sure ain’t nobody’s toy-boy.”

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“I’M A PRETTY NORMAL person. I wouldn’t consider myself a sex fiend,” says Peter. “But when I’m on that pipe, all I can think about — bang! — is fucking. Fucking, smoking, and fucking some more. And I’ll tell you what — when that head comes over me, I gotta go some­where and beat my meat, ’cause otherwise I’m liable to kill someone.”

In the centrifuge of crack, everything flies apart: neighborhoods, families, per­sonalities. But the drug also has an insid­ious side effect that hasn’t been suffi­ciently well-documented. Smoked in even modest amounts, it can be just a crazy­-making aphrodisiac, wiping all the other imperatives off the board. It’s like an infusion of pure id every half-hour — and these kids aren’t exactly overloaded with superego to begin with.

“Because of crack,” says Peterson, “there’s more sex and more desperate sex: multiple-partners, orgy-type sex in crack houses.… The drug itself drives you to it. You don’t care how many arms and legs and asses — the more the merrier.”

“Look at these people out here,” Diego sniffs. “They don’t care what they look like, they don’t care what they smell like — crack whores, that’s all they are.… You come down here with 20 bottles, it doesn’t matter how old and ugly you are, you’re the Pied Piper of West Street.”

The only thing that’s dropped faster than the price of drugs in this city is the price of street sex. “I used to make good money out here, and I’m talking 50s, 100s,” says Diego. “Now, the johns drive up, they don’t even say hello. They just go, ‘Hey, you got a stem (a crack pipe) on you?’ And if you say yes, right then and there they know they got you… Three, four hits, you’ll be up in the back seat like a slave — you might even get out that car with no money. This boy Rickey talk about, ‘Oh, that man spent $300 on me.’ Really? I don’t see it. ‘Well, it was $300 in rocks.’ Oh. So you’re up in the room with him talking about six, seven hours, and when you came down you had to hop the turnstile to get back here,” Diego chortles. “I guess that’s why they call it dope.”

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Covenant House refers to this disas­trous tit-for-tat as “survival sex,” as if kids were blowing johns to keep a roof over their heads. CH ought to know bet­ter. Certainly, its outreach people do. Making the rounds in their baby blue vans, they see the same boys out there night after night — strung-out, exhausted, the odor of the subways upon them. The kids descend upon the vans in their em­barrassed way, ostensibly for a cup of cocoa and a peanut-butter sandwich, but also to talk to someone like Veronica DiNapoli.

A four-year outreach veteran, DiNapo­li’s blend of tact and tenderness often opens kids up on the spot. They hug her and hold fast to her hand or her sleeve as they pour out their sad packet of lies: Veronica, didja hear, I’m going away to college… Veronica, Herbie told you we found this fly spot in Queens? And she listens to it all, treading delicately around their claims, because she knows that’s all they have. On a particularly cold night, several of them will consent to come back to the residence, or take a ride to the hospital for the gash in their forearm. But these are children whose hope and trust have been ripped out like cables. In every blessing, they have been taught to suspect a beating.

“It’s so sad,” says Liz Russo, the tough, pretty former director of Hetrick-Mar­tin’s outreach team. “They get battered at home, they get battered in their neigh­borhoods, [and if] they’ve been kicked out by their parents, they get battered in the group homes… That’s why so many of them are down here in the first place­ — they actually feel safer on the docks.”

Even by the standards of this shame­less city, it is disgraceful that there is no sanctuary for homeless gay kids. In Los Angeles, a town not known the world over for its benevolence, there are several such places, notably Lois Lee’s group res­idence Children of the Night. In San Francisco, kids converge on Project Stepping Stone, a crash pad with staff in the Tenderloin. But in New York, it is either Covenant House or the East Third Street Men’s Shelter, where kids stand about as much chance as goldfish in a shark pool.

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What they need is a place that’s uncon­ditionally theirs, that welcomes them in all their pain and complexity. There’s been some talk among the loose consor­tium of small agencies about acquiring a space, but the thing is miles beyond their grasp. No, this is a matter for the next HRA chief, who can either start looking around for a facility downtown or laying in a supply of caskets for the new year.

In the meantime, the kids will go on wintering on the E train, or at a certain all-male theater in the West Village. Said one kid who’s passed his share of nights there, “You go in expecting to see a whole bunch of bizarre sex going on, and in­stead it’s all these young kids knocked out sleeping.… In the middle of February, you’ll be glad they let you stay there, but those seats get hard on your ass, boy.”

Ignoble as that is, it’s high living compared to last year, when kids slept in the backs of reeking garbage trucks, or in the Department of Sanitation’s salt storehouse on 16th Street. “They had the most casual rats in there,” Diego winces. “Big-ass ones that just walked right up to you and started chewing on your shit… If you count my father, I’ve slept with sick, dirty bastards for 13 years, but rats I cannot work with.”

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ONE NIGHT, THAT FIRST bitter stretch after Thanksgiving, I took a ride up to East 53rd Street. The Loop, as it’s known, used to be the Ritz of rough trade: clean, pretty boys, the majority of them white, available for the delectation of more discriminating palates. Enter crack, the great leveler. Such kids as have managed to steer clear of the pipe now do their business inside the bars, leaving the streets to the Dead Boys and the newly addicted. You see them staked out in doorways or phone booths, skinny and windburnt in their thin nylon jackets.

They tend, however, not to show up much before 3 a.m., working the docks and the ’Deuce for the earlybirds. So, just before midnight I walked the neighbor­hood looking for stragglers. I turned up 55th Street, marveling to myself at the high-speed sociology of crack, when I saw a kid skulking in the shadows. I’d been mugged just the week before, nailed as I left the piers by a bunch of kids yelling “Faggot!” so I broke left on instinct, cut­ting him a wide berth. As it happened, he was weeping. I came near, guilty and so­licitous, and saw a small Spanish kid with a flat, round face, hugging himself inconsolably.

“What happened?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you out here?”

Startled, he came out of his half-crouch and fixed me with a look that I will never forget. He had the heartbreaking eyes of an abandoned baby, wild and illingual in his pain and terror. He was convulsing in sections, his left and right sides going at cross-purpose spasms. He teetered against the building on stork legs. “Mau­rice!” he screamed at me. “Maurice, the motherfucker! I was ’sposedta been high from three hours ago!”

I backed up and look off down the street, looking for a cop, an ambulance. But the only thing that met me coming up Second Avenue was the wind making its announcement to Diego, and to Au­brey, and to Dead Boys everywhere, that winter, in all its maleficence, was here.