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Memories of the Reagan and Bush Administrations

“A scraping sound,” H. M. Enzensberger describes as the beginning of the end in his famous poem. The iceberg tore a jagged opening across the Titanic‘s hull, like the trail of a can opener. Not a very long or gaping breach, but just enough to ship tons of water into the engine room. As everybody knows, the biggest casualties were among the steerage passengers, huddled below decks with their bales of belongings, their infant chil­dren, and their identity papers.

Prevailing codes of civility required that women and chil­dren be placed in the lifeboats before the adult men. There are never enough lifeboats to go around; John Jacob Astor went down with the ship, along with several other bridge-playing gentlemen on A Deck. Like Enzensberger, and you, I have eidetic images of this event, jumbled with memories of Barbara Stan­wyck and Clifton Webb in A Night To Remember. There was that one cowardly million­aire in drag whose pant cuffs betrayed him in a Collapsible B as it floated away from the blazing lights of the Titanic. This individual was, I feel certain, the prototype of a kind of social criminal that flourished in Ameri­ca under Ronald Reagan, who had himself portrayed many spineless, good-fornothing playboys in films of the 1940s.

We spent a lot of time in the 1980s look­ing at TV and newspaper pictures of these arrestingly unenigmatic men. Rat-faced Elliott Abrams, lying through his teeth about Nicaragua on the 6:30 news. Grinning so­ciopath Oliver North, in full battle drag for the CNN cameras, exposing the Mafia in the White House basement while falling on his sword. Charles Keating, the Alvaric of Lincoln Savings, Dr. Mabuse hair in dire need of a rinse. The faces never stopped. Ivan Boesky. Michael Milken, Frank Lor­enzo. Whenever one of these hapless but stubbornly unrepentant glove puppets was thrown to the wolves, another was sighted in the middle distance, snapping the reins of Dracula’s carriage. The dogs bark, as Truman Capote noted in a different con­text, but the caravan moves on.

Where did they come from? It seemed that they had always been there, in one guise or another, pilot fish attached near the gills of much heavier marine life, si­phoning blood through strata of flesh and fat. Their social betters, born to rule, had swum through Phillips Andover and Yale, sometimes Choate and Princeton, though the Glove-Puppet-in-Chief, a petit bour­geois and adult child of an alcoholic, at­tended a farm college. (His Eve Harrington made Skull and Bones.) In a quieter if not more gracious time, the smaller fish would have been dashing parasites in the middle reaches of municipal banks and govern­ment agencies, brooding for years before skipping to Antigua with a bimbo and the monthly payroll. Or fourth-string advisers in Third World consulates, quietly going to seed while waiting for an Evelyn Waugh to become their Boswell.

The ’80s “empowered” such people, puff­er fish from the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution who inflated every 24 hours on Nightline, icky crustaceans like Rush Limbaugh, Dinesh D’Souza, Al­lan Bloom, and Mary Matalin, weird left­over mollusks like Evans and Novak, Pod­horetz and Deeter, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Cap Weinberger. For the millions of outsiders whose noses were pressed to the aquarium glass, the most colorful and scary fish were the bot­tom-feeders. These creatures of the cold depths ranged all across the floor of the cultural cesspool, iridescent, luminescent, compellingly stupid. Their visibility in the tank sufficed to divert attention from the increasingly cannibalistic escapades of the larger fish. Randall Terry, Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Richard Viguerie, Henry Kravis, Peggy Noonan, Al D’Amato: just a few of the lower phyla swirling among the grasses and weeds, aquatic ruminants emitting neurotoxins while nourish­ing themselves on fish droppings.

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I remember that in 1981 we were wor­ried about a war.

We were children of the ’50s who had cowered under desks during air raid drills, and some of us had had, through most of our lives, recurring nightmares about the hydrogen bomb. Then came Nixon and dé­tente, and Ford, who really seemed harm­less, and “the little Carter,” a man who grew peanuts for a living and clearly had no interest in blowing up the planet. At the tail end of 1979, though, all hell broke loose. The Shah was flown out of Iran, and some pious American imperative to add insult to injury caused us to bring him here. The American embassy in Tehran was seized. China resumed border skirmishes with Vietnam, which had invaded Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge, and the Soviet Union, being an ally of Vietnam and hav­ing already invaded Afghanistan, seemed poised to invade China. Nineteen eighty turned out to be a very nervous year, and at the end of it Ronald Reagan became president.

Ronald Reagan became president, and as he was sworn in the hostages were set free, and you did not need a congressional inves­tigation to figure out that some type of mickey mouse had occurred, some deal brokered by the dark forces that had steered Reagan through his years of selling out the Screen Actors Guild to HUAC, his stump speeches for GE, his Death Valley days, his gubernatorial terms in California. They were, it went without saying, the campfire guys from Bohemian Grove.

In the depths of the fait accompli, many of us lost all interest in politics. Some were turning into cocaine, others into heroin. Perhaps you, reading this, will say that you personally were trampling through the vin­tage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and if so, good for you, but I wasn’t.

I was interested in Mrs. Harris, who had shot the diet doctor. I was interested in Mark David Chapman, who had shot John Lennon. I was not especially interested in John W. Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan that March, partly because he missed, and the assassination attempt somehow made Reagan more plausible, a hologram taking on ectoplasm.

At her trial, Mrs. Harris would say that under the spell of Dr. Herman Tarnower she had felt like a character in “Somerset Maugham’s Magnificent Obsession.” When it was pointed out to her that Maugham was not the author of Magnificent Obsession, Mrs. Harris claimed that it had just seemed too painful to say Of Human Bond­age. Mark David Chapman had a much-­thumbed copy of The Catcher in the Rye in his pocket as he waited in front of the Dakota for John and Yoko; like Holden Caulfield’s, his innocence had been violat­ed by “phonies,” though Holden Caulfield never shot one. Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot the pope that year, looked really, really cute in photographs. Another poor shot, though. One of the lessons of the 1960s was that only relatively useful people encounter competent assassins.

Martial law was declared in Poland. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. My friend Cookie Mueller, always in the van­guard, began watching MTV as soon as it came on the air.

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Surrealism sifted down from the top, a sense of unreality spreading out into unex­pectedly pliable parts of what had seemed solid, immutable. The new government, the new president, exhibited an implacable nut­tiness, the kind of drollery that can’t be argued with. It would be like arguing with Lucy Ricardo. The Department of Agricul­ture announced that ketchup could be con­sidered a nutritious vegetable in school lunches. The president wanted to cut more social services and pour billions into the military, to put an end to the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society type of programs. Hasta la vista the compassion thing, the affirmative action thing. He fired the air traffic controllers. He dissolved the board of the Legal Services Corporation on New Year’s Eve to keep block grants from going out to advocacy groups. He cited welfare princesses in Cadillacs. He recommended tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination.

It became evident that the new president could not talk. Or rather he could, being an actor, talk if he were reading lines, but his spontaneous verbiage never coalesced into sentences or paragraphs or even into intelli­gible non sequiturs. I suppose if you had asked him about Barbie he would have con­fused Barbie the war criminal with Barbie the fashion doll. He could not, after all, remember whether he had helped liberate the death camps in Poland, or had merely narrated a documentary about them, The soft, chewy, evasive language that had been such a remarkably damning feature of the Nixon crew’s Watergate testimony had re­turned to the penthouse level of govern­ment with a vengeance. Everything was hindsight, everyone misspoke himself, the most unequivocal statements needed to be clarified the next day, turned inside out, rendered meaningless.

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If you traveled a lot in those days, you were certain to notice this problem, this phenomenon of displaced persons, economic refugees, political refugees, people in flight, people from troubled Third World countries sweeping the streets of Germany and France, sweeping the streets and clean­ing the sewers, and it was clear that the local people, the ones who had rallied around Hitler and Marshal Petain, no champions of the melting pot, were becom­ing restive. A certain Nietzschean ressenti­ment could be detected in the daily papers of Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Berlin, Par­is, Lyons.

There was Strauss in Bavaria, Le Pen in Marseilles, the National Front skinheads in Manchester and Liverpool and London. Something was taking its course, probably the incurable in human nature.

U.S. unemployment hit 10.8 per cent, though it was a boom year for the stock market. The war on drugs was announced, emphasis on interdiction and mandatory sentencing. And there was this new illness going around, something whispered about in gay bars, some people called it gay can­cer and some people called it GRID, you had to look hard in the papers for it, be­cause in 1982 gay people were decidedly not news, and the deaths of gay people, whether by homicide or disease, were welcomed, not at all quietly, by the people the new government coaxed out of the wood­work: Jesus freaks, white-collar criminals who would become Jesus freaks in country­club prisons, military brass who wore Jesus on their lapels with their kooky decora­tions, abonion-clinic bombers with Jesus at their side, civil-rights opponents with a spe­cial relationship to Jesus, John Wayne.

I was spending a lot of time in Berlin. You did not hear much about the epidemic in Berlin. The disease was something peo­ple picked up in America. It was widely believed that only a certain type of person got it, a person who had too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, or took too many drugs, or the wrong kind of drugs, and people would tell you this, sometimes, just before or just after having sex with you, or doing drugs, etc., etc.

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In 1983, a lot of people who were mak­ing a lot of money decided that if they jumped up and down every day in a health club, they would never get cancer, heart disease, or old.

In 1983, several people I knew were car­ried off by AIDS-related pneumonia.

In 1983, traveling behind the dreaded Iron Curtain, I discovered Ronald Reagan’s true constituency: Central European intellectuals and professional types who were, for the most part, immersed in politics as an all-male, heterosexual club, an arena for jousting between randy cocksmen, some armed with state power, others clad in the drag of superior moral truth and historical victimhood. They despised feminism, and indeed any systemic critique of the status quo except the concepts of anticommunism or anticapitalism. In Budapest and Prague and East Berlin, only the Jews seemed aware that the CP had kept the lid on pogroms, ethnic warfare, border clashes, etc.

It was the would-be Kundera types, the Brodsky and Milosz wannabes who had been unlucky enough to stay behind, the ones who weren’t getting that foxy tight pussy in Paris and London and New York, the chauvinists who wrote elegant and pow­erful books about repression and who yet maintained a stubbornly repressive attitude toward women, homosexuals, and quite of­ten people of other races and nationalities, who adored Ronald Reagan and his rhetorical willingness to go nuclear. The Soviet Union, they said, would only back down in the face of massive military confrontation, endless threats, endless displays of Ameri­can force around the world.

At home, polling data revealed that throughout his presidency Reagan was not an especially popular chief of state, and that the political views of most people had shifted, if anything, further left. This didn’t translate at the ballot box because more and more people stayed away from ballot boxes, perceiving no practical advantage in endorsing one or another spokesperson for the superrich and the defense industry.

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That year, Reagan announced his Star Wars vision. It had, it was said, come to him in a dream, screened through some vague memory of an army propaganda film he’d acted in during World War II: an ultrapowerful death ray, mounted on an ultrafuturistic multibillion-dollar orbiting space station full of special sensors and laser mirrors and stuff like that, could, with one press of a magic emergency button, zap intercontinental ballistic missiles in mid-­flight and turn them into butterflies. No one believed this, really, but it was an en­chanting fantasy, and Congress passed most of the money for it.

CDs hit the market for the first time.

The Cabbage Patch doll, with its cute computer-generated face, dominated the Christmas toy market. Two hundred and forty-one marines were blown to pieces in Lebanon by a kamikaze truck driver. Gre­nada, with its ominous stranglehold on the world’s nutmeg supply, was suddenly recog­nized as a threat to America’s national se­curity. An invasion was launched, resulting in the bombing of a mental hospital and the capture of four or five Cuban engineers who were rolling an airfield for the Minis­try of Tourism Eventually, 8612 medals for valor would be awarded for the Grena­da microwar. Fewer than 7000 people had participated.

The playwright slept with me for a while and then he stopped sleeping with me, which was fine, except that I missed him, not all the time, but regularly at three 1n the morning, when I had often kissed him in my sleep, or in his sleep, or wrapped my legs around his waist, or rubbed his back. or his feet, and quite often he spoke 10 me in his sleep, he called me Swee1ie. But of course, looking back on i1, he may not have been talking to me at all.

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There were wild men roaming the back hills of Idaho and Colorado, men with large, cultlike families, children with straight greasy hair who’d been yanked out of public schools to learn marksmanship at home, where a ten years’ supply of canned food was kept next to the AK-47s in the bomb shelter. They believed in skin color as the organizing principle of their particu­lar mammal clan. They believed that Ron­ald Reagan might himself be a socialist, a tool of the Trilateral Commission. or a dupe of the Kremlin. Every so often, these people shot a policeman, or clubbed an Asian to death, causing the media spotlight to settle, briefly, not on their alarming numbers, but on the special features of their delusional system. These included the concept of survival as a full-time obsession, tax revolt as a revolutionary tool, and old­-time patriarchy as the will of God. Which turned out to be not unlike the opinions aired on Crossfire, or printed in Commentary and The New Republic, except for the inside-the-beltway caveat that, of course, it was wrong to attack people, wrong to kill people one disagreed with, unless the vital economic interests of the country were at stake.

It must have been that winter that I fell, deeply and insensibly, in love with a junkie. I have always had a weak place for junkies, for semi-helpless people with Christ fixa­tions, people who believe, usually for good reasons, that they are doomed. Beautiful losers, debutantes gone awry. He could’ve done the cover of GQ without much effort, but he wanted, I think, someone with ex­travagant will to scoop him up and save him, and this is where, perhaps, Mark Da­vid Chapman’s favorite novel and I have something in common. I tried, and after he sold the entire contents of my apartment on the street, I gave up.

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At any given moment, you had an investi­gation or a set of hearings or a probe going on, often several at the same time, in the House or Senate or Justice Department or FBI, and along with these investigations, hearings, and probes, you got leaks, fol­lowed by denials, and eventually by confir­mations, followed by subpoenas and indict­ments. A chestnut from the Nixon period­ — “how much did he know, and when did he know it?” — became the favorite, irrelevant question of the White House press corps.

Language as a medium for describing re­ality underwent deconstruction. “I don’t re­call,” “I can’t remember,” “I have no recollection of that,” were considered acceptable euphemisms for “I’m not going to tell you.” If an embarrassing or litigable fact leaked, one could credibly claim to have been “out of the loop,” even if one happened to have been in the same room where the loop was.

The president was said to be a grandfa­therly type, naturally charming, genial, who never became ruffied by anything. And it was said, later, by people like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, that these ingrati­ating qualities, added to the fact that the press was always accused of excessive liber­alism and therefore felt obliged to be more than fair, accounted for the media allowing him a free ride, never clocking his mistakes, never finding him accountable.

The principle of unaccountability was an important nuance. It signaled that the Cap­tain really was just a Spokesperson, a com­fortingly wrinkled ventriloquist’s doll. The unaccountability thing became the Wash­ington drug of choice. When the White House chief of staff’s proximity to Iran-­contra fell under scrutiny, he asked, with a note of pique, “Does a bank president know whether a bank teller is fiddling around with the books?”

It was the year of Miami Vice and Bho­pal. Daniel Ortega won a free and fair elec­tion in Managua, an election heavily monitored by representatives of the previous U.S. government. The Reagan people im­mediately declared it null and void, and for years this election was treated by New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer and in most U.S. newspapers as if it had never occurred.

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Even though I did a fair amount of cultur­al reporting in 1985, it’s hard to remember in any detail what was going on. Words like simulacra, Other with a capital O, appropri­ation, and infotainment were in high vogue. The art world had already seeped past its usual coterie boundaries when national magazines discovered the East Village Art Scene, causing a flood of suburban trust­-fund bohemians and boutiques to inundate the neighborhood, displacing thousands of working-class stiffs. Now painters and sculptors and their newly decorated country homes were turning up in People, in Archi­tectural Digest, and on Page Six, their par­ties and benefits and plans for world domi­nation reported in gossip columns.

Real estate values were pushing through the roof. The Dow Jones average finished the year at 1546, an all-time high. Buying and owning were the art world things to do. Ditto the Wall Street thing to do. Buying, owning, getting married.

“We Are the World” went platinum.

General Dynamics was indicted for con­spiracy to defraud the army. Years later, General Dynamics would opt to lay off thousands of employees rather than retool for civilian industry. Capital Cities Com­munications seized ABC. General Electric seized RCA, which controlled NBC. Laur­ence A. Tisch, owner of Lorillard tobacco, seized CBS.

A volcanic eruption in Colombia killed 23,000. An 8.1 earthquake in Mexico City killed 7000. Mob boss Paul Castellano was shot outside Sparks Steak House on East 46th Street. A hole in the ozone layer was reported by British scientists.

The president had cancer, or, as the Rea­ganese du jour had it, a little, noncancerous thing inside the president had some cancer in it. Namely his colon. A few months be­fore the little thing inside the president had cancer, the president visited an SS ceme­tery in Bitburg, Germany. He declared that the soldiers of the SS were, in their way, victims, just like the Jews in Auschwitz. Because they were all, you know, kind of inside a little thing called World War II.

Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and it was felt that his death would bring the epidemic into focus for people who had so far ignored it. Rock Hudson had been, after all, a friend of the Reagans, beloved by millions, and, in private life, by all accounts, a sweet guy. But the focus settled a bit to the side of the larger issue: on Rock Hudson’s secret gay life, Rock Hudson’s ex-lover’s lawsuit, the actual size of Rock Hudson’s estate, and on whether or not Rock Hudson should have kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty. The lesson of Rock Hudson’s death became boilerplate for every celebrity AIDS death, i.e., “even a movie star can get AIDS,” as though it were widely assumed that fame immunized a person against physical misfortune.

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The next year, we retaliated for the bomb­ing of a disco in Germany by bombing Tripoli. In the absence of hard evidence that Libyans were actually involved in the German disco bombing, the State Depart­ment assured us, as did the president him­self, that the ruler of Libya was a “mad dog,” similar to Hitler, and therefore crazy enough to lash out at a vastly superior mili­tary foe.

The Senate approved $100 million in aid to the contras, an army of mercenaries left over from Somoza days in Nicaragua, most of them drug dealers with ties to what was traditionally referred to in Pentagon circles as the “disposal problem,” i.e., the old Bay of Pigs veterans who, with backup from jailbird flotsam from the Mariel boat lift, now ran the coke business in Miami. Ever since they may or may not have helped assassinate JFK, the anti-Castro Cubans had been on one or another federal payrol — of the CIA, FBI, NSC — biding their time, with scapulars of the Virgin Mary and Batista clasped to their chests along with the gold chains and the coke spoons.

Baby Doc fled Haiti with most of the national treasury. Years later, the Bush people would open a concentration camp for Haitian refugees at Guantánamo, re­minding many Americans who’d forgotten that throughout 30 years of economic blockade, the U.S. has maintained a mili­tary base on Cuba itself.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines with billions. The space shuttle exploded. The Chernobyl reactor exploded. A lake in Cameroon exploded, killing 1700.

William Rehnquist became chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. An­thony Scalia was confirmed as associate justice.

Mergers in the airline industry. More mergers in communications.

The Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal was reported in a Beirut newspaper.

Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was shot on the street in Stockholm.

Unemployment fell to 6.6 per cent.

In The World Almanac’s Sixth Annual Heroes of Young America poll, Eddie Mur­phy was chosen as Young America’s “Top Hero,” followed by Ronald Reagan, Bill Cosby, Prince, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Debbie Allen, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Spring­steen, Eddie Van Halen, and Harrison Ford.

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What do you call these things, I asked the psychiatrist, where you don’t sleep with the person, but become so involved with him that the two of you behave like people in the throes of passion? You have fights, you make scenes, you spend hours gazing like cows into each other’s eyes, and even the people you are sleeping with become secondary figures in the drama, extras you go home to, members of the chorus.

Well, the psychiatrist said, I’d call it barking up the wrong tree, frankly.

Everyone was under indictment. The principle of unaccountability was part of the mandate of surrealism. Unless you were caught, preferably on videotape, with your hand in the cookie jar, what you knew and when you knew it, or what you did and how you did it, were matters of pure conjecture I and speculation. Unless someone had actu­ally seen you hurl your wife out the win­dow, or shoot her up with an overdose of insulin, the beau monde would flock to your defense, throw cocktail parties and banquets in your honor, write profiles of you in Vanity Fair.

Nobody was responsible for anything bad. And if you had, in fact, been caught doing something terrible, your entertain­ment value shot up.

Wearing a green velvet Carolina Herrera dress, Nancy Reagan presided as guest of honor at a fund-raising dinner at the Met: pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce. In Managua, Times journalist Stephen Kinzer valiantly continued report­ing the horrors of Sandinista land reform and free day-care centers.

There was a stock market crash in 1987. The Dow ended the year at 1938, down from 2640 on October 5. Ivan Boesky pleaded guilty to insider trading.

In 1988, Panama’s General Noriega was indicted for drug dealing by a Florida grand jury.

The largest leveraged buyout in history occurred in 1988, when RJR Nabisco, which employed 12,000 people in its tobac­co division alone. was acquired by Kohl­berg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., an investment firm with 15 dealmakers. Thanks to Willie Horton and Read My Lips, the baton of shininess passed from Ronald Reagan to George Bush.

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We had, according to the papers, partially overcome “the Vietnam syndrome,” which meant, as far as I could tell, partially forget­ting the experience of losing a war. Reagan had sounded this theme and backed it up by bombing various backwaters where actu­al battle and troop loss were unlikely, though Lebanon was a miscalculation. Ever since Vietnam, Americans had displayed the petulance and pettiness of sore losers, stoking the issue of MIAs, which involved some satanic fantasy of GIs pressed into slave labor long after the war was finished. It did not matter to anyone that the Vietnamese had over a million dead to mourn, or that their landscape was still toxic from American chemicals. In Vietnam. it is com­mon for two men or two women to hold hands while walking in the street. Here it’s an incitement to murder, and we have an active lobby on our local school boards determined 10 keep it that way.

I suppose I fixated on him because of the rotten times we were living in, with more rotten times expected ahead, and we ended up clinging to each other like two wet rags stiffened by a sudden drop in temperature. He wouldn’t make love because he was scared, and I convinced myself, you see, that having him around would be enough, and then, in a tentative frightened way, he began to open up, began getting physical, and I thought, Well, there, he loves you after all. Months passed. He became more and more open, more available, more talk­ative, more passionate, more insistent about the convolutions of his psyche, the turmoil our relationship was stirring in his soul. I thought he was coming to love me, and actually he was having a nervous breakdown.

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George Bush was not loved by the peo­ple who simply lived in the country, the faceless thousands strung out on revolving credit and bad mortgages, the people who lost their jobs when their plants packed up for Mexico, the folks who found themselves without enough insurance when the inevita­ble neoplasm rolled around. He was not loved by people with HIV infection and AIDS or the people who cared about them. He was unloved by people of color.

The press enjoyed, especially at the end, telling us that Barbara Bush was, in fact, widely admired, but I despised her chicken­wattle face and that gleeful malice in her eyes — this phony grandmother who proba­bly carried on in private like Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, cya­nide pellets hidden in the pearls — and a lot of people fell the same way.

George Bush was not loved, because he’d had the silver spoon thing going from Day One, and that Yale Skull & Bones thing, and everything he did, to cop a phrase from Robert Wilson, was just Instant Hitler. The deals with China, the April Glaspie cables, Clarence Thomas, Iran-contra, and that ghastly massacre in Iraq. The land of hope and glory thing didn’t work on him, not really, not for long. He’d climbed on the ticket in 1980 by renouncing abortion rights and endorsing what he’d previously called voodoo economics, and rode the coattails straight into a brick wall.

Everybody knew he had no principles except Me First. He epitomized hypocrisy. He had that whale Marlin Fitzwater blubbering in the briefing room, and that other horror Margaret Tutwiler, two dead ugly people who blinked so often you knew they were pulling one over, and it won’t surprise me, you know, if they’re all under indict­ment tomorrow morning, Tutwiler, Fitz­water, Mephistopheles Baker, the whole greasy crew with their High Episcopal pre­tentions, their sycophants from Fordham, that Kristol nightmare whom they brought in to teach Quayle the alphabet, the Council on Competitiveness, and all the other no-neck monsters who went that extra mile to make ordinary people’s lives a living hell.

George Bush was not loved by the people who own the country. He was jumped-up, not in a brash oil millionaire sort of way, or a Kennedy Mafia bootleg sort of way, but in a thin, simpering, obsequious way. He whined. He was obviously vindictive and mean-spirited. He believed, you see, in no­blesse oblige in New England, but he kept a hotel room in Texas as a phony sunbelt pedigree, and that showed you he was neither fish nor fowl. He was the American Andropov, with too many ugly things on his resumé. He had to go. David Rockefel­ler endorsed Clinton.

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As I write this, Channel 17 features, at certain hours, several seriously disturbed individuals posed in front of an Israeli flag, vowing vengeance for Rabbi Kahane. They refer to Arabs as “Jew-hating cockroaches on two legs.”

There is, still, years after the 1967 war, a widely held view of Israel as a victimized and embattled state, surrounded by hostile Arabs, when, in reality, the state of Israel is a heavily armed welfare client of the U.S., actively engaged in what would be called, in a different setting, ethnic cleansing. The Israelis deport and jail people arbitrarily, engage in torture, bulldoze houses belong­ing to Palestinians.

I’ve always believed that the state of Isra­el should have been established in Lower Bavaria, to keep things secular. The state of Israel was established like this: you are sit­ting in the living room of the house your family has lived in for several generations. Strangers smash down the front door and, using their gun butts, force everyone up to the attic, declaring that they owned your house a thousand years ago, it says so in some sacred book, and anyway, some other people threw them out of the place they were living in, etc., etc. Now they want the attic, too, since you have relatives living next door that you can move in with.

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We could do the Berlin Wall, or the mi­raculous Fall of Communism. The refugee populations pouring over the old borders, the Balkanization of the Balkans, the break­up of the Soviet Union into myriad nucle­ar-ready zones, the Exxon Valdez spill, the Time-Warner merger, Tiananmen Square, HUD, the $ 166 billion price tag on the S&Ls, Mitsubishi’s acquisition of Rockefel­ler Center, Sony’s buy-up of CBS and Co­lumbia Pictures. We could do the invasion of Panama, the execution of Ceauscescu. We could do the budget deficit. We could do the trade deficit.

Or the Quayle thing, which everyone said was impeachment insurance for George Bush, but it said something else to the country at large, and what it said was, We’ve had Charlie McCarthy for eight years as Number One, and now Number Two is going to be Howdy Doody.

A theory. It was something about taking things on faith for a little while, and some­thing, in the end, about exhaustion. Since the beginning of the Cold War, American governments had misidentified the Soviet Union as the enemy of the country, when the actual adversaries of American business and its partners in the Pentagon were Japan and Western Europe.

The false enemy was forever depicted as technologically inept, incapable of manu­facturing a working light bulb, yet dangerous, because of its state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal. The real enemies were persuaded to underwrite our budget deficit, with the false understanding that their markers would never be called in.

These fables worked long enough to dump a lion’s share of 40 years of public money into research and development for General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, Boeing, General Electric, and other defense contractors, who were the true welfare queens of the era. As capital was diverted into increasingly pointless products like the 8-1 bomber and Star Wars, with no reinvest­ment in civilian enterprise and infrastruc­ture, our competitors were able to outstrip us in most areas of practical benefit and con­oern to the general population.

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A theory. It was something about the por­cine lack of inhibition that the newly rich displayed while celebrating their ascendan­cy: the $1000-a-plate fundraisers, the con­stant parading of patriotic symbols, the ero­ticization of contempt. It was about the pasta with lobster and roast veal with calva­dos sauce juxtaposed with three million homeless rooting around in garbage cans for bits of food. It was George Bush com­plaining to Florida hurricane victims that his own little shack in Kennebunkport had sustained a bit of damage, too, so he knew how they felt. It was George Bush telling Katie Courie on Today that he’d testified 450 times, under oath, about Iran-contra, when he in fact had testified exactly once. It was too many dubious foreign affairs, too many tin-pot dictators transformed into mad dogs and Hitlers whenever the presi­dent’s approval rating hit a slump, too many telegenic bombings of sleepy desert capitals. It was George Bush trying to win an election with a war everyone had forgot­ten, since hardly any of our own people were killed, and the Hitler du jour, re­mained in the saddle.

The Big Lie works great when you’ve just built the autobahn and invented the Volks­wagen. It doesn’t work at all when the auto­bahn’s falling apart and no one can afford a Volkswagen.

But it worked for 12 years, and the people it worked for aren’t the types to fade quietly into outer darkness. They’ll be around, some waiting to do a few months in a resort slam­mer, others blowing bubbles in their think tanks, ruminating on family values, the evil lifestyle of homosexuals, the glories of war, the absolute sanctity of money, and the mot­to of Republicans the world over. Admit Nothing, Blame Everybody, Be Bitter. ■

Research Assistance by David Lewis 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Health NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: A Decade of Death

An ’80s Memoir

1981

Not very tall, less thin than he looked, with the kind of stage face that’s all geometry, wild surrogate hair sometimes twisted into implausible cones resembling the spires of that Gaudi cathedral in Barcelo­na, flashy outfits knocked together from shards of purple Mylar, sequins, torn-up opera costumes: he’d appear in Mickey’s or the Mudd Club with an entourage of demented-looking freaks, install himself as a visual challenge exactly where the light was strongest. Hours later, the black lipstick and scab-colored eyeshadow creamed away, the wigs and costumes tucked in a closet, he entered the bar like a wisp, in ordinary denims and a plain khaki T-shirt, settling in the corner of one of those benches running under the windows, as if trying to merge with the burlap curtains.

His voice was a curiosity of nature, like Siamese twins. Years after he died, some­one asked if I’d ever heard of him.

It began, someone said, with a hissing sound, like Enzensberger’s famous ice­berg-thumbnail scraping across the Ti­tanic’s hull: garish rumors, talk of impos­sibly grotesque pathology, and, as always in the face of the unknown, jokes, re­counted with a modicum of nervousness, as if the efficacy of jokes in keeping things at tong’s length could not be as­sumed in this case, but only wished for, with fervor.

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1982

SUPPOSEDLY, SHE had access to realms he couldn’t reach with his own imagina­tion. We knew her only vaguely. Delicate bones, high hair, a definite way with a cigarette, muted presence that could am­plify without warning. Fey. Not shy, ex­actly. At times, cooler-than-thou. Her friends were in the music business.

The only thing he could do with her was make a movie about the pose. The look. The easiest available obsessions, transposed from a suburban Catholic girlhood. It turned out something like the George Romero vampire film set in Pitts­burgh. You felt that everyone involved with it was choking underwater, even the musicians on the soundtrack.

The film was prophetic of the later idea that having Catholic saints rattling around in your brain could figure inter­estingly in your biography. Much of it revolved around fantasies of her martyrdom.

Then she died, spectacularly and by accident, the same day the film opened. He showed up at the premiere in a hazy conflation of art and life. The event had an ugly opportunistic taint that clung to him afterwards. Even people who understood that this was, in fact, his life, did not entirely appreciate the lack of conventional sentiment.

It was said to be some phenomenon of the nether fringe, a molecular revolt bub­bling up from damp “Third World” envi­ronments, an exhaustion of the flesh by postmodern forms of mortification. The first descriptions of wounds, lesions re­fusing to heal, pedestrian ailments mush­rooming into lethal afflictions, resembled the shocking litany of saints’ impale­ments, dismemberments, self-infection with leprosy.

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1983

HE MAINTAINED A novelty jewelry com­pany out of a Tribeca loft while raising money for another movie, to be based on sadomasochist comic books published in Paris in the ’30s. I, who disliked him, was rehearsing Salomé with an actress he wanted to play “Claudine” in his movie. For reasons that remain mysterious, he contacted me and asked me to write the script.

We met twice. Once in the loft full of tacky punk mail-order paraphernalia, the second time in an apartment where she had lived, a block from my house. At the second meeting I realized that he was… well, haunted, what other word is there? Her dresses lined the open closets, her makeup was spread out before a giant round mirror on the vanity, compacts open awaiting her fingertips. The place was heavy with her scent, her aura; her presence was so emphatic that he seemed powerless and confused in the midst of it, as if he were clumsily obeying her residu­al wishes.

He had an affair, around that time, with a man in a theater group we were friendly with. It’s only worth mentioning because he and they were emphatically the “sensitive macho” types beloved by Eurotrash and Japanese fanzines devoted to “Downtown” and “Le East-Village” — anyway, then came the bowling craze.

Everyone went every night to a bowling alley on University Place to throw bowl­ing balls while wrecked on coke. About him, there was… a lot of talk. Then no talk. In the spring, a lot of talk again. Finally he just came out and told every­body, “I’ve got it.” It was still far from clear what “it” was. Four weeks later he died of pneumonia. 

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1984

I DID HIM IN THE toilet of an afterhours, then took him home. I’d desired him for months but this happened unexpectedly, in a blurry fever. I knew practically noth­ing about him. He’d been the lover of a friend of mine. He had drifted onto the scene. You’d sometimes find him sitting at your table with six other people, if you went for breakfast after the bar closed. He left town, much later he came back. I wanted him again “like anything,” as I told him in my irritating faux naïve manner of the period, but he asked me to write him a poem instead. He dropped from sight, sparking the usual true ru­mors. If you had heard that someone had been carried away by a spaceship, it would not have been different. I tried writing a poem for him, but nothing I came up with was any good.

Money fever. Jokes about Haitians. Cold city. A paradise for empty people, slickness without end, and here and there, suddenly, an unexpected person disappears following a brief, wasting illness. 

1985

HIS FORMER LOVER had the looks of a WASP in the marines, teeth so perfect they seemed false. A gossip of genius, he knew stories about all the old queens of New York literature, and had had his prong spit-shined by most of them at one time or another, too. We often nagged him to write his memoirs: what a pity if all that precious dish got lost! He had money troubles right up until the end, the end being accompanied by dementia, drastic weight loss, etc., etc.

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1986

SHE BOUNDS HOME FROM the hospital after days of hovering at his bedside. She calls: Oh, come over, I’ve got to read you something, it just started writing itself in my head! She reads what sounds like a verbatim transcript of what she’s over­heard, her soon-to-be-prizewinning story. “Well,” I tell her, “I wonder how he’ll feel about it.” “Oh, he won’t mind,” she says, “he’s a big user of people himself.” After eons of writer’s block, she’s frighteningly avid these days. It’s becoming obvious that she thinks the epidemic could put her back on the map.

He’d been a sailor in the Australian Merchant Marine for 10 years, in places like Rangoon and Singapore. Then he hooked up with a film company in Africa, met a man he adored, moved to Munich with him. He became the assistant to a famous director, who occasionally tried stealing him from the lover. They both had affairs, but nothing too serious.

He later moved back to Sydney to start a distribution company. He and the lover now commuted between continents. He turned sick in a matter of months. They brought him back to Germany. A certain friend met a doctor who operated a pri­vate clinic. The doctor had a plausible­-sounding, quack theory, that the disease was really something else, and offered treatment on an “experimental” basis.

The experiment was torture. He was not allowed painkillers and the virus had gone into his nerves. He became inconti­nent and bloody from bedsores. When they visited, they could hear his screams from the clinic parking lot. Next the friend suggested to an actress we knew that the doctor, overworked to the point of collapse, needed sex to revive his diag­nostic genius. The insanity of the situa­tion eclipsed everyone’s judgment. The actress found herself banging the doctor every day while listening to her friend’s shrieks in the adjoining room.

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1987

THE LOVER BLAMED himself for every­thing. “All the time he was dying,” he told me, “I was sexually obsessed with someone else, and fucking that person whenever I could, and now he has died also.”

He said there was nothing left to do but kill himself. And we both laughed. I said: Oh, there are treatments now, things are much better than before, they can do a lot. Soon they’ll be able to do more. Do you really think so? he said, and I said, Absolutely, yes. I want you to promise, if anything… develops, you’ll come here and let us take care of you. All right, he said, fine. Then he killed himself.

1988

WAITING FOR miserable acts of faith to fail, we take some sort of proprietary comfort from the fact that he is still alive. There is always something further to do, and because he’s suddenly well-off, al­ways money to investigate new medi­cines, underground treatments, experi­mental programs.

Memorials. A new way to be unhappy in a group. I visit a friend who can no longer speak. A few days later he’s dead. If you ask after people you haven’t seen for a while, be prepared. Sometimes, hor­ribly, it was like this: someone you want­ed to sleep with but didn’t got sick, and along with the horror came this ugly relief that you never fucked. Or: relief that someone who died was only a distant ac­quaintance instead of a close friend. Lat­er, none of that made any difference.

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1989

AFTER HE DIED I started to see people in the street who looked like him. Not just from behind, but sometimes the face, the hair, the style of the jacket even, and one night on 23rd Street so close to where he lived the association was automatic, I fol­lowed the person for three blocks thinking I’d catch up or get close enough to call his name and when I did snap out of it I realized it didn’t matter if someone was alive or dead because every street in the city was now full of ghosts that I couldn’t distinguish from living people.

She told me over the phone that she didn’t think she would die.

“As far as I can figure out,” she said, “there’s only one or two things — one thing, really, that could get me, and un­less it does—”

I remembered sitting behind her on a motorbike on the Amalfi Drive, both of us so drunk we could’ve driven straight off the cliffs with the tiniest flick of inat­tention. And we hadn’t, so why should this other thing be so impossibly final? Especially since we had pulled ourselves together, grown up, and had started liv­ing such responsible lives.

What I mean is, it would not surprise me if I saw her through a crowd on a busy street, with a dozen bracelets flashing on her arms, eyes shadowed in green, pink lipstick, her first words a brilliant exege­sis on the nature of cabdrivers — why shouldn’t that happen, in the city of the dead? If I tell it now, this story begins and ends in a glass of wine, in a sense, with every detail present in a single mo­ment. It’s the fate of all of us to persist in the mortal dreams of those whom we haunt. ■

NEXT…

The Celebrity Decade: The Stuff of Fluff
By Cynthia Heimel

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

Andy Land 4: A Saint, the Village Holy Man, and God Himself

Three months after Andy Warhol’s unexpected death in February 1987, due to complications from gallbladder surgery, the Village Voice devoted a special twelve-page section to the artist and his legacy: Voice art critic Gary Indiana took stock of the work itself; Warhol’s former aide-de-camp Gerard Malanga explored the artist’s process; Factory superstar Viva shined a spotlight on Andy’s films and his faith; and artist and critic Barbara Kruger explored Warhol’s fixation on celebrity, and his tectonic impact on the culture. All four contributors took note of Warhol’s spirituality, which tended to focus as much on the trappings of religion as on the redemption of his soul:

“I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church,” wrote Viva. “Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a canonization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by.”

“Andy wasn’t the ‘Village Holy Man,’ ” she wrote, “he was God Himself.”

As Kruger noted, Warhol was just as devout a follower of the church of celebrity as he was of the Byzantine Catholic faith from his Pittsburgh childhood: “For the guy who wanted to be reincarnated as a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger, proximity to fame was almost enough: a sort of elixir, an enabling connection plugging him into the glittering dispensations of prominence. His own celebrity became part of a baroque networking, a bright constellation of havers and doers who could inhabit the VIP lounge of the universe, where everybody who was anybody would show that they could never be mistaken for a nobody.”

Malanga, for his part, noted how Warhol explored ideas of mortality in his paintings and films, and how “this death element has always been directly connected to sex.”

It was Indiana who went the furthest in teasing out the various threads of Warhol’s identity: his faith, his sexuality, his genius. Recounting an exchange with Factory denizen Taylor Mead, Indiana noted that “Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

Few figures had a firmer grasp on American culture in the 21st century, as this week’s opening of “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again” at the Whitney Museum of American Art makes clear. But that much was clear three decades ago. “The fashion illustration, the early ‘easel’ work, the repertoire of silk-screen virtuosities, the paintings, the movies, Interview, the photographic activity, the books, and the resonant figure of Andy himself, were informed by a coldly smart reading of American culture,” wrote Kruger. “He cannily appropriated a seriality of signs, jokes, and icons that seemed right on the nose. But that’s not surprising, since Warhol was so taken with the face of things.”

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May 5, 1987

“I’ll Be Your Mirror”
By Gary Indiana

A thorny, twisty subject: Andy Warhol. The Andy Warhol Phenomenon. The vacant but obdurate public presence — relentless, in fact — famed from the outset for its entourage. At first the entourage consisted of amiable lunatics, charmingly damaged heiresses, beautiful street boys, miraculously loquacious speed freaks, fallen Catholics, people with a flair for “suggesting ideas.” Later the shimmering mask surrounded itself with buttoned-down professionals, social climbers, dewy millionettes. Since the new people risked nothing, and felt nothing much about anything, they provided few ideas. The product lost its quality of selective inanity. It became an example of surplus vacuity. The Presence no longer wondered at his inability to feel.

Then the death. The private duty nurse, who sounds like someone who might have changed her name from Valerie Solanis [sic]. And the incredible obsequies. Years ago, Taylor Mead told me that Andy’s problem was that he wasn’t content with being a genius, he wanted to be a saint, too. And so, the speakers at his memorial service stressed his unflagging Christian spirit, his charity. How he multiplied the loaves and fishes. One speaker made the curious argument for sainthood: it wasn’t for Andy to be his brother’s keeper. The understatement of the century, surely. As further proof of Andy’s intense spirituality, his eulogist quoted the line about wanting to be reincarnated as the ring on Liz Taylor’s finger. Clearly, Catholicism is exactly what it used to be.

One former superstar put it quite succinctly: “I’m going to Andy’s funeral, but I doubt if he would go to mine.” Outliving Andy must be, for some, a surprise. As usual, excellent timing. The culture was becoming weary of Andy Warhol. The inanities had ceased to charm, having reached a brutal apotheosis with the picture-book America. Lately, Andy had resorted to flirtation.

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ALTHOUGH HIS INFLUENCE is pervasive in the best contemporary art, the best contemporary artists were having none of him. The inspired, breathtakingly easy Duchampian gesture can only come off against a background of resistance, of entrenched tradition. When it works today, the background it works against is precisely the seduction of the glamorous surface. Richard Prince had already inverted Andy’s best-known, most-misquoted maxim. In the future, no one will want to be famous. A nice twist on Dorothy Parker’s line: “If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to.”

“Either wear a work of art or be a work of art,” said Oscar Wilde, an aesthete with an attractively messy private life. Andy Warhol became a much less convincing work of art after the demimonde clasped him to its jeweled bosom. His eerie gift, until then, had been the ability to confer celebrity — on a soup can, a Port Authority rent-boy, or a wacked-out socialite. The Church of the Unimaginable Penis, or something. Andy was the father confessor, the kids were the sinners. Which is why he didn’t need to be involved with them when they finished confessing. The sanctity of the institution and its rituals is what’s important, not the personal salvation. Maintaining the eternal surface.

After turning his back on zanies who’d been his inspiration, Warhol no longer bestowed celebrity, but instead sustained his own through increasingly ludicrous associations, chiefly through his magazine, Interview. The upscale Interview chewed its way through acres of glossy trash at Studio 54 before arriving among such “interesting” people as George Will, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, and the Shah of Iran. Whatever Warhol was trying to do, it didn’t “read” as anything except venality.

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For example, the I’ll-paint-anybody-for-$20,000 approach. Art critics committed to the myth of Warhol-as-bellwether suggest that Warhol has simply done the same thing Goya did, or other court painters in the past. But an artist of Warhol’s affluence isn’t faced with starvation if he turns down a commission, say, from Idi Amin, or the Sultan of Brunei. Contrary to the Warhol philosophy, modern life still does require choices. Quite a few people with money wouldn’t piss on Nancy Reagan if her guts were on fire, and many of them commission portraits. At any rate, the “court paintings” are Andy’s weakest work — unless you look at them a certain way, and think their very lack of depth tells you something about their subjects.

They’re bad as paintings. This is of less concern than the fact that they’re bad as images. One of the usual objections to Warhol’s paintings is that he’s not a “painterly painter” in the traditional sense. People who cling to this kind of distinction miss the point that Warhol, long ago, brilliantly made about mass culture. Robert Hughes, for example. Hughes’s essay, “The Rise and Fall of Andy Warhol,” is one of those luminously nasty pieces of writing that clears the air of accumulated piety. But to ignore the importance of Warhol’s art, especially in the ’60s, simply because it isn’t arduous the way a Francis Bacon is, negates almost every worthwhile development in art in the past 20 years. Painting and image-making are sometimes the same thing, and sometimes are quite distinct. The emphasis can be here, or there. They don’t have to have a hierarchical relationship. Hughes seems to believe that some aesthetic utopia existed in the past, a utopia that art will return to after the current, doleful period. Many people think this way. Warhol understood something hateful but true: we aren’t going to lose the past in quite the same way as before. And we’re not going to find it again, either.

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NOTHING ANDY EVER SAID was true, but that is beside the point. There are less cogent objections to Warhol than Hughes’s, less respectable ones. Sometimes they’re mixed up with valid ones. Homophobia was one of the first reactions to Warhol, especially from the Cedar Tavern set, the Abstract Expressionists. You could be a fag back then, like Frank O’Hara, as long as you could pass, and understood you were supposed to suffer over it, lusting after those real guys painting their heroic, tortured canvases. Andy was a swish.

A swish was somebody who couldn’t hide it. It was just the way you were. Something from the ’40s and ’50s and before, when gays were either butch or femme. You find less and less of this when sexual role models disintegrate, as they did in the ’60s and early ’70s. Andy wrote somewhere that he exaggerated his swishiness, because it wasn’t something he thought he should change.

One of the most liberating experiences of my life was seeing Bike Boy at a theater in Cambridge. I was with some ultrastraight but sensitive, tolerant Harvard boys who froze in horror after the first two minutes. Viva was in a bathtub with a man, telling him if he wanted to make plastic sculptures he should just do it and shut up about it. “We’re into other things, now,” she whined. As I watched this film I thought: “That’s for me.”

It’s bizarre that Warhol’s films have been out of circulation for so long. Or perhaps not so bizarre. When Warhol said, in his last interview, that the films “are better talked about than seen,” it occurred to me that a certain crust of the haute monde might have been less welcoming to Andy if it had been exposed to his movies. Which, I believe, compose his richest body of work. Who will ever forget Ondine, with his face buried in Joe D’Allesandro’s underpants, in Loves of Ondine? Or Ingrid Superstar’s recipe recitation in Bike Boy? The draft-dodger’s soliloquy, or Viva’s epic monologue, in Nude Restaurant? Taylor Mead scampering about in Lonesome Cowboys: “Oh you jingle, and you jangle, but you seldom wrangle…” I haven’t seen these films in 20 years, and I remember every frame. I’ve already forgotten E.T.

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Warhol’s films are gloriously erotic, as sculpture is erotic. They’re honest. Pornography — which every American should enjoy at least as much as having Edwin Meese for an attorney general — is dishonest. Perfect faces on perfect bodies do not blissfully couple without any problems, in real life; they only do that in California. When Ondine’s about to get into Little Joe’s BVDs, the bathroom door flies open and in walks Brigid Polk, demanding to know what that cheap little hustler is doing with her husband. Sexual pleasure is immanent in the Warhol movies, a possibility; but pornographic fulfillment is always shown as a deluded ambition. Real people are too complicated.

We should be wary about praise and damnation of Andy. He helped open thousands of closet doors. If the things he lent himself to in recent years fill me with distaste, I still admire the frosty slap he gave America before he became America’s favorite vanity mirror. One should especially mistrust portraits like the concoction in Edie, a book compiled by George Plimpton and Jean Stein — surely two of the most privileged individuals in America, born with silver spoons, and zealous defenders of their class. Andy was a working boy. He worked hard, he made his money, they buried him with the blessings of his church. A saint for all the wrong reasons. And isn’t that what America is all about? ■

“Working With Warhol”
By Gerard Malanga
as spoken to John Perreault

Andy’s death was untimely. All of a sudden Andy dies? You would think time would simply continue forever with Andy. Like I always had this fantasy I would be hitting 60 and Andy would be close to 80 when we’d be talking on the phone in the 21st century. My initial experience at hearing that Andy had died was very much like looking in a window witnessing this dramatic event unfolding. There was no immediate impact. His death also defined what came before as now being history.

On the other hand, Andy’s death was a liberation in that young artists influenced by Andy, or who would have hoped for some kind of blessing or acknowledgment, are not going to get that now. They are literally on their own. There will be parties but Andy’s not going to be at these parties. People by and large will adjust to his not being around to flatter them. Andy would always flatter you into making you feel that you were an equal. He almost became your fan. You’d be walking away thinking he was your best friend and you’d only known him for a few minutes. His own emotional distancing was his unique and astute way of removing himself from any emotional experience he might otherwise feel toward you. It was his way of remaining in control.

I’ve always considered Andy a Conceptual artist in that he was really a spiritual child of Duchamp. Andy revitalized the notion of concept by activating it into an end result, always keeping in mind that the idea was very much the content of whatever it was he would depict in painting or film or gesture. In other words, for Andy, the idea of a man sleeping was easily and more fully realized as a film rather than a painting. This is a prime example of his gift for making artistic decisions. By realizing this idea through film he was literally redefining and equating real time with reel time or “running time,” and taking into account viewing time as well, which can’t be accomplished in a painting. This was Andy’s way of getting the viewer to experience to some degree what he was experiencing in the act of re-creating the idea into form. It didn’t seem likely that he would want to spend eight hours in front of a canvas, nor would anyone view that same hypothetical canvas for eight hours.

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There was no Factory when I met Andy; there was only the Firehouse, called that because it once operated as a real New York firehouse, prior to Andy’s leasing the building from the city. Andy had no assistant. It was just Andy. He had gotten involved with the application of silk-screening to his paintings when I went to work with him. Charles Henri Ford had known that I had previous silk-screen experience and knew Andy needed someone to help him with his silk-screen paintings, and so when Charles introduced me to Andy he immediately asked me if I would like to help him and I replied Yes.

I hadn’t made any films of my own when I began assisting Andy in the film-end of work, but, based in part on my intuitive and practical knowledge of filmmaking gained from working with Marie Menken, I took Andy to Peerless Camera, where we shopped around and I suggested he purchase a 16mm Bolex with motor-drive attachment. I knew where to go for these things. Andy was not your technical expert. He wanted everything to be totally easy, like push the button and let it roll. This was his technical and technological aesthetic surfacing. The motordrive allowed for the continuous run of three minutes of film.

When I went to work for Andy I already had an identity of my own as a published poet. Working with him was a sheltering experience of sorts. He provided and took care of my immediate financial needs when accompanying him, like dinners and movies and trips to Europe — all those fringe benefits were taken care of in addition to a minimal salary. When I agreed to work for Andy he asked me what I would like to be paid. In those days the legal minimum wage was a dollar and a quarter an hour, so Andy said okay. It never dawned on me that I could have asked for and most likely would have received a flat rate for the week or at least three dollars an hour.

I enjoyed the work immensely. Whatever project we worked on was always fun or seemingly so, because we were creating paintings and making films and coming up with ideas for various multimedia situations, so I was very much a part of the creative process. I was poor but never broke. I was always extravagant with what little I had to play with because I knew Andy was there when I needed him.

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Andy got most of his ideas from what was around at the time or what might have been suggested to him in conversation or over the phone, or he might be flipping through a newspaper or magazine and an image would catch his eye. Or sometimes I would come up with the idea, or he would and in turn I would find the appropriate image to fit the idea like, for instance, the portrait of the cow for the wallpaper. He hated that cow at first. I had to force that cow on him. He didn’t like it. I said, “Andy it’s got a kind of motherly quality, there’s a maternal look to this cow.”

A friend of his who worked for a photo agency used to lay all these wire service pictures on Andy, the kind of visual pulp you’d find in The National Enquirer. Some of those images found their way into the “Death and Disaster” series. Andy was mutable in the sense he was able to absorb other people’s ideas and make them his own. He was receptive to what was around him so that he would re-create the idea with little or no effort on his part is making decisions, and Andy was a pro when it came to making decisions.

This kind of open spontaneity was carried over into the films as well. Whatever happened in the process of making the film became a part of the film. Nothing was left out. Andy’s attitude was for all mistakes or inconsistencies in quality or technique to be part of the art. Nothing was wasted. We were not about to do it over! Andy never did any editing or any splicing. There was never any post-editing, so whatever editing was evident was done in the camera by stopping and starting the mechanism.

When Andy got shot in 1968, Lonesome Cowboys was in the can but it was mostly unedited. He had perceived this film as a four-hour abstract genderless Western using Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the taking-off point for an inverse transsexual metaphor. Juliet is played by Viva, who is renamed Romana, and Juliet becomes the male counterpart, Julius, Romana’s leading man. Andy gets shot. Paul [Morrissey] edits the film into a potential commercial vehicle. So Lonesome Cowboys becomes Andy’s . At that point, with the exception of Blue Movie a year later, Andy didn’t make any more films because Paul took over during the time Andy was recuperating. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise because Andy was a big fan and admirer of Walt Disney and he always wanted to just put his name on whatever was being made at the time, as in “Andy Warhol Presents,” even though it might not have been directed by him.

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The first film in which I appeared was The 13 Most Beautiful Boys, which was basically a three-minute screen test. The second film in which I had a part was Kiss, making out with Baby Jane Holzer for three minutes straight. The film was really a comment on Hollywood’s imposed moral code at the time in that films couldn’t depict a kiss scene for more than 15 seconds on screen.

I had no illusions whatsoever of being an actor. In those days I was first and foremost a poet. I had my first starring role as the rehabilitated juvenile delinquent, Victor, in Vinyl, which was a clandestine adaptation of the book A Clockwork Orange. Vinyl was also Edie Sedgwick’s first film appearance and even though she was visually present during the film’s entirety she had no lines and literally remained silent. Vinyl was followed by Edie’s brilliant self-portrayal in Poor Little Rich GirlKitchen, written by Ronnie Tavel, was Edie’s first scripted movie. It was to be her debut as a serious actress but she kept fluffing her lines. The film was intended as a vehicle for Edie to show off her talent at acting but she was just terrible. With Kitchen Andy was trying to get into the swing of things by trying to learn. He wanted to be disciplined and have everyone learn their lines and the film went through several rehearsals before Andy actually shot it. Nevertheless Edie did forget some of her lines. On the day of the shooting I brought Rene Ricard onto the set and managed to get him into the film. There was no part in the script for him, so he became Edie’s silent houseboy. Edie said, “Who’s he? What’s he doing here in my movie?” And then she’d be forgetting her lines. Kitchen was the first scripted film where Andy wanted everything to go right and, of course, it ended up being as spontaneous as everything else he’d been creating.

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Andy and I worked on the paintings together. Many of the screens were just too big for Andy to do it alone. Death always seemed to be a kind of pervading metaphor in a lot of the paintings, more than in his films. The films have a decadence about them — an association with self­-destruction and death. The poppy paintings also carry the association with death but in a more potent way. The poppy has always been associated with sleep or death. Andy’s first movie depicted someone sleeping for eight hours. It could have been a man dead for eight hours. Andy’s work involved a kind of lethargy, and this death element has always been directly connected to sex. In the film Empire, for instance, you see the building in overexposed daylight to compensate for the night to come, and gradually the building makes its appearance in more detail as night draws on and then the building lights up, so one can construe that the range from blinding light to total darkness was like life evolving into death. Of course, the obvious metaphor of the Empire State Building as a phallic symbol is directly associated with the movie King Kong, to which Andy’s film pays homage — if only indirectly.

But Andy’s films, and likewise the paintings, always paid homage to tradition. Andy’s paintings are really a documentation or comment on the tradition of art. You have the self-portrait series, which is a genre; you have the flower paintings, which are part of a genre. Any number of instances in Andy’s work fit into various genres of art. Andy started out making silent films in black and white; then he graduated to sound/black and white. Then he switched to color with sound. There was a progression of Andy re-experiencing the history of filmmaking from its very beginning.

Andy shied away from competition with other artists. An early instance of that was when Andy was in isolation working on his comic-strip paintings and finding out that another artist he hadn’t even met yet, Roy Lichtenstein, was doing comic-strip paintings and he immediately stopped making comic-strip paintings and went on to something else. He was not going to compete with Roy Lichtenstein. Andy had a vision of an original sense of himself in avoiding any mimicry of what anyone else might have been working on at the time, except, of course, when he would use history as a counterpoint. He might have been envious of other artists but only in a humorous way. Andy was always the fan. He was enamored of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They were like gods to him. He’d get so nervous about seeing or talking to them he’d run to the bathroom to urinate. And he always liked the Abstract Expressionists.

Andy’s entry into the art world on his own was by collecting art. He bought art from the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in ’60, ’61 — paintings by Jane Wilson, Larry Rivers, and Tchelitchew. He was serious and conscientious and had a good eye for certain pieces. Collecting art was for Andy a kind of nourishment.

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Andy might be remembered for 15 minutes [laughter]. I think Andy will ultimately be remembered and appreciated as a Conceptual artist and surely a progenitor of the Pop Art movement, and everything else that he was involved with will be frill or icing on the cake. Besides being remembered for the specific paintings within a given period that are iconographic, I think he’ll be remembered for how he arrived at making those paintings — which I think are very important in terms of the conceptual mode that came about in allowing those paintings to occur. Likewise for the films SleepEatHaircutEmpire, the three­-minute portraits, and three-minute screen tests. The idea that someone could be screen-­tested is like becoming famous for three minutes or taking three minutes to become famous for an instant of time.

Everything Andy did was interesting, but not everything he did was brilliant or great. I think Andy went into a slump in the ’70s. A lot of superficial, glitzy work was being inflicted onto the art market just to generate money, which was the one thing Andy loved most. You see, money for Andy was his ticket to power and power meant control. Once Andy had money he was terrified of giving it up because it meant giving up a part of himself and to give up a part of himself meant to reveal or expose a part of himself. Andy veiled himself in little lies and construed myths about himself when he was interviewed by the press.

So after the Mao portraits and the “Vote for McGovern” poster Andy takes a horrific creative plunge, as if he’d arrived at nothing and knew it. But he kicks back with the Hammer and Sickle paintings and to a degree with the Shadow paintings. The most recent work I’ve seen, the sewn or stitched photographs, are brilliant because they transcend in the most magical way possible the literal, mundane accuracies they convey. I was envious when I saw that exhibition because I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Those dangling threads have an eroticism and sexual nuance about them, as if they were symbolic pubic hair. He took some of the most boring, mundane photographs imaginable and by multiplying the images it was like the old Andy coming back, pulling it off with great flair. Again, what you have here is a commentary on the genre of photography and art. The way he put these images together left me ecstatic. As much as I would love to I don’t dare stitch a photograph. ■

GERARD MALANGA is a poet, photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia artist. He is the photo archivist for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Viva and God”
By Viva

I wondered, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fools’ Day, if I was in the right church. Andy’s memorial service seemed more like a can­onization than a mass, one that the Deceased himself would have been most offended by. Like Queen Vic­toria, Andy never distin­guished himself as being apart from his “colleagues,” always using “we” instead of “I.” The speaker who described Andy remaining “untainted” by the “corruption” of the “self-destructive lemmings” around him would have pro­voked a murmur of dissent from the Master, along the lines of “if you can’t say any­thing nice.”

Feeding the poor and going to mass, while worthy activi­ties, hardly make for true spir­ituality or religiosity. In fact, in perusing some of my 10-year­-old writings on Andy, I’ve dis­covered what really bothered me about the beatification. The speakers didn’t go far enough. Andy wasn’t the “Village Holy Man,” he was God Himself.

1976 The script in the Warhol-Morrissey movies was the common body of experi­ence vibrating in the space be­tween the actors. The success of the films was dependent on our ability to summon our lives’ experiences to the front of our brains, the tips of our tongues, so tangible as to be almost visible out in front of our craniums. The dialogue was already there, we had only to read it, basing our technique on an intuitive knowledge of what was vibrat­ing in that space.

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1987 Paul Morrissey, who thinks it inadvisable to use the word “space” in the above paragraph, maintains it was the absurd artificiality of the scenarios he always sketched out (“Viva, you be the Madame of the whorehouse, you’re in love with Ju­lien, but Louie wants him too,” etc., etc.) that led to a realistic dialogue because of the freedom it gave us to plumb the depths of our real emo­tions and experiences. This is also true.

The feeling that we were onto something good led us to approach this seemingly ran­dom improvisational method with a contagious enthusiasm and a deadly seriousness that we tried hard to hide. In actu­ality the whole scene, includ­ing Andy’s directions, was ex­tremely stiff. Other directors I’ve worked with since have been infinitely more relaxed and ready for fun than either Andy or Paul. One would think the Factory would have been the penultimate in bon­homie; yet John Schlesinger, Herb Ross, Bill Norton, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, Paso­lini, Michael Sarne, were all backslapping buddies next to the severe, silent directors of the “underground.”

Though Andy’s role was, like that of all Directors, to play God, he had a firmer grasp of the deity’s identity, having been raised with the Baltimore catechism’s defini­tion (all-cognizant, all-present, all-powerful, all-loving). De­scribed as a passive watcher, God differed from Andy as a director only because of the element of “grace.” But even here Andy mimicked God by occasionally asking one of us to repeat an action, a phrase, or a laugh: grace. Grace was a free gift and only God knew when it would rain down on you. Since time repeats itself for no one, being asked to re­peat a particularly good mo­ment was “grace.”

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1976 Example of Warholian “grace”: My role in Bike Boy was to seduce Joe Spencer. I was given exactly three directions. The first was to change my position, moving to Joe’s other side, the second was to remove my clothes, the third was to repeat a laugh I’d just uttered. I repeated the laugh, the camera began grinding again, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any more film. The scene was finished, as it always was when the newsreel camera ran out of its 35-minute load of film. If wasn’t until five years later, upon seeing the movie for perhaps the fifth time, that I realized why Andy had asked me to repeat that laugh: Joe’s slack penis, prominent in the foreground but previously un­noticed by me. I lay apparent­ly laughing at Joe’s impo­tence, though in reality I had never dared to look down. To­tally embarrassed, I had been concentrating on looking up at his face.

1987 Paul says Andy asked us to repeat something when he didn’t get it the first time because he was focusing somewhere else or he ran out of film. Scratch grace.

1976 “Tell people that you’re acting, that you had a script,” Andy begged me over and over again, “don’t ever let them know that it’s real!”

1987 As I listened to the eulogies at St. Pat’s about ’60s corruption and the deep spirituality of Andy’s last paintings, I wondered if I was as truly out of step with the rest of the world as our family doctor in Alexandria Bay, New York, once claimed. I re­membered the first time I saw myself on the Warhol-Morris­sey screen; Paul phoned my 83rd Street and Park Avenue apartment, told me to quit painting, said I was a perform­ing genius on the order of a Mick Jagger and I had to come to the Factory immediately and see Bike Boy, my second Warhol film in a week (neither of which I’d yet seen). I got on the subway and went downtown.

I was amazed. Was that really me? What made my timing so flawless? My dia­logue so brilliant? In the fol­lowing months I saw Taylor Mead, Ondine, and Louie Waldon perform as brilliantly while Brigid, in The Imitation of Christ (whose cinematogra­phy, thanks to Paul, was the most gorgeous I’d ever seen) gave a performance that seemed the summa cum alta of humor, feeling, and origi­nality. We were clearly the forerunners of a new style, one that was bound to sweep cinematic circles within the decade.

It didn’t. But if I’d depend­ed on Andy’s obituaries for in­formation, I’d never have known he took a single second off from painting pictures to shoot a frame of film. In the one or two instances where the films were mentioned, you’d swear they were shame­ful porn trash. The Andy I knew regarded painting as the shameful deed and did it as surreptitiously as he shopped for velvet blue jeans, choosing odd hours of the day and night for both activities and sneaking the results into hid­den nooks and crannies of the Factory or bathrooms of the rich and famous (where many of the portraits ended up), claiming when caught that he had to paint to make the money to shoot the films. But total incomprehension of the mov­ies has always been the norm:

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1976 “…The central difference between films of interest made by Warhol and those made by his epigonous imitator-author Paul Morrissey is the complete ab­sence of Duchampian inspira­tion in the latter. The elimination of Duchamp’s influence in Warhol’s films, which was for their defenders what made them interesting, is on the aes­thetic level what is meant by the commercialization of the work in Morrissey’s hands.” —Stephen Koch, Stargazer

Blue Movie, entirely my idea, and enthusiastically sec­onded by Andy, was the occa­sion of so much embarrassment to Paul Morrissey that he could not stay on the set and watch the filming. In his book Stargazer, Stephen Koch places Blue Movie under the heading The Films of Paul Morrissey. From its inception, a year before Andy was shot, to its actual filming in August or September of ’68, Paul had no say in the filming, nev­er went near the camera, did not direct in any way. [1987 — Gerard Malanga says, however, that Paul, rath­er than being embarrassed, was “jealous” because, having attempted to “sanitize” Andy, the Master was now, with Blue Movie, bouncing back.]

Unbelievably, Koch also places Blue Movie in the pre­-shooting category (when a simple phone call would have cleared up that error), doing this apparently to prove that Andy was floundering in a pornographic morass of fail­ures just before he was shot.

Andy made Blue Movie six months after he was shot.

As far as I know it was the only film made solely by Andy and the actors (Louie Waldon and I), and no one else had a single thing to say or made a single move in its direction. During the shower scene Andy left the camera running alone in the hallway and walked away. Any fool can see that walking away from a running camera is about as Duchampian as you can get.

On page 51 Koch wrote that “the wretched Lonesome Cowboys is the last film he [Andy] directed entirely on his own… abandoning Duchamp and lacking Morrissey’s greedier and more self-indulgent personality.”

Here Koch has Andy “abandoning Duchamp” on his own, without the devil­-temptor, Morrissey. The fact is that Lonesome Cowboys, filmed before Andy was shot, and before Blue Movie, is al­most entirely Paul Morrissey’s creation. We made it, howev­er, because of the following exchange: “Gee, I bet it’s a really nice life to do that,” Andy said to me from the bal­cony, looking down on the native Arizonian who was mow­ing the lawn of the motel in Tucson, where we were stay­ing during a college lecture tour. “Out in the sun all day in a nice warm climate. I think I might like to do that.”

“Me too,” I said, “in fact I’m not getting on the plane unless you promise me we can come back and make a movie.”

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1987 My father phones. “My God,” he says, “have you seen the newspa­pers? You’d think Andy War­hol was the greatest artist of all time! Ha! For painting a Campbell’s Soup can!”

“But the films were good,” I say.

“Films? Hell. They were just pornographic movies, weren’t they?”

1976 Andy made it painfully clear to me that the entire burden of dialogue and “action,” not to mention
“plot,” was on my frail shoul­ders because, according to him, nobody else was capable. Although my nature has al­ways been classical feminine passive, I believed that I had to dig up, from the further­most recesses of my soul, the ability to act, rather than re­act. I was made to understand that I had no one to react against because none of my fellow actors (with the excep­tion of Ondine, Taylor Mead, and Louie Waldon) could use their brains. They didn’t have any brains. “Please Viva,” Andy would whine, “you’ve got to do something! Nobody else will!” Or, “Please Viva! You’ve got to talk! Say any­thing! Nobody else can!”

Trying to maintain a world of “healthy sexuality” when first, no one knows what it means, and second, there is no health anywhere else in our society, is a medieval fan­tasy. The Warhol films were about sexual disappointment and frustration: the way Andy saw the world, the way the world is, and the way nine-­tenths of the population sees it, yet pretends they don’t.

The difference between the Warhol-Morrissey films and other films is that in the for­mer neither the ideal nor the pretense at the ideal is there. The truth is there. L’Age d’Or by Buñuel is the only other film I’ve seen about sexual truth. If I’d seen it before making Blue Movie I’d have gotten up, stared into the cam­era, and said, in the middle of the shooting, “Get me another partner!”

1987 As I ponder it, I think Andy’s modus operandi was neither to reveal “disap­pointment and frustration” nor to “ridicule and trivialize” the dogma of the day. Andy had nothing against which to compare either of these two ideas. Because he was so shy and complexed about his looks, he had no private life. In filming as in “hanging out,” he merely wanted to find out how “normal people” acted with each other. And I think my own idea about Blue Movie wasn’t, as I believed at the time, to teach the world about “real love” or “real sex,” but to teach Andy. I tru­ly loved Andy and would have done anything to help him. Of course, Blue Movie didn’t work out the way I had envi­sioned, partly because the man who had been the origi­nal inspiration for the idea didn’t want to make the film, and partly because the act of observation changes everything. ■

VIVA is a novelist, journalist, actress, and painter. 

“Adoration”
By Barbara Kruger

The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s.
The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s.
Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet .
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, 1975

Aside from serving food relatively quickly, McDonald’s is about a particular kind of pre­sentation: the American rendi­tion. It condenses the look of the last 35 years of highway architecture and public eater­ies into the time it takes to grab a bite. Above all, it is the primary vision of businessmen concerned with profit and effi­ciency in the field of food ser­vices. But McD’s brand of global culinary imperialism and the brass-tackism of its fi­nancial acumen was of little concern to Andy Warhol, to whom McDonald’s was both merely, and most importantly, beautiful.

He might have also called it adorable, the nimbus crown­ing a figure both pleasurable and good-humored. His com­ment can read as a happily re­lieved relinquishment of the critical, a resolutely numbed-­out dose of enthrallment. But maybe it can also work as a dislocator, courting the nega­tive with a kind of languid iro­ny. Andy Warhol always seemed to hanker for that really pretty line that wan­dered unmerrily between con­tempt and adoration.

The adoration was the easy part, like the icy vehemence of the kind of guy who would stand outside the Pantages Theater on Oscar night, clutching a bouquet of roses for one star or another. For the guy who wanted to be reincarnated as a diamond on Liz Taylor’s finger, proximity to fame was almost enough: a sort of elixir, an enabling con­nection plugging him into the glittering dispensations of prominence. His own celebrity became part of a baroque networking, a bright constella­tion of havers and doers who could inhabit the VIP lounge of the universe, where every­body who was anybody would show that they could never be mistaken for a nobody.

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All these yens for glamour and fame, coupled with a smooth ability to cut through the grease of wordy, “unpleasant” complexities and historically grounded explana­tions, made for the stuff of Warhol’s work. The fashion il­lustration, the early “easel” work, the repertoire of silk­-screen virtuosities, the paint­ings, the movies, Interview, the photographic activity, the books, and the resonant figure of Andy himself, were in­formed by a coldly smart reading of American culture. He cannily appropriated a seriality of signs, jokes, and icons that seemed right on the nose. But that’s not surprising, since Warhol was so taken with the face of things.

It was this face, this parade of glaringly alluring visages, that soaked through Warhol’s production, that floated to the surface of his work and showed us how images of cer­tain well-known and some­times smiling heads could make the sedentary seem so terribly busy. Inhabiting a kind of gauzy villa of narcotized smirks, they might even suggest, beyond the irony, a passion. The passion for the elegant figure. The cut of a jacket. Shiny blond locks framing indigo, shadowed eyes that glance at a boy who’s always looking the other way. We are breathing inac­cessibility. As voyeurs, we need not be articulate, merely attentive. Beauty is in our adjacents, and the next party is always the best.

Mixing the scattered seria­lity with the promiscuous ca­pabilities of the silk-screen process, Warhol crammed his images with the commodities and commotions of his time, and made them belt out a national anthem which sounded suspiciously and pleasantly like “Money Changes Everything.” The singularity of specific icons was processed through an assembly line of fluent, varietal repetitions. But although these procedures were employed with machine-­like detachment, the work, nevertheless, has the feel of a cottage industry in which the tiny mismatches and eccentric registers of the silk-screen process become as resonant as de Kooning’s rapturously brushy orchestrations. From the ironic presentation of the renovation of affliction (the nose job, dance instruction, and paint-by-numbers pictures) to his portraiture, War­hol’s images coalesced into a facetious cataloging of photo­graphic and painterly gesture: a testament to inaccessibility, to the rumor of a stainless beauty, to the constancy of glamorous expenditure.

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The tony veneer of these in­cisive parodies and icy vanities could serve as screens on which to project Warhol’s raw and powerfully tedious mov­ies. Kiss, Blowjob, 13 Most Beautiful Women, Poor Little Rich Girl, Screentest, Face, Chelsea Girls, and even Empire, (with its attention to the “face” of an anthemic structure), all seem to be searching for the perfect visage. The “up close and personal” talking head, coupled with the en­largement of the film format, produced the ironically dou­bled myth of “Super Star”: a site at which the marginalized could enthusiastically produce the image of their own (im)-perfection, in which the generic position of “star” was doubled over and, rather than choking on its own artifice, swallowed it whole and pro­ceeded to describe the experi­ence lo us for what seemed like an eternity. By suggesting that people could spend their lives lying in bed, talking on the phone, and cutting their bangs, these films foreground­ed both the fun and charm of being wasted, and the hard work it takes to live another day. They create different readings than the gelled signifiers of the static portraiture, and proceeded to tell a story about the thin line between glamour and shit. They sati­rize, yet embody, the star sys­tem, the impossibility of everything, and the sublimity of the mundane gesture. They are contemptuous of the spectator as masochist and invite an in­telligently hasty exit. They are clean-cut examples of film as idea, combining the “creative” dispensations of so-called avant-garde filmmaking with the look of Sam Fuller’s per­petual complaint that someone is staring at him.

Throughout all this work, Warhol functioned as a kind of engineer of retention: a withholder who became the doorkeeper at the floodgates of someone else’s expurgatory inclinations. His acuity can be construed as a kind of coolness: an ability to collapse the complexities and nuances of language and experience into the chilled silences of the frozen gesture. He elevated the reductivism of myth and mute iconography to new heights of incommunicado. Mixing the posing of stunned subjectivity with the confessional forays of raging objectification, he pro­duced something that some­times looked like a talent show in the asylum. Like any good voyeur, he had a knack for defining sex as nostalgia for sex, and he understood the cool hum of power that resid­ed not in hot expulsions of verbiage, but in the elegantly mute thrall of sign language.

BARBARA KRUGER is an artist and critic.

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Lifestyles of the Rich and Swinish

Over sixty-plus years many fabulous writers have graced the pages, whether in ink or pixels, of the Village Voice. Back in the days of hot wax and X-Acto knives, one of those wordsmiths was Gary Indiana, whose ability to boil blood and elicit guffaws — often in the same sentence — remains unparalleled.

In his March 6, 1990, Spectacle column he turned his sagacious vitriol on a most deserving target — the dissolution of Donald and Ivana Trump’s marriage. In these seven paragraphs we meet a cast of characters that might have come from an Off-Broadway farce: that “incorrigible publicity freak Cardinal O’Connor…a tirelessly carping eunuch”; columnist Cindy Adams, “a shamelessly obsequious birdbrain”; and that “porcine, duck-lipped real-estate mogul” Donald Trump.

In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried New York City 79 percent to 19 percent over Queens native Trump. As Indiana reported back in 1990, “The Daily News’s ‘Inquiring Photographer’ posed its people-in-the-street question: ‘Had enough of the Trump story?’ Just about everybody had…” Too bad that a quarter-century on, the rest of the country didn’t know what the locals had already gotten sick of.

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Spectacle: “Billion Dollar Blowjob”

March 6, 1990

Remember Vicki Morgan? Back in the nasty old age of greed that we are now all so sick of that even Drexel Burnham blah blah blah has declared bankruptcy, Alfred Bloomingdale, husband of Betsy, who was best friends with Nancy, had an importunate and beautiful mistress named Vicki who had, according to rumor, a number of videotapes in which numerous highly placed persons in the Reagan administration could be seen playing “horsie,” a frolic involving riding crops and panties and heaven only knows what else.

Vicki Morgan also had a boyfriend named Marvin Pancoast who, in the very thick of an unraveling sex scandal, bashed her head in with a baseball bat. At the time, it was widely believed that the previously docile Marvin had been “gotten to” by interested persons unknown, either with promises of cash or a combination of both and maybe assurances about the insanity defense — well, we just don’t know. The story, sensational as it was, didn’t play too well. It was the age of greed. The elements of the story promised to lead into places the press didn’t really want to go. Vicki Morgan’s murder scarcely made a ripple in the brackish sludge that passes for reporting in our daily tabloids. We were too damned mired in the age of greed. Now, of course, that age is over, or at least that’s the lesson being extracted from the dissolution of the Donald and Ivana Trump marriage. “It had been the New York marriage of the nasty ’80s: the epitome of greed, vulgarity and self-promotion,” opines Newsweek. “In a decade of glitz,” harrumphs People, “they were the glitziest; in a decade of greed, they were the greediest . . . ”

The story, like so many trivialities made elephantine by an intellectually bankrupt news industry, has become a story about making a story: the Trump “scandal” —exemplary of nothing more remarkable than the absolutely standard practice of successful males dumping their spouses in midlife for women half their age — provides the press an occasion to moralize about money and success and etcetera without further muddying the cesspool with politics. The circus freaks who inhabit the filler pages of the dailies, Cindy Adams for example, have been kicked up to the front page for the duration: Adams, a shamelessly obsequious birdbrain, has “taken sides” with Donald Trump, and devotes a February 20 Post article to “discrediting” all statements by Marla Maples implying intimacy with said Trump. The Post itself, of course, has loudly trumpeted the claim that said Maples has been getting banged by said Trump, ‘”boasting to her pals” that the porcine, duck-lipped real-estate mogul was “BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD.”

Even incorrigible publicity freak Cardinal O’Connor has seized the occasion, once again striking the unpalatable pose of a tirelessly carping eunuch congenitally unable to mind his own business. “In a private, 45-minute meeting Friday . . . O’Connor comforted the platinum-haired Ivana Trump and suggested she try a prayer or two . . . ,” Newsday reports. Newsday attributes to the cardinal a quote that should serve as the epigram for his autobiography: “The more visible one is, the more intense the problem is.”

For the weekly slicks and the so-called paper of record, this is the kind of sweetheart story in which everything can be had both ways: reporting on the story of the story, these “news organs” can wax imperious about the scuzzy level of coverage in the dailies, at the same time reproducing it word for word. Here’s Newsweek: “The media frenzy continued, in a kind of Gresham’s law of escalating sleaze. The papers kept reworking the instant joke: ‘Donald finally bounced a Czech.’ Anonymous sources surface with ever more improbable quotes and trashier stories.”

The Daily News’s “Inquiring Photographer” posed its people-in-the-street question: “Had enough of the Trump story?” Just about everybody had, and two people thought it shabby that the Trumps had wiped Nelson Mandela’s release off the front pages. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to suggest that this is precisely what the story was designed to do. Why encourage people to think about race relations when they can be bludgeoned into wondering, as so many of us have, whether Liz Smith will lure Ivana Trump to the Cubbyhole? Is Cardinal O’Connor hard for Father Ritter? Will Peggy McMartin and Father Bruce start a comprehensive preschool-to-college care center called CAT HOUSE? Will poor Ivana have to settle for only $25 million? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Freddie Gibbs

If it weren’t for drug dealers, we wouldn’t have drugs. If it weren’t for the internet, we wouldn’t have viral mixtape downloads. And if it weren’t for Freddie Gibbs, Gary, Indiana wouldn’t be back on the map in our cold, post-Music Man / Michael Jackson world. More importantly, were it not for rappers like Freddie Gibbs, we wouldn’t be in the new golden age of rap. The street poet and hip-hop star built his following organically, bringing the block to his music through honest, uninhibited lyricism and just the right amount of braggadocio to make him exemplar of trill. (That’s true + real for those of you who’ve been hittin’ the haze too hard). His full-length Madlib-produced album Piñata is set for release on March 18 via Madlib Invazion, and will feature Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Ab-soul, Mac Miller and a host of others alongside Gibbs, so hop atop a kush cloud and float your way up to bust the Cocaine Piñata at one of the supporting tour dates.

Sat., March 22, 7 p.m., 2014

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Why Michael Jackson’s Past Might Be Gary, Indiana’s Only Future

The first thing I noticed was that Michael Jackson was gone. Downtown Gary, Indiana’s main drag hosted a wide-scale mural project in 2002, fantastic possible futures for the city’s boarded-up buildings painted directly onto the boards, with an MJ adorning the old record store, symbolically turning his back on Gary, three digits of his bejewelled glove-hand blotted out with graffiti, as if he were giving his birthplace the finger. It was an odd touch of realism amid the mis-scaled office scenes of ferns and giant computers; Michael had been painted with care and detail. Now, much of downtown has been reboarded, and he has disappeared again.

I’d been driving from downstate all day, with news reports of his death getting more and more detailed as time passed. Shortly after arriving home, a friend texted what I was already thinking: “We should go to Gary.” Hitting one of Chicago’s impromptu MJ-tribute nights didn’t seem right—Thriller had taught me what it meant to have music be your whole life, to be a devoted fan; Thriller was the first album that was all mine, not my parents’—and so, a vigil seemed more appropriate than a dance party. Gary is where it began, and it was only 33 miles from my house. Our car was soon filled with stunned conjecture; the toll booths pumped Off the Wall in every lane.

The Jackson family home is about a mile off an unlit freeway exit. You pass the bank, the only one in town. When I did a travel piece on Gary a few years ago for the Chicago Reader, people were quick to brag about how things were looking up: They had a bank again, after several years without one. Its gleam stands in sharp contrast to a downtown filled with stately, half-burned buildings and trees growing from rooftops and terraces. A fire took much of the area in a single night in 1997: What survived still stands. Old stores are emblazoned with fancy, loping mid-century fonts; there are signs for chains that haven’t existed for decades. It’s strange, impossible, and beautiful, the Pompeii of the Midwest, a rotting monument to industrialization, an apocalypse fueled by plant-closings, white flight, and arson.

The Jacksons left Gary in 1968, right before the Steel City began its freefall: Between 1960 and 2000, the city’s population was nearly halved. Their house shows no mark of its former occupants’ success, save for the renamed streets—it sits at the corner of Jackson Street and Jackson Family Boulevard. It’s incredible to imagine that a family of 11 once lived in the tiny two-bedroom bungalow. There is no garage. Maybe there was, once. Maybe they just practiced in the yard, though dancing in the grass is hard. Maybe there’s a basement we don’t know about.

When we roll up to 2300 Jackson, it’s almost 11 p.m., maybe seven hours since the news hit. Slow-cruising cars blare different eras of MJ as two thick cops parked on ATVs shine their headlights on the crowd milling in the yard. This is not so much a gathering as a looky-loo, a chance to observe the coterie of stuffed animals and notebook-paper tributes. A Gary Fire Department shirt on a hanger clings to the front window’s security bars with a note taped to it: “Goodbye Michael J5 forever.” There’s not a lot of talking up by the actual shrine and its safety candles: Everyone just snaps pictures with their cell phones and slaps at mosquitoes. Some people are crying.

Back at the edge of the yard, locals trade stories, conjectures, and firsthand reminiscences: Michael’s appearance at a Gary high school in 2003, older siblings who went to high school with Tito, theories on what will become of the house. Everyone weighs in on where he’ll be buried: Everyone hopes for Gary, thinks it should be Gary—maybe even right here in the backyard. I imagine the tiny fenced-in lot overtaken by a mausoleum, ringed with teddy bears and white gloves.

The next day, Mayor Rudy Clay talks of turning the house, which would take four minutes (max) to thoroughly examine, into a Graceland. Grim as it is, Jackson’s death could mean new life for Gary. A stretch of downtown is set to be razed in the next year: No doubt an MJ shrine will be its star attraction. Interviewing residents a few years back, the idea that Michael could return and somehow save their seemingly unsaveable city was a collectively held notion. Some held his abandonment against him and considered such a return his duty as a native son, while others were sympathetic—why would the King of Pop ever want to come back to Gary? Few had guessed that this is how it might happen.

The mosquitoes are getting to us, and we’ve taken all the pictures we can of the memorial heap of mini-mart roses and stuffed animals. Across the street, a man affixes a flashlight to a lawnmower, fires it up, and starts cutting the grass. We get back in the car. On our way out, we stop and take pictures of the long-abandoned Palace Theatre’s marquee. Since Donald Trump had the place spruced up for the 2002 Miss USA pageant, it has read “Jackson Five Tonite”—another fantasy future for the Magic City, come and gone.

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Michael Jackson: The Man in Our Mirror

What Black American culture—musical and otherwise—lacks for now isn’t talent or ambition, but the unmistakable presence of some kind of spiritual genius: the sense that something other than or even more than human is speaking through whatever fragile mortal vessel is burdened with repping for the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral. You can still feel it when you go hear Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Aretha Franklin, or Cecil Taylor, or when you read Toni Morrison—living Orishas who carry on a tradition whose true genius lies in making forms and notions as abstract, complex, and philosophical as soul, jazz, or the blues so deeply and universally felt. But such transcendence is rare now, given how desperate, soul-crushing, and immobilizing modern American life has become for the poorest strata of our folk, and how dissolute, dispersed, and distanced from that resource-poor, but culturally rich, heavyweight strata the rest of us are becoming. And, like Morrison cautioned a few years ago, where the culture is going now, not even the music may be enough to save us.

The yin and yang of it is simple: You don’t get the insatiable hunger (or the Black acculturation) that made James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson run, not walk, out the ‘hood without there being a ‘hood—the Olympic obstacle-course incubator of much musical Black genius as we know it. As George Clinton likes to say, “Without the humps, there’s no getting over.” (Next stop: hip-hop—and maybe the last stop, too, though who knows, maybe the next humbling god of the kulcha will be a starchitect or a superstring theorist, the Michael Jackson of D-branes, black P-branes, and dark-energy engineering.) Black Americans are inherently and even literally “damaged goods,” a people whose central struggle has been overcoming the non-person status we got stamped and stomped into us during slavery and post-Reconstruction and resonates even now, if you happen to be Black and poor enough. (As M-1 of dead prez wondered out loud, “What are we going to do to get all this poverty off of us?”) As a people, we have become past-masters of devising strategies for erasing the erasure. Dreaming up what’s still the most sublime visual representation of this process is what makes Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work not just ingenious, but righteous and profound. His dreaming up the most self-flagellating erasure of self to stymie the erasure is what makes Michael Jackson’s story so numbing, so macabre, so absurdly Stephen King.

The scariest thing about the Motown legacy, as my father likes to argue, is that you could have gone into any Black American community at the time and found raw talents equal to any of the label’s polished fruit: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, or Holland-Dozier-Holland—all my love for the mighty D and its denizens notwithstanding. Berry Gordy just industrialized the process, the same as Harvard or the CIA has always done for the brightest prospective servants of the Evil Empire. The wisdom of Berry’s intervention is borne out by the fact that since Motown left Detroit, the city’s production of extraordinary musical talent can be measured in droplets: the Clark Sisters, Geri Allen, Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Kenny Garrett, J Dilla. But Michael himself is our best proof that Motown didn’t have a lock on the young, Black, and gifted pool, as he and his siblings were born in Gary, Indiana: a town otherwise only notable for electing our good brother Richard Hatcher to a 20-year mayoral term and for hosting the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention, a gathering where our most politically educated folk (the Black Panther Party excepted) chose to shun Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run. Unlike Motown, no one could ever accuse my Black radical tradition of blithely practicing unity for the community. Or of possessing the vision and infrastructure required to pull a cat like Michael up from the abysmal basement of America and groom him for world domination.

Motown saved Michael from Gary, Indiana: no small feat. Michael and his family remain among the few Negroes of note to escape from the now century-old city, which today has a Black American population of 84 percent. These numbers would mean nothing if we were talking about a small Caribbean nation, but they tend to represent a sign of the apocalypse where urban America is concerned. The Gary of 2009 is considered the 17th most dangerous city in America, which may be an improvement. The real question of the hour is, How many other Black American men born in Gary in 1958 lived to see their 24th birthday in 1982, the year Thriller broke the world open louder than a cobalt bomb and remade Black American success in Michael’s before-and-after image? Where Black modernity is concerned, Michael is the real missing link: the “bridge of sighs” between the Way We Were and What We’ve Become in what Nelson George has astutely dubbed the “Post-Soul Era”—the only race-coded “post” neologism grounded in actual history and not puffery. Michael’s post-Motown life and career are a testament to all the cultural greatness that Motown and the chitlin circuit wrought, but also all the acute identity crises those entities helped set in motion in the same funky breath.

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From Compton to Harlem, we’ve witnessed grown men broke-down crying in the ‘hood over Michael; some of my most hard-bitten, 24/7 militant Black friends, male and female alike, copped to bawling their eyes out for days after they got the news. It’s not hard to understand why: For just about anybody born in Black America after 1958—and this includes kids I’m hearing about who are as young as nine years old right now—Michael came to own a good chunk of our best childhood and adolescent memories. The absolute irony of all the jokes and speculation about Michael trying to turn into a European woman is that after James Brown, his music (and his dancing) represent the epitome—one of the mightiest peaks—of what we call Black Music. Fortunately for us, that suspect skin-lightening disease, bleaching away his Black-nuss via physical or psychological means, had no effect on the field-holler screams palpable in his voice, or the electromagnetism fueling his elegant and preternatural sense of rhythm, flexibility, and fluid motion. With just his vocal gifts and his body alone as vehicles, Michael came to rank as one of the great storytellers and soothsayers of the last 100 years.

Furthermore, unlike almost everyone in the Apollo Theater pantheon save George Clinton, Michael now seems as important to us an image-maker—an illusionist and a fantasist at that—as he was a musician/entertainer. And until Hype Williams came on the music-video scene in the mid ’90s, no one else insisted that the visuals supporting r&b and hip-hop be as memorable, eye-popping, and seductive as the music itself. Nor did anyone else spare no expense to ensure that they were. But Michael’s phantasmal, shape-shifting videos, upon reflection, were also, strangely enough, his way of socially and politically engaging the worlds of other real Blackfolk from places like South Central L.A., Bahia, East Africa, the prison system, Ancient Egypt. He did this sometimes in pursuit of mere spectacle (“Black and White”), sometimes as critical observer (“The Way You Make Me Feel”), sometimes as a cultural nationalist romantic (“Remember the Time”), even occasionally as a harsh American political commentator (“They Don’t Care About Us”). Looking at those clips again, as millions of us have done over this past weekend, is to realize how prophetic Michael was in dropping mad cash to leave behind a visual record of his work that was as state-of-the-art as his musical legacy. As if he knew that one day our musical history would be more valued for what can be seen as for what can be heard.

(Having said that, my official all-time-favorite Michael clip is the one of him on Oprah viciously beatboxing [his 808 kick sound could straight castrate even Rahzel’s!] and freestyling a new jam into creation—instantaneously connecting Michael in a syncopating heartbeat to those spiritual tributaries that Langston Hughes described, the ones “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” Bottom line: Anyone whose racial-litmus-test challenge to Michael came with a rhythm-and-blues battle royale event would have gotten their ass royally waxed.)

George Clinton thought the reason Michael constantly chipped away at his appearance was less about racial self-loathing than about the number-one problem superstars have, which is figuring out what to do when people get sick of looking at your face. His orgies of rhino- and other plasty’s were no more than an attempt to stay ahead of a fickle public’s fickleness. In the ’90s, at least until Eminem showed up, hip-hop would seem to have proven that major Black pop success in America didn’t require a whitening up, maybe much to Michael’s chagrin. Critical sidebar: I have always wanted to believe that Michael was actually one of the most secretly angry Black race-men on the planet. I thought that if he had been cast as the Iraqi nativist who beat the shit out of Marky Mark in Ridley and Russell’s Three Kings while screaming, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson? Your sick fucking country makes the Black man hate his self,” Wahlberg would have left the set that day looking like the Great Pumpkin. I have also come to wonder if a mid-life-crisis Michael was, in fact, capable and culpable of having staged his own pedophilic race-war revival of that bitterly angry role? Especially during those Jesus Juice–swilling sleepovers at his Neverland Plantation, again and again and again? I honestly hope to never discover that this was indeed the truth.

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Whatever Michael’s alienation and distance from the Black America he came from—from the streets, in particular—he remained a devoted student of popular Black music, dance, and street style, giving to and taking from it in unparalleled ways. He let neither ears nor eyes nor footwork stray too far out of touch from the action, sonically, sartorially, or choreographically. But whatever he appropriated also came back transmogrified into something even more inspiring and ennobled than before. Like the best artists everywhere, he begged, borrowed, and stole from (and/or collaborated with) anybody he thought would make his own expression more visceral, modern, and exciting, from Spielberg to Akon to, yes, OK, smartass, cosmetic surgeons. In any event, once he went solo, Michael was, above all else, committed to his genius being felt as powerfully as whatever else in mass culture he caught masses of people feeling at the time. I suppose there is some divine symmetry to be found in Michael checking out when Barack Obama, the new King of Pop, is just settling in: Just count me among those who feel that, in Michael Jackson terms, the young orator from Hawaii is only up to about the Destiny tour.

Of course, Michael’s careerism had a steep downside, tripped onto a slippery slope, when he decided that his public and private life could be merged, orchestrated, and manipulated for publicity and mass consumption as masterfully as his albums and videos. I certainly began to feel this when word got out of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or trying to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, and I became almost certain this was the case when he dangled his hooded baby son over a balcony for the paparazzi, to say nothing of his alleged darker impulses. At what point, we have to wonder, did the line blur for him between Dr. Jacko and Mr. Jackson, between Peter Pan fantasies and predatory behaviors? At what point did the Man in the Mirror turn into Dorian Gray? When did the Warholian creature that Michael created to deflect access to his inner life turn on him and virally rot him from the inside?

Real Soul Men eat self-destruction, chased by catastrophic forces from birth and then set upon by the hounds of hell the moment someone pays them cash-money for using the voice of God to sing about secular adult passion. If you can find a more freakish litany of figures who have suffered more freakishly disastrous demises and career denouements than the Black American Soul Man, I’ll pay you cash-money. Go down the line: Robert Johnson, Louis Jordan, Johnny Ace, Little Willie John, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, James Carr, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. You name it, they have been smacked down by it: guns, planes, cars, drugs, grits, lighting rigs, shoe polish, asphyxiation by vomit, electrocution, enervation, incarceration, their own death-dealing preacher-daddy. A few, like Isaac Hayes, get to slowly rust before they grow old. A select few, like Sly, prove too slick and elusive for the tide of the River Styx, despite giddy years mocking death with self-sabotage and self-abuse.

Michael’s death was probably the most shocking celebrity curtain call of our time because he had stopped being vaguely mortal or human for us quite a while ago, had become such an implacably bizarre and abstracted tabloid creation, worlds removed from the various Michaels we had once loved so much. The unfortunate blessing of his departure is that we can now all go back to loving him as we first found him, without shame, despair, or complication. “Which Michael do you want back?” is the other real question of the hour: Over the years, we’ve seen him variously as our Hamlet, our Superman, our Peter Pan, our Icarus, our Fred Astaire, our Marcel Marceau, our Houdini, our Charlie Chaplin, our Scarecrow, our Peter Parker and Black Spider-Man, our Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke, our Little Richard redux, our Alien vs. Predator, our Elephant Man, our Great Gatsby, our Lon Chaney, our Ol’ Blue Eyes, our Elvis, our Frankenstein, our ET, our Mystique, our Dark Phoenix.

Celebrity idols are never more present than when they up and disappear, never ever saying goodbye, while affirming James Brown’s prophetic reasoning that “Money won’t change you/But time will take you out.” JB also told us, “I’ve got money, but now I need love.” And here we are. Sitting with the rise and fall and demise of Michael, and grappling with how, as dream hampton put it, “The loneliest man in the world could be one of the most beloved.” Now that some of us oldheads can have our Michael Jackson back, we feel liberated to be more gentle toward his spirit, releasing him from our outright rancor for scarring up whichever pre-trial, pre-chalk-complexion incarnation of him first tickled our fancies. Michael not being in the world as a Kabuki ghost makes it even easier to get through all those late-career movie-budget clips where he already looks headed for the out-door. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise both for him and for us that he finally got shoved through it.

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Demolition Man

Months have passed and I’m still scared to lift the pillow from my eyes. The hangover to the ’04 elections just won’t let up, and while it’s tempting to choke down a big, greasy breakfast of self-flagellation and doubt, Gary Indiana, bless his bilious heart, is mixing Bloody Marys and sharpening his knives. California’s latest humiliation is the erstwhile subject of Indiana’s book-length essay Schwarzenegger Syndrome, but his bigger theme is the same one he’s been tearing away at for years: the psychopathology of this grand “excremental republic.”

So he starts not with the twisted mechanics of California’s 2003 recall vote—he’ll get to that—but with the appointment to the presidency of a “mush-mouthed, dyslexic, perpetually vacationing cipher.” Jump to that cipher’s near seamless elevation to eternal warlord in chief following “our very own Reichstag fire” and you’re not far from the realm where, “to the bewildered and traumatized who continued to imagine that ‘fascism’ described a condition other than the merger of the state with corporate capitalism,
hasta la vista, baby sounded like as workable a program as anything else.”

Hyperbolic, sure, but if any times ever made hyperbole feel like understatement, these are them. Arnold Schwarzenegger, steroidal cartoon and killer robot, “dream politician for the Time of the Rapture,” is, after all, governing the most populous state in the union. When it’s not actively drawing blood, Schwarzenegger Syndrome can feel unfocused, but what doesn’t these days? And it’s hard not to love a man who calls John McCain a “bowel-impacted martinet” and questions his ability to hold up under torture: “If we threw him in a stew pot, he’d stand up and salt himself. That’s the kind of patriotism America needs.”

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Middle-Class Convention Gets Tweaked

“I’m sick of symmetry,” declares a character early in Luis Buñuel’s penultimate feature, and though the director was never much a stickler for it either, The Phantom of Liberty is his own La Ronde—or his own Monty Python installment. Middle-class convention gets tweaked, deflated, and exploded via a pungent daisy chain of absurdist commedia dell’arte, stocked with blasphemous Napoleonic soldiers, tipsy monks, ostriches in the boudoir, and a kitten with a whip. An anthology of Buñuelian themes—the tyranny of decorum, the arbitrariness of convention—the film also adds an anteroom to his pantheon of dinner table insurrections; suffice to say it revises the axiom “Don’t shit where you eat.” Buñuel’s bourgies, with ostrichy obstinacy, refuse to see what is plainly in front of them, be it dirty pictures, a “missing” child, or a lover’s body. Albeit scattershot, Phantom does cohere as a satire of keeping up appearances in which everything is as it appears. Extras include an essay by Gary Indiana and a video introduction by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (who recently co-wrote Birth).

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Log Cabin Français

LOCATION Park Slope

RENT $1,300 [market]

SQUARE FEET 900 [top two levels of house]

OCCUPANTS Erin Knight [global traffic coordinator of packaging, Matrix]; Anthony Howard [client services representative, Lowe & Partners Worldwide]

This looks like where you would come after a moose hunt or a goose shoot—so woodsy and paneled. [Erin] It’s like a log cabin.

So Abe Lincoln, so ski chalet, so . . . I have no more references. Though in another city, I had an apartment with a room that was all knotty pine. I started a club called the Woodchucks. Dues were a dime for basic membership and then a dime later every time you passed through. We kept the dues in a cigar box in a secret cupboard. When a Woodchuck went to cover Jesse Jackson in Mexico and Germany, he brought back currency for the club fund. Have you been here long? Since July of last year. I’m from Gary, Indiana. My dad worked at a factory. Gary is turning into a sad, little city. [Anthony] I’m from Plymouth, Massachusetts. [Erin] It’s so quaint there.

There used to be a wooden thing for prisoners. I have a photograph from a childhood vacation—excuse another personal reference—I’m in my shorts, my arms are hanging out of the wooden block. [Anthony] Plymouth Rock is not very big. People look and say, “That’s it, huh?”

It is little but it’s the actual rock on which the pilgrims disembarked. It’s under tight security. You met at work. [Erin] It wasn’t really a workplace romance because I was leaving the job in a week when we started dating. I wouldn’t have dated him if we worked together. [Anthony] I lived on 3rd Street in Park Slope before. I was looking for apartments so my brother found the apartment and another guy came down and . . .

I was just in Belleville, the bistro on 5th. You said you like to go there. With the tiled floor, the waitresses in little French undershirts, it’s like a baby Balthazar, which is like a baby Le Dôme. Writing on the mirrors: “Digestif” and “Rouge.” They always write “Rouge.” [Erin] And “Mouton.” That’s what we’re trying to go for in the decorating here, kind of a modern, old-world French feel. I have that painting of a patisserie, a little French scene. I’m obsessed with all things French. I’m learning French. [Anthony] I get a few words here and there. [Erin] His usual response is “très bien” or “merci.” I watch TV Cinq. I’ve been to Paris. He never has—maybe on our honeymoon in 10 years. It’s the city of love.

Your water glass has “Fraise” and a picture of a strawberry. After you go on this honeymoon, where will you live? [Anthony] I wouldn’t rule out Manhattan. [Erin] I always joke that we’ll retire to Plymouth, live next to his parents, the ocean, and raise our kids. It’s a quaint little town, nothing like the Midwest.

The Midwest, with that big, leaden sky. It’s like a monster. In Plymouth, the doctor, beauty shop, and all the offices are in these little houses, not strip malls, with little signs in front.

The East Coast has an intimacy. The scale is so human, though sometimes dollhouse. In this apartment you have that hideaway feeling—the charming slope of the roof. [Anthony] The uniqueness stuck out. [Erin] It has an ambience. If I go into an apartment, I want to feel it. We came here and when we left, I said, Honey, I feel it. I feel it.

Your landlords’ sign in the window says, “Vote Out Bush/Cheney.” They put an anti-Bush newspaper outside our door. They’re very religious.

Orthodox? No, Methodist. They’re about 35. When I asked the wife what she did, she said she’s a mother and she worships. We wondered if our being unmarried would be a problem for them. It wasn’t. Yes, I go to church, Cadman Memorial, a Congregational church. I go once every couple of months. [Anthony] I was raised Roman Catholic.

I knew it. [Erin] I’ve known you two and a half years and you’ve never been to church.