Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It's Time Once Again for...

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC, I had a great group of friends, most of whom are still my friends. Just call me lucky. One thing we all had in common was an exquisite appreciation of the great R. Crumb. We even had a saying: "R. has his finger on the pulse of America." (We called him "R.")

We quoted R. out of context constantly. It was part of our (not so) ultra- hip lingo, as in, "Let's eat again real soon," or "It's never the end, except for these guys," or "Will white man ever join the parade?" or (one of my favorites), "Here comes the bus," and, after one of us died way too early, "Smilin' Ed is dead, gone forever." Even though our friend's name wasn't Ed.

But the quote that came to mind most often was, "Despair is the only way out."

I remember going to my friend Little Bobby's house, and saw a copy of Despair in the backseat of his car. "Hey," I said, "I've got a copy of Despair in the backseat of MY car!" and I did, too.

Little Bobby said, "Everyone has a copy of Despair in the backseat of their car," and I thought then that he was exactly right.

Maybe it's time to put Despair Comics back in our cars. When I hear about another friend being laid off, or another foreclosure, or Chrysler and GM filing for bankruptcy, or the latest in the public deterioration of Dick Cheney, never the most stable guy to begin with, but clearly dropping marbles every day now, or the imminent death of the two-party system, or- well, it just goes on and on, doesn't it- I think, "So what if little brother wasn't as cute as was hoped, let's have a party!"

At any moment "these guys" could turn into "us guys" and where would we be without our copies of Despair?

I'm not sure that R. is the H. L . Mencken of our time, as I've heard it said, mostly because Mencken is one of those guys I've heard of but never actually read, even though I claim I have so I don't seem completely stupid. But R. is good enough for me and my pals (you know who you are) and still seems to have his finger on the pulse of America.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hooray for John Goodman

Goodman laughing like Luthor at Superman

I just watched a recent David Letterman clip featuring John Goodman. In a very short period of time he invoked Lex Luthor, Sluggo and then said he'd quit drinking.

Goodman pointing to where Sluggo's little dots would have been

Well, alright, John Goodman. Three great things in a row from a cat I've always dug.

I met John Goodman years ago at Jazz Fest, back in 1989. I went up to him and said, "Hey man, great work- thanks!." He grunted and lumbered on.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


My daughter Emilie lives in Harlem, and when I visit, we try to find famous locations and see them for ourselves. I've made her look for the block where Art Kane made his famous Jazz photograph (126th Street, between Fifth and Madison)

and she's taken me to the house where "The Royal Tenenbaums" (144th St. and Convent Ave.) was filmed.
<--- Emilie at the Tenenbaum's

Harlem's a pretty cool place. There's the Apollo and even a latter- day Cotton Club. Certain parts can still invoke a Chester Himes detective novel, even though Himes lived mostly in Paris when he wrote them.

One place I always make us visit is Harry Houdini's house (278 W. 113th Street). It has a plaque on it, and an elegant wrought iron fence around it. In the entryway leading to the cellar, behind security bars, there's a disused bathtub with dirt in it. Almost certainly a place for seedlings, the tub seems more like a part of a failed escape, perhaps the prototype for Houdini's great failure, when he had his assistants bury him alive.

I don't know who lives there, I don't know if it has been sectioned into apartments or has a single owner and I'm too timid to find out.

I do know that when he lived there, it was Houdini's pride and joy, a major notch in his gun of respectability that, as a first- generation American (he was born in Hungary, but was brought to the US as a baby, and always claimed Appleton, Wisconsin as his birthplace), meant so much to him. I can imagine him inside, on the top floor in his library among his incredible collection of books on magic, a collection so impressive that it had its own librarian, or in his dining room room with his wife Beatrice (Bess) and his beloved mother:

Maybe he's in the living room, preparing for the show at the Hippodrome, where he vanished an elephant, a trick whose solution has been lost to magic history. They think they know how he did it, but they're not sure.

This is the house where Houdini could be just plain Harry and let his curly hair down, fire off his angry letters to magic magazines and rival escapists and plan his next illusions. A human being lived here, the house says. I like that thought.

A complex skeptic, Houdini devoted the latter part of his career to exposing bogus spiritualists. I've always felt that he really wanted to find a genuine medium, but he never did. This led to a great schism in his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan- Doyle, a writer sadly at odds with the practical manner of his literary creation Sherlock Holmes.

Houdini was one of those people who could instantly tap into a vast sea of anger. He never shrank from a confrontation and he took every slight and criticism personally. He fueled his stage act and public escapes with self- righteousness, which made his appearances all the more vital and intense. Much like James Brown (another personality with close ties to Harlem), he had a burning perfect self- concept that never let him down.

Spiritualism was very popular in the early 20th century. Once Houdini began his exposes, the pseudo- religion was pretty much finished. All the trumpet blowing, bell- ringing and ectoplasm- expelling couldn't save it.

Houdini demonstrating fraudulent spiritual methods

Houdini died on Halloween from peritonitis, brought on, as legend holds, by a punch in the stomach. Recent research purports to shed new light on his death, so, much like Robert Johnson, Harry continues to keep a hold on the American imagination.

Houdini with Chaplin: the immigrant dream realized

Monday, May 18, 2009

Only in New Orleans, v. 1,000,000

My friend in New Orleans, Mr. Freeland- Archer, has reminded me that artists still do look like artists. This is The New Orleans Bingo Show. Let's note that founder Clint Maedgen is holding a Polaroid 600 S camera (or maybe an SE) which shoots Polaroid pack film. Or Fuji. An appropriately eccentric camera for an eccentric and highly entertaining group.

Mr. Freeland- Archer has also reminded me about Eden Ahbez, seen here meeting Nat "King" Cole:
Ahbez, or "ahbe" to his family and friends, wrote Cole's popular hit "Nature Boy," and also became a pre- hippie- icon to alternative lifestylers, especially in California. Cole's manager reportedly located Ahbez under the first L of the Hollywood sign, where he was living with his wife in a sleeping bag.

He was born in 1908, lived until 1995, released several recordings, worked with Brian Wilson , influenced Donovan (no surprise there) and probably inspired countless renderings of Jesus in Sunday schools everywhere. At least he was Jewish.

So... a tip of the Littlehales' hat (as Jimmy Hatlo would say) to Mr. Freeland- Archer (not his real name), ever- vigilant observer, chronicler and archivist of American culture.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why Don't Artists Look Like This Anymore?

Here's the original caption, from the Smithsonian Archive:
Description: Artists in costume at the Sherwood Studio Building. Identification on front (handwritten): Sherwood Studio Bldg. 58 W 57th St. 1889. (from left to right): Wm. Allen, Sullivant, Robt. Reid, Robt. Van Boskerck, Willard Metcalf, Sam Isham, Harry W. Watrous, Carleton Chapman, Herbert Denman. Published in: Archives of American Art Journal v. 9, no. 2, p. 7; v. 15, no. 1, p. 8; v. 36, no. 3-4, p.13

I confess- I've never heard of any of these guys. Doesn't matter though, you just know they're artists.

I went to art school, then worked in comic books for awhile, and we never got dressed up like this. The comic book artist community would have been far more likely to wear outlandish get-ups than the oh- so- serious Art Students, but neither group did. At least not when I was there. People at comic conventions dressed in costumes, but they weren't artists. In any non- pretentious sensible use of the word.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Washington, DC- the Way It Was, Part 1

I was born here in Washington, DC, as were my parents, several of my grandparents, my wife and my three daughters. When I say here in DC, I don't mean the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, I mean here, in Washington DC.

The site of the hospital where I was born, Columbia Hospital for Women, now hosts a Trader Joe's grocery store. You can get pretty good wine there for only $3.00.

I grew up all over the city, from Kalorama to Adam's Morgan, Chevy Chase to Cleveland Park to Georgetown, not necessarily in that order. I love DC.

Recently I was visiting my mother, a real Washington grande dame, who lives in a beautiful apartment complex in N.W. near the Washington Cathedral. This is a short clip I made of her reminiscing about a time when you could still see a president without a clearance from Homeland Security.

My mother is 81 years old, in good health, etc. It was fun to get her to talk about this, and I'm looking forward to some more reminiscences.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Robert Johnson

Robert "RL" "Little Robert" "Robert Dusty" (and several more, I'm sure) Johnson would have been 98 years old this Friday, had he lived. But he didn't, of course. He famously died back in 1938, allegedly by poison, allegedly after a gig near Greenwood, allegedly in the company of Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson II" Miller. Allegedly, allegedly, allegedly.

A quick word about the pictures above: these are the alleged RJ pics, as opposed to the two confirmed pictures. The bottom one, with a young (alleged) Johnny Shines has been subjected to forensic analysis (I'm not kidding) and a worldwide blues- nerd debate. There is supposedly another, of Johnson with his nephew, that a collector named Mack McCormack may have, but I've never seen it, and probably never will.

The Robert Johnson story: the ultimate romantic blues fantasy. His mystery remains intact even though we know:
a) what he looked like
b) when he recorded
c) what kind of guitar he played at least at some point
d) who he hung out with
e) when he died
f) where he died
g) where he was born and
h) when he was born.

We know more about him than we know about many other famous country blues players, like Blind Blake, for instance. That guy's a complete mystery.

I'm not going to go deep into the RJ bio (although I could- I know a lot of stuff about him) because if you google him you get 33,100,000 hits. I'm sure some of these pertain to the founder of BET who shares the same name, but you get the picture. Therefore it's easy to find out everything I know, and more. You might not find out right away about his friendship with Houston Stackhouse, or the name of the woman, Rosie Eskridge, who, as a young girl, may have witnessed his burial in Greenwood MS. But you will find out that there are three disputed gravesites in MS, and that, according to his death certificate, he lived for several days after being (allegedly) poisoned.

The Death Certificate, front and back:

People are still speculating. They love to speculate. It's a very human trait.

Here's what I do know for certain: his recordings are among the most beautiful, haunting and virtuosic in the history of American music. They are, as my friend Pete Kanaras likes to say, "THE shit." I never tire of listening to them, and some, like "Terraplane Blues" and "Walking Blues" are engraved in my brain pan forever. If there is a more spine- tingling moment in all of recording than "Can't you hear the wind howl?" from "Come in My Kitchen", then I've never heard it. And amazingly, it's only on one of the two takes! It's an improv!

If you drive down the Money Road outside of Greenwood after the sun goes down, there really is a darkness like no other I've experienced, including time I spent living in the Egyptian desert. That's when you want to catch that Greyhound Bus and ride, or walk side by side with the Devil. That's when you hear the echo of Charley Patton from a distant juke somewhere down the road, and you think you can maybe, just maybe, see the outline of a lone hitchhiker wearing a snap brim hat and a guitar slung over his back. He's just up ahead- but by the time you get there, well... of course he's gone. He's been gone, brother, you just missed him.

I do know that when my way is dark with thorns, I have a wise voice to guide me.

Happy Birthday, Robert. Thanks for EVERYTHING.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Delores Del Rio

Slim Aaron's photograph of one of the most beautiful women in movies, the delicious Delores Del Rio. Born María de los Dolores Asúnsolo López-Negrete, she made many pictures in Hollywood. After her Hollywood career cooled off, she moved back to Mexico and at the age of 37 established herself as a top star in her native country.

She began to work in Mexico and Hollywood, and even made a movie with Elvis Presley. She died rich and famous In Newport Beach, California on April 11th, 1983.

I just couldn't resist this picture, a beauty in so many ways. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Photograph © Slim Aarons

Monday, May 4, 2009

Good Ol' Bud

My father- in- law, a truly wonderful man, died recently after a long time spent alternating between assisted living and hospitalization. In his final weeks his great spirit had begun to falter, and like the sailor reaching his final port, he just gave out. "I'm so tired," he said. I took it to mean cosmically tired. I told this to my wife, who reminded me that I tend to think cosmically a lot, but this time, I was right. Two weeks later he was gone.

We waited about three weeks, maybe four until we had a memorial party at his old house, which has been for sale since he went into a home and my mother- in- law came to live with us half of every month, and with my brother- in- law the other half.

I saw all of his remaining friends and colleagues, and what was funny was that many were also my former colleagues, as I had once worked for my father- in- law and then, as his co-workers used to chide me, I married the boss's daughter. That I no longer worked with him was of little import.

Some were glad to see me, some didn't remember me, some were indifferent. All of them seemed sad about my father- in- law, and said so, in ways that really touched his family.

It was a good memorial. And a good reunion.