Sunday, June 26, 2011

¿Quien Es?

This photograph, believed to be the only authentic photograph of Billy the Kid (there are others, but they are disputed images, evidently) just sold in auction for 2.6 million dollars.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Ideal Combination

One of my favorite blogs is Little Hokum Rag, Amy Crehore's art/ ukulele shrine. That's right- Amy's a wonderful painter and illustrator who also plays and designs ukuleles. I highly recommend her site. Today she posted this picture:

It's a Graf Zeppelin harmonica. A very cursory observation leads me to believe that it has six holes, that the holes on top were used to add additional notes to the scale (like a recorder) and that the sound came through the Zeppelin part. It is made by Seydel, a rival of Hohner that resurfaced fairly recently after the fall of the Berlin wall. (I think Seydel still functioned in East Germany.) Unfortunately they don't make the Graf Zeppelin harmonicas anymore.

Amy included a link and I found more pictures.

This is Hohner's Aeroband Harmonica. It was in circulation from 1909 to 1924. It seems to be a tremolo type with a double set of holes for that "accordion- on- the- banks -of -the- Seine" sound. It probably sounded great in the airship when you stuck your hand out the window. I don't know who the figure is on the harmonica itself- the Kaiser maybe?, but he looks like he plays a mean harp.

Finally, there's this one:

The Los Angeles! I think this is another Seydel, probably made for the American market. The blog gaves the date as 1924. This is essentially a regular diatonic harmonica, ten holes, diatonic scale, like a Marine Band. I think the holes on top might be for what is nowadays called overblowing- that is, extra notes could be achieved, enabling the player to get a chromatic scale. Suzuki makes a harmonica like this now, called the Overdrive.

I can't think of anything more pleasurable than cruising in my personal airship, playing my Los Angeles harmonica, thinking about how great the future turned out. What an ideal combination! Quiet, efficient air travel and a beautifully crafted harp!

Maybe I'm even wearing a hat like the Kaiser there. Who knows?

I've said it here before and by golly, I'll probably say it again, but the future really didn't ever get here, did it? No airships, despite stable gases. When was the last time you saw the Goodyear blimp explode? No invisiblity rays, anti- gravity belts or time machines. No restaurants on the moon, nor even any kind of leisure space travel.

Just stupid video games, unemployment, racial hatred, starvation, natural disasters over which we have no control (where's the weather dome, damn it!), corporate greed, fuel shortages and an antiquated two- party system that is tearing the country apart.

I think I'll sit in my back yard and play my harmonica.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dancing in the Moonlight Redux


I thought I would be right back. I never thought it would take almost forty years.

But I knew I had to leave town to get my degree, so I applied to and was accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design.  By the time I graduated I had met my future wife (thirty- five years so far) and settled back in my old hometown and we had babies and we raised them and I did the best I could as a husband and a dad.

And I never went back to Ithaca. Or, I should say, I gave up on ever going back to Ithaca.

And, after awhile, it really did seem like a dream. When I thought about it, I thought about being a musician and an artist (like now) and living the hippie life (not like now). We took drugs, we lived in communes, the women braided their men's hair and everyone wore tie-dye. (I never did, but everyone else did.) We bought R Crumb comix and read Herman Hesse.

One time hitchhiking up the big hill at Buffalo Street, I got picked up by Rod Serling! He was a visiting professor at Ithaca College. Nice guy- sounded just the way he did on TV.

Steve Fuld
Kim Stahl (now Buckingham)
The great Al Hartland
Brad Stahl- we were all in a band called Brute.

I worked in a record store, Debbie worked in a bar and then as a waitress in an Italian restaurant. I led a band and played with some great musicians and entertainers. Ricky Jay, the magician and the artist known as Huey Lewis (not his name then) were two.
Ricky Jay with Steve Fuld, the guitar player in Brute to his right. I'm just out of the picture.

Russell Barenburg was another. The guys in Orleans, plus a bunch of people who were easily just as good, but never made it past Lake Cayuga for one reason or another. We played in roadhouses and bars and ate breakfast at 2AM in the State Diner. Everyone knew everyone else in our community, or at least knew of everyone else.

At least, that's how I remember it. I don't think about how I felt when my appendix burst and we couldn't afford an ambulance. Or what it was like to be constantly overdrawn at the bank and not be able to pay rent, as I was until the record store job came through. I don't remember being really really cold in the winter, or stuck in snowstorms.

Boffalongo- the original line-up w/ Sherman Kelly on the right
Wells Kelly playing bass
I remember sitting in a bar with Sherman and Wells Kelly and singing "Dancing in the Moonlight"  until the manager told us we had to go home.

That's what I remember the most- everybody dancing in the moonlight.

Sherman (right) and myself at the Salty Dog Reunion last Sunday
So... it is with genuine delight that I can report that last Sunday I returned to Ithaca, saw a bunch a old, close friends, and stood on a stage with Sherman Kelly and the guys from Orleans, including my old bass- playing friend Milton Jay, and sang "Dancing in the Moonlight" one more time.

I won't embarrass my friends by saying their names, but I found them unchanged, proving that, despite what Thomas Wolfe says, you can go home again.

Ithaca is different of course, but the spirit is unchanged, at least from the view here. There's a lot less hair and a lot more weight, although the women remain beautiful. The colors are mostly gone from the clothes. My friends own houses instead of renting them. There are fewer places to play and it costs a lot more money to live there. But then, so does San Francisco, or here in DC or anywhere for that matter. Ithaca is just keeping pace.

So, for a very brief time, I was able to set the Wayback Machine to 1971 and make some of my dreams into reality, even as I made some of my reality into a part of my dreams.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thinking About William Klein

When my recently married daughter Charlotte graduated from the Philadelphia's University of the Arts, the speaker that evening recalled her friendships with avant garde artists in 1950's New York City. Among the ones she mentioned was photographer, typographer and movie maker William Klein.

I spoke with her later and said, "I don't call him William Klein." She was puzzled. "What do you call him?"

"I call him the great William Klein," I said.

Here is a YouTube segment of Klein speaking about contact sheets and his approach to street photography:

I have another blog in which I try to publish a new photograph every day. Some are good. Whether the pictures are decent or not, I think about Klein's breathtaking street work constantly.

The great William Klein.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Jules Dassin, born in Middletown, Connecticut on December 18th, 1911, was a very American film director who reinvented himself as a very European film director in the mid 1950's with a brilliant film called Rififi.

He was able to do this through a fascinating combination of political victimization, luck, talent and accident.

After making several fine films for 20th Century Fox, including the brilliant Naked City with it's Weegee- esque scene settings, Dassin found himself shut out of Hollywood, a victim of the infamous blacklist. Director Edward Dmytryk, a member of the original "Hollywood Ten"  labelled Dassin a communist, eventually forcing him to leave the country in search of work.

He ended up in France, and, in 1954 was asked by French producers to direct a film from a bad crime novel called Du Rififi Chez les Hommes.  Dassin wrote a treatment in six days, using a translator to help him wade through the indecipherable slang of the novel. The treatment was made into a working script, low budget actors were recruited and Jules Dassin went to work for the first time since being blacklisted.

The resulting film, now titled Rififi (evidently an untranslatable French expression sort of meaning "rough and tumble" and applying to sexual relations) is clearly the work of a French auteur. One could hardly imagine it is really the work of an American- born, Harlem- raised guy named Julius.

With this one masterpiece, Dassin pulled himself out of the hell of the blacklist and into the flame of top flight European director. Subsequent films, like Never on Sunday and Topkapi  were hailed as masterpieces. He married his Never on Sunday co-star Melina Mercourii 1966, settled in Greece and died at the age of 94.

Much like Pepe Le Moko, Julian Duvivier's crime masterpiece starring Jean Gabin, Rififi is, at its heart, a crime movie. Their world, however complete, is a limited one and all the characters, despite some semi- attractive character traits, are morally bankrupt.

It is a world best seen from the outside, in black and white, a story told in chapters without good guys- only bad guys and worse guys.

The centerpiece of Dassin's film is the execution of a meticulously planned robbery: thirty minutes of action told visually without dialogue or music. The crime is so well executed that genuine thieves in South America evidently used it as blueprint for a similar crime. 

The sequence is brilliant and mesmerizing. One cannot look away.  Dassin uses deep focus throughout and eschews close-ups. His visual style, so evident in Naked City (again, thanks somewhat to Weegee, from whom Fox had to buy the title) reaches a noir zenith here. He uses flashlight beams at one point as a single source of illumination. His dawn scenes actually look as if they were filmed at dawn and his night scenes look as if they were filmed at night as opposed to the annoying "day for night" technique of under exposing the film stock.

This is Dassin at his best as a storyteller. His ideas were used over and over again in caper movies ranging from Ocean's Eleven to Dassin's own Topkapi.

What is truly amazing though is the look of the overall film. The senes are longer than American film scenes. The locations have that naturalistic post- WWII look, and the women are attractively believable looking and of course, extremely sexy in a very non- Hollywood way. All the performances are astutely delivered, especially Jean Servais as Tony Le Stephanoise, the aging ex-con/ mastermind of the robbery.

One wonders if Jules Dassin's name had been, say, Joe Brown or Herbert Biberman, how successfully he would have been in reinventing himself in Europe and Greece.
Whatever the reason, he was able to carve out the type of life- long career that other directors could only envy.

The cast of crooks in Rifiifi with director Jules Dassin (third from left) as the safecracker Cesare.