AUGUST 15 – 18, 1969

Aquarian Weekly
8/14/19

Reality Check

James Campion

AUGUST 15 – 18, 1969
The Woodstock Miracle & The Aging of Aquarius

The third and final of a three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large.

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden  
– Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock” 

In the wake of the anarchic violence sparked, among other things, by the haphazard logistics and spectacular avarice that marred the twentieth anniversary Woodstock ’99 festival, this is what I wrote in this space (R.I.P WOODSTOCK, Issue 7/28/99): “By the time the miscreants began looting the evil money lenders and setting fires, Woodstock, as we have come to know and love it, became just another example of humans misinterpreting luck for compassion. Those stumbling into a wonderful mistake and sliding through relatively unscathed thirty years ago achieved a level of fortune rarely reached in the annals of civilization.” Man, was that ever cynical. Even for me. But mostly true. However, two decades later, I tend to believe (it may be advanced age talking) that for three days half a million mostly naked and rain-drenched kids jamming into a field in a sleepy farm hamlet listening to the greatest assemblage of rock/pop acts ever while peacefully sampling an impressive bevy of drugs is something that should be done again and again and again.

Thing is, it can’t. And it won’t. But in mid-August 1969, less than a month after the first manned moon landing and mere days after the news of horrific ritualistic murders in Hollywood, it sure as hell did. During the weekend hours that passed in that field in Bethel, New York, the world got to see the best of the human spirit – not by conquest or violence, our favorite pastimes, but sharing, caring, singing and imbibing. Lots and lots of imbibing.

Sure, there are music festivals. Successful ones that have continued for years. And for the most part they are well run, safe, and mostly fun, but the event billed fifty years ago this week as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” was only two of those. It was ill-conceived, somewhat rushed and hardly pragmatic in its execution. The persons to food, water and shelter quotient was way off. There were loads of very weird and sixties-level strong drugs. Technical problems and difficulties getting the acts in and out abounded as a large stretch of the NY Thruway was shut down. It rained and rained and rained some more. The entire area in and around the event was nearly declared a disaster area by the state. The U.S. Army and National Guard had to be summoned to assist while the Collective Hog Farm – the longest running and most effective socialist construct next to Medicare – worked overtime. Yet, it was a magnificent, historical success by any measure. In its way, it remains one of the most shockingly implausible examples of togetherness and collective kindness ever displayed by any group of people anywhere.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot in my heart for Woodstock. I was actually up there that week. My parents trucked us up to the Catskills from the Bronx every summer and on this particular trip everyone at the motel got violently ill. Later we learned the wells were overused and much of the local plumbing had backed up and…well, you can imagine. But it was years later in college when I first saw the award-winning film and read Bob Spitz’s brilliant Barefoot in Babylon that it burrowed itself into my psyche. Fast-forward to the very night I first kissed the woman I would marry after we strolled in an evening buzz through the empty fields of what I can only describe that night as quiet aura. You can see there is something about the whole thing that intrigues me. Still does. 

Woodstock is our shining example of good. This, we can say, is what people can do.

Woodstock started off as a half-cocked plan to exploit the art/music community in the small Ulster Country town of less than five thousand in the late sixties when Bob Dylan made it famous by escaping the tumult of messianic fumes for bucolic splendor. Some rich kids and financial backers wanted to build a studio up there to offer the rich and famous rock elite a bit of “back to the garden” aesthetics. But that fell through, so why not a concert? And when the county recoiled in horror at the mere hint of a bohemian invasion, they found a private patch of land in Sullivan County in which they convinced anyone who would listen, including the farm’s owner, fifty year-old Max Yasgur, that only around a hundred thousand or so kids might come up to enjoy a little music for a weekend. Then after hearing Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane among dozens of other generational talents were booked to play, a half million strong from all over the planet descended on the place. Under-manned and barely constructed, this idea-run-amok inevitably turned into a free gig.

The backers, most famously Michael Lang (age 24 at the time) and Artie Kornfeld (26), two middle-class Jewish guys from Brooklyn, took a financial pummeling. Later this was recouped handsomely from residuals made on the 1970 film and two subsequent soundtrack albums. But on those blistering hot and damp mid-August days it was all goofy grins and pot smoke. In fact, everyone was intoxicated in some way, making the lack of violence or looting or whatever even more incredible. Many of the acts were also under the influence of something. Carlos Santana, whose band had its coming out party on that Saturday (probably the film’s most dynamic moment) claims to have hallucinated his guitar as a slithering snake in his hands after consuming a concoction of acid and mescaline. Much of the LSD that weekend was homemade and named merely for its color (blue, greed, and the infamous brown) and moved stealthy throughout the crowd and backstage. Lead singer, Roger Daltrey, trying as he might to avoid this, merely had a cup of (turns out spiked) tea and tripped through much of The Who’s dawn set – a set that saw his guitarist Pete Townshend knock a ranting Abby Hoffman unconscious with his Gibson (okay, there was some violence). Janis Joplin later said she remembered none of it and refused to have her uneven set included in either the film or the soundtrack.

Beyond the stupefied superstars, there were wonderful stories of a fresh-faced 20 year-old newcomer Bert Sommer arousing a standing ovation from the throng, the mousy-voiced bubblegum folkie Melanie taking the trip with her mom and being hoisted upon the stage when no one would follow a rain squall, the charming twenty-minute set from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, who announced in his fluttery stoned voice that a baby had been born in the throng, the spastic bluesy brilliance of Joe Cocker howling like a wounded beast through the Beatles foggy “With A Little Help From My Friends” and one of the finest funk sets of the 1960s outside of the mighty James Brown band from Sly and the Family Stone that cemented their pop cred for all time. (another highlight of the movie).

But it was the kids. This sea of youth. This entangled, muddy, cruddy, inescapable intransigent multitude of peaceniks that would seal the Woodstock legend. Hey, I am no Baby Boomer disciple. I’ve cast most of that generation as a self-centered megalomaniacal phony-fest. But give it up to them, because with White Nationalism on the rise, and hate-speak in our political and social rhetoric and the general disgusting behavior that is the norm on social media and the Internet, Woodstock is our shining example of good. This, we can say, is what people can do, if…        

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AUGUST 9, 1969

Aquarian Weekly
8/7/19

Reality Check

James Campion


AUGUST 9, 1969
Tinsel Town Terror & The Demonizing of the Drug Culture

The second of a non-concurrent three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large.


All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure are ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In the wee hours on the morning of August 9, 1969 four ragamuffin refugees from the California commune/cult acid culture hijacked by a lunatic thirty-four year-old con man, pimp murderer, Charles Milles Manson slipped over the high steel black fencing of 10050 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. Once on the grounds they shot to death an eighteen-year-old student, who was merely visiting a friend that worked the grounds of the estate, and then proceeded inside the mansion to massacre in the most brutal way five people, none of whom they had ever so much as met. The screams of the victims, some of them high profile names of American business royalty and one, the young, beautiful nearly nine-months pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, then the wife of celebrated Polish film-maker, Roman Polanski, could be heard echoing through the Hollywood Hills. The crippling fear it engendered in the community, and eventually the nation would be deeply embedded in our collective psyche forever. But perhaps the most jarring cultural/generational impact of these few hours of this extremely bloody and random violence was further imprinted by the cryptic messages smeared along the walls of palatial estate. Piggies.AriseHelter Skelter.

Unlike the moon landing, which I discussed two weeks ago, what would be known as the Manson Murders was not an immediate social-shattering event until the facts began to unfold. This bizarre unraveling would tumble well into the next decade, as the 35 year-old California District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi would investigate, try and convict Manson and his zombie cohorts, Charles “Tex” Watson (age 23), Susan Atkins (21), Patricia Krenwinkel (21), and Leslie Van Houten (19) for these premeditated murders (12/13/71) then publish a book (Helter Skelter – The True Story of the Manson Murders with Curt Gentry, 1974) that would cement its iconography for all time. A TV film was made in 1976, which I saw at 13 and it frightened me like nothing I had experienced. And I was an avid horror buff. Later when I read Bugliosi’s detailed accounts it further intrigued and truly weirded me out. So much so most of my friends, my beloved cousin (sis) Michelle, and any poor bastard who might saunter up to me at a party had to hear about this thing. Shit, the first conversation I would have with the woman who would be my wife surrounded this ghastly tale.

What these cultist, even ritualistic murders would do to Hollywood. and as stated the nation – by the way, these kids went to another middle-aged couple’s house in the area later on August 9 and once again massacred its inhabitants, again festooning bloody messages everywhere –was further exacerbated by its gruesomely puzzling subtext.

It is difficult to separate the “hippy era” of chemical experimentation, free love and egalitarian constructs and brush past Charles Manson and his “Family”, a distilled group of impossibly young runaways and vagabonds mixed with virulent bikers, rapists, drug dealers and professional criminals. Their earthy appearance enhanced by trippy language, long hair, beads, tie-dye and quasi-spiritual granola mumbo jumbo infiltrated the otherwise peace and love edict of first the Haight Ashbury movement up in San Francisco and predictably the brainlessly commercial miasma of what L.A. presented for a tsunami of youth that flooded its streets for most of the decade. Essentially, Manson preyed on a youth crusade to exploit, rip-off and eventually exact vengeance for nearly a lifetime spent in juvenile houses and prison.

But none of this occurred in a vacuum. If anything, The Family, just one of many cult/commune subcultures, illustrated a major fault line developing within the mass hallucination of what was always an unfocused generational shift existing somewhere between fuck-it and serious revolutionary politics.

From the purported and ultra-hyped Summer of Love in 1967 through the assassinations, street riots and horrors of Viet Nam that wreaked havoc in 1968, the relentless heat and intensity of the summer of ’69, made far eerier by the visions of men walking on the moon weeks before, would be the dramatic backdrop for the killings. The stories later of how Manson maniacally brainwashed these otherwise naïve children of our white, privileged middle-class American Dream with sex and drugs bent on the queer interpretations of strangely opaque songs by the deified Beatles and the Bible’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation as a template to terrorist mayhem trembled the zeitgeist. All of this would usher in the pessimistic realities of the nineteen-seventies, nineteen-eighties’ plastic evangelical, unchecked greed and finally the shrugging apathies of the century’s final decade.

In other words, Charles Manson killed “The Sixties”. Within months the aforementioned Beatles, who more less invented and then provided a soundtrack for its times would fracture, a concert in the hills of northern California would result in violence and murder, protesting college kids would be gunned down at Kent State, and Richard Nixon would polarize the country and then obliterate any trust in our institutions.

It is difficult to separate the “hippy era” of chemical experimentation, free love and egalitarian constructs and brush past Charles Manson and his “Family”

The reason why so many late seventies punks and anti-establishment figures of the following decades would wear Manson’s image on their shirts or evoke these thumb-in-the-eye actions against the status quo as a symbol of fear is that the influence of his crimes rose above mere news. The Manson Murders were in the most heinous way American Art; ask Marilyn Manson (um, you get it, right?) or Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers – 1994) or the bare aesthetics of our current smoldering violent nature splayed out over the Internet, on TV and in our neighborhoods. Cult of personality and a whiff of revulsion is how you get the over-saturated media mass-shooting celebrity demons, reality show cretins, and eventually, Donald Trump.

In the end, it is the Boomer visage of Manson that has eclipsed all of the violence, mass murder, serial killer underbelly of American culture. He was a satanic figure to the establishment and for a time (Rolling Stone put him on the cover with the tagline, “Our Continuing Coverage of the Apocalypse”) a symbol of crass import to the counter-culture before that slid eventually into the grim realities of Hunter S. Thompson’s eulogy of “the wave” in his brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Rolling Stones brutally poignant Let It Bleed album, and the gritty, ferocious films of the auteur era (Scorsese, Peckinpah).

Turns out Charles Manson just wanted to be a rock star. He recorded mostly shitty demos for record guru Terry Melcher, who previously owned the mansion on Cielo Drive, and hung out with the Beach Boys and ingratiated himself in the Hollywood bohemian culture he sought to destroy. In reality Manson was no hippy. He was a product of the nineteen-fifties’ have-and-have-nots insurrection that would play out in the Civil Rights movement, Beat Poetry and Be-Ins, the Berkeley Free Speech, etc. and would forge a new path; a path for a few hours on August 9, 1969 that turned down a dark and dangerous cul-de-sac and forced us to rediscover our perpetual fascination with our damaged anti-heroes; Frank and Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Al Capone, Pretty “Boy” Floyd, Charles Manson.

But fear not. In less than a week, three days in a hamlet in upstate New York would offer a glimpse of light and reflect the honesty in all that the human experiment can offer to defend itself against all…that…darkness.  

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JULY 20, 1969

Aquarian Weekly
7/24/19

Reality Check

James Campion


JULY 20, 1969
The Apollo 11 Moon Landing at 50

This is the first of a non-concurrent three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large. 


I’m a rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.
– Bernie Taupin


I am six years old in July of 1969. Living in the middle apartment in a three-family pre-war brownstone owned by my mother’s parents in the Bronx, NY. So far this has been a year of awaking for me. There has already been a moment etched into my psyche forever. It became a bit of an obsessive one, back when I still watched professional football, back when Joe Namath was more than a mere mortal. Actually, that second part more than lingers for me. The NY Jets won the Super Bowl in January of that year. This happened. Really. I still harbor the most unerringly strong recollections of the last few minutes of that game. Mostly through the nervous joy my father experienced. I was there, with him. This giant, this hero, Namath, a cultural and athletic professional lighting rod and also sometimes the Jets quarterback with his white shoes, eye-black and tufts of hair peeking out of his helmet would become something of an avatar of my father, as he paced in and out of the room mumbling to himself about time. We watched that day as Namath obliterated myths to create his own. And now, six months later – an eternity for a kid – I am wrapping my mind around a human being walking on the moon. So says my mother, since, in a way, this is her Super Bowl. The ramp up, the launch, the whole thing. Man, my mom is way into this.

Years after these sweltering hot NYC summer evenings, while rummaging through boxes stuffed in attics and garages throughout our constant moving around NJ into Westchester, et al, I would find the Life Magazine cover with astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the lunar surface. The camera and the man who preceded him as the first humans to traverse the moon, Neil Armstrong reflected in his space helmet was always an eerie sight. My mom even kept that week’s TV Guide. For you kids, this was the Internet for television when people still watched it on a screen housed in a piece of furniture that was the centerpiece of your living rooms. This is a woman who kept nothing. If I turned my head for a moment, it was gone. My mom was no hoarder. But of all the stuff that happened historically when I was a kid, beside Lee Harvey Oswald being murdered on our box inside the furniture, the Apollo 11 moon landing was my mom’s touchstone.

The moon.

From a six year-old’s perspective, this whole concept is kind of out there. So much so, I stand for an inordinate amount of time in front of our front stoop looking up into the illuminated night sky the evening of July 19 staring at it. I cannot be sure it was a full moon that evening, but it was more than half visible in the city glow above our street. It was so stark white against the ebony background, so flat, two-dimensional. Almost fake. My mind races. There are people heading there to hang out. Right now. This is as much as it was understood by me, with all of my Major Matt Mason stuff, my green alien figures and plastic spaceships. When you’re six you assume people have been flying around all over space in the cartoons you’re fed or the science fiction that passes for actual news. But even so, it is odd to see this glistening orb up in the sky and to know that someone…tomorrow…is going to be tooling around on it.

Now, forget me for a minute – which I know is hard in this space since I more or less interject myself into everything I write here – but try and consider the world without having at least conceived of space travel? Today, we don’t even give it a second thought, since we went to the moon pretty much every year after 1969 until the mid-seventies. We actually took for granted having humans playing golf and driving buggies up there. Or at least we told ourselves that and maybe even (and I am one of the occasional skeptics here) told ourselves it never happened.

On July 20, 1969 that we all watched a man in a weird, rumpled white space suit hop his way down a ladder.

My pal, author Rich Cohen, who I got to know a few years ago when we were both working on music books – his, the Stones, mine, Warren Zevon – just had a piece published in the latest Paris Review about these ubiquitous conspiracy theories regarding the events of July 20, 1969. Much of this hoo-ha surrounds fellow Bronx-native and film genius Stanley Kubrick and his masterworks, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, the former being the first anyone had seen of weightlessness and the cold, frightening, soul-crushing nothingness of space and the inhumanity of the computers and machines that take us there and what that entails for our species in the long, long, long run. That film was released in 1968 and what it foretold was eerily familiar to those who eventually would travel there.

To that end, this is what Cohen wrote as a sidebar to his theme that got on top of me while I was working on this column: “I’ve met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers.”

This is where the imagination of that six year-old boy and the grandiosity of America in the Cold War Era meets the flesh and bone of those who were actually a part of the Apollo 11 mission. How much of this – seeing the earth as a fading marble in the distance, the silence of space against the instruments beeping and flashing around them in their “floating tin can” as David Bowie would write and release that same year as “Space Oddity”, a nice musical play on Kubrick’s horrors of rapid, mind-bending technological and spiritual evolution – would mess with their, well, everything. Later, this idea of taking the deep-seeded fears of isolation within humanity and the constant battle waged between the ego of the hairless ape and the vastness of the universe became part of our culture. We, the searchers fueled by our Manifest Destiny, going beyond the stars, where we cannot comprehend, and come back different. Very different. Or, as Cohen, mused, bonkers.

We were all bonkers in 1969. Crazy shit happened. The Jets, eighteen to twenty-three point underdogs would win the first ever named Super Bowl and soon the NY Mets, having been the laughing stock of all sports the year I was born, just seven seasons earlier, would capture all of our hearts on the way to an amazing World Series victory that October. Then other crazy, crazy shit that will come in just a few weeks, which I will broach in parts two and three of these connected columns, illustrates how much humanity can simultaneously elevate and devastate itself down here. We were, in many ways, different. A seal was broken on us, on America, on science and faith and pride and fear, as it had on race and gender and generation.

And it is down here, on July 20, 1969 that we all watched a man in a weird, rumpled white space suit hop his way down a ladder and take “one small step for man but one giant leap for mankind” and hang out on that translucent sphere perched high, high, high above Van Ness Avenue. The night you can view these crackling black and white images being flashed on the box inside the furniture while also looking out your window to try and rationalize all of this. How is this happening? It is pretty damn exciting. It is pretty damn frightening.

The moon.

July 20, 1969.      

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THE DISHONEST ARTIST

Aquarian Weekly
1/30/19

Reality Check

James Campion

Guest Columnist – Sean Barna


THE DISHONEST ARTIST

This week I turn over this space over to a guest columnist for only the third or fourth time in my nearly 22 years of Reality Check. Sean Barna is a wonderfully honest singer-songwriter that I have personally interviewed and featured in this music paper last year after the release of his brilliantly courageous Cissy EP, but most importantly I am now proud to call him friend, colleague and brother-in-arms. His work inspires me, his songs challenge me, and his performances are experiences. My place in all of what you are about to read may be minor but nonetheless noteworthy. His recent personal and familial revelations and how they have reflected and effected his art written beautifully below was sent to me out of the blue this week and I asked the author if he would allow me to share it with my readers. Fortunately, for us all, he said yes. And so it is with honor that I bequeath my little corner of the world to Sean’s voice. 
                                                                                             – jc 


Every year, on the Friday evening of MLK weekend, I park my car on CO-RD 30, at the base of Red Mountain, in Lake City, Colo., and trek through the snow for an hour to my friend Kale’s cabin tucked away from civilization at 10,500 feet. By the time the sun is down on Friday, I am joined by twelve to fifteen of some of my dearest friends, not to mention a newborn baby, two toddlers, and four or five dogs. We have all the eggs, cheese, tortillas, and chili we will need for the weekend, and plenty of cheap beer and whiskey to pass the time between meals. There are almost too many of us to fit comfortably in this two-bedroom cabin, but when I get anxious, I open the sliding glass door and walk out onto the porch, where I can stare down at frozen Lake San Cristobal to find solitude and silence.


Most of this group met in 2009 and 2010, when we were all living in Paonia, Colo. Many have moved on from that place of magic, but Paonia is our common thread. From these people, and from the majesty of the snow-covered San Juan Mountains, I draw life-affirming energy. While I traverse up the mountain atop six feet of snow pack with borrowed snow shoes, my city-ravaged body toiling through every step, I feel powerful and free.

This past Sunday, January 20, while two of these friends encouraged me from the saddle of a parked snowmobile, I sent a voice memo to my parents telling them, “I am definitely a queer person, and have been for a long time. I’m also with someone, and happily so.” Then I turned off my phone and ascended 2,000 feet up the mountain, breathless from the altitude and hoping to calm the anxiety and ignore the feeling that I needed to vomit.

I am 33 years-old. The negativity and anxiety I invited into my life by staying silent about my sexuality has been unbearable for a while, as was the near-constant focus on worst-case scenarios of coming out. My dentist asked me once, “Do you suffer from anxiety? You are grinding your teeth so hard at night they are actually breaking.” Not cracking — breaking.

Of course, every coming out story is unique, but for me, the decision was laced with a dangerous mix of shame, fear, and a genuine concern for how my parents would take it. In 2003, an inattentive driver with a suspended license hit my brother with a car and killed him. The effect on my parents was immense, devastating, and remains the great tragedy of their lives. Of course, this was also a tragedy for me, and any decision to come out as queer had to be made in the fog of grief. What I thought for a long time was that I could not hurt them anymore, even if protecting them put an extra burden on me. My queerness, I thought, would be inherently painful for them.

But my brother died fifteen years ago, and at this point I’ve released two EPs and one LP that do not shy away from queer themes or, for that matter, the grief of losing my brother. Especially in last year’s EP, Cissy, I deal with queer themes in nearly every lyric. “Serious Child” is about the underbelly of Brooklyn nightlife, “Danger Baby” is a tragic story of a trans woman who loses her battle to an intolerant society, “Modern Man” is a searing dissection of masculinity, and “Queer Mad Blues” is a love letter to queer people having a hard time. My observations of queerness did not go unnoticed, including by the gay-centric publication, NewNowNext, Billboard’s LGBTQ column, Aquarian Weekly, and a few podcasts.

On the podcast Underwater Sunshine, author James Campion and singer Adam Duritz of Counting Crows spent nearly an hour going lyric by lyric, dissecting where Cissy fits into the canon of queer songwriting. Adam sings on one of the songs and is one of my best friends and he tried to steer the conversation away from it actually being stated that I am, myself, queer. James did not realize I was not “out” and could not help making the obvious observation that the scene I was describing was, in fact, my scene.

Every coming out story is unique, but for me, the decision was laced with a dangerous mix of shame, fear, and a genuine concern for how my parents would take it.

I understand — my lyrics are honest, and I am proud of them. Because of this, my friends thought I was being ridiculous. They would say, “Haven’t your parents heard the lyrics? They must already know.” In fact, they know all the lyrics by heart, but in public interviews I would instead discuss the honesty and fearlessness of the drag queens I had come to know in the Brooklyn drag scene. Much of Cissy is about these drag queens. Instead of talking about my role in queer art, I would talk about theirs. Then, in mid-November, on the third floor of a typical walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, one of the queens, Misty Meaner pulled me aside and dressed me down. Or as it is known in gay culture, she read me — hard, brutal, and for more than an hour, while our friends barely pretended not to notice. She said I owed it to my parents, I owed it to other queer people who have come out, and I owed it to myself. “You better get your shit together and stop being a coward,” she said.

I was playing a role I was ashamed of, that of the dishonest artist. In the midst of finalizing the lyrics for my next LP, Margaret Thatcher of the Lower East Side, and on the eve of a tour and official showcase at SXSW that will bring more publicity, I knew I had arrived at an unsustainable situation. I started telling my friends that I would come out while I was in Colorado. I knew the reflection of the sun on the untouched snow of a 13,000-foot mountain peak would make me feel small and impermanent, its cleansing brightness reminding me that it’s a miracle any of us exist at all. Standing in this place, reaching the peak after hours of arduous hiking, you can always look back and see the footprints to be reminded of your journey. I knew that if I could carry my secret all the way up this mountain and then back to New York City, I might carry it forever.

In the end, I told my parents my secret by texting them a voice memo. I did not know how they would respond, so I climbed. When I finally unlocked my phone to read their reactions, I was halfway up the mountain. I saw that within three minutes of receiving my message, my parents responded with grace, kindness, and love. Every fear I had was unfounded. And, of course, they already knew.

They’d heard my songs, after all.

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RESURRECTING LENNY

Aquarian Weekly
12/19/18

Reality Check

James Campion

RESURRECTING LENNY
In Praise of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel & The Spirit of the Great Lenny Bruce

I probably should have penned this piece last year after the first season of Amazon Prime’s magnificent series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel written and directed by the brilliant Amy Sherman-Palladino, whose work I have admired for years in her previously smart, funny and poignant, Gilmore Girls (2000-2007). Maisel is the finest piece of serial television I have seen since AMC’s titanic Breaking Bad – its characters are deeply vivid, filled with relatable pathos, and deliver exquisite dialogue framed in stellar set-design, music and costuming. The plotlines within the impressive locations and ambiance of 1950s NYC are absolutely riveting. And thus far I have not even sent a nod to its star, who is a tour-de-force as Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan or one of my favorite actors, Tony Shalhoub as her father, Abraham or the comedic whirlwind that is Alex Borstein as Maisel’s cantankerous manager or that the first season took home three Golden Globe Awards and five prime-time Emmy’s, including Best Series and Outstanding Comedy Series respectively. Nope. This tribute to what is now my favorite TV show begins and ends with Sherman-Palladino’s resurrection of one of my heroes, Leonard Alfred Schneider, better known as Lenny Bruce.

Anyone who has read a line of this column for the past 20-plus years knows from which I speak. Lenny “not a comedian” Bruce, along with Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson, make up the Holy Trinity of satire around here. There is no James Campion without Lenny, who I have been writing about since I’m 19 and have quoted copiously here in Reality Check from its start, including dedicating a two-part series on a seminal record of Bruce’s impact on American culture and jurisprudence, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of An American Icon in 2002. I have read everything published on or by Lenny Bruce, listened to and studied his every bit, and probably reviewed every film on him made.

Did I mention I am a fan, as in fanatic, as in, drooling worshipper of Lenny Bruce?

So you can imagine my surprise when then 39 year-old actor, Luke Kirby first enters the series in its opening episode as the 33 year-old Bruce – crumpled, wincing, brandishing a smirk and a cigarette and waving his arms over his signature trench coat like the Mineola martyr he transformed into a lethal weapon. Of course, Lenny is leaving jail, bemused by his persecution for speaking his irreverent mind, as he would infamously do on several occasions from 1961 until his death five years later. He confronts Mrs. Maisel, who was also hauled in for her irreverence cum liberation from her upper-crust prison, mostly as a vehicle of narrative. This is understandable, but as an unofficial “keeper of the Lenny flame”, I was at first put-off if not titillated. This is supposed to be 1958, when there were rumblings that Bruce was pushing boundaries and unleashing his observations into territories not yet expressed in polite (or otherwise) company, but he wasn’t yet the dean of arrested comics. That would, as stated, come soon and often. And, quite frankly, I was not sure how Lenny would fit into this light comedy about a pampered but sharp-witted Upper-West side Jewish house wife and mother who is dragged into the world of edgy comedy by the emotionally violent disruption of her life when her feckless husband leaves her for his secretary. But soon my trepidations were not only quelled but eviscerated.

This is one of the finest portrayals of a historic figure I have ever seen – in comedy or drama.

From the first, in the hands of Kirby, a trained and celebrated Canadian actor, Bruce comes alive – and not in the oft-tired impressionistic biopic way in which the famous and doomed are slathered across screens for lazy melodrama. (Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Bruce in Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny is still one of my faves, though) No, Kirby inhabits the essence and spirit of Bruce, and through this he becomes Mrs. Maisel’s guardian angel first, but thanks to the preternatural chops of Sherman-Palladino’s pen begins to unfurl the subterranean spectacle that is the birth of modern American comedy as a social mirror in a time of nuclear threat, racism, religious fanaticism, and an emerging drug culture, for which Lenny infamously would partake to fatal ends. As the first season progressed, it is clear this is no apparition or mere narrative vehicle. Bruce floats through the series, appearing at the right times to better understand the zeitgeist and to lend credence to the period. And there is no time Kirby does not resurrect him, wholly and without fail.

Quite frankly, this is one of the finest portrayals of a historic figure I have ever seen – in comedy or drama. There is a scene in which Bruce is smoking weed outside a downtown club with jazz cats that Maisel hovers, like us, interlopers in this time-traveled reimagining. Watch Kirby move, interject, parry and jab, both verbally and physically. His wincing bravado masking an entrenched mass of insecurities hidden slightly by this smoldering rage that would soon bring the icon to life for real is remarkable. Holy shit, I have seen it about a half-dozen times now and it gets better every time.

Eventually, Kirby’s Bruce does indeed become the patron saint of Brosnahan’s Mrs. Maisel by season’s end in a fantastic wrap-up of events, but even more, for me, is how we finally see the transformation from Bruce as specter into Bruce as working comedian circa 1958. As he agrees to play Greenwich Village’s famous but now defunct Gaslight on McDougal Street in support of the equally persecuted Mrs. Maisel, Kirby brings Lenny’s soul back into focus effortlessly. This is no longer an interpretation of off-stage Lenny, but the one chronicled in the pantheon of 20th century aura: His mannerisms, his inflections, his very core of the legendary Bruce stage presence, the delivery and mastery of which is on display in a mere two to three minutes of screen time – much of it interrupted by dialogue of the main characters or in the background. But it is truly extraordinary and, for me, an emotional experience.

This season, figuring the Bruce thing did its job vaulting the fictional characters where they needed to go for the second act, it was even more surprising to see his return. I awaited it with great anticipation once I knew Kirby’s Bruce would play a role, but the show is so damn good, it was not as if I merely watched it to see him ply his trade. But when he did, man, his creation scaled new heights. All of this culminating in the season finale that forced me to finally get all of this out.

Now, I guess this is a spoiler-alert, but not really – since this entire piece is pretty much my dumbfounded admiration of Luke Kirby’s work and my child-like excitement in seeing Lenny Bruce brought to life with so much passionate respect – but the recreation of Bruce’s truly seminal appearance on the Steven Allen show, which, time-wise, is spot-on 1959, is so incredible I really only offer that you need to see it and then watch the film, easily found on YouTube of Bruce’s actual appearance. Again, it is not mere mimicry, it is magnum opus of interpretation, a living, breathing case study in the greatness a creative genius. You watch a man nailing someone nailing something pretty substantial to the monument of American culture. And it is no wonder it becomes the epiphany for the main character and the revelatory moment for the series.

Thank you, Luke, wherever you are today. You and Amy have put Lenny where he belongs; back in our reverence for his craft, his art, his legacy. The show is great, but this is a gift.

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STAN LEE – 1922 – 2018

Aquarian Weekly
11/21/18

Reality Check

James Campion

STAN LEE – 1922 – 2018

I resented the fact that some people thought comics were just for kids. I wanted comics to be for everybody, including people who’d read the Harvard classics, people who would read Shakespeare, Dickens. To me, comics were reading matter, like anything else.
– Stan Lee

In the spring of 1962, about six months and five-plus miles from where I would be born that September, the nearly 40 year-old Stanley Martin Lieber, better known by his goyish nom de plume, Stan Lee, was pacing the empty Madison Avenue offices of Marvel Comics deep into the night. He was trying to make a very important decision. Should Marvel’s head writer spring his idea of a superhero called Spider-Man on the world or go in another, perhaps safer direction? He had slyly convinced skeptical Marvel publisher Martin Goodman that it could work, despite Goodman’s hatred of spiders. He thought the idea repugnant and hardly heroic. Lee, already riding the crest of his Fantastic Four, which would greatly assist in taking comic books into what would be the golden age of superheroes, went with his gut. Spider-man was good. He was mysterious, menacing and intense. His partner, artist Steve Ditko had brought him to life – thin, wiry, all blues and blacks and reds, a mask with intimidating white eyes. And Lee had duly structured who Spider-Man really was, a scrawny, insecure and luckless boy genius Queens high school kid named Peter Parker, who would learn the tough lesson that “With great power comes great responsibility” and carry its burden forward into the unknown. Hardly wowed, Goodman reluctantly allowed them to dump the character into the fifteenth and final issue of a dying title called Amazing Fantasy.

Turns out Stan Lee was right. To say the least.

Aside from Action Comics #1 that in 1938 introduced Superman to the pre-war universe, Amazing Fantasy #15 would go on to be the most famous, important and expensive collectible comic book ever and Spider-Man arguably the biggest, baddest, most marketable character in American history. Nearly ten years to the day from that fateful decision to follow his preternatural instincts for connecting the supernatural to our realities, Stan “The Man” Lee, with dozens of groundbreaking characters and titles behind him, would assume Goodman’s job as the publisher of the most renowned and successful comic book empire the world would ever know. Under his enthusiastic tutelage, Marvel Comics became the focal point of the superhero archetype for the Baby Boomer generation, and, quite pointedly, for every one thereafter. In addition to the iconic Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Lee, along with artists like Ditko and the brilliant Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr, Bill Everett, among others would create the Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, The Avengers, Daredevil, Thor, X-Men, and hundreds more. Their alter egos, the men and women who lived behind the heroics, were wildly flawed and relatable, like young Peter Parker, as well as impressively irascible and infuriating. You rooted for them as you were, in many ways, them. And his villains (Doctor Doom, Green Goblin, Loki, etc) were never two-dimensional meanies. They had pathos; darkly pitched in ennui, tragically Shakespearean, and in the most delectable ways, empathetic. You feared you may become them, because again, you were them.

I can tell you first hand that coming of age too late to see this blossoming cache of essentially epic dramas for kids, filled with danger and excitement and for the first time in this genre, humor, was overwhelming. It was already the standard for a young boy growing up. The Spider-Man Saturday morning cartoon ruled my existence. For five straight Halloweens I was Spider-Man. When my parents would ask what I would be the next year, I thought they were mad. Of course, I’m Spider-Man, who else would I be?

It was like getting the map to a treasure chest.

All the while, through all of the comic books my dad would bring home from the Big City where Spidey and the rest of Marvel’s superheroes plied their trade, and later on the spinning rack at Lane Drugs, I was mesmerized and hypnotized by the craft – the art, the dialogue, the gripping beauty of it all – and leading the way, always reminding us in his Marvel Bullpen Bulletins, Stan Lee was our guide, our master of ceremonies, our voice of morality and reason – at once shamelessly plugging all-things Marvel (“Make Mine Marvel” was one of his biggies) and making you feel as though you were part of a fun cult. He would end them all with a hearty “Nuff said!” or his signature “Excelsior!”

But, for me, it was Lee’s 1974 professional memoir, Origins of Marvel Comics that turned a mere cultist into an ever more dangerous creature, a writer. Here was Stan “the Man” revealing where all of this magic came from, and for an 11 year-old former Bronx boy now moved to the flat farmlands of Freehold, it was like getting the map to a treasure chest. None of this just came out of thin air, mind you, it came from some guy’s imagination and that guy would share how it’s done. And man did I read that book over and over for two summers and then found my best friend Chris Barrera and we began making our own comics and selling them to neighborhood kids and I knew right then how I would spend the rest of my time on this spinning sphere, in one way or the other, writing.

I would learn from that book that Lee had done it all; penning stories for Atlas Comics in the 1950s in every damn genre; romance, Westerns, humor, science fiction, medieval adventure, horror and suspense. The guy knew how to tell stories and do it under pressure and do it well, time and time again. This was a master. There is a line in it, and I am paraphrasing, where Lee marvels (pun intended) at the connective emotional and intellectual tissue of what it is to have something come out of your head and know that someone tonight will go to bed reading it and have it on their night table in the morning. You can move the reader through your words, and, if you’re lucky, inspire them and enrage them and frighten and entice and appeal to their best intentions without artifice, with no social preconceptions or anything that comes with the art of communication beyond the written word.

I have Stan Lee to thank for that. He kick-started this in me. He awakened my imagination and provided a young mind direction and purpose and man-o-man a lifetime of entertainment. But, most of all, I thank him for making me want to tell stories.

And I have always tried to find in those stories something Stan once said, “I see myself in everything I write.”

Nuff said.

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TOM WOLFE – 1930 – 2018

Aquarian Weekly
5/23/18

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

TOM WOLFE – 1930 – 2018

Tom Wolfe was a novelist in journalist’s clothes – included with his signature white suits and cane and top hat and matching shoes and all the rest. This is what people in the know will tell you. But I wholly disagree with this. I believe it was the opposite. He was a journalist first. Even in his best fiction, which for me pales in comparison to his best journalism, you will find more than traces of a man living comfortably in the Who What When Where and Why. He wrote nine non-fiction books from 1965 to 1981, all of them uniquely coddled with a style that rang bells and hit marks, sort of a bizarre combination of rousing endorsement and stinging rebuke on the form without compromise. It was art, man. And that is coming from someone who has spent decades of comparing this “spooky art” – as Norman Mailer put it – to craft. But Wolfe was indeed an artist, because he meant to be. And that’s where it comes down to it for those of us who were fueled on that stuff and chose this course for our own level of scribe-dom.

These observations could also apply to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway, two of the most important voices in the emergence of uniquely American letters, both of whom were journalists (Hemmingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises is a pure work of journalism and he never denied it). And like them here is also what needs to be written about Tom Wolfe: The environments in which his work was created would not be the same or have the same resonance without Wolfe’s talent to frame them, which was significant and relentless, and if there is a finer more poignant or even goddamn honest thing you can say about a writer of true stories than I have yet to hear or read it.

In fact, I would say his New Journalism, a term he coined, wrote diligently towards and acted as its curator for decades, was a thing to behold. It became for me and a whole generation of gestating authors more important than fiction because it is as George McGovern’s Campaign Strategist Frank Mankiewicz opined on Hunter S. Thompson’s “coverage” of events in 1972, “the most accurate and least factual account” of things possible. Thompson later mused in his brilliant Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 that objective journalism has failed us. It is what eventually landed a monster like Richard Nixon in the White House, a lesson we had to apparently learn again nearly half a century later.

Wolfe understood this better than all of his contemporaries; Norman Mailer, Gay Telese, Terry Southern, Joan Didion, and George Plimpton, all of them in one way or another guideposts that gave voice to this space in the manner in which all of it goes down. This is because Tom Wolfe stood on the high ground, took a moment to look down after a long breath and put the damn thing into perspective. What was happening to the craft? He needed to know. Mailer didn’t. Thompson didn’t. Joan kind of wanted to know but she knew that by asking was to take on too much lifting.

But that was long after Wolfe took his first gig at the Herald Tribune a few months before I entered the human race proper in 1962. The Herald hired bright, uber-pretentious seekers then; setting the paper apart from the rest of the steaming crap that boiled up from the subway grates in NYC in the post-war grit of Charles Foster Kane’s “Declaration of Principles”. These were rooms filled with terrible marauders and dime-store lede-driven tacticians that needed the kid to bring the new form. What would that be? Did Truman Capote know when he took that train to Kansas and wrote about wayward drifters who slaughtered a family for a few bucks that was never there? Many said In Cold Blood was the first “novel as fiction”, others, and Mailer would be one of those, would point to his Armies of the Night, which is a princely piece of vitriol that would reverberate from the 1955 founding of the Village Voice in the corner of the White Horse Tavern after too much drinking and way too much revolutionary thought.

It was his multi-layered command of the language that made him twist it like Picasso’s brush.

Be that as it may, I came to Wolfe around the time of Mailer’s breakout through George Plimpton. In the autumn of 1968, my dad took me to see the film Paper Lion in a theater in the bustling Parkchester section of the North Bronx. Not long after, maybe before middle-school, I would read the book. But it was Alan Alda’s depiction of the skinny intellectual trying to make sense of pro football by being a pro football player that had given me my own perspective on what it meant to be a storyteller. It was Plimpton’s work with the Paris Review that then led me to a Wolfe interview in which he revealed methods of combing taped interviews and observations to paint larger pictures of the craft that would have me devouring The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby before long. I would eventually find my way to his kinetic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test after getting abducted by Ken Kesey’s fever-dream opus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a high school literary class and I knew that if I could or would make the words work; to heel and parry and spin and dance, it would have to be this way.

You see, I got Wolfe right away. This his Wolfe’s gift. He did not mess around. It was his multi-layered command of the language that made him twist it like Picasso’s brush. He could coin “Radical Chic” as easily as the “Me Decade” and it all made sense. It was the way in which he provided clarity to his subjects and gave them meaning. This is what is at the heart, if not a veiled comparison, of my first published book, Deep Tank Jersey – One Man’s Journey into the Heart of a New Jersey Club Band. And although the book reeks of Jack Kerouac and much of the journalism I had studied to get to where that book ends up, it is Wolfe who informs it. It would not have gotten off the ground if not for Wolfe and his New Journalism or the idea of it. It is the ideas that come through and that make us want to read it and to eventually write it because it has to be written, like art.

Like Tom Wolfe.

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IN PRAISE OF ENCOUNTERS

Aquarian Weekly
1/17/18

REALITY CHECK

IN PRAISE OF ENCOUNTERS
Poetry/Paintings & A Slice of Dan Bern’s Life

By James Campion

I found it delectably ironic that Dan Bern, singer-songwriter, poet, painter, columnist would send me – within days of each other – a signed copy of his new book, Encounters and then an original tile painting of Joe Willie Namath. The book, for which I could not put down once I cracked it for a mere look-see, is a series of poems about Dan’s “encounters” with the famous, talented, and inspirational, each adorned with an original Bern painting of its subject. The paintings, not unlike the one of Namath he sent me, reminded me of the few times I’d gotten within shouting distance of my childhood hero, the legendary #12 of the New York Jets, but was rendered mute and paralyzed. It is not that, like Bern, I hadn’t had dozens of encounters, both professionally and personally, with famous athletes, as well as musicians, actors, film directors, authors, politicians, etc., but Namath is different. I told Dan that my earliest childhood memories are of staring at his poster through the bars of my crib. This stuff is deep-seated with a weird mythical hold over me.


This got me thinking of the insightful tone of Bern’s Encounters and how this is not a book of name-dropping and strange brushes with fame, but poignant and moving interactions – some closer and more intimate than others – that shifted the foundation of the author, so much so that in some if not all cases he would go on to put them in songs. And it is within these organic moments of admiration to worship to surprise to love to fear and ultimately inspiration that Encounters becomes the antidote to the insignificant forces of Instagram and Twitter and selfie happenstances with celebrity that now stand as something of a connection.

It should be said too that Encounters represents everything that Bern has displayed through his talents over the years; it is not only poetic and visual, but musical in the way in which he writes that shoulders the conversational with a rare glimpse into the human spirit. Yet it is in the paintings that the reader can see how Dan Bern absorbs his subjects, as he had in the drawings in his first novel, Quitting Science from 2004, a book I was fortunate enough to help bring to press. Taking fictionalized versions of the familiar and the famous and turning them into extensions of his unique form is where Bern lives and breathes.

“What it is really,” said the author when we discussed the book late into the night a few weeks back. “…is a memoir. But I’ve always hated memoir, because I feel your job as an artist is to invent, take things from your life and make characters. Yet with this forum I felt there was a way I could tell my personal stories without being cloying through the prism of these people that everybody kind of has a relationship with already.”

And so, with Bern, over the years, in different places, we meet Willie Mays, Jimmy Carter, Bob Dylan and John McEnroe; and none of them in ways that are predictable nor inconsequential. The encounters are, as stated, extensions of his own personality and how he remembers them, at times warmly, and others quizzically, but always reverentially. His poems and the paintings are his vehicle in discovering himself through others.

Bern achieves this wonderfully and without contrivance due to his self-deprecating humor on how he views these fleeting moments of significance or lack-thereof with the subjects, and what they ultimately mean to him. In some cases, as with his call into the Larry King radio show when he was just starting out as a professional musician that lasted only about a minute, and literally happened “over the air”, there is a remarkably sense of meaning. A passing comment about a dog with Leonard Cohen or a New Year’s Eve party at Bruce Springsteen’s house, an impromptu songwriting détente with Hunter S. Thompson in the back of a car or a scathing notice by Bob Dylan opens a window into the looming figures beyond the caricature.

“Just like any of these people in the book, I am grateful for what interactions I can and do have.”

“I find this type of writing more open than prose,” Bern answered when I pressed him on the book’s style, which he introduced last summer in his Reconsidering Nixon, which is a charming amalgam of lyrical prose/poetry. “I think after my mom died I became more reflective about my experiences and needed to get them down and this is the most effective way for me to relate these stories.”

I was particularly intrigued by Bern’s poem about our mutual friend, singer-songwriter and entrepreneur, Ani DiFranco. It was my connection to Ani, after years of interviews and off-the-record discussions, that I came to know Dan’s music, and of her work with him producing his second album, Fifty Eggs in 1998. The brutal honesty of their collaboration and its results is one of my favorite pieces in the book, because of the intimate, humorous, and in many ways surprising revelations.

“I have always been inspired by Ani, but there is also something that always seems to be in the way sometimes too,” says Bern, when we fondly reminisced about our times with her and how neither of us see or hear much of her as intimately anymore. “But just like any of these people in the book, I am grateful for what interactions I can and do have.”

Bern reminds me that there are very few women in Encounters for a reason: “There is a very different dynamic to those relationships, and I didn’t want to ever get into a kiss-and-tell corner with these poems.”

But out of all the ones that made it into Encounters, 17 out of the original 35 pieces, perhaps nothing compares to his détente with Wilt Chamberlain, legendary basketball star and ladies’ man with whom Bern had a chance encounter turn into becoming his tennis instructor for several weeks. “Forget the celebrity aspect to working with Chamberlain,” laughs Bern, who had been working part-time giving tennis lessons at a court Chamberlain frequented. “To witness such an athletic specimen, and, as a coach, to be able to work with someone like that, to watch him take to the lessons… the results were amazing. And to think that I had the chance to tutor a world class athlete that had nothing to do with how he earned his fame.”

Turning our celebrity culture on its head, as his songs have done for over two decades, Encounters is Dan Bern’s literary and artistic triumph and a true gift to the craft of storytelling.

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THE SUMMER OF “ANNIE HALL” AT 40

Aquarian Weekly
7/19/17

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

THE SUMMER OF “ANNIE HALL” AT 40

Pop culture is the folk culture of the modern market, the culture of the instant, at once subsuming past and future and refusing to acknowledge either.
– Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

I heard commentary and dissent merged to form dysentery.
-Woody Allen, Annie Hall

About a month ago while gearing up for a cover piece on the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ culture-shifting album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band it came to my attention that one of my favorite films was celebrating its 40th anniversary; Woody Allen’s masterwork, Annie Hall. Released in April of 1977, unlike most of his movies at the time which had a limited but dedicated following, it would, much like Sgt. Pepper’s, come to define a generation and influence countless film-makers working in almost every genre. It would transform the concept of the romantic comedy and lift Allen from comedian turned film-maker into one of the most celebrated auteurs of the era.

Up until that spring Allen had mostly dabbled in comedic efforts filled with pithy one-liners and classic pratfalls centering on a singularly damaged nebbish character that juggled a myriad of trepidations through several bizarre scenarios. Annie Hall crystallized this concept in the guise of a couple; Allen’s comedian/writer, Alvy Singer and photographer/singer, Annie Hall, played with quirky ennui by Diane Keaton, who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Both characters drift towards middle age – anxious, lonely and spiritually lost in the greatest city on earth, which was then in the throes of its own spiritual decay; economic collapse, a spectacular rise in crime, while also capturing an underground esthetic in music, art and social upheaval. (Annie compares Alvy to New York; a damaged, isolated island).

The expanse of the city, which reflects the anxieties of the times; sexuality, friendships, fame, insecurities about the decay of the culture, and the analytical, intellectual and religious failures to fill the voids of people unaware of their conditions, also allowed Allen to profess his professional and personal affection for his then lover, Diane Keaton, who had already built a solid resume with Allen on Broadway (Play It Again Sam) and films (Sleeper, Love and Death).

Although dripping with Pygmalion ironies and doomed from the beginning, Alvy and Annie’s relationship reveals the deeper truths in the insecurity of the dating world circa mid-70s (Alvy insists that he and Annie kiss in the middle of their first date to avoid nausea later), especially among the more cynical that came to discover that compatibility with the world was enough of a chore without trying to balance it with the vagaries of love. In one brilliantly devised scene, both Alvy and Annie idly chat about photography while subtitles of what they’re actually thinking appear beneath them.

In this way and more Annie Hall is a romantic comedy like Moby Dick is a book about a whale. The love story is merely a backdrop for the deeper themes in the film; specifically its satire of urban life in the latter part of the American century in which a stop-gap generation straddled between two clashing eras – the Great Depression/WWII and Rock and Roll/TV – deal with the loss of self beneath angst, guilt and self-absorption. The city, as the people who inhabit it, is overloaded with the illusions of contentment in artistic statement, psychoanalytical theory or status symbol myopia. “The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” muses Alvy to a friend. “I think of us that way, sometimes. And I live here!”

To that end Annie Hall is illuminated by period touchstones and a plethora of cultural references that bridge the generational gaps. In a recent viewing (apologies to my wife, who has seen it at least fifty times since I’ve known her) I counted 47 direct references to authors, book, films, gangsters, rock stars, politicians, magazines, movie stars, etc. These include music (“Seems Like Old Times” – overly sentimental mid-century romanticism – to a flaccid reference to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”), commentary (a disjointed argument about the Kennedy assassination to Marshall McLuhan magically appearing as himself to settle an argument about his work), and film (Alvy repeatedly drags Annie to see a film about Nazi atrocities, The Sorrow and the Pity).

Annie and Alvy are a microcosm of their times; turning the focus of their fears and aspirations inward and convincing themselves that there must be more to life, or more to the point, the terrifying notion that life may not have any point at all. Alvy skillfully explains to Annie early in their relationship that he divides people into two categories; “miserable” and “horrible” and that they should be happy to be merely miserable. An early flashback shows the childhood Alvy Singer bemoaning the expanding universe to avoid doing homework. Later Annie, who at one point is reading a book about sexual mystique while refusing sex with Alvy, is taken in by the Hollywood quick-fix culture of celebrity, macrobiotic foods and peace mantras.

Annie Hall is a romantic comedy like Moby Dick is a book about a whale.

This search for personal enlightenment ends in dissatisfaction with the inability for the characters to discover the simple joys in merely being, never mind being together; a theme Allen would mine for years in subsequent films. He would originally title the screenplay Anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure.

Co-written with comic writer, Marshall Brickman, Allen unfurls a 1970s over-analytical, paranoid, self-absorbed version of many of the classic Hollywood “goofy boy meets quirky girl” memes, providing Allen’s tried-and-true nebbish character a foil in Keaton’s wonderfully off-beat use of language (her sentence-trailing “La-di-da” as a nervous tick) and fashion (her penchant for off-the-rack, ill-fitting gender-neutral togs), and charming naiveté; all of which Keaton already had in her arsenal that inspired the screenplay.

For all its memorable lines and ingenious obliteration of the “fourth wall” (Allen opens the film speaking directly to the audience and throughout breaks the scenes to comment on the action) Annie Hall continuously resonates with me and I believe future generations for its honest portrayal of cultural isolation; its protagonist, Alvy Singer is a man out of time (not quite making the “greatest generation” – too young to fight in WWII – and too young to be a Boomer), who walks the fine line between being obsessed with death and an almost anthropological infatuation with life. Allen intuitively reflects the plastic glamour, the false political narratives and seemingly failed 1960s revolutions of free sex, drug experimentation, and anti-hero worship of the late 1970s.

Annie Hall is a film about its time and timeless; a weird kind of magic trick that all great art manages to pull off. It struck a chord among East Coast intellectuals, Middle America and Hollywood glitterati like few films before or since, especially ones made by Woody Allen. It was news, did fine box office in the time of the blockbuster from Jaws to Star Wars and won numerous awards including four Oscars for Best Screenplay, Director, Actress, and Best Picture. Today it tops several romantic comedy lists and continues to inspire the genre while remaining incredibly relatable, even if it is becoming harder for us to admit it.

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APOLOGY SYNDROME 2017

Aquarian Weekly
6/7/17

REALITY CHECK

James Campion

APOLOGY SYNDROME 2017

Where’s the punch line?
– Alice Cooper to jc, 9/13

There is a mural in an alleyway in the Temple Bar district of Dublin, Ireland of Sinead O’Connor. It reads; “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong, so sorry.” In October of 1992 the Irish singer/songwriter infamously ripped a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, proclaiming, “Fight the real enemy.” It set off a firestorm here, but in the entrenched Catholic traditions of her home country it was tantamount to treason. I would gather that in the annals of artistic protest, of which there have blessedly been thousands throughout Western civilization, this one was a doozey. Needless to say O’Connor was vilified and black-balled and even booed off the stage at, of all things, a Bob Dylan Tribute concert in friggin’ New York City a few weeks later. She never recovered professionally.

Turns out, as the mural succinctly and eloquently states, that although the performance protest was oblique and combative, her style anyway, it was a trite salvo in the war that was waged in the ensuing century against the Catholic Church for covering up the sexual abuse of children, to which we would later learn O’Connor had been a victim of; having endured such horrors, as hundreds of her fellow Irish youth, at the hands of predatory nuns, all of whom were whisked away without retribution for decades.

But long before being redeemed, O’Connor, one of my heroes, and I was honored to be able to tell her so personally when I interviewed her for a feature in this paper in 2014 just a few weeks after I took a photo of my wife standing in front of the aforementioned mural, she never apologized. Even when the torrent of hatred and professional and personal strife poured down on her. And you know why? Because right or wrong, this was her statement. And she stood by it, as all statements made by citizens or artists or politicians must; whether you are railroaded for it or not.

You would think.

I was reminded of Sinead and that mural and the night she stared into a camera on live television and tore up a photo of a revered holy representative of her church, and for the record O’Connor has never stopped being a Catholic and in fact was ordained in some radical sect of the church as a priest in the late 1990s, when comedian Kathy Griffin fecklessly apologized for what I assume was some kind of provocative performance/protest art. You’ve seen it by now. She is standing holding the bloody severed head of our president. Oh, not really the severed head, that would be bad, just an effigy.

Why is she apologizing for this?

Whether you agree with this or not or think it “goes too far”, which should not be in your lexicon if you believe in the sacred tenants of the U.S. Constitution, I think we can all agree that apologizing for something you believe makes no sense, especially when it is not off the cuff. This was a conscious free expression.

Now, we all know Griffin apologized because everyone went nuts. So she is not apologizing for her opinion or the way she chose in a very strategic way to express it. She is, of course, doing it because she got canned from CNN; that she only planned, produced, and sent the thing out all over social media to get attention to assist her flagging career but got the Sinead O’Connor shit storm instead. She was apparently wildly unfamiliar with what happens when you appear with the severed, bloody head of the president of the United States.

So it really isn’t an apology. It’s like the Anthony Weiner type apology for being caught or because things didn’t work out in her favor, not because she is sincerely sorry. Remember when Prince Harry went to a Halloween bash dressed as a Nazi? Remember everything Kanye West has done and said for the past decade-plus? Remember Congressman George Allen? Yeah, I don’t remember him, either. Still, all apologized for basically nothing but people being mad at them. Kathy Griffin is full of shit. She is sorry because she’s fucked. That is not really an apology and shouldn’t be.

Also, why would she feel the need to apologize for offending anyone? Isn’t that the point of the provocateur, whether Lenny Bruce or Thomas Paine or Salvador Dali. Not that I am comparing a woman who spends every New Year’s Eve figuring out new ways to joke about blowing Anderson Cooper in Times Square to these mighty figures, but when you swim in that pool you can’t be surprised by getting wet.

Also, let’s face it, Griffin is apologizing because she put her singular name and face to this gesture. What is the difference between this and burning the previous two presidents in effigy, which they were, over and over, in dozens and dozens of protests? Or the despicable shit people throw up on the Internet? One comes with a signature, the other is anonymous or done in a mob but they are the same thing. Different venue. But the same thing.

Art.. is an extension of opinion, and like comedy, need not ever apologize.

Now, there has been much talk about political correctness and the backlash against free speech, mainly by the Right lately. This used to be the domain of the Left. But freedom is a mighty pendulum that will swing and swing hard, and one man’s insult is another man’s right, and I support that in every possible way. But, like all things, it comes with degrees or definitions. I am not broaching parameters here, only what kind of free speech tumbles into shouting fire in a crowded theater. Or more to the point, which can be accepted as opinion versus doing what ironically has been an art form for the president in question, blatant falsehood.

For instance, when former Breitbart, (The Onion of the Right), provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos caused riots at the formally Free Speech Center UC Berkley campus last February, I had several debates with alumni and we came to this conclusion; the protest was only justified because Yiannopoulos is the Alice Cooper of commentary and as an entertainer in this field he is virtually peerless, but should a place of higher learning be accommodating a guy espousing what amounts to flat-earth theories. This is equivalent to a medical school allowing a man touting leeches as the elixir for menstrual pain. However, a few months later when conservative Howard Stern type commentator, Ann Coulter backed out of her appearance there due to protests, it was a tad different. Coulter is kooky, but she is not telling you the earth is flat. She is saying she thinks Mexicans are evil and Jews need to be “perfected” and that Joseph McCarthy was a hero. These are opinions. I think Ann Coulter is a stupid idiot (opinion), not a fat guy from Cleveland (falsehood).

Art, and whether you like it or not Griffin standing with the severed, bloody head of the president is art, is an extension of opinion, and like comedy, need not ever apologize. And even if you apologize, doesn’t un-paint the Mona Lisa or un-record “Anarchy in the UK”.

People who make a stand, no matter how trite or vulgar or combative, need to stop acting as if it is not when it goes bad. Going bad is the point. Did Kathy Griffin think no one would be offended by holding the severed, bleeding head of Donald Trump?

Oh, and on the flip side of all this political correctness off-shoot, Donald Trump and those who support him are not allowed to be offended by anything. Trump is the vilest human going. This is his thing. He has insulted anything and everything repeatedly to spectacular results. You can make the argument he has “normalized” this behavior, and I could not be more pleased at this. So he or anyone who has supported this act doesn’t get to whine about his 11 year-old little shit “having a hard time with this.” You think Rosie O’Donnell’s kid was digging Trump calling her a fat, disgusting pig over and over again, or the children of the disabled reporter were thrilled that the then Republican candidate for president was acting spastic in front of a capacity crowd to get laughs or the dozens of other disgusting things the president has said and done over the past two years? How do you think Barack Obama’s girls feel when this blowhard accuses their father of high crimes with no evidence after two years of saying he had evidence that didn’t exist that he wasn’t even an American?

Fuck him. Grow a pair and get a helmet.

As for Kathy Griffin, fuck off.

You are no Sinead O’Connor.

Author’s Note: I wish to apologize for anyone I offended in the previous column.

Second Author’s Note: Fuck you.

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