Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check
In Praise of Poor Things

I know I’m late the party on this, but Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things is a masterpiece of filmmaking, writing, cinematography, acting, and editing, and having just seen it, I needed to write about it. 

Spoiler alert (hinted in the opening paragraph): Poor Things is the best film I have seen in some time. For originality, it is right up there with recent films I have written about here, like the brilliant satire, JoJo Rabbit, which I praised in this space in 2020. I do not often comment on movies or music or much art here, although I do in other places in this publication and in my books. The fact that I am infiltrating this column with a glowing review should give you some indication of how much this film kicked my ass from the opening frame. 

Emma Stone, its female protagonist and beaming metaphor, is fantastic. Playing its central figure as visual/imaginative chronicler with defiant absurdity, rightfully took Best Actress in the most recent Academy Awards that for some reason also saw fit to bestow a ton of awards on Oppenheimer, which was painfully unoriginal in every way Poor Things succeeds. Shit, Barbie, a stellar contemporary satire on women’s plight in a fucked man’s world was better than Oppenheimer, which while a weaker depiction of this fucked world, does kind of present the same argument.

But I digress.

While Stone appears in nearly all the scenes, due to the film being shown to us through a looking glass into her untainted, feral eros world, the rest of the cast, just as pertinent to its themes, shines as well. Especially Mark Ruffalo, as her boorishly feckless poseur of a social/sexual mentor, who, like Ryan Gosling’s wonderfully portrayed clueless, Ken in Barbie, travels a rapidly paced arc downward into despairing madness in a veiled comedic attempt to live up to his own self-aggrandized façade. This is also true of Willem Dafoe as the mad scientist, whose monotheistic name and machinations evokes both dread and empathy.

A quick synopsis of the plot, which does not do it a scintilla of the justice it deserves, is thus: Dafoe’s Godwin Baxter, mostly referred to as God throughout, (hence the monotheistic reference above) is a shameless take on Mary Shelly’s Victor Frankenstein from her groundbreaking 1818 novel, Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) who fishes a fresh corpse from a suicide out of the Thames to bring her back to life. Turns out she is/was pregnant, so Godwin, “a man of science” – a line which he utters constantly in the movie to excuse heinous deeds in the quest for knowledge, as his father did to him as a child – places the baby’s brain into that of the reanimated former Victoria Blessington and voila, our hero, Bella Baxter.* 

*I will abstain from spoilers, as this is my attempt to get those who have not seen it to do so immediately.

But the long and short of it is that Bella’s emotional and intellectual trek from impish id to impish id woman reflects humanity’s evolution of thought. This is aided in part by an interloping attorney, Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn, who whisks her off into a world Godwin has been trying to shelter her from in the guise of libertine philosophy. Wedderburn ravages a willing Bella, who in her speedy maturity discovers her sexuality and like her insatiable appetite for anything the world offers, displays an equal fervor for coitus delights.

We discover as she does. We grow along with her.

In fact, throughout, Bella’s personal quest to remain in a state of perpetual happiness, truly and without shame or guilt, literally and symbolically strips bare the hypocritical men she encounters; men obsessed with the failed pursuits of happiness in philosophy, religion, politics, and sex. Not that the awakened Bella does not dabble in those, oh, she does, as does the film’s most potent themes, but they merge as a mere pathway to fulfilling her most ardent desires, until she is made to realize she does not exist in a vacuum, much like children must learn eventually.

A few key elements separate Poor Things from merely a gothic coming of age story. Visually it bursts from the screen in both black and white and color, depicting, much like the legendary Wizard of Oz, a woman’s stark revelations on how life sometimes appears unreal. Using fish-eye lens, enormous wide shots, almost living impressionistic paintings saturated in colors, and relentless closeups, Lanthimos and his cinematographer, Robbie Ryan keep us unbalanced, as if we are equally naïve and hungry for experience. We share Bella’s quizzical consumption of art, music, commerce, human nature, and the enigmatic architecture of city life, as she travels through much of her evolution. She (we) can only comprehend so much of humanity’s fault-lines of jealousy, insecurity, anger, grief, and general confusion through her experience. She asks the questions that need to be asked and have been broached in treatises for eons but rarely penetrate our cycle of despair. We discover as she does. We grow along with her.

Added to these visual enchantments is the soundtrack. The music of Poor Things is another outstanding aspect of the storytelling – a dissonant and disturbing mélange that evokes an unsettled ecosystem from which the characters seem unable to escape. Its composer, Jerskin Fendrix, who describes his style as “electro punk” uses an impressionistic aural assault in the manner of such musical experimentalists as Arnold Schoenberg, La Monte Young, and John Cage. The music takes us inside Bella’s head, as her surroundings pummel it. As she emerges unformed and becomes more aware, using outside stimuli to develop her own voice, so does the music. Yet it remains discordant, as she always will be, as a manifestation of Shelley’s “monster.”

Speaking of Shelley; there are yummy asides to the author, culled directly from the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray. Firstly, its late nineteen century setting, and more pointedly in the name Godwin, taken from the Shelley’s own father, political philosopher, William Godwin, whose complicated relationship with his daughter after the death of Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a devout early feminist, was a huge influence on Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft’s late eighteenth century book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman also reveals much of the themes in Poor Things, as does Shelley’s marriage to radical poet-philosopher, Percy Bysshe Shelley and her relationship with libertine poet, Lord Byron.

There are so many layers to Poor Things, it is impossible to dissect here, and certainly improbable without spoiling much of the latter half of the film’s narrative. It is, as I wrote to a colleague moments after seeing it, a heady mash-up of Frankenstein meet Siddhartha meets Anaïs Nin. And in modern Hollywood, where originality goes to die, that is some juggling act. 

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion

Woody Allen recently celebrated the release of his fiftieth film, Coup de Chance in Venice, Italy, which reminded me of a piece I had been working on in the spring of 2021 about the unconscionable smearing of his name and legacy by first the mentally disturbed Mia Farrow and her brainwashed kids, then a lazy press, and finally the victims of a vapid media echo-chamber. Alas, I was distracted by more pressing current events, but I think I need to get this out, and not merely because I adore Woody Allen’s work, but this entire sad episode of his having allegedly molested his then seven-year-old-daughter, Dylan, which had been intensely adjudicated 30 fucking years ago, exonerated him from all wrongdoing. And to be clear, this was not “fancy lawyering hired by famous rich guy” exoneration, but the more pressing “no evidence of any kind to substantiate dubious claims from a traumatized child” exoneration.

In the wake of HBO’s propaganda-addled Allen v Farrow that further perpetuated this egregious lie, and the reemergence of Farrow’s attack dog kids, Dylan and Ronan, to try and censor Allen’s 2020 memoir, Apropos of Nothing, I was taken aback. But when Amazon, which had negotiated a multi-picture deal with Allen sacked him, then American theaters refused to carry his films, and many of his supposed friends and colleagues ran for cover, I could no longer abide it. I needed to state, “What’s happened to Woody Allen is bullshit.” Nearly three years later, it still is bullshit. 

To be fair, Woody, 87 years-old now, doesn’t seem to miss a step and keeps working on what he’s always called his “little films.” He is pleased to just have the money and support to keep creating his art. But it endlessly irks me that he’s lumped in with the Weinsteins, Cosbys, Spaceys, and Trumps of the world when unlike them, he co-operated with authorities, had his private life, body and possessions inspected beyond reproach, endured two long trials, invasive forensics, and was again cleared due to lack of any evidence. A psychological evaluation of Dylan exposed that the poor, exploited child had changed her story numerous times throughout and appeared to authorities to clumsily regurgitate a flimsy script conjured by her mother, and Allen’s former lover, actress, Mia Farrow.

Farrow, who has been repeatedly outed as a horrid mother figure to ten adopted children, allegedly used Dylan, one of four biological offspring, as an emotional cudgel for vengeance against Allen for his relationship with one of Farrow’s adopted daughters, the twenty-one-year-old, Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen married in 1997 and is still with to this day; the couple have two children. One of the other nine of Farrow’s adopted kids, the now 45-year-old Moses Farrow, in his blog, “A Son Speaks Out,” much of which fills a chapter in Allen biographer, Eric Lax’s 2017 Start to Finish: Woody Allen and the Art of Moviemaking, has outed Farrow’s severe physical and mental abuse that according to his accounts led to two of her adopted children to commit suicide at ages 27 and 17. These terrifying stories have since been echoed by Soon-Yi.

Perhaps the most psychologically abused of these children is Farrow and Allen’s biological son, Ronan, first named Satchel, then changed by his mother, who made false claims that he was Frank Sinatra’s child, a man she married at 21 in 1966 when he was nearly 50 (Sinatra would have been 71 when he did this proposed fathering – something the Sinatra family calls ‘a ludicrous lie’). Many allegations of unsolicited cosmetic surgeries prompted by Farrow on her son had somehow made him more loyal to her madness. He has used his otherwise noble defense of sexual victims in adulthood to hound his father relentlessly, including leading the charge to have Allen’s memoir dropped by Hachette Books, for which Ronan worked at the time.

Don’t take my word for it. If you find this an abhorrent take, then check the facts for yourself. It’s all out there.

But no one bothered to check the legal record on all this. The one that ultimately cleared Allen of the charges by law; not newspapers, social media, or activists: “The manifestations of Dylan were not true and had been made by an emotionally vulnerable minor trapped in a disturbed family situation and who responded to stress.” Sorry, this is the hard, cold facts. Yet here we are with Woody Allen in societal wilderness. It is, I repeat, bullshit.

I do have immense sympathy for Farrow, who was an abused child and suffered from serious trauma all her life, much of it by her father and the rest in the public since she was a teenager, exploited by the Hollywood star system, which had previously done irreparable harm for many damaged souls. She was emotionally injured and understandably angered by Allen’s at best peculiar actions and worst deviant behavior with Previn, so she simply heaped this pain on her former lover, for whom she was with for 13 years with no prior signs of sexual misconduct over dozens of films in which women actors were given prime roles – Mia garnering 13 – earning them Oscars with nary a complaint or inkling of misbehavior. 

So, despite having his name dragged through the mud in the early 1990s, and a stellar career of filmmaking and writing since, in 2021 he was suddenly ostracized from Hollywood, abandoned by his production company, and disallowed to have his work appear in American theaters. I think this is a horrifying miscarriage of justice and an abuse of the First Amendment, but which, again, seems to be fine for Woody. He has stated that he still supports the #MeToo movement, despite their unfair attacks on him and his livelihood, further illustrating a complete lack of accepting the truth. And that, as we know from nearly 30 years of this column, is bullshit and cannot stand without comment to the contrary. 

Women actors have stood up over these past years to defend Allen, his longtime ingénue, Diane Keaton, his more recent collaborator, Scarlett Johansson, as well as Kate Winslet, Angelica Houston, and others, including male voices. Many articles have been written questioning the entire episode’s motives and fallout. All of them like myself understand the difference between guilty people using “cancel culture” to explain away crimes and the unfortunate circumstances of familial in-fighting, spurned lovers, and the collateral damage of children caught in the crosshairs.  

Allen never cared much for Hollywood. Didn’t show up to any Academy Awards ceremonies when he was the industry’s resident genius, despite winning a ton of them. He did appear in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks to support his beloved New York City. But otherwise, he keeps on keeping on in the shadows. And while again this seems to be enough for Woody Allen it is not for me. I had to express my issues with this whole mess, much of it a matter of ignored record in service of accepted but misplaced demonization.

Don’t take my word for it. If you find this an abhorrent take, then check the facts for yourself. It’s all out there. And when you do, you’ll agree that, if I may state once more, what’s happened to Woody Allen is bullshit.     

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at 50
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children… boogie
It is difficult to express how important David Bowie’s fifth album was in the annals of popular music without understanding its connection to the genre, purpose, and essence of what rock and roll meant (in 1972) to its third generation. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was, is, and will always be the soundtrack of iconography from Elvis Presley to Lady Ga Ga, because it is, as an artistic statement, a timeless examination of Western culture as ephemeral claptrap in the wake of youth-ego distortion. But it is, at its core, a reinvention of the form, while simultaneously playing up its most vital foundations, its humor, its majesty, its sexuality, and, most of all, embracing the solidarity of youth alienation. The symbol of Bowie as androgynous Starman waiting in the sky in his glamor queen, macho baller, furious rebel fragility, begs the question; does the death of the prepubescent spirit inevitably lead to drab immortality?

Oh, and it rocks. Hard.

This is not a review of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to understand its musical brilliance, realized by his musical sherpa and rough-edged doppelganger, Mick Ronson, the din progeny of Hendrix, or even its image-driven keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe manipulation. It is not going to regurgitate the obvious career move Bowie achieved by taking a slight, if not preternaturally gifted, pop singer-songwriter from the British dance-hall tradition and quite strategically turning him into a Glam Bitch God capable of giving voice and breath and infinity to The Teenager, in all its confused, angry, hormone-crazed isolation. This is about The Teenager. This is about the all the nobody people, and all the somebody people queer, shut-in, frightened, picked-on, disdained youth for which Ziggy-as-avatar stands for – beyond his singular place in campy well hung and snow-white tan rock-star satire with his screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo. Beyond the 1970s decadent, drug-addled chic doom that would come to define the art form for which Bowie had finally come of age in and will lead him until his dying breath with each new character driven statement, there is The Teenager. This the audience and the muse of Ziggy, the character, reflected in every note and lyric in Ziggy Stardust, as an album, as a movement, as a very real and lasting license to celebrate individuality as if divine mass.  

Think about all of the strange things circulating round 

It is not fair to say that Ziggy Stardust is the first youth statement as mass prayer – new words / soul love – but it is the most effective. In a very real way, Bowie’s pursuit of a conceptual rock piece does not make it unique for early 1970s rock, or certainly British rock. If anything, this is the time and place for grand statements –the birth of prog rock and the overindulgent statements in fog machines and costumes. But there is no arguing with Ziggy being the statement for The Teenager. Owning a rock star as personal badge of identification begins, and in many ways, ends with Ziggy. This is why Bowie killed him off after a year of parading his make-up-addled, emaciated carcass around the world in grand spectacle. Ziggy Stardust, who told us not to blow it ‘cause it’s all worthwhile, cannot live on Sugar Mountain or a darkened street corner as an aging font of bland maturity. He is the alien. Alienated. No metaphor there. Forever young, naïve, defiant. He is infinite woman/man/trans in two, three, four dimensions. An empty vessel to fill with fears and lusts, noise and spat from the freak out, far out ether on your hazy cosmic jive radio.

In this way, there is no timeframe for Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars, because it never existed and never will. Not really. It is a fuck-around tits-and-confetti moonage daydream, a wisp, a sideways glance made by too much grope and hallucination and tint color and space boots and screaming guitars and moody piano and the pound-pound-pound of the drums. Tribes come calling. The femme fatales emerged from shadows / To watch this creature fair / Boys stood upon their chairs / To make their point of view / I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey. And they will forever be young with their snot noses and high cheekbones and eye-shadow and colored fingernails and black lights revealing bemused smirks. Thus, they cannot be defeated or homogenized or god-forbid labeled or cornered or allowed to fade away. So… don’t lean on me, man, you can’t afford the ticket.

Inevitably they all burned out. Long before Johnny Rotten. Long before the rock and roll suicide. Get out while you can. This is what the music tells you. And it is not death. It is rebirth. It is refiguring. It is the epiphany of self-realization, the discovery of brutal truths. Bowie speaks of becoming in the whole of Ziggy, because that is the plight and blessing of The Teenager. The flayed bastard knowing that not knowing counts for something. Anything. And he made it so there was no lonely but the chosen lonely. This is what rock and roll was/is to anyone left who dares hear it. But it never mattered anyway. David Bowie sang at the end, Just turn on with me and you’re not alone over and over like a mad mantra. He needed you to hear that. Because it was true. And truth is the same as making it all up when it doesn’t matter. You make your own myths, Ziggy says. That is why he came for a little while. Five Years? And fifty years later he is still saying it…

You’re not alone.

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Aquarian Weekly

Reality Check

James Campion

In Praise of Coda

Coda – Children of Deaf Adults
Coda – The concluding passage of a piece or movement

One of the tragedies of the Will Smith/Chris Rock slapping fiasco was that it happened as Rock was about to announce the Oscar winner for Best Documentary, which deservedly went to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul. I wrote extensively about this film ( last year, and it is still kicking my ass. Later that evening, also lost in all the “post-slap” hubbub was Coda winning Best Picture. I had not seen Coda yet. It was on my list, and although I saw nearly every film nominated, it slipped our schedule. I finally got to it last weekend, and as it unfolded, I began to realize that in many ways it stands beside Summer of Soul as a celebration of the spiritual power of music and its impact on us personally, generationally, and permanently.

Written and directed by Sian Heder, Coda is an otherwise quaint “coming of age” story we have seen hundreds of times, but in a rarity to Hollywood these days Heder’s story is original and steeped in symbolism presented in a less opaque style prized by outside-the-mainstream films that openly trade in that artistic currency. And while there is zero pandering in Coda, there is the expected emotional manipulation we all recognize having grown up at the movies. I applaud this craft in Coda but was ultimately endeared to it because it is a living, breathing hymn to something I figured out some time ago – and it has proved me correct time and time again – music is an essential ingredient to living. To some, it is air to be breathed and the terra firma beneath our feet. Some make music, others, like me, can do it occasionally these days, but writing about it serves its mastery to the gods of bliss.

This is what Coda ( is for me.
I am going to tread a fine line here in trying to not spoil this for someone who has not seen the film. For starters, I went in cold, and without subtitles. This was an important element to understanding its characters better as someone who does not communicate with the hearing impaired on a regular basis. Unless you know sign language, you don’t know what the deaf actors are communicating specifically, but you get it. Just like music – there is an emotional, not literal, translation. It is a whole new way of “watching” conversations and not focusing on words, but actions and emotions. A piece of music, a simple song, like the interaction of the family in Coda, should move you, speak to you, without lyrics. The music will tell you. Here, the signs, the facial expressions, the raw human emotion conveys what you are missing in pure translation.

The plot revolves around a young teenage girl, Ruby in the final months of her senior year of High School working on a boat alongside her brother for her fisherman father. Her mom appears to be a loving, pragmatic homemaker and business mind of the operation. The family, except for Ruby, are deaf. The father, Frank Rossi, is played with broad intensity by Best Actor winner, Troy Kotsur. He is animated, lovable, playfully determined, and childlike. His wife, Jackie (famed deaf actress, Marlee Matlin), plays off him brilliantly, as does Leo, Ruby’s older brother (Daniel Durant), who could have been merely the “older sibling that doesn’t understand what the more determined younger one needs to find her path,” but instead becomes a crucial pillar to what it is like to grow up in silence along with parents who live in the same silence.

Filled with music, the soundtrack of life, Ruby has one foot in this silence and one far beyond those of us able to hear.

If there is such a thing as love in this world it is seeing that something special that makes a person who they are and having the guts to make sure they do not waste it.

Emilia Jones, as Ruby, is a talented twenty year-old who absolutely nails the frustrations, insecurities, and general freakiness of merely being a teenager, coupled with her crushing responsibility to be the social thread to society for her family. There is never a moment in this story, where Emilia doesn’t convince me of her travails. She does not represent every teenaged girl I have ever seen in rote “personal discovery” movies, firstly because she is a fantastic actor, but with the added powers given to her in the script, the story comes alive. Ruby knows she is special talent from the opening scene on a boat with her brother and dad, as she sings along with “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” a six-decades old soul song sung by the inimitable Etta James. And that something for Ruby is music. You can see in her face; she is filled with such joy. She already adores singing the way one must adore the music to be sung, as it is to live in its disciplines and ecstasies and struggles.

And it is something, sadly, she cannot share with her family This is where Heder’s tale hits the hardest, going beyond symbolism into the social construct of everyday life, how it obliterates the over-used fictional archetypes; the parents who do not understand what their child is about because she does not fit neatly into their familial framework or how they envision her life to be. That has been done to death. But what choice does Ruby have with hearing-impaired parents who cannot fathom her one, true passion? Although Heder hints that this may one day be the case, as Frank cranks up Etta on the boat to better feel the bass and the groove – later, we learn he loves to blast Gangsta Rap for its pounding, repetitive rhythms. We feel for the parents. They are beyond one-dimensional caricatures in their inability to hear, both literally and philosophically. They live proudly, and unerringly, with their “impairment.” It is their special language and connection to each other.

But I found myself rooting hardest for Ruby, because I see her as not merely discovering her talents, she needs for everyone else to discover what she is, to show her little New England fishing village what she truly can and will be. This is realized through her connection with choral teacher, Bernardo Villalobos, who, in symbolic terms again, if I may, becomes the human equivalent of Ruby’s passion for music. Bernardo is music. He insists from the first to “roll the r’s” of his name, the music of his Latin ancestry. He is a Berklee School of Music graduate, a man who has given into the call for the struggle and the joys of being music. Someone finally sees this in Ruby. She knows this. Bernardo and Ruby are the platonic love story here, even though there is an obligatory teenaged one.

Again, I am trying extremely hard not to spoil anything here, but if there is such a thing as love in this world it is seeing that something special that makes a person who they are and having the guts to make sure they do not waste it.

Vitally, Heder’s choices of songs are on the money. There is not a wasted metaphor for the scene you are watching (listening to), and the music, like the sign language – the unspoken secret language of its melodies and rhythms – is telling a second story: If you open your ears, and you can let that in, then you can better relate to the Rossi’s world of silence and Ruby’s journey to self-discovery.

There are two gorgeous scenes in the movie that depict this – one that brought me to tears, being the dad of a teenage girl now, and another that helps you to empathize with those who cannot hear the music, that do not know about all the air and the terra firma. And let’s face it, if they are going to put Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in a movie, I am all in. And man, does Heder put this in the right spot to get the most from its eternal message of seeing the tragic beauty of existence.
Joni. What more needs to be said there.

In the end, Coda is about family. It’s about being who you are. It’s about how those things can be difficult to balance. And it is told through the method of barriers – most pointedly deafness and giving oneself completely to the secret language of music – but really, it is a generational tale of creativity and discovery. It is a beautiful film.

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check
James Campion
A Saint Jack Commemorative 
Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac was born on March 12, 1922, the same day, decades later, as my mother’s birth. This was a long-standing joke of mine for years: Both gave me life. One literal. One inspirational. It didn’t come right away with Saint Jack. His was a gradual nudging. Sure, it was immediate when I read On the Road, the same boring story that every young man told in the mid-to-late- twentieth century. I was nineteen. It was the late-winter, spring of 1982. Maybe March. I can remember first cracking it. I was at college in Trenton, N.J. My friend, and soon roomie, Jake Genovay gave me a copy. Or maybe it was his twin brother, Joe. I don’t remember that. I do remember the zang! of it. It knocked me back like a gust of wind or a glancing blow. This was writing as music; strange, intangible music that had meters and melodies from places that I had not visited before; even considering my high school affections for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Slaughterhouse Five. Kerouac’s free-flow dance electric word boogie was as arresting as its themes in lust for the spirit of living, freedom as sacrament, and grief as promise. But it wasn’t perceptibly permanent in my maturation as a writer, so much as an evolution of being, and not just this amalgamation of youth-orientated ego-boosts – rock and roll being one of those that had the most lasting effect – but the frame of being less boy than man.

Although now thinking about it, I did not get Bob Dylan until I read On the Road, as I always equate stepping through a secret invisible door when Dylan songs began to open me up. Dylan was my gateway from monosyllabic sex-metaphors riding irresistible gut-rhythms to the insular wandering through cerebral puzzle prisms, and thus, an awakening of sorts. This is what happened to a young Robert Zimmerman discovering Woody Guthrie in 1959, a year or so after digesting Kerouac’s mad stream-of-consciousness that took the author six long years to realize. Begun in 1951, before the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (the year Elvis Presley shook his ass on national TV and corrupted a generation of pimply-faced, white, middle-class, sex-crazed teenagers – one of them being Zimmerman), Kerouac’s On the Road captured the final leg of American progress that F. Scott Fitzgerald tuned to a high white note in his pristine ballad to our sins, The Great Gatsby.

But by the end of the 1950s, when the novel was published, the idea, the plan, the geography, the very landscape of America had been homogenized. The towns and roads Kerouac molded into lore began to fade. Our path west, a Manifest Destiny of carnage and mayhem, was complete. The American Century had arrived with a vengeance. We now drove through our past as afterthought, and Saint Jack sang its requiem.

It was this distillation of prose-tune that I came to define as the first pangs of maturity, or let’s say an emerging from youthful illusions to aging crystalline that confronted Zimmerman in 1959 and Campion in 1982, thanks to Saint Jack.

Kerouac was arguably the most famous of the Beats (with props to Allen Ginsburg and his fierce, queer, yawping siren, Howl). Beat is a generational humdrum moniker best described by Wikipedia these days as “the rejection of standard narrative values, making a spiritual quest, the exploration of American and Eastern religions, the rejection of economic materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.” But this is true of every generation. I can tell you (a man who hails from a generation without a fancy name) it sure as hell was my truth at nineteen. But for Kerouac, Beat meant the spiritual connotation of Beatific, while also being beaten, torn to shreds and left to rot. And in the course of this existential tumble, there is an element of exhaustion, ala beat.

If you are a testosterone-addled, faux-cowboy, plastic-bravado dickhead like all boys, and most men, you are turned sideways by Kerouac.

On the Road, a book I have written about more than any other since I started this column in August of 1997, runs a course through the author’s halcyon period; a productive fuck-around in an unhinged religious and social ad hoc existence that resulted in his early New York City quadrant of novels, The SubterraneansDoctor SaxTristessa, and Desolation Angels that have not had the legs of his 1959 masterpiece, but have moments, like Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” (and pretty much everything on the Boss’s first two albums, which sound like a beatnik primer set to noisy passion). Kerouac, a confessed jazz addict and devout Catholic who off-and-on lived with his mother until his untimely but predictable early death at forty-seven in October of 1969, became the reluctant literary godfather of the rock era, notable for post-be-bop-aloola mind-screw lyrics and psychedelic resin that continues in some form even today. Much to his lasting chagrin, Kerouac was worshipped like hedonistic catechism by the Boomers, who would go on to dominate culture, politics, and America’s long descent (ascent) from the post-war traumas the Beats spun into gold.

Kerouac was a rambler in both life and verse. He is the sentient conundrum of the early twentieth-century American man – born in New England, son of immigrants, escaped to the Big City, played football for Columbia University, became a U.S. Merchant Marine, was arrested, ran away from home, and then ran from that home (the road) and searched for things beyond his grasp to find bi-sexuality, drugs, Eastern philosophy, random bouts of violence, and misogyny. The most significant being a weirdly constructed idea of First Thought/Best Thought, often contributed to him and not Allen Ginsberg, who heisted it from Gertrude Stein, a woman, who in many ways is the godmother of the Beats. No one, in any generation, save for maybe Ernest Hemingway (who learned this from Stein) or Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (who got this from Papa), understood the role of writer as icon, symbol, celebrity and myth-maker better than Gertrude Stein. Not that Kerouac could sell this concept like his forebears, in fact he was shy, mostly drunk, incredibly conflicted about his influence, and exceedingly insecure. And that is the nugget in his writing you don’t get anywhere else – if you are a testosterone-addled, faux-cowboy, plastic-bravado dickhead like all boys, and most men, you are turned sideways by Kerouac. There is vulnerability in those early books and definitely in the cries for help in On the Road often missed at nineteen, but glaringly obvious when read in your early thirties and conveniently dismissed as claptrap, and then rediscovered in your forties as holy scripture.

When I began writing what would become my first published book, Deep Tank Jersey, in the spring of 1995, I was just merely, and badly, aping Kerouac. I have written about this before and admitted it sheepishly in interviews over the years and with friends who care to enter the confessional, (I even came clean in the foreword to the twentieth anniversary of the thing in 2016). But I learned during those months to steer away from the Kerouac, as all writers in his thrall must. Although, I did read Big Sur for the first time that summer. Big Sur is my favorite of Kerouac’s work now. Because of everything I penned above, sure, but mainly for its dreamy acceptance of the escape methods used by Kerouac in life – primarily alcoholism, Buddhism, and other isms the author battled with in relative isolation in the most beautiful place in this country. It may be the most beautiful place in the world. Moreover, it is as far west as one can go in the continental United States. The Kerouac of Big Sur is the hazy vestige of the man who sought out the road in 1947 and ended up in deep contemplation and deeper depression (consolation) in the autumn of 1961, one year before I entered the human sprint – the book actually hit the shelves two days (9/11) after my mom gave me my first and most important birth (9/9) in 1962.

And this brings us back ‘round again. The circle in writing is something I certainly did not learn from Kerouac. He was never linear and did not care for silly concepts like narrative or plot (when I first gave the book to my wife-to-be, she wondered aloud more than once where this thing was going), he only cared about the music of the prose, which is what anyone worth a grain of salt in this craft can hope for. Make those words dance, I like to say when I start a writing project, and when I am inevitably stuck in that writing project. It is what a generation of seekers turned into the really good music and to some extent really good writing. It would take another fifteen hundred words, at least, to list all the writers trying to be Kerouac over the years, so I will leave us with Big Sur and this photo I had in front of my writing desk when I worked on my first three published books – an aging, bloated Kerouac clutching his beloved cat, looking into the lens as if a man who had too many stories to tell and not enough speed, grit, pulse, and beatific allusions to get down.

Here’s to Saint Jack, who came, and saw, and made the words dance.

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion
In Praise of The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five and a Discussion with its Author, Tom Roston 
The most difficult highwire act for a writer is taking a well-worn and beloved subject and weaving something new and insightful into it. Author Tom Roston has accomplished this with his new book The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five by getting behind the celebrated novel’s humor, pathos, and charming storytelling that would make the 1969 anti-war, science fiction mind-bender a Twentieth-Century literary classic. For the first time, we meet the many faces and moods of its author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who for many, including yours truly, has marked the time of our intellectual and cultural awakening. The best compliment I can offer Mr. Roston is that I have learned why I loved Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade from the moment I cracked it open at fifteen and why it keeps speaking to me more than four decades hence.

At the height of the Vietnam War, Slaughterhouse-Five arrived as a mighty yawp from the bow of the counterculture, written by a wise-cracking forty-six year-old curmudgeon who had survived one of the most horrifying fire-bombings of World War II as a prisoner of war in 1945. After the devastation of the cultured German town of Dresden, Vonnegut pained to create something of worth from its ashes. And for Roston, and those who adore the book, Slaughterhouse-Five reverberates with mental and emotional trauma, an artistic endeavor to quell its author’s demons, while struggling to fit madness into a logical construct (spoiler alert: Vonnegut never finds any logic in war – “poo-tee-weet” – because it doesn’t exist).

This is where Roston began his journey, oddly spurned on by the whims of weird rumor.

“I knew I wanted to confront PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the book because that just seemed like a clear prism through which Slaugherhouse-Five is understood,” Roston shared with me. “But I just didn’t know how I was going to approach it. And then, as you read in the first chapter, what really got me going was when I got wind of this cooky, implausible story that Vonnegut may have committed a war crime.” Roston playfully dubs Vonnegut, Nazi Slayer!, the central figure in a dubious yarn of the young writer and fellow POW searching out their former Nazi guard to enact vengeance upon him. Roston concludes this never happened, but… “It got me energized, and then I started thinking, ‘Why is this relevant?’ And, to me, it was very relevant because it helped address what I felt, and what I feel people feel in general: they’re excited by war, because they don’t understand war. That, to me, is what Slaughterhouse Five is about – trying to explain what war feels like, which is terrible. But a person like me, who has never experienced it, can never really understand that.”

Thus, Roston fills the pages of The Writer’s Crusade with the voices of those who have experienced war (from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan), and moreover, wrote about it in essays, articles, and books, and in one case used painting as an outlet to face living with it. But at the same time, while providing a useful history of how the medical community and the U.S. Army dealt with the soldier’s mental traumas over the years, Roston is careful not to succumb to lazy syllogism. He warns that it is not even certain Vonnegut suffered from PTSD, something the author denied throughout his life, despite bouts of depression, alcoholism, and an inability to connect with people, specifically his family. This is the avatar Vonnegut creates in Billy Pilgrim, a POW, who experiences the same Dresden trauma and the ensuing life of listless inertia, where he becomes “unstuck in time.”

If you’re fully delusional, and you think you’re talking to a porn star or to God, and it makes you happy, perhaps that’s okay, by you.

“I discovered Billy Pilgrim to already be insecure and kind of a little bit messed up from the start,” says Roston. “When he first enters the war, he’s wandering around, letting himself get shot at – he’s lost in it, ridding him of his humanity. War will do that to anyone, and I think that’s what he’s doing.”

And so, one is led to ask, and Roston does so in his book: Is Vonnegut using his protagonist, Pilgrim to work out a delusional construct – being “unstuck in time” and traveling to the planet Tralfamadore to live with a porn star in an id bubble of “happiness” to deal with his trauma. Or are these fantastical things really happening to him? Vonnegut provides clues that these events are indeed figments of Pilgrim’s imagination and merely a coping mechanism, which in turn, gets Roston and readers of Slaughterhouse Five to surmise that its author is using the novel for the same ends.

“No, I don’t think it’s actually happening to Billy Pilgrim, but then that leads us to the ultimate question; does it even matter?” asks Roston, who reasons that if you’re fully delusional, and you think you’re talking to a porn star or to God, and it makes you happy, perhaps that’s okay, by you. “It’s the only bit of happiness poor Billy seems to get,” he concludes.

Roston also deconstructs Vonnegut’s aim to create in Billy Pilgrim a character not unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where there are no ups and downs in his storyline. He is not only living in a fantasy, but also impassive, removed from humanity. “If you drew an emotional line throughout the play, Hamlet just goes straight across. I think if you look at Billy Pilgrim, it’s the exact same thing, it’s just straight across. I mean, in Pilgrim’s mind, maybe things are getting better, but I think Vonnegut’s point was to write a story with a character whose life never gets better.”

Ironically, it was the success of Slaughterhouse-Five that would make Vonnegut’s life better. He was now a famous and wealthy author, and yet, Roston found this to perhaps be the most interesting part of the author’s catharsis. “Before the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut was always trying to merely pay the bills, until he wasn’t, and then once he wasn’t, I don’t know if he was that happy writing, because he wasn’t writing good stuff anymore. So, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I think he may have been the happiest when was working on his masterpiece from 1968 to 1969. Maybe he was feeling everything that he had hoped for an artist to feel, because he knew he had it. I would love to think that. His letters suggest that’s not the case, but his focus during this period created something lasting and great.”

What Roston does not want us to forget, and I could not agree more, is that Slaughterhouse -Five, like Vonnegut’s entire canon, is damn entertaining stuff. It is funny, thought-provoking satire, social commentary with the kind of wit and page-turning drama that made it a best-seller and continues to dazzle readers today. Despite using his work to find light at the end of the tunnel, the author found a relatable voice. I know I related to it as a teenager and still do, as the book has grown along with me into my years as a working writer. I cannot say that about all the books that jazzed me as a kid. And I thank Tom Roston for reminding me of this.

“Almost everyone who I talked to read it in their teens, and they read it the first time as just being a fun, goofy, crazy book,” concludes Roston. “They didn’t read it as being a book about trauma or a book about war or anything, it was just this wild ride.”

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion
Diary of the Infected & Discoveries Along the Way
The mystery is over me. On the third day of January 2022, let the record show, I became one of the statistics you read every day – the growing cases of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19. I am counted among those who have finally fallen to the bane of the early 2020’s – our pandemic, our Great Depression, our WWII moment. This is the one where as much as Americans hate to think we are in the same boat, we are here. Whether you choose to believe or accept or whatever the rationalizations you tell yourself, we are in this deep. To what extent, I don’t know. Scientists don’t know, then I don’t. Doctors are calling audibles, so I shan’t offer a half-assed opinion. This is, of course, not the first time I’ll be writing about the Coronavirus, but it is the first time I’ll be doing it as its victim.

FILE PHOTO: A woman takes a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test at a pop-up testing site as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 27, 2021. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

To begin, I had it pretty bad – chills, fever, headache, bouts of dizziness, sore throat, coughing, the whole thing. My wife had it worse. At least three days of high fever and severe coughing ever since. My thirteen year-old daughter had glassy eyes, some fever and felt mostly achy. We were all extremely fatigued throughout. (Note: All of us are fully vaccinated, but were awaiting our turn at a booster, which did not come in time). It has been about eleven days since my first symptoms, and I am still kind of woozy and still need to take a seat more than I normally would and even find myself wandering away from this word-machine here. The girls are recovering slowly but surely. This was a bitch for sure, but all in all, no issues with the lungs or worries about a hospital run and we have our taste buds and smell intact. We also have the blessed antibodies. Now that it is over, I can say it is worth that, at least.

But, again, the mystery is over for me. The stigma of thinking, “I can’t get this” or after a while, “Fuck it, if I get this.” You know. We have mostly lived our lives carefully here, and our circle of friends and certainly family for the past almost two years now. Sure, we would get together, play music, drink, hang, travel. I have traveled to South Padre Island, Texas, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and Austin, Texas since March 2020, and we did our Long Beach Island shore run both years. We have attended and played in our local (and traveled to) music fests – mostly outdoors, but some indoors – over this time. We have masked up, used our hand-sanitizers, washed our hands, took our vitamins, and lived our lives. This worked for way longer than I would have imagined. There was not a time after the initial shut-down that we overdid our quarantine thing. We lived. And even spent the 2020 holidays heading up to my extended family in Syracuse and bringing my mom in for summer and holiday visits. This time around it got us. Not my mom, who by the way will murder me if I print her age, but let’s just say I am pushing 60 later this year and she is about four-foot nothing and 74 pounds and was with all of us and went back to North Carolina with nary a symptom. She did a few tests and came up clean. She is likely at yoga or kickboxing right now as I write this. I am convinced she is a cyborg and having always assumed she would bury us all; I think I have my answer now.

Last thing on the family and the getting together for this past New Year’s Eve, which is what sparked this thing: Of my immediate family, (twelve in all, not including the maternal cyborg) seven of us got taken down. Now, this doesn’t mean all of us tested positive. The opposite. My wife and daughter did Rapid (two negatives) and my daughter did a more conclusive one through the nose (negative). Once I had the same symptoms as my bother-in-law, who called me the Monday after New Year’s Day to inform me of his infection, I went to get the two big tests – molecular (RT-PCR) tests that detect the virus’s genetic material, and antigen tests that detect specific proteins on the surface of the virus. It was saliva. Took nearly a week to get the results: Positive. But we already knew.

I think it is important we be careful, and be responsible, and get vaccinated

To that end, I think it is important I report that any Rapid Test you may take for the Omicron is mostly bullshit. I have heard from friends and colleagues who have had this variant that they had to take rapid/home tests three or four times to get a positive result. I would say, in my experience now, and those who have shared it with me, if you were with someone who has Covid, and you have symptoms, you have Covid. Period. Even two nurses and my doctor said it is almost impossible with Omicron to be near someone who gets it, and if you have similar symptoms, escape unscathed.

I can also state that while this variant and the times we live in now with vaccines (I had my first two doses done in June and was due for my booster in December, as mentioned, but there were none to be had until mid-January anyway), plus post-infection medication (I took an antibiotic prescribed by my doctor), it is still very serious. I blanche at anyone undercutting the importance of not getting this and taking care to not push yourself if you do. And while I have gigs that allow me to continue to be productive from home, there is still, as mentioned above, a period of rest that must be adhered to. This thing sucks, no doubt about it.

I do not regret living as I have the past year-plus with this thing all around us. I would do it all again, even New Year’s Eve. I think it is important we be careful, and be responsible, and get vaccinated, and if choosing to not get vaccinated then at least respect those who might be concerned to be around you. Whatever you decide, and however this turns out for you, please know that it is serious, and that we all do not know its after-effects and what is coming around the corner.

But, for this writer, the direct experience fighting off this virus has been nothing like the flu or a bad cold. Everyone that has had it that I’ve spoken to has shared unique symptoms and experiences. Everyone’s response is different. Some worse. Some less so. There is no standard for this. It is Covid. It’s its own thing. Know that. And proceed accordingly.

And please stay safe and healthy and think of others the same way.

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion

In Praise of High White Notes – The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism and a Discussion with its Author, David S. Wills

I have told this story time and again in this space; in the early to mid-nineties and then again in the early aughts before his death by suicide, I met and spoke with one of my most cherished literary and journalistic heroes Hunter S. Thompson, and in each of these brief but fruitful discussions I came away with an understanding on how much the myth of the wild Gonzo drug-addled, booze-hound, gun-toting lunatic overshadowed the serious, methodical ultra-talented wordsmith, a writer of such consequence as to be rightly called the Mark Twain of his generation. Thank you, David S Wills, who in the pages of his new book, High White Notes – The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism digs deeper and deeper into the brilliance of Thompson’s art and the natural inclinations he mixed with learned formation to come up with his finest work. Equally, Wills takes to task the times when Thompson sabotages his considerable talents, and lazily leans on repeating himself like a Las Vegas lounge singer toying with the melodies of the best of songs for mere schlock entertainment.

But it is the music in Hunter Thompson’s writing that Wills reveals so masterfully in his book; sharing the Good Doctor’s finest achievement in the rock and roll era in mostly a rock and roll magazine to a predominantly rock and roll generation. It is the rhythm and meter of his most spectacular prose that we find the real Hunter, as it still sings its grandest tunes to us. And that is where, as one of Thompson’s mentor’s F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, the “high white notes” are hit – his early days as a serious journalist to his discovery of Gonzo and its off-shoots and deviations. It is a grand journey and Wills takes us there.

I spent some time with Wills a month or so ago when the book came out. Here is our discussion on his wonderful book, the mercurial nature of the literary titan that is Hunter Stockton Thompson, and what we can rediscover in his canon today.

We begin way back with the music of Fitzgerald…

David Wills: There is that famous story when Hunter was very young, typing out of The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1925) and it is a very important foundation for his writing. I can’t remember his exact words, but he explained it to a friend when he was young, about getting the rhythm. And then later in his life, anytime he talked about Fitzgerald, it was always the music of his prose, it’s the way it sounded, the way he captured the sounds of the ear. And that’s exactly what Hunter was trying to do throughout his own career. And if you look at those brilliant moments, or what I’m calling the “high white notes” of his career, I think that’s when he absolutely infused his prose with that music. And I don’t think it’s an accident, I think he was aiming for that all along. And I think he achieved that in things like, “the wave” passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the “edge” passage from Hell’s Angels. And I think that’s why when we look at his later books, which I was very critical of, there are sentences and occasionally whole paragraphs where he did have that music, but, as a whole, he lost the rhythm of it.

There’s a reference in the end of the book about how he was really curious about learning why language sounds a certain way. He was trying to study poetics from a friend, because at first it just came naturally to him. And that, I think, comes from having read Fitzgerald and typed out Fitzgerald as a child, as well as other great writers, as well, of course, he was a big (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge fan. So, he read a lot of poetry, even if he didn’t write it. I think that kind of infused his very best writing with a musical sound.

james campion: He loved Dylan, and specifically “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965) was a huge inspiration for him. And obviously Dylan conflated the art of poetry with music, the way Hunter might have conflated prose and verse. And then, of course, he writes about the conflicting radio playing one song in the car in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and “Sympathy for the Devil” (Rolling Stones, 1968) blasting on a boombox in the back. Also, the conflict of bringing in Doris Day into that book juxtaposed with the psychedelic drug culture, and some of the other music selections he introduces in Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1973) He was consistently infusing music itself into the work, and this never really occurred to me in the way I just described it to you, until I read your book.

DW: I’m glad. I wasn’t consciously thinking about music that much when I was writing it. I was aware, of course, as one of his famous quotes is something like, “music is fuel to me”, and he would blast certain songs as he was writing, and people around him say it wasn’t just he was listening to music, he would listen to the same song or album, over and over and over… He talked a few times about whenever he wanted the energy and inspiration, he would just blast out “Mr. Tambourine Man” on these immense speakers. He had a wall of speakers, that was just the most powerful thing because he didn’t have any neighbors around for far enough that you could get away with that.

jc: I would say that you hit upon something that’s really important to understanding where Hunter lived as a writer. When I was working on my book on Warren Zevon, and, as you know, Warren and Hunter became close later in life, I was always amazed writing that book at how much Zevon was a closeted literary freak. He was always quoting books in his songs and how books inspired entire albums. He always said “Werewolves of London” was his answer to the Vegas book. I always felt like Hunter was a closeted rock and roll star, and in many ways, he did become one. I love when he finally admitted in the late seventies, “I have to sign autographs now, there are more people here to see me than Jimmy Carter.” And it negatively affected his way to write. He was trapped by this rock star persona.

DW: He was conflicted about his celebrity. He would say, “Oh, I hate ‘The Duke’ in The Doonesbury Comic Strip.” (Garry Trudeau – 1970 to present) And sure, he probably did hate it to some extent, but whether subconsciously or not, he knew this was adding to his brand. He loved money, he wanted to make more and more money, and he knew that this contributed to this self-perpetuating cycle whereby he’s just growing more famous every year. And I think I mentioned in the book that I saw a photograph somewhere, and it was on his “wall of things.” He was a very visual person, he needed to connect things when he was writing, but he had a wall of just pictures that were important to him, and on that wall was a Doonsbury comic strip, and I thought that would be very surprising if in amongst pictures of his son, and things like that, stuff that was really significant to him, he had this one thing that he supposedly hated.

Now, he did only say negative things about the strip in public, and yet, when everyone went at his house, he’d put on some wacky outfit, the Hawaiian shirt, his cigarette holder, he wanted to be recognized. He wanted people to see him and go, “There’s Raoul Duke, the famous crazy author!”

jc: And you do point out that this, along with the drug abuse and alcoholism negatively affected his later work.

DW: Yes, it became, in my estimation, cartoonish and unbalanced. When I’m reading Hunter, or really anything, but specifically Hunter, because he was so tuned into certain words and how they work, I notice weird things that maybe other people wouldn’t notice, like collections of words that get repeated and themes that aren’t prominent. And I noticed when reading his work, there was a lot of, how do I say, surface stuff like “activistic” or “savage” and the use of drug names. And so, I wanted to go back and explore, how did this develop? Because he wasn’t always the same person, the same writer. But if you go back and read his very first writings as a teenager, you can start to see the patterns in the words and the themes starting to emerge, and so I wanted to explore that. And so, I dug up everything I could find, undoubtedly, I’ve probably missed a few things. But I think I’ve got ninety percent of it.

jc: It comes through in your narrative. You can see the incline and the decline of his work very clearly in your book.

DW: I felt his early work was interesting and worth exploring further because he didn’t want to be a journalist. He just recognized early on as a very well-read person – his mom preached the value of books to him – that he wanted to be a novelist. And then when he discovered (Ernest) Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Don Levy, and later the Beat Writers to some extent, he wanted to do what they were doing; write this revolutionary prose. And he realized, “I’m a kid with no formal education, and I’ve got jail on my record, this long criminal record, what can I do? Well, I can literally only write, it’s my only saleable skill.” So, you get stuck into sports journalism, which he enjoyed, but I don’t think he viewed it as high art of any sort.
jc: Right, but you point out this background gives him this unique ability to write action, which he uses in his best work, Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing, that he developed from being a sportswriter, which by the way Hemingway was and (Kurt) Vonnegut was, there’s so many great writers that started out being forced to describe action that was crucial to their development.
DW: Yeah, and so you look at his later writing, and one of the weaknesses, I think, is that when he lost his physical mobility, and because of being trapped by celebrity to some extent his capability of mingling with other people, the action was gone. But yeah, he took those sportswriter verbs and then he turned it into describing motorbikes and cars, and then this weird, violent prose. Soon everything was infused with this violence. But you go back to his early sports writing, and when he was describing the wrestling stuff as though it was real, like the guy had his neck broken, and it sounds so stupid. But then you look at his later writing, and you realize the satire, the subtle nod to “I’m saying fake things, made up things, with the intention of my reader knowing, but without me saying explicitly that this is made up.” It was always there from the beginning. You can see the origins of Gonzo, which I always categorize as just this weird mixture of fact and fiction, as I’ve said many times, it was there from almost day one, which is kind of bizarre in that you can see he’s trying to make this, what he perceived as just shit journalism, into high art. He’s also writing these short stories, and these novels, at the time, which he was convinced were going to make his fame and fortune, but then the end, of course, it was the mixture of that fusion of “literary journalism” that made him famous. And no one ever really did it that well, and no one’s ever been able to replicate what he did.

jc: Yeah, I’ve always said that there is no Gonzo Journalism, there’s just Hunter Thompson. And I think one thing you point out in the book is his unerring sense of humor. That was what drew me to him, like Twain and Vonnegut; I laugh out loud when I read Hunter’s work. That’s not the truth with many writers, even the ones whom he worshipped, like Hemmingway, who did not write “funny.” Hunter also loved to use humor to topple people at the top, but specifically people with money, which reflected what Fitzgerald wrote about in Gatsby, wherein he wasn’t accepted – he was the “new money,” and you get that from that great article “Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border” (1963), the guy hitting golf balls into the Barrio. And then later you have Louisville Gentry in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” (Scanlon’s Monthly – 1970) and the Blue Bloods in Las Vegas pissing away money while people are starving and dying in Vietnam. He’s constantly bringing it back to the “haves and have-nots” and he does it so effortlessly. But he’s writing the same story over and over again, which you point out.

“I … take Fear and Loathing apart line by line, word by word, just doing the closest of close readings, and I’m still laughing until the tears come. It’s just such a work of fucking genius.”

DW: I think there are various themes, probably too many themes, that’s one of his problems is trying to cram everything into every story. But yeah, that’s one of the ones that was just endlessly repeated. And as other people have commented, he was just constantly trying to write The Great Gatsby for the fifties for the sixties to the seventies to the eighties. And even he would admit that in interviews, and sometimes in his stories, he was looking around, like, where’s Daisy now? And you know, how can I replicate this image and this theme.

jc: The green light, and all that stuff, yeah.

DW: Yeah. Constantly, constantly. But he did have this immense ability to portray wealthy and powerful people in a shockingly negative light. That, as you said, stems from his own childhood and his feelings of inadequacy in Louisville. You can see it so many times through his writing. What I tried to do in the book was point out where he said and wrote things that are racially quite insensitive, but for him, wealth and racism were inextricably mixed. Whenever you see him attacking rich people, there’s always this element of, subtly or not, accusing them of being racist, especially when you see the Kentucky Derby piece. It really came out there. And, of course, this contempt for the native people – the rich Gringo smacking golf balls into this poor Colombian neighborhood. Whether that ever happened or not, who knows? But yeah, he just tied those things together. And time and again, you see that coming out this, “Wealthy people are awful, racism is awful” and just bringing these together.

jc: You cite what you feel is Hunter’s misuse of capitalization and ellipses and just odd phrases that are not proper sentences in the book quite a bit. It’s again, getting back to music, his changing the notes like Coltrane’s “Favorite Things” (1961). And it’s not necessarily right, but it’s right for him. But you point out, “Hey, man, this is getting a little silly now.” Did you study literature and grammar?

DW: Yeah, I taught grammar at university for many years and actually wrote a few books about grammar. So, I definitely have that sort of bias coming through. However, having spent much of my life studying the Beats and Hunter Thompson having always been my favorite writer, I have huge respect for people that can break the rules of grammar. But Hunter himself said, I don’t remember the exact quote, so I’ll just paraphrase, he says, “If you want to break the rules, you have to know the rules first.” And I think that’s an immensely important thing that very few of the people that copy his style ever bother to think about. He started with an intuitive grasp of the language, then he studied the rules until he knew them inside out. And you can see that through his early journalism as he’s learning and getting better and better, and his writing becomes tighter and tighter, more and more grammatically accurate, then you can see in the early sixties, he’s he starts to say, “Well, this is the grammatically correct way. But this is a more effective way to do what I want to do.” And he starts breaking the rules, and he starts forging his own style. My contention was, though, that he had an immense grasp over language in the beginning. And later, as he got into the cocaine, and it started to rattle his brain, he lost control. And you can see I mentioned a few times how he was unable to keep control of the narrative. So, he would forget that he’d already said something, and…

jc: Like the ESPN articles (2000 – 2003). I went back and looked at a few and you’re right about that.
DW: And in The Curse of Lono (1983), he tells us three times the Japanese runners ran past Pearl Harbor. So, I don’t think he’s doing that for emphasis, he’d forgotten that he’d already said it twice. And you can see this time and again, these mistakes. And when you look at the grammar, you start realizing, later on, when the grammar gets worse and worse and worse, and these errors start coming around, it’s no longer a matter of emphasis. You’ll look at his sixties writing, and he’ll capitalize a word to give it special importance. And I think that’s a legitimate technique, and I think it draws attention to this word. And he’s using the sentence fragments for importance. And he’s using the ellipses for importance. Later, he loses that control.

Now, there’s an argument to be said that maybe early on the editors were exercising more control over his writing and making it more straightforward, but I don’t think that covers nearly half of it. And you can see from his unpublished work that this same disparity exists. It’s just a lack of ability rather than a choice.

jc: What was your biggest revelation about Hunter when working on this book?

DW: I don’t know. There were so many myths that came up that just didn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny and yet they’ve been repeated in articles and biographies. I don’t want to say anything bad about the biographers because they’ve all in their own way done a great job, but they just kept taking what Hunter said and repeating it as the truth. But it was very clear to me that whether he meant or not what he said it was not the truth. I guess it was surprising to me just how much he fabricated about his own life and other things. Like the old expression, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” For instance, in Kingdom of Fear (2003), everything, in my opinion, was just bullshit. They’re all his biographical stories, and he was called out by the New York Times Book Review in that he had the opportunity to really get into the important stuff for the first time, but he didn’t do it. And, you know, he was talking about as a child getting arrested at nine years old by the FBI. I remember even as a 20-year-old reading that and saying, “That just can’t be true.” And yet, again, and again, it is repeated as truth. And I investigated and investigated and I couldn’t find anything to disprove it, but that’s the thing with Hunter; when he was lying, it was always the stuff that was hard to disprove.

jc: What do you think is Thompson’s finest work?

DW:  Well, you know, people ask me this about Hunter and about (Jack) Kerouac and other people I’ve studied, and I want to name something really obscure, but honestly the classics are classics for a bloody good reason and with Kerouac it was On the Road (1957) and with Hunter it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You mentioned earlier about laughing, it doesn’t matter how many times I read that book, or how many times I study it and studying a book really ruins it for you in many cases, but I go back take Fear and Loathing apart line by line, word by word, just doing the closest of close readings, and I’m still laughing until the tears come. It’s just such a work of fucking genius.
jc: It really is.
DW: On so many levels, it’s just magnificent. And that’s why the chapter on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is so stupidly long in my book because there is so much to say, there’s so many levels to how brilliant it was.
jc: I loved the way, getting back to Fitzgerald, you break down the word-number and meter and focus of passages in Gatsby and Fear & Loathing and how they eerily match-up; almost mathematically. It illustrates what we were discussing earlier that lineage of greatness and musical sound in the writing.
DW: I’m glad that worked, because I didn’t want to get too into the technical stuff. I have a terrible memory, but when it comes to stuff like that, for some reason, it kind of sticks out to me. So, I would see a word or a phrase or even the number of syllables in the sentence and it just resonates. I usually start with, “So, in December of 1958, he wrote this, and that’s the same, and that’s why he’s doing that are on page 100. And something of Gatsby he’s got the same number of syllables there…”
jc: I realized after reading your book, why those are my two favorite books. And having written about music for most of my professional life and almost exclusively in book form now, it all became clear to me. That, and the humor we spoke of earlier.
DW: Yes, and above all of that, the fact that no one really understands Fear & Loathing in that way. It’s so funny on the surface level, and I just can’t get over that. Having said that, I mean, perhaps his best work, just on an objective level, might be “The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy” (Scanlon’s Monthly – 1970), which he wrote two or three years before that, and everyone talks about “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” as the breakthrough Gonzo work yet, just before he wrote that he wrote the Jean-Claude Killy piece, and everything is in place there, basically. He was essentially rewriting the Jean-Claude Killy piece in a more refined sense with a little less constraint. And then Fear and Loathing is the long version of “Kentucky Derby.” He found this template in Jean-Claude Killy that worked, so he copied it and he copied it. And one of the problems with the rest of his career was that he just tried to copy that again and again and again. It’s like, “Okay, you can get away with it three times, but when you start getting into it more and more, it’s more noticeable and more repetitive.”

But just to give another layer to this answer; my favorite book was The Rum Diary, (1950s manuscript published in 1998) and it’s not a brilliant book like Fear and Loathing, which is technically magnificent, but The Rum Diary, from a purely subjective stance, and we are talking about the most subjective of subjective writers, The Rum Diary had a huge influence on me. When I read my early writing, and I attempted a lot of fiction – I’m terrible at fiction, and one of the reasons is probably because I was just trying to copy The Rum Diary over and over. I re-read it in the research for this book, and two things struck me. One, it definitely wasn’t as good as I originally thought, although I enjoyed it again. And two, I felt, oh my god, I was ripping him off so badly without realizing it! The Rum Diary just ruined me as a writer of fiction back then. And yeah, I still love it for, you know, the books that we love. There’s not necessarily a good reason for it. Sometimes you just read them at the right moment in your life and they hit you in that way reading Hunter will do for all of us.

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Reality Check

James Campion

In Praise of Summer of Soul

Musician and filmmaker, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson may well have made the seminal concert film of the age – the rock/soul/funk/gospel/blues American age. In his brilliantly engaging and crucially significant Summer of Soul, we get to simultaneously experience the culmination of our musical and cultural roots and the future of this nation’s sonic roadmap.

Thanks to my pal, singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, for suggesting we take this in at an actual movie theater (imagine that post-pandemic fans) in the East Village this past week, I was mesmerized from the opening frames. The film launches with a fast-maturing, nattily attired Stevie Wonder sliding from center stage to ravage the drums. Suddenly, you are thrust into the moment – the heat, the excitement, the history. Summer of Soul literally brings to life long-lost footage from the summer of 1969, the absolute nexus of the pop world, a soul revelation from Motown to Stax, down the Bayou into the Baptist churches and Pentecostal revivals, the Delta Blues and the urban street funk and salsa searing rhythms.

Of course, the music isn’t the only theme of Summer of Soul. The voices – from the period and watching the footage along with us – proudly speak of community, faith, solidarity, and a relentless hope that permeated the audience and the performers that summer. Despite surviving a year of assassination, racial turmoil and economic stresses, Black pride is indefatigable. Pride for Harlem, for New York City, and for the powers of youth and art to overcome the systemic bigotry of 1960s America. All the issues we endure today, captured in the stories of journalists, musicians, audience members, and from the stage.

This film should be shown in schools and studied for years to come.

There is a moment in the film that left me shuddering; Jesse Jackson’s memories of the very moment Martin Luther King was assassinated, one year earlier on that hotel balcony in Memphis. He describes King’s last words before the fateful shot, joyfully turning to bandleader, Ben Branch, who was to play at a rally that evening; “Make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord,’” his favorite gospel song. Cut to Branch playing behind the legendary Mahalia Jackson and an impossibly young Mavis Staples singing the song. Singing is not even a fair description. More like awakening the echoes of the holy rapture.

And this is where Summer of Soul breathes; where its message drives deep; the music.   

Unlike the film, Woodstock, a documentary on the famous festival that took place during this run of shows at what was called the Harlem Cultural Festival that took place on weekends from June 29 to August 24 in 1969, Summer of Soul is a concert film in the truest sense of the word. While it does capture the zeitgeist of late-60s New York City, Harlem in particular, it concentrates on the stage. It is not an “experience” film of the event, as much as it reflects the talent, image, and influence of those who are connecting with the huge crowds – some 300,000 flocked to what is now Marcus Garvey Park that summer. Quick and essential shots of audience reactions grooving, weeping, shouting, and looking awestruck at what is transpiring before them adds to the allure of the story Questlove is telling. But it never interferes with the draw – the music.

And man, what music. In it, there is the very history of American song styles. And how incredibly young and vibrant the performers all appear. B.B. King is still smack in his prime as he tears through a fierce version of “Why I Sing the Blues”, a running history of the pain and anguish of the Black American experience that flows like a roaring river from its vocals down into King’s fingers, as he shreds his leads. Sly and the Family Stone, who will play arguably Woodstock’s hottest set within a week or so of their blistering performance here, are so incredibly mind-bogglingly killer, it gives credence to their massive cross-over powers of the time. Same goes for the 5th Dimension, riding high on their “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” mega-hit, they nail it with such verve, it is as though they needed for the Black Harlem audience to embrace them. Watching an emotional Marilyn McCoo and her husband, Billy Davis Jr. watch themselves performing a half century ago is another of the film’s many highlights.

Questlove and his editor Joshua L. Pearson uncovered forty hours of film which was to be sold as the Black Woodstock, but was lost to time, until now. And why? How did this not find an audience? Many of the performers were primed to have incredible runs in the 1970s. Black audiences could be counted on to frequent theaters and support their music. It is a question the film-makers ask again and again.

If it is not obvious by now, I adored this film. It should be shown in schools and studied for years to come. The layers in its message and its music are crucial to our understanding of where we have been and where we are going. It is a cultural masterwork and entertaining as hell.


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Aquarian Weekly

Reality Check

James Campion

What Godzilla vs. Kong Tells Us About Our Times

I am going to state for the record that I am an unabashed King Kong vs. Godzilla fan. Not because the original film came out the year I was born or that I have fond memories of going to see it with my grandma when I was a boy in the Bronx, but because it is so damn cool when two titans of the monster universe clash. No matter the reason. However the writers and filmmakers decide to get these two together is okay with me. This is why when Godzilla vs. Kong was released to great fanfare last Friday, I made it a point to sit my girls in front of our giant TV with my ridiculous sound system and watch it. And we did. And it was fucking fantastic. Silly. Cheesy. At times downright unintelligible claptrap. But when King Kong and Godzilla face off, all sins are forgiven.

I have always been fascinated by monster films. So is my daughter. I dig that about her. We have a slice of the macabre in us. She was riveted to the film. And why not? The sights and sounds of giant creatures stomping around, crashing through buildings and tossing tiny humans aside like ants, triggers something primal in us. Maybe because we’re in the smaller category of human? Maybe it’s an appetite for destruction? Who knows? One thing is for certain, these monster films, especially the ones featuring the biggies, and you get no bigger than King Kong and Godzilla, reflect a deeper framework of a world that is both joyful (beaches, sunsets, flowers, furry little creatures) and terrifying (floods, fires, storms, and large, growling creatures).

Nature vs. Civilization is always at the forefront of these creatures and their films. And they are always wildly popular. Despite hundreds of giant monster movies, many of them downright awful, the biggest stars, King Kong and Godzilla have not faced off in nearly sixty years. Most of that has no doubt to do with copyrights and lawyers, you know, human/civilization stuff, but nevertheless when they do come around, they are a hit. What does it say that with all of the content streamed our way since the pandemic hit in the spring of last year that Godzilla vs. Kong topped the list last week? Here we are, trapped by a virus, our civilization threatened by an unknown natural enemy we cannot wage war against culturally, politically, racially, added to the systemic vs. science fight on how to curtail this threat. So many factors; ideology, religion, politics, government. And here come the monsters.

Auspicious timing has been a reoccurring theme to monster films – especially the exaggerated grotesque forms of nature – a giant gorilla, who is both ancestor and imposing beast, arriving as tall as a building. Buildings, of course, being the big deal when King Kong was introduced to the world in 1933, the very height of the Great Depression. It would take more than a mere column to discuss the artistic ramifications in literature, art, film, and music that our man-made disaster did to the world, culminating in World War II, but suffice to say King Kong underlined it. It was perfect timing for a large ape to be brought against its will to the United States, fast becoming the dominant global power, to its greatest city, soon to be the world’s epicenter for progress, media, capitalism, and ingenuity, and scale its greatest edifice, the Empire State Building, erected merely two years before, only to be felled by a fleet of airplanes.

While a ship takes the fictitious film crew to Skull Island to encounter the mighty Kong in the original film, the airplane is the generational star of King Kong. Used for the first time a generation before as a special weapon of World War I, the purported war to end all wars, coupled with Charles Lindbergh’s improbable transcontinental flight only five-years gone, the airplane as both weapon and viable travel craft was relatively new. It is no coincidence that airplanes bringing Kong down resonated with 1933 audiences. The giant ape and the newest technology, battling on the biggest skyscraper on the planet in the biggest city of the biggest power around. A power brought low by stupidity and greed and the question of whether untethered capitalism, and the control of the economic environment as some kind of craps table, was viable for survival. The vengeance of the all-mighty buck as a far more imposing creature than the hairy beast with a crush on the screaming blonde woman.

Whew. A little on the nose, huh?

That is nothing compared to Godzilla.

King Kong is a film about the Great Depression, progress versus our natural past. Godzilla is a post-World War II film about the horrors of the atomic age, what humans had wrought on itself. The atomic bomb that laid waste to millions of Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the global massacre of billions for ideology and racism. The fears of our progress to make war, kill as many of us as possible, is in every frame of the 1954 film. And it does not hide its lineage from King Kong in its very name; Godzilla is from the word Gojira, a combination of two Japanese terms for “gorilla” and “whale”, both the fictionalized and actual largest mammals on the planet. This is not only nature come to lay claim to the planet, but the mutant ramifications of fucking with nature so badly.

This, of course, makes perfect sense in post-war Japan, a country ravaged in humiliating defeat, forced to see its holy leader felled by Western war technology and laid low by the growing dangers of the twentieth century. But Godzilla was so popular, an American version was introduced in 1956, literally challenging the legacy of King Kong with its title, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. A young Raymond Burr was added to the footage and thus the plot to put an American in the thing, a representative of our culpability in all this, harkening back to King Kong coming to die under a fusillade of airplane bullets thirteen years earlier. To be fair, it was just a Hollywood cash grab, but it was hard, as it is now, to ignore this theme. It is also quite cool to consider Godzilla and Elvis Presley showing up at the same time. Much of what came before was about to be swept away by another monster entirely.

The sights and sounds of giant creatures stomping around, crashing through buildings and tossing tiny humans aside like ants, triggers something primal in us.

So, it was inevitable that the two mighty franchises and its monsters should clash, and they did, in August of 1962. It was the height of the Cold War, two months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year before the Kennedy Assassination, and the Beatles and the 1960s and all that. A Japanese film company produced it with a plot teeming with anti-corporate greed and growing fears over pharmaceuticals and nuclear realities. None of it makes any sense when considering A) Kong dies at the end of the original film – despite American exploitations for the franchise – and B) how he ends up across the globe. Nevertheless, it was a massive international hit, released in America the following year. When I saw it in the late sixties, we all assumed there would be a sequel, considering the spate of these monster films throughout my childhood on TV and elsewhere. There would be a ton of rematches to come. Alas, this was not to be.   

Which brings us to 2021, and our pandemic/quarantine world, and the two titans returning to once again remind us of our self-destruction; technology and innovation over nature and humanity, our greed versus the sustaining of the planet, the unknown virus lying in wait to wipe us out. The ape from our past and the reanimated dinosaur from pre-history are products of things going terribly awry. Apparently, I would learn as we laughed and cheered and fist-pumped our way through Kong Versus Godzilla, this is a sequel of recent films, none of which I have seen. I mean, I am 58 now, and not as connected to the many universes run by giant conglomerates. But when I see these two lovable bastards about to fight, count me in.

Because that what monster movies do for us. They bring us back to our humanity by threatening it with large creatures that don’t belong, but kind of belong. They have human characterizes, they like kids, and are jealous and macho and fearful of something different moving in on their territory. All the stuff that we make and unmake.

We love monster movies. And it is no wonder at all.  

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