Richard Merkin, R.I.P.

On Labor Day night we lost one of our great dandies and a singular character, the artist Richard Merkin, who passed away at home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Merkin was a painter, an illustrator for The New Yorker for many years, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, a columnist for GQ, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the great collectors of antique pornography, and one of the great flaneurs and boulevardiers of the late twentieth century.

Merkin 1

I met Merkin shortly after arriving in New York in the early seventies, through our mutual friend Jean-Paul Goude, and I found him almost intimidatingly charming and elegant. Merkin was a throwback, in terms of his sartorial splendor, but it was more than that. Merkin dressed almost as a revolutionary act, as if through ignoring the prevailing fashions he could challenge the cultural decline they expressed. Merkin adhered to a higher standard. He didn’t simply collect and wear old clothes, Merkin was a rebel in bespoke, designing his own garments, which he had tailored to his exacting specifications. Note the cuffs on his sleeves. He was a perfectionist to the smallest detail.

Merkin 2

Richard Merkin was born in Brooklyn in 1938 and he held degrees from Syracuse and RISD (where he served on the faculty for more than forty years), but no degrees are given anywhere for the sort of learning Mr. Merkin attained. He was a polymath in the arts of the cultural substrata, an historian of the nexus that determines style. His distinctive work hangs in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. Merkin was very successful as an illustrator, with many book covers and New Yorker drawings to his credit.

Merkin 3

Merkin was also an enormously influential figure among his students and among younger artists, setting an example for the idea that one needn’t be a part of a movement or follow the trends, and that the most rewarding path was blazing one’s own. As a painter he had a most distinctive style—astutely colorful, romantic, and dreamy.

Merkin 4

A connoisseur of the elusive and evanescent, Merkin knew a good and a rare thing when he saw it. Merkin’s personal porn stash was distinguished enough to be catalogued, as it was in Velvet Eden: the Richard Merkin Collection of Erotic Photography (Bell Publishing, 1985), with commentaries by Merkin and Bruce McCall. Merkin’s naughty collecting also resulted in Tijuana Bibles: Art & Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s (Simon & Schuster, 1997), which documents the popular publishing phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century in which popular cartoon characters like Blondie and Popeye went hardcore, behaving as they never did on Sunday.

Merkin 5

He illustrated Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball League, which a labor of love. Merkin was a huge baseball fan. In his later years he basically traded in his splendid tailored wardrobe for a casual style. I was shocked at first to see him at the Odeon, downtown, with his young protégé Duncan Hannah, dressed as if for a baseball game. But Merkin wasn’t dressed for a Yankees or Mets affair, but more like a 1948 baseball game, wearing a vintage silk barnstorming team jacket and a cap from one of the Negro League teams.

Merkin 6

Merkin’s renunciation of his dandy stance was a major cultural event, at least in my eyes. What did it mean? It seemed like a sort of self-imposed exile. Merkin, for lack of broad acclaim in the art capital, had taken himself to the woodshed upstate, to paint in relative anonymity amongst the rustics. His paintings continued to sell. His collages seemed to get better and better, but one felt a certain bitteness or bittersweetness in him at not being recognized for the marvel he was and the rare and subtle spectacle that he presented. Had Merkin left to punish himself for failing to seize the high ground in time? Or was he punishing us by denying the city his irreplaceable example and company? Probably both.

Probably the best circulated image of Merkin is the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. He’s in the back row along with Aleister Crowley, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Carl Jung, and Bob Dylan. That was the league he belonged in. But these times are slow to recognize greatness in art, dress, personality, or spirit.

Merkin passed in his sleep, perchance in a dream, and hopefully will dwell in the Isles of the Blest.

I Was On to Representative Joe Wilson

On Wednesday, September 9th, Representative Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) shocked the nation by interrupting President Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress, shouting out "You lie!" and pointing his finger. He surprised the President and his aides, the Democratic membership, and most of the Republican membership with this unprecedented violation of protocol. I, however, was not surprised. I have been watching Wilson for some time, noting strange clues hidden in his sartorial style. He wears lobster-bib ties that could be concealing electronic devices as well as cultist-size lapel pins, often more than one, large enough to serve as antennae. Superficially Wilson's is simply an unfortunate style, common enough in the lower House.


But he also wears wears magnetic SUV ribbon ties.


He seems to wear permanent-press shirts exclusively, which contain chemicals that might possibly cause outbursts.


His ape-length jacket sleeves indicate that he may experience occasional bouts of "Hulk" syndrome.


At the time of the incident his shirt appears "stuffed." And he is carrying an electronic device in his pointing hand, as well as a glazed angry look.


Rep. Joe Wilson, in light gray, is not really an extra long. He lies.


Wilson habitually wears repp/club combo ties with remarkably ugly or cryptic devices on them. One wonders if they represent Southern secret societies. Note the crookedness of his index finger.


Is Wilson, seen here with brain trust, wearing two beepers, or is the small device with two blue lights a vibrating ultralight lie detector? Maybe that's how he came to believe that Obama had lied!


Here is Wilson heckling the President of the United States. Notice the crookedness of his pointer finger, and that he appears to be sitting between twin or cloned Republican representatives. Perhaps the very large cufflink visible on the pointing hand is remotely controlled.


My Next Ride

This weekend our pal J.A. was up in our neck of the woods (literally), and he dropped by in a Tesla roadster that was lent to him by a friend who happens to be a stockholder in Tesla Motors. It just so happens that my country estate, Bumfields, is located in an area that is frequented by sports-car enthusiasts and motorcyclists because of its natural beauty and the curvy, well-engineered, and uncrowded roads. Fortunately these enthusiasts are usually driving Triumph TR3s, Austin Healeys, and vintage 911s, and not those vulgar late-model Lamborghinis and Ferraris that mark a dual excess of money and testosterone. The Tesla certainly stood out on our street, which mostly sees traffic in tractors, hay wagons, Volvos, Priuses, and Subaru Outbacks.

Yes, this deep blue, low-slung car—which resembles the Lotus Elise it shares some parts with—would have turned a lot of heads in the neighborhood except that it doesn’t make any noise. It sneaks up to you, at high speed, which I appreciate since everyone in my neighborhood is always waving at me to slow down.

When the Tesla first appeared this year my interest was piqued. For one thing I have long been fascinated by the maverick genius Nikola Tesla, the inventor who pioneered commercial electricity and who seems to hold the world record for being ahead of one’s time. Although Edison got the credit and the money for electricity, Tesla was in fact the creator of the alternating current, and the electric motor.


Much of Tesla’s work was hindered because of his eccentricity, his foreign origin and contacts, and his rather bohemian lifestyle. (He lived at the Waldorf Astoria and hung out with Mark Twain.) He was also not modest about his genius and how he had figured it all out and was going to revolutionize the world. Which he did, though not quite as grandly as he expected. Tesla was perhaps the greatest genius of his time, but his PR was terrible, and despite his amazing accomplishments he suffered from characterization as a “mad scientist”of the sort that later ruined Wilhelm Reich. But his discoveries contributed to the development of radio, radar, x-rays, lasers, and radio astronomy. And in a way, to this incredible car.


I wasn’t up on just how spectacular an achievement this plug-in car is. I have driven a Prius hybrid but this is a whole other creature. This machine has no engine, just an electrical motor, although it looks like a traditional rich man’s toy. I expected it to be peppy, but I was not prepared for the actual experience. After climbing into the cockpit, and it is a cockpit, I had to be tutored in how to start it. Mainly because it makes no noise except for the hum from the battery, which was audible at the same level while it was parked. It was eerie backing out the driveway silently, but that was nothing compared to stepping on the….no, not the gas, the accelerator. My God! The Tesla Roadster Sport is a rocketship. Or maybe a UFO is a better comparison. This car does 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds. I did it myself. Silently! A full second faster than a Porsche 911, a tenth of a second faster than the quarter-million-dollar Ferrari F430. That’s remarkable enough, but the way it feels is astonishing. It hugs the road like a go-kart. This is by far the best-handling car I have ever driven, I guess in part because Lotus, the British manufacturers of the world’s best-handling cars, collaborated on the Tesla Roadster. The tires are super sticky and the considerable weight of the battery is perfectly balanced. I don’t know how close I came to flying off the road into a tree, but it never felt like I was close.

The most alien thing about driving a Tesla, aside from the eerie quiet, is that you don’t feel any shifting. This is an automatic, two-speed transmission. The tach goes up to a 14,000 rpm redline. With electric you get all the torque, all the time. Forget shifting. Floor this and you’re not in Kansas anymore. Flying around corners with just the sound of the wind, it was like being on the world’s fastest sailboat. Maybe they should sell a CD of high-revving gas engines for drivers having a tough time making the transition to quiet.


And, of course, you get 244 miles on a charge that costs about $5.

I was sold. This is the ultimate adult toy. It outperforms all those gas-guzzling cars that are the opposite of green, so nobody can knock you for it. Of course there are negatives. Like no room for the kid and the dog. Like maybe room for one set of golf clubs. So now I'm thinking maybe the answer is the Tesla S, the sedan that is due in 2011. The sedan will start at $49,900, including a $7,500 Federal tax credit, compared to over $100,000 for the Roadster, and it will be sold with battery-pack options, starting at 165 and going up to 300 miles.


The Tesla S looks a bit like a Maserati, and although it's not as fast as the Roadster, apparently it will keep up with the pricier German sedans. At half the price of the S550 I'm driving now, this car will apparently turn in a half-second faster, 0 to 60 time. And I'm told you can pack even more groceries into it. I'm thinking of putting my deposit down quite soon. I think Nikola T. would heartily approve.

Gone Greek

In case you couldn’t tell from my considerable absence, I was on vacation. I needed a classical fix and there’s no better place to get it than Greece. I didn’t just need to get out of New York; I needed to get out of the twenty-first century. If you can’t actually go back to the past, at least you can go somewhere where it’s visible. And of course in Greece it is spectacularly in evidence. Sometimes you can just close your eyes, open them again, and you’re almost in the land of the gods and goddesses.


We flew to Athens, and spent a few days there marching around the Acropolis in body-temperature weather, visiting museums and soaking up the local atmosphere. You can see the Acropolis from all over the city, so it’s funny how hard it is to actually find your way up there. But once you do the view is amazing. You can see for two thousand years.

I hadn’t been in Athens since before the Olympics, and I was impressed that it had cleaned up so nicely. I remembered smog and dirt and grunge but now it was mostly clean and bright. It’s not a rich metropolis, and not chic in the present manner of conspicuous consumption. It could pass, in some ways, for a former Communist capital, but it has a real soul to it. The only real blight in sight was the out-of-control graffiti.

When I see graffiti like this in Europe I actually feel pangs of guilt. My generation of New Yorkers had a lot to do with making a case that graffiti was art, or at least could be. Today graffiti is bigger in Europe than in New York, and I’ve heard that much of the ambitious graffiti in our city is done by European graffiti tourists desirous of leaving their mark where it all started. Of course, it didn’t all start here. There are prominent signs on the Acropolis warning against graffiti, but if you look closely those noble marble columns are covered with what we now call scratchiti. And the most graffiti I think I’ve seen anywhere was on the Great Wall. Whether Genghis Khan tagged the Wall or not I don’t know, but I think New York can only take credit for the spray-paint wave of graffiti, as any inspection of ancient sites tends to confirm that graffiti has been going on since long before the Vandals sacked Rome (455 AD).

Here is the defaced Melina Mercouri Foundation. Shame on you! Especially on Sunday!


Here are graffiti artists pillaging Rome, fifth century.


One day recently I went to my local Pilates studio and noticed that the large glass front door had been defaced (i.e., tagged) with acid. I couldn’t help but think that the perpetrator should have at least one hand chopped off. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Xenophon. Actually, that reading had a lot to do with wanting to go to Greece this summer.


For quite a few years we’ve headed to Italy in the summer. And for the last few years our destination in Italy has been Sicily, a.k.a. Magna Grecia, which is where many of the very best Greek ruins are to be found. And where, in ancient days, many of the very best Greeks were to be found. Sicily was an important colony of the Greeks before they blew their empire and got bested by the Romans; and Sicily's architecture, cuisine, and language still reflect the Greek presence. Lately my reading has taken a Greek turn—Herodotus; Aristophanes; Robert Graves’s Homer’s Daughter and The Golden Fleece (and, on this latter subject, The Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum and The Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes. Maybe I’m an escapist, but somehow I can’t help but think that the answers to the big problems of today (the ones nobody really talks about) are to be found here.

My son Oscar had never been to Greece and he loved Athens, especially when he learned that they have pizza, and he was really delighted when we visited the National Assembly building across from our deluxe hotel, the Grande Bretagne, to watch the changing of the guard—the Proedrinki Froura or Presidential Guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, a ritual that occurs hourly and draws lots of tourists, especially girls. Apparently only the hunkiest members of the Greek Army are chosen for this duty, performing an elaborate slow-mo drill in their traditional skirted uniforms. It’s really a hoot. Like Borat and Bruno rolled into one.


The soldiers wear a sort of skirted onesie over thick tights. Their shoes have pom-poms. And the scene itself is a little bizarre, as the drill takes place in front of a frieze of a hunky Greek hoplite seemingly in extremis, before which is something resembling a marble bed. It’s kind of erotic and campy at the same time, especially the slow-motion Rockette kicks. But this is a traditional look that goes back to the Greek War of Independence. The fans love it. I’m sure that these guys have no trouble hooking up, whichever way they are oriented.


By the way, the officer in charge when we were present bore an uncanny resemblence to Rhys Coiro, the actor who played the traitorous Sean Hillinger on 24 and the crazed director Billy Walsh on Entourage. What do you suppose he’s saying to his troops?



Here's the full range of Proerdriki uniforms:


A highlight of the trip was the Archeological Museum in Athens—not the new one on the Acropolis, but the old one, which is packed with treasures and provides a wonderful view of the development of Greek art.

Here are a few snaps I took of personal highlights.

The Greeks started with abstraction and worked their way into realism.


They invented the lawn jockey.


They glorified the human form. Gloriously. And made gods in their own image.


They mastered the metaphor.


Two thousand years before Nixon.


The Acropolis is a construction site at the moment, with a major restoration of the Parthenon underway. My favorite building is the Erechtheum, with its Porch of the Caryatids, and with the Parthenon covered in scaffolding this unusual temple really shines. It was devoted to both Athena and Poseidon, but takes its name from Erichthonius, an early ruler of Athens, who was supposedly the son of Hephaestus and the soil. Apparently the weapons-making god was so aroused by the sight of Athena that he spontaneously ejaculated. The disgusted virgin goddess wiped his ejaculate from her thigh and it impregnated the earth. My mother told me a similar story.


The Erechtheum was built on the site of a temple to Athena that was destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C. It contained an ancient olive-wood effigy of Athena that supposedly fell from heaven, and the marks of Poseidon's trident. It reminded me of my first dramatic role. I played Poseidon in the fourth-grade school play about the naming of the city. I remember my speech: "Greeks, I give you a new animal called the horse…" As Poseidon I gave the Greeks the horse, while Athena gave the city the olive. She won. As I recall, Athena was portrayed by Faith Ackerman.

After a few hot days and nights in Athens, we hopped a hydrofoil from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Hydra in the Saronic Islands, about an hour away as the boat flies. The isle of Hydra was supposedly so-named because it was a source of fresh water, from its many wells, but those dried up a long time ago, and today you hesitate to brush your teeth with the stuff in the pipes, which is brought over daily on a tanker from the Pellopenese. It is not named after the nine-headed beast slain by Hercules as his second labor.

Today Hydra is a quiet tourist destination, mainly because it has brilliantly banned automobiles, scooters, golf carts, etc.. The only exception to this rule are the garbage trucks. The only form of transport in Hydra besides feet are donkeys, and these do all the heavy lifting, as this is a very hilly place. This makes it an ideal escape from the present. So it was a vacation with no cars, no TV, no radio, and Internet only at the café (where I felt obliged to have a glass of wine in exchange for my wi-fi).


The author, in Hydra, drinking local rosé by the kilogram.

Maybe the old-world quality of Hydra explains why it is something of an art colony. It is an excellent escape from the unaesthetic aspects of modern life. It is a place artists live and visit. And then there is the Hydra Workshop, run by Pauline Karpidas, an art collector from London who married a Greek and who summers there. Pauline was a bird in the swinging London of yore, and she's kept her grooviness intact—an inspiration to the young artists she cultivates. In past years she has exhibited Christopher Wool, Tracey Emin, John Currin, and Rachel Feinstein. This year her gallery featured work by the young New York artist Nate Lowman. Lowman's paintings are in black-and-white with the blown-out silkscreen Warhol effect, but they are hand-painted renderings of photographs, not photo-generated. Then, outside the town, there's the local slaughterhouse, which has been transformed into an installation by Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton. I think you had to be there for the performance, which involved lifting a glass coffin containing Peyton's portrait of Barney out of the sea, to get the full effect. But this is a great setting for Barney, whose work is all about myth and magic.


Barney’s Abbatoir as temple.

Interesting, but I was more interested in my own long-term project of transporting my mind to a more ancient setting. Maybe it’s me, but I keep feeling like I’ve been washed up into some dead end of history, where culture has been replaced by a wax-museum version. Poetry—dead. Theater—dead. Cinema—struggling. Music—golden oldies. Fashion—a shallow receptacle of conspicuous waste. Politics—insanity.

In keeping with Bob Dylan’s sentiment, “There must be some way out of here,” it seemed like a good idea to read as much as possible things written 2,500 years ago. But the more I did, the more sense it seemed to make. Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said.

After reading about the "death panels" in Obama’s health care plan, the words of Thucydides (c.460–c.395 B.C.) from The Peloponnesian War seemed so right:

“To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had no practical effect…"



Who knew that the playbook of Karl Rove was almost 3,000 years old? And: "…There was a general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world. The simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist. Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion."

Not again!

And then, reading Xenophon's The Persian Expedition, about the escape of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from certain death in Iraq, I couldn't help but think about my recent adventures in the corporate world. Here's Xenophon at a council of war, writing about himself in the third person: "After him Xenophon stood up. He had put on the best looking uniform that he could, thinking that, if the gods granted victory, victory deserved the best-looking armour, or if he was to die, then it was right for him to put on his best clothes and be wearing them when he met his death." The best advice on dressing that I have ever read.


Xenophon: historian, philosopher, general, and horseman.

What one finds in Greece, or at least what one finds oneself looking for, is what we have lost. Maybe it's there buried under the ruins. We have lost integrity, in the sense of wholeness. We have lost real glory and real honor. And what one finds in the Greeks, at best, is a true sense of honor. For the soldiers in Thucydides and Xenophon, their word is their bond. They live and die by their oaths.

Americans love Rome because of that imperial grandeur that our country has mirrored at times. But Rome, after the Republic, was a decadent mess. The Romans were suspect. If they believed in anything, I suppose, it was in the Greeks. H.L. Mencken writes of the Roman attitude toward the gods: "It goes without saying that no enlightened Roman believed in any of them. Rome had become the sewer of theology, as the United States threatens to become today. All the streams of superstition ran into it, and all the streams of sacerdotal fraud. To be a priest, in the high days of the empire, was to be set down confidently as a swindler." "Cato mirari se aiebat," said Cicero, "quod on rideret haruspex, harusspicem cum vidisset." Cato used to wonder how one priest can avoid laughing when he meets another.

I wonder that, too. On the other hand, as a de facto atheist and anti-cleric, I could slip right into happy of observance of the Greek religion if it made a comeback, because of its beauty and the ideals it promoted. One of the best things to come out of my Greek vacation was reassurance of Ezra Pound's dictum, "A god is an eternal state of mind." Io Pan! This Bud's for Bacchus.

Are You Ready for the Country?

I live in the country. Part-time. I have a house in Northwestern Connecticut. It's the country alright, 22 acres, a lot of it woods. Tomatoes, strawberries, fennel, rosemary, basil, and stuff growing out back. Mint juleps growing out front. Had a big bear run through the backyard last year, found six wild turkeys on the back porch one day, and we've got hawks, buzzards, flying squirrels, deer, bobcats, snakes, turtles, salamanders, and insects that look right out of science fiction. I thought I saw Mothra one night.

I've got a shotgun but I might not have any shells. And one night I did see a mountain lion running down the road. The state pretends they aren't here because then they'd have a habitat or something, but this is wild in the country, baby. Don't leave the dog out. But it's also farm country. There are cows grazing right across the street. My neighbors raise cattle and geese and the chief executive of our town has a farmstand up the road where lately he's got organic potatoes, onions, garlic, zucchini, raspberries, and various exotic forms of salad. The corn and heirloom tomatoes aren't far off. Hey, I know urbanity is my beat, but I'm more country than you'd think. I've got a pair of overalls!

Here are some of my trees:

Picture 1

I used to have a house in Long Island, a house built by a farmer in what was once a farm town, but today almost all the old fields are filled with a bumper crop of spec McMansions. I've heard that some of these enormous "cribs" are now going to seed after several years of sitting vacant. It doesn't break my heart. When I first lived out there we'd actually say, "Are you going to the country this weekend?" Later that changed to, "are you going to the beach?" Really it should have been, "Are you going to the distant suburbs?" I couldn't bring myself to say "The Hamptons." It made me depressed. But now I can say, "Are you going to the country?" and really mean it."

I've been spending a lot of time in the country lately, and suddenly I had a craving for country music. As a longtime New Yorker it might seem funny listening to country music, and I find most of that Nashville stuff horrible, but I have had a weakness for country for a long time. They do it right in Texas. Some people call it outlaw country. I call it urbane country music. I think I picked up the habit in Chicago. I used to go to an Irish pub called O'Rourke's and they had a lot of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson on the jukebox. I just fell in love with their voices and their poetics. How many nights did I stick in a quarter and pick, "Good Hearted Woman." She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man. And it was in O'Rourke's over a pint of Guinness that I learned the lyrics of "Luckenbach, Texas" by heart.

Picture 2

City people love country music; and it's big in Irish bars because Irish people love country music, too. Ireland is a country with a lot of country. It's really green, and they like American country music because it comes from Irish music, especially bluegrass; but they also relate to the poetry of country music, and such themes as drinking, infidelity, betrayal, heartache, all the good stuff. The fact is that a lot of what we call country music is just as much city music, and the truth is most of those country cats love the city. One of the most spectacular apartments I've been to in New York is Jimmy Buffett's penthouse. It's so high up you feel like you're in a plane. And the time I met one of my favorites, Jerry Jeff Walker, it was in the very fancy apartment of Dan Jenkins, one of our greatest country-and-western novelists. (Was that on Park Avenue?)

I love that outlaw country—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard. Hey, I had "Okie From Muskogee" stuck in my head for three days. Merle was just funnin' us, fellas. I'm sure he smoked marijuana in Muskogee. And of course, you cannot beat Hank Williams. If you have never really listened to Hank Williams you have never heard the greatest white blues ever. Eric Clapton doing Freddy King is fine with me, but Hank Williams is the real deal. I suggest that you immediately go to iTunes and grab on to "Ramblin' Man," a song that gives me the chills every time I hear it. It's the razor's edge of a high, lonesome sound that has as much soul as anything called soul music.

When we think of poetry in American music we think of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (I know he's Canadian, I mean North American music) and Tom Waits, etc., or of the great tunesmiths of tin pan alley like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, or Irving Berlin; but some of the greatest poetry in American music comes from the country tradition. Waylon Jennings's "Drinkin' and Dreamin'" is the great lyric poem of the disappointed American blue-collar man of the rust belt: All I got is a job I don't like…and a woman that don't understand…so tonight at the bar I'll get in my car and take off from the promised land…drinkin' and dreamin' knowing well I can't go…I'll never see Texas, L.A. or old Mexico…but here at this table I'm able to leave it behind…drink till I'm dreaming a thousand miles out of my mind. Or the beautifully simple irony of the refrain of Waylon's "I've Always Been Crazy:" I've always been crazy but it's kept me from goin' insane. Or the powerful poignancy of Johnny Cash's "Jim I Wore a Tie Today," as he sings to a deceased friend at his funeral, Jim, I wore a tie today…the first one I ever wore and you'd have said I looked like a dummy out of a dry goods store.

Anyway, here's a little playlist of what I consider essential "country music," without which you haven't been exposed to the full spectrum of American culture.


Hank Williams: Your Cheatin' Heart; You Win Again; Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?; Move It On Over; I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry; Honky Tonkin'; Hey Good Lookin'; Honky Tonk Blues; Cold Cold Heart

Picture 3

Waylon Jennings: Luckenbach, Texas; Good Hearted Woman; The Wurlitzer Prize; This Time; Lucille; Rainy Day Woman; I Ain't Livin' Long Like This; I've Always Been Crazy; Drinkin' and Dreamin'

Willie Nelson: Crazy, Good Times; Always On My Mind, On the Road Again, Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain, Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys; Hello Walls; Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other

Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire; The Man in Black; Hurt; I Walk the Line; Solitary Man; Rusty Cage; One; Folsom Prison Blues; Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down; The Beast in Me; Delia's Gone; Thirteen; Jim, I Wore a Tie Today

Picture 4

Merle Haggard: The Bottle Let Me Down; I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink; Mama Tried; Things Aren't Funny Anymore; The Fightin' Side of Me; If We Make It Through December; Living With the Shades Pulled Down; Big City

Merle Haggard & Willy Nelson: Pancho & Lefty, Reasons to Quit and No Reason to Quit.

Jerry Jeff Walker: Mr. Bojangles; L.A.Freeway; Pissin' in the Wind

Picture 5

Kris Kristofferson: Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down; Help Me Make It Through the Night; The Silver Tongued Devil and I; The Best of All Possible Worlds; For the Good Times

David Allan Coe: Take This Job and Shove It

Billy Swan: I Can Help

Ray Price & Willie Nelson: I Fall to Pieces

Ray Price: For the Good Times; Heartaches by the Number; I Can't Go Home Like this; Release Me; Weary Blues

Billy Joe Shaver: Old Chunk of Coal

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Tammy Wynette: Stand By Your Man; D-I-V-O-R-C-E; Til I Can Make It on My Own

Listening to classic country music is good for you. It takes your mind off your troubles because it reassures you that somebody's got it worse, and it definitely distracts you from the contemplation of fashion, gossip, and luxury goods. And country music, at its best, carries with it a sort of immunity to the cultural ideas of "alternative" and "progressive" that have infected other genres with market-driven modernism. I don't need to know who the next Amy Winehouse is as long as we've got Tammy Wynette. Which reminds me of the time I interviewed the great Tammy Wynette. I think it was at the Plaza Hotel. She fit right in at the Plaza. She was as cool a customer and as a hot a woman as I've ever met. Sexy. If you don't believe me, ask Burt Reynolds. I came so close to asking her out, even though she was five years older than me.

Ironically I don't think that an American can be truly urbane without appreciating the musical tradition of this country, from rhythm and blues to bluegrass, jazz, and country. The pinnacle of urbanity in country music is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of one of my favorite acquaintances, Ned Sublette, a cowboy musician who came of age in the New York New Wave Scene, but who wrote "Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," which became a hit for Willie Nelson and was written long before Brokeback Mountain. Ned is not only a country cat but he's a black belt in salsa, and his extraordinary album Cowboy Rhumba brilliantly reveals the secret powerful connection between country and the Caribbean, just as Gangstagrass (written about here recently) shows the alarming magnetism between hip-hop and bluegrass.

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Anyway, on Friday I'll be packing up for the country.

Dear Dash Departed

Dash Snow is dead. The great Dash is gone.

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Photo by Olivier Zahm

I heard about it yesterday, when one of his best friends suddenly burst into tears and ran from the room. All I heard was the word "Dash," but I knew what had happened. Dash was a rope-walker by nature. He was an artist working up high, and the gravity got him. He'd fallen. I was surprised and stunned and saddened, but not shocked. He worked without a net. And with a high degree of difficulty.

Dash was a beautiful person and a genuine artist. A lot of people didn't get the genuine part because to them he was a gossip star, all image. But he was the real thing, and sometimes his real was so in your face that people thought it must have been an act. It was an act, of course, but it was a real act. When you live in a world that's inside a television there are no other options. But Dash and some of his friends were re-inventing what it is to be an artist, because that's something every generation has to do. They had gotten the lay of the land and were responding accordingly.

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I was delighted to meet Dash, because when people would ask me what young artists I liked I was embarrassed to name people who were forty. But some of these youngsters seemed to have something going on, like Nate Lowman and Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen…but none of them more so than Dash.

I thought of the little artist's book sitting in my living room that he had given me: "In the Event of My Disappearance." It turned out Dash had OD'd at the Lafayette House. Everybody said he'd been clean, clear, in good health. That's the way it goes. The day before Jean-Michel Basquiat died, he'd left a message on my machine—he was back from Hawaii, clean, and feeling great. A clean junkie lives with danger. The equation has changed. Ask Lenny Bruce.

After living through purgatory these brave boys were conned by junk. One more time. I'm sad but pissed off, again. I'm pissed off when I read the stupid blogs and comments. The worst thing about an artist dying is that he can't talk back. Dash can't say "Fuck you!" back, so I hope his friends say it for him. And to all of the glib fuckers who say he was not a good artist, let me just say: Fuck you, what do you know?

"In the Event of My Disappearance." I always thought that book, and quite a bit of Dash's work, was meant to foreshadow a dramatic demise that actually might not occur. It needn't have occurred. We all do a lot of foreshadowing during our youthful drama phase, but sometimes we wise up a bit. That's punk rock. Sid got dead; Johnny got smart.

I remember the first artist in New York I became friends with who I considered really old: Lil Picard, who had been one of the surrealists, and who impersonated Andy Warhol's mother in David Bailey's documentary on him. She must have been in her seventies when I met her in the seventies, my grandpa's age, and she said to me, "Every artist has to go through his drug crucifixion period." I was younger than Dash when she said that, but it stuck with me and I saw it again and again.

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The way Lil said it was so non-judgmental. It was like being told the facts of life, the ones your parents didn't know. Dash could have lived but death was one of his subject matters. Death and life.

Dash was good at life. He was lively. But he was one of those artists whose work was a process of self-testing, a documentation of his life.

Page two of "In the Event of My Disappearance:" A bag of heroin on a black background. Page three, a Hitler-head postage stamp. Page nine, words cut from a newspaper: "STOP SUFFERING." Page ten, a Polaroid of an empty, ruined swimming pool. Page fifteen, Michael Jackson in a bandana, with two of his children, in Spider-Man masks. Lots of beds, tattoos, beer, parties, clips from magazines, strange things found in streets and fields, and finally a newspaper clip: "Bandit downs self to end chase." And a Polaroid of a railroad track in the middle of nowhere, curving into the trees.

I called my friend Olivier in Paris. He knew, and he asked me why Dash would have been in the bathtub. I didn't know. Jim Morrison died in a bathtub, but that's a long story with lots of footnotes. And plenty of overdoses ended in a tub of cold water, as friends tried to revive a blue person, but no, Oliver said, Dash had been alone, door locked from the inside.

Dash Snow was a beautiful man. He was as much of a character as he looked. He looked like he worked on the Pequod and was in port for a laugh before going out after another white whale. With his hair and beard and tattoos and hats he looked like he'd walked out of the past, or maybe a more interesting future, and he certainly made a point of being out of time. He had a grace and nobility about him that was definitely not of our time. Maybe he was the most modern of us because he was so in revolt against the here and now. He was not available by telephone. He was not available. He made himself independent by excluding himself from the communications loop. He didn't want to be in that automatic conspiracy. He saw you when he wanted to, or let you contact him when and how he wanted. Which means he saw what was wrong with the here and now, as an artist should.

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No matter what the morons write, Dash was a hell of an artist. He was young but he was really, really good. I was at Christopher Wool's studio one day and I saw something hanging on the wall and said, "Wow, what's that?" and he said "Dash Snow. We did a trade." If Christopher does a trade with you then you're good. I hadn't seen a collage like that of his. He was getting mastery of his media. He was going to be a great one.

Too bad about the publicity. The first thing I saw on the Internet was "Warhol's Child Dies." At first I wondered what the hell that meant. I had forgotten the New York magazine cover story, "Warhol's Children," which had made Dash, Dan Colen, and Ryan McGinley into the next art movement—one apparently based on partying, self-indulgence, and decadence. They had let this writer, Ariel Levy, into their world and the writer had written it from the writer's point of view. Sensationalism! But, to be fair, it was considered sensationalism. What a surprise. The day after it came out I ran into Dash on his bike. He was mortified. I can't imagine what he expected. Sometimes not having a phone isn't enough. How could he have not known what would happen? What would be written. What people would say.

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Photo by Mr. Mort

It's a vicious circle. Artists have to be famous to work. Unless they are rich. Dash wasn't rich. He was penniless from a rich family, which is sort of the worst of both worlds. He was serious, but the readers and those to whom he was just a name, they wouldn't take him seriously. Which is why the work is important. The work is still alive.

But the dashing Dash raced to the finish. The thing is that he didn't know where that was. I guess you never do until you get there.

Yesterday afternoon the news was still percolating in my head. I looked for more information on the web and saw all these stupid comments about Dash joining "the 27 Club." I had been through all of this before with J-M.B. They couldn't wait to make him into Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Parker.

A song sort of started going around in my head. I hadn't played it in a long time, but I could still hear it—that oddball non-singer's voice chanting: "Junk is no good baby…no good baby is junk…no junk baby is good…good junk is no baby….no good no good no good."

That was a song recorded by a great Beat legend, the artist and writer Brion Gysin, in 1982 when he was 66. "Junk is no good baby…" It was going through my head.

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Brion knew what he was talking about. He'd been there, done that. That's why he performed "Junk is No Good Baby." He put it out as a single, produced by a young Frenchman named Ramuncho Matta, and then it came out on a CD along with other songs like "Kick That Habit." I met Gysin in Paris around that time. I remember his spectacular cough. He practically turned blue smoking a cigarette while we sat in Privilege in Paris, under Le Palace, and when he regained his breath he patted me on the knee and said, "My dear boy! I believed that I had breathed my last."

But Brion didn't breathe his last until 1986, when he died of lung cancer. Before he did he recorded a song called "Quit Smoking" that featured him coughing cancerously. It's horrible and it's fun. "Stop smokin' your joking….I'm chokin'….I'm croakin." It was released six years after he died.

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Brion Gysin

Gysin was an inspiration to William Burroughs. He invented the Dream Machine, which he, Burroughs, and others used as an oracle, a non-pharmaceutical means of consciousness alteration, and he devised the famous cut-up technique that was such an important method for Burroughs in such works as Naked Lunch. Brion was a great and amazing painter, whose work has not yet been properly assessed, but for him life was more important than work, and to be in his presence was a joy. He said, "I enjoy inventing things out of fun. After all, life is a game, not a career."

That's what the kids ought to know. It's not written.

The great Dash Snow is gone. Real gone. Dash is dead. Long live Dash.

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Photo by Mortensen

Drinking (Again) for Health

I just noticed that one of the Topics listed on this page is wine. This would suggest that I should cover it semi-regularly, at least. I love wine. I do believe in Bacchus. I do believe in Dionysus. (Not Tinkerbelle.) I drink wine daily, more or less. And I would probably drink a fair amount of wine even if recent articles had not suggested that drinking it in moderation might have health benefits and even promote longevity. Turns out that—like butter, and real sugar, and lard—wine is good for you!

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Bacchus, god of wine, by Caravaggio

I do believe that there are health-promoting substances in wine. I just don't think anyone, at least nobody I know, drinks in what the experts call "moderation." Like, one glass a day. Even the nuns I've known drank more than that. But I do believe that wine is good for you, although I also recognize that it's possible to overdo it and that I have overdone it on, well, several occasions. Like last night. But not tonight.

In any case, I wrote on this blogue last January about how I no longer drink spirits, only wine. So if you'd like to go back and read that as a preamble, I'll wait….

Anyway, wine drinkers are supposedly 32% less likely to get cataracts than non-drinkers, and 43% less likely than beer drinkers! Moderate wine-drinking is also said to cut the risk of colon cancer by 45%. And, of course, red wine is supposed to be good for your heart because it contain tannins and tannins contain procyanidins, which help prevent heart disease.

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Dionysus (with Eros)

Recently I was listening to an NPR chat about a book called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner of National Geographic. Buettner noted that the place on earth with the most male centenarians is a shepherding culture in Sardinia. It's full of lively oldsters like the 104-year-old Giovanni Senai, who was out chopping wood at nine in the morning, after a glass of the local red, Cannonau. One of the theories on the longevity of the geezers of that region is their culture's long-term consumption of this wine called Cannonau, a red that is particularly full of procyanadinis and anti-oxidants. According to Mr. Buettner, it has three times the anti-oxidants of any other wine.

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Dan Buettner

Anyway, ever since I've been studying the effects of Cannonau. If I'm chopping wood when I'm 104, you'll know it's the vino. Actually the "cannonau" grape is the same known elsewhere as Grenache, which is generally considered to be native to Aragon in Spain, where it's known as garnacha.

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Cannonau, or garnacha, grapes

Some experts, particularly the Italians, insist that the grape is native to Sardinia and it was exported to Spain during their four centuries ruling that big, luscious island.


I have had quite a few bottles of Il Bombarde, which costs less than $15 a bottle and is a fantastically rich wine for the price. The popular blog "Good Wines Under $20" edited by Deb Harkness, who knows her stuff, writes: "The 2003 Santa Maria La Palma Le Bombarde was one of those wines that reminded you that rusticity is something that you happen upon all too infrequently these days when drinking wine. ($18, Bion Divino). Upon first sip, it smelled and tasted like iron—overwhelmingly so—with some gamey notes that made me think I had made a serious mistake with this wine. I left it alone in the glass for 15 or so, then sipped it and the iron tang had gone, replaced by flavors of meat and leather. Another 15 minutes and the meat and leather had melded with a strong, cherry liqueur flavor. In the end it was very much like an older Chateauneuf du Pape, with all the rusticity and funkiness left in and none of its opulence of plushness. Tonight we have Sileno on the menu, from Ferruccio Deiana, under $20. Tomorrow perhaps 'Inu Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva Contini," a bit more than $20 but certainly not too rich for my tannin-thinned blood."

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I know the idea of drinking wine for health is not exactly widespread among Americans, who probably find the concept propaganda from the decadent French and Italians. In fact I imagine there are far more Americans who think they are drinking diet soda for their health than those of us who use that excuse for drinking wine. And I have quite a few friends who belong to a club where drinking is frowned upon. In fact, not drinking is the purpose of that club. Personally, I think such organizations are marvelous for some people, and I have seen their beneficial effect on both friends and family members. But in recent years AA seems to have lost a bit of the chic quality that it had around the turn of the millennium. Let's just say that there are probably fewer non-alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous today than there were back then. A friend of mine used to try to talk me into going to meetings with him. I'd say, "But I'm not an alcoholic." He'd say, "it doesn't matter. You should should see the chicks there. Everybody goes to this meeting. Aerosmith goes to this meeting…"

"I thought it was supposed to be anonymous," I'd say. My friend just shrugged. But I knew about several meetings attended by friends that were packed with sharing, qualifying celebrities. Anyway, now several of my friends who used to be teetotalers in that club now drink again, and I must say that I find it to be something of a relief. It's okay that it took them ten years to figure out that they were heroin addicts, not alcoholics. Whatever it takes. As for the long-term members of the club, I must say I believe that some of them have literally had their lives saved by the program. But then there are others, even some whom I might have called drunks at one time, who have achieved long term sobriety and still I'll think, "Maybe he should go back on the bottle." A delicate balance there. Personally I believe in cutting down. Temperance is not abstinence; it is moderation. If you think you're drinking too much, read Under the Volcano and switch to beer for a while. I recommend drinking Guinness. Unless you're Brendan Behan you'll likely get full before you get drunk.

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Brendan Behan

I once heard a story that back when the late, great Behan was Ireland's de facto poet laureate he was approached by the beer-making giant Guinness to come up with a slogan for their famous stout. According to the story, Behan said that he was interested in the project but thought he needed some of the beverage to inspire him. The company arrived with a large quantity of stout, and Behan told them to return the next day. Supposedly the executives arrived, knocked and knocked, but got no reply. The door was unlocked, however, and they let themselves in and discovered Behan lying on the living room floor unconscious. Scrawled on the wall in large letters was the slogan: "Guinness…it gets you drunk." Undoubtedly this story is untrue, but I choose to believe it anyway. In fact one slogan that the stout used for years was "Guinness is good for you." Some macrobiotic folks I used to know called the stuff "Irish miso" and believed it was very beneficial. I make a point of having one now and then, particularly if I'm in a pub where they have it on draft. The bottled stuff, in my opinion, is not so good, although that magic pint can they've developed served up a genuine draft quality drink. I also find Pilsner Urquell in the magical draft pint can quite excellent.

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I admit I have had a doctor tell me to quit drinking. He may have been drunk when he said that. I believe he was definitely smoking a cigarette. Of course there's the old joke about how a doctor knows if you have a drinking problem: if you drink as much as he does. I once had a very, very old and wonderful doctor. He was so old that his hand shook so much I used to ask him if it was okay if I stuck the needle in when he was taking blood. (He never let me, so I always got a big bruise.) I don't think he was shaking from drink, but he did drink, which is maybe why he was practicing well into his 80s. He said, "Son, I'm not out to make a teetotaler out of you." Which meant I could continue going to him. I remember seeing Tom Waits on Broadway years ago. He had a set on stage, with a table, a chair, and a refrigerator. Several songs into the show he went to the fridge, took out a beer, and opened it. "I went to the doctor and he told me to to quit drinking," Waits said, "Now I'm the doctor."

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That was, of course, some years ago. I hear that now Tom's wife is the doctor. Anyway, we all have to find our own path. Right now I'm drinking wine for health, one day at a time. I'm the doctor, my doctor, but not your doctor. To your health!

Meet Hooman Majd: Gentleman, Scholar, and Modest Hero

Majd in Persian lamb diplomat (and maybe a Revolutionary Guard keffiyeh)

I met my dear friend Hooman Majd about a decade ago, when Chris Blackwell got the idea that I might be a good head of marketing for Island Records. I had known Chris for years. He is a visionary; a businessman who thinks and behaves like an artist. He brought reggae music and the Wailers to the world, not to mention developing and supporting artists like Traffic, Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Brian Eno, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Marianne Faithfull, Malcolm McLaren, U2, Tom Waits, and many others—as well as producing important films, being an important player in re-developing Miami's South Beach, and turning Jamaica into an even more delightful destination. I thought it would be great working for Chris, and it was, from the moment I started until he sold Island Records. But the best thing about it was meeting my friend Hooman.

Hooman Majd was the Executive Vice President of Island, which meant that he was Chris's right hand and left brain, the guy running the company day to day and doing much of the heavy lifting. Hooman had a fantastic ear, a great eye, superb executive ability, and the DNA of a diplomat. We were ensconced in "Worldwide Plaza," a big ugly building on the west side of midtown Manhattan that creaked and moved every time it was windy out. I had never met anyone named Hooman before, but my only surprise was that despite his unusual Iranian name, how very American he was. Well, not exactly American. Sort of haute American. A true cosmopolite. In fact one could make a case that Hooman, who I believe was what they call "stateless" at the time, was living proof that there is no nationality or culture superior to transcendental statelessness. Mr. Majd belongs to the world.

Like many of my friends Hooman had gone to "public school" in England, which accounted for his superior manners, his well-chosen words, and his pervading sense of irony. As I recall we were laughing within minutes and we never stopped. Hooman often laughed about public school, an experience he shared with Chris Blackwell and our mutual friend Michael Zilkha. Hooman would recall the headmaster warning the boys off the local girls. "For god's sake," the headmaster said, "If you must have sex, have it with a boy."


Although he was running one of the most important record companies in the world, Hooman was not a typical show-business exec. He wasn't a suit. In fact he generally didn't wear suits. I had come from ten years working as creative director of advertising for Barneys New York and I generally wore suits. One day one of our most successful acts, the Cranberries, came up to the office and I introduced myself to them as the chairman of Polygram, the conglomerate parent of Island. They didn't even blink. I guess I looked like a chairman. In fact I was really just a creative director, masquerading as a marketing director. I really don't like the idea of marketing, and all I really wanted to do was make album covers, videos, web sites, and those bizarre items record companies use for promotion—like light-up logoed yoyos or liquorice LPs. They gave me an office down the hall from Hooman's corner office, and a secretary, neither of which I wanted. If I had an office that meant someone expected me to be in it. My secretary's main job was actually divvying up the office between others who were visiting from out of town, or who wanted to make phone calls or have sex. I spent most of my time on the sofa in Hooman's office, brainstorming, drinking Evian from his fridge, laughing, and smoking cigarettes.

Hooman and I were big influences on one another. I got him into buying custom-made suits. He got me into smoking George Karelias, a Greek cigarette that we decided was the finest in the world and went to great lengths to get our hands on. We would sit around Hooman's Damien Hirst cigarette-patterned ashtray and discuss how to sell more records, how to make better videos and packaging, how to get around certain people in the company, and where to have lunch. Usually it was Barbetta, the oldest Italian restaurant in the city, where we could eat in the bar and smoke.

Producer Abbie Terhukle with Hooman at just about his most bearded

Although when I met him Hooman wasn't much of a suit guy, he was splendidly dressed. He wasn't against suits, I think he just felt that in a creative industry one didn't want to be a suit so one didn't often wear one; but I think that my rather eccentric way of wearing them was a bit of an influence, as his taste in shoes, sweaters, polos, watches, and sport shirts certainly rubbed off on me. Dandy is a misunderstood word, but Hooman exhibited a gift for combining clothes and colors that is certainly aesthetic and might be considered an art. He is the only man I know who can pull off a lavender overcoat and excite women simultaneously. We also shared certain habits. We were both into housecleaning as a hobby. I find it really zen as I believe Hooman does, and it is a testament to his absolute impeccability that although he smokes about as much as anyone still does you can't smell tobacco in his apartment. (He credits the Papiers d'Armenie that he burns. I credit his hygienic genius.)

We had a good run at Island, selling a lot of U2 records. I made a few nice album sleeves (although whenever I managed to get a sleeve or a video made I seemed to be intruding on another department). Hooman got into film production, executive producing The Cup, a wonderful film about Tibetan Monks trying to watch the World Cup soccer matches on TV, and Black and White, the ultimate wigger film, a black comedy by James Toback that starred Robert Downey, Mike Tyson, and Brooke Shields, among an all-unlikely cast.

Then after a few years, when CB sold his shares in Island, we were out—although Hooman's replacement, our mutual friend Davitt Sigerson (now a novelist) continued to pay my salary for a while out of benign neglect. But by then Hooman and I were friends for life. He is Uncle Hooman to my nine-year-old son, and practically every Christmas Eve Hooman has been there to help trim our tree. And one Halloween, I dragged Hooman out to a high-end cocktail bar, explained to him that the beautiful bartender had eyes for him, then made him go back later, alone. They have been together ever since, although today she is a master yoga teacher.

Anyway, I am getting into this for several reasons. One is that if there is someone that the Style Guy would look to for advice in sartorial matters, or matters of etiquette or protocol, it would be Mr. Majd, the son of a professional diplomat who worked for the Shah of Iran. That diplomatic background is why Hooman grew up in Washington, London, New Delhi, and Tokyo, among other places, after being born in Tehran. And because of the Shah's fall, Hooman never visited his native country between the ages of seven and, well, forty-something. But in the last few years he has been going back to Iran regularly, traveling the country and reporting on what's going on there for publications including GQ, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, the New York Observer, and the Huffington Post. Hooman also writes wonderful fiction. I published a bit in my now defunct literary magazine Bald Ego, a story about Iran that was illustrated by his excellent photographs. And now he has a best selling non-fiction book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, which explains in an entertaining and superbly informed manner what exactly is going on in a country that is perhaps more misunderstood in America than any other.

I think most of us who have Persian (Iranian) friends know that they are not Arabs. They may be Muslims or not. I'm not exactly what you'd call Hooman, who has some Jewish ancestors, descends from Zoroastrians, is the nephew of an important ayatollah (they don't come more important than Khatami), and who really, really enjoys Christmas. I hope I'm not blowing his cover by saying he's probably an observant atheist or an agnostic with Rastafarian sympathies or that his sympathies lie somewhere with mine, between Druidism and Olympus. But whatever their religion, the Persians I know are sophisticates and enthusiasts. Iran is not a backward country, it is not only a cradle of civilization but a hotbed of aspiration, where poetry and art are not ivory tower pursuits but a way of life. Their joie de vivre is expressed in the way they talk, the way the cook, and even the way they party. I find few feminine concepts sexier today than a chador worn to conceal a flimsy decolette cocktail dress and Manolo Blahnik heels.

In the final days of Bush I was terrified that the U.S. would bomb Iran. Hooman seemed certain of it. Neither of us were fans of Ahmedinejad, although I think we were both bemused by certain of his performances, but we knew enough to know that Iran has never attacked another country and its possession of nukes would be far less dangerous than the situation that exists today in Israel, Pakistan, and India. But we have made it to Obama-world and now it seems unlikely that artificially agitated hysteria will lead to a confrontation with Iran—a country that is rapidly evolving before our eyes right now.


The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Doubleday) is available as a hardback, now discounted to $15.89 at Amazon and the paperback will probably be out in August. You may have seen Hooman on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher on June 19th or on John Stewart's The Daily Show. He has become something of a regular on Charlie Rose and the rest of the pundit circuit, as he knows his stuff and is a truly gifted conversationalist. On Bill Maher, Hooman shocked the fairly unplappable host by wearing, with an otherwise rather Savile Row kit, his giveh, the traditional folk knit Iranian shoes, dyed green for the Moussavi revolution. I had seen him in them just a few days earlier, and I've asked him to help me dye the giveh that he just brought back for me from Tehran. Also to help me try to stretch them out. I don't think these are size 12 like my last pair. The green shoes really seemed to send to Bill Maher for a loop. And that's exactly what men's apparel can do, when there is thought and wit behind it.

Hooman's pre-green giveh

What really threw me for a loop a while back was turning on C-Span to watch Ahmedinejad address the United Nations; and when Iran's "dictator" (he wasn't then, but maybe is now) opened his mouth, my pal's voice came out. I knew that Hooman had been spending a lot of time with Iranian politicians and diplomats but I had no idea about this. Hooman is not a fan of Mr. Ahmedinejad or his politics (quite the opposite, in fact), and is probably more horrified by the man's sartorial habits than I can imagine, and there he was—his mouthpiece. But I understood completely. One of the most difficult problems in relations between Iran and the West is what gets lost or confused in the translation. For example Ahmedinejad may have a bad attitude toward Israel, but he never said it should be wiped off the map, as in nuked. He said, "the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time." He's talking history, not megatons here. He has gone on to say that the "Zionist regime will be wiped out the same way the Soviet Union was," which was hardly through violence, but through political change.

To me my friend is a hero, utterly unsung and without any desire for such recognition. By associating himself with this despised foreign leader he was putting himself at risk in one way or another, but he understood that by twisting the Iranian president's words, even rather slightly, the administration that perpetrated a fraudulent war in Iraq might just try to excuse another gratuitious and egregious attack through fear mongering. Although Hooman might disapprove of most of what Ahmedinejad was saying, he wanted to make sure that he was understood, which is precisely what reasonable men must seek to do in times of hysteria, distortion, and unreason. What he sought to do as a translator, and what he does in his book, and everyday in his what he says and writes, is to express what was said in the cover line of Newsweek which featured an essay by him: Everything you know about Iran is wrong. Mr. Majd could probably be sitting around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Hotel du Cap making movie deals. Instead he is patiently, painstakingly explaining what is portrayed as simple and is in fact very, very complex. Should things turn out well in Iran, that ancient storied country could turn out to be a paragon for the Middle East, a most civilized and cultured nation at peace and at ease with the West. And should that happen, Mr. Majd will have played an important role in spreading truth, by standing not only by his own word, but the word in general.


Just for the record, Mr. Majd likes Anderson & Sheppard suits, shoes from Alden and Edward Green, ties from Brooks Brothers Black Fleece, Band of Outsiders, and Hermès, and, due to the domestic unavailability of George Karelias smokes, he now puffs on Camel straights and Iranian Bahman's when he can get them. A true globetrotter, Mr. Majd always arrives with beautiful luggage—old Tanner Kroll and Globetrotter, Brigg, or Swaine-Addney—and he's on time. When we met he was driving a Landrover Discover, then switched to a Porsche 911, and now can be seen tooling round Manhattan on an extremely handsome Vespa. If you see him, wave.

Tools of the Trade: Moleskine

Today, my calendar being almost too clear, I thought I’d clean up around my desk. The first target was the windowsill. I don’t like using a windowsill as a shelf, and the one next to my desk had become the worst sort, a jumble of miscellany, lost and found, unfiled documents, and stacks of blank books, notebooks, and tablets, some unused, some filled with notes and jot. As I cleared out this minor eyesore, which I blame entirely and probably unfairly on the poor performance of an assistant, I began to look through the notebooks. Ripping out pages here and there, as they irritated me, and reliving moments from the last few years. I was amazed by how many Moleskine notebooks I’ve accumulated, and amused by some of their contents.


Moleskines are my favorite notebooks. They are well-made, from the paper to the hard binding, and they are closed by an elastic band and come with a placemarking ribbon. They come in black and red and in a variety of sizes. I have used lots of the journal size (5.25” x 8.25”), and I especially like the 3.5” x 5.5” reporter’s notebook that flips up instead of opening like a conventional book. I always get black. It’s a classic, very Clark Kent. Moleskine also make nice paper notebooks, city guides, planners, and watercolor books—a perennial favorite of chic bohemians. Moleskines were tools for the likes of Picasso and Hemingway. The original family business went bust in 1986, but it was revived in the next decade by the Milanese publishing company Modo & Modo—and today it’s one of the most popular accessories of the contemporary creatives, both genuine and wannabe. I never go anywhere without one and a Uni-ball vision pen, fine point, black.

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I have never been a diarist and I never will be, but I am a serious notebook user. What you’ll find in mine might appear abstract. Sometimes there is an actual handwritten essay, usually jotted in a moment of clarity away from the computer, but probably more significant are lists, names, ideas, and phrases.

Here are some jottings that I found scattered among the books.

I assume these are painting-title ideas, from my being a semi-regular panelist on Mark Kostabi’s television game show Title This:

“Hey, where’s that ark?”

“We fell in love at Hollywood Squares.

“Ministry of Bad Vibes.”

“Tonight God has asked her to love me as a favor to Him.”

“Ancestor communicating through alphabet soup.”

“First Amendment Massage Parlor.”

“If you were Van Gogh’s wife he would have cut off his whole head.”

“The non-representational pile of leaves.”

“Transmission loss has an inverse accrual of distortion gain.”

“My silence was the silence of ten men.”

“Banco Bipolare.”

“God’s Day Off.”

“Digital Analogy.”

“I Wanna Be Your Gerbil.”

“High Tide Panic Attack.”

“Revolt of the Sauce”

“Kama Sutra Intern.”

“Last Tantrum in Paris.”

“Blinking Red Light District.”

There’s a big chunk of one book devoted to notes I jotted at the last ready-to-wear shows in Milan and Paris—mostly in the dark, so they read like code and are skewed at an odd angle in a weird hand reminiscent of the webs researchers recorded after giving spiders LSD. I swear it was just the darkness, and maybe a little Champagne.

Notes from the Hussein Chalayan fashion show, Paris, Fall ’09: “H.C. foamcore Tom Sachs butt crack hip boots with garters…Sprouse NASA print lunar landscape tech printouts….taking illustrational idea of Versace and Hermès and abstract realism….10th Victim leather breastplate and ass plate—like Gladiator Roman soldier moulded body armor—flesh leather butt shaped."

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Notes from Maison Martin Margiela: "Bride stripped somewhat bare…perp walk leather jacket as veil…girl in a cloud in a planetarium…"

Fendi: "Trancy straight & narrow…women’s choir like religious Modernaires…"

Max Mara: "Italians shouldn’t have escalators….Little Red Stepford Riding Hood."

Roberto Cavalli: "Models should never be pilots. Half of them can’t find the end of the runway."

Givenchy: "Hair shirt hair skirt…potato faces…legionaire’s stovepipe hat…nose cone bra…lace over glitter…tits that mean business…tubular bells meets Cousin Itt…"

Brioni: "Obstacle course runway….the girls are in trouble. Shoot the DJ!"


“There’s a brand of heroin in Harlem called Tommy Hilfiger.”

He’s not the only celebrity who’s been appropriated thus:

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“Yesterday in the NY Times there was an article about a French Roquefort cheese farmer who was arrested for attacking a French McDonald's. Is cheese farmed?”

And then shards of poems or jokes:

“Rhythm shook me like a thermometer.”

“I was in fashion once, but I made bail.”

“The third ear is the first to hear.”

“Tomorrow the anniversary of JFK’s head shot dead. New Frontier same as the old frontier."

Is this a title? "A vibrator named John Henry."

And quotes from what I’m reading:

“The goddesses that existed alongside the gods in primitive religions are in fact no longer within our emotional range,” he thought. “Any relationship we might have to such superhuman women would be masochistic.”—The Man Without Qualities, Pt. 2, p. 748

“In times to come when more is known, the word destiny will probably have acquired a stastistical meaning.”—The Man Without Qualities, Pt. 2, p. 783

“Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad.” Ch. 25, From Russia With Love.

And questions for interview subjects: "Is art all offense or is there defense? Do you believe in the Communion of Saints? Is the hand of God visible in the random? What does Wooly Bully mean?”

Lists of band names: “Cocktail Slipper, Morlocks, Henchmen, Vatican Sex Kittens, Stabilisers, Robin Kitschock"

Questions for myself: “Whatever happened to philippics?”

Quotes: “Frank says that artists today have become snobs about being alive.” Elaine de Kooning, 1959.

Notes to self: “Get GQ to send me to world capitals.”

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Shopping list: “The Beautiful Fall, Pahlmeyer red wine, Scott’s Turf Builder, white buck bag”

Notes to self: “Get umbrella back from Lapo, thank Mats Gustafson.”

Did I say this, or someone else? “Why be difficult when with a little extra effort you could be impossible.” I hope it was me. “Modernism is not a done deal.” I bet that was Dave Hickey, not me.

Novel title? The Moon and Sixpence a Word.

If you don’t have a notebook, where are you going to store this sort of stuff? The alternatives aren’t pretty. The archives from my days as a standup comedian are mostly torn pieces of paper, bar napkins, and coasters. And who knows how many comedic gems and pearls of wisdom have fallen by the wayside when I was not prepared to jot. And so, my fellow travelers on the highways of philosophy and the byways of wit, it pays to be prepared with archival quality receptacles for the treasures of observation and reflection.

One word of warning, however, and that is to fill in the "In case of loss please return to:" form on the flyleaf. I left one of my notebooks in a business-class seat pocket on a flight back from China and never got it back. Thanks United Airlines! Moleskine conveniently adds, "As a reward: $_________." I don't put a number in there, but simply "yes," or, "substantial." Why limit their imagination? My imagination has filled that notebook with parts of a novel, a screenplay, and ad copy lines suitable for almost any luxurious product.

The Seasonal Wardrobe Shift Is Here

Today is the first day of the summer clothing season. It’s 60º in New York, and 52º in Paris, where I wish I was today. I’ll bet the Chestnut buds are about to pop. It’s sweater weather (a tan cashmere Martin Margiela V-neck) and I’m wearing white-and-brown saddle shoes. My assistant Michael showed up for work in off-white-and-brown saddles today. I know we were both shod for summer, because today is the first business day of the year where white is traditionally considered right. It’s one of those nice old fogey rules that I like to keep up, the same as taking my hat off in an elevator or walking on the curb side of a lady.

Nobody loves rules like an anarchist, which I consider myself in theory. To a real anarchist, laws are unnecessary because good manners should be enough to deter improper actions. Usury is tacky. Assault is undignified. Identity theft is simply not done. I know I’m an idealistic dreamer in this, but I have every confidence that some day humanity will be guided by cultural principles, not legal codes.

To me the rules of dress are simply proven principles, like the Golden Section or the Fibonacci number. I don’t say you can’t wear white shoes before Memorial Day; but I tend not to. And in my own personal code, because of global warming, I have moved the official white shoe day forward to Major League Baseball's opening day, and extended the white shoe season through the World Series.


Correct shoes during baseball season.

My white dinner jacket has finally been located. (I couldn’t find it the other day when I wanted to show it to some guests. It was in the basement, thank the insect god unharmed by the moths, carpet beetles, and other vermin that frequent that dicey space.) The seersucker is ready to go, although it will not be premiered on a sub-80º day, as are the linen and madras.

Let’s think about linen for a moment. There is no good reason why linen should be worn only in the warmest months. In our time of global warming, linen should be worn much more often. For one thing it is a much more environmentally-friendly fabric than cotton, which is one of the most problematic crops in the world. (For enlightenment on the problem of cotton I highly recommend watching the documentary The World of Monsanto.) Linen is not only Earth-friendly, it is also longlasting and superior in strength. I have a great old Issey Miyake linen suit that is heavy enough for October and I have no compunction about wearing it then.

The natty art dealer Barry Friedman in a proper linen jacket.

White suits or suits in the ice-cream hue range are traditionally for summer, although NBA coaches seem entirely unaware of the convention. And of course Tom Wolfe has made winter white a dandy’s splendor, and women have made it an institution—so there’s no reason men can’t wear white of a certain weight in outerwear. It has a long and honorable tradition among “Alpine troops,” and my wife has a wonderful Jean-Paul Gaultier toggle coat that I would wear if it were my size.

The author in a white cotton Ralph Lauren blazer and Hermes sailor shirt with hat designer Stephen Jones, in Stephen Jones hat.

All of this is common-sense stuff. But I would have absolutely not worn my saddle shoes last Friday. A man has to draw the line somewhere. (Such as the Tropic of Cancer or the Tropic of Capricorn.)

Anyway, the last week or so has seen me storing away the overcoats, the cold weather gear, and my heaviest suits (the 13- to 14-ounce Savile Row numbers conceived in their best no-central-heating tradition), and pulling out the Bermudas, the polos, and the patterned trousers. And suddenly here’s a whole new selection of duds that I haven’t seen or thought about since last September or so. The seasonal transition is interesting because it’s a natural moment for wardrobe appraisal and analysis, not to mention taking stock of one’s figure. Are you ready for the pool, the links, the clay and grass courts? Are you ready for lolling, basking, and shade-sitting? Are you ready for the seasonal plumage display of an expanded visual spectrum in line with the floral splendor of the botanical world? Are you?

The Madras Full Monty

With my madras and linen pressed, I feel rather ready. But every season one notices a few areas that could use reinforcement, improvement, or elaboration. I believe in buying substantial wardrobe additions when I’m flush, but shopping seasonally even when on a budget, believing that you can stick with the same basics, suits, blazers, trousers, etc., by refreshing them with new shirts, ties, and socks. And so I’ll be out there over the next week looking for ties that say “this summer,” some new polos, and socks.

I’ll be out looking for white socks to wear with my white shoes. And I don’t mean tube socks. I mean white hose. It’s something every well-dressed man should own. I’ve found good white socks at a good price at Barneys New York, on and off, and have also found good quality thin white socks at Uniqlo. In fact I may head over there right now. And after years of trading barbs on the issue I may go over to the position of GQ “style czar” Adam Rapoport on shorty socks. I have been mocking these for years, suggesting that the men’s sub-anklets should feature the same pom-poms one sees on some of the ladies’ equivalents, but after several seasons of observing these socks in foursomes I have developed a tolerance that, combined with my own tan line, has shifted my position. So where do you buy yours, Adam?

Mr. Hooman Majd’s bare ankle with traditional Persian shoe

Of course, for a lot of my friends summer means no socks at all till September. I am not one of the perpetually bare-ankled crowd, as my large Irish feet tend to perspire, but I do find tanned bare ankles okay. But they have to be tanned first. So I’m working on them weekends.

The author, in bespoke seersucker from John Pearse and Martin Margiela tee, with the artist Richard Prince

What will I buy this season? I’m always on the lookout for good tees wherever I go. A.P.C., Agnes B., Margiela, Supreme. As for tailoring, I have my old two-button light blue pincord suit in the pile of clothes to be donated to charity. I’m sure it will still look good on someone, but I need a hipper cut. I’m guessing that I bought this at Brooks Brothers ten years ago—as I recall I was on a break from a commercial and I went into the store with Kate Moss. They are cheap to begin with and this one was on sale. I may have paid about a hundred bucks for it. Kate wanted a pincord suit too, but they only had them in boys and they couldn’t fit her. Anyway, I need a slimmer suit.

Brooks still offers pin cord, and they’ve modernized the silhouette with slim lapels and flat-fronts, but at $598 they’re not the steal they once were. The GQ boys seem to favor the Uniqlo whipcord suit and I don’t blame them. They’re sharp and absurdly inexpensive. Sold separately, I think the jacket is $79.50 and the trousers $39.50. You almost can’t afford not to buy one.

Summer Reading (Part II)

When it comes to serious reading, I prefer hardcovers. Paperbacks don't look or feel as good, and often they're made from cheap acidic paper. Also, if you are mad at someone, you can throw a hardcover across the room without getting up from the sofa and make your point. And a good book, like a good movie, is something you will likely want to revisit.

The biggest problem with reading is finding time for it, and that's one of the reasons I love flying and lonely business travel to fine hotels. The tough thing is deciding how many books to take along. Especially if you're going on vacation. Being fundamentally impractical, though not stupid, I usually don't come back with more than two books I haven't touched. And when I do, it's often because when I got to wherever I was going I didn't want to read that book as much anymore. Like I schlepped Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter to the Caribbean but, once there, I didn't want to read it (it was about a place even hotter than where I was, and I was hot enough). And sometimes you're going on a trip and you take along something serious that you feel like you should have read, like maybe The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. I can't tell you how many times I've packed those little Penguin Classics, only to find myself dozing off. For successful reading vacations you need books that fit with the fantasy of where you're going.


Ancient history is wonderfully diverting. I am particularly fond of Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves, which documents the lives of the twelve Roman emperors who ruled during the second century, from Julius Caesar, who was murdered, to Domitian, who was also murdered. Most of the rest died violently: Caligula (assassinated by his guards); Claudius (poisoned, probably by his wife); Nero (a suicide before he could be arrested); Otho (a suicide after he discovered a plot against him); Vitellius (killed by a mob); Titus (poisoned). It's great stuff, and I find myself reading it again and again. It certainly makes the presidencies I have experienced—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and the Bushs—seem somewhat less lurid.

Robert Graves

One of my favorite writers to take on vacation is Robert Graves, a distinguished poet and scholar who also managed to write novels you just can't put down. My favorite is probably his two-part epic, I, Claudius, and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, which is written in the first person as if by Claudius himself, and which served as the model for the wonderful 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius, which is available on DVD. Derek Jacobi is fantastic as Claudius, Sian Phillips (Mrs. Peter O’Toole) is amazing as the evil Livia, widow of Augustus, and John Hurt is a Caligula that will almost make you forget Malcolm McDowell. I am currently in a rereading of I, Claudius which will probably be accompanied by a rerun of the whole series.

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It’s Patrick Stewart with hair, as Sejanus in the BBC’s series I, Claudius.

Graves was a glamorous figure, who lived in Mallorca and was devoted to the revival of goddess worship, and his scholarly study of that increasingly popular idea, The White Goddess, is a classic. Appropriately, he was very good friends with Ava Gardner. And one of his more diverting novels, Homer’s Daughter, is devoted to the thesis that The Odyssey was not actually written by Homer but by a Greek woman living in Sicily when that region was known as Magna Grecia. It’s much more action-packed than it sounds.

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For classical action you can’t beat Hercules My Shipmate or The Golden Fleece, which treats the story of Jason and the Argonauts as historical fact—and finds Hercules, who would wind up a god, the most interesting of the Argo’s crew on its mission to recover the Golden Fleece.

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Graves’s 1938 novel Count Belisarius is also a terrific adventure, being the story of one of the great military geniuses (he served the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium in the sixth century) expanding the empire almost by half, taking Carthage and seizing Sicily and Italy back from the Goths. This novel is rather novel in that it is written from the POV of a eunuch in service to the general’s rather monstrous wife, Antonia. It’s a page-turner that is as educational as it is exciting.

Once you’ve gotten through Graves—and that’s a serious task, what with King Jesus, a fantastic reconstruction of a historical Jesus (Mel Gibson, eat your heart out, or let the Mayans do it for you); Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, a stunning evocation of the American Revolution; and The Story of Marie Powell: Wife to Mr. Milton (another exquisitely lively rendering of a time long gone)—you can always let Mr. Gore Vidal pick up the thread.

But that’s probably another entry.

Summer Reading (Part I)

One of the best ways to fight depression in its various forms is to pick up a book.

Reading is cheap. It’s basically cheaper than almost any other form of entertainment (except maybe whistling), because if you’re really broke you can get a library card and do it for free. And reading is not only free but time-consuming, so the more you read, the less time you have to spend money. It’s an easy way to spend hours and hours that just seem to float by blissfully, taking you far, far away from the anxiety that is encouraged by other alleged forms of relaxation, such as video games and television.

If you want to relax you have to get as far away from the breaking stories as possible. Which is hard now when you get into a cab and suddenly there's the Eyewitness News Team filling you in on the news. But trust me, breaking stories are like waves. They are all different, but basically all the same. And they cause erosion. Except it’s not the beach, it’s your brain. But reading can take you far from all that breakage, back into stories that are unbreakable. A good novel or history can easily transport the reader into a world that is vastly interesting and entertaining but which actually may challenge some of the more grim assumptions enforced by a diet of “pop culture.” If you want to change the world, start with your own world, which you can change by imagining another one. And you can imagine another one because someone has already created it.

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Here’s a stack in the bedroom in my country house that will definitely transport you to another world. Mostly the world of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu in the novels of Sax Rohmer, in which Sir Denis Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, who are as amusing in their own way as Holmes and Watson, fight the insidious Asian as he attempts to drive back the white man. The Sinophobia is spectacular, even though, as we all know now, the Chinese are not out to conquer the world.

Anyway, if the news has got you down and the high pressure of conspicuous consumption enforced by the fashion magazines has got you worried that you can’t keep up with the times, forget the times and try the first century for a while. It has just as much action, adventure, lust, betrayal, tragedy, and triumph as our times, often more, and you don’t have to do anything about it. There’s a whole other world back there in the past, just waiting to fascinate and divert.

At one point reading became an expensive habit for me, because I don’t just love reading, I love books, and I started collecting them. Not only was that expensive at times, but at one point they start competing with the furniture for space. But things have gotten better, even for the bibliophile. One great thing about the Internet is that it changed the nature of book collecting. I still go to book fairs, but now I usually have someone on the other end of the cell phone to go to the great bookselling sites to compare prices. And while it’s lovely to ogle and handle books, I almost always buy them online now.

Thanks to the Internet you can now find almost any book at an affordable price. (Except those rarities that were published only in very limited editions.) I often shop with Alibris, but the site that usually offers the most comprehensive selection is ABE Books. There are exceptions of course. Like Wyndham Lewis’s Doom of Youth is gonna set you back a C note no matter how you look at it, Same with Ted Berrigan’s A Feeling for Leaving, but what do you expect? They only printed 400 of them. Richard Brautigan’s Would You Like to Saddle Up a Couple of Goldfish and Swim to Alaska? That’s going to be several hundred bucks. I’m so glad I sold all my GM stock and put it into the New York School Poets. But most books can be had pretty cheap if you’re not that choosy. If you’re willing to settle for an ex-library copy you can pick up most hardcovers for a song.

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Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz

By the way, don’t think poetry is for squares. Au contraire. One of the fastest ways I know to acquire a New York State of Mind is by reading the New York School poets: Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Bernadette Myers, Ted Berrigan. To name a few. Get a copy of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and/or Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Contained there are good reasons why many of us moved to New York City.

Straight Outta Left Field (Part Three of Three)

Hip-hop is a form built on pre-recorded music, and so it was by nature a kind of fusion. Africa Bambaataa’s sampling of Kraftwerk opened up a world of endless possibility. De La Soul used samples from Cymande, Blackbyrd, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Bob Marley, Lou Rawls, Ennio Morricone, Serge Gainsbourg, the Doors, Tom Petty, Malcolm McLaren, Prince, Daffy Duck, and Fat Albert.

Dr. Dre has used sources as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Joe Cocker, Grant Green, John Carpenter, and John Barry. Kanye West has recycled Queen, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Queen, Gino Vanelli, Tommy James and the Shondells, Steely Dan, Mountain, Nina Simone, and Madonna.

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I loved hip-hop in the early days, but I drifted away from it when the themes seemed to swerve into braggadocio tinged with the forbidden. If I was interested in conspicuous consumption I’d just stick with the Robb Report. Hip-hop was great when it scared the shit out of people—like N.W.A. Who were, by the way, really creative in their sources, using Roy Ayers, the Honey Drippers, Brass Construction, Wilson Pickett, Steve Miller, William DeVaughn, Z.Z.Hill, the Pointer Sisters, and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, among many others.

Now I don’t listen to a lot of hip-hop these days, but every once in a while something will sneak up on me and make it onto my heavy rotation, like Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.” Anyway, lately I discovered that there were a few things I really liked listening to that represented unlikely combinations. After listening to Ben Folds croon Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” I found that I was likely to play the amazing bluegrass version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” recorded by the Gourds, an excellently soulful and literate alternative country band from Austin.

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After that I might put on Snoop Dogg’s tribute to Johnny Cash, “My Medicine.”

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And so I found myself wondering if there might be a sneaky little fusion going on hip-hop and country or bluegrass. I never thought much about bluegrass, except when I went to Ireland and found that the locals love it. I found myself sometimes thinking, wow, that’s pretty good. It’s almost like blues. And then of course there was the unexplainable fact that I saw the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou” at least a dozen times and bought the CD the week it came out. Maybe there’s some important link, deep in the past, or maybe slightly in the future.

And then I found Rench. This guy is a player and producer who makes a lot of music. He’s up there on MySpace, where you will notice that he lists among his influences George Jones, Run DMC, Gram Parsons, Missy Elliot, Merle Haggard, Outkast, Otis Redding, Conway Twitty, Macy Gray, Lefty Frizell, Public Enemy… You catch my drift.

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Now Rench has made a lot of music, but that which most fully and astoundingly fulfills this fusion I thought I dreamed up is Gangstagrass. I played it for my eight-year-old and he was really impressed. He said, “It’s like hip hop and country at the same time.” Yeah, he’s right.

This music is now in full effect on my MacBook. Full-scale hip-hop emceeing over full-tilt country picking. Public Enemy meets Flatt & Scruggs. And the amazing thing is how natural the blend is. Like, how did we not know that bluegrass is funk? Rench and his Brooklyn-based crew make this absolutely clear. I particularly dig the tracks with vocals performed by Deep Thoughts. Check out “Going Down.”

This is about as American as you can get. In the good way. Makes you think that all those strange roots dig into the same rich earth, and you never can tell what kind of wild hybrids we got growing in the greenhouse.

Straight Outta Left Field (Part Two of Three)


Genres are the enemy. Especially in music. They lead to stupid radio formats and talented musicians repeating the same old same old. Creativity is often found in the seeming collision of genres.

Miles Davis pioneered what is called fusion, mixing rock, R&B, and jazz forms. This part of Miles's work has been derided by the likes of Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, but I believe the best of it holds up to the more universally acclaimed Kind of Blue and Miles’s cool-school breakthroughs with the likes of Gil Evans. Miles was inspired by musicians like James Brown, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, and listening to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, or On the Corner, you can get a real wake-up call from the seventies.

Fusion, however, got a bad name because the imitators could never come close to capturing the accomplishments of that small band of pioneers who worked the space between jazz and popular forms—like Miles, Tony Williams, Weather Report, Donald Byrd, Larry Coryell, and John McLaughlin.




A lot of the musicians involved in fusion were also interested in the fringes of rock. Tony Williams was Miles Davis’s phenomenon teen drummer, and his own group included the sometime rock guitarist John McLaughlin. When Eric Clapton’s jazz-influenced trio Cream broke up—a group known for extending heavy blues rock into Coltrane-type territory via extended jams—Williams recruited the bass player, Jack Bruce, for his electric jazz combo, Lifetime.


Not only was Miles Davis listening to Hendrix, Hendrix was listening back. One of the projects unrealized because of his death was a collaboration with Gil Evans, the jazz arranger best known for his collaborations with Miles Davis. But Evans took some of the ideas he had for the collaboration and made an extraordinary album called The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix. Check this out:

Gil Evans had an apartment on 52nd Street in Manhattan during the time when that was the world headquarters for jazz, and between sets the musicians playing the various clubs would drift over to Evans’s place to smoke weed and jam. Evans intuitively grasped the possibilities of mixing things up, and his collaborations with Miles were about taking jazz into new territory. In Sketches of Spain that territory was the music of the Iberian peninsula, particularly the Spanish folk tradition, but also Spanish classical composition and even ballet.



In Quiet Nights, Miles and Gil headed for South America, giving us Davis’s take on the bossa nova sound. It has been blasted by critics, but most of them are probably retired now, and I find the soft and lush arrangements and the extraordinary musicianship remarkably contemporary. This music was made in the early sixties (the tapes had been sitting around for some time before the 1963 release). Today you can see this as the predecessor to the extraordinary and revolutionary space music that Davis introduced with the breakthrough album In a Silent Way in 1969.


This was the most influential record of its time. Hated by many, it got the fusion bandwagon rolling. But don’t blame Miles that thousands of inferior musicians took his idea into places worse than nowhere. Gil Evans was once asked what music had influenced him most and he replied, “bad music.”

The best of Miles’s electric albums still sound like the future.

I don’t like to think of music as progressive. It’s not science. But it is evolutionary, and the new bag that Miles fashioned with musicians like John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Airto Morera, and Mtume still stands today as an unsurpassed achievement—not just crossing boundaries but transcending them.

Straight Outta Left Field (Part One of Three)

When something in art or music is uncategorizable, that’s usually a good thing. It suggests unexplored territory has been reached by thinking outside the box, or the cube, or the envelope. It means it’s not part of a movement, which is usually composed of a few interesting explorers and lots of colorfully dressed imitators. Invention leads to convention, which leads to formula. Which is why you see people today dressed like hippies (original about 42 years ago) or punks (original about 32 years ago.) But all this is not to say that you can’t be creative within a tradition—or at least starting within one and working your way out of it.


It’s not? Yeah, right.

In some ways originality in our culture is forced, because of the funny ideas we have about modernism, and the idea that there is such a thing as “progress” in the visual arts or in music. Such beliefs should be confined to science (and even there with strict provisos involving the unintended consequences of progress). (“One step forward, two step forward inna Babylon,” as Max Romeo sang.) And then there’s the idea of progress that is spurred on by the profit motive. Musicians would avoid repeating perfect extant blues progressions, which probably come from old Africa, gratuitously altering them so they could make “original music” and collect the writing royalties. And so the magic got diluted.

But sometimes someone comes along who knows how to take a folk form and evolve it for the times, like what Jimi Hendrix did with the blues. His pop songs are fantastic, of course, but what he did in the direct line of Robert Johnson is astounding. I love the compilation of his blues tracks, appropriately titled “Blues,” which is available on CD, iTunes, and Amazon MP3 download. It expresses how music flows, from a place that is literally prehistoric, into the future through the musical magician in touch with his senses.


Much of the best of rock has involved English guys discovering Chicago Blues and R&B via Stax, Motown, etc. The Rolling Stones changed the world by mixing up Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Don Covay with chamber music, raga, and music hall. The Stones weren’t copyists. When they took something, they found ways to make it their own.