Is It Time to Put the Pastors Out to Pasture?

In the magazine world we have a lot of appointments, and it's hard to get around in this town. There's incredible traffic, what with all those sight-seeing buses and rickshaws and billboard trucks. And with our state-of-the-art city planners there are always improvements that haven’t quite kicked in—like the redesign of Houston Street and its eternal construction, which has traffic backed up from the West Side to the East River; or the new bus lanes on Broadway downtown, which have yet to show any improvement in traffic (maybe because the police have the right lane of Broadway blocked, while they ticket everyone with the temerity to move out of the left-side gridlock into the totally unoccupied right side of New York’s most famous avenue). And so magazine editors take a lot of Town Cars. 

These are better than taxis because they pick you up and drop you off where you want, and they wait for you. They rarely curse you or try to overcharge you, and the cars are usually not too smelly and, even if it seems like the driver is suicidal, he will usually slow down if you ask.  So we get to know a lot of these drivers. 

Today I had an interesting guy. I knew he was different right off because he looked like a college professor. He had the classical music station on, and in the back-seat pocket he had The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the latest issue of The New Yorker.  He was quiet and careful (a little too methodical, I’d say, because I had to wait while he wrote out where I was going), not a speed demon like the former Soviet Socialist Republic guys I usually have, who are getaway drivers, geniuses at getting you to your next appointment on time. This guy, I’m sorry, was a bit of a nerd. He was just the wrong guy for the job.

Anyway, I had many stops on this day and so I wound up talking to the guy. Turns out he’s a white-collar professional who was a computer programmer until his job was sent to India when he was 55 years old, along with every job in his department at a Wall Street firm. He studied philosophy and comparative religions and has a degree in biology. He seemed like he should have been teaching rhetoric at Hunter College or molecular biology at City College. But he didn’t have any education courses and he’s got a teenage son studying music, so he’s got to work.  There are guys like this driving cabs and flipping burgers and selling underwear.

Things like this make you think there’s really something wrong somewhere. It’s a waste. I asked him if he was supporting Obama, since McCain is a free-trader and, despite denials, the record shows that Clinton backed free-trade agreements until it became inconvenient for her campaign.  This fellow complained that Obama hadn’t talked about it much.  I suggested that perhaps this was because all the media wants to talk about is the record of Obama’s ex-pastor back in Chicago, or else the “bitterness” thing, about lost jobs driving people to the church or their guns and the issues surrounding them.  Nobody in the press wants to talk about the real issues—it starts at the top with despicable panderers like George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson and trickles down to the morons who write letters to the tabloids.

The fact is that Barack Obama, like just about every other politician, goes to church.  The things that are said in church are often outlandish and over the top.  There’s nowhere, not even in Congress, where hyperbole works better than in church.  Generally speaking, Christian sermons are dramatic and drama relies on overstatement. 

Overstatements like: “God damn America…” in a sermon dealing with the drug epidemic in black communities and the mass imprisonment of young black men.  Or: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon… and we never batted an eye. We supported state terrorism against Palestinians… and now America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” 
Inflammatory? Sure. But that’s what preachers do. They take a grain of truth and blow it up until it inflames.

The reaction to Wright is really about the fact that he talks about things that one is not supposed to mention.  But that’s what pastors do. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone pastoring to a politico who hasn’t said or done some stupid shit. 

Hillary Clinton’s former pastor, William Procanick, is serving a three-year sentence for inappropriately touching a 7-year-old girl. John McCain proudly accepted the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee, who calls the Catholic Church “the Great Whore” and he has blamed Hurricane Katrina on God’s wrath over a homosexual parade scheduled for that city.

Our current president was put up to running by his pastor, the Reverend Mark Craig, who hooked him by telling the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3-4). And I suspect that Bush’s extraordinary immunity to criticism might be rooted in a bible verse he often cites, and no doubt picked up from Reverend Craig: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart…” (I Corinthians 4:1-5)

What Jeremiah Wright talks about seems kind of reasonable compared to God’s divine choice of George W. Bush as our infallible President.  But speaking of infallibility, how about the biggest pastor of them all? Recently the U.S. Department of Homeland Security admitted to the United States Joseph Ratzinger, a former Hitler Youth who now goes by Pope Benedict XVI, who was once involved in covering up child abuse by Catholic priests in the U.S. and who now preaches that it’s okay for Catholic clergy to excommunicate political leaders who support abortion rights and, presumably, birth control. Such as former presidential candidate John Kerry. It’s funny how we can allow a foreign head of state who believes in the supremacy of divine law as much as any Shariah-preaching Islamic dictator to visit this country in an election year and mess around with the electorate.

Meanwhile the United States denies entry to artists like Amy Winehouse, author Sebastian Horsley, singer Cat Stevens, rapper MIA, the Israeli singer Rita, the band The Field, five Cuban Grammy award winners, dancehall star Mavado, and Emma Louise Jordan of the Ballett Freiburg. Of course, discriminating against artists is a U.S. tradition and during earlier repressive regimes Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dario Fo, and Pablo Neruda were turned back at the Statue of Liberty.

It’s rotten, what’s going on, and it’s all in the name of ignorance.  How dare Obama say that people without jobs are bitter and turn to religion? How dare the pastor, whom he’s been forced to denounce, suggest that the United States ever did anything wrong?  The mass media knows a good circus when it sees one, and its Barnum-like tendency is to stir up hysteria rather than appeal to reason.

I grew up in Ohio. I made money for college by working in the blast furnace division of Republic Steel.  Steel once accounted for about a third of the jobs where I grew up. Today those mills are closed.  Throughout this country whole industries have been wiped out as America transitions to a “service economy.”  Whom do we service?  That’s a good question.  Maybe it’s debt that we service.  But I know that when intellectuals are chauffering Town Cars because their jobs were shipped to India to save $20,000 a year, there’s something essentially wrong with the system.  I actually think Mr. Obama would like to talk about these issues, but it’s tough when the media doesn’t cares what the candidate thinks, but what his preacher thinks.

I’m hoping that Bill Maher’s new film Religulous, which comes out this summer, is the An Inconvenient Truth of 2008.  Maybe he’ll get a Nobel Peace Prize for pointing out that religion is the bait and switch that’s been for deluding the people for the last few thousand years.  Funny, but my driver whose job went to India is very interested in religion even though he himself is not religious. He highly recommended Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, as well as his book The Selfish Gene.  The driver prefers Dawkins to Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. From his reading my driver thinks that religion is an innocent error, being a biological system of visualization which developed as a survival mechanism and which has outlived its usefulness.  The ability to see demons, he says, might have made a child growing up in a hostile environment more likely to survive.  He thinks that these instincts may eventually disappear.  Perhaps they will be replaced by instincts that lead to taking teaching courses in case one’s industry is moved to the third world.

A Reader Request

A regular reader of this "blogue" recently wrote:

I have been curious to know if you have seen films that have depicted Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the "scenes" that I am unfortunately too young to have enjoyed and possibly any other people you may have known over the years. Have you seen, "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Basquiat", "Factory Girl"...? What is your opinion of the interpretations of the people and the times in these films?

Good question. When I arrived on the scene as a youngster, I had the funny feeling that I was late—I mean, I had missed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Silver Factory, and Edie Sedgwick. Some of the characters I met, such as the legendary Ondine, had clearly seen more brilliant days. But later I began to think, "Oh well, maybe it's for the best I came when I did. At least I never injected methamphetamine like Lou."

Here I am interviewing my friend Jean-Michel Basquiat on my cable-access show TV Party in 1979:

I remember being contacted in the '90s by the Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, who wanted to make a film about Jean-Michel. I did everything to discourage him, saying that it would be almost impossible to capture his personality, and reminding him that Jean-Michel hadn't been gone ten years. To drive home my point I brought up the problem of casting.

"I mean, who could you get to play him?" I said, oozing sarcasm. "Terence Trent D'Arby?"

Two days later I read in the New York Post's Page Six that filmmaker Lech Majewski was trying to sign Terence Trent D'Arby for his Basquiat film project. Sometimes sarcasm doesn't translate.

This, as well as my feelings about such films as Clint Eastwood's Bird (1988), caused me to write an essay called "The Alexander Nevsky Theory," in which I argued that a real person should be dead for approximately 900 years before their life is made into a drama. Alexander Nevsky, of course, being the Russian Prince who defeated of the German Teutonic Knights near Novogriod in 1242, as well as a film of the same name by the great director Sergei Eisenstein. He created a masterpiece at a time when Russia was again threatened by German invasion, and the battle scene on a frozen lake is probably the most spectacular depiction of combat in cinema history:

Of course, my point was that Nevsky was dug up at the right time, for the right reasons, and his family and friends certainly wouldn't mind.

But Basquiat with Basquiat gone only a few years… I could see what was happening. It would be the same old suffering-artist story—a little Van Gogh, a little Jimi Hendrix. The real Jean-Michel was so complicated, how could somebody capture him? Especially someone who didn't know him?

Enter Julian Schnabel, who did know him, but who was hardly his friend. Schnabel took over the project. I was approached by Michael Holman, a bandmate of Basquiat's in Gray, whom Julian had hired to write a screenplay. He wanted to talk to me. I told him I didn't want to participate and I expressed my doubts as to whether anything resembling our mutual friend might come to the screen. He shrugged off my comments and that was that.

I was working as creative director at Island Records at the time Julian Schnabel's Basquiat was completed. Island had recently released an album of the artist singing songs he had composed, and was also about to release the soundtrack album. So Julian screened the film for me. Later, on the phone, he asked me what I thought and I remember how it started: "I know you meant well…."

Actually, I was exaggerating. I see that film as Schnabel's pre-emptive strike on art history, an attempt to position himself as the wise mentor to the unstable protégé, when in fact, of course, Jean-Michel is, as T.S. Eliot would put it, "il miglior fabbro."

Schnabel does show the well-known incident in which J.M.B. pissed on the floor of his studio, but he depicts it as if he were a stoner, stumbling into the wrong spot, unable to hold his water, when in fact he was the alpha dog marking his territory.

Jeffrey Wright is, of course, a genius, and he does Basquiat as well as he can be done given the script and the intentions of the director. Despite having little resemblance to the artist, Wright delivers an uncanny reading of his mannerism and speech patterns. David Bowie does less well portraying my old boss Andy. In fact I was moved by Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol to write posthumous diary entries depicting Andy's activities as a ghost, haunting Manhattan—"Excerpts from the Andy Warhol Diaries, Summer 1996." Here's a bit:

"July 19, 1996: Keith Haring finally dragged me to see that film where I get shot. (Cab $10, tickets $16.) Just seeing the marquee gave me the creeps. I can't believe I let that English girl who directed it hang around the office. She was so polite I couldn't tell she was really mean. And I was so nice to her. The kid who plays me—Richard Harris's kid—is kind of cute but I come off like a big nothing. I guess it could have been worse. She made Fred and Paul into dumb and dumber. And Cand is so butch, she's going to really hate it…I wanted to leave but Keith made me stay. It was so mean I had to go to the bathroom during the scene where Valerie shoots me. It hurt just thinking about it. I can't believe they gave it a good write up in Interview. I don't get what people like about it. I guess it's the first dyke action film."

"August 1, 1996: Went to the opehning of Julian Schnabel's film with Jean-Michel. (Cab $12.) He was so mad. He kept calling Julian a "bad fool." He said the movie was a fake and a distortion. I think he was really mad because he thinks Jeffrey Wright isn't good looking enough to play him. Jeffrey Wright is cute but not as handsome as Jean Michel. He was even madder because Julian cast Gary Oldman to play Julian. I said "Did you really think he'd have somebody fat play him?" Gary Oldman was pretty good but Steven Seagal would have been even better.

"It was really funny seeing David Bowie play me. He was so nelly that it made me feel like a he-man. I can't believe the Foundation loaned Julian my hair…I thought my wig was the worst part of the film, and there were a lot of worst parts…"

Yes, Bowie was dreadful, but we love him so all is forgiven. Such a big sissy as Drella. I remember the day Dave came up to the Factory to sing "Andy Warhol" to Andy, who didn't know if we should let him in. He wasn't famous in America, yet, but I told AW he was famous in England, so he sat there and was nice. At the end he didn't know whether to like it or hate it. (I didn't either, but he meant well.)

Here's some footage of their introduction:

Last night there was nothing on the tube so I checked in on I Shot Andy Warhol again. It's still awful. Allow me to quote myself from an old essay entitled, "Shooting Andy Warhol Again":

"Without changing the cast and the set too much, writer/director Mary Harron could have made a pretty good attempt at the Fran Lebowitz Story. Lili Taylor would have had to gain some weight and switch to Lark cigarettes, but the rest she had down pat." I knew Valerie Solanas, and Harron's Valerie is more like Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show than Valerie Solanas, a truly scary and twisted person who is depicted here as a warm-and-fuzzy though a little misguided feminist hero."

Stephen Dorff tries heroically to be Candy, but he's just not the actor for the part. Maybe Johnny Depp could have pulled it off, but Dorff was out of his depth. Quoting myself again:

"The revisionist Warhol gang is a bunch of decorative losers and stoned-out poseurs. Stephen Dorff gives his all to animate the character of Candy Darling, the most glamorous of Warhol's drag queens. It's not his fault that the complexity, the edge, the twisted wryness and mordacious wit and true glamour of the original Candy is lost. This Candy lacks the femininity, the queenliness, mostly the attitude and dialogue of the original. Mary Harron couldn't turn a phrase with a tugboat."

I find it a contemptible film. Quoting me again:

"In an interview with New York magazine, Lou Reed wondered out loud if a film called "I Shot John Lennon" would have been met with such acceptance. Reed's point…is that Andy Warhol still doesn't get the respect he deserves."

As for the other Drella impersonators, I must say that Jared Harris did a creditable job with Andy's intonation, and a pretty good job with his posture and body language, although he never would have offered his hand for a shake. Guy Pearce's turn as the boss in Factory Girl, which will go down as one of the worst movies ever made, would have greatly amused Andy. Not only is Pearce a handsome devil, he plays Andy with that I-know-I'm-hot meanness that must come naturally to him.

Andy was, of course, a loser nerd who would have fit in with the trenchcoat mafia in high school, and he had none of that air. He said of the Factory that it wasn't people hanging around him, he was hanging around them.

The most bizarre Andy is, of course, Crispin Glover in Oliver Stone's The Doors. He has nothing to do with the real Andy, but Glover is such a compelling actor that his creepy character, which sees Andy as quite abstract as if on acid, oh so unlike him, is still quite amusing.

I read the script of Factory Girl by Captain Mauzner and discovered that the writer thought Gerard Malanga was "Gerald Malanga." He was also unsure if Richie Berlin, Brigid's sister, was a boy or a girl. In the lot of these movies there are very few interesting performances, the exceptions being Michael Imperioli (best known as Christopher in The Sopranos) as Ondine in I Shot… He captures a lot of that manic spirit and brilliant manner. And Michael Wincott does a fair job as Rene Ricard, given the lines he has to speak.

At least we have Andy's films and quite a bit of him on tape to preserve a sense of the historical record, although I'm constantly amazed by how much credence people give these films. You always have to wonder why a film was made.

I happened to wind up in the same restaurant as Schnabel one night around the release of the film, which I had not yet seen. Diego Cortez was there that night, too, and Julian came and sat with us for a minute. Diego and I had as much to do with Jean-Michel's career as anyone and I knew we weren't in the film, so I asked Julian, who played Diego in the film. He said something like, well, a screenwriter sometimes has to combine certain characters and change things for dramatic reasons. Then I asked who played me. Same answer. Then I asked who played him. "Gary Oldman."

That reminded me of a story about Julian making a phone call to a mutual friend, rather urgently looking for a number for Willem Dafoe. It was reported to me that he said, "Gary Oldman is in rehab and I need someone to play the lead in my film?"

"The lead?"

"Yeah, me."

Luigi Barzini

Someday I'm going to open a bookstore. My wife may force the issue. I have about 300 feet of bookshelves at home and about the same in my rural hideaway, and still I've got stacks on the windowsills and stacks on the floors and boxes in the basement and a pile next to the bed.

The entrance to our loft is in a room that's a combination dining room and library, and sometimes when people walk in they ask, "Wow, have you read all these?" Sometimes I tell the truth and say, "No, I've read most of them," but at others I can't help myself and say, "Yup."

Actually I have a lot of duplicates. Certain books I can't help buying if the price is right, or if they are a first edition or in good shape. I have six hardback copies of Andy Warhol's A, and seven of the 1933 limited edition of Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, including the one that used to belong to his friend Roy Campbell (I admit I used to wonder if I could corner the market). I have a tough time passing up a Robert Benchley book in decent condition. I must have about ten Chips Off the Old Benchley, and a surprising number of After 1903—What?. The only one I don't have a bunch of is No Poems, one of my favorite titles. My wife catches me all the time buying books she knows I already have. It goes like this:

"Don't you already have that?"


"Why are you buying it again?"

"I thought I might give it to somebody."

I actually have given away several copies of Paradise by Donald Barthelme, but there seem to be a lot more where those came from.

Connecticut is a great place to buy books. The guy who plows my driveway went to Yale. So this weekend I went to the annual Sharon, Connecticut, book sale on the town green and walked away with bags of books, including: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (2); Anthony Summers's book on J. Edgar Hoover (with lots of pictures of the FBI director and his boyfriend); Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy; Walter Terry's Ted Shawn: Father of American Dance; The Embezzler, by Louis Auchincloss; yet another copy of The Hat on the Bed by John O'Hara (a clean first edition for $1.50); an illustrated history of Japanese fans; and lots more. But when I got home I couldn't help picking up Memories of Mistresses: Reflections from a Life by Luigi Barzini, and then I couldn't put it down. I devoured about half of it by the end of the afternoon.


Luigi Barzini Jr. is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His father, Luigi Sr., was a great Italian journalist, an editor of Corriere della Serra, and an adventurer whose most famous book, Peking to Paris, documented a 1907 motor race over that route, accompanying Prince Scipione Borghese. Luigi Jr. had an equally eventful life. He worked as a journalist throughout his career, and yet he managed to be taken seriously as a writer and a thinker (thinking of him keeps me going once in a while). Barzini was born in 1908. He studied at Columbia University and worked summers as a newspaperman in New York. On graduation he returned to Italy and broke in as a reporter for Corriere della Serra. He returned to the U.S. to cover the New Deal, the 1936 elections, and finally the mood of America before the war. He returned to Europe just before Hitler invaded Poland. He worked as a correspondent in London, then found himself jailed in Rome, having gotten on Mussolini's bad side, and finally he was exiled to the boondocks until Il Duce fell.

Barzini's most famous book is The Italians (1964), a rich cultural portrait of his people. Barzini is an intellectual and scholarly essayist, but he is always a delight to read, even in translation. As someone who writes regularly for translation I especially admire the universality of his language, his ability to entertain with artfully drawn imagery, and to turn elegant phrase that translate. The greatness of Barzini is that he entertains with scholarship and delights with insight. He is proof that the richest ideas can be expressed without jargon or complexity of language. He is a classicist. And his cultural history and criticism is always framed with that eternal perspective.

The title of this collection is a bit deceiving, in a cinematic sort of way. This isn't a book about mistresses, although there is an entertaining chapter on the type of woman who is not a wife and a mother. There are twenty-one other chapters having little, if anything, to do with that certain type of woman, except that they are jewels. "Italy and its Aristocracy" is an extraordinary, subtle argument for a certain kind of transcendental nobility that is unique in the world—drawing on extraordinary first-hand observations, including Barzini's relationship with the deposed king of Italy, Umberto II. And "Loners in the World" is a dead-on analysis of America from an outsider who's been on the inside. Barzini is a philosopher who begins his analysis from the outside in, like Oscar Wilde, starting with the obvious and discovering in it the truths hidden in plain sight. His views here, and in his two books concerning this country which he found both fascinating and exasperating, make him a sort of latter-day de Tocqueville mixed with Pliny the Younger.

Dress Code, Par 72

I was over at my friend Jimmy Rizzi's house and the conversation  turned, as it sometimes does, to golf.  Jimmy and I used to play a lot  together at the Noyac Golf Club in Sag Harbor.  I was a member there  until I sold my house in Long Island and moved my weekend and summer  operations to Northwestern Connecticut, where I have yet to find a  home course.

I was wearing my excellent khaki cargo shorts from Supreme, and was  telling Jimmy that I love these shorts because I can keep everything  separate.  I can have an extra ball in one of these lower pockets, and  this little pocket in the front is just right for a scorecard, and  then I can keep my tees in my left pocket, and my ball marker and  green-repairing tool in my right pocket.  Then Jimmy dropped a bomb on  me.  "You can't wear cargo shorts at Noyac."

It never occurred to me that I might accidentally wear something  taboo to a private golf course, or any course for that matter.  I'm a  big supporter of appropriate dress on the links.  Denim is out of the  question.  Collared shirts are de rigueur.  (Unless you're Tiger Woods  and you can wear a fancy t-shirt with a giant swoosh on it at  Augusta!  The pros are allowed to play looking quite a bit like  something out of NASCAR, with logos on everything.)  Shorts should  reach the knee.  I know you can't wear shorts at all at the hardcore-conservative Baltusrol; any course that's been around since 1895 has  that right.  But Bermudas are acceptable just about everywhere in the  golfing world, and I consider my cargo shorts Bermudas with two  discreet extra pockets.  Sure, if I had six golf balls in each pocket  they might look grotesque, but I'm trying to look good out there.

I think this new rule is suspicious.  If anything is going to be  outlawed it should be those shorty socks that make a golfer look like  he's sockless.  I know there is some tanning issue involved here, but  socks are traditional.  Golfers should wear them.

It's quite likely that I might have showed up at my old club in these  shorts.  I wore them recently playing the Seaside course at the very  proper Sea Island Golf Club and I felt quite welcome.  Noyac was the  last place that I'd suspect of having such a rule.  I can see if they  were camouflage, but khaki?  Why, Jimmy was a member at Noyac when he  had sky-blue hair.  Maybe my old club is going conservative in  reaction to the progressive McMansionization of the Hamptons.

Anyway, after I left Jimmy's I stopped in at Supreme, and their regular  Bermudas with the reinforced seat were on sale for $69.  I bought a  pair in olive.  I think I'll carry them in my bag where I keep my rain-suit.  What's going to be outlawed next?  Pleats?  Whatever happens, I'm  sure you'll be allowed to play in a baseball cap that says "Titleist"  on it.  There's no justice.