When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.
At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”
Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.
Alone in the walnut-paneled music room, his favorite of Fair Lane Mansion’s 56 rooms, automobile tycoon Henry Ford picks up one of his two Stradivarius violins. It is 1920 or so and Henry, cocooned in his woolen three-piece suit despite the summer heat, stretches his bow arm for a little elbow and shoulder room.
Henry plucks the A string uncertainly, then steps to the grand piano at the far end of the room and searches the keyboard for A. Counting forward on the white keys from Middle C – C, D, E, F, G, A – he pokes at the A, then plucks the A string of his violin again. His ear hears the same pitch. Unison, they call it, a good name for the sound of happy hands on his assembly line. He plucks the other strings and touches a couple of tuning pegs lightly, but doesn’t adjust them. Close enough.
Tucking the fiddle just so under his narrow chin, he bows each string once, and then, pinching his eyes at the difficulty of playing in E-flat, he begins to play one of his favorites, the 19th Century hit “Home, Sweet Home.” He whispers John Howard Payne’s lyrics as he plays.
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
Henry Ford’s industrial brainstorm – a moving conveyor that brought parts for assembly to stationary workers – was matched only by his insight that mass production was worthless without mass consumption. So, he helped invent American consumers. They, like his assembly line workers, would have the goods brought to them for assembly into an all-American consumer lifestyle. In this there would be harmony.
I hate to say it, but I think the arrival of Spotify in the U.S. signals the death knell for indie record stores. For less than 10 bucks a month, I now have access to just about any artist to whom I want to listen. On my computer. And my phone.
Okay, so Bob Dylan isn’t on Spotify, but don’t most of us Dylan fans have at least a dozen of his albums floating around anyway?
Spotify has sent me on another PJ Harvey kick. The woman whose lyrics once inspired me to move to Spain (I want to bath in milk/eat grapes/Robert DeNiro/sit on my face/I want to go to Spain/spend nights/just sipping on nectar & ice) keeps putting out stunning, avant garde albums that never feel like repeats.
Needless to say, I am psyched to have all this rad music on hand for so cheap, but pretty bummed for good old Waterloo Records.
Screenwriter Oren Moverman made his directorial debut with THE MESSENGER (2009), a film about an injured Iraq War veteran who returns home to find he has been assigned to the dreaded casualty notification duty.
THE MESSENGER was distributed by Beastie Boy Adam “M.C.A” Yauch’s company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, which distributes 12-15 quality movies a year. Though a small film not widely seen in theaters, THE MESSENGER was nominated for two Academy awards: Best Supporting Actor—Woody Harrelson and Best Screenplay—Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman.
Moverman, who moved to the U.S. after four years of military service in his native Israel, began his film career as a screenwriter, co-writing acclaimed films such as JESUS’ SON (adapted from Denis Johnson’s book of short stories by the same title), MARRIED LIFE, and the Bob Dylan biopic, I’M NOT THERE.
Moverman is currently attached as a writer/director to the UNTITLED KURT COBAIN PROJECT, as well as James Ellroy’s cop thriller RAMPART (starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, and Ice Cube).
ML: I read an interview you did with Ira Sachs in which you said that you had never met a creative person before you moved to the U.S. What made you decide that you wanted to direct films, and what gave you the encouragement and confidence to get rolling in that direction?
OM: Confidence I’m not sure I have yet. But it wasn’t a very thoughtful process. It was really falling in love with movies, and being scared by movies. Not necessarily by scary movies, but by the whole experience of going to the movie theater and sitting there in the dark, which was terrifying to me; and I was drawn to it and I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know what it even means to be involved in film; I just knew that I was drawn to that world and that somehow–I can say it now as if it was guaranteed, it just worked out that way–that somehow, I would end up doing something in film.
And then I moved to the States and I went to college. I studied film–film studies and production–and I always kept in mind that I wanted to be a director. But I didn’t know what a director is, to tell you the truth, I just had a vague idea. And I read about it, I read a lot about the film process and all of that, so I sort of knew in theory, the way I think film critics know about film, but that doesn’t mean I knew about the day to day of it. And I found my way through it.
ML: You started out as a screenwriter and then you directed your first film THE MESSENGER, which was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Screenplay for the script you co-wrote with Alessandro Camon. I know that when Alessandro found out about the nomination, he called his dad in Italy to tell him and his dad said that he already knew because the mayor of his little town in Italy had called to give him the news. And I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about what having such a huge and instant and public success was like for you?
OM: It really never felt that way, to tell you the truth. Definitely my thoughts were always on the film, and this may sound disingenuous, but it really was true. My thoughts were always on the film. And I think there is a certain kind of randomness in the whole Awards thing. And obviously the thing that amazed me was the fact that we were such a small film, with not a lot of money for publicity, and that slowly but surely people were hearing about us.
So when I heard about the nomination, my first reaction, the thing that really kept me excited about it wasreally, ‘This is really good for the film. This is really going to get the exposure we couldn’t afford to get if we had paid for it.’ It really kept me amazed and excited. It wasn’t really anything personal for me, because I do feel that it was almost a fluke. It was such a small film, which ultimately not a lot of people saw in the theater– I mean I think a lot of people are seeing it now on DVD–but at the time we didn’t have a lot of people seeing it in the theater and to get a little bit of a nod from people in the Academy who said, ‘We paid attention to this movie when it came our way,’ was very exciting.
And it really translated to more attention for the film, which I think was ultimately what we were going for from the beginning, because it is the sort of film where you feel a little humbled by it, you feel that what it’s about is almost more important than anything personal that you can get out of it.
ML: Sean Penn hosted a screening of THE MESSENGER to help ensure that certain members of the Academy saw the film. And Stanley Tucci was plugging the film from the Red Carpet on Oscar night. Why do you think these actors who weren’t involved in the making of the film at all were so invested in promoting it?
OM: I think we had a few angels who basically took it upon themselves to promote the film. And I think it really came from a genuine place. The world of Hollywood and the world of filmmaking is really a community, or it’s actually a collection of a few communities, and just like in any other profession, these guys–actors, directors and whatnot–are always looking out to what’s out there, what’s interesting what’s new, what’s the thing that not everyone’s seeing but we should pay attention to.
We had some very smart people on our distributions side, Oscilloscope Laboratories, and they sort of knew how to approach these people and send them DVDs. But you know some of it also happens in a much more sort of organic way. I’ll give you an example of something that I don’t think was written up anywhere else.
We showed the film at a lot of festivals because that’s one way to not spend a lot of money but still get some exposure and get people talking about the movie. And we showed the film at the Nantucket Film Festival. And Ben Stiller was in the audience, came to see the movie, I knew him from a long time ago. But I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He came to see the movie and he loved it. He was really, really excited about it and excited about reconnecting after all these years and all that. He was really, I think, impressed with the movie.
And then on the other side of the country there was a screening and Woody [Harrelson] invited his friends from L.A. and I invited some friends and one of the people there was Owen Wilson. And Owen saw the film and was really impressed with it as well. So somebody came up with the idea of Owen and Ben Stiller hosting a screening in Los Angeles for some of their friends. And that’s actually where Sean Penn came to see it.
And so it was kind of like, ‘You tell that person, and then you tell that person and then we’ll hold some screenings and get them to see it.’ And obviously no one ever forced people to talk about the film or asked them to do anything. If they liked the film, they spoke about it. There are other actors who never spoke about it if they didn’t like the film.
ML: Oscilloscope Laboratories is Adam Yauch’s distribution company (Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys). It sounds like they are filling a specific and much needed niche in the distribution realm. Will you talk a little bit about how you got involved with Yauch?
OM: I would say again that it seemed that everything that happened with this movie was a combination of coincidence and random good intentions that led to something like this.
I actually met Adam at a party when we were negotiating with another distributor to distribute the film. We still didn’t really have a good deal in place at the time and Adam, I was introduced to him, and he said he’d seen THE MESSENGER and how much he liked it. And he said something along the lines of ‘One day I wish we could distribute a film like that.’ And I said, ‘Why not now?’ And he basically said, ‘Well I’m sure you guys got a distributor. I mean I saw people after the screening that were huddling, that were talking about it. There was a lot of excitement about it.’ I said, ‘Yes, but there’s no done deal. And actually I would be very excited if you guys got into this and were interested in distributing it because I really think that, as you said, there’s a very special need for a distributor.’ So I gave him the number for the producer and he called the next day and put a bid in and that’s how they got the film.
ML: Had you been familiar with Adam Yauch’s work as a musician?
OM: Obviously I knew the Beastie Boys and I knew their music and all that kind of stuff, but more specifically for this, I knew that Adam got into distribution because I became aware of them [Oscilloscope Laboratories] when they picked up Kelly Reichhardt’s film, WENDY AND LUCY, and it was quite an exception to what was going on in the distribution world back then because I never really read articles saying ‘Hey there’s this guy who’s a musician who has an idea and now he’s thinking about distributing movies.’ You sort of come to that initially with a little bit of suspicion of ‘What is this about?’
So I looked him up and read about him and realized that this is the real deal, that he only has the best intention as an artist, and actually a real clear agenda to promote certain kinds of quality movies and thank God for him.
ML: To go back a little bit to the topics and the themes of THE MESSENGER: I read that you are friends with Tony Swafford. In his memoir, JARHEAD, Swafford writes about how anti-war movies, when shown to young warriors, are seen as pro-war. He writes that, “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography to the military man.” I wonder if that idea affected your decision to write a film about a soldier who has already come back from the war to the homefront?
OM: I think it’s a very complicated thing in terms of the relationships between images and political agenda. I think that, as a whole, in my opinion, all films about war are anti-war, because, to be pro-war, they have to be propaganda films. I think that those films, especially the big budget films, are done in a way where they bring in a certain kind of excitement, a certain kind of adrenaline that can be really riveting and kind of a turn on, especially for young boys and young men.
We were very aware that we were not going to make a political film in terms of polemics, in terms of left wing/right wing, because that’s a death trap for a movie. But all movies are in a way political and our agenda was to put together a film—if we were so lucky, and we were—that would tell the story of the homefront without saying ‘This particular war was wrong for these reasons,’ or ‘That particular war was wrong for those reasons,’ and just basically show that people have to live with the consequences of the decision to go to war. And based on that, you draw your own conclusions.
I think from the very simplistic point of view that people want to take sometimes, clearly the movie is not saying, ‘War is a good thing.’ It’s basically saying ‘War effects people in a way some people don’t even think about and here’s what it looks like in its fictional rendering. It’s not a documentary; it’s our creation.’ So that’s really where we were coming from with this movie.
It’s basically an idea of ‘What does the homefront look like? What are the soldiers dealing with when they are coming back? And really it’s so much the tip of the iceberg. It’s almost a little embarrassing to say the movie is representative of that. I think it’s representative of a very tiny part of the story. Not only is it the story of thousands of dead in the two wars, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the way lives have been torn apart as a result of this war and keep being torn apart. It’s such a devastating thing we are going to be living with for such a long time. We haven’t even started to deal with it on a national level.
ML: Now this is a bit of a more personal question about language. I’ve read that you first wrote in Hebrew and Alessandro (Camon) first wrote in Italian. What was your experience with thinking and writing in Hebrew versus in English and how does that affect your subject matter and your language?
OM: I think it makes me more insecure about language when I have to write in English. And it makes me feel like I never know enough, therefore I have to know more. Which actually is not a bad thing. Mostly I think it serves you as a writer when you feel you have to go an extra mile to get the language right. I think that Alessandro is really an exceptional guy. He has a heavy Italian accent and even if you don’t speak Italian you know he’s quite an intellectual in Italian. And I think his mastery of English for any guy, is amazing, for an American it would be amazing. But also when you consider that he came to the States knowing very few words [of English], it’s really kind of shocking and inspiring.
For me, I’ve always dealt with English on a certain level. Obviously when I came here–which was, by the way, 23 years ago today—I started the process of becoming more and more comfortable with English. I think at first there was definitely the ‘I think in Hebrew before I speak in English’ kind of a process. But I would say that a few years into living here in New York, I started thinking in English and finding it more natural and kind of free flowing to go between thinking in English and speaking English. I find that once in a while a Hebrew word creeps into my head and then I start kind of stuttering trying to figure out what that word is in English.
But although I am quite comfortable with it, there’s always going to be this nagging insecurity that ‘I should check up on that line, because I’m not really sure that’s the best way of saying it.’ And that ultimately might have helped me work better. But also, as an outsider, and somebody who is not a native English speaker, you end up stealing from people all the time. I mean, you listen to the way people talk and it’s always about taking the phrase or line, so that you make it work for the character.
ML: You’ve told me before you’re glad you don’t live in L.A. Does living in New York, or the quality of life you have in New York, affect your writing?
OM: I love living in New York. I mean L.A. has its good sides. But New York is a place where I can walk around, and that’s a big deal for me. There’s an energy here that comes from interacting with people on a massive scale that I find really kind of exciting and inspiring. It’s where I’ve been all this time and there’s always so much going on here and so many people from, not only all over the world, but also from so many different disciplines and professions and occupations, that it is very dynamic. L.A. is ultimately where the film industry is and I think that—while it’s very good for people who work in the industry—has its limitations. Everything there revolves around film. It’s always been a comfortable fit for me here [in New York] and having kids now, and a family here, I can’t think of living anywhere else.
ML: Currently you are attached to RAMPART as a writer and director. And you’ll be working with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster again on that project. Would you talk a little bit about your decision to do that film? And did you have to lobby to be able to work again with those two actors?
OM: RAMPART is based on a James Ellroy script and I was hired to rewrite that script and when I finished it I think we were already done with THE MESSENGER; and one of the producers who worked on THE MESSENGER, Lawrence Inglee, who also was the producer of RAMPART, basically said, ‘Well why don’t you direct this?’ And I thought about it and I thought it would be kind of exciting if we could get the team back together—the core team, which is Ben, Woody, and Lawrence as well—and do this, which appealed to me and I liked the opportunity to go into another movie right away, (well, relatively right away–in movie terms).
In many ways, it’s not that far from THE MESSENGER, in terms of, we’re gonna have a guy in uniform, but it is very far from it in terms of what the story is and what the tone is. And it’s a somewhat bigger film, more challenging in many ways. And I also started a production company with Ben Foster and Ben is coming into this movie as a producer, representing our company. So there’s the feeling that the family is working together. It’s a great kind of crazy trip that came out of the mind of James Ellroy and that’s an interesting thing to explore any day.
ML: You co-wrote the Bob Dylan biopic I’M NOT THERE and it’s been rumored you might direct the Kurt Cobain biopic. And whenever Denis (Johnson, author of JESUS’ SON) talks about you he always mentions you used to send him mixed cassette tapes that you made him. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your interest in music and musicians and how that affects the work you do in film.
OM: Music is everything. It’s impossible to breath without music. Growing up, I didn’t really have access to movies, we didn’t have much of that. But music was always on. We all had radios. And music became necessary for me. And also there’s obviously a fantasy element for the world of musicians. So it’s in my work; I was very lucky to work with Todd Haynes (director) on I’M NOT THERE and you know, you get to work with, not only one of the great singer/songwriters, but also one of the great poets of our time, Bob Dylan, so that was a special privilege.
You know, I’ve always been interested in biopics in general and unusual biopics and then when I was approached to do the Cobain thing I was very excited about it. You know I’m writing it right now and I am attached to direct it.
ML: You are?
OM: Yeah, yeah, it’s not a rumor. It’s true. But you know also, I can tell you now as I write it, there’s something so complicated about the interplay—-a movie that wants to tell a life story and then is also based in the creativity that is part of that in the world of the tour musicians that is so specific sometimes. To me, it’s absolutely intriguing and it also takes me back to the first question that you asked me; the world of creative people is absolutely mysterious and attractive to me.
That’s a different kind of creativity. Writing music, writing lyrics, performing is the biggest turn on there is. I know plenty of very, very, very famous actors who will tell you absolutely, in no uncertain terms, that their biggest fantasy is to be a rock star. You know, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, you’re a famous movie star.’ But the actor’s like, ‘Nah, I’m close, but look at this guy, he’s a rock star.’
It’s that world of rock n’ roll, it’s keeping us all alive, or it’s kept us alive and going. To me it’s just something that’s always intrigued me. That thing with Denis [Johnson] for example, it’s also a way of communicating with people. It’s like, ‘Hey, I like you. Could you listen to this? How ‘bout this?’ I spent a lot of hours, or wasted a lot of hours—spent or wasted, I’m not sure—just playing music for people and talking about it and trying to figure out who’s in that band and who’s in that band and how they connect and what does this song mean and all that kind of stuff. It’s being a perpetual teenager, I guess.
ML: So you mentioned Denis (Johnson). You co-wrote the film adaptation of his book of short stories, JESUS’ SON. I consider that to be one of the best film adaptations of a book—certainly of a book of short stories—that I’ve ever seen. I was wondering how you got involved in that project and what the experience of adapting that book was like for you?
OM: I got involved through a company called Evenstar. I was lucky enough to know Elizabeth Cuthrell, who started the company and David Urrutia who was working with her—they were both producers on JESUS’ SON—and we were just talking about plans. They had some development money and Elizabeth was a big fan of Denis Johnson’s and they were trying to figure out a way to get the rights to that book. And I think then we sort of looked at each other and said ‘There are three of us. We are three writers, three producers. We can do it together.’
And then we started kind of dividing up the work and it took almost a year of a lot of work of getting the script into shape and then involving the director early on in Alison MacClean, and then involving Denis [Johnson] early on, who I think was a little suspicious of these guys in New York. But then he came on board and got really involved in so many levels in the film. It was just a very long and very fulfilling process.
And ultimately what I would say is we didn’t know a lot coming in about how to make a movie. It was a burst of experience for most of us. And we got some very good professionals to work on the film. And I think that some of the freedom that we had as a truly independent film that was funded completely independently, some of the freedom that was there really instructed the script in the sense that we didn’t feel restricted by a studio telling us, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that.”
And we read the book, and talked about it; one of the things that I noticed that I thought was exciting was that when you tried to translate the book into film there’s actually a whole language at your disposal that you can use because you have an unreliable narrator. You have a way of getting into tangents in terms of filmmaking, and then coming back to the story, but you’re never really sure what the true story is. And then the main character is always trying to figure out what exactly happened; and he doesn’t really remember; he did a lot of drugs and was drinking. So for us that meant that we could use split screens and freeze frames and go on tangents in terms of narrative, and kind of not be linear, but ultimately drive the story forward and have tiny animated moments. And it was a complete toolbox that existed; and we were just paying careful attention to what the words in this great collection [of short stories] were telling us and then what is the kind of cinematic equivalent of those words and we tried to push that through with the film.
I mean the best example for me is in the story called WORK where Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) and Wayne (Denis Leary)–they go and they do some work, and then they get the copper wires out of the walls of the house, and then they sell it. And in the book it says, ‘We split the money down the middle and bought heroin with it.’ And that to me says, ‘Oh, okay, that’s a split screen. You know, just follow them,’ because they go their separate ways, and they both shoot up. Fuckhead has somebody to save him in Michelle (Samantha Morton) and he survives, and the other guy dies. And you can show that at the same time if you just split the screen and follow both stories. So it was just that kind of paying attention to what the brilliant author was telling us and trying to find a way to do it.
ML: And that cast was just phenomenal. Dennis Hopper with the bullet holes in his face just brought it to life.
OM: That story was just word for word from the book. Really we just had to write directions and all that kind of stuff, but in terms of dialogue I think it was word for word from the book—it works so perfectly.
I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.
I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.
I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.
I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.
Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.
You could see it coming in the eyes of Walker Evans’ Depression-era tenant farmer, Allie Mae Burroughs, and it’ll make you cry, that razor’s edge of a sad smile about her that says, “You, too.”
You could see it coming. Somewhere, a young boy in a dinosaur t-shirt holds his dying mother’s hand and remembers that the distant voice on the phone, the Insurance Voice, said simply, “No.” He could be forgiven for fearing he’d spoken to someone he shouldn’t have.
Andrew, Son of Schlafly, is rewriting the Bible, too, no doubt replacing Amos with Milton Friedman and “justice like a mighty stream” with trickle-down economics. Joseph saw seven years of famine in Pharaoh’s dream. “Merely the lower strings of a cats cradle in the Market’s invisible hand,” Schlafly’s Joseph will say, adding with certainty, “It’s the business cycle.”
Joseph’s coat of many colors is back in his father Jacob’s mournful hands in the traditional American tune, “When First Unto This Country.” It was an Austin group, The Gant Family, who brought the song to folklorists in the 1930s. Bob Dylan called it “my foreign language song, my only foreign language song.” And I wonder what he means, because isn’t Jacob’s 11th son a little like us, post-Declaration America’s 11th generation, give or take? In a dream our ancestors hold our bloodstained coat and say, “We warned you to be careful.”
It’s an authentic American Joseph who sings “When First Unto This Country.” He wears his innocence like his “cap set on so bold.” He loses it, along with his coat of many colors. Still, we should remember that Joseph had enough sense to outsmart Pharaoh and to make sure his people got his bones out of Egypt.
How fine it would be for the young man with the dying mother to sing this song to the Insurance Voice on the other end of the phone line. But that’s the thing. He did, and if you don’t believe me ask Walt Whitman, who heard it and knew the young man and all America learned it from the delicious singing of their mothers. Continue reading “When First Unto This Country”
Late one night back in the late fall of ‘74, I was sitting with our friend Bill Barvin in the dark and quiet dining room of Austin’s Pearl Street student co-op. It was chilly, and we were drinking tea pretending we didn’t want beer. I don’t remember how you tracked down Bill, but you stopped by. I guess you know we lost Bill to Lou Gehrig’s disease a few years ago. In his last years he was the location manager for the hit TV show, Law and Order. Law and order were not on our minds that night. I miss him terribly. Anyway, you’d been a camp counselor of Bill’s, and there was something on your mind.
You talked about a conversation you had earlier that day with Bob Dylan. This was late in the Austin era of the cosmic cowboy and the outlaw country singer, short-lived movements that, apparently, bored Dylan into Christianity, briefly. But the Michael Murphy-Willis Alan Ramsey-Willie Nelson-Jerry Jeff Walker-B.W. Stevenson moment had done for your career what shaking a Lone Star longneck does for the suds: sent it flying. That day, Dylan told you the movement was a silly pop distraction, and that you ought to run like hell from it.
It’s late afternoon, at a window booth in a small diner in Rutherford, New Jersey. Around 1961 or ’62. An older man with short white hair that is still somehow tousled let’s his face slip back and forth, his expressions alternating like a cracker jack toy between interest and confusion. He gazes over his coffee at the young, mysterious stranger who wanted to meet a famous poet.
“What then shall be seen in America?” William Carlos Williams asked.
“You’re invisible now you got no secrets to conceal,” Bob Dylan answered.
This perplexes the old poet. No, he’s not confused by the comment, just curious, all over again, at the national disrobing the brash young man described. Williams had watched and listened for more than half a century as America decided to go public, all out there on the radio, then the television and the satellites. But he remembers, too, that there is
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Williams really asked this question, what shall be seen in America? Not of Dylan, of course. The above is fiction. Sort of. But he asked it of another friend. The question’s a fair one for a writer who was also a physician, a real doctor administering to the flesh and blood and psychic grievances of the “devil-may-care men” and the “young slatterns” of New Jersey.
What restorative could be found among the natural things and the ideas in the things of America?
On any given evening the country is full of marketing wizards haunting the malls, pulling people into groups of a dozen or so behind doors that don’t lead to stores but to conference rooms. There these innocent passersby are asked probing questions about their likes and dislikes. There’s a theory, or there should be a theory, that this ritual is the true origin of all alien abduction stories.
But it’s just a focus group. Sometimes the groups are held in office buildings or hotels. Participants are recruited by phone, paid a small sum and a smaller dinner.
It’s the way we do our politics, too, all of the consultants and opinion researchers quite certain they are keeping careful and accurate tabs on America’s soul. It’s got no secrets, that’s right. Learning all our non-secrets, they’ll concoct secret strategies to tell them back to us. Since there are no secrets, their hope is they can tell the non-secret stories better than their opponents can.
These cocky advertising and marketing magicians are sober behind the wheel, witnessing it all. But what is it they are witnessing really but the virtual confirmation of their own naked ambitions? They’re not seers. Just more of the seen.
I don’t want to think this is true, and I’m proposing we find a way to argue with it. American composer Michael Pisaro wrote that Dylan’s 1965 release of “Like a Rolling Stone,” which declared the end of secrets, “seems to have been the last moment in American history when the country might have changed, in a fundamental way, for the better.”
…like a Geiger counter developing a will of its own, [the song] wavers between trying to record the coming quake and trying to make it happen. This is where the song stakes its claim on eternity.
I was twelve in 1965, so I can’t be convicted. I was playing catch in a friend’s front yard when my older brother came around and told me I needed to hear this (45 rpm) record. It was “Like a Rolling Stone.” No one’s selling any alibis, but I have one. Anyway, this wavering between recording and making history sure sounds like my generation’s escapade of hope turned to confusing ambivalence. We thought we would make history, then, after Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, the first Oil Embargo and the Nixon pardon, many of us decided we’d rather consume history than make it.
History, it seems, requires secrets and is unsettling to dreams.
Novelist Russell Banks, in his new, wonderful essay on our country, Dreaming Up America, writes that there’s not one American Dream but many. He details three:
There was El Dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez and Pizarro dreamed of finding. And then there was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life over again, and the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem…The Dream of the Fountain of Youth may yet prove to be the strongest of the three, since it carries within it the sense of the new, the dream of starting over, of having a New Life. It’s essentially the dream of being a child again, and it’s the dream that persists more strongly than the other two and is today perhaps the most vivid of the three.
Williams told a story once about Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. It’s in his book, In the American Grain, in the chapter, “The Fountain of Eternal Youth.” It begins like this:
History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. No, we are not Indians but we are men of their world. The blood means nothing; the spirit, the ghost of the land moves in the blood, moves the blood.
Williams writes that our bloody past lives on in us, not as some abstract guilt, but as flesh and blood.
Men who do not know what lives, are themselves dead. In the heart there are living Indians once slaughtered and defrauded-Indians that live also in subtler ways…
Bending the river of history only slightly, Williams tells of Ponce de Leon gullibly believing a tall tale told to him by one of his slaves, a native woman of Puerto Rico. She spoke of a spring of eternal youth, located on a magical island called Bimini. Off Ponce went. He came ashore at Florida, but this time:
…the Yamasses put an arrow into his thigh at the first landing-and let out his fountain. They flocked to the beach, jeered him as he was lifted to the shoulders of his men and carried away. Dead.
Ponce died, but not the dream. You can visit the Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park in St. Augustin, Florida even today. The tourist attraction was established by Diamond Lil, or Luella Day McConnel, in 1904, who had come to Florida after being cured of gold rush fever in Alaska. Like Williams, Lil was a physician. She’d trained in Baltimore.
Williams’ gruesome story makes the moment of “Like a Rolling Stone even more tragic, if Michael Pisaro is right. Because another way to make Pisaro’s point about the lost opportunity of 1965 is to say that Dylan could feel a brief lightening in the blood, as if the ghosts of our murderous past offered pardon. The feeling was freedom, like a rolling stone.
But I’m not certain the opportunity of that time is lost. It was another verse of Dylan’s song that made me think of it.
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
We are back in that place. Or a very similar place. Maybe we never left. Maybe it’s cyclical. I don’t know. Is this just another dream of eternal youth? I don’t think so.
What I’m suggesting is that we ask ourselves the question William Carlos Williams asked. “What then shall be seen in America?” We should not settle for our naked neighbors. We should look hard for the natural things and the ideas in the things of America. Imagination, not ideology.
Don’t listen to the sophisticates tell you you’re being romantic. They will not think that when the arrow hits their thigh. You are the seer in this game. So kiss like one. This is all a way of saying we must seize the day politically, even a chance at greater glory might depend upon that simple achievement. But we can’t forget the deeper truths of our own blood. We have nothing to lose but our ghosts. And they will not let us be until the least among us is free. Continue reading “What Then is to be Seen in America?”