When I was a child, I scanned the TV listings every week. If a Beatles movie was being shown during school hours, I would feign illness or just beg my mother to stay home and watch. She usually relented. I loved everything they did, but “Help!” always blew my mind because of John’s “pit bed” his Dylan-sneer, the rich color, and because let’s face it: they all looked so damned beautiful.This clip, like all things Beatle, is a forever source of inspiration and happiness for me. I would love to hear if The Beatles cast an enduring enchantment on you.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.
When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:
Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.
Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.
So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.
In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.
I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil. At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.
The closest I ever get to feeling like a born again Christian is when I meet someone who doesn’t like or “get” the Beatles. Depending on their level of hostility, ignorance or indifference, I sometimes proselytize. Other times I break out in a joyous sweat as I think of the heavenly sounds of “Nowhere Man.” Mostly I just feel blessed. The Beatles have been my myth to live by, the greatest story ever told.
But even I don’t think I could go on a Beatles-themed cruise.
While I have Beatle fanatic friends who make me feel part of the same joyous, endlessly mystical cult, going to official “fan” events (i.e. the dedication of John Lennon’s star on Hollywood Boulevard), have made me feel afraid and alone, surrounded by people in various states of mental and emotional decay. When I went to Liverpool, I preferred to make my pilgrimage with a local cab driver who used to help the Beatles unpack their gear at the Cavern, not travel on a psychedelic tour bus with weeping ladies wearing sweat-stained Sgt. Pepper jackets.
This mash-up of the Beatles swimming in a pool in Miami in 1964 with the shark from “Jaws 2” comes from the site of a guy who truly hates the Beatles. I wish I could meet him in the flesh. Maybe if I told him how much the idea of a Beatles cruise depresses and frightens me, we could establish some common ground. Then I could share with him the good word. Or at least shove some tracts under his door.
I ALWAYS freak out when my obsessions collide. Especially The Beatles and JAWS. I nearly had a coronary a couple summers ago when I found a book of John Lennon’s drawings in which he’d scribbled a swimmer being chased by a huge black dorsal fin.
(Drawing circa 1976, waning JAWS era! I had always geeked out wondering how John would have felt watching JAWS when Richard Dreyfuss snaps at Quint: “I don’t need this working class hero crap.”)
Now, I stumbled on this unknown youtube visionary who has blended the ocean and radio and other sounds of the first scenes of JAWS with the Beatles Revolution 9, and some piece of John Lennon audio which, I admit I can’t readily tie to an interview.
(Is he talking about A Hard Day’s Night or Let it Be?)
In “Instant Karma!” a song written and recorded in one day, John Lennon posed the eternal question: “Why in the world are we here?” answering the unanswerable with a single, powerful certainty: “Surely not to live in pain and fear.”
In this humble blog, one of my recurring questions has been how not to shut down in the face of suffering–both my own internal sadness and the suffering of animals, of aging parents, etc.
Today I discovered this terrific and invigorating podcast that grapples with all of these things–a 1996 Ram Dass lecture called Living the Mystery which I highly recommend. (NOTE: Skip the introductory part. Ram Dass is funny and dynamic. Listening to this narrator is like hearing someone describe a movie in exhaustive detail and thereby sucking all the energy & surprise out it. START listening at 17:59!
When I talk to my mother on the phone, I never know what to expect. Since her stroke several years ago, she possesses an acerbic bluntness, alternating with undiluted love and affection. Her detours into the distant past are chronicled with a clear urgency that sometimes dissolves into obscurity and non-sequiturs. Pronouns lose their specificity. The “she” at the beginning of any story might morph from a grandmother, to a sister, to a faithless childhood friend whose betrayal is as fresh and cutting as it was in 1936.
And our conversations include silence. Lots of silences. Sometimes I try to fill these gaps, but often times I just sit in the silence with her. Like some avant-garde experiment, I tell myself we are sharing a conversation. It just happens to have no words.
“I’m sorry I keep drifting off,” she said today after a long pause. On her side of the conversation, in the homey living room of the Peterborough, New Hampshire nursing home, I could hear the T.V. playing a movie. My brother Jeb was laughing. On my side, in Los Angeles, the radio played “Breakfast with the Beatles,” honoring the 33rd anniversary of John Lennon’s death with a string of glorious songs like “Ticket To Ride,” and “Jealous Guy.”
“What are you listening to?” my mother said.
I was surprised she could hear it. My mother loved The Beatles. Not as much as Sinatra, but she loved them. She’d shepherded my sister Julie through the throes of Beatlemania, then she had to endure it again with me in the 1970s, and my affliction was even deeper than Julie’s had been. But my mother had never been a huge “John” fan. She’d liked Paul. He was sweeter. Safer. John’s politics unsettled her.
“Oh but listen to his voice,” I’d trill, lost in ecstasy, eleven years old, turning up the primitive volume knob.
“It’s a little nasal, isn’t it?” she’d say suspiciously.
Oh yes! Nasal! I’d swoon. Gloriously nasal!
Nothing could touch me.
“I’m listening to a show called Breakfast with the Beatles. It has been 33 years since John Lennon died so they’re playing lots of his songs.”
“You know,” my mother said, “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
Someone on the radio, reporting from a fan gathering in Central Park, had said that very thing a few minutes earlier.
“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t know—”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I still think of things he said….”
And she drifted off again into a vast silence. I asked her if she remembered how we lived in that little house in Massachusetts in 1980. I left out all the complicated parts. How my father had arranged for me to attend a Boston press conference and meet John Lennon on December 13. I confirmed this life-altering fact with my father at 6:45 pm on December 8, and by 11:00 pm John Lennon was dead. How I came downstairs to get the paper in the morning, and my mother stopped me before I went outside and said “John died,” and I didn’t believe her.
I said “Do you remember where we were living when he died? That little house in Rowley Massachusetts?”
“Oh yes,” she said.
I said “Do you ever listen to music now?”
She said, “Yes, I listen to John Lennon.”
I knew this wasn’t true, at least in the logistical universe of the Peterborough nursing home. But what of the places she visited in her long silences?Who could say what happened there?
“What songs do you like of his?”
“Well, there are so many.”
I remember how the world honored John with ten minutes of silence on December 14, 1980. I sat on the floor of my room in the little house in Massachusetts and rolled the dial of my radio. A violin surfaced in the static and was gone. Then nothing. I remember that moment was the first time I realized that silence had texture, feeling—even a kind of intelligence.
I don’t know if my mother really thinks about John. I don’t know where she goes. Can we call them reveries? Alternate lives? I don’t know if the “he” in her story is John Lennon, or the Marine she almost married instead of my father, or Jesus Christ, or her own lost brother. John Lennon, this name that contains the private memories and hopes and loves and triumphs of millions of people. Who is this “he” exactly?
There is the song as it first happened, when it first was born, and then the song it has become as an echo, gathering all the love and associations that people have attached to it. Maybe my mother is always speaking from this sort of echo and of understanding, that isn’t about time or logic or even about boundaries between here and there, between you and I.
Thirty three years ago, I sat on the cold wooden floor hollow with grief, in a world tasting of aspirin and snow, turning the dial of the radio through the ten minute vigil. I remember the slight hiss of emptiness, and I remember marveling at that miraculous absence of sound, a quiet so deep that it felt like another world, a place one could actually go.
From the sublime to the absurd in no particular order:
1. John Lennon singing Instant Karma!
2. Torn between making art and taking direct action? Read Derrick Jensen’s essay “Loaded Words: Writing as a Combat Discipline”
3. Fall in love with the English language: Listen to Jeremy Irons reading Lolita
4. It’s so awful, it’s great: Russian Shark Attack Tampax commercial
5. The always wild, beautiful and strange art & literature at biblioklept.
When I heard about Joe Strummer’s death, I was climbing a mountain road in Vermont during a light snowstorm a few days before Christmas. That far north, most radio stations broadcast in French. Rolling through the static, I finally heard words in English telling me that Joe Strummer had died. Today, I heard about Lou Reed driving through a cloudless late morning in Los Angeles.
The Velvet Underground will always be very important to me, but in my twenties they were a revelation. I had a big crush on Lou Reed for a long time. I went to see him at the Greek theatre on the eve of the Los Angeles riots. I saw him another time on the tour for the New York album. I passed on a free ticket to see him once in 2000 or so cause I had tickets to Elliot Smith. Since Elliot Smith killed himself a couple years later, I’m glad I saw him at least once.
I loved every Velvet Underground record. My favorite Lou Reed album was “The Blue Mask.” I really dug the crazy, beyond Oedipal madness of the title song. But one of his records that really got me through tough times was 1992’s “Magic and Loss.” Had there ever been a “grief rock” album before? Surely John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band explored many forms of grief in harrowing songs like “Mother,” but I had never heard such a purposeful, focused two-sided exploration before. My brother had died in 1990, and sorting through the guilt and sorrow I felt took a long time. “Magic and Loss” wasn’t always easy listening, and I remember my boyfriend at the time finding descriptions of hospital beds less than conducive to romance.
I feel gratitude to all the artists that helped me through. Too many to name. John Lennon’s death would take a book to tell. I learned of George Harrison’s death in the bleary light of November mountains. And Lou is a big one.
Sometimes I move through the litany of loss–family, friends, beloved animals, the great artists who are our teachers, and then I hit the larger losses. The extinctions. “What do we do with information like: The world’s major fisheries will collapse by 2048?” I asked my class. When someone dies we are jolted. It’s always sudden no matter how long the illness, or “battle.” But when we live inside an accelerated period of extinction, it can remain invisible to most of us. Yet both losses are “personal.”
But which losses push us to a sharper, more urgent appreciation of living and which ones make us fold? Is this our choice to make?
I like Lou Reed’s philosophy–that grief is transformative–a kind of Purgatorial fire that purifies but doesn’t destroy:
When the past makes you laugh and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there’s a door up ahead not a wall
And if the building’s burning move towards that door
But don’t put the flames out
There’s a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out
- Lou Reed dies aged 71 (telegraph.co.uk)
Driving home from a lecture on blogging, (I blog far too much and at all the wrong times), I heard an interview with Marta Cunningham, the director of “Valentine Road” a documentary about the 2008 shooting of Lawrence King, an openly gay junior high school boy in Oxnard, California.
While Cunningham doesn’t demonize Brandon McInerney, the 14-year-old who killed Lawrence during his first period class (the murdered boy had asked McInerney two days before to be his valentine), the director is quite critical of how the school handled things. For example, in the wake of the shooting, the faculty might have handled the traumatized middle schoolers a bit more delicately, instead of herding them into a spare classroom for a screening of “Jaws.”
I tried to inhabit the bodies of those kids who’d just seen their classmate executed in front of them. The queasy unreality I felt after being car-jacked during the L.A. riots was the closest I could get.
I hardly ever think of “Jaws” as a violent movie, but If I’d just witnessed the murder, how might I process a story that begins with a naked woman wrenched beneath the surface of a dark ocean by something unseen? Would I cheer for Chief Brody perched on the sinking mast of the Orca, firing his rifle at the relentless beast and uttering his triumphant “Smile, you son of a bitch,” before he blows the shark to bits?
It’s beyond horrible that school shootings, workplace shootings, movie theater shootings, and mall shootings have become routine events in this country.
John Lennon would have been 73 years old today if he’d not been shot and killed in 1980.
A few months after his death, I stood at a podium. I was 14 years old, burning with passion and grief at my hero’s murder. I debated another eighth-grader on the need for gun control. I don’t remember the particulars of the debate, which is now just a flash of feeling, more dream than memory. I only know that I won.