Everybody Dance Now

House Of Trés still image

The following is an initial meandering musing on dance: casual, staged, amateur, professional, choreographed, spontaneous, celebratory, liberatory.

Dance Music

Six years ago Pet Shop Boys issued their album Electric and I bought it for the cut “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct,” a sentiment I’d been voicing for some time. But I was much more taken with the promo video for the more nuanced “Vocal.” Directed by photographer and filmmaker Joost Vandebrug, it is compiled from amateur video shot at British late-’80s raves as well as Manchester’s Haçienda club. Given the visuals, the song suggests a nostalgic number, but the singer is surprised: “Every track has a vocal/ and that makes a change.” The music—“Expressing passion/ Expressing pain”—is the glue that binds its listeners as well as the promo’s dancers. It can be seen as a tone-poem-take on the experiences of ecstasy, a drug of choice at the time.

In the milieu of the multitudes, Vandebrug’s choices convey not only that E-intimacy but also a heterogeneity—racial, sensual, presentational, more.

The “Vocal” visuals only hint at what was taking place across the pond in the waning ’80s, as do those for Madonna’s promo for “Vogue” (1990), which is an oddly literal (mm… periodical) treatment, a recreation of classic West Coast film and fashion photography, even as her choreography, by Karole Armitage, was a lite—and largely synchronized—version of East Coast ballroom moves (at least in the five-minute cut).

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Last fall when we subscribed to Netflix briefly I was told by a friend in L.A. about all the available drag etc features and series, like Pose, but I also noticed a vintage documentary I hadn’t seen upon its release (or since), Paris is Burning, centering on New York’s ballroom scene of 1990. I told my friend I remember watching a family-friendly short on the same subject that year, Diane Martel’s House of Trés. As a record collector myself I could appreciate the lead-off: Deee-Lite’s Supa DJ Dmitry browsing through his vinyl. He easily could have pulled out “Jam Hot” (1983) by Johnny Dynell, who appears at 0:30 and 5:11, and who started his recording/DJ/nightclub/etc career at the Mudd Club. Martel documents the walks, of course, but also shoots motion portraits à la Avedon/Longo, again with diverse genders, body types. (A year later she choreographed R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” and went on to direct promo videos for everyone.)

Twenty years earlier, Soul Train featured its “stroll,” which can be seen as a precursor to the balls’ runway walk. And many of the moves are remarkably the same, as seen in this unofficial Daft Punk video.

House of Trés was broadcast midway through Twin Cities Public Television’s Alive from Off Center series—so poorly documented itself that some writers online can’t even agree when it began and ended (roughly 1984 through 1996). Had you not seen its artists before, this would have been your introduction to Shirley Clarke, Charles Atlas, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Trisha Brown, Michael Clark, Paul Taylor, Brothers Quay, Eric Bogosian, Ann Magnuson, Spaulding Gray, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, La La La Human Steps, Karole Armitage (!), and on and on. An AFOC compilation would be welcome, but likely impossible, given the burden of obtaining rights from artists, directors, musicians, et al. The network’s website doesn’t even reference the series despite the life support provided by the Walker Art Center and the Walker’s 2014–15 limited retrospective as well as The Paley Center for Media’s collection and the WGBH Open Vault.

The AFOC piece that followed House of Trés was Doug Elkins Dance Company’s It Doesn’t Wait. Viewing it again after many years I’m struck by two aspects. First, the electroacoustic score, provided by Bob Clarida (Balbastre TranscriptSpy Music, and Cadille) and Ken Walicki’s Bad Dreams in Foreign Beds. Clarida is hard to track down, but Walicki, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, lists as influences: “Ligeti, Zorn, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, vegetarianism, Public Enemy, Buddhism, Che Guevara, Duran Duran, and the Zapatista Revolution in Mexico.” His recent CD release, Cyberistan, “conveys the effects of globalization and increasing dependency on technology.” The Elkins video’s extract from Malcolm X, “America has a serious problem,” in this context is contradictory: contemporary dancers, white to a fault, moving as though it were the most natural thing, almost as if tying up traffic, seemingly without a care, let alone a problem. (Later in his speech Malcolm X talks of how only when blacks fought back in Birmingham did Washington pay attention—when “the black steamroller” was about to move to D.C. “It was the grass roots out in the streets.”)

Second, I noticed a similarity between It Doesn’t Wait and dancer-choreographer Rudy Perez’s District 1 (1973). Both use an urban landscape for a backdrop, with dancers in casual street clothes. Perez’s piece isn’t available online but the still images below show his dancers interacting with the location—Boston’s City Hall—as well as moving through it. The work was well crafted: “Using still photography, portapak equipment and a small crew, Perez was able to create a series of studies for the work, which were used to carefully plan shots during the production of the actual work.” Audio came from marching bands.

Rudy loved working with objects, whether stationary or handheld. In the early 1980s friends and I studied in his Art Moves workshop for artists of whatever stripe who wanted to incorporate movement into their own material. (Some of the workshop material—and workshoppers—wound up working with his Performance Ensemble.) Rob Berg and I also created scores for a couple of Rudy’s pieces. As Lewis Segal remarks in the trailer below, Rudy walks a tightrope between dance and natural movement, which I find very attractive.

And then there is choreographer Lloyd Newson and his company DV8’s collaboration on the Durutti Column video “When the World” (1988). Again, the cityscape is the stage. The movement is brutal, but not much has changed in thirty years.

Music Dance

From its inception the music promo video has incorporated choreography, as demonstrated by MTV’s dance awards, beginning in 1989. With singer-songwriter Will Young’s “Thank You” (2015) I’m reminded of the stylized naturalism of Rudy Perez—and Doug Elkins. In the video, clients of all sorts in a typical but spacious old-world Turkish bath are compelled to move, even to create a Busby Berkeley-esque routine. They are spellbound, not performing. The choreography, appropriately enough, is by Parisian duo I COULD NEVER BE A DANCER.

And then there’s another “Thank You,” by Voice Farm with standard strutting by Oblong Rhonda, from a 1991 show I was lucky enough to take in at the Roxy in L.A.

I was first introduced to Will Young by his promo for “I Just Want a Lover” (2012) in which an alienated worker becomes rapt in revery: an amusing pas de deux. Choreography by Lorena Randi.

Young’s punch line above reminds me of Gregg Araki’s promo for the Micronauts’ “The Jag” (1999) but in this case the protagonist is an alienated patron. Choreographer unknown (Araki?), but the lyrics are lifted from the Goffin/King/Wexler chestnut “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and its vocal from the version by Joyce Sims.

Alienated patron—and worker—intersect in Moonchild’s “The List” (2017). Choreographer: Cristina McKeever.

Below, in “Still Feel” (2018), the band half•alive takes the viewer to a vaguely corporate/convention setting, with choreography by the JA Collective. Next, in “Losing Myself” (2012) Will Young and four alter egos prepare uneasily for the daily grind with superb synchronization (dig the French presses). For that, choreographer Aletta Collins won a UK Music Video Award, beating Richy Greenfield & Petro the same year for the late Avicii’s “Levels” in which an office worker takes the elevator up only to break down.

Knee, Sugar, Hammer, Shame

A week after House of Trés and It Doesn’t Wait aired, Alive from Off Center presented five videos from different countries under the title Music Transfer. The piece from Germany, by Klaus Blume, is Kneeplay (Kniespiel), and it uses what I call a sort of cinéma-musique-concrète treatment, à la Jon Appleton, of traditional Bavarian Schuhplattler dance. (Not to be confused with Robert Wilson’s “knee plays”—i.e., intermezzos—for various operas, which involve movement.) The same video technique (sans audio) is employed in last year’s Chaka Khan promo for “Like Sugar,” featuring choreography by Olivier Casamayou (and bassline by Fatback Band).

Following Kneeplay was the piece from USA, Hammer, by fine artist Matt Mahurin whose images I first became acquainted with in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. These moving images become balletic even as they record the work lives of their subjects. (Music by James Turner, Diana Turner, Darroll “Shamello” Durant, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler.)

This “hammer song”—of the sort that Lead Belly popularized (becoming the title of the 1963 James Baldwin documentary)—begins with familiarity: “Take this hammer and carry it to the captain.” But it turns defiant: “Tell him before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.” And then: “Take this hammer, captain!” Followed by Shamello’s rapping riff on the original.

Young Fathers’ “Shame” is defiant, too, but in a claustrophobic way. Choreography by Holly Blakey. Dancer is Joshua Hubbard, himself a choreographer.

Part 2 forthcoming…

A Perfect Crime?

Phrenological Diagram, Leopold and Loeb

Yes, this involves Leopold and Loeb and their victim Bobby Franks…

Killing time a week ago in the expansive area devoted to new releases at the central branch of the Denver Public Library, a title beckoned: Nina Barrett’s The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of the Most Infamous Crimes (Evanston: Agate Midway, Jul 2018). If overly familiar with The Crime of the Century (title of Hal Higdon’s 1975 book), one might ask, Why another rehash?

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Barrett has created the sort of case study that resembles an oral history, the kind of approach that I like to take. The book is the logical progression of The Murder that Wouldn’t Die, a 2009 exhibition at Northwestern University, which she curated. As such it is slathered with photos and facsimiles. It reminds me of Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (New York: Bulfinch, 2006) written by print and exhibition designer Mark Nelson and art and cultural critic Sarah Hudson Bayliss. With the look of a university-press popular history, Barrett’s doesn’t have the monograph/fine art sheen of the latter, but both books bring together images that likely hadn’t been seen in one place. And unlike Exquisite Corpse, Barrett breaks no new ground other than by exhuming, well, old ground—hopefully carefully culled.

Nina Barrett sample spread
Sample spread from Nina Barrett’s book, displaying Nathan Leopold’s passport application and photo.

Why discuss a book I haven’t read? I have a list of topics for this blog, some of which, like my most recent post, are the result of nagging questions. One such question involved Leopold and Loeb. Barrett merely induced me to answer it.

Years ago in the pursuit of a larger project I photocopied way too much material from a file on Martin Block, founder and editor of ONE magazine. A passage from a 1993 Block interview, conducted by an unknown party, vexed me. Once I dug into it last week it was relatively easy to investigate. I began with the index of Barrett’s book, which was a bust, but that propelled me. A (virtual) book checkout via Archive.org took me further, but I really needed the Leopold and Loeb trial transcript. Since I’m not an academic I don’t have access. (This is the digital divide that drives me nuts. Even were I a deep-pocketed individual I am denied access.) Fortunately a friend has come through and I can complete this post.

Chicken Pox

chicken (fr naut[ical] chicken = young recruit) pox (k[no]wn L[as]V[egas], mid ’60s) the urge to have sex with younger men.

—Bruce Rodgers, The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon
San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972

Martin Block’s tale actually deserves a context that I wouldn’t mind fleshing out one day, but here begins the slice that I always wanted to delve into.

In the 1930s Block (b. July 27, 1919) had a job as delivery boy for a bookshop with the “most refined customers.”

And it was another kind of world that I had become aware of, and because of my sexual traits and habits, I met on Madison, no on Fifth Avenue one night, a man named Wallace B[misremembered] who I had tremendous, tremendous respect [for]. Wallace had just at that time become an editor at Simon & Schuster. […] Wallace, by the way, was a man you’d find very interesting.

It’s tempting to figure that Block’s interlocutor was archivist Jim Kepner (from whose computer directory the interview was printed). But in my experience, Kepner’s interviews of those he already knew, like Block, were quite informal and conversational, which this is not.

Can I give you a little historical gossip? One of the great gay cases as it was known in this country was the Loeb and Leopold case. Well, […] my friend Wallace, was I think, he was the only or one of the very few witnesses for the defense. And we got to talking about it one day, and […] I asked him about it and I said “What was the true story as you know [it]?” and he said well what never came out was that the reasons that the young [blank line] boy was killed had nothing to do with a thrill killing. It had to do with that this boy at 12 years old or eleven years old was blackmailing Loeb and Leopold and everybody else in their circle because he already was an active homosexual and was blackmailing all the older men, some of whom he had had sex with and some of whom he had not. And he wanted money, and that’s why he was killed.

The question of motive I can’t address except that I’m reminded that a lack of cash led to Loeb’s own death in prison (see Higdon, 292) and that Leopold told state’s attorney Robert Crowe that Loeb already “was acquainted with” the fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks prior to his abduction and murder (Higdon, 102). Obviously Wallace B’s account contradicts the usual version of the crime’s narrative, which claims Franks had been selected at random.

I offer Block’s recollection here for any response or rebuttal—not to libel a murdered youth or presume his circumstances.

I mainly wanted to determine the identity of Block’s friend Wallace B, whose surname he misremembered in the interview. Was he even a witness in the trial? With a copy of the witness list I confirmed that a Wallace Brockway testified. And, indeed, this same Wallace B later became an editor at Simon and Schuster, as well as an author, translator, and contributor to many books and audio recordings.

The Fact Hawk

The test of Brockway’s mettle as an editor, according to Block, had been Dick Simon giving him the manuscript of the second volume of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, The Life of Greece (1935). Brockway found three dozen errors in the first two dozen pages and was hired. “I am grateful to Mr. Wallace Brockway,” Durant wrote in the book’s acknowledgments, “for his scholarly help at every stage of this work.”

On behalf of Simon and Schuster, in 1943 Brockway approached Joseph Campbell to produce a latter-day Bulfinch’s Mythology, which didn’t interest the scholar. Instead—six years later—the house published Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Stephen Larsen and Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, New York: Doubleday, 1991)

Brockway was described as “a fact hawk” and a

sandy-haired, pale-faced, pedantic person […], a young man with an encyclopedic memory and a knack for copying any writer’s style so immaculately that few authors […] were sure what Brockway had rewritten and what [the author] had not. (Gerard Willem van Loon, The Story of Hendrik Willem van Loon, Phila. & New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1972)

At the time of the Leopold and Loeb trial in 1924, according to the transcript, Brockway was an editor “of some books for the Government.” By about 1930 he likely had moved to New York. The New York Times of November 15, 1931 mentions a delay in the publication by Covice, Friede of his translation—the first ever in English—of The Journal of Eugène Delacroix “because of the discovery of a great deal of hitherto unknown material written by the famous nineteenth-century French painter.” Pedantry? Perhaps. When published—again, six years later—Brockway’s name appeared not on the title page, but instead in the acknowledgments.

By contrast, Gerard van Loon, cited above, states that, on a later project, Brockway “almost snatched the manuscript” away from the author he was editing. Thus “he was largely responsible for seeing to it that this prodigious volume”—Hendrick Willem van Loon’s The Arts (1937)—”was completed on time.”

Oh, and Covici, Friede was the stateside publisher of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness as well as a relatively early publisher of John Steinbeck. Yet, in 1954, both Pascal Covici (then at Viking) and Brockway (at S and S) would reject Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as being at least problematic, if not pornographic.

Wallace Brockway

Wallace Brockway (1903–1972) is listed as being born in Chicago on August 27, 1903 to Louis S. Brockway and Lillian M. (Johnson) Brockway according to a Cook County index, although over the years he shaved two years off his age. (Library of Congress lists Brockway’s birth year as 1905 but the 1910 and 1920 federal censuses suggest 1903; the 1940 census suggests 1906; his Social Security records state August 1905.)

He was the grandson of Swedish immigrants on his mother’s side. In the 1910 Federal Census he’s living in their Chicago household, with American-born Lillian, a concert musician, apparently already separated if not divorced. Ten years later they’re in the same household, different ward, and Lillian is private secretary to a doctor. He’s in the Class of ’23 at the University of Chicago with a tiny résumé: Poetry Club. Nathan Leopold was in the same class: Campus Club Executive Council, Italian Club, Undergraduate Classical Club. They were 19 and 18, respectively.

Brockway and Leopold Yearbook composite image
Composite image from 1923 University of Chicago yearbook, Brockway pictured at right.

At age 16–17 Brockway attended the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, during the academic years of 1919–20 and 1920–21. Two decades later, in 1939 he gave a copy of one of his books to Major Roy Warren Wonson, the school’s headmaster, followed by a letter. (Again, Brockway appears to have been 16 rather than 14.)

I hope you were not too perplexed, some weeks ago to receive a copy of (Men and Music), by Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock. If you were, permit me to jog your memory, and remind you of your kindness to a lonely 14-year-old boy, almost twenty years ago. That boy still remembers vividly your playing of Chopin and his pleasure at being allowed to sing a solo at Trinity [Episcopal] Church—I think it was Faure’s (Les Rameaux). At any rate, you fostered the boy’s love of music at a crucial moment of his life. In a sense, (Men of Music) constitutes a debt repaid, after many years. (News Leader, November 5, 1947)

Brockway, W. H. is listed in the 1920 yearbook as a Private in both Company C and Band, listed only in Band in 1921.

To the 1920 yearbook Brockway (W. H. B.) contributed a disturbing short story, “The German,” narrated by a young soldier who, after a rocky start, becomes inseparable with a fellow soldier, one Max Lebbard. “When I think of him my thoughts conjure up a great pair of watery blue eyes.” The two are stationed in occupied Coblenz (Koblenz) when Lebbard steals away from camp, followed by the narrator. His destination is his parents’ house and his father’s contempt, “of treason to the fatherland.” Leaving the house, Max commits suicide.

The SMA newspaper The Kablegram carried the following notice in its column S. M. A. Hash—A Little Bit of Everything, February 14, 1920:

Brockway, W. H., has announced to the corps that he is engaged, and will probably be married this summer.

I can’t help but wonder whether this was the result of an ultimatum as much as it appears to be Brockway’s declaration of normalcy. I did a half-hearted search of a marriage record: where to start? Chicago? Virginia? He was to be wed that summer, contradicted by his paean to his fictional comrade—unless W. H. B. was a typo, even intentional, and “The German” was written by a member of the graduating class, Elwyn H. Bishop, aka “Cherry,” who had been at the school for six years and was the yearbook’s military editor as well as a member of the Kablegram staff. That’s a lot of speculation.

Nevertheless Brockway’s parochial relationship with the headmaster should be considered. How did Wonson, and likely his wife Marie—she read Brockway’s letter publicly on a couple of occasions after receiving it in 1939—approach the “lonely 14-year-old boy” on the one hand, and the actual 16-year-old, with his fairly transparent literary allusions and an apparent love of music that brought him to the choir loft, if not the altar, of Trinity Church? What brought him to the school in the first place? And what, if anything, did he recognize in Martin Block, presumably half his age, when he met him on Fifth Avenue?

SMA Ad image
Ad from the school’s 1920 yearbook. The typographical error in the tuition line would not have served as a gainful draw.

Leopold and Loeb

Four years later Brockway was a witness for the defense of Leopold and Loeb, but one of 16 such witnesses, which I suppose can be construed as “very few,” as Martin Block had put it, when compared with the 100 called by the prosecution. At the time, Brockway was just turning 21, and his testimony is revelatory yet reserved. He studied “arts and literature” at the university but didn’t obtain a degree. He’d known Nathan Leopold for about four years but didn’t consider him a friend. He respected Leopold’s intellect but only to a point. Cross examination:

Q You considered Leopold the finest man you ever came in contact with in the university, did you not?

A One of the best intellects; perhaps not the best, but one of the best.

Simon and Schuster

Peter Schwed, in Turning the Pages: An Insider’s Story of Simon & Schuster, 1924–1984 (New York: McMillan, 1984, 182), includes this description, echoing van Loon above.

Wallace Brockway was almost certainly the storehouse of more erudition than could be believed, but his aspirations were never to be more than an ivory-tower editor. He was a walking encyclopedia and, being an expert in many fields, a regular contributor of Britannica articles.

Prior to editing the Durant tome, Brockway had translated Andrea Majocchi’s Vita di chirurgo (Life of a surgeon) for another publisher, issued in 1934. It can be noted that Nathan Leopold himself was a linguist, with fifteen tongues plus English under his belt. The fall of 1923 he was considering a collaborative translation of Pietro Aretino (a taste here). His collaborator’s parents, upon learning of the project, spirited Leon Mandel II “packing to Europe.” (Higdon, 19)

Men Of Music dust jacket image
First edition dust jacket of a bestseller by an ”ivory tower editor.” A year later composer and critic Deems Taylor, who contributed the book’s introduction, would be seen on the big screen as narrator for Disney’s Fantasia, for which he also was musical advisor.

In 1939 Simon and Schuster published Brockway’s own bestselling Men of Music: Their Lives, Times, and Achievements, and in 1941 The Opera, a History of Its Creation and Performance: 1600–1941. Both of these were coauthored with Herbert Weinstock. And both men appear to have run with the Leopold and Loeb crowd, as explained by Schwed (182–183).

Wallace and his close friend Herbert Weinstock attended the University of Chicago when one of the most famous criminal cases of the century took place there, the murder of young Bobby Franks by Leopold and Loeb, and they knew all the protagonists of the affair very well. When Meyer Levin wrote his gripping novel Compulsion, based upon Clarence Darrow’s memorable defense of Leopold and Loeb, Wallace was a valuable source for Levin’s research, although it was a part of his life that Wallace would gladly have swept from his memory.

In his own memory of Brockway’s account, Martin Block suggests no reticence in the telling.

A browse through Meyer Levin’s papers might shed light. Compulsion was published by Simon and Schuster in 1956. But, as Levin explains in his memoir, The Obsession, the idea for the book had come only after some probing by McGraw-Hill editor Robert Kuhn, who asked if the writer had “any Chicago ideas” since that city was Levin’s “background.” When he submitted the novel’s completed first half, McGraw-Hill rejected it. As did Random House’s Bennett Cerf, who had enjoyed Levin’s writing, but refused to consider the book based on the subject alone. Jack Goodman at Simon and Schuster liked it and accepted it for publication. Levin doesn’t mention Brockway’s involvement, so exactly when he contributed to the novel’s research would require its own investigation. (The Obsession, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973, 116, 118–119, passim)

In 1940, according to the federal census, Brockway and his coauthor Weinstock were renting together on Lexington Avenue south of 38th Street, with Weinstock having the day job of travel agent. The flat’s leaseholder was a 21-year-old underemployed copy editor named Herbert Winer who, as Bart Keith Winer, would coauthor two other books with Brockway, A Second Treasury of the World’s Great Letters (1941) and Homespun America: A Collection of Writings (1958), both issued by Simon and Schuster.

Winer was survived by his wife Shirley upon his death in 1989 (New York Times, February 22, 1989). By 1949 Weinstock was listed in the city directory as living with his “longtime companion” Ben Meiselman, who survived him upon his death in 1971, according to the New York Public Library.

Wallace Brockway died at age 69 on November 5, 1972 of a heart attack at his home on East 57th Street, survived only by his mother, Mrs. Ralph E. Simmons (New York Times, November 11, 1972). His father, Louis Shaffner Brockway, had died in April of 1967 at age 86 in Los Angeles, not far from MacArthur Park and Loyola Law School, according to Social Security and voter registration records.


The question of whether a horrific secret can be kept by multitudes was addressed a few years ago by Daniel Ellsberg, who notoriously did not keep his.

If Wallace Brockway, via Martin Block, is correct about the motive for Leopold and Loeb killing Bobby Franks—a secret kept?—, would theirs not, in a perverse and fuzzy sense, be The Perfect Crime?

Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and the Red Diaper Baby

Jon Appleton photo image

I keep forgetting we have the realm of music at our fingertips. Long-forgotten or barely remembered works are available if I’d only remember to search online. Not long ago I went crazy looking through my LPs for the electronic manipulation of a Chef Boy-Ar-Dee jingle sung by the Andrews Sisters—not remembering I could have DuckDuckGo-ed the keywords. I couldn’t even remember the name of the composer. Turns out it was Jon Appleton, and I had it on a CD…

Tonight I finally wised up and did the search, which led me to a YouTube stream by way of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the label’s founder Moses Asch having recruited Appleton to help in the release of electroacoustic works. Chef d’œuvre (1967), the object of my pursuit, is emblematic of such manipulations, being so well known perhaps due to its popular-culture source material. In the notes for his CD collection, Contes de la mémoire (Memory’s tales, 1996), Appleton complains good-naturedly “that composers are often saddled by others with a ‘signature’ work.” And so it is with Chef d’œuvre. “It is my Boléro,” he writes. Its now-doubly-ironic title translates roughly as “masterpiece.”

Appleton’s various compressions in this composition can be seen themselves epitomized three decades later by rock musician Robert Fripp’s five-second condensation of what surely was a much longer “First Inaugural Address to the I.A.C.E. Sherborne House” by J. G. Bennett, included on the album Exposure but understandably absent from YouTube in our era of attention deficit, the Age of the Feuilleton (a newspaper’s necessarily lightweight literary pages), as Hermann Hesse put it. And as they say, “That’s five seconds I’ll never get back.”

There is much to take in on the Contes collection, explained beautifully by composer Alcides Lanza’s review, which appeared in Computer Music Journal, (Vol. 22, No. 3, 01 Sep 1998). Lest Appleton be reduced to an “almost Warholian” appropriator, as Lanza writes aptly of Chef d’œuvre, the composer can be a social observer and critic as well. In 1969’s Newark Airport Rock he employs the smug man-on-the-street interview format of Steve Allen and others, asking travelers what they thought of the “new electronic music,” presumably not explaining the tie-in with his profession, and then setting the responses to an electronic score. In ‘96 he followed up at San Francisco. “In a way,” Lanza writes of the original, “the piece criticizes itself”—self criticism and introspection being memorialized via this collection.

As Appleton explains in the CD notes, his parents (father and stepfather from the former USSR)

dedicated a large part of their lives to Communism. I was raised listening to Russian folk and symphonic music and to believe that the future could be found in the Soviet Union. Imbued with an interest in politics, many of my pieces would have both artistic and political purposes […].

Here Appleton hedges somewhat: according to his Wikipedia profile (which he mirrors on his own website), “In the 1950s both his parents were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost their jobs,” having been employed in the Hollywood film industry.

No wonder it took him years to consider the flipside to un-Americanism. It was the defection of Russian author Anatoly Kuznetsov (Babi Yar) following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. “An epiphany occurred in 1969 when I was forced to think about the role I might have had as a composer of electroacoustic music had I lived in the Soviet Union.” The “direct result” is CCCP (In Memoriam Anatoly Kuznetsov), slyly titled since the Latin phrase most often is associated with a death. Kuznetsov wouldn’t die for ten more years—not so Appleton’s faith in the union of socialist republics.

Even to ears softened over the years by the electroacoustic explorations of rock bands like Radiohead, Appleton’s oeuvre still may be challenging—Chef d’œuvre notwithstanding. But his own choice to explore magnetic music, and thereby defy a theoretical tonal hegemony, can be seen as parallel with the demand he later placed upon himself, to confront a theoretical artistic hegemony vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Again, from the CD notes:

The serial music I was urged to compose while in graduate school, and that we were told would be the ‘music of the future,’ seemed emotionally vapid to me. In the final years of the 20th century, young composers look with nostalgia to the 1960s and the liberation artists were supposed to have felt. We did feel that there were no ‘rules’ and, as I told Nat Hentoff in 1968, “a revolution has not occurred in the arts so much as it has in our own attitudes. In this period of change we should feel elation at the approach of a new order of civilization.”

Appleton then expresses embarrassment at his innocence but recognizes “the excitement which propelled my work” in the new form. Having declined the two futures—twelve-tone, stifling state socialism—Appleton would go on to become co-creator of the pioneering digital Synclavier synthesizer. It was key to a new order of culture, if not civilization.

Hair Piece

Cognitio still image

Last night YouTube suggested I watch a new short, Cognitio. I reCOGNIzed one of the actors as having appeared in the 2014 Kadie Elder promo for the song “First Time He Kissed a Boy” (from which I lifted this blog’s header image of four pastel-clad youths). The actor is Lasse Steen Jensen and in the promo he plays a slight thing with an almost-mod mop of hearty hair atop a triangular, angular mug, contradicted by an upturned nose; likewise in the promo, his cruelty is contradicted by his curiosity.

In Cognitio Jensen is presented as the psychically slight, artistically bright Tobias, with an unruly mane that suggests a feral nature. This time curiosity is not rewarded, via the darkly seductive yet elusive Emil (Lior David Cohen).

Consulting IMDB I found that Jensen had collaborated on the writing of, as well as acting in, 2017’s Vi Er Okay Nu (We Are Okay Now) whereby his character Jonnah is shocking, as the shock-sheaves of his platinum coif and shirt contrast with his thick Jayne Mansfield brows. He’s drunk, sprawled on the lawn, cajoled into leaving a party by best friend Demitri (Peter Ousager). But before arising he suggests that they holiday in Germany at a resort with a reputation: Prora.

Jonnah (full name Jonathan) awkwardly, boozily tells Dimitri the story of Prora, which was to be a monument to the Nazis’ social calling card, Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy), a cross-class cultural program to provide leisure activities on the one hand, brought to you by the purveyors of National Socialism on the other. While KdF succeeded during the 1930s in boosting tourism, which had languished in the post-war ’20s, the Prora resort—an award-winning design for 20,000 beds in buildings three miles long fronting the white sands of the Baltic’s Rügen Island—never was completed, due to the start of the new war. A shell of the structure remains to this day and, due to its landmark status, has obtained the interest of artists, hoteliers, and others.

I suppose Prora can be seen as a metaphor for Jonnah’s own trauma and reconstruction, hinted at by the title of We Are Okay Now. But I can’t help but think that his resort reverie (and more), was inspired by the 2012 short film, Prora, made by Swiss writer and director Stéphane Riethauser, set in the actual resort’s wrecked rooms and hacked hallways (even if its history isn’t well exposed in the script). Both films have a fair-haired, gay character—Jonnah to Prora‘s Jan (Tom Gramenz, a double for Petteri Paavola from the goofy Finnish soap opera Salatut elämät aka Secret Lives aka Elias’ story)—and a dark-haired companion trying to make sense of it all—Demitri to Prora‘s Matthieu (Swen Gippa). The tension in We Are Okay Now is somewhat mirrored by Prora‘s German and French protagonists—making love and waging war at a site that was conceived as a level “playing” field.

Watch. Relish the recognizable reticence and resistance, resilience and release—if not relief—in all these characters. Cognitio.

The Pageantry, the Spectacle

Low still image

Back in the 1980s I was given tickets to a Southern California kitsch institution, Pageant of the Masters. The concept intrigued: an amphitheater stage filled with “ninety minutes of tableaux vivants (living pictures), incredibly faithful re­creations of classical and contemporary works of art, with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces,” as described on the event website. But the execution, meticulous as it was, underwhelmed. I guess I wanted more vivants in the tableaux, which occurred too infrequently. But it did occur in a sort of sideshow.

That sideshow was not the companion Fine Art Show, which we took in before the Pageant and from which Andrea and I bought a couple of hand-altered Polaroids that hang on our walls today. Allow me to digress…

Boom Boom Room

The Fine Art Show was conspicuous by the omission of skin: many of the artists appeared to be too well constrained by a bland family-friendly bubble-wrap envelope, but not so well contained that we couldn’t detect hints of riskier work. Hell, Laguna Beach (the Pageant/Show’s site) was home to the Boom Boom Room, which OC Weekly (formerly a sibling to Denver’s Westword via Voice Media Group) claims to have been “the oldest gay bar in the Western United States,” its host hotel, the Coast Inn, having opened in 1929, per the founders’ granddaughter’s timeline. Laguna even had its own chapter of the Mattachine Society beginning in the ’50s.

Coast Inn postcard

A Boom Boom Room preservation website (still live after the bar’s 2007 demise) states that, at the time of our visit in the ’80s, Laguna was estimated (how?) to have a gay population of nearly a third and had an openly gay mayor, Bob Gentry, by 1989. As a city council member, in 1983 Gentry became “Southern California’s only openly gay elected official,” according to the Los Angeles Times. That same year Gentry buried his partner Gary Burdick after being denied time off to care for him because—Mayor or not—he wasn’t a family member.
</ digression>

The sideshow to Pageant of the Masters of which I speak consisted of at least one between-scenes vignette in the form of gorgeous living statues positioned beside the amphitheater’s aisles. These were simple, yet elegant, and could not help but reveal their human form. I don’t pretend to know the history of the tableau vivant, but per its Wikipedia entry, censorship on the stage, whereby a naked woman was prohibited to move, caused necessity to birth a new invention: poses plastiques. These latter-day examples took us by surprise that night and took us back to that other time. We couldn’t tell where the pose left off and the person began.

The Dancers (Pageant Of The Masters) photo
From Partners, the 2016 Pageant of the Masters. Recreation of The Dancers by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880–1980).
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Low Tech

Like a drag actor doffing his wig, the Pageant players could tend to move once the illusion was fixed in the eye. And of this I was reminded, a couple of years later, when I picked up the laser disc (!) collection of promo videos for nine out of ten tracks from the R.E.M. album Out of Time (1991). The video for the song “Low” is by James Herbert, who until 2006 taught painting and filmmaking at the University of Georgia and with whom the band’s lead singer Michael Stipe studied. Herbert himself studied with painter Clyfford Still and at the University of Colorado with filmmaker Stan Brakhage. (Friend and acquaintance and musician Tom Recchion did the the graphic layout for Out of Time and other R.E.M. albums as well as Good Stuff for the B-52’s, discussed below.)

In contrast to that Laguna Fine Arts Show, Herbert declares that his work “is known for its obsession with the nude figure in romantic and erotic figurations with an emphasis on the role of sexuality and scene context.” But such sensuality in “Low” is only flirted before being flaunted, by: Stipe’s own torso, a nude astride a horse, the figures on the floor of the imagined artist’s atelier (header image for this post). Herbert crafted “Low” from several paintings held by the Georgia Museum of Art. The main tableau is La Confidence (ca. 1880) by Elizabeth Jane Gardner, which this week left its home for Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. The painting is on (virtual) loan in “Low” as well, transported from gallery wall to virtual verdancy as monastics pass its cemetery setting, viewing and then averting.

Herbert’s vivant modus is more Clutch Cargo than Industrial Light & Magic. I’m thinking of the Syncro-Vox technique of a static image with superimposed talking lips. His effects in the tableaux are lovingly imperfect, and sometimes we’re looking over the shoulder of the filmmaker at the Moviola (as in the video’s introductory sequence). Lines between the artificial canvas and filmed artificiality are blurred and erased. The water jug actually is employed, the blouse drawstring tugged, the posy-ed letter dropped, the confidence actually whispered.

But much of the time the confidante’s gaze is obscured in shadow; Herbert doesn’t really allow us to meet it even when moving from eye to eye. Via the Gardner painting the gaze is direct, knowing, and just this side of brazen. Perhaps unwittingly Herbert succeeds in separating the confidante from the confider, just as Gardner has done. He does so through filmic superimposition. But look: Gardner’s shawl-draped confider is almost superimposed as well. Her lips are not in shadow—she’s nowhere near the ear of the confidante—just as her fingers have yet to alight. Is she even real? A question that can be posed regarding any work of art.

Revolution Earth

Yesterday I stumbled across another promo video that seemed to have Herbert’s mark, and I was correct. It’s for another band from Athens, Georgia, The B-52’s. Superimposition is used in a more conventional way, but again Herbert’s mattes are anything but seamless. Rather than via an arousing intimacy, the spectacle still stirs the listener to reconcile the view.

In “Revolution Earth,” from the album Good Stuff, a sedan wheels off a pier into the briny deep from which emerge two black-clad figures that seemingly soar above the surface. The ship of state(s) is hauled by servile lamé-loincloth-clad youths through a shabby, scaffolded street, with vocalist Kate Pierson standing in for the vessel’s figurehead, Keith Strickland its navigator, and Fred Schneider the pilot. The darlings (from the lyrics) lying beside each other are newly liberated Belarusian Olympic gymnastic champions Svetlana Boginskaya and Vitaly Scherbo who had just completed the 1992 games. Zebras in the wild and in the street compete with said darlings and with soldiers and would-be revolutionaries, one of whom lays down arms and joins the parade. Day turns to night (earth’s revolution) and the footlight-lit procession is crowned with the “gliding fireworks” of explosives, the rebels’ stock-in-trade. The ship is pulled from the city to the savannah to the gravel plain as the gymnasts, suspended from the revolving mast, plunge into the sea and sedan. Full circle.

A quarter century hence, with climate chaos in full flower, “Revolution Earth” is fulsome in nuance.

A Taste of Honey

A Taste Of Honey photo image

I recently found I could stream films through Kanopy by way of my public library. The first film I watched was A Taste of Honey, Tony Richardson’s 1961 award winner set in Greater Manchester’s Salford. Jo, played by Rita Tushingham, the daughter of a libertine mother, Dora Bryan, moves out on her own after her mother remarries. While at home Jo has a fling with a ship’s cook Jimmy (Paul Danquah), who soon sails away slowly (if not into the sunset). At her shoe shop job she meets Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin), a textile design student who’s been kicked out of his flat apparently for his own liaisons—with men—and thus Jo invites him to room with her. And room they have—it’s a top-floor studio apartment—but squalid, as only the black-and-white camera can capture, softened only somewhat by Geoff’s student’s style.

I recall Tushingham from her less-free-spirit role of Dot a couple years later in The Leather Boys. And Melvin is instantly recognizable from Barry Lyndon (1975) as Rev. Samuel Runt, the “failed Rasputin” for Marisa Berenson’s Lady Lyndon. But what surprised me were two lines in A Taste of Honey uttered by Jimmy in response to Jo’s urge to “Dream of me” upon their second leave-taking. “Dreamt of you last night,” he says. “Fell out of bed twice.” The lines also appeared in the film’s forebear, Shelagh Delaney’s popular play by the same name. But music fans like me otherwise would remember these from the middle eight of the Smiths’ first song on LP, “Reel Around the Fountain.”

I dreamt about you last night
and I fell out of bed twice

This was not an unconscious lift: Delaney is “cover star” on the band’s 1987 single “Girlfriend in a Coma.”

Girlfriend In A Coma cover

Although “Reel” is perhaps my favorite Smiths song, I haven’t listened to the album in years. It was spoiled for me by my brother Richard, an audiophile, who pointed out the album’s wretched tizzy EQ. Lead singer Morrissey apparently concurs, writing in his 2011 Autobiography that “the album sounds exactly how the Smiths were not: pasty and thin.” It was produced by John Porter, whose résumé up to that point included playing bass with Roxy Music on For Your Pleasure and producing Roxy frontman Bryan Ferry’s first solo album, both in 1973. The same year as The Smiths (1984) he’d work with Paul Haig, Killing Joke, Dead or Alive, Julian Cope, Orange Juice, One the Juggler, The Room, Microdisney, The Monochrome Set, and Chron Gen. Porter also had produced the Smiths’ summer ’83 radio appearance for David Jensen, and so the band’s guitarist Johnny Marr suggested Porter for their debut LP; Morrissey agreed.

But The Smiths initially was recorded during the summer of 1983 with Troy Tate producing. (I seem to recall that my brother was a fan of Tate’s “Love Is…”, released in ’83 and featuring Robert Ellis Orrall, who issued his mini-album Special Pain that same year, which names Tate as a contributor and includes a duet with Carlene Carter, whose voice compares well with stepsister Rosanne Cash, both being born in ’55 to different parents.) Marr recalls in his own autobiography (Set the Boy Free, 2016) that Tate strove to achieve a live presence in the studio, which was articulated by Morrissey: “The Smiths sound had already developed with a bullish fortification […]. Live, Mike’s drumming had an incredible thunderbolt quality, and Andy’s bass had a pealing swagger […].”

Morrissey complained further that, via Porter’s recording, the “yearning thirst of Reel around the fountain was dropped in pitch […].” Moz’s metaphor notwithstanding, this was borne out by the fact that the John Peel radio version of the song, performed May 18, 1983, is in a higher key than either the Porter or Tate version (my Tate differs from others floating around)—or even a July 6, 1983 live version filmed at the Hacienda, not to mention the Porter-produced David Jensen radio version from September 5, 1983, which didn’t air.

Just as the Albert Brothers that same year were accused of sandbagging Gang of Four’s Hard, Porter can be said to have studio-ized “Reel Around the Fountain” by relegating Morrissey’s hailed bass-and-drums to the status of a rhythm section while raising Marr in the mix, accentuating his jangly guitars’ perennial appeal. By contrast, on the Tate tape Mike Joyce’s drums are almost Wall of Sound although clipped a bit by a studio effect. Producer Roger Pusey of the Peel tape has Andy Rourke’s bass front and center, possibly a byproduct of the higher key. In both of these Marr retains his own ostinato obbligato in vast passages. But Porter not only tips the balance in Marr’s direction, he fills those passages with what Morrissey calls the “frisky piano” and organ of Porter’s friend Paul Carrick.

To my mind Carrick’s non-frisky organ contrasts well with Marr’s movement as it poignantly plays with Morrissey’s sustained cadences. The piano lends an ironic touch to this incarnation of an already ironic song that is second-cousin to Marguerite Deras’s The Lover (which I refer to in an earlier post). Beyond that I hadn’t really probed the lyric past the line “Fifteen minutes with you,” which seems naturally tied to the album’s cover art—obtained from Warhol’s Flesh. But when I was looking tonight for the song’s lyrics I found a thoughtful (albeit clumsy) exegesis, beginning with the song’s title. That “reel around the fountain” itself is a sexual slang is, mm, hard for me to, mm, swallow, but the same assertion is made by celebrity biographer David Bret (Morrissey: Scandal and Passion, 2004). A taste of honey indeed.

Seeing Things

This Liberty still image

This past summer in Cheyenne my uncle Richard Hughes told me of his hallucinations. That a man going blind might also view visions seems an insult to injury. Yet his condition has a name—Charles Bonnet syndrome—after an eighteenth-century Swiss naturalist and philosopher. As profiled in ACNR (Vol. 8, No. 5, 19) Bonnet first listed his grandfather’s

silent visions of men, women, birds, carriages, and buildings, which he fully realised were ‘fictions’ of his brain. Bonnet himself later underwent visual deterioration and experienced hallucinations typical of the syndrome named after him […].

(Compare with “Blinky” Watts, the sound effects technician character from David Lynch’s short-lived TV series On the Air, who suffers from Bozeman’s Simplex, which causes him to see “25.62 times as much as we do.”)

Six months prior I came across a song by Richard Dawson, which I wanted to write about tonight only to find that he too sees things (due to a genetic defect), but through a glass darkly, as Dawson told The Guardian‘s Michael Hann, who remarked, “There’s an almost hallucinatory clarity to his writing.”

The Felon’s Song

“The Felon’s Song” tends toward the clarity end—not that it isn’t evocative. Dawson composed it and four others for a 2017 multimedia project at Hexham Old Gaol, England’s oldest (built in 1333), now a museum. With a marketer’s remarkable myopia, the museum offers 

a fun and educational experience for all. ¶Try our stocks (if you dare), visit the prison house and learn about Medieval crime and punishment on a day out with a difference. Did you know that suspected criminals were locked up before their trial, or that those in debt often shared the Dungeon with the most dangerous criminals?

In what can be seen as a partial corrective, artist Matt Stokes, who investigates music-as-social-catalyst, enrolled Dawson in telling the stories of five characters who would have had dealings with that Northumberland prison.

The culmination of the collaboration is a film with the provocative title, This Liberty, itself part of a larger venture, Meeting Point2, in which each of ten artists crafted a new and site-specific piece at a museum in the country’s north end. Yet “The Felon’s Song,” the only one of the five sung by Dawson himself, is shot—in one take—in the cell of a still-operative penitentiary, as Dawson told the online music magazine The Quietus.

The Felon’s fix flowed from Dawson’s mind’s eye: how a kid of twelve or thirteen, charged with stealing a neighbor’s eggs, endures while awaiting court for days on end. At about the time of the English Renaissance. But Stokes upends the museum’s family-friendly displays by drawing parallels between then and now. Dawson sings The Felon’s Song in the style of an antiquated border ballad, yet clad in the uniform of an operational prison. The parallel is made. Bloody well.

The feeble strength of one

Gestetner Factory photo image

Comrades in Denver recently attended a performance by the Manitoba band Propagandhi. I knew the group’s name but not their music and poked around a bit. If you like your tunes hard and fast, guitar-driven and polemically positioned, with gorgeously apocalyptic album art, this is up your alley. But I was quite surprised to learn that John K. Samson was the band’s bassist for nearly six years.

According to the cliché about art school, you learn the rules before breaking them. Samson can be seen, superficially, as having worked in reverse, with a minimalist-with-message band before leaving school to fashion, with The Weakerthans, a new song in an old mold: figurative, more muted, embellished with just enough magic in its realism to keep us inquiring. Perhaps the finest example of this craft is the band’s ballad “Pamphleteer.”

Read more…


Samson explains the genesis of “Pamphleteer” in a 2001 Punk Planet interview with Larry Livermore and Michael Silverberg:

A friend of mine wrote a film script and asked me to write a song for it. It was a script about various things, and it had a newspaper story to it. But I suddenly had this image of an activist, someone involved in politics, who passed out pamphlets on street corners—which is something I admire—and suddenly one day cracked and started churning out these pamphlets about his personal life and passing them out on street corners. It started with that image and grew from there.

For me a key, prosaic passage in the song is

I walk this room in time to
the beat of the Gestetner

10 to 10,000

Gestetner Ad imageFor any organizer or activist in the first three quarters of the 20th century, the Gestetner brand mimeograph machine was the propagator of propaganda. When I used them as a community organizer with the United Farm Workers beginning in 1973 the UFW didn’t bother to buy one. We availed of allies’ deeper pockets: labor union locals, houses of worship, community organizations and centers—sometimes openly, sometimes on the sly, but always with a sense that you might overstay your welcome.

Mimeo mechanics: You carved your design in its stencils or slid them atop your typewriter platen. If you could afford it, a companion stencil etcher would scan your original artwork and burn through the wax resist to the porous backing. Black, messy ink could flow through the Gestetner’s stencil until it disintegrated. Ads of the day say 10 to 10,000, but that would be stretching it. Nonetheless, if I recall correctly, you could clean a stable stencil for later use. The machine also accepted metal foil stencils that were more durable.

The original Gestetners were hand cranked, so Samson’s pamphleteer, walking in time to its beat, is dated to post crank, whenever that was.

Spirit Level

This device should not be confused with the duplicator or Ditto machine, which produced indigo images and print by a mineral spirit method—to the delight of many a student who sniffed and whiffed the solvent still present in a stack of pop quizzes sent ’round the room. This Ditto-versus-Mimeo distinction actually came up for me years ago.

In 2010, searching for something unrelated, I found that Stephen Gertz, a rare-book scout and dealer, had described savoring the Ditto spirit in a post titled “O Solé Mimeo”:

By now, many readers of a certain age no doubt have a sweet, intoxicating aroma wafting within their sense memory that harkens back to school days and fresh off the mimeo machine test papers and handouts. School Daze: putting the test right up close to one’s nostrils, taking two or three deep inhalations, feeling lightheaded, then getting down to business—inserting “Maybe” for True or False questions, and filling in blanks with answers not found amongst the multiple choice options. Like ex-junkies recalling their first shot, many people who attended school during the 1930s through mid-1960s vividly and fondly remember those mimeographed papers with purple ink whose odor lifted us a millimeter or two off the floor.

I wrote to Gertz, after raising another matter:

Also, your “O Solé Mimeo” column is very dear, although in the area of activism rather than literature. In my research I’m going through much mimeographed material and, at 55, am old enough to have used the machines on the UFW boycott when I came to L.A. from Boulder at age 17. I do have an olfactory memory, however, from the black ink, due to cranking or monitoring.

Gertz did not reply to my quibble, since it only was an aside to my main reason for contacting him. But tonight, when revisiting his post, I find he appears to have corrected himself (based on my comment?):

The problem, however, as I’ve just recently discovered to my horror (being completely wrong for over forty-five years is humbling if not humiliating)), is that those papers were not copied on mimeograph machines, which do not duplicate with purple ink or produce a distinctive smell.


Solidarity Forever

John Samson’s pamphleteer paces the room to the mimeograph’s rhythm, to

contemplate my next communique.
The rhetoric and treason
of saying that I’ll miss you.
Of saying, “Hey, well maybe you should stay.”
Sing “Oh what force on earth could be
weaker than the feeble strength
of one” like me remembering
the way it could have been.

The pamphleteer’s latter quote is from Ralph Chaplin’s 1916 labor standard “Solidarity Forever”—but in this case we’re drawn to the personal within the collective struggle.

Chaplin, according to his memoir Wobbly (University of Chicago Press, 1948), completed the song in Chicago in 1915. He’d begun it during the bloody coal miners strike a few years before in Virginia’s Kanawha Valley when he’d been “bootlegging” strike literature “into the martial-law zone.” That winter of 1915, as Chaplin wrote, Chicago was home to the general headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, yet “there was no English-speaking branch in town.” Hunger riots were rampant on both coasts and the Gulf. A somewhat contrived hunger demonstration in Chicago, per Chaplin, on January 17, 1915, was the venue for the debut of “Solidarity Forever,” which he had just completed while “lying on the rug in the living-room that day scribbling stanza after stanza.”

Jon Bekken, writing about the song in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (No. 55, Winter 2010/11) notes that, while the song has become a labor anthem, certain of its verses are shunned at events by corporate-style unions. Verse two declares, “There is aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,” echoing the IWW’s constitution preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Bekken states that “many officials seem to believe that they do in fact have something in common […].” And while other verses touch on the basis of the labor theory of value—that “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn”—, verse four argues, “All the world that’s owned by idle drones, is ours and ours alone.” This is a bright-line alternative to the longtime, establishment, union-as-wage-slave-pimp. And the latter-day oxymoron of the “labor-management partnership.”

Wherefore Weakerthans?

“What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one” leads us to deduce the inspiration for The Weakerthans moniker. And in a 2004 interview John Samson admits as much, but prior to that he quotes from the film adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover: “Go ahead, I’m weaker than you can possibly imagine.” (Somewhat curious, since upon leaving Propaghandi, Samson cofounded ARP/Arbeiter Ring Publishing, which issues fiction as well as titles by Ward Churchill.) The line from the film is stunningly ironic, uttered by the young girl’s Chinaman lover in response to her brother’s invitation to fight. Except that the line actually goes, “You have no idea how weak I am.”

Nevertheless, The Lover connection is of interest to me because the copy of the novel in my personal library was given to my wife Andrea Carney and me (and, thus, autographed) by Stan Weir, whose posthumous collected writing is titled Singlejack Solidarity (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). Although Stan cut his teeth in shipyards and factories, his own title is taken from the hard-rock miner’s shorthandled hammer wielded upon a spike held by a fellow miner, both workers having to trust that the spike won’t wobble nor the hammer miss its mark. Stan mentored Andrea—and me to a lesser degree—as we were being tempted to leave the rank and file of her union and of my workplace in the 1990s.

Stan gave us photocopies of his article, reprinted in his collection, “Meetings with James Baldwin” (Against the Current, Jan/Feb 1989). Andrea had all of Baldwin’s books on her shelves when I met her in 1975, and a couple of years before, in high school, I’d done a book report on his Another Country, my introduction to queer literature. Stan and Baldwin’s own solidarity was forged as young men when they worked together, navigating the new world (for them) of Greenwich Village in 1942. Andrea and I hadn’t known before that Baldwin had become involved in Stan’s efforts to integrate the ILWU.

Left and Leaving

I first was introduced to The Weakerthans through One Way Magazine, a freebie I used to pick up in Los Angeles. Each issue contained a CD sampler of music both familiar and unknown, as was “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” from The Weakerthans’ 2003 album Reconstruction Site. I bought that CD and and later its predecessors, Fallow and Left and Leaving. The latter album’s “Pamphleteer” devastated me, and later when I was drafting my (still) work-in-progress about three early commie-pinko gay organizers, “the feeble strength of one” seemed to be a natural as my working title: these three fellows had experienced comradeship between themselves as well as at least one consequential relationship with another man, but ended their days alone.

For in-depth writing on “Pamphleteer” see an essay by cultural blogger Ashok Karra (The Passion of Politics: “Pamphleteer,” The Weakerthans) and a blog on reflections from The Weakerthans’ music (A New Name For Everything) by emmaajean, a London-based educator from Canada.

For a warm tribute to the Gestetner’s artistic use in literature and activism see a brief overview by the professional association for design AIGA (Cranking It Out, Old-School Style: Art of the Gestetner).

Bad Rap

Age Of Consent photo image

I’m a terrible interviewee for the most part. Recently I was contacted by a radio news editor about homophobia in hip-hop, based on my involvement in the 1980s rap group, Age of Consent. I can’t imagine any sound bites from that conversation will end up in the final piece, but the dialogue got me thinking. In the course of subsequent riffling through AOC archival material and updating our website I came across a profile of our group from 1983 in which I actually was cogent. And I was surprised that I articulated a notion I thought I’d only come to hold more recently. But I was also disappointed by my hubris.

Advocate article image

The article, by Samir Hachem (1956–1992), provides a good introduction to what AOC was about, so I won’t duplicate that here. I knew Samir’s work from radio and his love for the Lebanese singer Fairouz. As KCRW’s Tom Schnabel (the station’s first music director and creator of Morning Becomes Eclectic) recalls in his tribute to Hachem, “Samir told me of how Fairouz could perform for one faction in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, then cross over to the other side and perform there, too. Such was her fame and the respect she commanded.” In addition to radio Samir wrote for The Hollywood Reporter and The Advocate, in which the AOC profile appeared.

Read more…

Rap 101

Before turning to that profile, some historical perspective. As I told my interviewer last week, in AOC’s heyday, 1981–1983, rap was so new to West Coast audiences that music critics felt obliged to explain what it was. To wit:

  • Chris Pasles, who reviewed our first performed rap, was a classical music reviewer (the music series I produced and performed in was geared toward the highbrow avant garde), so it may be understandable when he called our rap “a rock-accompanied” message
  • LA Times critic Don Snowden instructed, “Rapping, the funk style which features spoken-sung vocals laid over skeletal funk rhythms,” in his review of the September 6, 1981 Rap Night at which we were asked to encore the only rap we’d written to that point (thinking we’d be blown away by the other acts, so why polish up the other raps we were working on?)
  • Even Bill Lane, an African American journalist for the LA Sentinel, in his commentary about that same gig, described the art form using quotation marks: “kinetic ‘rap’ recordings.” His analysis is engaging because he has a sense of history and also of what could be: white domination of rap (discussed below)
  • Darcy Diamond, in a Herald Examiner profile of AOC three months later wrote, regarding the same gig, “Los Angeles has not been a hotbed of rap music activity and many people were hard-pressed to even define it”
  • The Herald Examiner, on October 15, 1982, reviewed “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash but it also felt compelled to include a sort of sidebar, “Tracing the Roots of Rap,” by Leonard Pitts Jr.
  • In February of 1983, six months before we broke up, LA Times pop music critic Richard Cromelin still was explaining rap as “a rhythmic, sung-and-spoken style” (see “L.A. Takes the Rap from N.Y. Movement,” Feb 7)
  • The next month LA Times pop music critic Kristine McKenna again felt she had to offer a primer on rap, writing, “Rap originated as a sort of folk art, a way for ghetto kids who couldn’t afford guitars and amps, to create their own music…” (see “Taking the Rap in L.A.,” Mar 7)

Of all the above writers Bill Lane is the most thoughtful, although I quibble with some of his assertions. After leading off with remarks about pioneering rapper Kurtis Blow, Lane mentions a rap antecedent, Larry Darnell, who “had sold millions of his talk records years ago, especially one based on the song ‘I’ll Get Along Somehow.’ And there were others.” Claiming, via Darnell, that Blow’s “peculiar talk” was “not the first time” it had become “salable product on the American market” is a bit of a stretch despite any similarities. In Part 2 of his song Darnell reads the beads of an ungrateful protégé, just as in “The Breaks” Blow ends his rap with a vignette of a woman betrayed by a two-bit gold-digger. But Darnell’s delivery is in a conversational (if forceful) style atop the filigree of a celeste-ial score. It can’t compare with the beat of Blow’s rapping, accented by classic rhythm guitar work and drum… er… breaks.


At the time of Bill Lane’s column in August of 1981 he noted that

suddenly black radio began a ban on rap records. Some black program directors said the recordings were too profane. Some said they were “too black.” How black one can or cannot be in black radio is anybody’s guess. Many blacks years ago shunned and condemned the “jive talk” of Cab Calloway and the late Chicago Defender writer Dan Burley.

Indeed, in 1975 the Bee Gees had included their absurd “Jive Talkin'” on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. While not mentioning the Bee Gees by name vis-à-vis disco (discussed below), Lane warned against white appropriation of rap. “Nowadays, it’s peculiar that black radio in banning rap records by black artists made a cross-over hit of the new rap recording of the white singer Blondie”—mistaking Debbie Harry for the name of her band. “Some black stations are also playing a Cockney-sounding ‘Wkiwrap’ disc from Sam Records, also featuring a white singer.” The disc in question is “Wikka Wrap” by the Evasions on SAM Records—a 12″ in my collection, as are almost all the records discussed in this post.

The so-called white singer’s rap is clearly a parody, as indicated by its jacket, above. Discogs, the indispensable Wikipedia of recorded music explains about the rap’s artists, The Evasions:

Basically a formation of U.K. TV producers Graham De Wilde and Adrian Sear in 1981 for a funky – novelty – comedy impersonation of TV personality Alan Whicker in their single “Wikka Wrap”, No.9 in the U.K. chart, No.20 in the U.S. R’n’B chart and No.19 in the U.S. Hot Dance Chart that year. Coolio sampled the song in his 1996 single “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)”.

Aside from mimicking Alan Whicker, Graham de Wilde had a more personal connection, having composed the theme music to Whicker’s World, the globetrotting documentary series that ran for more than thirty years. (Per Wikipedia, Whicker already had been parodied in 1968 by Benny Hill—“Knicker’s World”—and in 1974 by Monty Python—“Whicker Island”.) As for Bill Lane’s characterization of de Wilde-as-Whicker sounding cockney, keep in mind that Whicker himself was born in Cairo and grew up in Surrey. Listen to the journalist in this ITV obituary and decide whether de Wilde flubs the parody.

In 2003, when John Callahan, Thea Other, and I were preparing the release of our retrospective CD, Old School on the Down Low, I wrote the following, augmented by my asides tonight in brackets.

It’s interesting that in 1981 we still had to explain what rap was, given the fact that, the same year, the rap parodies “General Hospi-Tale” [by The Afternoon Delights, the band name itself a play on the naughty number by Starland Vocal Band] and Russ Mason’s “Prep Rap” were released on major labels, followed by Rich Little’s “President’s Rap” [set to Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”] and Eddie Murphy’s “Boogie In Your Butt” in ’82 [while still at Saturday Night Live, and taken from his first album, which led off with the live “Faggots”, apparently a non-routine riff uttered when he came onstage and a male audience member urged him to “Take it all off,” perhaps in reaction to Murphy doffing an article of clothing]. I guess by release of “The Message” people pretty much knew what was going on, and with “White Lines” [rhythm lines lifted from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern”] one would think that record execs wouldn’t think rap was a flash in the pan. Maybe because there was so much novelty stuff (Rodney Dangerfield did one), they still thought it was a joke?

I left out another parody, 1982’s “Beatle Rap” by The Qworymen, issued by Rhino Records, which specialized in novelty numbers before becoming a reissue powerhouse.


Bill Lane continued his critique.

When disco was ablaze white discos were criticized for banning mostly black-speech disco songs in favor of those by white singers and musicians. Now some black-oriented radio stations are doing the same thing. […] But just as whites took over disco, until it became tiresome, so are whites making a bid to master rap records. Rap songs. Rap talk.

Lane goes on to say he attended the first Rap Night at Silver Lake’s ON Klub (Aug ’81), which became an occasional series. The house was packed with white music critics and industry folk, and the deejay was Ken Tucker—then critic for the Herald Examiner, now heard on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Lane:

It was notable that virtually every song played was by a black singer, or a black group. Why? Because there are comparatively no white rap records with the funky black beat and rapidfire words of the streets. But they remedied that after awhile. [Tucker] put on a recording that featured only a soundtrack of stopdown, funky black music. And up to the mike stepped two white chaps called the Age of Consent and they began to rap over the music background like two Anglo-Saxon Kurtis Blows.

And we did. We were stretching the rap envelope topically, not sonically (yet). And so was Blow. His hit “The Breaks” did not deal with his sex appeal (although the album cover covered that handily); he merely gave a laundry list of “breaks, brakes, etc”—bad and good—and told a tale. Our own musical reworking of the rap group mode would come fifteen months later when we were perhaps the first such group to be backed by a live band. (And, yes, this is a rhetorical remark intended to elicit any rebuttals…)

Bill Lane worried about the appropriation of rap by whites. “Before long, […] the white rock stations that have been playing black rap product will join the contemporary black-oriented radio stations and stop playing them. White rap will be in, and, once again, blacks will have helped to kill their own generic, indigenous creativity.” And the “140-billion-a-year black consumer just might be spending himself into the poorhouse—by steadily seeking to buy white.” Lane then turned hopeful. “Sylvia Robinson says her Sugar Hill [sic] Records is preparing to record white rap singers wherever she can find them.” (She sort of succeeded with Patto, whose “Ebony and Ivory”-ish “Black and White” tries to poke fun at racial attitudes and epithets.)

I just read that Justin Simien (Dear White People) is slated to direct a film adaptation of Robinson’s life, which should be fascinating. I remember as a kid in the ’60s hearing her 1956 single with Mickey Baker, “Love Is Strange.” In addition to collaborating on “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, that same year she signed the all-female rap group The Sequence (including Angie Stone) and cowrote their “Funk You Up”. Regarding the film project, Robinson’s son Joey told the Hollywood Reporter:

Sugarhill paved the way for a new genre of music that the industry had no knowledge of back in 1979. You will see the struggles of what Sugarhill went through to keep Hip-Hop music alive when the industry wanted to bury it.

Our experience in L.A. wasn’t that rap was something to be ignored or buried. Fads like rap simply weren’t worth the investment.

Bad Rap

I don’t recall seeing Bill Lane’s Los Angeles Sentinel article at the time in 1981. I found it by chance on October 14, 2018 when I was doing a newspaper search to confirm the date of another clipping. To my knowledge, but for Lane, Age of Consent never was critiqued by an African American writer.

In light of Lane’s argument I was surprised that I echoed his sentiment somewhat in what I told Samir Hachem in April of ’83.

Traditionally, white people have always ripped off black music […]. What we’re trying to do is expand this kind of music. As a minority group ourselves, we’re using it to say some things.

But with introspection now I ask:

Who am I to engage in cultural appropriation—and enhancement—simply because it’s been done before? Because I can be counted amongst a sexual minority?

I cringe—except that in that same interview with Samir I equivocated somewhat.

One of the things we stand for most strongly is that everyone should have a choice […]. We’re against sexual labels. Sex isn’t rigid. Roles aren’t limited. It’s all more fluid and complex.

As I said up top, I’m not a good interviewee. When Age of Consent issued its retrospective CD in 2004, cofounder John Callahan and I appeared at a release event at the ONE Archives at USC (which houses an AOC collection that John assembled). John did most of the talking, but the little I did evidently was not effective. As I recall, John was invited to appear on KPFK’s IMRU program to promote the CD, with a specific request that I stay home.

Were Samir Hachem alive today I’d ask him if he remembers crafting my mumblings into words that, thirty-five years later, I both take issue with and embrace.

Header photo credit:
Joyce Dallal (colored by David Hughes)

Attica: Coming Together

Coming Together cover image

What follows is the recollection and reflection of a remarkable musical work, and my work experience around it.

Prison Strike 2018 poster imageThe prison strike of late summer 2018 was in part a commemoration of the killing of prison organizer and author George Jackson on August 21, 1971 and the uprising his death sparked (in part) at Attica nineteen days later on September 9. Having just turned 16 at the time, although I was involved in antiwar activity in Boulder, Jackson and Attica were two coastlines away and easy enough for me to ignore. Two years later I was reacquainted with those struggles—through music.

Read more…

Minimizing Minimalists

As a kid I’d become familiar with composers who pushed the envelope. In grade school our music teacher played us recordings of John Cage. Two electric/electronic masses were known to me, one by The Electric Prunes (Mass in F Minor, 1968) and the other a collaboration by Spooky Tooth and musique concrète maestro Pierre Henry (Ceremony, 1969). Warner Brothers samplers like The Big Red Ball (1970) and Zappèd (1970) promoted offbeat acts like the GTOs, Captain Beefheart, Ed Sanders, and Lord Buckley, all of whom took liberties with music and the spoken word.

A friend’s father, Paul Parmelee, was pals with composer George Crumb as was David Burge, a Crumb collaborator who taught with Paul at CU and conducted our philharmonic. So it’s not surprising that Crumb’s intimately challenging Ancient Voices of Children (1970) was performed in our high school auditorium—my first exposure to the poetry of Federico García Lorca (not having paid attention to Joan Baez’s Baptism of ’68). Likewise, our church youth choir did not shy away from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of the Carols (1942), recordings of which sometimes are paired with the composer’s Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), the setting of a poem penned by Christopher Smart when he was prisoner in a mental institution: “For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour; for they said, he is besides himself.” Smart later died in a debtor’s prison. (See my post about such a gaol.)

After high school when I worked with the United Farm Workers as a full-time boycott organizer beginning in the summer of ’73 a comrade introduced me to the so-called minimalists of avant-garde classical music. The oeuvre of two of these, Steve Reich and Frederic Rzewski, contained charged language. Reich composed his famous Come Out as part of a 1966 legal benefit for the Harlem 6 who were being retried for the ’64 “fruit stand” riot, covered by James Baldwin in the pages of The Nation. Five years later Rzewski composed two pieces in reaction to the Attica uprising.

Police Beating photo image
Police beating during the Harlem riot of 1964. (Photo originally via Wikipedia)

Reich’s Come Out is a masterpiece of manipulated verbal vérité: it’s simply and solely a recording of defendant Daniel Hamm explaining how he had to convince cops he’d been beaten in jail by rupturing his own bruise. Rzewski’s Coming Together is a traditional musical setting of a written text, a narration, albeit by an electro-acoustic septet. And while both Come Out and Coming Together had brutal roots, Daniel Hamm survived his ordeal whereas Rzewski’s narrator did not.1

These are two powerful, musical statements, belied by the minimalism genre to which they are assigned, and we minimize the minimalists, in whatever medium, at our poverty if not our peril. Take, for instance, the color field canvases of Mark Rothko. A friend from college, a fiber artist, remarked on how those uncomplicated paintings are made richer by the fabric of their foundation, as if the traditional gesso primer had not been applied, freeing the fibers’ textures.2 Likewise, the repetitions of Come Out and Coming Together facilitate our auditory and intellectual attention-to-detail—to lyrics, but also to the musical fibers freed from the substrate of either lyrical (representational) melody or atonal (abstract) cacophony. The weft, if you will, of the notation staff bearing a more-or-less even weave, with variation.

Melville and Attica: A greater coming together

On May 16, 1970 Attica prisoner Sam Melville wrote his close friend John Cohen.

I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time…

Melville was born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934 in New York City. (The story of his name change is told at SamMellville.org, from which some of the following is taken.) Like many other political radicals in the ’60s and ’70s Melville turned from protest to property destruction as an act of defiance against: the war in Vietnam, rampant capitalism, environmental pillage, governmental clampdown. Melville’s eight acknowledged bombings took place in 1969—before the formation of groups like Weather Underground and George Jackson Brigade.3 He was arrested on November 12 of that year, and attempted an escape the next March.

Melville made trouble everywhere he was held. He organized prison strikes in The Tombs and Sing Sing before being sent to Attica where he published a zine called Iced Pig and organized with black, brown, and white protests against brutality, mail censorship, and 25 cents-a-day wages. And, of course, he was a leader of the prisoners’ takeover of Attica, during which he was killed—but not before fashioning hundreds of Molotov cocktails and other defensive weapons and devices.

After the Attica occupation, Ramparts magazine published several of Melville’s letters, including the one referenced above. Frederic Rzewski recalled later:

As I read it I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony. I read it over and over again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical presence of the writer, and at the same time to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment.4

If Rzewski needed more motivation, a photo of Melville in the Ramparts article was accompanied by a poem by Adrienne Rich; not Attica-inspired but describing the cruelty of “the city of pain.” (The same edition of the magazine, December 1971, includes: a commentary by Staughton Lynd, who would chronicle another prison rebellion at Lucasville two decades later5; a lengthy and sympathetic profile of four New York sex workers; an equally lengthy and sympathetic profile of the Cockettes; an ad for The Food Stamp Gourmet: Patrician Eating on a Proletarian Budget; a look at nascent women’s studies programs; a piece on Rainbow Farm’s evolution to a women’s commune; a review of records by the Grateful Dead and Country Joe; and a sports column.)

It’s impossible for me to read Melville’s words in that Ramparts article without hearing the cadence of Steven ben Israel, Coming Together’s narrator in its 1973 recording. Israel is described by the New York Times as “a longhaired, card-carrying pacifist, anarchist, comedian and performance artist who toured during the 1960s and ’70s with the Living Theater, an avant-garde repertory group.”6 If Sam Melville attempted to tear down—blow up—the walls of imperium, Steve ben Israel and the Living Theater actually succeeded in breaking through the “fourth wall” separating stage and spectators.7

Rzewski’s pulsating score for Coming Together was performed on that 1973 LP by an ensemble that included Alvin Curran, who with Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum cofounded Musica Elettronica Viva, a pioneer of electro-acoustic exploration. In 1978 when I studied with Allen Ginsberg at Naropa, knowing of my interest in offbeat music, Allen handed me Curran’s first solo album, Cante e Vedute del Giardano Magnetico (Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden). Apart from Ginsberg’s insightful tutoring of my poetry, I tend to forget how influential was the loan of that LP. Curran’s use of natural sounds—not necessarily manipulated à la musique concrète—was an inspiration, liberatory in the laboratory of my own magnetic musings.

The sequencing of text and sound in Coming Together echoes Rzewski’s first reading of Sam Melville’s transcribed letter, with phrases repeated, dislodged. (Living Theater also had worked in a somewhat modular fashion on at least one production.8) I’m not even sure if the two paragraphs of Melville’s May ’70 letter—the focal point of Coming Together—ever are read in a single string, word for word. And I don’t need or even want to know. After nearly twenty-six minutes of various configurations, we get it.

Attica Negotiations photo image

Performance Pressure

In April of 1999 I had the chance to witness Coming Together performed by the California EAR Unit at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. LACMA has had a long history of presenting challenging and unfamiliar chamber works via its Monday Evening Concerts series, beginning in 1939. As a student at Immaculate Heart College (now the campus of American Film Institute) I attended the performances and even took a course in the fall of ’78 by the series’s then-director Dorrance Stalvey in which we previewed and reviewed the concerts. Among other things we were treated that season to a 78-year-old Aaron Copland accompanying his own 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson.

On the night of the EAR Unit performance I was a (temp?) worker at the California Power Exchange, which facilitated the trading of energy prior to the collapse of Enron two years later. I can’t recall exactly what our unit did at the time; later we were tasked with creating a curriculum for the training of traders, in pursuit of which I spent at least one night, perhaps more, sleeping on the office floor. Even before that I didn’t often attend weekday night concerts—I was flexible, a team player (okay, I just needed my job)—but I was looking forward to this performance.

From the LACMA promo brochure it appeared Rzewski’s piece might be on the second half of the program, which began at 8. It would take me the better part of an hour to drive from Pasadena to the Miracle Mile district. Just before what should have been quitting time I recall a matter being drawn out by my bosses who knew I had an engagement. How exactly does an adult human squirm? I can’t say, but I know I did, as the clock ticked and ticked past 7. It was a subtle sort of humiliation, yet embarrassing on both sides because of its utter transparency: I was not master of my leisure—they were. Upon my release I rushed to the museum only to hear, from the lobby, the strains of Coming Together coming together. It was the opener. The concert closed with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, and now I wish I’d acted as though we had one. A slight consolation, if I recall correctly: the intermission buzzed due to the presence of Ruth Underwood, late of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, who apparently had been interested in the chops that were called for by Rzewski on the part of the vibraphonist in Coming Together. Music. Workers. Music workers. Coming together.



Albany Times Union Attica headline image
The R-word. Later rebellions of all stripes would be labeled riot. This is a headline from the New York state capital.


Richard X. Clark was another leader of the Attica uprising. Raised in foster homes in Jamaica (Queens) and the Bronx, he joined the Navy after graduating high school. Discharged in 1968, he was arrested for attempted robbery in 1969 and received a four-year sentence, ending up at Attica.9 Unlike Sam Melville, Clark survived the uprising, writing about it in The Brothers of Attica (New York: Links Books, 1973). Kirkus, in the book’s review, remarked on Clark’s descriptions of the four nights of relative autonomy as being “clinical and graphic” and his paraphrasing participants’ words “with reportorial exactness.” In a scathing analysis of a more recent book on Attica, cultural anthropologist Orisanmi Burton quotes from Clark’s description of the prison’s Goon Squad, made up of

from eight to twenty-five officers […]. These guards were like Neanderthal men, and they would all roll on one inmate. They never spoke. The only thing you would hear was the cracking of the victim’s bones. And his cries. They were led by Sergeant Elmore, a devil with gold-rimmed granny glasses. We called him Little Hitler.

Earlier, upon his release from Attica, Clark was more poetic but no less pointed, and Frederic Rzewski was provoked.

In February, 1972 [Clark] was released from prison. As the car that was taking him to Buffalo crossed the Attica village limits, he was asked how it felt to leave Attica behind him. His answer, quoted in the New York ‘Times’, provided the text for this piece.10

The piece is Attica, in which Steven ben Israel sing-speaks Clark’s six-word rejoinder to that question, on a single note. It is shorter than Coming Together by a dozen minutes, and with a lilting, less convulsive accompaniment, but featuring penultimate fanfare flourishes.

Coming Together Liner Notes photo image
Liner notes from the original 1973 pressing of Rzewski’s LP Coming Together, Attica, Les Moutons De Panurge. All Opus One LPs were printed in colors designed to become vibrant under black light illumination.

Clark had pled guilty to the original charge of armed robbery but he told the Times in the same article that the plea was only to reduce the sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. At the time of the “crime” he’d been out of the Navy only eight months and was married with twin sons, two years old. Like so many others he simply couldn’t afford to lose upon taking his case to trial—for whatever reason. (Today 95% of felony convictions are achieved via plea bargains, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.)

Before Clark’s arrest in March of ’69 he’d just passed the police department entrance exam. This raises the question: Why would he want to add armed robbery to his résumé? The answer is embedded in a system that begins with J and ends in ICE.

Coming Together || Attica

If Sam Melville had been radicalized prior to prison, it appears that Richard X. Clark was radicalized on the inside, becoming a politically motivated Muslim minister. Hear Clark “in his own words,” an appearance at Burning Books in Buffalo:

’Tis not in harmony…

William Congreve famously begins his 1697 tragedy The Mourning Bride with the princess of Granada observing that “music has charms to sooth a savage breast.” But she is not pacified. “’Tis not in harmony to calm my griefs.”

Through perpetual repetition, Coming Together and Attica force active listeners to confront the horror of prison and its perpetuation. No, we are not charmed.