“Hurrah! Hurrah! The first of May!
Outdoor fucking begins today!”
“Hurrah! Hurrah! The first of May!
A garrulous disquisition in which I explain my, and my wife’s, recent recathection of the life and work of Bob Dylan before using lessons from an analysis of the song Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts as a template to support my contention that the song Blind Willie McTell offers a simple yet diamond-hard explanation of one of the central mysteries of Dylan’s career.
For some months now, my wife Cecilia and I have been enthralled to find ourselves in an unexpected and surprisingly deep engagement with every aspect of the work and career of Bob Dylan. For me, he’s always been there, still oddly jagged-edged no matter how blunted his cultural resonance has become over the years. (I have a complex relationship with classic rock; I know it well, having been an avid music consumer while much of it was being released, but I listen to a great deal of free-form radio (WFMU!) that rarely if ever plays it.) Dylan was at once one of the pillars of mainstream rock radio and a potent cultural provocateur whose sheer weirdness was both mystifying and endearing. He has always been a foundation, an enigma, an irritation, a brilliant black hole who changed everything and remained himself stubbornly unchanged. I’ve seen him a number of times, and met him once, a strange and remarkable story I’ll tell in some other blog post someday. Though he had remained a subject of interest, I had, over the years, relegated him to a far corner of my mental museum, certainly worth visiting but rather thoroughly examined and catalogued and defined.
For my wife, the associations were different. For one thing, the jangle of acoustic guitars reeked of the tiresome sincerity of church services desperate to be relevant to The Young. Again, Dylan was a permanent star in the pop music firmament, obviously talented, obviously Important, but not primary to her own cultural obsessions. She had even seen him, back when he toured with Tom Petty, though the primary focus of her attention had been Petty.
The first Dylan album that I purchased real-time—ie when it first came out, as opposed to a greatest-hits or record-from-the-past purchase—was Blood on the Tracks, which very much rocked my little world back in the day. Every word and note of that record is engrooved in my brain (“I know every scene by heart, they all went by so faaaaaassssssssst“); it has aged, I’m delighted to say, very well, and the songs still strike new sparks of profundity at any serious listen.
From then on, I was an avid amateur Dylanologist. I saw the Rolling Thunder tour at Madison Square Garden, Dylan in whiteface, Sam Shepherd and Joan Baez and Allan Ginsburg onstage with Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s voice booming through the vast space from a payphone in his prison. I kept my distance, baffled, through the Christian era, took heart at Infidels, his return to secular mainstream rock (good record, that, even after all these years). Saw him with Petty, saw him with the Dead (God, that was unmemorable, and I’m a Deadhead), met him once, and then pretty much let him ride.
My wife, on the other hand, had found much of interest in an iconography of empowered women–Madonna, Chrissie Hynde. Dylan was part of the landscape, but rarely if ever in the foreground.
Perhaps a decade ago I purchased the 2-disc set of the once-oft-bootlegged 1966 British tour “Royal Albert Hall” show—the one where someone in the audience yells “JUDAS!” towards the end of the electric set. Dylan’s response is classic, one of the great Rock and Roll Quotes: “I don’t be-LEEEEEEVE you,” he says, and then: “You’re a LIAR!” Then—you can barely make it out on the recording, but once you do it’s unmissable—he turns to the band and says: “Play Fucking Loud.”
And they do. They catapult into Like a Rolling Stone, as if, as a friend of mine once said, it’s the first time they ever played it.
The thing is, that moment is a capstone to a recording that is absolutely superb from start to finish. The first disc—the first set—is acoustic, him playing and singing at the top of his pre-motorcycle accident game. Impassioned, unique and surprising vocals, lilting harmonica, brilliant songs and twisted lyrics, it’s gorgeous. And then the second set—the second disc— well, it’s the nucleus of what will later be The Band, without Levon Helm on drums but the drummer, Mickey Jones, is absolutely perfect for the material—propulsive, forward-thinking, playing the songs to the limit from inside. He’s pointing to what comes next, not what’s happening now or what just happened (Ringo’s failing, God bless him, and a lot of other drummers as well), and it’s transcendent, as good as rock and roll could ever hope to be.
My lovely wife took note of how good that CD was, but it didn’t change her daily meanderings. Dylan sank, once again, deep into the undercurrents of our quotidian existence.
And then, six months ago, out of nowhere I abruptly had an urgent need to read his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One, published in 2004. It was, suddenly, the next book I needed to buy. So I did, and read it—magnificent; as good, in its rambling way, as Patty Smith’s memoir Just Kids, her fantastic recreation of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorp. But Smith tells a compact and compelling narrative with a breathless characterological arc, while Dylan is dealing out memories with the randomness of a poker dealer. He’s a garrulous and fascinating houseguest who manages to both take up all your time and never overstays his welcome.
And, as Cecilia points out, while the book explores many emotions and contradictions, what comes out finally is a fundamental feeling of gratitude—toward his audience, but also toward the people who made him and helped him and changed him and allowed him to continue to be Dylan.
That book upped the Dylan ante in our household quite a bit—I read Cecilia good lines as they came up, we discussed various aspects of our respective Dylan memories, we started looking at Youtube clips. She bought me Suze Rotolo’s memoir A Freewheelin’ Time, Rotolo being the brunette on Dylan’s arm on the Greenwich Village street on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). With that, Dylan became a running topic of conversation as Cecilia went deep into song after song. And then we saw Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, and the thing simply exploded.
The movie isn’t so much a biography of Dylan as a fever dream about him. Five actors play the man at various stages of his career, not all sympathetically, none with quite his name. Heath Ledger’s absent Woodstock dad is actually rather an unremittent bastard, while Richard Gere’s Peckinpah-era hermit/pilgrim would appear to be atoning for those sins; the pre-New York Dylan is played by a young black child, living the freight-hopping outsider life Dylan came to New York presenting as having had. But it is the pre-motorcycle accident Androgyne Thin White Duke British Invasion Dylan, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett, that made the gears mesh and sent Cecilia on her current course of becoming an absolute Dylanological Completist.
Blanchett’s performance gave Cecilia a path into understanding that “JUDAS!” moment, and what was at stake. The fact that Blanchett is a woman allowed Cecilia to get beyond Dylan’s cockiness, and the overbearing Zep-era cock-rock that came after and shed a distasteful light, from her perspective, on what had come before. And then the fact that we had the real concert on CD—and that it’s brilliant, one of the vital records that everyone must hear at least once—propelled us into our current height of AJ Weberman-level Dylanology.
Now: Cecilia has two master degrees and a PhD, so when she shines her critical faculties on deconstructing something, it gets deconstructed, and it stays deconstructed. Her PhD featured, among other things, a trauma theory interpretation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night that managed to tease out meanings not found in any of the academic studies of that overstudied play (trust me; she looked). To have this level of discourse about Dylan at this moment of our marriage is an unexpected delight, the kind of new discovery that allows marriages to expand in unseen ways.
And it’s allowed me to show her Dylan stuff I love. Ferinstance, Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts off of Blood in the Tracks. Here we have an entire filmic narrative, no imagistic poetry or wordplay. The song is structurally a polka; the lyric is a realistic Western movie involving a charming outlaw who serves as a catalyst for the events around him without himself being changed by any of them. The entire thing takes place in a classic Western movie saloon/hotel. The 15 verses on the record introduce 4 major and a handful of minor characters: Lilly, a showgirl, “was a princess who was fair-skinned and precious as a child/She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled, ” Big Jim who was “no one’s fool/he owned the town’s only diamond mine” and is having an affair with Lilly, and Rosemary, described as “a queen without a crown” who is “tired of playing the role of Big Jim’s wife. She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide/was looking to do one good deed before she died.” Over the course of the evening, as the Jack of Hearts’ boys drill through the wall to clean out the bank safe, Jack enters Lilly’s dressing room; she knows him from some unnamed past encounter, and they banter in a not terribly romantic way. They are caught doing so by Big Jim (and Rosemary, who is with him), and a confrontation presumably occurs.
No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked
And Big Jim was standin’ there, ya couldn’t say surprised
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin’ to the Jack of Hearts
The next relevant verse begins: “The next day was hanging day/ the sky was overcast and black/ Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back/And Rosemary at the gallows, she didn’t even blink…the only person on the scene missing was the Jack of Hearts.“
But what happened? What was the confrontation? Who actually killed Big Jim? On the recorded version, he does not tell us this central mystery. But the version of the song on his official website has 16 verses—not 15, as on the record—and the missing verse fills in the major motivational details:
Lily’s arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch
She forgot all about the man she couldn’t stand who hounded her so much
“I’ve missed you so,” she said to him, and he felt she was sincere
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts
So Lilly and the Jack were in fact romantic. And they were caught in flagrante delicto by Big Jim and Rosemary. Jim cocks his cold revolver, and Rosemary, to save Jack (and perhaps even Lilly) stabs him with a pen knife she had been toying with earlier in the song.
Why would Dylan sing 15 verses of a song and leave out the central confrontation that is only explicable with the unsung 16th verse? Because he’s Dylan, and, as this example proves, he often conceals the most important aspects of his work. He is both wide open—the man has released almost 500 songs; nobody has the kind of output he’s achieved—and, in important matters, careful to hide behind a wall of impenetrability. He knows the solution to the mystery, he’s worked it out, but it’s not part of the song as recorded. Eventually, though, if you stick with him, he casually gives the secret away when he publishes the song.
Which brings us to Blind Willie McTell.
Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975, is generally acknowledged to chronicle Dylan’s divorce from Sarah, his first wife. (In the Chronicles, he claims that it all came from Chekhov short stories, but, uhh, no, not if you read any interviews with Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, his son, who has said he hears his parents whenever he hears that record.) After that came Desire (1976), a less complex record with timely cultural resonance (Hurricane Carter!). Desire was in the top 100 for 35 weeks, double what Blood did, and longer than any record since the early ones. Then came a slow decline—a greatest hits record, then Street Legal (1978), then a live record, and then…
And then he finds Jesus. And makes 3 records testifying to his new born again faith—Slow Train Coming in 1979, Saved in 1980 and Shot of Love in 1981. These records chart, but not the way he used to. And the vast majority of his old fans are utterly put off, me included. Is he always going to do this from now on?
Of course not. We should have known better. This is a man whose entire career has been about refusing to be pinned down, about refusing to be the person you expected, or wanted, or needed him to be. It ain’t him, babe, no no no it ain’t him you’re looking for.
If you’re gonna call this guy JUDAS! In the middle of the best concert he’s ever played, he’s damn well going to prove you’re not right.
Thus, for that and a hundred thousand other reasons, Jesus. For three albums. And then, because he really doesn’t like to be pinned down: Infidels. Which is the perfect title, considering.
The great question posed by Infidels was: what the hell happened? His conversion to born-again Christianity had obviously been a serious matter, a three-year affair. He’d given it his all, and he’d walked away. There had to be some clue on Infidels that would shed light on the entire experience.
Well, actually, there were tons of them, all the way through. But it turned out he’d recorded an absolutely brilliant song that explained everything, if you heard it right, but he had elected not to put it on the album. That song was Blind Willie McTell.
The story is that Mark Knopfler, the Dire Straights guitarist (who is, ummm, really really good—the guitar lead on Sultans of Swing is entirely fingerpicking, which, um, wow) played guitar on Blind Willie McTell, and was so disgusted when Dylan said he wasn’t going to put it on the album that he walked away from the project.
Blind Willie McTell wouldn’t officially see the light of day until 1991, when it was included on The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3: Rare and Unreleased 1961-1991. (Lately, the man has taken to playing it live on his never-ending tour, so it’s officially part of the canon, now. Just like the missing verse of Jack of Hearts, though according to his website he has played Jack live precisely once, on May 25, 1976.)
But some of us knew the song. When Infidels came out, I managed to purchase a bootleg of early outtakes from those recording sessions, called Outfidels (label: Les Disques Du Porcupine) which contained everything on the released record and two more songs that had been cut, listed on the LP as Untitled 1 and Untitled 2.
Untitled 1 was Blind Willie McTell. And listening to it, I felt as Mark Knopfler must have felt: this song was brilliant, the best thing Dylan had done in decades—why wasn’t it on the official record? Why had he left it off?
Now, all these years later, my wife and I are currently steeped in Dylanology, learning from his work the truths and beauties that are there for people our age to learn, and I have returned to this question. And I believe—it’s always tricky to say this about Dylan, he always resists being pinned down—but I believe I have an answer.
If you consider Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, the verse he left out was the most important of the song—the one that actually tells the story of the confrontation, the piece of information without which nothing else makes sense.
By that logic, then, Blind Willie McTell couldn’t be on Infidels because it told the truth too plainly.
There’s another piece of logic, as well: the song is structurally similar to the traditional classic, St James Infirmary Blues. Recorded as a dirge by Louis Armstrong and as a swinging party by Cab Callaway, the song has claimed at least two authors, and probably more. And since St James Infirmary was a hospital in London, its origins are anybody’s guess.
But Dylan acknowledges that connection in the final verse:
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
And besides, reworking a traditional song that’s been around for a hundred years or more is the kind of thing Dylan does before breakfast. So why would he be fastidious about this one?
Well, consider the first verse:
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
All right, here comes the interpretation:
Consider the arrow a primitive, even primal, piece of communication, blocking progress through a door, and the message it’s communicating is: this land can’t be inhabited, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem. All the way from the new world to the old, perhaps. Perhaps even: all the way from the new testament (“New Orleans”) to the old (“Jerusalem”).
I traveled through East Texas/Where many martyrs fell—well, if anyone can sing the blues, its someone who died for what they believed, right? A martyr’s death, no matter how holy, is an exercise in pathos. It may be beautiful, but if it is, it’s beautiful in the way the blues is beautiful—as an exposition of the necessity of human suffering in the cause of something greater. In secular music, that something is usually love, but it doesn’t have to be. But however beautiful the blues created by these East Texas martyrs, none of them can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
The charcoal gypsy maidens suggest that the tents being taken down are circus tents or something similar, as opposed to military tents. Weirdly, this mirrors the imagery in the first verse of Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts:
The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
But Blind Willie McTell is a distinctly more somber song, and the hoot owl suggests something more deeply personal: I heard the hoot owl singing…the stars above the barren trees were his only audience.
Well, that’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it? The narrator heard the hoot owl, but was not the audience. It only makes sense if the hoot owl is actually the singer, alone under the stars in a barren land, with no audience. Just—alone. And the charcoal gypsy maidens are no help, nor is the succor they could provide, because the fact that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell renders them irrelevant. They are no more the answer to the hoot owl’s existential despair than the East Texas martyrs were, and we’ve already seen how that worked out.
Now comes the identifiably historical stuff. Dylan didn’t go to college, not really, but he did hole himself up in the New York Public Library one summer and read his way through the Civil War as reported in the era’s daily newspapers. He is, by all accounts, an avid reader and deeply culturally literate.
See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Man’s inhumanity to man, of course, and the birth of the blues from the original sins of slavery and the destruction of the Indian, all in one verse. No Christianity in the undertaker’s bell; no redemption there, except for the fact that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
There’s a woman by the river being seduced by someone presenting themselves as something they’re not—by a fraud who is like a squire, but not a squire, whose whiskey isn’t even what it claims to be. And meanwhile all hell is breaking loose, but even with all that…no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
And now we get back to that final verse. Consider it again:
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
Makes perfect sense, right? God is in His heaven and we all want to know the peace that passeth understanding, the salvation and redemption that is only his to provide. But that has been overpowered by power and greed and—oh, man, great phrase—corruptible seed—the inherent imperfections of humanity, the flaw at the root of our fundamental genetic and personal reality. God may be in heaven and we may all want to be like Him, but humanity is so flawed, and so wounded, that even our worship of God is corrupted by power and greed, and the broken reality of humanity seems to be all that there is.
I’m gazing out the window/of the St James Hotel: 10 words. Has there ever been a more concise metaphor for the true nature of the human condition? Our souls may be eternal, but our bodies are merely hotels, transient places we inhabit temporarily before moving on. And as the singer gazes out from this transient corruptible imperfect hotel, as he looks at the entirety of everything that he can possibly see as a human being, there is only one thing he knows for rock-solid certain: No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
That’s why Dylan left Christianity. Because the music was more real, and more at the core of his true belief, than anything else. It took him three years, and three albums, but he walked away from it absolutely knowing one thing, down to the furthest reaches and depths of his being:
No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.
Once upon a time, many years ago, I accepted a job in Los Angeles working on the NBC nighttime version of Dark Shadows. I sublet my apartment in New York, left my beautiful and legendarily difficult longhaired cat Agatha temporarily with a friend, and moved out to la-la land. Ended up staying a year. Drove a red convertible Mustang, had a lovely funky apartment in a house a block and a half from the ocean in Venice, and went every morning to my office in the MGM building in Culver City to think about doomed vampire love for 60-100 hours a week.
It was fun. But every once in a while I would have to go back to New York for one reason or another. And when I did, I was fortunate enough to be able to fly MGM Grand.
It no longer exists; it has been added to my list of things that were fantastic but aren’t there anymore, which includes the New York nightclub Jackie 60, Kellogg’s Concentrate cereal, and Prussia.
MGM Grand was an all-first-class airline. It had 2 flights a day: one from New York to LA, and one from LA to New York. It cost the same as first class on any other airline. And during the several years it existed, it was the best airline on Earth.
Kirk Kirkorian, the Donald Trump of Los Angeles during that period (which is to say, an insufferable regional wealth-mongering blowhard who comports himself in all things in the precise manner of a James Bond supervillain) had the airplanes’ standard interiors ripped out and redesigned for maximum comfort. There were a couple of iterations; the first, a 727, had closeable train compartment-type rooms with facing couches in the back half of the plane, ideal for families and those requiring privacy. In the front half were swivel chairs wide as refrigerators in tufted white leather, one or two to a row. There were five movies on board; the crew would take a vote, and show different ones in different sections of the plane. The food was very, very good—not quite as good as they said it was, but still, damn good—and the wine list ran deep, mostly California but some serious French in there as well. Champagne when you got on the plane; fresh-baked cookies, the smell wafting through the cabin, half an hour before landing.
And: if you requested, and if they had the space, you could have your dog or your cat in your seat with you. (There was a pressurized and heated area in the baggage hold for animals that could not be accommodated.) Thus it was that my cat Agatha sat on my lap during a flight from New York to LA.
Damn, I loved that cat. One part pure Doberman; hated everybody in the world except me. But anyway.
I didn’t know any of this the first time I flew the airline. My cat was in New York; I was in LA, and, as I tend in life, I was running late, being driven to the airport by my good and great friend Nikoletta (that’s a thing in LA: you can tell real friends in that town by whether or not they’ll drive you to the airport). We got to LAX with its palm trees and iconic sci-fi spaceship control tower, and were then told that MGM Grand didn’t use that terminal; theirs was a five-minute drive further down.
Right. We were late before; now we’re extra super late, in danger of missing the flight. We jump back into Nikoletta’s dark red Subaru, drive like crazy people to the MGM Grand terminal, which is a small building standing alone at the far end of the airport. Get out, run in, and through the plate glass window I can see that the plane has left the gate, is shimmering forward in the distance across the tarmac, and I say,
“Damn, I missed the plane.”
“Mr. Hall? Yes? We’ll radio them to stop.”
Really? One of the model-actress-beautiful young women at the desk walkie-talkies the plane, while the other jams my backback through the X-ray machine as I empty my pockets and step through the metal detector. Then she gives me my backpack, opens the glass door and says “Run!”
So I start to run. And it’s a bright hot Los Angeles day, wavy jet exhaust mirages and the smell of engine smoke, and 100 yards ahead I can see the plane shuddering to a halt. There are some yellow baggage trucks far off on the tarmac, pulling their little train carts. There are distant silver gas tank trucks. There are no other people anywhere around me, no guys in overalls and headphones nor passengers with flapping backpacks running to catch their plane. I am the only one. It’s oddly quiet, and it’s hot; acres of black asphalt generate a lot of heat. And as I approach the plane, the ladder in the tail yawns open and stretches down, and I cannot believe this is actually happening, the whole thing is deeply surreal.
I put one foot on the step, turn around to see how far I’ve run—about a football field, I’d say— and at that moment one of the beautiful young women comes rushing out of the terminal shouting at me—there’s no one else she could possibly be shouting at—waving her arms and running toward the plane.
I realize that she is saying “Mr Hall! Mr Hall!” She really, truly, is running onto the tarmac for some reason relating to me.
So I step off the ladder and start to run toward her. And what follows is an extended slow-motion moment from some movie—I’m running toward her, and she’s running toward me, getting larger and larger as we both run, and we meet at about the fifty-yard line.
Panting. Out of breath. And she hands me my metal sunglasses case, containing my prescription sunglasses, which I had taken from my pocket to go through the scanner.
I’m shocked. I say: “Thank you.”
She says: “You’re welcome, Mr. Hall.”
And we turn around, and start to run away from each other. I get back on the ladder, sunglasses case in hand, backpack slung over my shoulder, climb into the plane, and the ladder rises up and closes behind me.
I stand for a moment, because I’ve just run 200 yards, and because I cannot believe what has just happened, what is happening. And then I collect myself and walk up the aisle of the plane, past the train-like booths. And in one are two Arab gentlemen in full-on Saudi dress and headscarves, and as I pass I hear one say to the other:
“Who is that man?”
Buddy, if I knew, I’d tell you.
My mother, the product of a broken wreck of a marriage, was raised, in part, in the Philadelphia home of her cousin Elsie. Elsie’s parents were anarchists; they never married out of principle. They had a picture of Eugene V. Debs above the fireplace (Debs being the only Socialist candidate for President who ever came close to getting a million votes; he accomplished this while in prison in 1920), and in 1909, long before my mother was born, they hid out Emma Goldman when the police were looking for her.
My father, the product of a stable family, was raised, in whole, in the small town of Carrollton, Ohio. He was an Eagle Scout, went to bible camp, and at 14 signed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pledge to never let alcohol touch his lips. He has happily spent a lifetime breaking that pledge. He is, through his mother, related to William McKinley, stalwart Republican and 25th President of the United States, who received over 7 million votes in 1900, long before my father was born.
William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901 at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was shot by Leon Czolgosz, an off-the-rails anarchist driven to the deed after seeing Emma Goldman speak, and put to death for his efforts.
My mother’s politics were, as one might expect with her upbringing, as red as her hair; the only picket line she ever crossed in her life was to work on Dark Shadows, and only then after days of memorably exhaustive soul-searching. My father’s politics were what one might expect of a small-town Ohio boy related to William McKinley. But landing on Normandy Beach (D-Day+2) and walking from there through the Battle of the Bulge to Munich made him go through his own evolutions of the soul.
Still and yet, they often joked, when they came home from the polls on Election Day, that their votes had cancelled each other out.
Kind of like Czolgosz and McKinley.
* * *
Stephen Sondheim mentions Czolgosz—gives him a whole song, in fact— in his musical, Assassins. Stephen Sondheim also wrote this, in Follies:
Come on, folks.
And where we gonna go?
A little joint I know-
Great new show there.
Hey, I thought you said tonight’d be Tony’s–
This joint is just as grand.
We girls got dressed for dancing at Tony’s–
This joint is in demand.
Ta-ta, goodbye, you’ll find us at Tony’s–
Wait till you hear the band!
You told us Tony’s,
That we’d go to Tony’s. I told you Tony’s?
Then Ben mentioned Tony’s. I never said Tony’s
Well, someone said Tony’s. When’s Ben mentioned Tony’s?
There’s dancing at Tony’s– It’s ritzy at Tony’s–
All right, then, we’ll go! All right, then, we’ll go!
My parents met on a double date at Tony’s in 1950. It was, evidently, where the Sheraton Hotel is now. When Grayson mentioned that she was planning to marry some man and move to California, Sam got up, went to the bathroom, then went to the Maitre D’, bypassed the table, paid the check, left the restaurant, went back to the Plaza hotel, packed his bag, and took the train up to Hanover, New Hampshire, where the Dartmouth Winter Carnival was in session. He was no longer a Dartmouth undergrad—he’d been through the war, and was now pursuing a Master’s at Yale Drama—but he knew people up at Hanover, and he went to stay with them.
No doubt there was a girl involved. There were girls before my mother. There was a beautiful countess with a slight hint of a moustache. There was an interesting girl who was murdered by the man she eventually married, and later, in Mexico, Sam was introduced socially to that man.
Anyway. Some time in 1952, or thereabouts, Sam was in New York, and was asked if he wanted to go to a party at that girl Shirley’s apartment. Okay, he thought, that marriage didn’t work out. He went, talked with her (she had no memory of the earlier evening, nor did she ever dredge any memories up—suffice it to say, she had been busy), charmed her, convinced her to leave her own party and spend the night with him at the Algonquin.
And so they did. And were together until 1985.
Czolgosz and McKinley. United at last.
- This is my mother’s handwritten recipe for Trader Vic’s Indonesian Rack of Lamb, written on notepaper from The Suicide, a play she was in on Broadway in 1980. My family went through a period of making this a lot, with both lamb and chicken; I made it for a large houseparty with my college friends the weekend Reagan was shot. The paper is covered with cooking stains. One interesting facet: the numbers on the right represent Mom emending the quantities after making it, in order to push it towards the flavors she wanted. Note the ambivalence about using supermarket-bought A-1 Sauce– she’s not sure whether to add 2 or 3 teaspoons of the pre-made sauce when first writing the recipe down, and then, after making it once, obviously decided “Screw it, it works. Three.”
Mitt Romney has been waiting for this moment from the day his father folded in the primaries in ’68.
If his father had never run for President, would he have ever?
Impossible to say, of course, but I tend to think not.
It happens, every once in a while, that seeing a movie will energize me in a profound and productive way. I will go in my usual humdrum self, and I will come out two or three hours later knowing, with absolute certitude, that I have to change my life, and that in my grasp is a plan to do it.
It’s rare. The first time I actually noticed it was in 1981 or thereabouts, when I saw El Topo in a dumpy little movie theater in upstate New York. Originally released in 1970, El Topo is a deep ‘60s movie, an enigmatic and overtly symbolic Mexican western created by and starring the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowski. I’m not sure why it was playing—it was at that time caught in 30 years of contention between Allen Klein, who had been manager of the Beatles, and everyone else on the planet who was not Allen Klein, and could not legally be shown. (Evidently Klein had a contract as producer to Jodorowsky, and turned against the director when he refused to make a pornographic film. Klein in retaliation blocked all distribution of the films he controlled. I think it’s generally known and safe to say that Allen Klein was an asshole of transcendent and incandescent skill and ability.) The screening I saw was an incredibly fortunate accident— It was unadvertised; I had seen a newspaper article stating that there would be one showing and one showing only, at midnight on a certain date. There was a legal or perhaps technical reason that it had to be shown in a theater; this was not intended as a rerelease.
I drove up in my brown Rabbit, no doubt smoking a cigarette, knowing the film by reputation as one of the great unseen weird masterpieces of the moment. I bought a single ticket and went in. I remember where I sat; there were maybe 20 people in the audience, half of whom were lawyers and half of whom were weirdos like me who had seen the article. I remember the lights going down.
It’s in Spanish. A gunslinger with long black hair and a black beard dressed entirely in black leather rides through a barren Western landscape. He comes across a massacre, finds the military man responsible, deballs (ugh) and kills him, rescues a girl the man had kept as a slave, and then is charged to kill this universe’s four greatest gunslingers, each of whom represent a different discipline. At some point our hero and the girl are joined by a female black-leather gunslinger with a man’s voice who guides them on their way. El Topo succeeds in his mission, but is betrayed by the two women who shoot him in an appropriately Christ-like manner and go off together.
But he’s not dead, and he wakes up, now with white hair and robes, in an underground city filled with mutants who regard him as their leader. He ultimately leads the mutants out of their underground prison to freedom, though he meets his own death in the process. His now-grown son, whom we had seen as a little boy in the beginning, takes on the mantle of black leather and rides off toward the horizon.
This thing makes all three of the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns look like they were put together by the Care Bears. It’s magnificent, it’s deranged, it’s unwatchable and you can’t take your eyes off it. To call it acid-drenched would imply that it had little paisley curlicues all over it, and it doesn’t. It’s Christianity-drenched, and sun-drenched, and drug-drenched, and other-stuff-drenched, and it is truly one of a kind.*
I left the theater at 2:30 in the morning, walked back through the parking lot, got in my car, and thought: I have to get my shit together. I have to stop smoking, I have to finish my novel, I have to become the person I want to be and not be trapped by my bad decisions of the past.
And I did. It took a couple of years, but I haven’t had a cigarette since September 14, 1983. I finished the novel (it was Nightmare Logic; it took a bit longer, but it got done). Something about that movie gave me a tremendous surfeit of energy, rebounded my strength and allowed me to grab hold of the things that were wrong in my life and squeeze them until they got right.
Okay, this is where it gets weird: it happened again last week when I saw The Dark Knight Rises.
Boy, was I not expecting it to. I had no reason to suspect that I was going to feel anything but ambivalent, given the overall weird karma of this series— Heath Ledger, that idiot with the guns in Colorado. It was playing in my neighb, I had a free night, I like Batman, I went.
And sat there loving it. I didn’t want it to end. I know it’s long, too long in places, and some of the plot points dissolve with the application of logic, but I simply didn’t give a shit. I loved being in that universe, and when the screen went black at the end, I was honestly bummed that there was no more to watch.
And then I left the theater and began to think about all the things I should do to improve systems and performance at my job. A strong handful of initiatives crowded my mind, and I was filled with a surfeit of energy, and that energy carried me forward the next morning when I got to the office and has continued to illuminate my way for a week since.
Some people have Oprah. Some people trust in Joel Osteen or the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy. But when asked, I can truthfully say: Batman and El Topo. Self-management gurus that work for me.
*Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was ripped off, in overall conception, arc of story, and visual execution, directly from El Topo (1970). Master Blaster in that movie—one of the bad guys Mel Gibson must fight, a dwarf sitting on a giant’s shoulders and acting as his “brain”—is a direct rip from El Topo. So, for that matter, is the entire second half of the movie—Mel Gibson awakens dressed in white in the subterranean caverns, amidst children whom regard him as a leader. He eventually leads them to freedom. I’m not sure why these parallels aren’t better known, but the entire movie is basically El Topo made mediocre and stupid.
Tina Turner excepted, of course, because whatever Tina Turner wants to do is fine.
John Guare was building a house on Nantucket in 1973. He had a girlfriend named Page—spirited, smart, kind. Hippychick. I was 14, as was Matt Gaynes, my best friend, three months younger than me, though his charismatic panache made him seem slightly older.
Matt and I had a room together in a house full of actors working for the Nantucket Stage Company, which was presenting the world premier of Guare’s play Marco Polo Sings a Solo. My mother, Grayson Hall, played a character who had been born a man, had himself surgically altered to be a woman, and then impregnated herself with his own sperm to give birth to the play’s hero.
In John Guare’s world, people do stuff like this all the time.
Our room was in the front of the house, facing the street, next to the kitchen which we shared in communal fashion with a bunch of young actors, Jimmy Woods and Paul Benedict and Kevin O’Connor and Joe Grifasi among them, and every night after rehearsals and performances the beer and wine and vodka and whisky would come out. For Matt and me, beer was the international currency; wine was tougher and more variable and the higher alcohol content made it mix badly with whatever else one had in one’s system, though a good glass of wine was on its own an excellent thing. I didn’t know how to drink hard alcohol yet, though not for want of trying. But what Matt and I dearly wanted, above everything else, was pot.
As I remember it, there was a dearth of pot on Nantucket in the early summer of 1973. Or more likely there was a dearth of pot for us—grown ups had some; I know this because I once handed a joint to my mother at a party in the actor’s house living room, and she took a hit, held it in, passed it on, exhaled and continued our conversation. Thus, there were actors in the house who had some, but none of them were going to supply Grayson’s kid and his friend George Gaynes’ and Allyn Ann McLerie’s kid with a bag of pot; that simply wasn’t going to happen. Eventually, though, Matt and I made the necessary connection with someone unconnected to the theater. The source we found could not have been more ideal in any possible way, except perhaps if they’d been female.
Two brothers, teenage sons of a wealthy divorcee who had taken one of the three identical Captain’s houses on the main cobblestoned street of the town of Nantucket. The older brother had his bedroom in the glassed-in widow’s walk turret at the top of the house—big glass windows on four sides of a small room reachable by tight wooden stairs. An impressively cool place to live. He was a strident young man who played guitar and had brown hair down to the middle of his back. His younger brother, blond, shoulder-length hair, lived in the house as well and was an absolutely brilliant harmonica player. Played all the time, carried it with him everywhere he went. I took music more seriously than any other art form (though my tastes, while defensible, were fairly base at that juncture), and the harmonica-playing younger brother was a revelation to me. All my years of piano lessons, all my love for and near-obsessive intellectualization of the sociomythic meaning of every song that came on the radio and every record I bought for $5.99 at Sam Goody or unwrapped on Christmas morning in my father’s parent’s home in small-town Ohio, and this young man had a relationship with his harmonica that made it all fall away like melting snow. I had never seen anything like it. I was—strong word—in awe.
Nice guy, too. But it was from the guitarist brother that the pot came, so we spent more time with him.
I had first smoked pot at Matt Gaynes’ house in Studio City, California. Obligatorily, it hadn’t affected me the first time, as often happens. I remember standing over a train set, a miniature world in Matt’s room, trying to decide if the funny I was feeling was the pot or was me imagining what the pot must feel like. I remember being witty, minorly; getting off a few good lines, getting a laugh.
That right there: that was success. Being able to skewer the moment, hold it up, investigate it. I was preoccupied with the truth: finding it, telling it, knowing it. That was the goal. that was the sublime culmination, the bloom of the flower. That was the life I wanted to live: to walk in truth at all times in all ways.
Pot and the rest of the mind-enhancement pharmacopoeia was, for a time, the means to that end. Then, as always, it became an end to itself, and had to be overthrown like any other debased belief system. But that came later.
When finally Matt and I made the connection with the two brothers, I remember leaving the brick house with a head full of stone, being in awe of the weird radical timelessness of Nantucket, the fact that it is a functioning, living place that looks exactly as it did a hundred-odd years ago—the cobblestone streets, the gray shingle houses—coupled with the fact that the entire place is, of course, a lie. The world is not like this, the world is crashing violently ever into the new, and no amount of cobblestones from whaling boat ballasts will ever anchor it.
Which made me hate it. But it was so damn beautiful. Which made me confused. Which in turn made me want to smoke more, and drink more, and just keep talking way into the night until I collapsed into a heap of hungover pubescence as sunlight scratched me awake and into another day.
Matt had a simple solution for this: wake up. Step into the walk-in closet in our room. Take a hit off a pipe. Go back to sleep. Wake up an hour later, stoned, and ready to take on the challenges as they came.
So that’s what we did. We cadged beer, when we could get it. We cadged wine, when we could get it. We had pot. We had bikes. Matt was fearless about smoking in public. I was not, but I got used to it. We were set.
Two stories: As a kid, I was a terrible student. At some point, several years before Nantucket, I was diagnosed with some kind of visual acuity dilemma, and went through a year of visual training in a doctor’s office on 34th street in Manhattan. I always thought it was a crock of shit—once a week I would spend an hour trying to put golf tees into holes in rotating disks and reading things through various complicated lenses. I never saw any change in my visual acuity from any of this. My grades certainly didn’t change. None of this affected me in any way.
So, years later on Nantucket, walking home late one night with Matt, seriously and prodigiously loaded on our pot and God knew what combination of alcoholic beverages, I turned the corner to the actor’s house’s little back yard and stopped abruptly.
I could see in depth. There was a telephone pole on my right, to the side of the gate, a heavy old tree to my left and the house was beyond, and there were flies around the lights, and a little round grill, and bikes and before me was the door to the house and the kitchen through the window, and things were in front of each other, and behind each other, and I had never seen this before. Not this way, not with this clarity.
I had never seen in depth. It was as if something had shifted in my brain, and suddenly I was allowed to see the reality that everybody else took for granted.
A cascade of revelations permanently altered my mind. I was aware of myself in space—in air, three dimensions, four if you include time and you really should, standing in the back yard of the house on Union Street, with the telephone pole on my right and the bikes up ahead on my left—and I felt fearless in that awareness, even as I recognized my basic human vulnerability. But that didn’t matter, because every step I took resonated with this new discovery, and I felt strong, stronger than I’d ever felt before as I walked forward, footstep after footstep, through the door and into the house.
Second story: My birthday is in late August. To celebrate it, Matt and I were able to acquire an absurdly large chunk of hashish.
For those who don’t know, hash is a relatively primitive refinement of the resin of marijuana into a brownish-blondish solid as crumbly as hard-dried mud. It’s been around for thousands of years. When I still cared about all this stuff, which I haven’t for a while, it was pretty routinely available. I have no idea if it still is.
In any event, the day before my birthday, we managed to score a big chunk of it. We proceeded to smoke it, and be high off it, every waking moment for three days.
The second day of which was my birthday. A party was thrown in my honor—well, a party was thrown, and I was one of a number of reasons for it—at the unfinished house that John Guare and his girlfriend Page were building out in the wilds of Nantucket. Thinking back on it, I am delighted to realize that Matt and I had not managed to completely alienate the Nantucket Stage Company, the actors we lived with, or the brilliant and vivacious Guare, because if we had the party on my birthday would have no doubt flowed merrily on without me. I suspect we were sort of mascots, tolerated as imbeciles, mildly amusing but basically harmless.
Or maybe more. Because at some point, in this wood-framed but as-yet unwalled house, the entire party assembled, and sang Happy Birthday, and Guare presented me with a beautiful white signed and becandled birthday cake.
And to cut it, an evil glimmer behind his wireframe glasses: a hammer.
And me, on day 2 of nonstop hashish. As the song crescendoed, I lifted the hammer high over my head and smashed it down into the center of the cake.
Splat. Cake on my glasses. Laughter, applause, hoots, transcendence.
And that’s how I turned 15.
Grayson Hall had a long and illustrious career, but The Collinsport Historical Society already blogged about it and somehow managed not to use the f-word even one time which for me is almost beyond the realm of possibility. Now it's my turn to throw in a post with the rest of Grayson Hall Appreciation Bureau and the best I can do would be to pay her the highest compliment I can bestow upon an actress: Grayson Hall made Dr.
Friday, June 22– All Day! Mom would be delighted, and slightly mortified, but delight would win out.
Here’s the first group up:
The Drawing Room (Home of the Dark Shadows podcast)
On the latest installment of The Drawing Room podcast, Chrissy recites her poem, Ode to Hoffman, 1967, which celebrates Grayson Hall’s contribution to the early episodes of Dark Shadows. The poem is also available to read at the website.
Barnabas & Company
S. R. Shutt shares her thoughts on the artistry of Grayson Hall, playfully inspired by Wallace Stevens’ short verse cycle, Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.
The Collinsport Historical Society
Jonathan Frid was the face of Dark Shadows, but Grayson Hall was it’s soul. Even though nobody ever made action figures or board games baed on her characters, Dark Shadows wouldn’t have been the same without her. Plus fan art, vintage newspaper clippings about Hall’s stage career and more throughout the day!
The Performance Art of Grayson Hall: Life On Two Levels
Using lines from her Oscar-nominated film Night of the Iguana as thematic bookends, Frank Jay Gruber discusses the differences between Grayson Hall’s film and television performance styles, and why each is distinct and memorable.
The Collins Foundation
“If you have to choose between real and interesting, choose interesting.” According to Patrick McCray, Grayson Hall gives us both in Dark Shadows.
The Classic Movie Lady
At age 13, this blogger’s favorite actress was Grayson Hall … and she had never seen Dark Shadows.