The Great Compromise

John Prine was on Stephen Colbert’s show last week (and a doff of the hat to my brother Ethan for alerting me to his appearance) and it was great to see the old boy again. The host is clearly a fan and gave one of America’s great singer-songwriters the respect (and time) he was due.

Prine returned at the height, or depths, of the Iraq war to remind us that some statements are timeless, as is some stupidity. In concert he trotted out one of his songs from his first album by saying, in his rusty twang, “Here’s a song George Bush requested. Well, he didn’t request it, but he’s sure been askin’ for it.” Then he sang “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore/It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war…”

I found myself wishing Prine would bring his act to the White House now and sing another one of his Vietnam War era gems, “The Great Compromise” to our current president.

“The idea I had in mind was that America was this girl you used to take to drive-in movies,” he wrote of the tune years later. “And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”

Prine’s narrator doesn’t react when his date ditches him, even though some call him a coward. “I’d druther have names thrown at me,” he sings, “than to fight for a thing that ain’t right.”

Now Obama seems to be betting on Syria agreeing to give up all their chemical weapons, a solution that Russia is pushing. (I don’t know why but when I think of our president in the company of Assad and Putin I recall Pinocchio in the company of the fox and the cat, headed off for Pleasure Island…) Until this morning, Obama seemed poised on the verge of launching Tomahawk missiles at Syria, while we were left to contemplate the meaning of the words “right” and even “fight,” in this case.  His administration is downplaying the scope and potential of any US attack – an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” Secretary of State John Kerry called it yesterday. Which is a little like the dentist saying, “You won’t feel a thing.” But the consequences of our actions can’t be predicted. Ask anyone in Iraq.

Then there’s the question of what’s right. The whole world should be condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But the whole world is not. England, France, even the Arab nations are kind of mumbling about what to do. Kerry could not name the nations who stood with the US on attacking Syria yesterday, but he assured us they were there.  This reminds me of Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”—which included such army-less states as Palau and Micronesia. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with ghosts.

Obama is clearly a rather reluctant warrior. In his speech and his body language he reminds me of the kid going to fight in the parking lot because someone called him out, marching to battle (or at least to throw a few punches and maybe get his ass kicked) when he’d rather be in chess club, or reading poetry. Consider that next move carefully, o Commander in Chief. Listen to your inner poet. Or borrow a line from Martin Buber, whose songs are still in heavy rotation in my house: “When a man has made peace with himself he will be able to make peace in the world.”

And not before.



Arrested Development

I was watching Arrested Development when my sister April called to say that they had found Pat’s body. Our older sister had gone missing a few days before and everyone feared the worst: she had tried suicide in the past, botching the job with a razor, and her house was filled with letters and packages addressed to different people. She was organized to the end; in life she often sent her Christmas presents in November and death wasn’t going to change her habits. But it wasn’t until the sheriff found her body in a hotel room that we knew she had gone through with it this time. These are the only circumstances in which suicide can be seen as a success.

Our friend Paulette was staying with us and was watching Arrested Development with me. The jury was still out on the new season of the black comedy, released online by Netflix; it seemed less agile and clever than the previous seasons and we were braced for disappointment. I took the phone call from April in the yard while Paulette sat in the living room, watching TV by herself. When I came back in I sat with her stupidly for a while, looking at the show and not knowing what to do.

Pat had been the one to call and tell me that our father had killed himself, about eight years earlier. I was working for a magazine in midtown Manhattan and Beth, the editor in the cubicle next to mine, must have picked up on the gist of the conversation—he had been sick and depressed and we had shared stories about difficult fathers—for when I stood up she stood up with me, like two puppets escaping the show. “Do you want to go outside?” she said.

I called my wife first and gave her the news; she suggested I meet her at her office and we could go home together. It was almost the end of the workday and it seemed important to beat the crowds at Grand Central. We walked up Sixth Avenue for a bit and I remember feeling lost in the canyons of buildings. Between the little cubicles and the towering skyscrapers there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put the feelings I had, no place to take the news.

I told Paulette what had happened and she said she was sorry. She knew Pat was missing, and feared the worst. She’s lost a few loved ones of her own, most recently her husband to cancer, and she doesn’t expect that much comedy anymore. But she still likes a good laugh.

Pat died on June 5th of an overdose of Nembutal, a drug I had only heard of before in the Clash song about Montgomery Clift, “The Right Profile” (“Nembutal numbs it all,” Joe Strummer mumbled darkly, “but I prefer alcohol!”). It’s illegal in the US but like most illegal things, it can be got for a price and with a little persistence. I’m starting to learn more about the suicide clubs out there online (Pat belonged to one) and wondering what to do with that knowledge. I have written about Pat’s death and its aftershocks on the site Purple Clover, and they have been great, taking whatever I hit them with. But when I finally met the editor in Venice last week I asked him if I could do anything differently in my columns.

“They could be happier,” he said, allowing that a suicide in the family really brings the conversation down. I don’t want my own development to get arrested while trying to grapple with my grief, but can’t put down the death mask quite so easily either. Two faces have I.

California Uber Alles

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around being back in my native state, more specifically: living in Palo Alto, on the Peninsula south of the city I called home for many years. It’s been fun being the social anthropologist at times, comparing habits and customs of west and east (New Yorker drivers honk and rush and won’t let you in; San Francisco drivers brake for hallucinations and potential pedestrians, as if forever making way for ducklings; Silicon Valley drivers, most in BMWs etc. don’t honk but will not let you in, either, tight grimaces on their faces say I’m an engineer at Google and we’re curing cancer!)

Last week’s Silicon Valley piece by George Packer in the New Yorker was most instructive, at times literally: I had noticed, at a railway crossing near my house, a guard was posted after the local high school got out every day; he was conspicuous in part because he was one of about four black people I have seen since I moved here. Packer reports that after a wave of suicides by stressed-out seniors, whose daddies would not forgive them getting anything less than a 4.0, the school hired someone to keep kids from throwing themselves in front of the commuter train. Seriously.

This is not an indicator of an enlightened society and Packer’s portrait of the newly minted millionaire (and billionaire) class that drive the economic engine of this area as well as SF makes for rather depressing reading. (As he drily noted when an entrepreneur touted how he could now make reservations for a restaurant as he was driving there, most of the problems being solved are those of wealthy twentysomethings.) The reaction here has been somewhat predictable, with a number of wags pointing out that they can’t link to the article because it’s behind a pay wall. And paying for content is just wrong.

True, the libertarian strain of Silicon Valley may not see the point in empathy for the under (or for that matter, middle-) classes, and in that I include most writers; and the beauty and resources of this great state have always been in danger of being bagged by the highest bidders. A lot of the people he talked to couldn’t even see why they should care about the poor, let alone Pakistan.

I had to make a trip to the bank this morning to set up an automatic transfer from our account to our landlady’s. The Chicano guy helping me marveled at how much we were paying to live in a so-so part of town and then told me his story; born and raised in Menlo Park, his parents lost their home about five years ago. The family went its separate ways, he himself lived in his car for a while. Now he lives in Fremont, on the other side of the bay, where he can afford a one-bedroom place, and with the salary he earns he is helping his parents get out of debt. Tell me, is there an app for that?

Hardin Redux

The release of the Tim Hardin tribute album, Reason to Believe, marks a sort of apogee in the renewed interest in the late, and largely unlamented, singer-songwriter. The first sign that Hardin was due for a rewrite may have come on the soundtrack to the Joe Strummer film The Future is Unwritten, which captured Joe on the radio enthusiastically introducing Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” (“I’m the family’s unowned boy/Golden curls of envied hair/Pretty girls with faces fair/See the shine in black sheep boy”). This was followed by Dave Alvin’s cover of “Don’t Make Promises” (on his excellent Guilty Women album) and new street cred for Hardin.

Hardin is probably best remembered, unfortunately, for Bobby Darin’s cover of “If I Were a Carpenter,” a huge hit in 1967. Legend has it that upon first hearing Darin’s cover in his car, Hardin pulled over on the side of the road and stomped around, Rumplestiltskin like. A temperamental fellow, Hardin was also a massive junkie, having discovered heroin while serving as a Marine in Vietnam. Perhaps a less addicted, more self-confident person would have have built on the success of a hit cover of one of his songs by touring and building a fan base, as they say today. But along with his dependency, Hardin had a massive case of stage fright. He was originally supposed to open the Woodstock festival in 1969 and the combination of “stage fright” and “half a million people” would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Richie Havens took Hardin’s place, and Hardin did ultimately grace the stage, performing a stoned but heartfelt version of “Carpenter.” While it gets muddied in Darin’s cover, which some thought was Bobby’s attempt to do Timmy, the refrain “I’m giving you my onlyness/Give me your tomorrow” is quite touching when coming from the songwriter.

The love of Hardin’s life, and inspirator of many of his tunes, was Susan Yardley who left him (more than once) when his addiction was out of control, their infant son Damion in tow. He changed her name for the 1969 concept album Suite for Susan Moore and Damion, she was clearly the man’s true north and they reunited several times when he was clean, only to fall spectacularly off the wagon each time. By now Hardin had added booze and methadone to the mix but despite the success of subsequent covers (“Lady Came from Baltimore” by Johnny Cash, “Reason to Believe” by everybody), Hardin couldn’t stay straight. He OD’d in Hollywood in 1980 at the age of 39.

With the new tribute album Hardin gets a doff of the hat from younger artists, like Okkervil River and the Phoenix Foundation, and the slightly more seasoned Mark Lanegan (former Screaming Trees). It’s his cover of “Red Balloon” that sent me back to the Hardin story. Turns out the red balloon he was singing about had been filled with skag. “Took the love light from my eyes,” the man said. Blue, blue surprise.

Just Shoot Me

I was back in NY last week to watch Mark Russell direct a short film that I wrote called Stain Removal, and to say it was a thrill doesn’t do the experience justice. “Is this weird for you?” one or two people asked — meaning I just wrote this stuff and now people are standing over there, saying my lines… Maybe the vets take it in stride; while I’ve written my share of screenplays (and other stuff), this is the first time something has actually gone before the camera and I have Mark to thank for that.

Without giving the slender plot away, Stain Removal is a sort of neo noir with a few laughs (we hope) thrown in, the product of having read too much James Cain, and taken too much acid, in my youth. It’s got a femme fatale (played by the wonderful Leslie Hendrix), a hapless hero (played by Jim McCaffrey, who in real life has plenty of hap and hip) and a mysterious stranger (Daniel Raymont, who when I saw him tried the character every which way, including with a sort of Peter Sellers Indian accent).

Most of the film was shot in a beautiful house in New Rochelle but there were a few crowd scenes, one at the Salamagundi Club in Greenwich Village, and the other on a rooftop at a post-production facility in Chelsea. At each I wanted to yell at the assembled extras, “Go home! It’s all been a terrible mistake!”

But I didn’t. After years of rejection and sometimes wondering if I actually existed when I sent stories out, having Stain Removal both selected and embraced by all the actors and crew made me feel sort of…validated. I knew it was a good story, damn it. I recalled asking a guy I once worked with what it was like to host Saturday Night Live. “It was like the birthday party I never had,” he said, and that was kind of how this felt about the movie. Time to blow out the candles.