Tuesday, December 27, 2016


   Last Fall, I holed up in an awful apartment and read a book about the poet Pushkin. A cross between the Norton Anthology and The Real Wives of St Petersburg.
   Pushkin died in a duel in 1837 when he was 37, shot by a journeymen French solider of fortune who'd been adopted by an amorous Russian step-father and who was making eyes and probably more at Pushkin's legendarily stunning wife.
   Pushkin was born in Eastern Russia, his family owned land near the Estonian border. Pskov. His great-grandfather was from Africa and had worked for and become a favorite of Peter The Great, who to the Russians is kind of like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and George Patton all wrapped up in one. Maybe add some Hannibal Lector. Peter carried a metal pike with him that the liked to impale minions with. A member of the Stroganoff family licked a sore on Peter's foot until it healed and as a reward he was given estates the size of Massachusetts.
   When I was 17, I went to Russia/ The USSR. The cab driver who took me to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg/Leningrad knew I was an American in a heartbeat. Before we'd gone 5 blocks he asked me what poetry did I know by heart?
  What poetry can you speak aloud right now!? Out loud!
   I'd had a task master of an English prof that year and for no other reason I could recite the last two pages of The Great Gatsby. Which I did. (Maybe not poetry but close.) My cabbie nodded his head in reluctant acknowledgement and then proceeded to quote Pushkin for the next 5 minutes as we dodged mountains of sludge and puddles the size of Lake Baikal on our way to the onetime home of the Czars, and then and now the Hermitage Museum. Impressive enough.
   And then he quoted the first page of both Jack London's Great White Silence and Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. In English.
   He did accept my tip.
   I live in Central Hollywood -which one can actually do in LA, live in Hollywood without ever being in "Hollywood", though most are or, like me, trying to be, "in it". For blocks in all directions I'm surrounded by Russians. Everywhere, I walk I pass them, couples, kids, grandmothers, aspirant Russian rock stars, Russian club kids, Russian landlords, a nurse shouting into her smart phone with Slavic force.
  The buildings in this part of LA, teetering on the edge of Cahuenga pass where the great vortex of the 101 freeway grinds though to the Valley, are covered in carbon soot. Satanic grey dust everywhere. This is where you end up when you quit, or where you got your first apartment when you had no idea that this was absolutely the lowest housing rung on the LA ladder and probably where you'd end up 20 years later.
   Maybe the apartment blocks here remind the Russians of the deprivations of home. Of the Old Days. The stacked, yard free, balcony free, parking free stuccoed concrete rental units of LA by way of Novosibirsk. "Satan lives." Scratched into the wall next to my laundry. Or Stalin.
   Maybe they like it here because once you own enough of these joints you can milk the miserable and the novice alike. Less a toehold in the American dream than a claw's grip on the neck.
   No hacking necessary.
   I've always been fascinated by things Russian. When I was a boy I remember watching a film in Mr D'Ambrosio's 7th grade music class about Tchaikovsky. Apparently Peter, or Piotr, couldn't stop played the piano so his parents locked it shut. In the film, in glorious technicolor with St Basil's twisting onion domes in the background young Piotr starts "playing" on the window until it shatters and the blood flows.
  I thought- I wanna be like him.
  And then all the ice, and the wolves, and the steppe and the tiaga. Such words. Versts! Who wouldn't want to travel many versts instead of a couple of miles?
  Lots of red everywhere, red red red, and more Tchaikovsky and blue eyed girls hidden in fur, they won WWII !!- what else can you want? And then I heard them sing....something about that language in song, sung by only voices, no music to accompany it, it floored me.
   I was hooked. And have been ever since.
   A shit show and an enchanted realm: Russia.
  Magnificent ideals colliding with, devolving into, horrific reality.
   From each according to his ability to each accordingly to his need until each of you goes to the gulag if you don't do what we need.
  Trotsky using violence to fight a way toward an ideal state of equity - Putin mouthing ideals to equivocate state violence.
   One hundred years this year. 1917. The Bolshevik revolution. And already the United States is honoring that milestone by electing a plutocratic Czar for president. Trump the ultimate achievement of Rove's right wing Bolsheviks. If you think I'm joking look at pictures of Karl's office. He has a bust of Lenin mounted by his bookshelves.
   I don't mean to draw too fine a parallel between Lenin and Rove. The Russian Bolsheviks actually believed in something, and fought, risking their lives to end a regime that had ground 85% of the Russian people into fertilizer for 3 centuries.
  Rove has picked up where Stalin left off - power as an ends in itself, figure out the policy later.
  Now the Trump era. However brief, but potentially ending the American experiment in its 3rd century.
  The threat of Islam? No kind sirs....the enemy is within. The fault is in us, not our stars, or in anyone else's star and crescent.
  .....anyhow....Russia.....Pushkin.....his wife's name was Natalia Goncharova...one of three sisters from an old Muscovite family, Cossack warrior traders with a history of mental instability, Natalia was said to be the most beautiful of an astonishingly beautiful trio of women. Portraits of her even in the mediocre court styles of the day give some hint of her glory.
   She and Pushkin, as most people of their class did wrote to each other frequently but while 70 some letters from him to her exist, only one from her to him, signed by her mother, survives. So we have no record what the voice of the woman that Russia's greatest poet loved to distraction sounded like..
   I wonder ...a clipped soprano, breathy and phrased like Grace Kelly's? Or an alto unexpected coming out of her mouth in waves, like Audrey Hepburn's?
   Czar Nicholas flirted with her, often enough that Pushkin was driven to belittle him in public. A poet, in mountains of debt, from no great family, insulting the Emperor of the world's largest country. Son of the man who defeated Napoleon.
   Balls of stone.
   No wonder they quote him 150 years later, taxi drivers and elevator repairmen and college students I met studying engineering who snuck us down off the Lenin Hills and into Red Square, out of their dorms, wearing their clothes, so we could watch as the last Communist, Gorbachev was instated on Lenin's tomb
   I remember it was snowing lightly and I tried to catch a flake in my mouth. My host squeezed my hand hard, "Stop. Don't let them know you're an American."


Sunday, December 11, 2016


    Sometimes I think I live in a place with no history. With no lessons learned. That we had a Great Depression, that we had a Gilded Age when men bought labor like it was shelled nuts, when children under the age of ten worked 16 hour days, and yet we enter a new Millenia and decide... none of it holds water anymore. Only the strong should survive. The weak deserve their lot. They must have done something to deserve it. 
   The most primitive, Puritanical, Calvinist nonsense imaginable and yet here we are, at the border of 2017 and we're just gonna burn the books of experience on the pyre of success, in every town square in America. 
   In China, there's a lot of history.
  15 dynasties alone. From Song to Sung to Ming to Qing, you barely scratch the surface of a stretch of human existence most Americans can’t imagine.
   "Well my mother’s family has been in Philadelphia since the 1660s"….Say that to a guy from Bejing who’s 200 generations deep and you’ll get a glimmer. 
    I'm at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA -one of the finest acronyms in the country. 
Barely lacking being an acronym of "acronym" itself - (And in a city 54% hispanic bringing to mind, Lachrymosa. The tears of Christ. Or the tears of the mother of Christ I can’t remember.)
    A school of Chinese painters in the time of Rembrandt retreated into the mountains to avoid the censors and henchman of a new emperor. They painted landscapes to memorialize their lost dynasty, their emperor and his patrons. 
   Ink. Paper. Stone. 
   The three holies. Or is it four? Yes, "And a brush."
   I look at the collection and I think this is genius, how could they draw like that? But then I walk up to the Rembrandts and think, no he’s a lot better, far more realistic, more virtuosic and then I walked back down into the Chinese gallery and read that there’s a word, "Pingdan", which doesn’t translate maybe because we’ve grown up looking at Rembrandts, but which loosely means, "matter of fact", or hum drum, or something like “ you should imagine this was done without too much labor because I don’t want you to think it’s an overwrought masterpiece I spent my life training to achieve but rather something I tossed off in an afternoon, I thought you might enjoy. No offense. ” The strokes are intentionally simple, almost amateurish. The gestures made to evoke a world unspectacular, sketched, dashed off. But transfixing in its truth.
   The truth is these men practiced the movement of their brushes, their hands, their grip and their intent like workers worked in a Steel Mill in 1891. 12 hour days. And the long shift every two weeks of 24 hours straight. They drew like violinists practicing till their necks bled. 
   But essential to their art was the sense that it not impose itself. Life was greater, the work shouldn’t embarrass the living but rather remind us of some fleeting beauty, some grace notes, the presence of the divine caught while we go about the day. 
  The Western artist builds a career on a series of greater glories, finer achievements, perfected craft, the journey of which is played out before the viewer. Genius made demonstrable. 
   The Chinese painter’s genius is in creating a masterpiece one would hesitate to say the reasons why it's a masterpiece.
   I drive across the Rankin bridge which used to cross over the Eastern end of the Homestead works, a Steel mill where the labor movement was crippled for 40 years, but also where more steel was made in one set of Western Pennsylvania structures than in the entire Ruhr Valley in WWII.
   It's a mall now, selling jobs that pay on average 8 dollars an hour unless you work at Starbucks and then you get some stock as well, some company script. There's an access road to the mall over the old train tracks that fed the mill countless cars and it often bottlenecks because the County built it on the cheap.
   I sat there of an afternoon, an afternoon like any other, matter of fact, a random hum drum day in my life itching to get going, and as I'm sitting in the car cursing the light and the first guy in line who keeps staring at his phone instead of the green, I glance over at the roadbed. There's grass, growing between the street and the fenced off car lot beyond.
    Here I am, almost to the off ramp into the mall, the stretch of flood plain below where the Pinkertons driven out of town in 1892 by the striking citizens once hid, and I notice this grass, tufts surviving in a detritus of concrete and exhaust and garbage tossed from folks like myself, but alive and bright green and drawn simply into the air as if some artist had just thrown them into being.  

Mash up

      I can't think of the name of the artist Raphael without thinking of Peter Sellars. He starred in a masterpiece called Being There back in the 80s. One of the funniest and strangest films in American history. During the credits they show clips of Sellars trying to tell a joke, play a bit, where he asks a doctor does he know a fellow named Raphael? He pronounces it, "Ra-Fai-El".
     For a number of reasons Sellars can't do the bit without bursting into laughter which ultimately kept the bit out of the movie but when seen is as funny as anything you've just seen in the film.
     So I'm reading over breakfast about Raphael, about a show in a museum in 1987, from a collection of essays by a critic supposed to be famous who I never read when he was and this one is three pages, from "The Nation", December 19th 1987.
   And while I'm reading a song comes on the radio, a 3 or 4 minute song and I'm transfixed. It grabs me by the gut like songs used to do when I was 15, 19, 24. And I think it's Paul Weller but I learn later it's Blur and I love the heavy accent and the deep tonal bass - "what have you got? Mass produced in somewhere hot", but at the same time I'm obsessed with Raphael and did I see this exhibit, did I run up to the Morgan when I tried to chase my girlfriend back into my arms that Winter in NYC and after she didn't show did I go to the gallery and try and lose myself in all that beauty? The drawings of the most influential Renaissance artist ever, the handful of drawings we know to be by him and not his pupils, how to see through all that fame and back into the genius.
  On goes Blur telling me about the 5:14 to Grinstead which is what made me think it was Weller telling me about "waking up at 6am on a cool warm morning, opening the window and breathing in petrol' because it is morning and I'm trying to get out on time for a meeting in Pittsburgh this winter of 2016 Trumplandia, but I want to finish this essay about this critic's favorite artist while Blur plays, side by side, and the language of each somehow makes the music better, a waltz of high and low, of my two complete passions: the long pondered miracle of a classic drawing and the snap shot hard reality of a city street in a song, the richness, the lust you can feel drifting by a nude drawn 5 centuries ago and the clear truth of music that works for just a night, for just a moment, for just your generation, both toe to toe in your heart, in the furnace of what makes you want to make things.
   "Talking types will let us down" the song sings and here I am talking and trying to tie a professional talker and his male muse to the evanescent climax of a pop tune which ends just as I get to the last paragraph of the essay which tells me that many of Raphael's best drawings we will never see because they exist under his paintings, studies laid down to give shape to the paint, "synopie" they're called and only a few of them remain, works from works he died before he got to. Stunning charcoal and pen and crayon miracles of shape and inspiration that the author thinks shine light on all else around them.
  But I  wonder...where is Grinstead street, and have I passed it on my few trips to London, is it even in London? Why didn't Weller write this instead of "two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude" which the first time I heard it made me drop a plate of food on a floor that some minor rock hero could have penned that when he was 20 years younger than I am now.
   I guess Raphael tells us as much. It's difficult to go back. To see thru what we've learned about what's so influential in our lives, back to when it was simply new and one voice among many that would soon fade.