I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.
I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine.
Leon Russell “A Song for You”
Click here: This was what it once was all about…A Song for You
And I’ll tell you another thing.
All this …
He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer.
Fucked, he says.
You don’t mean…
I do, John. It won’t last.
You mean everything?
The works, he says.
But it sounds as wherks.
The wind, the waves, the water, he says.
But it sounded as wawteh.
It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son.
Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.
And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub. Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.
And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.
The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.
But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.
And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.
Neither of which is an easy task to complete.
John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.
Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)
It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.
As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.) The language itself is exquisite and daring and
imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.
Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.
The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.
A few decades ago, I remember having to read a piece on “the sociology of clothing in the Victorian era.” The author’s intent was to show that fashion had a subtext. I remember clearly the argument about men’s hats. The thesis was that the height of a man’s hat in Victorian England was proportionate to his status on the social scale. i.e. The society toffs wore tall top hats, the navvies and farmers wore flat caps.
I thought of this again after a conversation about “bowlers.” A friend and I had just finished reading Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and were commenting on the bowler hat that the character Sabina is attached to (it reminds her of her grandfather) and which she often wears during sex.
“It’s a silly hat,” my friend said. “There is really nothing sexy about it.”
Silly or sexy? I’d state that both things are true, depending on who’s wearing it.
For Christmas this year, my young nephew gave me a tee-shirt imprinted with the text of Joyce’s Ulysses on it. The text is manipulated to depict Leopold Bloom’s mustache and bowler hat. (Though I argue that Bloom would never wear his hat tilted at such a jaunty angle.)
Now, although the book ends with Bloom’s wife repeatedly affirming her husband’s worth (“yes, yes I said yes I will Yes.”), throughout much of the novel, Bloom is a figure of ridicule. And a bowler hat only underscores that. (In truth, those who most ridicule him wear flat caps or no hats at all.)
When I was little my parents enjoyed Laurel and Hardy. (How politically incorrect we all were then: I didn’t know their names were “Laurel and Hardy” until much later. My mom had always called them “Fats and Skinny.”) They both wore bowlers, doffing them in times of embarrassment or playing with them in times of nervousness.
Now, Chaplin’s bowler represents something else. As the Little Tramp, he is at the very bottom of the social scale, and yet his dignity, manners and goodheartedness far outshine those socially above him. Perhaps, it is that chiasmus between the tramp and gentle-behavior and “gentlemen” and their boorishness that the bowler suggests. It could also simply be that the “little tramp” is wearing whatever has been tossed aside. Nevertheless, it is part of his comic ensemble. In the film Chaplin, there is a marvelous scene where Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin, first puts together his iconic “Little Tramp” costume, beginning with the hat.
But then you have the women. On the female, the bowler hat moves from an object of comedy or ridicule to something sexy, even forbidding.
It seems in every dance revue–whether a toddlers’ dance recital or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall–there is one number where the females are dressed in stockings and shorts, tux shirts and ties…and a bowler hat. The hat acts as a prop, an accessory and the dancers put them on and off, dance with them held in front or waving above their heads.
In the film Cabaret, Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli–perhaps the greatest role of her career. And while the film is certainly different than the play –and the novels from which it was drawn–it is Minnelli that people most closely associate with Cabaret and Sally Bowles. Straddling a chair, her bowler hat rakishly tilted on her head, Bowles lustily sings and performs at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin as the Third Reich begins its ascent. She–and the cabaret she works at–are the very symbols of the sexuality and decadence that the Nazi’s demonize in their rise to power, symbols of the “other” that the Nazis want to purge.
And in Minnelli’s performance, it is the bowler hat that represents this decadence–a symbol of transgression, of otherness, of living life as SHE wants it.
(Please note: I know that there have been extraordinary actresses who have taken on the role of Sally Bowles on the stage, from Julie Harris and Judi Dench to Natasha Richardson and Brooke Shields to Emma Stone and Michelle Williams. But still it is Minnelli’s film version that has the most resonance with the most people.)
Just as Sally Bowles performs her cabaret in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power, so too is Sabina creating her art as the Soviet Union crushes the Czech Spring in Milos Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Although we have moved from 1920 Berlin to 1960s Prague, the same tensions exist–the forces of love, freedom, and humanity in opposition to the bureaucratic autocracy of the State. This time the state is the USSR.
For the painter Sabina, her bowler is a sort of fetish–a memory of her grandfather and a quirk of her sexuality. It is very much a part of her. Kundera describes Sabina’s hat as such:
The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.
Thus the bowler hat has apotheosized from a mere garment and quirky accessory to something much more. And in the politically charged world of Prague in 1968, that something more is crucial to life, to a sense of independence, to a sense of identity. And on Lena Olin, who played Sabina in the 1988 film version of the book, it also looks incredibly sexy.
So whether it accompanies John Cleese’s ungainly stride within the Ministry of Silly Walks or Lena Olin steaming up scenes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one finds that the bowler fills both extremes–from the ridiculous to the erotic. That often seems to be the divide.
That is until you bring in Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And then it’s a whole different story…
In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.
And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.
So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years. And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles.
Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.
They are revealing portraits.
So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976. There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.
Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and
social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable.
Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:
It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… . I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.
The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.
Bella Abzug Carl Albert James Angleton Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin Benjamin Bailar Roger Baldwin Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown Gen. George Brown Arthur Burns George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz Joseph Califano Jimmy Carter Emanuel Celler
César Chávez Shirley Chisholm Frank Church Clark Clifford
John DeButts Thomas Eagleton W. Mark Felt Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford Thomas Gleason Katherine Graham F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway Hubert Humphrey Daniel Inouye Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones Barbara Jordan Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Henry Kissinger Richard Kleindienst Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield Eugene McCarthy George McGovern George Meany
Arnold Miller Herbert J. Miller, Jr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader Thomas “Tip” O’Neill William Paley A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan Elliot Richardson Admiral Hyman Rickover Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino Felix Rohatyn A.M.Rosenthal Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld Charles Shaffer William Simon Jules Stein
I. F. Stone Cyrus Vance George Wallace Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson Gen. Louis Wilson Leonard Woodcock Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright Andrew Young
The Other Families
Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.” His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.
It is a honest family shot of an American icon.