Body Modification

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No, those are not tattoos, and they are neither skinheads nor football hooligans. The subjects are seven dogfaces from World War II. I don’t have a date for the picture, so I can’t tell if the shaving was done in anticipation or celebration. Here they are again in an informal grouping, looking a bit more greatest-generationish:

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Note how Mr. O looks a bit like a member of the Monks (who indeed started out as G.I.s at a base in Germany). Except for Mr. R, who looks as if he were wearing a flower or a rubber glove on his head, the others in their diverse ways are all reminiscent of Travis Bickle.

I’ve always been curious about people’s willingness to turn themselves into signboards. What purpose did those haircuts here serve? Was it limited to the photograph or photographs, or did they perform a routine at a USO-canteen pep rally? How drunk were they when they had the idea? How drunk were they when they carried it out? Did the exercise fill them with a greater sense of mission and achievement, give them a certainty of imminent victory, embolden them for greater challenges? They do look like a serious crowd. I’m sure that cheap laughs figured nowhere in their plans.

I confess that even temporary and transient forms of body modification make me queasy. Tattooing has a certain criminal allure even now, but the idea of wearing something you can’t easily take off seems so burdensome I’m still at pains to understand it as the mass phenomenon it has become. Painting your face blue and yellow to cheer on the Fighting Coalheavers, on the other hand, may only last six hours, but those are six hours you spend as, essentially, an inanimate object, no matter how much screaming and jumping you do. You have converted yourself into a part–a grommet or a nozzle or a flange.

But maybe that’s the whole idea. People–young people especially–find it burdensome to be themselves, and long for temporary escape into the world of thinghood. You are barely distinguishable from the other things all around you. You can make a spectacle of yourself with impunity, regress as violently as you wish, throw up all over the lobby and not be easily identifiable as the culprit. That wasn’t what those G.I.s were after, of course, but their haircuts were still for them a way to shed their selves and merge into a unit, a human lexeme coextensive with the idea of victory itself. If you changed their circumstances just a trifle, they would be ideal candidates for roles as suicide bombers.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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Sifting through the ashes of the twentieth century, archeologists of the future will be forced to conclude that sometime around 1961, young people (primarily guys) the world over were compelled to don matching suits, assume collective names in English (not always but often, even if their native language was something else), and wield guitars and the occasional drum, to uncertain effect. Was it a religious phenomenon? A form of mating ritual? An initiation rite? Perhaps a bit of all three. Even tiny Belgium was not immune to the craze. Here we see Paul Simul & les Blue Jets, from Fleron. Paul perhaps harbored certain grandiose ideas, or maybe he was just naturally high-spirited.

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Les Médiators, from Gives-Ben-Ahin, were remarkable in featuring the lovely Nadia, on guitar and singing! Their base rate was BF5500 for six hours (that would be about $180, sending each of them home with roughly 35 bucks in their pockets, in circa-1962 money). Although their string ties drawled “Western,” their accordion said “bien de chez nous.”

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Les Tuniques Rouges, from Verlaine, also featured an accordionist, although their leader insisted on being called “Tommy.” They, too, were working-class kids from the industrial suburbs around Liège. They, too, look irredeemably Belgian.

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The Ansambl Aleksandra Subote, by contrast, appear to have been Romanian, but their card was found in the same pile, meaning either that they were uncommonly ambitious, relentlessly touring the continent the way Nazareth would a decade later, or else that their families had emigrated to the mines and factories of the Province of Liège, which were enjoying the last glints of prosperity then.

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The Cousins (“Les Cousins”) were the superstars of this milieu, a Brussels-bred Ventures-with-vocals who just about defined Belgian rock & roll in the early 1960s, holding their own against the superstars (Johnny, Jacques, Sylvie, Les Chats Sauvages) who emanated from Paris.

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The Narval’s–addicted, like so many francophones, to the génitif saxon–boldly decided not to display their instruments, instead choosing to pose in the most modern setting they could think of: across the river from the Liège Holiday Inn. Their modernity may indeed reflect the fact that they postdated their colleagues by a few years, at least if I’m correct in assessing José’s Nehru jacket.

Such things were occurring all over the globe, from Thailand to Latvia and from Egypt to Peru, a previously unimaginable mass of youth, gyrating frantically, enthusiastically grooming, grinning and finger-popping, wiping their 45s on their sleeves, mispronouncing English words–while their grave and beaten elders shook their heads and muttered imprecations. How did this happen, and why, and how is it possible that, nearly fifty years later, a version of it persists?




If you have spent an appreciable amount of your life acting in opposition to a prevailing set of mores, you will eventually come to appreciate the importance of those mores as a point of reference. Gradually, it will occur to you that in addition to opposing that way of life, you require its presence, in various subtle ways, and not simply for the friction. Around the time you realize this, however, you will also realize the fragility of your nemesis. You once had the luxury of thinking of it as a monolithic force; it stood for a political position, an ethics, an aesthetics–and now it will turn out to be made up entirely of people. You will only be fully aware of this when those people have died out.

The bad politics, the questionable ethics, the offensive aesthetics are still all around you, only now they belong to your contemporaries and juniors. What is missing are grownups. You yourself may pay taxes, raise children, hold a job–you will still never quite embody the definition of “grownup” to yourself, because for you that idea is inextricably associated with the style of one group of people, your elders. And their style, in turn, was a complicated mass of elements arising from and contingent upon their specific time in history, its culture and technology. And try as you might, you will never be able to replicate this style, even if you decide to take it upon yourself to inhabit it in all sincerity. In your hands it will never be anything but ironic.

And anyway, you don’t really understand it. You may have immersed yourself in the period–have read the books and listened to the music and watched the movies. Still, the culture of the grownups will always remain alien to you in fundamental ways. Look at the pictures above. What is afoot is not just a matter of sharkskin suits and cocktails and Mantovani records and idiot party games. Their idea of conviviality has a core that you simply cannot penetrate. In part that is because it is a dilution of earlier notions and wishes held by them, and you are not privy to the bargaining and substitutions that led them to this pass. In part, too, it is because their culture was formed in opposition to an earlier monolith–the world of their own parents–and you have even less insight into that. It may seem that nothing in the world is ever upright. It is either leaning forward, or leaning back.

My True Story


Someday I will write the true story of my youth, but the details are so hair-curlingly bizarre that I may have to call it a novel. If I told how I was raised by capuchin monkeys in a remote canyon, and emerged at the age of six to be conscripted into labor at a blacking factory, before being recognized as a living Buddha by a breakway sect of hashishin, then made a career of winning spelling bees in languages I did not previously know, at the last of which I encountered the glamorous movie star who was my true mother, but who could not acknowledge me because of her secret and unwilling ties to the North Korean nuclear program, the codes of which remain on a chip implanted in my left armpit, which throbs exactly a week in advance of an earthquake… But no, none of these matters can be fact-checked. The media would have my hide. A tearful confession on a popular talk show is no sweat, of course, but by now they’ve amped up the amends. I would have to return the advance. Including the film options.

So I will have to call it a novel. But then no one will care. Because, you know, the imagination–bah, everybody has one of those! It is contemptibly common, the imagination. If literature were concerned with the imagination, everyone would waste their time reading books filled with lies. The point of literature is to let people step forward and tell their story, the true, unvarnished tale of their struggle to become fully human in the face of overwhelming odds. It is the one source of true beauty, this struggle. As the great captains of literature–the Defoes and the Dickenses and the Samuel Clemenses–have shown, it is only by purification in the white flame of suffering that literature is made whole. Were it not for this purification, then literature would be morally ungrounded, a freak show of no lasting purpose and with no lesson to impart. Sadly, though I have been seared by suffering as few mortals have, I will have to deprive the world of the moral refreshment only I can provide. My beautiful story will remain my tawdry secret, and the media will continue their caviling, soul-destroying ways. Alas!

Iron Men

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In Italy, in 1966 and again between 1974 and 1977, there was a shortage of coins. As a consequence, all sorts of things became legal tender: slugs, buttons, chiclets, chocolate squares, various sorts of quasi-official scrip, potatoes. Somehow, the economy did not collapse–or at least it fell no farther than it already had. Money, after all, is an imaginary substance with real effects. It has been established that if you pretend with sufficient conviction that you have money, people will treat you as if you actually do. Perhaps if you pretend with sufficient conviction that a given substance qualifies as money, it actually does.

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It has also been proven that it you attach a dollar bill to a fishing line and drag it along the sidewalk from a height, people will injure themselves and each other trying to grab hold of it. The ephemera shown above illustrate a corollary principle. The pseudo-clams–one promoted a crank running for president and the other two were phone-sex come-ons–were scattered around the streets, tucked in phone booths, left on subway benches, in full confidence that suckers would pick them up. This would not have worked had they been disguised as pork chops or mash notes.

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Or coins, for that matter, since money comes in two classes, which have been pulling in opposite directions for some time now. Coins might as well be chiclets, as far as the average American is concerned. You might try an experiment: place a dollar bill on one side of the pavement and a quantity of change totalling, say, $1.50 on the other. I’ll wager that every passing citizen without exception will aim straight for the green and totally overlook the corn. Does this imply that someday a fortune in nickels will be worth less than a thin sheaf of Washingtons?

Where I Hang My Hat


These are representative upright Nordic male citizens of Kingston, New York, in the year 1909. They are in fact–someone wrote on the back of the card–the Van Alen murder jury, although they might as well be the Ale and Quail Club. They do seem to have been put together by someone with an eye as attuned to physiognomy as Preston Sturges’s: the bearded sage, the hapless pale accountant, the man whose mustache is bigger than he is, the tall and insufferably earnest farmer, the butcher whose jacket sleeves are always too short, the malevolent elder, the town slob–and that’s just the front row.

I’ve just moved to Kingston. Well…it’s a long story, but let’s just say that while I’ve hovered in the orbit of Kingston for some time, I now am truly of the place, a homeowner on a quiet street, one of those settled in the mid-nineteenth century and given a Dutch name in honor of the oldest families. Kingston is one of those sociologically stratified towns; you can tell at a glance that the accountant might have lived on my street, while the banker would have lived one block west, the butcher one block east, and the dog barber two blocks east. Kingston has dozens and dozens of such stratifications–it is an unexpectedly vast town, with at least four and up to a dozen distinct sectors plotted along two perpendicular axes. It was once quietly prosperous, a microcosm of the United States in its early middle age. Now it’s merely quiet, and has spent the last half-century bravely trying not to crumble.

I never quite thought I’d fetch up in a place like Kingston. I was meant for the bright lights, I liked to think. But no, life has instructed me: I was meant for Kingston. It is not the bright lights. It possesses a number of railroad grade crossings, two chop suey joints preserved in amber, a bus depot, a dozen diners, some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses, giant bronze statues of Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant, an authentic-looking Dutch step-gable house that turns out to have been built in the 1920s as a hotel, patches of fairly dense woods within the city limits, a few buildings in the port section that look as if they took a wrong turn on their way to lower Manhattan in the 1880s, collections of varyingly derelict tugboats and trolley cars, two outfits that sell medieval fantasy costumes for adults, the remains of a brickworks, a large and extremely variegated array of places of worship, a model railroad club in its own dedicated building, an empty lace-curtain factory, a string of functioning shipyards, a brewery, and two competing urology clinics that believe it pays to advertise. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My Mom


I never got around to asking my mother about the circumstances under which this extraordinary object was produced, so I can only conjecture. Had I found it in a pile at a flea market I would have assumed such a confection of airbrush and hand-tinting to be a generic romance image, such as the postcards you can still find in places like Greece or Mexico that feature a young woman looking misty, with or without a sentiment printed in cursive. Judging from the hairstyle I’d guess the picture was taken within a couple of years after the end of the war. This print measures roughly 9 1/2″ by 7″ and I also have a postcard version–on which the lips have been retinted bright red–so I think it might have been a package deal offered by a photographer: one large print and from three to five cards for one low price.

My mother is in her early twenties here, still living with her parents and employed by them as maid-of-all-work as well as holding down a secretarial position with a governmental family-welfare agency. She may not yet have met my father, for all that he sometimes lives with his parents directly across the narrow street from her. Marriage and family are her only prospects, aside from the nunnery the only ones even conceivable to a young woman of her time and her class. She has little education, has principally been schooled in sewing and penmanship. She has been through war, fear, hunger, cold, flight to the south of France in 1940 accomplished in part on foot, strafings by Stukas on the road, bombs falling within yards of her family’s apartment, nighttime encounters with Wehrmacht foot patrols–yet none of this has managed to dent her innocence.

To me she is entirely enscribed in this picture: her hazily romantic dreams, her naiveté so profound it might be willed, her deeply buried intelligence, her sufferings at the hands of her family, her enclosing wall of fear, her cruel and only intermittently comforting piety, her constant depression that only fluctuated in its depth, her rigid mask of good behavior. I see a lot of myself in that face: eyebrows, mouth, maybe nose, shape of eyes. We shared many of our worst qualities. We were very close once, and then we weren’t. My failings wounded her, and my successes meant nothing to her because they occurred in a world she couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. She screamed at me and then hung up on me the last time we talked before her death. Her account in my ledger will always remain troublingly open.



No, I didn’t attend this show–it was in far-off Boston, and I had neither money nor a car. But the fact that the poster was put up somewhere in New York City for me to steal it tells you something about the reggae scene in 1979. There were relatively few Jamaican expatriates in New York then–there were considerably more in Boston, where I first heard the Wailers on the radio in 1973–but there were people in New York who would have traveled several hundred miles to catch Gregory Isaacs, the cool ruler, the lonely lover, appearing live. He certainly didn’t play NYC that I knew about in those years, and I would have known.

His voice then–at least before he “macked it to shreds,” in Robert Christgau’s phrase–was syrup and pain and swagger all at once. Like the Rastas I’d see at Isaiah’s on lower Broadway, who seemed barely awake as they hugged the walls, dancing with an occasional inflection of hip or ribcage, as if it were inadvertent, a reflex that happened to fall on the one, Gregory’s affect was languid to the point of somnolence. He was totally bedroom. There was steel just underneath, however. You knew that if you crossed him you were done for. Listening to “Poor and Clean” or “Mr. Know-It-All” or “Stranger in Your Town,” I could vividly imagine him slouching across the stage, eyes half shut, crooning into the mic as if he were asking for a glass of water, while the audience cried “Murderer! Murderer!” It was a standard Jamaican bravo of the time, but it just about summed him up.


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All photographs are ghostly to one degree or another, but silent-film stills truly belong to the realm of the uncanny. Photographs are ghostly because they are slices of the past; even pictures taken yesterday record things that no longer exist, if only the after-dinner still-life on the table. Silent movies, because of their limitations, were and are more specifically photographic than sound pictures–they could not rely on anything but the image to convey meaning. The most interesting silent movies made use of an arsenal of techniques for this purpose–double exposures, irises, split screens–that have largely disappeared from commercial cinema. In addition, silent movies relied on various pictorial and theatrical conventions that predated the motion-picture vocabulary and have since faded away.

Silent-film stills, then, are slices of heightened experience from the past, which at least potentially makes them preternaturally vivid, but they are mediated by ways of seeing and means of expression that are unfamiliar to us, making them to some degree alien. And since a still isolates one moment of a story, with the steps leading up to and away from it unknown to the viewer who hasn’t seen the movie, stills are particularly mysterious and tantalizing–more so than the average photograph, which is designed to fit its entire story within its borders. Silent-film stills at their best are vivid, alien, enigmatic, and alluring all at once. They are not simply pictures of dead people in unguessable circumstances, but views of the subconscious residue of dead minds–a whole other planet.

Today I finally saw Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921), which I’d been wanting to see for twenty or thirty years, largely on the basis of this shot. It’s a melodrama, as the credits announce immediately. The story is maybe laughable–it’s a variant of Stella Dallas: the doomed low-life mother who sacrifices herself for the future of her child. It trades on the exotic power of Spain as it then was–the exteriors were shot in Granada and Seville–although most of the movie takes place in the titular nightclub, which in many ways is the same room as every casbah hotspot you’ve ever seen in the movies, from Casablanca on back. Everything of real visual interest happens in that nightclub: looming shadows, voracious mouths, insistent headgear, expressionistic decor, and smeary distortion employed to convey drunkenness and squalor.

The shot above occurs at the very end, and when I got there I felt as though I should have guessed its context from the start: she’s dead, of course, and has now symbolically attained heaven, which is to say the real El Dorado. The lettering is the same as the nightclub’s sign, only done up in what we’re invited to see as gold. Appropriately, I feel like the man in Stephen Crane’s poem, who sees a ball of gold in the sky, goes up to investigate and finds out it’s actually mud, then comes back to earth and looks up, once again seeing a ball of gold. I have now seen the movie, which while it is a great deal more than mud is nevertheless a bit of a letdown. But the still retains its uncanny power. I could attempt to break it down: the shimmering letters, their appealing crudity, their relative size, her position relative to them, her position on the table, her makeup, her magician’s-assistant bisection, her gravity–whatever. The picture forces my rational mind to surrender. It remains a mystery, even if I can account for all of its particulars.

Coffin Nails


I quit smoking ten years ago, but before that I smoked for thirty years, starting at age 13. Like junkies and alcoholics, I’m a lifer. I quit because I was afraid of dying, but that’s about the only thing that could have made me quit, and I continue to have a deep and convoluted relationship with nicotine and the forms and guises under which it travels.

I first heard Picayunes mentioned in Frank O’Hara’s 1964 poem “The Day Lady Died.” It’s July 1959 and he’s preparing to go to Easthampton for the weekend, back when the Hamptons contained more poets and painters than rich people. He’s buying supplies and hostess gifts here and there in midtown Manhattan–recording everything in his seemingly casual diaristic way that’s really as meticulously arranged as a collage by Braque, down to the all-caps names that are after a fashion glued in–and then he sees the NEW YORK POST with her face on it. The pleasantly hectic course of the day, ticking away like a taxi meter for 25 lines, is abruptly flicked off and he’s thrown into memory. Billie Holiday has died.

He buys the Post from the tobacconist at the Ziegfeld Theater along with a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes. For years I had no idea what Picayunes were. By the time I was a teenage poet reading that poem again and again, wishing I could write like that and for that matter live like that, the New York of the poem seemed like a vision of glamour from the deep past, even though it was little more than a decade gone. I did smoke Gauloises when I could afford them, but there was no more tobacconist at the Ziegfeld and nobody I knew had ever heard of Picayunes.

Then, years later, I met George Montgomery, who had been O’Hara’s roommate at Harvard. I learned many things from him–he was a fount of every kind of lore and custom and means of appreciation. One of them was that the perfect way to end a meal was with a cup of black coffee, a piece or two of crystallized ginger, and a Picayune. He bought his at Village Cigars, at the head of Christopher Street. They were made in New Orleans, where they shared a name with the local newspaper, and they were the only American cigarette still at that time made, like Gauloises and Gitanes, from black caporal tobacco.

I didn’t visit New Orleans until many years after that, and even though I had by then quit smoking, I went off in search of Picayunes, but they were no longer manufactured. Their absence was conspicuous, because they went along with the city and its Afro-Franco-Hispano-Italo- Caribbean style, with the chicory coffee and the lagniappes and all the rest of it. It made sense that the most culturally distinct city in the lower 48 would boast a distinct local cigarette. Picayunes in their day were another symbol of the elegant separateness that would eventually provide the federal government with its excuse for sacrificing New Orleans. Anyway, nowadays local pride is reserved for team sports.