Get Your Red Hots!
I like Max Boot, the editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. He has impeccable taste in choosing writers for his page and is an accomplished author, with Out of Order, a scathing study of the judicial system, published last year. But Boot, like many serious journalists?Michael Kelly and James Pinkerton come to mind?just strikes out when it comes to satire. Boot writes the "de gustibus" column in the Journal's Friday weekend section, and in the last two weeks he's come up with duds. On Aug. 27, in a slap at animal rights activists, Boot imagined the future, as a grandfather, and delivered a predictably trite piece, despite the agreeable political stance. He doles out allowance to a grandchild: "Sure, honey. Here's $3,000?go see a movie. Too bad 'Porky Pig' cartoons have been outlawed. You know, currency just ain't what it used to be, either. 'Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad'? I can remember when the bills still said 'In God We Trust.'"
But that was Jonathan Swift compared to his effort from Aug. 20, in which Boot rants about how boring baseball is. Boot and George Will, the self-appointed deacon of the American pastime, actually have a lot in common. I can see them both at Camden Yards, in corporate seats, dressed in creased chinos, polo shirts and sensible shoes, chatting about Medicare and the First Amendment-busting folly of campaign finance reform between innings. But then a batter comes to the plate and Will studies his scorecard, pencil in hand, to chart the progression of an infield out, while Boot rolls his eyes and returns to the international section of The Economist.
Boot writes: "Even baseball's most ardent defenders implicitly acknowledge its somnolence. Why else is there increasing moaning about games that run an average of three hours? If those hours were diverting, who would object? Nobody ever complains about having too much ice cream, but then watching a game isn't like eating a sundae; it's more like swallowing tofu. Have you been to the ballpark lately? Neither have I. But whenever I've gone in the past, I've discovered that those in attendance were awfully busy chatting to each other, munching hot dogs, solving Fermat's last theorem?doing just about anything to avoid watching the on-field action."
Max: Ease up on the starch in your boxers. I can't think of a better diversion than having a team to root for all summer long; waking up and checking the box scores before subjecting yourself to a Times editorial or Bob Herbert op-ed column. Now that's somnolence. As regular readers know, I root for the Bosox, and have since I was seven years old. Right now, the team's in a wildcard race with the hated Blue Jays and Oakland A's; the Yanks have pretty much locked up the AL East Division. Boston's Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez might not be heroes of the magnitude of Churchill, but their performances on the field brighten up my day, and both of my sons', and that's no small pleasure.
Besides, while most sports reporters can't write worth a lick, the top of the class make for far superior reading to James Atlas, Bob Woodward or Martin Amis. For example, Tom Scocca had a scorching column in Baltimore's City Paper a few weeks ago that trashed Mark McGwire, the whitebread home run king who'll never be as fascinating a player as Babe Ruth, Bill Lee or Reggie Jackson. While Scocca does get on his high horse about steroid abuse?I don't particularly care if McGwire has 18 shots of tequila before he gets up to bat, it's his own business?he just obliterates the notion that this better-than-average slugger is in the same league as Cooperstown's immortals. Scocca told me he was shin-deep in hate mail for his "Incredible Hulk" column, and this passage is just a sample of why that is. He's telling the truth. Scocca writes: "As of Aug. 15, McGwire had hit 47 home runs this year. That puts him on the same pace as last season. By extension, it demonstrates just what a load of crap last season's accomplishment was. Nobody, in more than a century of baseball, had ever hit 70 home runs. Now this guy is in a position to do it twice in a row. That's not evidence of how great he is; it's evidence of how cheap home runs are."
I also like The Boston Globe's Michael Holley, who doesn't stint in the least in giving the home team a raft of shit. In an Aug. 18 column headlined "Yankees should be first priority," Holley says: "Since the Oakland A's and their fans aspire to be the American League's wild-card team, I have two words for them: Congratulations, guys. Some people are unrealistic about their goals, but not you. This system was created for those who dream as you do.
"And since the Red Sox and their fans have also mentioned the wild card a few times, I have some words for them as well: Yo, what's wrong with you?
"The wild card is to baseball what welfare is to the rest of the United States. If you're on it, you are certainly glad the option is available, but you don't want to be weaned on it forever."
Guess I'm guilty of complacency, too, on the wildcard front. But it doesn't look like the Sox can top the Yanks this year, at least in regular season play. Anyway, that column caused some catcalls from Oakland fans. Last Tuesday, Holley reported that a woman named Joan e-mailed him, saying, "It's soooo nice that the Red Sox have soooo many World Series trophies. How many? Let me see. Two? No. One? No. Let me guess!! None. Wow, they really have something to be proud of." Holley, who even admits the Bosox aren't his team, which is pretty cool writing in a Boston newspaper, responds: "As for the Sox, all they can do is beat up on the bad teams in front of them and hope that the A's handle the baseball the same way their fans handle history. It's been a long time, but the Sox do own some World Series titles. Five of them. The first one was in 1903. And there were even some fans there to watch it [Holley had made fun of the A's low attendance]."
Finally, after the Sox swept the Angels this past weekend, Holley wrote on Aug. 30, in a positively giddy mood: "The Red Sox should be hearing voices this morning. They spent their weekend beating up on Angels, so now they have caught the attention of the baseball gods... All of this began yesterday when the Sox beat the Motown Angels, 7-4 at Fenway Park. About an hour later, the A's lost to the White Sox and began preparing for a four-game series in Yankee Stadium. At the same time in Minneapolis, the Royals lost to the Twins and started heading east to Boston... I know [Sox manager] Jimy Williams likes to give credit to every team in the majors, but the Royals are terrible... Kansas City is the birthplace of bebop legend Charlie Parker. It is also the Midwestern land where a baseball team frequently gets bebopped upside the head... At this point, the gods are playing air guitars and yelling like thrash-metal vocalists."
Sometimes, I'm way out of touch. Last Thursday, when a rainstorm clogged up New York City, it was business as usual for me: up at 5, logging onto Drudge, waiting for MUGGER III to awake while I drank a can of Coke, chased by a bottle of Evian. It was pouring outside, that much I could figure out from the pounding I heard on the skylight above. I went downstairs to the bodega for coffee and the papers an hour later and got soaked, and realized it was a day for my duck boots rather than the Paul Stuart slippers I've been wearing all summer. (By the way, fashion intelligentsia: I've stumbled onto the next jazzy trend. Remember in the late 70s and 80s when everyone wore those $5 Chinese slippers around town? The Paul Stuart rendition is just a pricier update on the style, but far more comfortable, and surprisingly durable.)
I never watch the local tv news in the morning, so when I arrived at my usual taxi post, with the sun shining, I couldn't figure out why there were so many frantic people competing for cabs. This is odd, I thought, in an uncharacteristically relaxed mood: The rain has stopped, yet why did this blubbery hag run from out of nowhere, huffing and puffing, to snag a lit taxi that was rightfully mine? I wasn't yet in fighting mode, just perplexed to see anxious New Yorkers at every damn corner hysterically waving down drivers, only to move to another spot in hopes of better luck. A full 30 minutes later, I did get a cab, and asked the frustrated Japanese man what all the commotion was about. He told me what everyone else already knew, that the trains weren't running, the FDR Dr. had turned into a lake, the George Washington Bridge was backed up, and he wasn't making a plugged nickel lumbering up and down city streets at about 2 mph.
The next day, naturally, the dailies were full of storm coverage, none of it readable, although I managed to skim the Times' lead editorial, "The Day Rain Crippled New York." I got up to this point?"Instead, clouds like those that had merely puckered overhead all summer suddenly discharged up to four inches of rain in less than three hours"?and then stopped. I suppose there's an infrastructure problem with NYC's mass transit system, but it's not like this breakdown is even an annual occurrence.
Still, like I said, getting to work was a pain in the ass. It took a full hour from Tribeca to 8th Ave. and 29th St. and I was barely prepared for the commute: I'd already read all the dailies, my copies of The Weekly Standard and Commentary were at work, and I whipped through the current Rolling Stone before we'd even arrived at the Holland Tunnel. I'd picked up a copy of the current Voice at the deli, to skim the advertising in preparation for a sales meeting later that day, so this gave me an opportunity to actually read the paper. I don't do that often: On Tuesday afternoon, I pull up the Voice website and get my 10-minute fill. That means looking at Cynthia Cotts, to see if she's fallen another notch in credibility (the answer is almost always yes), James Ridgeway for the latest in conspiracy theories, and Nat Hentoff, if he happens to be printed that week. That's that.
But this taxi entrapment was good timing, since the Voice unveiled an updated design two weeks ago, a move that the Post absurdly headlined in a short article "Village Voice is cleaning up its act," and horrified The New York Observer's Carl Swanson, a George Will in short pants, because of the weekly's addition of an anal sex column. I happen to find the new look just swell, if only a modest noodling around with different typefaces and column headings. Editor Don Forst was quoted in the Post as saying he wanted "a cleaner, more unified, more modern look," the same mumbo-jumbo that's blurted out to a reporter when even the point-size of the classifieds real estate ads is altered. Not much else has changed, although Ted Rall's mainstream, syndicated comic strip is given more prominence, as is the tired "Tom Tomorrow" cartoon, another sloppy second that appears in scores of alternative and daily newspapers.
I navigated through the paper, stopping briefly at the letters section, but since they were about subjects in previous issues of the Voice that I hadn't read, I moved on to Michael Musto's stuck-in-1989 column. That was good for half a block, the only thing notable being a picture of actor/Henry Hyde-harasser Alec Baldwin looking thinner than he did just two weeks ago in the Post. Lynn Yaeger's an awful writer, and I'd rather look at billboards on the streets than read her "Material World." Hentoff had a decent column about Tom McGowan, the faxman who's being persecuted by WABC's Sean Hannity and Steve Malzberg, but Andrey Slivka already covered that story to my satisfaction in NYPress. I did read every word of Peter Noel's fascinating "Hillary 'Banned' in Crown Heights," a piece that details the First Lady's problems with the Hasidic community, notwithstanding her recent discovery of faux-Jewish roots. I don't often agree with Noel, and he's in need of a diligent editor, but this is a man I'd be happy to publish every week.
As luck would have it, my ride was almost over when I'd advanced to page 55 and Richard Goldstein's silly "Culturati" was staring me in the face. He was writing about Rufus Wainwright, the pop singer John Strausbaugh assures me is "so last year." Goldstein's lead paragraph is a marvelous example of why the Voice sucks so hard and why Goldstein should be sacked immediately. Brace yourself: "The Chelsea Hotel is the perfect setting for a Tennessee Williams play, with its almost accidental decor of art and ruin. Sitting in the musty lobby, you can easily imagine the Princess Kosmonopolis meeting her latest beau for hire. This museum of the famous and the fallen is the ideal habitat for Rufus Wainwright, Tennessee's closest kin in the ruffneck world of rock."
"Ruffneck"? Yes, I almost puked too, and that's why I told the driver to pull over and let me out. Homework was done: After my most lengthy Voice reading experience in at least five years, I was reassured that the beatnik paper is still exactly that, an increasingly quaint artifact of Americana, stuck in a time warp of a generation ago.
As it happens, the Voice was one of many topics Ellen Willis and I discussed in Slate's "Breakfast Table" exchange during the week of Aug. 16. (By the way, Slate is getting left behind in the Internet world. If you're an early riser, looking to log onto daily newspapers, Drudge is much faster: On Aug. 30, for example, I was able to read The Washington Post at 5 a.m. On Slate, Sunday's paper was still online. And it appears almost no one is reading the Daily News on their computers. On the same day, at 5:32, just four people had voted in their daily poll, including myself.)
In an attempt to get Ellen's goat, since she's an ex-Voice writer, I wrote: "As for the Voice, don't make the trek to Woodstock [to pick up the paper]. The design changes are minimal... No Nat Hentoff this week. I wonder if he's being phased out? The Voice never takes my advice in MUGGER, but what they need to do editorially to make it vital again is this: Bust the union, get rid of all the dead wood that's cramming its pages, reduce its staff by half, find some writers who have distinct views, and give Robert Christgau a gold watch. Perhaps you're a loyalist, but the Voice is far more dull than say, The Nation, even though the politics are roughly the same."
Willis responded: "Bust the union, indeed! I'm for unions on principle?and in practical, self-interested terms, the union was what allowed me to make some semblance of a decent living when I worked there, not to mention its role in representing a militant staff culture and defending the autonomy of writers and editors, especially in the Murdoch era?but all that aside, the union has nothing to do with the Voice's editorial problems. The Voice was much better in the '80s when the union was stronger, relatively speaking?not that it was ever really strong, but it seems totally toothless now. On the contrary, the Voice has been done in by '90s corporate culture with its emphasis on cost-cutting, its cult of efficiency, and its deep distrust of creative work because it's ultimately unquantifiable and resistant to control from the top. If a publication is built around writers with strong, individual views and identities, and people read the paper because of those writers, it gives the writers and editors a lot of power; and I think it has suited Leonard Stern's business agenda (I'm not suggesting it's a conscious conspiracy) for the Voice to stop being a writer's paper."
Willis then goes on to say that the Voice is where she "really developed as a writer and editor," and so she's not bitter, but "frustrated" at its current incarnation. She writes: "There was a time when something like the Monica Lewinsky scandal would have prompted an outpouring of debate and analysis from all angles. If something like Littleton happened, the Voice would have sent a reporter out there for a few weeks and would have had the best story on what was really going on there. And so on. Well, R.I.P."
Meanwhile, while the Voice successfully raided yuppie astrologer Rob Brezsny from NYPress, our publisher Michael O'Hara struck back and announced last week the hire of Ann Marie Collins as our paper's new Classified director. She held the same position at the Voice for the past six years.
My friend Chris Caldwell writes in "Hill of Beans" this week (p. 9) that most of the Beltway pundit class is vacationing with him in Delaware currently, filing thumbsuckers studded with cliches like "silly season" and "August story" just before reaching for another cocktail or steak from the grill. Some columnists, like the Times' William Safire, are smarter?they simply don't write anything at all until after Labor Day.
But there was plenty of political news last week. I'd been hard on The Washington Post's David Broder for several years, tired of his "on the one hand..." mushy sermons, but Bill Clinton's behavior in the past 18 months has seemed to give the veteran reporter a second wind. His Aug. 29 column, on the subject of drugs and violence in America's cities, was first class, if only for kicking his colleagues in the balls. Broder writes: "The pontificators in my world of journalism have been having a field day speculating about Texas Gov. George W. Bush's possible use of cocaine earlier in his life. They are so fascinated by the question that they have neglected the most basic obligation of our craft?finding the facts and assessing the evidence. Without any substantiation, the relentless questioning of the Republican presidential contender is nothing but harassment."
Broder's sensible position isn't good enough for Jesse Jackson. Last Friday, at a meeting with reporters, Jackson said Bush must answer the question as to whether he's ever used cocaine. "There is no place in the law for youthful indiscretion in the consumption of cocaine," Jackson said, ignoring the fact that not a single person has alleged Bush ever sniffed the drug. "Here is a rich favorite son who is now caught in a poor man's trap," Jackson continued. Hypocrisy on the reverend's part? I'd say so. After all, Jackson never insisted that Clinton must answer questions about whether he raped Juanita Broaddrick, even though she publicly accused him of that crime. Nothing like bonding over the Super Bowl and meaningful pray-uh to let things slide.
The Boston Globe ran an equally slimy editorial last Sunday on the same subject, saying, "There is no evidence that Bush used cocaine, but if he really wants to be a positive role model, he could find useful ways to come clean." Well, if there's no evidence, what is there to "come clean" about? The editorial suggests that Bush "share insights on something the public knows about: his past drinking." He has: the terrible hangover the day after his 40th birthday and the subsequent religious conversion. By now, it's the oldest story in the world and I've had my fill. Bush is correct in maintaining his silence about his "reckless" youth a generation ago. As polls bear out, the public isn't as interested as the New York Times-owned Boston Globe.
Ken Bode, the deposed moderator of PBS' Washington Week in Review, shows how out of touch he is in a Sept. 13 New Republic article about Bush's supposed drug use. He writes: "Also, in the young Bush's elite circles?Andover, Yale, Harvard?coke tended to be a social drug available at parties, where people used it in groups. So, chances are there actually were multiple witnesses." Bode, who turned 60 last March, doesn't know much about the drug culture. Bush began his undergraduate career at Yale in '64, when marijuana was only being used by hip cats who grooved to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Bush didn't fall into that category: As Democratic partisans in the press, and Marilyn Quayle, like to say, he was a "frat boy," and those dudes were square, man; they drank bourbon and beer. Cocaine didn't reach the mainstream until the 70s. That's one of the reasons I don't think Bush touched the stuff. He wasn't a pioneer.
Mickey Kaus, in a piece on his entertaining new website, kausfiles.com, agrees with my last point, but wants to put on the record that Bush "is clearly hiding something." Kaus is an intelligent writer, but he's spent too much time with Slate's Michael Kinsley, and now he wants to cause some mischief. So, ignoring the journalistic ethics that Broder advocates, he speculates: "What if it was LSD? What if it was amphetamine or?this would be too good to be true?heroin?"
Bush had the good fortune last week to be bumped off the front pages in favor of John McCain's fabulous flip-flop on abortion, when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he wouldn't support the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Taken out of context, an unintended comment, sputtered McCain's staff when the right-to-lifers huffed and puffed like the Big Bad Wolf. No skin off my nose?I'm pro-choice?but the Christian right, seeing their political clout wane as the presidential election nears, wants it to be known that they're still a force to be reckoned with. Uh, no, I don't think so.
Anyway, on the McCain front, I'm so fed up with guilty boomer journalists trotting out the Arizona Senator's "story," his heroics in Vietnam and the character that demonstrated, that even if I thought McCain was Oval Office material, which I don't, I'd look at other candidates just in protest. McCain has just released a book, Faith of My Fathers, which Lars-Erik Nelson, in last Sunday's Daily News, praised as "a harrowing account of his five years of beating, starvation and disease in North Vietnamese cells...[the] best possible reply to his Republican rivals for the nomination who try to win votes by wrapping themselves in Christianity. In prison, McCain lived?and survived because of?his Christian faith."
Bully for him.
Let's get a few facts straight. McCain, specifically because of his captivity and torture during the war, is a horrible choice for president, not only for Republicans (his tax-bloating tobacco bill is just one reason for opposition), but for all Americans. Those five years understandably dented McCain's mind, which is why he's such a hot-headed loose cannon, making inappropriate jokes and ill-considered policy proposals. That's why he's considered a "maverick" by the Beltway media elite. But do you really want a commander-in-chief who's still demonized by his wartime experience? Seems to me he'd be more apt to, in the words of Randy Newman, drop the big one than other men who weren't on the brink of death at the hands of foreign enemies.
I guess Thomas Oliphant, who serves as both a Boston Globe pundit and court jester to the Clinton White House, would think I'm daft, since McCain (who, on the off-chance he wins the GOP nomination, won't get Oliphant's vote; that's reserved for Al Gore or Bill Bradley) is The Natural. Completely behind the curve, Oliphant wrote the following drivel on Aug. 30: "If McCain were [campaigning] the shallow way like Bush, he would travel the country as the Vietnam War hero and prisoner who endured unimaginable torture, and ride the image the way Bush rides his political media status. But he doesn't; he almost never brings it up. [That's why he wrote a book about it, I guess.] It's simply there, offering him instant respect and a hearing. So, also, is his extensive record as a very tough conservative and an independent cuss with a knack for making big things happen bipartisanly?the sort of stuff presidents do."
What? Tommy Boy, your "independent cuss" hasn't made a damn thing happen. Don't you read the papers? Rat-a-tat McCain's tobacco bill failed. His campaign finance reform bill failed. Didn't your science teacher tell you never, ever, to put anything larger than a football between your ears?
I find Steve Forbes' vanity campaign more irritating daily, but even this pander bear didn't deserve the rude treatment doled out to him by Lawrence O'Donnell on the Aug. 19 edition of Hardball. O'Donnell, subbing for the vacationing Chris Matthews, is a proud Democrat?bad enough?but is also a grating television host. In reference to the New Jersey court decision about allowing gays in the Boy Scouts, O'Donnell grilled the doomed presidential candidate.
O'Donnell: "What about gays in the Boy Scouts?"
Forbes: "[I]n terms of the Boy Scouts, I think that was a wrongly decided decision. It is not a public accommodation. It will go to the Supreme Court, and I'm confident they'll overthrow that decision."
O'Donnell: "OK. But if you were joining the Boy Scouts and you had a friend or someone close to you joining the Boy Scouts at the same time who was suspected of being gay and they excluded him, or if you had someone who you thought would make a good Scoutmaster and they excluded him because they thought he was gay, would you have had some difficulty with that?"
Forbes: "One always wants to be with one's friends and to help them out. But, again, this is a decision, not for the courts, not for the government. This is a decision for a volunteer organization, the Boy Scouts. If they have certain rules and you don't like them, you don't have to be part of it."
O'Donnell: "So if the Boy Scouts had said, 'We don't want,' for example, 'your father to be a Scoutmaster or to sponsor a Boy Scout troop,' because your father, as The Economist called him, was one of America's richest and most flamboyant closet homosexuals, I mean, isn't this an awkward issue for you personally to take this position on?"
Forbes: "Lawrence, if the organization decides to have certain policies and they're not a public accommodation, they're free to do them. I don't have to agree or disagree with everything every organization does in America. This is what freedom is about. And also, too, in terms of my father, I'll remind you, Lawrence, I'm running for president, not my dead father who's been dead for 10 years. Let's play it straight, Lawrence."
I don't agree with Forbes' stance on that particular issue, but it was refreshing to see him stick it to O'Donnell, a man whose manners are more lacking than even David Bonior's.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Gram Parsons' meager catalog of country-rock recordings than myself, but his sainthood, anointed posthumously by hack pop critics like The Washington Post's Richard Harrington (who last week called Parsons the "Vincent Van Gogh" of that genre) is another matter altogether. Obviously, this is the John Lennon syndrome at work: Parsons ODed in '73, at the age of 26, after brilliant work with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris. Roger McGuinn, always the Byrds' frontman in all the group's incarnations, is unfairly neglected today, just for still being alive. But it was McGuinn who first introduced folk-rock to the Top 10 with his electric cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man"; it was McGuinn who prodded (or needled) David Crosby to produce the best work of his career, with gems like "Everybody's Been Burned," "I See You" and "Dolphin's Smile." And it was McGuinn who fully embraced Parsons' influence on the band during the Sweetheart of the Rodeo days; sure, there were intra-band squabbles and jealousies?what can you expect from kids in their early 20s who were producing music way over their heads??but the rep of the Byrds came down to McGuinn.
He's barely mentioned these days, while Parsons is now the subject of a sub-par tribute album, Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo). While Harrington and scores of other reviewers have gushed over this mediocrity, the writer most on the mark is LA Weekly's Dan Epstein, who branded the recording as "about as interesting as a TV Guide cover story." Epstein's correct: For instance, the Cowboy Junkies, who lost me after their fine rendition of "Sweet Jane," are ultra-snoozy on "Ooh Las Vegas"; Elvis Costello, who hasn't written a significant song in about 15 years, is deadly dull on "Sleepless Nights"; Gillian Welch just destroys one of Parsons' top-five efforts, "Hickory Wind"; and Wilco simply demonstrates that in '69 they'd be roadies for Poco with an awful misreading of "One Hundred Years From Now."
I was surprised to see Beck on this well-meaning travesty, but there he is, playing the upright rock citizen, the modern-day Tom Petty, by delivering a by-the-numbers performance of "Sin City," the classic Burritos song from The Gilded Palace of Sin. Buy the original recordings instead: Sweetheart's my favorite, but the Parsons-Chris Hillman collaboration on the two Burrito albums was truly influential, even if Burrito Deluxe showed Parsons' legendary restlessness. Still, on Deluxe, there's his version of the Stones' "Wild Horses," released before Sticky Fingers, in which Parsons blows away Jagger's later vocal.
It was stunning news when Parsons' death was announced. I remember hearing it from a layabout in Baltimore by the name of Barry Hoffman, who was hanging around the Johns Hopkins campus when I was a freshman there in '73. My roommate Mark Reuter and I were sitting on the quad benches, smoking a joint, when this prematurely bald, short, guitar-toting figure came up to us and out of nowhere said, with the gravest of intonations, "Gram Parsons died today." To me, this was a senseless rock 'n' roll obit with greater implications than Brian Jones (wasting away), Jimi Hendrix (heretical, I know, but he went downhill after "All Along the Watchtower"), Janis Joplin (an overrated drunk) or Jim Morrison (never surpassed the Doors' first album). It's true that Parsons might've sunk into junkie oblivion had he not overdosed, but I'll bet had he survived, he'd have pulled an Eric Clapton, cleaned up and produced a lot more memorable work.
Anyway, the three of us retreated to Mark's and my dorm room in Gilman Hall, got another guitar, smoked one more bone and walked down to St. Paul St. and Harley's, an awful regional fast-food joint that sold the most disgusting subs I've ever eaten. Cool thing was, at Harley's, which was in rapid decline, the night staff didn't really care how you behaved, mostly because they were hippies too. So the three of us, after wolfing down coldcut sandwiches and fries, opened the six-pack of tallboy Natty Bohs from Eddie's Liquors a few doors down, and began a four-hour hootenanny that featured our favorite Byrds and Burrito songs and inevitably led to half of Bob Dylan's country phase. I'm not much of a singer, but on that night, I transfixed the crowd at Harley's with mournful renditions of "Dear Landlord," "I Shall Be Released" and "I Threw It All Away."
Several years later, Barry started working for my fledgling City Paper. He had a vivid imagination and was a good writer. His only problem was getting the facts straight. One time, he handed in a scathing article on a crooked city official: really incendiary material filled with conspiracy, felonies and bribery, a piece that, if picked up by the dailies, would land this bastard in court. We were ready to run with it, but first let our lawyer take a peek. Barry was with me when the barrister questioned him line by line: "Barry, who was your source for this accusation?" "Mouse." "Okay, and who is exactly is Mr. Mouse?" said Jeffrey, growing a little frustrated. "Oh, he's this teenager I buy dope from in Wyman Park." That's the way the meeting went. After half an hour, Jeffrey asked Barry to excuse himself, and said to me and Al From Baltimore: "Are you guys nuts? Mouse? Songbird? Don't mess around with libel. All of Barry's accusations could be true, but we'd be laughed out of court. Pay closer attention, please?"
And so Barry's career with City Paper hit the skids. I haven't the foggiest where he is now, but I'll bet he's still strumming a guitar in a Baltimore park, bending the ears of some gullible students or fellow 60s burnouts. Probably listening to the Gram Parsons tribute CD on headphones, harmonizing with Emmylou Harris and rhapsodizing about the good old days. Singing the words, "It seems like this whole town's insane," and saying to himself, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, Gram always did have it right."
Birthday month finally came to an end for MUGGER III with a rooftop party last Wednesday evening, and his grownup friends from 333 bringing more Pokemon gadgets, Star Wars action figures and Beast War monsters than he could find room for in the bedroom he shares with Junior, who also got a few trinkets. Funny, as Mrs. M and I told the boys, in our youth, presents went to the birthday boy or girl and the sibling got a nice pat on the head. George and Wendy Tabb gave the kids t-shirts with their dog Scooter as the star attraction; Daddy gave his youngest son a big fat lump of coal. That was in addition, of course, to a bunch of keychains for his collection, a box of Hot Tamales, and all the Pokemon trading cards Mrs. M had bought a few days before. While John Strausbaugh and Jeff Koyen competed to see who could be the noisiest pizza eater, the boys and their friend Reuben got into swimsuits and terrorized the adults with their water guns. Mike Gentile and Tara Morris came up with the niftiest gift of all: a poster that read: "MUGGER III Rocks With the Powerpuff Girls." That might not mean much to you, but in our home, the artifact attained instant museum-status.
Sometime during the week, Junior got hooked on Beanie Babies again. Remembering the treks we took in London to find that damn Britannia doll, I was glad when he moved on to other fads like Nintendo 64's Zelda, James Bond movies, I Love Lucy reruns and Star Wars. But no: Now he sits in Mrs. M's study, which he considers his private screening room, and watches this really dumb Beanie Baby video, with a nerdy little kid talking about the value of "Clubby" in Germany and how you should always buy three Beanie Babies?one for encasing in mint condition, one for trading and the last for actually playing with. Believe me, I appreciate and applaud the capitalistic lessons of the program, but it gets old on about the 10th viewing.
On Saturday morning, the boys and I made a stop in the Balloon Saloon, a cool novelty store on W. Broadway, so they could purchase individual containers for especially rare Beanies. The fellow in charge that day, Jeff Hershkowitz, was very patient as they ran amok in the store, playing with the fake dog poop, severed arms and goofy sunglasses, even as he was trying to ship out bundles of balloons to that day's round of birthday parties. We then went for an urban adventure walk, which means they got to see their dad play Pecker, taking photos of downtown graffiti and cigarette signs, flowers in unusual settings and a few of the advertising snipes that still make Tribeca seem "funky" to clueless visitors from the Upper West Side.
Another toy that our five-year-old received was a t-ball stand, and so on Sunday we retreated to the roof to hit a few fungoes. Turns out that MUGGER III is a lefty, and he clubbed those balls off the furniture, down the stairs and into the wading pool. He got fairly upset when Junior knocked a ball over the fence; not so much because we couldn't find it, but because it was a "better" hit. Competition is a sacred word in our household, but it can be tough when the little guys don't quite understand all its implications.
Riffling through the Times' first section Friday, mostly to see if Richard Berke had distorted any of Gov. Bush's statements any further, I came across a striking full-page subscription ad for Talk, the Hearst/Miramax/Disney monthly that caused a stir a few weeks ago with an article about Hillary Clinton's theories on child abuse. The ad reads: "There's only one way to guarantee you'll never miss an issue...SUBSCRIBE TODAY." I hope Times readers who fill out the coupon or call the toll-free number have better luck than I did. When Talk finally launched a direct-mail campaign to lure potential readers some six weeks ago, I sent in the card immediately, ignoring all the happy-chat enclosed in the pitch. I read the debut issue, of course, but had to buy it on the newsstand: I still haven't received my first issue.
Tina Brown is still on her speaking, as opposed to listening, tour, and appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources with hosts Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb two weekends ago. She parried well with her interviewers, disputing Kalb's assertion that Talk is "a little of this, a little of that," by saying, "I think that the whole aim of the magazine is that people can picnic visually and intellectually." Kurtz was polite but funny as he continued the conversation by prefacing a question about Brown's well-known trait of spending lavishly on talent (at least for her journalism "stars" and "pets") by saying, "At the risk of being the skunk at your little picnic..." Brown countered, correctly, that she left Vanity Fair in terrific shape financially, and less convincingly that The New Yorker "was losing less money when I left."
But this was my favorite back-and-forth:
Kurtz: "In fact, you know, when you were at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, you kind of inherited well-oiled machines. What's the hardest thing about starting a new magazine from scratch?"
Brown: "I think the hardest thing really is the fact there is no well-oiled machine, that every single thing, from, you know, how to actually buy pencils has to be sort of thought up from scratch."
Miramax/Disney have had a dilly of a time answering that question themselves. How, dear me, does one "actually buy" a pencil?
Meanwhile, at the Talk shop, the staff grows restless, I'm assured by two discreet sources, with mini-rebellions popping up amongst the have-nots in Tina Brown's pecking order. One person told me: "It's a miserable workplace, with Tina driving her little staff as if she's got the giant staff and infrastructure of Conde Nast. And now they're trying to hire higher-priced grownups."
Moving on to other magazines, I got a real charge out of the following letter in Entertainment Weekly's Sept. 3 issue. Brent L. White, of Tucker, GA, writes: "Having read your coverage of Woodstock 99, I must ask: When did you hire my mother to write for your magazine? Kurt Loder's troubling vibes and 'bad feeling' aside, the foolish antics of a tiny percentage of kids in attendance didn't make Woodstock 99 another Altamont... Finally, before you complained about public nudity and the media exploitation of it, you ought to have thrown a wet blanket over that oiled, seminude body of Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover."
But it appears that EW's editors won't be following President Clinton's, or Bill Bennett's, recommendations to tone down the sex in their publication. In an intro to the mail section, an unnamed staffer writes: "Our cover shot of a barely dressed, oil-slicked Sarah Jessica Parker (#497, Aug. 6) sure sparked some lustful thoughts." Maxim strikes again.
And, as reported in People's Sept. 6 edition, Ike Turner sure is full of beans, suggesting that a reunion with his ex-wife Tina would cause a worldwide ruckus. Why, I imagine even Talk would devote five pages of an issue to it?maybe stop the presses if the timing was tight. In his forthcoming book Takin' Back My Name, the wifebeater writes: "'Ike and Tina back together' would make the front page of every newspaper in the world. It would be no sweat off her back... We don't even have to talk. If she don't want to see me, she don't have to see me."
In a letter to the editor in that same issue of People, Janelle Tate-Beyerlein of Kansas City heaps praise on Sen. Teddy Kennedy: "For years I've heard negative comments and snide remarks about Ted Kennedy. I hope your story will allow people to see the person and not just the political figure. You don't have to agree with his politics to respect the role he has played in the lives of the fatherless young Kennedys." I'm assuming sweet Janelle must be about 22 years old. Old Teddy is a swell uncle, I'm sure, but it ain't just his wiggy politics that've caused those "snide" remarks. There was a reason Kennedy was mute at the farcical inquisition of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas back in '91. Does Chappaquiddick ring a bell? Palm Beach? Teddy and Sen. Chris Dodd on the prowl in DC restaurants, mauling waitresses?
Finally, it's that time of the season again: my quarterly reprimand from the North Shore Agency, a phony-baloney collection outfit that tries to extort money from people who've never subscribed to Time Out New York. As I've written before, my preferred name on the TONY fake sub list is: Ross Smyth, of NY Pyss Co. and I'm warned by collection manager E.J. Sullivan that "The amount owed is important enough to our client that it be paid in full." Memo to Señor Rudy: Dude, I know you've got a lot on your plate right now, and I'm with you on keeping New York safe from a fraud like Hillary Clinton, but can't you sic just one or two hundred members of your Goon Squad on the circulation department of Time Out? Every vote counts.
Aug. 29: I was grocery shopping this Sunday a.m., had the Giant Food store all to myself, am cruising to checkout and see a magazine with the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on the cover. My Sunday morning idyll is now over. She's got an entire magazine devoted to her life?a 76-pager. Unbelievable. I'm reminded of the great line written by Joe Queenan reviewing David Crosby's 600-page autobiography: If Crosby's life merits 600 plus pages, then the life of Keith Moon or Ringo Starr would exceed the collected works of Balzac. The things that people will spend money on in this country. Why I ever felt the least bit bad about selling a $3 cup of coffee is beyond me.
You asked me what I thought was going on in the mayoral race here. It's a close three-way, with two black candidates and one white. The race will turn on how the white liberal voters in the wealthiest neighborhoods vote. The Baltimore Sun endorsed Carl Stokes, who is black, very early in the season to give his campaign a chance. He was a distant third in fundraising and was presumed to be trailing the other black candidate Lawrence Bell, who is president of the City Council. Bell's supporter's think the Sun is racist and trying to split the black vote. For some reason nobody likes this guy anymore. I've met him and thought he was a good guy. Everybody complains he's too young. He's 37 years old.
I think the Sun endorsed Stokes to try to ensure that a black was elected mayor. It's an uncomfortable situation for the daily newspaper, as a powerful, white, liberal institution, to also have a white mayor in a majority black city. Stokes has nothing to really recommend him. He seems nice enough too, although he's had some "credibility" problems. Like pretending he graduated college. And some financial difficulties. Bell has been ridiculed for spending $4300 on fancy clothes from his campaign funds. And he's had a car repossessed, etc.
I think Martin O'Malley wins because the two black candidates are both so lackluster. Stokes leads in the polls by a bit, but Bell still has a lot of dough to spend. O'Malley will get the working-class white votes, 10 or 15 percent of the black vote (he has some substantial allies in the community), and will win if he can get a majority of the upper-class white neighborhood vote. Which, of course, is where the Sun's endorsement comes in, because it is in these neighborhoods where the paper's opinion matters most. I think O'Malley wins because there's just not that much passion for or against any of the candidates. Stokes and Bell will split the black vote, even in the liberal white neighborhoods. With a total of about 25 candidates on the ballot, 35 percent of the vote could be enough to win the Democratic primary.
You also asked why Baltimore hasn't followed the trend of Los Angeles and New York thus far, and replaced an unsuccessful black mayor with a tough, businesslike mayor. That could've happened four years ago, but Kurt Schmoke played the race card blatantly, won handily and has governed the city with even less support than his previous eight years as mayor. And unfortunately, I think the time for Zero Tolerance policing?in spite of its great success?has passed. And though O'Malley and Bell endorsed the concept four years ago, I don't think we're going to see it here, no matter who gets elected, despite our obvious need for it.
Aug. 30: As for the Sept. 6 Time piece on the mayoral race, well it's a tad on the negative side about Baltimore, not quite what you'd call bullish. I only noted the one blatant mistake, David Hill Park (instead of Druid Hill Park), and I don't think that discredits the whole article. It is boilerplate, but mostly true. Near-term, there just aren't enough taxpayers left in Baltimore City to pay the bills. We have big deficits projected in the midst of the most powerful economic boom of our lifetime. Businesses are setting up shop at a much faster rate in the nearby counties; it's easier/cheaper. The death of the smokestack economy bit in the article was also dated and trite, and 25 years ago would have been accurate. Everybody's had to deal with that in one form or another. Clearly, the racial divide has been the big issue for cities like Baltimore for the last couple of decades, and it would have been better if Time had acknowledged that directly.
What an article like this doesn't reflect is the day-to-day reality of the majority of the people who live here, including me. Which is, that despite all the statistics cited and the fact that the political system in Baltimore City is broken, life here can be good. I remember visiting you in New York in the early 90s, wondering how you dealt with all the bums. You told me then you get used to them after a while. I guess it's the same thing here.
Another thing to remember is that Baltimore is one of only two cities in the country that is completely separate from a surrounding county. The picture of Baltimore City itself is grim, but what really matters is the entire metro area and it, like the rest of the country, is booming.
And on a (genuine) positive note, the emergence of a black middle class in Baltimore is really happening. They're part of the group that's leaving the city. Bad news for the city's tax base, but good news on the metro area's economic/social integration front. If the racial divide in our area can be overcome, then maybe Baltimore can tackle crime and drugs and housing, and maybe one day people with children will stay in the city. If mayoral candidate Bell's black solidarity message isn't playing well, maybe that's a good sign. He never sang that tune until he started to run for mayor. As I already wrote, I think the white candidate O'Malley will get some black votes, and if he's elected, he'll be able to work effectively with the black community.
Call me an optimist. It's going to be in the 70s here today. People in Baltimore are going to hate that Time article. Jesus, it brought out the booster in me.
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