Tuesday, July 31, 2012
'A long time,' said Malcolm. 'Folk change.' He looked about him, seemed edgy. 'Another pint?'
'Thanks,' said Brian. He watched Malcolm cross to the bar, amazed at the change in him, and at meeting him at all.
'Cheers! he said, as Malcolm brought the drinks over.
'Yeah.' The voice was as cold, noncommittal, as the hard stare.
'One of those coincidences, eh? What do they call it, synchronicity?'
'You mean us bumping into each other?'
'The thing is, I was just out seeing my folks and they mentioned George. Told me what happened to your dad. I was sorry to hear about it.'
'Were you?' The look made Brian uncomfortable. It was strangely detached, analytic. 'Just the fact of it I suppose. Somebody you knew. He was, now he's not. Dead as everybody else that's ever died. History. But the truth of it is he was a pompous old get and he's no great loss. If there's anything sad about it, it's what he did with his life.' He looked at Brian again. 'So, how you been wasting yours?'
'Teaching,' he said, then as some kind of justification added, 'Housing scheme. In Edinburgh.'
'An area of multiple deprivation no doubt!'
'It is actually.'
'So you turn out dole queue material. Or cannon fodder like Eddie Logan.'
'I do what I can within the system. Helped organise the strike over wages.'
'But essentially it's just one big control mechanism. And you've been programmed to keep it going.'
'So tell me something I don't know!'
'I always thought you had possibilities.'
'Hell of a sorry if I've disappointed you.'
'The old repressive tolerance trap. Gets just about everybody. You just said it. You settle for doing what you can within the system.'
'Well that's me summed up and dismissed. What have you been doing with your life?'
'This and that. Carrying on the struggle.' Again he looked around. 'Bastards are trying to nail me.'
'It's a long story. Right now I'm out on bail. That's why Mutt and Jeff over there are keeping an eye on me.'
Brian looked across at two men in the far corner, sitting, not talking. One middleaged, grey hair cut short in a fierce crewcut, the other younger, dark.
'I wouldn't stare,' said Malcolm. 'Probably arrest you for it.'
'Are they really watching you?'
'You think I'd make it up?'
Brian didn't answer. He had no way of knowing. This stranger spouting jargon at him might well be completely paranoid, psychotic.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Oh my God, you mean Blockade Billy. Nobody’s asked me about him in years. Of course, no one asks me much of anything in here, except if I’d like to sign up for Polka Night at the K of P Hall downtown or something called Virtual Bowling. That’s right here in the Common Room. My advice to you, Mr. King—you didn’t ask for it, but I’ll give it to you—is don’t get old, and if you do, don’t let your relatives put you in a zombie hotel like this one.
It’s a funny thing, getting old. When you’re young, people always want to listen to your stories, especially if you were in pro baseball. But when you’re young, you don’t have time to tell them. Now I’ve got all the time in the world, and it seems like nobody cares about those old days. But I still like to think about them. So sure, I’ll tell you about Billy Blakely. Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest.
Baseball was different in those days. You have to remember that Blockade Billy played for the Titans only ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and the Titans are long gone. I don’t suppose New Jersey will ever have another Major League team, not with two powerhouse franchises just across the river in New York. But it was a big deal then—we were a big deal—and we played our games in a different world.
The rules were the same. Those don’t change. And the little rituals were pretty similar, too. Oh, nobody would have been allowed to wear their cap cocked to the side, or curve the brim, and your hair had to be neat and short (the way these chuckleheads wear it now, my God), but some players still crossed themselves before they stepped into the box, or drew in the dirt with the heads of their bats before taking up the stance, or jumped over the baseline when they were running out to take their positions. Nobody wanted to step on the baseline, it was considered the worst luck to do that.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
London's Burning: True Adventures on the Front Lines of Punk, 1976-1977 by Dave Thompson (Chicago Review Press 2009)
Somebody—I don’t know who, but they didn’t look impressed—pointed out Siouxsie Sioux, the dominatrix-clad queen of a gang of fashion horses known to themselves as the Bromley Contingent, über-followers of the Pistols machine, who were fast garnering as much notoriety as the band itself. Someone else nodded pityingly toward a beanstalk by the stage, leaping up and down on the spot and clearly in danger of crashing through the ceiling. Muted by the din of the band, you could lip-read their contempt nevertheless.
“Look at that idiot.”
I looked. I knew him. Bev . . . John Beverley . . . lived in Finsbury Park, close by the station where I swapped my bus ride for the tube. A total Bowie nut, which is why a mutual friend introduced us, he enjoyed nothing better than a lager-fueled argument over which of the master’s songs was the best. Neither, at the time, did I. But whereas I was willing to change my opinion, depending upon what kind of mood I was in, Bev was unyielding.
“‘We Are the Dead’?” I would suggest.
“Fuck off! ‘Rebel Rebel.’”
“‘Drive In Saturday’?”
“I said, Fuck off!” And so it would go on until Bev fucked off, usually lured away by one or other of the pimply weasels who’d renamed him Sid, but who themselves were also named John: Wardle, who was sufficiently pear-shaped to be rechristened Wobble; Gray, who was anonymous enough that his surname already suited him; and Lydon, who was now up onstage with the Pistols, flashing the teeth that first gave him his nom de guerre. Sometimes you wondered what Bev saw in them. He hated it when they called him Sid, he hated it even more when they added the surname Vicious. And it was pretty obvious that his main attraction to them was to see how many outrageous stunts they could prompt him to rush into, simply by reminding him what a “great laugh” he was, and letting his overdeveloped need for attention to take over.
But he never shrugged them off, and you saw less and less of Bev these days, and more and more of Sid Vicious. One day, a few worried friends prophesied, Bev would vanish altogether and Sid would take over completely. Tonight, for sure, Sid was in total control, bouncing up and down on the dance floor, grinning wildly at the noise that his mates were making, and utterly oblivious to the fact that whatever rhythm he was hearing in his head was inaudible to everyone else in the room. Somebody said it looked like he was riding a pogo stick. Somebody else thought it looked like fun. The next time you saw the Sex Pistols, half the audience would be doing it.
Out of the closet, onto the screen
A gay ex-policeman stands on-screen by the common where, he says, police used to take delight in terrorising the gays who meet up there at night. This was a dramatic sequence in a programme on police and homosexuals, one of seven 30-minute shows that have gone ut so far in the first series of Gay Life, on London Weekend Television. A planned second series, though, is now in some doubt due to a confrontation between the programme makers and various gay groups for whom the series was, in part, intended.
The producer, Michael Attwell, was working on a series for young blacks called Babylon when he was approached to do gay life. "Being gay myself I was asked to do it," he says, adding that it is LWT's belief that as television matures it will move into more specialist areas, with increasing airtime for minorities: "Gays in London, for example, are a large minority excluded from the media."
But he says that right from the outset they decided the series should not be "ghetto television" and wanted it to appeal to both gays and straights. "Of course you exclude from your mind the possibility of talking to that section of the community which regards homosexuality as a sin, but we wanted to get to the broad uncommitted mass of straight people."
But at the expense of the committed minority of gays?
He replies that he gay community is very divided among itself: "Some gays have said to me, 'Whatever you do, don't make the programme gay libbish.' But you also have to listen to those gays who've thought carefully about our relation as homosexuals to the rest of society. In a sense they are the intellectual vanguard of the gay community. Many of the lesbians see TV rightly as a male dominated institution. TV companies are part of the system they're fighting to change."
Pam Isherwood, who is one of twelve women in the Lesbian Line collective, which runs a phone service for lesbians, says: "I don't think they ever really worked out whether the programme was about or for gays." Pam has been closely involved in recent discussions with LWT who contacted her, along with numerous other activists, because Gay Life wanted to do a programme on lesbians in the women's movement. After lengthy negotiation the two sides came to terms. There would be an all-female crew (the electrician apart), the programme would use a female voice-over and two of the lesbians would get to see the programme in the roughcut form. Wages Due Lesbians also insisted that everyone got paid for their cooperation. "You guys are pimping on us," Pam reports them saying.
But Gay Life had second thoughts. The team decided it couldn't sacrifice its male voice-over, which was the "house style." The lesbian groups couldn't agree to a man's voice telling women's stories. Impasse. There have been calls for a boycott of the programme by different gay groups.
Pam Isherwood still hopes the programme will somehow go ahead. Lesbian Line have a lot at stake. "The last time we went on TV, a talking heads studio discussion, Gay Switchboard and Lezzy Line got 400 calls in 20 hours."
In a café over her Spanish omelette Pam talks me through the radical lesbian criticisms of the programmes. "Like the one on gay nightlife, it was just about three current stereotypes, fashion, call it what you like. First there was the queens' scene, drag in a south London pub, then there was the leather macho thing, whips and spurs in a Kings Road shop, then it was the clones."
The clones? "Yeah," she chuckles. "That's what we call the disco guys who all look the same. You know, moustache, neat little check shirt, running shoes. All terribly male." Two women at the next table stare at us.
What really offended lesbians was the programme on child custody which dealt with the question of whether gay parents encourage children to be gay. "It didn't ask, so what?" she says. "That's the straight world's biggest fear, that if queers bring up children they'll grow up queer." And because of the difficulty in getting lesbian mothers to appear on camera, Gay Life interviewed two gay male couples who had adopted children.
"There was Graham Chapman and his clone boyfriend and the boy they'd adopted, I mean he was so camp," Pam raises her voice. "Then you had the super-pig white man, successful businessman, who'd taken custody of the eight year old nephew of his Filipino lover, who only looked about ten himself . . . Then the straight barrister saying that courts were interested in secure relationships. Just because queers can't get married. What's so stable about het [heterosexual] relationships anyways?" That programme finished with a voice-over which said more or less that the courts know best in these matters.
Pam admires the courage of the gay ex-policeman, but thinks that the programme on police left too much unanswered. "I mean, there's the whole thing about cottaging [meeting people in public toilets] that they didn't ask. What is this thing about jerking off a guy and going away without ever seeing him . . . That's something about male sexuality . . . " She shakes her head and the two women on the next table try and pretend they aren't listening.
"All the programmes were too biologically determinist," she continues. "You're either born gay or born straight. The woman teacher who said she chose to be gay, that's the first time it's been brought in. I mean it's not everyone's experience to be born het or queer. I chose to be lesbian. I chose to be lesbian rather than be bisexual certainly."
Although Pam understands why the series wanted to characterise gays as normal sort of people, she disagrees with that approach. "We're not normal. We're a threat. I am a threat," she says, jabbing herself. "That's where homophobia springs from. I'm a threat to the nuclear family."
The editor of the London Minorities Unit, which also produces Skin for ethnic minorities, is Jane Hewland. A feminist, a single mother, she regrets the clash with the lesbian groups, but feels her critics didn't really understand the problems the unit had putting programmes together. Two lesbian couples they'd hoped to film for the custody programme dropped out, one at the very last minute. Gay Life also researched a complete story on lesbians in the army, but then had to junk it after the army lesbians decided they couldn't go before the cameras.
The programmes anyway have had a good response, she says, with over 100 letters and lots of phone calls, and she's pleased that Gay Life has twice as many viewers as Weekend World, LWT's prestige (big-budget) current affairs show fronted by the ex-MP, Brian Walden: "We usually get a five or six rating. Weekend World gets a two or three." (One rating point means you reach 44,000 homes.)
Gay Life has also done well on the "audience appreciation indices," which gathers statistics on how people watch programmes, recording the percentage levels of approval. "Normally the audience appreciation indices is in the 50s and 60s," Jane says. "With gay life it's in the 70s."
It was in 1970 I first heard the word "sexist." Now you can look up its meaning in Collins English Dictionary. Today's extremists are tomorrow's cultural innovators. Have you see those lapel badges which say, "How dare you assume I'm heterosexual?"
27 March 1980
Monday, July 23, 2012
Friday, July 20, 2012
"Something's coming," said Annie.
It was Rimshot's pink Caddy, slipping and sliding through the light new snow, with a smiling Dane at the wheel.
It was Merry, with a New York Times.
It was spring in the south of the planet. Robben Island, South Africa's Devil's Island, had been attacked at dawn by masked commandos in speedboats: three sleek twenty-seven foot "cigarettes," approaching from both the north and west. Whispering in French and shouting in Russian, the commandos had overpowered the guards and loaded all the prisoners onto a waiting submarine while two Tupolev Badgers circled at a thousand meters, providing unnecessary air cover.
One Boer and one Coloured guard played hero. Both were killed in the ensuing gun battle on the stony west beach; one Cuban "adviser" and two Congolese commandos were wounded, and one speedboat was disabled. When it was IDed as a Baikal the South African government had issued a formal complaint to the United Nations, backed by Israel and the US.
Meanwhile Nelson Mandela and several of his comrades were welcomed in Kinshasa by the Congolese president, Patrice Lumumba.
"There's your new world, said Lowell. "The Russians are Bolsheviks again. Since the coup."
"Of course they deny they are even involved," said Merry.
"Of course," said Lowell. "Everyone always denies they are involved in everything."
"You both oughta know," said Dove, glaring down at Lowell and Merry.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Raylan Givens was holding a federal warrant to serve on a man in the marijuana trade known as Angel Arenas, forty-seven, born in the U.S. but 100 percent of him Hispanic.
"I met him," Raylan said, "the time I was on court duty in Miami and he was up for selling khat. That Arab plant you chew on and get high."
"Just medium high," Rachel Brooks said, in the front seat of the SUV, Raylan driving, early morning sun showing behind them. "Khat's just catching on, grown in California, big in San Diego among real Africans.
"You buy any, you want to know it was picked that morning," Raylan said, "It gives you a high for the day and that's it."
"I have some friends," Rachel said, "like to chew it now and then. They never get silly, have fun with it. They just seem to mellow out."
"Get dreamy," Raylan said.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Ironically, the two stand-out tracks on the record were the sparsest, the ones that mostly steered clear of sonic gimmicks. 'Pills and Soap' was a stark, stabbing piano track based on Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message', rush-released as a single in May on Elvis's own IMP label and then supposedly deleted - in actual fact, it never was - on the eve of the 1983 general election. Loosely inspired by a film about the abuse of animals which had made Elvis turn vegetarian, it hid a scabarous - if obscure - political viewpoint beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, 'Shipbuilding' stood up against the very best of his recorded output. While always conceding that Robert Wyatt's version was the original, Elvis liked the song so much he wanted it to be heard by the widest number of people possible. To make his version even more distinctive, he visualised a trumpet solo on the track.
Chet Baker wasn't the first choice. Langer recalls that Wynton Marsalis was discussed but wasn't in the country, while a typically undaunted Elvis had Miles Davis as his original first pick, but it so happened that Baker was in London in May playing a residency at The Canteen. His melancholy, melodic trumpet sound and remarkable good looks had made him a 1950's poster boy, but he had since descended into a grim cycle of cocaine and heroin addiction which gripped him until his death in 1988.
By his own admission, Baker had never heard of Elvis Costello, but when Elvis sounded him out at The Canteen, he quickly agreed to play for scale. 'It was a cash deal,' recalled Elvis. 'He just came in; it may well have been the next day.' Elvis offered to double the jazzman's standard union fee, and few could doubt he was worth every penny.
'One of the best things we ever did was 'Shipbuilding',' recalls Bruce Thomas, still moved by the experience many years on. 'That was probably one of the musical high points. Chet Baker, this wizened corpse on death's door, strung out, just played. He followed this bass line and played his solo, so simple, with so much soul in it. It really touched me. It was one of those things that really made me think about how you judge people.'
While Langer concurs that Baker's final contribution as heard on the record was inspirational, he remembers the session being a tough one. 'We recorded the track live, but he kept blowing bum notes when we got to his solo. He was going, "This isn't jazz!" so he couldn't quite get it. That solo is three whole takes - the band as well - edited together, to get it to work. He was pretty spaced out.'
Friday, July 13, 2012
Discontent in Swindon
Everyone else ran for shelter from the driving rain, but William just stood there on the end of platform 1 and pointed away to the sites of the old saw-mill, the eight platforms, the sidings, where the Swindon works once produced and repaired all rolling stock for the Great Western Railway.
"But now we ain't got such a thing as that. Now there's just two sidings and a bay," he said, staring across the tracks at the redbrick offices of Hambro Life, which have dominated Swindon station since it was modernised in 1972.
A railman for 30 years, William was a driver till steam engines were taken out of service. "I came off the footplate then. I said: that's it, it's no good to me," he said, walking back up the platform to the station buffet, waving at a workmate cycling home.
After he jacked in driving, William became a patrolman, going down the line looking for faults, he said over a pint of lager in the buffet bar, swearing whenever the station announcer's voice over the PA invaded his reminiscences.
Now, at 59, William is a "green card man." He pulled out the plastic-coated bill of bad health which has confined him to light cleaning work, and which has made him too embarrassed to talk about his current occupation. He'd rather remember how it was: he was young and string and all Britain travelled by train.
Across the leatherette and formica, in the corner of the buffet, two girls whooped and danced before the one-armed bandit spewing out tokens. William pulled a silver timepiece from his breast pocket. He started at seven this morning. He'll clock off at four. He works every weekend. "But some of them's going to be cut out," he said, getting down from the bar stool and pulling a nylon waterproof over his faded denim worksuit.
Will he be supporting the strike scheduled to go ahead on 31 August? Of course he will. "How would you like to get up at two in the morning to go out mending track?"
Before leaving the buffet William plucked a tiny diary out of his picket, thumbed through the pages. "Here it is," he said. "31 December, 1951. That's the day I started." Why did he want to remind himself, every year, of the day he started working on the railways? He just shrugged, walked out.
Another HST swept through the station at just gone 1.30 pm. Sitting on a platform bench, two teenage train-spotters complained it had been a lean day. Further up the platform, in the railmen's locker room, the main talking point was the tragedy of the old couple who would have won £700,000 if the coupon collector had sent off their entry.
Cyril and John, Swindon's two longest serving porters, were waiting to be relieved by the afternoon shift. A few weeks ago, Cyril said, there was a stupid article in the Daily Mail which claimed that porters earned £5,000 a year. "That's a hundred quid a week isn't it?" he said. "You won't find any porters here on that. You'd have to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. And there's not the overtime in these small places."
Every other Sunday, Cyril gets in three hours' overtime, that's all. And John, he doesn't bother with the overtime, his wife likes him home Sundays, so he makes do with £48.50 a week. Wouldn't that get bumped up a bit with the tips? "Can't remember when I had my last," he replied.
"Tips are a thing of the past," explained Cyril. "All right, Roy?"
Another porter has just walked in, his blue shirt wet through. Roy said it was embarrassing, anyway, to be offered money, especially by people who he thought couldn't afford it. "Sometimes though, you can offend them if you refuse it . . . tips are embarrassing all round, I think."
Cyril and John, who both started working here in 1946, nodded in agreement. The Bristol train was running late, said the station announcer. All eyes jumped to the clock.
A poster pinned next to the NUR notice board explained how to lift heavy loads, "the modern way," without straining your back. Sitting down at the table strewn with empty mugs, Roy said he'd only been portering a year, but he much preferred it to his last job, which was in security, patrolling an empty factory at night.
"The railways must have something," he said. "For many blokes it was their first job, and they've been here 40 years . . . Nothing makes you happy like helping someone else. Even if you only think you are being a help, it's a great boost to the morale."
The thing that rankles, for all three porters, is the money. Not because they're greedy men, as the leader writers, who make in a day what porters make in a week, will suggest. But because they feel they've been taken for a ride, their goodwill sucked dry. Angry that strings were attached to the 11 per cent settlement, all three will support a strike.
"Definitely," said Cyril, who can still remember the last national rail strike. It was in 1926, when he was 14.
Everyone said hello to the teenage boy stashing his crash helmet and waterproofs in a locker. Time for Cyril and John to knock off. The whole station shuddered as another HST went hurtling by. Flinging open the door, the head porter, Ray, marched in and tore off his mac. He didn't look too happy.
"More storm on the way," he said, going on to explain that every time he had to take a parcel over the track to the Red Star office he got wet, that there were two lifts to go up and down, and that the lifts were always getting stuck. "People don't realise," he said, shaking his head.
What makes Ray laugh, he said, is that the press always talk to the railmen in London, who are on a higher grade due to the London weighting. Ray himself is on a higher grade than the other Swindon porters, but it's only worth a few quid a week extra. "Waste of time," he said, pulling out his pay slip for the week: £87.88 gross. £61 net. "And I worked the day of the royal wedding that week."
He didn't agree with the wedding. He'd heard that the grub alone cost a million. His mate, Jack, added that it was murder at the station the day Prince Michael came through. "Do this, do that. Clean this, clean that. We couldn't find the bloody red carpet," he said. "Bet the bugger doesn't pay for his first class fare either."
Jack looked at his watch and said that this time next week he'd be in Inverness, having caught the 7.37 from Swindon. "Don't go on strike till I've got the train back, for fuck's sake," he smiled.
Stroking his luxuriant sideburns, the head porter, Ray, ignored the joke. He wanted to pursue his them of low pay on the railways. It all went back to the war, he said. "So many had to go into the army and some had to stay back. Those that stayed back done all the hours in creation. They didn't bother about the rates. After the war everyone else in the factory got pay rises, but not on the railways: stick-in-the-muds."
When Ray started here at the age of 14, there was just one clerk and one stationmaster. Now, he said, there's a whole army of clerks and administrators. The other main problem, he thought, was that the Conservatives were set on destroying the nationalised industries. "Why else are they closing all them gas showrooms? Course, we're only a cog in the wheel," he said, pulling on his coat to take another parcel over the way to Red Star.
The station postman, a Tamla Motown fan called Gary, wearing a grey sweatshirt, sta-prest trousers and black Dr Martens, walked in carrying five cherry bakewells and mince tarts in cardboard boxes. It was his 19th birthday, he announced. Everyone sat down for tea.
Roy said it was only the postman who could afford to buy cakes, in this day and age. Marcus, the youngest porter here, said he was happy just to have a job. He'd been on the dole two years after he left school. Roy poured the tea from the big metal pot.
"I have a school-teacher friend, and he said that the thing that most upset him was that he was teaching children who would never work. That's the biggest problem, far as I can see," said Roy.
After tea a shunter, Chris, ran into the locker room , swearing about the rain. He pulled on his yellow leggings, slipped the arms of his donkey jacket through a dayglo orange jerkin. "I'm one of those silly buggers that gets underneath and does all the dirty work," he says.
His work, coupling and uncoupling trains, can be dangerous, too. Four years ago in Swindon a shunter was killed, squashed between two buffers. Shunters need their wits about them, he said. If you're trapped on the track with a train coming down you can survive by lying flat down.
"In the middle lane (main line) you can, providing they're not HSTS. With the HST you just get sucked up anyway. But with the BGS and the GUVS, they'll clear you with a few inches to spare," he said.
On a flat week Chris takes home £58. "Usually I get a Sunday in, so I average about £70," he said. "As firms go, it's a brilliant firm to work for. They do look after you. We've got our own welfare people, if anyone's in a spot of bother." He walked out to lie under trains.
As I left the locker-room, someone shouted after me. "What are you going to call it? Discontent in Swindon?"
13 August 1981
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Monty locks the door of the small bathroom and sits on the closed toilet seat. Someone has written Fuck you in silver marker above the roll of toilet paper. Sure, he thinks. And fuck you too. Fuck everyone. The French hostess, the diners drinking wine, the waiters taking orders. Fuck this city and everyone in it. The panhandlers, grinning on the street corners, begging for change. The turbaned Sikhs and unwashed Pakistanis racing their yellow cabs down the avenues. The Chelsea faggots with their waxed chests and pumped-up biceps. Fuck them all. The Korean grocers with their pyramid of overpriced fruit, their plastic-wrapped tulips and roses. The white-robed Nigerians selling counterfeit Gucci on Fifth Avenue. The Russians in Brighton Beach, drinking their tea from glasses, sugar cubes clenched between their teeth. Fuck them. The black-hatted Hasidim in their dirty gaberdine suits, selling diamonds on 47th Street, counting their money while they wait for Meshiach. The sidewalk gimps, bodies crooked and spastic. The Wall Street brokers, smug and cologned, reading their folded papers in subway cars. Fuck them all. The skateboard punks in Washington Square Park, wallet chains rattling as they leap the curb. The Puerto Ricans, flags flying and radios howling from the open windows of their cars. The Bensonhurst Italians pomading their hair, with their nylon warm-up suits and St. Anthony medallions. The Upper East Side wives, with their pinched mouths and lifted faces, with their scarves from Hermès and their artichokes from Balducci's. Fuck the uptown brothers, they never pass the ball, they don't play defense, they take four steps on every drive to the hoop. Fuck the prep school junkies, smoking tar in Daddy's kitchen while the old man jets to Tokyo. Fuck the police, the bullyboys in blue with their thick-necked swagger, zooming through red lights on their way to Krispy Kreme. Fuck the Knicks - Patrick Ewing and his blown finger roll against Indiana, Charles Smith and his failed layups against Chicago, John Starks and his thousand missed shots against Houston - fuck them, they'll never beat Jordan, they will never beat Jordan. Fuck Jakob Elinsky, that whining runt. Fuck Frank Slattery, always staring at my girlfriend's ass. Fuck Naturelle Rosario, set free tomorrow when I'm gone. Fuck Kostya Novotny; I trusted him and he dimed me out. Fuck my father, alone in his darkroom, hanging wet prints from a line. Fuck my mother, rotting below the snow. Fuck Jesus Christ, he got off easy, an afternoon on the cross, a weekend in hell, and then the hallelujahs of all the legioned angels. Fuck this city and everyone in it - from the row houses of Astoria to the duplexes of Park Avenue, from the projects in Brownsville to the lofts in Soho, from Bellevue Hospital to the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park Slope - let the Arabs bomb it all to rubble; let the waters rise and submerge the whole rat-crazed place; let an earthquake tumble the tall buildings; let the fires reign uncontested; let it burn, let it burn. And fuck you, Montgomery Brogan, you blew it.
Someone is banging on the bathroom door and Monty stands, walks over to the sink, and washes his hands. He stares at his face in the mirror. For all the good it did you, he thinks. Green eyes, high cheekbones, straight nose, perfect white teeth. Pretty white boy. Eyes, bones, nose, teeth. More banging on the door. And Monty knows what he has to do. "Fuck it," he whispers, and waves goodbye to the face in the mirror.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Friday, July 06, 2012
Miranda, get your stuff!
Mole is sitting on the cot that won’t be his much longer, waiting to hear those words he’s dreamt about every single one of the one thousand four hundred and sixty-one nights he’s spent in that cell block. Now that the moment has arrived it feels unreal, and he’s afraid. Inside, you know when you’ve got to be on guard, when you might be attacked. Outside, you never know where it might be coming from, or what might go wrong. Chance is a bank robber’s worst enemy.
An air of mourning hangs over the Devoto Prison cell block. It’s always like that when a popular prisoner is released – wonderful, yes, but, on this side of the bars, not as cheerful as one might imagine. Prison promotes criminal behaviour, but it also leaves you numb. The same routine, day in and day out, slows down the reflexes, clouds the understanding, and, at the same time, provokes anger. Experienced criminals know how risky it is to go right back into action. It’s all too common for an ex-con to end up dead shortly after getting out.
Mole is a rich inmate. He is guaranteed a supply of goods and money from the outside. If you’ve got money, you can get virtually anything you need in prison. Miranda knows how to mete out his generosity; he shares his wealth only with the cell block’s leader, The Prick. He lets him carry out the distribution however he sees fit and take credit for it. Everyone knows where the goods are coming from, but Mole would never tell. Discretion is a cardinal virtue among prisoners. That’s how you garner respect. The Prick protects him and lets him have his very own prison bitch. If you’ve got a little smarts and you command a lot of respect, you can stay out of trouble, mostly. Anyway, riots are the most dangerous. That’s when anything can happen, but the chances of getting killed during a riot are probably not much different from those of getting run over by a bus or having a flowerpot fall on your head.
In a few short minutes those words will echo down the corridor: Miranda, get your stuff! Then he will begin the four hundred-yard trek that separates him from the street. He’ll stand up, pick up his bag – already packed – and walk down the aisle between the two rows of beds, without looking at or talking to anybody. Whatever he’s not taking with him has already been given away: this is the legacy he leaves. A few hours earlier he said goodbye to everyone he had to say goodbye to. Since then, he’s been slowly turning into a ghost. When you leave, you become the object of envy; when you walk out that door, you are the embodiment of everyone’s desire. That’s why you don’t leave the goodbyes till the last moment.
In the bed next to his, Andrés, who’s been his bitch for a while, is lying face down, stifling the cries that press on his throat like a tie tied too tightly around his neck. Andrés loves Mole, but the sorrow he feels is not only of lost love. Miranda was good and generous to him, he always treated him considerately, he never hit him or gave him to others. A lot of guys on the block want him, but nobody ever dared. He’s a green-eyed blond from Corrientes province, a guy who looks a lot like a girl. He’s got all the mannerisms of a young lady, he cooks like a dream and he refers to himself as a “she” in a sweet Guarani accent. He’s been inside since he was eighteen. His mother died when he was eleven, and the guy who claimed to be his father started taking advantage of him right away. One night, while the man was sleeping, Andrés tied his arms and legs to the bedposts and woke him up. He cut his penis off at the base and sat there watching him bleed to death. Then he turned himself in to the cops. At the trial, his lawyer – appointed by the court to defend the poor and the dispossessed – was too poor and too dispossessed and took the easy way out: he had him sign a confession, dictated to and written down with a large dose of animosity by the faggot-hating clerk at the police station. Nor did he bother to appeal the verdict that found Andrés guilty of first-degree murder or the sentence of life imprisonment. Miranda bought him from someone named Villar. After the transaction, Miranda made sure – without anybody finding out – that the seller got moved to a different block, just in case. A little later Villar got sick and died. Word had it that pancreatic cancer did him in.
Now Andrés is crying silently. He knows that as soon as Mole walks out that door, there will be a struggle over who gets him next. Two or three candidates are in the running, none of whom he likes. The future holds grief and suffering. Miranda tried to get involved, but The Prick advised him to keep his own counsel, to let things take their own course. He’s not a man to ignore good advice and, anyway: Who wants trouble when you’re about to get out, right? They said goodbye in a hidden corner of the prison yard. For the first and only time, Miranda let Andrés kiss him quickly on the lips… But no tongue action, okay… and that was the only time Andrés said to him: I love you and I’m going to miss you. Aw, man, don’t go there. Miranda patted him on his head as if he were forgiving a naughty little boy then turned his back on him. Andrés stood there for a long time watching him through the bars. Andrés’s whole body was shaking, anticipating his absence. The night before is always worse than the execution, dying much worse than death.
Bobby Muller is still around - and still fighting - but the cautious optimism contained within the piece from 1979 was sadly misplaced.
America's angry heroes
On 29 April 1969, Bobby Muller led a battalion of South Vietnamese soldiers up a hill defended by a suicide squad left behind by the Vietcong. When the South Vietnamese came under fire, they ran, as they always did. Bobby was blown four feet up in the air. A bullet through his chest severed the spinal cord on its way out.
Ten years later, Bobby leans forward in his wheelchair to speak into the microphone. "The majority of people consider the Vietnamese veteran to be a sucker for having served. Veterans returned from the war and never discussed it. The idea went that GIs were crazed psychopaths, drug addicts, or whatever. So if you're socially polite, you don't bring up Vietnam."
This is the Sherry Henry Show on New York's WOR Radio, going out live. Bobby Muller, the main spokesman for the Vietnam veterans, is telling Sherry Henry what he has told many TV, radio and newspaper journalists recently. That one quarter of the three million who served in Vietnam suffer from psychological disorders which make it impossible for them to live normally, that one quarter of all married GIs got divorced in the first year they were home and that half of all the disabled veterans are unemployed. Worst of all, psychologists report, the returned soldiers just couldn't talk about Vietnam. How do you explain over a few beers how, and why, you killed people with an M16? Especially when everyone knows the war was a mistake?
President Carter not long ago designated a specific week to be "Veterans Week." At last, people are talking about the war, says Bobby, but he wants to see more action. He lists the Vietnam veterans' demands: an employment assistance programme, additional health care, an extension of the time limit on the GI bill granting veterans a college education.
After Bobby's injury in 1969, he was a prime mover in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement. Before that, he was a high school athlete turned business student who was told future employers would want to see military experience on his curriculum vitae. "I was very gung ho in the career track and, if you'd been in the Marines, especially with combat experience, it's like a brotherhood down in Wall Street."
Bobby went into the Marines in 1967. He was told that infantry was the place to be as an officer, "to be put in a direct management and leadership role." So that's where he went. At first, he had no particular enthusiasm for the cause, but his military training changed all that" "You gotta picture this. You got a big parade deck with these very big impressive drill instructors up front. 'What is the code of the bayonet?' They holler, 'Kill.' 'Who do we kill?' 'Luke the gook.' 'Who do we kill?' 'Link the chink.' It really got you excited. At the end of the whole thing, I was quite an aggressive guy who was eager to go to Vietnam, repel communist invading forces and preserve liberty and freedom and democracy for the people of the south."
The problems for Bobby started when he went into the refugee camps in the northern part of Vietnam. "That was a very confusing period. All the people I had gone over there for, with this vision of being a saviour, looked at me with fear and suspicion. What the hell's going on here?"
Also, the three South Vietnamese battalions that Bobby was adviser to had a poor appetite for the war. And on 29 April 1969, the reluctant South Vietnamese soldiers were Bobby Muller's undoing.
"I had 500 South Vietnamese soldiers. I had ten US Marine tanks and I had a hilltop that I had to take which was being defended by a Vietcong suicide squad. I spent all day with heavy artillery pounding the hill, jet strikes pounding the hill. Every time the South Vietnamese would go up, they'd take sporadic fire and fall back. End of the day I got this colonel. He was saying, 'Take that hill. Take it. Take it." He was really jumping on my case.
"I got the tank commander and said, "Give me three tanks. We'll walk these guys up, walk the Vietnamese up. I led the assault, tried to get the Vietnamese to come up. They split. I caught a bullet."
Because American lives were saved in Vietnam which could have been lost in other wars, it placed a stress on the hospitals which the administration was unable (or unwilling) to deal with. Bobby first got involved in agitating on behalf of the veterans when his hospital was on the cover of Life magazine:
"It was a symbol of the conditions vets had to come home to. There were pictures of rats and overcrowding and filth. At the same time, Nixon was vetoing legislation that provided money for vets, on the grounds that it was fiscally irresponsible and inflationary. I was on all the networked news shows round the country by virtue of saying: 'Look, as an infantry officer in Vietnam, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars many times over in air strikes and artillery in order to kill people. And now we're talking about a few dollars to provide additional staff in the clinics, some parallel bars, graduated steps, new wheelchairs and not the antiquated stuff that'd been there. C'mon, who are kidding?'"
Bobby Muller is 33, the average age of Vietnam veterans. He came of age, he says, with the words of John Kennedy. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country." And also with the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King (correspondents recorded how his assassination had more impact on GIs out in Vietnam than any other news from home before that), drugs, rock 'n' roll and the sexual revolutions of the sixties. The young Americans who went to Vietnam were not so different from those who didn't. But when the GIs came home they were rejected by their friends.
Bobby, like others in the veterans movement, is not interested in sympathy. In the short term he wants jobs and health care but in the long term he sees the veterans as being a powerful political force. Apart from the three million who served in Vietnam there are another six million who are called "Vietnam era veterans," who were in the army sometime between August 1964 to May 1975. Those nine million, Bobby believes, will be the basis of a political movement which, through Vietnam, will pose questions like: "How has Vietnam affected our foreign policy? Do we have a foreign policy?"
I point out to him that some people believe caring about America to be a dangerous activity, a precursor of the kind of flag-waving which sends armies into foreign territories. I say that I can't take the bit at the end of the Deer Hunter where the group mourning the loss of their friend start singing God Bless America.
"You know what my impression was with that scene?" says Bobby. "And this is one of the reasons I thought it was an OK movie. Here you have real down-and-out poor slobs. Working class hard-life steel town Pennsylvania. It's a rough existence. These people, with the incredible pain of having to bury the kid who went to Vietnam, how are they going to deal with the anguish? Other than to say, I guess that's the price we've got to pay," and here Bobby mimics a Voice of America broadcaster, "to keep America free."
13 December 1979
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Think of all the great music that's been made under the influence of (some) drugs. Now subtract from that all the self-indulgent wankish follow ups albums that have been made whilst your once favourite group were nose-deep in Bolivian marching powder. Gutting, isn't it?
A snow job
"Never buy coke off a man with no nose." Joe chuckles at this one-liner delivered from the stage at the Alternative Cabaret in the backroom of the Pegasus, in north London. He started snorting cocaine about two years ago, when it cost £30 a gram. Now it's around £60 and he's heard of it going up to £80 soon. "You can work and still feel OK on it," says Joe, a sociologist, aged 29, who gets through about a gram a month. "It's a soft drug as far as I'm concerned."
This alkaloid cocaine was first isolated from the coca leaf, chewed by South American Indians since at least the 6th century, in 1857. Freud commended its therapeutic value in 1884, the year cocaine was introduced into ophthalmology as a local anaesthetic. Dr Conan Doyle, an eye specialist, began placing references to Sherlock Holmes's cocaine habit as early as 1886. James Joyce was taking cocaine as a pain reliever when he revised the final chapter of Ulysses in July 1921. A chic drug in the 1920s and 1930s, the white powder is once again back in fashion. What's the attraction?
"You're not looking for an alternative state of consciousness," replies Joe. "It makes things clear and it puts you in a good mood, but without the depressive effects of dope or amphetamines. And whereas with alcohol you're going to become more blurred in your speech and thought, with coke you become clearer. I like that sense of control. But it won't give you a great uplift in itself. You can't be in some state of depression and expect to get out of it. It doesn't work with snow (cocaine)."
Joe also admits to enjoying the ritual: taking the cocaine out the fridge, spending about five minutes chopping it up with a razor blade on a small mirror to make it very fine, arranging it into neat lines and then snorting, usually through a biro tube, but sometimes through a plastic straw. A rolled-up pound note will also do the trick.
"After it goes up it takes about five minutes before you can feel it trickling down the back of your throat and your tongue starts licking a bit. But then all that goes as it starts going through the body and hits the brain."
Too expensive to be an opium of the people, cocaine is not the kind of pleasure to share with strangers, even for a marxist like Joe. "Just one line can be a fiver," he says. "It's not like buying a round of drinks or passing a joint around." Cocaine, like heroin, is a class A drug, and pushing or possessing it carries stiff sentences.
"Not many people on the left are into it." Joe smiles. "Unacceptable decadence. It's like old-hat politics, you know, an unnecessary deviation. But that seems to have eased a bit recently, so you can be a part-time revolutionary as well as a full-time one, and mix a bit of hedonism in with it." No one still clings to the 1960s desire for drugs and politics to coalesce in some subversive delight. Elitist, anti-social, non-hallucinogenic, coke is the perfect drug for the pessimistic no-illusions 1980s.
Clean and white, it gets you high and leaves you sane for the working week. Bob Nightingale, on the Release switchboard, says they never get any calls from people messed up on cocaine. "The clinics don't consider coke addiction a problem," he says. Not many people earn enough to take an overdose of cocaine.
An ex-cocaine dealer, Alan, says he used to earn on average £600 a week. He has recently returned from a nine-month tour of South America. "I used coke for the high altitudes, up in the Andes. I climbed to 5,600 metres without oxygen on coke," he says, rolling some Lebanese into a post-breakfast joint. His experience in the Andes is supported by the evidence of Sir Robert Christison, the78 year old President of the British Medical Association who, in 1876, claimed that coca-leaf chewing enabled him to take 16 mile walks and climb mountains. No trouble.
Alan paid between five and six dollars a gram for cocaine in Bolivia, one of the main exporters, along with Columbia, Peru and Brazil in the coke police state belt. Those who do the actual importing, he says, are anything from air stewardesses to hippies returning from holiday. The stuff sold in Britain is anything from 10 to 50 per cent pure. "It's cut with anything, procaine, or any chemical synthesis, sulphates or other stimulants, even down to chalk powder and such things," he says. "If it's cut with amphetamines, which is quite common, it's no good. You get an instant speed rush and then a gradual decline into a soporific depression."
What sort of people were his customers?
"Artists, creative people, or anyone very into their work. managing directors. Anyone who wanted to maintain a certain level of activity for long periods . . . Mostly they were in their late 20s, although I had one 55 year old explorer. And my grandfather, he takes coke occasionally. He's an Austrian Alpinist."
Anna, an Argentinian exile, who is also sitting round this breakfast table, interrupts. "I think it's the most decadent drug going," she says. "It's just sort of nice, nothing special. And you pay all this money for this tiny pleasure."
"The price is inflated because of the risk," replies Alan. "It's always been a class A drug in the eyes of the law." He once shared a train compartment with three drugs squad cops. He chatted to them about their work. He had three ounces of cocaine on him at the time. Was it close escapes like that which made him give up dealing? "It just seemed the time to stop," he says, slowly. "Things were coming down. People around me were getting busted. Time to call a halt." So dealing isn't addictive? "No. Only to a young egoist who finds himself with lots of friends all of a sudden." Alan, who is 27, painstakingly prepares the third joint. He didn't bring any cocaine with him.
No one is too sure how or why this or that powder or liquid (why do the fashion conscious swig Pils?) becomes a thing to do. One theory is that the widespread availability a few years ago of amphetamine sulphate, a form of speed which is snorted, created the taste for white powders. That is anyway how Richard, a 29 year old magazine designer, first developed his nose for a buzz, in 1975. "I was working on this magazine three years ago and cocaine was around then," he says. "Used to go clubbing and you'd be there, ogling ladies. Sometimes you were with a lady and sometimes you weren't. If you weren't, the idea was to get some Charlie (cocaine)."
He tells me the white powder is everywhere in his line of work. "All these people are wired all the time, wired at work, got to keep their front up. Been trying all day to be Mr Big. Then you think, this is a bit silly. Have a nice meal, nice time, nice snort. Wake up next morning and feel good." Richard thinks cocaine dissolves all his aggression, even when he's in his car.
"Drive home at night after the pubs have shut and the roads are full of loonies. The other guy sitting in the other car, he's revving up to pull away from you at the lights. Then he goes and you don't. He hates you next lights. But you don't care. You don't always want competition. Don't want to be like that."
Richard was using up to three or four grams of cocaine a weel at one time. After leaving one job he landed a £7,000 settlement and reckons he spent about £2,000 of that on the drug, which he didn't always consume in the Gents at clubs: "We'd all go round to someone's place. A guy's cooking the food. Nice wine, nice food, like mussels and legs of lamb. Have a good rap, a couple of reefers, a few glasses of wine. You get out of your tree. Then you have a couple of brandies, coffee, real proper stuff. And then, later in the evening, you have some coke. It's like an After Eight . . . But you don't do that all the time. Other times just take the odd reefer, watch telly, get through the night."
Unlike any of the other coke users I talked to, Richard had for a short while the time and the money to go over the top, to punish his brain too hard. "You've smoked a few reefers, maybe had a few (magic) mushrooms in a quiche, had some Charlie. Suddenly you open your eyes and no one's there. It's like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Your eyes feel like ballbearings and you feel there's this extra coating, this film, between your skin and your hair. You think, 'Oh fuck it, I've overdone it.' Don't know whether to go home, take a bus, take a train. You get palpitations. Can't sleep. You know it's crazy."
His descriptions get more manic the more we drink, and the more he tells ne about how it feels to lose complete control, walking to the edge . . . but drugs have always had that kind of masochistic appeal. Reject official sanity and, instead, explore the character of madness. When Richard first used drugs in 1968, he was 17, his favourite group was The Doors.
He tell this one story about a friend of his, he says, but I think he experienced it himself. "A mate of mine took two grams to himself one night. His heart started thumping. He was anxious, nervous, depressed. His doctor said, 'It's your own stupid fault. Just drink Perrier water till you feel OK.' He spent £100 in one evening alone. His eyes were staring out their sockets."
He draws circles on his glass of beer. "You don't feel physical sickness. It's more anxiety because you brain's working overtime and it's got no material to work on. There's nothing new happening. You start regressing into the past. You can't eat. Your jaw's really sore. Front teeth protrude. Your saliva goes all thin and horrible. You feel you've got a piece of cellophane in your mouth, slightly damp, and you don't know what to do with it."
Heaven then is when it's all over.
16 October 1980