Sunday, September 23, 2007

Prophet of Dune

I'll be gone for a fortnight, so to occupy any readers (hah!), here's a lengthy revival of what Frank Herbert had to say about environmental concerns and global warming over 35 years ago... still tragically pertinent today. (Al Gore? double hah!) I conducted this interview long before Herbert's world renown, the multiple Dune sequels, his journeys to Mexico and finally Hawaii (partly due to success and movies, partly seeking possible cures for his wife Bev's diagnosed cancer). The old intro first:

The two most influential science fiction writers are, more than likely, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Just a notch below them in terms of recognition and acceptance among the current audience is Frank Herbert, who in Dune and Dune Messiah has given us a book-world of scope and event. Both are episodic semi-Biblical narratives of exciting incident and intriguing possibility. Herbert's world, in and out of books, has much the same feel.

"We haven't learned to live with our world yet--just on it. We tend to act before thinking out the whole chain of consequences. That's the real test of an ecologist--that he understands all the consequences."

The speaker is Frank Herbert. Newspaperman, photographer, family man, author of the renowned under/above-ground classic Dune (plus 15-20 other fiction novels as well), Herbert knows whereof he speaks: among a whole host of subjects, Dune is most of all a book about ecology--about survival in an alien environment; about man remaking the whole surface of a planet; about deep reverence for all the myriad forms of life. It may just be that Dune and planetary ecologist/sci-fi novelist Herbert can tell us something about our own beleaguered world of the Seventies.

America's trip may be conspicuous consumption and ridiculous waste, but on the planet Arrakis (Dune) the people use and re-use everything carefully and wisely and well. Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni may visit Death Valley and come away empty-handed, but Frank Herbert invents a world of Death Valleys--of awesome deserts, sand-churning monster worms, and harsh Fremen existing in their midst--and in so doing creates one of the most splendidly imagined universes, and best novels, science fiction or otherwise, of this century.

For Dune, coupled with its recently published continuation, Dune Messiah, is an extraordinary piece of work. Multi-layered, multi-faceted, the novel simultaneously combines fantastic adventure, complex characterization, dense detail, literate style, metaphysical and psychic investigation, economic speculation, messianic psychology and, of course, ecological awareness and invention.

The novel's origins are deceptively simple. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service were running a test station among the dunes on the Oregon coast," says Frank. "This was back in the mid-Fifties. They were developing ways to control sand dunes, and the program was so successful that people from Israel, Argentine, Chile, and other nations were all there to see how they did it.

"I went there to do a magazine article about the program--and in the course of the visit, I got this flaming idea in my head: what would it be like on an entire planet like the most severe of our deserts? What would go into the eco-systems on a planet like that?"

That was the beginning. But, Frank goes on, "Concurrently I'd been thinking about the origins of messiah myths in our society and others. I saw that as a motif to run through this non-existent novel, because a good story is more about people than things. Then I just began doing what I always do for a story--collecting folders of information, building the characters in my mind, and so on. It was probably six or seven years before I actually began putting words down on paper."

By 1963 when Herbert completed Dune, his novel had grown to more than 500 pages. One publisher rejected it as too long, but John W. Campbell at Analog knew a major property when he saw it; his magazine ran Dune in two three-part segments in 1964. Chilton's hardcover edition appeared that winter, and the Ace paperback in 1965.

There's been no looking back since. Winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best science fiction novel of the year, Dune gradually gained a word-of-mouth reputation among hip young people as well. Now, says the author, there are way over 300,000 copies in print, and many campus-area bookstores can't keep the book in stock.

"I pre-supposed a dialectic or a growth pattern," says the author, "birth, death, regeneration--and I deliberately wanted that poignancy of looking back on good times, in Dune Messiah. You see, the whole Dune sequence is written in layers--it's plotted in depth as well as in a linear direction. The action, the lyric poetry, the metaphysical, psychological and ecological, they're all deliberately layered in.

"In many respects," he goes on, "it was a gamble on my part. I didn't know if that sort of layering would make its point with the American reading public, because it's not seen much in science fiction. So I get a great deal of pleasure out of the fact that people are actually enjoying Dune. I'm happy to have done it. But it's like a pool shark who says, 'Six ball in the corner pocket.' To tell you the truth, I wasn't sure that the cue ball wouldn't go right in after it."

A longtime resident of the Bay Area, Herbert now lives in Seattle, on the top floor of an old mansion--presently subdivided into several apartments--on Queen Anne Hill, overlooking the ferryboats and the chilly waters of Puget Sound.

"I'm really a native of this area," he explains, "and I was missing it. There are things you can do here with a small expenditure of time that take a great expenditure down south. Up here I can be in the wilderness in an hour. In terms of relative degradation of the environment, Seattle's getting there--but it's as much better than San Francisco as San Francisco is than Los Angeles."

Seated in his living room, Frank talks about his life and his own vision; looming behind him are several ceiling-high bookcases, packed for the most part with non-fiction reading, including whole shelves devoted to desert ecology volumes with titles like Arabia Felix, The Land of Gilead, and Black Land, Black Land.

"I was born in Tacoma," he says, "and raised in and around Puget Sound. My father had several different businesses, but he lost a fortune in the Depression. In 1928, for example, in the heyday of dance halls, he built the Spanish Castle down in Highline." (Rock history footnote: during the Fifties and into the early Sixties, Spanish Castle--located about midway between Seattle and Tacoma on Highway 99--was the biggest local rock 'n' roll emporium; a young black man later known as Jimi Hendrix used to make it to Spanish Castle on Saturday nights to watch such outasight Northwest groups as the Wailers and Little Bill and the Blue Notes. Remember "Spanish Castle Magic" on Axis: Bold as Love?)

"I went to the University of Washington," says Frank. "I met my wife there at a writing class. But I dropped out of the U because they wouldn't let me do what I wanted, which was to cross department lines. To hell with requirements, I didn't want a degree--all I wanted was to pick and choose courses, like in a cafeteria line."

Like every other writer you've ever read about, Herbert's done the fascinating-ways-of-earning-a-living routine; his book-jacket bio lists "lay analyst" and "oyster diver" among several others. But for more than 30 years, most often he's been a newspaperman; nowadays for love rather than money. Herbert works as Higher Education Editor for Seattle's Hearst newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer.

"The successful-writer mystique carries over into this job. It gives me the leverage to say to the P-I, 'This is the kind of newspapering I want to do.' Newspaper work keeps you right on the edge of what's going on--it sensitizes you to current change. I do things as a newsman that I know damn well I wouldn't be doing at my typewriter."

There's a short break for strong, dark tea served by Frank's wife Bev...

((A perfect place for me to break this long interview article into two sections. Take a breath, take a walk, come back when ready...

And to resume:))

During the pause Bev also exhibits his major awards for Dune: the Hugo is a polished silver rocket; the Nebula, a crystal cube with a glittering, seemingly swirling galaxy floating within. Comments the author, "The Hugo is kind of a fan award, and it means more at the box office. But the Nebula represents a mail-poll of fellow craftsmen, the Science Fiction Writers of America."

At 49, Herbert looks considerably younger: short, stocky, barrel-chested, with crewcut fair hair and a greying, reddish beard; his mustache juts pugnaciously and his blue eyes twinkle just enough to make you think of an old fishing-boat skipper or a good-natured anarchist. He gestures a lot when he talks; and that continues now, as Frank warms to the tea and the subject:

"We science fictionists are pragmatic idealists," he says. "Our stories are usually anchored in something that's going on right now--given this, what if... We create whole worlds that are sort of caricatures of the existing thing, and we use them to throw the present thing into bas relief."

Surely Dune fits into that category?

"I'm damn hipped on this environment thing," answers Herbert. "I don't think we should ignore the legislative approach, but I don't really believe we can solve it legally. I'd feel better if something like the churches ((organized groups, that is; he didn't mean today's overheated fundamentalists)) were involved instead of some government agency; I try to get to those soft spots and apply leverage. That's one reason I accepted this P-I job: it puts me in direct contact with university level people. If we're going to solve all these environment problems, it's going to take strong action from that segment of the populace. That's what I mean about applying leverage to the system."

Herbert doesn't really belong to any citizens' environmental groups, but he is one of about a thousand steam-engine car owners in the country. He explains, "There's no name to our organization, no by-laws, no dues. Every member is a bishop and can swear in as many new members as he likes. All you have to do is raise your right hand and swear, 'Never again will I buy a new internal combustion engine.' If we put enough of this kind of pressure on Detroit, they'll solve the auto pollution problem for us.

"Same thing with gasoline. We've got to stop burning tetra-ethyl lead in our gasoline. But for now the Ethyl Corporation's got us by the balls--while the sky becomes more and more of a sewer."

Frank picks up an orange and holds it out dramatically. "If you take this and paint it with shellac, that thin coat of shellac is the equivalent of our atmosphere. And there's no cleansing process built into it...

"Our ecologists say we're only about twenty years away from irreversible effects on the environment. But it could happen a lot sooner than that. Wreck just one tanker carrying defoliants to Vietnam and you destroy seventy per cent of the bio-systems on the surface of the ocean--and most of our oxygen renewal depends on the oceans. If one jerk in the Pentagon can put the whole population of the earth in peril, that means the government's power is all askew. It clearly shouldn't be in the hands of those who've demonstrated they keep making the same mistakes again and again.

"Or take those Rhine River time bombs of DDT. We've really got time bombs like that all around us--if one of them finally rusts through, we've got a biological disaster."

Herbert frowns, then adds, "Underlying all these things we're talking about is the idea that we can invent a better world." Think of the ecological and philosophical texture of Dune and you'll understand that Frank Herbert is talking to himself too when he concludes, glumly, "That could be a fiction..."

So far, there's not much in the environment of the Seventies to be optimistic about. But perhaps the world will muddle through. Merely by its existence--but especially as its number of readers grows--the science fiction masterpiece Dune suggests the small but hopeful possibility that man can learn from his ecological mistakes. I'd rather believe the author of Dune when he writes, in that rich, exciting, wondrously beautiful novel, "Life--all life--is in the service of life."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Bev and Frank both died in the Eighties (I think), and their son Brian in the new century continues to write more sequels to his father's towering work. The world goes on, coughing and fretting and sweltering more and more as the earth continues to heat up. Al Gore and the scientists who believe continue to press for action, but nothing gets done. Who will save us?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

William Stout, Artist

The caricature of the Stones that introduced the previous blog chapter (below) and the illustration next to this paragraph are both the work of my pal William Stout, highly regarded illustrator, comics artist, movie production designer, and fine artist specializing in paintings of dinosaurs, animals of the Antarctic, and just about anything else he can research first. Right now, for example, Bill is working feverishly to complete a dozen large-scale murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Bill and I met a third of a century ago (yikes!) at a major comics convention in New York City devoted to the great Fifties landmark called E.C.Comics--Weird Science, Two-Fisted Tales, Shock SuspenStories, Tales from the Crypt, and Mad (comic book and then magazine) were just a few of the titles published by William Gaines and produced by his stable of comics art geniuses: Harvey Kurtzman, Al Williamson, Wally Wood, Johnny Craig, Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, John Severin, on and on and on, the creme de la creme of Fifties comics.

Anyway, back then Bill was helping Kurtzman and Bill Elder finish on-going chapters in the saga of "Little Annie Fanny" for Playboy (prior to that he had been assistant to Russ Manning on the renowned Tarzan comic strip), and he came to the convention as a guest artist lugging his portfolio of previous work, maybe looking to score some other jobs. I was there simply as a fan, and met Bill casually in some brief gabfest. But when he left, he forgot his portfolio, which I quickly scooped up, and then tracked him down to return. He was grateful much beyond my small assistance, and we struck up an acquaintanceship that became real friendship over the next few years as I visited Bill down in L.A. or at subsequent San Diego Comicons.

A busy, hustling comics guy then, Bill made several treks north too as a featured guest at Seattle science fiction events, And he pursued his interest in film, producing major posters or significant graphic design work (weapons, costumes, storyboards, what-have-you) for dozens of films over the years including Wizards, First Blood, The Life of Brian, both Conan movies (Bill has lots of stories about those films!), Invaders from Mars, Masters of the Universe, and so on, right up to The Prestige and Pan's Labyrinth.

Things have a way of coming 'round again... Bill started out, while still a student at Chouinard, working part-time as a sidewalk caricature artist at Disneyland (hiding his longhair under a shorthair wig!), then years later worked first as an Disney Imagineer designing the branch Disneyworlds around the globe, and then as a major production designer for the 2000 Disney feature Dinosaur.

Bill's connection to dinosaurs must stem from childhood, but by now he is an expert known internationally--and probably still has his giant Triceratops head sculpture in the house too. He has published at least three different dinosaur books, the best-known a beautiful text-and-illustrations book from Bantam--as well as art portfolios, oil paintings, comic convention sketches, and more, all drawing on his dinosaur expertise, sometimes coupled with his wicked sense of humor.

And speaking of humor, in connection with Disney I must mention his two volumes devoted to a slovenly, drink-sodden, depressed-but-uproariously-funny character called "Mickey at 60" (taking the mickey of a certain mouse!), entire bookfuls of daily-newspaper-styled comic strips that were notorious around the Disney organization.

What else? Well, he's done major work for George Lucas and helped design the first three GameWorks gaming parlors for Steven Spielberg/Seaga; and as I mentioned in an earlier blog chapter about Rainier Beer, he painted a brilliant Frank Frazetta-styled Sasquatch poster and also provided designs for a TV commercial depicting a giant pinball machine.

Music... Bill plays rock guitar and occasionally sings or writes songs, and he sorta "made his bones" as a music industry artist producing scores of covers for the great Trademark of Quality rock music bootlegs of the early to mid Seventies (as in the Stones drawing), then creating many industry-legitimate covers for Varese Sarabande LPs and CDs. Plus he is a fanatical collector--of records, CDs, laserdiscs, DVDs, comic books, art books... Bill has amassed what may be the single best and biggest collection of 19th and 20th Century illustrated books in the world; hard to know of any measurable rivals, anyway!

He still visits comic conventions regularly, a very popular guest artist willing to produce quick sketches for fans (generating a dozen books filled with his sketches that he sells privately), yet he has also become renowned as a painter of animal life, with several exhibitions and travelling shows, most devoted to "The Wildlife of Antarctica"--and he is now completing his major, several-years-in-the-painting San Diego murals assignment. (To read more about Bill and see his varied and amazing art, you can simply click on the shortcut provided at the foot of this page.)

Bill and I have a 35-year history, encompassing marriages and children and changing times. I own several of his sketches and a few watercolor originals, not to mention almost everything he ever produced in the comics world. We've visited each other on many vacations (I even managed to get to his 50th Birthday party) and still stay in touch thanks to emails, but see each other less frequently now, sadly. I'm just travelling less, and his business jaunts to Seattle are fewer.

But I remember many a fine evening of the kind shown in the funny, friendly watercolor I've reproduced. I hope there are more to come.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Let 'Em Bleed... (Part 2)

((First: another serendipitous moment. Two nights after I posted the Monterey Pop chapter previous to this one, what should show up on Public Television but Pennebaker's film about the festival, which I'd read about but never seen. The festive scenes and people were nostalgic fun, and I was pleased that my memories weren't too scrambled, yet the film offers a confusing chronology not faithful to the event, if anyone cares. But there were so many acts I'd missed and was happy to be reminded of--most importantly Otis Redding backed by the Stax MGs; I should have thought to mention Redding, since he was another performer who exploded onto the scene at Monterey but was then soon killed, in a plane crash.

Now: back to the continuing saga...))

I had hoped to find my essay/review about the Altamont Festival, written right afterward for Fusion, but no such luck. Memory will have to suffice.

When the Rolling Stones' big outdoor concert event was announced as an end-of-tour gesture to American fans, I decided to fly to the Bay Area, and worked it out with rock critic Greil Marcus for a place to stay and a lift to the event. There followed some scrambling by promoters and the Stones, but then the venue was set: a day-long free festival at Altamont Raceway, atop a high hill somewhere to the east of Oakland.

I flew down on the Thursday before, hooked up with Greil (then still the reviews editor for Rolling Stone, I think) and proceeded to my other assignment for the weekend, an interview with John Fogerty and the rest of the red-hot singles band Creedence Clearwater Revival, at the band's Oakland warehouse. That interview eventually became another article (also missing from my files!), but what I recall most was the friendliness of Tom Fogerty and the others versus the grouchy near-silence of brother John, who was the creative force every journalist sought to meet and figure out!

Anyway, Saturday was the main day. Greil drove, and I was just one of the passengers; memory says the others were Lester Bangs, a wild-man critic soon to be even more (in)famous, and Sandy Paton, musician head of Folk Legacy Records. We all had press credentials including backstage passes and planned just to split up and do the day, each getting his own perspective on the performances.

Backstage at the site, I tried to mingle and take notes, hooking up briefly with a drug-dumbed Gram Parsons, then Edgar Winter and his manager (wearing a bathrobe as I recall), and one or two others. Mostly I just tried to observe, planning to head out front for all the music. The stage was a platform on scaffolding, and it was easy for anyone backstage to crawl under and then out into the front-of-stage area, which was not some separate press pit but instead simply the ranks of packed-tight fans--patrolled by the "security" the Stones had enlisted (thanks to the Grateful Dead I think), members of the Hell's Angels.

Out front, things were unpleasant from the start. The closest rows of fans seemed particularly stoned (so to speak) and many of them surly, maybe fueled more by amphetamines than pot. I don't remember the order of groups that played the long afternoon, but Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Jefferson Airplane all had early-on sets.

The tension kept mounting. Every time the audience got to its collective feet, the fans further away pushed in closer, making it harder and harder for anyone in front then to sit down again. The Angels started pushing back, and soon there were actual fistfights, and then bikers swinging pool cues! I remember Marty Balin (or was it Paul Kantner?) recklessly leaping off the stage to try to break up one fight, and I think he got decked. At another moment some raging Angel got knocked into my lap. I started to help him up, then jerked my hands back, fearful I'd get clobbered too. I only lasted a few minutes more, then gave up and crawled back under the stage while the Airplane was still playing.

The rest of the day was a bit of a slog and a blur. I saw the Stones arrive and take refuge in their trailer. And later in the afternoon, I witnessed this unforgettable moment: one fan, a fat and stark-naked Mexican-American (I'd seen him earlier in the crowd out front) had been smashed in the head by someone and brought backstage for treatment. While he was standing there with blood streaming down his face and torso, Mick Jagger happened to stick his head out of the trailer just for a look 'round. He saw this bloody naked guy, stared at him for a good 15 seconds, then shrugged and closed the door.

The sound and the views of the stage were passable, and I watched the Stones' own set that night with interest--I mean, hell, it was the Stones right in front of me, playing for free! I couldn't see much beyond the spotlights, so all the continuing violence and the actual stabbing death of one fan was outside my limited field of vision. The band finished up and made for their waiting helicopter, and I reconnected with the other guys, and we all headed back to the car, surrounded by thousands of other exiting fans.

Comparing notes back in the car, we were all bummed out by a day which had become more of a battle zone than a music fest. The others had not been out front, but had observed some of the violence. Listening to the radio coverage then as we drove back to Berkeley, we learned that the rumor was true: someone had been killed (and there were a couple of births announced as well).

The aftermath (another bit of Stones prescience?) of Altamont's grim events is well-known. The Stones scooted and tried to distance themselves by blaming it all on the Dead and the bikers--no sympathy for any of those devils. Someone was arrested eventually, but I don't remember the outcome of any later trial.

I flew home to Seattle and wrote my review, which detailed the Angels-inspired fights I'd witnessed. And here's the dumbest part: I was so paranoid about that far-ranging gang of bikers and my own possible vulnerability that I asked the Fusion editor to publish my piece under the pseudonym of "Glenn Howard," which is how it appeared.

No one cared much; it soon dis-appeared into the used-to-wrap-fish heap of journalistic refuse--though later Sandy Paton published a book collecting some of his writings, and he talked about my experiences at the festival as well as his own.

As the cliches go, you get what you pay for, there's no such thing as a free lunch, a rolling stone gathers no... 'mont? The band steel-wheels on, 36 years later, Keith the poster-child for drug survival, Mick maybe still whipping the stage with his belt. Mostly the Rolling Stones today just make me yawn; some old geezers really should retire.

So I was present at both the birth and the sort-of death of massive American rock festivals. Missed the biggest one of all but didn't really miss it, if you catch my drift. Haven't gone to any large outdoor concert any time since, until the Fairport Cropredy this year (full of families and good friends rather than stoners). Mostly I just wish the world of rock hadn't evolved as it has. I'm one of the old geezers now too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rock Festivals Back Then (Part 1)

I didn't make it to Woodstock. I was a laid-back West Coaster not interested enough to travel cross-country for some big rock festival weekend--shows what I knew back then!

But I was lucky enough to hit three other historically significant ones: Monterey Pop, Seattle Pop, and Altamont. My memories of each may be worth recording here...

My first wife and I had planned to go to San Francisco for our long-delayed honeymoon about the time of the Summer of Love ("if you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" indeed). We weren't hippies by any stretch of the imagination, but SF was beckoning us nonetheless. When I heard about the proposed Monterey Pop Festival, I decided we'd try to get tickets, to one day's concerts at least.

No luck on the major rock evenings, but we did manage tickets for Ravi Shankar's matinee performance. (Ragas in the afternoon rather than at sunrise or sunset, but what the hey.) And that would at least give us the chance to look around. On that Sunday we drove down to Monterey, and got to wander for a while before and after Shankar--who was terrific, I should note, him and Alla Rakha and some mysterious woman playing tamboura.

The grounds were sort of hippie heaven, I guess, looking like what would become known as Renaissance Fairs later--craft booths, jewelry, scarves, tie-dye everything, furry hats, fine and freaky people in amazing costumes. I remember we saw both Art Garfunkel and Brian Jones among the funseekers that afternoon, and the rumor circulating was that George Harrison would show up as well, but so far as I know he didn't.

But what did magically occur was some poor soul offered me two tickets for that evening's show, which I scooped up on the spot! My later-to-be-ex- (not really a rock fan) and I hung around, had dinner, and took our seats to see... wow! Janis Joplin and Big Brother, an at-that-time-unknown chick belting out the blues in a convincingly brassy voice, her nipples straining to burst her gold-colored top (I admit I had binoculars), then The Who, not much recognized yet in the U.S., with Roger Daltrey strutting and shouting and Keith Moon grinning maniacally, pounding the hell out of his drums, and Pete Townsend leaping and flailing and windmilling his guitar, and then finally smashing it and the mics to smithereens. Holy bejesus, Batman!

Who could follow that? Well, a flashily dressed black man named Jimi Hendrix sauntered out on stage, his backing guys maybe Experienced but unknown that night, and proceeded to burn down the house. Okay, I exaggerate. But he did play "Red House" and "Hey Joe" and the other tunes that made him famous, making his guitar squawk and scream--and he did finally act to out-do Townsend by kneeling down, squirting lighter fluid on his guitar, and setting it on fire!

To say that the audience went crazy is to be way too subtle. But after we all calmed down again, the rest of the evening was definitely an anticlimax--The Mamas and the Papas, Scott Hamilton, whoever else, if anyone, all basically forgotten in the rush to critical judgment. (Coverage back in those distant days was mostly by major newspapers and Esquire--the rock mag circuit hadn't been invented yet!) Several stars were born that night, and they blazed across the heavens for a few years, and then some of them burnt out way too early. Janis, Jimi, and Keith at least, all victims of their success.

I drove back north to our SF hotel pretty much on auto-pilot, totally blown away, as that relevant cliche goes. I can't remember anything else about our poor honeymoon stay, except that out on the streets I bought the second issue of a new tabloid magazine called Rolling Stone--which convinced me then and there that I had to write about rock.

And I proceeded to do just that, getting published slowly at first and then actually providing record reviews to Rolling Stone--which is how I came to cover the Seattle Pop Festival a year or so later. Seattle's version of the Fillmore was called Eagles Auditorium, run by a hustler entrepreneur named Boyd Grafmyre, who took his club success to the limit by arranging to produce a major outdoor festival weekend, to be held out in the rural countryside in a big cowpie field near Woodinville.

Rolling Stone said okay, so I got press accreditation, enabling me to wander the backstage area all weekend, tapedeck in hand. I had brief and sometimes longer interviews with Jim Morrison of The Doors (one of my first blog posts talks about that peculiar event), Gram Parsons and other Flying Burrito Brothers, Jesse Colin Young of The Youngbloods, Bo Diddley and Albert Collins and others. An amazing stretch was listening to Bo and Collins and a couple of other blues guys shoot the shit for an hour, playing the dozens on each other, and me the fly on the wall! (Man, I'd give a few months of my dwindling life to get back the long-lost, likely recorded-over-later tapes I made that weekend.)

Performing as well though not approached by me were Led Zeppelin, who came and went by helicopter, and Ike and Tina Turner. (Could Ike have been one of the other cats during that talk-fest? Could be; maybe I just didn't recognize him at the time.) The Turner show was outstanding, which is where i was--out standing in the press pit, just below stage front, gawking like a fool at the lonnng legs, and more, of Tina and the Ikettes! Whew! The view was inspirational. Tina and her gals were definitely the hottest act of the weekend...

The Doors played well but Morrison seemed less involved that I'd seen him at Eagles some months earlier. The other acts were fine and worked the stage and the crowd to their advantage, but now, 40 years later, not much of their performances have stayed in my mind. A successful weekend for all us fans anyway, even though Grafmyre later claimed that he lost money on the event.

I did write things up for Rolling Stone, and my review ran alongside some other concert coverage in one long-ago issue--and then I moved on, to generating more and more longer pieces for East Coast rival Fusion. And it was for Fusion that I covered the Altamont Festival a year later... more next time.

Friday, September 7, 2007

John Keats Solo

Back in the late Eighties when I was struggling to become a playwright, one good idea I had and worked on for a time was a one-man show based on the writings of Romantic poet John Keats, surely one of the greatest of all those to have written in English, and a tragic figure as well for his having died so young.

Selecting chunks of poems and whole brief ones, and interspersing these with excerpts from his letters and journals, I attempted to shape a largely chronological telling of his life and works for my on-stage Keats to recite. The arc of that assemblage actually seemed fairly sound, just too long. All I had to do was cut and paste a bit more, edit the material intelligently, and...

But then, for no reason but lethargy, I abandoned the project at that mid point...

Digging in a box recently, I came across all the notecards and paste-up pieces, still rubber-banded together in numerical order. Maybe thinking and writing even this brief mention will inspire me yet to complete a Keats one-man show.

In the meantime, I want to present the decent poem I wrote after reading about him and trying to think a bit like him. The title and epigraph should explain all, except that the scene of the actual historical reference was Edinburgh--which may be of interest to those who love Scotland and that great city. (Never a Rebus around when you need one!)

Resurrection Man

“The subjects were stolen from nearby graveyards,
doubled up stark naked in sacks, and smuggled in at
the dead of night by body snatchers—‘resurrection
men,’ as they were called…”
--Aileen Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet

I hoist one up, bend him over double,
Stuff him in the sack, in his skin.
I always leave the clothes down the hole—
I’m no grave robber—though some women
Get to be a bother stripped stark
Like that, lank hair full dangling,
Short curls a thicket in the dark…
But I choose not to get entangled.

They pay me four quid each body
And ask no questions. Nor do I,
What they do after. Cut the loins apart,
Peel back the sullied flesh—hell,
Let all of life’s putrefaction out.
Dead’s dead. The animate’s gone; the soul,
Whatever that is, leaked out, escaped;
And burial, the placebo of fools.

Better these grubs of Med-men
Get what’s left than the maggots below.
I can even bear the merry japes:
“Hi-ho, the Resurrection Man!”;
“Here’s another one risen, then”;
“A grave truth, friend Horatio”;
“Found your ghoul in life, have you?”
Let them scoff. Oh, I know them well:

Whistling past the graveyard, that's all.
Sod them; they’ll be under it soon enough,
And some other digger in their turf.
I am content to body-snatch, in sum.
Still, it’s working the nights, sleeping
In the daylight, gives me this dream…
The tumult has died, and the tumulus
Waits unguarded. I bend to it alone.

Lord’s luck, but the stone rolls hard!
And inside, a-shimmer in the blackness,
Blood dried brown and wounds gaping,
Lies this man, the corpus of us all;
But only dead, bound to the dust.
I lift him up, strip off the blooded shroud--
So light; how could he bear the weight
They pressed on him--and stuff him in.

Hoisting the body up on my back, then,
Swaddled in its corpse-snatcher sack,
I stagger out from that cave of night
And carry him forth to the harsh light
Of the world’s theater of dissection…
The rest I’m blind to. Full sweat-sore
I waken drenched, unable to forswear
The mystery, for man’s or God’s sake.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Some Days the Magic Works... (Part 2)

Around 1971-72, I had an idea for a Native American film, a dramatic short meant to join King Screen's group of educational films intended to introduce other cultures and ways of thinking to middle-class, mostly white schoolkids. The core plot was this: a tribal elder, a grandfather figure raised in the old ways, hauls his urban grandson, a clueless teen rebel, off to the wilderness to discover and possibly embrace his Indian heritage.

Though a couple of other people appeared at the beginning of the story, it was really a two-character plot, starting in the city (Seattle) and then moving out to the Olympic Rain Forest on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and then finally to the actual Pacific coast. The script I wrote, titled Our Totem Is the Raven, would lead to a 20-plus minute work if all went well during filming.

Casting was the primary concern. The teenager could probably be found at some local school, but who could credibly play the grandfather?

Shortly before writing the script, I had seen a wonderful actor named Chief Dan George featured in Arthur Penn's movie Little Big Man (starring then young Dustin Hoffman). Remember the magical, twinkle-in-his-eye delivery of that tribal chief with the flowing white mane of hair when he says things like "My heart soars" and "Some days the magic works, some days it doesn't"? Well, that was Chief Dan George, whom I assumed was a newly discovered Hollywood star, because he was also appearing memorably about then in Clint Eastwood's excellent film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

I thought to myself, Now, that's the actor we need... But of course I also figured we had no chance of hiring him. So where could we find our man?

Then one night not long after, Chief Dan appeared on the Johnny Carson Show and revealed that he actually lived near Vancouver, B.C.--he was a chief of one of the Coast Salish tribes up there--only 150-some miles from us in Seattle! I decided that trying to reach him was now imperative; chances of his saying yes were likely slim to none, but it was worth a shot just to find out, if nothing else, how much the services of a major actor would cost us.

Through Vancouver friends, we were able to learn that his agent/manager was a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting System right there in Vancouver (where, it turned out, Dan routinely appeared in television productions). We reached the manager, he agreed to look at the script to see if it was suitable for Dan, and off it went. I paced the halls of King Screen and gnawed my fingernails waiting to hear back.

Then the word came: Dan actually liked the script, and he was available during March, just a month or two ahead. Moreover, the manager informed us, Dan's beloved wife had recently died, and he needed to be working to take his mind away from grieving...

I gulped and went to work, now as line producer, organizing things for a two-week shoot in Seattle and out on the Peninsula, near Kalaloch. The King Screen director assigned was named Paul Preuss (who later went on to a solid career as science fiction novelist). We found some native carvers and got special Northwest Coast tribal props made--a raven-topped staff, a salmon sort-of-plaque, and a special wood-carving knife with shaped handle. We searched the Greater Seattle area and found a surly, slightly chubby 14-year-old Native American teen to play the grandson, then rehearsed him a lot since he was not an actor. We also squeezed in a preliminary whirlwind visit north to Vancouver, but only for Paul and I to get acquainted briefly with our 70-year-old lead.

Then Chief Dan arrived in Seattle. What a wonderful, kindly gentleman he was too! Not as bubbly or cheerful as the roles he'd played had made us imagine, but of course he was still grieving too. (And as we soon learned, drinking somewhat more than he normally would...)

No need to revisit the entire film shoot, but after some rough first days getting the grandson up to speed and comfortable with Dan as we were shooting the early urban scenes, we headed out to the Pacific coast. And then came the Olympic Rain Forest's spring rains! Not just light showers but water "pissing down" (as the Brits say). For several days, we had nothing to do but sit at the lodge playing cards and waiting for the sun to shine again. It quickly became the main task for Paul and me to keep Dan busy and surrounded by cheerful people. The whole crew of eight or so wrapped the grand old man in a blanket of friendship, becoming his students, listening to his stories and his quietly offered wisdom (some of those thoughts can be found in My Heart Soars and two other books that appeared over his name later in the Seventies)... and working to keep him from drinking too.

When the rain let up, it became a classic rugged shoot: fewer days available (meaning longer hours), lots of scenes filmed along forest trails, in icy-cold streams, on the rocky beach, and so on, as the grandfather talked and showed his reluctant protege what was what. I particularly remember the sequence where Dan had to stand waist deep in a river to catch a salmon with his bare hands. Washington's rivers are cold all year but truly frigid in the early, glacial-melt springtime. To protect Dan we had him encased from the waist down in a black wet suit; we then shot carefully to hide it. And to prove that we were "with" him, literally, both the director and I stood in the freezing water as well for several hours! (Yes, we had on wet suits too.)

The last quarter of the film has the grandson finally catching his own salmon a few hungry days later (using his shirt as a net), which grandfather then shows him how to cook on an alder-woven grill over an open fire on the ocean beach. He bids a ceremonious thanks to the fish for sharing its flesh, they eat, the exhausted teen nods off, and grandfather--in the smoke from the fire--then seems to wade out into the ocean and disappear.

When grandson awakens next morning, he is alone. The implication is that he must find his own way in the world--back to the city, or never returning to it, who can say? (Since I haven't seen this script or film in 30 years, my memory is a bit hazy about the ending.)

At any rate, Chief Dan George went back north, and we went to work on post production. It was a breeze! Excellent visuals; a great, firm-but-loving performance by grandfather Dan, and okay work by the kid; footage that came together well in the editing room. Our Totem Is the Raven was soon a fait accompli.

Copies of it sold fairly well, and in fact are still to be found three decades later in collections around the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) devoted to Native Americans on film. Chief Dan lived another ten years, a much-honored "First Nations" leader, and he continued to act, mostly in television (including a role in the major series Centennial), right up until his death.

And I moved on to a new life as freelance writer trying to sell feature scripts, and when that didn't work out, reluctantly settled in as a writer-producer in television advertising. But that's another story.

(Here's the amazing P.S.: right after writing all of the above yesterday, I Googled the Raven title for fun and actually found a copy being sold at auction! Which I immediately bought. Now if I can just find a 16mm. projector...)