Monday, October 28, 2013

The Horror & The Joy

Christmas is coming. Christmas is here, here at Kohl’s. It is October, we’re teetering towards mid-fall. Leaves are no longer green or loyal to the branch, they’re swirling around in the air and falling down waiting to be raked or swept. Yet, already the department stores are decking their halls – Kohl is going with last year’s yuletide motif – and crying sale, even though jack o lanterns and skulls remind us of scary death. The year is split in two. October – to – April, as we get through winter, we laugh at death as the days grow dark and chillier, when winter is here we shout joy to the world, and then when spring arrives we’re resurrected. Candy abounds. The rest of the year is summer and baseball and the holidays are more spread out, three day weekends mainly. The fruit and vegetables are fresh, who needs man-made sugar to get you through.    Halloween Season. The Christmas Season. Preparation and parties. Both come earlier. Both last longer. Here in Kohl’s was an interesting conflict. Maybe if they sold candy there would be a bigger table for a Halloween when Halloween is just a few days away. These two holidays form in our childhood minds, horror and joy and they mesh and with the Christmas sales season starting earlier and earlier, Christmas and Halloween arrive at the same time. A friend said they saw Christmas and Halloween stuff at a Costco the last week in July. We used to have one then the other. Now when we get one, we get the other. The Halloween table has only a few days left. Horror then Joy. Now though, it’s the horror and the joy. Then the horror is gone back inside our minds and 
the only joy is the kind you can buy.

Lou Reed Rules

One of the few Lou Reed records I never owned was Transformer.  I was never a David Bowie fan.

David Bowie worshipped Lou Reed, but Lou Reed was always a different story. The best thing about Lou was that he was not commercial, why get his most commercial record?

I was way too cool for commercial.

I had most of the other  Lou’s, up to and including New York. Transformer? Why indulge this pandering to the mainstream. Of course, Lou’s going commercial meant a song about transvestite and junkies with a transcendent saxophone solo when that instrument had become nearly absent from the top 40.

I later warmed up to the song (and record, which I would ask friends to play when we hung out at their pads) when I found out it was written for a Broadway show that never happened based on the great novel by the same name by Nelson Algren.

I listened to Lou in my late teens and into my early 30s, but truth be told, Lou Reed was much of the soundtrack of my 20s. That’s the period where I wore out those lps. I’m sad he’s dead, another part of line now designated to the dustbin of history, another new crevice forms on that face in the mirror.

 I grew out of Lou by my 30s, certainly by the time my music went to CDs/MP3s , he was barely making any music and what he was making was forgettable. By then, I was dipping back into the punk and related rock less and less often.

Lou left music, I left Lou. But Lou never left me.

 It’s not like I ever proclaimed, I am never  listening to Lou again. I listened to him lots and lots, then less and less. The months turned to years and to decades. Same is true for Bob Marley. Why?  Why not?  So it goes. Our soundtracks shift, but that shift is always gradual.

By the end of the 1990s and the dawn of new century, Lou seemed to have retired, doing lackluster stunts like songs based on Poe writings, or more recently, a record with Metallica. I had zero interest, especially when I heard these late-period misfires.
Berlin being resurrected was cool. He toured with, performed the entire record live, reissued it.

Berlin is the greatest concept records ever made, dark and uncompromising but I had moved on to be excited enough to buy the re-introduced versions.

I was glad he reunited the Velvet Underground, but ticked that he never brought them to the United States. He only toured Europe. Kind of shitty to his fans.

He seemed to be happy with the marriage to Laurie Anderson – an artist I like and admire; I respect her music but never wanted to hear any of it twice – I  liked them as a couple, it doesn’t get more New York than them two, but the New York they embodied is gone. That New York was dead before Lou.

 Lou’s passing has dozens of implications, none of them positive.

Anderson and Reed seemed to have found happiness together, they liked each other, you could just tell. I feel sad for her, the grief she must feel. There were news reports about his liver transplant and then no news until now. He couldn’t afford New York hospitals, he had to go to Ohio. The transplant happened in May. He spent the last summer of his life where he grew up, Long Island.  There would be no more songs.

Lou never had his Time Out of Mind. I always wish, like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or a few others, his fellow elder statesmen, Lou would put out a late-career masterpiece. I wish like Johnny Cash, he could have found his Rick Rubin and put out a NYC version of American Recordings. Lou sang about desperate hours, his back was against the wall, his candle burned at both ends. To longevity, those artistic obsessions lend themselves not.

Considering the rumors of his drug use, it’s remarkable  he made through to and through his sixties. In the 1990s, he produced a great comeback record for Dion, King of New York which put that 50s era star back in the charts and in the hearts and minds of Rock & Roll lovers everywhere. More recently, he o produced  his wife’s  comeback record, which garnered great reviews. Think about that contrast. Who could more different than Dion and Anderson, doo wop and electronica. Lou was comfortable in both worlds.  This dichotomy that makes so much sense you could not make it up.

Lou was an original. No one else was like him, although many tried.

Unlike other rockers, he had no interest or apparent musical influences beyond Rock & Roll.  He did not dabble or listen to the blues, folk or country – tributaries that not only flow into and out of rock and roll, but welcomed songs inspired by experience and age . Rock & Roll, especially the 50s and 60s that Lou great out of was about youth, anything else was simply irrelevant.  He was Berlin Stories than Sun Sessions.  He only required enough technique to tell his dark tales. The sound was simple, the subtext was as complex as Joyce, Artaud or Celine.  

Lou was about youth, but his youth was the pursuit of experiences, of finding what it meant to FEEL alive.

Lou was ornery, challenged his audiences. He could be inconsistent – Growing Up In Public and Rock & Roll Heart, for example, are dreadful records. You had to buy his records on faith, there rarely received airplay, listening booths were long gone. Which Lou would should up this album? Luckily, the cynical but honest Lou  more often than not showed up, plugged in his loud, very electric guitar and told us of his latest dark nights of the soul.

He was neurotic and self-absorbed, like the city that he loved and lived in. Metal Machine Music is stupid crap, although the liner notes are extraordinary, almost worth it (I bought it as a cut-out; maybe it was worth 99 cents).

The Velvet Underground never got their due, which seemed to piss him off his entire life.  He kept on returning to those songs – his earliest solo album is a re-recording of the Velvet Underground playlist; Rock & Roll Animal a heavy metal reinterpretation of the same songs. To be a Lou fan is to own dozens of versions of Sweet Jane. He never matched the original, and there always seemed to be misgivings by him over those songs he wrote in his 20s.  He was angry about his audiences or his record companies that seemed to mask some deeper resentment. He was one of those artists whose art could never make him as happy as it made his  audiences.

 Those Velvet songs are so classic – in terms of influential, influence being inspiring emulation, Lou Reed comes close to Bob Dylan as being the most influential musician of his generation. There are hundreds of acts that made the charts when the Velvet Underground was making records that are entirely forgotten and we are still talking about the Velvet Underground with awe and respect. I can sing most of their songs and I never play their records anymore. My shower  sounded like a Max’s Kansas City set this morning.  Lou has a lasting power as a Lieber & Stroller or Doc Pumus, he knew great hooks, but he played through a distorted guitar and layered them with subculture obsessions.  I think he was pissed because he never understood why the mainstream continued to ignore the outsiders he extolled.


After the RCA years – the on again off again search for the Walk on the Wild side follow up – he made tremendous, classic records for Arista, that should have been major sellers. Many of them masterpieces, but mostly they were ignored. Even few of my friends liked them. You either loved or hated them. I loved them. Street Hassle, The Bells and The Blue Mask are a tribology of Rock & Roll that belong in -

I saw him around this time, right after Street Hassle, at the Bottom Line – a table so close to the stage that he knocked over my buddy’s drink with his guitar cord; This was during the I want to Be Black shenanigans.  Man, he rocked out. Street Hassle, followed by the Bells, are great, under-rated albums. Then he realized The Blue Mask, must have been Junior year in college. I think it is one of his best records, his best non-Velvet for sure.

Interest in Lou was revived as New York Punk gained some acceptance and began to spread around the world. The Sex Pistols made the headlines, the Clash made the charts. Lou Reed records were heralded in the review sections of magazines and newspapers, but sales and radio play were not forth coming. Lou was stuck in clubs when bands he inspired, from Talking Heads to the Replacements, were playing theaters and arenas. Lou was putting some of the greatest Rock & Roll of the time, but there was also a feeling his moment had passed.

His work was consistent through the 1980s, even though he had calmed down and the songs about the grit of the city seemed more inspired by headlines than all-nighters. He always had a reportage approach, now he was reporting on what he was seeing on television, not quite the same as describing going up town to meet his man.

 The album New York at the end of the decade, was his last great record.

Around the Magic & Loss period, my buddy Tony dragged me to see Lou at Radio City. I was not listening to Lou, I had moved into New York and instead of listening to my Lou Reed tapes, I got deeper into Bruce and soon enough the downtown that welcomed me was the one on the other side of the Hudson.

Tony said to me, “if we don’t go see Lou Reed, who will?”

Well, it was a good show, even though Magic & Loss is a pretty lackluster effort

Ole Lou was insistent that the show would not be about his hits, but only his new record, which I found lame, although he did play some of those New York songs too, a melancholic yet elegiac record – Halloween Parade, which I am sure will be played extensively  this week – is a downtown folk-anthem, a eulogy for the victims of the AIDS crisis. It has that Lou Reed feel; a song when you hear seems like you’ve always heard it.

Lou had this book of lyrics on an easel, and wore glasses to read them. The encore, which was extended, was a bunch of Velvet material and solo hits. I believe he played the title track of The Blue Mask too.

Around this same time, Lou appeared on the Bob Dylan 50th Birthday bash, known as Bob Fest by his fans, and did a killer version of the unreleased song, Foot of Pride, one of the highlights of the evening. I also have a tribute to Doc Pumus record where he rips into This Magic Moment. The sales may never have arrived, but he was respected as rock’s elder statement?

How did we start listening to Lou out in the hinterlands, the suburbs of Bergen County where most of our music came from Scott Muni and WNEW 102.7 and they never played Lou or the Velvets or even the then emerging Punk Rock?

 I was not a glitter rock guy at all – T-Rex, Alice Cooper, Bowie – I never listened to that crap – Kiss, even the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, I always thought were over-rated. T-Rex? Dopey.

 I was a smug purist.

If you had to wear a dress to sing your song, I didn’t want to hear it.  Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side seemed to be part of that Gary Glitter, show-boat crowd. It never entered into my purview, but when it was a hit I had just started buying records – or was it a hit just before my first 45s –  and those hits, they came and go. Lou was barely on my radar, the associations were not cool to me and then he was off that radar. There were other records to buy (Aqualung, then Music from the Big Pink).

I loved Dylan (Always Dylan), but also the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. When high school started,  the 70s at that point were still steeped in 1960s. Acid Rock and psychedelics songs spoke to me. I was also a literary young man, Ken Kesey and thus The Beats were   connected to the Grateful Dead. My record collection was basically dictated by my older brothers, who were hippies and war protestors. In fact, it was mainly their records I was listening to. They had nothing produced by Andy Warhol.

And then came Horses. My older brothers and sisters HATED Patti, which only made me love that record more. She was mine.

 And while I still loved that 60s stuff – some of my earliest memories are of hearing Beatlemania era Beatles, and my tastes always tend towards simple Rock & Roll –Patti Smith was Rock  & Roll, but who was this Rimbaud guy. The Doors were rediscovered. The Ramones appeared and my favorite at the time, Television. Smoking, reading, listening to music – for a while, everything coincided and all I needed was a girlfriend.

By college, the Brits were invading again. But inbetwen then and the before then, this buddy Kevin Ford had Velvet Underground records. Now, Kevin was an interesting cat, a proud cynic and nihilist, really into film; also a conservative, hated anything hippie, thought Nixon was a great – just like Johnny Ramone. And, he had these Velvet Underground records. He was the first one to speak well of the Moloch of our childhood, tricky dick, and point out that the North Vietnamese were evil communists. And he listened to the Velvet Underground. Somebody other than California hippies made rock and roll music – records that Patti loved?

See, when Punk changed everything, the Velvets (and Iggy, and to some extent, Jonathan Richman)  were seen as the prototypes. We’d go to Kevin’s house, smoke (he was not that much of a conservative, I’ll tell ya that), and listen to his Velvet records. They were revelatory. They sounded very similar to the psychedelic records, like Crown of Creation, but these were songs about Sadomasochism, drugs, getting high and feeling confused and lonely by it, not in love with everything.   These were issues of youth, but instead of just the optimism of love conquers all, these were about what we were experiencing then. The alienation basically. All that Gnarly confusion that teenage hood instills. Nihilistic and real, which the 70s were; what a nightmare. My life was not After Bathing at Baxters or Europe 72.  Lou spoke to me in a way so much of the music I was listening to at the time never did.

Kesey, Rimbaud, Ginsberg – oh they were important – Lou introduced   Delmore Schwartz – European Son was on his first record, another tribute to Delmore was recorded on Blue Mask. Delmore was Lou’s creative writing teacher. Delmore was a troubled guy, brilliant writer but always broke, substance abuse problems. He is actually buried in a Jewish cemetery near the house I grew up in, we visited his tombstone and partied on his grave. Delmore was not counter cultural, we was a serious writer and a true intellect of modernism. An American existentialist who still is not truly recognized, except as a writer’s writer.

 Delmore basically has two books, his collected poems and his collected stories, the latter being titled, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. There’s some posthumous work of note as well.  Now, Delmore is a difficult read, and in the end, I prefer his short stories, which are perfect. But with Delmore I began to understand his peers, such as T. S. Elliot, and also Jewish writers like Saul Bellow, whose Humboldt’s gift is based on Delmore’s life.  He has some great essays, an interesting translation of Season in Hell (which my buddy Tony, Photostat and had bound for me to read way way back in the day, we’re both Delmore fans, thanks to Lou), and this fascinating Verse Play. Delmore often wrote about identity, one his poems compares his self to a bear that he carries within in – who is the real person, the image in the mirror, or the one we present to others. I have not read him in years, but his writing was challenging for my young mind – I had read enough to read him by the time I started listening to Lou – and his obsessions was stuff you think about in the late teens and early 20s. Delmore died at 45.

The thing with Lou, it was hard to find those Velvet Underground records, but except for Transformer and Rock & Roll Animal, his other RCA records were available as cut-outs. I paid 99 cents for Berlin and Sally Can’t Dance. Incredible to think about. At the Grandway. Lou was in the cutouts when every punk rocker was citing him as influence in every article on punk being printed.

Where and when I went to college, Punk had not quite happened yet – the Brits were just started to invade, bringing with them Reggae (deadheads like myself already were listening to Bob Marley) – but this one woman, Stephanie, loved Lou. She had graduate high school early. Now, I had a girlfriend and she was dating my roommate, neither of whom cared about Lou. Needless to say, Stephanie and I had a torrid affair and cementing our adultery was Sally Can’t Dance. The romance lasted a few more years after college, longer than the adultery. We did bad, bad things. We were lurid, erotic, secretive. I think of Lou as that soundtrack, of that period if youth when few temptations go unfulfilled. I remember reading to her Delmore Schwartz poems. I best resist the rest telling the rest of that memory here. Lou revealed to us new yet satiable appetites, but never avoided the psychological under-pinning of those same appetites.

Want to really enrich a torrid affair when you’re 20, get naked and listen to Kill Your Sons!


Later in the 80s, Lou was coming out with interesting records, like New Sensations, which had I Love You Suzanne, a fun song. I wasliving with Donna at the time, listening to Lou – being decadent, which basically meant sex and drugs and rock and roll. Lou was making some of the best Rock & Roll of the 1980s, which is not saying a whole hell of a lot because what a terrible decade for my favorite genre of song. We also dug Rock& Roll Animal, especially that version of Heroin where he bellows, you can all go take a f-ckin walk! Donna loved that. Rock & Roll Animal is intense, raw and loud.

The soundtrack to our lives.

Give me a song, I’ll give you a girl.

 Lou though, was particularly memorable, because nobody else listened to him. The Stephanie affair – she was a deep reader; so was Donna – seemed started by Lou. She grew up in rural South Jersey, Lou was a personal thing for her and she was surprised to find somebody who knew his music. In Jersey City, NYC is just next door, as safe and little different than all our urban settings. But back then, nothing was further than New Jersey than Lou Reed’s Manhattan. His reality was the stuff of our dreams, promising an intensity to living the suburbs denied.

Lou probably does not make what anybody would consider make out music, for moments on the edge, he’s the perfect accompaniment. Acting on urges, seeking experiences Rushing on your run, feeling just like Jesus’s Son.

I’ll be your mirror/reflect what you are/in case you don’t know.

Lou never went into elaborate rhymes, There’s very little word play. He avoided metaphor. He’s not like Dylan. His lyrics are more direct, elliptical. Unadorned slices of life that cut to the core.

All your two bit friends, they shoot you up with pills. God. Berlin. By the wall, you feel six inches tall. Very nice, it was paradise, dubonet on ice.  Broken lives, a sordid tale of hopelessness. The honesty of the witnessing is itself haunting. They’ve taken her children away, because they said she was not a good mother. 

I was in a punk rock band – The Urgency, and later the Altered Boys – and we did Rock & Roll, Sweet Jane and I’ve Been Set Free. (I’ve been set free/and I’ve been bound/let me tell you people/what I found), which was their third, mainly overlooked album. Sweet Jane & Rock & Roll are so easy to play on guitar. I was lousy believe you me, although the other guys were really talented – the drummer actually made a living as a professional musician – but I had the punk records. I knew enough chords. Enough for Lou. Anybody can play Sweet Jane.

Lou was as great a songwriter as anybody, did for New York what Hank Williams did for the South, universalizing subjective experiences of place.

I grew out of him, he doesn’t appear on any recent playlists. But I have always thought of him fondly.

I just read the Clive Davis biography and the chapter on Lou is worth reading. Clive signed him to Arista, and he apologizes that his Arista records did not sell better. Punk was hot, and Lou was the godfather of Punk and the Arista records, well Street Hassle, The Bells, and Blue Mask are GREAT, yet Lou never could get close to the hit of Walk on the Wild Side. Besides that over-exposed anthem, he never got much airplay. He  rarely even shows up in film soundtracks.

As he aged, he ran out of ideas, seemed limited by his own convictions, unlike Bruce, Neil, Dylan, Leonard Cohen – even Patti Smith or Tom Waits – never could adapt to his aging voice. Never a great singer, always a limited range, the previously mentioned songwriters may not have put out music as good as their hey day sound, but their late career records are noteworthy and of merit. They still got it. They  write songs for their new voice that can stand alongside the re-interpreted classics in a set. Lou never could. He seemed to just stop… then he died… one wonders how ill and for how long he truly was.

I may have grown out of listening to Lou – and maybe Lou grew out of himself – but man oh man, back in the day, Lou and the Velvets made so much sense when so little did.  I can sing and quote his songs entirely from memory.

Families that Live out in the suburbs/often make each other cry (that’s from the Bells)

There was nothing happening at all/TV set and two Cadillac Cars, baby they are nothing at all/ but then one fine day, you turn on a new york station and you can’t believe what you heard at all/you started dancing to that fine, fine music/you’re life was saved by rock and roll

Lou was one of the last one to make Rock & Roll When you’re young – at least when I was –  danger is enticing, and romantic. Rock & Roll wasn’t everywhere yet, punk was still underground and the other counter culture,  hippies, hated punk.  Hated anything urban.

 By the end of college, Punk was morphing into New Wave – Elvis Costello everybody loved. The Clash and the Sex Pistol. Funny, people hated punk when it was New York, loved it when was London – and ignored it entirely when it was Los Angeles. When it became Seattle, it was suddenly Wal-Mart.  Lou  never crossed over. But he sung about truths, he sung about people on the outside, people who were otherwise ignored by pop culture and politics and society. They weren’t on TV or even many films. They were in books,  like Jean Rhys or William S. Burroughs or Hubert Selby or Breese J. Pancake or Charles Bukowski., but not that often.

They are in Lou songs. They are his songs.  They were you and me. Lou was always there for us when not much else was.

My buddy Kevin use to say, Lou Reed Rules. He got married on a cruise ship that circled Manhattan. There was a DJ. His wife planned the wedding, he was only allowed to choose one song. It was We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together. Patti Smith used to play the tune, it’s on the great live Velvet record, 1969. The couple pogoed. He is an insurance executive now and lives on Park Avenue.

Kevin used to scrawl Lou Reed Rules on the walls of public bathrooms. There was a time in my life this statement was true. Today it still is.


Happy St. Jude Feast Day

Happy St. Jude Feast Day.

Saint Jude devotions occur throughout the year across the globe, but from October 20-28, there are nine consecutive days of prayer that lead up to the Saint Jude Feast Day. This period  is popularly referred to as the Saint Jude Novena.

Congratulations to everyone completing the 2013 Saint Jude novena. This novena – probably the second oldest continuous novenain Jersey City – has been going on since the 1930s and carried through, often against the odds, those odds including indifference by church authorities and declining interest in novenas and devotions of all kind among subsequent generations.

Jersey City’s Saint Jude Novena began at Saint Lucy’s church, it is believed sometime during the Great Depression, if not earlier. Immigrant families brought the tradition over from Italy  and Poland. Saint Jude crosses nations, the rare devotion not dominated by one culture. In the 40s and 50s, the ranks of Puerto Rican, Dominican and other Spanish ethnics began to grow in town, they eagerly adopted the tradition, which had also been taking place in their respective homelands.

In 1986, Saint Lucy’s closed and the novena moved to Saint Michael’s on 9th street, a controversial move I blogged aboutway back here. The Saint Jude Novena continues there every Tuesday. The Jude  novena is considered perpetual. Until the end of time, and for the believer and participant, until you are in “the happiness of heaven.”

I recently talked to an elderly woman and veteran of that battle for Jude near the Hoboken border, and she told me she still goes to Saint Lucy’s for Tuesday prayers. She will not go to Saint Michael’s, mainly because of how the transition was handled. Emotional connections to belief always run strongest of all human feelings; look at the Shia/Sunni wars, the 100 years war, or the millions Atheists spend to get under God stricken from the Pledge.

Sure enough, check out the cardboard sign on the Saint Lucy statue – Novena services are being held here, a secret society, praying to the Patron Saint of Lost Causes  &Desperate Situations, uninterested in any official sanction by Catholic Church Authorities. 30 years later, there people who gather here to pray outside, even though the shrine in that church is in another church just six blocks away. Now, these folks for whom the cardboard sign is for, they still go to another church for their Sunday obligations, yet for Jude those prayers are still said here, where they had been going since childhood.

But thus is the conflict between Faith, and Religion. The latter is man-made and subject to whims of history and who is in power, like all things man-made, imperfect and biased; the former is between God and each individual soul.

 In 1548, Pope Paul III, granted a plenary indulgence to all who visited St. Judo’s Tomb in the Vatican. This indicates a thriving devotion to St. Jude that most likely existed for centuries before then. In fact, earlier church records show that in 1153, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, requested that a relic of St. Jude be placed on his chest and buried with him. In the 13th Century, Saint Bridgett of Sweden, a renowned catholic visionary, in one of her mystical visions proclaimed the sacredness of devotions to Saint Jude. Scholars conclude, that centuries before P-3 acknowledged Jude devotions, those devotions were popular among the people.  Saint Jude devotions, including veneration of Saint Jude relics (after martyrdom in Persia, his remains were sent to Rome and he is interred at the Vatican), were never part of the dispensation and indulgence that so enraged Luther and led to the Reformation. Saint Jude (not Iscariot,  as Saint John’s Gospel refers to him) is the people’s saint and never tainted by the justifiable Protestant arguments.

Saint Michael has scaled back their novena devotions and eliminated their special 7:15 PM feast day mass – there are prayers at that time – so, for the first time since 1986, there will not be a special Saint Jude Mass at the church that houses the only Saint Jude Shrine in Jersey City.  Irony thinly camouflages tragedy.

The Saint Jude statue at Saint Lucy has also been vandalized. The “flame” – the holy spirit, as depicted in the Acts of The Apostles – atop his head has been broken and it looks like his hands have been marred by paint. I was here in November and didn’t notice this apparent destruction so the act was recent. Here’s an older picture, compare and contrast.


Saint Jude is about commitment to prayer. We ask for intercession, we verbalize heart-felt supplications. Saint Jude embodies the love of God; He knows what is in your heart. We are never alone. Ultimately, the answer to prayer is prayer, a kind of eastern paradox, a sort of gnosis that Pope Benedict touches on his Encyclical on the virtue of hope . Saint Jude gives us hope.

The Saint Jude Prayers and accompanying novenas are not to Saint Jude . They ask Saint Jude to pray for us. A Saint Jude statue is considered “big box office” by most pastors, because of the popularity among the people, have a Saint Jude statue, donations will follow. But Church leaders hardly ever actively encourage Saint Jude devotions.

The Archdiocese of Newark or New York never issues statements about Saint Jude on his feast day. Compare that to their annual Proclamations for Saint Patrick. This benign neglect – tantamount to a soft suppression  – is evidenced in Jersey City by the Saint Lucy Jude devotion continuing outside of sanctioned circles while at the same time Holy Rosary ended  its weekly devotion to Jude (and Saint Anthony and Saint Joseph) a couple of years ago and Saint Michael drastically cutting back its Jude Novena and Feast Day services.

Well, we’re all under financial constraints aren’t we? There’s good excuses aren’t there?

Jersey City has a rich catholic tradition, but the fact is the Jersey City churches are now more memorials to that tradition than its living embodiments.

Attendance has steadily declined even as the population in town soars. It’s not only the hipster spawn  of those authority-rejecting baby boomers not going to church, but this attendance decline is apparent in Hispanic and other communities, who are traditionally catholic and also growing in numbers.  The declines are not being off-set, they’re happening in every community.

What about the Italian Feast, whose wonderful services at Holy Rosary are well-attended,  Most of that parish lives in the suburbs now, and when the feast is not taking places, the pews are more empty than filled. Holy Rosary is supported by patrons who go elsewhere on Sunday (Suburban churches in New Jersey are doing surprisingly well). When August is over, so their reunion.

In Jersey City, catholic schools are closing or merging (then closing) and Mass Attendance is getting lower and lower. Parishioner rolls are falling off, there is scuttlebutt that one or more of the remaining downtown churches will close in 2013 (Saint Peter and Saint Boniface closed in the 00s).

What is happening in Jersey City is happening all over the world, well in the rest of the United States and Europe and much of South America at least.

Gee, do you think that protecting child-rapists, promoting anti-gay bigotry and opposing birth-control as part of healthcare plans while knowing the majority of married and unmarried Catholics use birth control,  might have taken a  toll on attendance and contributions, especially in already pro-choice urban enclaves? You think?

 A smaller but more orthodoxly pure church: what a load of crap. Hypocrisy has driven people away, and distracts from the good work, like the St, Lucy shelter in downtown or the indisputable fact that the Catholic Church is the largest provider of healthcare in Africa!

With U. S.  church leaders (thank God for Pope Francis!) conducting themselves like they have been in recent decades, who is going to miss, much less notice, their local revival of Jude devotion suppression?

I guess I’m the only one noticing it and most ears are deaf to my cry.

I believe in my soul. I believe in your soul  too but I also believe that’s your business and your responsibility and living in the same world that you do I have to tell you that my hands are full right now trying to act on what I believe. I can’t be bothered about what you believe, think or feel. I have my own doubts and challenges.

You want preaching, condemnation or affirmation, go to another blog.

I am only able to tell you some things about the Jude traditions. The rest is up to you.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Hamilton Park

It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was being screened outdoors.

The event wasn’t publicized, it was meant to be and remained an ultra-local presentation by the Hamilton Park neighborhood association.  I was walking through the park, as I am oft to do, and there in the dark in the distance by the gazebo was the familiar Peanuts characters. Linus and Sally waiting for the great pumpkin and instantly I’m back in childhood watching this on TV with the rest of the family knowing that the next day or two I would go trick or treating. One year I was the Wolfman, a rubber mask I bought at this five and dime in Westwood and I turned my winter gloves inside out, to show the fake-fur.

There was a crowd, parents and kids, mostly young kids, under ten, but a few older ones and many more toddlers, they were silent, enthralled. Most of the parents were a couple (be kind) of years younger than me but this particular film has been part of the American Halloween experience since 1966. I wasn’t the only one wallowing in nostalgic childhood memories.

One of the organizers told me they hope to show more films here. The screen was an inflatable thing. The projection was so crisp and clear. It looked great. Historians should note this was the first film shown in Hamilton Park. (I am totally making this up but it also might be true).

Ten years ago, before the remodeling built dog runs, the local dog owners would let their canines run wild – a few still don’t use enclosed areas. The play ground area was a tiny island that had to have a wire fence erected around it to protect toddlers from the dogs of irresponsible pet owners. Local winos and homeless would hang out too, but in limited numbers. There used to be drug dealers some say, but that was in the 80s before I moved here.

Now the dogs are happy in their enclosures and new Halloween memories are being created. I have no doubt that when these kids have kids that It’s A Great Pumpkin will be part of their childhoods too, and they’ll remember watching the Peanuts Special with their mom’s and dad’s back in the park in Jersey City. No one will remember the time when unleashed dogs ruled the grounds.

Halloween proves that summer is over and initiates the holiday celebrations that welcome winter and when that hangover begins to fade way on January 1 it will be too cold to hang out in the park at night for extended periods of time and all we can do is hope for an early spring. Halloween is harvest and masquerade and a recognition of the supernatural and mystery, the core of which is death.  Halloween is about play and imagination, maybe it helps children to cope with what is new to their young minds – the burden of mortality. That, and free candy.

Sally and Linus wait in the pumpkin patch, Charlie Brown poses for a Jack o’ Lantern, Snoopy on his doghouse fling the Sopwith Camel in his World War I film within a film. I haven’t seen this in years. Peanuts has been part of Halloween for damn near half a century. It is Halloween, especially for kids – there’s still a few years of innocence before they go to the young adult Halloween bacchanals in their ironic and outlandish costumes.  Most of the kids here were more than a decade away from taking the Path to the Village Halloween parade. I wonder how many Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke twerking costume couples will be there next week.

But here’s the real Halloween, or perhaps the one in the end we most fondly remember. Being with the parents and the siblings, enjoying autumn’s soft chill in the evening air, watching It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We want the masquerade and the candy and we will wait all night in the Pumpkin Patch for the Great Pumpkin to appear. The nightmare before Christmas. Actually, Ghost Busters was shown next, but the temperature was dropping and the younger kids lost interest (it's a way over-rated film) and the crowd quickly shrank. When it comes to Halloween, who can compete with Charlie Brown & the gang, except for the Simpsons or South Park. But not in Hamilton Park, where Halloween innocence lasted one more night.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Graveyard Titus: Lite & Dark

Titus Andronicus

By William Shakespeare

 By William Shakespeare
As performed by the Hudson Shakespeare Company

 October 18, 2013 The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cove Cemetery

I must admit, I prefer a darker Titus. The Hudson Shakespeare Company’s  rendition, directed by Jon Ciccarelli, was more horror comedy, like those Scream movies, and lacked a seriousness I associate with this play. I like having my preconceptions challenged , as the action unfolded, I became caught up in the over-the-top, high-energy performance. A concluding gesture invoked the dark tragedy that eluded some of the actors, thus reedeming  this Titus.

Titus is pulpy, the violence seemingly over the top. The black comedy choice is a reasonable one, and at times the violence depicted by the Hudson Shakespeare Company reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. We laugh at the cruelty in spite of ourselves because we know we all share the potential for cruelty, given the right set of circumstances. Slapstick is violent and This Titus – performed in the Harsimus Cove Cemetery, although other performances are scheduled throughout the region, see website – was much informed by a slapstick ethos.  

Titus is dark and violent – Harold Bloom, who hates the play – I  LOVE Titus Andronicus –  thinks the violence is meant as farce – but it is Shakespeare most unalloyed  nightmare; it’s like a Jim Thompson novel and there’s no weird Shakespeare conceits like ghosts and witches. Titus is my favorite problem play!

Apparently, there’s a revival of Titus going on, there’s a recent film that was well received and scholars praising it, which Bloom acknowledges. For a long time, Titus was dismissed by scholars – such as my under-grad Shakespeare professor. Maybe Titus has found his moment.

 I think Bloom has no appreciation of noir – he doesn’t put any noir novels in his canon, he’s lacks enthusiasm for Poe although Cormac McCarthy he likes.

The violence in Titus is in your face – a woman is raped and maimed on stage, cannibalism occurs. Murders abound.

Interpreting Titus Andronicus as blood-drenched farce is not without precedent. The stage was in the Harsimus Cove  cemetery, which was freaky and discomforting but added to the fun. Maybe dwelling into the horror that is Titus would have been too intense in a setting where the sense of our own mortality is such an undeniable and constant reminder.

October, a literal chill in the air. Eeriness permeated.

The Hudson players indulge their fight scenes and a rather elaborate staging opened the play, which served to introduce the actors and show the core conflict of the Adronici and the Goths.

Titus Andronicus takes place in ancient Rome. I think in some ways Shakespeare is criticizing the violent and absolute system of honor in the ancient world, which was bloodthirsty and considered life cheap.  Titus is a gory enterprise, wallows in this extreme violence – Harold Bloom compared enjoying the play to sadomasochism and the Bardalator in chief  may have a point, but who doesn’t like it rough once in a while?

Titus is outrageously gory – decapitations, murders, rape, maiming, cannibalism – and do we go into this Heart of Darkness or do we keep it at distance through comedy, and the Hudson players chose the latter, with admittedly good effect. Chuckling in the graveyard – this night both figurative and literal in meaning – we do this to evade the ultimate facts of life – fragile and temporary and the horrors that are real far exceed what we can imagine. Maybe that’s the essence of the gallows humor and underlying subtext  which the Hudson Players, aided by the cemetery stage, explored.

 The Hudson players wore contemporary dress – and Aaron – played by Michael Hagins, who performed Shakespeare other, more famous moor last summer – used a smart phone as a prop, implying a kind of corporate evil. Aaron is Shakespeare’s most pure villain, his dies with the regret that he didn’t do more evil. Hagins chose to portray him as psychotic, and at the end when he’s executed, he is leering and has a joker laugh, foaming at the mouth as he welcomes death.

Aaron embodies evil, he believes in evil for evil’s sake. Tamora is devoted to Aaron, thus follows his recommendation that her sons rape Lavina, justified as a revenge for Titus murdering her eldest sons (by hacking off his limbs than burning him alive).

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Titus is Shakespeare at his pulpy best, the play being his most plot-driven. In lieu of fully excavating the dark depths of the characters, the players emphasized the fantastical story, which made some fun and excitement.

To facilitate matters, the troupe opened up in a stage fight and that served to introduce the core conflict of the play. Titus Andronicus (Joseph Hoover)  and his family fight, in loyal service to Emperor of Rome, fight and defeat the Goths. So after the stage fighting, the Goths, led by the queen of the Goths, Tamora (Noelle Fair) are captured, and Titus orders the death of her eldest son. Titus lost 21 of his 24 sons in the battle with the Goths.

Marcus (Tom Cox), brother of Titus, suggests Titus stand for emperor, but he backs Saturninus (Chris Kent) for the office. The new empower wants Titus’s daughter, Lavina (Lisa LaGrande) as his wife, but she is betrothed to Bassianus (Ian Kiric) and Titus sons help her escape.

Bassianus and the brothers insist that the empower is not above the laws of Rome and thus cannot force Lavina to be his wife. Titus is devoted to the Emperor and considers the office above all law. What was Titus the general for if not in support of the absolute power of the monarchy? An enraged Titus executer  his own son, Mutius (Linda Elizabeth) because he abetted the escape of Lavina, thus going against the emperor.

 Tamora is a prototypical femme fatale, a conniving seductress who becomes the wife of the emperor. But, she loves the moor and will give birth to his son. Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius  are persuaded by Aaron to kill Bassianus and rape Lavina. In what was some of the best acting of the evening, Lavina pleads with Tamora more for her maidenhood than for her life, spare her from her son’s “worse than killing lust.”

The appeal to feminine solidarity – how could a queen, a woman of power knowing how difficult it is for a woman to gain power –  was devastatingly tangible. How could she treat a sister this way, encourage and enable rape? The overall direction may have underscored the black comedy inherent in Titus, but there were a handful of crucially placed darker truths that while I may wish there were more of them, they were compelling when they did appear and serve to ground the performance to the dark truths of Titus.  The ravishing – and maiming – the sons cut off her hands and cut out her tongue to prevent Lavina from revealing their identities.  These acts were perpetrated behind a curtain, but the actress blood curdling shrieks echoed throughout the cemetery.

LaGrande had some incredible moments, imploring Tamora, appealing to an innate feminism and there was a vital pause as Fair slowly transmigrates her soul completely over to the dark side, but the pause – and the hesitation it encapsulated – enhanced the ambiguity in the character – before her embrace of evil, an evil that is identical in outcome  as Titus’s adherence to codes of honor prevalent in antiquity that Shakespeare is both depicting and criticizing.  The hesitation enriched Tamora.

 Tamora’s ambiguity?

Is the femme fatale innately bad to the bone or she bad to the bone because of the suppression of women in antiquity and in Elizabethan society?

If you were properly dressed (I wore a scarf), the October chill was actually refreshing and made me wish there were more Fall evening events around town. The graveyard was also a more preferable setting than Van Vorst Park, where I usually take in these Hudson County Players; further away from the street, there’s hardly any traffic noise, although the occasional PATH train issued a faraway clatter.

Marcus discovers Lavina, now in tattered apparel, sleeves pulled over her hands to simulate the maiming, who is cowering with trauma among the tombstones, a clever if necessary use of the cemetery setting. It’s a challenging role, especially in a drama so verbal as Shakespeare, to basically act by whimpers and gestures. She embodied the pathos, used it as grotesque comedy when appropriate. The rest of the Andronici try to figure out who did this to her and she is unable to communicate, seen and not heard.  She symbolizes how Elizabethan (and other era’s) women must have felt – without a voice – especially in the world of arranged marriages, a custom that indirectly led to Lavina’s abject, pitiable state.

Lavina’s performance was moving, you could not take your eyes off her – you felt her pain and frustration. My only gripe is that they used their elbows to write the names of her attackers in the dirt, instead of using a stick held with her mouth and between her stumps, as Shakespeare’s stage direction describes. The bard had so few stage directions, and this one is so ripe with pathos and weirdness, I was sorry to see it ignored.

The  other woman in the play, Tamora, is ruled by revenge and lust, both nightmare and fantasy. She is later seen with the emperor, both adjusting their clothes, implying they just had sex and in a few scenes she is groping on the ground with Aaron, which was hilarious.

A victim without the power of expression or a ruthless, insatiable slut. I doubt few women in the Elizabethan audience did not get his social commentary.

Aaron, who has  then convinces Titus, exploiting the same ancient-world honor that led the general to slay a disobedient son, to cut off his hand and then reveals he has murdered his other sons by tossing their severed heads, then his hand, at the now crazed Titus (in an unfortunate ad-lib, Hagins yelped “go long” which tested my tolerance for their comic take on Titus).  

The play itself seems to play with time, or Shakespeare did not really pay it much mind because Tamora does give birth to Aaron’s son – at one point she does appear comically pregnant – and Aaron is given the baby, he kills the nurse, and flees with the child to find refuge with the Goths. It is unclear as to how much time has passed between the opening of the play and the birth of the child, but anticipating cinema, Shakespeare also was not one to let the plot interfere with a good story.

Titus sends his son Lucius to rise an army among his former enemy among the Goths and sends pleas to the gods – instead of shooting arrows, he tosses small scrolls, a nice touch – which leads Tamora to falsely conclude that he is mad and disguises herself – as revenge –  and her sons – as rape and murder – to fool Titus into believing they  his prayers were answered. Titus is considered the first tragedy by Shakespeare, and is an early play and you see many of the tropes – disguise, mistaken identity, feigned madness, shifting allegiance – he utilizes throughout the magnificent oeuvre. By this point, the climax of the play, the farcical elements are in full gale force.  The actor adopts what sounded like a Marlon Brando in the Godfather impression, again testing my patience, but by now I had become invested in their take on Titus. Titus had a shaved head and wore military garb– Aaron and Saturninus and Marcus wore suit and tie – and I wondered if the wardrobe selection was meant to imply commentary on the corporate and military allegiance taking over our democracy in the current era, perhaps the Brando mimickery and the military garb was a reference to Apocalypse Now, that Heart of Darkness where Colonel Kurtz becomes at one with our own inner savage. But this interchange also lended itself to comedy – Titus convinces Tamora – as Revenge – who is dressed as a sexy Satan, horns and tail and for no apparent reasons except for the sight gag, has her sons – Rape and Murder – on leashes and is whipping them forward.

Even those unfamiliar either know or can guess the rest --- Tamora as revenge, leaves and Titus with Lavina kills and beheads the sons. The final scene has Titus wearing a bloody apron and of course, serves the mother her sons and then kills Lavina, Titus, the emperor,  and himself.  It’s horrifying, maybe too horrifying to allow yourself to feel empathy and thus comedy offers some psychological refuge for the players and audience. Nonetheless, for laughs or for shock value, the war never ended  for Titus when the play began.

Lucius returns to this carnage, with Aaron, who in exchange for the baby’s life, revealed the Tamora’s scheme to Lucius.



The final lines are given to Marcus, in what I believed was a truncated revision of the final scene – my edition has different final lines and they are spoken by Lucius. (I only note this, and only realized it when I got home and re-read the play. I think messing with Shakespeare is basically fine and should be encouraged because Shakespeare will triumph over any modification).

Aaron, bound and lost to his psychosis , is executed. Aaron’s evil is treated as a mental illness – some scholars feel that his pure malevolence is a reaction to the racism of the society, and there’s references to his soul being like his skin – black as coal – but Hagins seemed to prefer a post-racial pathology. His final gestures, bound, laughing, leering, on his knees, swaying back and froth n – were creepy and seemed to rapidly shed the comic attributes he exhibited in the earlier scene. It was a nifty trick, suddenly shattering our expectations.

Which brings me to the final gesture.  What happens to the love-child of Tamora and her evil moor lover is never specified in the play. In the final speech that concludes the nightmare, Marcus indicates that the “issue” should be destroyed.  And a surviving Andronicus son – Young Lucius (Elizabeth again, who was excellent in another bit of business where “he” kills a fly and leads to an interchange with Titus about the “new course of action,) holds the same knife to the baby. That’s how that scene closes, a baby is slain. The sins of the fathers (and mothers) can only be atoned by the death of their sons – an essential tenet of ancient Rome, which Renaissance society both emulated and transcended. Okay, so maybe some of the over-the-top antics had to be tolerated – although many were enjoyable – but in the end, with this gesture, the truth of Titus was understood. Evil and honor are two sides of the same kind, and often what distinguished them is arbitrary, depending on who is in power. That just isn’t a truth for the ancient world, but for our current world of constant war.

Titus, like Macbeth, returns victorious, but what is the psychic price of spilling all that blood for the sake of king and country? What is worse, to eat your children or to force someone to eat theirs? Is the price of being subject to the ultimate revenge any worse than seeking that same revenge?

Maybe I did not love this Titus, but this Titus inspired those same disquieting queries Titus always does. Maybe I like violence. Not in real life, I’m a meek and mild guy and avoid confrontations.  I hate actual violence. I abhor war. But in films, novels, plays – fiction – I love it. It’s perfect drama – a conflict that always leads to a resolution. I like it bloody, so I am not one to dismiss the violence –both real and imagined –  in Titus. Many do. But I welcome it, because without it we cannot truly understand evil or honor.

And Bloom – I disagree with him but dig this quote: “Nothing else by Shakespeare is so sublimely lunatic, it prophesizes not King Lear and Coriolanus, but Artaud.”

I love Artaud, one of my prized books is a collected works translated by Susan Sontag. Back in the punk rock days, I saw a one-man play of Artaud, who was considered a proto-punk. He wrote a famous review of Monkey Business, the Marx Brothers movie and of course invented the Theater of Cruelty. Whatever modern theater is, Artaud is an agreed-upon founder and maybe so is Titus.