Tuesday, 25 August 2015

MAGNOLIA, YOU SWEET THING (a poem): SPRINGSTEEN, ANNIE & ME

Forty years ago today, Born To Run was released, and Bruce Springsteen would soon be on the cover of Time magazine. It was just before that album came out, some time in July 1975, that my high school friend Bryan 'Snake' Sperry and I took a trip up to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, to hear Springsteen, outdoors, among a crowd of maybe 1,200 people. My college roommate Steve Berman, who grew up near Asbury Park, had introduced me to Springsteen's music when I taught at Georgetown Visitation Convent School and stayed with him while he was in law school at Catholic U.

Along with us on the trip was the Annie of this poem, Annie Donnelly, whom I'd met while I was teaching summer school at Wesleyan. I'd just met Tom Disch, who was also teaching there, on the bus up to Middletown (I've written about that here), and I sat in on his class, which Annie was taking. As it happened she was at Trinity, where Bryan had studied, and they knew each other a bit, I think. Anyway, for me it was coup de foudre, and I recall talking her into seeing the Boss. I also recall she not only came along, but drove, at breakneck pace, in her Beetle. I've had a fondness for Route 44 ever since I was hanging part way out the passenger's window, holding the side view mirror on. 

I've just moved house again, and I found this old photo: Annie & Bryan and Tanglewood in the summer of '75. I can see my enraptured state reflected in the way Annie looks. Of course it didn't last. And a few weeks later I moved to Montreal, to do a masters at McGill. I finished the poem in September, and it was published in 1976, titled 'The Morning After,' in a nice magazine called En Passant, which if I remember right was published in Delaware.
I collected it in Chump Change, which was the final Northern Lights chapbook, in 1991. Oddly, although it was the Springsteen anniversary that prompted my reprinting the poem here; the new title came to me a couple of weeks ago (it's from JJ Cale's song, obviously). I suspect I was remembering, without realising it, another 40th anniversary



MAGNOLIA, YOU SWEET THING

Old women force smiles & ask if it is hot enough for me.
Magnolia is still in heat; she attracts a crowd
Of suitors. It makes her nervous, having to deal with
Their anxieties. Eight in the morning & already
The dew has burned away. It will be as bad as yesterday
When I went crazy with the heat, or something.
The rest of the city is still asleep, sweating, except
For those watchers, and the panting dogs.
Annie sleeps, still.
I chase away
The puppie's would-be lovers; she doesn't seem
To miss them at all. She fetches sticks until symbolism
Begins to bore her. Chews one to splinters.
As we walk home
My feet start to stick to the pavement. Maggie waves
Her tongue in surrender. Mine feels tired too.
It is getting hotter. On the landing I look at
The neighbour's paper: three humans killed in Hartford
Last night. Not counting us. Someone will be murdered
Today; they will make tomorrow's paper. I will not
Be here to read about them.
Magnolia gets cold
Milk in her bowl. Annie wakes, leaves the bed,
Kisses me the way she clears the kitchen table
For her breakfast. If I were saner I would still be
Sleeping. The heat gets worse. It cannot last.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

LEV A.C. ROSEN'S DEPTH

Simone Pierce is a private eye in New York City, only this is a New York populated only in the tops of buildings which poke above a flooded east coast—the polar ice caps have melted and the city is an island cut off from the now-distant mainland, in effect what we know as Middle America is all that has survived. Simone's got two jobs, one a seemingly routine tail of a wayward husband, the other escorting a Spanish museum curator around a number to the city's tallest buildings, to see what may lie underneath the water. Then the husband she's tailing turns up dead, and her former police colleagues like her for the killing.

Lev Rosen's dystopia isn't unique, but using the setting for a detective novel is a nice touch: there's an innate darkness in the cold water that surrounds the remains of the city, giving the atmosphere, dare I say it? depths of noir. Rosen also uses it in the way the best dystopian fantasies are supposed to: as comment on our present day. Not just the ecological, but more importantly, the social: New York has always been an island home to those who don't fit into the mainstream of society, as well as the HQ for said mainstream: now it's somewhat different, isolated almost completely from a doctrinaire reactionary and puritanical fundamentalist government on the mainland. That Simone's best friend happens to be the mayor's top assistant, as well as part of one of the city's wealthiest families, gives her an interesting entree into both side of the equation.

The setting is remarkably consistent, if the future itself doesn't always catch up: for example devices like mobile phones don't seem to have progressed as far as they seem to have in just the past couple of years, much less a longer time, and you might assume surveillance would be far intensified from the levels it is now. The story itself starts to get very entangled, to the point it needs a somewhat cozy kind of parlour scene to explain things; this is magnified by the character focus being very firmly on Simone: and not always presenting a full-enough picture of those being investigated.

In fact, Depth reminded me of two rather disparate books. The story itself played out like Harper, the movie version of Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target. I kept seeing Paul Newman as Simone, or vice versa. But for the combination of dystopian sf and hard-boiled noir, Rosen may have produced the most satisfying mix since Richard Paul Russo's much uner-valued Carlucci series. Although Rosen delivers a powerhouse set-piece climax, the story does drag in the middle, but there is a lot of depth in Depth, and Simone's return would be welcome.

Depth by Lev AC Rosen
Titan Books £7.99 ISBN 9781783298631

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)


Monday, 17 August 2015

ROWDY RODDY PIPER: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Roddy Piper, the wrestler and actor, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. As you'll see, the last few grafs were mostly lost, in the time-honoured tradition of cutting from the bottom, but a few small points were lost along the way: I've expanded my original copy slightly to give slightly more detail than I imagined the Telegraph's audience would expect.

There is a danger in doing wrestling obits, trying to decide which pieces of biography are real and which are 'works', because the wrestling business is itself a work. Yet its denizens do come to believe in it: in a sense they are marks for their own work, and Piper no less than many others.

I also ignored the drug scene. Piper never had the genetics to become a muscle-freak, but I would not doubt that he used steroids. His recreational drug use became a matter of public record, and controversy, at least twice. I don't know if I'd add him to the long list of stars of the 80s and early 90s who've died young, but he's close. He gave an interview a few years ago in which he said he did not expect to reach 65--it was why he continued working, because he worried he would never be able to collect his WWF pension. I included that in my first, but then edited it out. It resonates with me still.

As it happened, I had shown my 11 year old son They Live just a couple of weeks before Piper's death. Nate was surprised; he'd liked the movie and liked Piper. I found him less convincing than I remembered (I hadn't seen it since it was released) but thought the movie might be even more relevant today. I also would have liked to have mentioned the incredible marathon fight scene with Keith David, which remains awesome but seemed more of a distraction thirty years on!


I think I was just about 11 when I first got into wrestling, the old WWWF from New York and Washington. It's a shame there's nothing as comparatively straight-forward for Nate to come to now. But Piper was one of the men who enabled that change of direction.

Here's the copy I filed to the Telegraph, slightly amended:

ROWDY RODDY PIPER:


'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, who has died aged 61, was a key performer during the explosion of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF—now known as WWE) to massive popularity in the 1980s. Considered by many the greatest 'heel' (or villain) wrestler ever, Piper sold his 'beserker' persona, capable of anything in or out of the ring, to gain credibility in an age dominated by steroid-fuelled muscle-men. More importantly, his ability to perform on microphone and camera meant he could create instant hatred with opponents and audiences alike, thus stoking the flames of money-making feuds. He was equally successful as a 'babyface' (or good-guy), often billed as hailing from Scotland, and entering the ring wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. 'Only people who can't draw money need belts (ie: championship titles)', he said. 'The only thing I need is a great opponent'.

His talent led to a second career on screen, though he never matched the success of his second leading role, in John Carpenter's excellent science fiction B movie, They Live (1988). Equipped with glasses that reveal aliens who have taken control of earth, Piper, armed with a shotgun, enters a busy bank and announces, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum!'

Born Roderick Frederick Coombs April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and descended from the secretary of state of the Confederate States of America, Piper had a fractious relationship with his father, at one time a member of the RCMP. He was expelled from junior high school for carrying a switchblade, and eventually ran away from home. He was only 15 when he made his wrestling debut in Winnipeg, against Larry 'the Axe' Henning. He made his entrance playing bagpipes, as 'Roddy the Piper', which quickly was shortened into his ring name.

At 19 he was wrestling full-time in California. NWA Hollywood promoter Gene LeBell taught him judo, and recognising his heel ability staged a feud with Mexican-American Chavo Guerrero and the entire Guerrero wrestling clan which, with its racial stereotyping, did huge business. At its peak Piper lost his hair versus a hair match to Chavo, and had his head shaved. This was followed by a 'loser leaves town' match, ith Piper leaving LA. But he returned, in disguise under a mask, as 'The Masked Canadian', wrestling as Chavo's tag-team partner, until he double-crossed the Mexican and started the feud again.

He moved to Don Owen's Pacific Northwest promotion, and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. He feuded with 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Mid-Atlantic before joining the fledgling World Championship Wrestling, Ted Turner's cable-television showpiece, in 1983. For the first time he played face when two heel wrestlers he managed turned on announcer Gordie Solie. He then reunited with Flair at Jim Crockett Promotions, turning villain again before leaving for the WWF. In his final match for Crockett, at Starrcade, wrestling's first pay-per-view broadcast, Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine broke Piper's eardrum during a dog-collar match, causing a permanent loss of hearing.

The WWF was going national, and supremo Vince McMahon gave Piper an television interview segment, Piper's Pit, where he smashed a coconut over the head of 'Superfly' Jimmy Snuka, mocking his Polynesian heritage, and starting another huge feud. But nothing matched 1985's 'War To Settle The Score', which saw Piper take on Hulk Hogan in a special aired on MTV, with Cyndi Lauper, Capt. Lou Albano, and the A-Team star Mr. T in Hogan's corner. This set up a tag-team at the first Wrestlemania, with Piper and 'Mr. Wonderful' Paul Orndorff against Hogan and Mr. T. Which led to Piper and Mr. T's boxing match as part of Wrestlemania II; Piper lost patience and body-slammed Mr. T senseless; losing the match by disqualification.

Piper established a unique role, able to take long absences, yet return to big events successfully, often interacting with mainstream celebrities, most notably when he hosed down right-ring talk-show host Morton Downey Jr at Wrestlemania V. This helped his burgeoning film career, which saw his first leading role in Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) another sf film in which he needs to rescue (and impregnate) some of the women who now run the earth but have been captured by mutant frogs. His later career was mostly confined to straight-to-video action films, but in recent years he'd played in the two Canadian Billy Owens fantasy films, a nostalgic wrestling film, Fancypants (2012), and the self-explanatory Pro Wrestlers Versus Zombies (2013).

Meanwhile he moved between promotions, including independents, capitalising on nostalgia. In 2005 he was inducted into the WWE's Hall Of Fame. He was treated successfully for Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2006, but resumed wrestling. He had predicted in a 2003 interview he would not reach age 65, blaming his lifestyle, and needed to continue earning. In 2009 he, Snuka, and Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat lost a handicap match to Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania XXV, and at Wrestlemania XXX, in 2014, Piper, Orndorff, Hogan, and Mr. T came together to bury the hatchet. He recently started a revival of the Portland Wrestling show, featuring his son Colt, whom he trained.

In 2013, Piper he and Kitty appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap with Flair and his girlfriend; Piper had been best-man for the first of Flair's four marriages. The programme featured his Oregon home, though he also lived in Hollywood. Piper died after a heart attack, in Hollywood, 31 July 2015. He is survived by Kitty, Colt, and four daughters. Ric Flair called him 'the most gifted entertainer in the history of pro wrestling'.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

MEMORIES OF FRANK GIFFORD

Remembering Frank Gifford brings back a lot of memories. I worked with him at ABC Sports, including once doing the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final with punter Dave Jennings as his 'expert' colour. Jennings messed up his standup three or four times and then when he finally got it right, Giff messed up his, so we had to tape again. That was a hoot. I was with him for many years at Kitzbuehl, once along with Kathie Lee soon after their marriage...he was one tired announcer! The estimable Mike Rosen, former editor of Sport magazine, was along to write for him, like a third wheel on a honeymoon. I recall my mother telling me about Kathie Lee bragging about their sex life at some golf tournament ABC was covering; I believe that was the Friday a couple of my colleagues and I celebrated our promotions by destroying Caramba  before returning to an empty office.

Gifford was a big part of the most iconic NFL game ever; he was the fallen warrior in the most iconic NFL photo ever, and the only sports star I know of to be the focus of one of the great American novels of the 20th century (Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes) and he was everything Exley worshipped, and more, and less.

He was probably a better player than people remember now, though of course his career suffered because of underuse early, under Steve Owen (corrected as soon as Jim Lee Howell became head coach and hired Vince Lombardi to run the offense) and because of the way carries were shared in those days and Lombardi didn't pass all that much to backs. He's still remembered primarily as the victim of Chuck Bednarik's tackle, and maybe for not getting a crucial first down in that 1958 championship game--he always insisted he'd made it but wasn't given the spot.

It struck me that his career followed closely Kyle Rote's (that's Rote, number 44, in the Bednarik picture). Rote was an even bigger college star, at SMU, as a tailback. He became a running back, then switched after injury to flanker, just as Gifford did. Rote, like Gifford and Charlie Conerly (who became a Marolboro man, did a lot of advertising when New York's Mad Men discovered the NFL in the late 50s (and his son Kyle, Jr. became a pro soccer star in the early NASL). Joe Morrison, to an extent, followed that pattern too.

On the downside, it was the professionalism of his approach when he presented NFL on C4 in 1986 that eventually inflicted the Vicious Boys on us, perhaps the first, and a very prescient, attempt to turn the sport into reality TV. He introduced British crews to the idea of wearing shorts and sneakers out of vision, with a jacket and tie above. He was a longtime ABC Sports host, and oh yeah, he was the referee between Howard Cosell & Dandy Don Meredith on MNF when it was the best NFL on TV. But he was basically a professional, subdued announcer--like his Giant's teammate Pat Summeral, but without as good a voice.

I remember an interview with him, I think it was in Esquire but it might have been Sport. He was asked about regrets. Gifford said 'you know, I was a quarterback in college. The Giants had Charlie Conerly, so they moved me to halfback.' The interviewer said, 'oh, so you wanted to play quarterback?' and Gifford replied, 'no, you don't understand. You see, I was a quarterback.'

That bittersweet regret, from a man who seemed to have everything, has stayed with me ever since. RIP Giff.

RICHARD SCHWEIKER, LIBERAL REPUBLICANS, AND JFK

Last week I couldn't get any papers here to take an obituary of Richard Schweiker, best-known as a liberal Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, but his career is fascinating for two reasons.First, he represents the last-gasp of the now virtually extinct 'liberal' wing of the Republican party. That wing, which was largely eastern, and which you might argue represented old Yankee money, was dominant in the party up until after the JFK assassination. They were the ones Time magazine idolised, and hence got a lot of respect in the household where I grew up, even though my parents were strict FDR Democrats.
Even the Republican rabid right, represented by Robert Taft of Ohio, was relatively moderate on social issues despite being vehemently anti-union and pro-business, while always pushing a militaristic foreign policy. The Republicans could occupy this political middle ground because the Dixiecrats, southern Democrats, were the far-right on social issues, specifically civil rights.


Goldwater's nomination in 1964 was the first break-through of the 'Cowboy', new-money: a more triumphalist greedy, defense-industry-dominated turn right. He lost heavily to LBJ, but Richard Nixon, basically an older-style Republican at heart, was brought along by that very new breed from California, and realised the southern states were there for the taking after LBJ got the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed. He approached this 'southern strategy' with coded reference to states rights, and by the time Reagan sought a second term, the 'solid south' was solidly GOP.
Schweiker was the prototype liberal Republican swimming against this flow. Although he inherited his family wealth (oddly, his liberal Republican counterpart in the state house in Pennsylvania, William Scranton, was also a child of inherited privilege) he possessed a keen social conscience, what the British might think of as noblesse oblige. The Republicans were full of them: Rockefellers, Chaffees, Cabots and Lodges, even Bushes. Representing some very wealthy Philadelphia suburbs as a congressman, then out-polling his party to win a Senate seat, he supported civil rights and Medicare, opposed Vietnam, and voted against Nixon's Supreme Court nominations of Haynesworth and Carswell, the Alito and Thomas of the 60s.
In 1976 Reagan, looking to balance the prospective Republican presidential ticket, announced Schweiker as his potential running mate. In this too-long running age of Don Ron's hagiography we forget Reagan started out as a 'liberal' and went with the flow of money and power to the right. Looking at Schweiker and the Great Prevaricator exchanging a reverse Republican high-five makes me think Richard Dreyfuss would play Schweiker in a bio-pic (with Will Ferrell or Dan Ackroyd as Reagan). But Reagan actually remained committed to some social programmes, just as Nixon had, which today's greed-is-good upwardly mobile tea partiers would rather forget. They forget about his raising taxes, and his major recession too, but memory isn't a strong point with the wingnut right, fast becoming America's de facto centre. More on this in a moment.
The second key thing about Schweiker was that he and Gary Hart headed the Senate's Church Committee's investigation in the role of the CIA and FBI in the investigation of the JFK assassination, and their conclusions, that the agencies had deliberately lied to, withheld information from, misled and misdirected the Warren Commission, created a firestorm. I'd recommend reading Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation (here's a link to my obit of Fonzi from the Independent in 2012). Schweizer had hired Fonzi, a Philadelphia journalist, as an investigator for the Church Committee; the book details among other things the interference by the intelligence agencies in the House Select Committee's JFK investigation which sprung from the Church and Pike reports. 

In May and June of 1976 Schweiker went public with his and Hart's conclusions. A few months later Vice President Gerald Ford, a Warren Commission member who was later shown to have been leaking the commission's workings to the intelligence agencies, managed to hang on to the nomination; he lost to Jimmy Carter and four years later when Reagan ran, Bob Dole was his VP. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, though we all know what happened to Gary Hart's presidential aspirations.

By coincidence, or not, Schweiker's voting record moved significantly to the right for the next four years, and in 1980 he did not contest his Senate seat. In 1981 Reagan appointed Schweiker secretary of Health and Human Resources; for the next two years he enacted many of the cuts Reagan had promised to Social Security, welfare, Medicare and the like, but can be said to have held them back from the draconian measures Reagan's backers were expecting. He left in 1983 to become head of the American Council of Life Insurance, a typical game-keeper to poacher move in the Beltway.
Ironically, Schweiker's Senate seat was taken by Arlen Specter, on the surface another 'liberal' Republican (he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1965, then switched back at the end of his career in 2009 while facing severe threats from the right--he then failed to get the Democrat nomination for the Senate in 2010). Specter's voting record had always been firmly on the Republican spectrum; you might say he played a liberal to placate an electorate used to voting for liberals. But more telling, given Schweiker's principled stance on the JFK assassination and the intelligence community, Specter's greatest claim to fame is that as counsel to the Warren Commission he invented the 'magic bullet' theory to explain away the idea that Kennedy and John Connally were hit, as Connally believed, and as the Zapruder film strongly suggests, by separate shots. If that were the case, there would be too many bullets for one assassin to have fired. Specter's stroke of genius saved Warren and has sparked criticism and argument for the past six decades. You might argue, in our post-Santorum era, the Keystone State deserves another Schweiker.


Monday, 3 August 2015

THE NFL IN MOURNING: MY JULY AMERICAN FOOTBALL COLUMN

While I was vacationing in Sweden and Denmark, my Friday Monthly Tight End column went up at nfluk.com, you can link to it here. It's a little essay about three NFL greats who died in July: Oakland Raiders' quarterback Ken 'Snake' Stabler, Detroit Lions' tight end Charlie Sanders, and Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger. Three greats who made three very different impacts on the game...