Wednesday 30 April 2014


Bob Hoskins was one of the key crime actors of the past forty years, and though he was a better and far more nuanced actor than his posthumous typecasting as a cockney or gangster might suggest, he was integral to a number of films which helped open up and redefine the crime genre. I would see Hoskins around occasionally, especially in Soho, often unkempt and dishevelled-looking, and always radiating an intensity which I think reflected in a very intelligent way through his films. He used that sense of intensity to suggest violence and dare you to miss what was happening underneath.

Starting with The Long Good Friday, which came out of nowhere (well, the Edinburgh Festival) to captivate me and rest of the London Film Festival and then go on to huge success. The film remains eerily prescient about Thatcherism and the 'New Britain' it spawned, and Hoskins' Harold Shand is absolutely perfect in his greedy arrogance. It remains perhaps the best British noir. And what's interesting too is the way Shand was the dark side of his Arthur Barker from Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven, who was actually dark enough underneath, which was partly why his Arthur is better than Steve Martin's, the other part being Hoskins' reluctance to play as much for sympathy.

He was a fine Owney Madden in Cotton Club, before playing George in Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (itself a sort of companion piece to The Crying Game) and in a non-crime context, opposite Maggie Smith in The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne. I mention the latter, which I think is one of his great roles, because his character in the film plays on the qualities he brought out in Pennies From Heaven and in Mona Lisa, a combination of need and very mundane hubris that he is never afraid to show.

Then of course came his signature role, as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If The Long Good Friday was prescient about Thatcherism, Roger Rabbit is, underneath the animation, like a sequel to Chinatown, or Chinatown crossed with Pennies From Heaven. It never stretches the audience's suspension of disbelief, at least not until the finale, and it plays with the conventions of the detective movie (and of cartoons) with far more conviction and far better than say Bugsy Malone.

Hoskins had a sideline playing historic figures. In crime terms, his J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's Nixon is as telling a stroke of supporting casting as Anthony Hopkins' was of casting a lead. I doubt anyone else will ever play both Hoover and Laurent Beria, which Hoskins did in Konchalovsky's The Inner Circle. Or, on a less notable level, could anyone else play both Pope John 23 and Mussolini? Hoskins did, though not in the same movie. Or both Churchill and Manuel Noriega?

He was an out and out villain, but with a cuddly exterior and at least some sense of guilt Felicia's Journey, opposite Elaine Cassidy, whose intensity makes his performance all the
 more disturbing. He was Verloc in Christopher Hampton's strangely listless version of The Secret Agent, but he was at his hardboiled best in Hollywoodland, in which Adiren Brody plays a detective investigating the suicide of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV. The film falls just short of excellent, partly by Brody's overly louche interpretation, but playing Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix Hoskins is again superb, playing for contrast against Diane Lane, his wife, who is having an affair with Reeves, which may be why Reeves' suicide wasn't suicide at all. Lane deserved a Supporting Actress Oscar, and Ben Affleck, as Reeves, gave what may be his best performance; Hoskins plays off both of them brilliantly.

There are a number of other excellent, often small, roles in non-crime movies throughout Hoskins' career, I'd single out his Mr Micawber in the BBC's David Copperfield for special notice. He could be comic, which everyone knew from Roger Rabbit or Mario Bros. and he could be absurd to the point of surreal, which is why he was so good in Brazil: he is one of the actors I would have most liked to see do Beckett.

But it is for crime movies that Hoskins' is likely to be remembered, for George in the star-shaped sunglasses, for Eddie Valiant with the toons, for Harold Shand looking back from the rear of a taxi, his dreams of a rich new world disappearing into the old violence. He was a great actor, and leaves a great legacy, even beyond those crime classics.

NOTE: This essay will also appear at Crime Time (

Wednesday 23 April 2014


My obit of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter is online at the Guardian now (link here) and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, which is good because it was very hard to write and stay within the word limit I was given; in the end, I exceeded it anyway.

I might have gone deeper into his boxing record had I the space, and one comment in the Guardian took me to task, but missed the point. I can't remember watching Carter fight at the time; oddly enough I watched more fights when I was slightly younger. But I have watched tape, and his record shows an umistakable decline after the loss to Giardello, his last fight of 1964, for which year Ring ranked him third among middleweights. He had dropped only two places, to fifth, in the 1965 ratings (published in March 1966) despite a record of 5-4 for the year. One loss was a unanimous decision to Dick Tiger, Ring's champion of the year (ironically Tiger would lose his title to Emile Griffith, whom Carter beat in '64). Tiger dominated the fight, knocking Carter down three times along the way. But Carter also lost in '65 to Harry Scott in London, and twice to Luis Manuel Rodriguez, neither of whom was ranked at middleweight.  Rodriquez was, however, the long-time number one contender (and brief champion) at welter behind Griffith, to whom he lost three out of four classic contests. Rodriquez was a master boxer, exactly the type who would give Carter the most problems. Of Carter's first four fights of 1966 (ie, before his arrest, I would discount the one afterwards, which he also lost) he won only one, losing to tenth-ranked Stan Harrington and unranked Johnny Morris. Obviously, Ring would not rate him for 1966.

The main element missing from the obit is the story of John Artis, 19 at the time, who was driving the car that night. After his arrest, and consistently throughout his imprisonment, Artis was offered the chance to testify against Carter, in return for lesser charges, or even, at one point, in return for taking the death penalty off the table. Some attributed that reluctance to fear, but when Carter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Artis spent two more years of his life helping care for him, something you do not do for a man who has led you into trouble, or of whom you were afraid. 

The big problem was trying to explain the murder case succinctly, and the secondary problem was that, as you do so, the basic question of guilt and innocence becomes more and more difficult to resolve. I was too young to follow the trial at the time, but later I found it hard to totally accept his innocence--not least because The 16th Round seemed so self-serving, designed to push the right buttons. I've also heard second-hand hearsay, from a friend I trust, who knew someone closely involved in the campaign of support for Carter, who told him the only problem with the success of the campaign was that Carter was guilty. When Carter beat up Carolyn Kelly while free between his trials (she was the Muslim bail-bondsman sent by Muhammad Ali to help raise funds) it opened the window of disbelief that for many people had been shut.

But my mind remained open because it's important to remember the times, and I did and do. Not only was Paterson a racial powder keg, but Carter had been portrayed in the Saturday Evening Post as encouraging violence against, as we used to say, 'the man', particularly a police force that was at best still committed to enforcing a sort of de facto segregation. The idea that Carter was a marked man because he was some sort of activist leader is an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the police knew who he was, because of his celebrity, his violent criminal record, and perhaps because of the Post comments (which Carter always denied). And there is no doubt that as an ex-con who was flaunting his success, he might have been a target of opportunity.

The case is a mess. The police work is at best sloppy, but it is quite easy to examine it and see the loopholes that would lead you to suspect witnesses were coached, coerced, or encouraged to testify in the most helpful way to the police case. The idea that they found in Carter's car one bullet each for a 12 gauge shotgun and a 32 pistol seems too pat, and the fact that the bullets took five days to be entered into evidence is in itself suspicious, as well as the fact that the .32 didn't match the bullets at the scene but did match police bullets.

And of course the witness testimony is fraught with problems, way beyond the utter lack of trustworthiness from Al Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley. At best the police seemed to be trying to over-egg the testimony, which Bello of course retracted and then unretracted. At worst they used the leverage they had over the two to get what they wanted. That he may have received offers from the Carter camp to retract doesn't boggle my mind or reverse what else might have been done. One of the interesting ideas I picked up while researching was to compare Bello and Carter, their records, their lives. Willie Marins' inability to identify Carter is a positive, but Hazel Tavis, the third victim, apparently did identify him before dying; even were that ID allowed in court, it would be have been challenged.

The police may have missed the boat by not using the revenge motive at the first trial. It not only provided an explanation of why, it fitted the angry profile of Carter at the time. Eddie Rawls' stepfather had been shot by the white man who'd sold him his bar; it was a business dispute but the killing was racially charged. If Carter had headed out on an impulse for revenge, it would then explain his car's movements after the shooting: including stopping at Rawls' place where weapons might have been stashed. By the time it was introduced at the second trial, it was indeed a play on racial prejudice (though, as I noted, it was not an all-white jury this time).

The hardest piece of evidence to dodge, so to speak, was Patty Graham (Patty Valentine) and her ID of the car, its taillights, and its plates. Her testimony never wavered, so you have to go back to her first statement and ID, and assume they were coerced or coached.

A conspiracy as badly organised as this one seems unlikely until you consider the spur of the moment nature it might have taken--if you're willing to consider the idea Carter killed on impulse, you must also consider the idea he was framed on a similar impulse. And it's hard to doubt that the malfeasance which freed Carter was real.
But the stongest argument in his favour is probably the post-facto: the man he turned himself into. Researching, I discovered that the young Rubin was a stutterer (possibly a response to a domineering father) who overcame it while in the Army. He made himself into a boxer, and he made himself, in prison, into a figure who could command respect for his non-violent efforts. After his release, he worked for victims of injustice. He was, I think, ill-served by the bio-pic, and I found the layer of ambiguity which persists something difficult to work around when writing his obit. But buried there is a tragedy and a story with inspiration; it is a morality tale from a violent time.

Friday 18 April 2014

CRYSTALS IN THEIR HEARTS: A Poem via Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Writing about Marquez this morning reminded me of this poem. I wrote Crystals In Their Hearts in July 1988, in London. The story was told to me by the woman to whom the poem is dedicated--she had attended the wedding of one of Marquez' sons in Mexico City and it did snow during the ceremony. It was Rania who, noticing the shelf of Latin American novels in my flat, gave me my copy of Love In The Time Of Cholera. It hardly seems 25 years ago. The poem was originally published by the marvelous Angela Ball in issue 52 of the Mississippi Review, in 1989. It was later published in Canada, in Shadowplay 3 (1992) and in Britain in Foolscap 17 (1993). I have revised it only slightly. 

                                                      for Rania

In the still & solemn silence of
A chill English summer,
Where things are things as they are.
You remembered for me
Marquez's son's wedding in Mexico City,
How his garden filled with snow which fell
From a sunny sky in the middle of May,
How it covered the maguey,
Formed fragile drifts
On bourgainvillea & hung
For long & frozen instants between the bars
Of the parrot's giant bamboo cage.

You said you were not surprised to find yourself
Covered with snowflakes that didn't melt.
It seemed natural in that setting that snow should fall,
That heat itself might disappear yet still
Be all around you, that the festering simmer
You also recalled, the tale of tropic disease
You told me, not be frozen out,
Not eradicated completely from your life.                                                             

                                                                          I felt
There was a shadow sitting shivering somewhere close
Behind us. Everything we said included
A sentence that was somehow left unsaid.

Next day, driving through the dimensionless
Countryside beyond Ware we felt
The temperature drop at least ten degrees
In half an hour. But we saw no snow.
This was just a flat & wet & gray landscape
Laid out by drizzle on a twisted road,
As magical as it would ever get for us. Yet
We waited. We said nothing more.
Still no snow fell.


You could argue that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the best, and possibly the most influential, novelist of the second half of the last century. One Hundred Years Of Solitude was near the top of my own list of the 20th Century's greatest novels, and it's one of those rare books that both appeals to critics and to the general non-literary public. Love In The Time Of Cholera is not all that far behind Solitude, and he wrote a number of other fine books.

He's often described as the major figure in 'magic realism', though that was a term he didn't have much time for. You might say he, and his contemporaries, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Puig, and others who made Latin American fiction so dynamic in the 70s and 80s were influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortazar and Alejo Carpentier—but they were also influenced by many more traditional story-tellers, not just in the Spanish language. And they were able to find a kind of fiction that reflected the illogically fantastic world of history and reality in Central and South America. What sets Marquez apart from his contemporaries is his sense of historical scope, matched only by Vargas Llosa, combined with a wide humanity, and a loving, humorous approach which can easily be absurdist, a sort of Vonnegut without the stand-up punch lines.

Gene Wolfe once said that magic realism was 'just fantasy written in Spanish' and there is a certain amount of truth in that too—I think these Latin American writers in the 70s were also using elements of that post-modern revolution of the Sixties, breaking down boundaries of fiction, and giving their own familiar tales a new spin. A similar thing was happening on a smaller scale in Canada; you'll think immediately of Michael Ondaatje, maybe early Margaret Atwood, but there were others, most notably Ray Smith and his novel Lord Nelson Tavern, who reflected a similar approach. Later, as the term magic realism took hold, its influence spread, and you can see it in everything from Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison to Tom Robbins.

I'm surprised that, as magnificent as One Hundred Years Of Solitude is, I don't remember better when and where and how I came to read it. But I don't. I recall vividly my beautiful Avon/Bard edition, which wasn't published until 1971, so it had to have been sometime after that, probably not long.

I do know by then I had read Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, in its 1967 Signet edition, another handsome paperback not unlike Pynchon's V, and with much of the same appeal. Hopscotch would later be reissued in a later Avon/Bard reprint—I should say that I could fill a shelf with those Bard translation of Latin novels, with their uniform look and imaginative covers. Hopscotch was what we might call post-modern; you read the novel and then went back and re-read it in a different order selected by Cortazar. You can see the link with Borges, and in its playfulness, the link to Marquez. The translation was by Gregory Rabassa, who would later do Solitude, and for it win the first-ever National Book Award for translation. Marquez has been well-served by his translators—Rabassa and then Edith Grossman.

So I may have come to Marquez via Cortazar, which would mean via Paul Blackburn. I remember reading Blackburn's poem 'The Watchers' in an old New Yorker in a doctor's waiting room; I think I was getting my head stitched up. A little research reveals it was the 10 December 1966 issue of the New Yorker, which means it was probably early 1967, and I was either 15 or 16. My poetic eyes had been opened by E.E. Cummings, but this was something new, another step forward. From there I then noticed somehow that Blackburn was the translator of End Of The Game, a collection of Cortazar's stories that would soon be retitled Blow Up, after the movie based on that story came out. That led me, in my own literary hopscotch,  to Hopscotch, and at some point, to Solitude.

And years later I would meet a woman who had attended Marquez's son's wedding in Mexico City, and it had snowed. I wrote a poem about that, which you can read here.

I have to say I knew even as I was reading the novel, it would be one of the greatest I would ever read, and nothing in the past four decades has changed that opinion. I have huge admiration for his other writing, Autumn Of The Patriarch and The General In His Labyrinth in particular, and as I say, with Cholera he came up with another novel whose beauty resonates on a vast human level. He was an astute journalist and a courageous figure politically—he was barred from the US for decades before Bill Clinton at last invited him to the White House. His politics remained on the left even as Vargas Llosa moved past the third way into a run at the Peruvian presidency as a free-marketeer. The feud which disturbed their friendship was personal, but the political differences widened and strengthened the rift. His memors read almost exactly as you'd expect, as if the magic and the realism were blended together out of personal history. His is an incomparable, illimitable vision.

Friday 11 April 2014

SURROUNDS (Montreal 1976): A Poem

I wrote this in Wiesbaden, Germany in April 1982, thinking about the lost but recent past . It was published in 1986 in Gil Ott's great magazine Paper Air (Philadelphia) and in 1993 in Tidepool (Hamilton, Ontario). I lived in Montreal from the summer of 1975 through December 1976, and oddly, from the first moment, whenever someone asked me where I was 'from' I would immediately reply 'Montreal'. 


                        (Montreal, 1976)

Outside, the whole mountain rises in silence.
Aimed at the East End, the cross shines on,
Sequined and secure. Below, only a few faces
Will remember to look up. I am climbing
The wooden stairs to the overlook while
The city glows, but does not burn.
Small pieces of the sky fall all around me.
A long time after I've reached the panorama,
I stare at heaven being patched with clouds.


I wrote a brief remembrance back in March of the boxing promoter Mickey Duff for the Guardian, where it ran two days ago. You can link to it here,  but here it is as written:

In the 1980s I dealt with many European boxing promoters on behalf of America's ABC Sports, and while Mickey Duff might not have been the easiest with whom to deal, he was the most entertaining. Virtually every negotiation went down to wire; I got Mickey to sign the contract for the McGuigan-Pedroza fight at Loftus Road while we sat at ringside during the preliminary bouts. Unlike many, once the deal was signed, Mickey was good to his word. He was also the only person who has ever accused me of telling the truth.

One summer I rang Mickey to see if a certain fighter might be able to fill an opening we had for a July programme. Mickey said his guy needed more time to prepare, but could I do August? I told him we had a date in August, but it was tentative and likely to be cancelled. When the August show was definitely off I rang Mickey out to courtesy to tell him. 'OK,' he told me. 'We'll take the July date'. 'We've already booked another fight,' I told him, and he exploded, asking how I could do that when I'd already offered it to him. 'Mickey,' I reminded him, 'you said your guy couldn't be ready.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'but I didn't know you were telling the truth'. I do miss the boxing world sometimes, and the boxing world will miss Mickey.

Tuesday 8 April 2014


My discussion of Peter Matthiessen, following my obit of him for the Guardian (see the preceding post and follow the link to catch up) have generated quite a bit of comment (sadly, not on the blog itself). Most of it had two strands. One came from a few people who felt Matthiessen was not a great fiction writer, that travel and the natural world in non-fiction was his strength. I'm inclined to agree with them--I've always found his fiction a bit studied, perhaps too much influenced by the kind of awareness of American literary roots espoused by his second cousin (once removed) F.O. Matthiessen. It's tempting to see the Shadow Country trilogy as marking a change in that.

The other point, made by many on the Guardian's comments page, as well as in emails to me, was about the CIA link. They ranged from the paranoid to an excellent comparison by my friend Michael Goldfarb to Norman Mailer's much underrated Harlot's Ghost. But Mailer's novel is less about the politics of the CIA than the old boy network, centered on Yale, that formed the early CIA. I have no doubt the CIA funded the Paris Review, as I implied in the obit, but I don't know what kind of spying Matthiessen did for the agency. Keeping an eye on lefties in Paris seems innocuous enough, but of course that's the way Matthiessen would have wanted it to seem.

Robin Ramsey, the editor of Lobster, for whom I have written a number of pieces, forwarded me an article from Lobster 50, 'The Fiction Of The State' (you can find it at Lobster, here) which I either missed or don't recall. It's by Richard Cummings, who was a part of that circle in some ways, and is best known for a controversial biography of Allard Lowenstein, Pied Piper, which alleged that the anti-war Democratic congressman, head of Americans for Democratic Action and an early critic of the official verdict in the Robert Kennedy assassination, had been a CIA agent (and a closeted gay). Lowenstein was murdered in 1980 by a student he had befriended in the 60s. Cummings was accused of relying on guilt by association to make his case--he has apparently confirmed his thesis with CIA files--but you'll see guilt by association makes up a part of the basis of 'The Fiction Of The State' as well. Which is to be expected, because the whole business is about associations.

It's a fascinating, if  impressionistic, article (a lot of the names would mean nothing to most of you reading it, but they encapsulate the New York literary world of the 50s and 60s). It's interesting because anyone involved in that world remains captivated by it yet somehow able to see themselves apart from it...which applies to Cummings every bit as much as to Matthiessen. The influence of this group resembles that of the British upper classes via Oxbridge. For example, Cummings' editor at Brazilier was Ned Chase. Ned's son is Chevy (like Wallace Shawn or Carly Simon, the entertainment world is littered with the children of  New York editors!). More importantly, people in big New York law firms, often Yalies themselves, were the core of the CIA.

But if Cummings be correct, and the CIA was seriously fighting communism by trying to control what writers wrote, or ensure that certain ideas got spread through magazines like The Paris Review or Encounter, it makes you wonder what they were thinking, who they thought the real enemy was. Of course James Jesus Angleton edited a poetry magazine at Yale, and it's tempting to think he and the agency thought they could save the world from communism by simply improving on their undergraduate publications. But it's more realistic to think that they feared uppity intellectuals outside their waspy sphere more then they did the threat of godless communism in Russia.

Cummings is believable on the way Matthiessen forced out Harold Humes, (pictured right) and quotes two of Matthiessen's wives as confirming the wider extent of Matthiessen's CIA work--Cummings believes his own book about the CIA's covert war against Ethiopa, and his Lowenstein book, were both victims of CIA plots initiated by Matthiesen. It's easy to accept, because it reinforces the idea that all this energy might have been better directed elsewhere, and it speaks to the essential banality of the authoritarian mindset which is behind intelligence, working as an arm protective of corporate interest.

There's so much gossip about who married whom or had affairs with whom or got their money from whom that Cummings becomes very hard to follow. You can't help but think there's an element of jealousy that he himself wasn't ever fully admitted to the club. But what I find most interesting isn't Matthiessen or Plimpton as much as the idea the CIA considered Clement Greenberg to be in the front line against communism, which basically validates the thesis of Serge Guibault's book How New York Stole The Idea Of Modern Art. I'd always thought Guibault over stated his case, and certainly failed to give enough credit to the art, because to do so would weaken his argument, but if Cummings be right, Guibault if anything understates his case.

Basically the CIA seems to have wasted a lot of money in terms of political gain. On the other hand, their artistic judgement seems better than, say, that of the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Arts Council. So maybe their mission statement and budget ought simply to be adjusted?

Sunday 6 April 2014


My obituary of the writer Peter Matthiessen is up at the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here, and it should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it quickly, to a flexible word length. A few things were cut out, and some explanations added it, but mostly it is as I wrote it.

The most extensive loss was my second graf:
No less than his work, Matthiessen's life embodied the nature of opposites beloved in the Zen Buddhist philosophy he practised. Beyond the dichotomy of fiction and fiction, Matthiessen was able to found the pre-eminent literary journal, The Paris Review, while working for the CIA. And his journey to radical politics and alternative life-style never saw him abandon the elite New York society from which he came, right down to living in the smart east end of Long Island.
I felt the point about the Zen nature of his life was an important one to make, particularly because his final novel seemed so strongly to encompass opposites. And though some of the specifics are covered later in the obit (hence the cut) I actually would have liked to take a little more time to explore the contradictions in his atrician New York life style and his earthy proto-hippie explorer quality. It was something that is very American upper-class--another small item cut was my mention that while at Hotchkiss he withdrew his name from the family's listing in the Social Register; yet proceeded on to Yale, and continued to live the life-style of the elite. I also mentioned that he'd been at school with George Plimpton, a fellow founder of the Paris Review, and a close copy of Matthiessen, right down to writing for Sports Illustrated--Plimpton explored professional sports the way Matthiessen explored the natural world. They were both elegant in that strong patrician way, the kind of men who wear seersucker that never wrinkles. Perhaps my interest reflects all the time I have spent in this country!You can seen the connection when people compare those Americans to the same sort of English, more prevalent in the pre-Thatcher years than now, a sort of transcontinental Oxbridge centered on America's prep (ie: British 'public') schools and our Oxbridge of Yale and Harvard. Of course, if America were Britain, Matthiessen would have probably been presenting wildlife programmes, a la David Attenborough.

These were the men recruited for the CIA in its early days, and although the taint of having spied on his fellow expats never seemed to stick to Matthiessen, it was interesting the way he always moved to distance his magazine from his own work. Yet anyone following the funding dispersed by the CIA in that period could hardly doubt that some of it must have made its way to the Paris Review. The question inflames some people, like Elia Kazan informing on fellow-travelers, yet here it doesn't quite makes its way into Philby territory, perhaps another difference between the American faux-aristocracy and the British.

That life style is interesting too because Matthiessen's house on Long Island was a meeting place for New York's literary world, which was a potent mixture of WASPy upper crust and urban immigrant-types, mostly Jews. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, if you please. From this mix emerged the bright world of post-war American fiction. I seem to recall reading an Esquire piece about a highly competitive softball game organised out there, but I couldn't dig up the reference.

Mathiessen was quite funny about the way Timothy Leary ruined the world of LSD for everyone, by making such a fuss the government was almost forced to make it illegal. I wanted to include Matthiessen's take on Leary, but didn't; in the end, the single mention of him went too. His trip to New Guinea in 1961, which became Under The Mountain Wall, was made with Michael Rockefeller, who later would disappear, and appears to have been killed and eaten by cannibals.

I found it interesting too that his father was awarded an OBE for his camouflage designs for merchant convoys during the war (that was cut) and that his father's cousin was F.O. Matthiessen, the legendary professor of American Studies at Harvard, whose book, American Renaissance, was one of the first and still one of the classic looks at the great writers who seem to have in part inspired Matthiessen's fiction (I didn't have space for that rumination!). The Watson trilogy might be compared to Melville or Twain, you could also mention Faulkner, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, or James Carlos Blake.

But the important thing was Matthiessen's writing, and trying to explain the nature of its appeal, both to the most intense literary types and to casual readers of travel, exploration, and nature. A few British comparisons occur to me now, but although many are elegant, they are more concerned with the phenomenology of travel, not the dissection of the spirit of the natural world. In this, Peter Matthiessen was one of a kind.

Saturday 5 April 2014


The human voice has the power to make your spine tingle, and mine tingled a couple of times watching 20 Feet From Stardom. It wasn't just the singing itself, though that was fantastic, but also the switch flipped by memory, as the emotional impact of some of the wonderful, miraculous songs of my youth brought back with them the sense of freedom and promise they offered. As Darlene Love sang Da Doo Ron Ron, the magic of her voice transported me, and the impact was all the more moving when you realise their music was affecting, and does affect, those incredible back-up singers in the same way.

The feeling was very much the same as when I saw Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (link here to what I wrote in 2009) a very similar story of the overlooked musicians behind so many hits. That movie was fueled by the same transformative nostalgia, and by the sort of deliverance that seeing these talents recognised formally, on the larger stage, brought. But the impact of voice transcends even the Funk Brothers; Joan Osborne, talented as she is, could not match Martha Reeves' vocals in that film; and few could match the talents of Love, Merry Clayton, or Lisa Fischer in this one.

Fischer, for me, was the revelation. Most of us know Darlene Love, knew that she sang the Crystals' hits without credit, knew the details. Many of us were aware of Merry Clayton's vocals on Gimme Shelter, but it was Claudia Lennear from the Ikettes, who then toured with the Stones. I suspect there is a sense that, first, her vocals were diminished in the public eye by her looks, by her obvious attraction to Mick Jagger. Indeed, it's hard not to grin along as you see the dissolute Mick grin as he recalls those days. Until you listen again, and hear, isolated, Merry singing 'rape,'s just a shot away', and you remember Altamont, and the way things changed, and how untouched their Satanic majesties seemed to be.

And I sense that the amazing things Lisa Fischer has done on tour with the Stones for the past twenty years of their Satanic dotage may be overlooked as well, because the place of the woman back-up singer in that band is the epitome of the problem of anonymity, not the solution to it, and because many of us pay little attention to the endless revival tours. Lennear is fascinating because she is now a teacher (the only one of the singers interviewed who is not still in the business) and seems unique in her lack of desire for a solo career. Because otherwise, that inability to make the jump to stardom, the jump across that twenty feet to the solo mike, is the theme of the film.

Looks are part of the equation, of course (Lennear actually blushes when, after discounting her beauty, she is reminded that, at her peak, she posed for Playboy), and Tata Vega is blunt in pointing out her own 'shortcomings'. Footage of Tina Turner and the Ikettes (with Ike in his Beatle wig pimp-playing behind) reminded me of watching them perform Proud Mary on TV, and looking up to see my father in the doorway, his head bobbing in rhythm with the Ikettes steam-wheel bouncing. 'They sing good,' was his verdict.

But it goes beyond that. Love, who had the looks, had her career stalled perversely by Phil Spector, both at the start, when he kept her anonymous (though why the Blossoms, who stunned us on Shindig every week, never made it bigger is a huge wonder) and later, when he bought her contract back from Gamble & Huff and buried her a second time for reasons that are never even hinted at. There has to be some story beyond Spector's own weirdness behind it all. Love gave up music, cleaned houses, until the sheer pain of the emptiness that came from not using her God-given gifts brought her back.

Bruce Springsteen, whose interviews are passionate and thoughtful, makes a key point. Solo singers, he explains, need a lot of help to get things right: producers, A&R people to choose material, arrangers, publicity. Think of the whole Mike Appel/Jon Landau affect on his career. Everything needs to be in sync and the singer has to be willing to make the efforts and sacrifices required.

The obvious corollary to this isn't explored by the film but it's a simple point: the backup singers of that era, who came up through soul and R&B music, and then were brought into rock primarily by British acts who wanted that sound, were in a position to make solo breakthroughs precisely at the time when rock music moved to the singer-songwriter formula, or singer-player if you were someone like Bonnie Raitt. The film reinforces this dilemma, unconsciously, when Merry Clayton sings 'Southern Man', giving Neil Young's angry song a hugely intensified power and force. But I found myself thinking,as thrilling as it is, it might be a hard sell to the wider audience, and it's difficult to be able to reinterpret whole albums full of material so impressively.

Along the way the point is made that today's talent contest 'reality' TV shows encourage singers who can belt out the notes but don't have the feel, yet they are transformed into stars. This, I assume, is why Judith Hill appears—the only member of a 'younger' generation. Hill had already sung with Michael Jackson and launched a solo career when she took part in a 'reality' show called The Voice. We see Hill at the piano, working on her own songs, but I couldn't help but wonder if she was there simply to draw in a younger audience that watches their singers in Simon Cowell World.

Not that it makes a difference. In the end the music, as it should, triumphs, and along with it the undiminished spirit of these singers. Watching the Waters sitting around a table, and Oren's unbridled enthusiasm as he speaks, just like when they sing, simply compels you to match his smile. For those of us of a certain age, the breakthrough of music in the 1960s was not just a cultural rebellion, it was an expression of freedom and change. The idea that such freedom could often run aground on the rocks of cultural (and business) reality, is sad. The beauty of this music appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show was the way it tore the programme itself apart. And now we are back in a world of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, only now it feeds directly into the musical mainstream. Which is why watching Darlene Love and Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer sent chills up my spine. And hearing them sing reminds me of what being human is all about. Da Doo Ron Ron.