Romanticizing the Stoned: Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Morrison

After watching the documentary “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” a few months ago, I found myself in an unusual situation at 3am… still wide awake. Something about the whole thing had me riled up but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that thing was.

There was only one person I knew who might possibly have seen it. Since he gets up at some insane hour of the morning, I couldn’t call him and say, “Hey, this doco pissed me off for some reason and what did you think of it?” and “What the fuck? Johnny Depp, what the fuck???”

So I tossed and turned and when I finally did get to speak with him about it he couldn’t figure out why I was so worked up. OK, I admit it. He had a point. Nevertheless, I felt that something was terribly wrong with what I’d watched. And by the time I got off the phone I knew what had me pissed off. It was the deification of Thompson that had done me in.

Hell, why deify Thompson? He’d already done that himself… and made sure the faithful had an altar to gather around before he blew his buggy brains out. A big phallic altar in what had been, up till then, a pretty nice looking landscape. Sure, yah yah yah, Gonzo journalism gave us a few good quotable lines. But was Dr. Thompson enough of a genius to be a great writer without being drunk and/or stoned?

Or should that even be a litmus test for genius-ity?

What drew me into this brain drain again tonight was watching “When You’re Strange, a film about The Doors” that aired on PBS as part of the fabulous American Masters series. Again I found myself thinking, “There is nothing genius about being a stoned and drunken asshole! Do it sober and let’s see how much of a genius you really are.”

Was that really me thinking that? How the heck did I get to this point? Am I turning into my mother? After all, from age 14 through 30-something I rarely spent a day without some sort of drug or alcohol in me. I’d enjoyed Thompson’s writing back when. I was a huge fan of Morrison and The Doors back when too (still love ya, Ray). So… what is the problem?

I finally realized the drinking or drugging bothered me not at all. If people are driven or willing to go to the edge (or over) so they can reach inside and bring out a masterpiece or two or three then I say hurrah for them! And a round of absinthe and hydroponics for all of my friends! (wait, wasn’t that Mickey Rourke doing Bukowski in Barfly?). At any rate, I’m thankful to them all for the brilliant books or films or music or paintings or whatever it was they left behind.

What had me ticked off was the super-gigantic hypocrisy of worshiping the insanity rather than the work itself. The hypocrisy of a culture that raises drunken, drugged artists of one sort or another to ridiculous heights (and even ridiculously higher heights if they die young and/or commit suicide) and at the same time acts concerned about the ‘drug problem’ in this country and votes against legalization of medical marijuana and carries around plastic bottles of hand cleaner lest a germ land on their over-exercised stick bodies. The hypocrisy of living vicariously through a dead person.

And so what… what the fuck about Johnny Depp narrating the Hunter S. Thompson documentary?

Johnny Depp is the epitome of coolness. C’mon, just look at him! But it annoys me that he avidly worships screwed up nut bags. Hell, I too thought it was outrageously funny that Keith Richards told the world he’d snorted his father’s ashes! Bah, I was so disappointed when he crumbled under the outraged bluster of the washed masses and said he’d been joking… but… we know… he really did it! Still and all Johnny… Thompson too?

Now that I’m looking a bit closer, Johnny, you’re looking a little too old to be wearing your costumes on the street. Something I happen to know about since I do the same thing. I caught sight of my reflection in a window last year… black rasta hat, black jumper, sparkly shirt, old Docs…

and thought…

..

.

“If I had a mustache I could be mistaken for someone’s Italian great-grandmother.”

… And now that I have my Gonzo and The Lizard King and Mr. Depp puzzlement figured out and out of my head… I’m off to watch Jimmy Fallon.

Advertisements

Growing Up With Chopin: A Song To Remember (1945)

When I was a kid in the Bronx I was in love with The Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV (Channel 9). The same movies played for one week and again on Saturday and Sunday and I watched every single movie they showed all 9 times. It’s where I saw King Kong, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with Charles Laughton), The Crawling Eye, Rodan, The Giant Behemoth, Godzilla and other monster classics for the first time. It’s where I fell in love with Ronald Colman in “A Tale of Two Cities” and “If I Were King” and with other stars and with other movies with casts of thousands.

It’s also where I first saw “A Song To Remember.” The movie, a very Hollywood-ized version of the life of Frederic Chopin, starred Cornell Wilde, Merle Oberon, and Paul Muni. I was glued to the B&W TV set for every second of every showing. I hated George Sand for being so mean to Chopin. I loved that Chopin threw out lines something like, “I will not play before Czarist pigs!” I cried when he went on tour to raise cash for his Polish revolutionary friends, a tour that would most certainly kill him. And I sneaked peeks between my hands when he coughed drops of blood on to the piano keys during a performance of his Polonaise.

[from The NY Times Movie Archive: “The film’s money scene–the one that everyone talked about, keeping the picture “alive” long after its original release–occurs towards the end, when the tubercular Chopin begins hemorrhaging as he performs his {Polonaise} for the first time.”]

Hmmm. I don’t think it was Chopin’s first public performance of the Polonaise in that film but … memory is an odd thing. I remember him playing it earlier on for a salon full of people who were indignant about the ‘crudeness’ and ‘barbarism’ of the piece. Anyway… of course all of this likely never happened but it made a deep and lasting impression on me. I vowed that I too would grow up to be a revolutionary and die a painful, yet romantic, death for some great cause.

It was this movie that made me fall in love with classical piano music, particularly that of Chopin. I had no idea at the time who was doing the actual playing and only found out much later that it was Jose Iturbi:

“One of [Jose Iturbi’s] best-known movies was one in which he did not star or even appear. A Song to Remember—a 1944 heavily fictionalized biography of Chopin—was a much bigger hit than the acting or story rated. People saw this lukewarm movie because the music was superb. The music, of course, was provided by Iturbi, unseen. But word leaked out; Iturbi’s recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat quickly became a top seller and remained one for four years.”

Fortunately for me, my father and mother had at least one good idea as parents. While growing up we had “Music Weekends.” One Sunday we’d listen to my mother’s choices and the following Sunday we’d listen to our father’s choices. My mother enjoyed classical music and theatre and movie musical soundtracks. My father was a big band and jazz man. It was my mother who purchased the RCA album “60 Years of Music That America Loves Best (1959)” and that album gave me the first full length version of Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat. From the original 60 Years album, this is Iturbi playing the Polonaise:

Looking over the track list for “60 Years” brings back wonderful memories. Where else, as a 7 year old, would I have heard all of these musicians in one place? Enrico Caruso; Paul Whiteman; Vladimir Horowitz; Gene Austin; Sergei Rachmaninoff; Jeanette MacDonald; Nelson Eddy; Marian Anderson; Ignace Jan Paderewski; Artie Shaw; Jascha Heifetz; Arthur Fiedler; Fritz Kreisler; Glenn Miller; Leopold Stokowski; Benny Goodman; Duke Ellington; Freddy Martin; Tommy Dorsey; Frank Sinatra; Jose Iturbi; Perry Como; Jan Peerce; Artur Rubinstein; Eddy Arnold; Mario Lanza; Arturo Toscanini; Perez Prado; Hugo Winterhalter; and Harry Belafonte.

I didn’t care for all but I listened to all at least once and I listened to many over and over again. And I am forever grateful to my parents for those “Music Sundays” because they opened me up to all types of music, not just whatever was playing on the AM radio.

As for “A Song To Remember,” I’m trying to decide whether or not to watch it again. It was on TV years ago and I was thrilled to be able to see the movie I’d loved so much as a kid… until the movie started… and I found to my horror that it was not filmed in black and white as I’d seen it. It was a Technicolor nightmare! I had to turn it off as quickly as possible. If I do decide to watch it in the next month or two it will be after converting it to black and white.

Having disliked George Sand so much for how she treated Chopin in that film, I never noticed the wonderful costumes she was wearing:

[from the NY Times Review, January 26, 1945: “Merle Oberon is breath-takingly beautiful as George Sand, either in men’s attire or exquisite low-cut evening gowns.”

But since I do adore such things now… here are two costume photos of Merle Oberon as George Sand (by glamour photographer Robert Coburn taken while the film still had the working title “The Song That Lived Forever”), courtesy of the wonderful eBay seller Steve of HollywoodPaper:

Merle Oberon as George Sand in A Song To Remember (1945). Ph: Robert Coburn

Merle Oberon as George Sand in A Song To Remember (1945). Ph: Robert Coburn

A fun bit of trivia on IMDb regarding the photo in the second portrait: “Liberace, who was in 1945 performing as “Walter ‘Buster’ Keys,” stated that he got the idea of having an ornate candelabra on his piano from the scene in this film when Merle Oberon carries a candelabra into the darkened salon and places it on the piano to reveal Chopin as the pianist rather than Franz Liszt.”

And another about the music: “To play Chopin’s piano solos,Columbia Pictures first attempted to engage Artur Rubinstein, then Vladimir Horowitz. Rubinstein was offended when he was greeted by Columbia president Harry Cohn with a boisterous “Hiya, Ruby!” Horowitz got along better with Cohn, but did not wish to perform the severely cut versions of the Chopin pieces the film required.”

Which brings me around to what I meant to write about tonight… Vladimir Horowitz and the joy of music. Since I haven’t yet died a horrible though romantic death for some noble cause, I’ve added that to my ever-growing ‘write about this’ list and will get to it later or sooner.

What Gorilla? 1949 Photo of High Wire Stunt in Times Square NYC

Acme News Photo from my personal collection

“Nonsense Makes News (Second of Eleven) The movie industry is responsible for the great majority of publicity stunts and New York, as well as Hollywood, is frequently the scene of the shenanigans. To plug a movie about an ape, press agents strung a tight rope across Broadway and a stunt man, dressed as a gorilla, swung back and forth over over the heads of gasping crowds. Credit Line: Acme 6/8/51”

The gorilla stunt was to promote, of course, Mighty Joe Young which was playing at the Criterion Theatre (partial marquee shown lower right). The Criterion was across the street from the Hotel Astor where Blue Barron & Orchestra kept everyone dancing nightly

To the right of the gorilla’s right leg, the marquee of the Victoria Theatre shows Home of the Brave playing: “A sensitive, educated black man’s World War II-time problems.”

A billboard promoting A Streetcar Named Desire at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre stands above what is probably ad for Maxwell House Coffee (Good to the Last Drop… and with some of the most racist commercials ever.) Above the Streetcar billboard is one promoting Lost Boundaries: “This story is a true account of the lives of Scott and Marsha Carter.” [A review on Amazon calls this a “”Haunting Parable of US Race Relations.”]

In the distance a large neon sign advertises what I think is Miss Youth Form undergarments. Today, vintage Youth Form undies can be found for sale online.

The large statue above the Criterion Theatre marquee puzzled me. At first I thought it was part of the Criterion but a postcard of “Bond’s Clothes” posted on Flickr solved the mystery. The enormous art deco statue of a female was part of the Bond Store, “the cathedral of clothing,” and used to advertise “Apparel for Women.”

A photo of a guy in a gorilla suit hanging from a rope over Broadway is pretty cool in itself but the photo says more than a thousand words. Looking into the story of the Criterion brought me to back back back to 1895. The Criterion Theatre in the photo is not the original Criterion Theatre that stood at the northeast corner of Broadway at 44th Street.

The original Criterion Theatre began as part of Oscar Hammerstein’s colossal Olympia, a block-wide complex on the east side of Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets that included a theatre, a concert hall, a music hall, a roof garden and more.

The story of how the Olympia became a number of theatres run by Broadway producers Klaw & Erlanger, Charles Frohman and Florenz Ziegfeld is a fabulous story full of gossip, intrigue, love, betrayals, scandals, high hopes, and lawsuits. But of course! It’s Broadway!

It should not have surprised me to find Flo Ziegfeld threaded through the saga but it did. And Flo Ziegfeld is someone I know a little bit about. I will write up a short history of The Olympia from it’s beginnings in 1895 up through it’s various incarnations and post it as soon as I’m able.

High Anxiety: Neurotic Memories of Movie Theatres in the Bronx (1950s-1960s)

Odd how the tiniest thing can bring back paralyzing memories. Someone said they’d be interested in hearing about the Loew’s Paradise movie theatre in the Bronx after I mentioned I’d seen “Hard Day’s Night” there on opening day. I thought, ‘Simple enough. I’ll just go find some images of it and write.’

But once I started looking at photos of theatres I’d gone to as a kid I wondered if I’d ever even gone to the Paradise. I didn’t recognize it’s magnificent facade. So I looked at photos of other theatres in the Bronx. The more photos I looked at the more I found that I had no distinct memories of any of them. They’d all become one hazy huge theatre where certain things existed or happened.

My ‘Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’ had a beautiful ticket booth on an inlaid marble foyer, red carpets, wide stairs with polished brass banisters that led up to the balcony section, a huge domed ceiling painted like the sky with clouds and twinkling stars, and an enormous chandelier hanging precariously from the center point of the ceiling. I am unable to sort out which was which or what was where because I’ve been unable to find photos of the interiors taken before 1975.

Maybe distinct memories of each aren’t there because during those years movie palaces were the rule rather than the exception so the incredible architecture didn’t seem unusual enough for me to think to remember it… like others who grow up in NYC and have never been to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty (and I’ve been to neither) thinking ‘They’ll always be there, I can visit any time, I’ll get there sooner or later.’ Sadly that’s not always the case. Nothing is forever.

Or maybe I have no distinct memories of the theatres because my life as a young kid was one long anxiety attack exacerbated by two architectural features of the hazy theatre that terrified me: The enormous chandelier hanging from the center point of the incredibly high ceiling. And the seats at the balcony railing.

I have no idea what movie theatre had the scary giant chandelier and I cannot find any mention of such a thing anywhere. But I remember it with more clarity than I remember anything else about going to the movies as a kid. I always sat as far away from it’s perimeter as possible and then I’d stare at it the entire time I was inside. Why? Because I knew that at any second the chandelier was going to fall and kill everyone in the seats below and that I’d have to watch helplessly as it happened. Every visit I went through the same thing. Every visit was the visit it was definitely going to happen.

[Apparently I was ahead of the times. While looking for an image of a huge scary chandelier to include I came across the very funny “Falling Chandelier of Doom” on TV Tropes:

“For some reason Agnes’s practical eye was drawn to the huge chandelier that hung over the auditorium like a fantastic sea monster. Its thick rope disappeared into the darkness near the ceiling….

When in high-class surroundings, the standard way to create chaos or kill people is inevitably to drop the enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling. This is usually intentional on the part of the character (and strongly indicative of Badassitude), but occasionally it happens by accident. A frequent comedic subversion is for the hero to accidentally drop the chandelier on his own allies. This is most common in film and theater, since it exists mostly as a way to create a visually spectacular effect. Generally it’s a subtrope of Death by Looking Up. Might overlap with Impaled with Extreme Prejudice. “]

Balconies were a more generic theatre feature and probably all I went to as a kid had them. I wasn’t allowed to sit in the balcony until I was a teen which of course made it the most desirable place to sit in the theatre. I loved the balcony but always sat as far back from the railing as I could. Why? Because flashing across my eyes was not the movie but visions of myself falling over the railing and dying in a crushed heap on the floor below. Sitting back from the railing didn’t remove the anxiety. It just redirected it. I stared at the people sitting at the railing knowing that at any second one of them would fall and die and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.

[Apparently this actually happens… to really stupid people:

At the haunted Capitol Theatre in Willimantic, CT: “As it turns out, there is no record of any murders or stabbings, accidental or otherwise, having occurred in the Capitol Theater. The only known tragedy was when a woman fell from the balcony and died a few days later in a local hospital.”

and this past October at the Chicago Theater: “A man was critically hurt when he fell about 15 feet off a balcony Saturday night inside the Chicago Theatre. The 26-year-old man fell from a first-floor balcony onto a marble floor around 11:30 p.m., inside the theatre at 175 N. State St., police said. Police believe he was drunk when he fell. Foul play is not suspected. The rock band Widespread Panic played a 7 p.m. show at the venue.”

OK, so he didn’t die… yet. And how appropriate is it that a band named Widespread Panic was performing?]

Strangely enough, although I was a very young kid, no-one seemed to notice how stressed out I was or that I was oddly preoccupied with ‘death by chandelier’ and ‘death by movie balcony’ when I should have been having a good time.

My best (and perhaps only good) memory of ‘The Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’ is of sitting under a huge domed ceiling painted like the sky. It was dark blue with clouds and it twinkled with thousands of tiny stars. I was so enthralled by that vision, so beautiful and unreachable, that I remember nothing else about being there. Apparently the Loew’s Paradise on the Grand Concourse had such a ceiling but I don’t recognize the magnificent facade. I was thankful to find that the Paradise has been restored (except for the twinkling star lights) and is now a historic landmark. But had I ever really been there? Perhaps there were others that had similar domed ceilings?

The Palace theatre on Unionport Road was cheap so I spent most of my movie theatre time there. Perhaps it was this theatre that had kids matinees on the weekends? Hundreds of kids packed into the theatre free from the watchful eyes of parents… but not free from the watchful eyes of the dreaded ‘matrons.’ Dressed in white uniforms and white caps and carrying huge flashlights, the matrons patrolled the aisles of the theatre looking for anyone doing anything besides sitting quietly watching the movie. Woe to any kid caught misbehaving! I never misbehaved. I’d already been terrified into good public behavior by my mother and the matrons had nothing on her.

By the time I hit my early teens in 1960, the Palace was commonly known as The Dump. No-one said ‘Hey, wanna go see something at the Palace?’ It was always “Hey, let’s go see what’s playing at The Dump.’ I don’t remember it being particularly ‘dump-y’ but there was certainly nothing grand about it like the other theatres in the area. Perhaps there was balcony seating area? I remember a balcony area but that doesn’t mean it had one. And I remember making out on the balcony and smoking lots of cigarettes on the balcony and drinking from a pint of something being passed around on the balcony. In a seat not anywhere near the balcony railing, of course.

Anyone have a photo of the old Circle Marquee?

Or perhaps all that went on at the Circle Theater in Parkchester which is now either a shabby fitness center or abandoned. And which is where I most likely saw “Hard Day’s Night” on it’s opening day.

Going to the Circle was a wonderful treat. The Circle was a grand place with a beautiful ticket booth set on inlaid marble floors. I remember it having a balcony section too. Which means nothing. When I was about 10 my mother would occasionally take me along on her sacred ‘movie nights.’ She always went to the Circle on the weeknight they showed ‘Free Previews’ so that she could get more for her money. The ‘Previews’ weren’t previews. They were full length movies. After a double feature and a third full length ‘preview’ I could hardly feel my ass but it was worth it just to be out of the house after 7pm.

And there were other theatres (perhaps more parts of ‘The Hazy Bronx Movie Theatre(TM)’)…

The Globe on Pelham Parkway

The Loew's American on East Avenue

The RKO Fordham on Fordham Road

… and others I no longer recognize except for the names.

What I remember better and with better memories than the movie theatres are the places that were next door or on the way to them. Which I’ll leave for another time.

… so as it turned out (and as it usually does with me) looking back and writing about something I experienced is not as simple as it could or should be. I wish I had a better story to tell about the Loew’s Paradise but I can only tell my story… and this was it.

Acknowledgements:

Vintage Photos are from: Movie Theatres and Drive-Ins of New York City Part 3: The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island

Tom Waits: American Genius on Austin City Limits 1978

I hope you were lucky enough to catch at least one of the numerous reruns on PBS of Tom Waits live on Austin City Limits in 1978 over the holidays. If not you can watch it on their site. The video is very small and very dark but even so it makes for some amazing listening.

And if you’re using Firefox v9-9.01 and the page freezes… well, read my previous blog on Firefox to get the fix.

This concert was the first time ‘On The Nickle’ was heard. Which brings me back back back in time to when I lived on The Nickle… “My Blue Period” I call it… laughing at myself and still carrying that romanticized version of being down and out in Los Angeles over one long, hot summer. That story is to come…

To be followed by a rant on the butchering of the film “Romeo Is Bleeding,” titled after the song heard in this concert.

If anyone knows where to find a copy of Tom Wait’s “Big Time” video, please do tell!

Setlist:

Recorded December 5, 1978
  • Summertime/Burma Shave
  • Annie’s Back in Town/I Wish I Was in New Orleans
  • A Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Blue Gun
  • On the Nickel
  • Romeo is Bleeding
  • Silent Night/Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
  • Small Change