Friday, March 2, 2012
Flipping through the channels---I don't have cable so the loop isn't long---I land on an episode of the Monkees in which the boys blow the lid off the art world. Liberace performs a dada piano recital, bludgeoning a piano with a sledgehammer while crooks, led by Vic Tayback as a corrupt museum guard, try to recruit Peter Tork to forge art masterpieces. Now these shows today are quaint and obviously low budget but I loved the series as a kid, loved the Monkees albums and how they looked on TV and album covers. Mickey was my favorite. I liked people who were in groups but stood out from the pack--like Mickey with his fro and kaftan and like the catchers on baseball teams with their unique gloves and added padding. My sense of fashion is still informed by the 60's Monkees featuring wide belts and flare pants, butterfly collars on paisley shirts with extra cuff buttons.
There's another episode right after the Liberace. It's a Monkees marathon--Davy Jones died a couple of days ago. Frank Zappa makes a cameo appearance---take that all you who still maintain the Monkees were
Flashback a few years…I vividly recall fighting with my sister over which Monkees album we should buy with our combined allowances---I wanted "More of the Monkees" and I think she was rooting for "Pisces Aquarius and Jones Ltd". It must have been around the same time that we met the Monkees outside of a Holiday Inn in Birmingham AL. Our family was cruising around town--running errands--and then we kids waited in the car while my parents went into the hospital to visit someone infirm. We heard on the radio that the Monkees were in town and my mom and dad figured out that they were probably staying near the arena and sure enough we saw a group of teenaged girls milling around the nearest Holiday Inn. My dad, who could and did talk to anyone about anything, got out of the car to investigate. He returned a few minutes later to fill us in on the lowdown. The boys would be down in about a half hour and if we were waiting by the elevators we'd likely get to see them and maybe get an autograph if we were lucky. We spent those 30 minutes tearing up lined sheets of notebook paper into what we thought were acceptable sized rectangles worthy of TV rock stars' signatures. Which wound up being about the size of a credit card. Every time someone appeared in the corridors leading to and from the motel rooms our hearts raced. It was April 11, 1969.
"There's the guy I was talking to," my dad pointed out the busiest looking person. "He had a silly British accent. Sounded fake." The fact that my dad was wearing a suit--he was always wearing a suit--certainly helped his fact finding mission into the fringe of the entourage. The boys finally appeared and we got our autographs and some witty banter--Davy drew a flower next to his signature and Mike made a funny remark looking down over his shoulder about that---likely a well-rehearsed line but it was spontaneous comedy gold to us. Mickey got in the limo and fluffed his fro. No recollections of Peter (he didn't join this tour, a fact I discovered while looking up the date of this encounter). I like to think that one of us Clarks said something funny, too. We can be a somewhat hilarious family when we're working as a team.
Our cherished Monkee autographs disappeared like ephemera usually does in one of our many moves. Maybe Davy's flowery signature is tucked in a copy of "Pisces Aquarius Jones Ltd" (my sister won), waiting to be discovered by a budding Monkees fan who needs some used vinyl for her
new vintage turntable.
Monday, December 5, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
A couple of days in the country was about all my Dad could handle before getting restless for civilization---which meant a 60 mile drive to Nashville to see the latest James Bond film or something that was getting good reviews in the papers. As the eldest son, I usually rode shotgun on these trips. I'm not sure what inspired this more ambitious road trip, but one day in mid-August we left McEwen TN for another small town, Dayton. Dad wanted to see the home of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" which had been dramatized in a famous play and film called "Inherit the Wind".
I was 16 and about to enter my senior year of high school in Tampa. My dad was a preacher & teacher & also an in-demand lecturer on Creationism. He travelled the country talking about the subject in scientific as well as Biblical terms and was well-versed in both areas of study (after my dad passed away two years ago his sister Retta revealed that he'd been accepted into MIT but couldn't afford the housing). My dad collected everything he could find ever printed on the subject of Evolution (my passion is creativity and I have the same penchant for books and articles on Surrealism). We were used to traveling together, I'd been with him to various parts of the US by plane & car---sometimes I'd read aloud to him from the scriptures or a book of non-fiction as he drove. So the 200 miles to Dayton was an easy trip for us. As we pulled into Dayton, the first thing I noticed were the whittlers. Old guys in overalls with wood chips piled up around their feet. My dad could talk to anyone anywhere (like the time he talked his way past security and management to meet the Monkees or our visit to Nauvoo, Illinois: both subjects of future essays). He kneels down and starts talking to the old timers. I take the lens cap off my camera and begin taking photos. One guy points with a whittled stick indicating "yonder" and says we need to talk to the guy in the cafe about the Monkey Trial and boy howdy sure he remembers the hoopla "clear as day…it was the Trial of the Century". And he wasn't exaggerating. The trial was conceived as a publicity stunt in 1925 to bring attention to the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee and in that ambition it succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. The nation's two greatest orators--William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense---focused the eyes and ears of the nation on Dayton---the first live nationwide radio feed broadcast the proceedings and numerous reporters--among them H.L. Mencken---sent daily dispatches to their home newspapers describing the drama of the trial.
We walked down the street to Robinson's drug store and its tiny tables where the whole scheme was hatched. In the 1920s the drug store was the social center of small town America where people gossiped and chatted over soda pop & phosphates. Newspapers dubbed Robinson's pharmacist "The Hustling Druggist" in honor of his role as the mastermind of the whole circus. We started talking to some more old timers there who were happy to share their memories of the events and they started pulling photos from the archives out. I took more pictures. Dad could tell we were on to something. He gave me a five dollar bill & told me to get a couple of legal pads. This was exciting stuff and we were there, documenting memories and faces and the stories they told us. The game was afoot. Suddenly we were a team of investigative journalists. They took us to the courthouse & gave us a tour. It was undergoing renovations so there wasn't a lot to see there but we could feel the power of history, the energy of the focal point of "The Trial of the Century" though more than 50 years have passed the hype is still lingering like an aftershock, feeding off the energy field of an oversized historical behemoth celebrity entity. The Famous Hyped Event. A genuine and uniquely American invention. Both real and phony. Kind of like Elvis.
On the drive back to my grandparent's house, we heard the news. The King is dead. Elvis had died that day in Memphis. Every radio station was playing his music. Celebrities and fans were calling in with anecdotes and memories. Everyone seemed to be in shock. This road trip was teaching us something about America and Americans. Fame, fortune, how the blazing spotlights of publicity machines can blind one's eyes or drain one's soul---I'm not sure exactly what those lessons were. Probably nothing that profound. But it was something to talk about. And we talked and listened to each other and Elvis and other Americans on that long ride home.
I realize now the real gift from that day is the memory of the last big road trip I took with my dad, just me & him on that road. A great adventure under our belts. He loved to quote his favorite author G.K. Chesterton, who realized he'd taken the wrong train and instead of being angry or depressed was exultant: "Adventure!". I don't know if he ever wrote anything about the Dayton trip (but my mom recalls so much of what he told her---excitedly of course---about the findings of our mission). I do know that some of the photos from that day would show up randomly in our family reunion slideshows and inspire the usual wisecracks about our '70s clothes and expressions but I would always think about the sheer excitement of dashing to buy a legal pad for my dad so he could get the story. We were collaborating as father & son and living life to the fullest on that day. My dad was a great preacher and orator but he was also a writer, cartoonist, printer and comedian. And a marvelous father and husband and friend and mentor. Ultimately, a great enthusiast for life. He had more fun than any of us on trips to theme parks and tourist attractions, unafraid to exclaim "This is fantastic!". Of course, places like Disney World make it easier for everyone to have somewhat artificial adventures for the inflated price of admission. But what I treasure even more are those memories of adventures in the real world. Adventures open to anyone, anywhere and anytime but so often overlooked in the rush of our daily lives. Nothing elaborate or expensive needed. My dad and his notebook and pens. And me with my camera and Kodachrome. Both of us sharing the enthusiasm of curiosity and the joy of life, investigating and reporting our findings.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Every fan of film comedy should be familiar with Preston Sturges, the writer/director who practically invented the so-called “Screwball Comedies” popular in the 1930s and 40s. There’s a crash course in the art of Sturges in a box set of DVDs called “Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection” (Universal 2006). With seven films in this set, one could become a true fan of Sturges in a week’s time---although if you want to go out on Saturday night, the weakest film of the bunch “The Great Moment” is non-required viewing. At least two of the bunch are solid classics: “The Lady Eve” starring Henry Fonda and “Sullivan’s Travels” with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (she of the ravishing peek-a-boo hairdo). Part of the fun of watching these films is the brilliant thespian work of Sturges’ “stock company”---a group of character actors who each performed in several of his films. The most recognizable of these actors is William Demarest--who played Uncle Charlie in the “My Three Sons” TV series-- a guy who personifies the term “irascible”. Incredibly, these seven films were made during 1940 through 1944---a remarkable feat still unmatched today by anyone.
Monday, August 30, 2010
American artists of the twentieth century. Miller’s essay, "Patchen: Man of Anger and Light" appeared Henry Miller turned me on to Kenneth Patchen, one of the greatest obscure unsung in a sublime book of essays entitled "Stand Still Like the Hummingbird". I began haunting used book and thrift stores, searching for the name of "Patchen" on the spines of old volumes. Eventually I began finding his books, he was quite prolific, dozens of titles were published (mainly by New Directions) in his lifetime (1911-1972). Patchen was born in Niles, Ohio and died in Palo Alto, California. In his time on earth he was a poet, novelist, playwright, visual artist and jazz-poetry pioneer. His concept of "the Total Book" was best exemplified by the rare, limited editions of his poetry and prose, in which fine bindings, experimental typography and one of a kind paintings actually brushed by hand onto the book’s covers combined to make each object a unique, lively, valuable work of vital pulsating creativity. Here’s a fragment of dialogue from SLEEPERS AWAKE:
"It is time that books began to whirl and dance…"
I thought you said writing books was bad.
"I’ve changed my mind. It is time that books be allowed to open into the unknown…."
What does that mean?
"Books must be allowed to get out of hand, to wander off on their own account…."
Listen to Ferlinghetti: "The first modern poet I ever heard of was Kenneth Patchen, when I was living in Greenwich Village about 1939. He and Kenneth Rexroth were the greatest political poets of the period after the second world war, and they were great love poets too. They are kind of the fathers of our generation of poets….Along with Henry Miller they were a kind of dissident triumvirate to me and were saying things no other poets or writers were saying."
If you are interested in avant-garde American literature you need to be at least aware of Patchen and at best become well-versed with his life and work.