OH, THE LIFE LOOKED SO BEAUTIFUL

“Sister Act,” a profile of the German twins Gisela Getty and Jutta Winkelmann in the May 2018 issue of Vanity Fair, reminds me of another disturbing side of the hippie era. The two celebrity “cosmic flower children” are portrayed as the antithesis of the poor underage runaways-turned-beggars who populated Haight-Ashbury a few years earlier, desperate for a better life than they’d had growing up.

No, these two had access to anything – and anyone – they wanted. They were already the Jet Set, slumming for fun during the day and partying with the rich-and-famous at night. Or the other way around, depending.

The photos made their stylish life look so beautiful. Much more so than the rundown places where most of us were living or the clothing we wore.

Their biggest leap into the spotlight came when Gisela, then 24, became engaged to marry oil-fortune heir J. Paul Getty III, age 17, shortly before he was kidnapped and held for ransom – and had his right ear severed and mailed away as proof during a five-month ordeal. His abduction itself may have been prompted by his own wayward wanderings and musings. They did marry after his release, though it had its problems leading to divorce.

So just what upsets me so in the article by Mark Rozzo?

I think of social activist Saul Alinsky’s revulsion at the yippies and the like, perceiving that their actions actually harmed efforts for political and economic justice.

Over the years since, too few dreamers have stepped up to do the nitty-gritty daily labor toward these ends – a protest march is superficial in contrast to serving on a board or writing to officials or work on campaigns for office.

The article also has me recalling an op-ed piece in the New York Times in the early ’70s that noted six types of hippies – and a huge gap in the middle of the range. In the upper categories were altruistic social reformers, artists and poets, spiritual practitioners – the ones I celebrate. In the lower categories, though, were misfits who had little ambition and few abilities. Ultimately, the two extremes had little in common.

Rozzo’s depicted counterculture is self-indulgent, narcissistic, rife with drugs and promiscuity, and celebrity connections like actor Dennis Hopper and his machine guns. This is the Revolution of Peace & Love? Or its spoiled countercurrent?

What a waste, I mutter. What a waste.

What did they contribute to the common good? What was their vision for a better world? They had so much to begin with, they could have supported so much.

The very tempting beauty they embodied winds up feeling hollow, even venomous.

Pipe dreams, then. There’s so much we lost that still haunts me.

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LETTING THE POET SPEAK FOR HIMSELF

I had long been perplexed why my modern American poetry class in the late ’60s had spent so much time on Edwin Arlington Robinson, especially since we never got up to more pressing figures like Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, or Gary Snyder.

I made a jab at this plaint in my Daffodil Sunrise novel, where our budding photographer was panicking while typing away on his take on Robinson.

More recently, when reworking that manuscript into Daffodil Uprising, I found myself running with the poet more fully.

For one thing, I had to admit he was more contemporary than I’d allowed back in college. His lines and insights are clean, prescient of new approaches, even snippy.

For another, he could be bitter, sarcastic, depressed – as were many beats and budding hippies.

Edwin Arlington Robinson. I still think he looks like a proto-hippie.

His parents themselves weren’t that far from bohemian, either. His mother couldn’t even come up with a name for him, after all, and that fell to a circle of “summer people” visiting Maine. They put names in a hat or whatever and the slip of paper that came up was Edwin. The woman was from Arlington, Massachusetts. Bingo. We have a middle name.

His eldest brother went from being a successful businessman to bankrupt and alcoholic to die in poverty with tuberculosis.

His other brother, a physician, became addicted to morphine and died of what might have been an intentional overdose.

Living the past 31 years in northern New England, I’m now familiar with the culture Robinson grew up within. Gardiner, Maine, is a few hours up the road from us. I have friends whose roots are there.

Without giving a spoiler, let me say Robinson is now an active figure in the new novel. He infuses some wonderful, if sardonic, perspectives to the younger generation, and becomes a foil for similar spirits from the Edwardian past that sway the photographer’s girlfriend, too.

Would he talk this way, though? Who knows.

By now we’re dealing with fantasy, anyway, and that’s so unlike the concrete details of his verse. Again, we’ll excuse ourselves with poetic license.

CELEBRATING 50 YEARS ON A SINGLE PODIUM

Okay, I know churches don’t have podiums for their music directors, but Rick Gremlitz at First Parish Church (UCC) in our town does conduct with a short white baton. What’s amazing is that he’s been doing this, in that venue, for a half century.

Among other things, the house of worship – serving the oldest congregation in the state – has its Belknap concert series where world-renowned organists perform on a remarkable hybrid organ. Parts of it are historic, as it Hastings and Hutchins, and part are state-of-the-art electronics, probably installed during Rick’s tenure. Any doubts in my mind about the sound itself vanished when bete-noir Cameron Carpenter did one unforgettable, amazing workout on the machine one afternoon a few years ago. It survived. The audience was left in a swoon.

Look, I’m a purist and lean toward the E. Power Biggs line of thinking that contrasts sharply with the Virgil Fox excesses that Rick adores. He addresses the man as the great Virgil Fox. I forgive him. We all have our icons.

So be it.

In his ministry, Rick’s led a number of Handel Messiah performances in the sanctuary. Last year it became an open sing with prepared soloists and two guest conductors. Seated between two seasoned voices, I discovered that the choruses are easier than they sound, not that I was anywhere near perfect. It was a most exhilarating event.

Today, though, Rick’s acclaimed friend Hector Olivera returns to the console, with a twist.

An ecumenical community choir, including yours truly, has been rehearsing to join in the performance.

We’ll be performing the world premiere of an anthem composed by Kevin Siegfried for the occasion, and we’ve been rehearsing weekly since mid-September at the Methodist church. How can you possibly keep something like this a surprise?

We’ll see. It’s still a special occasion. And, I might add, one of the joys of living in a relatively small community.

I’m hoping it comes off well. Especially if I don’t miss a cue while we’re singing.

ONE WAY TO NAME A CHARACTER

Those highway signs can often take on whimsical readings.

One poetry journal, for instance, took its name from an exit marker of the Interstate crossing from Pennsylvania into Maryland: Northwest Rising Sun. It was for two different towns. Everybody knows the sun rises in the east, not the west. Still, a great name. It pays to be alert.

Likewise, orchestral conductor David Zinman was recording with humorist P.D.Q. Bach (in real life, Peter Schickele) but found his contract with another label prohibited him from using his own name on this project. What could he use instead? Inspiration struck when he was driving on Route 128 outside Boston. That exit sign read Newton Wayland.

More recently, while updating and seriously revising my previously published novels, I set about renaming many of the characters for a better fit.

I’ve passed this sign hundreds of times and often thought it sounded great as a possible character, if only I had the right situation. And then, as I reworked the volume that now stands as Daffodil Uprising, I had the perfect guy to go by the name: LEE MADBURY.

The sign along U.S. Route 4.

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALL TOUCHES OVER TIME

From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.

I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.

First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.

Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)

Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.

I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.

A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”

As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.

~*~

Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.

He was so prescient there.

ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Earlier this year, I updated the cover and tweaked the contents of my novel Hometown News.

I liked the new image, of a house on fire rather than one of a girl in autumn leaves. The story is, after all, about a community in crisis rather than the delights of living in idyllic repose.

The new image, however, challenged the use of placing the book title and author. The colors jump all over the place, and I just couldn’t figure out a way to drop the words in effectively. Well, you can see what I did. Still, I felt ambivalent about the results.

And then, a few weeks ago, I was looking at my revised lineup at Smashwords and sensed this one just didn’t quite match the style or tone of the others. Time for a few tweaks.

So here’s what we have now:

Hometown News

After this:

Hometown News

Which replaced this one:

Hometown News

The covers of my Smashwords editions originally paid homage to Richard Brautigan’s classic books of the ’60s, each of which had a portrait of a pretty young woman.

Any reactions?

SOMETHING MORE COMPELLING

Looking at my new lineup at Smashwords, I felt one cover just didn’t match.

The first round of my editions there had covers that were an homage to Richard Brautigan’s classic books of the ’60s, each of which had a portrait of a pretty young woman.

As I looked at the cover image, though, it felt dated. Looking closer, I realized it also didn’t reflect the edginess of the contents. I wanted something more compelling than a woman in quiet reflection.

So here’s what we have now:

Blue Rock

Rather than this:

Blue Rock

Whaddya think? For more, go to Blue Rock.