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Everything I know I Learned From Art


Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.



Nowhere Boy: Film Review

movie posterNow I know why I’ve always disliked the song “Julia”—the only Beatles song, other than the misogynist “Run For Your Life”—that I’ve ever said that about. It’s so dirge-like and mournful, so different from their usual upbeat fare, including their ballads. Having just seen Nowhere Boy, the story of John Lennon and his two mothers (Mother Julia and Aunt Mimi), I know why the song is such a downer: it is in fact a dirge, a kind of epitaph for the woman who gave birth to John and cared for him until he was five, when Mimi took and raised him.  Nowhere Boy brilliantly takes a slice of John’s life, short in duration but deeply significant, to create a film that encapsulates almost everything we  need to know about Lennon to understand the man and his music.


The movie opens with John as a 16-year-old madly in love with American rock ‘n’ roll, but with no musical knowledge or training.  Through a series of events he comes in contact with his mother, Julia, who he hasn’t seen since he was five. At that time his father tried to take him from her, planning to drag him off to New Zealand. Julia passively let him go, but her sister Mimi grabbed him from his father and, with her husband, raised him.

Mum is now remarried with two daughters, and thrilled to see her long-lost son—who lived right around the block from her! Julia’s a lively gal, and behaves more like John’s girlfriend than his mum in every gesture and act, but this is never commented upon in any way by anyone. Julia’s husband doesn’t want John hanging around so much; apparently Julia’s prone to breakdowns, and he thinks she can’t handle it. And Mimi–well! It’s the age-old story of the sensible devoted woman who fed, washed and looked after John all these years being shoved aside for the flighty beauty who abandoned him.

Unfortunately, the story went a little differently, according to Julia Lennon’s bio in Wikipedia, than this cinematic portrayal; actually, not a little but quite a lot: “After complaints to Liverpool’s Social Services by her eldest sister, Mimi Smith (née Stanley), she handed over the care of her son to her sister. ” Additionally,  Julia saw John almost every day, and by the time he was eleven (and not, as the film tells us, 17) he was frequently staying overnight at her house. Having read the story after seeing the movie, I can’t help but question its point-of-view entirely.

One place where history and art agree, however, is that Julia influenced John’s development as a musician. In the movie she hands John a mandolin and teaches him to strum (“think Bo Diddley, she says”) and she’s always singing and dancing with him. “Why can’t I be Elvis?” he moans, and Julia replies, “Because the world is waiting for you to be John Lennon.” That quote is just too beautiful to complain about, even if the screenwriters made it up.

AaronTaylorJohnsonWhile John and Julia are getting to know each other John forms a band, begins performing, and meets Paul McCartney.  Thomas SangsterPossibly the best thing about Nowhere Boy, at least to my pure delight, is the casting for John and Paul: respectively, Aaron Johnson and Thomas Brodie Sangster. Each of them slips into his persona so effectively that after awhile they begin to look like the originals—and it couldn’t have been easy, psychologically, to play a pair of beloved icons for an audience mostly familiar with them. Their relationship is portrayed from the start as a rivalry, but I don’t know if the filmmakers were being faithful to reality or merely to legend.

The end of the movie is a matter of historical record, but if you don’t know it and don’t want to, stop reading. I didn’t know it, and was stunned when Julia got hit by a car and died.  When the movie was over, the song “Julia” kept slogging relentlessly around in my head on its endless loop of grief, and I had to play it—only to find that, knowing what I do now, I no longer hate it at all.Paul


Bob Dylan On Tour

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Shoreline Amphitheatreamericanarama_web_1
Bob Dylan
Morning Jacket
Wilco with Bob Weir

He’s still got it. By it I don’t just mean talent, energy, brains, and that gravelly voice revealing not a single word with clarity, though there’s still all that. I mean that slippery quality so hard to describe: charisma. Only a few of the greats have it: of my generation’s idols, off the top of my head I’d name Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. But nobody’s as charismatic as Bob Dylan.

For awhile back there I thought he lost it:  around the late 90’s, before the fabulous trilogy of Time Out of Mind,  Love and Theft, and Modern Times, when I saw him perform in Berkeley. At that show he did only the older songs, but he’d altered the melody of the tunes and mangled the lyrics in a different way than what he does now, i.e., unintentionally. That performance seemed to be without focus, passion, or even simple motivation. In hindsight I see he was experimenting, working his way back home. He has arrived—before last night no doubt, but this is the first performance I’d seen since then. It was nearly mesmerizing, and if not for an unruly audience it would have been (more on that later). The band was tight, practiced, right in there with, for, and behind their lead man. All but five older songs, as far as I could tell, were from his most recent album, Tempest,  which I don’t have—an oversight I will remedy today. A new-ish arrangement of She Belongs to Me was haunting, even better than the original. And he’s turned All Along the Watchtower into a danceable number with the addition of a few rockin’ musical interludes. But speaking of danceable…

…Here comes my tirade. The two earlier acts—Morning Jacket and Wilco, joined by Bob Weir on a few numbers—were pure rock n’ roll, loud enough that I needed earplugs, rockin’ enough that most of the audience was on its feet, including me. I like Wilco a lot, though they sound better, IMO, on their recordings. Clapping, dancing, shouting, and jumping around is entirely appropriate when these groups play. But when Bob Dylan sits down at the piano and snarls “You know something is happening/but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” it’s time to listen up. You’d be surprised what can happen to your mind during a 3- or 6-minute song played and sung by this man. It’s a different experience than hearing a rock band, and not exactly dance music.

colorfulOldGalYa ya, Granny, I can see you kids rolling your eyes at the fuddy-duddy. Okay, so maybe you don’t want that kind of experience, maybe you don’t care one way or another. Fine. But do not prevent me from having it! Besides the dancing, the whole place was chaos during Dylan’s performance: going out to buy refreshments, socializing like they were at a party, and climbing over me to get out of the aisle. One girl had gone in and out at least 20 times during the last four hours, so when she interrupted my communion with Dylan to go visit with friends, I told her, “This is the last time!” She was stunned, but she never crossed my path again. A number of people even left the venue, as in went home, during Dylan’s performance! Who are these people?!

Bob Weir

Bob Weir

To backtrack for a moment: One of the show’s highlights prior to Dylan’s set was when Bob Weir,  Wilco, and My Morning Jacket together sang a bunch of Grateful Dead songs. Weir’s face is showing the years, but his voice is as powerful as ever. Their set concluded with a flawless version of When I Paint My Masterpiece. As the friends I’d come with said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Fortunately, not everyone had Attention Deficit Disorder. As we made our way to the parking lot after the show, a young woman heard me talking to my friend about Dylan’s music, and she began asking me questions. It was her first Dylan concert, and she wondered if he might’ve been in a bad mood since he didn’t chat up the

Photo: Bob Dylan's website
Photo: Bob Dylan’s website

audience, not even with a hello or a thank you. As I told her, he never does: I’ve been to five or six Dylan concerts and I’ve never heard him utter a single word other than his lyrics. She asked a few more questions, and I delighted in answering her; seldom am I asked to pass down my Dylan folklore and rock history, and I much enjoyed the role of wise elder. It almost made up for the earlier audience behavior. Almost. Young woman, if by chance you’re reading this, I thank you. May you continue to cross generational lines and to revel in our magnificent musical heritage.


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This first poem was written by my friend Joani Reinmuth, an artist who makes jewelry, and who doesn’t consider herself a writer and never wrote a poem before this one. Coming from someone who isn’t “a poet” it blew my mind.

A Day Really
By Joan Reinmuth

Before visiting summer we get Mothers Day,MothersDayFlowers2
the revising a draft day,
a saving and backup day.
24 hours of reference to no specific work or detail
just like the plug in a socket.
As if all transactions and reactions occurred on one
day, words borrowed and same day credit given.

Whatever happened to the daily fiddling,
critical thinking, pop-up engineering,
and all other problematic comparisons.

Who pressed flowers in the cast iron frying pan,
did homework with the dog, and
used a highlighter to assess and change the plan.

And, for a clearer idea, who else every day,
all day shoves the monsters back into their cave.

This next one is mine.

Strange Blues

Hildy had strange blues I mean she had
some mighty strange blues after Janie died.
Hildy knew all about the blues—
death blues & love gone bad bluesUnknown
no moneyfoodorliquor blues
homesick blues and Momma blues
Daddy blues and too old to tango blues
but these blues were nothing like those.
These were strange blues.

She was a Stranger accordin’ to the law.
That’s what she was to Janie said the judge.
(He called her ‘The Deceased’.)
They weren’t spouses. How could they be spouses?
They were both women, each having 2 boobs
one pussy and no dick on the premises.
Thus there’d been no wedding no license no cake
no spouses and what about spice?
Hildy could still laugh but
Legal Strangers said the judge
pounding his gavel.
That’s what you are by law: A Legal Stranger.

That’s what gave Hildy the strange blues
for sure. She’d held Janie’s hand
‘til her spirit left her tired body
so how was she a stranger?  No, said the judge, not
a stranger; a Legal Stranger. Look it up.

So she did. Hildy looked under L and S in the big dictionary
in the living room and the paperback dictionary
in the kitchen with the cookbooks
and she looked under the catboxes and
in the bookshelves and in the drawers of
all four desks. (One for each grownup, one
for each kid.  Intellectuals, friends used to tease.)

In every dictionary she turned to L and then to S.
but could not find these Legal Strangers
giving Hildy  strange blues tonight:
real strange blues.

Get out your guitar
and strum the Legal Stranger Blues.
Betcha can’t. Betcha won’t.
O sure, you can play the Sam Cooke blues
the Ray Charles blues   Aretha blues
Johnny Cash blues and
the last of the red hot momma blues
but music doesn’t do the Legal Stranger blues
or know ’bout Legal Strangers
only Strangers in a Strange Land
of judges no spouses no wives and no rights.

Growing Old With Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Chuck Berry

The legendary Chuck Berry is 84.

With so many rock singers closing in on or even past 70—Mick and Keith (both 68), Bob Dylan (71), Patti Smith (66) Paul McCartney (69), Joni Mitchell (69), Joan Baez (72), to name just a few—and still rockin’ in the free world, what kind of songs are we hearing from them? Remember, these guys drew upon their own life experiences for their songwriting. It’s inevitable that some of what they’re singing now is about aging, death and dying.

This getting older
Aint for cowards
This getting older
Is a lot to go through
Aint gonna need this body
much longer
Aint gonna need this body
much more.

Well I can’t see much
like I used to
and I can’t run like the windMellencmpLive
I don’t sleep more
than just a few hours
I can’t remember where I’ve been

Ain’t a gonna need this body much longer
Aint gonna need this body much more
I put in ten million hours
Washed up and worn out for sure.

Well all my friends are
sick or dying
and I’m here all by myself
All I got left
is a head full of memories
and a thought of my upcoming death…

–Don’t Need This Body, John Mellencamp (62)

I don’t know about anyone else, but to me these lyrics aren’t depressing in the least: rather, it’s reassuring to hear that others of my generation are thinking and feeling what I’m brooding about these days. Rock ‘n’ roll gave me courage starting in my pre-teen years, and it’s exhilarating to find it still does.

As always, Dylan’s leading the charge. He began back in ‘97, with “Not Dark Yet” on the Time Out of Mind album.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhereTimeOutOfMindcovr
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain…

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.

John Mellencamp (62) toured with Dylan in 2009, the same year Mellencamp released Life Death Love & Freedom, which included not only “Don’t Need This Body” (lyrics above) but several other songs on the theme.

Longest Days

Seems like once upon a time ago
I was where I was supposed to be
My vision was true and my heart was too
There was no end to what I could dream
I walked like a hero into the setting sun
Everyone called out my name
Death to me was just a mystery
I was too busy raising up Cain.

But nothing lasts forever
Your best efforts don’t always pay
Sometimes you get sick
and don’t get better
That’s when life is short
Even in its longest days.

So you pretend not to notice
that everything has changed
The way that you look
and the friends you once had
so you keep on acting the same
But deep down in your soul
you know you got no flame
and who knows then which way to goMellencamp
Life is short even in its longest days…

If I Die Sudden

If I die sudden
please don’t tell anyone
There aint nobody that needs to know
that I’m gone
Just put me in a pine box
six feet underground
Don’t be calling no minister
I don’t need one around

Well my grandma she told me
she’d be waiting at the gate
She said that the fix was in
and that she’d already prayed
and the rest of my family
will be waiting there for me too
They’d already taken care of my sins
and there’s nothing left for me to do…


Humor is one thing that never dies, and people always squeeze a laugh out of death when possible. (I’ve been to a few hilarious family funerals, honest!) Leave it to The Persuasions, the acapella group that’s been going strong for half a century: they’ve taken the lyrics of “Sixty-Minute Man” and changed them to announce that they “Can’t Do Sixty No More.” Somehow they still look sexy doing it (I saw them perform it at Yoshi’s).

Please excuse my blown-out fuse / because I can’t do 60 no more…

BerrymansLou & Peter Berryman are a couple of odd ducks, usually played on radio stations like KPFA and WBAI. Their song  “After Life Goes By” is a hilarious sendup of various afterlife theories.

I believe there’s nothing after life goes by
I believe it’s over when we die die die
Others may be thankful their beliefs are strong
and every night I’m praying that I’m wrong wrong wrong…

but whenever I try kneeling aiming questions at the ceiling I get answers back revealing not a clue…

 Joni painting


It wouldn’t be lyrical death—or life—without an uplifting message from Carly Simon. In 1990 Carly began hoping that “Life Is Eternal.” (If this sounds sarcastic, I don’t mean to be; “Life is Eternal”, particularly the instrumental and choral parts, fits squarely into the goosebump genre.

Life Is Eternal

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking
about growing older and moving on
No one wants to be told that they’re getting on
and maybe going awayCarlyalbum
for a long long stay
but just how long and who knows
and how and where will my spirit go
Will it soar like jazz on a saxophone
or evaporate in the breeze?
Won’t you tell me please

That life is eternal
and love is immortal
and death is only a horizon
Life is eternal
as we move into the light
and the horizon is nothing
save the limit of our sight…

Here on earth I’m a lost soul
ever trying to find my way back home
Maybe that’s why each new star is born
expanding heaven’s room
Eternity in bloom
and will I see you up in that heaven
in all its light will I know you there?
Will we say the words that we never dared?
If wishing makes it so
Won’t you let me know

That life is eternal
and love is immortal…

And now for something new—yes, I do occasionally listen to new music! Carsie Blanton, an up and coming singer-songwriter, proves you don’t have to be old to think deeply about death. “Carsie’s lyrics are an iron fist in the velvet glove of her voice” notes another songwriter, Peter Mulvey, and this is precisely the case in “Smoke Alarm”—which, by the way, you can hear complete on her website.

Hey baby what’s the big deal?

Feel what you wanna feel


say what you wanna say
You’re gonna die one day
For example I could kiss youjust because I want to

Makes no difference if you turn away
I’m gonna die one day.

Why do you waste your time

thinkin ‘bout a reputation
tryin’ to meet expectations
worried what they’re gonna say
when everyone you’ve ever known
is headin’ for a headstone
I don’t wanna give the end away
We’re gonna die one day…

I’ll end with the brilliant, still going strong Paul Simon (71), who got the jump on everyone way back in ’68  when he was just a pup, in Bookends, the fourth album recorded with Art Garfunkel. As Wikipedia puts it, “The songs of the first side of the album follow a unified concept, exploring a life journey from childhood to old age…The whole side marks successive stages in life, the theme serving as literal bookends to the life cycle.”

While the first side overtly depicts life’s journey into old age, on Side Two you’ll find one of the best glimpses into a particular mindset frequently found in the aging artist. It astonishes me that Paul Simon was only 23 when he wrote “A Hazy Shade of Winter”. How did he know?


Time, see what’s become of me
while I looked around for my possibilities.
I was so hard to please.
Look around,
leaves are brown,
and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.Paul Simon

Hear the Salvation Army band.
Down by the riverside
there’s bound to be a better ride
than what you got planned.
Carry your cup in your hand
and look around.
Leaves are brown

and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

Hang on to your hopes my friend.
That’s an easy thing to say
but if your hopes should pass away
then simply pretend
that you can build them again.
Look around
The grass is high,Bookends fields are ripe.
It’s the springtime of my life.
Seasons change with the scenery
weaving time in a tapestry.
Won’t you stop and remember me
at any convenient time?
Funny how my memory skips
while looking over manuscripts
of unpublished rhyme
drinking my vodka and lime.
I look around,
leaves are brown
and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.