The Famous and The Infamous

“If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” 

I often heard this call to action from Scoop Nisker coming out of my radio, at the end of his progressive news reports and alerts on San Francisco’s KSAN and KFOG radio stations. He was an author, radio commentator, comedian, and Buddhist meditation instructor. He commented on modern life and culture with observations such as “People are driving to work to earn the money to pay for the cars they’re driving to work in. Back to you.” He was interested in the ideas of comedy and the comedy of ideas. His signature call to action and sign off phrase at the end of every news alert or political essay was “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” I quoted this phrase in a eulogy I gave for my father, as he was a man who made his own news, being jailed for his non-violent, civil disobedient acts against war and racial injustice, writing for newspapers and magazines, authoring 28 books and once appearing on the cover of Newsweek magazine. My favorite of his books is his memoir: “Reflections Over the Long Haul.” He originally wanted to title it “Between the Cello and the Chain Saw,” but his editor had a different idea for the title.

My father and friends getting schooled by Castro • Havana, Cuba

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Crowd at the March on Washington. I am in the back on the left next to the reflecting pool with my brother and parents.

I heard Martin Luther King junior deliver this stirring speech while wading in the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument on a hot summer day in 1963.

I first tried to stand up against the vast, ongoing (now Trump fueled) American Racism when I was just 11 years old. On our second 3,000 mile cross country drive with my parents, we stopped in Swathmore, Pennsylvania and got on a bus bound for Washington DC, to march in what has since been called “The March on Washington” where Martin Luther King gave his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, on August 28th, 1963. After exiting our bus, we walked for miles through the streets of DC, holding hands with strangers, mostly blacks, singing “We Shall Overcome” until we finally came to the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument. My brother and I stood in the pool to cool ourselves down while listening to many paragons of wonderment. I heard Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Odetta and Brother Martin there for the first time performing Live American Truth Music and speeches that stabbed me in the heart, in a good way. MLK improvised the “I Have a Dream” section of his speech. It was not in the notes he had made previously. I salute my parents, where ever they might be now, for bringing me along on this amazing, history making march! It was a spirit changing day for the rest of my young and ongoing life!

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sing at the March on Washington • August 23rd, 1963

“We can’t put it together. It is together.”

When I was 18 and a freshman at Stanford University, I had breakfast one April morning, sitting near Sigourney Weaver, the future alien assassin and movie queen who lived in my dorm, Soto Hall, the “Creativity House.” Later that same day I had the good fortune to enjoy a picnic lunch at the classically Greek styled Pulgas Water Temple in rural  Woodside California, (the terminus of San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy water system), with Wendell Berry, an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, Richard Brautigan (poet, novelist, hippie writer icon and author of “Trout Fishing in America”) and Stuart Brand (Merry Prankster, Futurist, Ecologist and editor and publisher of the Iconic Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of all things worthwhile and wonderful for the future of society and life in the early 1970’s). The cover of the initial Whole Earth Catalog featured the first NASA photo of the entire earth seen from space, floating serenely in the cosmic void. This was the first image most Americans had ever seen of the Whole Earth. The photo was followed with the tag line “We can’t put it together.  It is together.”

I heard Brautigan give a poetry reading later that evening, sponsored by the Stanford English department where he read this poem which was published for the first time a few days later:

Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt

Rommel is dead.

His army has joined the quicksand legions

of history where the battle is always

a metal echo saluting a rusty shadow.

His tanks are gone.

How’s your ass?

“Call The Node Coleslaw, ASAP.” 

My friend Steve was a young lawyer working overtime in overdrive on high stakes Silicon Valley mergers and acquisition deals when he returned from lunch one afternoon to find a note on his desk from his administrative assistant directing him to call “The Node Coleslaw.” Puzzled at first, he soon figured out that it was a directive to get in touch with Vinod Khosla, for whom he was drafting legal documents for another of his many high stakes deals. 

Khosla was one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and later became one of the primary venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, heading Khosla Ventures which manages approximately $1 billion of investor capital as well as investments funded by Khosla himself.

Khosla has more recently achieved a degree of eco-barbaric infamy on the California Coast. He purchased land near Martin’s Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay, California in 2010, which was previously a popular family beach and surf spot before Khosla purchased the property adjacent to the beach. Khosla promptly built a gate and blocked public access to the beach. The litigation over public access has been in the courts for 10 years and all judgements thus far have been against Khosla. Former Congressman Pete McCloskey said about the land closure, “To put a rope across the road and say, ‘The hell with you’ – I’d call it the arrogance of great wealth. “

Martin’s Beach

Salvador Dali

“The mustache is the tragic constant on the face of man.” 

I read this quote in an interview with Salvador Dali when I was first discovering the Surrealists and Dadaists in high school in the late 1960’s. Dali posited, quite correctly, that many of the world’s tyrants and dictators favored mustaches. While the beard is depicted throughout history as the symbol of manhood and wisdom, nothing spells tyranny and despotism better than the mustache.

Some of the infamous and cruel men favoring this hairy upper lip include;  Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Augusto Pinochet, Rafael Trujillo, Saddam Hussein, Mouammar Gaddafi, Benito Mussolini and the young, pre-bearded Fidel Castro. Fortunately for the world, I shaved off my mustache in the early 1980’s and was able to avoid becoming a member of this rouges’ gallery of tyrants.

Tyrants with Mustaches : Trujillo, Pinochet, Castro, Ghenjis Khan, Mussolini, Gaddafi, Stalin, Saddam Hussien, Mussolini and Hitler – Mustache montage by MMB

“Let Go! Let Go! Let Go!” 

The first time I ever water skied, I was going at high speed on two skis in shallow water on Harriman Reservoir, being towed by Police Chief Bob Law, (Constable of Heath, a very rural village of 250 or so at the time). He was well named for the position he had been hired for. He pulled me into an inlet after water skiing fast over open water where I let go of the ski rope late in very shallow water and skimmed onto the sandy shore after being yelled at to “Let Go” of the rope several times. In our half hour’s absence since placing our lunch baskets on a picnic table and venturing out upon the waters, a huge bus had pulled into the parking lot of the otherwise completely deserted, weekday noon hour picnic area.

The bus had a sign in full color painted across the entirety of both of its sides proclaiming “James Brown and His Famous Flames! “ The image was a hyperbolic portrait of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”, in a long cape on his knees, singing dramatically, in front of massive flames, featured on the left and right sides of the bus. I was instantly fascinated and got as close as Bob Law and my parents would let me, to look at Southern American Black Culture in Southern Vermont. As seen from very rural White Massachusetts Culture it looked pretty great and very lively as the women sang and danced together with James while their chef proceeded to cook BBQ/Southern style food at the side of the tour bus. We on the other hand, had hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and tuna sandwiches and Sand Springs Birch Beer and Root Beer and we watched them eat and dance from near enough to make me want to shift into another world, much further South than where I was standing,

I got my early childhood Harlem/New York City life and rural Heath Massachusetts cultures connected by Bob Law and James Brown and his Famous Flames, in Vermont, the Whitest state in the Union. My young black friends at P.S. 125 (where I attended elementary school in the heart of Harlem in NYC in the 1950’s) had already introduced me to Ray Charles, Chubby Checker and James Brown. The girls in my class would do elaborate acrobatic double dutch jump rope routines and those watching on the sidelines would clap in staccato syncopation while singing “Hit The Road Jack.” One of their favorite insults after one of them missed a step and stopped the rope was “I cut you down so low, you be playing handball on the curb.”

James Brown – The hardest working man in show business

“Then he hit him again – He’s a violent and despicable man!”

My mother made this statement about the writer, Norman Mailer. We were spending a summer weekend at my uncle’s cottage nestled in the stunted pines off in the remote dunes in Truro Massachusetts, out toward the easternmost end of Cape Cod. My uncle James Thomson was head of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and had worked in the West Wing of the White house for several years during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His mother always thought that he would become Secretary of State, but he quit his job as an Asia foreign policy analyst over the escalation of the Vietnam war, so that never transpired. He had taken my parents to a literary party in Provincetown where the author Norman Mailer had assaulted one of the guests. Mailer was famous (perhaps infamous) for his drunken behavior. He was arrested for stabbing his wife twice during a party in 1960 when he announced his intention to run for mayor of New York. My mother was appalled when she recounted to us at breakfast the next morning what had happened at the party that her brother had taken her to.

Young Norman Mailer

“I’ve decided to forgo the formal remarks and will now open up the floor to questions.”

Writer and Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson said this after arriving very drunk, an hour late to a talk he was supposed to give to journalism students at Stanford in 1976. I was initially denied entrance to the free talk in a large auditorium as I did not have a Stanford student body card, having graduated two years previously. I told him I was a writer and a Stanford alumni but he still refused to let me in. in a Hunter-esque flourish I told the gatekeeper, “Fuck You! Try to stop me!” as i walked by him. He did not rise to my challenge and I got in to hear the drunken Doctor Gonzo not give a speech – an event made even more memorable by its lack of content.

Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, later referred to in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as “A 300 pound Samoan.”

“Democratize the Notes.”

This gem of musical insight was given to my friend Jay by the wonderful guitarist Tuck Andress (Half of the jazz duo Tuck and Patti which he performs in with his wife, Patti Cathcart). Jay was taking a guitar lesson from Tuck and asked Tuck how to improve his lead guitar playing and was told to “democratize the notes” a pitch perfect musical Zen koan that I have been trying to unravel note for note since Jay mentioned it to me several years ago.

Tuck and Patti

“Live Long and Prosper!”

Spock was a half  Vulcan, half Human space oddity who believed in the triumph of logic in his interstellar adventures with Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise crew on the TV show Star Trek.  My wife and I were given a photo of him, taken from the wall of the Hacienda hotel bar where we were spending our wedding night, by Dan McCann, the bass player in Plan B, our wedding band. It was given to us as an unexpected, late night wedding present. with Dan’s wish that we should “Live Long and Prosper. “ Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the TV version of Star Trek, had eaten there and claimed that the food at the Hacienda, was “Out of this World.”

Spock had several catch phrases that spread through out popular culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; including “Live long and prosper,”  “Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end,  “Without followers, evil cannot spread,” and “Insufficient facts always invite danger, Captain.” Spock was made an informal mascot of NASA for having the “Right Stuff” for his out of this world explorations and adventures to distant galaxies. He was tall, dark, thoughtful, alien and exotic and somewhat devilish in appearance, with his strange ears. He had a brilliant mind, and the wisdom of a patriarch.

Spock’s culinary advice

“We Will Bury You!“

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made this threat while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow in November of 1956. It was one of his often repeated bellicose threats aimed at the West during the Cold War. Later at a United Nations General Assembly meeting he took off his shoe and banged on the dias with it during a speech to emphasize his serious intentions of world domination. As he later stated “I took off my shoe and pounded it on the desk so that our protest would be louder.”

As chidren in elementary school in New York in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s we had all heard Khrushchev’s threat and as a response we often had “Nuclear War Safety Drills.” The alarm bells would start ringing and the window monitors would quickly lower the blinds on all of the windows (to keep shattered glass from the atomic bomb blast from falling on the students) while the rest of us crouched under our desks on our hands and knees, sheltered from atomic annihilation by the plywood, Formica and the steel frameworks of our little desks.

Khrushchev and Stalin

“It’s a modified limited hang out.”

In the spring of 1973 I finishing up my senior year at Stanford and was living in a large mid century modern house in The Palo Alto Hills with my friends David, Marcia and Brad. The Watergate scandal hearings were going on in full force and we watched them every day on the large TV in the den of the house we were renting from Dr. Almond, a Stanford professor who was away teaching overseas for the quarter. The house had a clothing optional wimming pool with pool service (fortunately we were all fit and good looking at the time) and a large landscaped yard with gardeners, so we were living in luxury for the first time in our young lives.

The Watergate scandal stemmed from the Republican Nixon administration’s continuous attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C. Watergate Office Building. The break in operative team was given the code name of “The Plumbers.” As the hearing progressed it was discovered that there had been a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office which had recorded damning evidence regarding the president’s direct involvment in the coverup efforts. Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Wood intentionally erased 18 1/2 minutes of a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman 3 days after the break in which came to be known as “The 18 1/2 Minute Gap” in the ensuing media frenzy. One tape, later known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, documented Nixon and his henchmen discussing the initial stages of the Watergate coverup. As the constitutional crisis  built, the president asked his advisors, John Dean, H.R Haldeman and John Erlichman if they should let the truth of the matter as recorded on the tapes finally be divulged and released

Erlichman declared that it should be revealed as “A modified limited hangout.” Aother phrase for which might be “An obscuring lie.” On those tapes Nixon also referred to his attorney general, John Mitchell as “The Big Enchilada” in his further attempts to cover up his involvement in the scandal. Nixon was finally forced to resign in August of 1974, though he was immediately pardoned by his succesor, his vice president, Gerald  Ford, and was not prosecuted for his crimes, though he famously and loudly declared “I am not a crook!”

David, Marcia and I wrote a letter to Nixon just before his resignation demanding that he “Resign immediately, to end the shame!” which was clearly the tipping point that ended his administration.

Richard Milhous Nixon – “I am not a crook.”
The Staten Island ferry

Lower Manhattan seen from the Staten Island ferry

“Here’s a nickel to give to the ticket man.”

I was 5 years old and was about to take my first trip on the Staten Island ferry from lower Manhattan to Staten Island. My mother was introducing me to the rituals of monetary responsibility and patience as we stood in line to get tickets for the 5 mile, 25 minute ferry ride across the New York harbor to Staten Island. It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is a cruise that includes wonderful views of the Statue of Liberty, New York harbor and the towering skyline of Manhattan. In 1956 it cost .5 cents for a round trip ticket and today it is the only thing In New York City that costs less than it did 65 years ago, as the trip is now free in both directions. In all of the many times I have taken the ferry I have never gotten off to explore Staten Island.

The actor, monologuist and performance artist Spalding Gray ended his life by jumping off the back of the Staten Island ferry one January night in 2004, after a debilitating car accident in Ireland left him with unrelenting head pain. I had witnessed some of his brilliant performances on stage and had seen him starring in Jonathan Demme’s movie, ”Swimming to Cambodia.” He virtually invented a new art form in the 1970s, which combined autobiography with stage performance. Ironically, the poster for ”Swimming to Cambodia,” released years before Gray’s suicide, features Gray sinking, with his head barely above water.

Spaulding Gray swimming to Cambodia