Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Today I saw a post by Peter Rozovsky reminding us that we celebrate the birthdays of Edward Hopper and Raymond Chandler on successive days this week, and a brief essay of his which begins with a very apt comparison of Chandler's 'Red Wind' with Hopper's 'Nighthawks'. Check out Agnieszka Holland's version with Danny Glover and music by Jan Garbarek, from the Showtime series Fallen Angels, if you doubt it. Anyway, it reminded me of an essay I wrote, reviewing two books about Hopper, probably in late 1997 or early 1998, and which  was published with indecent haste and miniscule payment, in London Magazine halfway through 1999. Which is 15 years ago, but it sprang to mind immediately when I read Peter's note.So here it is...

One scene from Wim Wenders’ recent film The End Of Violence meticulously recreates Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Since much of Wenders’ violent vision of Los Angeles is filtered through the peeping electronic eyes of a network of surveillance cameras, this ought to evoke the Hopperesque sense of our being intruders when we enter into a painted scene.

Instead, Wenders’ appropriation of “Nighthawks” rings hollow, a conceit reflecting Hollywood’s love of both Hopper and classic film-noir, but confusing and conflating the two, as if the violence and powerlessness of that film genre were somehow Hopper’s too. 

We know that Hopper and his wife Josephine were inveterate movie-goers. We know from Deborah Lyons’ research that Hopper began “Nighthawks” the day after seeing Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's film of Hemingway’s The Killers. But knowing that is not, in itself, enough to transform Hopper into Norman Rockwell’s evil twin.

The editors of Edward Hopper And The American Imagination have made the same false connection. These stories, poems, and essays were either written with Hopper in mind or supposedly reflect the spirit of his work. Most, ranging from a 1940 story by Norman Mailer to an excerpt from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, deal with bums, hobos, and stiffs, and have at least an undercurrent of overt violence. Grace Paley’s Italian cop shoots his adulterous wife, his kitchen and himself. Walter Mosley’s black youngster kills his retarded playmate. This is about as close to Hopper as the kitsch poster, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, which pre-empted Wenders and this book by inserting Elvis, Marilyn, Bogart, and James Dean into “Nighthawks”.

It's as if Hammett or Hemingway were filtered through the grist mill of 40s movies and 50s pulp novels, melodramatic in a way Hopper simply is not. Only James Salter’s story “Dusk” comes close, in its uncomfortable, awkward intimacy between two people still alone, and its imagery of light and shadow, to a Hopper scene. 

No story rings as false, however, as Tess Gallagher’s “From Moss Light” an embarrassingly self-absorbed poem, inevitably recalling Raymond Carver. Lines as arch as “a woman fond of wearing hats opined, 'chic chapeau!'” hardly relate to Hopper, much less illuminate him. Hopper and the American Imagination?

John Hollander’s poem, suggesting Hopper as abstract painter, throws some light on reality, and the non-fiction is far more telling than the fiction. Gail Levin’s essay on contemporary artists influenced by Hopper makes a similar, well-drawn comparison with Richard Diebenkorn, who has learned framing from the way Hopper uses architecture, both inside and out. Leonard Michaels’ essay on “New York Movie” compares Hopper to Wallace Stevens’ “plain sense of things”. A more interesting match might be Charles Ives. Both men have 20th century minds trapped in 19th century souls, and Hopper often seems to play awkwardly with the shapes of the visibly modern world. Though neither Ives nor Stevens was a full time artist.

There's another difference: Ives drew inspiration from his wife, Harmony, while Ed and Jo apparently waged lifelong battle. Yet it is to Jo that we owe the ledgers which are reproduced in Edward Hopper: A Journal Of His Work. Hopper provides a proportional sketch of each painting, and lists, in his spare handwriting, the materials used. Beneath, in her flowery, expressive hand, Jo describes each painting, and its disposition. Her descriptions belie the melodrama some read into his work. Jo may reserve some bitchy vitriol for Ed’s female figures, or the way they dress, but the paintings ARE the stories. 

One of the things that attracts us to Hopper is the way his paintings leave themselves open to our imaginations. This is inevitable, given how his art insists on each object, including people, establishing its own space. He is a painter of distances: we look into scenes from odd angles, then discover light coming from two directions at once. Light does more than create mood; Hopper manipulates it to establish the relation between all the objects he paints. The two-dimensional sketches in the Journal make this obvious. This is why he has inspired generations of movie art directors and cameramen. But compare the figures in “Nighthawks” with the faces inside the diner in The Killers and you’ll see why the “mean streets” approach to Hopper is a dead end.

`It is also why Hopper’s people stand alone, each the start of a lonely crowd. The 1981 film Heartbeat used Hopper's vision to give Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady a backdrop for their now-iconic search for America. The essential emptiness of the wide-open highway and the loneliness of the places it leads to is more Hopperesque than anything in Edward Hopper And The American Imagination is able to suggest. Thankfully the Journal is here to remind us of that.


edited by Deborah Lyons and Adam Weinberg

Norton/Whitney Museum, 253pp, £18.95 (paper)


edited by Deborah Lyons and Brian O’Doherty

Norton/Whitney Museum 104pp facsimile edition, £17.95

Sunday, 13 July 2014


Politics often plays a huge part in Swedish thriller writing, but usually it's the politics of the past. Stieg Larsson's trilogy moved from who-dun-it to chase thriller before moving into politics in its third volume (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest), which centered, in the end, around the assassination of Olaf Palme, and the idea of elements of the Swedish state working against its elected government. This trope recurs constantly; in Henning Mankell's final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, the crime goes back to relations with allies, and subterfuge (literally) concerning the crisis of submarines caught in the Stockholm archipelago.

So it is no surprise that Andreas Norman's first novel should take up those themes, of the state within a state and the abuse of Swedish trust by allies. What is new and surprising is the way he does it, in the present day context of the war on terror, and Sweden as a part of the European Union.

Carina Dymek works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She's a career-minded, unexciting, dare we say boring, prototype Swede. On a trip to Brussels, after a meeting of the EU's committee on security, she is approached by stranger who claims to be an EU civil servant, and who hands her a memory stick. On it is a proposal for a unified EU security service, one which would have the right to spy on suspected terrorists in any EU state, and share such spying with EU allies, like the US.

Being a good civil servant, she immediately turns the stick over to her superiors back in Stockholm. And quickly finds herself suspended from her job, and being invetsigated as a potential terrorist. To make things worse, Carina has a boyfriend, a fellow civil servant called Jamal, born in Egypt, and within hours MI6 is in Stockholm, saying Jamal is a terrorist, and Dymek is part of a major terror plot to strike against the EU in Brussels. The Swedes assign one of their toughest agents, Bente Jensen to the case, and she soon discovers there is more going on than she, and her department, are being told.

There is a lot that is familiar from novels of paranoid conspiracy in Into A Raging Blaze, but what makes it work so well is Norman's familiarity with the milieu; he worked in the Swedish foreign ministry, and he is very good at conveying that sense of humdrum bureaucratic inevitability about the progress of this case. The novel starts slowly, but gradually gathers momentum as Dymek, in effect, goes on the run. There's a little of the deus ex machina of Larsson's trilogy; skilled hackers seem not only thick on the ground in Sweden but also remarkably accessible—after all it is a small country so everybody knows one. The story is forced to resolve itself somewhat mechanically—but not until Dyke herself has been rendered; a nice touch as Sweden's putative allies turn out to be taking liberties with Swedish liberties...this is the other subtext of much of Swedish political thriller writing, a sense of naivete, a willingness by sections of the democratic society to throw ideals away for a chance to play with the big boys.

What also helps this novel work well are the two main characters, both women, whose contrasts are evident, but whose similarities, while more subtle, are even more telling. If we think of Swedish society as being, in theory, fair and rational, it's interesting how it is left to the women in the tale to display those characteristics, and for the men to be the ones duped.

Because what is most chilling, and realistic in the wake of what the world now knows about the NSA and GCHQ and their massive spying on their citizenries and on those of putative allies, is that when an intelligence organisation chooses not to believe in something, facts don't matter. And Norman does a brilliant job of putting that idea into context by using a book of Arabic poetry send to Jamal by his uncle, whom MI6 are claiming is a terrorist. The idea of MI6 as literary critics is both amusing and frightening.

As with most thrillers of paranoia, unless the ending be tragic, it tends to be a little forced. But here there is a realistic element of unhappy resolution, enough to suggest that the abuses will continue and any checking will be only temporary. In the meantime, this thriller starts slowly, builds nicely, and manages to do a good job of putting the reader into the mind of the character whose position is rendered almost hopeless by the security state. An impressive debut.

Into A Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Quercus £12.99 ISBN 9781782066033

note: this review will also appear at Crime T

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Saturday, 12 July 2014


Appropriately enough, Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah. This was in Iowa; the name is the same as one of the greatest traditional American songs. He began singing professionally when he was two, country music, on the radio with the Haden Family Band. Polio turned him into a bass player, when it damaged his vocal chords. He followed his older brother on the upright bass, but he was more taken with classical music, especially Bach, and with jazz. When he was 20 he headed out to Los Angeles to study and to seek out Hampton Hawes. He played with Hawes, and Paul Bley, and Art Pepper, before he wound up in his first great band, the Ornette Coleman quartet, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, who were busy inventing 'free jazz'

It makes sense, because Coleman was from Texas, with a heavy blues influence, and he could hear the country roots in Haden's bass. There's a lot of modern jazz, particularly involving Bill Frisell, that sounds like what jazz would be had it come out of country rather than the blues, and there's a lot of that underlying Coleman's relentless improvisations. With Coleman, Haden pushed the bass out front.

He left Coleman to enter Synanon, which if you're not of a certain age won't mean anything to you, and kick his drug habit. When he came out he was bust as a sideman for everyone from John Handy to Bobby Timmons, Pee Wee Russell to Red Allen. Then he joined Keith Jarrett's 'American Quartet', Jarrett fresh from Charles Lloyd, along with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian. There's a lot of Coleman and Coltrane there, as there was when he began recording with Old And New Dreams: Cherry, Redman, and drummer Ed Blackwell.

That's probably where I came in, working my way back to Ornette. I was gone from Montreal by the time the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Carla Bley's always evolving big band—Montreal always seemed to have a special place for him. The 'Liberation' part wasn't taken lightly; Haden had been detained in Portugal when he did his 'Song For Che', and he was quizzed by the FBI after he returned stateside. By the time I left Montreal for London I was firmly embedded in the ECM jazz world—Jarrett's European Quartet and Gary Burton led me to Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber as well as Old And New Dreams. But it wasn't until the mid-80s, when I was again living on my own, that Charlie Haden really made an impact on me.

I caught up with his albums with Garbarek and Egberto Gismondi. I was immensely taken by Quartet West; with the great and versatile sax man Ernie Watts, Alan Broadbent and Larance Marable; by then I was immersed in film noir and Haunted Heart, their first album, touched a nerve. It's an amazing record, not just for its original compositions, but for the songs sung by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, and Billie Holliday. Stafford's 'Haunted Heart' is so, well, haunted, that I ran out and got one of her collections, only to discover it was the arrangement and the quartet that set her voice free; it's buried under a lava flow of sickly sweet charts, apparently by her husband.

Haden had a wonderful partnership with Pat Metheny, which began with 80/81, with Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette alongside Dewey Redman, and the 1986 record Song X, a re-working of and homage to Ornette Coleman which confounded those who found Metheny too glib. They culminated in the 1996 classic Beyond The Missouri Sky; two Midwestern boys playing the most lovely duets imaginable. Go back to 'Shenandoah', whose subtitle is 'Across The Wide Missouri'. I've played the disc almost to death; it played a huge part in winning my second ex, and it played an even bigger part in helping me the pain of the breakup a decade later.

What's amazing in the two decades from the early 90s is the range of music Haden was playing. Folk songs and spirituals with Hank Jones; Latin music with Gonzago Rubalcaba; with pianists John Taylor and Kenny Barron; with Ginger Baker (a great trio with Bill Frisell); with the Italian guitarist Antonio Forcioni, which my late father-in-law gave me, and which I treasure. In 2008 he made another country record with a new version of the Haden family; his wife Ruth Cameron (listen to the lovely 'Waltz For Ruth' on Missouri Sky, or live in 2009 here) including his son-in-law Jack Black.

I've been listening to a lot of Haden lately. Not the daytime Haden, of the trios with Gery Allen and Paul Motian, or Joe Henderson and Al Foster. But the nighttime Haden. There's a 2012 two-disc set called Magico: Carta de Amor; a live recording of that band with Garbarek and Gismonti. There's Live At Birdland (2011) with Lee Konitz, Motian, and pianist Brad Mehldau. Most of all there's Jasmine (2010), duets with Keith Jarrett. By this time Haden was suffering from post-polio syndrome; Jarrett of course had suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and come back a somewhat gentler player. Haden also suffered from tinnitus; he attributed it to the loudness of those early groups, and I've no doubt the polio left his ears more vulnerable; the quiet of his late work seems a just response to that. It suited the two of them, and their versions of standards resonate. They made a sequel, called Last Dance, which came out this year and topped Billboard's 'traditional' jazz chart.

I look back on what I've just written and it seems like a list—and a fairly incomplete list at that. I thought to myself, that doesn't do Charlie Haden justice, and then I realised that yes, it did. Because in a sense, I grew up in jazz with Charlie Haden. Everything from the freest of free modern jazz to the softest of ballads, as if to belie the jokes we used to make about ECM standing for European Chamber Music, or Exceedingly Caucasian Music as much to belie the blackness of the post-bop era. I started flipping through my discs, and finding Haden on some where I'd forgotten he played. I wished I had the vinyl, those records that played on the turntable that sat on top of one speaker on the floor of the one closet in my tiny flat. I know tonight I will play a Charlie Haden disc as I lie in bed and wait for my mind to find its pace with night, and the melody of his bass will show my pulse the way to go.

Saturday, 5 July 2014


My obituary of Louis Zamperini, the world-class miler who survived his bomber's crash into the Pacific, 47 days adrift in a rubber raft, and two years of torture as a Japanese prisoner of war, went up at the Guardian, appropriately enough, on the Fourth of July. You can link to it here.

There are a few changes from what I wrote. The obit as printed gives the impression Zamperini was a pilot; he was a bombardier. And it's unclear to me when his parents received notice that he was killed in action; 1944 makes more sense than 1943, but it may be that one was a personal note from President Roosevelt.

Also cut was the fact that Zamperini had been named Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade next New Year's Day, and that the organisers announced no replacement would be named. I also wrote briefly about his relationship with Hillenbrand, who called him a 'grandfather figure' when she took ill, and with Jolie.

And the lede graf was reordered somewhat. Of course, I like my version better...

Star runner, war hero, survivor of 47 days at sea in a rubber raft and two years of torture in Japanese prison camps, Louis Zamperini's life was the stuff of Hollywood movies, and 70 years after he was declared killed in action in the Pacific, four years after Laura Hillenbrand's biography of him became a best-seller, Hollywood got the message. Angelina Jolie's film, Unbroken, with Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini and a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, will be released on Christmas Day, but Zamperini, who has died aged 97, will not be there to see it.

Thursday, 3 July 2014


It's ironic that Eli Wallach's most obvious legacy is his role as Tuco, the Ugly part of Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad and The Ugly. But it's a legacy he embraced, playing with the title in his autobiography, and it also makes sense because Wallach, who thought of himself as a stage actor keeping busy and making money in movies, became the kind of character actor who can carry a film.

You can see the better part of his movie career reflected from his first two films, Baby Doll (1956) and The Lineup (1958). Baby Doll was adapted from a Tennessee Williams one-act play (Elia Kazan claimed he, not Williams, wrote most of the screenplay, but then, he would). Wallach was a favourite actor of Williams'; he'd madehis name on Broadway in The Rose Tattoo, did This Property Is Condemned with his wife Anne Jackson (they had one of the great marriages of American theatre) and Camino Real.

The way the story goes, in 1953 Wallach nailed the screen test for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity, but passed on the film to do Camino Real on stage. Of course the way the other story goes is that someone made someone an offer they couldn't refuse to cast Frank. He and Jackson also played, with Zero Mostel, in the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinocerus; he'd already done Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson in 1958. I think he's perfect for Theatre of the Absurd. He, Jackson, and Alan Arkin were in Mike Nichol's production of Murray Schisgal's Luv, and around the time he did Rhinoceros Wallach and Mostel appeared off-Broadway in a version of Ulysses directed by Burgess Meredith. It's a same he never appeared in any of the American Film Theatre productions; it would be wonderful to have a record of some of his theatre at his very peak.

In Baby Doll, Wallach plays Silva Vaccaro, who owns a cotton gin which his rival Karl Malden burns down, and he retaliates by seducing Malden's wife, Carroll Baker, who's still a virgin due to a promise Malden made her father, and who parades infantilized self around in what we now call baby doll nighties. This is Tennessee Williams at his best. It was the first of his great sleazy ethnic roles; he's ruthless, he's charming, and, as when he played Tuco, he can physically express something rat like in Vaccaro's character. In contrast, for Don Siegel's The Lineup, based on a popular TV show, he's Dancer, a psychopathic but stylish professional killer, rounding up heroin stashed in tourists' souvenirs. It's a slick procedural which Siegel turns thrilling as Wallach is eventually cornered.

These characteristics of charm, violence, ethnic grease and style came together in Calvera, the leader of the bandits who comes face to face with The Magnificent Seven defending a poor Mexican village. Of course Wallach was coming off playing a cowboy role in The Misfits. There's little doubt Leone had Calvera in mind when he cast Wallach as Tuco, though Leone himself always said it was Wallach's playing a bandit in How The West Was Won that convinced him. Leone liked to cast method (or method-style) actors against 'natural' actors to great effect: Volonte/Van Cleef/Wallach against Eastwood; Jason Robards opposite Charles Bronson; Rod Steiger and James Coburn. In Wallach, he certainly got more than he bargained for. Compare Wallach's Tuco with Gian Maria Volonte's Indio from For A Few Dollars More; Volonte is all inward chaos and explosive violence; Tuco is all outward chaos hiding almost as explosive, if slightly less sociopathic, violence.

Wallach made three other spaghetti westerns, the best of which is probably Ducio Tessari's Don't Turn The Other Cheek, set against a Mexican Reviolution, in which he plays alongside Franco Nero and Lynn Redgrave (!). The others are Corbucci's late (1975) 'comedy' The White, The Yellow And The Black and Ace High (1968) with Terrence Hill (playing a character called Cat Stevens!) and Bud Spenser. Leone wanted to reunite Wallach, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef; they were going to be killed off at the start of Once Upon A Time In The West. Wallach and Van Cleef had agreed, but by then Clint was feuding with Leone over both creative and financial issues, and it didn't happen. Luckily, the two reconciled, leading to Clint's touching dedication of The Unforgiven 'to Sergio and Don (Siegel)', both directors who got the best out of Eli Wallach.

Eastwood would bring him back in one of his best later roles; he absolutely kills the part of a liquor store owner telling the cops about an old robbery; Larry Fishburne and Kevin Bacon just stand there and admire him.

I'd like to mention a few other hidden gems from Wallach's career: everyone mentions his role in Godfather III, but he also played Don Vittorio in the much-neglected Crazy Joe, one of the best of the spaghetti crime films. He played ABC television's corporate boss Leonard Goldenson, the capo di tutto capi when I worked there, in the TV movie Monday Night Mayhem, about the creation of Monday Night Football. There's a 1992 episode of Law & Order, Working Stiff, in which he's hugely touching as a bitter old union man. He had a nice cameo in The Ghost, as a conspiracy-believing recluse on Martha's Vineyard. Ewan MacGregor can only look on in awe.

There's an interesting little bit of trivia I came across when I thought I might write Wallach's obit: his daughter Roberta played opposite Paul Newman's daughter Nell Potts (and Joanne Woodward) in the film Newman directed of Paul Zindel's The Effects Of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It was sort of a like one of those neighbourhood projects, but I remember seeing it when it was released, and liked it then, and wonder if the kids' performances would hold up now. Nell Potts now runs 'Newman's Own'.

As I said, I was hoping to write Eli Wallach's obit for one of the papers. But when you're that talented and you reach 98 years old, your obituary had better be ready to print. As it happened, I couldn't resist writing my appreciation anyway. What I admire most about him is the way he always seems to be enjoying what he is doing; like many of the greatest actors, he doesn't seem to be taking it seriously, even though he is.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


My obituary of director and screenwriter Paul Mazursky is up now at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as written to a very tight deadline this afternoon; they changed the spelling of 'hippie' to 'hippy' (a rhinoceros is hippy; the long-haired guy watching Rhinoceros is a hippie), omitted a specific reference to the Esalen Institute as being the inspiration for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (I assume to avoid having to explain Esalen to the interweb generation) and a few other small alterations.

There is a resonance to Mazursky's having written the pilot for The Monkees, which obviously drew on the Beatles' Hard Day's Night; it could be a metaphor for much of Mazursky's career. Even the best of his films that draw heavily on European models seem to hold something back, as if unwilling to take a real stand. The same is true of his more personal movies, but within the context of American life and his own experience that makes more sense.

Watching his movies as they came out, I always thought they reflected the arrival of the Sixties into the world of middle class America, as if Benji's parents started smoking dope. It was like Johnny Carson letting his hair grow; Hollywood was a more intense version of people buying (and I choose that word carefully) into the image of the lifestyle without necessarily digging the ethos.

I liked Harry & Tonto the best of his four Seventies hits (you could see Bruce Dern in the latest version, Nebraska, recently). Next Stop Greenwich Village is good but held back by some of the cast, while Blume and Unmarried, while touching at times about love and loss, are also about spoiled people whom Mazursky seems prone to indulge.

Which is why I think Enemies is such an impressive film for him; Singer is able to relate personal betrayal to the wider grief his characters face, and Mazursky doesn't sugar-coat that. His and Simon's reworking of Scenes From A Marriage just doesn't work, although, like Down & Out in Beverley Hills, it does have its moments. It just doesn't deliver in the clinches, mostly because it's too affectionate towards its Beverley Hills neighbours, where Renoir had no such compunctions.

I wonder if there's a comparison to be done between Mazursky and Woody Allen on the basis of Allen's relative independence, or perhaps on Allen's dichotomy in his early work between his comedies and his Bergmanesque dramas, a dichotomy which seems to cease after Stardust Memories, which in a way is his bitter version of Alex In Wonderland. Then Woody goes Hitchockian...

Two things I probably should have said clearly were that Mazursky's films always had heart, and that they were almost always funny, at least in parts, even when the funny didn't fit. And I would really like to see Vic Morrow's version of Deathwatch.

Friday, 27 June 2014

CHUCK NOLL, BILL NUNN: Race And The Pittsburgh Steelers

My monthly off-season FMTE column is now up at, you can link to it here. It looks at Chuck Noll, the now-legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach, and Bill Nunn, the scout who covered the traditionally black colleges for the team, and should be legendary. Even if you're not interested in football, per se, this is a fascinating slice of life in a very different NFL.

Thursday, 26 June 2014


My obituary of Stephanie Kwolek, who invented Kevlar, is up at the Guardian online (you can link to it here) and ought to be in the paper paper soon. It's a fascinating story, mostly because of the accidental nature of her invention; as it seems is so often the case, she was perceptive and curious enough to take an experiment others might have considered failed, and pursue it just another step further.

I might have made more of Kwolek's success in an overwhelmingly male profession, an overwhelmingly male lab environment, at a time when the deck was stacked against women in the work place anyway. It intrigued me that she appears to have devoted herself to her work; there was no indication of survivors nor relationships, which isn't to say she had none.
I mentioned she was the first, and remains the only, woman to be awarded DuPont's Lavoisier research award; I had also written she was only the fourth woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and that she was also inducted into the National Women's Hall Of Fame, but those mentioned were edited out. As was the mention of a children's book about her,The Woman Who Invented the Thread That Stops Bullets.


I was on BBC Radio 4's Film Programme today (we taped it yesterday). It's available on I player (link to it here), and will also be repeated on Sunday at 11pm; it's the first item on the show. Francine Stock and I had a fascinating conversation, both on and off air, which was cut down considerably for the slot; what remains is largely the wider view, which makes sense following the Peter Berg interview about Lone Survivor.

Doing the research for the interview, I realised there are quite a few Afghan war films I not only had not seen, but which had barely made an impression on me. We didn't record a conversation of why these films have made less impact than a number about Iraq, but I may review some here at IT along the way. We did discuss the two versions of Brothers, Susanne Bier's Danish one starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the American remake, directed by the Irishman Jim Sheridan, with Toby Maguire and Jake Gyllenhall. I pointed out that the Danish experience in the Middle East has had significant play in their TV series shown here, not only Borgen but some of the crime series as well, and more significantly that I am convinced Brothers is the source material, or inspiration, for Homeland.

Homeland was also a connecting point for me, to examine how wars that are unpopular, or at least not being fought by the country as a whole (the Bush wars are now 11 years old, and still make little impact on the home front--people scream 'support the troops' and keep their children home to watch American Idol) produce films that tend to concentrate on the effect of the war on us. In our discussion I had declared Three Kings the best of the movies set in these specific wars, but it had the advantage of that war's being over, and the ambiguity of our withdrawal as its political core. Most of the early, successful, films about Vietnam were about the home front, not just The Deer Hunter (which I still consider hollow) but Coming Home, Tracks, Rolling Thunder, and Who'll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers). Taxi Driver is part of that bunch too. Of course there were allegorical critiques, like MASH, Catch 22, or Soldier Blue.

The best of the recent  homefront movies is probably In The Valley Of Elah, where Tommy Lee Jones hardens director Paul Haggis' more liberal instincts. But you heard Francine mention Lions For Lambs, which we actually discussed in the tapings--I called it a remake of Starship Troopers which dares to question Ayn Rand.

We used to be less triumphalist. The British think their war films are more realistic and more understated, but they aren't. Look at the World War II combat films produced during the war, and how many of them involve loss and last stands. They Were Expendable, Air Force, Bataan, Corregidor, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, are the films of a nation who like to feel themselves the underdogs.

We also mentioned 9th Company, Fyodor Bondarchuk's movie set in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which I'm going to see soon and write about, and we didn't get to talk enough about the specific documentaries.

And though when they called I assumed it was to ask me to talk about  Jersey Boys, as I've written The Pocket Essential Clint Eastwood and I am old enough to have bought Four Seasons' 45s, I did at least get to talk to Francine about Clint's next film, American Sniper, which, like Lone Survivor, is based on Navy Seals, in this case the memoir of a Seal sniper. It's interesting that Clint played an assassin in Where Eagles Dare, a very Sergio Leone character in Kelly's Heroes, but when it came to war movies he's made only three: the very triumphal, very cliched, and basically Green Berets update (with victory at the end) Heartbreak Ridge, and then the much more sombre Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, both very much about the kinds of issues which Peter Berg described, the horrible toll taken on men at war. So I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of take Clint brings to that one.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


I'm afraid I just couldn't resist when, in Dave Laing's otherwise fine obituary of Gerry Goffin, he spoke of Goffin pairing up with guitarist Barry Goldberg to write 'more political' songs. My letter of correction is online at the Guardian now, you can see it here or if you don't like links, here it is:

"Barry Goldberg, with whom Gerry Goffin wrote songs in the 1970s, was a keyboard player, not a guitarist, from a Chicago blues background (and the band the Electric Flag). And far from being more political, the pair's biggest hit was I've Got to Use My Imagination, for Gladys Knight & the Pips."

The Barry Goldberg Reunion's There's No Hole In My Soul was one of my early favourite records. He then went on to play in some of my all-time best: the Electric Flag, on their great first album, in Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield's Super Session (though you have to listen hard), and made another great record, with Bloomfield playing under the alias 'Great' called Two Jews Blues. Bob Dylan produced the eponymous Barry Goldberg, which has been re-issued recently with the original vocals; Jerry Wexler made Goldberg re-record his vocals and they weren't as good. He also played in one of the least super of the super groups, KGB.

That Chicago scene, made up of young white kids in love with Chicago blues, included Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Goldberg, Steve Miller (the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band was their early group), Harvey Mandel, Nick Graventies, and many others, and they made some great music. And 'I've Got To Use My Imagination' is a really fine song. You can listen to it here.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


I've done a retelling of the story of Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian who scored the only goal for the US when they defeated England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. You can hear it at, on their programme The Globalist (link to it here) about 36 minutes in.

I wrote about the game, and some of the misconceptions around it, four years ago, you can find that essay right here at IT. I did write an update of sorts, but thus far no one is interested. Maybe if the US advance. I should point out the US and England drew 1-1 in that 2010 match, so the English still haven't managed to beat us in a World Cup match. Ever.

Friday, 13 June 2014


My review of this exceptional exhibition is now up at Jazz Journal, you can link to it here. Although it looks great, I've taken the liberty of posting it here, choosing some additional photos from the dozen Yale provided,and arranging others differently, which I think reflect the review better. I wish I had the space to use more...

It's not often you get to see side-by-side two very different artists approaching the same material, but that's exactly what's on display in a moving exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. The subject matter, broadly speaking, is jazz music, and the photographers are Milt Hinton and Lee Friedlander. To borrow a metaphor from American football of their era, the two men are Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.

Hinton is Mr. Inside. Born in 1910, he moved with his family from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Chicago, and studied classical violin, while also playing the tuba in his school's marching band. By the time he turned 20, he was already playing bass in Chicago jazz clubs. In 1936 he joined Cab Calloway (above right, in Milt's photo), and as that hugely successful band toured across America, Hilton carried his camera with him. He settled in New York, where he was an innovative studio session player, and a frequent accompanist on tour with the biggest stars, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday.

In 1957, one of Hinton's students, David Berger, came across a pile of negatives and contact sheets in Hinton's apartment. It wasn't long before Hinton's photographs were being taken very seriously, and not just those of the jazz world. But within that world of jazz, his work provides the kind of backstage perspective few could match. Matched with an uncanny ability to capture the essence of people within the moment, to tell their story with subtle directness, it makes these pictures masterful.

The most famous photograph in jazz history may be the one Art Kane took for Esquire magazine, of New York's jazz men gathered on a Harlem stoop. It's been the subject of its own documentary, A Great Day In Harlem (1998), in which Hinton and his own photographs (as well as 8mm movie footage taken by his wife Mona) featured greatly. Hinton captured the camaraderie of these musicians—in the unusual situation of all being awake and about early in their days; and the joy of the day, as well as the jostling for a good position in the final photo, is plain to see. They tell you more about the people that you could ever divine from the group shot.

But there are much less joyful images too, that tear at the heart. We see Holiday in the studio, in 1957. Hinton's focused on her, and the soft background turns Count Basie, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones into almost ethereal presences behind her haloed intensity. Two years later, she's back in the studio, and it's as if the life has been drained from her bones; Hinton catches her with a drink, bent over before the microphone, all that halo disappeared.

Sobering in a different way are the shots of his band mates on tour. Beyond the telling picture of Danny Barker and Gillespie sleeping in their seats on a train, there are many shots of musicians posed in front of whites-only hotels, lunch joints, restrooms—places they can't leave their bus to enter. In another, Mona poses with Ike Quebec, Doc Cheetam and others, pointing to the 'Motel For Colored' sign behind them. Those contrast with the relaxed feel of musicians lined up in 1955 at the bar at Beefsteak Charlie's in New York, men at work relaxing in their environment. Hinton was an innovator with the 'slap bass', and there's a raucous improvisational feel at work here.

Beyond that there's a magnificent shot of Cannonball Adderly, contemplating ten pages of unfolded sheet music stretched out in front of him, as if to answer those who felt jazz musicians were simply following 'natural talents'. There's a dissipated Gene Krupa, looking as tragic as Holiday, and a young Sam Cooke radiant behind the glass in a recording booth. And there's a stunning portrait of Ike Quebec, with pianist Freddie Roach behind him, blowing the blues in the Blue Note studios in 1961. Hinton catches every instinct of jazz music, the way it expressed such a multitude of feelings, often contradictory, of genius refusing to be stifled, and humanity refusing to be denied. As both musician and photographer, this was the core of Hinton.

There's a similar sense of humanity in Friedlander's work, but it approaches the subject from a different perspective. Born in 1934, Friedlander is Mr. Outside. He studied in Los Angeles, but moved to New York where he worked as a freelance photographer for outlets as varied as Esquire and Sports Illustrated, as well as doing liner photos for Atlantic Records. As a jazz fan, he visited New Orleans in 1958, and wound up accompanying jazz historians William Russell and Richard Allen as they visited local musicians to collect field recordings and oral histories for their recently- established archive at Tulane University.

For almost three decades, Friedlander visited New Orleans regularly and photographed the city's culture of jazz. In a sense, he was following in the footsteps of E.J. Bellocq, plates of whose photographs of Storyville, the red-light district, from about 1912 were discovered only after Bellocq's deah. Friedlander obtained the plates, developed them the same sort of paper Bellocq used, and eventually issued them in three books which established Bellocq's unique record of his city.

Friedlander's own photographs are remarkable for their composition, which sets his subjects into, and sometimes against, a wider landscape. Certainly he's brilliant at catching the motion behind emotion: whether it's the young girls in the 'second line' (Second Liners, 1968) or Dixieland veterans playing in Preservation Hall (1982). But where Hinton's musicians pose ironically in front of 'whites-only' or 'colored motel' signs, Friedlander makes his own irony; one of his most famous photos is a shot of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band (1959) marching, through the rain, in front of a Pepsi-Cola billboard, from which a well-coiffed white model brandishes a Pepsi bottle alongside the slogan 'Look Smart'.

The incongruity of this African-American music, celebrating the joy and pain of life within a culture often in direct, and always in cultural opposition to it, is Friedlander's unlying theme. The masonic apron worn by one of the members in a shot of Dejan's Olympia Brass Band (1982), the portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall behind the bluesman Robert Pete Williams (1973). Jesus and a bird cage are the only ornaments as he shoots Williams in situ, and those portraits may be even more powerful than the photographs of the jazz swagger of the bands. Kid Thomas Valentine's stylised wire trumpets climb the wall behind him, alongside a portrait of Martin Luther King. Albert Burbank's meagre surroundings are enlivened by a small artificial Christmas tree, standing on the box it came in. Louis Keppard sits in his chair playing his guitar, framed by the window curtains behind him, with the feel of a Goya portrait of a saint.

It's a fascinating mix of spontaneity and planning, much like jazz music itself, and it takes its freshness and its power from Friedlander's not being a New Orleans native, not being a musician, not taking this for granted, not seeing things from the inside, as if they were the way they've always been. And oddly, the image whose impression I took away most tellingly was his portrait of Ann 'Mama Cookie' Cook (1958). She sits in a short-backed wooden chair, in a good dress and a head-scarf, in a small alleyway between two ranshackle houses. Her eyes are closed, her back is straight. It speaks of dignity, strength, and of the wearing-down struggle with life in the American South in the Fifties, the struggle which music did so much to help them overcome.


Yale University Art Gallery New Haven Connecticut through 7 September 2014

photo credits: all Lee Friedlander photographs c. and courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery
all Milt Hinton photographs c.and  courtesy of Milton J Hinton Photographic Collection (