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The Weekly Blague

A Night in St. Louis

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Zito's transcript of the first question and my answer, edited for clarity, is below. Photo © Mary Lyn Maiscott.

 

You said that John's diaries were taken away from you. Did you have enough material at that time to write Nowhere Man or did you eventually get the diaries back? What happened?

 

I was sent out of town. While I was gone my apartment was ransacked. Everything I'd been working on for like a year was taken from me. I was in a state of shock. I couldn't believe that's how the thing ended. I didn't know what to do. Two weeks passed and I started waking up in the morning and realized that passages from the diary were running through my head. I had passages memorized. A lot of the stuff John had written was just so vivid. I started writing down what I remembered, and the more I remembered the more I remembered. This went on for some time and eventually I had large portions of the diaries re-created. I turned that into a book proposal. That's when I started trying to publish the book. This was late 1982, early 1983, and I was met with a lot of rejection for the reasons I was talking about before—you can't prove that this is true; there's going to be lawsuits. When I finally got the deal 18 years later there were no lawsuits and the more time went on the more people realized that what I'd written was true. More information about John's life had begun coming out, and now, 23 years later, pretty much everything I said has been confirmed in one way or another. There was a copyright infringement trial in 2002 and I was subpoenaed to testify by Yoko Ono's lawyers. A lot of what I wrote in the book I eventually told under oath. That's what happened.

 

A short video clip of my reading from the "Money" chapter of Nowhere Man. Video © Laurel Zito.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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John Lennon's Tell-All Memoir

I was thrilled to return to Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, for my first live event in four years. There's a complete audio recording of the reading and Q&A that followed, which I'll make available in weeks to come. In the meantime, here's a transcript of my opening remarks.

 

Hi everyone. Thank you all for coming. I know many of you were here in 2019 for my previous book, Bobby in Naziland, which was re-released as A Brooklyn Memoir. Nowhere Man is a very different book, and there's a new edition with 45 pages of supplementary material, a new introduction, and innumerable corrections, additions, and revisions.

 

I was supposed to do this three years ago. Unfortunately a pandemic got in the way. This is my first book event since the pandemic started, and I timed it to coincide with what would have been John Lennon's 83rd birthday on October 9.

 

Perhaps some of you have already read Nowhere Man, possibly when it was originally published more than 23 years ago. A lot's happened since then. Tonight I'm going to talk about how I wrote Nowhere Man and some of what's happened since 2000. Then I'm going to read three short passages to give you a sense of the book's flavor. I should warn you that one passage has some strong language, which is pretty much unavoidable when writing about Lennon. After I finish reading I'll throw it open to questions.

 

I began writing Nowhere Man more than 41 years ago, in early 1982. It took me 18 years to find a publisher. Everybody I sent the manuscript to was afraid to publish it. They were worried about lawsuits. They were worried that there wasn't enough interest in John Lennon. They were worried that I couldn't provide documented proof that what I'd written was true. I didn't work nonstop on the book for 18 years, but I never gave up on it because I knew it was a story that needed to be told. So I had 18 years to refine the book and get it right.

 

Then, a small indie publisher, Soft Skull Press, made an offer for Nowhere Man and published it in the summer of 2000. They were very good at promotion and after 18 years of rejection I had an international bestseller in multiple languages.

 

So what made the book so dangerous and controversial that nobody would touch it for all those years? Nowhere Man exists because five months after Lennon was murdered, his personal assistant Fred Seaman, an old college friend, gave me the diaries Lennon had been keeping for the last six years of his life and asked me to turn it into a book—it's what John had told him to do, he said.

 

In the new introduction I describe this as the old literary trope: an "ordinary man" in an "extraordinary situation." Did I take at face value what Seaman told me? Yes. Was this naïve? Obviously. Did I recognize the moment as a life-changing occasion? No, I saw it as a job. Of course I wanted to turn Lennon's diaries into a book. I was a writer looking for a story, and the story of the Beatles was the story of my generation.

 

But what exactly was in those diaries that made them such an extraordinary document? Well, they struck me as a rough draft of the tell-all memoir John never had a chance to complete. He put everything in there: the gossip, the fear, the rage, the insanity, the insecurity, the inspiration, the love, and the hate… all the emotions and contradictions that made Lennon who he was. And I had to turn this disjointed mass of raw material into a coherent narrative. Which I started doing. But before I could finish—and this is the story behind the book, which I detail in a chapter called "John Lennon's Diaries"—everything I was working on was taken from me.

 

All of this raises a question that I've been asked repeatedly for the past 23 years: What right did I have to reveal the personal information in a man's private diaries? In other words did I have a right to tell this story?

 

All I can say is that John Lennon was a historical figure, the information in his diaries was of historical value, and an extraordinary circumstance allowed me to be a conduit of that information. Had I chosen to not publish Nowhere Man, this story would not have been told in my lifetime, if ever. So I made a decision: I chose to put the story out there.

 

If you're uncomfortable with that (and I know some people are), there are plenty of authorized Lennon biographies. You don't have to read my book. But if you choose to read it, I will say that I've done my best to give you the truth as I know it.

 

The three selections I'm going to read are from a section called "Dakota 1980." They take place towards the end of John's five-year hiatus, before he returned to the studio to record his final album, Double Fantasy.

________

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The Cross-Examination

Robert Rodriguez and I covered a lot of ground when we spoke recently on his podcast, Something About the Beatles. We talked in detail about the new edition of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, which has 45 pages of supplementary material, a new introduction, and innumerable corrections, revisions, and additions. And we talked about the reading I'm doing tonight, October 4, at 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, my first public event in almost four years, since the beginning of the pandemic. And we talked about the book I'm working on, tentatively titled No Future, which is set at a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York in the 1970s, as the student left is giving way to the forces of punk.

 

In the course of discussing the many dramas surrounding the publication of Nowhere Man, the subject of Yoko Ono's 2002 copyright infringement lawsuit against Fred Seaman came up. I was subpoenaed to testify at that trial as a witness for Ono, and I told Rodriguez about the bizarre cross-examination Seaman's lawyer subjected me to. Fresh out of law school, the attorney was up against Ono's high-priced, well-prepared legal team that had both the facts and the law on their side, in a high-profile trial that dominated the front page of the tabloids. For the young lawyer, it was a baptism of fire.

 

Ono's lawyer questioned me first, and I told a story that was, essentially, the same story I tell in the Nowhere Man chapter titled "John Lennon's Diaries." Except this time I told it under oath.

 

Then Seaman's attorney had at me. The first rule of cross-examination is: Never ask a question you don't know the answer to. This cross-examination was a series of shots in the dark, the attorney hoping to hit on something, anything, that would discredit me. His first question was (and I'm paraphrasing throughout): "Did you burglarize Fred Seaman's apartment?"

 

I looked at him like he was crazy. "No," I said, realizing that Seaman must have believed that Ono was somehow able to force me to do this.

 

"Is this the first time anybody asked you that question?"

 

"Yes."

 

I don't recall exactly where the cross-examination went from there, only that the attorney asked me a lot of questions that did his client no good whatsoever. But I do recall his last three questions:

 

"Did you believe John Lennon wanted you to have his diaries?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Do you still believe that?"

 

I thought about it for a few seconds, and I'm told it was a very dramatic moment. "Yes," I finally said.

 

"Did you pay taxes on the money Yoko Ono paid you?"

 

This was his last desperate attempt to discredit me, and it pissed me off. "I sure did," I said.

 

The lawyer turned and walked back to his seat.

 

Ono won her case.

_______

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon tonight, October 4, 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Subterranean Preview

 

Wednesday, October 4, at 6 p.m., I'll be doing my first live event in almost four years, since the beginning of the pandemic. If you're in the St. Louis area, please join me at Subterranean Books. I'll be reading from and answering questions about the new and expanded edition of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon.

 

The book has endured for 23 years and achieved cult-classic status because it takes you on a journey through Lennon's consciousness. Read Nowhere Man and you'll feel what it was like to be John. I was able to write such a biography because five months after Lennon was murdered, his personal assistant gave me the diaries Lennon had been keeping for the last six years of his life and asked me to turn it into a book—it's what John had told him to do, he said.

 

The diaries struck me as a rough draft of the tell-all memoir that Lennon never had a chance to complete—which raises a question I've been asked repeatedly: What right did I have to reveal the personal information in a man's private diaries? In other words, did I have a right to tell this story?

 

I'll discuss this at the event. Of course you should feel free to ask me about anything else.

 

I'm also going to read three short excerpts from chapters in the "Dakota 1980" section of the book: "Being Rich," "That Magic Feeling," and "Money." They all take place towards the end of John's five-year hiatus, before he returned to the studio to record his final album, Double Fantasy

 

If you're unfamiliar with me or my work, please listen to my recent appearance on the Something About the Beatles podcast. This will give you a sense of what the Subterranean event will be like.

 

I look forward to meeting you in St. Louis. To paraphrase the Beatles, been away so long I hardly know the place anymore.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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My Father at 100

Had my father, Irwin Rosen, lived, he would have turned 100 on September 23. But he left us in 2005, a vigorous man who had to be dragged to doctors and refused to take certain tests that might have saved his life. If it's true that everybody is born with a finite amount of courage, my father spent most of his on the battlefields of World War II and had little left over to face the verdicts rendered by men of medicine. My last memory of him when he was still healthy was playing touch football on my brother's front lawn. At age 80, he could still move and fling the ball with zip. I prefer not to think of him lying in a hospital bed.

 

My relationship with my father was challenging, and it was only after he was gone that I considered writing about it and trying to make sense of it. When I was a kid, he owned a candy store on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, around the corner from where we lived. He put in 12-hour days, then came home and went to sleep. Pretty much the only time I ever saw him awake was when he was behind the counter in the store, whipping up egg creams and malteds for his customers and selling them cigarettes. I worked in the store from the time I was seven, making change for newspapers and eventually graduating to the egg-cream bar. I liked listening to my father and his cronies talk about the war, football, and the dirty books he kept on a special rack in the back of the store. But I also got an advanced education in bigotry—I was carefully taught whom to hate. It was ugly stuff, some of the things they said, and I wrote about it in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir, which ends in 1964, when I was 12, just before my father sold the store.

 

Then came my teenage years, which I've yet to write a book about. My father was a law-and-order Republican, I was a hippie, and things in the Rosen household grew so strained, we froze each other out. It was a cold war. Months went by when I didn't exchange a word with my father or my mother. The root of the trouble was the length of my hair and my refusal to cut it. I spent as much time away from my parents as possible, while still technically living in the same house. I moved out in 1975, when I was 22.

 

By the time my parents moved to a retirement community near West Palm Beach, in 1995, my father had mellowed, even toning down the bigotry, and I'd become more accepting of his and my mother's flaws. We were talking again, and I enjoyed visiting them and spending time in Florida. Despite their adamant opposition to my career choice—"You'll starve!"—they were thrilled when Nowhere Man became a best-seller, and they kept a file of newspaper clippings about the book, in many languages. Though the thing that finally persuaded them that I'd achieved some degree of success was when Nowhere Man was a question on their favorite show, Jeopardy. ("Rock & Roll Bookstore for $400, Alex.") 

 

Now, in my own advanced age, I find myself missing the old man and wishing he'd taken the damn medical tests so I could have had him around a few more years. And my mother, who's closing in on 97, misses him, too—despite their 56 years of bickering about everything. That's just the way it goes. The lucky ones get old and some of them do make it to 100.

 

So, on the occasion of my father's 100th birthday, I'll leave you with an excerpt of A Brooklyn Memoir. This is how Chapter 11, "Fragments of My Father," begins:

 

Yes, my father wore his hatred on his sleeve like a badge of honor—because that's what he wanted people to see. He thought it made him look like a tough son of a bitch who was not to be fucked with, and maybe it did. But it was possible for certain people—like me, my mother, and perhaps a few others—to occasionally get beyond this facade, and if you managed to do that, what you'd find lurking just beneath the surface was a seething mass of contradictions.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m., at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Former Lennon Staffers Tell All

I'd never seen this episode of The Joan Rivers Show from 1991, but it popped up on YouTube a few months ago and has already gotten more than 234,000 views and 2,000+ comments. Rivers's guests were Fred Seaman, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's former personal assistant; Lennon's former lover May Pang; and Michael Medeiros, aka "Mike Tree," also a former Lennon and Ono assistant. The theme of the episode was "Former Staffers Tell All," though Seaman was the only one who had something to sell that day: his book, The Last Days of John Lennon: A Personal Memoir

 

I've written about Seaman, Pang, and Medeiros in my book Nowhere Man, on this blog, and in the case of Medeiros, in The Village Voice.

 

Seaman was an old college friend who, the day Lennon hired him, in 1979, asked me to collaborate with him on a book about Lennon and, after his murder, gave me Lennon's diaries to use as source material for that book. I'm not going to deconstruct, line by line, everything Seaman tells Rivers. Suffice it to say that like his book, it's a skillful blend of truth and lies, and he begins the interview with a fire hose of lies about Lennon's diaries and about me.

 

If you want my perspective, read Nowhere Man. I detail the diary story in a chapter called "John Lennon's Diaries." Or  listen to any of the interviews I've given over the years, many of which are available on the home page and John Lennon page of this Website. Or if you're in St. Louis, please join me October 4 at Subterranean Books. I'll be discussing and answering questions about Nowhere Man. You can ask me anything, and I hope you will.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Buckley and Me

I never met James L. Buckley, but he was familiar with my work and he did have an impact on my life. Buckley, who died August 18 at age 100, was William F. Buckley's brother and an unlikely Conservative senator from New York, who served from 1971 to 1977, occupying a seat once held by Bobby Kennedy.

 

During Buckley's term in office I was editing Observation Post, or OP, a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York. I often published in OP the surreal drawings of the late artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio. Attanasio, who was brought up in the Catholic Church and later rejected its teachings, had strong feelings about the church's myriad hypocrisies, which he expressed in his art.

 

In 1974, the church had yet to be exposed as a haven for pedophilic clergy and was considered by many, including Buckley, to be untouchable—an institution off limits to criticism by anybody for any reason. One did not criticize those who spoke for God. It was also a time, one year into Richard Nixon's second term, that the despair and rage his presidency and his endless war in Vietnam engendered were giving rise to a punk sensibility whose mode of expression was outrage for the sake of outrage. OP was a font of this sensibility, and that's why I published an Attanasio cartoon that The New York Times would later describe as "a nun using a cross as a sexual object."

 

The cartoon infuriated Catholic organizations on campus and beyond. In a speech before the senate, Buckley characterized Attanasio's nun as "a vicious and incredibly offensive antireligious drawing" and called for a federal investigation of OP and the expulsion of the students responsible for publishing it. The media firestorm that ensued galvanized OP, giving it a newfound sense of purpose: defending the nun in the name of transgressive art.

 

But there would be no investigation and nobody would be expelled. The First Amendment and a Times editorial in support of the student press (despite "inexcusably irresponsible or offensive actions by undergraduate editors") got in the way of politicians who wanted to cut off all funding for campus newspapers at public colleges. OP, a bastion of free expression, would continue publishing for five more years. And thanks to James L. Buckley, I learned more about the Constitution and the power of the press than I learned in any class I took as an undergraduate.

 

May the senator rest in peace.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Bear in Number 12

 

"Modernistic, almost avant-garde, all acute angles and big vertical sheets of glass jutting toward the street, the red-brick structure stands in the middle of a row of mid-19th-century Greek Revival townhouses, on a tree-lined Greenwich Village block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. In its mismatched eccentricity, 18 West 11th Street cries out to be noticed, and I noticed it—and the Paddington Bear in the window—right after I moved to the neighborhood. I don't remember what kind of costume the bear had on that summer day in 1991 (probably a bathing suit and sunglasses), just that I stopped to look and wonder why the house was so different from every other house on the block." –from The Village Voice

 

The above paragraph is the opening of a book I'm working on. Tentatively titled No Future, an excerpt ran in The Village Voice last year. It's about the connection between Observation Post, a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York in the 1970s, and a house that the violent antiwar group known as the Weathermen, or Weather Underground, used as a bomb factory. The Weathermen were not very good bomb makers, and they accidentally blew up the house. Three Weathermen died in the explosion. Eventually, a lavish new house was built on the site, and the owners, metals magnate David Langworthy and his wife, Norma, displayed a Paddington Bear in the window. Every day the bear had on a different costume. If the Yankees were in the World Series, he'd be wearing a Yankees uniform. If a nor'easter was coming in, he'd be wearing a rain hat and slicker. I called him the Paddington Bear of Cognitive Dissonance.

 

In 2014 the house was sold and the bear disappeared, probably never to be seen again in that particular window.

 

I wondered about the bear's fate. I missed walking by the house to see what kind of costume he had on. I inquired about the bear on Nextdoor. Nobody knew what happened to him.

 

One morning last week, I was walking down a block I've walked down many times: West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, one block from where the bear used to be. This time, a beautiful bow window at number 12 caught my eye, and standing on a table in the corner of the window was Paddington Bear, wearing red rubber boots. (It had rained the previous day.) I don't know how long he'd been there, but he's not in any of the Google street view images taken between June 2014, around the time he disappeared, and November 2022. It was the first time I'd seen the bear in nine years.

 

Several days later I returned to check out his costume. He was still wearing red rubber boots, though it hadn't been raining.

 

If the Yankees or Mets should miraculously squeak into the playoffs, perhaps the new owners will be moved to dress him in the appropriate uniform, as his previous owners always did. Then again, it's football season, and both New York teams could prove to be interesting this year. Paddington Bear would look just fine in either Giant blue or Jet green.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Sometimes the Living Know Brooklyn, Too

 

It's been a while since I've posted about A Brooklyn Memoir, my tale of growing up in Flatbush at a time when the beloved Dodgers abandoned the borough for Los Angeles, WWII was still fresh in everybody's mind, and the military veterans and Holocaust survivors who populated the neighborhood suffered from what was not yet known as PTSD. But a podcast about the book that I recorded nine months ago recently popped up. You can listen to it on the above player.

 

Yvonne Battle-Felton, the host of Bookable Space, is a writer and academic based in the UK. Her probing questions about A Brooklyn Memoir got me talking about the racism, hatred, and emotional and physical violence that I tried to forget after I left Flatbush in the mid-1970s. It wasn't until 2012 that I decided to write about those long-ago days; I then spent the next several years recalling fragment by fragment what I'd so successfully put out of my mind.

 

I also read three short excerpts from the book: the beginning of Chapter 1, "The Goyim and the Jews"; the beginning of Chapter 3, "Heil Irwin," which is about my father; and the section from Chapter 9, "The Great Candy-Store Tragedy," that gets into the Brooklyn Dodgers and Bobby Thomson's devastating "shot heard 'round the world."

 

Tune in and return to a New York City that's been lost to time.

________

Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon: Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.

 

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on X (the site formerly known as Twitter) or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Start Spreading the News

 

I'm doing my first public event in nearly four years, since just before the onset of the pandemic, at Subterranean Books, in St. Louis. I'm going to read from and answer questions about a new and expanded edition of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. If you're in the area, please mark your calendars: Wednesday, October 4, at 6 p.m. It's an early celebration of Lennon's 83rd birthday, which takes place October 9.

 

Originally published 23 years ago, Nowhere Man has been translated into many languages and has become an enduring cult classic that takes you on a journey through Lennon's consciousness. You can read about the book on the Subterranean site, or just come to the store, at 6271 Delmar, in the Loop, University City, for an intimate perspective on the life and death of an ex-Beatle.

 

With a little help from my St. Louis friends and family maybe we can reprise the outstanding turnout at my last Subterranean event, in October 2019, for my just-published memoir Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir). It put the book on the St. Louis Post Dispatch bestseller list.

 

Stay tuned for future postings about Nowhere Man and my Subterranean reappearance. In the meantime start spreading the news. I hope you can meet me in St. Louie.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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A Time Machine for the Mind

In the summer of 1972, traveling alone on a super-low budget, I managed to latch on to an American tour group in Israel. They gave me a free ride through the country, and I kept a journal of that extraordinary month. I was an aspiring teenage writer, on the verge of turning 20, and I'd gotten it into my head that serious writers kept journals, especially when they were on the road.

 

The past several years I've been working on a book about the 1970s, and in the process I've been excavating old journals, including the one I kept in Israel. The excerpt below occurred 51 years ago tomorrow, when I visited Masada. I include it here because tomorrow is also Thursday, August 10—the 1972 calendar, from March through December, is in sync with the 2023 calendar. And what happened in that barren patch of desert 2,000 years ago is a story I heard that day for the first time.

 

A good journal entry is like a time machine for the mind.

 

Thursday, August 10, 1972

Sunrise over Masada, the Dead Sea gleaming in the distance as we gaze upon the ruins of the "impregnable" Jewish fortress, perched on a mesa in the Judean desert. Here, 1,900 years ago, King David and 960 Jews held off the Roman army. The Great Siege of Masada went on for months, until the Romans breached the walls that seem to grow out of the brown and lifeless earth. Inside they found dead Jews—everybody had committed suicide or killed each other rather than be taken prisoner or enslaved, and two millennia later our tour guide calls this mass suicide an act of "heroism," though some, like me, might mistake it for death-cult insanity.

________

All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

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The Artful Propaganda of the Spanish Civil War

 

Last week, to celebrate my birthday, I wrote about the man I was named after, my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber, who, in 1938, joined the International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion, to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa. I also examined a Spanish Civil War propaganda poster from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). A selection of these artistically striking posters, designed to convince Spanish citizens of the righteousness of the Republican anti-fascist cause, will be on display through September 15 in the NYU Kimmel Windows.

 

This week I'll examine two more ALBA posters that caught my eye. The text across the bottom of the above poster translates as "The Internationals: United with the Spanish, we fight against the invader"; the text in the seal as "International volunteers of freedom." Though the posters were effective, with volunteers from all over the world joining the International Brigade, the fascist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by Adolf Hitler, overwhelmed the Republican army. Franco and his repressive regime would rule Spain until his death in 1975.

 

 SCW-Screenshot-3.png

During the Spanish Civil War, Buenaventura Durruti, working with anarchist labor unions, fought on the side of the Republicans against the fascist rebels, known as Nationalists. He was killed in action, in November 1936, at the Battle of Madrid. The text translates as "Honorable anarchists are against the false freedom that cowards [meaning the Nationalist rebels] invoke to get away with what they're doing."

 

It should be noted that the battle against fascism continues today in the United States, as one of its major political parties has rejected democratic rule, derisively calls those who oppose it Antifa (anti-fascist), and strives to overcome popular will and install an authoritarian regime.

 

There is much to be learned from what happened in Spain 85 years ago.

 ________

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My Great-Uncle Robert

 

The Spanish Civil War was the opening act of World War II. From 1936 to 1939, Spain's democratically elected leftist Republican government fought fascist rebels, known as Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco (still dead) and backed by Adolf Hitler, of Nazi Germany, who saw the conflict as an opportunity to test his weapons of war. Volunteers from many countries joined the XV International Brigade to fight alongside the Republicans. British writer George Orwell was perhaps the best known volunteer, and he documented his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. American volunteers joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and one of them was my great-uncle Robert Rubin Weber.

 

I knew little about my mother's uncle when I was growing up, other than that he was an "adventurer" declared missing in action in the Spanish Civil War and presumed dead and that I was named after him in the Jewish tradition of naming babies after deceased family members. Sixty-five years later, as I was writing A Brooklyn Memoir, I asked my mother if she could tell me anything more about her uncle. The only thing she remembered is that after a trip to the South Seas, he brought her back a coconut carved into the shape of a woman. He'd disappeared when she was 11. I'd never even seen a picture of him; nobody in the family had one.

 

As A Brooklyn Memoir was going to press, in 2019, I continued searching for additional information about Robert Weber and stumbled upon a page devoted to him in NYU's Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). I'd been spelling his name wrong. My mother finally told me that my grandfather had inserted an extra "b" into Weber to make it sound "less German." My grandfather and his wife and children were Webber.

 

I was 67 years old before I saw a photo of the person I was named after.

 

Uncle-Robert.png

My great-uncle Robert Weber's passport photo. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gandesa, in Spain.

 

Robert Rubin Weber was born September 12, 1903, in Lomya, Russia, now part of Poland. He arrived in the US a month before his eighth birthday and became a naturalized citizen. His father, my great-grandfather, was Jacob Weber, who was born in Russia and died in 1935. Robert was a grocer like his older brother, my grandfather. The address listed on his passport, 442 West 23rd Street, in New York City, was most likely a rooming house at the time. He sailed for Europe aboard the Aquitania on January 12, 1938, landed in Spain on January 23, and served with the XV International Brigade, Lincoln-Washington Battalion (known as the Lincoln Brigade), rank soldado. Reported missing in action in March 1938, near Gandesa, as the International Brigade retreated from a fascist onslaught, he's now listed as killed in action.

 

I bring all this up because I was walking on LaGuardia Place a few weeks ago and was surprised to see an artistically striking selection of Spanish Civil War posters displayed in the NYU Kimmel Windows, a block south of Washington Square Park. The exhibition, which will remain on display until September 15, was co-curated by Miriam Basilio Gaztambide, an associate professor of art history and museum studies; Danielle Nista, an assistant university archivist; and several students. The posters got me thinking about my great-uncle again, and how I'd so recently come to learn anything about him, and how amazing it now seems that 85 years ago a member of my family, who'd probably never picked up a rifle, volunteered to go to war against fascism for a country that was not his own.

 

Tomorrow is my birthday, and, on this blog, I'm celebrating today and in weeks to come by remembering the man I was named after and the righteous cause he fought and died for.

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The Fat Man

Byron Nilsson as Sydney Greenstreet in his one-man show, The Fat Man. Photo by John Romeo.

 

Longtime readers of this blog, especially those who've attended my New York City events, will recognize Byron Nilsson as the MC. He's performed that duty three times, most recently in December 2019 for the launch of Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir). Soon after that event, a pandemic put the world into a state of suspended animation and brought public gatherings to a halt.

 

Now that Covid 19 has eased, I've stuck my toe back into the waters of society, and last weekend my wife and I ventured into the hamlet of Glen, in Upstate New York, to visit Byron and his wife, Susan Whiteman, now an elected member of the town council. The occasion was the premiere of a one-man show that Byron wrote and stars in, The Fat Man: An Audience With Sydney Greenstreet.

 

One of the advantages of living in a town like Glen, nestled amid farmland in the Mohawk Valley, and with a significant Amish population rolling by in horse-drawn buggies (as if the 20th century never happened), is that it gave Byron, as a member of an organization called the Glen Conservancy, the opportunity to acquire an old church building across the street from his house and turn it into Glen Conservancy Hall, a performance space featuring an eclectic program of music and theatre. This is where Byron debuted The Fat Man, on July 15.

 

Best known for his roles as Kasper Gutman, aka The Fat Man, in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Signor Ferrari in Casablanca (1942), Greenstreet, who played opposite such iconic figures as Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, was a man of great appetites who weighed as much as 350 pounds, and whose size was an essential element of his characters. Byron, too, has struggled with his weight and has a profound understanding of and sympathy for Greenstreet's battle with his waistline. This was his inspiration for writing and performing The Fat Man.

 

The play is set in 1949, in Greestreet's Los Angeles home. The actor, in ill health (he'd die in 1954, age 74) and near the end of his career, is expecting John Huston to join him for dinner and offer him a part in The African Queen, the movie Huston is about to film. The director is late, and as he waits—Waiting for Huston—Greenstreet sips tea, eats shortbread, drinks whiskey, and talks about his career, marriage, and weight. He grows increasingly tense and berates his housekeeper on the telephone; she's supposed to be there already to cook lamb chops for dinner. There are some funny bits, such as Greenstreet's impression of Lionel Barrymore, in a wheelchair, sputtering angrily, and an anecdote he tells about having played "a Negro jockey." "You don't believe I played a Negro jockey?" he says. "I was smaller then."

 

Byron has created for himself the role of a lifetime. To say that he inhabits Greenstreet would be an understatement. Skillfully directed by David Baecker, The Fat Man is a show that deserves to reach an audience well beyond Glen Conservancy Hall. I can only hope that it does, and soon.

________

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What's in a Name?

 

I launched this blog February 10, 2010, with an announcement that the Italian edition of my John Lennon biography, Nowhere Man, was going to be published by Coniglio Editore, and that I was going to celebrate with a pizza and a bottle of Chianti. I don't remember what I called the blog back then. I changed the name every few weeks. I do know that over the past 13 years and 5 months, as I posted sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, and sometimes monthly, I changed the name many more times.

 

If you logged on here four days ago, I was calling the blog "Flatbush Flashback," a reference to my most recent book, A Brooklyn Memoir. The blog served as an illustrated postscript to what I'd written about my old neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. Before that, my posts about Beaver Street were an addendum to my analysis of the political, technical, and sociological ramifications of the pornography industry. I called the blog "The Daily Beaver." Scroll down the left-hand column (on a computer) and you'll see a list of all the other topics I've written about since 2010.

 

Lately I've been writing about whatever catches my interest on any particular day. So, if you've tuned in recently, you've read about legal cannabis in New York City, a 350-year-old tree in Washington Square Park, tenement buildings (which did, coincidentally, touch on Flatbush), and a visit to Uvalde, Texas, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

 

It was time to change the name of the blog.

 

I stole "The Weekly Blague" from an Agatha Christie book I've been reading. There's a reference in Death on the Nile to a gossip column in a newspaper called the Daily Blague. The name made me laugh. I looked it up and was surprised to see that "blague" is a real word, though a bit archaic. I'm not going to tell you what it means, but I will say I'm using it ironically.

 

I don't know how long I'm going to keep that name. But for the time being, I am going to keep posting to The Weekly Blague about whatever's on my mind.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that people no longer read blogs, that they're very 2010, that readers want only microposts on social media. I don't buy it. A good blog is no different than a good newspaper. If you write about things people want to read, they'll find it. This blog has proven that many times.

 

Welcome to The Weekly Blague, however long it may last.

________

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The Unlicensed Cannabis Dispensary

I've been getting enough smoke in my lungs breathing New York City air. So I decided it was time to take advantage of legal cannabis and buy some edibles. Since marijuana was legalized here two years ago, so many dispensaries have opened that if you live in Manhattan, you don't have to walk more than a block or two to find one. The problem is that most of them are unlicensed, and you can't be certain of the potency or purity of their products. And the handful of licensed dispensaries charge a premium, sometimes two or three times what you'd pay for the same thing in a licensed dispensary in, say, Arizona.

 

Being the frugal sort, I figured I'd take a chance, save a few bucks, and check out an unlicensed dispensary on Hester Street that had caught my eye. How bad could it be? So I went to Smokers Paradise 2, hoping to score some brownies or cookies. There were two guys behind the counter, neither of whom spoke English very well. Considering it was my first time buying legally, the product was a drug, and I had questions, I should have walked out. But I was able to establish that all they had in the way of edibles was a wide selection of gummies. For no particular reason I chose Jolly Rancher. They were manufactured in Canada, and the entire package, according to the label, contained 600 mg of THC. The proprietor was, with some difficulty, able to communicate that one gummy was equal to one dose. The package was $20.80. I was able to pay with a credit card, which surprised me. I thought cannabis transactions were cash only.

 

There were seven gummies in the package. That meant that each one should contain about 85.7 mg of THC, more than enough to send me into orbit. (A standard dose is 10 mg, but I have a high tolerance.)

 

I ate one gummy and waited three hours. Nothing happened.

 

The next day I ate two gummies and waited three hours. Nothing happened. 

 

The next day I ate the last four gummies, allegedly 342.8 mg of THC, and waited three hours. Nothing happened.

 

Smokers Paradise 2 had sold me some very overpriced candy. It's the first time in my life I've been ripped off buying marijuana, and I've been buying it since high school. But I'm not going to get into an argument with the manager of a rip-off store. And I'm not going to tell Mastercard that I want a refund because the THC gummies I bought at an unlicensed dispensary didn't get me high. I'm just going to write it off as a research expense.

 

Next time I'll go to a licensed dispensary. Maybe they'll have brownies.

________

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The Tree

The English elm in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park is the oldest tree in Manhattan.

I've been reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a book about activists who try to save giant redwoods and Douglas firs, some more than a thousand years old, from logging companies determined to clear-cut entire forests. The book got me thinking about ancient trees, and the other day, as I was walking around Washington Square Park, I noticed that some of the trees looked like they'd been there a long time, maybe since the Civil War. "What's the oldest tree in Washington Square Park?" I asked Google. The answer surprised me.

 

In the northwest corner of the park is an enormous English elm, planted, according to some sources, in 1679, soon after the British took possession of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York. The area was farmland surrounded by a marsh. Minetta Creek flowed down what would one day become Minetta Lane and Minetta Street.

 

The tree, 344 years old and 133 feet tall, is the oldest living thing in Manhattan. Its roots are thought to reach halfway across the park. Since nothing can live that long and be that big without having a legend attached to it, the English elm is also known as "The Hanging Elm," though there's no official record of anyone having been hanged from it. People were hanged from a gallows erected near the current location of the park's fountain and buried in the potter's field that's now the eastern two-thirds of the park. More than 20,000 bodies still lie underneath Washington Square, many of them victims of the yellow-fever epidemics that ravaged the city in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The elm has seen a lot.

 

I approached the northwest corner of the park looking for the tree. There was no mistaking it. With a trunk almost six feet in diameter, it dwarfs the surrounding trees. The elm seems to call out, "I'm the tree." I've walked by it a thousand times and wondered how I never noticed it before. I tried to take a picture of the entire tree but couldn't fit it all into the frame, not even close. So I settled for a photo of the bottom part of the trunk, which best communicates the enormity of an old English elm that will probably outlast me and you, too.

________

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We Were Talking About Air Shafts

 

We were sitting in a bar talking about air shafts. My friend Andrea was with her niece, Mia, who was visiting from Florida. Mia had wanted to go to the Tenement Museum, on the Lower East Side, admission $30. Andrea refused to pay $30 to look at a curated slum.

 

"Give me 30 bucks," I said to Mia. "I'll show you a shabby apartment."

 

The conversation then turned to defining what, exactly, makes a building a tenement. Andrea suggested a number of features distinctive to certain New York City apartments: rooms without windows, bathtub in kitchen, shared toilet in a water closet in the hallway, and windows looking out on an air shaft, often with garbage piled up at the bottom.

 

My wife, Mary Lyn, who's from Missouri and has never lived in a tenement, wasn't sure what an air shaft was. So Andrea and I endeavored to explain that in the early 20th century, New York City building codes demanded that apartments have at least one window, and that the solution to building cheap housing that had at least one window in every apartment was to place an air shaft—an empty verticle space—in the middle of the building. That way, interior apartments looked out on an air shaft, the other interior apartments often so close the tenants could reach out the window and shake hands with their neighbors as they inhaled the garbage fumes wafting up from below.

 

I pointed out that sometime in the 1950s, a builder came up with the insidious idea that kitchens and bathrooms don't need windows; vents would suffice. The idea caught on, and if you've spent any time in New York City, you've probably noticed how common this is, even in modern luxury buildings.

 

All this talk got me thinking about the apartment I lived in when I was a kid—the one I describe in detail in A Brooklyn Memoir. That building wasn't a tenement, but it was pretty rundown, though it did have a window in every room, including the kitchen and bathroom. What I didn't describe in the book was the way the kitchen and bathroom windows looked out on a space in the middle of the building that was too small to be called a courtyard but was bigger than an air shaft and served the same purpose. Every so often, a man with an accordian wandered into this space to sing Italian songs. People threw money at him, an occasional dollar bill floating down. From our third-floor kitchen window, I'd try to hit him in the head with pennies until my mother walked into the room and screamed, "Stop throwing money out the window!"

 

Should there be a future edition of A Brooklyn Memoir, I will include this scene.

________

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Turn Me on Dead Man

Bob Wilson and Don Jeffries are prolific podcasters (both individually and together), and I've been a guest on a few of their shows, including Don't Pass Me By and The Donald Jeffries Show. They liked what I had to say about the Beatles and asked me to answer a few questions for their new book, From Strawberry Fields to Abbey Road (BearManor Media).

 

The subject of the book is a question that's been kicking around since 1966 and found new life among the multitude of conspiracy theories thriving on the Internet: Is Paul McCartney dead and was he replaced by a lookalike?

 

Most sane people will agree that Paul is very much alive and living the good life of a talented, aging billionaire (as I said in response to one of the questions). But if you were around when the Beatles were together, you were probably aware of the so-called "clues" on their album covers and on the recordings themselves that indicated Paul was dead.

 

There are a wealth of such clues on Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and the White Album (The Beatles), and it was fun to seek them out and analyze them, as my friends and I did at the time. Even then we didn't believe Paul was dead; we thought the Beatles were playing a game. The title of this post, "Turn Me on Dead Man," is a clue from the White Album. If you spin John Lennon's avant-garde sound pastiche "Revolution 9" backwards, every time you spin through "number 9," it sounds like "Turn me on dead man."

 

The clues have been analyzed to death over the years. Perhaps the most bizarre analysis can be found in a book titled The Lennon Prophesy. The author, Joseph Niezgoda, who believes Lennon sold his soul to the devil, reinterprets all the "Paul is dead" clues as predictions of Lennon's death.

 

Wilson and Jeffries go in a completely different and far more entertaining direction: They interviewed an eclectic group of celebrities, writers, and musicians, all of whom had a Beatles connection, and asked them for their thoughts on the clues. They include Richard Belzer, the late actor and comedian; Richie Furay, co-founder of Buffalo Springfield; actress Sally Kirkland; Victoria Jackson, from SNL; Susan Olsen, from The Brady Bunch; Steve Boone, bassist for the Lovin' Spoonful; Jon Provost, who played Timmy on Lassie; Bruce Spizer, who's written many Beatle books; Fred LaBour, a writer and musician who's credited with popularizing the Paul-is-dead rumor... and me. (Note to Jon Provost: Are you sure "Martha My Dear" isn't Lassie's favorite Beatle song? It's about Paul's sheepdog.)

 

So, if you'd like to lose yourself for a few amusing hours in a rumor that has as much staying power as the Beatles themselves, allow me to clue you in to From Strawberry Fields to Abbey Road.

________

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Another Hit of Sonjabox

 

On days like this, when I prefer to not think too much about the need (obligation?) to write something substantial about the four days Mary Lyn Maiscott and I spent in Uvalde, Texas, on the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, I find it helpful to look at the whimsical creature known as Ruby Leggs, created by my late friend Sonja Wagner. So I plucked another Ruby from my Sonjabox. In this one, titled As I See It, Ruby has slipped out of her signature high heels and is having a smoke in her bedroom by an open window that looks out on West 37th Street, which is where Sonja lived for 46 years. Note Ruby's collection of shoes in the shoe rack next to the window, her cat occupying one of the shelves.

 

What I find most amusing about this Ruby are the black-and-white studies for the cat. It's as if she had a spiky punk hairdo and her tail were an arm of saguaro cactus (kind of like my own cat, Oiseau).

 

I hope this hit of Ruby has improved your outlook on a day in New York City where the air isn't fit to breathe and the sky is so hazy from wildfires burning in Canada that the sun looks like the moon.

 

If you want to read more about Sonja and her art, please see my tribute, "The Life of Sonja," in The Village Voice.

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You Want to Go Where?

 

Uvalde, Texas, One Year Later

 

When Mary Lyn Maiscott told me she wanted to go to Uvalde, Texas, I said, "You want to go where?"

 

Uvalde was the scene of a school shooting last year. On May 24, a deranged teen with a legal AR-15 held the good guys with guns at bay for more than an hour while he slaughtered 19 fourth-graders and two teachers, and injured 17 others, at Robb Elementary School.

 

Inspired by a drawing made by one of the victims, Mary Lyn wrote "Alithia's Flowers (Children of Uvalde)"; it's about 10-year-old Alithia Haven Ramirez and some of her surviving classmates.

 

St. James Infirmary, a show on college station OWWR, chose "Alithia's Flowers" as 2022's song of the year. For the first anniversary of the "incident," as it's known in Uvalde, Mary Lyn was invited there to sing the song.

 

I went with her, ignoring official warnings for outsiders to stay away.

 

I need more time to fully examine what happened to Mary Lyn and me in the four days we spent in Uvalde. I will say we felt welcome and met a number of extraordinary people, including Alithia's parents, Jess Hernandez and Ryan Ramirez; Anthony Medrano, a mariachi musician who performed with his band in the town square and co-wrote "El Corrido de Los Angeles de Uvalde"; and Adam Martinez, the father of a boy who attended Robb Elementary and was there the day of the shooting.

 

Adam is now an activist demanding accountability from local officials who refuse to answer basic questions about the shooting and would like everybody to forget about Robb Elementary and the absurd gun laws of Texas. One of the places Mary Lyn sang "Alithia's Flowers" was on Adam's podcast, Karma Korner. Adam accompanied her on guitar.

________

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Sonjabox

 

One of the more whimsical creations of my friend Sonja Wagner, an artist who died March 3, 2023, at age 85, was her Ruby Leggs series, drawn over a 40-year span. I describe Ruby in The Village Voice as "a pair of bright crimson lips mounted on a long pair of legs in high heels, gallivanting about New York" and elsewhere. (She might also be described as the personification of vagina dentata.) Sonja had always wanted to publish her Ruby series as a book, but the project never came to pass.

 

After Sonja's death, two of her friends, Wendy Deutelbaum and Dee Morris, with help from Alexander Kalman, assembled what they call A Box for Sonja. The box contains 30 of her Ruby Leggs drawings along with preliminary studies for each one, and my piece, "The Life of Sonja," that ran in the Voice. They made only 16 boxes and gave them to Sonja's friends. It was an honor to see my story included.

 

Danger or Desire, the cover image from A Box for Sonja, shows Ruby walking at night in Central Park. The other image, Later That Night, is Ruby and her cat on July 13, 1977, the day of the New York City blackout, which occurred soon after Sonja had moved into the Midtown loft that she would transform into a Xanadu-like hub of social activity.

 

A Box for Sonja is a beautiful tribute to an artist who was underappreciated in her time. Perhaps more boxes will be made available—because Ruby Leggs is one of many Sonja creations that deserve to reach a wider audience.

________

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Interviews, I've Done a Few/Entrevistas, he hecho algunos

 

I've probably done 400 interviews since Nowhere Man was published in 2000. And yes I'm amazed and grateful that in 2023 there's continued interest in the book. The latest interview, conducted by John Wisniewski, ran in AM FM Magazine, and touches on some of Nowhere Man's main themes: John Lennon's relationships with Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, and his sons Sean and Julian; his interest in the occult; his flirtation with Christianity; his immigration battle; his songwriting; and his death. Here's a sample quote: "When Sean was born in 1975, John looked upon the new baby as a last-chance opportunity to repent for all his past sins against family."

 

When Sean was born in 1975, John looked upon the new baby as a last-chance opportunity to repent for all his past sins against family.

 

If you haven't read Nowhere Man yet, this is a good introduction.

 

Carlos E. Larriega, de Mundo Beatle, en Perú, ha tenido la amabilidad de traducir la entrevista al español. Pueden leerla aquí.

 

The interview also appears in Cultured Focus Magazine, a site that works better with an iPhone or Mac rather than a PC.


Entrevistas, he hecho algunos

 

Traducción por Carlos E. Larriega

 

Probablemente he concedido 400 entrevistas desde que se publicó Nowhere Man en el 2000. Y sí, estoy asombrado y agradecido de que en el 2023 exista un interés continuo en el libro. La última entrevista, realizada por John Wisniewski, se publicó en la revista AM FM y toca algunos de los temas principales de Nowhere Man: las relaciones de John Lennon con Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono y sus hijos Sean y Julian; su interés por lo oculto; su coqueteo con el cristianismo; su batalla contra la inmigración; su composición; y su muerte. Aquí hay una cita de muestra: "Cuando Sean nació en 1975, John vio al nuevo bebé como una última oportunidad para arrepentirse de todos sus pecados pasados contra la familia."

 

Si aún no han leído Nowhere Man, esta es una buena introducción.

 

Carlos E. Larriega, de Mundo Beatle, en Perú, ha tenido la amabilidad de traducir la entrevista al español. Pueden leerla aquí.

 

La entrevista también aparece en la revista Cultured Focus, un sitio que funciona mejor con un iPhone o Mac que con una PC.

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A Journey Through My Consciousness

Nowhere Man, Beaver Street, and A Brooklyn Memoir, three books about seemingly unrelated topics, are connected by my voice—they all have the same sound. It's almost as if they're a trilogy or a journey through my consciousness. The interviews I've done over the years usually focus on only one topic: John Lennon, pornography, or Flatbush. But occasionally somebody wants to explore the complete Rosen oeuvre, and that was the case with the podcast Conversations With Rich Bennett. Rich wanted to hear it all, and he allowed me to ramble on for more than hour, taking a deep dive into each of my books.

 

I hope you'll give our conversation a listen.

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Time and Lucinda

My passport mug shots from May 2013 and May 2023.

 

The last time I looked at my passport was February 2020. I'd just returned to New York from Miami, where I'd read from Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir) at Books & Books in Coral Gables. I was about to start planning the European leg of my promotional tour—London, Paris, Madrid—and I wanted to make sure my passport was up to date. It was. It wouldn't expire for more than three years. Then a never-ending pandemic happened, a pandemic that created a need for the injection into my arm of six vaccines and boosters. (T.S. Eliot measured out his life with coffee spoons. I measure out mine with Covid shots.)

 

Somehow three years passed—years of fear, isolation, and death; years of sitting at my desk and trying to remain productive; years of wondering if it was ever going to end; years interspersed with illusory moments of hope; and years when foreign travel wasn't even worth thinking about.

 

Then yesterday something possessed me to look at my passport, not that I'm planning to leave the country in the immediate future. It was a little voice in my head telling me that such a thing could happen. So I dug it out, the booklet stamped with countries I'd been to in the past 10 years and with all kinds of foreign currency—euros, pounds, Mexican pesos, Argentine pesos, Dominican pesos—stored between its pages. It was expiring in one month. Not good!

 

I scrambled to renew it, downloading and filling out documents and running out at nine p.m. to get a passport photo taken, which I was able to do a block from my apartment. I looked at the old and new mug shots side by side. What a surprise to find myself older, grayer, saggier! I'm sure I'll look at the new photo in 10 years and marvel at my youthful appearance.

 

But what possessed me to dig out my passport? I'll venture a guess: On April 25 I saw Lucinda Williams at City Winery. It was the first indoor concert I'd attended since the pandemic. Ironically, it was with tickets my wife had bought three years ago, just before the pandemic began. The show, of course, had been cancelled, and in the interim Williams had had and recovered from a stroke. But she's now returned to life, and I guess I decided I would, too.

 

Lucinda-042523.jpg

Lucinda Williams and friends, New York City, April 25, 2023.

________

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In the Name of Kerouac

A Google Maps impression of the 565-mile route from Milton, Pennsylvania, to Schoolcraft, Michigan. The straight blue line just south of Akron, Ohio, is where the scene I describe below takes place.

 

Last week, in my post about the Volkswagen ID.Buzz, the 2023 electric incarnation of the Volkswagen Microbus, I wrote about all the VW vans that picked me up when I hitchhiked cross-country with my girlfriend in the summer of 1974. One of the rides I referenced took us more than 500 miles, from Milton, Pennsylvania, to Schoolcraft, Michigan. Below is a short excerpt from an as-yet-untitled book about the 1970s that I'm currently working on. It's from a chapter called "In the Name of Kerouac," and it goes into detail about that ride—an iconic moment in an iconic van at a time when the very notion of hitchhiking cross-country would soon pass into the realm of things sane people no longer did.

 

To set the scene: My girlfriend, whom I call "Naomi," and I had been on the road for three-and-a-half hours, and we'd come 160 miles. We were hitching on Interstate 80, when a VW van with Michigan plates stopped. The driver, David Legalli ("Accent on the gal. So please don't call me legally."), was heading for Grand Rapids. As we cruised along at 70—15 miles per hour above the new gas-shortage-mandated national speed limit—Legalli told us that he'd just turned 27, he was a wounded Vietnam vet, and he'd eaten speed for breakfast so he could drive all day without stopping.

***

In the late afternoon as we sped through the Ohio cornfields on U.S. 30, a straight line of geometric perfection, Legalli asked, "Anybody play guitar?"

 

"She does," I said, pointing over my shoulder to Naomi.

 

"Well then why don't you grab my guitar and play something, sweetheart."

 

She seemed hesitant. Though I thought she was a talented singer, she was a rudimentary guitarist, shy about performing in front of strangers. But she picked up the guitar in the back of the van and began tuning it.

 

"Do you know 'Country Roads'?" Legalli asked.

 

Naomi nodded.

 

"That's one of my favorites."

 

She strummed the guitar, began singing softly, and on a country road taking David Legalli home, we all joined in on the chorus, attempting what a generous person might call harmony. And I think Naomi understood that this was why I loved hitchhiking, that this was the kind of thing I'd hoped would happen, and it was happening on day one. Her voice growing stronger and her guitar playing more confident with each song, we sang everything she knew by heart, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (we did well on the "na, na, na"s), "City of New Orleans," and "America"—a paean to the road, a song that was one with the moment. Paul Simon sang that it took him four days to hitchhike 370 miles, from Saginaw, Michigan, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We'd be in Michigan by the end of the day.

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Catch a Buzz

Tbe 2023 Volkswagen ID.Buzz. The ID stands for "intelligent design," the Buzz for the sound of electricity. You may have other ideas.

"It was July 27, my 22nd birthday, our 15th day on the road, and we snagged a ride within minutes. The rear door of a VW bus slid open and a hippie woman beckoned us inside. We joined her in the back seat and I said we were going to Salt Lake City." —From a book in progress about the 1970s

 

In the summer of 1974, my girlfriend and I hitchhiked from New York City to San Francisco, taking a meandering route through the Rocky Mountains. The morning the VW bus—officially known as a Transporter or Microbus—stopped for us, we were fleeing a mosquito-infested campground in Montpelier Canyon, Idaho. In the book I describe the hippie woman as "a dead ringer for Patty Hearst" and the driver as bearing a strong resemblance to Phineas Freakears, the Afro-topped Freak Brother in the Gilbert Shelton cartoon. They happened to be carrying a pound of "primo dope" and we caught a buzz off a giant spliff they passed around as we cruised down Highway 89 in air-conditioned comfort through the craggy, pristine hinterlands with Crosby, Stills & Nash playing on the sound system. It was a good and memorable ride in one of five Volkswagen vans, similar to the one below, that picked us up along the way, one of them taking us more than 500 miles, from Milton, Pennsylvania to Schoolcraft, Michigan.

VW-1970.jpg

The 1970 Volkswagen Microbus, a good car to catch a buzz in.

 

Many years after my cross-country odyssey, I edited a car-buyers guide for a time, and consequently I'm still invited to the New York International Auto Show. This year, among the exotic, super-luxury, and futuristic cars on display, the one that caught my eye was the latest incarnation of what was once the ultimate hippie mode of transportation. The 2023 VW Microbus is now called the Volkswagen ID.Buzz. It's electric (like Kool-Aid); it will be available in the US in 2024; and in keeping with its flower-child heritage, in addition to a name that could be construed as cannabis-themed, it's also carbon neutral.

 

As I admired its retro design, I imagined what it would be like to drive the ID.Buzz down some of those roads I traversed by thumb 49 summers ago, and fill it up with 21st-century hippie hitchhikers, assuming such creatures still exist. It would be a great deal of fun. And these days the buzz is legal.

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On Billie Holiday's Birthday

April 7 was Billie Holiday's 108th birthday, and Mary Lyn Maiscott and I celebrated by tuning in to St. James Infirmary, Michael J. Mand's show on OWWR. In his three-hour webcast, which begins 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Fridays, Michael plays an eclectic selection of rock, jazz, and blues—old classics as well as new material from unknown artists, superstars, and everyone in between. It's free-form radio at its best, and what I love about the show is that I always hear something interesting that I've never heard before.

 

On his April 7 show, Michael of course played Billie Holiday, along with some surprising covers of her music, like Southside Johnny's take on "These Foolish Things." But the main reason we were listening is because Michael interviewed Mary Lyn, previewed her new single, "My Cousin Sings Harmony" (to be released April 13), and played two more of her songs, "Alithia's Flowers (Children of Uvalde)" and "Alexander/Isabella."

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The Rents They Are A-Risin'

Every so often I get the urge to write a letter to an editor. It happened the other week when I read an article in The Guardian about Bob Dylan and the Volkswagen van that appeared on the cover of one of his early albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The reporter, Billy Heller, had tracked down the owner of the van, a Greenwich Village butcher whose shop, Florence Prime Meat Market, was (and still is) on Jones Street, where the album cover was shot.

 

Heller's opening sentence was an outdated cliché that described the Village as a magnet for creative types. I'll let the letter (text below) speak for itself.

 

Your article (Freewheelin' to fame – the untold story of Bob Dylan's iconic VW van, 24 March) begins: "New York City's Greenwich Village has always been a magnet for outsiders, artists and poets." That sentence cries out for an update. Greenwich Village used to be a magnet for such people.

 

I'm a writer, my wife is a singer-songwriter, and we've lived in the area for well over 30 years. Yes, some of us have been fortunate enough to weather the changes that have made this neighbourhood (as well as much of Manhattan) unaffordable to most. But I can now report that the Village has become a magnet for bankers, brokers and trust-fund tragedies.

 

If a young Bob Dylan were coming to New York today, he'd be lucky to find an affordable place in the Bronx or Staten Island.
Robert Rosen
New York City, US

 

I could have added three more categories of newly arrived Greenwich Village denizens: hedge-fund managers, corporate lawyers, and weathy divorcees. Creative types, of course, still do move here on occasion, usually after they've made their first couple of million.

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People Who Died

 

Without death, we couldn't appreciate life. I read that somewhere recently. I don't know who said it, but I think it's true, and if it is true there's been a lot of life appreciation in this household lately. My wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, and I have both been writing about people who died. Death, it seems, has inspired us.
 

Mary Lyn is a singer-songwriter. Last year she wrote a song about the horrendous shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where an emotionally disturbed man with an AR-15 murdered 21 students and teachers. "Alithia's Flowers (Children of Uvalde)" was chosen Song of the Year on Michael J. Mand's St. James Infirmary show, on OWWR, Old Westbury College Radio, on Long Island. You can listen to the podcast of that show here. Michael's heartfelt introduction begins at 2:44:30. (As I write this, there's been yet another school shooting, this time in Nashville.)

 

Mary Lyn's latest song, "My Cousin Sings Harmony," is about her cousin Gail Harkins, who died in 2021. It's a story song, a tale of childhood, family, rock 'n' roll, and the joy of music. (You can read more about Gail here.) I think it's one of the best things Mary Lyn has ever written—a magical composition that continues to sound fresh no matter how many times I hear it (and I've heard it a lot). Next Friday, April 7, Michael will preview "My Cousin Sings Harmony" on St. James Infirmary. You can listen live beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern Time or listen to the podcast the following day. The song will be available to stream and download April 13, Gail's birthday.

If you've been keeping up with this blog, then you know about my friend Sonja Wagner, an artist who died March 3. My tribute to her, "The Life of Sonja," was published in The Village Voice while she was still with us. The above video, by filmmaker Jules Bartkowski, was played at her memorial. Sonja had circles of friends within circles of friends within circles of friends. If you never had the opportunity to meet her, Jules's video will give you a sense of who she was. "Flat Foot Floogie," which you'll hear on the soundtrack, was one of the biggest hits of 1938, the year Sonja was born.

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