Norman Mailer in L.A.: Battling the Armies of the Right
IN DARK, THREATENING TIMES LIKE THESE, MAYBE IT'S BETTER NOT TO GET a world-class novelist to start musing about the global gloom that hangs so heavily around us. Listening to Norman Mailer spin out his most pessimistic scenarios over a luncheon at Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood manse last Saturday, I was tempted to seek refuge at the bottom of our host's gleaming pool.
"We're going to lose our democracy in this process," said Mailer, speaking of the coming war with Iraq as the rest of us listlessly poked at spinach quiche and fresh éclairs. "We're in a pre-fascist atmosphere here in America."
Los Angeles Times books editor Steve Wasserman — who brought the now octogenarian author to town as part of the speakers program of his salonlike Institute for the Humanities — introduced Mailer as someone who seems to be currently "channeling Mark Twain." But Mailer, in brown cords and a blue blazer over a knit turtleneck, sounded more like he had been possessed by Cassandra.
"We are going to become a megabanana republic," he continued. "The army will forever have a much bigger role in all of our lives."
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Mailer, who wrote brilliantly of World War II in his classic The Naked and the Dead, says the Bush administration sees the coming war as the best way to distract attention away from the "downslope" he says America has embarked upon. Yet this war, Mailer insists, is much more than domestic political distraction. It's also about a neoconservative drive for a Pax Americana. "This is about establishing the Near East as an outpost for world empire. It's about capturing Iraq's oil. It's about capturing Iraq's water. It's about controlling the Middle East."
But certainly the author of The Armies of the Night — the definitive account of the 1967 anti-war protests against the Pentagon — must be somewhat buoyed by the massive pro-peace turnout two weeks ago in the streets and plazas of the entire world?
"The anti-war groups are even more naive than they were in the '60s," Mailer guffawed. Not only are they "speaking to the choir," Mailer said with disdain, but the mostly baby-boom protesters lack sufficient fire in the belly to effectively confront the war makers. "Look at all those protesters, those young professionals pushed into the side streets by the police in the New York march. They all got bored and took out their cell phones. Probably on the phone with their brokers! No war for oil! Ha!"
Things got even darker when Mailer opened the floor to questions from my fellow Institute lunch companions. Put a couple dozen liberal intellectuals in any closed room nowadays and the tone is guaranteed to turn apocalyptic within minutes. And after they were primed by Mailer, the paranoia pumped freely. Why are the American people so blind? Didn't U.S. forces really set those oil-well fires in the last Gulf War? The whole scene was playing out as some sort of orgy of hopelessness until finally someone asked Mailer if he really believed the Bushies were smart enough and visionary enough to carry all this off. After all, previous attempts at American empire — from Guatemala to Vietnam — have all seemed to collapse into naught.
Mailer perked up his eyebrows, nodded his head and clarified that he was only talking about the intentions of Washington and that — in the end — the Bushites were in fact too frivolous and too shallow a crew to really follow through. "They're too inept," he said. And the overwhelming gloom began to slowly lift.
"They'll never succeed because they don't have enough depth of knowledge, enough compassion, or nearly enough understanding of the perversity of human nature, because the conservatives are half-right. That's why I now call myself a Left Conservative. The conservatives are right because that human perversity tends to eventually screw up everybody's plans."
As to the White House zealots? Don't take them too seriously either, Mailer counseled. "Jesus is half their soul," he said. "Evel Knievel is their other half. An average American with a deep Christian faith is but an oxymoron."
With that, a round of thankful amens and a more leisurely approach to dessert.
ON A RECENT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, heading out of downtown on the Red Line, I noticed a raggedy-looking passenger with a backpack and an acoustic guitar. Once the train got under way, he began strumming and swaying and rasping out Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." He looked like a muskrat, bearded and shaggy with hacked-off hair, an Ace bandage wrapped around his right wrist, and one lens of his thick glasses held in place by Scotch tape. But he sounded okay, and before long several people around me were fishing in their pockets for quarters.
It wasn't until his second number, "Yesterday" by the Beatles, that I noticed something curious in his method. He ended his songs when the train stopped, waiting in silence as passengers got off and on, and resumed only when the train was again rolling. And he kept moving, first from one end of our car to the other, and then, around the time we reached Vermont Avenue, off the train and back on the next car. It made no sense; if someone was going to drop a dime in his hat for a song, they'd probably pay more for a whole set. I was intrigued. I followed him to the next car.
He noticed me spying on him, and, as an evasion, when the train came to its next stop, he ran the length of the platform and ducked into the last car. I felt foolish, but I wanted to know why he only played when people couldn't hear him. I ran after him, slipped into a seat and tried to look inconspicuous. After the doors closed he approached and peered at me through cloudy plastic lenses.
"Are you following me?"
"Well, yes." Then, I had to ask: "Why do you only play when the train is moving?"
He was relieved I wasn't a cop, but also disappointed — he thought I might be a spotter for a film crew. He didn't mind explaining: It's illegal, he said, to play music in the L.A. subway. You might think the First Amendment would have something to say about it, but the police tell him that the MTA is a private company and can make its own rules. So he was a musician who made sure he couldn't be overheard, except by those within earshot. This was truly an underground musician.
We got off the train when we reached the Lankershim station. I bought him a hot dog; he told me his story. Gary Bruner is 47 years old, and he's been making his way as a street musician for most of the past 10 years. He plays what he calls classic rock — a lot of Beatles mixed in with America and Jethro Tull, Jackson Brown and Dan Fogelberg. "That music has stood the test of time," he said.
Bruner started working the Promenade in Santa Monica, but all the other players were amplified, and besides, there were "too many rules." For the past three years, he's worked the crowds outside Staples Center as they come and go from sports events and concerts and conventions. But on days when the arena is quiet, he still has to make the $30 he needs for a bed downtown, and he knows the subway is the best place to find an audience. When things really hit bottom, he heads down to the train.
It's a dicey game. Police patrol the platforms, and even when Bruner is able to dodge them, citizens will sometimes blow the whistle on him. "There's always some guy," Bruner said, "maybe his wife ran out on him with a musician, he'll rat on me."
It was a telling statement, revealing not so much a sense of persecution — Bruner seems to be his own toughest critic — but his sense of identity. Some might regard him as a street person or a panhandler, but Bruner sees himself as a musician, seeking an audience, plying his trade. "I hate being panhandled, and I certainly don't want to be classified among 'em," he said with conviction. "I never ask for change. I only say thank you, never please."
Bruner looks back fondly on what apparently were the good old days, when he used to play frat parties in Westwood. "Drunk frat kids love live music," he said sagely. But in the near future, at least, he knows his prospects are limited. "I'm available for parties; unfortunately I don't have a pager or a number where I can be reached."
But Bruner doesn't spend much time lamenting his circumstances. There's the hotel bill to be paid, and rush-hour crowds to work. We leave the bright afternoon sun and ride the escalator down into the fluorescent gloom. Musicians are a feature of subways the world over, but Bruner will be the only troubadour on the L.A. Metro tonight.
The train arrives. Bruner steps on, unlimbers his guitar and drops his cap on the floor in front of him. As we hurtle underneath the hills toward Hollywood, Bruner strums vigorously, making his way down the center aisle, pushing his hat ahead of him with one toe. His voice is lost in the squeal of the wheels long before he reaches the end of the car.
THERE WAS A LONG LINE OF LONG faces in front of the Santa Monica Museum of Art last Friday night. Artist types waiting to hear the famous critic Dave Hickey on painter Alfred Jensen had just found out that the lecture was sold out.
Inside, every chair was filled with young, enthusiastic art students or older, established Los Angeles artists and art dealers. Nothing in between. Most likely the ä lecture was a class assignment. Coeds clutched their notebooks tightly against their chests in anticipation of the art guru and author of Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy. Bad rock & roll music played against the backdrop of Jensen's formidable psychedelic paintings. The event looked like an indoor Dead concert sans the liquor and drugs. And much more polite. "Is this a safe distance?" one earnest fan asked the guards who stood before each painting.
A young, perky girl in a pink vinyl coat, with a glowing complexion and one tasteful diamond piercing asked if the single seat beside me was taken. Her name was Rubi, with an i, she told me when I asked the obvious question, "Are you an art student?"
"How did you know?" she innocently replied. Then she explained how artist Scott Grieger, her professor at Otis, was scheduled to drive the "getaway car" for Hickey.
Isn't that a bit drastic?
She assured me that it was not. Apparently the room was crowded with Dave Hickey groupies, and this exit strategy would behoove such an event. She wistfully added, "He's my mentor." Before I could ask Rubi with an i whether she meant Grieger or Hickey or Jensen, we were interrupted by the MC, who introduced the man of the hour, applying adjectives like original, intellectual, iconoclastic, humorous, etc., ending with the definitive phrase: "a cultural icon."
Generous applause greeted Hickey as he stepped up to the podium and stated that he would "go for boring tonight, if that's okay." (I think that was a rhetorical question.) Hickey can be enormously entertaining, but tonight was going to be different. Despite this forewarning, he failed miserably. The audience was enrapt. He referred to notes and sometimes read from them, but clearly they were not necessary. He spoke with passion and insight, although some of his points could have been thrown together on his flight from Vegas (where he teaches at the University of Nevada). In his deep Texan drawl, 'isms, 'ologies and 'istas spilled from his lips, and the sign-language interpreter beside him was kept busy. Have you seen the sign language for Abstract Expressionism?
As Hickey shared tales of visiting Alfred Jensen in New York, commending the artist's good choice of Scotch, calling Jasper Johns a Carolina cracker in comparison to Jensen, and imitating Jensen when he paints — like "wiping snot off his thumb" — the gallery began to feel like a church hall. Every head was lowered in deep concentration as Hickey transformed into a clergyman on his pulpit and the Jensen-patterned canvases morphed into stained-glass windows. The only difference was the constant flashing of cameras. Hickey had command of his congregation. Performance artist Reverend Ethan Acres, a follower of Hickey's who made it to the lecture, may have felt a tinge of envy — a sin he'd have to wrestle with later that night, I suppose.
"Do you understand what I'm saying here?" Hickey asked about six times when it might appear he just pulled that one out of his hat. Declarations about art rolled from his tongue. What makes great art? What is art? Age-old questions that have kept philosophers employed from the beginning of time, Hickey tackles effortlessly. "A great artist is a producer who wants their views to prevail." Hmmm. Does that make Dave Hickey a great artist?
After 45 minutes on cosmology and art, Hickey ended his monologue. "I'll answer questions," he said, "but I assure you that's all I know about Jensen." Not a single hand went up. Hickey hung around for a while, though, not making a quick exit after all. One-line reviews drifted through the lingering crowd: "Very articulate." "I really enjoyed the lecture." "What a romantic." "I don't care if he's a star." And, my favorite: "I think he's sexy." Now I understand the cultural-icon bit.
LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS OF L.A.WEEKLY
Though there have been strong women throughout history . . . it has only been since 1979, when Lisa Lyon won the First World Women's Bodybuilding Contest, that physique has taken off as competitive athletics for women. Women working out in gyms all over California see themselves as trailblazers of physical feminism. Like the men who inspired them, however, women bodybuilders live in a world ruled by obsessive-compulsion, in which the American fixation on food and fitness is taken to the ultimate degree and the '60s credo, you are what you eat, is a paranoid conviction. Bodybuilders gulp an astounding repertoire of food supplements: Bill Kumagai, editor of Power and Fitness, observes, "I've been in gyms where the first question asked is not 'What does it do to you?' but 'What color does it turn your piss?'"
—Livia Linden in "What Should
Women Look Like," June 26, 1981
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