Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Barney Rosset and Grove Press

Okay. The thing of it is this: I keep saying that when I was young, the world was a very different place. A pretty easy statement, on the face of it. But the meaning of it goes much deeper. Forget that it was a world before home computers or cell phones, or for that matter wireless phones at all. A phone was a heavy Bakelite thing with a cord that emerged from a nearby wall.

When you picked it up, and sometimes tapped on the little head rest lever a couple of times, an operator (in my case located over the 5 and 10 cent store downtown) would come on and ask what you wanted. They'd tell you the time, Or if school was cancelled that day. Or connect you to someone down the street or clear across town, or out into the world beyond. I am fond of saying that I remember steam trains. I remember watching them water up from the tower at the station at the end of Allen Street where I lived.

This was before the big highway systems were built. When radio was AM. Tv had come in and we'd sit and watch programs on the 13inch tube. There was no such thing as a remote control. Oh, it was all wonderful. And no one spent time cursing, dressing scandalously, dancing provocatively (Ed Sullivan had seen to that!), or telling dirty jokes in public. It had been 20 years since Clark Gable caused a ruckus when he'd used the word "damn" at the end of Gone With the Wind and no one had dared utter it in public since. Besides, that kind of talk wasn't fit to be spoken around women. And there was no such thing as teenage pregnancy or unwed mothers. Young women who had sullied their reputations often took long visits to their Aunt Ida in the country - never-mind that we were a town of less than 2,000 people surrounded by farms and country was a short walk or drive away. No nudity. On the beaches and in detective shows in movies and on tv young attractive women were causing a stir by wearing a two piece bathing suit called a bikini. It had only been a few years since men at the beach had stopped having to wear tops. Not only was sex not discussed, it was barely admitted, and it was a word that was never spoken. I was in my mid teens before it was even considered okay to spell it out in polite society.

Things started to change. A guy named Hugh Hefner started publishing a magazine which had fiction with ideas in it and pictures of naked women, with folds of silk or flower fronds covering up unmentionables. The United States Post Office seized a shipment of a book that it deemed obscene. The author was a man named David Herbert Richards Lawrence who had died nearly 30 years before. The book was Lady Chatterly's Lover. It had won awards and critical raves when it was published in England. In 1928. The publisher who dared to print it and ship it in the United States was Grove Press. A court judge decided the book, with its "unexpurgated" passages had redeeming social value. Grove then published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. That one went all the way to the US Supreme Court who allowed it to be published. Grove press published Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting for Godot. And then there were works by Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Paul Sartre. And in the late 1960's, William Burrough's Naked Lunch, another visitor to the Supreme Court. By the time Grove published The Story of  O., there were no more trials.

Grove Press had a magazine, a sort of sister publication, a literary magazine called The Evergreen Review. It published everybody from Jack Kerouac to Malcom X and Che Guevara. Gary Snyder, John Rechy, Alan Ginzberg, Paul Goodman, Jean Genet, and oh, so many more of the avant garde of the 50's and 60's. I still have (and treasure) a hardbound collection of works from the magazine. (Unless I sold it that time trying to keep the electricity on.)

The owner of Grove Press even took a shot at film distribution, releasing "I Am Curious (Yellow)", a film with male and female frontal nudity. I know I saw it, taking an hour long bus ride to Philadelphia to do so.

The man behind all of this, the man who changed what could be written, printed, spoken out loud, seen in public, the owner of Grove Press, a guy named Barney Rosset died yesterday at the age of 89.

He had quickly become passe in the world he did so much to create. Women's Rights groups took him to task for publishing works in which women were often subjugated and dehumanized. He fired employees who tried to unionize.  In 1985, he sold, and was fired from, Grove Press. A few years ago, he started publishing the Evergreen Review as an online magazine. The 2012 Spring issue went online the day before he died, publishing articles like this:


I just wanted to take a minute to remember him. Although the world may be a coarser and more vulgar place, it - and especially the United States - is more adult, more thoughtful, more intellectually based  because of him. I read a lot of Grove Press books. When I ran bookstores for a living, I sold a lot of Grove Press Books. We're the better for it.

His memoir, "The Subject is Left Handed" (a line taken from his FBI file), will be published later this year.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Rosset. Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fat Tuesday - catching up before giving up

It's Fat Tuesday. Going to Mardi Gras/Carnivale (In New Orleans, Rio, and Venice - maybe in that order) would be on my bucket list if I made one. So would going to the Great Pyramid complex, Stonehenge, Machu Pichu, and etc. But all that is another story.


I haven't watched Black Orpheus for several years now; it's set during Carnivale in Rio. Here's the oddball trailer for the movie, which doesn't even mention the film's title:

Today I want to take a moment to wish klahanie a Happy Anniversary! It's 5 years since his blog was started. Congrats and Best Wishes!

Today is also Mother Language Day according to spam I just got from Cultural Survival. It's another do-gooder site. I don't know how they got my email, I didn't sign up for them as far as I can remember. I get a lot of these kinds of things. I also just got one from AARP-Vermont, also spam. I can't take many more of these kinds of emails and websites. They make me more depressed than I already am. If I wrote to my government representatives or signed a petition for every one of these I get, I wouldn't have any time in my day to do anything else. For some of these, I get interested but need to know more before I sign something. I just can't accept some of this stuff on face value. If I start to look up certain claims and statements of alleged fact, I'll never have time to sign the damn petitions or send a note to my government representatives. I fully expect a petition to come my way from the girl whose father unloaded several shots into her computer over a Facebook post. No, I'm not making that up. Here's the video, now seen by about 30 million people -but I warn you he uses adult language:

Doesn't that just restore your faith in people?

I also just got an email that my Comcast bill was ready for viewing. Say what? Sure enough, even though they disconnected me, they applied a bunch of credits I hadn't gotten - and billed me for next month!

I had intended to write a bit more about Showbiz Gospel, and wend that into the upcoming Academy Awards, but I just noticed the time. Where has the morning gone? I've been upset that I might not see this year's Oscarfest. I used to hold a "Dish the Oscars" party. I still have fond memories of Princess Wendy (returning to Brattleboro in a week's time) jumping up from her seat when Titanic won its first Tech award. She began performing the ritual of exorcism. By the time that movie won the final award of the evening (Best Picture) everyone there was jumping up to make the sign of the cross and chant "the power of Christ compels you - OUT". (Ego te absolvo in nomine Patris, et Filiii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.) Anyway, Laura lent me a usb plug in wireless thingy, which is how I'm able to connect to the internet. My how times have changed - I discovered the wireless signal's presence when I went to copy some old files. I had put in wireless when I was living out in the sticks, as my landlady had a signal I could use. In those days, the wireless modem was a plug in card, which required a bit of work to install in the computer's innards. So, she suggested that the Oscars might be streamed and that I should write them to ask. I used a form on the Oscar website (a mirror of the official AMPAS site) to ask. I got a form letter in reply that noted that they couldn't answer every comment made (even though I had carefully marked my form "information request" which was a check-off box). They referred me to ABC. I went to ABC (a division of Disney) and filled out another form, also checking the "information request" box. And got a form letter in reply. That one told me they couldn't respond to every comment and to go write ABC.

And I haven't even started yet on my TracFone exploits...

But never mind. I just got my 25th or so email invitation to join the National Association of Professional Women. It's warmed up outside to 30 degrees F. I think I'll go run a few errands. Who knows, maybe the streets downtown will be full of dancers celebrating.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Showbiz Gospel

Somedays, he murmured to himself, somedays.

This morning, a bit after the store where I work opened, there were three of us in the front end. Two young women and myself. The two women were talking. As I walked the few steps from my register to where they were standing, I began to hear what they were saying. They were looking at the cover of People magazine, which of course had the Whitney Houston story splashed across its cover. The magazine had, I had gratefully noticed, used a glamour shot of Ms. Houston from when she was young, beautiful, and on top of the world. I first heard the younger woman, all of 18 years, saying that she'd heard of her but didn't really know who she was. The other woman, who I'd guess is in her early 20's and who recently moved here from upstate near Burlington, said that she knew her big song was "I Will Always Love You", but she couldn't remember how it went.

After watching the webcast of Ms. Houston's funeral service, I had commented that I now wanted to change my plans. I'd long ago given up any idea of a funeral, and had noted that I wanted to be cremated and have my ashes blown in a few people's faces. Now I'm thinking of being sent off to my final resting place by a 100+ voice gospel choir. (Okay, I'm kidding, but gosh, would it ever be a fun time for my friends.)

This isn't really something new, though. I've long had a thing for gospel, though I've never really collected it, read up on it, or studied it. It goes back to, well, I suppose it goes back to the hymn sings I loved to attend when I was young. I sang in a youth choir (I think I posted a picture about a year ago). I especially loved the sound of a hundred voices resonating in a wooden church. You haven't heard Amazing Grace until you've been in the center of such a church and such a group. But Methodists don't sing Gospel. Methodists are, in the words of Norman McLaren's A River Runs Through It, "Baptists who can read". Methodists have summer camps, and in those days camp would hold a last night  pledge your soul to the Lord campfire, and there was always an older black woman present, singing gospel tunes while you signaled your pledge by "throwing your faggot on the fire". Needless to say, these observances made me very nervous; I always kept a watchful eye that they weren't coming for me.

Maybe it was the Hall Johnson Choir in the movie version of The Green Pastures. Maybe it was shows on tv. Or, maybe it was the Broadway musical Purlie. Or the Gospel film whose name I can't remember (was it just called Gospel?) that we distributed when I was at Films, Inc. Whatever. Show-biz Gospel. When I first started looking for a place to live in New York City, which would have been 1972, there was a new rock musical which opened on Broadway called "Dude". It was written and staged by the guys who had created "Hair". It was a disaster. Clive Barnes, the critic for the New York Times, had commented that if  it had another two weeks to work on its problems, it could have been a great show. I went to see it. It was uneven, but it was also wonderful. I ended up becoming friends with the brother of one of the creators, who passed me in for the rest of the very short run.  See, what most of the critics didn't get was that the loose story line was a continuation of the story of the main character from Hair. Except, in this case, the role was played by two black guys; a very young Ralph Carter and, as his older self, a Gospel singer named Nat Morris. Also in the cast were a few other singers with Gospel backgrounds: Nell Carter, Salome Bey, Delores Hall. The music had a sort of rock country feel, but as the show came closer to closing, the Gospel singers took over. During the final performance, young Ralph Carter decided he wasn't going to be shown up by the older Dude, and he vocally let loose. The rest of the show took on the aura of a revival meeting. It was a wonderful night to be there.

In 1985 a show opened called "The Gospel at Colonus". It was the Oedipus story, told as Church. It was freakin' fabulous. The role of Oedipus was portrayed by the Five Blind Boys from Alabama. The Messenger was a then less well known Morgan Freeman. The Chorus was performed by the choir from the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was, happily, recorded for broadcast on PBS. I taped it, and still have it in my Betamax collection of stuff. All that's in storage these days and last time I checked, there was trouble with the Betamax. I haven't seen the tape for about 10 years now. So, while thinking about it, I checked You Tube. And they have a promo clip! So here's a sample of one of the most unusual and most enjoyable shows ever produced on Broadway; I hope you enjoy it!