We are the dead

 

Yesterday, I visited the grave of a US President. I had not set out to do that, it just kind of happened. I was spending some time in Princeton, just wandering around with my trusty camera and decided, on a whim, to visit Princeton cemetery.

There I discovered many interesting people interned within the grounds. The biggest surprise was Stephen Grover Cleveland 22nd and 24th President of the United States. Cleveland was the only President ever to be elected to two nonconsecutive terms. He was also the only President thus far from the great state of New Jersey.

His grave in Princeton (surrounded by his loved ones) is a fairly humble affair considering the high office he held.

Cleveland

So humble, in fact, that it neglects to even mention that he was President.

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I did a little research and decided that this was a President that, in most regards, I could have gotten behind.

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, Free Silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans on libertarian philosophical grounds. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. As a reformer Cleveland had such prestige that the like-minded wing of the Republican Party, called “Mugwumps“, largely bolted the GOP presidential ticket and swung to his support in the 1884 election.   – Wikipedia.

Cleveland was far from the only historically significant person burried in that place. I spent a couple of hours nosing around the tombs and found several other persons of interest.

Aaron Burr

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Burr was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, Vice President under Jefferson, and famously fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton (in New Jersey, where conviction for illegal dueling didn’t carry the death penalty). Hamilton died of the wound he recieved from Burr. Interstingly, the duel was fought on the very spot where Hamilton’s eldest son was also killed in a duel just a few years before.

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Sylvia Beach

Beach was an American-born bookseller/publisher who actually lived most of her life in Paris. There, between the two World Wars, she became a highly regarded expatriate figure. She founded the famous Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, and published James Joyce‘s controversial book, Ulysses. She was also a supporter of Hemingway in his early writings.

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William Drew and Maria Louisa Robeson

Paul Robeson was a famous Princeton-born African American singer and civil rights advocate. A huge influence on such artists as Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier. He was highly regarded in Australia where he came in 1960 to tour and, whilst there, performed for the workers at the construction site of the Sydney Opera House. This was the first ever performance at the Opera House.

His father, William Drew was the minister at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton and he and his wife are buried there.

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George Gallup

Gallup, creator of the Gallup Pole, was a pioneering statistition and journalist. His monument is strange in that I could not find his name upon it. His family members were all reresented but where I expected to find George’s name there was only this;

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As I continued to explore, I discovered there were, among the tombs, a large number of Princeton University Presidents and Professors (not such a big surprise) as well as quite a few Civil War Generals and other high rankers (even a Confederate Brigadier General).

I looked for a long time for the stone which marks the resting place of Helen Dukas who was for many years Albert Einstien’s personal assistant but was unable to locate it.

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Cemeteries are always interesting places but, for me, this one was particularly fascinating. I left feeling very pleased that I’d taken the time to get properly aquainted.

 

 

©2017

Synchronicity

 

 

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Noun: synchronicity

  1. The relation that exists when things occur at the same time

  

   I’ve always experienced a lot of synchronicity in my life. It comes and goes like the ocean tides. Often it manifests in small seemingly insignificant things like, for instance, a few weeks ago, I mentioned to Jersey girl that as much as I enjoyed the American beers I’d sampled, I had yet to find ‘the one’, a beer that I could think of as my old faithful as it were.

   That conversation took place on the day I wrote this piece in which I reference Frost’s The road not taken with its famous lines;

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
   That very afternoon, while perusing some of my favourite blogs, Frost’s poem came up again (sadly, I neglected to bookmark the blog and can’t remember now whose it was).
Then, later that evening, we stopped off at the liquor store where I came across this little gem.
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I, of course, had to give it a try and yes, it is now ‘the one’.
   As I said, a small thing but still noteworthy. I treat synchronistic moments like these as signposts which tell me if I’m on the right path and headed in the right direction.
   My most recent piece of synchronicity also revolved around a poem (and a lyric, though, sadly not a beer). I had just finished writing the text of my blog post on William Carlos Williams and was looking for a title and song to go with it (I generally take the blog title from the accompanying song clip rather than the piece itself – just a strange quirk of mine).
   I’d included several quotes from poet and critic Randall Jarrell in the piece and, as the post was also about Springsteen, decided to use his song Jungleland to accompany the piece.
I wanted to use the lyric The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all as the title for the piece but had a feeling I’d already used it in a previous post.
   I went back to find it and, sure enough, I had used it on this piece essentially about my relationship to poetry. In the post, I reference the poem The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner – a piece that had had a strong impact on me in my youth – by none other than Randall Jarrell.
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   In a sense, the two posts were spiritual kin and yet, I’d had no idea until that moment that the Jarrell I’d been quoting in the one had penned the poem in the other.
   There are lots of little synchronistic threads woven into this larger one. For instance, Jarrell wrote two children’s books which were illustrated by Maurice Sendak. And Sendak wrote the very first book I ever borrowed from a library, Where the wild things are. That book’s visual style was a massive influence on my future interest in illustration.
   Even the fact that Williams and Robert Frost both died the same year I was born (just a month before, in Williams case) seems synchronistic to me. Actually, several of the people I would come to admire chose the year I was born to depart this existence; Kennedy, C S Lewis, Aldous Huxley – all three on the same day mind you, Patsy Cline, Jean Cocteau, and Édith Piaf.  All died that year.
   I don’t know what broader significance any of that might have, but I can say that the knowledge of it has shaped my world view in small ways and large.
Words and images are my own.
©2017

The Swamps of Jersey

 

“This is Newark, New Jersey . . . This is Newark, New Jersey . . . Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes.” – Orson Welles Mercury theatre production of The War of the Worlds (1938)

 

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The Swamps of Jersey

We might have a competition on our hands here if we restrict ourselves solely to the shenanigans of lawmakers working in or around the state capital, Trenton. Lord Cornbury, New Jersey’s first Colonial governor, was famous for taking bribes and filling key posts with relatives. He also happened to enjoy dressing like a woman. One of Cornbury’s most recent successors, Jim McGreevey, appointed a former Israeli naval officer named Golan Cipel to oversee the state’s homeland security interests—not, it turned out, because he was qualified for the position (which foreign nationals aren’t actually allowed to fill), but because he and McGreevey were allegedly having sex. When Cipel (who denies the affair) threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment, the married governor resigned and came out of the closet.

Newsweek 2010

 

 

I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey….

 

And my machine, she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey…

 

An Iron Maiden riot in the swamps of Jersey thirty years later

“You were crunching on glass,” said Tony Kingslow, a 15-year-old who was part of the Teaneck group. “It was just a mess. Bottles everywhere, glass everywhere, you saw rags with blood on it. You couldn’t believe that happened.”

As they continued walking, Mulligan and his friends saw a burning, overturned car.

“There was a huge circle of people around it, throwing everything and anything in the fire,” he said. “We hung out until we were almost hit with some flying bottles.”

News reports alleged that concert-goers threw bottles at firefighters responding to the car fires.

 

“A heavy black fog hanging close to the earth . . . of extreme density, nature unknown. No sign of heat ray. Enemy now turns east, crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes.”

 

Image is my own.

Connecting baby, your heart to mine

 

Way back in the misty beginnings of the blog, I wrote this piece based upon my notion that Springsteen is, in fact, the American Bowie. Hardly anyone read it then as I had about 10 followers and it was a pretty long piece. I reposted it last year and again – though my audience had grown considerably – very few people showed any real interest.

That might be because it isn’t a very interesting subject to most people or it may be that it just wasn’t that good of a piece. Whatever the case may be, I was asked recently (obviously by someone who had not read said piece) how it is that my two all time favourite musical artists are so very different from one another? That got me thinking all over again about the similarities I see at every turn between these two.

I’m guessing that part of the problem people may have with seeing the similarities is the quite opposite energies these two project. Bowie’s is much more feminine while Bruce exudes an undeniably muscular male energy.

And don’t get me wrong, I can certainly see that they are miles apart when it comes to the particular individual aesthetics they each embody. Springsteen has worked hard to project a very homespun, authentic, working man image. Whilst Bowie was always mercurial in his adoption of twitchy avant-guard and bleeding edge personas.

All of that, however, can be considered mostly surface gloss. These carefully constructed artifices were simply their way in to their respective audiences. It was what they had to say having won those audiences that showed where their true similarities lay.

Both Springsteen and Bowie have had a lifelong fascination with the outsiders, the outliers, the alienated. Bowie chose to use metaphor to express that alienation, often presenting his character as an actual otherworldly being, a literal alien.

Ziggy the main character from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the most obvious example of this. However, right to the end, the theme peppered his recordings. One of his outtake Tracks from his penultimate album The Next Day is a song called Born in a UFO. And the Blackstar album (and accompanying video) is also permeated with such metaphorical extraterrestrial imagery.

And so, yes, it’s fair to say that Bowie was ‘weirder’ than Springsteen. Ultimately, however, the two artists are dealing with different takes on a very similar idea. Both are asking the question; what is it like to live on the outside of a society that largely ignores or even denigrates its fringe dwellers?

Springsteen writes about aliens too but his come from a little closer to home, illegal aliens from across the border populate many of his songs. This is especially true of his solo albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Tracks like Across the Border and  The Line deal very heavily with the issues of transplantation and the desperate need to find a better life that so many poor people feel.

In The Line, even Springsteen’s Border Patrol Officer lives in a state of emotional isolation.

Of course, Bruce was writing about alienated anti-heroes long before those solo albums. Darkness on the Edge of town is a lone loser album par excellence. And the operatic Born to Run is all about the dream of escaping from a town where you simply don’t fit in.

Since writing the original post, I keep turning up unexpected links between the two artists. The fact that long-time  E Street pianist Roy Bittan played on such iconic Bowie tracks as Station to Station, TVC15, Ashes to Ashes, and Up the Hill Backwards still kind of blows my mind. And recently I discovered that drummer Zachary Alford, who played with Bowie during his ’95 tour with Nine Inch Nails and drummed on The Next Day album, was also the drummer in Springsteen’s ‘other’ band (the one we don’t mention in polite conversation because it wasn’t E Street). Zach is a phenomenal drummer as should be apparent from these two clips.

 

For two musical giants who never actually collaborated (though Bowie, of course, did cover two of Bruce’s songs very early on in both their careers), the threads that bind them seem pretty numerous.

 

Since I wrote that original blog, this article has come out. It kind of treads the same ground but with a slightly different take.

©2017

Who’ll be the last to die

 

Five times we very nearly didn’t have a Bruce Springsteen

We took the highway till the road went black
We’d marked, Truth or Consequences on our map
A voice drifted up from the radio
And I thought of a voice from long ago

Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake

Springsteen’s star is so utterly ubiquitous in the firmament of American rock that it is hard to imagine what the last forty or so years would have looked like without him. Here are five incidents that almost led to that very sad outcome.*

 

  1. That time the bullet came through the front door

Bruce was about fourteen when one evening he climbed the stairs to his room at 68 South Street, Freehold. Just a moment later, a bullet came through the glass of the front door and hit the stair bannister. It was a mere matter of timing that he was not claimed by the shot.

In his autobiography, Springsteen later revealed that his father had been caught up in some trouble at work involving the Labour Unions. The shot was probably meant as a warning but could so easily have had tragic consequences for the world at large.

 

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The very door.

 

  1. That time the motorcycle didn’t make it through the intersection

A couple of years later – also on South Street, Bruce was riding his motorcycle home when a driver ran a stop sign at the intersection of South and Institute Streets and collected the young musician pitching him through the air. Bruce was out cold for half an hour and suffered significant damage to his leg but, fortunately, lived to tell the tale.

 

  1. That time Tinker took the backroads over the mountain

On Bruce’s first trip to California with the band, he and their then manager, Tinker West, got separated from the rest of the band who, at that point, were all travelling in a separate car. Without cell phones or any plan on what to do should this occur the two were forced to drive on to their ultimate destination and hopefully meet up with the band there.

They had a gig (their only guaranteed paying gig in California) just a few days hence and so they had no choice but to drive as fast as Tinker’s truck would go. Unfortunately, at this time Springsteen couldn’t drive. This meant three days of nonstop driving with only one licensed driver on board. Obviously, that was not feasible so…

Bruce got a crash-course in highway driving (something that as it turned out the future Born to Run writer absolutely sucked at) As Springsteen himself admits, he almost got them killed on several occasions Inspiring terror in the usually unflappable West.

That wasn’t the worst of it, however. When they came upon a washed out section of the highway, there was nothing for it but to take a dirt backroad over the mountains. As it turned out, it was more dirt than road and the two were forced to endure an ordeal which Bruce later compared to the movie Wages of Fear. Somehow, Tink got them through but by rights, the Springsteen legend probably should have been stillborn in one of the deep gullies they almost slid into over that nightmare drive.

 

  1. That time the ocean tried to steal our hero

Before Steel mill had morphed into the E Street Band, Bruce was living a fairly beach-bum like existence in Asbury Park. Around this time he took up surfing (not surprising since he was living rent free in Tinker Wests surfboard factory). The surf being what it is – most of the time – on the East Coast, that should have been a fairly safe way to spend his time.

Unfortunately, on one particularly wild day (he describes it as a hurricane surf in his book), Bruce foolishly decided to go in. Predictably enough, a massive wave dumped him almost upon the stone jetty then two or three more came along and did exactly the same thing. He managed to drag his half drowned and badly bruised body up onto the beach eventually but it was a close-run thing

I suspect his enthusiasm for surfing waned somewhat after that.

 

  1. That other time Tinker took the mountain road

What is it with these California trips with Tinker West? Just before the vaunted record deal with Columbia, Bruce and Tink took another run out to California. This time, coming off a broken romance, Bruce was seriously considering moving out that way for good. That alone would have spelt the death of any future entity known as the E Street Band but it would have been a moot point had the trip ended in the disaster Tinker West seemed to be courting.

Again the weather conditions drove them over the mountains via backroads and this time the trouble that was threatening were avalanches. They weren’t even in a truck this time but rather Tinker’s beat up old station waggon with a stripper in the back (seriously, don’t ask).

Somehow, they made it through the blizzard without anyone dying and eventually Bruce realised California was not for him. Upon his return, he signed with Mike Appel’s management company and the Columbia deal was soon arranged.

Springsteen had arrived and America would never be quite the same place again. However, if just one of the above events had taken a more serious turn, a good many people’s lives would have ended up very, very differently.

 

 

*I could have included the time he was almost drafted into the Vietnam War, a conflict that had already claimed the lives of two of his fellow Freehold musician friends (including a member of his own first band). However, Bruce brilliantly side-stepped that fate so I decided not to include it.

 

I’ve taken as my main source in this article, Springsteen’s excellent autobiography ‘Born to Run’.

 

 

Words and image are my own.

 

©2017