Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker

I was literally shocked to read of the passing of Robert B. Parker in this morning's paper. He was 77 and died of a sudden heart attack, at his desk in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home.

Mr. Parker published 65 books in 37 years. Pretty astounding, but understandable considering his disciplined work habits. He would write 5 pages a day. Every day. His interest in crime fiction was honed while working toward his doctorate in English Literature at Boston University, where he wrote his dissertation, titled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality," which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald-- the writers generally considered the Holy Trinity of the genre. If there is room for a fourth name, it is surely Mr. Parker's. After receiving his doctorate, he taught for a while at Northeastern University, when he wrote his first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript.

Of the 65 books, 38 featured Spenser, the Boston detective (with no first name). I have read all but the most recent. Some are better than others, but as a body of work, they are pretty damned good. The books are like catching up with old friends. Spenser, along with his steady girlfriend, Susan Silverman and his faithful cohort, Hawk, filled the pages with snappy dialogue, fast action and surprising and perceptive insight into human nature and behavior. Spenser has been played by a few actors on TV, but the one everyone will associate with is Robert Urich. By and large, he did a decent job of portraying the gumshoe. And Avery Brooks was the definitive Hawk, before he took to boldly go where no African American Starfleet Commander had ever been. It was, however, Tom Selleck, that Mr. Parker thought of for the role of Spenser-- big and slightly thuggish, with a rogue smile and wry sense of humor. Mr. Parker sort of had his vision realized when the two men produced a series of made-for-TV movies based on the Jess Stone series. They are all good, and Selleck is perfect in the role.

Mr. Parker also had a series that featured a female detective, sunny Randall. He even displayed a certain amount of daring when he signed on to finish Raymond Chandler's last novel, Poodle Springs. He certainly knew the style. He followed that with another Phillip Marlowe tale, Perchance to Dream. I file the former with Chandler's books on the shelf and the latter with Parker's.

Occasionally, Mr. Parker stepped out of the genre. He wrote as trilogy of Westerns featuring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. One of them, Appaloosa, was made into a movie, directed and starring Ed Harris, and Viggo Mortenson. His one-off book, Double-Play, about a loner hired to be a bodyguard for Jackie Robinson was revelatory. A great read.

I have always read Mr. Parker's books in paperback. So, I am looking forward to the last Spenser novel, The Professional, that came out last year. Night and Day-- a Jess Stone novel is due to be released the beginning of next month and Split Image-- also a Jess Stone novel, and Mr. Parker's last book, will be out in hardcover next month as well. So, with three books waiting to be read, the loss is not that sudden. But make no mistake, the loss is and will be profound, not just for his wife and sons, not just for his millions of readers around the work but for the writers who have been so influenced by him. Dennis Lehane, who began his writing career with a series of crime novels set in Boston, is quote in the remembrance on the Boston Globe website that his "debt’s huge and I was always upfront about that. My first book is so much Robert Parker in the first chapter that I’m surprised he didn’t sue me.’’

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You can read the story here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Black Velvet Migration, cont.

In my effort to find and substantiate the few instances and institutions that qualify Portland Oregon's claim to being weird, I–-along with my bride and our friends, a lovely same-sex couple who just moved up from the staid City of Angels–-visited the Velveteria. Evidently, I was not the only one who decided on visiting the museum upon reading of its imminent closure in the Oregonian. There were the terminally hip, or what may be termed the successor to GenX'ers-- women affecting the Lisa Loeb nerd kooky intellectual look and guys exposing their tats and covering their heads with knit stocking caps or Sinatra-style snap brim hats. Black Chucky-T's and boots. Oy vey.

The front window is a preview of what's inside, which is clearly not limited to art on black velvet. Other kitchy treats awaited. The entry area was packed and museum goers jostled for positions to see and to pay the $5 admission fee (cash only, in case you plan on going in the next week). One of the items of note was evidence of a taxidermist with a sense of humor: a stuffed, winged jackalope.

One of our friends asked if it was real. Rather than laughing, I silently bemoaned my lack of such wondrous and somewhat protective naivete. Being jaded is kind of a joy-killer.

guess who?

Before going into the storefront museum proper, there was a painting on display with a challenge:guess who it is and win a prize. Maybe it's my age or an eye for faded icons, but I knew instantly, the painting's subject was (supposed to be) Englebert Humperdink. I won! The prize was one of their many postcards of the featured art. I reserved my choice until I went through the museum. I didn't want to be hasty.

Inside was also pretty crowded. Serious connoisseurs of lowbrow art, or just some folks who, like me, wanted to say they got there and checked it out before the tent came down and it travelled south. There was a wall of unicorns— the "Unicornacopia." A collection of "exotic" African-American nudes (more African than American, perhaps because they were dated and possessed a sense of Black Power. They were displayed among portraits of Malcom and Martin, Snoop Dogg and Sammy Davis Jr. There was even a black Jesus based on Sammy's distinctive profile. There was a wall of Michael Jackson--rendered well and not so much--of the king of pop when he was one of the Jackson 5 and when he hung out with Bubbles, the chimp. There were paintings of clowns that were mostly scary, along with really creepy paintings of kids, and, of course, nudes-some quite beautifully rendered, and others strangely stylized, with conical nipples and disproportionate features. For some reason, there seems to be a sub-genre of Hawaiian nudes and semi-nudes-- beautiful Amerasian women on a beach or in a jungle setting, with leis or low slung, flowery sarongs. There were political and topical portraits: Nixon and W, Obama (that looked a bit like a black Alfred E. Newman) and one of Dr. Jack Kevorkian (weird!!!). And last but not least, there were paintings of Jesus and Elvis-- both separately and together.

(found on Google images-not in Velveteria)

Jesus and Elvis, by Greg Brown
Jesus had some water, said "Wine'd be better yet".
Elvis picked up a guitar and made all women wet.

Elvis he died young - Jesus he died younger.
Elvis died of too much - Jesus died of hunger.

Jesus sang down through the ages:
"Do like you'd have'em do you".
Elvis rocked the universe with be-bop-a-lu-la -lu

Now here they are on black velvet, in a parking lot in Missouri -
rocking my soul with rock'n'roll, soulful harmony.

Jesus went back to heaven to be the King of Kings,
but I hear the King of Rock'n'Roll is still restlessly roaming.

Go on home to Jesus, El - he's waiting there you'll find.
You two can jam on old gospel songs - them are the best kind.

Caren Anderson & Carl Baldwin

Before leaving, I picked out my prize (a nude by the artist, Behan) and chatted with Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, owners of the museum. Caren rolled her eyes when I brought up the quote from the article in the Oregonian about her wanting to move back to Southern California because of the diversity. She said that was taken out of context and not exactly what she said. Still, they're heading south... for whatever reason. At this point, she wants to relocated in Ventura, which she admitted is not all that weird. Carl had said that a few of his friends have suggested Long Beach, which, to me, makes much more sense. But no one is asking me. Overall, I'm glad I went and sorry that Portland can hold onto some of the Southern Californians who emigrate, thinking the promise of the Northwest is greater than the dismal weather and the somewhat provincial attitudes.

The experience, the article in the paper and my conversation with Caren and Carl lead me to ask: Have I fallen out of love with Oregon?

The winter is not the best time to ask me. But no, not entirely. It still holds promise, and there is a lot of it I have yet to see. In other words, the jury is still out and nothing is forever.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

For David...

You don't need no love in
You don't need no bed pan
You don't need a horoscope or a microscope
The see the mess that you're in
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been polluted so long
Now here's a way for you to get clean

By chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see
Chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see

You don't need no passport
And you don't need no visas
You don't need to designate or to emigrate
Before you can see Jesus
If you open up your heart
You'll see he's right there
Always was and will be
He'll relieve you of your cares

By chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see
Chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see

You don't need no church house
And you don't need no Temple
You don't need no rosary beads or them books to read
To see that you have fallen
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We've been kept down so long
Someone's thinking that we're all green

And while the Pope owns 51% of General Motors
And the stock exchange is the only thing he's qualified to quote us
The lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see
By chanting the names of the lord and you'll be free

George Harrison

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Driver, please let me off the bus...

Evidently, I can still be shocked by the absolute outrageousness uttered under the umbrella of "fair and balanced." I suppose I shouldn't be so shocked, but when someone slights an entire religion as incapable of redemption in comparison to his own, what else could I be?

The founding fathers had the foresight and sense of decency to protect everyone's freedoms, including freedom of speech, so that Brit Hume can utter what he did on Fox Sunday on how Tiger Woods can redeem himself.

As the old saying goes, "only in America." I find myself in an awkward and profoundly sad situation where I must agree with that bawling moron who cried about wanting her America back. I don't know exactly what her America looks and feels like (re: white, right and Christian), but I know this America we are living in feels all wrong to me.

By now, I imagine most people have seen or heard what Brit Hume said. If you haven't here it is.

For the record, not only does Buddhism offer redemption, it offers forgiveness. May your god also forgive you, Mr. Hume. Your ignorance is disgraceful. That voice of authority that you speak with should be silenced. You should be ashamed of yourself, but you probably think you are speaking the gospel.

And that may be the scariest part of all...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Black Velvet Migration

In yesterday's Oregonian, an article in the "How We Live" section reported that Portland's Velveteria (the velvet painting museum) will be closing on January 24. The owner/curators also announced they will be moving to Southern California and hope to reopen there. Perhaps, they watched the Rose Parade one too many years. Can't say as I blame them.

Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin have been, in Caren's words, "livin' the dream."

Their dream, to paraphrase Beatle John, is, alas, over. They're both Californians and they both miss the Golden State, for one reason or another. "Baldwin doesn't like Portland's weather. Anderson misses ocean warm enough to swim in on the spur of the moment."


But the kicker, for me, is, "In Portland, you can kind of do your own thing," Anderson says. "But I'm craving something more culturally and ethnically diverse. I just crave a bigger cultural base."

* * *

I lived in a sprawling apartment complex in Newport Beach for a year. The place was beautifully situated on the bluff overlooking the back bay. It had swimming pools, a gym and tennis courts. I participated in the group tennis lessons on Saturday mornings. One Saturday, Tony the ancient tennis pro, who knew I had moved down from L.A., asked if I missed the big city to the north. I said yes.

"What do you miss?"

I told him I missed the diversity.

He cracked in response, "why? It's too white for you here?"

I said, "yes."

* * *

The Velveteria's announcement, for all intents and purposes, reduces Portland's weird factor by 50%. The soul reason for the dubious crown is now because of Voodoo Doughnuts, the emporium that first put slices of bacon on their maple bars. Their other "delicacies" include such confections as the "Memphis Mafia" doughnut (chocolate chips/banana/ peanutbutter/glaze), the Triple Chocolate Penetration (chocolate doughnut, chocolate glaze, and cocoa-puffs), and, of course, the Nyquil Glazed and Pepto-Bismol doughnut (currently on hold). But, really, is this weird, or just disgusting?

There is a bigger issue here, though. And that is Portland claiming the "weird" domain name at all.

Living in the digital age has pretty much put a kabosh on lying, or even, for that matter, falsely boasting. From the wild claims made by politicians and pundits to the convoluted conspiracy theories of nutballs who spend too much time at home alone or in the gray market church of their choice, nearly everything can be fact-checked. All of which is to say, Portland seems to be the third city in the country that would like the world to know they would like to be kept weird. Austin, Texas is the first city in the country expressing a public desire to be kept weird. It is said that if Austin were a state, it would be the most liberal in the country. The fact that it is surrounded by the rest of Texas is pretty remarkable. But is liberal the same as weird? Talk amongst yourselves. The river has many tributaries and not all lead the same place. As for Louisville. Well, they are number two. Why is beyond me. I simply don't know that much about the city, beyond a baseball bat named for it and its proximity to whiskey stills. But Portland? When I Googled "keep Portland weird," I came up with the building painted, some pictures of bumper stickers and a shot of Music Millennium. Since when does having a used music store (CD's and vinyl) make a city weird? The place makes me pine for Amoeba, in Hollywood. Saying you're weird doesn't make you weird... just the opposite, actually.

Does a lack of exposure to sunshine make you weird? Or the rain? Maybe Astoria, on the coast, should be kept weird in that case. Does having the ethnic diversity of Johannesburg make Portland weird? Does the preponderance of tattoos, slackers and homeless make Portland weird? Having moved from a city that encompassed a white robed roller skater playing an electric guitar hooked up to his rope belt on the walkway by the beach, super-hero dress-up characters in front of perhaps the most famous movie theater in the world, a Thai Elvis impersonator who performs in a restaurant (also, ironically, Thai),as well as the Mex King (El-Vez), the Red Elvises and too many more to mention, a city that has mountains, valleys, beaches and deserts, more Jews than in Tel Aviv, the second largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City, a black population consisting of immigrants from the South, the East, Europe and Africa, including a community of Jewish Ethiopians. A city with more restaurants and more varieties of food than you can shake a churro at. And while Los Angeles may not have a gay mayor, (who escaped banishment from his office not for porking an underage male, but for lying about it), it does have the fabulously charismatic Antonio Villaragosa. Hell, the little town of Silverton has a more colorful mayor than Portland. He may be arrogant, but he isn't a pandering liar. I could go on, but for now, I will do my best to just ride winter out. They tell me it gets nice around here... in July. Don't let my friend Dogfish Donna see this, but Portland (complexion-wise at least) pales in comparison to the City of Angels, particularly during every month with a vowel in its name.

* * *

Alannah Miles, doing her Molly Shannon imitation

And, of course, no mention of Black Velvet would be complete without conjuring up Ms. Miles, her one-hit and the subject of the song...
Black velvet and that little boy's smile
Black velvet with that slow Southern style
A new religion that'll bring ya to your knees
Black velvet if you please

Is it mere coincidence that the news of Velveteria's closing coincides with the King's 75th birthday, at the end of the week?

Stay tuned... and keep yourself weird.