Friday, March 28, 2014

Cat Stevens

On September 21, 2004, a United Airlines flight traveling from London to Washington D.C. was diverted to Bangor, Maine. Six federal agents came aboard and took into custody a 57-year old British man traveling with his 21-year old daughter.  "Are you Yusuf Islam," the agents demanded.  The man confirmed he was.  "Do you spell your name Y-O-U-S-U-F?"  "It's Y-U-S-U-F," the man answered.  His daughter was allowed to continue traveling but the man was denied entry to the United States.  He was flown back to England the next day. Homeland Security officials explained the man had associations with potential terrorists.

Yusuf Islam was not always treated this way.  Thirty years earlier he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world.  He played to 40,000 seat arenas and hung out with the likes of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.

He was born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948.  His father was a Greek Cypriot and his mom was Swedish.  They owned and lived above a restaurant called Moulin Rouge where he was put to work washing dishes at a young age.  When he was 15, his father bought him a guitar.  He escaped to the Soho rooftops, a quiet refuge he called "the Upper World."  He began writing and playing his own songs influenced by the Beatles, the Kinks and Nina Simone.

By 18, he was performing in London coffee houses and pubs.  He changed his name to "Cat" because a girlfriend said he had "cat eyes."  He was signed to a record deal and his 1966 song "I Love My Dog" reached #2 on the British charts. Cat Stevens became a teen idol touring the country with Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck.  Hendrix introduced him to psychedelics and Stevens spent the next few years overindulging in drugs and alcohol.

In 1968, Stevens contracted tuberculosis and nearly died.  While in the hospital, he began to question his life.  He took up meditation and yoga and became a vegetarian.  He immersed himself in spiritual and religious texts.  He covered the mirrors in his hospital room "to get away from the external and to start digging deep" into himself.

After a year of convalescence, Stevens returned to music with a new beard and a new sound.  His songs embraced a folk-rock style with introspective lyrics about everyday problems and spiritual questions.  Stevens signed with A&M Records and released Mona Bone Jakon (1970), Tea For The Tillerman (1971) and Teaser and the Firecat (1972), all Gold Records.  They included the hit songs "Trouble," "Where Do the Children Play," "Wild World," "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train."  Film Director Hal Ashby used nine Stevens' songs for the dark comedy Harold And Maude, introducing his music to a wider audience.

Though he'd become one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he still lived with his parents.  Fans made pilgrimages to the Stevens' home and were often invited in for tea by his father.

Stevens was becoming disillusioned with the music industry.  He despised the competition and greed, feeling like a pawn subject to the whims of managers and record executives.  In 1973, he moved to Rio de Janeiro and became a British tax exile.  He continued touring, donating his profits to UNESCO.

During a 1976 trip to Los Angeles, Stevens visited the Malibu home of Jerry Moss, co-founder of A&M.  He decided to take a swim in the ocean.  He was caught in a riptide and taken far from shore.  He struggled for several minutes losing all his strength.  Certain he was about to drown, he shouted, "God!  If you save me I will work for you."  A large wave appeared and carried him back to shore.  The near-death experience rekindled his yearning for a spiritual life. "What arose within me was a deep conviction that ultimately there is a higher control over one's life."

His brother David gave him a copy of the Qur'an.  Stevens took to the book immediately.  "I couldn't put it down," he said.  "No matter what I tried to say in my songs, they were all part of the shadow.  In the Qur'an I found a light."

Stevens identified with the Biblical story of Joseph, a man who was bought and sold in the marketplace.  He felt the same way about himself and his place in the music industry.  He realized he didn't want to be Cat Stevens anymore.  In 1977, he formally converted to Islam.  He took the name "Yusuf," Arabic for Joseph.

He kept his conversion out of the public eye and gave his final concert as Cat Stevens at Wembley Arena in 1979.  At the end of the concert, he told the audience, "We've only got one life and you have to do the best with it.  You have to find the right path and when you do, you know it."  Cat Stevens walked off stage as Yusuf Islam never intending to perform again.

He sold his guitars and gold records and gave the money to charity.  While the Qur'an did not prohibit music he felt he had to give up music to become a true Muslim.  He later said, "The music business was filled with things like vanity, fornication and drug use.  If I was going to make the change, I had to get away from that."

Yusuf's life changed completely.  He married Fauzia Ali in a religious ceremony and the couple had five children.  He dedicated himself to the study of the Qur'an and his new passion became education.  He used his music royalties to establish several Muslim schools in England.  The curriculum balanced spiritual teaching with a material focus on math, science and writing.  He also founded the Small Kindness charity assisting orphans in Africa and famine victims in the Balkans.

In 1989, he became embroiled in the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  Asked for his opinion by a reporter, Yusuf replied that the "legal Islamic punishment for blasphemy was death."  The next day, newspaper headlines reported: "Cat Says Kill Rushdie."  Yusuf denied supporting the fatwa but the damage was done. American radio stations refused to play Cat Stevens songs.  The band 10,000 Maniacs was forced to remove the song "Moonshadow" from their new album. Cat Stevens became a pariah.

Yusuf continued his work for charity and education.  During the Bosnian conflict, he became heavily involved in relief efforts for Muslim war victims.  A survey of British Muslims named him the most highly regarded Muslim figure, more influential than imams and scholars.

In 1994, while vacationing in Dubai with his family, his son brought a guitar into the house.  One morning after prayers, Yusuf picked up the guitar from the couch.  He hadn't played in 25 years but he still remembered the chords.  He started playing his old songs including "The Road To Find Out" which included the lyrics:

I left my happy home to see what I could find out.
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out.
The answer lies within, so why not take a look now?
Kick out the devil's sin, pick up a good book now.

When Yusuf learned that Muslims had introduced the guitar to Europe he changed his mind about the role of music in Islam.  Slowly, he resumed his musical career.  He appeared at a 1997 benefit concert in Sarajevo and released a children's album in 2000.  After the September 11 attacks, he publicly denounced the attacks saying, "No right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action."  He appeared on a VH-1 Concert for New York and sang "Peace Train" for the first time in public in more than 20 years.

At the time he was denied entry to the United States in 2004, he'd been traveling to Nashville to meet Dolly Parton for a new music project.  Parton was one of the few celebrities to come to the defense of Yusuf.  She told the press, "The government made a mistake.  I can't imagine there's an evil bone in that man's body.  Those are the people you're supposed to cherish.  You don't walk on the hearts of angels."

In 2006, Yusuf released his first new pop album in 28 years.  He began touring again and included Cat Stevens songs on his playlist.  He will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this year.  (6" x 7", black ink print)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Torah

My paternal grandfather was a Torah scribe.  He spent his days carefully drawing the Hebrew letters that made up the Torah, the most sacred of Jewish texts.  Writing on thin parchment paper made from the skin of a kosher animal, he began by marking thin pencil lines that served as a guide.  He then dipped a feather quill into an inkwell and scrawled each Hebrew letter abiding by the calligraphic guidelines of Ktav Ashurit (Ashurite Script).

Each Torah contained exactly 304,805 letters scribed on about 80 sheets of parchment.  Only black ink made from gall-nut juice and gum was acceptable. The height and width of each letter had to be perfect.  Small mistakes could be scraped away and redrawn unless a mistake was made writing the name of God in which case he'd have to start over since God's name could not be erased.  If one letter was missing or appeared smudged then the Torah was considered invalid or not kosher.

The scribing of a Torah took up to one year.  Once scribed, each sheet of parchment was sewn together to form a continuous scroll.  The Torah was then sewn onto wooden rollers called Eitzei Chayim (trees of life).  The Torah was dressed and shipped to a designated synagogue where it was blessed and dedicated in a sacred ceremony.

As you can imagine, my grandfather was a serious man.  Scribes were supposed to be devoted and pure.  He started each day with a Mikvah, a ritual bath in a sacred pool found in a temple.  The immersion in water was a purification ritual to cleanse the scribe before he channeled sacred text.  After praying that his holy work would be imbued with sanctity, he began each day of writing.

My grandfather was a survivor.  He'd escaped the Nazis by moving his wife and son (my father) from Austria to Portugal in 1933.  After the war, he gathered his savings and sent my father to America.  My father settled in Los Angeles and brought over my grandparents in 1954.  They lived in the Fairfax District, the hub of the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community.

Growing up, I spent many weekends at my grandparent's home with my brother and sister.  We were allowed to play in the backyard or run around the house. The only area off limits was my grandfather's study.  He was doing "important work" we were told and he needed his privacy.

My brother and I were curious about my grandfather's secret work.  We were always sneaking behind him, trying to scare him, to divert his attention.  He did not take kindly to these interruptions.  He would scream in a mixture of German and Yiddish and threaten to throw a paperweight or a heavy book at us.  On one occasion he threw a chair.

Presumably this nullified his purity for the day.

At the end of his workday, he finally relaxed.  He'd make himself a cup of tea and watch cartoons with my brother, sister and me.  Often he'd read comic books, laughing at his beloved Katzenjammer Kids and their juvenile hijinks.

Once I asked my grandfather what it was he did in his study.  "I work for God," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I write God's story so we don't forget who He is."

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn't understand.

"You know the Hebrew letters, Aleph, Bet, Gimel?  They are living things.  They are the building blocks of creation.  Like oxygen and hydrogen, God formed the world through combinations of the Hebrew letters." He reached for a sheet of paper and scrawled the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  "This is Aleph," he said.  "It tells us that God is one, that He is the Master.  It is silent, it is never spoken because the true name of God is never spoken.  Aleph stands for Adam the first man, for Abraham who taught us there is only One God and for Abba the Hebrew word for Father."

"Look at Aleph," he said.  "It stands strong and upright.  It is perfectly balanced, it cannot be knocked over.  Hebrew is read right to left.  Aleph is looking at Bet, the second letter.  And Bet, it is looking at Gimmel, the third letter.  What does this tell us?  It says God is looking after us and it is our job to look after our neighbor.  We do not see God but He is always present, right next to us.  You understand?"

"Yes," I told him though I didn't.

"You learn your Hebrew," he told me. "And you will learn the secrets of God.  It's all in there.  In the letters."

As I grew older, my grandfather and I grew apart.  He only conversed with my father in German or Yiddish.  Often I'd hear my name sprinkled accusingly as if I'd done something wrong.  When I stopped watching cartoons and reading comics he no longer knew how to relate to me.  I couldn't relate to him either.  He seemed weird and antiquated, a relic from another time and place.

He died in 1986.  In his lifetime, he scribed more than two dozen Torahs.  While our family sat Shiva, the week-long mourning period after his death, a stream of rabbis stopped by the home to pay their respects.  They patted me on the head and spoke glowingly about my grandfather.  I smiled and nodded but I couldn't wait to get out of there and be back with my friends.

I never formally learned Hebrew.  But when I turned 30, I developed a fascination with the letters.  I began drawing them and studying their lines and curves and perfect harmony.  These days I carve woodcuts of the Hebrew letters.  I haven't learned the secrets of God.  But like my grandfather said, it's all in there.  In the letters.  (6" x 8", black ink print) (inspired by a 1930 book plate by Roman Radvany)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

San Francisco

My definitive San Francisco moment occurred in 1992.  I was walking south on Polk Street when I encountered two young transvestites smoking crack in front of a burned-down building.  I was drinking a Kern's Nectar and after taking the final sip, I tossed the bottle into a trash can.  One of the transvestites put down his crack pipe and spoke.  "Hey man, don't you recycle?"

I moved to San Francisco two weeks after the 1989 Earthquake.  The day I moved into my apartment I noticed a spray painted message on the sidewalk reading: "I don't believe in Bob Hope."  I understood.  This was the land of Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia and the Zodiac Killer.   Alternative was the norm.

The first person I befriended in the city was a Berkeley Linguistics Professor who loved archery, Hungarian cuisine and Japanese Bondage.  He was typical of the San Franciscans I met.  My revolving door of roommates included an animal taxidermist, a stripper, a funeral home cosmetologist, a William Burroughs impersonator and a narcoleptic house painter.

My first San Francisco job was as a videographer for a local bar who hosted a Monday night talent show.  Participants were homeless men recruited just before show time with promises of food and drink if they sang pop songs or attempted ridiculous dances.  During the show, the bar proprietors sold semi-ripe tomatoes for fifty-cents each that audience members hurled at the performers.

Subsequent San Francisco jobs included being a urine messenger for a law firm who drug tested employees (I carried the samples to a testing lab), working as a night clerk for a Tenderloin hotel whose clientele included prostitutes and drug dealers and writing fortunes for a Chinatown Cookie Company.  (My favorite: "Help!  I am trapped in the basement dungeon.  Please call police!")

My lengthiest San Francisco job was as an assistant counselor at an Alzheimer's Day Care Center.  The aging clients reminded me of my grandparents.  Despite their memory loss and fading personalities, they seemed more normal then everyone else in the city.  On one occasion, a client turned up missing.  He'd been an Oakland Bus Driver in his heyday and whenever we served lunch he'd say, "I'll take the T-Bone, medium well."  The day he was discovered missing, I had a hunch.  I called a taxi and asked to be driven to the nearest steakhouse. Sure enough, the man was sitting at the bar drinking a Manhattan and eating a steak.

Dating was hard in San Francisco.  The first woman I dated was a bisexual waitress who'd had a spat with her live-in girlfriend.  She spent the entire meal insulting men and complaining about her lover.  She finally admitted she only went out with me to make her girlfriend jealous.

My second date was with a young German woman named Adeline whom I met at City Lights Bookstore.  She was reading "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorites.  She gave me her number and address and we agreed to meet the following week for dinner.  When I arrived at her residence, I saw a sign that read "Mount Zion Psychiatric Hospital."  Turns out she was a patient who'd recently attempted suicide after breaking up with her boyfriend.  Over pizza and beer she showed me the fresh slash wounds on her wrists.  I safely returned her to the psychiatric ward then swore off dating for a while.

San Franciscans had a passionate hatred of Los Angeles.  Typically when someone learned I was from LA they'd say something like, "Really?  You don't look like a Hollywood asshole."  While playing basketball in a local park, a player intentionally head-butted me knocking out two of my teeth.  As I rolled around in pain, the guy said, "Sorry about that, Hollywood."

I had long hair in those days and I wore bandanas to keep the hair out of my eyes.  One day a man with a thick mustache began following me through the streets.  I stopped in a cheese shop to try to lose him but when I came back outside he was still there.  Finally, at a crowded intersection, I walked right up to the guy and asked, "What the hell do you want?"  He smiled and pointed at the yellow bandana on my head.  Months later I learned about the San Francisco Gay Bandana Code.  Yellow bandanas meant you liked to be pissed on.  Red meant you liked hairy men.  Blue meant you liked to dress up as a cop and Brown meant…well, we won't go there.

After three years of living in San Francisco, the city started getting to me.  The lovely fog became depressing.  The heavy concentration of people was claustrophobic.  And the extreme alternative lifestyles were no longer charming.

The turning point came in 1992 when I was caught in a traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge.  A man had just leaped from the bridge.  Traffic was stopped in both directions and drivers were out of their cars scouring the ocean for the jumper. Half a dozen boats hopelessly trawled the water.  I asked a traffic cop if this happened often.  "Sixth one this year," he said.  That night I learned San Franciscans had a saying: "If things get tough, you've always got the bridge."

The incident sent me into a tailspin.  A month later I went through a horrible breakup.  I also lost my job at the Alzheimer's Center.  Around this time I received a letter from Adeline, the woman I'd met at the bookstore.  I stood beside the mailbox and read her words.  She was back in Frankfurt, Germany living with her parents.  She worked at a veterinary clinic helping find homes for lost dogs.  She wrote that she was doing better.  She thanked me for taking her to dinner saying it helped her healing process.  "For the first time in years I feel hope again."

I noticed the spray painted message on the sidewalk.  I hadn't read it in years. The word "Bob" had faded away.  The message now read: "I don't believe in Hope."  I moved out of San Francisco a week later.  (6" x 8", black ink print)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Simon Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor who came to prominence after World War II as a Nazi hunter. With the aid of the Israeli, Austrian and West German governments he helped capture nearly 1,100 Nazi war criminals.

Wiesenthal was born in 1908 in Lvov (in current Ukraine).  He studied architecture in high school and married Cyla Muller in 1936.  After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lvov was annexed by the Russians.  The Soviets began the "Red purge" of Jewish professionals forcing Jews to give up their property and possessions. Wiesenthal's stepfather was arrested as a "capitalist" and died in prison.  His stepbrother was shot and Wiesenthal was forced to close his architectural business.

In 1941, the Nazis displaced the Russians in Lvov.  Wiesenthal and his wife were sent to the Janowska concentration camp before being reassigned to the forced labor camp at Ostbahn Works, a repair shop for the Lvov Railroad.

In 1942, the Nazis began their "Final Solution" campaign to annihilate all Jews in occupied Europe.  Wiesenthal's mother was killed at Belzec concentration camp. Wiesenthal made a deal with the Polish underground to help his wife obtain false papers and escape the camps.  In return, he provided charts of railroad junction points for use by saboteurs.

In 1943 (according to Wiesenthal), 54 Jewish intellectuals were gathered at Ostbahn to be killed in celebration of Hitler's 54th birthday.  Wiesenthal was among the group.  The men were stripped and led through a barbed wire corridor leading to the execution area.  Victims were shot dead and allowed to fall into a pit.  Wiesenthal, who had made himself valuable to the camp director by preparing architectural drawings, was spared via the director's intervention.

Wiesenthal escaped Ostbahn but was recaptured and sent back to Janowska concentration camp.  He tried committing suicide to avoid being interrogated about the Polish underground.  As the Russian forces advanced into the area, the German army collapsed.  Wiesenthal and the remaining prisoners were marched miles to Mauthausen concentration camp.  Few prisoners survived the trek. Wiesenthal was left to die in a filthy, stench-ridden barrack.  In May, 1945, Mauthausen was liberated by US troops.  Wiesenthal was down to 90 pounds and was unable to walk.  He had lost 89 family members in the camps.

After the war, Wiesenthal regained his health.  He began gathering evidence on Nazi atrocities for the US Army War Crimes Division.  In late 1945, he was reunited with his wife.  (They had thought each other dead.)  In 1947, Wiesenthal and 30 volunteers established the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Linz, Austria.  Their goal was to assemble evidence for future war crime trials. With the onset of the Cold War, the US lost interest in prosecuting Germans.  The Linz office was closed.  Despite lack of money and personnel, Wiesenthal continued his search for Nazis.

High on the list of wanted Nazis was Franz Stangl.  Stangl had been commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps.  He worked closely with Heinrich Himmler to develop gas chambers for all the camps.  Under Stangl's command, 100,000 Jews were killed at Sobibor and 600,000 were killed at Treblinka.  He perfected a method of gassing 3,000 Jews at once.

In the last days of the war, Stangl was picked up by American troops and held in a prisoner camp.  The Americans did not know of his role as a death camp commandant.  While being transferred to Austria to stand trial, he was allowed to walk free.  He traveled to Italy where he contacted a Catholic Bishop, Alois Hudal, who was a Nazi sympathizer.  Hudal arranged for Stangl to travel to Syria where he obtained work in a textile factory.  Stangl sent for his wife and daughter and they moved to Brazil where Stangl worked for a Volkswagen factory while his wife worked for Mercedes Benz.

Wiesenthal's efforts to capture Stangl gained momentum in 1964 when ten guards who worked at Treblinka testified against Stangl at a war crimes trial. Wiesenthal used the trial to publicize his hunt for the missing Nazi.  Stangl's brother-in-law read about the trial in an Austrian newspaper and revealed to Wiesenthal that Stangl was living somewhere in Brazil.  A few days later, an ex-Gestapo officer appeared in Wiesenthal's office.  He offered to sell information on Stangl's whereabouts.  His price was one cent for each of the Jews killed under Stangl's command.  Estimated at 700,000 people, Wiesenthal would have to pay $7,000 for the information.  Though disgusted by the deal, Wiesenthal agreed.

Wiesenthal focused on Sao Paolo.  Using the code name "Uncle Otto," he corresponded with officials in Brazil.  He located Stangl's home address and began preparing documentation for extradition.  He knew he had to be careful. The large community of ex-Nazis in Brazil could help Stangl escape at any time.

On the evening of February 28, 1967, Stangl and his daughter returned home after a quiet dinner.  A team of plainclothes Brazilian policemen captured Stangl. Wiesenthal worked hard to publicize demands for Stangl's extradition.  He even contacted Senator Robert Kennedy to use his influence on Brazilian politicians.  In June, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Stangl be deported to Germany to stand trial.  Wiesenthal's 22 year search for Stangl was over.  Stangl was sentenced to life in prison for joint responsibility in the murder of 900,000 men, women and children.  He died 6 months later of heart failure.

Wiesenthal continued working into his 90's.  He received numerous death threats and in 1982, a bomb placed by neo-Nazis exploded outside his Austrian home. Armed guards remained outside his house 24 hours a day.  Wiesenthal's wife Cyla died in 2003 at age 95.  Wiesenthal retired shortly afterward.  He once said if he were to meet Holocaust victims in the afterlife he wanted to be able to say, "I did not forget you."  He died in September, 2005 at age 96.  He was buried in Herzliya, Israel.  (6" x 8", black ink print)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Fatty Arbuckle

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of America's first silent movie stars.  He dominated the film industry from 1914-1920 often appearing with female co-star Mabel Normand.  Despite his prodigious weight, he was graceful and acrobatic doing somersaults and landing on his feet.  He was a purveyor of the pie-in-the-face slapstick routine that came to embody silent film.  He typically portrayed a country hayseed who struggles in the big city and he co-starred in several films with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Arbuckle was born in 1887. He weighed 13 pounds at birth and his mother suffered injuries during his delivery that would later contribute to her death.  His father was convinced he was illegitimate and named him after the disgraced Senator Roscoe Conkling.  His father beat him throughout his childhood.  After Arbuckle's mother died when he was 12, his father kicked him out of the house.

Arbuckle had a beautiful singing voice.  He won a local talent show and joined a traveling vaudeville company.  In 1908 he married actress Minta Durfee.  A year later he appeared in his first movie Ben's Kid.  He soon joined the Mack Sennett Company as producer/director and became a performer in the Keystone Cop comedy films.

Arbuckle's weight was part of his comedic appeal but he refused to use it to get cheap laughs.  He would not allow himself to be stuck in a doorway or a chair.  He despised his screen nickname and when someone called him "Fatty" he would say, "I've got a name, you know."

Audiences loved Arbuckle and his films were smash hits.  By 1914, Paramount paid him $1,000 a day plus 25% of all profits.  They also gave him complete artistic control.  By 1918, he was signed to a three-year, $3 million contract.  He began living the high life, indulging in heavy food and drink.  His weight shot up to 350 pounds and he developed health problems including a severe infection in his leg that nearly led to amputation.  Arbuckle managed to shed 80 pounds but he became addicted to morphine in the process.

On September 5, 1921, needing a break from his hectic schedule, Arbuckle drove to San Francisco with two friends.  They rented three rooms at the swanky St. Francis Hotel.  Prohibition was in full swing, but the group obtained illegal hooch and invited some girls for a raucous hotel party.  At some point, Arbuckle found himself alone in a bedroom with a 30-year old model/actress named Virginia Rappe.  (She was one of Mack Sennett's "bathing beauties.")

The ensuing details have become the stuff of legend but a few facts are clear. Arbuckle was alone with Rappe.  Rappe became seriously ill.  The hotel doctor examined Rappe and determined she was simply drunk.  Two days later Rappe was rushed to the hospital where she died from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.

The press immediately blamed Arbuckle for Rappe's death.  Bambina Delmont, a guest at the party, told police that Arbuckle raped Rappe.  Police concluded that Arbuckle's weight caused Rappe's bladder to rupture.  Rappe's Manager further suggested that Arbuckle used a piece of ice to simulate sex with Rappe.  By the time the story appeared in newspapers, the object had become a broken coke bottle instead of a piece of ice.  (Witnesses later testified that Arbuckle rubbed ice on Rappe's stomach to ease her pain.)

Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing but William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" machine had a field day.  Hearst's newspapers began running nationwide stories portraying Arbuckle as "a gross lecher who used his weight to overpower innocent girls."  Hearst would later admit that the Arbuckle Scandal "sold more newspapers than any event since the sinking of the Lusitania."

There was no hard evidence that Arbuckle committed rape.  But one of the party guests claimed Rappe made a deathbed statement that "Roscoe hurt me." Arbuckle was subsequently arrested and charged with manslaughter.  He spent three weeks in jail before he was released on bail.

Morality groups called for Arbuckle to be sentenced to death.  Studio executives ordered their employees not to publicly support Arbuckle.  Charlie Chaplin never commented on the incident but Buster Keaton disobeyed studio demands and vocally defended Arbuckle.  Public outrage was so inflamed that during the first trial someone fired a gunshot at Arbuckle's wife Minta Durfee as she entered the San Francisco courthouse.

There would be three trials.  Key witness Bambina Delmont was not allowed to testify after it was learned she'd attempted to extort money from Arbuckle's lawyers.  She also had a long criminal record for extortion and fraud.  The first trial resulted in a hung jury.  Ten jurors voted "not guilty," two voted "guilty."  One of the "guilty" jurors was a woman named Helen Hubbard whose husband did business with the D.A.'s office.  She told jurors she would "vote guilty until hell freezes over."

The second trial also resulted in a hung jury.  This time the vote was 9-3 favoring "not guilty."  Two witnesses who previously testified against Arbuckle stated that District Attorney Matthew Brady forced them to lie or they would be prosecuted for libel.

During the trials, it was discovered that Virginia Rappe had a history of cystitis that flared up when she drank.  She'd also undergone several abortions including a recent botched abortion that nearly killed her.  She'd been complaining of severe stomach pains in the weeks before the St. Francis Hotel incident.  Doctors found no evidence of rape and no external cause for the ruptured bladder.

The third trial resulted in a unanimous Not Guilty verdict.  The jury debated for only six minutes before rendering their decision.  They issued a rare public apology writing "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle.  We feel that a great injustice has been done to him as there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime...Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame."

Although he was cleared of all charges, Roscoe was guilty in the court of public opinion.  The months of negative press destroyed his reputation.  Arbuckle owed more than $700,000 in attorney fees and he was forced to sell his house and his cars to pay for his legal defense.

During the time of the trial, the US Government had been threatening to regulate the film industry with new rules of censorship and guidelines for how stars could behave on and off screen.  Fearing government intrusion, the studios decided to self-regulate.  They created the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and named former Postmaster General Will Hays as president. This led to the "Hays Code," the first official censor of American movies.

Within a week of Arbuckle's acquittal, Hays banned him from appearing in movies and demanded all his films be pulled from circulation.  Arbuckle, once the most powerful star in Hollywood, was Blacklisted.  The ban was ultimately rescinded, but Arbuckle's career was effectively over.  He'd become the poster boy for the dangers and excesses of Hollywood.  Studios began inserting morality clauses in star contracts and public relations firms arose to whitewash the rumored sins of Hollywood's A-List.

Buster Keaton was one of the few old friends who came to Arbuckle's aid.  He hired him to write and co-direct his movies including the film classic Sherlock, Jr..  (Arbuckle worked under the pseudonym "William Goodrich," a riff on Keaton's suggested name "Will B. Good.")  Though his career resumed, Arbuckle fell into a deep depression and returned to drinking.  Actress Louise Brooks said, "He made no attempt to direct.  He sat in his chair like a man dead."

In 1932, Arbuckle seemed on the verge of redemption.  He appeared in six two-reel comedies to great success.  Warner Brothers offered him a feature-length film.  On the day he signed the contract, an ebullient Arbuckle said, "This is the best day of my life." That night he suffered a severe heart attack and died in his sleep.  He was 46 years old.  (6" x 8", black ink print)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Elliott Smith

This past October marked the ten-year anniversary of musician Elliott Smith's death.  Elliott wrote intensely personal songs about his struggles with depression, alcoholism and drug addiction.  His music was intricate and gorgeous with layered vocals and sweet melodies reminiscent of Brian Wilson.  He possessed a soft tenor whisper in contrast to his weathered face and melancholic lyrics.  He was one of us and his pain was our pain.  As his ex-girlfriend Mary Lou Lord said, "Elliott made music for the sad kids."

Elliott Smith was born Steven Paul Smith in 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska.  His parents divorced when he was 6 months old and he moved with his mother Bunny, a music teacher, to Duncanville, Texas.  Elliott had a difficult childhood saying he might've been sexually abused by his stepfather.  The events later appeared in his song "Some Song" which featured the lyrics "Charlie beat you up week after week and when you grow up you're going to be a freak."

Elliott learned to play piano and guitar by the time he was nine and he wrote his first song "Fantasy" at 10.  At 14, he moved to Portland, Oregon with his father Gary Smith, a psychologist.  Around this time he began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. After graduating from Hampshire College in 1991, Elliott formed the band Heatmiser with classmate Neil Gust.  They moved to Oregon and released four albums.  Elliott worked odd jobs to survive: construction, house painting and transplanting bamboo trees.

In 1994, Elliott released his first solo album Roman Candle.  He followed this up with the self-titled album Elliott Smith in 1995.  The album cover featured fuzzy images of bodies falling from a building.  His third album Either/Or came out in 1996; the album name came from a book by Kierkegaard dealing with existential angst and despair.  (Elliott was a philosophy major in college.)  By this time, Elliott was drinking heavily and taking anti-depressants.  Friends attempted an intervention but Elliott rebelled, moving to Brooklyn.

Filmmaker Gus Van Sant used Elliott's music for the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting.  The song "Miss Misery" was nominated for an Academy Award leading to the surreal scene of Elliott, in a rumpled white suit and greasy hair, playing live at the 1998 Oscars.  He was terrified until fellow nominee Celine Dion told him, "You're going to do great, sweetie."  This calmed him down and Elliott enjoyed himself saying, "I wouldn't want to live in that world but it was fun to walk around the moon for a day."

In 1998, Elliott signed with Dreamworks Records.  Around this same time he fell into a depression and spoke openly about suicide.  His first Dreamworks-era album was XO, written over many nights at the Luna Lounge in Manhattan. XO would be the best-selling album of his career but Elliott was suspicious of commercial success and he disliked his experience with a big label.  "I threw myself into it because it seemed to make my friends happy."

In 1999, Elliott moved to Los Angeles settling in Silverlake.  He released the album Figure 8 in 2000, the last one completed in his lifetime.  His condition deteriorated as he began using crack cocaine and became addicted to heroin. Neighbors reported seeing him walking the streets alone at night mumbling to himself.

By 2001, Elliott displayed signs of paranoia, believing a white van was following him wherever he went.  He also believed Dreamworks was trying to steal music from his computer.  He began having difficulties performing live, forgetting lyrics. He rarely slept and barely ate, living on ice cream.  Elliott demanded that Dreamworks release him from his contract or he would take his own life.

In 2003, Elliott tried to turn his life around and began treatment for his addiction with a technique called neurotransmitter restoration (injecting amino acids as a form of detox).  He also started work on a new album Basement On A Hill.  He moved in with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba and the relationship gave him a sense of optimism.  His life seemed to be improving.

On October 21, 2003, Elliott and Chiba had an argument at their Silverlake home. As the argument worsened, Smith threatened to commit suicide.  Chiba locked herself in the bathroom.  She heard a scream.  She returned to the living room and saw Elliott with a knife sticking out of his chest.  Elliott died 20 minutes after arriving at the hospital.  He was 34 years old.

The coroner's report on Elliott's death stated "...several aspects of the circumstances are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide." Notably, there were no "hesitation wounds" prior to the stabbing and there were lacerations on both his hands and under his right arm that could be "possible defensive wounds."  The toxicology report revealed he was clean of illegal drugs at the time of death; only non-abusive amounts on anti-depressants and medications for ADD were found in his system.

Though some fans blamed Chiba for Elliott's death, she was never charged.  A few years later she tried claiming money from Elliott's estate for managing his career but the State of California ruled against her since she was an unlicensed talent agent.

Though Elliott lived in Los Angeles and played all over town, I never saw him play live, but in 2006, pianist Christopher O'Riley performed a tribute at the Getty Museum.  My wife and I attended and after the performance, my wife pointed to a middle-aged man in the lobby.  She said, "He looks just like Elliott.  I bet that's his dad."  I urged her to approach him and despite her shyness, she agreed.  The man was, in fact, Gary Smith and for the next half hour he and my wife talked like old friends.  He explained how much he appreciated the love shown his son.

Every October on the anniversary of Elliott's death his fans turn out in droves to Solutions Audio in Silverlake where the album cover of Figure 8 was photographed.  They write farewell messages on the wall and leave flowers, candles and empty bottles of alcohol.  At some point someone sings the song "Waltz #2."  The lyrics provide a perfect coda for the sad day.  As Elliott sang so beautifully, "I'm here today and expected to stay on and on and on...I'm never going to know you now but I'm going to love you anyhow."  (5" x 7", black ink print)

Thursday, October 31, 2013


"Man is not made for defeat.  A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
--The Old Man and the Sea

In 1954, Ernest Hemingway took his fourth wife Mary Welsh to Africa.  He chartered a sightseeing plane to show her the Belgian Congo and the glorious Murchison Falls.  While flying low over the trees, the plane struck a utility pole and crash landed in heavy brush.  Hemingway suffered a concussion.  His wife broke two ribs.

That night they camped in the bush waiting for a response to their distress call.  A passing plane saw the crash and reported no survivors.  Word spread around the world that Hemingway was dead.  The next day, Hemingway and his wife were found and picked up by a bush pilot.  Amazingly, the second plane caught fire and exploded during takeoff.  Hemingway slammed his upper body and head against the exit door to escape.  He suffered serious burns and a concussion severe enough to cause leaking cerebral fluid.

The injured travelers were taken by road to an Entebbe hospital.  Hemingway joked with journalists and spent weeks recuperating and reading his erroneous obituaries.  Restless and bored, he left the hospital and took Mary and his son Patrick on a fishing trip to Kenya.  A bushfire broke out and Hemingway fell into the fire to help extinguish the flames.  He suffered burns on his legs, torso, lips and arms.  He was ultimately diagnosed with two crushed vertebra, a ruptured liver and spleen and a broken skull.

Hemingway was no stranger to accidents and illness.  In 1918 he enlisted as a World War I ambulance driver on the Italian front.  While bringing chocolate and cigarettes to the front line he was struck by mortar fire.  Despite serious shrapnel wounds to both legs, he carried an Italian soldier to safety earning him the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery.  He underwent an operation and spent six months recuperating.

In 1927 while honeymooning in France with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway contracted Anthrax.  A few months later in Paris, he pulled a skylight down on his head thinking he was pulling on a toilet chain.  This left him with a permanent scar on his forehead.  In the early 1930's, Hemingway took writer John Dos Passos elk hunting in Montana.  After dropping off Dos Passos at the train station, Hemingway crashed his car and broke his arm.  The surgeon bound the bone with kangaroo tendon.  Hemingway was hospitalized for two months and it took more than a year for the nerves in his writing hand to heal.

In 1933, Hemingway and Pauline went on safari to East Africa.  The trip would inspire Hemingway's short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro and his story collection Green Hills of Africa.  The trip also gave Hemingway a bout of amoebic dysentery causing a prolapsed intestine.  He was evacuated by plane to a Nairobi hospital.

In 1944 while in London to write about World War II, Hemingway was involved in another car accident.  He suffered a concussion and a head wound requiring 50 stitches.  He traveled to Normandy with a head bandage to witness the D-Day landing from an ocean borne craft.  He also found himself under fire at the Battle of the Bulge.  The stress caused him to be hospitalized with pneumonia.

In 1945 he returned to Key West, Florida.  Guilty about his failed marriage to third wife Martha Gellhorn, he began drinking heavily.  One night after too many daiquiris, he had another car accident.  He smashed his knee and suffered the third of many concussions.

Hemingway fell into a deep depression as his literary friends began to die.  He'd lost W.B. Yeats in 1939, Scott Fitzgerald in 1940 and Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce in 1941.  Gertrude Stein died in 1946 and his long-time Scribner's editor Max Perkins died in 1947.  Hemingway began to suffer headaches, weight problems and tinnitus.  He was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes.

From late 1955 to early 1956, Hemingway was bedridden.  His doctors urged him to stop drinking to heal his damaged liver.  He disregarded the advice.  He became ill and was treated for high-blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.

By 1959, Hemingway was having trouble organizing his thoughts.  Always the master of brevity and concise prose, he lost control of his writing.  He was commissioned by Life Magazine to write a 10,000 word article on bullfighting.  He submitted a 40,000 word opus.  He asked writer A.E. Hotchner to help him trim and organize the piece.  Hotchner found Hemingway to be "unusually hesitant, disorganized and confused."  His eyesight was failing him, he'd become anxious about money and he was paranoid that the FBI was monitoring his movements. (J. Edgar Hoover had in fact opened a file on him during WWII.)  He drank more heavily to combat the pain from his lifelong injuries.

In 1960, hearing that Fidel Castro wanted to nationalize property owned by Americans, Hemingway and his wife Mary left their beloved Finca Vigia ranch in Cuba and moved to Ketchum, Idaho.  Hemingway became seriously ill and retreated into silence and despair.  He checked into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Doctors diagnosed him with a psychiatric illness and treated him with 15 rounds of electroshock therapy.  In early 1961 he was "released in ruins."

Hemingway had always been plagued by suicidal thoughts.  His father Clarence had committed suicide with a gunshot to the head in 1928.  Hemingway commented at the time, "I'll probably go the same way."  Like his father, Hemingway had been diagnosed with the genetic disease hemochromatosis. This caused the inability of the body to metabolize iron resulting in mental and physical deterioration.  Hemingway's sister Ursula and brother Leicester also committed suicide.  Years later, Hemingway's granddaughter Margaux would take her own life.

In the morning hours of June 2, Hemingway awoke early, careful not to wake Mary.  He donned his favorite dressing gown that he called his "emperor's robe" and entered the basement where he kept his guns.  He removed his favorite gun, a double-barrel 12-gauge Boss & Co. shotgun.  He inserted two shells into the gun, walked into the upstairs foyer, put the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger.  The story reported to the press was that Hemingway "accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun."  Months later, Mary admitted the death was suicide.

Hemingway had been a swashbuckling, hard-drinking adventurer.  He was a hunter, a pugilist, a war hero and a writer who defined his time and mastered his craft.  In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He opted not to travel to Stockholm.  Instead he sent a speech to be read which defined the writer's existence.  "Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.  Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing.  He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness but often his work deteriorates.  For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day."  (5" x 6", black ink print)