Author Archive for


Why Utopia Will Forever Elude Us

The following was originally published on the Across the Margin website.

Although the guises may differ, people who study history are no less doomed to repeat it than those who don’t. The reason for this circumstance is not so mystifying once we are prepared to acknowledge that the apprehension of death, and the necessity to mitigate that apprehension, always has and always will prompt and shape virtually every human activity. If our responses to the prospect of death can, for sure, be benign and creative—can, for example, result in works of art that will survive our demise—they are, as often as not, malignant. And this is a grim reality that despite lessons from the past we are compelled to perpetuate.

Let me try to explain.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that ”In [the] dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning,” he was talking about the fundamental burden of human existence, of the terror that inhabits a life that is aware of its fate. To live with just a modicum of equanimity that terror has to be managed, and what we do to this end is we bury it. We repress it. But notwithstanding our success at repressing an all consuming death dread—even to the point of becoming apparently heedless of death’s inevitability—our trepidation never entirely disappears. Indeed, it remains subconsciously constant and dynamic and, however incognizant we may be of its processes and consequences, it is the determining force behind all manner of destructive behavior.

Simply put, beings who know they will die cannot withstand extended periods of amity. Unable to confront the ultimate evil of death directly, it’s essential to have enemies, enemies that can be confronted. We require, that is, human surrogates for evil who are at the very least potentially vanquishable. Persons of races, cultures, religions, nationalities and sexual orientations different from ours serve this purpose well. Through our hostile engagement with these designated embodiments of evil, we simulate what constitute symbolic struggles with death. Absorbed and preoccupied by these struggles, they allow us, when we win, to experience the pleasure of securing what feels like a victory over death. Pleasure, as Epicurus noted, is the absence of pain, and pain is definable not merely as physical suffering but also as fear and anxiety. The eradication of manufactured adversaries affords us the sensation of killing our own death.

Of course, since the basic problem still exists, our elation in these contrived instances is transitory. It wears off. We are forced then to make new enemies. (When we lose we may feel as good as dead, may enter a profound depression that will not lift until we identify fresh villains with whom to do combat. And while I’m in the aside of a parentheses, I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that what we really mean by the “social contract” is the unspoken agreement to supply one another with antagonists for the battle with mortality.)

Born in 1939, only a couple of decades after the “war to end all wars,” I’ve been a witness to World War Two, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atom bomb, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, not to mention 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, genocides, assassinations and countless mass murders. All of these travesties were intended to enable their perpetrators to deny their abominable destinies. The Donald Trump administration is among the most current of such travesties. Should I last a little longer I’m quite likely to attend the disintegration of democracy itself.

In the case of Trump, and following what I’ve attempted to describe, we can clearly see why he ascended to the presidency in 2016 and why (barring genuinely intolerable investigative revelations—I write this in late winter of 2019) he may yet win again in 2020.

What Trump did was address our very deepest need, the need to mollify the anticipation of extinction. He accomplished this by providing scapegoats for our untenable predicament. Mexicans, Muslims and an “illegitimate” black president were responsible for the jeopardy in which we find ourselves. His posture in this respect was, I’d argue, more crucial to his election than his promises of jobs and economic security. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, offered programs and policies that, devoid of monsters posing existential threats, were limited to the wholly rational. Contrary to how it may often appear, people do vote in their best interest. Hillary failed to recognize what, at bottom, we truly want.

I don’t know what man-made horrors await the planet in the coming years. I do know they’ll be impervious to history and abundant and that the unacceptability of death will be at their root.


A Note on Charlie Rhyner

I’ve remarked elsewhere that given the absence of any dramatic upheavals for some sixty years now, jazz has ceased to be the consistently transforming art it once was. This doesn’t mean, however, that jazz has stagnated. Hardly. A small but significant body of gifted young musicians have at once been drawing upon and extending the rich traditions that preceded them (specifically, in the case in point, the innovations of the late 50s and early 60s that cleared so many new pathways to explore). And they are making of the treasures they’ve inherited music that is elevated and solidly their own.

I’m speaking in appreciation of the guitarist and composer Charlie Rhyner’s “The First Second,” released in 2018. Rhyner is an exceptionally talented guitarist and composer who makes full use of his instrument’s resources and, equipped with a fine musical intelligence, plays with subtlety, nuance and surprise. He also knows how to swing and is very good at choosing his sidemen as well. Mike Robinson, bass, Graciliano Zambonin, drums, Imraan Khahn, alto sax and Dan Schnapp, Fender Rhodes, are all standout musicians themselves. Their interplay—the sensitivity with which they complement one another—reflects a musicianship of the highest order.

An album that rewards repeated hearings, I would not hesitate to recommend “The First Second” as an exemplary, indeed quintessential, demonstration of contemporary jazz.


On Mental Health


The following short story was originally published on the Across the Margin website.

If I ever see a shrink again it’ll have to be under a court order.

No, my rancor has nothing to do with what happened with Frieda. Not, of course, that what happened with her wasn’t at the time disappointing.

Fiftyish, on the boards of major psychiatric associations and married to a man who was also a prominent doctor, Frieda had been working with me for three years on my guilt and shame problem. Although I wasn’t making much progress in that area—I remained as afflicted by self-deprecation and most of the maladjustments that attached to it as ever—I had, with her assistance, finally stopped trying to go down on myself. And for helping to rid me of this hazardous, independence seeking compulsion—it had already resulted in a couple of blown-out discs in my lower back and several hospitalizations—I’d come to have a large admiration for her skills.

Large enough to send a live-in girlfriend to her for counseling.

While I was partial to poor hygiene and self-destructiveness in a woman, I did have my limits. This girlfriend’s habit of picking her nose and then eating it, for example, had long caused my proudest erections to scramble into my bladder somewhere. What’s more, the drug overdoses had evolved into too regular a thing. Routinely called at work by neighbors who’d discovered her face down on the apartment house stairs, and rushing home to flashing lights and frenzied paramedics cutting through clusters of onlookers with a gurney, was increasingly vexing.

But after they’d had a half-dozen sessions together—the last couple of which were scheduled in the evening and were unusually lengthy—the phone rang in the middle of the night.

“Let me speak to Madeleine.”

“Freida? Freida, Jesus, it’s three AM, she’s fast asleep.”

“Oh. Is her little winkie pinkie nestled in her nostril?”

“What? Uh, yeah. In the big nostril—like always.”

“Marcus, damn you, you’re in my way. Get out of my way.”


“Your grandmother was right, Marcus, you should have been aborted. Now give me Madeline. I need Madeline!”

But Frieda, you see, was ultimately harmless. In fact, in hindsight, she left me better off than she found me. She left me, that is, more profoundly wedded to my considerable emotional issues than I’d been before.

Indeed, just a short time later I was in traction again.

No, I never had a true beef with Frieda. My quarrel is with the fool I saw after Frieda, with the bastard who cured me.

I knew Tim was special on our very first meeting. Somewhere in his forties, attired in a cashmere sweater and freshly pressed khakis, he was tanned and radiantly handsome, with a perfectly proportioned middleweight’s body (no slack anywhere), a fully relaxed countenance, a deeply sonorous voice and a quick and booming laugh that made me think of church bells. But if his appearance and bearing weren’t enough, I was thoroughly enthralled when, as I seated myself in his office, in a spacious, sun-filled Upper West Side apartment that was furnished with exquisite taste and adorned with plants and abstract paintings, he took a long look at me, smiled, and said, “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Altogether captivated by him, and although he had yet to learn anything about my troubles, I had no doubts about this guy’s competence to help me. He was the real thing, a man who’d gotten into the psychology business to the purpose of sharing an earned wisdom—not, like many of his colleagues, in the hope of flushing out his personal demons and solving his own mysteries by delving into the disturbances of his patients.

And imagining, during our appointments, that the faint strains of tasteful semi-classical music always emanating from the other side of his office wall—music interspersed with peals of laughter—were from a party that his recently mended patients were having in the apartment next door (an ongoing party to which you were invited upon your achievement of mental health), helping me, or so I thought, is what he proceeded to do.

My situation, as I explained it, had commenced at the age of four (I was in my thirties now) and originated with my maternal grandmother. She was an exceptionally attractive woman—sixty at the time but freakishly capable of passing for forty—who’d come to live with us in the guest room of our apartment when my grandfather died. Vain, self-centered and foul-tempered, she immediately took a tyrannical command of the household and was critical of virtually everything my mother and father did. She reserved most of her ire for me, however. Relentlessly on my case, she berated and belittled me at every turn, with either snide comments or, when she was especially exercised, vitriolic outbursts.

(My parents, who were both employed, left me alone with my grandmother much of the time. But even when they were home they were too intimidated by her to counter her attitude towards me. In fact, I cannot recall a single instance in which they more than half-heartedly came to my defense.)

Born frail and high strung, I’d been cursed as a kid with a plethora of allergies and disposed to continual minor illnesses, and my grandmother’s favorite appellative for me, before it was determined that I needed glasses and she took to addressing me as “four eyes,” was “weakling.” (When those glasses were deliberately broken by a classmate three times my size and I didn’t fight back, she called me a “wimp.”) But that was only a piece of it. My performance in an elementary school musical wasn’t exactly “reminiscent of Fred Astaire.” Because some of my grades were less than excellent they “tarnished the reputation of the family.” Moreover, I was an “inveterate slob.” She was forever haranguing me about the stains on my shirts and the condition of my room. Much to her irritation, crumbs from whatever I was eating, and which seemed to follow me everywhere, obliged her to “constantly pursue me with a broom.” On top of that, I kept my hair too long, at a length which, obscuring portions of my face, I felt comfortable with. But she twice embarrassed me by forcing me to return to the barber shop down the block to have it shortened.

The most egregious of my offenses occurred when I was six and barfed into her jewelry box, which happened to be open on the dresser in her room where I’d gone to chase an errant Spaulding. The event was entirely spontaneous. No feelings of nausea had predicted it. Frantic, I was about to try and clean the mess I’d made when my grandmother entered. Her wrath was awesome. Screaming loudly, slapping me in the face and calling me disgusting and despicable, I was never allowed in her room again. (It was on that day that she would utter the “abortion” remark and tell me I was ruining her life.)

I should note that though she never enunciated a word of praise for me or demonstrated any physical affection in all the time preceding her death when I was in my teens, my grandmother did exhibit odd moments of ostensible kindness. She baked a cake for my eighth birthday and gave me an occasional present—a toy truck, a baseball glove. But rather than interpreting such gestures as loving, I experienced them, under the circumstances, largely as acts of pity, and they managed only to harden my sense of worthlessness.

In the ensuing decades, and although I’d been reasonably active and held full-time (if unrewarding) jobs, the outcomes of my sense of worthlessness, besides a variety of peccadillos, one of which I’ve mentioned, had been a chronic middle-grade depression that was accompanied by a notable absence of aspirations, a marked diffidence in the presence of strangers and a series of unsatisfactory, when not downright abominable, relationships—I had little to give to anyone and elicited just as little in return.

Tim patiently listened to my story, then leaning forward and staring directly at me, he said, “Feelings of guilt and shame are neurotic, useless and stupid. They serve no purpose and help nothing.” I’d heard as much from six or seven other shrinks without really digesting it. (Frieda who, incidentally, had divorced her husband, married Madeline and quit her practice, was among them.) But when Tim expressed this notion it took hold.

Absolutely, I thought, Of course.

On another occasion he said: “I can’t comprehend how amazingly passive your parents were. Look. You were a victim, and so apparently were they on some level, of a deeply unhappy person with serious anger issues for which you bore no responsibility and you internalized everything negative that she threw at you. You didn’t ruin your grandmother’s life. It was already in ruins. She made you believe that your childhood physical ailments, most of which you eventually outgrew, and your youthful mistakes, goof-ups, fears and misbehaviors were signs that you were an inherently bad person, that you were deficient and inferior. This filled you with a consuming sense of guilt. You came to define yourself as deficient and inferior. But certainly whatever upset your grandmother didn’t mean that you were a bad person. You were a kid, for God’s sake. You were a sensitive kid who may sometimes have quite naturally behaved incorrectly or acquitted yourself in a less than stellar way. Fred Astaire? It’s okay to feel remorse or regret when you do something wrong. You learn from that and go on. But it’s not okay to feel a guilt that makes you think of yourself as intrinsically bad. That’s the height of neuroticism. You feel, now, in your adult life, that there’s nothing you can do about it because being bad is who and what you are. That it’s your nature. Now you’re belief that you’re bad contributes to and sustains a type of behavior that just makes you feel worse about yourself.

“You’re grandmother was a screwed up bitch. A child in a woman’s body. Get conscious, man!”

Along with such pronouncements, Tim, who was adamantly opposed to the use of drugs and relied strictly on therapy, instructed me to engage in extensive exercises between sessions. For the most part they involved making daily lists of my feelings of self-loathing which, he promised, would enable me to see how these feelings were merely the result of dysfunctional thinking.

And it worked! Life transformed into a joy. I felt attractive and confident for the first time in memory. Enthusiastic about virtually everything I encountered, associating with people I would normally have considered to be above my station, I even stopped wearing glasses—I could see fine without them, better actually. And although it was winter, I could go out with only a light jacket and feel no chill.

And I stopped showering right after I masturbated—a pathetic soul-cleansing ritual that I’d practiced since adolescence and that had given my skin an unattractive prunish texture.

(Oh, I was right about the party. There was a constant gathering of the freshly healed in the adjacent apartment and I got to go to it. I celebrated my new mental health and I even got laid.)

But then in early spring, on one of those rare shining, cloudless days, with the temperature at a perfect 70 degrees, I was strolling though a crowded street festival replete with brightly colored merchandise stands, a rock band, a children’s Ferris wheel and the aromas of all manner of ethnic cuisines, and realized that every last one of the people there would one day vanish. Me included! I suddenly saw, and much too distinctly, through the benign facade of nature into its sinister underside. And with this recognition, which wouldn’t go away, I began to live in what became a continuous state of intense anxiety. Most of the time I cowered in my bed. I was afraid of accidents. Terrified of germs. Even the notion of achieving a kind of immortality through the prospect of reincarnation, which I’d sometimes entertained over the years, offered no consolation now. While oblivion would be awful enough, with reincarnation I could very well return as a gazelle only to be ripped apart by a leopard.

Tim had raised my consciousness too high.

And then it struck me. Born under a death sentence we are naturally prone to feel terror and guilty—guilty of whatever we did to deserve our harrowing fate. We can’t withstand the guilt and the consequence of our ultimate expiration that we assume has resulted from an irredeemable transgression. We need to become absorbed in substitute, potentially rectifiable forms of guilt. Acquired or neurotic kinds of guilt. Neurotic guilt is ubiquitous and tenacious because it functions to divert us from and ameliorate the awareness of our fundamental guilt and the penalty that awaits us. We persuade ourselves that the acquired problem we’re dealing with is the real and only one and that by focusing on it we can conceivably fix it and be happy. (Crucially, the discomfort and emotional pain it causes us imbues it with the authenticity that we need to serve our goal.) But the kicker is that since it palliates a deeper and more pressing issue, we are averse to fixing it. So, and necessarily in the interest of psychic self-preservation, we immerse ourselves in it. We “work” on it. We make an infinite project of it. (Essentially ineffective, interminable therapy, for instance.)

I could see now that my grandmother was suffering from a terror similar to mine, that her animosity towards me was rooted in the fact that by making her a grandmother I had brought her worse fears to the fore and that she had handled those fears in her own idiosyncratic way. (You could say that how we respond to the fear of death, the often convoluted manner in which we repress it, is central to what distinguishes us from one another.) Downtrodden as she may have made me, she had kept me afloat in the world. She’d presented me with a way to deal with the problem of being alive, given me a makeshift problem that, albeit oppressive, I could abide. By losing the effects of my grandmother’s disdain for me I no longer had an acceptable reason for what was wrong. The guilt my grandmother laid on me had been a blessing. Removing it didn’t liberate me but opened me to unmitigated horror. Mental health is the enemy, it yields a clarity that undermines and impedes anything resembling a satisfactory solution to our existential dilemma. To thoroughly clear oneself of neuroses is calamitous. We require a measure of mental illness in order to live with even a semblance of internal equilibrium.

I owed my grandmother big-time for providing me with the burden of low self-esteem and its attendant disorders and miseries.

But now I was defenseless—and genuinely fucked up! (I wondered how many of Tim’s ex-patients from my period there were still at that party.)

So what did I do? I got my ass to a psychopharmacologist, that’s what I did. No therapy. Just pills. After months of experimenting with a multitude of anti-anxiety medications, most of which produced bizarre nightmares, we settled on Thorazene. No longer beset with trepidation (psychotropics are, at bottom, fear of death medicines, are they not?), but in a perpetual semi-stupor instead, I have literally no life to speak of anymore. Still, if I’m usually all but comatose, there are hours when I’m sufficiently sentient to feel cheated. Then what I fervently want is to appear unannounced at Tim’s office door and, when he opens it, tear away, piece by piece, the beaming-with-mental-health mask on his face, the mask that concealed the skeleton behind it.



9bb) Liner Note: Ahmed Abdul-Malik—New Jazz Imagination

Available on Umlaut Records

Globalization has been a fait accompli for some time now. While it continues to pose serious challenges to long-standing cultural, economic and political orders, and although—as conspicuously demonstrated by Brexit and the elevation in America of a Donald Trump to the presidency—it has ignited reactionary movements that will doubtless interrupt and impede its progress, it is here to stay. Indeed, one area in which it is already fully rooted and very much in blossom is the arts.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the art of improvised music—or “free jazz”— an art of which the recording at hand, a tribute to multinational musical unity as well as to the late visionary bassist, oudist and composer Ahmed Abdul-Malik, is in every respect exemplary.

Jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop has, of course, always been a hybrid music, a happenstance of multiple migrations, voluntary and otherwise, that joined Africa and the West Indies to Europe in the United States. If the balances of the sources feeding jazz were in flux from the beginning, and sometimes dramatically, the most radical shift took place in the late 1950s with the emergence of “free jazz.” The intention of the first generation “free jazz” players (most of whom were black) wasn’t to entertain as such, but to enlighten. Animated by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, the ambition of these men, in addition to asserting the hegemony of jazz’s African strain, was to restore black music to its original role as a music of spiritual utility. They wanted to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way we lived. As the bassist Alan Silva breathlessly remarked to me upon coming off a thirteen-piece, hour-long collective improvisation: “Man, in another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”

For the most part, the musics of the early “free jazz” players were informed by ancient African methodologies on the one hand and the European avant garde on the other. (In the latter instance, the avowed purpose was to incorporate experimental European concepts into a black aesthetic.) But another group of players was guided by a somewhat different perspective. Contemporaneous with the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements in the United States were major upheavals in Africa, and these men were drawn to the modern African musics that accompanied those upheavals—to the soundtrack, if you will, of decolonization. And in the process of exploring the African musics of the period they became enamored of still other existing musical genres that were not normally associated with the African underpinnings of jazz. I’m referring to the Arabic musics of North Africa and the adjoining Middle East. Prominent among these individuals was Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

New York-bred, Malik was thoroughly steeped in the jazz tradition. He worked, at one time or another in literally every jazz idiom, and with the likes of Bob Wilber, Coleman Hawkins, Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

He was also a deeply religious Sufi Muslim who was increasingly at odds with much of the secular and materialistic Western ethos, an ethos he believed was reflected in certain Western musical approaches. In his own work, represented in groups that he led and which is preserved on several albums, he largely eschewed those approaches and gravitated to ways of organizing sound that spoke to his spirituality, to musics both old and current from North and East Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Fusing them with the aforementioned spiritual inclination and procedures of the new jazz, he fashioned an original synthesis of ostensibly disparate traditions that would yield some extraordinary music.

A portion of that extraordinary music is on exhibit in this album and it is played by a group of renowned and exceptionally gifted European musicians—virtuosos all—who know how to listen to each other (a crucial aspect of improvised music) and are more than up to the endeavor.

Seymour Wright has devoted his career to an exhaustive examination of the alto saxophone’s resources—the instrument would seem on occasion to be an organic extension of him—and he is capable of creating astonishing textures of sound with it. It is in no way hyperbolic to say that Wright is redefining the alto’s very scope. Turned on to the piano by Oscar Peterson, Pat Thomas took the leap into “free jazz” in his teens, and in gigs with luminaries like Derek Baily and Tony Oxley quickly became one of its most lauded practioners. Double bassist Joel Grip is no less versed in the intricacies of improvised music and his intuitiveness and ability to intermingle with the other players is central to the unit’s success. The master percussionist Antonin Gerbal, whose prodigious technical proficiency gives full expression to the sonic possibilities of the drums, expertly propels the group.

Calling what they play “New Jazz Imagination,” the quartet makes music, Wright says “inspired by our shared love of the work of Ahmed. We use memories and ideas that we draw from his music as a core for our improvisation and imagination. We excavate and re-inhabit documents and fragments of plans and compositions that he left behind to make music that though it originated in the twentieth century will speak to the twenty-first. We play the notes, but we use them and the ideas contained within them as vehicles for our own creativity.

“We want to move from the known into a new creative space.”

And that they do. Introduced by a simple folk-like tune and quickly advancing into a hypnotic use of repetition, almost as a motif, the music ultimately gives way to an ensemble improvisation that is at once loaded with heat, tension and surprise and remarkably controlled and contained. The intelligence here is stunning and the music produced is of the loftiest caliber. Building at times to ecstatic heights, it never once descends to the anarchic cacophony that often taints the “free jazz” indulged in by the lesser equipped. Albeit openly emotional at various points, it can claim coherence, subtlety and structure, not to mention a fidelity to the multicultural material and philosophy of the musician it honors. And the freshness of ideas it exudes will invite and reward repeated hearings.

Though he did achieve a measure of recognition during his lifetime, a proper acknowledgement of his unique vision and contribution eluded Malik. This recording is offered as a correction. If Malik was in many ways ahead of his time, globalization, and the phenomena of mass migration and racial intermingling that are among its components, has profoundly altered our aural landscape. It may well be that his time has finally come.


Donald Trump and the Fear of Death

The following was originally published on the Across the Margin website.

To varying degrees everybody lives with a fear of death and, in one manner or another, attempts to deny death’s finality. In the case of Donald Trump, all those steel and granite edifices emblazoned with his name have long struck me as evidence of a terror of extinction. Their presumed endurance is intended to at least assure him of a symbolic immortality. And the achievement of symbolic immortality is also, I’d submit, the underlying motive behind his decision to run for the presidency, an office for which he has no discernible vocation but which guarantees him a place in history.

A pronounced extinction anxiety is what afflicts the majority of Trump’s supporters as well, and it’s precisely this anxiety that—coming from his personal angst?—he recognized and addressed. I’m speaking of the white population’s declining preeminence in America and of the existential dread it has stirred in much of that demographic.

The major consequence of the white American’s dread has been, of course, a heightening racism which, further energized by Trump’s blatant denigration of Muslims and Mexicans, played the decisive role in his election. Racism is born of the impulse to transcend a finite existence. We can talk about economics, about crime rates and about Islamic terrorism, and they are significant factors. But to dwell on them obfuscates the reality that racism is rooted in the wish to feel superior to other humans in the judgment of a higher power, in, most especially, the wish to own an exceptionalism that implicitly signals a fitness to survive one’s death in a rarefied afterworld. Presenting an effortless way to define, separate and elevate our identities, differences in color or culture afford those ill-equipped to otherwise distinguish themselves, an opportunity to claim that fitness.

For so many white Americans, the prospect of relinquishing their purchase on supremacy, and of surrendering the divine approbation that they’d like to believe attends it (a concern deeper than a loss of jobs per se), made Trump an ideal candidate.

Politically surfacing at a dire moment—during the first presidency of a black man!—Trump cast himself as a white savior and, in doing so, secured what amounts to a religious allegiance among his followers, an allegiance that blinds them to his monumental deficiencies.

But if globalization (manifested by mass migration and racial intermingling) is the phenomenon that’s produced our current circumstances, it’s been a done deal for awhile now. As difficult as the fact of death and the reactions that fact causes makes such a possibility, globalization needs to be embraced. The resistance to it that Trump embodies (along with comparable figures in Europe where Caucasian dominion is similarly threatened) can only be destructive to everyone. His strategies to reestablish white precedence are not merely empty of substance and futile they are dangerous. For one illustration: His pledge to reboot the all but obsolete coal industry, and revive the status of a remaining handful of white miners, by summarily rejecting measures to combat climate change is likely to have a catastrophic impact on the planet’s future inhabitants, including, ipso facto, the miner’s progeny.

I could, to be sure, enumerate countless more examples. But Trump’s dearth of virtues as a leader and the jeopardy in which, in so many respects, he is placing us are, at this point in time, well-known to anyone with the capacity to regard him objectively. It may have been innocuous when it was confined to real estate, but a President Trump’s immortality project is putting civilization itself in peril.


Responses to reactions the foregoing prompted.

[To the reader who wouldn’t vote for Hillary either.]

I could never relate to the problem so many people had with Hillary. All politicians are by definition and necessity liars and deceitful. (Yeah, Bernie included.) Hillary was, at least, sane, intelligent and experienced, and her policies were for the most part the right ones. If we ignore climate change, and if we resist the inevitable browning of America (which I for  one have no issues with) a dystopian future is a foregone conclusion.


John McCain [whom one correspondent identified as an exception to the above characterization of all politicians] is an extraordinary man and I acknowledge his many virtues. I will, however, never forgive him for committing what amounted to an act of treason by putting the likes of a Sarah Palin on his ticket. I know he’s since called that a “mistake.” But the fact that he was capable of such a mistake diminishes him.


And to the person who applauded Trump’s castigation of Colin Kaepernick for being “unpatriotic”: If we remember what makes this country unique, then we ought to be able to recognize that availing oneself of the option it affords us to “take a knee” in order to protest an injustice is just as valid a way to honor its flag, its anthem and the sacrifices of its military as the placing of a hand over the heart.


Waiting for the Cut (a skit)

With Matt Gaetano Levin

Two men, STEVE and HAROLD, both in their early twenties, and with long hair styles, are standing outside a small hair cutting salon on a sweltering July afternoon. The salon is closed. STEVE, after offering a cigarette to HAROLD—who waves it off—lights one himself and begins to pace.

STEVE: [Checking his watch.] I hate fucking Brooklyn.
HAROLD: [Wipes his face with a balled-up handkerchief.] Brooklyn? I don’t know about Brooklyn. Brooklyn may not be as terrible as I thought it was. It’s hard to form an opinion when you’re rapidly losing consciousness. Jesus, it’s like we’re standing on the sun here.
STEVE: [Looking away.] Brooklyn’s where you have to wait for this jerkoff.
HAROLD: [Rolls his neck.] This isn’t what you meant when you said he always keeps you waiting, is it? He doesn’t pull this every time you come here? Did you confirm the time with him?
STEVE: Yeah. Yesterday.
HAROLD: And he’s got your number? He could have reached you this morning if he wanted to?
STEVE: Yeah.
HAROLD: [Feeling his wrist.] Dude, my pulse is gone! [Panicked. Holds his head with both hands.] And my memory—it’s gone too!
STEVE: All of it?
HAROLD: No. I think just the last year.
STEVE: If it’s just the last year then you can still remember the last time you got laid. [Shades his eyes. Peers into the salon window. Then looks down the block.] He’s never been this late before. He’s gotten much better at it. [Looks at his watch again.] My fucking watch is sweating.
HAROLD: [Calmed down. Wipes his face again.] I think they said last night that, factoring in the wind-chill index with the temperature-humidity thing, today would be the hottest day in the history of the world.
STEVE: [Distracted.] If they did they got it right. [Looks up and down the block.] It’s a goddamn hour. Where is this asshole?
HAROLD: Don’t quote me on that. Okay? I could be way off.
STEVE: [Shaking his head.] I wonder sometimes why I come here. I mean I probably should have mentioned something else:
STEVE: He can also fuckup. In fact, he can also fuckup in a major way. There was one fuckup that was actually beyond major, really spectacular—worthy of its own wing in the Hall of Fuckups.
STEVE: He loved what he did. He was proud of himself. He even took a Polaroid.
HAROLD: Yeah? I don’t remember. . .
STEVE: You don’t remember because you didn’t see me for a month. I cancelled all my public appearances.
HAROLD: Wait. That was. . . ? It was that bad?
STEVE: Put it this way: I would definitely have gotten mucho action—if it’d been 1964 and I had a cockney accent.
HAROLD: You looked like a Beatle?
STEVE: Early Ringo Starr.
HAROLD: Okay. I’ve got a statement and then a question. The statement is: Yeah, when you were bugging me to give him a shot and finally getting me to make this trip—which I never wanted to do because nothing I’ve seen of his work for you has blown my skirts up past my ankles—you fucking probably should have mentioned that! The question is—and I’m anxious to have your wisdom on this before it’s too late, while your brain scans are still registering occasional blips. Do you figure I can find my way back to Manhattan by myself? The “3” train, right? What is it—four blocks this way, then hang a left?
STEVE: Let’s give him a little while longer.
HAROLD: Why? Damn. I was expecting an acceptable level of mediocrity. I thought the worst thing I had to worry about was getting wasted in a crossfire.
STEVE: Because you’re my friend and because speaking of “getting it right. . . ”
HAROLD: You know the barbershop in the 86th Street subway station? It’s beginning to loom as a viable option.
STEVE: We’ll give him another fifteen minutes. Okay? [Looks at his watch.] Fifteen minutes. Exactly fifteen minutes. You can handle fifteen minutes, can’t you?
HAROLD: [Hugs himself and pretends to shiver.] My sweat just turned very cold. You ever hear of someone freezing to death in his own sweat?
STEVE: Listen to me. Let me tell you this. The first haircut he gave me—when I was working the lights for a music thing in the little park around the corner and needed a quick trim. It was strange because I asked him for just a simple trim and at first that’s all that I thought I got, you know? There was nothing noticeably out of the ordinary. If anything, it seemed a little on the flat side.
HAROLD: Right. But after you washed it—and probably factoring in certain favorable atmospheric conditions…
STEVE: No. Yeah—maybe something like that. I don’t know what it was, what he did, and whenever I bring it up he changes the subject.
HAROLD: When was this exactly?
STEVE: 1987.
HAROLD: 1987? That’s four years back in the dank and murky past—that’s back when you were with Beth, the lost love of your wretched, woebegone life.
STEVE: Actually it was the day before I met Beth.
HAROLD: [Startled.] He gave you a haircut the day before you met Beth?
STEVE: [Looks away.] Beth came here with me for the haircut after that one. It was on a perfect fall afternoon—cool and clear. You could smell apples in the air.
HAROLD: [Stares at STEVE. Then abruptly turns away from him; walks a few steps off; stops; comes back.] Let me have one of those.
[STEVE gives HAROLD a cigarette, takes another one himself; lights them both.]
HAROLD: If he’s not here yet he’s not coming—we know that, don’t we?
STEVE: Yeah. . . I guess.
HAROLD: [Turns away again. Turns back.] Actually. . .
STEVE: What?
HAROLD: I was thinking that he could be coming. I mean there’s a chance that he stumbled into a serious crisis situation on his way here, you know? It’s possible that he was called upon to administer multiple emergency mullets and buzz cuts and shit, and he could have every intention of showing up when he’s done.
STEVE: This is weird. I was just thinking the very same thing.
HAROLD: [Motions toward STEVE’s watch.] How much time did you…?
STEVE: [Looks at his watch.] Twelve minutes now.
HAROLD: Considering that the disaster he may be dealing with could have a heartbreaking size and scale, he might need more than just another twelve minutes.
STEVE: A disaster of the magnitude we’re talking about. . . Yeah, I’d say he…
HAROLD: What I think is that, under the conceivable circumstances, we should go another round—give him another full hour.
STEVE: [Taken aback. Emits a quick laugh.]
HAROLD: Hey, another hour’s not unreasonable, man—not under the conceivable circumstances.
STEVE: [Holds up his hand.] No. You’re right. Absolutely. Another hour’s more than reasonable. [Looks at Harold with a suddenly pensive expression. Says softly. . . ] You’re on my page now.
HAROLD: And, if you think about it, man, under the conceivable circumstances we owe him that much, don’t we? Under the conceivable circumstances it fucking behooves us to give him another hour.
STEVE: [Looks at HAROLD with mock admiration.] That’s very good. Shit, I could learn a lot about living from you.
HAROLD: It’s not like we even have any respectable options here.
STEVE: I can’t think of any.
HAROLD: Then we’re doing it—we’re doing another hour?
STEVE: I don’t think we could live with ourselves if we didn’t. [Looks at his watch.] Make that sixty minutes. [Squints down the block. Looks at his watch again. Purses his lips. Grimaces.] Exactly sixty minutes.
HAROLD: [Sits on his haunches. Wipes his face with his handkerchief. Thinks aloud.] Yeah, another hour. Who knows? That might do it. That might be just what the prick needs us to give him.



3 Poems



“God,” he gulped, tearing down his pants, “I wanna be the third of your
five husbands-the one…”

“Oh! Honey! Yes! You!” She opened in love, in trust, beneath him. “The
one who makes the funeral arrangements!”


Give me a beer!” Tom who wants to be a painter said, coming in and
pounding his fist on the good wood of the bar.

“It’s done man. We’re doing it. We’re doing the divorce. Two fucking
years. I feel sentient and lean for the first time in a year and ten

“Now I need to find me a girl and get down to work.”


Lately, on the street, at the bank, I’ve been seeing guys who look like
Karl—two last week and then, today, another one.

He must be coming home soon.

Writings & Miscellaneous

Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC

Against Mental Health: Short Stories


“A writer of talent and intelligence.” — Irving Louis Horowitz

“Distinguished quality…profound emotion.” —Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agrawal

“Some real gold in here.”—B.D. Charles


Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press