Evolution of a History Nerd

Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.
Confetti found in the pocket of a circa 1898 masquerade costume worn by Brigadier General Robert W. Mearns while stationed in the Philippines.

A coworker recently suggested I incorporate more “steampunk librarian” content into Nostos Algos. I don’t know if I’m onboard with the usage of “steampunk”, since that’s a very distinct cultural subset, or “librarian”, since I don’t work in a library, but the man has a point. My Instagram is riddled with archives gold, but Nostos Algos is strangely devoid of the same and I mean to fix that now.  In tossing around ideas, I found it difficult to pick a starting point. I encounter awesome stories every day as a consequence of the job, so how can I pick just one and run with it? Eventually, I decided to lead with a post that seeks to explain my evolution as a self-proclaimed History Nerd.

If I’m honest, I am an archivist because I landed an internship class in my final year of undergrad, and that internship turned into contract work that turned into full-time work. No master career plan, just an American History major giddy to find a field that directly utilized my undergrad degree. My major, however, chose me–the teenager that preferred an antique store to a shopping mall that grew into the young lady more at ease with geriatrics than those her own age. I am an archivist by chance, by choice, and also for the same reason I read so many biographies–an acute interest in people.

That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn't into it, and it was awkward for everyone. (Launching of Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)
That time when Mary McKoane dedicated a song to Major General William E. Lynd and he wasn’t into it, and it was awkward for everyone, but totally entertaining for the table in the back. (Launching of the Gen. MM Patrick, Kaiser Shipyards, 21 June 1944)

This interest has fermented with age. The longer I live, the more defined mortality becomes–fostering a fascination with the limitlessness of individual people who work against the physical limitations of their bodies, as well as the governing bodies that build their civilizations. No matter the epoch they hail from–the 1880s, the 1920s, the 1970s, or now–men and women dream big, accomplish much, fail often, and always die. This has become abundantly clear in my eight years as an archives technician, during which time I’ve processed materials ranging from Civil War discharge papers to records from the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office. Often I’m given a box filled with mementos that visually and textually form the arch of an entire life. Sometimes it’s just a box of discarded records from an abandoned office. In either scenario, however, the human element always shines through: in obvious ways, like an informal photograph showing a grieving graveside widower, but also in less obvious ways, like a defiantly lewd doodle on the title page of an official report.

It’s easy to think of the past as past, and as people who lived in those times as static, unrelatable figures. I believe this is a problem of presentation and perception rather than reality. This problem begins in the monotone way history is taught in lower levels of school, which, by necessity, moves quickly through centuries of stories and rarely delves deeply into individuals save for key figures who accomplished monumental things, be them good or bad. Perception is also affected by the technological constraints of the times that captured moments in black and white, moments that seem so stiff and remote in stark contrast to our digital age of colored animation; when you add differences in dress and custom it seems almost impossible to cross the historical divide. The most crucial component of misperception is an institutional bias that prioritizes the exceptional over the every day.

Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.
Just before Tech Sgt. Jay Turnbull left training camp for overseas duty in 1943, he sent Marian Mifflin a fountain pen and a lovely letter, to which this subtle warning was a postscript.

In their quest to acquire the best of mankind–the quintessential Warhol, that first edition Hemingway, MacArthur’s West Point cadet uniform, or Lincoln’s last handwritten speech–many museums have become palaces that honor little else besides perfection, achievement, the heights of humanity. Preserving and showcasing elite objects is a vital component to museum work, but for me and many others in the trenches, the items that excite us most are the ones that should never have survived. Items like movie tickets, catalogs, receipts, pressed flowers in a Nobody’s diary, or the likeness of President Nixon made of binary numbers and printed out by a bored computer technician in the 1970s. One military historian I know was beside himself with glee to see a pair of standard issue Women’s Army Corps socks and nylon stockings from World War II. The things that are used and discarded without a second thought by regular Joes and Janes become the most rare simply because they were the most unwanted–unwanted by those who used them, as well as the institutions pledged to protect our history.

In my time as an archivist for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve cataloged the personal effects of some of the most historically significant men of the 20th-century. Men like Brigadier General Frederick Funston–the local lady killer who killed it in the Spanish-American War, “saved” San Francisco from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire (no big deal), and is the namesake of what was once known as 13th Avenue in the Inner Sunset. I’ve unfolded his pants, and preserved his wife’s family photograph album. Men like General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II who lost his battle with cancer while in command of the Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco. I’ve cataloged his favorite rocking chair, which is covered in plush pink fabric. Men like Medal of Honor winner Colonel John C. Gresham, the officer who chose protect native women and children in a ravine while Custer slaughtered their husbands and fathers at Wounded Knee during the Indian Wars. I’ve hung his coat with care.

These were great men, but not the men whose effects I’m most honored to preserve. Call it an affection for the underdog, call it curiosity in the lesser known, call it what you want: I gravitate to voices with less volume. If you look at the etymology of the word history, you’ll see it originated as the Greek “histor”, and referred to a learned or wise man; it then evolved to “historia” and embodied narrative history, meaning “finding out”. That encapsulates my approach to history: each day I find out about a different person, place or thing, and my love of that daily discovery comes from the commonalities I always discover. People are funny, situations are awkward, and the history that those people and situations write is equally as entertaining. When I find something particularly weird and wonderful–like a late 19th-century Cavalry officer who wrote science fiction as a hobby–that captures the quirkiness of history, I jump for joy and instantly want to share it.

What's there to do if you're a teenager (and John Muir's niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain't no 1927.
What’s there to do if you’re a teenager (and John Muir’s niece) living in Florida in 1926? Dance like there ain’t no 1927.

In conceiving this post, I inevitably listened to Bob Dylan–especially his album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan also loved history, and sourced many of the story lines in his early songs directly from old newspaper articles. A line from the last song on the album, “Restless Farewell”, struck me as particularly relevant to the way I mine history for moments that have slipped between the dusty cracks of the sanctioned historical narrative: “If the arrow is straight, and the point is slick it can pierce through dust no matter how thick.”

Somewhere a story is waiting, sticking out from under the dust, and I feel compelled to free it. So tune in to Nostos Algos for future gems, and be sure to follow me (@nostosnic) on Instagram and Twitter or search #historynerd for my latest nerdy posts.


Phono del Sol: Music Festival Savior

White Fence performing at Phono del Sol, where the livin’ is easy.

I enjoy Outside Lands every year, but, at the risk of sounding like a grumpus, the Summer of 2014 may be the season that music festivals jumped the shark. I say this in spite of loving the concept of music festivals. What could be better than listening to music while enjoying the great outdoors with delicious food and drinks? Particularly at Outside Lands, you descend into another realm free from the urban cyclone that whirls away just outside the park perimeter. You can wander through psychedelic circus-lit canopies holding a rice crispy treat the size of your face in one hand, a watermelon cocktail in the other, and end your journey with a pyrotechnic light show soundtracked by a Beatle, in person. If you live in the Outer Sunset, like this little lady, you can then stumble home in a haze of disbelieving glory and wonder aloud, “Was this all a dream?”

Yes, I drink the Outside Lands Kool-Aid every year, however that doesn’t erase my memory of the inevitable claustrophobic panics and the annoyance of youngins rolling on molly who indiscriminately pee where people want to sit. In many ways, it seems to me these big festivals have grown too big for their britches. Each successive year of Outside Lands becomes more corporate and crowded with people who are more drunk, more rude, and more oblivious to the music. Sadly, this is a recurring theme where music has become a secondary distraction at music festivals. Coachella broke Instragram this year when the barrage of blogging fashionistas, there to see-and-be-seen, all simultaneously uploaded photos of their outfits (#ootd). And if you’re an optimist willing to endure the downsides of large festivals, you’d best be quick to buy tickets because they sell out in a matter of minutes only to be found for sale on Stubhub at double the cost mere moments after they officially “sell out”.

The glorious antidote to these maladies is Phono del Sol, the feel-good festival that won’t tax your budget or your patience. Co-hosted by The Bay Bridged and John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone, this one-day, $25 event held on July 12th was just the right size–never overcrowded, always relaxed. It was held at Potrero del Sol, which is located a stone’s throw away from Tiny Telephone at the base of Potrero Hill, and includes a skate park that was packed for the entire festival. A hill in the middle of the park separated the two stages, and offered the best seats in the house. A mere pivot to either side of this hill gave you the perfect view of killer sets from Nick Waterhouse, which sparked an old-fashioned dance party near the stage; from Wye Oak, who showcased her flawless, bass-driven new sound alongside some old Civilian favorites; and from local favorites Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, who ended the day with their infectious indie pop. Phono del Sol also introduced many people to lesser known notables such as White Fence, A Million Billion Dying Suns, The Tambo Rays, and Tony Molina.

The success of Phono del Sol ultimately lies in its authenticity. The Bay Bridged is a nonprofit music blog devoted to covering and promoting Bay Area music, while John Vanderslice opened Tiny Telephone to give local, independent musicians access to affordable hi-fi recording. This dedication to local music was mirrored in the dedication of those in the audience who were as attentive to the musicians who played as they were respectful of their fellow listeners. We ate amazing sliders with garlic sweet potato fries courtesy of Voodoo Van, and sipped beer from a souvenir turquoise koozie–all with ample elbow room that provided maximum enjoyment. Compare that to a day at Outside Lands that begins with Esurance bracelets, drains your bank account and your faith in humanity, and then spits you out onto Lincoln Way to begin your arduous journey home. To me, despite my affection for Outside Lands, that’s Phono del Sol for the win.


Jack on Jazz: How A Genre of Music Helped Create a Genre of Literature

Jazz clubs on 52nd Street in New York City, seen here c. 1950s, were familiar territory to Miles Davis and Jack Kerouc, pioneers in their chosen fields of jazz and fiction.

While cruising across the Bay Bridge to San Ramon about a month ago, I caught a Michael Krasny interview with Marcus Shelby on NPR. Marcus Shelby–teacher, composer, bassist–is the heartbeat of the Bay Area contemporary jazz community. His deep-rooted understanding of African-American history is seen through his performance of songs such as “Harriet Tubman” and “Port Chicago,” which he uses as an exercise of cultural remembrance. The show aired on Duke Ellington’s birthday, and, after discussing the Duke’s influence, Shelby found himself awash in much deserved praise as Krasny opened the phone lines and caller after caller paid their respects. Then a caller asked him for guidance. This woman, whose name escapes me, had always appreciated, but found it hard to like, jazz, and she asked Shelby for advice on learning to love the art he had so skillfully mastered. Shelby immediately recommended Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

Kind of Blue is a special kind of album–as approachable as it is quixotic, as revelatory as it is confounding. It might be difficult for modern listeners to understand the revolutionary concepts burned into the album’s grooves since we’re so far removed from its August 1959 debut. Since then, this type of jazz has been emulated the world over, and is now an accepted part of the American unconscious, present in our lives as music in movies and cartoons, and as the background to conversations in an elevator. But in 1959, jazz–particularly the form Davis pioneered here–was the cool subterranean art form that attracted hipsters like Jack Kerouac as well as traditional music mavens. Eventually it would transform popular culture in tandem with other revolutionary movements that prioritized spontaneity and emphasized the newness of roads less traveled.

An intimate look at the “Kind of Blue” studio session.

In studying art, I’m consistently impressed with how much preparation is involved in the construction of spontaneity. It’s not a false concept, but spontaneity does require skillful and thoughtful craftsmanship in order to result in artistic genius. Before hitting the studio for his Kind of Blue sessions, Miles Davis had been experimenting with “modal” jazz which emphasized soloists over a background of one or two scales, or “modes”, instead of what jazz typically emphasized–busy chord progressions. With a few compositional sketches in hand, he gathered a group of young innovators to round out his crew: John Coltrane as tenor saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley as alto saxophonist, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on the kit.

As this group of musicians entered the studio, Davis laid out the parameters: the focus would be on first takes. Beginning with the opening track, the tone is set for the album as Chambers takes the lead while Evans keeps us engaged with unorthodox chords from which the rest of the music takes its cue. This is a bold choice, leading with the bassist and refusing to follow a linear path, one that validates the song’s title, “So What”–a musical call to arms in its brash repudiation of the jazz norm, and a sign of what’s to follow. “Freddie Freeloader,” actually the first track recorded during the 1959 sessions, momentously extends the swinging vibe of the first track and beautifully showcases Kelly’s contribution to Davis’ sextet. For me, the album is weighted in the center with “Blue in Green”, a song aching with simmering mood. Often described as “meditative” by jazz pundits and music theorists, the cycle of chords for this song was hashed out years before entering the studio when Davis slipped Bill Evans a piece of paper. Having written the musical equivalent for “G minor” and “A augmented” on the note, he told Evans, “See what you can do with this.” “Blue in Green” was born. This song is noirified, sultry and conjures so many clichés: dimly lit boudoirs in black and white, smoke curling around a billowing curtain, and the butt of a cigarette falling, wasted, onto a dampened empty sidewalk as its user turns away into the night.

As with all game-changing works, Kind of Blue struck a chord with an audience ripe for its message. Postwar America was searching for an identity in the 1950s as the country was entering the Cold War. Living under the perpetual threat of annihilation, much of American culture proverbially stuck its head in the sand. Families proliferated, moved to the suburbs in search of a Leave-It-To-Beaver lifestyle, and focused on the acquisition of goods and services pushed by advertising agencies in magazines and on television. There was, however, a subset of the population that remained disaffected by the Second World War–so much so that they found it impossible to distract themselves with taglines, products and the promise of a glittering American life.

November 20, 2002  6:05 PM
Jack Kerouac circa 1950s.

Individuals in the subset I speak of were young, and they were Beat. To quote the author Jack Kerouac:

“The Beat Generation…was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg…of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way–a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America–beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction…it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization–the subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation…”

Kerouac was a sensory addict, a lover of music who frequented hot jazz clubs in New York’s Harlem and San Francisco’s Fillmore Districts. He would write perhaps the best known Beat novel, and for this reason he became “King of the Beats”–the unofficial Beat mascot as identified by the mainstream press. This Beat novel was liberally autobiographical, called On The Road, and provided insight into a subterranean community that shunned traditional society in searching for more authentic experiences; it emphasized spontaneity and a new mode of literary thought, just like Davis’ Kind of Blue. Published in 1957, it follows the misadventures of Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) and the classic anti-hero Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they mine for meaning in the American miles between San Francisco and New York City. The pair immerse themselves in the urban bowels of these two cities, where a simmering counterculture is on the brink of a full-blown boil in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

When Viking finally found the cojones to publish this epic novel, Kerouac’s importance as a postwar author was immediately evident not just for the content of his narrative prose but also for his method of delivery. As explained in his quote above, the concept of “Beat” was a communal creation based on existing concepts so, in that respect, the source of the novel’s message did’t make his literary voice unique. What did elevate his prose above that of his peers’ was a narrative style that Allen Ginsberg later termed “spontaneous bop prosody.” This style was heavily influenced by his Canuck heritage that blended French with English, his second language, but was most evidently the product of converting jazz cadences into phonetic words and complex sentence structures. The tempo of Kerouac’s writing embodied the frenetic force behind his perpetual travels–the movements that found him the figures who would inspire his content. As jazz was and is peculiarly American, his passion for the genre and its integration into his writing lent his words a unique force that paired perfectly with the rusted red, white, and blue landscape he so painstakingly painted, as well as the avant-garde characters he knew intimately and immortalized in fiction.

Just like the music of Miles Davis, Kerouac’s work was also predicated upon a “first take” ethos underwritten by a dedication to craft and persistent preparation. The problem with Kerouac scholarship is that his interviews were generally misleading, since he often drank rotgut booze to calm his nerves and enjoyed playing with his own mythology. Later interviews with the people he knew are also circumspect since they’re clearly self-interested and memory is a fuzzy, moving target–one that might be even fuzzier for a group of known drug users and jovial alcoholics. What we do know is that Kerouac told reporters he wrote On the Road in a three-week, benzydrine-driven “ball” on a single scroll of teletype; this news spread quickly, and remains a beloved creation story. Unfortunately for admirers of this myth, his official archive reveals multiple revisions of the famous novel that include wildly different characters and plot points written on traditional sheets of typewriter paper with his trusty Underwood or scrawled in his own hand. In fact, Kerouac spent most of his life obsessively developing his craft as he agonized over word choice, sentence construction, and character development. His “three-week ball” was actually the product of a lifetime of practice.

In addition, the novel would never have happened without a little help from his friends. Although a consummate devotee to the tedious work of writing, Kerouac was still searching for his literary voice which later combined a Wolfean narrative scope with the jazz constructs that dominated his journals long before he felt comfortable including them in published work. After years of approaching fiction traditionally by emulating the writers he most admired (Thomas Wolf, Ferdinand Celine), he unlocked the key to his success through an exercise called “sketching.” He came to this approach on the recommendation of Ed White, a friend who told Jack “sketch in the street like a painter, but with words” as a means to cure his stagnating depression. This allowed Kerouac to transcribe his “interior music” and gave him, as Joyce Johnson points out in The Voice Is All, “a way to write passages in which he could seize the peak moment of initial inspiration and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.” This dissolved the “barrier between poetry and prose” that had frustrated him, and when Lucien Carr suggested Kerouac substitute a teletype roll for traditional sheets of paper, well, the last barrier to On the Road‘s writing was removed.

This understanding of events is directly contradicted by man historians, biographers and cultural critics point to a letter Cassady wrote to Kerouac in 1950 as the spark for On the Road in its current form. I believe that gives Kerouac short shrift and over-emphasizes Cassady’s influence on his writing. Sketching enabled Kerouac to release himself from “fiction and fear,” and helped to focus him on writing the truth with Neal Cassady, his muse, at the core of his entropic story. Writing Neal as he was instead of fictionalizing a Kerouac-Cassady hybrid for the main character, as he did in unpublished versions of novel, was the breakthrough he had resisted as a young writer struggling against an instinct to write from life when he believed the best writing was pure fiction. In the character of Dean Moriarty, Kerouac captured the reckless spontaneity used by Beat writers as an antidote to the numbness felt by a generation wasted in war, either dead on the battlefield or dying inside an over-regulated postwar society. Cassady may have been the essence of spontaneity, but it was the intrinsic freedom of Kerouac’s jazz-informed prose that enabled 1960s fee love and expression, and has continued to resonate with readers in successive generations.

I am one such member of those successive generations who found Kerouac as a teenager, and have loved him ever since. I read On the Road  in high school on the recommendation of an English teacher, David Soltis, who was probably the greatest influence on my early aspirations to be a writer. I was instantly hooked, seduced by the realm of possibility inherent in Kerouac’s prose and drunk on his words like only a sheltered teen can be. I purchased every book on him or by him, and also collected recordings of Kerouac because to hear the author read his own words aloud beautifully reinforces the lyricism behind his craft. Although it would take me years to understand the import of Kerouac’s contribution to American culture, I immediately felt a connection with Kerouac’s restlessness. My teenage lust for this dead poet compelled me to wear a beret, write poetry that was bad but then got better, and reroute my family vacation to  Lowell, Massachusetts so I could see Kerouac’s hometown and visit his grave.

This lust also drove me to jazz–straight into the arms of Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue, an album that continues to inspire me even while On the Road has, well, been relegated to role of a First Love. The novel’s lyricism and Kerouac’s devotion to craft continue to influence me as a writer and as an illuminated hipster hell-bent on preserving the magic of our disappearing American landscape. But as an adult woman I just can’t ignore the presence of sexism in his work (a topic for an entirely new article) or the perverse relationship between Kerouac and his mother–a relationship which ultimately formed his opinion of women as wives/mothers meant to be barefoot, pregnant, and subject to his will. This sexism taints his work form me as a 21st-century woman and writer in command of her own voice, but I still credit Kerouac’s role in my ongoing development as an artist, and, perhaps, even in my choice of men (also a topic for an entirely new article).

The Kerouac poster that hung next to my bed (next to the obligatory Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt posters) as a teen is long gone, but my vinyl copy of Kind of Blue is still a vital part of my record collection. And I’m not alone in this reverence; Kind of Blue continues to be the best-selling jazz record of all time, and is cited by many current artists–musical or otherwise–as an influence. First editions of On the Road sell for anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000, and it continues to be a contemporary pop culture presence with a movie adaptation that premiered in 2012. Teenagers will always want to read/listen to/wear something that is innately rebellious, and Kerouac will always fit that bill. Despite his many unsavory characteristics, I find myself reflecting on the last paragraph of On the Road time and time again–the one that explains his vision of America, his understanding of life:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it…and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing od, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

Kerouac lived by one credo: the voice is all. And when an evening of writing begins to fade away, in that moment just before the coming of complete night when I’m finishing articles like this or maybe jotting down a poem (or two), I think of Jack Kerouac, I think of the power of his prose and his ornery addiction to his craft, I think of Jack Kerouac.

The author on board a Virgin American flight to Seattle with Jack Kerouac by her side, May 2014.

Entertainment vs Ethics: The James Brown-Woody Allen Paradox

Sometimes disparate experiences collide to form an opinion or, at the very least, some thoughts pop out. A recent viewing of the amazing documentary Muscle Shoals as well as CNN’s The Sixties -The British Invasion prompted me to further my oldies education.  Today at work, I listened to the entire catalog of The Animals and The Rolling Stones, after which I realized that a) I knew many of the songs by heart without realizing it, and b) I’m a dumb-dumb for not already owning all their albums on vinyl. I also listened to a lot of James Brown as a result of this assignment to myself, which brings me to my thoughts on experiential collisions.

To begin with, I will plainly state: James Brown is one of the greatest, most influential performers EVER. If you saw the Super Bowl Half-Time Show this year, then you already know this since Bruno Mars would cease to exist if James Brown had never happened. I point this out because I’m somewhat annoyed by this fact: instead of kids getting amped about James Brown, they’re watching a watered-down version that lacks the raw magnetism of the authentic source. That said, the national treasure that is James Brown had a checkered criminal past and was repeatedly arrested for domestic violence. This puts people who enjoy his music in a tough spot, particularly if you’re a feminist-leaning music journalist like Moi. As I began ruminating on this quandary, my brain inevitably stopped the Thinking Train at Woody Allen Station.

If you don’t Twitter, access the internet regularly or occasionally partake in the TV news, Woody Allen is (again) at the center of a child molestation scandal courtesy of his Ex, Mia Farrow, and selected members of her/his adopted/biological brood. I don’t want to get into the particulars here, but you can read Robert B. Weide’s article published on The Daily Beast if you want a thorough examination of the case. As with James Brown, this revelation makes me squeamish. Woody Allen’s writing of and Diane Keaton’s portrayal of Annie Hall in the film of the same name changed my life. In Annie Hall I found a lovably awkward, tomboyish lifestyle guru that encouraged me to go with the crazy and accentuate my eccentricities. Blazers, hats and ties became and still are my wardrobe staples, and I encourage all new bosom buddies to watch Annie Hall in order to understand me on a deeper level.


Respecting James Brown’s rightful position as the Godfather of Soul and loving Woody Allen for gifting me a respectable role model (when compared to, say, any character played by Marilyn Monroe), how do I reconcile right with wrong? Logically, I should abhor them if they beat their wives and sexually assaulted their kids, respectively (and, ehrm, allegedly). Following this reasoning then I, as an ethical person, should be unable to watch Annie Hall or listen to “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” without dry-heaving in disgust. But it’s not that simple, is it? We’re part of a much larger societal dynamic that glosses over bad behavior if the offending individual is also really good at entertaining us (R. Kelly anyone?). As one good buddy put it, “Every time I listen to Ike Turner I can see him slap Tina in the face, but his music is just so damn good!”

So what do we do? For now, I have more questions than answers. I can tell you that I read “I Wear The Black Hat” by Chuck Klosterman–an entertaining examination of why we forgive some people and crucify others for the same or similar malfeasance. In it, Klosterman delves into the collective psychology of these situations utilizing insightful prose laden with a heavy dose of black humor like only Klosterman can. The conclusion he eventually reaches is that “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.” I don’t feel good about this rationale, but I understand it because it is true. Truth is hard to uncover from situations in which we aren’t directly involved, and, sometimes, even the ones that we are. It’s unclear what Woody Allen did or did not do because the waters are muddied by powerful emotions, and we weren’t there to know the facts. James Brown pleaded guilty to battery, but in this world of 24-hour news coverage we are too savvy to blindly accept a confession or a conviction as the final word on guilt because the system is broken and things are never quite what they seem.

Despite myself, I will always watch Annie Hall when life has kicked my ass, and I’m fast becoming one of the most prolific viewers of James Brown videos on You Tube. This might make me a bad person, I don’t know. If it does, then please know that I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.