Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2019

The Hitler-Stalin pact, Reconsidered

Filed under: Counterpunch,Poland,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact on August 23, 1939

On August 26th, an article titled “The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939: Myth and Reality” appeared on CounterPunch. It made many useful points about the right of the USSR to conclude a non-aggression pact with any capitalist nation in light of the invasion that nearly destroyed it in the early 1920s. While Cold War scholarship, including its most recent incarnation in a book like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, tries to draw parallels between Stalin and Hitler as totalitarian monsters, it was in the interest of humanity to preserve what was progressive about Soviet society despite the clique that ruled from the top.

In an article titled “The USSR in War”, written just after the Hitler-Stalin pact was concluded, Leon Trotsky laid out the differences between the two rulers succinctly: “Right now Hitler is the ally and friend of Stalin; but should Hitler, with the aid of Stalin, come out victorious on the Western Front, he would on the morrow turn his guns against the USSR. Finally Chamberlain, too, in similar circumstances would act no differently from Hitler.”

Unfortunately, Pauwels’s article is an expression of the neo-Stalinist apology for the Soviet Union’s external policy and does not take into account the negative aspects of Stalin’s policy in Europe that helped Hitler and ruined the Communist movement. Also, it shows all the shortcomings of a purely geopolitical analysis of the contradictions of the international policy of capitalist-imperialist and Stalinist countries.

By Louis Proyect and Pawel Szelegieniec

(Paweł Szelegieniec is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His research interests focus on Marxist political economy and history of workers’ and Communist movement.)

Continue reading

August 29, 2019

Steven Salaita on academic freedom

Filed under: Academia,Palestine — louisproyect @ 12:54 pm

(Rescued from behind a paywall)

Chronicle of Higher Education Review

My Life As a Cautionary Tale

Probing the limits of academic freedom.

By Steven Salaita

Photographs by Greg Kahn for The Chronicle

August 28, 2019

Academic freedom is inhumane. Its inhumanity isn’t of the physical, legal, or intellectual variety. It is inhumane because it cannot provide the very thing it promises: freedom.

Why? Because academic freedom can do little to alter the fine-tuned cultures of obedience that govern nearly every campus. I cannot venture a comprehensive theory of freedom or know for certain in what spaces freedom may be possible, but it won’t be in selective institutions possessed of wealthy donors, legislative overseers, defense contracts, and opulent endowments.

I know this from experience. In the summer of 2014, during a war between Israel and Gaza, I took to Twitter to express my outrage. “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” I wrote. In another tweet, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” By August, I’d been fired from my tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After my lawsuit with the university had been settled but before I left academe, I visited another American campus to speak about academic freedom. The itinerary included a meeting with the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts of Israeli universities but had intervened strongly on my side after I was fired. Rather than a discussion or even an argument about what academic freedom means for critics of Israel, the gathering ended up being a kind of inquest. The professor who had convened the roundtable read several of my tweets — without mentioning the horrors to which they responded — and then compared them against relevant sections of the AAUP manual. I confess to having been annoyed.

By that point I no longer thought about the tweets. I couldn’t recall my state of mind when I wrote them. More important, dozens of scholarly associations, various committees at the University of Illinois, labor unions, a federal judge, individual theorists of free speech, and the AAUP itself had already declared my case a clear-cut violation of academic freedom.

Listening to my words interspersed with itemized bylaws was jarring, but it helped clarify an ethic that’s normally implicit: When I make a public comment, I don’t care if it conforms to the etiquette of a speech manual. I’m instead concerned with the needs and aspirations of the dispossessed. Conditioning critique on the conventions of bourgeois civil liberties, and in deference to specters of recrimination, abrogates any meaningful notion of political independence. To ignore those conventions, to engage the world based on a set of fugitive values, will necessarily frustrate those in power in ways that require protection beyond the scope of academic freedom. The damnable comment is precisely what academic freedom attempts to protect, but it is incapable of preventing unsanctioned forms of punishment, regulation of the job market according to docility, or the increasing contingency of labor, which stands today as the greatest threat to academic freedom. Human beings are too complicated for rule books. Problem is, we’re also too unruly for freedom. In institutions like universities that reproduce social order, rule books will always win.

Academic freedom preserves democracy; academic freedom emboldens research; academic freedom facilitates faculty governance. These by now are truisms.

But academic freedom is no simple matter. We have distinct ways of understanding it, often according to class, discipline, race, gender, and ideology. At base, academic freedom entitles us, as both faculty and students, to say or investigate things that might upset others without fear of retaliation. As with any condition of speech, limits exist. And as always, complexity begins at the imposition of limits.

Many people, for example, are unwilling to protect a Nazi’s right to teach undergraduates. Others believe that the principle of free speech overrides the harm attending the Nazi’s presence. Let’s grant the argument that the Nazi has to go; we don’t want racism on campus, right? But what happens if a Jewish student says criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, or if a white student considers affirmation of blackness a form of racial hostility? We’ve been warned again and again that limiting reactionary speech will inevitably lead to the repression of all speech, including from the left. This is the absolutist view of academic freedom — the belief that protection ought to be evenly applied across the ideological spectrum. It’s a solid view. I have no fundamental problem with it. But I do question the wisdom of allowing a civil liberty to dominate notions of freedom. 

I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. But it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

In the end, we have to apply value judgments to balance speech rights with public safety. In a society like America, steeped in the legacy of racism, this task is remarkably difficult. No agreement exists about what comprises appropriate speech. As a result, there’s no way to prioritize a set of beliefs without accusations of hypocrisy (or without actual hypocrisy). The easy answer is to protect speech equally and let a marketplace of ideas sort the winners and losers.

There’s a catch, though. Value judgments don’t arise in a vacuum, and discourses don’t exist in a free market. Structural forces, often unseen, always beneficial to the elite, determine which ideas get a hearing. It’s a lopsided competition. Those who humor the ruling class will always enjoy a strong advantage, something aspiring academics are happy to exploit. Sure, academic freedom is meant to protect insurgent politics, and often does, but the milieu in which it operates has plenty of ways to neutralize or quash insurgency.

I focus on radical ideas because Palestine, one of my interests and the source of my persecution, belongs to the set of issues considered dangerous by polite society. Others include Black liberation, Indigenous nationalism, open borders, decolonization, trans-inclusivity, labor militancy, communism, radical ecology, and anti-imperialism. Certain forms of speech reliably cause people trouble: condemning the police, questioning patriotism, disparaging whiteness, promoting economic redistribution, impeaching the military — anything, really, that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing.

Academic freedom doesn’t prevent sexual violence. It doesn’t disrupt racial capitalism. It doesn’t hinder obscene inequality. Academic freedom isn’t a capable deterrent to genocide. The devotee of academic freedom will say that it’s not meant to do any of those things. This is correct. Academic freedom has humbler ambitions. The fact that academic freedom has a specific mandate doesn’t detract from its importance. I’m not attempting to convince you to dispose of academic freedom. I’m suggesting that it shouldn’t be the limit of your devotion.

So what does freedom mean in an academic economy structured to reward obedience? No thinking person buys the myth of merit. Academe is filled with mediocrities who achieved stardom by flattering the ruling class. Already, then, freedom is tenuous because livelihood is contingent on respectability, itself contingent on pleasing the ruling elite. Cultures of online exchange promise a kind of freedom, but more than anything they illuminate the preponderance of coercion. Nobody who covets white-collar stability will make a comment on social media without considering the possible fallout. Every hiring committee you’ll ever encounter staffs Twitter’s electronic panopticon.

Once a narrative about an academic’s offensive social media profile takes hold, it becomes a permanent demerit. I can’t find a single university president who will affirm my right to extramural speech. I can’t get an office job with any campus or corporation that has access to Google. I now drive a school bus.  Civil liberties can offer recourse against governmental repression, but they’re helpless against the capitalist impulse to eliminate disruptors.

Tell me, then. What opportunity? What autonomy? What freedom?

The primary muscle behind academic freedom, at least in America, are the courts and labor unions. The AAUP, for example, functions as a union on various campuses, including the American University of Beirut, where I worked for two years. Unions have a mandate to do more than observe and document violations of academic freedom. They attempt to strengthen faculty governance, which is obliged to serve the interests of underrepresented students and instructors, along with fighting the growing tide of precarity. It’s not at all clear, then, that concern with justice is beyond the purview of academic freedom.

As to the courts, they can sometimes provide recourse, but we should consider the timing of litigation and the nature of the restitution it offers. Administrators certainly consider these things. When a professor generates controversy, university leaders will undertake a cost-benefit analysis wherein they measure the damage from a broken contract or violation of academic freedom against the losses they might incur from unhappy donors and politicians.

I sued, and the courts, as the university’s leadership expected (saying so in private emails), took my side. Academic freedom provided recourse. Case closed, right? Not quite.

The fallout for me was permanent. I think about it when I’m inspecting my school bus on a 20-degree morning.

No amount of money, no legal recognition that I was wronged, will replace the loss of my academic career, to which I devoted the majority of my life. Academic freedom can’t make any university hire me, no matter how strong my CV. Everybody involved in the imbroglio at Illinois got to pick up the pieces of their vocation and move on to different pastures. I didn’t. The fallout for me was permanent. They can put the ugly situation behind them. It’s always right in front of me. I think about these things when I’m inspecting my school bus in the dark of a 20-degree morning.

It’s important, then, to avoid treating academic freedom as sacrosanct and view it instead as a participant in material politics. Academic freedom cannot function without tenure, worker solidarity, and an adequate job market, which are all in decline. “Can academic freedom be saved?” is a less pertinent question than, “Is there any longer a marketplace for academic freedom?” The corporate university is disarming academic freedom by diminishing the circumstances in which it can be effective.

Let’s not shy away from the complicity of the tenured professoriate in this sorry state of affairs. Tenured positions are down. Government funding has decreased. The managerial class is a bloated monstrosity. Some instructors work multiple jobs without adequate benefits. Sexual violence is common. Racism appears poised for another golden age. The humanities are barely surviving. Student debt is outrageous. And those with job security did little to prevent any of it.

This is the kind of comment that gets me into trouble. “What evidence is there for the claim?” tenured faculty will want to know. Well, my evidence is simple: Everything occurred while you were on the clock. This fact creates a paradox for anybody who would disavow responsibility. You either claim helplessness, in which case academic freedom is unnecessary, or you acknowledge that academic freedom is a limited commodity available to those who enjoy some level of institutional power.

I was a tenured faculty member for 12 years and count myself among the complicit. I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades, something my position informally demanded.  We all know, in personal moments of brutal honesty, that radical devotion to lesser classes is almost always just professional branding — that deep down we’re scared of the punishment that awaits if we offend the wrong people. Academic freedom doesn’t take away the fear because we know that management can always find ways around it. 

The problem ultimately isn’t only individual. Professional associations talk a lot about this crisis or that emergency but do little to organize their members. Departments and colleges consent to divide and conquer strategies rather than uniting across disciplinary boundaries. Prestige triumphs over solidarity. The damage may be irreversible.

I can be accused of speaking from a sense of pessimism cultivated by ostracization. I accept that criticism. I’d respond by pointing out that useful critique often comes from people who suffer the worst tendencies of a culture or profession. I can’t feign objectivity or claim to speak for any collective. Academe is a large profession, with thousands of disciplines and subcultures. Its inhabitants have vastly different experiences and impressions.

But this much I know: My ouster from academe brought into focus problems I scarcely noticed when I was still on the inside. College students often talk of unlearning the dogmas they internalized from their homes, secondary schools, and places of worship. I’m constantly unlearning the strictures of being learned, exorcising the finely tuned customs of obedience into which I was so carefully socialized. Now I instantly recognize when putatively radical scholars reproduce the imperatives of power through a compulsion to find nuance where old-fashioned outrage is more appropriate.

I didn’t do nearly enough to support my contingent comrades — because I didn’t properly see them as comrades.

Academic freedom is critical to a functional university. But it shouldn’t be an end in itself. It is only one instrument among many that can help us realize a world unlimited by the stagnant doctrines of pragmatism.

Let us then imagine what a truly free campus in a free society would look like. Let us not wait for institutions to authorize our imagination. Let us redefine disrepute. Let us harbor intellectual fugitives.

Let us, above all, embrace the painful but liberating recognition that optimizing our humanity depends upon the obsolescence of civil rights, for they are necessary only in societies that profit from repression.

For five years, I’ve had to consider whether my sharp criticism of Israel and subsequent recalcitrance — my unwillingness to grovel my way back into academe’s good graces — were worth it. I wouldn’t change anything, nor do I entertain regret. I endure the punishment not because I’m a sucker or a martyr — I have no illusions about the ruthlessness of capital, and I despise the lionization of public figures — but because I want the vision of freedom ubiquitous among the dispossessed to survive. 

That’s how we win. That’s how the downtrodden have always won. By defying the logic of recrimination. By depleting its power through unapologetic defiance. We have to be willing to drive buses, sweep floors, stock groceries, wait tables, whatever allows us to feel intellectual freedom.

They took my career. They took my health insurance. They forced me into hourly labor. What do I have left? The one thing they can’t extinguish: a fixation on equality, recorded in steady rhythms with an uncapped pen. In other words: freedom.

Steven Salaita is the author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom (Haymarket Books, 2015). This essay is adapted from his 2019 TD Davie Memorial Lecture, delivered in August at the University of Cape Town.

August 28, 2019

Separated at Birth

Filed under: humor — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Dumb and dumber


August 27, 2019

The Load

Filed under: Film,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

No other European nationality has been demonized more in the recent past than the Serbs. Starting with the war in Bosnia in 1992 and continuing through the war in Kosovo that lasted until 1999, they have been depicted as fascist monsters. The demonization finally relented when President Milosevic was ousted in a coup in 2000. And nowhere is the demonization more pronounced than in cinema where Serbs have been given more or less the same status as Arab terrorists. The most extreme of these films was “Welcome to Sarajevo” that I reviewed in 1997:

To prove how inhuman the Serbs are, the film includes a horrifying scene. A bus carrying the orphaned children out of Sarajevo into the safety of Italy is stopped at gun-point by ranting Serb soldiers. They board the bus and take Muslim babies with them, presumably to be barbecued and eaten later. It is astonishing that “Welcome to Sarajevo” puts forward the notion that the Serb army would exterminate innocent children in this manner. The real crime of “ethnic cleansing” was beastly enough, but it was designed to carve out pieces of Bosnian territory in order to exclude one ethnic group or another, not exterminate them. While the Serbs were certainly more aggressive than the Muslims, both sides took part in the blood-letting.

Even the Nazis got a better treatment than this in “Das Boot”, the 1982 film about a German submarine crew. After more than a dozen films that portrayed Serbs as mustache-twirling villains out of central casting, there is a new film that opens Friday at Lincoln Center, which departs from the official version. Directed by a 34-year old Serb named Ognjen Glavonić, “The Load” tells the story of Vlada (Leon Lucev), a 40-something man paid to transport a truckload of goods across the border from Kosovo into Belgrade during wartime. The publicity likens the film to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” but it is not at all like this. Although you are reminded of the war continuously through burning wreckage both on the road and near it, it much more about the quiet acceptance of a man forced to take risks to put food on his table. Back in Belgrade, he has a wife and son who await his return. The road to Belgrade is fraught with danger but Glavonić has not made an action film. Instead, he has created an existential tale set against the backdrop of war but it is the man’s soul that concerns him, not his heroism.

Even though we have no idea what “the load” in the back of the truck consists of, we do know that is connected to the war since armed detachments of Serb fighters meet him at either end. Most of the film consists of Vlada and a 19-year old hitchhiker named Paja (Pavle Čemerikić) exchanging small talk as they wend their way northward. Tired of the war and an uncertain future, Paja is on his way to Munich. Vlada is both happy to have some company on the trip but occasionally irritated with the youth who probably had no business being in the truck. Probably the most telling scene that distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill action movies takes place when Vlada is standing near his truck on the side of the road when a police car pulls up with the lights flashing. If this was a conventional film, he would have overpowered the cop and shot him with his own gun. As it happens, the cops were fellow Serbs who waved him along after he shows them a written order from the men who hired him. We can assume that they were Serbian military brass.

Cinematically, “The Load” is as bold as its subject matter. Using a palette of olive drab and gray, the film assumes a melancholy tone in keeping with the narrative. There is no film score, only the continuous sound of the truck’s engine that creates a mood more effective than any music.

It is only in the final 15 minutes of the film that the Serb identity begins to be foregrounded. Vlada discusses the family’s situation with his wife and his son Ivan (Ivan Lučev) who have grown weary of NATO bombing. He urges them to find a place to stay in the country that is less of a target. He will rejoin them after one last trip from Kosovo to Belgrade. A conventional film might have Vlada killed off just like Yves Montand in “The Wages of Fear” but director Ognjen Glavonić has something else in mind as the press note’s interview would indicate:

I didn’t want to make an action movie. I didn’t want to have hundreds of different shots and camera angles, as it was more important to spend that time with him and the sound of the truck, to see what he sees and to feel what he feels. This film is defined by two words: isolation and occupation. When he steps out of the truck cabin, he steps into a territory that’s occupied by war: the bombs, gunshots, noise, but also the fear and paranoia, which has already awakened in people. Which is why Vlada always goes back to that truck.

Resolutely determined to avoid action film conventions as well as pat political commentary, Glavonić does come up with a rather poignant depiction of Serb resistance to NATO bombing. It is not a spoiler alert to state that it is a virtual “fuck you” to the bombers rather than a missile taking down a plane.

August 25, 2019

Sidney Rittenberg (1921-2019): a long-time and remarkable member of the CP in China

Filed under: China,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Today, the NY Times has an obituary for Rittenberg that is included below so that you won’t have any problems getting past the paper’s paywall. I first became aware of him in 2013 when I reviewed a documentary about him titled “The Revolutionary”. Since the review covered another film as well, I am only reprinting the section that dealt with him. Fortunately, the film can be seen on both Amazon Prime for free if you are a member or on YouTube for only $2.99. The link is above.

From my review:

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

August 23, 2019

Grayzone’s favorite politician gives keynote address to rightwing Christian-Zionist audience

Filed under: Christian fundamentalism,right-left convergence — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

Time Thieves

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm


As I have pointed out in previous reviews, Icarus, the New York film distributor, is far and away the most important source of anti-capitalist documentaries. In keeping with their commitment to class struggle cinema, “Time Thieves”, their latest, hones in on the ways in which the capitalist system makes us slaves to the clock.

When I worked at a Boston bank in the early 70s, I kept Marx’s words pinned to my cubicle wall:

The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.

–Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

At the start of “Time Thieves”, we see people of all ages at leisure enjoying themselves. After a minute or so, we see another cross-section of humanity trudging off to work or to school as narrator Sarah Davidson comments: “Under capitalism, time has become a resource with a huge economic value. And those profiting from it want as much of our time as possible. They even steal it from us.”

Director Cosima Dannoritzer begins by showing the chaos that ensues when a new restaurant billed as completely staff-less opens up. Patrons save money by preparing the meals themselves, going one step further than the automats that enjoyed a heyday in the 30s through the 50s. In the kitchen, it is a miracle that those conned into trying this out did not lose a finger or suffer third-degree burns. I say conned because we soon learn that a restaurant workers union staged the whole thing to illustrate the importance of having trained professionals doing the work.

Continue reading

August 21, 2019

The realism and unrealism of the Green New Deals

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

via The realism and unrealism of the Green New Deals

August 20, 2019

Quentin Tarantino, Eileen Jones, and the perils of film school theorizing

Filed under: Academia,Film,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Eileen Jones

The first inkling I got that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was grist for the university film department mill was a comment by FB friend Greg Burris:

So I was thinking about the film. DiCaprio’s character is the linchpin. He’s a mess, full of doubt and loathing and insecurity. But he has two doubles full of confidence and alpha-white male security. The first double is his screen persona, and we clearly see the difference between his pathetic self and his macho alter-ego in the scene where he keeps forgetting his lines. When he is in character, he is bold and strong, but when he breaks character, his nervous stutter returns. DiCaprio’s second double is Brad Pitt’s character–the working class hero. Nothing fazes him. Not even Bruce Lee! Pitt is like a 1969 version of his character from FIGHT CLUB. He is the macho, suave, uncomplicated, masculine ideal–a mythic image required by both films’ neurotic protagonists (Norton in one, DiCaprio in the other).

It continues in this vein, top-heavy with interpretation but very little effort made in judging the film as either art or entertainment. When I read his post four days ago, I made a mental note to myself that he must be either a film student or a film professor. Going back just now to retrieve his post, I discovered that I guessed right. He teaches at the American University in Lebanon, with his web page stating that he “a film and cultural theorist whose work focuses on race, media, and emancipatory politics, particularly in the context of the U.S. Black freedom movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

I had no plans to mention him in this post but when I spotted a FB link to Eileen Jones’s article on Tarantino’s film on Jacobin in the same vein, I decided to offer some thoughts on the kind of approach both film professors take (she is a lecturer at UC Berkeley) especially when some potshots I took at her this morning aggravated Ron Cox, a political science professor who must have felt defensive about my admittedly rude remark about academic film theory:

Another reason to hate Jacobin. What its resident film critic Eileen Jones has to say about the Sharon Tate character in Tarantino’s latest. The ecstatic representation of utopian possibility? You can only write such bullshit when you have a job as a lecturer on film at UC Berkeley:

She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Ron remonstrated with me:

A lot of people I know, who live and work far away from the university, love this film, for many of the same reasons expressed by the critic. I tend to agree with her, though I liked David Edelstein’s review better. With all due respect to you, Louis, not every one who disagrees with you is a shill or tool of institutional conformity. I like a lot of what you write, but disagree with just about everything you said about this film. I judge a film based on how I feel when I watch it. That means: am I “into it” or not, and then I try to strip out everything else, including what other people said about it. I was “into this” all the way through. Loved it.

I told Ron that he is entitled to be “into” Tarantino’s film. As I tried to make clear in my review, I was “into” “Inglourious Bastards” and every other film he made up to that point. My reviews are not intended to warn people off from Hollywood films, for that matter. I usually go the entire year ignoring them until November when I get a batch of screeners from publicists to influence my vote in the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Up until that point, my reviews are heavily focused on documentaries, foreign-language films and American indie films that tend to be neglected.

Let me now turn to Jones’s article that will allow me to make some basic points about film journalism. To start with, it has to be said that Jacobin is an academic journal in many ways even though it is not behind a JSTOR paywall. Like Jones, most of its contributors are either professors or grad students. Of the five featured articles on the Jacobin website right now, four have been written by academics and the fifth is by Meagan Day, a Jacobin staff writer. (That does not included Jones’s article that appeared on August 6th.)

Titled “Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”, Jones’s article is a defense of Tarantino’s film against the attack made by people on the left, including The New Yorker Magazine’s Richard Brody who Jones quotes: “If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place.”

In my own review, I did not try to judge the film’s politics since that is a fool’s errand when it comes to Tarantino. Brody’s review was not nearly as vitriolic as that of the unnamed critic cited at the beginning of her review who reviled it as “just another white man’s nostalgia film.” As it happens, that’s just a made-up quote by Jones. You can’t find any review with such a formulation. In fact, of the 15 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who deemed the film “rotten”, not a single one attacked it from the left, including mine. For example, Gary Kramer of the left-leaning Salon (even if slightly) complained mostly about the violent ending that was “more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be.”

One can understand why Burris and Jones would find so much grist to chew over in this film since the subject matter is film itself. It draws a distinction between the classic Hollywood westerns and a new era that is marked by the arrival of Roman Polanski, who lives next door to the has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio. Here’s Jones sinking her teeth into the film metanarrative:

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Since Tarantino was six years old in 1969, I am not sure he understood the period well enough to represent his Sharon Tate character as “the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility…opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval.” That sounds much more like Jones’s projection of her own analysis on a inkblot test of a movie that most critics regard as more ambiguous than Tarantino’s usual fare. As for Jones, who was probably born after 1969, you have to wonder what gave her the idea that “social upheaval” had anything to do with Sharon Tate. I am reasonably confident in describing Tate as the typical Hollywood starlet who would end up seated next to Johnny Carson talking about her next film as opposed, for example, to Jane Fonda or Jean Seberg who took courageous stands in favor of peace and Black liberation that very year.

For that matter, Tarantino has a squirm-inducing scene in which Tate shows up at a theater showing her latest film and inveigling free admission from the ticket clerk and manager since she is in the film. She sits in the audience enthralled with her scene in the movie. If you extracted this 10 minute portion of the film and showed it to people who knew nothing about Tarantino, they’d probably conclude that they were watching a complete airhead.

It is difficult to pin down what Tarantino was trying to say about American society or film, a function of his knack for writing screenplays that come from the gut rather than the brain. Given the ambiguity of this latest film and its filmic subject matter, it will likely be discussed in film departments all across the country when the fall term begins.

Ambiguity is made to order for film theorists. In 1930, William Empson wrote a book titled “Seven Types of Ambiguity” that became a handbook of New Criticism. Poems were not studied to see what made them work as art but what hidden message they concealed. New Criticism was made to order for modernist poetry with TS Eliot, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound offering up works that defied easy explanations of the sort offered for Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Even if New Criticism no longer enjoys the hegemony it once had in the literary world, its precepts seem to have been adopted wholesale by film theorists.

Pop Culture is especially made to order for the leftwing film theorist since its hidden meanings might be excavated in order to raise social consciousness about the class struggle dagger concealed in the velvet glove. With millions eventually going to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, just imagine the impact the film will have on the uninitiated if the buried meaning Jones mines from it is true:

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

Grouping Tarantino with revolutionary Russian filmmakers of the 1920s is utter nonsense. Eisenstein and Vertov made films that championed socialism. They never would have worked for someone like Harvey Weinstein. Jones says that “this new take on 1969” opened up radical possibilities rather than closing them down. Really? In the final scene, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes a woman in Manson’s gang and bashes her head against a brick wall until her brains spill out while Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) uses a flame-thrower on another. Is this supposed to represent “radical possibilities”?

In Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the radical movement of the 1960s is covered in a single page out of 400. The idea that a contributor to Jacobin can extract some sort of radicalism out of a Tarantino film that is a mixture of nostalgia and hyper-violence is another sign of the magazine’s myopia. I can’t imagine what these people think about 1969. At least when I was their age, I was fortunate enough to listen carefully to what people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack said about the 30s. They, after all, lived through it.

All I was expecting out of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a good time. Judging by the 90 percent empty seats in the Cineplex I attended, I suspect the word-of-mouth is not that great.

Let me be brief about my own approach to film journalism. For me, the screenplay is essential. I hearken back to Aristotle’s “Poetics”: “The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.” What is the plot in Tarantino’s film? For the better part of two hours, a couple of Hollywood professionals sit around reminiscing about the good old days. Afterward, one of them runs into a member of Manson’s cult who takes him out to the ranch where they are based. Suspicious of the “hippies”, he checks in on the old man who it belongs to that he knows from the days when he worked as a stunt man on films made there. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, he smokes an LSD-laced joint and gets stoned. In such a state, he still manages to get the best of 3 Mansonites who have barged into Rick Dalton’s house rather than Polanski’s next door. That’s about it.

As for Aristotle’s emphasis on character, there’s virtually none of it outside his two leading men. Maybe there was more of it in the offing in the original script. According to the actor who played Charles Manson, “He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone…” Manson? Fun tone? Maybe it was just as well it was left out.

As I said in my CounterPunch review, not a single character other than the two male leads has any kind of substance. The Manson cult is lacking in character development, except for the under-age nymphet that the stunt man drives out to the ranch. Even in her case, she is monotonically offering up her body to him like a sex robot they use in Japan.

Jones is not bothered by the insubstantiality of Manson’s character: “Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative.” This is deeply problematic. In “Inglourious Basterds”, the counterpart to Manson is a Nazi officer played by Christof Waltz who is essential to the film. His sneering, self-justifying but always captivating manner is the perfect foil for the band of heroes who, unlike Cliff Booth, know exactly what their goal is—to save humanity, not just drive off hippie home invaders.

Once Tarantino decided on this plot, he might have found himself out of his depth. To turn the Manson cult into flesh-and-blood human beings rather than grotesque monsters would be a real challenge. If I had written the screenplay, I would have spent a lot less time with the camera trained on the nearly homoerotic bonding between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The film would have gained a lot from showing exactly how Manson was able to turn women into his willing slaves through his warped charisma. By elevating him into a more significant figure, the final showdown might have had more power. But that’s just me. I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter, only a blogger. I prefer it that way since I would never want to make the kind of films The Weinstein Company produced, no matter the pay.

August 19, 2019

A jazz fan’s memories

Filed under: Jazz — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

CounterPunch music critic David Yearsley is equally adept writing about Miles Davis as he is about Johann Sebastian Bach, two musical figures that arguably will have a mass audience a million years from now, if we last that long as a species. In Friday’s CounterPunch Yearsley writes about “Kind of Blue”, a Miles Davis album that was released on August 17th, 1959. I consider it perhaps the greatest jazz recording of all time and appreciated Yearsley’s grasp of what made it special from the standpoint of harmony:

The last chord sidesteps the home key of B-flat and holds out a tone lower before finally being pulled up to its proper harmony when the twelve bars start anew. With this single, minimal touch, Davis (if it was indeed his idea) embodies the essence of his cool through harmonic means: not only can he lag behind the beat with graceful reluctance, but he can also hold the posture of resistance and disdain across larger expanses of elapsing time.

But what prompts this post is Yearsley’s insight into Miles Davis’s marketing genius:

Another Townsend memo [Irving Townsend, the producer of “Kind of Blue”] from April of 1960 relates that “Miles Davis is primarily concerned with the amount of jazz now on jukeboxes in many areas of the country while he is not represented.” Columbia promptly turned out promotional 45s with a tune from Davis’ Porgy & Bess paired with one from Kind of Blue on the flip side. Many first heard this music in diners and bars over the jukebox.

I was one of those people.

In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I was with a friend sharing a pizza at the Village Inn in South Fallsburgh, New York, a nearby village in the Borscht Belt when a guy sitting at the bar nicknamed Frankie Machine walked over to the juke box and played “Summertime”, which was the tune from Porgy & Bess alluded to above. Sitting there, I couldn’t believe my ears. I never heard anything that beautiful. For me, jazz was what Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman played on the Ed Sullivan show. I am a huge fan of both of them but by 1961, their performances had become stale and dated.

Planning to write something about all this, I posted a query on the Woodridge [my home town] group on Facebook to see if anybody knew Frankie Machine’s real name. He got the nickname because his friends thought he looked like the main character Frank Sinatra played in the 1955 film adaptation of Nelson Algren’s “Man with the Golden Arm”, a novel about a junkie.

My cousin Steven identified him as Martin Patrusky, a Korean war veteran who was probably in his late 20s when he put in a quarter (maybe even a dime) to play some Miles. Patrusky left the Borscht Belt at some point and ended up in Los Angeles working as a waiter in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, maybe the same kind of work he had done in Catskill hotels. He was there the night that Sirhan Sirhan assassinated RFK and testified at the inquiry into his death. This drawing from an archive of subjects who appeared as witnesses in the inquiry does show a certain similarity to Sinatra’s Frankie Machine:

Martin Patrusky

poker-scene-frank-sinatra-frankie-machine-regie-otto-preminger-aka-ghjex7Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine

Some conspiracy theorists regard Patrusky’s testimony as supporting the idea that there was a second gunman. I honestly never gave much thought to this even though there are troubling questions raised in this article.

I couldn’t find anything more about Patrusky than this. Odd to think that my introduction to Miles Davis was made possible by an obscure figure who just happened to be a key witness to one of the assassinations that many reasonable people regarded as proof that the USA was becoming unhinged in the 1960s.

In my freshman year, I tried to get up to speed on jazz. In the music library, there was a very good collection of jazz recordings that I borrowed and played on the component hi-fi system that I brought with me from home to enjoy in my dorm room. A Garrard record changer, a Bogen amplifer I made from a kit, and an AR3-A speaker.

I would also hang out with students who brought their jazz records with them to Bard. Unlike a country boy like me, a Bardian from New York City was able to listen to a station like WRVR at the time. Affiliated with Riverside Church, the station was passionately devoted to jazz and made no concessions to commercial products like Dixieland.

Every so often I’d make a trip to the city to pick up some records that cost $1.99 at the time, either at Sam Goody’s or at a store that sold nothing but jazz. I can’t remember the name but it was a one-man operation up a flight of stairs somewhere in the West 50s. The owner was a deeply opinionated character but a storehouse of knowledge about jazz history.

In 1961, Charlie Parker was still a dominant figure even though he died 6 years earlier. A gun named Harold Donohue was the school’s resident expert on modern jazz and a Charlie Parker fanatic. When I told him that I loved Miles Davis, he scowled and said that he couldn’t hold a candle to Diz. You have to remember that at the time bebop was still king. Miles had recorded “Birth of the Cool” just two years after Bird had died and the music was moving in new directions, from the West Coast sound of Gerry Mulligan to the “third stream” sound of the MJQ.

Although I was only 16-years old when I became a freshman, I was already a serious pothead—something I kept secret from other students. I used it for special occasions, especially concerts. I turned on, as they put it, just before a performance by Paul Bley who was up at Bard with his lead horn player at the time Pharaoh Sanders. My guess is that David Izenzon was on bass, his wife Carla Bley on piano and Paul Motian on drums. Sanders’s solos had the same impact on me as Miles’s “Summertime”. He was pioneering “the New Thing” in jazz, which meant dispensing with regular tempos, tones, and chord changes. Sanders sounded like a wounded beast but musically so. This was the same year that I heard LeRoi Jones do a reading up at Bard from “The System of Dante’s Hell”, a novel that foreshadowed the Black nationalist cultural movement as did Sanders’s solo. I really liked what I heard from the two Black men.

Over the next 3 years my love of jazz deepened, just as did my knowledge of its traditions. I developed a great love of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans who were part of Miles’s “Kind of Blue” band. In 1965, my senior year, I joined the entertainment committee that allowed me to line up funding for jazz concerts. We brought up Bill Evans for $500 or so, which the Dean thought was an exorbitant amount. I have vivid memories of the concert that took place in a small chapel that was ideally suited to Bill Evans’s lyrical musicianship. He was gracious enough to provide accompaniment for a Blythe Danner song performance. I was poised at the door to make sure that everything went smoothly. In that capacity, I tried to shoosh a young woman who was moving leaves around on the ground for no apparent reasons. Robert Kelly, the poet who invited LeRoi Jones up for his reading, told me to let her be since she was using the leaves to construct a likeness of a lion on the ground. I can’t remember the names of famous actors or musicians so well nowadays but I remember the Bill Evans concert like it was yesterday.

That year I was approached by Ed Summerlin, a sax player who was living not far from Bard. He broached the subject of organizing a jazz festival at Bard with musicians he knew. This time funds became more easily obtainable because Ed had become a serious Christian after years of drug abuse. As such, he must have had the ear of the school’s Episcopalian hierarchy. He proposed the following program: Art Farmer quartet, the rhythm section of Miles Davis’s band at the time (Tony Williams-drums, Herbie Hancock-piano, Ron Carter-bass), the Freddy Hubbard quintet, and a band co-led by Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman, another sax player and important jazz journalist. I brought the proposal to the entertainment committee and they said they were okay with it but to drop Summerlin and Heckman.

When I met with Ed and informed him of the committee’s decision, he called me a “shithook” for cancelling his appearance after he had gone through the trouble of making the festival possible. I apologized on the spot and learned a good lesson from the experience, never taking people for granted. Eventually, that lesson butted up against how things were done in the SWP—including to me—and led to my resignation.

The festival itself was a great success. I remember Tony Williams pulling up in his AC Cobra, a very fast and expensive sports car with his drums sticking up out of the trunk. I also remember how Freddy Hubbard got lost on the Taconic coming up to Bard and showed up two hours late. Bardians had sat in their seat the entire time waiting patiently. Those were the days when GPS and cell phones did not exist so things like that happened. During the intermission, I shared a joint with Freddy out on the fire escape of the gym, where the concert was being held. He apologized for showing up late and I told him don’t sweat it. His music was worth waiting for.

Two years later, when I was working for the welfare department in Harlem, I got a new “client” (the term for people receiving payments). It was a guy named Jonathan Jones Jr., who had just gotten out of a drug rehab program. It turned out that this was Jo Jones Jr., the son of legendary Count Basie drummer Jo Jones and a drummer himself. When I found out that he needed to get his drums out of hock, something that was not covered in the Department of Welfare Home Relief category geared to single people, I came up with the funds he needed by filing a request for bed springs and other household goods that he already had. That, plus my knowledge and love of jazz, led to a friendship that lasted until I moved up to Boston in 1970.

Jo-Jo, the name he generally went by, had been a junkie on and off for many years. He told me that he and a pal became known as the typewriter gang in the 1950s because that’s what they stole. He told me that one time after he was arrested, a cop beat him with a phone book—a standard practice in the precinct houses. When he was more or less clean, he’d focus on his drumming and began to make a name for himself. At one point, he was told by Richie Powell, Bud Powell’s brother and a pianist himself, that he was going to become his drummer for a new group he was forming. Before that could happen, Richie Powell died in an automobile accident alongside Clifford Brown and his wife who lost control of the car.

Once he got his drums out of hock, he started looking for gigs. He often performed with Les Spann, a well-known guitarist and an alcoholic. I made a habit of attending all of Jo-Jo’s performances, including a memorable gig at a mafia-owned bar in Newark. All the men looked like cast members in “The Sopranos”. Playing with Jo-Jo at this club was Duke Jordan, who used to be Charlie Parker’s pianist and who wrote “Jordu”, a tune that was part of Clifford Brown’s repertory and included as well on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” album. For all of his fame, Duke Jordan was reduced to driving a school bus in Brooklyn at the time. When the band took a break, Jo-Jo brought Duke over to introduce me as I was sitting at the bar. He laughed and said that he and Duke were going to talk in bebop language. I had no idea what they were saying but I was tickled pink to hear it.

After a couple of years in Boston, I moved to Houston for another couple of years doing SWP work and then back to NYC for another two year stint. Finally, in 1978 I went out to Kansas City for my Trotskyist swan song. The only connection I had to jazz in Kansas City was going out for lunch with my workmates at United Missouri Bank to a lunch wagon called Agnos’s. As kind of an initiation into local food practices, they insisted that I get the pig snout sandwich. Eventually, I discovered that Agnos lunch wagons were once very popular in Kansas City, especially with Charlie Parker as his biographer Ross Russell recounts in “Bird Lives”:

The same area was also a permanent location for one of the lunch wagons owned by John Agnos, who, under Pendergast, enjoyed a monopoly of after-hours on-the-street sales of food and light beverages. The menu listed food items and unusual sandwiches served only in Kansas City in those days—crawdads, “short thighs” (of chicken), and a choice of sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs’ feet, and pigs’ snouts. Everything was priced at a dime. Jars of homemade hot sauces were provided for garnishment according to the customer’s taste. Charlie Parker picked up his nickname Yardbird when the Basie band was working at the Reno Club. Parker used to hang out in the rear lot, mostly to listen to Lester Young, and his favorite food was the “short thigh” served by the lunch wagon. Chicken was known colloquially as yardbird. Later the nickname was shorted to Bird. It stuck with Parker throughout his life.


A very resourceful comrade and friend checked with his brother-in-law who obviously knows New York City like the back of his hand. He got this response from him on the record shop whose name I couldn’t remember:

It was the Jazz Record Center on West 47th   (between 6th and 7th) and their slogan was “everything from Bunk to Monk.” It was a second floor deal with stairs leading up from the sidewalk; on each riser was a metal plate identifying a different variety of jazz (Bebop; Dixieland; Third-Stream, etc.). By the time I got there in the mid-60s, the owner (whose name I think was Joe) would sit in an armchair at one end of the store but didn’t seem to be either interested or capable of engaging in conversation, but customers would frequently carry on arguments with each other or Jay Vaughn, who ran the place during Joe’s (I assume) incapacity.

That building as well as that block was bulldozed out of existence in the late ‘60s to build the commercial towers that now line the west side of Sixth Avenue in the 40s and 50s. There was an article in Downbeat around that time noting the store’s demise and that they were looking for another place to reopen. They never did reopen, and a lot of their stock, along with Jay, eventually wound up at another record store (not Colony) somewhere in midtown, with much-increased prices. I don’t recollect which store that was.

I think that Jazz  Record Center might have been the only store in town that sold exclusively jazz records. Even the Commodore Record Shop, which as you know produced its own line of very fine jazz records in the 30s and 40s under Milt Gabler,  probably wasn’t exclusively jazz. I say that (I don’t actually know) because they were located in the old Commodore Hotel at Grand Central (now the Grand Hyatt) so they probably had to stock a wider variety of offerings.


To expand on the Jazz Record Center, this is from an interview Joel Slotnikoff did with Pete Whelan who created the Original Jazz Library label. In a question about early jazz, Whelan mentions the kind of thing that went on in this unique record shop:

I went into this record store called The Jazz Record Center run by an American Indian from Arizona named Big Joe Klauberg, off of Sixth Ave. and there was Jelly Roll Morton’s former manager, Harrison Smith, holding forth and I was asking him questions about the legendary Freddy Keppard. Along with Perry Bradford who was also there. They both thought Keppard was the greatest trumpet player they ever heard, but by the time he recorded, they said, he had declined. But they said, Perry Bradford said, he was so loud you could hear him playing from 125th St. and Lennox Ave. all the way down here to 47th St.


It appears that the last name of the proprietor of the Jazz Record Center was also spelled Clauberg. This is a great article on this store that gave New York its singular character once upon a time and that is now being destroyed by the real estate Moloch.

On His Way Down: Williamsburg and the Birth of Record Collecting

By Amanda Petrusich

Joe Clauberg at the Jazz Record Center

There’s a pervasive, romantic notion of the Outsider as Omniscient Loner: preoccupied, brooding, mumbly. He is human—for example, he might read a paperback book that he tugged from the back pocket of his jeans, or gaze intently into a woman’s eyes for a beat too long—but he doesn’t celebrate holidays or use the toilet. He is usually leaning against a wall. This is one way of thinking about it.

Then there are the men—outsiders, also—who routinely congregated at the Jazz Record Center, a long-defunct music shop that once existed on the north side of West 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan, a now touristy stretch better known for its approximations of pizza and dubious (if well-lighted) electronics shops. In the 1940s, the Jazz Record Center became the default clubhouse for a cabal of distinctive gentlemen: exiles, recluses, characters so outsize in their eccentricities that they felt invented, except better. Here there was not a sense—as with the archetypal Outsider—that a choice had been made. Here, the earliest collectors of 78 rpm records found each other.

Photograph by Nathan Salsburg

The Jazz Record Center was operated by Big Joe Clauberg, a chunk of a man with a deeply creased face (his skin appears to fold back on itself, like the underside of a poorly reupholstered chair) and black eyes that expressed a deep aversion to certain kinds of nonsense. He came to New York from the Southwest, had worked as a circus strongman, and stumbled into the used-record business after being offered a few truckloads of cheap records from a wholesale jukebox operator.

“He was a giant,” the collector Pete Whelan told me. “He was very overweight. He would just listen to everybody, hardly saying anything. And he was very generous in his prices. Records that were really worth $10 or $15 then and that would be worth hundreds or maybe thousands now, he would sell for $1.”

Clauberg settled at the 47th Street location in 1941, bolstering his jukebox supply by selling new stock from smaller jazz labels. The store was originally called Joe’s Juke Box, then the Jazz Record Corner, then the Jazz Record Center. Its inventory was jazz heavy but eclectic, including “Everything from Bunk to Monk,” as a 1949 ad in the Record Changer, an early jazz collecting magazine, read. (The “Bunk” in question was almost certainly Bunk Johnson, the beloved New Orleans jazzman who lost both his trumpet and his two front teeth in a bar fight in Louisiana in 1931, but it’s tempting to consider its more colloquial use—one collector’s bunk being another’s prize, after all.)

Clauberg courted (and indulged) a perfect outcast harem. Many of the shop’s most beloved denizens weren’t even patrons, or at least not in the traditional sense. A Greek dishwasher and janitor named Popeye helped keep the place clean, rubbing oil into the floorboards as necessary. According to the collector (and former employee) Henry Rinard, who chronicled his experience working with Big Joe for 78 Quarterly, Popeye was a short, well-muscled man with no teeth, hair, or eyebrows, prone to mumbling to himself for hours “in gibberish not even another Greek could understand.” Clauberg let Popeye crash on the floor at night, and in exchange, Popeye performed additional odd jobs, like bringing Clauberg food from the joint where he washed dishes, cutting his hair, and helping him yank a rotten tooth from his gums using a pair of pliers (that’s what friends are for). Another regular, Abbie the Agent, wore “thick-lensed eyeglasses, smoked continuously, and was seldom sober.” An outcast from a wealthy Connecticut family, Abbie fetched cigarettes and wine for Clauberg, and periodically became so inebriated himself that he passed out on the Popeye-oiled floor. (His other nickname—and I think it’s the better of the two—was Horizontal Abe.) Rinard also wrote about one of Clauberg’s old hobo friends, a guy known mostly as the Sea Captain, who wore a wool hat, raincoat, and heavy, too-big, laceless boots, even in June. The Captain was something of an enigma, even to Rinard: “He was either Swedish or Norwegian; he understood English, but never spoke,” he wrote.

The clientele was no less unique. “It was very interesting,” Whelan recalled. “It was a stop on the way. There would be these characters that would be there. Specialists. One guy who just collected European jazz, named Hal Flaxer. He’s probably still around. I think he went through three or four wives and they all looked identical. I couldn’t tell the difference. They looked like twins of each other.” In her book In Search of the Blues, the scholar Marybeth Hamilton includes what might be the single greatest description of early record collectors flourishing in their natural habitat: “Saturday afternoons they met at Indian Joe’s, where they thumbed through the bins in between swigs from the bottles of muscatel that Pete Kaufman brought along from his store, suspending their searches briefly at three, when a man called Bob turned up with a suitcase of pornographic books.”

There’s only one published photo of the shop, which first appeared in Jazzways and was later reprinted in 78 Quarterly; it’s not even of the interior, but of the rickety wooden stairs leading to the door. The face of each step is painted with an incitement (records, hot jazz records, records 4 sale, step up save a buck, popular bands, hot jazz records), and I can only imagine the half-furious, half-wheezy sounds eager collectors made clomping up them, balls of cash wadded up in their pockets. Regardless of what the inside of the shop actually looked like—and chances are, it was fairly mundane—I like to imagine it crammed with weirdoes bickering in high-pitched voices, nostrils expanding, slowly swarming Bob and his suitcase. I like to imagine myself there, with a record or two tucked under my arm.

James McKune showed up at Big Joe’s nearly every Saturday night at six, and stayed until the store closed at nine, wandering off, on occasion, to eat supper at the Automat around the corner on Sixth Avenue. McKune was likely born somewhere on the East Coast in or near 1910, although no one knows precisely when or where (depending on whom you ask, he was from Baltimore, or North Carolina, or upstate New York). That McKune has no clear origin story—and that his end was equally inscrutable—only amplifies the mythic place he occupies in collecting lore. Maybe more than any other collector, James McKune was defined by his records.

McKune wasn’t the first 78 collector, but he was one of the earliest to single out rural blues records as worthy of preservation, and is arguably the field’s most archetypal figure. At the very least, he established the physical standard. He was flagpole skinny and otherwise nondescript (medium height, tapering hair), prone to wearing the same outfit nearly every day (a white shirt with rolled sleeves, black pants, white socks, black shoes). He had a tough time holding a steady job, and during his time in New York, he worked briefly as a subeditor for the New York Times, a desk clerk at the YMCA, a checker at a South Brooklyn beer distributor, and a mail sorter in a Brooklyn post office. He seemed generally irritated by the necessity of employment, and in a June 1944 letter to the collector Jack Whistance, wrote: “During the day (when it doesn’t rain) I continue my quest for a suitable job in [an] essential industry. In N.Y.C., be it said—not in Newark. I am a particular guy, perhaps alas. The jobs I can have I don’t want. And those I want I can’t get.” (Ironically, US unemployment was at an all-time low in 1944, at just 1.2 percent—about as close to “full employment” as economists believe is possible). According to all reports, he drank like a pro. In his letters to other collectors, he was exacting but not unlikable; his missives are impeccably punctuated and endlessly readable, packed with peculiar asides and unexpected jokes. Although he was constitutionally private—a loner in the most nonromantic sense—and wrote almost exclusively about which records he wanted or had recently acquired, McKune did seem to savor his correspondence. In a 1951 letter to Henry Rinard, he even mentioned his glee about receiving an Easter card from a pal for Christmas. “A delightful variation, which I would have copied but for the lateness of this melancholy December,” he wrote in neat, minuscule script. (He was also prone to hastily changing tone by writing NEW SUBJECT midletter, an underused literary device I aspire to someday employ.)

Photograph by Nathan Salsburg

“Not that it means anything particularly, but he was gay, and I didn’t know that at the time,” Whelan explained to me one night. He and McKune first met at Big Joe’s. “I was at the time interested in getting blues on this particular label called Gennett. There was this guy Sam Collins on Electrobeam Gennett that I liked very much—he was an impassioned tenor. So I met this guy McKune,” he continued. “I was like 23 or 24 and he was 50. He had been collecting since probably the late 30s. Blues. One of the very few. He looked like a scarecrow. He would gesticulate when he talked, very excitedly. You’d find these elbows coming at you, and you kept backing up. I think in the late 1930s he was a reporter for the Long Island Star, and then became, I think, city editor. And then he gave it up and worked for the post office. And then he became an alcoholic.”

Unsurprisingly, McKune was also a bit of a crank. He was wildly discerning, even by collector standards, and owned just 300 records, all tucked into cardboard boxes and stored underneath his single bed at the YMCA on Marcy Street in Williamsburg. He often referred to his listening sessions as “séances” and was required to play records at a low volume so as not to enrage unsympathetic neighbors (thin walls). He fretted endlessly about his own taste. McKune’s desires were expansive, and he didn’t just want to collect the music he loved the most—he wanted to collect the best possible permutations of sound, and for those decrees to be definitive.


McKune supposedly never gave up more than 10 bucks for a 78 (and often offered less than $3), and was deeply offended—outraged, even—by collectors willing to pay out large sums of money, a practice he found garish, irresponsible, and in basic opposition to what he understood as the moral foundation of the trade. He didn’t like the notion that records could generate profit for their handlers: in the fall of 1963, in another letter to Rinard, he referenced his skepticism of a fellow collector, writing, “Somehow, I distrust him. He bought some records from the Negroes in Charleston, S.C. He spent $19 or $20 and sold the records for more than $500.” For McKune, collecting was a sacred pursuit—a way of salvaging and anointing songs and artists that had been unjustly marginalized. It was about training yourself to act as a gatekeeper, a savior; in that sense, it was also very much about being better (knowing better, listening better) than everyone else. Even in the 1940s and 50s, 78 collectors were positioning themselves as opponents of mass culture, and McKune cultivated a fantastic disdain for pop stars as well as the so-called protest singers of the era. He thought, for example, that Woody Guthrie was bullshit, although by 1950 he’d come back around on folk music as a genre, a shift he attributed to getting older. (The career of Glenn Miller, though, was a constant source of jokes.)

I’m not sure what McKune was looking for, exactly. Maybe the same thing we all look for in music: some flawlessly articulated truth. But I know for sure when he found it.

In the 1940s, 78 collecting meant jazz collecting, and specifically Dixieland or hot jazz, which developed in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century and was defined by its warm, deeply playful polyphony (typically, the front line—a trumpet, trombone, or clarinet—took the melody, while the rhythm section—banjo, guitar, drums, upright bass, piano, and maybe a tuba—supported or improvised around it). Because of its origins, collecting rare Dixieland records in 1942 was not entirely unlike collecting Robert Johnson records in 1968, or, incidentally, now: deifying indigent, local music was a political act, a passive protest against its sudden co-optation by popular white artists. As Hamilton wrote, “it meant training the spotlight on a distinctly black, definitely proletarian art form in an era when, as they saw it, jazz had been tamed, sweetened, and commodified, with white performers like Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman praised as its consummate practitioners.” But for whatever reason, blues records weren’t of any particular interest to early collectors. “The original 78 collectors despised country blues. They just liked jazz, and there were few exceptions,” Whelan explained. “It was a sharp divide. They thought it was less artistic. They were intellectuals.”

According to Hamilton, in January 1944 McKune took a routine trip to Big Joe’s and began pawing through a crate labeled “Miscellany,” where he found a record with “a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.” It was a battered, nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.” Patton had recorded the track in Grafton, Wisconsin, 15 years earlier, and he’d been dead for less than 10 when McKune first picked it up. Patton was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As Hamilton wrote, “… even before he replaced the tonearm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.”

“Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” is one of Charley Patton’s more staid tracks, in both rhythm and narrative. According to Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt’s King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charley Patton, “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” was “likely conceived for white presentation: it used diatonic intervals and featured the keynote as its lowest vocal tone, a technique Patton usually avoided in singing blues and gospel material.” Wardlow and Calt suspect the tune was conceived for “white square dances and sociables,” where Patton was likely accompanied by a fiddler who’d been tasked with playing lead over his strums. Lyrically, it’s a sweet imploration: don’t take me for granted, Patton warns. “Some these days, I’m going to be leaving / Some these days, I’ll be going away,” he slurs, strumming a faint, bouncing guitar line. For once, he sounds more amused than angry. You’ll see, he seems to grin. Just wait.

Charley Patton changed everything for McKune. I can run an assortment of scenarios—recounting all the fireworks-type stuff I imagine happened when he first dropped a needle to “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone”—but those particular moments of catharsis are too weird and too personal ever really to translate. What’s important is that McKune’s discovery of Patton set off an avalanche of cultural events, a revolution that’s still in progress: blues records became coveted by collectors, who then fought to preserve and disseminate them. In the liner notes to The Return of the Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, a collection of 78 rarities released by Yazoo in 2012, Richard Nevins called McKune “‘the man’ who set it all in motion, who led blues collectors away from the errors of their wayward tastes… a fantastic, brilliant young man… [his] perspectives had profound influence and resound even today.” In the same notes, Dick Spottswood—in conversation with Nevins and Whelan—spoke about how McKune raised the stakes for everyone, about how things changed: “All I’m saying is that the records themselves as collectible artifacts were not buy or die [before]. They were desirable records but they weren’t life or death. You know, the way they have since turned into.” After McKune, collectors became invested in rural blues. They sought those records with fury, the music was preserved and reissued, and the entire trajectory of popular music shifted to reflect the genre’s influence. A guy from no place, saving music from the same.

James McKune’s naked, strangled body was found, bound and gagged, in a grimy welfare hotel—the Broadway Central—on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in September 1971. Detectives concluded that he had likely been murdered by a man he had solicited for sex; Whelan later called the perpetrator a “homosexual serial killer” with, he thought, five or six other homicides on his record. By then McKune had moved out of the YMCA and was living primarily on the streets of the Bowery among prostitutes and thieves. For those on the lookout for such parallels, McKune’s death did ultimately mirror Robert Johnson’s—who, as Hamilton pointed out, also died under “violent, mysterious, and sexually charged” circumstances. (The itinerant Johnson supposedly keeled over after taking a slug of poisoned whiskey, provided by a man whose wife he’d been eyeing or maybe worse.) Nobody knows for sure what happened to McKune’s record collection, although rumors still flutter up from time to time. It was likely sold, or stolen, or maybe given away bit by bit.

Excerpted from Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich. Copyright 2014 © Amanda Petrusich. Reprinted with Permission from Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.