Nevertheless, she persisted.
Atlantic City — © Brian Rose
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Although I tend to keep politics in the background on this blog, there are times when the background and the foreground collapse into one another and it becomes impossible to separate them. So, I’d like to address the question of the appropriateness of the cast of Hamilton confronting the Vice President elect — who was attending the show — with a statement expressing their concerns about the incoming Trump administration.
Let me share a story from 1967 when I was 13 years old.
President Lyndon Johnson was in Williamsburg, Virginia to address a group of Washington journalists of the Gridiron Club. It was a roast much like the White House Correspondents Dinner, and there were the usual rhetorical jabs directed at the President amid the clubby conviviality between the press and the powers-at-be. I performed at the event as a member of the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps, and I remember vividly how the jokey bonhomie that evening clashed with the reality outside of constant protests against a never-ending war, and Walter Cronkite intoning the latest daily casualty figures on the evening news.
The next morning Johnson attended the Bruton Parish Church, an Episcopalian church presided over by the Reverend Cotesworth Pinkney Lewis, an eloquent, sometimes melodramatic, speaker
originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I was there with my parents as Lewis mounted the pulpit high above the congregation and directed his sermon at the President of the United States sitting just below. His remarks were respectful in tone, but the message was blunt: “there is a rather general consensus that what we are doing in Vietnam is wrong.” Lewis asked why the war continued to drag on and why there did not seem to be a concerted effort to end it.
Johnson, of course, was a captive audience to Lewis’s criticism, ambushed, some said in a house of worship, and Reverend Lewis came under fierce criticism in the national media. The governor of Virginia and the local vestry felt the need to apologize for his breech of protocol. But as far as I know, Lewis never apologized. A year later Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term. James Jones, President Johnson’s chief of staff wrote years later in the Times: “Mr. Johnson had begun to doubt our ability to prosecute the war to any clear-cut victory.” Precisely the criticism made by Reverend Lewis at Bruton Parish.
As a young teenager I considered Lewis something of a pompous ass, in love with hearing himself speak from on high, delivering well-tuned platitudes that soothed the earnest complacency of those filling the pews below. But Lewis broke from his habitual cautiousness that day, his conscience aroused, he seized what he knew was a once in a lifetime moment, and challenged the President of the United States on the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Lewis’s church was not a safe space that day.
So, when I see the cast of Hamilton stand up and respectfully challenge Mike Pence in the sanctuary of a Broadway theater, I think back to that day in Virginia in 1967. Sometimes it is necessary to disturb the normally observed conventions, to break the fourth wall when the opportunity presents itself, and confront those whose words and actions promote intolerance and threaten our principles and our rights. May there be no safe spaces over the next four years for Mike Pence or Donald Trump.
Reverend Lewis closed his 1967 sermon to Lyndon Johnson with these words:
“The years ahead will be painful. Customs which seem an essential part of life may have to be given up. Opinions we have held tenaciously may be proven false. Physical and emotional landmarks may be swept aside. We may be compelled to think new thoughts and walk in new paths. Emerging young men and women who will gradually take over must have more understanding than we have had. Necessity will compel them to rise to greater heights than we have known. The future looks terrible; but with guidance from God (as in every strategic juncture of history) He will infuse the essential factor into the equation – something we could never suspect as a possibility – to make the future glorious.”
Passing through Cleveland on the way to Oberlin, Ohio we stopped in an area called Hingetown west of the city’s Warehouse District. Had a great coffee at Rising Star Coffee Roasters in an old firehouse. Across the street was a mural by Cleveland artist Joe Lanzilotta.
We traveled Upstate to visit colleges last weekend — my son is a high school senior — and he is looking at various options. We stopped briefly at Bard, a couple hours up the Hudson from New York City, and walked around Frank Gehry’s auditorium with its billowing metallic sheathing. The grey silvery material melded with a lowering sky as if threatening to fly off in the wind.
The launch of WTC took place at Cooper Union in the Great Hall, the famous room where Abraham Lincoln gave his “right makes might” speech. It was an honor to present my book there as an alumnus of Cooper, and it seemed the right place for a book so interwoven with the history of New York.
Sean Corcoran of the Museum of the City of New York gave an introduction, and I then walked the audience through the book, reading excerpts from the text. Afterwards, we adjourned to the lobby for refreshments, and I signed books with my son, Brendan, helping make sales. Thanks everyone who made this possible, my Kickstarter backers, friends and family, New Yorkers.
WTC is available here.
You reach a certain age, perhaps effortlessly if you are fortunate, aware that your time is not unlimited, but there is enough to play with, to seek further satisfaction in career and family. And just as you reach this age of fulfilling potential, your sense of hard-earned equilibrium is shattered by the fact that your parents — if they have been equally fortunate — are now bumping up against doors that signal the end, yet will not open.
They find themselves stranded in the grip of infirmity and declining capacity to care for themselves. Roles are reversed — parents become children — even as they hold onto to the belief that they can fend for themselves in a world that increasingly becomes alien, even hostile, dangerous. Things can quickly spiral out of control.
Such was the case with my mother. I am not going to go into detail here, but cascading events necessitated hastily arranged trips down to Virginia, visits to assisted living facilities, discussions with a lawyer, entreaties for help from friends in the community, and even meetings with police detectives. Things are stable now. It’s been an emotional time.
Sadly, The Magic Shop, one of New York’s great recording studios is closing. It’s for the usual reasons. As owner Steve Rosenthal said in the Times: “As the city becomes more of a corporate and condo island, some of us wish for a better balance between money and art, between progress and preservation, and we hope that one day we will see a reversal of the destruction of conscience and community we are witnessing.”
Musicians like Lou Reed and David Bowie recorded albums there. And a much less known project. An unfinished album of my songs produced by Suzanne Vega. Here is my tribute to to Steve and the Magic Shop — recorded there in 1990 — with Greg Anderson on bass, Frank Vilardi on drums, Jon Gordon on guitar, Lisa Gutkin on violin, and Suzanne Vega background vocals.
The Magic Kingdom:
A ghostly image of the Twin Towers in Queens. I did this picture a number of weeks ago, and posted a similar digital image from my point and shoot. This is the 4×5 film version, reduced from a hi res scan of about 700 MBs. The context is hard to grasp from this frame, but the elevated Long Island Expressway was directly above my camera position, and a steady flow of heavy trucks rumbled in front of me. I knew what time to be there for the raking early morning sunlight — there was only an hour of sun each day on the slightly northeast facing facade earlier in the fall. And I didn’t try to do anything fancy.
I’m working on my book, WTC, which will tell the story of the World Trade Center from about 1977 to the present. One section will be comprised of vernacular images of the Twin Towers like the one above. The recent events in Paris (and elsewhere) gives this book project a certain urgency, not that I have any solutions to offer for religious violence or the hyper anxiety currently on display by politicians. This book is offered as an antidote to some of that toxcitity. Stay tuned for further updates.
Hilla Becher died on Saturday at the age of 81. Her husband and partner Bernd died some years ago at age 75. A few years ago I posted the image below and the following short comment. There’s a lot you can say about the Bechers, but fewer words probably better suit their methodology.
September 9, 2011
The Museum of Modern Art
Framework Houses by Bernd and Hilla Becher — © Brian Rose
I’ve written in the past that it sometimes seems that the Bechers are overexposed. You can’t go anywhere without seeing their images, often in large grids, like the Fachwerk facades above. But let’s face it, this is brilliant work, especially this grouping. Their approach transcends genres. It is rigorous and seemingly impersonal, but in the end, suffused with pathos for human endeavor.
The Walk, a new movie by filmmaker Robert Zemeckis tells the story of Philippe Petit, the French street performer, who clandestinely strung a cable between the Twin Towers – still under construction in 1974 — and proceeded to tightrope back and forth 110 stories above lower Manhattan. Thousands craned their necks upward in amazement as Petit walked the wire for 45 minutes. I haven’t yet seen the movie, a 3D extravaganza, but it is getting good reviews for its vertigo-inducing special effects. It’s a Hollywood version of Petit’s feat – or performance art – not to be confused with the brilliant documentary “Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh.
Petit was arrested at the end of his escapade, but with public sentiment in his favor, charges against him were dropped in exchange for a performance in Central Park. His breathtaking walk between the Twin Towers has become part of the folklore of New York, made all the more poignant by the horror of 9/11 a decade ago.
Shortly after the destruction of the Trade Center, I sifted through my archive looking for photographs of the Twin Towers made over the years. One of the pictures I came across was taken from the observation deck on Tower 2 in the early ‘80s. I did a high-resolution scan of the 4×5 negative and discovered something unseen in my prints of the image, Philippe Petit’s signature and tightrope icon scratched into a steal beam. Petit’s performance masterpiece, it turns out, was signed by the artist.
As far as I know, it is the only photograph showing that long-lost signature.
I just saw the movie — it actually closes with Petit signing his name and drawing the little tightrope image as seen above. I have to admit to being surprised. It had to be based on my photograph. It’s true that someone from Zemeckis’ production staff contacted me a year ago about using one of my photographs in the film — but not the one with the signature. I expected it to be buried somewhere in the film, and in fact, it wasn’t used at all. Not to worry, I was paid decently. In the end, however, my accidental documentation of Petit’s signature plays a prominent role in the movie. I didn’t expect that.
I heard recently from a friend looking for a photograph I had taken years ago during a recording session with Suzanne Vega. So, I dug back into my archive, found the film, and began scanning the negatives. I remember that it was difficult lighting, and I didn’t want to use flash in the studio. So, it’s grainy film pushed in processing to get a little more speed out of it.
It was the end of 1989, and she was working on her third album, which would be called “Days of Open Hand.” One of the songs, “50/50 Chance,” included a string arrangement by Philip Glass. Present in the studio were Glass, Vega, producer Anton Sanko, and a string quartet.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times later wrote:
This song about an attempted suicide, a pop-minimalist answer to a Sylvia Plath poem, has a simple, lovely string arrangement by Philip Glass that underscores the sparseness of Ms. Vega’s language. It also sets off the emotional flatness of her vibratoless singing, which maintains a deadpan objectivity even in the words ”I love you.”
At one point I handed the camera to Suzanne, and she took the photo above. Here is the finished song from the album:
My son and I are in Atlanta for a baseball tournament. Many of the best travel teams for 16 and under have gathered here for what is billed as the national championship. We’ve done okay, but will definitely not be winning the tournament.
I’ve never been to Atlanta before, though I have family roots in the area (see my recent post about the Confederate Flag). As a New Yorker, it is difficult to comprehend cities like this that are so dependent on the car for just about everything. The traffic is daunting, the summer heat punishing, but people are friendly, and as one gets around and sees things, it becomes a more comprehensible, even livable place.
Here are two aspects of Atlanta — anecdotal — but representative of the extreme contrasts evident throughout.
Buckhead, Atlanta — © Brian Rose