R.I.P.: Gatz Hjortsberg, Pt. Two

I floundered around in high school trying to explore the complete range of lit and poetry – sure wasn’t gonna find it out in Eng. Class. So right before high school, even, this door-to-door type pitched my parents a book series called Masterpieces of World Literature  — this is the current (much reduced) version of it. I said yeah, yeah, yeah – and you know, it wasn’t bad. Turned me on to many things. But they wanted to keep you sending them checks, so they also published an annual volume that selected the best fiction and nonfiction from the previous year.

In one of those annuals, I read a rave piece on William Hjortsberg’s Alp that made it sound like the hoot of my dreams. Then – yowsah! – I see there’s a copy sitting in the higher-brow Livingston bookstore (the one that didn’t have porn in the back room). As I buy it, the dear friend and son of the owners, John Fryer, tells me – “the writer of this lives in town, you know.” After I picked up the pieces of my exploded brain, I begged him to arrange a meeting. Novelists, writers in general, were only half-imaginable fantasy figures for us reader kids. Fryer (as we called him) gave Hjortsberg a call and he said, sure I’ll talk to these locals.

I went out to the rather nice spread in Paradise Valley with my best arts friend, Scott Franzen. We were both apprehensive. Easy to imagine an actual published novelist would look down on these potato boys from the sticks who imagined they knew something about literature and wanted to be writers.

First last and only time I addressed him as “Mr. Hjortsberg.”

“Gatz — always call me Gatz.”

We cracked open beers (smoked a little pot — which was way wild for us at that time) and started talking about living in Livingston, the art of writing, the state of novels and the culture, and dreams and visions and scooting all over the topics. Gatz was warm and friendly and encouraging and an instant pal. I had no idea how many competitive writers there were who would regard even a couple ambitious kids as a threat.

I can’t remember too many specifics. He told us about the whole history of the house he lived in. His beautiful wife stayed very meekly in the background. The one exchange that has never faded is his description of how hard it was not to be mischievous with his own children. He recounted that his little boy had become terrified of going down the stairs into the dark basement. Gatz said he could not help himself when he explained:

“Don’t worry. There’s nothing down there … except the Moth King.”


All I remember after that is that our junker car got mired in the mud outside his house and all three of us got caked in muck as Gatz pulled us out of the trench with his pickup. But I will always consider that night a shining transformation, when being a writer went from something impossible to something not only doable but desirable. When a community of writers, if they were all like Gatz, would be a delight every day.

About a dozen years later – I touched base with Gatz from time to time intervening – I worked with the organizers of a Writers’ Conference at the University of Missoula to make sure the theme was “writers who live in Montana” and that Gatz was invited as a compensated reader and speaker. He was a big hit, enjoyed by everybody. One of his finest qualities was that whenever he encountered me, he was able to bring the feel of that first night in Paradise Valley back to life.

Whatever the karma, my direction was changing as my poetry and short stories dried up around the time that I learned, yes, “Surrealism is a young person’s game.” When the visions dried up, I wanted to write about excellent art – world-class as possible – not the miserable few hip bands that played MT. So off to Boston. I noticed this week that I bought two additional copies of Alp – one from a library and one a British edition.

Encountered Gatz on and off over the years. Made damn sure I got an autographed copy of his final novel, Mañana when we were last in Livingston. In it, he wrote something he had done before:

“For Milo Miles, a true son of the West …”

This was not just a catchphrase, but a reminder that he had heard Scott and me describe how we belonged in Livingston but did not fit in. I’ve had trouble feeling at home anywhere in my life. This was Gatz’s way to affirm he believed Livingston had shaped me, was in my blood, was something I could embrace and cherish always.

Post-Clinton Era

Got that done and got that done … have a minute here for a blog-post thought. Nothing more than a concerned but very casual political observer’s reflections on the Clintons in what he insists should be the end of their day.

I remember how happy we were the night President Bill Clinton became a reality. Celebrating in the main hall of WGBH as the news came in, I had what, in retrospect, was my personal moment of “post-racial” delusion: “This will be the end of the rightward lurch of American politics. Bill Clinton will be an unabashed progressive, the anti-Reagan with the skill to undermine the myth-making about Gipper’s popularity.” Hah.

The first huge jolt I remember was the showdown over gay equality in the military. By the mid-’90s it was a clear progressive step to take. Just as ending racial discrimination was in the late ’40s. But President Clinton had a poor understanding of widespread military attitudes and was more haunted by his lack of service in Viet Nam than anyone realized. Prez seemed to think it was just a matter of the some obsolete rules persisting and needed a simple fix. No, dude — there was raw bigotry thick on the ground troops and everywhere else. To be fair, secular Commander in Chief was a lot more vivid and in charge when Truman got the ball rolling and Ike slammed it out of the ballpark. Instead we got the compromise travesty of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which certainly did tell one thing: Clinton Will Cave. So Republican Lite was established and its crummy legacy persists unto this day of King Donald expecting his Mafia-like threats to send the Dems crawling to his feet.

Don’t get me wrong — this was the era when the GOP turned into All Attack All the Time and No Facts, No Problem. America owes everyone targeted by the Lewinsky investigations an eternal apology. But what President Clinton had to do is dig in his heels and say “The whole thing is none of your goddamned business.” The era when affairs could be used for blackmail was over. There was never any evidence the public was as prudish and enraged as the GOP kept insisting.

So Bill left office with a batch of dings and dents. And he’s done nothing since to convince me he does not have the occasional calamitous lapse in judgement. (And howcum he never figured out an effective way to help Hillary campaign? Does not seem like something that would be so beyond his capacities.)

HRC did a fine job as Sec. of State. She didn’t get enough credit for accomplishments, and her scandals, well, be honest — her worst lapses in judgement are trivial compared to her husband’s. And most of them don’t even exist. Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton was not a dynamic surprise, but I like her policies overall and the “warmonger” smear was too tied to the Iraq war vote and Republican Lite in general, which she would have every opportunity to cast aside.

I’m of the school that Hillary was a down-the-middle candidate who ran a down-the-middle campaign. What I didn’t understand was how hated she was by segments of the American people who bought into every dark accusation going back before Vince Foster. And how much flat-out sexism, exposed for the first time all over the landscape, could still cut and kill.

That said, the Clintons’ 20 years on stage expired last fall. Certainly a couple I will identify with the rest of my life. But any serious push toward Clinton 2020 would be by far her most serious lapse of judgement.

R.I.P.: Arthur Blythe

Interview that offers some overview.

Chronological recommendations:

I’ve heard the Tapscott sides, but I think Blythe first sounds like himself on the Julius Hemphill album Coon Bid’Ness (1975)

One reason Blythe was ear to my heart was that he very frequently used Bob Stewart on tuba instead of a bass player. (Tuba is the only instrument I played back in schooldays.) So my sentimental favorite is Bush Baby (Adelphi, 1978 — vinyl or online only), where the extended duets by Blythe and Stewart sound particularly harmonious and friendly to me.

The consensus masterpiece of course is Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979). I happened to grab it during the thick of my big-city jazz flowering and it was obvious: a session where everybody was in sync and on fire and Could. Not. Miss. I heard Blythe as a natural outgrowth of Ornette and still think the title track and “Odessa” in particular should have been at least semipopular hits. But it was not to be and jazz has never returned to the same certain path it once followed.

A consolidation of all his modes, Illusions (1980) completes my Arthur Blythe starter set. There’s lots more (love the Jack DeJohnette material — like The Leaders material). I was horrified to realize I had never picked up the live set Retroflection (Enja) and will correct that toot sweet.


Time Is By Your Side

Touching piece by Mark Caro on rediscovering Harold and Maude, and, well, the consistency of the self. (Which is rarely discussed because people are so fixated on how negative characteristics and attitudes can change for the better. Except they almost never do.) Have to add that I would be suspicious of the taste of any aesthetically-engaged person who rejected every favorite from youth — especially at least a couple that retained mixed reputations.

And the piece mentions Supertramp. Since almost nobody mentions Supertramp any more (which is part of my point), I should link back to a recent reply to a comment under a chuck Berry post. Supertramp were a key part of that false rock and roll trajectory. At the time, more than Journey more than Toto, Supertramp were supposed to be on the verge of becoming everybody’s all time faves — the step beyond prog. The hype machine was running on overdrive for those guys. But then scads and scads of people realized the ascendancy of Supertramp was something they all knew but didn’t believe or feel.

R.I.P.: Skip Williamson

Ace obit that includes lots of information new to me. I knew nothing about his personal life other than his political activism and he fell off my sightlines after the ’80s. His bizarre cause of death could be taken from a comic he drew. Snappy Sammy Smoot was one of the unforgettable clueless characters or Holy Innocent or what have you. His hair trip was a graphic triumph. And the obit ends with a quip from Williamson that is about the most rat-on exhortation from the ’60s demonstrations.

Guess Williamson and Jay Lynch had to leave about the same time so they could start up Celestial Bijou Funnies. Bet it’s better than ever.