The Velvet Underground

I remember a time before there was such thing as the Velvet Underground. It appears in my memory as a time before music, a time in my life before music was important, relevant, defining. And then, at some point when I was around nineteen, they took over my attention. The world was then divided into pre-Velvets and the contemporary world, a world in which Sweet Jane and Heroin were part of the landscape (soundscape?) There were always other groups, other music. There was Sonic Youth. They came before the VU, but were overshadowed and engulfed by their predecessors. There was (and is) Dylan, who had influenced the young Reed and has now outlived him, and whose songs (Memphis Blues Again, Visions of Johanna) were and are capable of inducing in my post-adolescent imagination something unique and hard to describe, something akin to influence. After those songs you are not the same again. They change you. The Velvets changed me. Patti Smith did, too, when I first heard Piss Factory. Marquee Moon changed me. Heart of Darkness. And all of them were indebted most to the Velvets and, perhaps less directly, Dylan. But it’s the VU I go back to, who’ve never left me. CDs, vinyl, cassettes, iPod, YouTube, streaming…I keep them close no matter where I am listening.
I remember a time when nobody I knew would listen to them. (They do now, of course.)
I miss you Lou.

What I’ve been reading

First, a lot of articles about reading: e-reading versus paper reading, are people losing their ability to read long, involved texts? is reading dead? That kind of thing. Also, books. E-books, paper books, whatever. I’ve finally opened my four-volume Montaigne from the Limited Editions Club (1946) and begun The Satanic Verses to see what all the hoopla was about firsthand. Montaigne is sobering and delightful; Rushdie is funny and surreal. I recommend both to anyone looking for a cure to monotony or ennui. I also read a lot of Dr. Seuss with my daughter. She loves Horton the Elephant.

I’m also trying to write again. As anyone can see, I’ve only written six posts in the last year. Now that I’m no longer writing my monthly column, I have no writing obligations. That means no writing. Say what you will about obligations, they do keep you doing things. So I’m trying to revive this blog which has spent two years gathering dust. (I think I’ve said this before.)

I’ve changed the look and feel of the blog. I’ve gotten rid of all the sidebar links (half of them linked to dead pages anyway) and images. There is a search bar and an archive for those who wish to go back and read what I’ve written since March 2009, when I started this blog. Gone, too, is the header. Now it’s just good old-fashioned text. That’s what writing has always been about, right?

Can friendship survive Facebook?

Anti-Semitic graffiti on a wall in Italy. 2014.

Until the most recent flare-up in Gaza, I had been conducting a kind of friendship experiment. Through a mutual interest group I had become friends with a woman who holds extremely negative views on Israel – and, as I would discover on Facebook, Jews as well.

I like to think my own views on Israel are moderate, and I suppose I wouldn’t shrink from the label “liberal Zionist.” Politically, I’m a liberal secularist. I’m a big fan of religious-political-sexual freedom and things like that. I’m not remotely conservative on any issue I can think of. I think the existence of Israel is a good thing for both Jews and non-Jews and have argued for years with those who hold the view that Israel is, well, not a good thing. So I guess that makes me a Zionist, too, though I don’t support the more hawkish positions of the Israeli right or fall for the seductive idea that “Israel is always right.” I admire people like Amos Oz. I seek a coherent, balanced position that doesn’t sacrifice my core beliefs. You get the idea.

So back to my friend. Early on in our friendship we realized it was going to be rough.  She would always make a point of sporting her keffyah every time we got together. We knew there was an elephant in the room. We generally avoided the topic of Israel, but at times we would very politely discuss this or that, trying oh-so-hard not to step on each others’ toes. One evening at dinner I noticed she had displayed a thank-you-for-your-support card from the Italy-Palestine Friendship Association prominently on the mantle. Did she want me to comment? If she did, I didn’t. It might’ve given her too much satisfaction and provided the perfect setup for the anti-Israel rant I knew was waiting to happen. Seeing as we enjoyed each other’s company (and, more importantly, the kids were best friends), it would’ve spoiled the soup. And, as this was an experiment – I believe on both our parts – to see if a friendship could weather such polarizing differences, I thought it best to avoid the topic whenever possible.

Facebook was another story, though. I tend to discuss politics ever more sparingly on Facebook precisely because that’s where friendships tend to go sour. Her feed, in contrast, was  a weapon in the propaganda war against Israel. I had decided to write her posts off as “we agree to disagree”, but when Operation Protective Edge erupted her page exploded in an uninterrupted feed of anti-Israel hatred.

It was all there, every meme from the Israelis-as-Nazis to the Apartheid Meme, from the Blood Libel to the Zionist World Conspiracy. There were calls to boycott Israeli products and articles by (nearly always Jewish) anti-Zionist authors denouncing genocide and ethnic cleansing. Worse, there were backhanded jibes at me (“Look how the Zionists excuse genocide”, snarkily linking an article I had posted a few minutes before), presumably in order to garner favor among her like-minded “friends.” So this is what it’s come to, I thought. Ad hominem attacks.

At first I thought the whole thing would blow over, but as the conflict persisted  her vitriol only worsened. I stopped following her posts. Out of sight, out of mind. Then one day my wife said, “Come see what she’s posted now,” and there was some article by Gideon Levy saying that Israel is just about the shittiest society on Earth. The comment to her post read something like, “What a sickening people. Levy is the only Jew you can trust.” She had “liked” the comment. I unfriended her without another thought. No phone call, no email, no explanation.

I still wonder if what I did was rash. I still want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I search my mind for reasons to excuse her. But when I consider the lengths to which I had gone to accommodate her ranting, and to ignore it for the sake of our friendship (or at least that of our daughters), I realize I did the only thing possible. We haven’t spoken since.

A failed experiment is still a successful experiment, however. You can still learn something from it. I think I learned that Facebook can undo friendships as easily as it can do them. Even the kind where you see people in real life and go to their houses and cook together and your kids are close friends. And I can tolerate political differences, however unsavory. That hasn’t changed. But I cannot and will not tolerate prejudice, racism, homophobia, misogyny or – yes – anti-Semitism. That’s graffiti that just won’t wash.

#instagrammaton

Bad blogger. As things stand I seem to update this blog about twice, maybe three times, a year. Every time I log in I find I need to reset my password. Half the blogs on my blogroll are defunct or have moved to classier digs. Whatever. I’ve been having fun on Instagram lately. You can follow me here: instagram.com/marcdimartino

Photo: Faucets.

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Carrot and eggplant latkes

I was doing some spontaneous culinary experimentation today and discovered that eggplant fits nicely into a traditional latke recipe. Just make sure to dice it or julienne it first, then add it to your favorite potato (and carrot!) amalgam and fry them babies up. Real Jewish comfort food! It’s Hanukkah-tzayt!

Goodbye, Lou

Ecstasy.
Ecstasy

Lou Reed died doing Tai Chi. The image is perfect. The man who enchanted me with his true-to-life tales of scoring dope, mainlining methamphetamine and dressing up as a woman passed away in the peace of his own home while practicing a meditative form of martial arts. (My own father suffered a heart attack in his home after jogging – his passion – while walking up the stairs to take a shower. At the time, Lou was promoting his New York album. They were born, for the record, a month apart in 1942: my father in Rome, Lou on Long Island.) The mind grasps for parallels, synchronicities, anything it can hold on to in order to make sense of loss.

I didn’t know Lou personally. I met him only once, briefly, at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City around 2000. I was working there and he came in to visit the owner Andy Brown. There were pictures in the hallway of parties the bookshop had hosted in its glory days. Among them was a picture of Andy and Lou from the mid ’70s, the decade Lou wasn’t supposed to have survived. I was in fanboy mode, and I think I just walked over to him and said something stupid like, “I’m a really big fan” and shook his hand. He was shorter than I’d imagined, but he filled the room with his presence. 

I saw Lou in concert in 1996 at the Beacon Theater touring for Set the Twilight Reeling. At the time I was so deeply in thrall of the Velvet Underground that I believe I wore wrap-around sunglasses to the evening concert. I did that sort of thing. (In college I had made a t-shirt out of Richard Hell’s “Please kill me” motto. I considered it performance art.)

One of the most astute comments I’ve read on Twitter about Lou’s passing – and there were thousands – was that so many people seem to have taken it so personally. A bit, I thought, like the day John Kennedy died. A little piece of the known world is gone. Lou himself was an excellent eulogizer. He left us unforgettable portraits of his mentors Delmore Schwartz and Andy Warhol, not to mention songs like “Halloween Parade” and albums like Magic and Loss. On the recent “Like a Possum”, Lou repeats adamantly – and mournfully – “I’m the only one left standing.” He knew from loss.

High and low
High and low

It was through Lou Reed that I discovered Schwartz and Ornette Coleman, doo-wop music and Lenny Bruce. It was like the various cultural strands of 20th century America somehow came together in him: black music and Jewish humor, rock and jazz, high art and drug culture, poetry and street talk, the exotic and the mundane. Somehow they found a new form of expression through this man and his music, which has in turn influenced pretty much everyone since. Because, in the end, it was a question of attitude. Lou was uncompromising in his art.

If I were to go into a list of songs and lyrics I love this post would turn into a book. There are already many of them written by more competent hands than mine. The internet is producing daily top ten lists, photos and paraphernalia so I won’t bother with that here. I just wanted to give a personal appreciation of Lou because his loss is (in his words) “like a hole in my heart the size of a truck.”

So thank you, Lou, and goodbye.

This post appeared in slightly altered form in The American.

Lost In Migration

lost_in_migration-Recently I’ve been getting addicted to Lumosity’s brain-training games. They’re a lot of fun and some of them are positively maddening. I find I don’t score very well on math-based games or games that test memory. At least, I don’t score as well as I do on other games like pattern-recognition or concentration exercises. One game I really like is called Lost In Migration, in which you have to swipe the screen (I use my phone) in the direction the middle bird is facing. This sounds simple, but the faster you try to go the more difficult it becomes.

I feel a lot like that middle bird, always flying in a different direction than its flock members, which is perhaps why this game appeals to me. I’ve been lost in migration many times. And so, apparently, have most of my friends.

Championship-Vinyl-la-boutique-de-disques-du-h-ros-de-High-Fidelity-
A certain kind of friendship.

It took me eight years in New York to begin to feel like I had a social network (to use a term that didn’t really exist then) of people called – loosely, then as now – friends. They were often people I worked with who more or less shared my interests and drank with me. That was the definition of “friend” in the late ’90s NYC I inhabited. There wasn’t much in the way of emotional support or secret-sharing, and social contact was pretty much limited to heated debates on the merits of Richard Hell’s post-Voidoids work or which Dylan bootlegs to even bother listening to. We were exactly like the record store guys in High Fidelity. But, hey, we were in our twenties!

When I left NY, I somehow thought it would stay the way I left it forever. But year after year all of my friends left, too. They moved to places like Amherst, Massachussetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Tampa, Florida and who knows where else. The only people I still know in NY are friends who came there after I left. The world I inhabited is gone.

Now the same thing is happening with my friends from Rome. It’s been 2 1/2 years since I moved  to Umbria and my social world has already been atomized. The birds have migrated once again to places like Dakar, Senegal; Brooklyn, NY; Los Angeles, California; Washington, D.C. A common mistake is to assume the migration process began with me and radiated outward. I just began noticing things in relation to myself, as most people tend to do. Now when I go back to Rome there are fewer and fewer people to see.

We’re all flying in different directions.

Long lost post

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Graffiti. Richmond, VA.

If anyone is still reading this blog – and the stats indicate that someone is – it may be surprising to see a new post. But wait. I have an explanation for why this blog slowed down in the last year and came to a standstill. I’ve been busy with work. So that’s it. 

I used to write a column in a magazine called the American, which I discontinued last month. I couldn’t keep up with that, either (yep, work). I wrote that column for over four years, every month, but in the end I began having trouble figuring out what to write about. I never really got much feedback from readers – there was no comments section – but since I stopped writing I’ve begun to hear things like, “I hope you’re still writing that column. I really enjoy reading your articles!” My mother even suggested I should collect them and make a little book. She’s so sweet.

The point being that if I ever find time I’ll probably begin writing this blog again. It’s my little space in which I can do what I want. I’ve put a lot of time into it since it began in 2009, and it’s a bit sad to see the last post dated 2012.

Who knows what I’ll be writing about, though. Atheism? Jewishness? Music? ELT? Maybe all those things, maybe more. Stay tuned.