Monday, October 26, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: I'LL NEVER WRITE MY MEMOIRS


Many years ago, at what was probably the zenith of her career, Grace Jones made an appearance on the Arsenio Hall show. The other guest was middleweight boxer Thomas Hearns. Jones was there to promote a movie, perhaps Vamp, or A View to a Kill.  Hearns, most likely was promoting a fight. Late in the show Jones brought her mother out and introduced her to the studio audience. Hearns, a gentleman, stood up and gave Jones’ mother a warm hug. Jones complained that she hadn’t received similar treatment. As the audience roared, Hearns grinned and said, “I got somethin’ for you later, baby.” Jones bared her large white teeth.  She looked as if she might reach over and devour Hearns whole, stopping only to spit out the glass jaw. 

That was Jones’ image in those days, that of the carnivorous man-killer, stomping her way from fashion modeling, to singing, to acting, as if her talents were too large to be contained in a single genre. In films, she’d gone toe-to-toe with Conan the Barbarian and James Bond. You don’t get to do that that unless your image reads: Amazonian eater of souls. 

The bulk of her highly readable new book, I’ll Never Write my Memoirs, has to do with dispelling that image, which she insists isn’t the real Grace, but a heightened version of herself that is both impossible to categorize and timeless.

She writes, “You can find images of me from centuries ago, faces that look like mine carved in wood from ancient Egypt, Roman times, the Igbo tribe of southern Nigeria, and sixteenth century Jamaica, fierce enough to turn people pale, to shrink their hearts.”

Funny, angry, earnest, and vulnerable, Jones keeps her age a mystery but is forthcoming about everything else. Writing with surprising ease and beauty, she tells the tale as she remembers it, sometimes fudging the timeframe because the year something happens isn’t as important as why or how. She creates a fascinating trip through four decades of her life and the pop culture, from the disco era of powder blue Rolls Royces and buckets of cocaine, to the AIDS-wracked 1980s, to her several brushes with controversy, including a number of nights spent in dirty jail cells, and the time she roughed up a British TV host. She also offers candid remarks about various colleagues, saving her most savage commentary for her longtime partner and hindrance, celebrity itself. 

The book, written with her journalist friend and frequent collaborator  Paul Morley, covers more than prickly showbiz trivia.  It’s also a heartfelt recounting of a black woman trying to define herself in an era where black female entertainers were supposed to look like Diana Ross and strive for a career in Las Vegas. It’s an inspiring howl from a human hurricane who shares the secrets of her hard work and her unique art. And it’s the frequently sad story of a woman who escaped an oppressive childhood of “serious abuse,” only to find herself constantly battling more oppression elsewhere. If it seems Jones pauses too often to congratulate herself on one triumph or another, it’s well-deserved. When you fight like she did against such incredible odds, it’s reasonable to step back and marvel at yourself. But then, Grace Jones has always been a one-woman victory parade.

Hardcore Jones fans, of course, will scour the pages for the naughty stuff, the sex, drugs, and scandal, the romance with Dolph Lundgren, for instance, and the “contagious, transgressive abandon” of disco’s early days. It’s all in there. But the book will also dazzle those who may think of Jones only as a cartoonish relic of the Studio 54 era. The book is that captivating, and well-told. 

Jones was always a visual performer, and her storytelling is filled with flourishes that nearly match the outlandish fashions she’s been known to wear. How much of this story was shaped by Morley is unknown, but it’s such a joy to read that it doesn’t matter. The collaboration results in a narrative that is both pointed and poetic. “Fireflies scatter into the night,” she writes after an outdoor sex romp, “each with its own incredible story to tell.” It’s as if Jones decided that even dishing on herself deserved the most thoughtful presentation. 

Though Jones devotes considerable attention to her artistic processes, it seems her proudest accomplishment was the gradual creation of the “Grace Jones” character, which she describes as “a little bit of Kabuki stillness, a warrior slash of drag debauchery, a dash of black humor, shoulders out of a gothic fantasy, and a load of tease.” Of course, she had help from designers, photographers, and producers, but the ultimate fruition of her character came from her own tangled depths. This great alter-ego she wore could only be hefted by a woman like Jones, “a snake with the upper body strength of a galley slave.” 

In these 21 chapters, we see Jones through every evolution of her being. There’s the tomboyish girl in Spanish Town, the girl who endured regular whippings by her sadistic step-grandfather, the girl who seemed suspicious of her very surroundings, including the giant moths that were allegedly the reincarnated spirits of ancient ancestors, the feral dogs roaming the streets, and the rough Rastas lurking “at the edge of vision, as tangible as phantoms…” There’s the girl who escaped to Philadelphia and became an acid dropping go-go dancer, a voracious sponge absorbing every experience imaginable. 

And later, the disco queen known for her outrageous costumes and hostile behavior. 

“The craziness was a fire I lit to keep danger at bay,” she writes.

Danger seemed everywhere, even in the underground clubs where she first became a star, where “it seemed like there were bodies on bodies, some of them so close they were penetrating each other, lubricated by their own sweat.” She conveys the exhausting rigors of performing, the heartbreaking failures at auditions, and the ongoing frustration at meeting men who’d fallen in love with her image but seemed less enamored of the real Grace, a woman content to sit at home and watch tennis on  television, or sprawl on the floor with a 1,000 piece puzzle. Her best relationships seem to have been with older male mentors, such as Chris Blackwell, the Island Records founder who was behind some of her best music. Mostly, the men in her life flaked out on her, grew egotistical. One held knives to her neck and threatened to cut off her head.

Of the movie years, when she starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Roger Moore, Jones recalls them as a fun time, though the film industry was “a motherfucking beast.” Casting directors didn’t know how to use her. When the movie roles dried up, she returned to music. By then, the music business thought of her as a golden oldie. A contract with Capital turned sour. And just like that, her heyday was over.

Fame’s hideous side was always apparent to Jones, and she’s spot on when she describes the antics at Studio 54 in the 1970s as “a harbinger of the haywire shamelessness of reality TV – minor celebrities fighting among minor celebrities to avoid losing their fame, demented role playing, the not so famous doing whatever it took to get some attention, the truly famous and aloof and immune watching it all as a kind of sport for their amusement.”

Though Jones, now a grandmother, remains busy with interesting projects, she’s earned a steady paycheck in recent years by appearing at corporate events. Apparently she jumps out of cakes, dressed as a leopard, or something along those lines. She cracks the bullwhip a few times, sings a couple of the old hits, and calls it a day. But don’t think of this as a comedown. To appear at these silly events, she demands to be put up for three days in the presidential suite of a 5-star hotel, and doesn’t perform unless she’s paid in advance. She once learned that a company had spent more on floral arrangements than they’d planned to pay her, so you can imagine how that went down. Once, when a group had failed to come up with her performance fee, a desperate woman offered Jones a newborn baby to hold as collateral until the money was raised. These anecdotes show the corporate world to be as silly and grotesque as the entertainment business. 

Jones’ observations of various friends and contemporaries are equally vivid. She writes that Andy Warhol “surrounded himself with action…as though he was more active than he actually was.” She describes model Jerry Hall as having “a head full of blonde hair and a mouth full of Dallas.” As for Lundgren, “People started to fill head with stuff because they saw a chance of making money with him, and he believed it.” She describes couples therapy as “satanic nonsense,” and pans women who undergo cosmetic surgery as “self-hating,” and being part of a “mass panic.” 

In the course of I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones also shares a lot about her family, a conservative lot of self-appointed Pentecostal bishops, in a surrounding of “Bible-black ugliness.” Much of her scowling stage presence, she reveals, is an aping of her horrific step-grandad. Yet, two of the book’s most moving chapters involve her return, in her adult years, to Jamaica, which she grew to appreciate, and a touching tribute to her father, a bishop who often felt backlash in his community because of Jones’ capers, as if her reputation was spitting out poison that reached all around the world. 

Jones also worries about current singers, from Lady Gaga to Kanye West. While acknowledging that many present-day performers have borrowed liberally from her, she wonders if they have her instincts for survival and reinvention. Her own story is littered with tales of suicide and accounts of friends who were mysteriously “swallowed up.” Jones doubts the new generation possesses her own tough hide, and fears there are many more casualties to come.

One of this electrifying book’s many strong points is Jones’ ability to describe the madness that comes with fame, and how it slowly eats one from the ankles up. Whether you’re being mobbed by admirers, or simply gawked at by a few dozen devotees in a sweaty club, there’s something categorically ghoulish about it. The only good thing about being famous, Jones declares, is that you can meet other famous people and discuss how awful it can be.

“When you walk through that door, through to other side, where there is fame, you cannot believe how different it is,” she writes. Fame, she says, “passes through you as you pass through.”

 
- Don Stradley


 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

LOVE & MERCY...

Love & Mercy Movie Review


Brian Wilson has been shoved down my throat for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories, in fact, have less to do with sitting on my mother’s knee or playing in a crib, than with some sort of ‘Brian is Back!’ campaign.  There were late night television spots peddling the Best of the Beach Boys, and the annual Labor Day marathons of Beach Boys music on my favorite local oldies station WRKO, which was always a nice way  to signal the end of the summer.  And of course, there are memories of Brian shambling through random talk show appearances.  Did he really appear on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin to talk about meditating? I seem to remember that.  There was even a vintage appearance on the early days of NBC Saturday Night, where a fat, bearded Wilson sat a piano and croaked out ‘Good Vibrations’. Audiences were probably wondering what the fuss was about. This nervous looking giant was supposed to be a heavenly mixed cross between Phil Spector and George Gershwin. He looked like a homeless man. All he needed was a cardboard sign around his neck: Will Harmonize For Food.  

The comeback unfolded properly many years later. In the 2000s, Wilson seemed to blossom into the “Brian Wilson” we’d all hoped to see. He performs in concert, he records new music, he seems alert enough to appreciate his place in music history, and to the great relief of many, me included, he can still hit the high notes. Most of them, anyway.  There’s something deliciously romantic about a pop star who loses his mind but not his voice. 

The Wilson story, filled as it is with 1960s music biz lore, sadistic father figures, diabolical self-help gurus, and a  fractured family saga, is catnip for biographers and filmmakers. We’ve already had several movies and documentaries, the best being a four-hour drama from VH1 in 2000 called The Beach Boys: An American Family. The story is so big, so sprawling, that only pieces of it can be told at a time. It’s so big that Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy needed two actors to play Wilson, with Paul Dano as the young, insecure Brian, and John Cusack as the older shell-shocked Brian. The screenplay, culled as much from Wilson folklore as from the various biographies, jumps back and forth in time, which isn’t a bad idea (and face it, the Wilson story has been told so many times that it’s becoming redundant) but Pohland and his writers never figure out how Wilson went from being a fun-loving, slightly neurotic kid genius to a paranoid shut-in. Instead, they try to distract us with what seem like key moments from the Wilson playbook: his nervous breakdown onboard a plane; his struggles to make 'Pet Sounds' and 'Smile', his two masterpieces; his first LSD experience;  the piano in the sandbox.  But the scenes, though masterfully recreated, feel empty, like a pageant, rather than a story. These scenes are interspersed with scenes of the older Brian struggling in the grip of Dr. Eugene Landy, the crackpot who kept Brian overly sedated for nearly two decades. The latter part of the story would’ve made a fine movie in itself, particularly when Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter, a kindhearted woman who comes between Wilson and Landy, but the shifting back and forth kills any drama. It’s an amusing technical trick, but not especially moving.

Now and then, when Pohland can stop showboating long enough to tell the story, a short scene hits hard. On one of his first dates with Melinda, Wilson describes being spanked by his father, pounding his fist into his palm and screaming, as if someone were being killed. “My dad,” he says, “was a hard guy to please.” The moment shows the hell Brian endured as a child, and it’s also one of the few times where Wilson isn’t played for laughs. (The audience I was with tittered at almost everything he said, as if Wilson were not mentally damaged, but merely a lovable eccentric.) Another moment, where the older Wilson sits zombie-like at his piano while Landy screams at him, is shockingly blunt. But Pohland pulls away when he should dive in. I guess he's got to keep those good vibes happening.

Cusack never really seems like Brian Wilson, though he’s believable as a frightened man stuck in a hellish situation. As the younger Brian, Dano gives a fair presentation of a young man trying to share his genius with the world before he goes entirely batty. But both Dano and Cusack fall into the same trap that all actors fall into when playing Brian – they portray him as a big crybaby. Do actors not know the difference between "childlike" and "childish"? The other band members are just stick figures, not worth mentioning. Much better is Paul Giamatti, playing Landy with the fervor of a silent screen villain. Giamatti succeeds because Landy’s motives are clear: Wilson was his cash cow and he wasn’t giving him up with a hell of a fight.  Less clear is Melinda. Though nicely played by Elizabeth Banks, it’s never quite clear why she would take such a liking to Wilson. As portrayed in this movie, he’s nuts. If he wasn’t wealthy, would she have tried so hard to free him from Landy? Granted, we aren’t supposed to think of her this way; she's the hero of the piece, and Wilson has seemingly flourished as her husband.

Though the movie never drills deeply enough, as if Pohland feared exposing the whole truth about Wilson’s descent (or perhaps feared the wrath of Landy), there are some moments of absolute splendor, especially during the recreations of the ‘Pet Sounds’ era. Dano is fortunate in that he gets to play Wilson at his happiest, and the music, as always, is beautiful. Unfortunately, Pohland gets too cute. A scene near the end where Wilson searches for his childhood home only to see that it’s been razed is as heavy-handed as a high school girl’s  memoir. Pohland's worst crime, though, is the turgid bit where the elder Wilson confronts his younger self in his bed. There’s even a small child version of Wilson, and the scene keeps shifting from the kid, to Dano, to Cusack. Child is father to the man, what? The scene is bad enough to negate the good work that came before it. With any luck, the real Brian Wilson fell asleep in the theater before he saw this scene, otherwise he’d run crying back into the care of Dr. Landy.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: M TRAIN by Patti Smith...


Patti Smith and her husband Fred used to fantasize about producing their own midday talk show. It was to be Fred’s show, really. He’d drink beer and talk about aviation and invite B-list actors like Cliff Robertson to be his guests. Patti would arrive for a segment called The Coffee Break, which she hoped would be sponsored by Nescafe. She’d invite the viewers to join her and make their own cups of hot joe, but rather than engage them or take phone calls, she’d simply sit there and talk to Fred. Still, she was happy to know you were out there, enjoying your coffee as she enjoyed hers. This playful sense of ‘Join me, but keep your distance’ permeates M Train,  her elegant, moving new memoir. 

In some ways, M Train is an improvement on her well-received first memoir, Just Kids, though it may not appeal to as many readers. Just Kids was about young love and youthful exuberance, a fairly traditional memoir told in a fairly traditional way. M Train is about a woman nearing 70, a careworn widow with an aura of sadness around her, who can create a tight mosaic of words and thoughts, gliding from one topic to another, from her favorite café to Jean Genet’s grave, from her love of Sylvia Plath, to her love of detective programs, done so smoothly  that you may not even notice that Smith has quietly erected a small masterpiece. Patti Smith is, after decades of flirting with it, finally approaching something like genius. 

The trick, though to call M Train a trick is like calling Saint Joan of the Stockyards a trick, is that she makes you think she’s writing about coffee, or traveling, or visiting cemeteries, but she’s actually doing a kind of elliptical rain dance, summoning nothing less than God’s silence. That’s exactly what she hears when, in a moment of dire loneliness, she calls out to her long dead husband Fred: “You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back.” It’s a heartbreaking instant, one of a dozen or so slipped unexpectedly into the story’s weave. 

She can fool you, though. She’ll leave openings, as if the book is a dialog and not a monolog. When she mentions a certain childhood memory, you’ll find yourself back in your own childhood. I found myself wanting  to show her my old toy box, and woo her with a wind-up tin bird from my pre-school days. She’d sit and watch as I turned the key and set the bird pecking across the floor. She’d marvel at its yellow chest and orange beak.

- It’s beautiful, she’d say.

- It’s yours, I’d say. If you want it.

You have to remind yourself that it’s her story, not yours.  Of course, you’ll eventually understand this, because many of the topics are unique to her, such as her membership in the Continental Drift Club, a small, secret society dedicated to the remembrance of scientist/explorer Alfred Wegener. She has nothing in common with the other members, and was only granted membership after she’d written several letters to the Alfred Wegener Institute, hoping to find a living heir who would grant her permission to photograph Wegener’s boots. See? Her story, not yours. Just when you think she’s just a regular gal feeding her cats, she’s suddenly in Iceland, singing Buddy Holly songs with neurotic chess wizard Bobby Fischer. 

Photographs from Smith’s personal collection punctuate various chapters of the book, and some of them are fascinating: a guardian angel statue from a cemetery in Berlin; the crutches used by Frida Kahlo;  Virginia Woolf’s walking stick; a picture of Patti as a child; pictures of Fred. It’s the writing, though, that stuns. It feels breezy, but is actually dense with thoughts and ideas, and poetry. Nothing is off limits. “I hate being confined,” she writes, “especially when it’s for my own good.” She’s referring to airplane seatbelts, but she may as well be commenting on her galloping intellect. 

Late in the book Smith fears that she wouldn’t make a good detective like her heroes on television. “I’m not the observant type,” she writes. “My eyes seem to roll within.” Yet, that’s not the real reason. The reason she couldn’t be a detective is because she’d rather BE a puzzle than solve one. She’s secretive. Rather than spill her guts, she’ll spill the contents of her suitcase, letting us search for clues, as if we can learn something about her by knowing what she packs for a trip. She can’t be a detective because her nature is less about solving the mystery of others, than to leave traces of herself, like a thief on the run in 1930s Algiers. We covet these morsels. We kid ourselves that we know something about Patti Smith because we know she loves brown toast with olive oil. But we don’t know her. She’s been doing this sort of cerebral fan dance for decades, and she’s mastered it. 

This sense of mystery has been a key to Smith’s writing over the years – she never quite shows her entire hand, preferring to funnel her thoughts through those of Genet and Burroughs and various other saints and sinners. She puts herself in the role of student, rather than master. Case in point: When in Japan she begins thinking of Ryunosuke Akutagawa and his “devoted acolyte” Osama Dazai, two writers who committed suicide. She wants to write something about the elder, but can’t channel him. Instead, not surprisingly, she writes about the disciple, whose “spirit seemed to be everywhere, like a haunted jumping bean.” Her natural affinity for the follower has always given her juice. When other young women were writing about the pains of romance, she was writing paeans to Rimbaud; she was happy, ecstatic even, to play Robin to every great poet’s Batman. But even her humility is a kind of disguise. She’s great and she knows it, and she wants us to know it. That’s why she describes the recovery after Hurricane Sandy as “a truly daunting task, like piecing together the shattered mandolin of Bill Monroe.” You don’t name drop the leader of the Blue Grass Boys unless you’re going for the kill.

M Train is not without imperfections. The book’s recurring motif about an old cowboy who appears in Smith’s dreams, for instance, feels forced. I suppose the cowpoke, who offers Smith cryptic advice, was a kind of stand-in for her old paramour and occasional collaborator Sam Shepard (the book is dedicated “To Sam”). The cowboy feels a bit Shepardish, maybe a conscious effort to break up the Smithian riffs on art and love and survival, something distinctly dusty and American to offset her own far-flung musings. But these off moments are rare, akin to when a skillful boxer throws a sloppy haymaker to amuse the rabble in the cheap seats. The cowboy interludes are quick, and she’s soon back to her beautiful, understated style, like when she tells about a taxi driver caught harboring a man in the trunk of his cab, “curled up like a slug in a rusting conch shell.” 

What’s the book about, you wonder? It’s about all the good stuff that rattles us in the wee wee hours, namely, the magic and loss that good ol’ Lou Reed used to sing about. It’s about aging, and memories, and of course, death. Smith has been hanging around cemeteries and adoring dead authors for so long that she practically wears death like an accessory. But the book isn’t morbid. Death, in M Train, is like our final dance partner, waiting at the side of the gymnasium, grinning shyly, knowing that we will eventually dance a long slow one with him. He’ll pick the time, but with luck, we’ll pick the song. 

But if Smith can write about death without turning morose, there is still a bit of melancholy that covers the book like a layer of gauze. She’s never written much about the death of her husband Fred in 1994, but in M Train we get some glimpses. For my money, Patti and Fred Smith were the real John and Yoko, involved in a true partnership of souls. If for no other reason, M Train is memorable in that it’s the first time Smith has shared some thoughts about her “human angel from Detroit…with eyes the color of water,” her husband then, now, and always. Still, she doesn’t rub our faces in her sorrow over losing him. In such seamless writing,  too many intimate revelations would throw off the delicate balance she’s achieved. What we get is something artful, as if she’s telling us about Patti and Fred by showing us the footprints where they’d once walked.

 
- Don Stradley

Monday, October 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: STREET POISON


New bio tells the sordid tale of iconic writer...but was he really so great?
by Don Stradley

Iceberg Slim, the former pimp turned author, was troubled by nightmares throughout his life. The one that haunted him most involved a bunch of prostitutes groveling at his feet. With his dagger sharp pimp shoes, he’d start kicking them to death. As they thrashed around on the ground like dying chickens,  Jesus would appear and offer Iceberg Slim a whip to finish off the final whore. As Slim lashed away, he realized that the woman was his mother, knee deep in a river of blood. He would always wake up at this point, filled with horror and guilt. Iceberg Slim allegedly harbored profound guilt feelings over his pimping career, especially since his mother was such a religious woman. Conversely, it was his mother’s affair with a lowlife hustler that brought Slim to the conclusion that women were easily manipulated. Yet, Slim loved his mother. This lifelong quandary, and the fact that such well-known black figures as Mike Tyson and Ice-T have praised Slim’s novels, makes him a nice candidate for a detailed biography.  

There are plenty of gruesome details in Justin Gifford’s Street Poison, The Biography of Iceberg Slim, but for every horrific moment of Slim’s life, Gifford pauses the action to tell us about the importance of it all, or to dryly recite a black history lesson, just to show how the mighty Iceberg Slim rose above the racial climate of the day. A bit of this would go a long way, but Gifford blurs the line between biographer and cheerleader, dulling some of the book’s edges. Also, though Gifford tries to separate fact from fiction, he allows some rather fantastic stories to go unchecked. The dream about Slim whipping his mother, for instance, sounds like something contrived by Slim to amuse gullible readers, but Gifford lets it stand as gospel.

Born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. on August 4, 1918, and later known as Robert Beck,  Iceberg Slim’s spent his formative years in Milwaukee. While his mother worked as a beautician, the youngster spent many afternoons admiring the various black pimps and whores sauntering in and out of her shop. At a time when blacks wielded no influence, pimps had fat bankrolls, dressed like cartoon kings, and drove Duesenbergs. Slim yearned for his own stable of foxy whores. By his teen years he’d embarked on a life of petty theft and rape, served time in reformatories, and ran with notorious characters with names like Albert “Baby” Bell, and Joe “Party Time” Evans. Slim listened and learned.

In 1941, barely 23 but thoroughly poisoned by the streets, Slim landed in Chicago with the intention of being a top pimp. Though he was occasionally overwhelmed by older whores who were simply too vicious for him, he was soon one of the reigning pimps in the city.

Pimping was his calling. Even later, when he was nearly 70 and had long retired from the street to pursue his writing career, there were rumors that he was still pimping on the side. He always dressed the part, showing up for events and interviews dressed like he was still in the game, favoring loud shirts and “an electric pink suit that looked like aluminum foil.” Betty Mae Shew, a kindhearted Texas woman who became Slim’s common law wife, not only helped type his manuscripts, but also created his civilian pimp wardrobe, including the cloth mask and goggles he wore on the old Joe Pyne show to maintain his sense of mystery.

Gifford, an associate professor of English literature at the University of Nevada, has written previous books on black pulp writers and African American crime fiction. He researched the hell out of Slim, and sharply portrays Slim’s mercurial nature. Slim was a milk drinker who went to bed early, yet he was also a junkie. He spent more than two decades manipulating women, yet, he felt awkward on his first date with Betty Mae. His career defining debut memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, came about because he’d grown too old for the game and needed some income. It was the long suffering Betty Mae who convinced him to sell the gory tales of his past to a publisher. An avid reader and autodidact, the aging pimp pursued writing with the same fervor that helped him master the pimp life. There’s a joyous scene in Street Poison where advance copies of his first book arrive in the mail, inciting Betty Mae to dance around their tiny home in celebration. When the money started to come in, Slim bought a 1948 Lincoln, a Great Dane named Leana, and a mink coat for Betty. Once a pimp…

Undoubtedly, Iceberg Slim had some impact as a writer. One of his books, Trick Baby, was turned into a movie during Hollywood’s Blaxploitation era. Slim was soon in demand as a lecturer, and even recorded a spoken word album backed by the Red Holloway Quartet, which supposedly influenced a future generation of hip-hop artists. Still, it’s difficult to tell if Gifford exaggerates Slim’s influence, because the author loves hyperbole. Not only does he resort to gross exaggeration when he describes the Trick Baby movie as “a major blockbuster film,” but he claims Slim’s writing brought on “cataclysmic change.” That’s a mighty bold statement about an author whose books were sold in barbershops. 

What’s admirable is that Slim managed to be a success in two different careers. Most people barely make it in one field, never mind two. Slim’s reputation was such that Tyson used to visit him back in the 1980s and ask for advice about women (we all know how that worked out). But just as quickly as Tyson fell from grace, so did Slim. He was constantly at odds with his publisher, an outfit called Holloway House. (They went from publishing biographies of Jayne Mansfield, to pornography, to black authors, in that order, which says a lot.) Slim decided he’d rather not publish under Holloway’s banner than risk being ripped off. Suddenly, unable to attract other publishers, he was broke. His womanizing cost him the love of Betty Mae, who sold the mink coat and split. Though he found another woman to marry, Slim lived his final years in L.A., an isolated and sickly man peering out of his bedroom window with binoculars. He continued to write, though, long, ultraviolent crime fantasias that Gifford reckons are some of Slim’s best work. Iceberg Slim was, in the end, a writer. So he wrote. Even as old age pummeled him, he wrote.

Gifford covers a lot of ground, but he’s too smitten by Iceberg Slim’s rendition of life on the streets, where black men taunted each other with vulgar poems, killed each other, went to prison or went crazy, while black whores became heroin addicts and wielded enormous knives. Everyone in Slim’s world seems a hiccup away from homicide. Or suicide. When Gifford isn't feverishly recounting Slim's morbid past, he's  telling readers about the struggle of blacks in America. How many times does he tell us that blacks were mistreated and had difficulty finding jobs? I lost count. 

Of course, some of the historical stuff is interesting. Did you know that Chicago had such a big rat problem in 1940 that the city destroyed 30 tons of vermin in a citywide anti-rat campaign?  I also liked learning about Slim’s first common law wife, a tough gal named “No Thumbs Helen” who eventually was locked away for murder. Yet, Gifford comes off as the sort of green academic who is fascinated by the gloomier aspects of the poor. Gifford is correct when he praises Slim for chronicling “new and original visions of black underworlds that few have seen and lived to write about.” Yet, Gifford seems to relish these tales of poverty and lowdown sex the way Bob Ripley collected shrunken heads.

Gifford’s insistence that Iceberg Slim was a genius is tough to digest. Gifford uses examples of Slim’s prose to impress us, but they sound cumbersome and purple. Slim was not a great writer. He was a hardworking, intelligent  guy who came along just as Holloway House was willing to take a chance on an unproven black author. As for pimping, Gifford depicts Slim as a kind of master psychologist, which is another hard sell, since the success of a pimp relies on the simple knowledge that people are oversexed and stupid.

Even so, Iceberg Slim remains a fascinating character. Maybe he’s not, as Gifford pleads, “One of the most influential renegades of the twentieth century,” but he was one of a kind. Dig?  He’d probably be amused that a white professor has written his biography, though it’s hard to forget Slim’s quote about Chicago’s South Side. “The only white men I saw,” said Slim, “were white men riding in cars looking for black pussy.”

- Don Stradley


Thursday, October 8, 2015

TFD PRESENTS THE HORROR ICON SERIES - Vol. 1 - Bela Lugosi



With the Halloween season upon us, there's no better time to celebrate the films of Bela Lugosi. That's him in the photo above, about to enter the Film Detective's special vault where many of his old classics are stored.  He's heard that they've been remastered and look better than ever. We have so many Lugosi features that poor Bela isn't sure where to begin,  but here are six to get you started...


THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG  (1934)
Out of the night creeps a shadow, striking terror into the heart of Chinatown!  Bela Lugosi plays a sinister character in this thriller from Monogram Pictures.  Poverty Row ace William Nigh directs a tale of kidnapping and intrigue, with a cast that includes Wallace Ford (Freaks, Shadow of a Doubt) as a wiseguy reporter who falls into the diabolical clutches of the menacing Wong, a man driven mad by his lust for power! "Lugosi," reported Variety upon the film's release, "despite a marked Slavic accent, clicks impressively as an Oriental menace..."

This was Lugosi’s fourth film of 1934. The others were The Black Cat, Gift of Gab, and The Return of Chandu…
 

THE DEVIL BAT (1940)
Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking DEATH Dives from MIDNIGHT SKIES! A deranged scientist (Bela Lugosi) develops an aftershave lotion that incites his gigantic bats to kill! Director Jean Yarbrough (House of Horrors, She-Wolf of London) guided Lugosi to one of his most fiendish performances in a film that turned out to be a big hit for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC).  This movie may not stop you from shaving, but it will make you crave more horrors from Hollywood’s poverty row!  

Boosted by Lugosi’s presence, this was the first, and most successful, horror film from PRC after it was formed from the failed Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). Boosted by Lugosi’s presence, this was the first, and most successful, horror film from PRC after it was formed from the failed Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). Of course, it wasn't universally revered - a critic from the Oakland Tribune wrote, "The story is whacky and the production and acting is pretty ghastly. When the cinema begins to sink, it can do so with a vengeance. This baby dropped into the artistic sea without a trace."  Meanwhile, Lugosi biographer Richard Bojarski noted that the film may now be seen as "camp", but that Lugosi "managed a credible, brooding performance..." 
 

THE INVISIBLE GHOST  (1941)
Out of the darkness comes the ear-piercing cry of a terrified girl...

Bela Lugosi headlines this creepy thriller about an influential man who becomes a bloodthirsty maniac after being deserted by his wife. Director Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo) elevates this low budget potboiler into something memorable. As one film historian noted of Lewis' work, there was always "an operating intelligence through even the most trivial of circumstances." Aided by veteran cinematographers Harvey Gould and Marcel Le Picard,  Lewis creates the perfect atmosphere for this tale of a murderer who strikes in the night and leaves no clues. Though the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the plot as “a little ridiculous,” the paper’s nameless critic admitted the film gave Lugosi “an opportunity to make some of his best spine-chilling faces…”

First of nine films made by Bela Lugosi under contract with Sam Katzman for Monogram Pictures...


THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942)
KIDNAPPED BRIDES Are The Victims Of His Terror! Prepare to shudder when you see the strange practices of this doctor who sacrificed beautiful women for the sake of a mad love! One of the definitive horror features from Monogram Pictures, Lugosi stars as  a mad scientist who injects his aging wife with fluids from virginal young brides in order to preserve her beauty. Considered one of the best of Lugosi’s films for Monogram, this film’s plot bears a very loose resemblance to the true story of Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious “Blood Countess” who’d ordered the death of hundreds of girls in order to bathe in their blood. Lugosi shines as “the keeper of the grotto of torture,” while the rest of the cast includes Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, the small but sinister Angelo Rossitto, and the always mysterious Elizabeth Russell as Countess Lorenz. The New York Evening Post noted, "Mr. Lugosi smirks and menaces in his best style, but the game is familiar." Well, we would hope so...


Producer Sam Katzman never met a genre he couldn’t exploit. While he spent most of the 1930s and 40s overseeing low budget titles for the likes of Lugosi and the Bowery Boys, as well as a series of jungle features that earned him the nickname “Jungle Sam”, he later moved on to sci-fi schlock like It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. He also jumped on the youth market and pumped out several rock & roll/drag racing titles, eventually graduating to producing films for Elvis Presley, including Harum Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins.  Katzman once said, “Lord knows I'll never make an Academy Award movie, but then I am just so happy to get my achievement plaques from the bank every year.” 

ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944)
YOU'LL DIE SCREAMING WITH...Laughter!
This murder mystery will give you as many chuckles as chills!  Horror icon Bela Lugosi stars along with Jack Haley (The Wizard of Oz) and Jean Parker (Little Women) in a tale of missing bodies, insurance schemes, and creepy mansions. It’s all presented with a sinister twist by director Frank McDonald (Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back).  Variety reported, "...good suspense throughout."

One of 73 movies produced by Pine-Thomas Productions between 1941 and 1957…

 

SCARED TO DEATH (1947)
A Thrilling Mystery of A Supernatural Killer!
The only color film to star Bela Lugosi was this mystery thriller from director Christy Cabanne (The Mummy’s Hand) made for the short-lived Golden Gate Pictures during the early months of 1946. Though the New York Evening Post dubbed this feature "1947's worst movie," we love the Post critic's assessment that it was "the kind of simplified nightmare an idiot child might have after ten years of seeing nothing but horror movies."


Lugosi plays Professor Leonide, a cagy character who may have had something to do with the death of a young woman. The woman, by the way, happens to be telling the tale from a slab at the morgue! George Zucco, Molly Lamont, and Joyce Compton also star, as well as Angelo Rossitto, (Freaks) as a menacing dwarf with a habit of stepping on Lugosi’s foot!


Zucco, well-known for playing aristocratic creeps, replaced an ailing  Lionell Atwill in the role of Dr. Joseph Van Ee…


All of these movies are available through thefilmdetective.com, where vintage movies are restored, remastered, and reborn. Follow us on Twitter @FilmDetective


Or follow me at @DonStradley

Monday, October 5, 2015

THE MARTIAN...


 The Martian Movie Review


The Martian shows us where movies are as we approach 2016.  Technically, it’s amazing. But the acting? Not much different than what you can see in an ordinary television series. The opening shows us an expedition on Mars being pummeled by a horrific storm. The crew, believing one of their members has been killed by flying debris, aborts their mission and heads back to Earth. They are unaware that the supposedly dead crewmate, botanist Mark Watney, has actually survived. The poor guy wakes up after the storm to find himself alone on Mars.

Watney makes the best of a dire situation. After cauterizing his wounds with what looks like a NASA version of the BeDazzler, he methodically goes about the business of survival, which includes using his own feces to fertilize a makeshift potato patch. He occasionally records his thoughts  in a sort of video diary. He’s smart, and mildly witty; if we have to watch a guy grow taters on Mars, we could do worse than Watney.

You see, Watney is not merely an astronaut.  He’s a fictional hero, which means he’s stoic and cheeky and self-deprecating. He’s smart enough to create his own water, but he’s also earthy enough to take a swig of his space juice and grumble, “Fuck you, Mars.” Now and then he shows his contemplative side, saying that he doesn’t mind giving his life for something so big and beautiful,  and he gets a big kick out of climbing a hill on Mars and realizing he’s the  only human to have done it. But these moments are fleeting.  The movie keeps cutting back to Earth, where stiff NASA employees argue about the best way to cover up this blunder, and then, in a series of scenes that are surprising dull and long, these same suits debate the best way to rescue Watney, building up to cheesy moments where someone shouts, “Bring our astronaut home!” and “Let’s go get him!” 

Though Watney intermittently appears worn out by his ordeal, there’s no real sense of what’s going on in his mind. Is he terrified? Is he depressed? We never know. He’s intent on staying busy, and we’re to believe that his determination to solve his problems is what keeps his emotions in check. Later in the film he says that if you solve enough problems, you can get back home. That’s fine for a NASA bumper sticker, but it’s not especially dramatic.  Director Ridley Scott seemed to enjoy the challenge of having no alien menace to upset Watney, but after sitting through several equipment breakdowns and multiple close-ups of Watney eating potatoes,  I began yearning for that one-eyed giant that once terrorized the Robinsons on 'Lost in Space'. The planet Mars, which looks like a pink-hued version of northern Israel, is a marvel, but after the initial storm scene it’s not much of an adversary. In fact, for the rest of the movie it appears to be a bright, sunny place, all the better to see Watney’s glittering space suit. He looks suspiciously like Iron Man, which was probably by design, and late in the movie he even compares himself to Iron Man. And like Robert Downey Jr, Watney grows increasingly glib. By the time Watney poses for a photo like the Fonz giving a thumbs up, we realize we’re trapped in a movie that can’t stop itself from being cute.

The real flaw in The Martian is the way it uses its supporting cast. A dozen or so competent actors, including Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig,  seem to be acting in a cornball HBO series. These NASA characters are supposed to be among the brightest people in America, yet they speak in a sort of TV hipster slang (“We need air, you know, to keep us from not dying.”)  There’s even the obligatory African American nerd (Donald Glover) who is apparently very bright, but sleeps on a couch covered in rubbish and falls down a lot, presumably for comic effect. Wiig, as a media expert, is fidgety and flighty. Are we to believe that NASA hires such ninnies?  The astronauts, played by a collection of bright, attractive actors, seem too callow for the Mars gig. It’s as if the cast of 'Friends' has been sent to save Watney. Only Sean Bean, as one of the NASA workers on Earth, rises above the weak script.

The cinematography by veteran Dariusz Wolski can almost overcome the film’s Lifetime network dialog and clichéd characters. Any scene where Watney wanders across the barren planet is breathtaking, and makes one almost weep for the movie that could’ve been. A man alone in the heavens deserves better than a running gag about disco music.

What, more than anything, saves The Martian from being just another expensive piece of bubblegum is the portrayal of Watney by Matt Damon. Somehow, Damon takes the usual character he plays, that of the smart, feisty mutt, and makes a believable astronaut surviving on a strange planet. Along with the Martian scenery, he is the film’s redeeming factor. There’s a memorable scene where he fixes his land rover for a trip that will take over 50 days. He smiles as he rides along, and with nothing more than the way he settles into his seat, he makes us feel the way we do when embarking on any long, uncertain venture. Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, and he conveys this with just minimal body language. It’s a brilliant, beautiful scene. The movie could’ve used five or six more just like it. Instead, The Martian doesn’t trust itself. It is compelled throughout to trade in the beauty of Mars for something drearily earthbound.

 

Friday, October 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW...

Changing The Way I Look At Wayne Dyer
Is it OK to only believe part of a man's message?
by Don Stradley

Dr. Wayne Dyer lost me at around page 225 of his autobiography I Can See Clearly Now. That’s when he’s running a marathon in Greece and suddenly falls from exhaustion.  He’s quite descriptive of the event, talking about how he was lying on the side of the road, “shaking and vomiting green bile,” and how other collapsed runners were being dragged off to ambulances. Then, with the same matter of fact style that had made the previous chapters a good and insightful read, Dyer writes that an invisible female presence took shape before him.  Dyer calls her a “supernatural metaphysical visitor.” Her says her name is “Eykis”,  and that “her eyes are radiant and seem to smile at me while she speaks.” This Eykis character encourages Dyer to get up and finish the race. He does so, even yelling “We conquer!” as he crosses the finish line. Dyer claims Eykis visits him all the time, guiding him. He calls it “angelic assistance.” 

Eykis isn’t his only friend from another world. At various times in I Can See Clearly Now, a book Dyer wrote in 2014 to show how various events in his life shaped him, Dyer shares his fascination with St Francis of Assisi. Now, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but Dyer also talks about  how, during a “past life regression,” he saw himself “living as, or with” St. Francis. I wondered what it must be like to live your life with that in your mind, to think that, indeed, you used to be St Francis. Or his roommate. Later in the book, Dyer describes a moment in a castle in San Damiano where he’s assisting a man with muscular dystrophy up an impossibly high and narrow stairway. Suddenly, Dyer’s bad knee gives out and he falls. A vision of St. Francis appears, not only to give Dyer the energy to get to the top of the stairway, but curing his bum knee in the process. Dyer describes it as “a genuine miracle.” 

This business about angels and past life memories has been going on for a while. My neighborhood seems to attract a lot of spooky types who read tarot cards, and set up shops where they give “psychic readings.” I live right along the ocean, you see, and I think the water attracts these people. They don’t bother me one way or the other. Most of them are friendly. Olivia, a  woman in her late 50s who supports her psychic reading gig with a dog-walking business, firmly believes that angels are all around us. Olivia is occasionally visited by a male angel. He once disrobed in front of her; she claimed he had the legs of a shot putter. 

“You have an angel right behind you,” Olivia told me one afternoon.

“I do?”

“Yes. An older woman.”

“What is she wearing, so I recognize her.”

“You’ll never see her,” Olivia said. “But she wants you to cheer up. There’s a grey fog all around you, and she wants to help you see past it.”

I sensed I was about to be charged for fog removal, so I eased the conversation in another direction. Still, I know all types. There’s a  woman who comes to the neighborhood every summer and sits in the corner of Olivia’s shop and draws pictures of people. She uses a plain white sheet of paper and a crayon. You sit and pose for her, and she draws. She draws like a fifth grader. Then she squiggles some lines above your picture, says that your aura looks great, and charges you $60.00. She talks about angels all the time. She cornered me once and talked my ears off about it. I think she was trying to get me to sit for a picture. I didn’t take the bait, but I ended our conversation by saying, “I hope I see an angel someday.” 

Then why was I so disappointed when Dyer mentioned his romps with Eykis and St. Francis? It was as if he’d taken a useful, straight forward memoir and shoved it clear into the twilight zone. 

We couldn’t escape Dyer in the old days. His first book, Your Erroneous Zones, hit the country like a megaton bomb. I remember seeing it in grocery stores, stacked next to L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.  I didn’t know what his book was all about. I thought it was about female body parts. Later I learned it was a self-help book, groundbreaking in its day for being written in simple English. It was, Dyer writes, “a guide for cutting through a lifetime of emotional red tape.” The best part of I Can See Clearly Now is the chapter about Dyer’s Herculean effort to promote Your Erroneous Zones. He traveled the country, booking himself into any little radio station that would interview him. He’d buy up any available copies of the book to force the publisher into a second printing, then a third. Dyer was a tireless self-promoter, filled with astonishing self-belief. His New York publisher told him he was nuts. Dyer forged on, unstoppable. He’d given up his private counseling practice, and would eventually walk away from what appeared to be a thriving professorship at St John’s University. “I know what I am compelled to do,” he writes of that giddy, inspired time. “And I cannot entertain any other vision.”

See, he hadn’t become St Francis yet.  He was still very close to being the scrappy Detroit kid who grew up in orphanages with his two brothers while his mother dealt with being abandoned by her husband, who by all accounts was a drunk and a bum. Dyer despised his mysterious old man,  though he later felt his upbringing taught him self-reliance. He eventually found his father’s grave in Biloxi, Mississippi and had a meltdown, complete with weeping and screaming. Then, inexplicably, he felt better.  After forgiving his father, he felt “a soft mist of infinite love rather than the storms of fierce rage and angst that previously typified my thoughts of this man.” Such a turning point, Dyer believed, had to be “Divinely arranged.”

And so the book goes on and on, each chapter describing some kind of key event where Dyer cries uncontrollably, comes to some sort of realization, and emerges a better, more enlightened, more spiritual man. The book was written to chart his progress from practical to mystical, to the point where he allegedly cured himself of leukemia a few years ago. And it sort of explains why he started to have the same glazed look in his eye as the old gypsies I once saw at a carnival. He was creeping up on the otherworldly, and he believed it, or played the part, to the hilt.

It’s the 1980s, and I'm at the Brockton fairgrounds with two friends. We're having our palms read. This is a few years before the carny workers would refuse to come to Brockton because the city had become too dangerous. Not even carnival workers want to deal with crackheads and street gangs. Right now, though, the carny is a peaceful place, full of tents and rides and kids having fun.

The women in the tent, who look like the fortune tellers I’ve seen in old werewolf movies, think my friends and I are just wiseasses. One of the women seems kinder than the others, so I go to her. She doesn’t read my palm so much as she just holds my hand. Her hand is warm. She speaks to me in a pleasant voice. She tells me things that a young man likes to hear. I walk out of the tent feeling pretty good. I think I paid her five bucks.

Years later I’m living in Boston, and these sorts of women are everywhere. Even during the rainiest days, they’re prowling the sidewalks, handing out flowers to people, offering to say a special prayer for you and your loved ones. Five bucks, still. No inflation. People speed up when these old ladies approach, shake their heads NO without looking at them.  But some do stop. Sometimes I see the old ladies huddled together in an alley or an alcove, counting their money. There are some on these crowded city streets willing to pay for the old ladies’ services. 

It’s not fair to compare Dyer to these old ladies, but he was selling what they were selling: confidence. As early as age 10, Dyer knew he could get people to go along with almost anything. “When I speak with confidence and kindness,” he writes, “I’m listened to.” 

Dyer become a regular talk show guest during that halcyon period of the late 1970s. Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue, all sat back and listened to this gentle teddy bear of self-help give his spiel. Give up your ego, Dyer said. There’s a plan in place for all of us. He was a dynamic speaker, and while his PBS specials tended to be overlong, his soothing voice and his beatific smile must have been perfect for those 10-minute talk show slots, convincing viewers that there was more to this power of positive thinking than they’d ever imagined. "Do you not die with your music still in you," he often said. People ate it up. He sold millions of books and made millions of dollars. 

He mentions in I Can See Clearly Now that he occasionally struggled with his own ego during that first crush of fame. Later he references a drinking issue, and an ugly divorce or two. He doesn’t dwell on this side of his past, but gives just enough detail to suggest that he may not have been a peach to live with. Still, he plowed forward with his “Divine mission.” There was a nobility to him. He didn’t mind if you recorded his lectures, and when bootleg copies of his books started appearing in Europe, he didn’t care that he wasn’t receiving royalties, so long as his message was being spread. 

Dyer had a knack for being one step ahead of the zeitgeist. Not only did he ride the trends, he helped create them. When the self-help genre began to seem too clinical, and “New Age” churches and stores sprouted up with talk of angels and crystals, Dyer was there. An encounter with Mother Teresa, he writes, “pushed me to look into the world of the miraculous and examine the possibilities of real magic.” Within a short time, Dyer is spending the weekend at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, assuring the King of Pop that magic is real. Can you imagine conversation?

“Have you met Bubbles, my pet chimp?”

“No, I haven’t. Have you met my friend Eykis?”

We’re all linked, Dyer liked to say.  And there are no accidents.

Two things made Dr. Wayne Dyer notable. The first was his knack for taking the works of people ranging from Jesus to Lau Tzu to Buddha, and translating them for the masses. Dyer could untie the tongues of the past so you and I could understand.

The second was his belief that it was “everyone’s birthright” to attain a higher understanding, to become a “self-actualized person.” He didn’t cater to the rich. He didn’t focus on the poor. We’re all tied together, he said, by one Universal mind. We affect each other. We're all in this together. When we forget this, when we follow our ego and stray from our “Source”, we get into trouble. It was a nice message. He delivered it with passion. There are dozens of Wayne Dyer imitators out there spinning the same message, but they’ll never match him. He was the best, partly because of his outsized intelligence, and partly because he never stopped being amazed at his own story. His was a very American tale, from the orphanage to Johnny Carson, from collecting tin cans in the street, to performing wedding ceremonies for celebrity lesbians. He was also a rebellious character, constantly fighting the dreary dictates of high school teachers, then the Navy, and finally the world of academia. Even the world of publishing raised his hackles now and then. One publisher threw down a ton of money for Dyer to write a Dr. Ruth style sex book, but Dyer refused. He wouldn’t be boxed in by the dictates of unimaginative publishers and agents. The human soul, Dyer said, needed room to grow. This is the Dyer I admire, and his presence is still strong in I Can See Clearly Now.

Yet, this memoir feels odd to me. At one time I saw Dyer as someone who bestrode the entire self-help industry. In the motivational biz, Dyer was Elvis; everyone else was Frankie Avalon. Yet, when Shirley MacLaine wrote about past life experiences and angels we dismissed her as a daffy eccentric. Why should Dyer get a pass? And what are we to make of the chapter, which is obviously written as a kind of climax to Dyer’s spiritual quest, where Dyer describes a full on close encounter with St. Francis? 

The scene: He’s in Assisi again, in 2011. He’s been outfitted with a brown robe just like St. Francis used to wear. He’s giving a lecture at the Church of San Pietro, speaking under an ancient statue of Jesus on the cross.  As he reads aloud from a biography of St Francis, he begins to feel that St. Francis is there with him. Then, as he gets to the part where St. Francis kisses a leper, Dyer loses it. “Tears are flowing down my face,” he writes, “and I feel Francesco as if he has merged with me…We become one.” Unable to speak, Dyer simply holds his arms out to the audience. They sit in silence. The moment was, Dyer writes, “truly a Divine appointment arranged by whatever invisible forces handle such celestial matters.”

Did Dyer actually join with St. Francis? Did he simply have an emotional experience and interpret it as something supernatural? The cynic in me thinks he'd gone as far as he could go as plain old Dr. Dyer, the friendly guy on PBS who talked about "Excuses be gone!" He wanted to up his game. He wanted to prove you could come from a broken home and eventually mingle with long dead saints. It wasn’t enough that he was a millionaire living in Maui. He wanted to be like the “ascended masters” he idolized. He wanted it so badly that he convinced himself that he was merging with St. Francis. Or, at the least, he wanted us to believe it.

I don’t underestimate Dyer’s seriousness as a seeker of enlightenment. He was zealous, and he practiced what he preached. Yet, I also sense he was a calculating businessman. He slipped things into his books that would eventually, sometimes years later, make their way onto his PBS lectures. Would he have tried this bit with St. Francis in a future PBS fundraiser? Would you donate your money and receive a complimentary brown robe, just like the one Dyer wore at San Pietro? Would he eventually go for the whole enchilada, and achieve stigmata on public television? I have to think he had some big plans for the future, ideas that might have surprised viewers, or at the least, drawn some controversy. We’ll never know, because Dyer died last month at age 75. He left us, presumably, with none of his music still in him. 

Does it matter whether or not Dyer actually saw metaphysical beings and spirits? I don’t know. But recently I find myself wanting to know more about St. Francis of Assisi.  How about that? I may have changed the way I look at Dr. Wayne Dyer, but he's still working his magic.