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Research and writing for my forthcoming historical fiction novel Murder at Birdland (working title) continues, at an increasing and invigorating pace, these past few months (let’s call it January to May, 2018).

I had been on the fence about a few of the chancier elements of my approach, namely how heavily to incorporate real historical figures from the era (late 1958 thru about the end of 1961)– especially in entertainment, politics, and literature. But I discovered a current news item just this past month, believe it or not, that is pushing me to create a more significant presence for two major entertainment figures of the era: actors Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood.

I was already definitely including Natalie, since she briefly dated one of my main characters, Morris Levy, owner of Birdland and several other important nightclubs, plus Roulette Records, and reportedly doing it all as a front for the Mafia. I was also considering including Douglas, since his Spartacus was reportedly the first film to break McCarthy’s Hollywood blacklist, by openly crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1960. (See the Brian Cranston movie about Trumbo from 2016… it’s stupendous.)

As for the resurgence of the rape story, it’s another sad chapter in the #metoo saga of 2017 and 2018… even though this situation reportedly occurred sometime in late 1955. Wood was just 16, and Douglas was one of the first Hollywood stars with enough power to start a successful independent production company of his own. Earlier in 1955, strong rumors had circulated around town that Wood had been in a consensual affair with the much older Nicholas Ray, her director on Rebel Without a Cause. We’ll leave that one alone for the moment, since the ambitious but needy Nat was on-board with it… though it’s pretty skeevy on Ray’s part, I will admit.

The true “rough stuff” came in when Douglas invited Natalie to his hotel room or office (theoretically to read for a part in his upcoming film), said he had always wanted her, and didn’t take no for an answer. The drunken rape by Douglas was reportedly fairly brutal, and Wood was quietly taken to the hospital by her nutjob stage mother– the same mother who made her keep quiet, lest Douglas ruin her chance of a career as an adult actress. But Natalie told a few people she was close to over the years, plus her family, including her daughter Natasha Gregson-Warner, …which brings us to Robert Downey Jr., and 2018.

Downey was in the film Two Girls and a Guy with Gregson-Warner and Heather Graham sometime in the 1990s, and they became friends from that point onward (both being children of movie figures from the 1960s, it only makes sense). So apparently Natasha told Robert about her mother’s rape, and now that Robert is safely back on top in Hollywood (having been WAAAAAY down near the bottom in the 90s), he took it upon himself to semi-publicly call Douglas out on the occasion of the recent Golden Globe awards, which honored Douglas, who is currently 101 years old.

For the whole convoluted explanation of how it is somewhat provable that Downey was the anonymous commenter on an important Hollywood blog, I’ll direct you to the link below rather than explain all the cloak and dagger research.

Gawker points to the Downey-Douglas-Wood story

So… now to decide, among other conundrums:

  1. How intimate did Wood get with my guy Morris Levy, yet another older man?
  2. How long were they involved, and should I bend the truth about either real person’s timeline?
  3. From a “believable fictional character” perspective, how “damaged” was Natalie, … by the rape, by her family’s economic and emotional dependence upon her, or by the whole Hollywood studio system she grew up within?

Granted, I’m writing fiction. But I’d like to be true to history, and ethically create honest characters, without resorting to cheap and sordid sexual fireworks to tell a story that’s really not much about Natalie Wood anyway. But I can’t see leaving it out, either. She’s the West Side Story Maria, and several of my “real” and fictional main characters are in both the Broadway show (which was huge in ’59 and ’60) and in the film.

What’s a stand up guy like me to do?… when Downey, one of my heroes in a way, is at odds with Douglas, who I also thought was pretty terrific, and heroic?… up till now, of course.

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Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 14, 2018

WHERE THE WILDEST SPIRITS FLY from The Pinkerton Raid

Where the Wolves Are…

I met this band The Pinkerton Raid awhile back in Chicago, though they’re actually from North Carolina (and also from MA, and probably another locale or two).

Good musicians, great storytellers, honest purveyors of alternative Christian Americana (who needs Nashville?!).

Listen up and see for yourself. They have a new record out. Plaintive singing, interesting indie rock or folk song structures and arrangements, and a cast of characters in the songs that rivals early Springsteen’s lovable losers and hopeful hungerers for righteousness.
https://youtu.be/pvIx6vxE4ls Pinkerton raid live demo

This is what Sendak’s “mad” Max would dance to when he turned 21 and finally went on a pub crawl out in Chapel Hill with his friends.

http://pinkertonraid.bandcamp.com/album/where-the-wildest-spirits-fly

[Speaking of Wild Things, here’s a bonus item: a FanTheories reddit piece about Max going off to live with hoboes…

https://youtu.be/pvIx6vxE4ls reddit Max

reddit Max, we love you. Come home.]

Mingusithicus homo stoopingus, a rare species, at play

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1. Charles Mingus pays tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, released on Mingus Ah Um in 1959:

Goodbye, Porkpie Hat (the original) on YouTube

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2. Joni Mitchell – Mingus (Studio album, 1979):

—-> Joni w/ Charles, shortly before he died via YouTube

  • Re the Joni album, via Wikipedia:

The album is quite experimental, featuring minimalist jazz, over-plucked, buzzing acoustic guitars, and even wolves howling through “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey”. All of the lyrics are by Mitchell, while the music for four of the songs was composed by Mingus, three being new tunes, a fourth being his tribute to saxophonist Lester Young from his 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat“, for which Mitchell wrote a set of lyrics.

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3. My poem in tribute to all of them (Young, Mingus, Mitchell, plus The Beats), as inspired by a section- on jazz and its effects- of Jack Kerouac’s novella The Subterraneans (1958) :

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Boplicity on Bleecker

I walked, slinked really,

(or is it slunk? I’m slightly drunk,

and was so at the time)

like Garbo out slumming among the proles in an evening gown,

only mine was just a rose-print cotton thing.

That’s me, slinking down the crusty summer sidewalk

At 2am, just outside the Village Vanguard,

on my way to meet a friend at Nick’s.

I stumbled sleepily in halfmoonlight, suddenly waking,

as a young couple spilled out the door,leaving me listening, arrested, listening,

leaving me listening, arrested, listening,

meditating on Mr. Mingus’ Musical Musings

(based on “I Got Rhythm” changes)

for the first time.

Soon it’s me waving,

a finger dance lightly over my head,

feeling like toddler at play in the surf.

Rage, hope, dread –all of it poured out:

–all of it poured out:

the bloody history of Charles,

and how much he missed Charlie,

and also of Mr. Evans’ vague regrets

(played only on a piano’s black keys),

and of a trumpeter and a tenor sax axe-grinder

wrestling like puppies,

frolicking in sunlight at midnight–

all of it suddenly a mystical Unity

expressing itself in waves like electricity,

or p’raps a howling: hungry, hunting

for tasty, tongue-tingling ecstatic Life,

in a certain sound,

then springing, like a puma from a branch,violently extracting that Life

violently extracting that Life

from a gorgeous C Major Seventh chord–

the direct word, the holy Word,

divinity described

in God’s own private language,

heaven’s gates stormed

by tongues and lips and fleshy fingers,

by fleet-fingered pulse bringer

(don’t call him a drummer),

suggesting loudly

the salvation of perfect vibration,

intimation of nuclear fusion,

by cymbal-crashing of two souls

together, joining their atoms,

pure sex, soulful sound, drippingwith

drippingwithsweat,

and yet

also the call-and-response of the gospel choir,

the gospel choir,

the “smile in sound”,

the living insinuation of possible perfection,

just out of reach, dodging us,

wriggling and tangled and fraught with contrast,

every few bars, just a hint of dissonance, never complete or pure,

never complete or pure,

never resolved or final,

but always aspiring.

Charles Mingus reached out and grabbed me,

kidnapped me,

through that closed door,

all wooden and innocent-looking —

just like his bass fiddle–

but actually, behind the mask

of what some would call entertainment,

sneering and cruel and fraught with sadness,

sheer honesty, and harmonic empathy–

and harmonic empathy–

all in 5/8 time, in the key of Y–

on a misty, lonely night

in the biggest little village ever.

Grown from the seed below, in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans :

“she stood in drowsy sun suddenly listening to bop as if for the first time as it poured out, the intention of the musicians and of the horns and instruments suddenly a mystical unity expressing itself in waves like sinister and again electricity but screaming with palpable aliveness the direct word from the vibration, the interchanges of statement, the levels of waving intimation, the smile in sound, the same living insinuation in the way her sister’d arranged those wires wriggled and tangled and fraught with intention, innocent-looking but actually behind the mask of casual life” –pgs. 34-35

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 10, 2018

A small but classic Robert Downey Jr. reddit

When Burger King is the low that one has sunk to…

“Just because you’ve hit bottom, doesn’t mean you have to stay there.”-RD Jr

http://www.mtv.com/news/2592934/robert-downey-jr-on-burger-king-in-iron-man-a-disgusting-lifesaver/

I first came upon singer and mandolinist Chris Thile’s music thru the terrific newgrass group Nickel Creek, probably in the late 90s, on a public radio show out of southern California (I caught it on the web.)

He then went on to semi-stardom (for a folk musician, anyway) as a founding member of the Punch Brothers, and as a replacement host –with big shoes to fill– at A Prairie Home Companion, when Garrison Keillor retired.

Now, I’ve discovered he also (or instead? I’ve not checked in on Prairie in awhile… ) is doing a music and ensemble comedy public radio show called “Live from Here”– with here apparently referring to both the off-Broadway Town Hall in New York, and/or their original home base at the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

It streams live as a video broadcast on Saturday nights, from 5-7pm CST. The audio version –at a length of just under two hours– also streams the rest of the week, starting after lunch on Sundays.

Get it here. They package a highlight version as a podcast, if you prefer, including the great comedian Tom Papa’s regular segment “Out In America”. They unfortunately can’t do a podcast version of the whole show, however, due to legal and music rights restrictions. But by using the web, you can also pick your poison, by going into the archives to hear gems from the likes of Calexico, Janeane Garofalo, David Crosby, Shakey Graves, Spoon, Maria Bamford, and a cast of thousands. Chris’ house band is pretty great, too, including members of Punch Bros. and various session greats and special guests.

Here’s a bunch of links and samples:

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Video and audio of a recent show.

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This show is folkin’ great. Tune in live, or catch it whenever you want online.

Keep public radio alive, too!!! –before the orange-haired Philistine sells all of our granola-lovin’ souls to bail out the 1%ers, or replaces the Kennedy Center with Trump’s Tune Town, or shuts down all publicly funded art like this in its entirety.

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 30, 2018

Everything Rushes Slowly (original cut-up poem by Mark Nielsen)

{Photo of Woodstock, IL by Laura Nielsen Mills, (c) 2017}

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Everything rushes slowly.

I hear again that hint of

the Melody of snowfall,

a sky agitated–

but still snow falls, fills souls.

Then there is only the feeling of

Everything.

(The poem at top was composed using a variation of William Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s version of “cut-up” technique [first developed by Dadaists in the 1920s], the source text being a left side of a page of a Natalie Wood biography, using first three words of about six lines in a paragraph. The clip above shows the original “seed” or inspiration of my poem.)

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From Wikipedia:

In the 1950s, painter and writer Brion Gysin more fully developed the cut-up method after accidentally re-discovering it. He had placed layers of newspapers as a mat to protect a tabletop from being scratched while he cut papers with a razor blade. Upon cutting through the newspapers, Gysin noticed that the sliced layers offered interesting juxtapositions of text and image. He began deliberately cutting newspaper articles into sections, which he randomly rearranged. The book Minutes to Go resulted from his initial cut-up experiment: unedited and unchanged cut-ups which emerged as coherent and meaningful prose.

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Try the Page Left technique yourself, with a favorite book or the Daily newspaper, and see what you come up with!

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 11, 2018

Pie-Eyed Piper (Poem)

{original poem by Mark Nielsen}

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Pie-eyed Piper

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[ purple prose is for scat-singers ]

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I want to get Percy-pied,

pie-eyed, pepper-fried,

parading like the birthday girl

on her last day of school

before vacation.

I want to roar like Leo,

lionized in Rio,

singing One Note Samba,

crying out for Mama.

I want to swim the streets naked,

not have to fake it,

know how to take it,

and who wants It when I make It.

Me. Here. Now.

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Inspired by the

Beat Consciousness, according to Master Ginsberg,

according to Master Ginsberg,

and the raw, confused, half-high love life

of Leo and Mardou

in Kerouac’s
half-high love life

of Leo and Mardou

in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1958).

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” ’nuff said. . .”

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 29, 2018

Lines for an Old Man -by T.S. Eliot

Because I was feeling like a cranky bastard (one needing to confess and repent) when I went to pick up Ash Wednesday

Ya dig?

Lines for an Old Man -T.S. Eliot

The tiger in the tiger-pit
is not more irritable than I.
The whipping tail is not more still
than when I smell the enemy
writhing in the essential blood
or dangling from the friendly tree.
When I lay bare the tooth of wit
the hissing over the arched tongue
is more affectionate than hate,
more bitter than the love of youth,
and inaccessible by the young.
Reflected from my golden eye
the dullard knows that he is mad.
Tell me if I am not glad!

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 28, 2018

Larry Norman, Prophet or Pariah?

It’s “deja vu all over again”, as Yogi Berra once said… In this case, it’s a repeat of the Culture Wars begun by the Moral Majority in the U.S. in the 1980s. Except in our present era of “fake news”, is that an angel on your shoulder, or a devil in disguise?

I’m thinking about all this in the realm of pop and rock music this week, because if a new book about musician Larry Norman that critiques evangelical “party-line” cultural products, especially those which show no awareness of the repentance that Jesus (and Larry) called us to consider. Take that log out your eye, Mr. Pence! (Pence was once a Norman fan, as mentioned in this good radio story/interview) .

<iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/596450516/596880519" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

If an NPR national drive-time show is paying attention, maybe the church should be, too.

I’m not saying… But I’m just sayin’…

“Swing back, sweet pendulum. Comin’ for to carry me home…”

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 20, 2018

Art vs. Commercialism, Round 2.51

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Below, another small gem, passed on from sci-fi novelist John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog (which I had kind of gotten away from the past year, but it’s good to keep in my back pocket for practical encouragement, about writing and about life in general).

commercially accessible” is a mode, not a limit. Nor do I think it limits what one can do in terms of artistry. I think you can make a strong argument that staying within the bounds of which is “commercially accessible” in any era means that you prioritize some elements over others and that the amount you can “stretch the envelope” is less (or perhaps better stated that you can stretch it in fewer simultaneous directions) than if you feel free to disregard a commercial imperative — that the art goes to where the audience already is more than it challenges the audience to follow. But I don’t think it makes it any less art, or that commercially accessible art can’t move and affect people with the same intensity as art that has less overt commercial intent.

The item above catches my attention for two reasons:

1) because as I work on a novel of my own– a crime fiction/coming-of-age piece about nightclubs and organized crime at the dawn of the turbulent Sixties– I need to find a tone and style that is accessible to a wide audience, even though it is now fifty-plus years beyond the world of my fictional and historical characters…

2) because jazz, beatniks, poetry, abstract painters and other “bohemian” subject matter have almost never been million-dollar juggernauts, even when their stars were changing the creative landscape and language for generations to come.

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To quote Paul Simon, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” (Boy In the Bubble, from the classic Graceland album).

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Be it in music, theatre, visual arts, film, television or (dare I say it?) literature, no creative person ever set out to be a “starving artist”. But some did set their sights on being popular, and others on being innovative— yet being both is like catching lightning in a bottle.

To say the right thing, in the right voice, at the right time, and get the attention and support of market forces or social groupings which will ALSO benefit from disseminating that message… that’s my own version of the American Dream.

It would also be nice to finally make a decent living, free from financial anxiety, so I can tackle other problems, either my own or those that God throws into my general vicinity.

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So while you’re throwing Bruno Mars or John “Fault in Our Stars” Green up the pop charts in 2018 (two accessible artists available st your local Target store, whom I nevertheless hold in high regard), throw up a prayer that I have the confidence, stamina and luck (grace?) it will take to finish and distribute my own work of art, or entertainment, or whatever the sales people want to label it after the fact.

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