Saturday 23 July 2011

George Kimball

George Kimball had a glass eye. Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed when he’d barrel through the door of The Bells of Hell. It was more that the general mirth and sense of anticipation rose a notch or two.

His journalist friends used to guffaw about the day in Fenway Park when an acquaintance asked him to keep an eye on his seat while he hit the bathroom. George popped out the glass eye, placed it on the bench, and said, “Sure.”

He passed away last week. Among the many caps George wore effortlessly was columnist for the Irish Times. He was as at ease in Dublin as in Lawrence, Kansas where he once ran for sheriff against a one-armed establishment figure under the slogan, "Lawrence needs a two-fisted sheriff with an eye on the future!"

I’m sure his spirit is drifting between a host of extinct bars today, including The Bells and The Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, as well as sports emporiums the like of Fenway and Madison Square Garden.

For George liked to take the pulse of a city after he had sent in his reports to the Boston Herald or the Phoenix on the Red Sox and whatever boxing match he was covering. I don’t know about his baseball reporting but could he cover a fight.

He didn’t just report on the blows struck or the usual surface minutiae; he saw the world in all its hepped-up craziness reflected in the “sweet science.” There wasn’t a boxer of note, and many not of, that he wasn’t on familiar terms with. He appreciated them all – the losers as much the winners.

To George sports was life at hyper-speed, the way he often lived it. And all of the fighters, their managers, trainers, cut-men and gofers were worth ink because they were real, unaware and on the money, no matter how close to penury.

He understood the game of music too, the players, their problems and the pain they would face when they slid from the spotlight. He knew age would catch up with them too.

He loved Paul Simon’s song, The Boxer, for it nailed the New York City of the late 60’s that he loved. He appreciated that the writer and song would mature even as the city shed much of its seedy glamour.

Life, sports, music, books, broads, booze and the big city – they were all one big exciting cocktail to George and his circle.

It was into this milieu that I stumbled back in the 70’s. It was centered on the Lion’s Head with outposts in the Bells, Jimmy Days, and a couple of uptown joints.

George was often down from Boston to cover the Sox or a fight. There were Hamills and McCourts too and an array of other colorful characters. Almost to a man – and the occasional woman – they cast a cold eye on the Vietnam War.

They were inspiring: their casual disdain for Nixon and his ilk was far more devastating than the ideological vitriol abroad in the East Village.

In time they shook their heads about the folly of Iraq. Had the clowns learned nothing? Waterboarding was beneath contempt, for to these hardboiled romantics America was the perennial good guy and didn’t engage in torture.

Bars close, times change and I lost sight of George. Then a couple of years back I ran into him – you guessed it, in a bar though he had quit the sauce. There was no distance; it was as if we’d been carousing the night before at the Bells.

I just wish I’d spent more time with him; there were so much I wanted to know about legends like Stanley Ketchel and Billy Conn, and friends of his like Muhammad Ali and Hunter Thompson.

But more than anything, I had a couple of questions about life. He probably didn’t have the answers, but the time spent in his company would have been, as ever, illuminating, irreverent and unforgettable – just like the man himself.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Social Security Four Years Later

Four years ago this month I wrote a column concerning Social Security and its essential place in the fabric of US society.

Remember those heady days of July 2007. The Dow had just closed above 14,000, house prices made your head spin, President George Bush was still paying for the Iraq war on the Chinese credit card, and those recently converted deficit hawks, Messrs. Boehner and McConnell, were more interested in slashing their golf handicaps than federal budgets.

Salad days, indeed! And yet this pain-in-the-butt columnist was warning that unless we bump up Social Security benefits “we’ll eventually have an army of senior citizens living on cat food.”

I likened the retiree’s economic security to a four-legged stool made up of family home, pensions, savings and Social Security. Let’s check the wobble factor after the last three years of financial turmoil?

Well, home prices have tanked, many are “underwater,” meaning that more is owed than the property is currently worth.

Pensions? Becoming as obsolete as the typewriter, even the once sacrosanct civil service retirement system is under attack.

Savings? A recent poll suggested that over a third of Americans don’t even have a hundred bucks stashed away for retirement. No wonder Powerball is so popular.

One silver lining: after sinking below 7000 in 2009, the Dow Jones Index is back up in the 12,000’s. Small wonder since profits are at record highs for the 30 big Dow companies, in no small part due to reduced costs from firing employees.

And for those lucky enough to have a 401(k), the average balance at retirement is $98,000 – hardly a king’s ransom if it has to stretch for twenty or more years, especially if it’s dependent on yo-yoing stock prices.

So, where does that leave your regular Joe or Jane contemplating retirement? You guessed it – depending big time on the old SS!

Back when FDR proposed Social Security he was accused by Republicans of ushering in socialism. Call it what you like – you think there’s a reason he’s one of the most revered presidents?

Apart from the monthly stipend paid to qualified participants, Social Security bestows a measure of dignity upon those who have toiled for a lifetime, raised families and have little to show for it. Instead of cutting or curtailing its benefits we need to safeguard and strengthen them.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the fiscal health of Social Security. From 1937 through 2009 it took in $13.8 trillion in payroll taxes and paid out $11.3 trillion in benefits. The balance was “borrowed” to fund other programs. Because of the recent recession the system is now taking in less than it is paying out. Should this situation continue Social Security is likely to go bust sometime around 2037.

In other words we’ve torn up the social contract honored by previous generations. We’ve stopped paying our way and to hell with those coming after.

And yet for mere pennies extra a week we could make Social Security fiscally sound again. Is that so far beyond us?

And for an extra couple of bucks a month we could beef up the system so that seniors might enjoy the more dignified, and less worrisome, lifestyle enjoyed by their peers in other developed nations.

I know! Messrs. Boehner and McConnell say we can’t afford to raise taxes in a time of recession – businesses will be less likely to take on new employees. Tell that to the Fortune 500 – many so awash in cash they’re even buying back their own stock and still not hiring.

Medicare is already being threatened by the Ryan voucher proposal that invites recipients to fend for themselves with private health insurance and medical providers. Moan all you like about big government, try going mano a mano with big business!

There are many reasons for the current deficits – a fee for service medical system that encourages overspending, an ongoing war mentality that leads to bulging defense budgets, and a refusal to pay as we go for the services we demand.

Social Security need not be one of those problems, if we pony up and do the right thing. In fact, for senior citizens it may well be the only solution.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

The Big Man

So the Big Man is gone. Headed off down Thunder Road.

We’ll never see the like of Clarence Clemons again, that’s for certain. He did leave the stage on cue, however, for the scene that he sprung from has just about run its course.

Clarence was the archetypal rock & roll tenor sax player, raised on King Curtis and roadhouse gigs. But he’ll be remembered mainly for his work with Bruce Springsteen.

They both emerged in the late 60’s down the Jersey Shore. What is it about those “dusty little seaside towns” and music?

I’ve played many of them from Maryland up to Maine. Cheap little bars, the jukebox pounding, hot chicks, cold beer and pedal to the metal bands. Asbury Park had more than its share including the Wonder Bar, the Student Prince and the big league Stone Pony.

I once heard Bruce describe their first meeting on a windy, rainy Boardwalk night. He saw a giant black man approaching and discreetly stepped inside the doorway of a boarded up arcade. The figure stopped outside, looked in, reached out his hand and then:

“Sparks flew on E Street when the boy prophets walked it handsome and hot.” Bruce sang, the band hit the downbeat and we all tumbled off into the jumbled magic of The E Street Shuffle.

The E Street Band itself could always spin on whatever dime Springsteen’s genius demanded. There was an empathy akin to love between Clarence and the Boss onstage and the sax player could effortlessly turn the singer’s yearnings into soaring solos that took the songs way beyond where mere words go.

That kind of playing doesn’t spring from rehearsal rooms. It comes from long nights balancing riffs and aspirations with the demands of an audience – something damn nigh impossible for a band nowadays. Gigs are scarcer and musicians don’t have the luxury to stretch and learn to trust each other in a business far more concerned with celebrity than content or accomplishment.

Many of the better versions of Springsteen’s songs never made it to the studio. The poetry of Thunder Road was sacrificed to make Born To Run a cohesive, majestic rock & roll album. Take a listen - Bruce can barely fit the words into the speeded-up tempo. Like many others, I’ll always treasure being there at the birth of this incredible song when he used to moan it above an aching solitary piano,

“The screen door slams
Angelina's dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays…”

Yeah, back then Mary was called Angelina. But who cares? Writers change their minds, great bands make that possible, and in the final searing sax solo you became one with the less than lovely woman fretting about not being” that young anymore.”

Rock & Roll has always been a combustible fusion of black rhythms and white working class sensibilities; rock music is its milquetoast middle-class imitation. Kids now attend Rock School. Many of them become great players – they learn all the moves that will serve them well on American Idol.

That’s what rock has become, but the roll has always been about rebelling against parents and the desolation of dead end jobs. It can’t be taught, it’s learned and earned on long nights in sleazy bars from players way cooler than you.

I used to watch Clarence empathizing with Springsteen’s claustrophobic spoken intro to the Animals' It's My Life. It reeked of alienation from his father. Rock & Roll was Bruce’s only escape from their stifling working class home. The Big Man held the door open and helped make the dream possible.

I never met Clarence Anicholas Clemons but one night at the Bottom Line a French poet was so moved at the end of Incident On 57th Street he was unable to stop hollering despite Bruce’s appeal for quiet. Finally the Big Man reached out to Jacques and silenced him with a smile. He understood that music and madness are inextricably linked and on a good night rock & roll makes saints of us all.

So long Big Man. The scene may be coming to an end but there’s always a gig for you somewhere down Thunder Road.