Seeing the wonderful Susan Seidelman film Smithereens (1982) piqued an interest in Richard Hell, who is oft credited for launching the punk rock scene in NYC, and in particular at CBGB. Hell basically plays a much less successful version of himself in the film. I finished reading his 2013 autobiography, I Dreamed I was a Clean Tramp a few days ago. Hell helped found the seminal band Television (original called the Neon Boys) with Tom Verlaine, but the two didn’t see eye to eye and he left the same week that Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders quit the short-lived New York Dolls. The three formed the band the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty’s far more famous group) and soon thereafter, Walter Lure joined as the second guitarist. During Hell’s stint with the band, they recorded four demos and one live album that wasn’t released until 1991. In early 1976, Hell quit the Heartbreakers and fronted Richard Hell and the Voidoids, another short-lived band with Robert Quine, Ivan Julian and Marc Bell. Their first album Blank Generation was released in 1977 on Sire Records and they followed up with Destiny Street in 1982 on Red Star Records. Some of the timeline of Hell’s memoir overlapped with my coming of age trips to NYC when I was in art school at RISD. I stayed with my older sister who lived in various tenements apartments in the West Village and Soho before it was gentrified. I really didn’t frequent the East Village back then (Hell’s haunts), although I did spend a lot of time on the Lower East Side. The exception was a laughable off-off Broadway production of No Exit at the Royal Playhouse at 219 Second Avenue. I wasn’t the music club type, so sadly I never went to…
Recently, I was thinking about what I was doing or where I was when I heard life-changing historical news. I’m certain many people remember what others told them about a specific day, or what they read in ensuing years – perhaps on the event anniversary. This sparked the idea of writing about events for which I could remember something distinctively unique and worth sharing when I heard or watched history playing out. I decided to broaden the stipulation slightly to encompass what I was doing within a 2-hour time frame of hearing the news. I have a visual memory, so my recollections of events and associated emotional reactions are retrieved from the recesses of my brain via images. Within these parameters, I could only come up with 11 events, listed here in chronological order. Other memories were a little too vague to include (e.g. when John Lennon was shot) or too commonplace. I believe certain factors influence how a person recalls events, including one’s own memory aptitude, age at the time of the event, and the event’s magnitude, which most certainly is impacted by personal factors. For instance, countless movie and rock stars have died during my lifetime, but I can only recall the unique circumstances of what I was doing for three, as you’ll read below. I was 5-years-old when JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was sitting at the top of the slide in my kindergarten classroom at Todd Hall in Lincolnwood, Illinois when an announcement was made on the school intercom. A full-size slide in a school classroom is pretty remarkable – perhaps that helped engrave this tragic event in my visual memory. Of course as a 5-year-old, I hardly understood the magnitude of this tragedy.
My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
In general, I am not a huge fan of Western television shows with a few exceptions, but I have to say that Rawhide, which aired from 1959-1965, is notable for many reasons. First of all, it made a household name out of a young Clint Eastwood, who played Rowdy Yates. Second, many now famous actors/actresses got their starts as guest stars on the show, sometimes appearing in more than one episode. Third, during the seventh season, the opening sequence featured live action shots of the actors beings portrayed that transform into intriguing bronze sculptures. This is what really piqued my interest and inspired me to dig further and write an article about this unique Western television series. And that led to my fascination with Eric Fleming, who played Rowdy’s boss Gil Favor. A special thanks to Ellen Thorp for creating When Westerns Ruled and her in-depth and touching article on Fleming. Eric Fleming – Gil Favor Eric Fleming was born Edward Heddy Jr. on July 4, 1925 in Santa Paula, Calif. His dad was physically abusive towards him, and at the age of 9, there was a particularly sadistic episode in which his dad beat him so badly with the end of a belt buckle, that he was unable to get up for two days. When he recovered, the young Fleming reacted by holding a revolver to his dad’s head, trying to kill him. The gun misfired and Fleming ran away, hopping on a freight train. He ended up in gangs, committing thefts and petty crimes, until the age of 11, when he was badly injured in a gang fight and busted by the police. They were going to send him back to his dad, but when they saw the look of terror in his eyes, they sent him to live with his mom.
It’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is what one of the many intriguing characters I met in NYC during my 10-day trip said about Chicago. I guess I feel the same way about NYC, but I have to say, it is easier to engage in discussion with people in the Big Apple. Everybody wants to tell you his or her story. This makes for great conversation and good memories, but is ever so fleeting. You could be talking to somebody really interesting on the subway … and a few seconds later, poof – they are gone without even a goodbye. John and Alfred How delighted I was upon returning from a day uptown on the first Monday of my stay, when my daughter said, “There’s John Lithgow with some other guy walking down the street in our direction.” Of course she always sees celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, who goes to her health club, but for me this was a treat. Turns out they were shooting scenes for Love is Strange starring Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, who unfortunately was not in these scenes. This shoot literally took place half a block away from my daughter’s apartment. After we went back to her apartment, I dropped off my stuff and went back out to shoot pictures with the other gawkers gathered on Seventh Avenue. The actors seemed bemused by all of this and I got some good shots.
When I told Jeff three weeks ago that I wanted to go see Bret Michaels at Frontier Days, an annual local festival in Arlington Heights, he was a bit dumbfounded. So was I, quite frankly, because my musical taste, while eclectic, is more closely aligned with the likes of Regina Spektor, The Lumineers, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground … you get the idea. In any case, I think I was curious because Bret Michaels is above all a gutsy survivor. Regardless of the cheesy Rock of Love with Bret Michaels reality show or how one feels about his music, it is undeniable that this guy is scrappy. So what if I was the lone person (with hubby in tow) out of 22,000 folks who wasn’t there that night to rock out, get drunk, and boogie down. I wanted to see firsthand this cool country cat who must have been blessed with nine lives. If you don’t know Michaels’ story, I urge you to read on. In addition to coping with juvenile diabetes, a series of life-threatening medical events turned Michaels’ life upside down starting in April 2010. On April 12, 2010, Michaels was admitted to the hospital with intense stomach pains that led to an emergency appendectomy. About 10 days later, Michaels was rushed to the hospital with an excruciating headache. Doctors discovered that he had suffered a massive subarachnoid hemorrhage – or cerebral aneurysm. Only 30 percent of patients survive such incidents and many are left with permanent deficits. Miraculously, just 2 weeks later, his neurosurgeon Joseph Zabramski of Barrow Neurosurgical Associates, announced that Michaels was indeed one of the lucky few to survive and he would make a full recovery. However, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
In the course of my PR career in the health and medical field, among the many things I did was research diseases, conditions, and injuries of celebrities and/or their close relatives. This research fell into two primary clinical areas based on the associations I worked for at the time – vision and neurosurgical, respectively. When I worked at Prevent Blindness America, I actually had the privilege of interviewing quite a few celebrities. These were typically done via the celebrity’s agent and submitted as written interview questions that I scripted. The completed interviews were published in the organization’s magazine. The power of celebrity goes a long way to increasing disease/injury prevention and awareness. Case in point – Angelina Jolie’s recent admission that she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction to avoid the same tragic fate that befell her mother and maternal aunt. Jolie revealed this in a brave New York Times Op/Ed article titled My Medical Choice, published on May 14, 2013. She carries the BRCA1 gene and her doctors advised her that this fact, along with her family history of breast cancer gave her an 87 percent risk of developing the disease. Jolie has always been considered one of the most beautiful and sexy actresses in America, but it is her charitable, philanthropic work and intelligent frankness that set her apart.
When teen pop idols Davy Jones and Don Grady died, I wrote tributes to both of them. When a pantheon of greatness like Roger Ebert dies, it is a bigger challenge to write a worthy piece. Roger Ebert is as synonymous with Chicago as Oprah Winfrey, Vienna Beef hot dogs, Wrigley Field, Deep-dish pizza, and Studs Terkel. Roger Ebert made me proud to be a native Chicagoan – I took other aspects of the city for granted, but never Roger Ebert. He was without a doubt the greatest film critic that ever lived. There have been others of considerable talent – the legendary Pauline Kael at the front of that list, but Ebert wrote in a natural, conversational style without any pretense. How is it possible to be so knowledgeable about film without sounding pedantic or pretentious? I think many of his colleagues hit it right on the head – Ebert was just a regular Joe at the core – a chubby, bespectacled, brainy geek from downstate Illinois. And he basically stayed that way despite fame, acclaim, and fortune. Think about it – he probably met more famous movie stars and directors than any person on earth – even Barbara Walters, yet never came off as elitist or snobby. Here are a few tributes to Ebert from his Chicago buddies/colleagues: Neil Steinberg Rick Kogan Richard Roeper Jim Emerson Dan Gire I first discovered the powerful magic of movies when at age 10, I found it difficult to tear myself away from Some Like it Hot – we were going to meet my dad at the Chicago Auto Show and had to leave the house before it was over. But my earliest memory harkens back to the age of 3 or 4 – very vague and I cannot remember the film, but a little girl who was paralyzed etched an indelible image…
Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659. During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.