Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Camille Paglia retired her Salon column more than two years ago, and some readers still remain in deep denial, sending us letters — “WHERE’S CAMILLE?” and “Bring back Paglia!” — and clamoring for her singular blend of historical analysis and crackling street smarts.
The last time we spoke with Paglia, in February, at the onset of war, she spoke of “a terrible sense of foreboding” about what would come next. We pick up the conversation from there — and cover other recent key cultural developments, from Gen. Wesley Clark (“What a phony!”), Sen. John Kerry (“the hair!”), and the tumultuous fall of Rush Limbaugh. She also cast a disapproving eye on the confused antics of Madonna, the comedic influence of David Letterman, and bloggers (“endless reams of bad prose!”).
Paglia continues her work as a professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is completing a book about poetry and a new collection of her essays. Salon spoke to her last week by phone.
You talked the last time about being “extremely upset about our rush to war.” Has it played out as you would have predicted?
How to start! This Iraq adventure is a political, cultural and moral disaster for the United States. Every sign was there to read, but the Bush administration is run by blinkered people who are driven by ideology and who do not feel the largeness of the world and its multiplicity of religions, ethnicities and customs. Despite the multicultural ambitions of higher education in the last 25 years, there has been a massive failure in public education. Media negligence also played a huge role in this cataclysm.
Throughout all of last year, as the war drums were beating, the media did not do its job in informing the American people about the complexities of Mideastern history or of the assumptions of world Islam. For example, it should have laid out the dark saga of foolish decision making by the European powers as they cut up the Ottoman Empire after World War I and unleashed the territorial disputes and animosities that still plague us. With more historical perspective during the debate over Iraq, I don’t think the polls would have been as high as they were.
I also blame the media for failing to inform the American people about the ancient history of Mesopotamia and of the vision of Saddam Hussein — who was just a Podunk tyrant who was no threat to the continental U.S. — to revive the greatness of Babylon. If that had been understood, maybe more people would have suspected that all that bluster about stockpiled weapons of mass destruction was hot air. Of course it was in Saddam’s regional interest as a macho man to imply that he had this mountain of armaments, that he could strike the West at any moment. The Egyptian pharaohs were always pounding their chests and boasting in exactly the same way. U.S. intelligence was so naive to have fallen for that, hook, line and sinker!
Another sin by the media was their failure to publicize the immense archaeological and artistic past of Iraq, to show America that Iraq wasn’t just this desert wasteland over a big puddle of oil. Few people realized that until the National Museum was looted after American troops seized Baghdad. Then came — the utter hypocrisy! — tear-stained, hand-wringing articles by those big blowhards at the New York Times: “Oh, the Bush administration are such awful vandals!” Well, where the hell were all of you last year? Why didn’t you show the architecture and artifacts of ancient Mesopotamia or Islamic Baghdad under the caliphate? The American people were led to believe that Baghdad was just a bunch of Bedouin tents huddled in the middle of the desert. As I said the last time I spoke with Salon, I also blame the Democratic senators–
A “bunch of weasels,” you called them at the time–
Yes, and that word “weasel” went out from that interview and caught fire. The New York Post used it by that weekend, and from there it was seized by the right wing, as in the bestselling “Deck of Weasels” playing cards. It’s a great example of the power of Salon: We put “weasel” back into the American vocabulary!
The emptiness at the heart of the Democratic Party is absolutely clear in the current campaign for the 2004 presidential nomination. The Democratic senators never take a stand without consulting a pollster. They’re all trimmers — they put their finger in the wind and frantically trim their sails. They were so twisted up about political fallout before last fall’s election that they gave Bush a rubber stamp for war. Sen. Robert Byrd was the only strong, eloquent voice denouncing this dangerous expansion of presidential power and misuse of our military.
I had a momentary hope, when Bush recently hung out that outrageous bill for $87 billion, that maybe Congress would stand up and refuse to pay for one more day of this. But no, they’ve all collapsed again like toothpick men. As I repeatedly prophesied over the years at Salon, we are in a period like the Roman Empire, where there is an arrogant, imperial executive branch and a misuse of the army for partisan or fantastically hallucinatory purposes.
My view — which is an extreme position — is that we should get the troops out of Iraq now. But even many liberals are saying, “We’re gone too far. We cannot turn back now!” Oh, yes, we can! Get the United Nations in there, and get out! I don’t think this thing is worth one more American life — not with the pressing needs we have at home. We have catastrophically compromised our internal system of defense against terrorism because of this adventure overseas. Our National Guard and reservists are over there — our first responders for emergencies in terrorist attacks here.
The failure in upgrading domestic defense was horrendously clear during the Northeastern blackout in August, when 20 million people lost power. It was shocking to see that nearly two years after 9/11, there was still no emergency evacuation plan in New York to get people across the Hudson River to New Jersey. I monitored the TV for six hours from Philadelphia as over 20,000 people, including old people and pregnant women, were stranded in the baking heat on those wharves like sitting ducks. There were only a few tiny boats ferrying them across the river. Two years, and still no emergency plan to call in the military or National Guard? And there’s been no systematic effort to deal with the No. 1 threat to national security — the container ships unloading at our ports.
I don’t personally hate Bush. I think he’s sincere and well-meaning. But I feel very sorry for him. Every time I watch him, I feel his suffering, and I suffer with him. But he’s out of his depth in this job. His view of the world is painfully simplistic — like a Wild West video game where the good guys wear white hats and always win. But he’s surrounded by manipulators — like Vice President Dick Cheney, the invisible man, the shadowy puppeteer.
The person I do hate is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is out of control and who has trashed what should be the professional cooperation between the State Department and the Pentagon. Rumsfeld is lost in some delusional state. He’s like Newt Gingrich in the grandstanding narcissism department. Both Rumsfeld and Gingrich show how narrow-bore thinking can turn high I.Q. into colossal stupidity.
The Bush administration is now in defensive mode to prove it was right about Iraq, while there are huge problems facing the nation in education, healthcare, care of the elderly, Social Security, the infrastructure of our highway system and bridges and public transportation — the kinds of problems that require massive infusions of cash. And what are we doing? We’re throwing our hard-earned tax dollars down that hole over there. Bush has not been a good steward of our treasury or our national reputation, and he’s torn this country apart.
The argument against pulling out from Iraq, though, is that al-Qaida is stronger now in Iraq…
Oh, yes, that’s the great accomplishment of the Bush administration! They’ve turned Iraq into a Hollywood studio for terrorism. Al-Qaida was on the run, we were after them in Afghanistan, and now there’s been a massive reinvigoration of al-Qaida. They’ve become heroic role models to Islamic youth. And there’s been a poisoning of world opinion against us — after the sympathy we got after 9/11.
As Salon readers know, I am not anti-military. On the contrary, I believe in just wars and would have been proud to serve in the military. But this Iraq adventure was a grotesque misuse of American power unleashed on a Third World nation. What pleasure can we take from a victory where our high-tech arms were blasting poorly armed foot soldiers to oblivion? Most of the Iraqi Army weren’t necessarily Saddam fanatics — they were working-class people just trying to make a living. U.S. officials don’t even bother trying to count Iraqi casualties — including civilians — and the American media lets them get away with it. Only American deaths matter; Iraqis are non-persons.
Of course it was worth trying to get rid of Saddam — but not by an obsessive-compulsive distortion of American foreign policy. It had to be done through the slow, patient process of international diplomacy, to show that our interests weren’t simply selfish, that it wasn’t just a naked grab for oil. It’s pretty clear that we went into Iraq because of the contorted reasoning of neoconservatives who were looking for a staging area to protect our ally Israel and to seize the Saudi Arabian oil fields, should that regime crumble and be overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists. It was a strategic play — cold realpolitik. But a false bill of goods was sold to the American public, and people should be furious about it.
You’re an independent thinker — but a lifelong Democrat. Who do you like among the presidential candidates? And can any of them win?
Unless there’s some huge change, I’ll be voting for Dean in the Democratic primary, simply as a gesture for the antiwar side. But I’m not thrilled. I don’t think Dean is remotely presidential in manner. He hasn’t thought any of this through — the style of presidential authority. You can’t just run around wildly with this dour, dyspeptic, sanctimonious persona. Dean’s ability to galvanize a wide-ranging electorate is very limited. I don’t see how he’s going to inspire or attract African-American or Latino voters, or anyone outside white upper-middle-class professionals and the media elite.
For years, I was looking forward to voting for John Kerry. He is deeply knowledgeable about military and world affairs and is truly authoritative in presence, with a natural gravitas. I once talked in Salon about seeing him on C-SPAN and thinking, wow, he’s so articulate and low-key — how wonderful to have a president like that! This was in the early Bush period when Bush could barely get a complete sentence out. But I’ve been shocked by Kerry’s performance on the stump. His manner is so strained, dead and aloof. One problem is that he’s spent way too much time with rich people and fellow thinkers — that burden of being a Massachusetts liberal that sank Dukakis. And the hair! All that faux-Kennedy stuff that Democrats like Kerry and John Edwards can’t get rid of. They’re so out of it! Don’t they see that hair styles have changed and that flowing locks don’t signal authority? Look at Bush’s short cut — it’s a Roman general’s style. Rush Limbaugh hilariously refers to John Edwards as “the Breck Girl” — perfect! And Edwards’ whole chirpy, boyish manner — who thinks that’s going to fly in the age of terrorism?
But Kerry seems to be a prisoner of his handlers — that whole venal machinery of political consultants that has taken over the Democratic Party, all in the Terry McAuliffe mold. I loathe McAuliffe — a cheap buffoon and parasite. Consultants lobotomize the candidates, whose energy then gets sucked dry by fundraising. Kerry’s advisors have made him seem prissy. It’s a real tragedy because it’s Kerry who has the military record and knowledge of the federal government to be president — he’s an insider in the best sense.
But as a pro-military Democrat, what do you make of Gen. Wesley Clark?
What a phony! What a bunch of crap this Clark boom is. Clark reminds me of Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — a blank, vacant expression, detached and affectless. There’s something sexually neutered about Dullea in that film — a physical passivity necessitated by cramped space travel — that I also find in Clark. And the astronaut Dullea plays is sometimes indistinguishable from the crazed computer, HAL — which I find in Clark’s smug, computerized vocal delivery.
And yet Clark enthusiasts insist that he’s not only handsome but great on television.
Doesn’t anyone know how to “read” TV? The guy’s an android! He gives me the creeps. And don’t they realize how short he is? He’s a slick, boudoir, salon military type who rubbed plenty of colleagues the wrong way. Clark is not a natural man’s man. And he’s no Eisenhower, who was a genial, charismatic leader with a genius for collaboration and organization. This is just another hysterical boomlet, as when the nerdy Northeast media went gaga for John McCain — “Finally, a soldier we like!” Well, McCain was another big hot dog with little natural rapport with regular guys. Clark made a major strategic error in going for the presidency. He’s been stumbling all over the place and exposing his lack of general knowledge as well as experience with practical politics.
Two weeks ago, NPR ran a scathing series of taped quotes from leading military figures clearly implying they know more about Clark’s career failures than they can tell. A lot of people don’t trust him. Last summer, I thought Clark would be a good vice presidential partner for Dean. But Clark’s hubris undid him — he’s tainted meat now. The Democratic Party should stay away from this guy — who wasn’t even a registered Democrat until recently.
And yet he’s galvanized support among a certain established Democratic elite.
Well, right-wing radio has been saying all along that the Clark campaign is a ploy by the Clintons to destroy the Dean candidacy, since Dean is an obstacle to the Clintons’ hold on the national party and to Hillary’s march to the White House. I had a turnaround on Hillary this year. I was an early fan of hers from the Clintons’ first national campaign in 1992. I loved the sharp, no-bull way she talked — “I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies!” I thought it was the authentic voice of my 1960s generation of women. But within six months of Bill’s taking office, I turned completely against her. She intruded herself into the political process, conducted secret meetings like the Kremlin, and ruined our one chance for healthcare reform, when both parties wanted it. She behaved like Eva Peron.
But when I reviewed her book last June in the London Times, I found it a credible statement. Her voice is strong and individual. People complain that the book was ghost-written. Well, so what? She showed the ability to hire the right people! And in the current vacuum of the Democratic Party, with no dynamic candidates in sight, she’s suddenly gained enormously. So I began to look at her in a new way and have been hoping that she’d run. But I don’t think she’s a natural politician — she lacks spontaneity and instinct, and she’s always implying she’s smarter than the electorate.
I think Arnold Schwarzenegger learned from Hillary’s tactics in her senatorial campaign — that is, never do anything that isn’t staged. Never go on serious talk shows — just hide behind the late-night comedians and do chit-chat. Make sure public appearances are super-managed, using advance men to keep protesters away. It was a very antidemocratic way of campaigning, and Hillary gave Arnold the road map. I fail to see how Hillary will ever win any primaries outside the eastern and western seaboards. On the other hand, I think it’s crucial for women who are viable candidates to run. I really regret that Dianne Feinstein, who is way more presidential than Hillary, seems to lack the fire and drive for a national campaign.
Instead of writing shrill books, the way the liberals are doing these days, why don’t they look deeply into what’s happened to the Democratic Party? It’s lost its connection with the mass of people and is now driven by a snobbish elite of lawyers, snide journalists and consultants. Bush would be defeated if there was a strong Democratic candidate. But there isn’t one.
Many liberals — and many of the people buying those books you’re talking about — are celebrating the fall of Rush Limbaugh. Should they?
Look, I am a longtime listener of Rush Limbaugh because I’m a fan of AM radio. I’ve listened to radio since childhood. I was in anguish for a week over what was happening to Rush. It began with the flap over his remarks about our Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb being “overrated” because he’s black — an ill-advised intrusion of racial controversy into a tightly scripted jock show that wasn’t the right forum for political debate. Then within days, news broke of the National Enquirer’s cover story on Rush’s abuse of prescription pain medication. The news stunned his fans. For me, it was almost like when Diana had her accident or when Natalie Wood was found drowned off Santa Catalina. That’s the level of deep emotional upset that admirers of Rush had — not because his private life contradicted his public code but because of the revelation of the desperate, agonizing subterfuges to which he had been driven by his addiction.
Now, I do not agree with Rush on most political issues — I voted for Ralph Nader! And I definitely don’t agree with him on Iraq. But Rush transformed the media landscape in America. He resurrected AM radio. From coast to coast, AM radio is buzzing and vibrant because of what Rush did. He is a master broadcaster, a master of the microphone. Anyone who is a true student of media should respect his achievements.
Is his show what it was, say, in the early ’90s? No. When anyone makes it big and is suddenly hobnobbing with the rich and famous, of course he or she no longer has that fire in the belly. The outsider becomes the insider. This happened to Howard Stern too. But I’ve been saying to friends for several years that something was happening with Rush’s show. There was less air space and free-form rumination, less comedy and satire. At times, it felt like he was going through the motions, working himself up into a partisan fever because he thought his listeners expected it. I just assumed he was relaxing more, playing golf — which he deserved!
In the beginning of his career, Rush was an odd character who did nothing but devour the news all day long and give his take on it — and his audience kept expanding. Since Bush was elected, the show turned too much in an Us vs. Them direction — “us” being conservative Republicans. But Rush’s fan base crosses party lines. I now see that it was the drugs that were affecting the show. Rush was functioning amazingly well, but he was losing his original wide range of ideas.
When the McNabb flap broke, Rush could have caught himself and demonstrated his genuine erudition in football — which he’s shared with his audience for years. But suddenly his isolation became dramatically clear. Where was his staff? Callers to his show challenged him, asking who exactly in the media had ever overrated McNabb? Rush kept saying vaguely, “the Philadelphia media,” and I winced. The Philadelphia media have fried McNabb! For heaven’s sake, a radio star here even took a mob up to New York to boo McNabb on the day he was drafted! McNabb is personally very popular, but his uneven skills as a quarterback are constantly being hashed over here.
Days passed when Rush should have been getting research data from his staff — chapter and verse to support his position. His inability to manage basic crisis control amazed me. But through all of that public abuse and exposure, he emerged not diminished but with the dimension of a major Hollywood star, like Judy Garland, who attained semi-divinity through her drug overdoses and suicide attempts. It’s as if Rush stepped over from pugilistic political commentator to mysterious, tortured myth in just a few days.
When Democratic candidates like Dean attack Rush, they don’t realize how they are alienating millions of people. By blaming the messenger, all they’re doing is showing that the Democrats have no answer to the policy dilemmas of our day. And that Newsweek cover story hatchet job on Rush was a total disgrace! After two years of intense debate about whether the American media is biased toward liberals, for Newsweek to produce such a pathetically underreported piece of crap is mind-boggling. Rumor has it that Newsweek stringers had gathered more positive comments about Rush’s career that were junked by the top editors.
Of course the newsmagazines never honestly covered Rush Limbaugh as a major force in American media and politics since the early ’90s, but Newsweek finally put him on the cover for his drug scandal. That’s fine — it’s breaking news — but then shouldn’t they have interviewed some longtime Rush fans who know the show? But who do they call? Maureen Dowd — that catty, third-rate, wannabe sorority queen. She’s such an empty vessel. One pleasure of reading the New York Times online is that I never have to see anything written by Maureen Dowd! I ignore her hypertext like spam for penis extenders.
The nerve of Newsweek to be portraying Rush as a “schlub” — as if that wouldn’t describe half the big enchiladas in Hollywood! In 1992, at the glittering 25th anniversary black-tie party for “60 Minutes” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I dined at a small table with Rush Limbaugh. He was a jovial, witty, commanding figure who offered me a cigar. The distorted portrait of him in Newsweek was vile and meretricious.
Who is poised to take his place? Can anyone — on the right or left?
O’Reilly is a crass sliver of Limbaugh. He doesn’t have Limbaugh’s homespun Midwestern common sense or his broad sense of the nation. But O’Reilly and Hannity are thorns in liberals’ side, so there’s all this talk right now about getting liberal voices on the radio to counteract them. Well, Al Franken isn’t it, let me tell you right now — or Michael Moore either. Look at them! They’re like big, drooling babies — is this the face of the Democratic Party? Big, squalling babies — “wah wah wah!”
Liberals are the most Hollywood and media saturated — the ones most open to popular culture. So why is it that no liberal show seems to thrive on AM radio? My analysis is that liberal humor somehow switched gears and ran off the tracks. The scathing Lenny Bruce was a tremendous influence on me and everyone in the ’60s. His humor had an aggressive, ethnic edge and rhythmic style — it was like jazz and rap, and it was made for radio. But bourgeois liberals lost continuity with that raucous, vulgar voice.
The great switch — and I’m not sure how it happened — was into juvenile, white-boy David Letterman style, smirky, cynical, callow, smarmy and jejune. I wonder how many black fans Letterman has. I can’t stand him and never watch him. But those late-night shows became a vehicle for politicians — the Democrats started it, and conservatives have followed. And that media marriage between liberal figures and the smirky Letterman style has perverted the entire process. The authentic voice of talk radio is raw, rude and hot, hot, hot! — not that cool Letterman style (to use Marshall McLuhan’s media terminology).
There’s only one successful liberal voice on AM radio that I’ve ever heard, and that’s Ron Kuby on New York’s WABC. He’s a leftist lawyer who shares a show with the conservative, obnoxious Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels. Kuby is whip-smart, funny and empathic. He shows that it is possible to get a strong liberal voice on the air. But it’s got to be somebody with a quick-to-the-draw, damn-the-torpedoes rap. You can’t have an unctuous, pompous Cuomo voice or a simpering, precious Al Gore voice. And the whiny Al Franken may draw comedy fans, but as a political analyst, he’s the joke.
So, then who?
Hannity is a massive, coast-to-coast phenomenon. He’s gobbling up more and more station programming and in the long run is going to be more successful than O’Reilly. On his recent book tour, Hannity drew huge, enthusiastic crowds all over the country. He boasts disturbingly on his show about “the Hannitization of America” and refers to himself with the royal “we.” He feigns modesty but is embarrassingly drunk on his cult of self. I’ve concluded that O’Reilly and Hannity have had huge success because of their Irish gift of gab — a nonstop river of words where meaning sometimes becomes completely unmoored. I cannot stand Hannity. But I listen to him, because he gives good radio! He also reveres Rush and has clearly learned from him.
But it’s distressing to me as a teacher to listen to Hannity. Even though he went to college, his world is amazingly simple — as if he learned the absolute truths of the universe from Catholic catechism. He seems to be blissfully unaware of his automatic and sometimes servile deference to male authority. Of course he’s emotionally pro-Bush and pro-war in Iraq: the Bush administration has made no mistakes and never stretched a fact. Anyone who questions Bush is a traitor who is undermining our troops. Liberals hate America. And America is always right, especially when it selflessly brings the joys of freedom to the down-trodden serfs of the world. Hannity seems to have had absolutely no experience of any country or people beyond our borders. For him, America is a blessed, sunny islet in a dark sea of oppression and ignorance. It’s frightening because Hannity has such mental and verbal energy. What we’re hearing from him, I’m afraid, is the future of America. His view is persuasive because it’s so simple: The world has become too complex for people to take in.
When I listen to Hannity, which I do a lot, I feel like I’m being swept back to the rigid, conformist 1950s of my youth. In my lifetime I’ve seen two moments when I felt we were moving toward an expanded perspective on life, a more flexible attitude toward issues — authentic free thought, without this horrible, irreconcilable polarization between left and right. The first moment was the 1960s, when thanks to pioneers like Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, you could say anything and be anything. You could be eccentric and opinionated on the left, but it was all shut down into the dogmatic, politically correct era that reached its height in the 1980s. The second liberating moment was the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton emerged as a moderate Southern Democrat. There were independent voices all over the political spectrum — Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and Madonna, who was at her zenith. And then it all shut down again. I blame it on Clinton, who should have resigned when the Monica Lewinsky affair broke. He would have spared the nation tremendous trauma, and his successor, Al Gore, could have been more attentive to the looming threat of terrorism. Instead Clinton clung to power, and it re-polarized the country. Let’s not leave out the moronic stunts of the far right, who thought they had nailed Clinton and put all that porn on the Internet.
As a culture critic and intellectual, I am in despair about the immediate future of American thought. The window has closed, and we are in Sean Hannity’s America, where everything is so elementary and so crystal clear.
On to another, possibly declining, important cultural figure: Madonna.
Speak of schizophrenia! Within two weeks, Madonna can appear on the MTV Video Music Awards dressed in black leather as Vampira, Queen of the Night, and in her persona of polygamous dominatrix smooch Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on the lips, then suddenly turn up in a matronly flowered dress in London kicking off her new children’s book, pushing Kaballah as the future of mankind, and saying oh, pooh, it was just an innocent kiss between friends. [Sighs.] What can I say? Madonna remains a major star — actually much bigger around the world now than she is in America. She got overexposed and lost ground in the U.S., then gravitated toward London and ended up marrying an Englishman. Because there are few real stars in the U.K., she created a big platform for herself there.
But I do feel there’s something wrong with that kiss. Great stars have to learn to age gracefully. I loved it when Stevie Nicks — who’s a true artist — zinged Madonna for “kissing girls half her age.” She was right. Madonna was trying not only to compete with these figures she spawned but to overshadow and upstage them and suck them dry. It was very unfair to Britney Spears, even though she looked spectacular in white lace — as nubile as a real bride. Jennifer Lopez was smarter and opted out.
It’s crucial for the great stars to find a persona that allows them to mature with their fan base. Look at Cher! Just when Madonna’s latest film and album were flopping, there’s Cher on the charts for a year with her song collection. Cher has a natural warmth and rapport with the audience. But Madonna feels like she has to pound everyone into the ground like a steam hammer.
And that children’s book! When I found out what the plot was, I was absolutely shocked — and I’m rarely shocked, particularly by anything that Madonna does! But for someone who has been so concerned about shielding her child from the limelight to make Lourdes’ problems with her London classmates the subject of a book — and then to blame it on the other girls’ “jealousy” because her daughter is so pretty — and then to arrange a mega-wattage book launch with editions simultaneously released all over the world! Well, I haven’t seen anything so gross since Al Gore used his son’s near-fatal accident as a metaphor for America in the gutter in his speech at the Democratic convention. Anyone who exploits their children in this way is exposing a blindness to basic ethics. In the guise of helping, Madonna has crushed her daughter with her own ego — hardly a way to help young people adapt to life’s problems. I’ve prophesied for years that the cloud on Lourdes’ horizon is the ghost of Tina Onassis, who also had too much too soon.
But these things are irrelevant to Madonna’s permanent artistic stature. Her best compositions, like “Into the Groove” — 20 years old next year — never lose their freshness. Her videos are in the main line of the best of studio-era Hollywood. I personally feel that the video for “Vogue” is superior to anything produced in the fine arts worldwide in the last decades of the 20th century.
She’s at least taking care of herself — we’re not seeing nervous breakdowns and drug overdoses. Madonna’s drug is mania — these monstrous intrusions into her husband’s and children’s lives. But all great stars and great artists are monsters. I’ll be happily watching her to the end.
Who has emerged to eclipse her? Where is the next Madonna, the mass-multimedia star?
I’m afraid that the great era of great stars and great personalities is over. American popular culture, which I thought was in a Renaissance, turns out to have had a natural organic shape to it, and this is its stage of decline. The entertainment industry is massive but fragmented. Video games have absorbed young people’s creative energies and diverted them away from the study or practice of the fine arts.
The Web has also dealt a fatal blow to the culture of stardom because isolated types can now instantly express and exhibit their conflicts and find fellow sufferers around the world through the Web. But e-mail is evanescent. And the blog form is, in my view, the decadence of the Web. I don’t see blogs as a new frontier but as a falling backwards into word-centric print journalism — words, words, words!
The Drudge Report, on the other hand, is a true product of the Web. It’s interesting how Matt Drudge still has no competitors. I used to think, how long can Drudge be king? Surely his rivals will spring up like mushrooms. But no, Drudge remains unique. He shows that the Web can be a medium for stardom, if you know how to use it. Unlike Madonna, he knows how to preserve his mystery.
But I’m very worried because young people are growing up without major role models in terms of stardom. Madonna was trained as a dancer and had independent ideas about music and performance. Too many young stars are bland Madonna clones without a thought in their heads. Because she was raised in a rigidly moralistic Catholic household, Madonna’s use of sex had symbolic meaning — she was challenging institutional tyranny. Now girls borrow her moves, but there are no ideas behind it. It’s all glitz for the eye.
I like Britney Spears — I find her very charming and athletic and sexy — but she’s not producing the kind of galvanizing songs that were Madonna’s signature. And she also doesn’t have Madonna’s sophisticated, hypnotic skill for posing for the still camera — which emblazoned her image into the minds of people who never heard a note of her music. None of these young women has that ability to master and manipulate the world media.
Why aren’t you a fan of blogs?
Blog reading for me is like going down to the cellar amid shelves and shelves of musty books that you’re condemned to turn the pages of. Bad prose, endless reams of bad prose! There’s a lack of discipline, a feeling that anything that crosses one’s mind is important or interesting to others. People say that the best part about writing a blog is that there’s no editing — it’s free speech without institutional control. Well, sure, but writing isn’t masturbation — you’ve got to self-edit.
Now and then one sees the claim that Kausfiles was the first blog. I beg to differ: I happen to feel that my Salon column was the first true blog. My columns had punch and on-rushing velocity. They weren’t this dreary meta-commentary, where there’s a blizzard of fussy, detached sections nattering on obscurely about other bloggers or media moguls and Washington bureaucrats. I took hits at media excesses, but I directly commented on major issues and personalities in politics and pop culture.
If bloggers want to break out of their ghetto, they’ve got to acquire a sense of drama and theater as well as a flair for language. Why else should anyone read them? And the Web in my view is a visual medium — I don’t log on to be trapped on a muddy page crammed with indigestible prose.
Do you also think that anyone is interesting enough to have something worthwhile to say, sometimes several times a day, on a blog?
Sure, if there’s a powerful sensibility behind it. But every writer must work on his or her prose to find a voice. No major figure has emerged yet from the blogs — Andrew Sullivan was already an established writer before he started his. A blog should sound conversational and be an antidote to the inept writing in most of today’s glossy magazines.
As a writer, I’m inspired not just by other writing but by music and art and lines from movies. I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of blogs. Most bloggers aren’t culture critics but political or media junkies preoccupied with pedestrian minutiae and a sophomoric “gotcha” mentality. I find it depressing and claustrophobic. The Web is a wide open space — voices on it should have energy and vision.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.