A Week in Culture: Hilton Als, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Als’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


I finished watching There Will Be Blood, hours after I’d returned from visiting an actor friend in Brooklyn. She had a terrible accident while filming an episode of SVU (or SUV—I never know what that show’s called). An actor shook her too hard, hurting her neck, so, in order to see my friend, I have to go to her. Despite her pain, my friend was herself, which is to say a real raconteur, one of the last of the best. She punctuates her story-telling with peals of laughter, knowing pauses, and concern. Her presence is part of what makes New York itself, a city filled with jumpy and funny and paranoid people—particularly in the summer. Before I left my friend’s house we talked about how scary we both find Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Then I got on the subway, which is far from my house; I had to walk past the Brooklyn Hospital to get there, perhaps my least favorite walk in the world, since my mother spent a great deal of time in that hospital when I was a kid, thus instituting my continual anxiety about separation, and my need to be alone so it doesn’t happen. No one leaves if no one is invited in.

After I got home, I saw gothic everywhere—such was There Will Be Blood‘s continuing sway over my imagination. Paul Thomas Anderson in no way obscures the gothic tone in Upton Sinclair’s book, Oil!—the source material for his movie. Indeed, I started thinking about one of my favorite American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, during Blood’s end credits. Is Hawthorne not one of the architects of our American interest in a world peopled, say, white-collared, circle girls screaming twice-told tales from a morally divided heart?


Back to the issue of time. One way to measure it’s passing is by watching porn. Before you know it, yesterday’s semi-twink is today’s suited, inscrutable Daddy. While gay porn actors generally make the transition less disfigured by cosmetic surgery than female actors in straight porn, for instance, one sometimes senses what plastic surgery can, at least in part, disguise: exhaustion.

Take Zak Spears for instance. While Spears often took on the “butch,” role in early films—the Spears character has always been critical, hard to read, slow to commit to the action but, once engaged, insatiable—one never got the sense that his interest in his partner was diminished by performing scripted sex. Now, in his latest movie, Unsuited, Spears is in full Daddy mode. But behind the gruff instructions to his young “boy,” during their table top assignation, one senses Spears’ boredom with the entire enterprise. Does time erode our ability to find surprise in most situations? As we grow older, do we spend more and more time sitting in craters of boredom?

This is the kind of exegesis—porn as a metaphor about time connection—that one could express without a qualm to the late and lamented editor, Barbara Epstein. As one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, Barbara’s profound gift—among many—was for seeing what her writers could not, and not insisting on a change during the editing process that would derail your thought, but enhanced it. She was a real world saint who was familiar enough with this common place that she knew humor was not a character trait, but a saving grace. And among the graces, she was the most graceful.


Another weekend of packed bags and crushed linens and promises to come back to this shore, or spend Labor Day with this loved one, or the next. The only constant, really, is reading: on trains, on buses, in the air. The Believer‘s Music issue has a number of stand out pieces, including a study by Joe Hagan about the late Nina Simone that is transfixing if only because it’s alternately shocking and loving. We see Nina in despair, Nina in ecstasy. (P. J. Harvey wrote a haunting song titled just that.) But mostly what the piece is about is the axis where her monumental sadness, self-absorption, and sexuality meet.

I couldn’t wait to discuss it with fellow diva-watcher and sympathetic lesbian separatist Nathan Carrera, a wonderful new performer around town, who’s probably familiar to the denizens of certain East Village bars and clubs as much for his striking appearance—Nathan sometimes sports a white swan hat and a guitar as a complete look—his essayistic tone in form songs about female revenge and politics, or for performing with Justin Bond, the most enlightening truth teller to stand behind a mic in a very long time.

These summer days, Justin has been working on an album with fellow musicians Thomas Bartlett and Sam Amidon, lyrical troubadors originally from Vermont who support Justin’s roiling monologues with the finesse of fine young men who find a lady’s various emotional complexities to have a music of its own. Amidon’s new album, I See The Signs, is an exceptional piece of music because its conceived as a whole—that is, as an album. And if there’s a “message,” to be gleaned from the piece it’s that hope is something one works toward, and bears witness to. His cover of R. Kelly’s “Relief,” is not to be missed, nor is Thomas Bartlett’s The Conformist. Bartlett records under the name, Doveman, and his songs are a kind of bossa nova of despair—entreaties to love him in the dark, to smear his mouth with your lipstick breath.

I watch Justin with his various collaborators because we’re working on a piece together about the late Lena Horne, and when I’m writing for a performer, I need to absorb them—indeed, to become them for a while—the better to incorporate their voice and style in the script. To that end, I’ve been reading all things Lena, and had completely forgotten that I’d written about her until Justin and I started work. The piece was never published by The New Yorker, but one of the great pleasures of having this blog space, is that it leaves publishing, like time, entirely in your hands:

Nearly two hours and forty minutes before taking the stage at Avery Fisher Hall where she sang a spirited version of “I’ll Love You As Long As I Live,” to hundreds of fans who had gathered not just to mark her eightieth birthday nearly two years ago now, but to honor her receipt of the ninth “Ella” award (named after the formidable jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald) for lifetime achievement in vocal artistry, Lena Horne herself sat in a large gray chair in a small white walled room—both just off her dressing room—waiting to go on. Dressed in black flats, black satin slacks, and a black organza jacket, she looked like any number of her photographs. To be more precise, Lena Horne looked, that early summer evening as she greeted well wishers who were also scheduled to
perform—Steve and Eydie, Liza Minnelli, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson—like a completely realized amalgamation of the various Lenas she’s projected in films, on television, and the stage: animated, mercurial, stalwart, bemused—a physically emotive presence. But what Horne has garnered relatively little public recognition for during her nearly sixty-five years in show business is her concentrated interest in the politics of race, a concern Ms. Horne may feel especially comfortable exchanging ideas about when her interlocutor is black. “I come from a family whose commitment to civil rights permitted me to survive show business,” Ms. Horne said with a laugh—not a laugh exactly but an almost soundless giggle emitted from deep within the recesses of her long, snaky, Lena throat. “When I first started out at the Cotton Club, I was sixteen,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sing or dance, and those gangsters who ran the place thought I was cute. I went to work because my family needed to eat. The fact that those gangsters thought I was cute didn’t mean a thing to me—it never did. When white people said it, I could tell they didn’t know what they were talking about; I knew tons of people who looked like me when I was growing up. What I did that was different was to go out on auditions.”

During the course of her career—a career that parallels segregation, integration, and the current rise in miscegenation in this country, all of which Horne has experienced herself—she developed a persona whose distinctive syntax and attitude combined the grand and the lowdown. Her significance always seemed to be less about what she did than being America’s first crossover star, a feat Horne managed, in part, because she didn’t sing “Ole Man River.” Through her work as a singer and occasional actress, Lena Horne exposed white America to different aspects of the black experience—style and sass for starters—without having to sing the blues. Indeed, it is precisely this quality (the myriad facets of black American style and music) that the documentarian Ken Burns represents in his brilliant 10-part, 19 hour documentary, Jazz (a GM Mark of Excellence Presentation that will air on PBS this January), and the show’s companion volume written in collaboration with the noted critic and historian, Geoffrey C. Ward. In viewing the remarkable vocalists Burns pays homage to in the
film—ranging from Billie Holiday to Sarah Vaughn to jazz’s contemporary diva, the dreadlocked Cassandra Wilson—one is struck by the ways in which jazz, perhaps the most distinctly American art form there is, has been embodied by the very powerful women who have been attracted to the form, and contributed a great deal to this ever evolving new sound, which had its start in the famous Storeyville, New Orleans’ red light district, more than a century ago. While jazz is blues-based, not all of its female vocalists are from the South, or subject to male oppression or, indeed, sing the blues: the popular, stereotypical image. Take, for instance, Ethel Waters, of the first great stars on Broadway. Born in Philadelphia, Waters’ sleek, ironic style was distinctly Northern in tone. When we see footage of her trying to play a Mammy, carrying a basket of cotton, she looks odd, out of place, and why shouldn’t she? It wasn’t her milieu. She was much more at home in the “hot jazz” stylings of jazz-influenced composers like Cole Porter, who looked at the world with one eyebrow arched, a champagne cocktail fizzling away in some secluded rendezvous. In Jazz, Horne calls Waters “the mother of us all”,” meaning Waters influence, which encouraged Horne and the like to sing of their experience, not wear head rags, and be stereotypically “black” for their largely white audience, is one of the very first lessons the very best jazz singers always teach, by example: remain true to your voice. As Ken Burns says, “Jazz offers a precise prism through which so much of American history can be seen.” It was precisely that prism that Waters and Holiday and Vaughn and Horne saw themselves through: that music their lives helped to create, and shape, with feeling.

Hilton Als is a staff writer at The New Yorker.