Thursday, September 27, 2012

All Crowds Left

(Postcard from Alexander Cockburn, 1988)

Steve Rendall reminded me. Not that I needed it. But it was nice.

I met Steve around 1988. He brought musical energy to FAIR, the media group that was then my home. He smiled, had intensity, and with guitar sang.

We were part of a loose-fitting close-knit family. Lots of love and plenty of fights. We had opinions. Issues.

Central America wars. The anti-apartheid struggle. Emerging Palestinian rights. AIDS activism.

These were on the front burners. This is what provoked us.

The 80s were a golden radical time, Steve said. We were all engaged, determined, and decidedly younger.

Despite the obvious nostalgic lure, I tend to agree with Steve. Dissent went wider and deeper than in the 60s. A bustling alternative culture emerged. This included journalism and polemics.

Alexander Cockburn had a big hand in that. His Nation column was perhaps the most radical of that time. Stylish, penetrating, at times maddening. But singular.

Last Saturday night in Brooklyn, there was a memorial for Cockburn organized by his niece Laura Flanders, held in her partner Elizabeth Streb's performance space, SLAM.

Old timers' night in young, hipster Williamsburg.

I've never attended a high school reunion. The memorial was as close as I'll probably get.

Numerous friends, family and comrades shared personal anecdotes and read passages from Cockburn's work. Not all of it came across smoothly. Cockburn's words need some theatrical flourish to fully soar, but several people stumbled on sentences or were barely heard.

Others conjured Alex's spirit. Kevin Alexander Gray humorously recalled Cockburn's love of Southern barbecue and classic American cars. Noam Chomsky spoke of when he and Cockburn sang ballads in an Irish pub. Alex's daughter Daisy played a sweet song that she sang to her father on his deathbed.

Steve and Laura read from Cockburn's 1982 parody of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report -- "The Tedium Twins." Beforehand, I suggested that Steve try to mimic Jim Lehrer's voice, offering my interpretation. But like Tom Braden, a Lehrer impression is lost to the ages. Steve opted for straight naturalism.

Toward the end, the Cockburn family took over the proceedings. They are a striking bunch. Confident. Intelligent. Intimate. They exude an air of entitlement, yet are approachable. They appreciate classical tenors and gritty blues singers. They trash the empire while embracing much of Americana.

I envied them back in the day. What was it like to grow up in a literate, politicized environment where you were expected to form and express opinions? To share in a distinctive tradition?

I couldn't imagine it. Another reality. I got a close glimpse over a number of years, but the Cockburn mystique remained distant. At least to me.

Afterward, I reconnected with a number of old political friends and colleagues. Talked briefly with Andrew Cockburn, Tariq Ali, and Noam, whose mind remains sharp as his body slows down.

Then I hooked up with James Wolcott, whose remembrance of Cockburn remains among the best.

Jim joined me, Scott P. and Laura G. in a car ride back to Manhattan. We discussed the NFL's degradation, Burt Reynolds movies, forgotten comedians like Shecky Greene and Pat McCormick, JonBenét Ramsey, and whether or not Robert Blake was guilty of murder.

Another slice of Americana. Something Alex C. might have appreciated.