Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour Rolls Again

With a new film and music recording, Bob Dylan’s rollicking Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76 is back in the public eye. Writing for UMass Lowell, longtime music journalist Dave Perry recounts the Lowell, Mass., stop of Dylan’s caravan. The gypsy bandmates stopped in Lowell for this reason, according to Rolling Stone magazine: “The Pilgrims Have Landed on Kerouac’s Grave.” In tribute to one of his early artistic influences, Dylan stayed overnight in a motel by the highway after the concert in Costello Gym on the north campus of what is now UMass Lowell, across Riverside Street from young Jack’s growing-up neighborhood in the 1930’s. In the morning the group, guided by Kerouac’s brother-in-law Tony Sampas whose sister had married Jack in 1966, visited highly charged Kerouac locations in the city like the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes behind the Franco-American School on Pawtucket Street (also a setting for scenes in K’s novel “Doctor Sax”), a powerful religious site for young Jack, and the author’s grave at Seventh and Lincoln streets in Edson Cemetery in South Lowell (where Dylan and Allen Ginsberg communed with Kerouac’s spirit in the bright November sun under autumn trees).

Many years later, I was with my family in Liverpool, England, doing the Beatles pilgrimage, visiting the suburban-like home where young John Lennon grew up (Aunt Mimi’s on Menlove Avenue). The curator who greeted us said Bob Dylan had been there two weeks earlier, looking around John’s old bedroom, the tiny enclosed porch where John and Paul McCartney composed songs, and the landscaped back yard beyond which is the children’s home called Strawberry Field, where John roamed the grounds and woods. Dylan is a pilgrim like the rest of us.

Here’s the Dave Perry article.

Later, I wrote a poem to mark the occasion of Dylan’s public tribute to Jack Kerouac:

Dylan Sings to Kerouac

The railroad earth

The hot autumn earth

The cemetery earth

The Lincoln earth

The November earth

The dharma karma earth

The Indian summer earth

The Rolling Thunder earth

The musical earth

The deep dug earth

The Lowell earth

The afternoon earth

The literary earth

The cowboy poet earth

The Minnesota earth

The French-Canadian earth

The old Jewish earth

The Bicentennial earth

The folk ground

The quiet ground

The round red earth

The hay-colored earth

The sunny leaves on earth

The brown and red-brick leaves

The yellow-orange leaves

The golden red grave leaves.


Joan Baez & Bob Dylan singing at Costello Gym in Lowell, Nov. 2, ‘75. Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell.

Joan Baez & Bob Dylan singing at Costello Gym in Lowell, Nov. 2, ‘75. Photo courtesy of UMass Lowell.

My ink-and-watercolor notebook sketch of the concert scene made a day later.

My ink-and-watercolor notebook sketch of the concert scene made a day later.

Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery, Nov. 3, 1975. Photo courtesy of “Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder” by film director Martin Scorsese.

Dylan and poet Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Edson Cemetery, Nov. 3, 1975. Photo courtesy of “Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder” by film director Martin Scorsese.

War & Poetry

Marcel Marion soldier (2).jpg

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” [Today, we’d say sons and daughters.]
― John Adams, “Letters of John Adams,” addressed to his wife, Abigail Adams, 1780

Photo mash-up by Joe Marion with Marcel Marion, US Army, fighting the fascists, 1945, and me, reading the poem I was commissioned to write for the Sesquicentennial Celebration in Lowell, Mass., 1986.

The Insulation of Ordinariness (2016)

I’m cross-posting this archived item from the RichardHowe.com blog in Lowell, Mass.

After reading today’s New York Times article about Ohio supporters of President Trump who are staying the course with him despite all the chaos associated with his presidency, I’m re-posting my thoughts about his victory that appeared on this blog on Nov. 16, 2016.

It would be a mistake for me to claim that he can’t win another term. He has triggered something in tens of millions of people (more than 60 million voted for him) that is emotionally loaded and not going away. But he’s also got a coating of familiarity that cannot be overlooked. He likes glitzy hotels, fast food, beauty pageants, TV wrestling, casinos, Twitter, and junk news. He’s not pretending in this. He really likes all those things. He hasn’t had one “arts” evening at the White House even though Kanye and Kid Rock have visited. And he swaggers. Some of us may think he’s a fool, but he’s got amazing stamina in his current role. Has he been sick one day since taking office? Right now, he’s running the House Democrats around in circles, insulting them once an hour as they chase him with a butterfly net.

The Democrats, Independents, and Republicans who don’t want to see him repeat in 2020 better speak up, organize, and write checks for the cause. The media and polls may be as wrong this time as most of them were in 2016. The 2018 U.S. House results were encouraging, but not the U.S. Senate results. Don’t bet your own house on Trump losing.–PM


(Nov. 16, 2016)

IN COMPANY WITH OUR READERS, I have been thinking about the election results and reading articles left-right-and-center for a week. How did Donald Trump manage one of the epic upsets in American political history? Why did so many people who analyze government and politics for a living miss what was going to happen?

I get the appeal of his blunt talk about making America a “winner” again, in economic and military power. I get the effectiveness of pinning the blame on certain groups of people for the troubles on Main Street in Middle America. Aside from that, however, Trump benefited, in my view, from his massive exposure as a TV personality, a TV character, really, which I believe provided a kind of insulation of ordinariness. In other words, the obnoxious uncle who comes to Thanksgiving dinner and says gross things and acts weird may get excused as “That’s just uncle Sherman” because he is so familiar and is known for saying and doing thousands of things over the years, many of them not so bad. The out-of-bounds behavior is diluted in all the other stuff that has been seen and heard by people who know him. Years of weekly TV exposure made Trump, for some people, a person/character whom they could relate to in an almost non-judgmental way, a family way. He just “was” or “is.” My family regularly watched his show “The Apprentice” because my son liked it when he was about 12 years old. Around our house somewhere is a Donald Trump action figure in a suit. When the string in the figure’s back is pulled, you hear “You’re fired!”

Has Trump done something to change the campaign paradigm with his success or was he simply a “perfect storm” candidate who was the right person for this combustible moment competing against an opponent with lots of baggage? Will he be the start of more celebrity politicians with 100 percent name recognition going in to a contest? There are precedents such as Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, and even General Eisenhower in the 1950s, all outsiders in their own way coming in to the political sector from the entertainment world or for “Ike” the military. Trump’s Republican opponents were relative nobodies compared to his celebrity status. Jeb Bush is a Bush, but who really knew much about him?

I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that his ultra-familiar presence is the reason he was excused for statements and actions that would have finished a conventional candidate. Trashing a P.O.W? Disrespecting a Gold Star family? Refusing to release tax returns? Bragging about sexual assault? Somewhere I read that his followers “took him seriously but not literally” while his foes took him literally but not seriously. That may be too glib a way of describing what happened, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. Otherwise, how did he get a pass from so many people? It’s too broad to say they were all “deplorable.” I know some good folks who chose him because he held out the possibility of blowing up the hardened political spoils system. And some people just felt, “Let it fly,” I’m sick of the whole thing in Washington, D.C. And for most of them the other choice was a non-starter. Not everyone spends a lot of time thinking about politics. But most people know they can vote, take action, and maybe make a difference once in a while. Tens of millions of people are happy about the outcome. There is something to be learned here.

At the start of his administration, however, it does not look like he is going to “drain the swamp” of influence peddlers and cash-distributors and will instead blow up social and environmental programs with the assistance of the Republican-controlled Congress.

Gary Snyder, Remembering What He Read (1991)

For his birthday week (89 years old), I’m reposting this 2018 piece from my blog about Gary Snyder’s visit to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on November 10, 1990. He read his poems and talked about writing and other subjects at Boylston Hall. The following composition captures the setting and some of his comments from that night. It was the second time I had attended a reading by Snyder, the first being at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., some years before. Snyder was a leading figure in poetry for me going back to the 1970s when I became serious about writing. His early book Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems influenced my work. His essays are as important to me as the poems. The event at Harvard marked the release of a collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild. Of particular interest to me is Snyder’s stance in relation to the various communities with which he connects, whether immediate neighbors, sympathetic readers, activists aligned with his environmental views, or other networks. His advice about putting a stake down and getting involved in the community of your choice reinforced my instinctive feeling that local engagement is essential. This prose sketch was published in Beat Scene magazine in England in 1991 and had not been reprinted until its appearance on the blog. The portrait is a watercolor from the late 1970s , which I failed to date specifically. I made a series of illustrations of poets I was reading at the time. I don’t know why he has no eyes here.


Gary Snyder: Remembering What He Read

RAIN-WHIPPED NIGHT OUTSIDE nondescript auditorium, school hall plain to hold wild ideas, maybe. Slowly building crowd reaches some 100 — students, Cantabrigians, academic scruffs, a few small kids, casual country-style dressers shaking off the wet. Someone tells me Snyder asked to make an appearance, saying, “He used to be a hanger-on here years ago,” but I can’t figure the logic of that since he’s from the west. This fall, he’s teaching a stint just south at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The Grolier poetry chapel has a book table in back. Microphone test next, and then, what’s this?, a video disc player is brought in.

Huge man in plaid shirt overfills a front seat. Two croissant-eating youngsters with blonde mom reading a college paper take seats to my right. Young woman behind me describes a film about the Berlin Wall. Many Snyderish men with beards, ponytails, work clothes. Another woman reading Ovid. Someone with stacks of books expecting GS to sign. A few veteran professors in the young-trending audience. Raincoats bejeweled with drops. A host of earth-colored sweaters. Cups of yogurt and steamy coffee. Umbrellas and ponchos shaken. Two black wooden chairs at a fold-up table on stage. Tech director in his booth drinks from a quart of orange juice.

This event celebrates the publication of an essay collection, The Practice of the Wild, and re-issue of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems by North Point Press of San Francisco, those lovely, flinty old poems that made such a difference long ago. GS starts reading “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” ends “Looking down for miles/Through high still air.” Then he tells on himself: “There’s something not true in this poem—’I cannot remember things I once read’”— he admits, “I could remember Chinese poems. Maybe the truth is I can’t forget anything I’ve ever read.” Follows with “Piute Creek” with “All the junk that goes with being human”—”I was working for the National Park Service at the time.”

He picks up the essays, ten years of work. “How do we resolve the dichotomy of civilization and the wild?”— “What we call wild is very orderly.” He reads calmly with witty intonations. The audience wants to laugh and chuckle, they are so happy to be in the room with him. “We have made a lot of this place, but the fishing is no good anymore,” a car dealer in California told him.

On stage GS is a small-framed man with gray-brown hair and a short gray beard wearing a blue cotton shirt open at the neck under a charcoal-gray sport coat. He says, “Very bold people from the ‘60s are still in play. Everybody’s heart was in the right place.” To the guaranteed-to-be-asked question about Jack Kerouac, he replies: “Part of his problem was alcohol . . . He looked to the past but was not necessarily reactionary. He was charming in his way.” And on being the model for Japhy Ryder, he reminds us: The Dharma Bums is a novel. “I like The Subterraneans better than The Dharma Bums, and Doctor Sax is my favorite Kerouac novel.” GS recalls climbing the Matterhorn again—”Range after range of mountains/Year after year/I am still in love.”

Why do you write?, he’s asked. “It helps me organize my own thoughts. It’s a way to participate in your community. I never thought of writing as a solitary activity. I always considered it a dialogue.” To another questioner, he responds, “You have to be a working-class person to read a lot.” He talks about community work, political work, cultural work. He says his plan for the next seven years is to finish many writing projects. “Everyone is busy. Why? They’re trying to keep up with things.” And near the close says lightheartedly, “My daily life is like everyone else’s.”

—-Paul Marion, 1990



Each time I open a package of the hazard-orange crackers,

I think first of my mother, Doris, who called them “Nabs,”

And then of myself as a college freshman between classes,

Feeding a vending machine. My wife says food that color

Must be toxic. Now, it’s mother-in-law Mary with snacks

Fit for a brown bag, school lunch box, day camp pack:

My sorry choice, wrapped in cellophane maybe weeks ago,

Loud like Longhorn Cheddar, glazed with peanut butter.

I chomp on what I shouldn’t want, as stubborn as my dad,

Who refused to see a dentist until he didn’t need his teeth.

At the link, what’s this about?

Web images of products courtesy of www.picswe

Web images of products courtesy of www.picswe

Paris Glass

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 2017

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, 2017

In the fall of 2017, my wife Rosemary and I visited France for ten days, starting in Paris and then traveling north on the Seine River through Normandy. I had not been to Paris, so all the sights and sounds and aromas filled me to the brim. The day before we boarded the ship, I poured my fresh impressions into a notebook, which I later used to make this poem. The form flowed from distinct moments that had piled up in my notes. Why did I use "glass" in the title? I like the sound of the two words together and the simplicity. Also, one of the most striking sensory impressions I had was the magnificent stained glass in churches around the city. Glass allows us to see through if it's clear, so the poem is a way of looking at what I'd taken in. I'm happy with the title because it's unexpected, I think. I reach for that to make a composition a bit special. 

Paris Glass


Near Sainte-Chapelle, a seated old woman with short black hair shows us two fluffy rabbits, white-and-brown, on leashes at her spot of sidewalk mid-bridge where she has a pile of greens, two cups of pellets, and water in a shiny silver bowl. 


On a black iron church fence on Blvd. St.-Germain a poet-painter offers a line of monotypes, colored abstractions, stylized landmarks accented with words by Apollinaire, Neruda, Rimbaud, Rilke, lyric slivers of emotion and insight, his pop-up gallery in the boundless market.


Making our way down the guidebook trail past the Voltaire statue, house of George Sand, and then the toy store linked to Le Petit Prince and Babar the Elephant, the hand-written notice: “Fermé Lundi,” dark interior, select playthings on the inside window ledge, plastic city figures, fire fighters and soccer stars.


Palais de Justice surrounding virtuoso stained glass, and the Gendarmerie forces all about the wide courthouse steps close to St. Louis chapel with its high windows as bright as diced fruit at mid-morning.


See-through boats as long as trains filled with white cloth-covered tables for four going north on the Seine, greenish brown, sliding past the bookstalls where casual tenders hawk vintage film magazines, fugitive pop culture posters, tiers of paperbacks in French and Euro languages, the stalls like big lidded tea tins mounted on cement walls above the river, the shelves, racks, and spinners dense with Marlon Brando, Picasso, Led Zeppelin, Camus, Baudelaire, and Monet prints, portraits of Princess Di, limited-edition Simone de Beauvoirs, cat postcards, Napoleon pennants, stained cookbooks.


Icy green-glass bottles of Coca-Cola delivered two and four at a time by waiters to smoking models, lunch loafers, and graybeards in jeans and leather waist-jackets, sitting side-by-side, drinking wine and touching shoulders like men in Omaha, Nebraska, would never do, all the citizens tucked into their Café Palette tables filled with plates of sumptuous roasted whole legs of chicken on rice beds, the couscous special, yolked ham-and-cheese croque-madames, baby spinach with a mustard-honey dollop, and sparkling water, not still, this fizzy afternoon on the Left Bank.


Nine hundred years, Notre-Dame de Paris, in a land where eight of ten churches are tributes to Mary Mother of Catholic-God’s Son. The hard gargoyle, hands a-ears, won’t hear St. Denis’s severed head scream to warn about the devil’s movement on Mary’s shoulder. A fair sample of the world lined up outside, Swedish and Chinese guests doing the selfie thing at Point Zero, brass disk from which radiate concentric cultural waves.


La Tour Eiffel, tan as a desert rat and peeling on the sun side from a bad and outsourced paint job, the surface muted in daylight, matching neighborhood architecture, sand, earth, stone, olive, gray, a blend of neutrals almost like a trick in the City of Light, as subtle as the Sahel peddlers with dozens of small twinkling towers spread on sheets which get hauled up by four corners and slung over shoulders in two seconds when the police pull up, the vendors all of sudden just St. Nicks in Nikes, “Nothing to see here, move along, nobody selling, displays only, no problem, everybody wants a tower, everyone needs a light.”


Figs and mushrooms and strawberries displayed like museum pieces that can be touched. Brilliant oranges from South Africa piled up for squeezing, orange oil perfuming the intersection. Baguette sandwiches in hashtag stacks. The cheeses sit by their names, waiting to be called on and not saying a word to the salami.    


Hemingway’s favorite writing place in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. There. No, over there. No, no, it’s across the street for sure. He drank there all the time. 

Via Galactica

The news that astronomers are expected to reveal images (“pictures of a pair of putative black holes,” according to NY Times) of two gargantuan cosmic entities in two galaxies, our Milky Way and Messier 87, sent me back to my composition “Via Galactica” from 2004. I’m surprised that contemporary poets don’t write more about space. We don’t have a Walt Whitman of the Milky Way or the countless other galaxies. Maybe space is more suited to filmmakers now that we have that technology. The body of work on that subject is substantial and growing. I remain intrigued by the mysterious and infinite out there.


Via Galactica

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

—President John F. Kennedy, 1962, Rice University 


When I turned 50 years old, I decided to try to keep up with the Universe, that, and the world of high finance. It was time to both take care of business and contemplate the long view. What is “This” all about?

     I bought a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine, which advertises “innovative astro-imaging gear for non-gazillionaires,” “sky sentinel cameras,” “Nagler Zooms,” “Dialectric Diagonals,” “Truss-Tube Dobsonians,” and the “Celestron sky-scout personal planetarium,” all this on pages between articles about Dark Matter, solar eclipses and lunar seas, meteor showers, the Sagittarius star clouds, black-hole jets, cosmological enigmas, and Mercury’s orbit. One of my neighbors has a telescope on a roof deck, but I didn’t go down that shopping road. I began reading more and watching “nature” programs on television.

     The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns a painting by Paul Gauguin that has one of the best titles for an artwork: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It’s one of Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti. In 1897, he made the tropical tableau filled with native islanders, animals, and a statue of an Eastern deity. The artist said the visual narrative follows the journey of his life. The background is mountains, sea, and sky, the opening to space.

     Before I had turned 50, I was clipping news articles about space and saving them in manila folders, which I marked with the year, thinking they would be fodder for later writing. Who is the great poet of space? Who is the Walt Whitman of the Milky Way, the via galactica or road of milk as the Romans named it? In the film medium, we have creative heroes of the Space Age like Stanley Kubrick, Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, Sigourney Weaver, Ron Howard, and George Lucas. Tom Wolfe made The Right Stuff sail as non-fiction. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Isaac Asimov gave us fictional space worlds.

     In early 1997, the owner of a company where I live, a company specializing in polymer-coated textiles, called me about a free-lance writing assignment. I wound up managing several days of media relations for the manufacturer of “the first man-made material to touch the surface of Mars,” when the Mars Pathfinder bounced down on Ares Vallis of the Chryse Planitia region on July 4, 1997. Bradford Industries, whose main business involved coating car airbag fabric with silicone, had been chosen by NASA to prepare material for a cluster of Vectran airbags that were deployed to soften the landing of the craft, which bounced 15 times and didn’t rip.

     There was even a quirky tangent: nineteenth-century astronomer Percival Lowell of the “Lowell” Lowells in Boston made news in his day when he claimed to have spotted canals on Mars. He posited that the linear surface features had been dug by Martian engineers. Later critics suggested that Lowell may have over-interpreted his observations of natural depressions in the soil because he was familiar with the extensive power-canal system in the textile-factory city named for one of his ancestors. The Mars Pathfinder held inside of it a robotic vehicle, a rover named Sojourner in honor of the well-traveled African-American abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights Sojourner Truth. The rover communicated with its designers on Earth until late September 1997.

     On May 29, 1998, page one of the New York Times featured above-the-fold articles about Pakistan’s underground nuclear tests, calling it the first “Islamic bomb,” and a fuzzy digitized photo of radiating starlight above a small illuminated sphere described as “the first image of a planet outside our solar system.” The location is the constellation Taurus, estimated to be 450 light-years from Earth. The Hubble Telescope made the picture of the planet, which could be twice the size of Jupiter, at the end of a 130 billion-mile trail of starlight. The third story above the fold was a report about the federal Environmental Protection Agency announcing that automobile catalytic converters form nitrous oxide, which worsens global warming. Life is a chemistry set.

     My son turned eight years old on February 9, 2003. When I was eight, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit the Earth, and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the edge of a nuclear war. Government officials advised average families to build concrete fallout shelters in their basements to be prepared for a missile attack. The father in the family across the street from my house constructed and equipped a shelter for the two parents and three children. The man worked for a defense firm, a manufacturer of American missiles. I went inside the shelter once when I was at a birthday party in the cellar of the house. Blankets, water, canned food, tissues, toilet paper, a radio, and a small tool box were stored on shelves. There were seats that converted to beds. The same year, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, exposing the damage done to living things by the misuse of chemicals and probing the public conscience like a needle to the national brain.

     Eight days before my son’s eighth birthday, a NASA spacecraft disintegrated as it sped back to the Earth’s surface. “The space shuttle Columbia, streaking across a bright blue Texas sky at about 3.5 miles a second, broke up as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” James Barron wrote in the Times. Everyone on board died: Navy Commander William C. McCool, the pilot; payload commander Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson; Dr. Kalpana Chawla, an engineer; Navy doctors Capt. David M. Brown and Cmdr. Laurel Salton Clark; and the first astronaut from Israel, Col. Ilan Ramon.

‘At Just Light the Folded News’

Web photo courtesy of MDC

Web photo courtesy of MDC

At just light the folded news in a plastic sleeve lands slap on the driveway,

tossed by the analog town-crier carrier whose car doesn’t stop at every house

the way I remember the paper being delivered by kids on bikes in my first town.

Our up-the-street hill wasn’t as angled as this long-time ski slope now topped

by townhouse condos, a small cluster on the crest visited by foxes and deer and

by New England birds, checking back in this spring, at least the ones who

flew somewhere for the winter, the ruby-throated and sky-blue chested, all

welcome to our balcony perch facing the gray-brown New Hampshire hills to

the north and slight west, the view at the top of this rise named by custom for

tribal meeting-grounds, hundreds, thousands of years of forest time, lake time,

the high water pushing a slim but feisty river through the downtown mill yard

of offices, hardware mecca, studios, flatbread pizzeria, pubs, and coffee shop,

whose beating dollar heart is a good sign this spring on the local front where

most of the citizens want a safe-and-sound routine, not too much to ask in days

when the morning news of the universe carries more pain and chaos than are

helpful to us and our dogs and cats, neighbor birds, and the close red fox.

— Paul Marion, 3/29/19

Little Canada: Telling Somebody Out There Who We Are


The Library staff at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell posted photos and documents related to the demolition of the city’s Little Canada neighborhood in the early 1960s. I’m grateful to the staff for integrating into the website my poem “New Pine Hill,” written in the late 1990s when the area was still being rebuilt. The dramatic pictures of the so-called Urban Renewal project that was funded with federal money can be seen at this link. Kudos to everyone who helped develop this resource site, including the late George Poirier, “George of Lowell,” one of the outstanding chroniclers of Lowell life in the 20th century. The two photographs are by George Poirier, c. 1964. “New Pine Hill” is included in two of my books that are out of print but often can be found in used condition on the internet: French Class (1999) and What Is the City? (2006).

New Pine Hill

Mr. Alphonse Hudon, wearing a blue parka and dress hat,
leans on his cane on Pawtucket Street, checking the freshly tarred walk
and grove of short pines along the Northern Canal.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?” I ask.
And he says, “I liked it better the way it was,” which opens up a line of talk,
because I know he’s missing the French Canadian-American village
that once colored this shoulder of land at the wide bend in the river.
I tell him my father, Marcel, was raised on Cheever Street in Little Canada.
He knew my father and grandfather, Wilfred,
whose meat market filled a corner on Moody Street.
He corrects me on the address of Nap’s Filling Station, owned by Mr. Marquis,
where my dad had our family car serviced before wrecking cranes pulled up.
A house across the street had a tree poking through the front porch roof.
“Oh yes,” he says, “that was Mr. Marquis’ house.
And there was a monkey there, too.”

The black-and-white sign on the canal bridge reads,
“Jean-Paul Frechette, The Blond Tiger,” with the boxer’s two dates underneath.
Another remnant, like the Little Canada memorial,
bronze plaque mounted on a granite stone
“from one of the last blocks to be torn down,”
placed by Franco-Americans and the priests of St. Jean Baptiste parish,
now a Latino Catholic church, Nuestra Señora Del Carmen.
There’s a fleur-de-lis in each corner, beginning and end dates, 1875-1964,
like a gravestone, like one life, and a litany of streets running up the sides:
Aiken, Cabot, Cheever, Coolidge, Hall, Melvin,
Montcalm, Pawtucket, Perkins, Suffolk, Tucker, Ward.
The amen is Quebec’s motto, Je Me Souviens! Lest We Forget!

All that history and geography in a supersaturated marker,
tucked between evergreens on Aiken Street,
in the middle of a district once so dense only Hell’s Kitchen beat it.
You stuck an arm out of the window to touch the next tenement.
You heard one tongue for blocks.
People ate, slept, drank, dreamt, and multiplied
in a native sound arranged like code.
Rag man, icebox, coal chute, baseball.
Pork pie, baked beans, mill rat, whiskey.
High Mass, soiréeL’Étoile, soupe rouge.

What was here was what Mr. Hudon liked better,
a familiar world that seemed to work
for people who got up in the morning with something to do.
Even I remember when Urban Renewal clear-cut the blocks.
The way he looked down at the long canal made me want to say something hopeful.
I admire the young trees, the sweeping path,
whose design draws us to the manmade channel
and black water that still moves the wheels.

The rough, stubby foundation stone
is a local version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey,
the one that made the monkeys go ape,
the one the moon-men couldn’t figure, the floating answer-bar.
This hunk of rock on Earth states its case for the record,
like the metal message boards shipped out with satellites,
telling somebody out there who we are.

Demolition Little Canda crane.jpg

'A Nation Once Again'

irish map.jpg

This poem appears in my book What Is the City? (2006), which is out of print but usually available in used condition on internet sites. Jackie Brady was a champion boxer in Lowell, Mass., in the 1960s. The local scene from the 1980s predates the easing of tensions, even the prospect for peace, resulting from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to end the brutal “Troubles” (more than 3,500 deaths) and the related British-Irish Agreement a year later. As a measure of how charged the peace process continues to be, the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland of the UK is a key to resolving the Brexit situation in the UK. The Republic is part of the European Union, and today there is an “invisible border” between the south and north. Should Brexit be realized, it is likely that the border would not be as open as it is now.

A Nation Once Again

Brady’s Irish pub at the Spaghettiville train bridge gathers a lunch crowd of American-Irish from Sacred Heart and the late St. Peter’s parish. The slow dark pint, a cold Harp, beans & franks and burgers with the best hand-cut fries, sprinkled with vinegar. Chunky soup and chowders, sausages on seeded buns, fat lobster rolls. The jukebox spills out crooners, gangsta rap, Hibernian chestnuts. On the four walls, glossies of Brady’s bouts, Victorian-Lowell streetscapes, map of the Isle, and the electronic paint of TV.

“Who tripped Bobby Orr when he scored his Cup-winning goal in ‘70?”

“Barclay Plager of the Blues?”

“Noel Picard.”

“The Fabulous Moolah?”

“Who’s that?”

“Who’s got what horse?”

“Are you going to the Derby this year?”

“Did you see the Bruins Friday night? Ray Bourque’s got a stiff hip.”

Martha, Colleen, and Sue, friendly as your favorite aunts, drive the kitchen operation. It’s Irish Culture Week with Masses, Mary’s soda bread, a tour of St. Pat’s Cemetery, the flag-raising and Gaelic anthem on the City Hall steps, ceili at the Elks, and Variety Show.

The center-table group will converge at Our Lady of Good Voyage in Boston on Easter Sunday to praise old martyrs and young hunger-strikers, the Four and the Eight, all jailed by and for politics. Outside, the faithful buy medals, buttons, and cards. Our day is near, they say, and, as he does each year, Liam Murphy, who claims he scrapped as a boy in the 1916 rising, will turn around in his front pew, making a finger-gun: bang, bang.


Jackie Brady, 1964 Greater Lowell Golden Glove 112 lb. Novice Champion; 1964 112 lb. New England AAU Champion. (photo and data courtesy boxrec.com)

Jackie Brady, 1964 Greater Lowell Golden Glove 112 lb. Novice Champion; 1964 112 lb. New England AAU Champion. (photo and data courtesy boxrec.com)

Standing Around the Movies

Standing Around the Movies


February 1982, Irvine

A Hollywood film crew set up on campus to shoot a scene for a movie titled Creator whose cast includes Mariel Hemingway and Peter O’Toole. The scene was a touch football game. Fine Arts Department students made up the two teams. A few of my students signed up as extras. They made a crowd and walked around looking like students. The shoot lasted all day with plenty of standing around for the stars. I saw MH up close, tall and long-legged, hair cut short, looking scruffy, dressed in sweatshirt, blue track shorts, socks, and sneakers. She stayed off to the side, chatting with the crew. After a while she put on yellow sweatpants. She signed autographs, ate an orange, drank coffee.

I was a little embarrassed, seeing her right there behind the Humanities Building, remembering pictures of her undressed in a slick magazine on a convenience store rack and also thinking of her revealed in the film Personal Best. People stared all day. I stared. She knew it. Felt it. Despite her invisible shield of privacy. Anything said to her by a stranger would probably glance off into space. Until today, for me, she was more art than real, an image, not alive. She was too young for Woody Allen’s interest in Manhattan. She must have been old for her age. Here, she was a casual undergraduate except for the famous face. It’s none of my business to want to know her, and I don’t really want to know her. When I watch the new movie, I’ll look for myself in the background.

Writer's Block movie poster.jpg

May 1991, San Diego

Star Wagon. Catering. Making a film called Writer’s Block in the Sculpture Garden of Balboa Park in San Diego. Spanish Renaissance buildings. 1970s-era sculpture court. Movies have been filmed in Balboa Park since the 1920s. The crew and technicians wear shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. Their utility belts sag from the overload of tools.

Two guys in the crowd talking:

“I was in two L.A. Law’s and never thought that show would last so long.”

“I was in one Simon and Simon, with all my scenes done on Point Loma.”

“I made $102 in two hours as an extra and got a big plate of pineapple and shrimp. These productions are catered to the max.”

The scene in progress: Actress Morgan Fairchild in a short black skirt and matching jacket sits on a bench. Two kids chase a ball near her. She picks up the ball, looks at it, emoting a bit, then throws the ball to the kids, laughing, and walks away.

In the Sculpture Garden are works by Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore (the classic mid-size Hank), and others on the preferred short list of artists to have in your public collection.

A derelict approaches me and slurs, “Can I have your autograph?”

“Please move on,” says a guard in a green uniform.

In front of a line of trailers and vans, three guys play hacky sack in a tight circle. They’re good at this minor skill.

Rosemary and I watch the action and the standing around through the posts of a black iron fence.

A blonde stand-in for MF sits for a lighting check.

Ginsberg, Corso, & the Locals Read for the Benefit of Mr. K. on St. Patrick's Day (Night) in 1986

Allen Ginsberg, right, with George Chigas, center, and me at the piano in the home of former Lowell City Manager William Taupier and family in Lowell following a poetry reading with Allen, Gregory Corso and writers from the community. The event at Liberty Hall/Merrimack Repertory Theater was a benefit for the new Jack Kerouac literary organization in Lowell on Monday, March 17, 1986, St. Patrick’s Day evening. George and Allen are playing a tune while Allen sings a song from his long poem “Contest of the Bards.” He sang the lines and his collaborators repeated them all the way through. (The photographer may have been George’s wife, Thida Leoung.)

Allen Ginsberg, right, with George Chigas, center, and me at the piano in the home of former Lowell City Manager William Taupier and family in Lowell following a poetry reading with Allen, Gregory Corso and writers from the community. The event at Liberty Hall/Merrimack Repertory Theater was a benefit for the new Jack Kerouac literary organization in Lowell on Monday, March 17, 1986, St. Patrick’s Day evening. George and Allen are playing a tune while Allen sings a song from his long poem “Contest of the Bards.” He sang the lines and his collaborators repeated them all the way through. (The photographer may have been George’s wife, Thida Leoung.)

The following is a diary entry from March 18, 1986, the day after a remarkable cultural event in Lowell, Mass. In 2019, Lowell is again Marching for Kerouac with a marathon reading of On the Road at the Pollard Memorial Library (3/9), a Jack Kerouac Birthday Celebration produced by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Inc. (3/9), and a new play adapted from Kerouac’s 1944 novella The Haunted Life, which begins its run at Merrimack Repertory Theater on 3/20. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso had probably not been in Lowell since the funeral of their friend Jack in October 1969. Allen returned several times and Gregory once or twice more to support the community’s long-running effort to keep Kerouac’s legacy vibrant.—PM

March 18, 1986—An amazing event at Liberty Hall last night. The benefit reading for the new Jack Kerouac organization in Lowell was a wild success. About 300 people filled the sold-out theater. The audience included writers from the area, local arts activists, national park staff, longtime Kerouac advocates, members of the media, fans from New York City and Boston, Franco-American leaders in the city, community cultural enthusiasts, and curious others. Allen Ginsberg opened with a spontaneous song for the evening, accompanying himself on the harmonium. He wore a suit and a skinny shiny silver necktie. Allen was quoted in the Lowell Sun yesterday saying that Kerouac is a kind of saint. He pointed out that Kerouac is popular in China, where selections from On the Road are used in an English-language anthology used in some reading classes.

Next, Tara Taupier read selections from two of Kerouac’s Lowell novels, Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy, followed by Dan Connelly, a University of Lowell student who read a poem by faculty member Charles Jarvis (Ziavras), a Kerouac biographer. Music teacher and operatic singer Gerard Brunelle stunned the audience with an epic poem about polyglot Lowell and its Little Canada neighborhood, a huge, tough poem jammed with the stuff of French Lowell. Brian Foye, founder of the new Kerouac nonprofit group, then introduced writer George Chigas, who read three striking poems about Cambodian refugees, including his wife, Thida, who have settled in Lowell—their experiences in America and back home in Southeast Asia. George finished with his opus, “Flashes of Kerouac,” a sprawling poem in praise of the author. After all that, I read poems from my book Strong Place—“Bush Pilots,” “Green Windows,” “Merrimack Street,” “Dylan Sings to Kerouac,” and “Crazy Horse.” That was the end of the first half of the program. Cheers and applause for all the readers.

Fifteen minutes later, the second part of the program began with a tape of Kerouac reading from Doctor Sax. Ginsberg brought the recording, and it was the first time the tape had been played in public. The hall went quiet. Kerouac was a wonderful reader of his own work. He’s not frantic at all, as some might expect from his spontaneous prose style. Listening to his favorite radio shows as a kid must have given him a sense of how to modulate his voice for performance.

Next, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso took the stage, sitting in two chairs, sharing a microphone. Corso started, reading a few short poems, reciting others from memory. He stopped and interrupted himself and offered asides. During the first half of the program Corso sat with the other readers to the side of the stage and kept up a running commentary. Gregory turned the mic to Allen, who read from his Collected Poems, choosing pieces with a Kerouac connection. The highlight was a powerful rendition of “Sunflower Sutra.”

Gregory then read his long poem “Elegiac Feelings American,” composed as an outpouring of his heart following Kerouac’s death. He read the entire poem, stopping at times to comment, explain, and criticize his work. The reading now was getting to be three hours long. Allen closed with his poem about Kerouac’s death and one of William Blake’s songs, again singing while playing his music box.

Earlier, when I had stepped down from the stage after my reading, Allen looked at my book and asked, “Who published this?” “I did.” “Good idea,” he said. It was a whirling, heady evening, everyone caught up in the excitement.

Following the event, a crowd of people attended a reception at the Taupier family home on Clark Road in the Belvidere neighborhood. See the photo caption above for more details about the party.

What a night.

Lowell Sun  newspaper, March 18, 1986. Article by Rick Spencer.

Lowell Sun newspaper, March 18, 1986. Article by Rick Spencer.

"Laguna Niguel, Monarch Bay, Salt Creek Beach"

wave line coast.JPG

Fresh from the notebook I wrote in while in Southern California three weeks ago. With Rosemary, I returned to my former home in Dana Point, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, to renew connections with people and familiar places. My studio apartment on Seville Place behind the Dana Point Nursery is unchanged from the outside. However, the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway barely has an inch of undeveloped land, a big change from the 1980s. The winter blossoms and year-round greenery gave us a spirit boost, as did the wide views of the blue ocean and tall sky. In a couple of intensive writing sessions I wrote as fast as I could, keeping my eyes on the scene in front of me. With a bit of revision, what follows is very close to the original notebook pages.

Laguna Niguel, Monarch Bay, Salt Creek Beach

Sage scent on the beach trail at Salt Creek.

Ant line of black-speck surfers two sets out.

Photographers in parkas and knit caps.

Succulents, eucalyptus, royal palms, bougainvillea, red hibiscus, platoons of orange-and-blue bird-of-paradise blooms.

Tsunami Warning signs: If there’s an earthquake . . .

Catalina coming out of the cloud bank.

Wave spray looking south to Dana Point. Stepped-up Laguna hillsides to the north.

Gray Whale Migration Zone.

Bottle-green, translucent glassine blue-green waves shattering white foam on rocks.

Blue-blue sky. Temps going from low 60s in morning to 70 degrees in the afternoon.

Dawn gray blue western light horizon behind triplet of tall palms.

Waves like a radio noise, calm “white noise,” rustle-and-slap, then shoosh. Wave sound like storm wind in tall trees in the eastern forest.

One-time Ruby Lantern resident of DP now flight attendant in from Minnesota living in Laguna Niguel walking Salt Creek beach with woman friend offers to take a phone-picture of Rosemary and me with waves rolling and bursting to suds behind us at the south end of Monarch Bay.

Helicopters up and down the coast and out to Catalina.

On the HBO cable the old series John from Cincinnati, quirky three generations of a surfer broken-dynasty family and their local helper crew with paranormal parrots, post-trauma issues, sideways logic to live the day, even levitation, and maybe an alien all the kooky characters in absurdist play at make-believe Imperial Beach.

Sea birds, gulls, cliff swallows, pelicans, crows, hawks (maybe red-tailed).

“Get wet” = go surfing.

Volume of water, undertow, recedes, slides back, lip of the wave, lion roar of the waves, dull roar of the lion waves, margin to margin, lip-flip-slap, short boards, wave break, unbroken horizon, swell, high water, ultra range, The Surfer’s Journal, wind over the water, sea bird skimming over the sea-top, sweep, swells sent from mid-ocean, foamy fringe on blue spread, shore riding, bubbles bursting, Pismo Beach, Doheny, La Jolla, short board, spray, surfer, marine view, body surfing, water-men and -women, sea colors like blended Civil War uniforms (blue-gray), Point Panic, Del Mar, Huntington Beach, Pacific Beach, Imperial Beach, Ocean Beach, big wave riders, morning glass, matador-style surfing, Malibu, Hang Ten and Catalina surf wear, surf culture, forty fly-specks on the swells, the silty chop, phosphorescence, phosphorescent, pre-dawn foam, waves.

January quiet, off-season, the dozens of pool long-chairs in ranks like blue soldiers with coiled umbrellas like rolled banners of flag-bearers waiting for the parade to start.

Sensory memory, the sage in my nose, ocean smell, sea/salt/sand.

Marine helo choppering to Camp Pendleton with its eleven miles of military coastland that stretches east for more than twenty miles, maybe forty says our Uber driver, the narrow waterfront west of Freeway 5 and inland scrubby, taupe desert acres blending to brown hills, the vegetation olive-to-dusty green, and in the distance beige buildings for troops, for warriors, and armor, red-tiled or darker-tiled roofs, overall sand-colored like camouflaged fatigue pants, neutral patches in between greens and blacks and browns.


Surfers in black uniforms, nobody wears electric purple wetsuits, some of the surfers out of California central casting, thin, good-looking, young, sun-gold highlights in blond or blonde hair cut just at the cool angle so it falls perfectly when soaked, both guys and young women, a few boys and a couple of older men, one who looks like Tom Hanks from the side carrying his board from the parking lot across the street, through the gorgeous park, its sloping green lawn with every recreation option serviced, basketball court, cement picnic tables and benches, built-in cook-outs, lamp posts and dog-bag stations to keep the place clean, no litter to speak of, recycle-and-trash receptacles placed for convenience, public access to the beach a holy right in the state, lots of runners in twos and ones along with pairs of walkers all ages, many of the surfers do the surfer trot on the way to the water, a jaunty run not sprinting but hustling along, small leaps in between, moving steadily to the edge of the tide wash and then hopping three-four times and putting the board in and lying on top to paddle out.

At noontime forty surfers in line of sight, most sitting on boards awaiting THE wave of the next three minutes, there are always more, the sun keeps giving, and then as if agreed-to one of the surfers will pop up, stand, and grab the top of a bulging wave to skim it left or right depending on the break, squeezing every last gallon of foaming energy out of it, sometimes skipping off but more often taken down in the collapse of the curl, a few with art-and-science skills can dance-step into a 360-shift and drain another ten feet of the ride, and then it’s back on the board body surfing to the jumping-off point, all of this by feel and look, no directional signs 150-300 feet from shore, a lot of waiting around as in making movies, patience, patience, patience, and then in a flash up and sliding not walking on water, carving the run into the flow, not much tube here but you can get ten feet if you crouch and duck under the break, the widening whitening arch.

The wave builds, fills to over-topping, spills at peak fullness and flips itself forward curling into suds-wash like a billion champagne magnums popping at once white and foamy—plenitude, the glassine plenitude full to overfilled can’t push itself forward another inch, runs out its silver-blue string, the shiny water translucent in the mounting roll, light through liquid bulge that smashes on itself in the heave-and-slide in the push from behind and gravity-pull to land to the edge of the water’s reach as far as it can extend this hour of this day the tide clock run by the moon’s cosmic working mechanisms keeping time keeping lunar time on the wet watch on the sea lane on the ocean drive all these sets wave sets sequencing in from what appears to be a mega wave machine on Catalina Island that keeps churning out hydraulic rolls like fabric sticking its long and ever-longer tongue out of power looms in Lowell textile mills or red-hot sheet-metal peeling off a roller in Pittsburgh or Tokyo steel mills, endlessly rolling in not-really rolling but rather rippling in the long view slightly heaving in the medium-blue expanse only changing shape approaching the shore where the tonnage of liquid runs out of room, the swells sensing the finish line and gathering themselves up for the final push, why not make a splash at the big wrap-up, the blue swells up, light sees through making a green-glass like empty Coke-bottle sheen for the big finish, the lean over forward arching holding its form until the thing cannot contain the thing itself and it comes apart comes ahead in a baritone bash the crystal green waterfall falling over and sliding slapping itself in the face and bottom, up and down its line the length of the swell, now dissolving into airy agitated residue in the shallows and running forward with its last gasp not really a gasp but a stirred swirling sea-soup soaking the beach until the edge of its energy plays out and immediately reverses and an opposite reaction draws the last of its sauce back to the greater water where it mingles, gets consumed by the oncoming rank—where does the end of the wave go?—just pushed around in the last fifty yards all day?—the same final plunging water shoved back-and-forth for the next twelve hours until the whole business re-forms itself, reconstitutes, at low and medium tides, resupplying its aqua army for the next natural assault on the coast.

Waiting for the “green flash,” a pod of twenty surfers in line with the tangerine-on-silver blue step-way from horizon-slipping sun, a sherbet-orange orb glows below mauve and rinsed gray layers of western sky radiating from the sun right and left, the lines of pale raspberry and peach, the sun taking itself away not moving at all, the whole show a trick-to-eye with Earth rolling ever so slowly out of line with the one true star of our lives, all the sky-blue lines between apricot stripes turning more intensely watercolor azure, the beach sand turning blue, too, the wet patches of sand as sky-blue as the blue above, now gold burnishing yellow-gold washed-out layers under the plum shades, violet shades, blended into horizontal peach smears, and the last blast an electric-pink day-glo flamingo, a ten-percent slash strip between metal-flake blue Pacific and the darkening sky, all the surfers, the last left carrying their boards up the beach another day, walking on the silver blue-stained sand that under their bare feet is going dull gray in the dim light—

the pink stripe pinker as the last slag-gray layers close up and seem to push the pink into a squeezed tube just where the sun was last seen as if the fire extinguished its flame-pink, the end game of one more once one more planetary crank, the complete turning motion which is tough to get one’s head around, now the pink panties silk washing to a line, a magic-marker bold felt-tipped pen line that doesn’t stay put but sharpens to a fine-line of peachy pink, soft, a shadow of the red once there, striated, periwinkle crayon color, and brushed wide strokes south-to-north lighter toward Capistrano Beach and darker north toward Laguna Beach, a relative sliver of rouged peach where the sun slipped into its slot like a candy-wafer coin and not full round like the once-a-month pale orb overhead, the moon this time rocking on its lovely curve, white nail-clipping pinned up on the unseen other seven-eighths so that the section illuminated gives no hint of more to come, more at large, resting there like a punched-out smile tilted goofily to the right, in a side-leaning head really a broad smile a long white smile as if the lights are out and you see the glowing toothy grin, and if you squint you can make out a smudge of cloud around the frozen smile as if there’s a larger head or face obscured, a mask a face with a bag over with a cut-out smile lit from inside but it’s not Halloween, a long way from jack-o-lanterns even though it’s that attitude, that carved chuckle under which crosses a helicopter blinking red top and tail on the way to Costa Mesa—

for the surfers there has been no green flash to speak of or to not be spoken of, the secret private millisecond gem-green glint in the final fraction of sundown.

palms sunset.JPG

—Salt Creek Beach, Monarch Bay, California, January 8-9, 2019

One Night at the Old Worthen in Lowell: A Poem

This poem was written in the 1970s, when I spent many nights at the Old Worthen tavern (established in 1834) on Worthen Street in Lowell, Mass., close to City Hall and the Whistler House, birthplace of the famous artist. The drinking age dropped to 18 years old when I turned 18, so my friends and I got going at the Worthen right away. Glasses of beer were 25 cents. Small glasses. We can debate whether that was a good idea or not—the lower age, not the small glasses. Today, it’s called The Worthen House Cafe, a popular place to eat and drink. There’s a raven on the business sign, referring to the legend that Edgar Allan Poe drank at the tavern when he visited Lowell. Around the same time that I wrote the poem, my older brother Richard made a drawing of the Worthen, which was reproduced as a black-and-white print. The version below was adapted for a Christmas theme with color added. The poem is included in my recent book Union River: Poems and Sketches (Bootstrap Press, 2017), which is available for purchase online.

Lowell was the Christmas city when I was growing up in the small semi-rural town next door, Dracut. My mother worked in a women’s clothing store, Cherry & Webb, on the corner of Merrimack and John streets downtown, so we felt close to the city. Plus, my parents grew up in Lowell and lived there when starting a family. Lowell was the choice for Christmas shopping when I was young. The Bon Marche department store was the commercial centerpiece of Merrimack Street. It remains a standout building that is a fine example of historic preservation. Bon Marche always had elaborate decorations and a lavish toy department with full-scale displays of featured toys. Gift-wrapping was available upstairs. You’d also find toys in the five-and-ten stores, Woolworth’s and S.S. Kresge’s, in Poirier’s hobby shop, and at the Giant Store. Record Lane and Garnick’s sold the latest hit albums. We went downtown at least once during the season to see the colored lights on buildings and streets before visiting the Nativity scene with large figures of the Holy Family, Three Wise Men, shepherds, sheep, and angels in front of City Hall. I don’t recall Christmas parades in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, but there may have been parades on Thanksgiving weekend.

When my friends and I were old enough to drive, it was special to get a bunch of guys and girls together and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas. We’d choose one of the big old Catholic churches in the city, the ones with tall stained glass windows and marble columns like cathedrals—even though most of us had stopped going to Mass on Sundays. And even if there were a couple of Protestants in the car. It was a good excuse for a late-night group date. I ran the elevator part-time in Cherry’s during my first two years of college—a manual elevator for which an official tan sports coat and an operator’s license were required—and enjoyed the holiday shoppers when I worked nights and all day Saturday. By the late 1970s, the malls and suburban shopping strips were drawing people to Burlington, Methuen, and over the border in Nashua N.H. with brand-name stores offering more products than were found in Lowell.

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

“Old Worthen” by Richard Marion, c. 1978

One Night

The good way

Dan turned his

head and dropped

three nickels

into the bent

tambourine of

the Salvation

Army-man between

sips of 25-cent draft

and bites of pretzel

at the Old Worthen

in one of the high-

backed booths with

his three friends who

had stopped the cribbage

game when the deaf

Frenchman in a

blue-green overcoat

came to the table

with eyes of a

saint and handsome

brown gloves that

held the jingling

pan so our good

Christmas will

would get us to

push a few coins

his ever-loving way.

'Narratives in Plastic': A Video Poem

A few years ago, my son Joe and I collaborated on a video poem, something I had not tried before. I had recorded poems with music soundtracks for radio at WUML-FM at UMass Lowell a long time ago when the station had a regular feature of short poems by local writers that ran between music shows. Off and on I wondered about poetry as an alternative to music videos. I recall seeing something like that on a PBS poetry program, “Anyone for Tennyson?,” which did not last long. My son had been making short films for a few years, so we decided to try something. We made two. This is the first one, which is on YouTube.com.

In the poem I’m remembering the countless hours I spent playing with toy soldiers, spacemen, horses, and trucks. Years ago, I heard novelist John Irving in a TV interview talking about his experience playing with toy soldiers and his sister’s dollhouse, making up stories to act out on the floor. He said it was his beginning as a writer.

Web photo courtesy of angelfire.com

Web photo courtesy of angelfire.com

'The War Against Haters'

This is section 14 of a long poem called “The War Place,” which tracks the prevalence of war in the history of the United States. One time I made a chart of the years of my life and the years that America was engaged in hot or cold wars during my lifetime. Between 1954 and that moment, there were very few years of peace, if we define peace as the absence of war. The final section of the poem addresses what I call “the war against haters,” a different challenge than the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs as some social campaigns have been framed. In the past few years, hate crimes have increased in number. Recent mass shootings and attempted bombings are just the latest evidence of heightened violence against people who are targeted for their religious or political beliefs, race and ethnicity, social activism in public or online, and other factors.

Southern Poverty Law Center website banner.

Southern Poverty Law Center website banner.


The War Against Haters

Morris Dees keeps writing to me from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama to say he has counted 926 hate groups in the U.S.A. and identified all kinds of people who don’t belong to groups but are just steaming on their sofas ready to blow if provoked by a shouter on cable TV or a knock on the door by a Census worker or another picture of our first black president, even if his mother was white.

One survey in 2009 “found that 21 percent of Americans believe President Obama is the Antichrist or may be” and a surprising number of people said they believe “he is not or may not be an American citizen.”

What do I do with a magazine full of details about creeping Nazi fever, anti-Semitic intellectuals, off-the-grid nativist vigilantes, homophobic skinheads, and wealthy donors to racist campaigns—pass it on, put it on billboards?

In his letter to me, Morris lists “What You Can Do” to teach tolerance: Speak up when you hear slurs. Eat lunch with someone new. Complain about stereotypes in the media. Examine your own soul and take a test at www.hiddenbias.org. Encourage police to call a hate crime a hate crime.

I should send him a big check, so he can put up taller and brighter lighthouses to shine on the slime, buy bigger excavators to dig the haters out of their bunkers, and mail copies of his magazine to every citizen.

Two teenaged sisters descended from a Klansman sing out for an Aryan revival. Swastikas get sprayed on synagogues in Washington. Twelve black men beat a white man with a piece of concrete in Buffalo.

Morris puts all this down “For the Record” in each issue. Why don’t I get this free each month from the F.B.I.?


On the Bookshelf (2)

This is a catch-up post on books and journals I’ve read or been looking at but have not read straight through in the past month. I’ve tried to get out of my usual lanes now that I have more time for reading. That’s easier said than done when long-standing interests tend to pull one into the default lanes. I’ll cross-post this on Facebook for anyone who wants to comment for a larger audience.

gallows pole.jpg

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose, 2017). I didn’t know this writer until Doug Sparks, editor of Merrimack Valley Magazine and the new Bean Magazine, asked me to interview the author for the On Coffee feature in Bean’s second issue. The inaugural issue had Henry Rollins interviewed by Dave Perry (UMass Lowell, Vinyl Destination). Doug raved about Myers’ latest novel. It’s a rough tale set in northeast England in the 18th century involving counterfeit coin-makers in a local push-back against the crown and capitalists who want to mechanize weaving in particular—the early stage of an industrial revolution in Britain. While the story is a grabber, you could read this book for the language itself because Myers is a virtuoso composer of sentences. He took a deep dive into the thick stew of lingo from the period and employs that to great effect. Myers was easy to work with across the ocean, tending his email promptly and being a friendly spirit. He’s a music writer and poet whose latest book is Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place, more evidence of his hyperlocal and bioregional leanings. I’ve only dipped into this one, but from what I’ve seen it will be a good read. Watch for the new issue of The Bean in January to learn more about the author’s coffee and tea preferences and thoughts at large about writing.

North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers (2018, Milkweed Editions, winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize). Chalk this one up to Facebook and the recommendation of Mary Karr, well known for her memoirs and poems. I’m encouraged in my social media use when I see authors and thinkers like her, Garrett Hongo, Robert Reich, Roland Merullo, and others who use the FB tool to talk to people. Chambers is a graduate of the MFA Program at Syracuse University, where he studied with Karr. I would have bought this book for the title itself, which made me think of Whitman and Sandburg. This feels like a first book, loaded with strong poems that he had been stockpiling. Poems move easily down the page, the lines not straining against the reader’s breath. The wide view of the country fits the moment. I’d like to see more writers going bigger with their work. Poets ought to be more central to the massive national conversation provoked by recent political developments. Chambers’ poem “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966” is worth the price of admission here. “It was midnight in July./I was just a young man. And I walked home over the bridge.”

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (2018, WW Norton & Co). Well, this one is 789 pages, and I have not read the whole book. I enjoy and admire Lepore’s writing, which I see most often in the New Yorker magazine. I like her stance as an historian. To me, she’s an old-fashioned public intellectual, doing her work in the push and pull of the public marketplace as much as in professional academic circles. I remember her coming to the Visitor Center at Lowell National Historical Park, maybe with the Parker Lectures series, many years ago when she had a new book, her first I think: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. It was a good topic for the Lowell area, whose colonial towns were in the fight. I read an interview with Lepore in the Chronicle of Higher Education that is a good preparation for cracking the new history book.

Colorado Review edited by Stephanie G/Schwind (Fall/Winter 2018, Center for Literary Publishing, Colorado State University). I don’t have as many journal subscriptions as I once had, but I’m glad when the new issue of CR arrives. I got the subscription when I submitted a book manuscript for consideration for an annual prize at the university. I enjoy this one because most of the story and poem writers are new to me. I find the work to be a mixed bag, which is my typical response to literary magazines. Just today, I read that the new editor of The Paris Review expects to find one or two stories that she’ll publish in every 100 that she reads. The odds for poetry are worse, I’m sure. The set up is Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, which is not the way I’d organize the contents. My eyes blur when I see 67 pages of poetry in a run with one poem each by most of the contributors. I was glad to see a range of forms in the poems. Toby Altman’s prose poems matched with two architectural photographs showed me something fresh in form, although he’s not the first to do this. But I liked the deviation. This issue starts with Shannon Sweetnam’s prize-winning story “Aisha and the Good for Nothing Cat.”

The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz [photographs] (1996, Random House). I don’t remember where I got this book, but it popped out on a shelf in an upstairs bookcase a few weeks ago and I’ve been leafing through it some mornings. Krementz got access to the inner sanctums of more than 50 writers to make photographs of their work spaces or preferred writing spots. The range of authors is fantastic, from Stephen King and Eudora Welty to Nikki Giovanni and Tennessee Williams. Each black-and-white environmental portrait is accompanied by a statement about the author’s creative process or the place where he or she writes most often. Krementz creates windows into the lives behind the books that go public. I like William F. Buckley, Jr., in the back seat of his car with his dog. There are several younger writers of the day, like Rita Dove and Edwidge Dandicat, but most of the subjects are giants, near-giants, or well-established figures. Ross McDonald, John Cheever, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and others.

Outport: The Soul of Newfoundland by Candace Cochrane [photographs] (2008, Flanker Press Ltd). I got this from the photographer herself at Cedar Street Studios in Amesbury, Mass., where she has a work space in a renovated three-story commercial building. There are more than 50 tenants in the building—artists, food entrepreneurs, professionals, and others. Looking at her images of Newfoundland on one wall, I said to her, “The only thing I know about Newfoundland is that it’s the setting for The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.” To which she replied, “One of my photographs is on the cover of the original edition of the novel.” File that under Small World. Turns out that Annie Proulx had seen her photos and suggested that one be used on the cover. Outport documents the Newfoundland that Cochrane encountered between 1967 and 1980 when she was working and living in the province. An outport is a small fishing village, of which there were once more than 1,400. She made the black-and-white photographs during a time when the fishing industry declined and many people left their communities. The pictures are accompanied by spare commentary and helpful captions. There’s a folklife quality to the material because of the focus on work traditions. The larger story is about a longstanding way of life that was mostly unchanged to that point. I don’t know what brought Cochrane to Amesbury. Next time I’m at the studio I will ask.

Notes on Panel Talk: 1968 and 'The White Album'

I sent a midnight report to my friend John in Chicago after the panel talk about 1968 and “The White Album” in Lowell last night. Below is a slightly cleaned-up version of two email messages fired-off soon after I got home and was still pumped-up about the event. Thanks to Jesse Heines for the photograph and the technical support for the production, from marketing to PowerPoint presentation.

History professor Bob Forrant with the mic. Look closely to see his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. From left, Greg DeLaurier, me, Bob F., John Wooding, and Will Moylan.

History professor Bob Forrant with the mic. Look closely to see his Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. From left, Greg DeLaurier, me, Bob F., John Wooding, and Will Moylan.


We had a very good event in Lowell last night. About 75 people turned out, many from the ‘60s youth generation plus a bunch of college students and members of the youth group of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. 

The program began with the music professor Will Moylan deconstructing "While My Guitar" from the original, remastered, and rough-cut versions. He spoke movingly about how The Beatles have been a through-story in his career in sound recording technology and performing. He said the White Album message from JPG&R was that anything was possible now in music—and maybe beyond.  (Follow your bliss, Joe Campbell said to Bill Moyers years later)

I was next up with a "sketch" of Lowell in 1968, talking about the slow-motion tragedy of deindustrialization after 1920. I used data from my essay on population decline (loss of 20,000 people from 1920 to 1960 and sky-high unemployment heading to 12 percent at the peak in 1975—official joblessness was probably 25 percent if you considered random part-time, full-time underemployment, working under the table, etc.). But the "tale of two cities" is that 92,000 people still lived in Lowell while it was leaking oil badly, making it a viable consumer hub for everything from dress clothes and records to medical services and entertainment like The Doors playing at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967 when "Light My Fire" was number 1. The city still functioned even as people struggled to make ends meet. It would take 90 years for the population to exceed 100,000 again in 2010 (106,000). Also talked about the anti-war demonstrations in the city in 1969, 1970. A woman in the audience said she marched in several demos with Lowell State College students. I have two protest marches documented, one ending in a violent clash between local roughs and hard-core protestors, one of whom had a VC flag. Young men from Lowell were getting killed in Vietnam.

The other three speakers talked about their own Sixties and Beatles experiences. Three professors from UMass Lowell. Bob Forrant, history department, was at Woodstock and the Chicago convention (beat up) and other demonstrations. He said the music, Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, others, was a soundtrack of day-to-day life for young people. It was there all the time, and it kept coming in new and surprisingly good forms. For him and others, hearing it now is a time machine for emotional transport back to the days of late Sixties, early 70s.

Greg DeLaurier, political science department, was at Altamont in California, the dark side festival with the Stones where a man was killed, and various anti-war protests. At the height of the Vietnam draft, he joined the Air Force and was sent to Thailand where he and his fellow draftees serviced the cold hard bombers that rained terror on the farmers in Southeast Asia. He is very open about being totally fucked up in the service, and he wasn’t alone. Greg talked about a close friend dying in the war and another losing an arm.

Tour poster for The Beatles and pop music stars in 1963. This show was in York.

Tour poster for The Beatles and pop music stars in 1963. This show was in York.

John Wooding, political science, grew up in England and saw the Beatles in 1963 at his hometown theatre in Northampton, on a bill with Tommy Roe and Chris Montez. He was ten, taken to the show by his older brother. He found pics of the show online on a blog written by some guy in England. The show poster has at the bottom, The Beatles. His remarks widened out to the cultural and political turmoil in England and Europe in general, from Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" anti-immigrant rantings in London to the student riots in France that toppled one administration, as well as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Jesse Heines, computer science, ran the laptop for music and slides—he didn't make a formal presentation but at one point talked about the selective service lottery and the birthday number that sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands if not more than a million in that phase of the war. He was lucky---a doctor friend of the family wrote him up as too ill to serve and got him medically deferred. He choked up talking about it—and then he said his lottery number out loud, 90, which led to maybe the most affecting moment of the evening. I responded by saying my number was 62, followed by ten or twelve other guys in the audience saying their numbers. We all knew our number. It was generally understood that anyone with a number below 150 was on track for combat in Vietnam. Our music professor on the panel had number 4, so I don't know how he got out of the draft. Sitting in the back, Rosemary said it was a chilling moment for her to hear the men say their numbers. 

The audience was engaged. Many questions and comments, people sharing their own reactions to “The White Album” and the Sixties in general. People asked about favorite songs on the double album. “While My Guitar” won the small polling sample. Other votes for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” “Back in the U.S.S.R,” and “Long, Long, Long.”

The panel was part of a larger project called Lowell: A City of Learning, which is an emerging effort to get Lowell designated by UNESCO as a world-class City of Learning, of which there are dozens around the globe but not one in the U.S. Lowell would be the first designation, possibly in North America. Not sure if Canada or Mexico has one. The chief organizer, my friend John Wooding, the Englishman who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been working with folks in Cork, Ireland, to get Lowell into the system. There's a review process. Cork has the designation. It's an interesting venture. The event last night was essentially a teach-in or free-school session led by local persons with valuable knowledge. 





A bit more.

Last night I met a young woman from Argentina who enrolled at UMass Lowell to play field hockey. She's an art student. I was blown away. Argentina. Came up by herself and got situated on campus and then found her way downtown for the 1968 talk on the recommendation of an art professor. She asked me to send her a summary because she missed a lot of the conversation due to people speaking English fast—of course we were. She's bilingual, to start with, a light-year beyond my language literacy.

So, we had this event last night. Not extraordinary, really, but remarkable all the same, and I came away thinking one cannot underestimate the life experience of those who are close by. People live larger lives than often advertised. Of the five guys on the panel, and we were all guys like the Dave Clark 5, here's some of what we had witnessed or been part of collectively in the Sixties and later:

  1. As a kid, saw The Beatles in Northampton, England, in 1963

  2. Served in Thailand during Vietnam, servicing bomber jets

  3. Got head cracked at Chicago convention riots while protesting war

  4. Made the scene at Altamont (survived to tell about it)

  5. Made the scene at Woodstock (survived and not seen naked in the documentary film)

  6. Got spit on by Johnny Rotten in a British club (not intentional, a ‘70s thing)

  7. Helped crowd try to levitate the Pentagon as anti-war protest (unsuccessful launch)

  8. Escaped the Vietnam-era draft with an advantageous doctor's report

  9. Recorded music at the Hit Factory in NYCity some time after John Lennon did Double Fantasy there

  10. Shaved and cut ponytail to campaign for Clean Gene McCarthy in N.H. primary, challenging President LBJ

  11. Skipped school to see Cream in London and sat four feet from Eric Clapton (AKA, God, according to Tube graffiti)

  12. Edited Jack Kerouac's early writings, now published in three languages (major beatnik beginnings)

Emily Dickinson wrote, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" But surprisingly, people find themselves or put themselves in the flow of History, the wide, fast stream of events and situations that shape us as our mortal coils unwind. Sure, some people just stay in the house, but more people than one might assume jump in the big river that’s never the same twice.



"1968 & 'The White Album'": Panel Talk, 11/8/18


The informal panel talk described on the poster above will include commentary about and music from “The White Album” as well as the speakers’ reflections about the momentous year, 1968. I was asked by the organizers to provide the local context for the record’s release 50 years ago—November 22 to be exact. I took the assignment for a ten-minute talking slot and made notes that turned into a script, which became a short essay. The end product is longer than I had planned, but as I researched and wrote I picked up more relevant information and my thinking expanded. I needed a structure for my presentation, so I kept going. For the event two days from now, I’ll pull highlights from the essay—facts, anecdotes, passages that will give the audience a sense of the late ‘60s in Lowell, Mass. Below is the full essay for anyone who would like to read the long version, very different from “Revolution 9” as long versions go.

1968 and ‘The White Album’ in Lowell


JOAN DIDION’S NOW-CLASSIC 1972 book The White Album begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In her essays, she’s not writing about The Beatles as much as tapping the vibe of the late 1960s to say what it felt like to be alive in that moment. Didion’s world was shifting and eluding meaning—improvisation had upset a solid storyline. She writes, We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” She started questioning her assumptions. Events were overtaking the expected pattern. Even The Beatles were shifting from a tight band to four separate players and back again in their double album called The Beatles and more famously “The White Album.”

“Helter Skelter,” a hard-rock song on disc two, whose name comes from a type of playground slide in England, got turned into an obscene threat by the murderous Charles Manson cult in 1969. Manson, a criminal and self-proclaimed prophet, concocted a twisted interpretation of “The White Album” as an apocalyptic forecast. A group of Manson’s followers butchered five people in Los Angeles, including the actress Sharon Tate, who was pregnant. Things were still falling apart, the center still not holding—a situation consistent with Didion’s earlier take on modern American culture in her first book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

My Time

     I was born in Lowell and grew up in the town of Dracut close by. In 1968, I finished eighth grade and started high school. To that point I was obsessed with two things: baseball and The Beatles. My family never missed the nightly news on TV, and my parents read two newspapers each day, three on Sunday if my older brother bought the New York Times. We were a current events family, so I knew what was going on. But my political awakening at fourteen years old didn’t happen until I saw the police thrashing anti-war demonstrators on live TV during the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago.

A cousin of mine, Marc, traveled to Chicago with friends from UMass Amherst to protest and was beaten by cops. He’s six years older than me. Marc had the longest hair of any of my cousins and looked and felt like the Sixties to me. His girlfriend was an artist. We never spoke about his politics, but I watched him and soaked up any news about him from his mother, my aunt Rollie. (He intrigued me as a little kid because he had pictures of New York Yankees baseball stars in his room—not Red Sox. The Yankees were winners in those days.)

My rising opposition to the Vietnam War boiled over as I watched the chaos on the Chicago streets and heard young demonstrators chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” Unforgettable scenes and words that shaped me.

A few years later, when reading Norman Mailer’s account of the conventions of 1968 in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the vivid description of that clash in Chicago jumped off the page and stoked my emotions again. The Chicago convention radicalized me, if that’s not too dramatic for a fourteen-year-old. When Graham Nash sang his song “Chicago” at Boarding House Park in Lowell two summers ago, he lit up my nervous system again with these passionate lines: “We can change the world, rearrange the world/It’s dying—to get better.” Just about everybody knew the words and was singing loudly. “If you believe in justice . . ./And if you believe in freedom/. . . open up the door.”

“The White Album”

     In late November 1968, my friend Susan in Dracut walked three miles in the rain to buy the new Beatles double album at a Lowell record shop and hitchhiked home when the paper bag started to soak through. “I was one crazy Beatles fan,” she says.

     At college, another friend, John, a photographer now, remembers “the beautiful color prints of the boys” that his roommate had taped to the wall. Around the same time, the Rolling Stones released their Beggars’ Banquet recording in an off-white sleeve, a second “white” album. John says it took all weekend to “fully consider both albums . . . listening deeply, testing our understanding of the music and lyrics, poring over the liner notes for hidden communiques.” He adds that The Beatles’ plain white album cover was excellent for rolling joints because “the small bits of weed stood out nicely.” John says the music didn’t catch hold of him and his friends until after winter break and the first half of the year. There were thirty new songs to absorb—in so many styles, with so much content.

My lifelong friend Paul recalls friends from high school who could afford to buy the album “debating for months whether it was as good as Sgt. Pepper or a hodgepodge of John’s and Paul’s songs.” Some of them thought it was a mess. He says, “Beatles’ songs [the group and solo] in 1969, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ were overtly political, but not as clever as the lyrics to ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ or as poetic as ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’”

     Speaking globally, a growing-up classmate of mine, Willy, says: “To have been lucky enough to come of age as those first Beatles songs hit the airwaves was akin to grabbing the lightning bolt right out of the sky.”

     My experience with “The White Album” lagged. When the album landed, I was still listening to Beatles’ songs from 1964 and 1967, A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour, plus a handful of number-one singles that I had on the small records, 45s. At later high school dance and beer-drinking parties, “The White Album” sank in thanks to a hundred spins on the turntable and repeated eight-track tape plays. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “While My Guitar,” “Bungalow Bill,” even the kooky “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” got us going in the town basements and city living rooms. Before and after the drinking age dropped to 18 years old, we had in our crowd two sets of parents who said they’d rather have their kids drinking downstairs in “a cellar full of noise” than drag-racing on the highway and tossing beer cans out the window if a cruiser fired up its blue lights. Anyone was welcomed to stay over. Nobody crashed a car.

     We rocked out to The Beatles, Stones, Grand Funk Railroad, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young, The Who, and lots of others. But The Beatles provided the musical anchor, “The White Album” and Abbey Road dominating. For about ten minutes I was in a makeshift band that tried hard to copy “Rocky Raccoon,” a mash-up of folk and honky-tonk showing the group’s incredible range. As an older guy I go back to “The White Album” for select cuts like “Long, Long, Long,” a gem featuring George’s voice and guitar with Ringo’s massive drumming.

     My friends and I didn’t connect “The White Album” to politics at the time, even with the song “Revolution” on the disc and the not-so-subtle commentary of “Piggies” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” We took The Beatles for music first and almost exclusively. That’s what we needed. The sound and the energy. We took them secondly for fashion, hair and clothes.

Lowell Time

     Lowell’s population in 1968 was about 94,000—92 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 1 percent black, and .7 percent Asian. (The 2010 census showed 52.8 percent white, 17.3 percent Hispanic, 6.8 percent black, and 20.2 percent Asian.) Twenty thousand people left the city between 1920 and 1960, many of them World War II veterans like my father moving their families to the ring of suburbs.

     After World War II, unemployment in the city rose and stayed high. The authorities began tearing down old houses, tenements, and business structures, hoping to attract new companies with open space for expansion. According to one report by neighborhood leaders: “The Lowell region was one of eight major urban centers in the U.S. classified as places with chronic unemployment, and as late as 1965 the jobless rate was 50 percent higher than the national average. From economic deprivation grew crime, neglect of the young and the elderly, poor physical and mental health, dependence of public welfare programs, and the steady withering of community involvement and spirit.”

A friend of mine walked to high school from his home across the river from downtown. He summed up what a lot of young people saw in the city. “I could have taken a bus, but walking the route, surrounded by empty mill buildings with broken windows, somehow reinforced the new independence I felt since leaving grammar school. Everything was bigger, and older, than the town I knew. History had been made here—had been—but the Lowell I walked through every day from 1968 to 1970 was spent and gray, punctuated only by the burnt-orange brick mill walls.”

     Community leaders involved in the federal Model Cities urban renewal project talked about rehabilitating Lowell’s history, mills, and canals as a way to revive the spirit and economy of the city. At the grassroots, activists planned a way forward. They believed in education as a stimulant and pictured a “City of Learning” in a museum-without-walls. Ten years of effort led to tremendous change by 1978, when the city was named a national park, commemorating the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, and the new computer industry created jobs in the region.

On the Streets

     In the nation and world every month of 1968 brought an explosion, from the brutal Tet Offensive in South Vietnam that revealed the strength of the opposition to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as student turmoil in France and Mexico and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.

     By 1968, the Vietnam War was in Lowell’s bloodstream. In 1965, Army soldier Donald Arcand, 19 years old, was killed in South Vietnam near the end of his tour of duty—the first Lowell man to die in that war. He was riding in a helicopter that was shot down by fighters on the ground. He had played basketball at St Joseph’s High School. Jane Hoye, who was engaged to Donald when he was killed, wrote years later that she felt an “indescribable sadness” at the news of his death. She added, “There were no men in Lowell in those days. They were all drafted.”

Donald L. Arcand (1946-1965) Web photo courtesy of loucroft.blogspot.com

Donald L. Arcand (1946-1965) Web photo courtesy of loucroft.blogspot.com

     City officials in 1969 dedicated Arcand Drive in honor of Donald—it’s a prominent road in front of the JFK Civic Center and Lowell City Hall. The same year anti-war activists in Massachusetts began organizing peace marches in the older industrial cities where the military was getting so many of its members. They wanted to save lives. In Lowell, some young people and older residents listened to the organizers describe a plan for an anti-war march in 1970. When the day of the march came, the protesting students, community people, and hard-core anti-war activists from outside the city encountered violent resistance from Lowell rough guys who detested what they believed were anti-American symbols and chants.

     One of the anti-war organizers, Michael, wrote that he saw the large crowd and knew “something big was up. We believed it was our march. We were wrong.” Talking about the clash years later, one local man said he hated seeing the Viet Cong flag being waved in the march. “Our friends were still there, getting killed.”

Students from the two colleges in Lowell marching for peace. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell, from  To Enrich and to Serve: The Centennial History of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell , by Mary H. Blewett and Christine McKenna [Dunlap])

Students from the two colleges in Lowell marching for peace. (Courtesy of UMass Lowell, from To Enrich and to Serve: The Centennial History of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, by Mary H. Blewett and Christine McKenna [Dunlap])

There had been another peace march in Lowell with a better outcome. The community staged an action in solidarity with the national Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. In Boston, 100,000 people assembled to protest, one of many demonstrations across the country. My friend Paul, mentioned earlier, was a sophomore in high school in October 1969 when he and several friends joined a throng of people:

“Walking up Merrimack Street to City Hall under a blue sky with the sun shining through yellow maple leaves. The day was crisp and clear as only October can be at times. Streets were closed. More people joined the crowd when we passed St. Anne’s Church and Lowell High School. The mood was somber. We were protesting the war, exercising new muscles and finding a new voice. For many of us, it was our first political act.

“I felt some concern about participating, as my sister’s boyfriend was stationed in Vietnam, and, of course, my father saw any march like that as unpatriotic. But, again it was like an initial coming-out and acknowledging that I could deal with possible repercussions.”

     What else was going on in the city? All the big and little parts of daily life. In 1968, 2500 people went to Shedd Park in the Belvidere neighborhood to watch Lowell High School’s baseball team play in a conference tournament game. It was the largest baseball crowd in the school’s history. Lowell High lost to its cross-town rival, Catholic Keith High School. With only 400 students, Keith won the Catholic Conference baseball championship and played in the Eastern Mass. Championship game, losing to Reading, 2-1. Baseball was booming, in part because of the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” year in 1967 when they won the American League championship and then lost in the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

     In 1968, my cousins Tommy and Danny and I discovered that we could buy a carton of Topps baseball cards for the wholesale price at the Notini Tobacco Company distribution warehouse in Lowell. What a revelation. Cut out the middle man. In those days the price at the corner variety store was ten cents a pack. Each time Topps released a new series for sale, we’d get a carton with 20 or more packs at a discount. What wealth we had when we spread our fresh cards on the kitchen table. We threw out the thin, hard, flat rectangles of pink bubble gum.


The Doors played at the Commodore Ballroom in 1967, a music venue near the Lowell train station today. Their song “Light My Fire” was the number one song in the country. Around that time, the Commodore also presented Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Kinks. Fans saw Vanilla Fudge, Moby Grape, Ultimate Spinach, and the 1910 Fruit Gum Company—there was a food trend in names. The popular house band was Little John and the Sherwoods, like Paul Revere and the Raiders. At nearby Canobie Lake amusement park, Sonny & Cher, Brenda Lee, and The Supremes performed. The record stores, Garnick’s and Record Lane, stocked new music. Two AM radio stations kept residents informed and entertained.

     A Teen Talk column in the Lowell Sun newspaper from 1968 described the anticipation of teenagers at Lowell High School waiting for the annual spring Field Day parades and outdoor skill competitions. “There was a fever gripping the students,” according to the Sun. In other news, the Middlesex Women’s Club raised money for college scholarships.

     Downtown Lowell had two department stores and several good-quality women’s and men’s clothing stores as well as shoe stores and two thriving Five-and-Ten-Cents stores, Woolworth’s and Kresge’s. Banks and offices for lawyers, doctors, and dentists lined the streets and filled upper floors of commercial buildings. Stores had regular business hours that included Monday and Thursday night openings. Dozens of churches and many religious schools, Catholic and Hellenic, thrived. In a city that had more than 40 movie theatre since the early 1900s, the city’s last first-run movie theatre, the Strand on Central Street, closed in 1968.

total loss farm 3.jpg

     The Sixties counterculture writer Raymond Mungo grew up in Lawrence, about 15 miles downriver from Lowell, and became an antiestablishment media star as a student news reporter at Boston University. He had his own take on Lowell in 1969. He and friends decided to recreate Henry David Thoreau’s boat trip up the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. When he got his canoe out of the Concord River in Lowell this is what he saw: “There is a strikingly nineteenth-century downtown area, but despite the energetic promotion of the oldest merchants in town, it is slowly corroding as it loses ground to the highway shopping plazas. Life there is sooty, and even the young people look hard and wrinkled. Though it is only a stone’s throw from cultured, boring Boston, it may as well be a thousand miles away for all the intellectual influence it absorbed. We didn’t know it [but our friend Peter] had earlier fled the city, terrified by the fierce looks and obscene catcalls which his long hair had provoked.”

Raymond was not intimidated, knowing this kind of working-class city. Later, a Lowell man put Mungo’s canoe in his truck and drove the travelers to the Merrimack River bank. People living nearby heard about the campers and brought them donuts and coffee.

Beat to Beatles

     Mungo wanted to pick up Jack Kerouac and take him away from Lowell, but Jack had moved to Florida a year before Mungo dropped in. The famous “beatnik” author, in his mid-forties, had come back home in 1967 after marrying Stella Sampas of Lowell, whom he knew in his youth. With his wife and sick mother, Jack lived in a suburban-style ranch house in the outer Highlands neighborhood. In February 1968, his novel Vanity of Duluoz was published. He had put the finishing touches on the story while in Lowell. It was the last of his novels that he saw published. In the book, he re-tells his youthful adventures with football, the Merchant Marine, and New York City subterranean life. A New York Times reviewer called the book “slap-dash” and “one-dimensional.” A recent web search showed seventy-seven media articles about the novel when it was launched.    


     In the novel he jokes about his lightly disguised seaman character docking in England and spending time with a couple of women who were happy to welcome a sturdy young Yank. The ship carried bombs for the British war effort against the German Nazis. He writes: “We sailed . . . straight for Liverpool. 1943. The year the Beatles were born there, ha ha ha.”

     Kidding aside, twenty-one-year-old Kerouac was saddened by the wartime deprivation in Liverpool: “Here, I saw queues of shawled women (clothing is scarce) waiting in line for some of the palest meat I ever saw . . . . The children are dirty, ill-clothed, and just plain ill.” The German air force mercilessly attacked Liverpool because it was an important port city. John, Paul, George, and Ringo (or Richard as a boy) were all war babies, born between 1940 and 1943. Despite challenging conditions, their families managed to make their lives reasonably comfortable, allowing them to imagine working as entertainers and artists.

    In 1964, Kerouac saw there was Beat in Beatles. The Beat Generation, which Kerouac named, is taken by people in different ways: weariness as in beat down, the musical tempo of jazz, even beatific in a spiritual sense. Poet Gregory Corso, a friend of Kerouac’s, quipped: “Five guys a generation don’t make.” Kerouac’s friend William Burroughs made the short list of people shown on the iconic Sgt. Pepper album cover. I don’t know if that was Lennon’s or McCartney’s doing. Another of Jack’s Beat Generation allies, poet Allen Ginsberg, quickly picked up on the pop magic of the group. He later collaborated with Paul McCartney on “Ballad of the Skeletons,” a song for peace.

     I haven’t found a source linking the Beat writers’ label directly to The Beatles, but there was an affinity between the two. In Liverpool, the talk was about Beat Music and the Mersey Beat for the sound of local bands along the Mersey River. And an earlier name for the band was The Silver Beetles, similar to Buddy Holly’s Crickets in America. Like the core writers of the Beat Generation, the four members of the band functioned as a group, reinforcing each other’s creative ambition. The Beats came through the war as young adults scarred by the carnage and looking for an alternative way to pursue happiness, that essential American dream. Unlike them, the young guys who made The Beatles survived the war as little children, without the damage that was done to the souls of the Beat writers. They were past all that and ran toward the light, drawn forward by the revved-up sound of rock and roll.

     A final thought on 1968. The weekend after Easter, my brother Richard took me to the new Showcase Cinema complex in Lawrence close to Route 495, whose central theater had the largest screen in the area. I was eager to see the film, which, for good reasons, has reached the status of a cathedral among film religionists.

     I didn’t get everything at first view, and I still don’t understand fully the haunting metal monolith and why the all-knowing spacecraft computer frazzed out. I should revisit Arthur C. Clarke’s novel to explore the story more deeply. When I learned that the computer was named HAL because the three letters precede IBM, I appreciated that inside joke. The visual presentation was nothing I’d seen before. The scope of the narrative, the space world gadgets and vehicles, the mythic vibrations.

     Most of all, though, I came away mesmerized by what is called “the Star Gate sequence.” For almost ten minutes, I was pinned in my padded seat while a multi-colored projection washed my eyes, my whole body. I felt as if I was thrusting forward and being pushed back simultaneously. The effect was both kaleidoscopic and a psychedelic tunnel ride, the visual data rushing past on the sides as I, the viewer, arrowed ahead, slipping into the chromatic void through a vertical seam and then flattening to horizontal slicing.

     Through ages of techno-grid travel the context shifts to a morphology that feels familiar even as it stays strange. From a machine world, from an optics carnival, we are transported to places vaguely land- and sea-like. I walked into the sunlight feeling like a hole had been drilled in my head, painlessly, and filled with dream juice that I could not have identified when we got to the show 142 minutes before.

     In a year not half over that already felt messily human and would get uglier and more spectacular, this film, a work of art, had yanked me out of my limited daily experience. Space fascinated me from the start, whether in science fiction or science nonfiction. At the end of the year, the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon and safely touched down in the Atlantic Ocean. Like the Star Gate Sequence, they gave us a new visual, a photograph by Air Force officer William Anders that is called Earthrise, made on Christmas Eve. About half of our planet, blue seas wrapped in white clouds, is seen above a slice of the Moon’s gray surface amid black space.

     Anders said, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

11/6/18 Paul Marion (revised 3/16/19)

* Special thanks to Michael Ansara, Susan April, Paul Brouillette, Willy LeMay, Eileen Loucroft, and John Suiter for sharing their reflections and recollections.