Earth Day

Alan Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg – Beat Poet

When I think about Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau on April 22, 1970, I don’t think about thousands of stoned out hippies basking in the sun, reveling in the nation’s first Earth Day. I don’t think about Ralph Nader, Dune author Frank Herbert, Nobel Prize winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald, or Senator Ed Muskie.

What I do recall is an enthusiastic set by Native American rock group, Redbone; a bizarre, almost disturbing appearance by Beat Poet legend, Allen Ginsberg; and a characteristically inflammatory performance by my father, Ian McHarg. My dad, let it be said, cut a dashing figure and was at the very zenith of his popularity at the time. Ginsberg listened to every word like a man entranced. As my father stepped away from the podium, Ginsberg leaped from his chair, wrapped him in a bear hug and planted an enthusiastic, heartfelt kiss of appreciation right on his lips.

There, before God and thousands of witnesses, my father lived his worst nightmare. On the one hand, he was receiving adulation from a bona fide legend, and my dad was impressed by celebrity in a way that is, perhaps, unique to celebrities; people who dearly believe in the idea that being known has intrinsic value. So, feigning happiness was mandatory. On the other hand, he was a fearsome individual with a passion for intimidation – war hero, bully, tough guy – homophobia was woven into his tweed. Indeed, he once admitted that, if he had to choose, he would prefer a mentally retarded child to a gay one.

It would be many years before I came to understand that we hate what we fear and we build castles of rationalization around our fears to justify the hate. I can only speculate what there was lurking deep in my father’s subconscious that nurtured this very particular dread. He was not, as a rule, given to xenophobia; in general the rich contempt he felt for all humanity was spread equally across its sub-categories. I have also learned, painfully, that such disdain is always predicated on self-hatred.

My father’s shock was, at least, not incomprehensible. Ginsberg was almost certainly tripping on LSD that day, his eyes were the size of pie plates and I did not see him blink. Never a handsome man, Mr. Beat Poet was in the full-bearded phase of his career, an entire family of red-winged blackbirds might have broken it up into condos. He resembled nothing more closely than a wretched alcoholic living beneath a bridge.

Unlike the other speakers who, for the most part, were painfully cerebral and sincere to the point of tedium – even for hippies – Ginsberg was whacked. I have never been a fan of the Beats, who damaged American poetry so badly that its battered remains went to die on the lips of rappers; but even a tepid rendition of Howl would have been preferable to twenty minutes of chanting, harmonium squeezing and staring into the audience. I don’t think there was any part of my dad’s consciousness that could find common ground with that.

At his funeral I made the observation, “Wherever he is, he’s probably still trying to wipe that kiss off.”

To order my books click on the Earth Day Logo

Earth Day Logo

Righteous Rage In The Sky

Stormy sky righteous rage

On April 4, 1968, my father was returning home from a speaking engagement in Grand Junction, Colorado – connecting with a flight from Denver to Philadelphia. His regular flight had been cancelled and he’d been forced to hop a twin-engine puddle-jumper.

A volatile storm system had parked itself over the continental divide, a two-mile high Rocky Mountain Ridge bisecting the state on a North/South axis. The pilots were disinclined to make the trip, especially since my father was the only passenger in their 8-seater. Dad, a former British Army Major and paratrooper, was not easily denied. The three of them ascended.

It wasn’t long before the pilot and co-pilot regretted their decision. With only mountains below them, and no available place to land, they pressed on into an increasingly violent, turbulent storm – swimming in rain-whipped blackness, tossed about by sudden shifts of wind and terrified as lightning strikes grew closer and closer, scarring the dark like heavenly spears.

The pilot and copilot were hanging on every word crackling from the radio. My father, anxious to make certain they did their very best, was in the cockpit with them. Then, an urgent voice broke into the control tower feed with the astonishing announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. For an instant the three men, precariously suspended above mountaintops, went silent. At last the pilot broke the silence with these words, “Finally! They finally took care of that fucking uppity nigger!”

At that moment my father did not think, he acted. Hand out he grabbed the pilot’s collar and pulled him forward. Then, fueled with the irresistible intoxicant we call righteous rage; he punched the pilot full force in the face, knocking him across the cabin. He reached out and repeated the procedure until finally the man, screaming in fear and disbelief, placed both hands on his face to stop the stream of blood pouring from his nose. With authority and conviction that were normal for him my father told the co-pilot to make do without his partner and walked to the back of the small, trembling plane.

There is something wonderfully insane about someone who would mercilessly beat a man whose well-being was instrumental to continued life, based only on moral outrage. There is also something wildly ironic about defending the memory of a pacifist icon with brute violence. I confess, like Dr. King, I believe passionately in non-violence. And yet, dear reader, there are moments when I ache to be that person, the brute my father was, raining down divine retribution upon sinners with terrible, swift justice.

Even today I miss Dr. King. Not just for what he did, but especially how he did it. It is the how of it that holds the greatest nobility.

It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.

What’s Wrong With Being Not Right For Everyone?

The Audience Is  Never Wrong Wrong Theater

My father leveraged his iconoclastic, condescending personality into an asset; and rode it to celebrity. Only much later did I come to see that he craved approval, even adulation, the way an addict craves narcotics. Like an addict, his hunger was insatiable; the more validation he received the more he needed. Watching in terrified awe, I grew up believing that mass acceptance is highly desirable, and a reliable barometer of value.

“Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula

He lived in the spotlight; I lived in the shadow. Growing up in the dark taught me to love the cool, quiet of oblivion, where I was safe from the horrors of accomplishment and the judgment that went with it. If I wasn’t known to anyone, (the logic went), I couldn’t disappoint. The death of a thousand (self-administered) cuts was well underway.

“Looking for self-worth in someone else’s eyes is like trying to breathe with someone else’s lungs.” Taz Mopula

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) stole the anonymity that cloaked me; fits of mania splattered my once secret torment across the front page, I soon became a nasty joke everyone had heard. For years I labored to understand and remedy what madness had revealed – learning to love the real me. In time I came to understand that honesty is the very bedrock of all recovery.

“It’s not that I don’t love you, I do love you; I just don’t love you enough to lie to you.” Taz Mopula

That is precisely when I ceased being a dilettante and began taking myself seriously as a creative artist. I wrote my bipolar memoir, applying a searching, fearless honesty which some regard as brutal. From then on the die was cast, in subsequent books, poems, cartoons – even Taz Mopulisms – truth, in other words – what I understand to be the truth – trumped all.

“The audience is never wrong; that said, one does occasionally wander into the wrong theater.” Taz Mopula

Everything about my experience is eccentric, and so, as you might expect, I have many unorthodox beliefs and opinions which I share freely. I certainly don’t set out to upset or offend, it’s merely an unintended consequence. There is no alternative. I don’t expect universal acceptance – honestly, that would almost be a bad sign – I am merely offering freely to all and looking for my audience.

“There is only one truly authentic way to enjoy success; that is by remaining indifferent to it.” Taz Mopula

Nothing Recedes Like Success

B.B. King

My father received the National Medal of Arts in September of 1990; other recipients included Jasper Johns, Beverly Sills, Merce Cunningham, Hume Cronyn, and blues legend, B.B. King.

The ceremony took place at The White House, President Bush and wife Barbara (much scarier in person) officiating. Afterwards a select group of 50 or so attendees was invited to stay for lunch (lamb).

I almost didn’t make it in. Even though I’d been formally invited my name triggered an alarm when I arrived at the gate because short months prior to the occasion I’d been involuntarily admitted into a state mental hospital – for a curiously refreshing account of these events CLICK HERE to order Invisible Driving, my bipolar memoir.

The White House was much smaller inside than I’d imagined and I was delighted to find a complete set of Nixon’s memoirs in one of the bathrooms.

I had no desire to call attention to myself and didn’t want to do anything that might embarrass The Professor; it was his day after all. However, at the mix and mingle, right before sitting down to lunch, when I saw B.B. King schmoozing with then Attorney General Richard Thornburg, I simply had to introduce myself. (Frankly I’ve never been terribly impressed by King as a musician, although I do like his voice.)

We chatted very amiably for a while and then I stopped for a moment and said, “You know, unlike pretty much everybody else here,” with that I swept my arm across the sea of predominately white, male, humorless, Republican, conservative, uptight twits, sycophants, and unctuous opportunists, “I actually own some albums by you.”

(This was true; a terrific effort with horns called Blues On Top Of Blues and a dreadful 2-album Buddha reissue pairing him with old friend Bobbie “Blue” Bland. In high school I’d purchased an appalling album called Lucille and given it away after listening to it twice.)

Now, in all honesty, I thought this was a slow pitch, an opportunity for us to be amused by the irony together. It is hard to imagine George Bush moanin’ about goin’ to Memphis to get his hambone boiled, or Barbara cryin’ ‘cause she need a hot dog for her roll. I doubt that pooling the entire group would have produced more B.B. King albums than Jasper Johns paintings. And yet, nothing at all from The King, just a sour puss indicating I’d given him the blues.

Then it dawned on me, when it comes to egomania there is no such thing as success, there is never enough approbation to satisfy the appetite. King was unable to be amused by the irony because he wouldn’t be satisfied until the whole world had albums by him. But the bad part is, even then it wouldn’t be enough.

I saw this with my father; ultimately the fame meant nothing. As it says in the play Deathtrap, “Nothing recedes like success.” And when it does recede, if you’ve got nothing substantial to fall back on, nothing in the center to nourish you, it gets mighty lonely out there.

Everybody wants to know, why I sing the blues, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve really paid my blues.

Dismantling The Vatican

vatican

My father was beyond judgmental; he was an imperious iconoclast with opinions about absolutely everything. The Professor expressed thoughts in the form of edicts and proclamations, as if to say disagreement was a pointless exercise. One did not have discussions with the old man, much less debates. One was educated.

My family traveled a great deal when I was young, and my dad, an architect and aficionado of esthetics, among other things, was fond of dragging us to cultural touchstones like cathedrals, gardens, and art galleries. He would explain, with signature irreverence, (much to the horror of passersby), and we would listen with appropriate respect, if we knew what was good for us.

The Vatican

I remember walking through the Vatican with him. Together we examined every gilt detail of this opulent, overwrought warehouse, admiring the way it oozed wretched excess at once gaudy and operatic, carefully designed to intimidate and lure with meretricious sparkle. Sweeping his arm in grand theatricality he exhaled loudly and sneered, “Cecil B. DeMille”.

The Snarling Atheist

My father was no mere agnostic, I should point out, but a snarling atheist who put nature in the place frequently occupied by God. Still, he admired cathedrals from an architectural standpoint and an artistic one. He was much taken by the cathedrals in France and took great pains to point out that the men who built them often worked their entire lives without seeing the finished product, indeed, many of these monuments required centuries to complete, and, generations of stone carvers toiled in anonymity, devoting their skill, art, passion and best energies to a higher calling.

No Guarantee Of Reward

How does the old saw go about the man who plants a tree knowing that he will never live to sit in its shade?

Fear Is A Revolving Door; Fate’s A Boulevard

ian mcharg

My late father, Ian McHarg, was ensconced in Who’s Who before I made it into high school; by the time I went to college he’d been featured in LIFE Magazine. Later on, President H.W. Bush presented him with The National Medal of Arts and the government of Japan gave him a lifetime achievement award that came with a million dollar check. Not bad for a poor kid from Glasgow.

Breath, fame, and fortune have all vanished like mist on a lake, leaving me to sort it out. Though dismissive on the subject of celebrity, he craved it like an addict in an alley; and like that addict, no amount of more was ever enough. As they say, “nothing recedes like success” – and my father chased a steady stream of students, fans, and sycophants.

After the latest Wall Street Journal cover story or TV chat show guest appearance he’d regale me with insider celebrity tidbits in such a way as to demonstrate how little it all meant to him. Even then I knew the smell of horseshit, but I pretended to take him seriously all the same.

“One day, Alistair” he would say, “I will come to be known not as Ian McHarg but as the father of Alistair McHarg.”

In these rare moments of camaraderie we laughed heartily, enjoying this preposterous fiction as if there was a scrap of authenticity to it. The fact was, no one rose above my father and lived to tell of it.

I traveled under a double curse; as his son I was expected to reflect his glory but always defer to it. Had I attempted to surpass him I would have been crushed. And so, I turned my anger inwards and set out upon a life of self-destruction, depression, alcoholism, and failure. (You might be surprised to learn that real failure requires dedication.)

“Disingenuous self-deprecation is an especially distasteful manifestation of vanity.” Taz Mopula

Fear defined my entire relationship with him. Fear of failure, fear of success. Since the lesson one refuses to learn constantly re-presents itself, I was stuck in a revolving door. One day the door had had enough and spat me out as contemptuously as a fish rejecting a lure. I was left only with fate – and fate had plans for me that did not include ruin. There was service in my future.

This poem, Winter Birds, is recent, and tracks this father and son act back to the days when he would impress me into service in the garden, moving rocks, transplanting trees, stealing ferns from the woods. No man ever worked harder to make nature more perfect than it already is.

When it was done I reread it and understood at last how, finally able to see him life-sized, and honor him accordingly, I really am free to let fate have its way with me. I don’t know if there is anyone left who remembers his contributions but I do know this – I will never again think of him as Ian McHarg. He is the father of Alistair McHarg, which, from my vantage point, is a far greater accomplishment.

Winter Birds

My father was a foreigner no matter where he went
I stumbled in the shadow of his odyssey, shifting lands
And languages like agents on a mission, hiding in
Plain sight for all to see and none to know

He had to add a garden onto every new address
Pencil scratching paper scrap, knees upon the earth
Ferns and bricks and gravel paths, ponds and rhododendrons
Sprawled upon the ground like a flamboyant signature

He taught me the gentle ceremony, sapling uprooted
Burlap, fingers, spade, bearing it away to meet
Unfamiliar soil, transplanted, reaching to embrace the sun
And rain so it could drive its roots into the earth, like anchors

Water blessed, nested, tree we would admire how the sweat
Of our labors had borne fruit, then, flash of lightning like
Bird appeared to grasp a branch and claim possession of it
As if he had been watching us, aching for the chance

My father never told me that, without the weight, hollow bones
And feathers, nervous eyes alert, one small bird swaying
On a slender branch, earth itself, unbalanced, would wander
From its axis and vanish in the cold expanse of space

Alistair McHarg

CLICK HERE TO ORDER BOOKS WRITTEN BY ALISTAIR McHARG (Do NOT Click Here To Order Books By Ian McHarg)

Killer In The Dining Room

ira einhorn

Moonlit Tours is a dark comedy that begins with a fundamental question – are human beings intrinsically good and evil – or – is evil behavior the consequence of increasingly questionable choices? There are many interwoven storylines involving incremental falls from grace, where essentially decent people find themselves committing unspeakable acts – including murder.

As a young man I was spared the experience of military service and have seen little of death, much less murder. So, when I was preparing to write I scoured my memories for interactions with killers. The most useful was an uncomfortable familiarity with convicted murderer Ira Einhorn, whose unapologetic expression stared out from front pages across the nation some time back. This is the story of how I came to know him.

People rarely rise to the pinnacle of their profession by accident; usually they are driven by a primal force like greed, competitiveness, or the need for approval. My father, who lived his entire life in a state of hypo-mania, genuinely loved what he did; but the emotional engine powering him was an almost pathological need for validation and respect.

I have no first-hand acquaintance with celebrity but I learned a great deal about it growing up in his shadow. One of the first things I found out is that stars attract sycophants; while some crave only the warmth of reflected limelight, others seek to attach themselves for manipulative, unsavory purposes. Luminaries, because they are accustomed to praise and crave it like morphine; are easily victimized by the latter variety. Meet Ira Einhorn.

Ira Einhorn was a self-styled anti-war, environmental activist who collaborated with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. As the first Earth Day approached, he launched an intense lobbying effort to get on my father’s good side so he could claim some of the credit for organizing it.

I remember him sitting at the massive George Nakashima dining table in our house, overlooking Fairmount Park, schmoozing with desperate relentlessness, and my father, clueless as only the truly brilliant can be, falling for it with a broad smile. Einhorn was smart, charming, affable, and determined. He had an unerring instinct for isolating what made people tick, and putting it to his advantage.

Earth Day took place in 1970. In 1977 we learned that Einhorn had murdered his ex-girlfriend, Holly Maddux and stuffed her body in a trunk which he stored in his West Philadelphia apartment. I was surprised and not surprised, having always sensed something unpleasant about him, although even today I don’t know exactly what. He avoided capture for many years and, after some convoluted legal square-dancing, was shipped state-side to face judgment. In one memorable last attempt at prestidigitation he tried to persuade the court that CIA agents had killed Maddux in order to discredit him.

Moonlit Tours explores a world where people do not choose evil; they fail to choose righteousness – where the great crimes of life are committed by unexceptional people, people essentially like us.

Moonlit Tours Cover

Even Hep Cats Get The Blues

Roland Kirk bright moments

My parents met at a dance for foreign students in Boston. (He was Scottish; she was Dutch.) My mother, who listened almost exclusively to classical music and played the cello, would later confess that, after watching my father perform his rousing Fats Waller impression she wondered if he might be mad. (Only later would she realize the complete accuracy of this hypothesis.)

My father’s love for jazz can be traced back to his childhood in Glasgow where he saved ha’pennies in order to afford 78rpm recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other American greats. The music seemed wildly exotic and wonderful to him; moving to the States post-war increased his devotion.

As a child I was immersed in the exquisite creations of Satchmo, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and others long before The British Invasion. (Every so often my father would regale us with his impression of Coleman Hawkins playing “Body & Soul”. This hilarious homage was delivered using only his lips and included elaborate mugging.)

High school and college were devoted to rock; Hendrix had propelled it to the stars. But by the time I got to graduate school Hendrix was dead and rock was very much in decline. I returned to jazz and found that, while rock does one thing very well, jazz is a complete art form that encompasses all elements of the human spirit. Jazz is not so much a musical style as it is a world.

One of my absolute favorite players was a human three-ring circus named Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was blind and famous for playing as many as three saxophones simultaneously. But this only scratches the surface. He would play the flute and talk at the same time, launch into “raps” that ranged from bawdy to political. Kirk was not an easy man, but the very definition of a creative genius who could hold his own with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – anyone!

I saw Kirk perform three times, once at Carnegie Hall, once in a horrid meeting room in Chicago, and once in a tiny Dayton jazz club called Gilly’s. I went there alone and got a seat all the way up front. To my amazement, Kirk came into the room from the back and started working the crowd. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit covered with hooks and zippers and looked like a human Christmas tree except that instead of ornaments there were saxophones, flutes, whistles, miscellaneous percussion instruments, etc.

He moved with confidence a sighted person wouldn’t have had, Kirk knew every stick of furniture in that room, and he sensed every person. At last he arrived at the front of the room, by the stage, next to my table.

“How you doin’ man?” He faced me and seemed to know I was alone.
“Great,” I answered too eagerly, “I’m really happy about being here.”
“I ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” This confession did not conform to my expectation of the evening. I had been counting the days; some idiot part of me believed that Kirk had also been looking forward to it.
“I ain’t feeling it, man. It’s Sunday night, I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Why would you be doing that when you could be here turning these folks on to your fabulous music?”
“Because, man, just because. I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t the idea of a blind man watching TV. It wasn’t the idea of the baddest, hippest jazz musician on the scene watching the squarest, whitest, most apple pie show on TV. It was the idea that even the most incendiary genius could be vulnerable and flat like the rest of us.

He did two sets; being a professional, they were absolutely amazing. But even when he dug so deeply into “If I Loved You” that I felt sure the notes had been stored in the basement next to the cases of beer, it was impossible not to picture Mary in Lou’s office, crying – and Rahsaan saying, “Love is all around, no need to fake it.”