Harlan Ellison is sitting in my car, singing.
Why am I not surprised? I've only read everything this autobiographer's autobiographer
has written that I could get my hands on, not to mention I have run his web site
for over a year and fielded hundreds of questions, and never can I recall
anyone (the man himself included) mentioning that he sings. To boot, he
casually mentions he used to make some bucks singing at jazz clubs in
NYC. With guys like, oh, Charles Mingus.
I'm a singer myself; I've done a turn or two in church choirs (paid and unpaid,
as finances and the grace of various Gods allowed), and done amatuer and
professional musical theater and opera. Inasmuch as a few minutes in a car
doing eighty can show, the man's still got a serviceable voice and an ear
for rhythm. There's a certain lady jazz-singer in Ithaca who's probably
falling out of her chair right now, but we'll move on because I've got a
lot to say, this piece is woefully overdue, and all I really want to say
about this singing thing is this:
After all my experience with him, Ellison is still a font of new
revelations. The man may be short, but he sure is deep.
Any questions? Yes, you in the back wearing the Dogbert T-shirt....oh, yeah.
Sorry about that. I guess I do need to cover how exactly a writer of such
laurels came to be sitting in my all-black 1990 Ford Taurus SHO, lost
somewhere around Greeneville, South Carolina. Right. Let's
backtrack a bit....
You should recognize the gent on the right. The woman on the right is
Maggie Thompson, co-editor of Comics Buyers' Guide.
They're both at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC - a small liberal
private liberal arts school that employs only church-going Christians
on its faculty and staff. No shit.
Harlan and Maggie came into town to do a lecture as part of the "1996-1997
Russel Program series on The Media and Popular Culture", entitled Creating
a Legend: From Comic-Book Character to Cultural Phenomenon. Originally,
Maggie was to do the lecture solo, brought in through the efforts of
by Richie and Gina Prosch, creators of the comic
Davenport (which I understand has appeared in the CBG).
The Prosches happened to jokingly ask Maggie if Harlan could come, too,
and sunufagun if Harlan didn't accept! HE is an old friend of Maggie's
(he's known her since she was 13, although we won't tell you how long
ago that was) and the Fates are curious old birds sometimes, I guess.
If only they knew what they were getting themselves into.
Kristin (the love of my life) and I roared into Clinton on Tuesday,
October 15th, at high speed
and with reckless abandon, about three minutes before the lecture was
to start. Harlan had
had mentioned on the phone the preceding Friday that he was flying
into South Carolina for a lecture, and after we spoke I looked up the college
on the World-Wide Web. I discovered with Automap software that the
sucker was only a couple hours or so from our home in Atlanta.
Naturally, we had to go. Work is work, but Harlan is Harlan.
I asked directions from one of the thousand Walmart-greeter-looking
townsfolk, and sprinted into Belk Auditorium shortly after the talk started
to take these pictures.
On reflection, I was facing the wrong way.
I should have shown you pictures of the half-filled auditorium. Hell,
of the half-filled kids.
These kids, these students, were in the presence of one of the better speakers and entertainers I've
ever watched, sitting in the same room as a man who fills me with
energy like some gigantic Tesla coil - and they showed about the same degree of arrogance and ennui as your
average Atlanta Braves fan.
You'll probably hear something more eloquent from Harlan on this subject
at some later date. He was deeply disturbed by the experience, the silence
interrupted briefly by the bell signalling the start of the afternoon's
classes which emptied the hall (to borrow a great Donald Westlake simile)
like a dog backing into a hot stove, the atmosphere that made it clear that
these students (with a few notable exceptions) could give a rat's ass.
The lecture topic wouldn't have been my first pick, but Thompson and
Ellison did it proud. They spoke about the five characters, or icons, who
have acheived world-wide recognition: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Superman,
Robin Hood, and Mickey Mouse. They tried to explain what makes a character
famous and what lets that character make the leap to universal symbol, to
icon status. They traded off quips and quotes, theories
and anecdotes, they talked about mass culture and marketing.
It played like Yakoff Smirnoff before the House UnAmerican Activities
Here's a telling little piece of that disheartening pie: Harlan
couldn't get anyone to move closer. Anyone who's been to one of HE's talks
knows he'll get the attendees to crowd around the stage or fill in empty
seats - to make more room and to get him closer to his audience. I attended
a reading at DragonCon in Atlanta where a few of us sat up on the lecture
stand with him at his incessant urging.
Harlan couldn't get one of these dudes to move a micron.
I don't think I'm making something of nothing here. Admittedly, Harlan
often has an audience familiar with his work who came to whatever he's speaking
at to see HIM. But not always, and even so he's an engaging speaker
with a sense of humor that is still tight and in touch, and he could
probably sit down and write an encyclopedia of cultural literacy off the
top of his head. He
even knows which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle wears the purple headband.
So trust me, it wasn't just a lack of experience with his work or the
non-fannish setting which made the dead air filling the auditorium
It was, quite simply, the first time in my life I've ever felt like there
was another generation younger than mine; and that something is horribly,
desperately wrong with that generation.
I'm thirty. I'm too young for this crap.
I think I've got a handle on why what happened happened. First, kids
growing up these days don't read anything, even comic books. They get
all their media input from television, which has instructed them
very well in recent years in how to attack and deconstruct one's heroes
and sacred cows. There is some value in realizing that heroes are human;
at the same time I can't help but think it is a little dangerous to spend
more time kneecapping role models than learning from them.
I'm also aware that our popular culture is filled to the bursting point
with people who got where they are through methods other than learning,
working hard, or even by following their bliss. We
have never had so much information about so many people with so much
fame and money, and at the same time we are watching the first generation
since the Depression which will probably grow up with less opportunity
and a lower standard of living than their parents.
So okay, maybe I can understand why I'd have trouble concentrating on
some guy telling me why Tarzan is so cool. I can understand it - I
can't excuse it. I think it's possible it bothers me as much
as it does Harlan.
I wonder what's happened to these kids, and I wonder when I stopped
being one of them. I want to cry for my lost youth; I want to cry for
The faculty luncheon after the lecture was a little better, although Harlan was
the only Jew and the only African-American was our server (an aged lady
darker than the inside of a safe and probably one of the few people
there I'd care to spend an afternoon talking to). I was probably one of the
only people present who thought Jesus Christ was a swell guy with
some great ideas who really got shit on by organized religion and the
Harlan sat me at his right hand, and I'm told I was extremely
reserved and demure (far out of character, I assure you). Maybe
it's because I'm sitting there watching him talk, looking at the slope of
his nose and the miles of character etched in his face; and I'm thinking
that here's a guy who'd be at the top of that "dinner with" list everyone
makes, a guy who is my number one hero not because he writes a damn fine
story but because he goes after what he wants and what he believes without
fear or reservations, a guy who obviously and sincerely cares about
this tossed-aside eight-thousand-mile-wide turdball and the creatures
that inhabit it; here's this guy who would never in a million years
write a run-on sentence like this; and he's two freakin' feet away
from me, and
I'm having lunch with him,
chatting like we were old fraternity chums!
(Before I get too deep into this lovefest, I should mention that although I
love the man he can also really get knee-deep into your small intestine
sometimes as well. Ask me sometime about how I tried to correct a proof
he sent, by way of explaining the difference between the adjective
unconscious and the noun unconsciousness, and the Harlan-sized
hole in my peritoneum which resulted. But I digress...)
I should mention two things by way of apologia. First, I've glossed over
Maggie Thompson in this recollection. She's a very well-read, intelligent,
and interesting woman; asking her a question about the Comics Code and
listening to her reminisce with a professor about their favorite Dickens
books was enough to impress the hell out of me. Second, I'm sure most
of the faculty in attendance was as appalled at the demographics and
hiring practices of their school as was I. I'm not trying to make
any sweeping generalizations about the life of privileged academia
in the Deep South. One of the faculty was practically in tears as she had
HE sign her Essential Ellison and spoke about what the
story "Jeffty is Five" meant to her.
So let it be said that Maggie held her own in the face of the often-intimidating
Ellison, and that I shouldn't stereotype people. And please forgive me if,
as a recovering suggin myself, I don't think I got entirely the wrong idea.
After the luncheon, Kristin (TLoML) and I attended a class with a handful
of creative writing students who got some very good advice from an
old pro on the subject of writing (I took some pictures, they were
lost when I dropped my camera at the airport and it popped open and
spewed film and batteries like a busted pinata). HE spoke at length
about the importance of VERISIMILITUDE in writing - that the appearance
of reality, the ability to allow the reader to suspend disbelief, is
more important than the actual truth or reality. "It really happened
that way" is not an excuse. He mentioned that as soon as he realizes
an author isn't telling the truth, as soon as that belief is broken,
he refuses to read any further.
Other nuggets of wisdom include:
Never use present tense in your stories. You may think it gives your
writing a sense of immediacy; it doesn't.
Don't trust what your friends, family, and lovers say about your
work. They can't help but lie, and they aren't qualified to
comment regardless. Find someone who is a published writer, who
has the credentials, and who has no interest in sparing your feelings.
Do your homework, get the small details straight; they are what makes
a story feel real.
There's more; I don't have my notes handy, although I was busier writing
stuff down than any of the students. After the class, Maggie and Harlan
had to head back to the airport as Maggie has a 5:30 pm flight out. Harlan
offered to ride back with us so we could have a chance
Oh, I also got Harlan to show me the gigantic superhighway of a scar
down the inside
of his left leg where they yanked 27.5 inches of vein for his quadruple
bypass. It's a purple monster - I was tempted to snap a pic but I didn't
want to put it online and get in trouble due to that Decency Act thingie.
And that brings us to where we started; the car, the singing.
And here we are, back in the present tense I'm supposed to be
avoiding like the plague. I wish, I really wish, that you'll now hear about some fascinating and illuminating
conversation we had in that car. But that is not to be.
The simple fact is I'm still a
little fearful of opening up too much, of having this guy who's spoken
with me on the phone a hundred times but never met me in person before think
I'm a total freakazoid. I act like the nervous suitor having dinner
at Her Parent's House. Luckily, Kristin doesn't clam up like me and she
and Harlan argue about trans-fatty acids and margarine vs. butter halfway
to the airport.
So I squander my time alone with The Man. Go figure. It's not the first
stupid thing I've ever done, it won't be the last. That time alone, all by
itself, is still worth the six hours in the car and the missed day of work.
It's worth it by a longshot. Besides which, I do get
to hear how Harlan has been able to cure his own headaches and has the knack
of telling if a woman is a virgin or not. I also get the
pleasure of his company for an hour or so, which is no small reward; the
man's damned entertaining.
There is some brief confusion as I get us near the Spartanburg Municipal
Airport before I figure out we need to go the Greeneville/Spartanburg Airport
instead. Luckily, Harlan's plane doesn't leave until an hour after the
inestimable Ms. Thompson's, so we've got time to spare.
In fact, we arrive in time for Harlan to eat half of an only average grilled
chicken salad (that's TLoML on the left there splitting it with him), and
hold court with myself, Kristin, and the Prosches until time for us to head
up to Gate 1A.
Having popped open my camera and exposed the film, I rattle off the last dozen exposures
and slap in a new roll. I'll spare you most of the results, mainly poorly
framed and focused shots of Harlan stuffing his face.
I do get this one great shot of Harlan, most likely looking at Kristin
as she explains to him that "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" is basically
plastic and will wind up being worse for him than chugging raw milk
no matter what his heart doctor says. Harlan is still worked up over
the reaction he got from his lecture audience, and I get the feeling it's going
to be keeping him up nights.
Harlan also keeps up a running banter with the waitress, whose name he has
made sure to get (Robin) and who is probably wondering what holy man she
ran over in a previous life to get this cantankerous rascal in her section.
She asks him if he's somebody famous (this tempts me to act outrageously
next time I'm in a restaurant to see if I get the same reaction).
After Harlan leaves she asks Gina Prosch just who the hell he was. At this
point, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with an answer.
Our motley crew ambles up the escalator to the gate, where I get Harlan to
tell the less-clean version of the Mother Theresa joke he told on Tom Snyder's
show and generally bother the hell out of him for pictures. Three extremely
clean-cut young ladies mill about in the general area and someone hypothesizes
they are from Bob Jones College, a nearby
and extremely Christian school. Harlan can't stand it and eventually has
to amble over and ask then where they're from.
Oh, and thanks to the knack I mentioned earlier, we are informed: virgins all.
So that's the end of my day. I leave you as Harlan left me - no hugs or
kisses allowed, no fervent goodbyes. A brief walk away, and a few
memories. I know my time was not wasted; I hope I did not waste yours.
(Please feel free to insert the mind-numbing summation or jaw-dropping
insight of your choice here. It's three in the morning, and I am in no
shape to provide such. But I'm sure that if you made it this far you're
either an intelligent and fast reader or stoned out of your gourd, and in
either case I'm confident you are well qualified to fend for yourself
in the Big Picture department. Ciao.)
Gina and Richie Prosch, the folks
responsible for bringing in Harlan and Maggie and the creators of the
The humble author (me) with HE.
The Love of the humble author's Life,
also with HE.
Return to the Harlan Ellison booth