Thor: The Dark World, and the Comforting Universe of Marvel

By Al Giordano
 
 
In 1967, I was seven, and my parents granted me a weekly “allowance” of a whopping 25 cents. Other kids I knew received as much as a dollar per week, but I was thrilled to enter the ranks of consumers even with limited purchasing power. My chums and I would go together to the candy store to spend these riches on on packets of cards with our favorite baseball, football and basketball players, each containing a stick of chewing gum.
 
At the store, there was a rack of magazines and comic books, and I noticed some titles with the names of super heroes I had seen on TV cartoons. After school, on weekdays, on the black and white television, there were five such programs. On Mondays, there would be a half-hour adventure of Captain America, the World War II everyman who had been converted into a super-soldier by an experimental serum. On Tuesdays, the millionaire playboy and arms-dealer Tony Stark would suit up as Iron Man. On Wednesdays, the Hulk would fly into fits of rage and smash the same kinds of tanks that Cap rode and that Stark manufactured. In very Catholic form, there was fish on Fridays, as Prince Namor, the Submariner, would rule and protect the seven seas, harassed by humans and their governments whose stupidity was destroying the oceans.
 
Thursday was “Thor’s Day,” a different kind of hero, because he was a god from another realm, named Asgard, straight out of ancient Norse mythology, and his story reflected the generation gap that was raging throughout society in the 1960s. I found the Thor myth irresistible. Thor had long, flowing blond hair and an authoritarian father who forbade him his love for an earthling, Jane Foster (a metaphor for the struggle for racial integration that defined those times). Thor rebelled from his dad, King Odin, adopting the humans of earth and protecting them from super-villains, intergalactic monsters, and even from rival gods. When not saving the world, he disguised himself as a handicapped doctor, Donald Blake, who needed a cane to walk, and at times when his vengeful father stripped him of his powers he would be stuck in that limping body. When danger appeared, Blake would strike his cane into the ground, it would transform into the mighty hammer Mjolnir, and the longhaired God of Thunder would jump into action.
 
The suggestion that there were many “gods,” and not just the one I was dragged off to church on Sundays and Catholic school on Wednesdays to be instructed in how to worship, presented an extremely liberating idea. Kids naturally identify with and want to be heroes. But Thor suggested an entirely new heresy: that we could aspire to be as gods, even if, like him, we had personal problems, societal taboos, and family expectations to disobey in order to do so.
 
When I noticed, at the candy store, that there were comic books featuring these heroes, and that they cost 12 cents apiece, I realized I could purchase two a week on my hefty allowance. I’d take them home, read them over and over again, save them like treasures of gold in a trunk in my room, and lament that I couldn’t afford all the titles. Not only did those five books come out each month - Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and The Submariner – but there were other titles like “Tales of Suspense,” which that year featured team-ups of Cap and Iron Man, and “The Avengers,” which had an ever-changing ensemble of those guys and others, including heroines like the former Soviet super-spy, Black Widow, and The Scarlet Witch (an introduction to the concept of mutant heroes who had genetically evolved beyond human limitations, and which alerted me to another book, X-Men, where she and her speedy, overly protective, mutant brother, Quicksilver, also appeared), and, from Africa, Prince T’Challa, the Black Panther. Around the same time, new programs began appearing on Saturday morning television, featuring Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, whose exposure to nuclear radiation gave them freakish powers, and those books were on the stands, too.
 
There had to be a way to be able to read all those amazing stories. I set to work convincing my friends – especially the ones with larger weekly budgets to expend – to watch those cartoons and to begin buying the books, too. Then we’d lend and borrow and trade until each of us was able to read every title each month.
 
The common theme of each Marvel book was that of the flawed hero. These guys and gals were markedly different from the protagonists of the rival DC Comics brand – the most well-known DC stars were Superman and Batman, each of which had TV series, not cartoons, in which they were played by human actors – in that while the DC canon of heroes were iconic, bigger than life figures, they also seemed predictable and one dimensional to me. The Marvel cast’s lives all revolved around the annoying problems each faced in their home, school and family lives. In other words, the Marvel heroes were a lot more like us kids, trying to navigate an era in which technology and mass media had begun to outpace humanity’s ability to cope with it all. They seemed more attainable and accessible. 
 
Guys like Peter Parker would save the city as Spiderman, but would always lose the girl, get mistreated by his boss, screw up in his school studies because he’d been out all night fighting crime, and Spidey would be demonized by the Daily Bugle as a menace despite his good works.
 
Spiderman was the prototype for the “flawed hero,” and became a huge success among young comic consumers, so Marvel’s creators quickly doubled down on the genre, and began to produce super beings not merely plagued by bad luck, but whose own powers, and their difficulty controlling them, made them downright neurotic. Hank Pym was a scientist who, in the comics, invented a helmet to reduce him to the size of an ant, and later another to make him many stories tall, and the legend of “Ant Man/Giant Man” was born. He was obsessed with his wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestant debutante girlfriend, Janet Van Dyne (she always seemed styled after Jackie Kennedy, with her purses and hats), who – through the use of “Pym Particles” invented by Hank - could reduce herself to the same insect size, sprout wings, and sting rivals who could not see her coming, “The Wasp.” Hank flew into jealous rages every time another man even talked to Janet, and she calculatingly sought his attention by flirting with other heroes. Their domestic squabbles – and Hank’s cockfights with other Avengers - filled years of pages of the Avengers books. But when evil threatened, they’d bury their differences, suit up, and defeat the monsters. The characters were just like people one found in any project. They may have had extraordinary powers or talents, but they were ordinary people dealing with the same personal weaknesses regular mortals deal with every day.
 
If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area, these Marvel heroes were your neighbors. The aforementioned Daily Bugle was at 39th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, and Peter Parker took the subway to work there from his Aunt May’s triple-decker at 20 Ingram Street in Forest Hills, Queens. The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, The Baxter Building, was at 42nd and Madison. Up Mad Ave was the SHIELD headquarters, at 59th Street, near Central Park.  The Stark Tower, where Iron Man’s uniforms and weapons were made, up the block at Columbus Circle. On the east side of Central Park was the Avenger’s Mansion at 890 Fifth Avenue, at 70th Street. In the then hardscrabble zone of Hell’s Kitchen, south of Times Square, a blind public service attorney, Matt Murdock, who had lost his sight as a kid from a collision with a toxic waste barrel and saw his other five senses sharpened by it, would go after mobsters and other ill-doers at night as the acrobatic Daredevil. And down in Greenwich Village, where the folk song hippie culture was thriving in those times, at 176A Bleeker Street, lived the oddball master of magic, Doctor Stephen Strange. Out somewhere in Westchester County, in these books, was the classroom to which I dreamed of being able to attend: Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, at 1407 Greymalkin Lane, a mansion where Professor Charles Xavier trained young mutants to control and use their powers for good, and formed the team called X-Men.
 
In each month’s comic books, these guys and gals would save New York City and its residents from terrible and evil attacks and threats (only in the next century would life begin to imitate art, except that there were no heroes to save it).
 
So much of the Marvel Universe took place in New York, and the comics themselves were also penned and inked there, at Marvel headquarters, where Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the other pioneers of the genre would invent new heroes and villains, float new titles, and communicate hyperactively with their young fans. Each comic had a letters section – Stan “The Man” Lee would answer many of the letters there – and the frames of the comics themselves would be filled with little notes, one-liners, inside jokes, and clues from Lee, Kirby and other writers and artists, dropping little Easter eggs of hints about what might happen next, or how the same storyline was playing out that same month in another of the titles. In all this swirl of activity, they had created a subculture of nerdy, bookish kids, who found the Marvel Universe more comforting than the often-banal, and sometimes tragic, circumstances of our own daily lives.
 
Marvel Comics created a world where values mattered, but they were more evolved values, more attractive to me, than those we got from school, Church, television or family. Nobility and self-sacrifice was the mark of each hero. Inner independence and willingness to disobey family or societal norms to save the day was their trademark. Overcoming personal problems and the obstacles placed by such institutions in order to do so provided much of the adventure and journey of the books.
 
And these books mirrored the societal tumult of the 1960s. When Charles Xavier and his old friend Max Eisenhardt, the super-villain Magneto (in the movies he is named Eric Lensher), a survivor of the Holocaust and Nazi death camps, debated on whether mutants should separate from or integrate with the human race, their arguments provided a platform for the then-current debates embodied by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the direction of the civil rights movement. Captain America, while he had the most jingoistic red-white-and-blue uniform and shield, frequently questioned and challenged the policies of the US Armed Forces and its government, arguing that might did not make right, that the ends don’t justify the means, that peace was always preferable to war, and that a soldier must never be a bully. Tony Stark developed inner conflicts and guilt about his work as a weapons inventor and magnate, and fell into bouts of alcoholic stupor so messy that at times others had to don the Iron Man suit while he was passed out drunk. The Hulk was persecuted by the military industrial complex and simply smashed any weapon it would send his way. The same US government whose citizens these heroes saved time and time again persecuted not just The Hulk, but also the Submariner (the themes often involved the environmental destruction by man of the seas and the earth, and the efforts of heroes to stop it), the X-Men, and all mutants. The comics were a teach-in on power and its abuses. The message did not “protest” or “denounce” such societal ills, but, rather carried the strong, repeated suggestion that they were violating the true “American Way,” which was not to be a bully but to stand up to such villainous behavior in a nation born, after all, out of an anti-imperialist revolution.
 
At some point, my young friends and I moved on from comic book heroes to rock and roll stars, guitars replaced baseballs and footballs, and girls became more interesting than being nerds alone in our rooms. But speaking only for myself, I have felt since those days that so much of my own values system was instilled thanks to Lee and Kirby’s Marvel Universe and its Campbellian heroes’ journeys. As I grew older, I felt certain nostalgia for that universe. From time to time, mass media would attempt to make grist from those characters. A particularly bad “Hulk” TV series came out in 1978 starring Bill Bixby, who seemed to have been spray-painted green, but was completely non-credible and untrue to the book, stripped of its warnings about mechanized and militarized society. And I had turned 18 anyway and was off on my own “anger management” journeys by then. 
 
All the problems those heroes confronted – greed, imposed sameness and persecutions against being “different,” environmental and military destruction, and evil figures who plotted world domination – began, year after year, to encroach upon the real world we lived in. But there were no gods from Asgard to come down and save us from these monsters, no superhero teams to fly out from an Avengers Mansion to protect New York or anywhere else. And yet when, upon the realization that nobody else would save us, I threw myself into the anti-nuclear movement in my teens and twenties, and found a new kind of hero called an organized people, the storylines from those comic books would come back to me and suggest tactics and strategies, as well as clues to finding the inner strength to overcome my own weaknesses and difficulties in that work.
 
The most compelling of those comics to me were the “teams,” particularly X-Men and the Avengers. Each featured a group of talented individuals with gigantic egos to match their powers, different cultural roots and norms, and serious personality conflicts between them, who would have to overcome those differences to be able to work in a team and confront an urgent crisis that none of them could solve alone. And as life marched on I found in all my ventures the exact same situation to overcome. After all, what is “community organizing” other than the art and science of getting people to put down their petty differences and pool their diverse talents to save the day from evil impositions?
 
Fast-forward three decades to the turn of the century. I found myself forty years old, self exiled to Mexico, disillusioned with a media career from which I had burned the bridge behind me. Speaking a language that was not my native tongue in daily life, far away from anybody I had known for more than a few years, and using dial-up Internet to post writings that no other publication would touch about the macabre world of the drug war, with a tiny online portal called Narco News, which had only about 3,000 readers a day. That summer, the motion picture X-Men hit the cinemas worldwide. Well, I thought, that’s interesting, and took a bus from the indigenous town I lived in to a nearby city to see the premier. A box office success, grossing almost $300 million dollars, X-Men gave birth to 13 more years of big budget movies from the Marvel Universe, including two sequels. Ushered back, in that cinema, to the imaginary high school of my dreams – Xavier’s School for Gifted Children – it struck me how very alone I felt, and I longed for the days when I used to organize others to right great wrongs. I missed the camaraderie of organizing. A writer has to be a bit alienated to see the world from outside of it, but I had taken the lone writer thing too far.
 
I was pleasantly surprised to find the cinema where X-Men premiered filled with young Mexicans, who laughed at those moments in the film when inside jokes known only to those immersed in the Marvel Universe were told, things like references to a yellow spandex uniform that the Wolverine character had worn in the early X-Men books. Really? I thought. These kids are as much into this myth as I was at a younger age? It infused me with a certain hope, that maybe my own values system, which had led to my self-expulsion from United States culture, in fact would someday “go viral” and cease to be such a lonely domain.
 
Three weeks later, I found myself sued by the richest narco-banker in Mexico, and his bank, for reports I had posted on Narco News. This was a super-villain worthy of Marvel comics, except he really existed in life, and really was bent on world domination. I thought, damn, where is my team of super heroes to stave off this menace? When very powerful people go after you, you find out who your reliable friends are, and how few they are while most duck and hide at moments of moral crisis. What little funding support I had to keep writing on third world wages dried up very quickly. A lot of folks were quietly betting that I would lose that fight. It was evident that as marginalized and small as I already was, that someone very powerful was trying to destroy whatever little shred of life I had left.
 
Damn, I wished I had a team like Professor Xavier had in the comics! And then I looked around and thought, well, maybe I do. My codefendant, the Mexican journalist Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, once trained alongside Che Guevara in Cuba and elsewhere, and fought legendary battles he still has not written about. He knows something about heroism in the face of grave threats. My lawyer, from back in my no nukes organizing days, Tom Lesser, had become over the years one of the most successful defenders of the First Amendment in the United States. Thirteen years prior, we had collaborated with the late Abbie Hoffman, presidential daughter Amy Carter, and others, to put the CIA on trial, and won. Other outsider (mutant!) journalists, suffering as I was and alienated from the industry, began getting the word out that this monster was suing us. Readers of Narco News began donating for a defense fund. 
 
And as word spread across the Internet, I began receiving emails from young people I’d never met. They said things like, “I got my first job at a newspaper, but they won’t let me print the truth.” And, “I’m paying $20,000 a year for journalism school, but they’re teaching me total crap.” And they all said, “Can I come work as an intern in your office?” That was pretty funny, since there was no office.
 
I went back to New York – hometown to the Marvel Universe - to confront the libel charges against me. And I confess that many of the stunts I pulled to defend our press freedom from the super-villain narco-banker and his slimy lawyers came straight out of the Marvel canon. We not only won the case, but we did it with swagger, verve, and in a manner that increased Narco News’ global audience a hundred fold, and that suddenly moved me from the “no longer relevant” category back on stage in this over-mediated world.
 
Winning was great. But with it came a debt: what to do for all these, by then hundreds, of young people who emailed me asking if they could come work for this project? And with Xavier’s School very much on my mind, the School of Authentic Journalism was born.
 
So, you see, I’m basically still seven or ten years old, dreaming of attending a school like that, where somebody with experience can help me control and best utilize whatever mutant talents I might have. Except by the time something like it became possible I was the guy with experience, and victories under my belt. I never got to attend Xavier’s School. But I got to start one, and over the past decade we’ve built an international team of talented individuals whose first weakness was that we had to learn to work together to defeat evils greater than any one of us could do alone.
 
For ten years now, we’ve taken in hundreds of young talents, many we’ve been able to help, some we could not, some even fell into the side of evil: Just like the X-Men school! Yes, I’m still ten. Get used to it.
 
Which brings me to the new movie, Thor: The Dark World. It is the twenty-ninth major motion picture based on the Marvel Universe since X-Men came out in 2000. Hardly a night goes by on cable television when you can’t find one or more of these movies playing anew. Their success at the box office with younger generations guarantees there will be many, many more. And suddenly that obscure little comic book universe has infiltrated popular culture in every land.
 
Thor: The Dark World is part of a specific series that began with the first Iron Man movie, followed by The Incredible Hulk (both in 2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (both in 2011), which each served as prequels to Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), the highest grossing film of that year, the third most watched film in human history, and the most viewed movie ever produced by Disney. My little childhood nerd universe now infiltrates the minds of the next generations, and these films have been so very true to the values taught by the original 1960s comic books they were based upon. If I could boil down their combined message into a single axiom it might be: You have super talents? So what? Learn to work as a team!
 
The Avengers prequel I most identified with was the first Thor movie. Its money moment was nothing less than a treatise on the efficacy and spirit of nonviolent civil resistance. Thor, the arrogant warrior-prince and heir to the throne of Asgard, had been stripped of his powers and of his mighty hammer, Mjolnir (“forged in the center of a dying star”), plunged down to earth by his father, Odin, and pursued even there by his whacked-out brother Loki, who sought to destroy the human race along with Thor. In the town of Puente Antigua (“Ancient Bridge”), New Mexico, the giant robot sent by Loki to destroy Thor and everyone else was leveling the town to ashes. Not even Thor’s comrades, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, could stop it. Thor – powerless, and stuck like the Dr. Donald Blake of comics lore, in a mortal human coil – instructs his friends to return to Asgard and stop Loki, saying, “I have a plan.” As his new human friends and his Asgard colleagues look on, shocked and scared, the unarmed Thor walks toward the robot monster, and speaks directly to his insane brother through it. “Brother,” he says, apologizing for having offended him, “take my life, not theirs.”
 
When Odin had cast Thor from Asgard, he also threw his powerful hammer down to earth, which – very much like Arthur’s Excalibur sword – nobody there could lift from the ground. Odin spoke into the hammer saying that, “he who shall be worthy of this hammer shall have the power of Thor.” But as this drama unfolded, Odin was stuck in his “Odin Sleep,” a kind of semi-aware comatose state necessary to old Asgardians who live an average of 5,000 years, and thus are seen as “gods” by earthlings. While in the Odin Sleep, Thor’s father (played by Anthony Hopkins) still sees and hears all that happens in the “nine realms,” one of which is earth, or “Midgard.” The robot monster swats Thor like a mosquito and leaves him to die in New Mexico, with his human love interest, Jane Foster (represented on this earth by Natalie Portman) crying over him as he breathes his last breath. What Thor has just done – saving earth from the robot monster by giving his own life – suddenly echoes the words of Odin (“he who shall be worthy shall have the power”), the hammer flies from the ground and into Thor’s hand. He earns back his worthiness through selfless sacrifice. His flashy Asgard cape and uniform return to him. Natalie Portman cries out “Oh. My. God!” Thor destroys the robot, saves the planet earth, and returns to Asgard and his birthright. And there you have it: Civil Resistance 101, in a single movie scene.
 
Thor returned to earth for The Avengers movie to defeat – this time in a team with Cap, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Black Widow, the archer Hawkeye, and under the leadership of Nick Fury and his Agents of SHIELD – Loki once more, and save New York City from alien invasion.
 
So how do you top that in yet another sequel in the series?
 
Here in the realm called Mexico, we got to see it a week earlier than denizens of the United States. At the midnight premier the cinema was filled, young people were in fact almost fighting over the scarcity of seats.
 
Having now established, in the first Thor movie and in the Avengers, the basic origins of this super Norse god and his miscreant brother Loki, Thor: The Dark World brings the viewer right back to the earliest comic book versions of the 1960s when the comic book, “Tales of Asgard,” preceded and gave birth to the Thor books. The origin story out of the way, now we get to hear from the top actors of the Motion Picture Academy, as the roles of Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as Frigga (adoptive mother of Thor and Loki, and a powerful sorceress), and Idris Elba as the all-seeing Heimdall are deepened exponentially. Natalie Portman – like Hopkins, already bestowed with the Academy’s highest honor – also steps onto center stage, as Odin’s sneering contempt for Thor’s descent into intergalactic miscegenation provides a Romeo-and-Juliet forbidden love story for the saga. And the very funny Kate Dennings (of the TV series, Two Broke Girls) returns in the role of Darcy Lewis as the audience’s representative and interpreter of these strange gods and realms. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Middleton reprise the sibling rivalry of Thor and Loki. That’s a lot of resources expended as many of the top actors on earth are now part of the international teach-in on the Marvel Universe that these films are bringing forth.
 
We live in a time when the world’s dominant religions and their myths have lost credibility and terrain. It’s no wonder that religious fundamentalists loathe science so much: new discoveries keep decimating their claims. If past is prologue, this is an hour of history when new myths will begin to overtake the dominant ones. As I watched and enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, these movies and the comics they are based upon may be grist for an emerging, more relevant, mythology for humanity’s current and future struggles.
 
In 1990, Harold Bloom, deploying the ancient Hebrew translation services of David Rosenbaum, published The Book of J, a new translation and interpretation of the oldest known text upon which the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Old Testament and its first chapter, Genesis, were based upon. Bloom concluded that the original text was not intended at all to be part of any religious canon. He posited that it was written as a savagely funny parody of how rulers used myth to establish order through religions and bureaucracies. The comedic work – penned soon after the fall of King David and with it the golden times of an empire gone awry – would later be appropriated by rulers and sold as a religious text, and became the new, dominant mythology for centuries to come. Judaism, Christianity and Islam would eventually be built upon it. The J book was the first draft of the simple story of Adam, Eve, a serpent, and a “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” in which the original sin of the first man and woman was to disobey authority and eat a consciousness-altering plant that permitted them to “be as gods,” infuriating a jealous monotheist god.
 
Bloom also concluded based on an analysis of the writing style that the author of this parody of religions that got turned into the mythological basis for the three major religions of today was most likely… a woman.
 
History teaches us that old orders and creeds fall to new ones at those moments when technology outpaces humanity’s ability to believe what it previously thought gospel. People have always turned to myths – their gods, monsters, and super-powered beings - to explain the inexplicable. 
 
The current cycle can be traced to 1882, when Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms.”
 
In 1966, as some guys were having fun at Marvel headquarters creating comic books about gods and super beings, TIME magazine put the Nietzsche quotation on its cover. The rest has been society catching up with the concept.
 
If we humans were truly capable of the great evolutionary leaps described, say, in X-Men comics, we might blessedly jump into an advanced state in which we no longer need gods or myths to explain our circumstances to us. But my money is more on the idea that history keeps repeating itself, and that humanity – ill-served by its present set of religions and myths – is groping around for a new mythology to hang its believer hat upon. I would prefer the former, bet on the latter, but thankfully I’ll be pushing up daisies and so will all of you before this matter is settled decisively.
 
Perhaps the need for myths and grand stories is what defines us as human, and later our attempt to bureaucratize and institutionalize them into creeds is what gets us into trouble as a species.
 
Technology has always played a role in the belief systems of our species, and motion pictures and cable television are surely dong their part, for better and for worse, in forming the next ones.
 
But if a sarcastic text penned by a woman upset over the fall of the Davidian renaissance thousands of years ago can become the basis for what today are the three major monotheist belief systems on earth, who is to say that children’s comic books cooked up by some fun-loving New Yorkers in the twentieth century, later boosted on the silver screen and television reruns for the entire world to see and contemplate, won’t be the source material for the emerging and new dominant myths?
 
I am inherently distrustful of bureaucracies and institutions, and iconoclasm is the highest calling I know, so I won’t be promoting what I’m about to suggest: that the Marvel comic universe and its vast global popularity among the newest generations is very well positioned in the competition of ideas and between myths to become the seed from which new widely-held belief systems sprout.
 
And yet, at the same time, I find that idea comforting. If we are going to have myths and “gods” and all that fuss, there might as well be some new and improved values attached to them. 
 
Thor: The Dark World is not only a great rock ‘em, sock ‘em, action flick and Shakespearian drama all at once. It is also true to the values promoted by the original books: Values read by children who today belong to the fifty-something generation that has begun to run the world. The values of the two Thor movies and the entire series of Avenger-related cinema include: Be yourself, disobedience from those who don’t want you to be yourself is the highest calling, plotting of world domination is for fools who always lose, and, most importantly, you may have talents or special powers, but if you don’t learn to deploy them as part of a team, all else will be lost. 
 
The climax of the movie – during which portals between earth, Asgard, and seven other realms briefly open as a super-villain from an extinct realm tries to use the moment to impose permanent darkness upon all of them – involves that very kind of teamwork between Thor and his human friends. All hell breaks loose as our protagonists keep falling through those portals and the fight extends to the entire universe. Paradoxically, at this moment of extreme danger come some of the funniest laugh-out-loud moments of the picture. The scenes remind much of some episodes of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, produced by Joss Whedon, who had directed the Avengers film but not this new Thor movie. Whedon was another kid who grew up on Marvel comics, and he’s often acknowledged their influence on his Buffy series. Directing the Avengers was a childhood dream come true for him. In Thor: The Dark World, even though Whedon isn’t behind the camera lens, it’s as if the teacher – Marvel – has also learned new tricks from its apprentice, Whedon. The result is some of the fastest, most adrenaline producing, fifteen minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen. During that climax, it’s not just Thor who is heroic, but the motley crew of ordinary humans around him, all teaming up to literally save the universe, and in a big, chaotic hurry. This “god” truly helps those who help themselves.
 
Remember, also, if you see this magnificent movie, something that is true for all the Marvel motion pictures: You must sit through the credits to the very end. Without offering spoilers, suffice to say that there is not just one, but two, scenes that prequel future episodes from the Marvel Universe on the silver screen. One includes the stunning appearance of Benicio Del Toro in a role he’ll play in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The other involves Thor, Jane Foster, and some clean-up yet to be done from the opening of the portals between realms, suggesting strongly that the Thor movie franchise is here to stay.
 
Among the lessons of Thor: The Dark World are that Gods don’t exist. And neither does justice. They must be organized. So be it.
 

Nelia's Story - and Yours - in an Oral History of the No Nukes Movement

By Al Giordano

Nelia Sargent and Al Giordano, June 2013, Claremont, New Hampshire. Photo D.R. 2013 by Laura García Rodríguez Blancas.
 
In 1976, Nelia Sargent was 20 years old, recently blind, and wanted to participate in the first nonviolent occupation of the Seabrook nuclear power plant construction site in her native state of New Hampshire. An organizer told her that a blind woman would be a burden on the other occupiers and therefore could not participate.
 
Three years later, as the 400 ton nuclear reactor pressure vessel rolled slowly on 96 wheels toward the construction site, and hundreds of opponents sat in its way, Nelia walked directly in front of the truck. Seacoast community organizer Renny Cushing came up to her, and hooked her white cane to the vehicle's grill. It took numerous police officers 20 minutes to peel Nelia's ten fingers off her cane, and at that moment she was the most important person in the entire movement, the one who physically stopped construction.
 
Nelia's coming-of-age story is just one of many about real people who came together to change American history in the movement that brought a then-thriving nuclear industry to a grinding halt. She told that story last month in a half-day interview at her farm in Claremont, New Hampshire. Ninety-two more people have so far, like Nelia, generously given us their time and allowed us to record their stories.
 
There are hundreds of books about the Civil Rights and other movements, but very few historic works on the American anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. The No Nukes Oral History Project is now resurrecting that story.
 
When the movement began, then-president Richard Nixon had promised 1,000 new nuclear plants in the United States by the year 2000. By the early 1980s, all new nuclear power plants were cancelled, and some existing ones have since been decommissioned. The anti-nuclear power movement also had a profound effect on revitalizing a nuclear disarmament movement, and the US-Soviet nuclear arms race also ended in the 1980s. This project draws an arc from the first small resistances to the Montague nuke in Massachusetts through the mass civil resistance against the Seabrook nuke in New Hampshire, the Clamshell Alliance, all the many organizations and campaigns that came out of it in New England and nationwide, to the massive 1982 march in New York City for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze.
 
This oral history covers the years 1973 to 1982. Memories from before or after those years are welcome but will only be used if they are relevant to explaining what happened in those nine years.
 
If you (or someone you know, make sure to send them a link to this page) were part of, or witness to, any of those events, we'd like to hear your story, too. Here's how you can be part of it. We provide 45 questions below, some of which may be relevant to your story. You may interview yourself, or have someone else ask you the questions, and send us the digital audio file or transcript. Or you may write your answers and send them to me at narconews@gmail.com.
 
Please keep in mind that we are not looking for arguments against (or for) nuclear power. Those are already widely published and for this project will be left on the cutting room floor. What we seek are stories of what you saw, heard and lived with your own eyes, ears and actions during the first years of the No Nukes movement. Speak please from your lived experience. Also, when answering (or asking) the interview questions, try to stick to the chronological timeline order below. Important dates are already remembered for you in the questions! Don't worry if your memories are partial or fuzzy: the collective memory of all your colleages also giving their testimony will fill in the details and we'll correct the dates of the timeline.
 
These questions of course do not encompass all the events that happened. Feel free to add important stories that might not be directly asked by the questions. Also feel free to skip over questions about events that you were not aware of at the time. Stick with what you directly lived or thought about as it was happening.
 
Between December 2012 and July 2013, we have conducted 93 extensive interviews, and also have received 38 interviews recorded from 2005 to 2009 (including with the late Seacoast New Hampshire organizers Guy Chichester and Diane Garrand) by veterans of the Clamshell Alliance, but every interview mentions somebody else that we have yet to interview. To facilitate the most inclusive project and cast the widest net, we invite all who were involved in or witness to the No Nukes movement from 1973 to 1982 to record (or write) your own stories of what you saw, heard and did in it. We also invite you to ask these questions to others who were involved. Please follow the precise instructions at the bottom of these questions to ensure that we can use your stories in this work of oral history.
 
Thank you. We hope you enjoy this walk down memory lane as much as we have been enjoying it!
 
45 Questions for The No Nukes Oral History Project
 
1. Please tell us your name, what year you were born, and where.
 
2. How and when did you first hear there was a conflict over nuclear power?
 
3. Do you have any memories of Sam Lovejoy toppling a tower in Montague in 1974 or the struggle in Western Mass. in the early to mid 1970s against a nuclear plant? (If you were involved at all in that struggle, we’re especially interested in organizing stories, about how things got done. The same goes for the next series of historic events in the following questions: not just the stuff that was covered by the media, but the behind the scenes grassroots work. Even for people not directly involved, their memories of hearing about things from a distance are valuable and provide important context.)
 
4.Do you have any memories of Seabrook ’76, from Ron Rieck climbing the construction site tower to the August 1 action with 18 arrests to the August 22 action with 180? Did you go door to door canvassing – and if you did, tell us some stories about it – for the Granite State Alliance?
 
5. Were you part of or witness to the Continental Walk for Nuclear Disarmament and Social Justice in the summer of 1976? If so, tell us your memories of that.
 
6. Were you involved or witness to any of the organizing and planning for the April 30, 1977 Seabrook occupation? If so, please tell us your stories from that.
 
7. Whether for actions at Seabrook or anywhere else, did you ever attend a nonviolence training session? What do you remember about it? Who conducted it? What did you do there? Did you become a trainer yourself? Tell us all about that experience in as much detail as you can.
 
8. Were you at the Seabrook ’77 action? Before you speak what happened in the armories where more than a thousand people spent two weeks incarcerated, let’s focus on that event: arriving at campgrounds the night before, the walk to the site… How did you feel when you and so many others entered the site? What did you see and hear at that moment? What did you do while camping overnight on the construction site?
 
9. If you were arrested the next day, tell us what happened. If you were a support person for the occupiers, please explain to our readers what that job entailed. If you went to jail, tell us all your armory stories. Who did you meet in the armory? What workshops did you attend and what did you learn? Do you remember the armory visits by attorneys Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein? If you were in the Manchester Armory, did you attend any workshops by Bill Moyer? What happened there?
 
10. After the Seabrook ’77 actions and the two weeks in the armories, how had the world changed? How did your life change? Do you remember any of the press coverage? How did people receive you back home?
 
11. The fight went national after Seabrook ’77. Were you involved or witness to the start up of any alliances in other regions against nuclear power? What happened there?
 
12. In the summer of ’77 national nuclear disarmament organizations founded the Mobilization for Survival in Philadelphia. Do you have any memories from that? If you were already part of a peace organization, do you remember any of the debates about merging the nukes and bombs issues? Who said what about that? If you were strictly part of the anti-nuclear power cause, what did you think about the attempt to merge the two issues at the time? Do you remember any of the tensions or conflicts between grassroots No Nukes people and those from national peace organizations? Again, tell us stories.
 
13. Were you at the November 1977 Clamshell Congress in Vermont? What do you remember about the debates over a next action at Seabrook? Do you remember any discussion about property destruction (fence cutting) or violence? If so, what did you think about that? Again, we want stories.
 
14. Were you at any of the following Spring 1978 actions in Barnwell, South Carolina, Rocky Flats Colorado or at the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in New York? How about any actions at nuclear facilities in other regions? Tell us your stories!
 
15. On May 11, 1978, NH Attorney General Tom Rath announced to the media that he would offer the Clamshell Alliance a “deal” to have a three-day legal occupation of the nuke site instead of the planned mass civil disobedience scheduled for June 24. What did you think of that? Were you at any meetings that discussed it? Who said what?
 
16. Where were you when you heard the deal had been accepted? What did you think about that? Were you on the Solar Rollers bicycle caravan to Seabrook? Were you in contact with Seacoast New Hampshire people – particularly those who were providing their land as occupier campgrounds – and what were they saying? If so, tell us stories about that or whatever else you were doing that week.
 
17. What memories do you have from the Seabrook ’78 legal occupation? Were you witness to the Clearwater Sloop and boat armada that came? What did you see on stage and what did you see off stage? Do you have any memories of Jonathan Richman there? Do you remember a group named “Clams for Democracy” and the long meetings they held there on the site? Were you part of witness to the attempt by some there to convince people to stay beyond the three days? What did you see and hear? Why did you think that in the end everybody left after three days?
 
18. In the Summer of ’78 “Clams for Democracy” held its first congress at Hampshire College. If you were there, please tell us your memories. Do you have any memories of Murray Bookchin there or elsewhere?
 
19. Were you part of or witness to “the Wave Actions” of summer and fall 1978 at Seabrook, including the occupation of the construction crane? Did you go to jail? Do you have any memories of Dr. Benjamin Spock at one of those actions? Tell us your memories from those events.
 
20. In 1978, NH governor Meldrim Thomson was defeated by challenger Hugh Gallen, largely because of Seabrook-related issues. Do you remember any of that? What about the "CWIP" ("Construction Work in Progress") rate hike and the organizing against it? Please tell us your stories.
 
21. Were you involved in or witness to the blockade of the reactor pressure vessel as it was transported to the Seabrook nuke site? Tell us your memories from that. Do you remember what Nelia Sargent did on that day? Tell us about it in your words.
 
22. Where were you on March 28, 1979 and how did you hear about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island? What did you do in response to that? Did you leaflet the cinemas that showed the movie, The China Syndrome? How did that change the movement? Did you attend the national rally in Washington with Ralph Nader? What memories do you have from that?
 
23. On April 7, 1979 – right after the Three Mile Island accident – there was a mass civil disobedience at the Trident nuclear submarine factory near New London, Connecticut. Do you have any memories from that?
 
24. On June 2nd and 3rd 1979, the International Days of Resistance Against Nuclear Power brought many actions at nuclear facilities throughout the nation, including a mass action at the Shoreham nuke construction site on Long Island, New York. Did you participate in any of those events? What happened?
 
25. Did you attend the Clamshell Alliance Congress in January 1979 at Hampshire College? Or the Clam Congress in June 1979 at the Marigold Ballroom in Amesbury, MA? Both events were greatly affected by debates over the nature of future Seabrook occupations and particularly the proposal by some to cut fences or otherwise destroy property. Who said what about that? And what did you think about it at the time? The June gathering was the last Clam Congress ever. Why do you think that happened? The big debate was over a proposal for the Clamshell to endorse an action that would involve fence cutting by the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook. Chuck Matthei and a small group blocked consensus for a while but eventually stood aside. What memories do you have from that meeting? (You get bonus points if you attended the January congress at Hampshire College and have any memories to share of the small polemic that ensued when Al Giordano entered wearing an American flag lapel pin.)
 
26. Do you have any memories of the MUSE concerts for No Nukes in New York or elsewhere? Did you work anti-nuclear tables at any Jackson Browne concerts? Tell us your stories!
 
27. The Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook held its first action on October 6, 1979, and another one on May 24, 1980. Did you attend either of them? Why or why not? What memories do you have either from being there or observing from afar? What lessons can be learned from those events?
 
28. Two weeks prior, on September 23, 1979, the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance held a mass civil disobedience in Vernon, Vermont. Do you have any memories of that? How about subsequent Vermont Yankee shutdown activities? In particular, the Spring 1980 seven-day occupation, the December 1981 occupation of the governor’s office in Montpelier, and the large door to door canvassing effort in the tri-state region collecting signatures for newspaper ads against the nuke. One polemic decision made by VYDA members in 1980 was that only people who had done door to door canvassing could participate in its decision-making meetings. Do you have any memories of those campaigns?
 
29. Three weeks after the direct action at Seabrook, on October 28 and 29, 1979, on the 50th anniversary of the crash of the NY Stock Exchange, were two actions to take it to Wall Street. They were preceded by a sit-in at the Bank of Boston boardroom, and actions at other financial institutions. What memories do you have from those events? Do you remember the legal rally in Manhattan on October 28? What was different about that rally from previous No Nukes rallies? Do you remember a speaker named Jim Haughton of an organization called Fight Back of Harlem and what he said? Do you remember any other speakers? The next day, more than 1,000 people did civil disobedience. Do you have any memories from that? Did the language of the No Nukes movement change as a result of those actions, particularly regarding the economic problems of nuclear power? Were you involved in efforts to divest the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Companies (MMWEC) or other power companies from Seabrook? Soon after that, the financial industry began divesting from nuclear power. What impact do you think the movement had or did not have on that?
 
30. In early 1980 there was a first-in-the-nation presidential primary in New Hampshire. Ted Kennedy and Jerry Brown challenged president Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan won the GOP primary. There were efforts to use that national spotlight to organize against nuclear power. Do you have any memories from those events? (You get bonus points if you attended or demonstrated at a concert in Concord for Carter’s reelection campaign featuring musician Stephen Stills.) Also, speaking of elections, if you have any memories of Randy Kehler’s 1976 campaign for Franklin County Commissioner or Bill Benson’s 1978 campaign for state representative in the Greenfield, Massachusetts area, please share them.
 
31. Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, the Traprock Peace Center was formed at Woolman Hill and made a nonbinding referendum on a nuclear weapons moratorium (later called the Nuclear Freeze) its first project. Were you involved in or witness to any of that organizing? What did you see and hear? How did you feel on election night in November when the nuclear freeze won, giving birth to a nationwide movement, but so did Ronald Reagan?
 
32. Also in 1980, the Rowe Nuclear Conversion Campaign formed in western Franklin County to shut down the Yankee Atomic nuke. Do you have any memories from that? The RNCC decided to make a “home rule” policy that only residents of ten west county towns could participate in its decision-making. Did you have an opinion on that? In the fall of 1980 the RNCC held its first public event, a march in Greenfield, MA, at which marchers carried 300 American flags and photographs appeared in the news media. Did you have an opinion on that or do you remember any of the polemic surrounding it?
 
33. Also in 1980, Maine voters cast ballots on a referendum to shut down the Maine Yankee nuke. It began right after Three Mile Island at a mass meeting in North Edgecomb, Maine, and Ray Shadis emerged as its main spokesman. The referendum was defeated by a massive industry spending campaign, but had also involved a much wider spectrum of people than the anti-nuclear movement had ever had before. Were you involved in that campaign? What memories do you have from it?
 
34. Also in 1980, labor unions marched in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania against nuclear power on the anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident. If you attended that march, or any labor conventions or union events where nuclear power was addressed, please share those stories. Likewise, if you leafleted workers at Seabrook or other nuclear facilities, tell us those stories.
 
35. In the Spring of 1981, the Massachusetts government began a search for a low level nuclear waste dump site. An organization named MassAlert formed and organized at 106 Town Meetings to pass zoning and health bylaws against nuclear waste dumps. It also collected signatures for a statewide referendum demanding voter control over future nuclear plants and waste dumps. Along with other organizations, they collected 110,000 certified voter signatures. Were you part of any of that? What do you remember.
 
36. In June 1982, 1.4 million people (according to police estimates) marched in New York City for a nuclear freeze, and there were civil disobedience actions two days later at nuclear nation embassies. Please tell us your memories from that day. What kind of people did you see there? How had a movement become this big in so few years? What do you think that the Russian people felt when they saw images in state sponsored media of this massive march against the nuclear arms race championed by then President Reagan?
 
37. In November 1982, the Massachusetts Nuclear Referendum Campaign was victorious. The campaign included cylindrical lawn signs that looked like nuclear waste canisters, and a TV ad with a talking nuclear waste barrel. Were you involved or do you remember voting on that? Tell us about it.
 
38. In subsequent years, all new nuclear power plants that had been planned were cancelled, and the nuclear arms race ground to a halt when the Soviet bloc fell. Do you feel your actions in the anti-nuclear movement contributed to either or both of these? How so? Or how not?
 
39. How about the music and art of the movement? Do you remember any songs in particular? Can you sing us a verse or a chorus? Do you have specific memories of Bright Morning Star or its members? Of Dean Morgan? Of Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips at Seabrook? Do you have any audio or video recordings you can share for us to publish?
 
40. Likewise, do you have photographs, images, posters, news clippings, minutes of local anti-nuclear organization meetings, or other archives we can share with the public?
 
41. There were many colorful personalities in the No Nukes movement. Which ones do you remember most? Tell us some stories about them.
 
42. The 1970s included a lot of extreme postures, both in the political and the personal. There were many internal conflicts in the movement and in people’s lives. Relations between men and women changed dramatically during that era. The sexual revolution was still in full bloom. Please tell us any stories of extreme moments – good or bad – that you experienced, and the lessons you learned from them.
 
43. Although this work focuses on the years 1973-1982 there were subsequent events that will be included in an epilogue. We’re particularly interested in any stories you have of the following: The Maine nuclear referenda of  1982, 1985 and 1987 and the eventual shutdown of Maine Yankee. The Massachusetts referenda of 1986 and 1988 and the eventual shutdown of Yankee Rowe. The resistance in Hillsborough NH and Sebago Lake Maine to the Department of Energy choice of those areas as finalists for a high level nuclear waste dump. The continued nuclear freeze campaigns. The Whistleblowers Campaign at Seabrook.
 
44.In addition to this work of oral history, Al Giordano is writing his personal memoir of the same years. That memoir will include events within the No Nukes movement, but also his early work with Abbie Hoffman, with John Kerry, his experience when some of his friends went underground in an armed revolutionary cell group (which guided his own tactical commitment to nonviolence), as well as his high school years, his work as a musician, and the experience he and other teens had at the New York punk rock club CBGB. Do you have any “Al stories” to help refresh his memory?
 
45. Finally, were you changed by your involvement in this movement? How so? What did you learn from the experience? What were the most effective tactics and strategies? Tell us as much as you can about how you or others implemented those tactics, explaining it for people not experienced in such activities (i.e. if you knocked on doors, what did that involve?) Which tactics were counterproductive? Was your involvement worth it? Why or why not? Also, please briefly tell us what you went on to do after your involvement in these stories.
 
NOTE: You may answer these questions via audio recording or in writing, but if you choose to write, please do so in storytelling manner, as if you are speaking to a friend. Academic treatises will not be part of this work. You must sign the projects release form to have your stories included in the oral history. If you do not have a copy of the release form, write to Al Giordano at narconews@gmail.com and he will send you one. You may also interview yourself or others. If you do that, please audio record the interview in digital format and send it to the same email address via a Dropbox account, along with your stated agreement (and that of the interviewee) to the release form. And send us a current photo of yourself, as well as any you have from your involvement in No Nukes activities in the years 1973-1982.
 
Thank you so much for helping to tell this story, the story of how many people came together at a key moment in history to change the world. It is a story that will now be told.
 

I Dreamed I Saw Jeff Buckley Last Night

By Al Giordano

NEW YORK CITY, MAY 4, 2013: My expectations were rock bottom when I walked into the Village East Cinema (original headquarters of the Yiddish Art Theater back in 1926) last night, in the shadow of Stuyvesant Town, grasping my ticket and holding my nose to watch “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” which has received sparse attention and ho-hum yawns from those few critics who bothered. I expected to hate it because I have detested almost every motion picture I’ve ever seen about people who I knew in real life. My loathing was on speed dial, entering the old cut-stone theater building at Second Avenue and Eleventh Street, as was my usual unease about ghosts: My friend Jeff Buckley, whose relationship with a father he barely met was purportedly the “theme” of the film, lived around the corner from that very same theater during his end times in New York, before leaving for Memphis in early 1997, where he would die at the age of 30.

I wanted to go to the film on its first night in theaters. Then I didn’t want to go. I decided to see it. Then I decided not to. I went back and forth indecisively until my colleague, a film school refugee who sometimes goes by the moniker of Miss Grumpy Cat Herder, said she would accompany me. Since one of her mutant powers is the rare abiity to keep me from causing scandalous scenes of the sort that Jeff and I sometimes threw in public spaces, I figured that even if the movie made me want to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, Miss Cat Herder would get my straightjacket fastened in time to whisk me away from police detention and a corresponding night on Riker’s Island.

The East Village on a Friday night is not the ideal set and setting for calming one’s nerves before exposing one’s self to the late-chums’-life-as-commodity circus: Loud bridge and tunnel boys who crowded every bar with a TV blaring during a Knicks-Celtics game made it necessary to circle a few blocks before remembering that the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place has no television set and still maintains a modicum of old New York not-nice civility. A gulped pale ale and a maple Manhattan cocktail later, we were ready to brave the theater. (“Don’t yell ‘fire,’ don’t yell ‘fire,’” was the mantra I kept whispering to myself as we crossed the threshold and handed in our tickets.)

The first relief came upon entering salon three of the Cineplex: there were fewer than two-dozen people attending the 9:50 p.m. screening of this movie on the night of its in-theaters premier. Even if I had shouted “fire,” nobody would have been trampled. However terrible this flick may turn out to be, I thought, at least it is not so successfully hyped that it will corrupt an entire generation’s memory of a late comrade in arms. The second relief was that there was nobody I knew in the theater: no eyewitnesses to tell the world I had been there, or that I’d left, disgusted, in the middle of it, which figured would be the most likely trajectory of the evening. But a funny thing happened on the way to the EXIT sign.

“Greetings from Tim Buckley” segues between scenes of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley circa 1965 being the kind of hapless hippie asshole that most members of his faux-peace-and-love generation embodied and then, a quarter century later, his adult son Jeff’s arrival to New York City where he’d been invited to perform at a tribute concert to the father he never knew. At the age of 18, Tim had knocked up his 17-year-old girlfriend, married her, and then skipped out on the road leaving yet another single mom behind with a little darling to play “you and me against the world” together, which is pretty much the entire story of the so-called “sixties,” beginning, middle and end, despite the era’s charming soundtrack and media-fed iconography. If director Daniel Algrant’s intent was to make the senior Buckley an unsympathetic figure, he succeeded very early in the narrative. It could have been easily titled “Bullshit from Tim Buckley.”

For actor Penn Badgley – known to the world so far only as Gossip Girl’s young-writer-from-across-the-tracks Dan Humphrey – taking on the role of Jeff, with a voice of five octaves and who left only limited archival footage behind for any actor to study of how the songwriter really lived, seemed a mission fraught with peril from the get-go. No actor (or vocalist) alive can sing as well as Jeff sang: that was a given going into the project. But through the composite and fictional muse in the form of an intern for the 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, named “Allie” and performed so spritely by the charismatic Imogen Poots, Badgley succeeded in capturing the essence of Jeff, the human, on screen.

My main complaint about movies and TV these days is that so few screenwriters and actors succeed in making me actually care about a character. Badgley, in the only two roles I’ve ever watched him play, is so far batting 1.000. And this time he got to take on the role of an authentic, not fictional, “lonely boy” of New York.

“Do you think Jeff would have liked his portrayal?” Miss Cat Herder asked me after the screening.

“Yes, he would have,” I replied. “But he wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone, and would have changed the subject had anyone asked.”

Jeff Buckley was one of the first and best mutants who wandered into what would eventually become this modern-day X-Men academy that fights the revolution against the media. In truth, he was a co-founder of the academy. But that is a story for another day. Jeff was one of the least linear people I’ve ever met. Planning was not his strong suit. Jeff would float through his days and nights aimlessly, clinging to the notes and chords and words in his head and finding refuge in his guitar, until he would stumble regularly upon a shiny bauble in the form of a beautiful and disturbed waif-of-a-muse or a genius idea that would capture his attention, and his mutant talent would then surface to traverse a straight line between the present and the future as he would saddle up to the shiny object or person, look it in the eye, and orbit around it while also changing the other person’s or thing’s spatial course. The daily life adventures that this power created then became the materia prima for his songwriting. Rehearsals weren’t really Jeff’s thing. Stages and microphones were the shiniest of those baubles and they pulled him onto them gravitationally. And from that fulcrum position, he became, at moments, a sun god that shot off solar flares and storms and gathered up armies around him. Unfortunately, those troops mostly consisted of flatfooted users, middlemen, groupies and glommers, too many of them from his father’s generation, who sucked his blood dry and, with it, I still believe, his will to live.

After Jeff’s death, when I was telling people that he had been “suicide by SONY,” the callous company to which he had been indentured, Penny Arcade put me on the phone with the great defender of musical talents, Danny Fields, and we agreed to disagree on that point. To Danny, early demise was like a lottery ticket that simply descended on random personas. To me, however, Jeff's death was, and remains, personal, and an injustice yet to be righted.

There are two scenes upon which “Greetings from Tim Buckley” pivots. One takes place in a record store where the money graph pops out of Jeff’s craw. He expresses his total contempt for “sixties music” and Penn Badgley, now his representative on earth, pulls off an acapella vocal-and-dance performance that rivals Jon Cryer’s music store serenade of “Try a Little Tenderness” to muse Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” It is in fact more impressive than that 1980s classic scene because Badgley sings the audio part and pulls it off.

The second scene – and the point in which I turned to my companion and confessed, “oh, I LIKE this movie” – takes place on a train from Grand Central Station to Jeff’s ancestral burg of Amsterdam, New York, north of Albany (I believe in real life those trains leave from Penn Station, but we’ll allow a little artistic license since Grand Central is more cinematically compelling). There, the prodigal son of the absentee father delivers the best, most stinging, indictment of “sixties” nostalgia I’ve seen on the silver screen. He wonders aloud if his late father had one day found the diary of “a hippie on an acid trip,” stole it, and turned the prose into songs until he got to the last page, ran out of material, and then it was “time for him to die.” How long have I waited for that sentiment to be expressed aloud in the media datasphere? The contempt which Jeff’s character expresses for his father (and with him, the man’s entire generation) thus meets the very definition of a “negative pleasure,” for which there is a word in the dictionary: Sublime.

That basically is the entire narrative of “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” a movie without a plot, or with so minimal a plot that the dialogue serves to make a single crystal clear point while essentially serving as a pretext for the music of the film, which itself is very compelling. The musical scenes –so many minutes based on the 1991 tribute concert, and its haphazard rehearsals, from which Jeff Buckley emerged as a victim and product of what Joni Mitchell once labeled the star-maker machinery of the popular song – are where the movie comes together and begins to make sense out of the chaos of his, a non-linear life. In that sense, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” is true to how Jeff really lived his 30-year sentence on earth, one that only made sense to him when the music was actually happening.

A third super performance deserves recognition in this film, beyond those of Badgley as Buckley and Poots as his (and our) composite muse, and that is Frank Wood’s portrayal of guitarist Gary Lucas and the musical conversation between Jeff and he. I don’t know if it is historically accurate or not – the movie ends five years before I met Jeff, and I always made a point of never asking him the kinds of questions that everybody else always peppered him with about his backstory – but a scene in Lucas’ apartment, cluttered with stringed instruments, and a brief guitar jam between the two composers, captures a universal moment of what happens when two musicians recognize each other and begin to collaborate together. And that scene finally makes all the musical components of the film unite into a seamless overture for the music that would come out of Buckley in his final years.

Not knowing much about the presumably ugly sausage making of movie production, I asked my film school graduate companion whether it was possible for a motion picture to succeed without a plot. “Yes,” Miss Cat Herder replied. “It is a portrait, and therefore it doesn’t need a plot.”

As a portrait, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” succeeds in sharing a little piece of our fallen friend with those who might be curious as to the man behind the media myth. In the final scenes, at the tribute concert, young Jeff steals the show and that led to a New York Times write up that launched his too-brief musical career. The elder friends, colleagues and fans of his late father glom onto him and applaud, they hug him on stage as if to squeeze out one last drop from his late father, but when it is time to get in a taxi and “go dancing” they leave 24-year-old Jeff behind, by himself, to walk the Williamsburg Bridge back into lower Manhattan, late at night, alone again, searching for the next shiny bauble, as was his habit in life.

We exited the theater much in the same spirit, walked past Jeff’s last address in New York, and the muse struck me. I was suddenly able to put into spoken words some memories so beautiful and painful that I’ve not yet, even sixteen years later, been able to write them down; of Jeff’s final night in New York and of what might have happened next had he not drowned in a tributary to the Mississippi in May 1997. His was a death with consequences. I’m still not ready to write it down. But the movie inched me perhaps a few steps closer toward doing so. And isn’t that the stigmata of any work of art’s success?

Art only succeeds when it inspires action from other humans to dig a little bit deeper, to walk alone over the proverbial bridge, and take the journey of life and creation away from the linear and planned path and toward the next shiny bauble. No, I did not hate this movie at all. I am even grateful for it. Perhaps nobody else will see it as I do, as a big, overdue, “fuck you” to the 1960s people and the horse they rode in on, and therefore anthem for those of us who came later and had to clean up after them. I’m not assigning motive here: It’s quite possible that its creators did not intend it to be that. But Jeff would have wanted a film about his life to say so, and Penn Badgley, who did not lip sync, channeled that point memorably onto the screen. And for 99 minutes, it allowed me to pretend that a special conversation cut short sixteen years ago this month was somehow still ongoing. That’s what an authentic movie should do: expand the terrain of the imagination, and smuggle the seeds of “secret history” into the future, to be planted, cultivated, and harvested, because tomorrow is another day.

 

The Last American Newspaper

By Al Giordano

 

Nostalgia is a particularly Bostonian pastime, and now almost anyone who ever set foot in that city over the past half-decade has another trigger for melancholy. The Boston Phoenix is dead, boys and girls. Weep for your little town. It will never be as good as it was without that scrappy weekly newspaper that was undervalued in life and now is lionized from the tomb. Boston’s greatest – often its only – motor of culture has now gone the way of the brontosaur.

I am one of its orphans, one of hundreds who entered the doors of the weekly Phoenix as literary rug rats and wannabe writers and came out – after the hard pounding that took place every seven days inside its furnace – as steely men and women of letters. Its long roster of alumni includes the film critics Janet Maslin and David Denby, and many, many other journalists and authors who have shaped American culture and politics.

The Phoenix wasn’t merely the newspaper where I worked in my thirties. It was the place that gave me the time, space and freedom to evolve into who I would become for the rest of my life.

From the moment I landed in Massachusetts at the age of 17, that thick wad of newsprint was something I reached for weekly to find out what was going on, especially with music, but also with politics.

By my early twenties, as I was organizing the anti-nuclear movement, the Phoenix newsroom was ally and booster of our efforts, the go-to place to send manila envelopes of damaging information about our evil adversaries.

In my late twenties, then-editor Richard Gaines took my first published piece – an anonymous submission about the dedication of a park in Lowell, Massachusetts, to its native son Jack Kerouac. I had sent it to him with only the byline “S.J. Santino.” Its references to bemushroomed hallucinations and smoking pot with the bard’s daughter would not have been the best PR for the statewide anti-nuclear referendum I’d launched for that year’s ballot. Gaines gave it a big spread on the cover of the paper’s Arts section, and soon after he published some my first stories under my real name, including one that nobody else wanted to touch, about my friend Barbara Curzi, then a federal political prisoner. When the leadership at the Valley Advocate newspaper in Western Massachusetts, where I lived, saw my byline in the mighty Phoenix, they snatched me up and gave me a staff job in Springfield. I spent four years there cutting my teeth and at war with the dirty politicians who’d been entrenched in the region’s halls of power for thirty years.

One of the inspirations for my salad days in Springfield, and for my weekly assault on the Hampden County Courthouse, was attorney Harvey Silverglate’s “Freedom Watch” column in the Phoenix. In his own requiem for the publication where he wrote for more than four decades, the great civil libertarian wrote:

“I began my long-running Freedom Watch column in the early 1970s, covering all manner of injustices committed by cops, prosecutors and judges. I considered myself an antidote to reporters too cozy with a power structure they saw more as good news source than good reporting target. Before long, a lawyer told me that he was walking in a courthouse corridor in Boston one morning and peered through an open door of a judge's office and found the judge reading one of my columns. Back then the traditional press was too gentle on prosecutors and judges, and the Phoenix was the outlier, a voice in the wilderness crying out against unfairness and injustice. I realized then that lawyers were right when they told me that my coverage of their cases had consequences…

“My beat at the Phoenix allowed me to combine my two loves – law and journalism. Because I was a practicing trial lawyer, and because my fields of specialization were criminal defense and constitutional law, my legal work put me in touch with endless cases and controversies about which to write. It was a perfect symbiosis, and it resolved my inner conflict over having gone into law rather than journalism.”

I was not a barrister like Silverglate. With 27 arrests under my belt at the tender age of 28, I was more outlaw than lawyer, but I had dabbled in pro se law: I’d acted as my own attorney in court, and at times I’d filled the role of jailhouse lawyer, poring over dusty textbooks in the legally mandated prison libraries and helping my fellow inmates file their appeals. My inner conflict mirrored Harvey’s in a way: It drove me into journalism instead of staying the course as a community organizer. Silverglate’s example suggested to me that one could do two things at once, that I could use my pen as an organizing tool. The rest may or may not be history, but it’s my story, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Once I had begun to make waves at the Advocate, Richard Gaines called me up one afternoon and offered me the job I’d always coveted, political reporter for the Phoenix. It was a dream come true: the paramount gig for a politics and organizing junkie in the northeastern United States, with opportunities to change policy and history. The very next day, though, Richard was fired, it was apparently a messy divorce, and my dream deferred.

Some years later, the Advocate brought in a tightly buttoned corporate mercenary to take over the publisher’s tasks from the owners, and she set about daily making my life miserable. I was saved when the Phoenix was looking for a political reporter again. I applied for the job and headed to Boston for interviews – calling in sick to work – with then-editor Peter Kadzis, news editor Dan Kennedy and publisher Stephen Mindich. The hiring process lasted weeks, and shortly before the second Phoenix interview the Advocate sought to restructure my contract to pay me less money for more work (something that was unheard of back then but would soon happen to media workers everywhere). I defiantly declined and made a deal with its new corporate raider: “I’ll leave quietly in thirty days as long as you embargo that information for the next month.” I figured it could hurt my chances to land at the Phoenix if the folks there heard I’d just been canned by a lesser publication. Then I added, “Oh, and pay my $400 tab at the Green Street Café with free ads. You do that,” I told her, “and I won’t denounce you for the soulless douchebag that you are.”

After the second interview in Boston, I knew that my hiring at the Phoenix was imminent. After years of organizing, one knows when he’s made the sale. On the drive home to Western Massachusetts I wept with joy and relief. I still remember the Tom Verlaine soundtrack on the tape deck during that drive up Interstate 90, back into the mountains. My life was about to change profoundly.

When the Advocate witch learned I had landed on my feet at the Phoenix, she was livid. “Why didn’t you tell me they were interviewing you? Why didn't you give us a chance to make a better offer?"

I had never wanted to work at a daily newspaper and have never sent a resume to any. The demands to fill the daily “news hole” whether or not there is news being made had, by the 1990s, had already turned dailies to mush.

As a community organizer, a good part of my work had been seducing and manipulating daily news reporters. Richie Davis, a great reporter for the solid small-town newspaper Greenfield Recorder used to wince when I’d barge into his newsroom. “No!” he’d declare. “I can see your little fingers trying to enter my brain and type through me!” I had made a study of the demands of the reporter’s job – to publish every day, despite whether there was a story – and had appointed myself as their prep chef, creating my version of the news for them. Organizing had turned me into a kind of a remote-control newspaperman, and I had some fantastic coaches – Charles F. McCarthy, Abbie Hoffman, Leslie Desmond, Bruce Berman, Richard Asinof, Wes Blixt, among others.

My success at manipulating daily newspapers had stripped from me any sense of myth or magic that dailies had so carefully cultivated among the reading public. I liked reporters but felt badly for them: Their mothers thought they were powerful, but they were really slaves to the daily deadline, which more often than not denied them the time to ponder or think about a story before having to put their name on it. Spared from the popular illusion that anyone could be Woodward and Bernstein if he could just get to a big-enough daily, I pointed my ambition elsewhere: The Phoenix job, for me, was the pinnacle, top of the heap. It was all I had aspired to be, and I was about to get my greatest wish.

Be careful what you wish for: My plan, that summer of 1993, was to enter the Boston Phoenix at full swashbuckling gale force and take the state capital by storm. After all, my complaints about management aside, I’d been able to do whatever I wanted at the Advocate. I had one of those rare and valued editors who considered it her job to let me be me. (That editor, Kitty Axelson, protected me from her superiors as best as she could and never took it personally when I fought for a controversial story.)

Having published just a few freelance pieces for larger publications – the Washington Post, the American Journalism Review, and the Phoenix in 1988 and ’89 – I started at the Phoenix not knowing that there was a difference between “copy editing” and “story editing.” I had been story edited at the Advocate but not copy edited. (I’m still a bit amazed the Phoenix took me on: I didn’t know what a copy editor was, but there I was, in the job interview, barking arrogantly to owner Stephen Mindich, “I smoke marijuana medicinally! If that’s a problem don’t hire me!”)

Copy editors were the heart and soul of the Phoenix experience, and I’ve long since thought that separating the two kinds of editing was at the core of the paper’s genius. Let me explain: A story editor checks your facts and challenges you on them, and you debate with him or her and fuss over the content and substance of your story. A copy editor is another species altogether. The copy editor pounds your typing into literature. The typical copy editor could give a crap about your political or cultural opinions or whom (“whom” is a word I learned from copy editors) they may offend. Copy editors just want to make your words beautiful, and have them be proper English.

My first weeks at the Phoenix were hell. I’d gone from being the big fish reporter in the small pond of Springfield and Western Massachusetts to a mere guppy in the shark-infested waters of a top-ten media market. In Springfield, I had my own office, and the Advocate’s receptionist, Patti Thompson, considered it her favorite part of the job to help me topple the local courthouse regime – her sons were harassed every day by the city police. At the Phoenix, I was just another employee in a vast sea of cubicles. I had come to Boston with a list of corrupt, greedy and reactionary state politicians I planned to take down, just as I had with a district attorney, a county sheriff, and other ham-and-eggers out in Hooterville. Some of those guys ended up in jail, and they deserved every minute spent there for having ruined the lives of so many decent but poor people. And I thought I could repeat the same show in Boston. In one of our first shouting matches, Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis yelled: “Do you think that is all that journalism is? Taking people down?” We eventually reached a happy medium. “You do what I ask you to do for the next year,” Kadzis told me, “and after that you can do whatever you want.” I accepted the challenge and bunkered down for a longer haul.

What Kadzis and the other Phoenicians understood about me that I did not then know about myself – and they knew it because they had been through the same thing with so many other writers before me – was that while I may have been “strong with the force” in terms of the moral imperative of crusading journalism to make justice where the rest of society’s institutions would not, I had never had the chance to develop the craft of my work as a writer. Journalism as literature is what the Phoenix taught. That has never been taught in any university’s journalism school, or at least not taught well.

There, at the Phoenix offices at 126 Brookline Avenue, in the shadow of Fenway Park, I went back to school for the first time ever. I struggled to learn the difference between a pronoun and a preposition. I banged my head on the desk until I figured out what a “nut graph” was: the sentence or paragraph early in the story, but after the “lede,” that explains to readers why they should care about the matter. Some of this I still don’t fully understand – I am a “results” person, not a “process” person. But at some point at that desk I began to love writing as much as I love music, and I began to see the keypad as another musical instrument that I could tame and master.

While I wrote for the paper in the news section, I remained its consumer on the music side. Brett Milano, Matt Ashare, Ted Drozdowski, and Carly Carioli, a scrawny little guy who entered the building with hair down to his ass and sporting a “NAPALM DEATH” T-shirt, were the music writers who would introduce me to the thriving Boston music scene, featuring the likes of the late Mark Sandman of Morphine (“When they find a cure for the pain,” he sang, “that’s when I’ll put my drugs away”) and Joan Wasser, the sizzling, time-and-space-cutting electric violinist of the Dambuilders (now better known as Joan As Police Woman). I spent my nights at The Middle East and other clubs getting to know these talents and falling in love with their music.

I met an artist, Lydia Eccles, on one of those nights in the basement of The Middle East. She opened my world to critical theory and Situationist praxis, and involved me clandestinely in an insane “Unabomber for President” write-in campaign (the fugitive mail bomber’s 30,000-word manifesto had just been published in the New York Times and Washington Post). My collaborations with Eccles ushered me through other passages from the passive nihilism of career to the active nihilism of, well, something else that would make who I am today. I eventually fell out of love with staff journalism, but since a video tells a million words, perhaps this archived moment with my Stratocaster from 1996, produced by Eccles and recently digitalized from VHS tape, captures my mood toward the end of my Phoenix tenure better than my own memory could:

Three years after getting the job I’d always wanted, three years of being paid better than I’d ever been paid and of being treated well by my employer, what was I so angry about? The job of a journalist had changed. The carpet had been moved out from under us – this was a national trend, and would soon become an international one.

Newspapers had been the glue holding a community or city together: People of different economic, racial and other groups all read the same stuff every day. Americans talked with one another maybe not in daily life, but we did through the newspaper.

At some point in the late twentieth century, “market research” became king of the newsroom: Polls and focus groups came into vogue in commercial media, which began to target only some of those people, the ones with expendable cash. Advertisers stopped caring about reaching people who couldn’t afford their products. Newspapers and other media outlets began tailoring their product to upper-income readers and viewers, and the rest of the city or community could pound sand, because advertisers began placing their ads not on the basis of overall circulation but on reaching that higher-spending minority.

And so newspapers became high-class hookers for that kind of reader. And that changed the content of newspapers and destroyed their role as the assembly hall of democracy.

The Phoenix had always been a newspaper that primarily served younger people, who had become bored with the conservative mores of daily newspapers. It was part of a national trend in the US that became known as “alternative newsweeklies,” and those papers eventually started a trade association. But when advertisers wanted to reach only those youngsters who had more money to spend, the “alterna-weeklies” had to adopt to the dominant commercial media model, meaning that certain themes would bring them the readers that advertisers wanted.

This meant great opportunities for the “alternative” market. The daily newspapers –with vestiges of conservative, easily offended readers and still having to show strong total readership, couldn’t use the word “fuck” or talk about gay rights or marijuana in any meaningful way. But when the alterna-weeklies turned to market research and realized that gay male households had twice the spending power as hetero households, and four times that of lesbian households – this in a country where men earned twice as much as women for the same work – the concerns of gay men became paramount. I was happy to do my part in the championing of this bona fide civil rights cause, and it became the wedge through which a lot of unrecognized, less-talked-about freedoms could also come through the door. But my editors seemed far more interested in my stories on gay rights or marijuana legalization than those about mandatory-minimum prison sentences for those convicted on drug laws or extending rent-control laws for poor and working people. (The late, great Phoenix managing editor Clif Garboden was a glorious exception: He fought tirelessly for the underdog stories in editorial meetings.) It meant nothing to most of my superiors that then-speaker of the Massachusetts State House – a good man named Charlie Flaherty – was championing an end to mandatory-minimum sentences (something that today many states have started doing because it makes economic sense). If the Boston Globe was targeting Flaherty over mere misdemeanors of the sort that most reporters were also guilty of (things like accepting a free dinner from a source), I could defend him from time to time, but could I please do another story on the new pro-gay mayor instead?

From inside the media, I began to develop a critique of the commercial model of media. The political beat was mine, but seeing it up close was making me lose interest in the beat. Democracy as we knew it was already dead. Elections barely mattered any more. Something else was afoot.

And this is what I mean by “be careful what you wish for.” I had never wanted to be anything else than the political reporter for the Phoenix. That job gave me unfettered access to the halls of state power to be able to move the chains forward on all that I cared about. One of those things was, and remains, ending the drug war.

The Phoenix let me do front-page spreads on that topic, one calling for the legalization of marijuana, another telling the anti-tobacco Nazis to “Butt Out.” One day I scheduled an interview with then-governor William Weld, who had been US Attorney in Boston and years prior had weathered a scandal in which an embittered ex-colleague had accused him, the prosecutor, of having smoked pot. I grilled Weld for about ninety minutes, asking him, as a liberal Republican who supported abortion and gay rights, how he could not take a similar libertarian position on the drug war.

After that encounter, Weld walked down the hallway to his weekly meeting with the legislative leadership, and in front of the others he griped to Senate Republican leader Brian Lees, “You told me to meet with Giordano. He just came into my office all coked up telling me I should legalize drugs!”

Speaker of the House Charlie Flaherty interrupted: “Governor, don’t be ridiculous. Cocaine would be a sedative for Giordano!” Everybody laughed – I know this because most of the people in that meeting called me after it happened to tell me about it. That was the kind of institutional pull that came with the Phoenix political reporter job.

But when Flaherty announced his sudden retirement under a swirl of media speculation about “ethics investigations,” the bill to end mandatory minimums died with his political career. That was a “teaching moment” for me. And there were two more that year: One was called the Internet, and the other was named Patti Smith.

The Phoenix’s restaurant critic, Mark Zanger, an old friend of some of my late mentors – including Andrew Kopkind, who had died too young in my first months at Phoenix – invited me to lunch one day to talk with me about “the Internet.” He offered me a night gig moonlighting for the Delphi Internet Service, then the fourth-largest online provider on the earth. The experience was new and crazy, and best of all, I knew that thanks to this new technology soon I’d be able to do my work from anywhere, maybe even Mexico, where I’d been some years prior and to where I dreamed often of returning.

Of all my Phoenix experiences, it was when Patti Smith invited me on the bus for eleven days with her band, on tour with Bob Dylan, that something shifted in me. Watching Patti up close, I got the idea that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks; a person can do whatever he or she wants to, and an artist’s work isn’t to become a commercial success but to develop a body of work that tells a deeper story over a lifetime. When my tour diary hit the front page of the Phoenix, its business manager Barry Morris told me it had been the biggest selling issue in the paper’s history. Some said that my time on that tour bus turned me into a prima donna overnight. I said I had become the ruler of my world. And I came to see that as the best thing that could happen to me, or to anyone.

When I told Kadzis I was leaving the newspaper, he asked, “What will you do now?”

“I’ll return to New York – the scene of the crime of what went wrong with the media – max out my credit card, live off that for as long as I can, and start a revolution against the media. And if that doesn’t work out, I suppose I can always move to Mexico…”

In the days after the paper’s closing last month, an email from the Phoenix’s owner Stephen Mindich made me weep with the same intensity with which I wept when he gave me, twenty years ago, the job I had always wanted:

“And Al – and you should know, it is because with the Phoenix gone now, there will be one less place from which special journalists like you can emerge – you are one of the best.”

Maybe I’m one of the best, or maybe not. I just do what I do, largely because the Phoenix taught me who I was, and it made me a better writer. To think that it no longer exists hurts more than I have words to tell. But the great burden that it shouldered – engine of culture! – falls upon those of us who can still do it, and those yet to come.

My journey with the Phoenix began with a story on Jack Kerouac from his hometown. Let me please borrow from him when I say:

“So in América, when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long long skies… and nobody, nobody, knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of the Boston Phoenix, I even think of the Old Boston Phoenix, the father we never found, I think of the Boston Phoenix.”

I left the Phoenix in June of 1996, but never stopped being part of the Phoenix family. Four years later, when I was living in Mexico and narco-bankers sued me in the New York courts, the Phoenix crusaded in my defense.

Last month we learned that The Phoenix isn’t here anymore to defend the next person who needs it.

That’s our job now.

Memo from the Road

By Al Giordano

1996, by Jackie Bayne. 2012, by Laura García.

Fifteen years ago I began answering the same question a lot. “Why did you leave the United States?”

“I didn’t leave the United States,” I’d reply. “The United States left me.”

Since Tuesday night I’ve been pinching myself. Has all this really happened? Community organizing – a forgotten, scorned art by the time I left – is practiced by hundreds of thousands now in the US. Majorities of blacks, Latinos (dios mío, even Cubans!), Asians, gays, lesbians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, youths, and evolved whites worked together in the trenches – in various states you legalized same sex marriage and marijuana, and you ended California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law – and you reelected the only president in US history to pull troops out of a war it started and who made health care a right.

You did it at an hour of great crisis and hardship for my hometown and the entire mid-Atlantic, and you still got the job done. And you lit up the Empire State building blue so that even those still without power could see the news.

By now I’m probably too spoiled by my life as it is to ever go back there permanently. But I feel more of a bond to my native land today than I’ve felt since we took different paths so many years ago. And your path has brought you more than a little bit back toward me. Welcome back, America. And keep comin’ a little bit closer, one step at a time.

 

The Field Projects the 2012 United States Election Results

By Al Giordano

Four years ago, I intensively covered the 2008 presidential elections in the United States, from the first caucuses and primaries through the final result.

This year, not so much, and since it became clear that the Republican nominee would be former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, not at all. Since then, I've not wavered once from my view that President Barack Obama will be reelected tomorrow. And today, after carefully examining the polling, early voting and field organization numbers state-by-state, and daily interviews in recent weeks with people on the ground in the "swing states" (in order of Electoral Votes: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa) and also the "faux-swing states" (those states that many in the media try to convince you are still up for grabs: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire), The Field projects Obama to win tommorow with 318 Electoral Votes to 220 for Romney.

This projection does not differ all that much from those generated by aggregating polling numbers and weighting them, with the exception that I'm projecting North Carolina for Obama while projecting a Romney win in Florida. (Caveat Emptor: Florida is the only state I've projected incorrectly twice in the last two presidential elections, and so it won't suprise me if I'm wrong about it, but I'll explain my logic here.)

When statistical models state that a candidate has a 75 percent chance to win a state, that means that one of four times the other candidate will win. Yet one of the frustrations of working strictly off polling data is that until recent cycles there wasn't anywhere near as much polling being done by as many polling organizations. Therefore, "polls" lack a depth of historic memory.

What are the factors that have made polls differ with the final result before?

The most important is field organization. An example of that came in 2004 when the southern Appalachian region of Ohio saw higher turnout among Evangelical voters than expected: Karl Rove, working under radar with the Christian Right, in effect, "expanded the electorate" for the George W. Bush campaign, and that had not been picked up by the pollsters who had projected an edge for John Kerry. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, the Obama campaign's more advanced field organization trumped the Hillary Clinton campaign and those of other rivals in multiple states, and delivered an encore performance in the general election.

It is astonishing to this observer that the Romney campaign, with the unlimited resources of a billionnaire candidate and that of other Forbes list Goliaths unleashed by the US Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, did not construct its own field organization and instead left Get Out The Vote efforts to the Republican National Committee. One would think Romney would have at least tried to mimic the advances in micro-targeting and intensive training of field organizers that were key to Obama's 2008 victory.

And yet I'm not surprised. I've known Mitt Romney up close since 1994 when he waged his first campaign, an unsuccessful one, against the late US Senator Ted Kennedy and I reported the battle for The Boston Phoenix. Willard Mitt Romney is a strange bird. He reminded me then of the fictional character Biff Howard Tannen from the 1985 motion picture Back to the Future: a dimwitted high school bully who made other kids do his homework for him (a Washington Post story earlier this year that looked at Romney's time in an elite prep school only confirmed that preconception, disclosing that Mitt had been an actual bully who wrestled another boy to the ground to forcibly cut his hair).

I reported a story, in '94, about how Romney, as Bishop of the Mormon church, tried to bully a young mother out of having an abortion while he was running for office in the Bay State as a supposed backer of a woman's right to choose. And I also reported how the Kennedy campaign completely overwhelmed Romney at the polls through a superior field organization that had been decades in the making. But not even that caused Romney to correct his mistake; not in the 2008 presidential primaries and not in those of 2012, when he utilized his larger bank account, and that of other billionnaires supposedly acting "independently," to squash one rival after another: Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum... none of those politicians had built even a half-decent field organization and thus were crushed, one at a time, by Romney's financial advantage. Romney, the governor's son, has always had a smirk on his face that suggested that he and he alone knew that it was his destiny to become president of the United States, and that his money would buy it for him.

From the beginning of 2012 it was clear to me that the Obama campaign had executed a plan to surpass even it's historic 2008 field organization. The only open question was whether it would find enough volunteers to carry it to fruition. By early summer, when filing reports to the Federal Elections Commission revealed that Obama was easily surpassing his 2008 small donor numbers, and such a high percentage of these people were first-time donors, it was clear to me that even if half of his 2008 volunteers had moved on to other things, there would be plenty of fresh replacement power to replenish the phone bankers, door to door canvassers and data entry wizards who are the foundation of Obama's campaign. In recent weeks that has become tangibly evident. There are more troops on the ground today than he had four years ago. In the language of the architect of the most recent Super Bowl victor, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, they are "finishing" strong.

Another factor that can cause results to be different than what polls predict is that of voter and ballot suppression. One need only remember the debacle of Bush's Supreme Court-ordered "victory" in Florida in 2000 to cite a fresh example. The incidents, in 2012, of malicious anti-democracy efforts to sabotage a fair election in swing states are most extreme in Florida and Ohio, and they are targeted most precisely against African-American and young voters. (Ohio Secretary of State John Hunstead's one-man campaign to suppress the vote is on a scale not seen since before Southern racist "poll tests" were prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and, worse, he keeps getting slapped down by the Courts and just goes out and disobeys the court orders anyway.)

The aggregate polling data from Ohio gives Romney a one-in-seven chance to overcome Obama's lead there. Add to that Obama's clear advantage in field organization and the vote will not be close enough for these suppression techniques to carry the day. The Obama campaign also has 2,500 lawyers on the ground in Ohio to push back strongly on these efforts. The best Hunstead can possibly accomplish is to delay the full counting of the votes for days after Tuesday, but the result will still end up as an Obama victory in the Buckeye State. (I know there are also people sincerely concerned about vote theft by machines which are made by a company that has interlocking relationships with companies related to Tagg Romney, the candidate's son. Let's simply say that the national public unrest that would be unleashed if Ohio alone changes the Electoral College victor with outlier results is not a Pandora's Box that even Romney would want to open. But if anything truly bizarre like that occurs, head to this page for Civil Resistance training and a plan.)

Florida, according to the aggregate of polls, is the closest of the swing states, with Romney having a 6-to-5 chance of winning and Obama at 5-to-6 underdog odds. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Republicans in the legislature severely curtailed early voting (limiting it to 96 hours in only eight days, compared to 120 hours in 14 days back in 2008) and the lines have been so long that many waited for hours and were still unable to cast a ballot. So while in a fair fight, Obama's field organization would likely be able to overcome a modest disadvantage in the polls, Florida is not right now a fair contest. The vote is being stolen again as it was in 2000. And it's likely to be close enough where that really makes the difference.

Interestingly, the conditions in North Carolina for a fair and free election are among the most exemplary in the nation. A Democratic governor has determined the majority in every local election board and from Asheville to Greenville this year's cycle has been meticulously free of voter suppression. More than 2.7 million North Carolinians have voted early, and that's 4.4 percent more than did four years ago. Among African-Americans, it's 7 percent higher. Romney recently made a desperate email plea for out-of-state volunteers to head to North Carolina whereas the Obama campaign locked in its troops on the ground well in advance, leaving nothing to improvisation. Some of my friends in New York have been part of the phone bank in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that for weeks has been hammering at key North Carolina precincts with persuasion and Get Out The Vote calls. The phone bank's coordinator, Jordan Thomas, is one of the unsung heroes of this election cycle. Not only that, he's got me pinned down with a commitment to buy a round for all his volunteers when I visit New York next month. Now, that's organizing.

The aggregate polling data gives Obama only a one-in-four statistical likelihood of winning the state. But one out of four is not bad odds if you have a clear advantage in being able to get out the vote. The aggregate of polls, according to Nate Silver, has Romney ahead by 1.9 percent. Field organization superiority has overcome that narrow a lead before. (In 2008, the polling organizations SurveyUSA, Mason-Dixon, Rasmussen and Zogby all had McCain beating Obama in North Carolina in their final pre-election polls. How did Obama overcome that to win? Superior field organization.)

Beyond field organization and voter suppression tactics (or outright fraud), what else has historically been a factor in shifting the results? One is that sometimes the motiviation and enthusiasm of voters for one candidate overrun those of the rival candidate. Early voting numbers in North Carolina give an advantage to Obama there on those measuring sticks.

Another is the national media narrative and the intangible thing called "momentum." It is also in the media's nature to create the belief that a contest is "going down to the wire" because when people don't panic they don't watch or click or read the product of news organizations as much. We all saw that happen after the first presidential debate in a cycle that, until that night, had been impressively free of Chicken Little clucking. The media was determined to declare Romney the "winner" of that debate before its first word had been spoken, because prior to then most of the nation believed Obama would win reelection. The panic and teeth-gnashing in the days after the debate should be embarassing today to those who engaged in it. If you were one of those people, think hard about how the media led your emotions around by the nose ring the next time it tries to do that. I watched that debate and thought that Obama had done what he needed to do, and did not see it as a game changer. Weeks later, nobody is really pedaling the snake oil that it somehow was.

Post-tropical storm Sandy came and destroyed many things. One of them was Romney's last chance to build a new media narrative that might give him momentum. Instead it gave Obama a photo op and kind words from the Republican governor of New Jersey and an endorsement from the Republican mayor of New York.

All of that, as electoral factor, is over now.

All that is left is field: The side that gets its voters to the polls or successfully suppresses opposing votes will be the victor on Tuesday. To understand what will happen, those are the only two things to watch. And they are both factors that you and I can still influence.

A friend of mine asked me if I would be willing to place a wager on my North Carolina projection. Of course I will. And since I work for myself, there will be no "public editor" to undercut me in these final hours of the 2012 campaign, as so unfairly the New York Times did to Nate Silver the other day only because he had said he would put his money where his projections are.

Well, that's the commercial media for ya. His projections based on hard numbers are undercutting the media narrative that this thing is still so close you can't turn off your TV or Internet screen and go turn out some voters instead. And I think his map is essentially correct, with the exception of North Carolina... because I believe in field. And that means I believe that you and I can always make a difference in history, not by being spectators, but by rolling up our sleeves and making a few more calls until every last vote is made real.

 

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