An American’s excellent essays

A set of fine programmes on the American bohemians who brought to life a great city on the cusp of significant change

On Radio

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

How they love American voices on Radio 4. If Start The Week is discussing nuclear physics, Third World debt, or beekeeping, you can be sure some professor from the University of Poughkeepsie will be asked to contribute their two penn’orth.

Soul Music, which explores what used to be called “the tingle factor”, also manages to dredge up any number of Americans. There are plenty of folk in this country who could talk listeners through a song or a symphony, but the producers like to rope in witnesses from across the water. As for the Today programme, some presenters seem to have acquired their grasp of racial politics from Black Lives Matter.

They’re not shy of inviting Americans on Radio 3, either. Barely a phase of the moon passes without Michael Goldfarb trotting on stage to present The Essay in that lugubrious, I’m-not-easily fooled voice. As he has lived here for the past four decades, though, we could claim this transplanted New Yorker to be one of ours.

Bohemians in T-Shirts took the pulse of New York in those heady, early years of the post-war era

He’s a bright spark, Goldfarb, with a knowledge of many subjects. He was an actor before he turned to broadcasting, and used to drive a cab. One of the joys of listening to him is the certainty he will refer to that cab rolling along Third Avenue. It appears the fleet of celebrated yellow taxis was stuffed to the gunwales in the Seventies with teams of off-duty actors and dancers; an Open University for ten-dollar travellers in mid-town Manhattan.

Goldfarb’s latest venture was a five-part tribute to his native city. Bohemians in T-Shirts took the pulse of New York in those heady, early years of the post-war era, when Greenwich Village welcomed young artists who sought to create the world anew. Out went the Brooks Brothers suits and Arrow collars their parents had worn. In came that symbol of rebellion, the t-shirt.

Marlon Brando was the trailblazer. Arriving in Manhattan in 1943, he studied at the Actors’ Studio and cast himself as a teller of emotional truth on stage, notably in A Streetcar Named Desire. When the Tennessee Williams play was filmed, Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski really did transform acting. For better or worse is a matter of opinion, though Goldfarb didn’t leave us in much doubt what he thought.

Brando was the hero of these essays, for his good looks, volcanic eruptions, and that t-shirt, which emphasised the separation from the stuffy pre-war days. He was certainly a man of his time, even if, viewed from this distance, his acting looks as mannered as the kind it was intended to banish. Let’s be honest. Brando became a big enough ham to fill a farm in Melton Mowbray.

He was followed in this parade by the usual troubadours: James Baldwin, Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker and Jack Kerouac, with support from Miles Davis and Allen Ginsberg. They made a mixed bag, though Goldfarb was never less than interesting. To filch a line from one who followed this post-war procession to Greenwich Village, R Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota, he knows his song well before he starts singing.

Pollock, Goldfarb told us, did more than anybody to establish New York as “the capital of modern art”

Parker, the great alto saxophonist, has the most convincing claim to greatness. Plagued by a heroin addiction which claimed his life at 34, “Bird” is one of the great figures of American music; the man who invented bebop, with a little help from Dizzy Gillespie. He also gave a leg up to Davis, the teenage trumpet star from East St Louis, who went on to add his own chapter to the history of jazz.

Pollock, Goldfarb told us, did more than anybody to establish New York as “the capital of modern art”, a title that should not be taken as an unsullied honour. Do people look now at those “drip” paintings the way they did then? Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, was granted a walk-on part in this tale of alcoholic self-destruction, which never makes a pretty picture.

Kerouac and Ginsberg, meanwhile, were the Sooty and Sweep of Village exceptionalism. As with Pollock, does anybody still pay attention? Kerouac captured something of the counterculture in a way that tickles an unformed intelligence. Ginsberg was just a poor poet. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” Oh, belt up.

James Baldwin and Anatole Broyard occupied Goldfarb’s most interesting talk. Baldwin, the black homosexual from Harlem, eventually took off to Paris, to escape the racism of American society and also the expectations he had raised as a gifted young writer.

Broyard, a Creole from Louisiana, stayed at home and passed himself off as white — shades of Coleman Silk, the hero of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. In time he became the most respected fiction reviewer in post-war America, though he never finished the great novel he longed to write.

Were these interesting men (and solitary woman) “bohemians” in the manner of Puccini’s hungry students at Café Momus? They seemed too driven to be citizens of Bohemia, no matter how eagerly they knocked back the booze and more damaging medicines. That didn’t take the edge off Goldfarb’s expert commentary. These were fine programmes, which brought to life a great city on the cusp of significant change. Sometimes it’s good to hear an American voice.

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