Mornings With Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn would have been 72 years old today.
My last talk with Alex was like so many others. It wandered around from topic to topic in an easy, freestyle way. His voice was a little weaker than usual, a little scratchy in the throat. He was in Germany, talking on a cell-phone, in a hotel room near the clinic where he was being treated for cancer. We talked about how dreary American politics had become, about the spinelessness of Obama and his liberal supporters, the insanity of the Republican ultras, and the stuffiness of Mitt Romney. “Is this all there is?” he asked. “Politics used to be so much more fun.”
Then his voice livened up. He described an online photo essay on Brigitte Bardot, then vividly recalled his stroll through the Pompidou Center in Paris with his daughter Daisy to view the vast Matisse retrospective. “No question, Matisse was the greatest.” Matisse had deposed Samuel Palmer, Edouard Vuillard, Turner, Hokusai, Bruegel the Elder, Morris Graves and Giorgioni, in Alex’s ever-changing retinue of favorite painters.
He asked what I’d been listening to. I told him Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, as usual, reigniting a long-running debate between us. Alex was a Muddy Waters man. I emailed him a video clip of our mutual hero Ike Turner, playing at some odd venue in Italy, with the Ikettes high-stepping it in white mini-skirts and go-go boots. We watched it together online, laughing at the way the dancers seemed to mock Turner. “Ike’s headed for trouble,” Alex said.
Then Alex asked if the trout were rising in the Deschutes River in central Oregon. He said when he got back to the states we should ring up old Doug Peacock in Montana and spend a couple days tossing dry flies at the rainbows. I told him to count on it.
“Can you bring sausages? I can’t believe I’m in the heart of Germany and can’t even eat sausages.”
I told him I’d order some garlic sausages from Taylor’s down in Cave Junction, pack some goat cheese and a dozen bottles of Cote du Rhone.
That was the last time I heard his voice.
The first time I heard his voice was in the fall of 1992, after the presidential elections. I was editing the environmental magazine Wild Forest Review at the time. The phone rang. I picked up. “Jeffrey, hullo, Jeffrey, is that you? This is Alexander Cockburn at The Nation.”
Even though I’d long given up reading the tedious, East Coast-biased prose of The Nation, the name was familiar from the Village Voice, which I used to read assiduously in the 1970s, and his marvelous books Corruptions of Empire and Fate of the Forest, with Susanna Hecht, both of which had fractured spines. The voice was sweetly accented, seductive almost. “That was a helluva piece you wrote on Clinton’s environmental record in Arkansas. You know, we may be the only two people in the country to the left of David Broder who see Bill for the corporate whore that he is.”
We talked for an hour or so about Clinton, Weyerhaeuser, Tyson Chicken and the poisoning of the White River. Turns out, Alex was not “at” The Nation, geographically anyway. I was surprised to learn that he lived on the Lost Coast in a little hamlet along the Mattole River called Petrolia. He’d left Manhattan behind to the consternation of many of his readers, friends and editors. But most of them had never seen the Mattole Valley or that wild stretch of California coast that runs from Shelter Cove north to Cape Mendocino.
A few days later, the fax machine began to spit out Alex’s column. It was pretty much a verbatim transcript of our talk—though I didn’t make an appearance. And that was vintage Alex, too. If there was a deadline, he would run right up to it and often past it. This wasn’t because Alex had writer’s block, it was because he had better things to do, like feed the horses, teach his cockatiel Percy to whistle the Internationale, fix—or try to fix—the septic, prune the apple trees, tweezer out a deer tick from Frank the cat’s black dreadlocks, distill hard cider, check the progress of the pit barbecue, negotiate a complex Persian rug deal with Lawrence of La Brea or find his glasses. Alex could write faster than anyone I’ve ever met and the faster he wrote the sharper his prose. And Alex wrote very sharp prose. His old partner at the Village Voice, James Ridgeway, called him “the Master.”
Two months later Alex was writing for me. After his first column appeared in Wild Forest Review, Alex rang me up. “Jeffrey, nice looking issue. But didn’t you forget something?”
“What’s that?” I said, fearing that I’d mangled one of his paragraphs.
“My payment. I’m a professional writer, you know. Just a little something to make me feel I’m not giving it away.”
We weren’t paying writers then. We could barely pay the rent. I scrambled for a plan.
“Can I send you a bottle of Scotch?”
“I hate Scotch. Make it Irish whiskey. Jameson’s.”
Alex had a reputation as a heavy drinker. But that wasn’t my experience with him. In the last few years, he tended to drink wine more than hard liquor. He flirted with hard cider and often came into possession of exotic distillations of dubious legality. But he didn’t get rip-roaring drunk very often. Instead, he revealed a predisposition toward narcolepsy. He could simply fall asleep, often at surreal times. Once his ex-girlfriend Barbara Yaley had gotten us tickets to see Little Richard perform in San Francisco as a birthday present. Twenty-minutes into a raucous performance, Alex’s head was nodding on my shoulder, snoring in sync to the beat of “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
A few years earlier we gave a book talk at Powell’s in downtown Portland. As usual, Alex drove his precious white Plymouth Valiant. After the gig we enjoyed a nice dinner at Jake’s Famous Crayfish, drained a couple glasses of wine and headed back to Oregon City on Highway 99. We’d barely reached the swank community of Eastmoreland, near Reed College, when Alex muttered, “Jeffrey, can you take the wheel? Now….” His chin dropped to his sternum, the tiny car veering toward the Willamette. I leaned over, grabbed the steering wheel with one hand, pounded the brake with the other. I negotiated the car to the side of the highway, heaved Alex into the passenger seat, then sat befuddled at the control panels wondering how to get the car into gear. It was my first, though not last, encounter with the Valiant’s infamous push-button transmission.
Then there was the notorious incident in North Richmond, California. Our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press had recently been published, greeted by what was perhaps the most hostile review ever printed by the New York Times Book Review. We were speaking to a big and boisterous crowd in this largely black community in the East Bay Area detailing the CIA’s role in abetting cocaine trafficking during the Contra wars. I was about halfway through my talk when I was distracted by a delicate purring sound to my left. It was Alex, glasses perched on his forehead, hypnotized by the sedative power of my voice into a somnatic state. So, yes, even Cockburn nods.
Nearly every morning for the past 20 years, the phone would ring in our house at 7 am. “Jeffrey, this is Alex.” As if it could be anyone else. We talked an hour each morning. Several hours a day when we were writing books together. Those calls oriented my days. Now there is a strange lacunae, as I wait for those early morning calls and find only silence. I feel lost without them.
These weren’t business calls. They weren’t “about” CounterPunch. They were notations on our lives. We talked about car mechanics and fishing; French cinema and the best way to bake salmon; the architecture of Barcelona and the merits of free jazz; surrealist poets and the proper way to stack hay; Kimberly and Daisy’s adventures with the, yes, Alexander Technique; Roman emperors (we were intent on reclaiming the reputation of Nero) and the harvesting of mussels; the paintings Tintoretto and the dancing of James Brown; the plot of Tron Legacy (“Jeffrey, what’s it all about? I’ve got to talk with Olivia later and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, could you?”); Becky Grant’s dazzling ceramics and Greg Smith’s latest project at Rancho Cockburn. One morning he called up and said, “Jeffrey, we have to rethink our opposition to journalism prizes. It seems my brother Patrick has just won the Gellhorn Prize for war reporting. And he’s going to accept it!” Who says Alex refused to change his mind?
Increasingly, we didn’t talk much about the political scene: too dull, too predictable, too dreary. We taunted each other on the phone with jokes and pop quizzes: indentify this painting, this singer, this line from Joyce, Wodehouse, Ruskin, Edward Gibbon or Henry Miller. We played these games right up to the end. On Bastille day, a week before he died, I sent Alex this stanza under the subject heading: “?”
Now was it that both found,
The meek and lofty did both find,
Helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish,
Both were called upon to exercise their skill—
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, or some secreted island,
Or heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world of all of us—
The place where in the end we find our happiness—
Or not at all.
Five minutes later an email skids into my Mac from Germany. “Wordsworth!”
And so he won again. Those are the closing lines of “The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at its Commencement.” The young Wordsworth was something of an armchair revolutionary, cheering on the French radicals from his cottage in the Lake District. But those were dangerous sentiments, even coded in verse, and Wordsworth was hounded by the secret police and broke under the pressure.
Alex never broke, never retreated, but always moved forward, toward greater liberation, toward justice and sometimes toward vengeance for grievous wrongs. His favorite line from Lenin was “Be as radical as reality.” This became CounterPunch’s motto. Alex’s politics weren’t static and they weren’t theoretical. They were geared toward the circumstances of our daily lives.
In the hundreds of interviews I’ve given since Alex’s death, I’ve taken to calling him “our Voltaire.” He shared Voltaire’s wide-ranging mind, his hatred of oppression, his rapier wit and astounding productivity. Alex wrote with breath-taking speed. I think he wrote as fast as Jean-Paul Sartre, but without the amphetamines. And the prose emerged, from the Underwood and later (thank god) his Mac, with a vicious lucidity. His columns deepen and expand with re-reading, because, like Voltaire, they are studded with inside jokes, puns, secret insults and allusions. It’s one of the reasons his friend Edward Said called him, “Alexander the Brilliant.”
The last email Alex sent chastised me: “Jeffrey, why haven’t you posted my diary! I sent it to you three DAYS ago!” I chuckled when I read it. He had actually sent the essay a few hours earlier and I had edited it and put it online only a few minutes later.
By that point Alex was apparently exploring Zeno’s Paradox, he was surfing other waves of time, subdividing the seconds into infinite segments, as if he was hot on the trial of Schroedinger’s Cat (the one that might be dead and alive at the same moment), a cat which, when he finally catches up with him, will be big and black and fluffy. Alex will call out: “Frankie!” And he will come…
Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book (with Joshua Frank) is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).
A version of this essay originally ran in CounterPunch’s tribute issue to Alexander Cockburn.