The Medicos, the Mentor and the Music
Enroute to Saigon from Taipei for the final location shooting for a film about Vietnam that has been four years in the making, I opened the China Post and saw a picture of a vibrant young man with an impish grin wearing a Village Voice t-shirt. Although I knew how long and how ill Alex had been, I wasn’t prepared for the headline’s finality: Radical ‘Nation’ columnist Alexander Cockburn dies at 71 .
The air left the plane. Numb, I dropped the paper in my lap.
Like many of his friends must have, I read the article over and again, hoping to find something in it that said it wasn’t so. I tore the article from the paper and folded it in my journal. Later, on page two of the International Herald Tribune, the headline read: “Alexander Cockburn 71, author and unapologetic leftist”. Both articles reflected on Alex the journalist, columnist and author. One of his Village Voice colleagues remembered his “remarkable mind,” and the editor of the venerable Nation called him “an extraordinarily provocative, polemical, elegant columnist and writer.” Other papers, picking up the line “unapologetic leftist,” caused me to smile; I never thought of Alex as a leftist at all, but more a centrist, as he always seemed to be in the middle of things. And he never apologized for any of it. The editor of The Nation spoke the truth when she said he “never wavered in dissenting from what was the conventional line.”
Alex was a centrist all right – always in the middle of everything.
In our last correspondence I told him how powerful his last few essays had been. Somehow, I knew he must be approaching the end, so I pulled no punches closing with “Alex, I know you didn’t choose Germany as a vacation spot, how are you?” He replied: “Thanks Bold Avenger, All good. Mustn’t let up an instant or they gain ground. Love, A.”
I didn’t know Alex as well as his Petrolia friends and family or his legions around the globe, so I was a bit surprised when, over dinner one night in July of 2010, he asked me to accompany him to town the next morning as he had a “routine” examination and they had mentioned the medication might render him unable to drive. The medicos had suggested he find someone to accompany him. Didn’t sound all that routine to me, but I relished the opportunity to have time with Alex to myself, especially riding the beautiful Lost Coast highway in one of his several late 50s or early 60s Chrysler land yachts. “The last great American automobiles made in the last great American era,” he’d say. “Steel, baby.”
Instead, next morning,we squeezed ourselves into his red Colt – a smaller, less-superior model which, in a fairer world – would never even be parked next to one of his other cars or trucks as it was “quicker.”
I dropped him off at the hospital and was prowling through one of Eureka’s book stores when my cell phone rang.
” Mr Perryman, Could you come to the hospital to discuss Mr Cockburn?”
“Is he ok?” was my first response. “
He’s bit drowsy from the medication. Do you know how to get to the hospital?”
I arrive at the near-empty building to be met at the door by a nurse who rapidly escorts me to Alex’s bedside. He gave me a weak smile in greeting. I felt as if I’d walked in on an intimate scene where my presence was welcome, but not joyfully.
“Are you related to Mr Cockburn?” the nurse across the bed asked.
“Well, we’re brothers, but not biologically” eliciting a smile from Alex. “Should I call a family member?”
“No, we’re waiting on an ambulance to take him to the emergency room at our other hospital. You need to hear this because we’re not certain he’ll remember. He needs to contact his primary care physician immediately and schedule an appointment with an oncologist.”
I looked at Alex, his eyes were closed. I then asked if the procedure had discovered significant problems. The nurse standing alongside me touches my arm. She nods once. I turned toward her and murmured “advanced stage?” Another nod.
“Metastisized?” Again, a nod.
I could swear she had a tear in her eye.
Alex, drifting in and out from the drugs, opens his eyes and locks an unblinking gaze on me. After an eternally long time, he sighs and closes them.
The nurse on his side of the bed touched him gently on the shoulder and turns to walk by me, semi whispering toward me:”Good luck with your friend.”
I moved closer to Alex’s side, and, not knowing what else to do, began to rub his arm.
Time had stopped–again.
Alex reentering this world, says “D., they were talking radiation and chemotherapy to me in there. What do you make of it?”
“I’ve never been to medical school Alex, but that can’t be a lot of fun.”
“Oh, what do they know”, he says and begins patting my arm.
I know both of us wanted to cry.
I followed the ambulance the the other hospital where Alex was rolled into the emergency room After a bit, a male nurse comes over and began thanking Alex for his writing, not believing that the “great man actually lived in Petrolia, of all places.”
He started cracking jokes that in both Alex’s socks, one black, one blue, his big toe was sticking out.
“Mr. Cockburn, you didn’t have to dress up for us, being neighbors and all. We’re pretty low-key here.”
Alex quipped. “Well, thank you but a gentleman should never go for a colonoscopy without proper socks” and winking at me, adds ” Besides, I have another pair just like these at home.”
Shortly after he tells me I ought to go outside and get some of that golden California sunshine that we had driven so far to enjoy. “It’s pretty dark and dismal in here , Deryle. Go enjoy the fresh air.”
The ride home was quiet unto we dropped down to the coast where he immediately sat up in the seat and started excitedly rummaging through the glove box, the console and under the seat.
“What are you looking for, pal. Can I help?”
“I was hoping for a Little Richard cassette to show up. I could sure use him about now.”
We made it into the house without Little Richard and I walked him to the door.” “Deryle, I remember everything that was said in there.” He bade me to go on up to the Tower where “the lovely Ms Chard will certainly be glad to see you.”
The usual happy walk up the hill to the jewel box he’d designed and had built there was longer and lonelier and harder that evening. My entire walk was a slow moving meditation on what must be going through his mind at that moment, how powerful those thoughts must be and if he was praying to any deity or natural force for aid or mercy.
I know I was.
I was also walking slower with the weight of the burden Alex had bestowed just before we exited the car not to mention anything of the day to anyone.
“Alex, your family and friends can be incredible assets in whatever struggle toward health this is to be. That’s a heavy burden to carry alone. Take the help.”
Another unblinking look: “In time Deryle, in time.”
That was the hardest promise I ever kept.
Alexander Cockburn driving into the light of the King Range, Petrolia. Photo: Deryle Perryman.
I used a lot of my time with Alex to talk about writing–the art and craft, the sublime and the nitty-gritty. He was always willing to indulge me.
“How long you been writing for living, Alex? You’ve cranked out a lot of words, and from what I’ve read, they’ve always been powerful. What’s the key? Got any tips for us novices on what makes good writing?”
“I’ve been doing it for almost fifty years. The key is that every sentence must have fire or dynamite in it, and it always”- – he punches the air emphatically – “… always must be interesting to one person. And that one person is you.”
Alex had an incredible vinyl collection covering a most incredible and eclectic variety of music. Flipping through his vinyl collection was a music lover’s dream. Amazing but forgotten sounds from across time and around the world.
Albums as diverse as Van Walls and Spider Sam, Jimmy Witherspoon and Ann Cole and the Suburbans, to Eddy Chamblee and Patsy Cline to Maria Callas and Little Willie Littlefield. Hal Paige and Dave Alexander to John Lee Hooker to Chuck Carbo and The Soul Finders and Billie Holiday to Ray Cane and the Hawaiian Slack Key Masters would fill his house with fine music to accompany the fine food he’d always cook, all accompanied by incredible conversation. Attending salon at Alex’s was a serious endeavor – not for fools or triflers or the weak of heart.
Books and books and more books.
Mr. Cockburn dearly loved books. His library was filled with books; his house held more. There were boxes and stacks of books out by the washing machine behind his house. Once Sheryl and I were headed for the beach and saw a dust-covered paperback wedged between the grill and the radiator of his beloved Belvedere station wagon. Road kill? Library kill?
On a supply trip to Eureka one day, I accompanied him to the local hardware store. He immediately struck up a conversation with someone so I went shopping, buying a pair of painter’s pants. As Alex was still deep in the conversation – by this time leading the discussion with several folks – I walked out to the car. He followed shortly, empty-handed. “Chatting with an old friend, eh?” “Oh no,” he said, “I didn’t know her before that. I heard her talking to the clerk about the California budget and couldn’t resist.” “Oh, so you couldn’t find what you went after?” He slapped the wheel with both hands. “Oh, I got so engrossed in conversation, I forgot what I went for. Let’s go for a bite to eat.”
I left the pants in the car, and Sheryl and I returned to Albuquerque. Several emails to Alex requesting he mail them to me finally resulted in my accusing him of wearing them – even though I’d never seen him in anything so pedestrian as a pair of Dickie painter’s pants. Shortly thereafter the pants arrived via post, accompanied by a postcard of a photograph he had taken in Italy, signed “Untouched by human crotch. Love to you both. Alex.”
“Alex, you’re the closest to royalty I’ve been around since I visited the Campbell Clan Castle in Inverary. You really grow up in a castle?”
“Yes, D, I did. Well, a big stone house. I had a stone bedroom in a building built in the 1500s, and the nearest fireplace was a quarter mile away in the kitchen. It can get cold in Ireland.”
Visiting Alex’s house and library and gardens was a true inspiration, akin to having access to a one-of-a-kind museum of magic and music, mystery and beauty. Like his life, all that he built there in Petrolia was so rich, so full, and – yes – so blessed. His art, his music, his friends, the food and conversation, and his friendship was a gift to me. Alex Cockburn’s salon was a gift to so many.
After each of the numerous trips to Vietnam making Same Same but Different, Alex would invariably ask me to write something for Counterpunch. “I’ll print it,” he’d say. I never did. I’d make a comment or observation about some arcane topic or another, and he’d say, “That’s interesting. You should write a piece about that. I’ll print it.” I never did.
I wish this essay had a different topic.
Knowing Alex was writing until the very end gave me small solace at not being able to make his funeral. His encouragement had given me strength and hope the many times I felt that no one gave a damn about another story about Vietnam. Once, after some wine and serious discussion, he turned to me and said: “It’s important, D, and you should finish it.” “Why?” “Because it’s not really over, is it?” he said with a twinkle in his eye as he touched his glass to mine. “That’s why.”
A few days after my arrival in Vietnam in this July, I was interviewed by the Labor Party newspaper about the film, evoking cries of “traitor” and “un-American” from some who read it online. I think Alex would have smiled at that.
No, I know he did.
Alex was – to borrow from Kunstler – a “fabulous transcender of the mundane.” He presented us with uncomfortable truths. He held strong ideas and expressed them elegantly and eloquently. And he was never afraid of the breach. His life of philosophical inquiry, flagrant rebellion of convention, and an increasing pursuit of the real was an inspiration to many.
As the the Boss sang about a departed friend, “When they built you brother, they broke the mold.”
To paraphrase him speaking from his friend Andy Kopkind’s memorial service in 1994: “Alex’s not dead to me.”
Alex was here, but not long enough.
Deryle Perryman is a documentary filmmaker living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His latest film, “Same Same But Different” is about American Vietnam Veterans who have found forgiveness and redemption by living and doing humanitarian work among their former enemies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org