Goodbye Pork Pie Hat: Mike Davis, 1946-2022

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Tariq Ali and Jon Wiener, comrades of his generation, have written concise and moving tributes to Mike Davis, whose work reached my generation of radical readers in the 1990s, in the context of the fall of the USSR, the rise of Clintonist-Third Way triage, the EZLN in Chiapas, and the inter-penetration of capitals across the Pacific. I caught onto Mike in Portland, Oregon, in 1996, I think, in the midst of campaigns to beat back xenophobia, racism, and the exploitation of labor at Nike, the sleazy practices of billionaire Paul Allen, on street corners, and in the strawberry fields.

In addition to the writing itself, especially about California, reaching the level of art, there was something–which the attention to form may have allowed for, namely style–that had the raw rage of punk or hip hop. It was as though the writing was amplified, with the sharp edge of the blade: Bad Brains? Reading him, you felt the wind and the bumps on the highway driving at high speed over the mountain passes to the outer edge of sprawl in Llano del Río. You wanted to blow it all up or burn it all down, not like Timothy McVeigh and the far right in Oklahoma, of course, but through collective struggle and radical direct action. You wanted to pick up where the 1960s left off.

Mike spoke to us in a way that few of his generation could have, because he was listening so closely to young people, putting himself in our shoes, especially as he patrolled the meaner streets of LA to learn about them, to show that they were not mean to learners like him, comparing what he knew of previous generations in the city to what he was hearing from young people and envisioning for their future.

Thus he was similar to the Pynchon of Vineland; likewise his ability to write: to really write: to represent the whole social totality, whether of LA, California, or the US more generally, as it lurched sharply in the wrong direction, not momentarily, as if some course correction might come, but permanently, since that where its inner contradictions had led it. Mike laid those contradictions bare by telling mesmerizing stories about history.

Throughout the time I knew him, for most of this dreadful century, he maintained that sense of urgent responsibility and debt towards the generations coming after him, and even a certain optimism about defining democratically feasible and ecologically sustainable ways of social transformation. He was a steward of the earth and the life it sustains; he thought in revolutionary terms. A third of the country had always been more or less fascist, he said.

What we had to do was organize and fight like hell. But how, and with whom? Where was our SDS, or CORE, or the LA branch of the CP under Dorothy Healy? Of course, like Marx, Mike devoted much of his time and energy to explaining what, exactly, we were up against: Reaganism, for instance. The Democratic Party under the DLC. Climate change, US-NATO imperialism, and war. And so on.

In this he was without peer, with the possible exception of Alex Cockburn, whose work Mike revered and championed when he was editor at NLR. Where Alex had come to California from County Cork, Oxford-London, and New York, Mike was native to the US borderlands–an inland empire equidistant from La Jolla and Baja California–and stays in Belfast, Glasgow, London, New York, or Hawaii were temporary sojourns. He lived next to Mexico, which was next to Central America. Mike’s LA was directly connected to both.

Like Alex, Mike showed us the realities of power and politics in the US with bracing, almost blinding clarity; his readers viewed them as few US citizens ever would, in hemispheric and world perspective. Which meant we were expected to do something about it. Neo-Frankfurt-style armchair critique, the “Sunshine or Noir” chapter in City of Quartz demonstrated, would not cut it. This was Western Marxism in a new, populist key, on the edge of the Pacific. Mike and Alex drove all over LA together in Alex’s classic American cars, which Mike probably knew something about how to fix, and hatched the idea for an environmental history of I-5 together. These two left Adorno in the dust.

Mike once said he always wrote expecting to have to report back to an imaginary Central Committee of a non-existent CP. This approach helped move some readers in activist directions, and others, organizers, to think more strategically–and more internationally–about US capitalism. It probably turned some into writers as well.

Like Chomsky’s, Mike’s books and ideas are known and debated across the world, far beyond university settings. Within them, they have impacted a range of disciplines even during a time of neoliberal retrenchment and hyper-specialized academic monocultures–this in spite of the fact that he was not native to that habitat.

Homo academicus, as EP Thompson’s felicitous phrase has it, was basically alien to Mike, and, perhaps more importantly, of minimal interest. Mike cared about what was happening in public high schools, community colleges, the Cal State system, and the prisons. This was not a pose. In his obituary, Perry Anderson called Thompson the greatest socialist writer the UK had produced; certainly this is true of Mike for the US.

Towards the end of his life, thanks to Jon Weiner, he taught history at UC-Irvine, and then, thanks to Susan Straight, taught writing at Riverside. Of course he had taught forever without a tenured position, but he never wanted to teach, he said, and was deeply dismayed at the privatization of the UC system, firing off pithy yet incendiary messages on the subject to top administrators.

No wonder UCLA refused him his PhD and few people ever tried to hire him. Then again, though the story may be apocryphal, Mike may have told someone considering hiring him not to, since it would only bring a storm of unwanted controversy-criticism down on the university; which probably would have been true. I’m pretty sure Mike was the source for the story.

An astonishing range of other worlds, beyond the university, were of interest, since Mike’s curiosity knew few limits; he always wanted to learn more, to consult the latest research, often about arcane subjects (rocks and stones, for example), and this continued into his 70s. Polymath seems inadequate to describe the appetite and capacity for mastering technical, specialized bodies of scientific knowledge thoroughly understood by few, except practitioners in the field, and then coming up with new syntheses that would tie up otherwise loose threads and make you see the world, or a place-time-subject within it, entirely differently.

It may have been the ability to make readers see important things through fresh eyes that earned him the label of visionary, which he refused on a number of grounds, not least genuine modesty and a love of science (not to mention Blake and the Romantics, whose poetry he knew). What would his sister, who faced death like a soldier defending Stalingrad, in Mike’s words, have said about a brother who thought he was a prophet because he wrote brilliantly? What would Howard Zinn–of whom Mike said, “He went out with his boots on”: high praise indeed–have thought?

Or Albert Einstein, for whom music, and playing the violin, were inseparable from socialism and research in the natural sciences, which Mike embraced as few historical materialists in the time of post-modernism dared to? Stanley Aronowitz and Andrew Ross, both of whom Mike knew and respected, went down one path. Mike went down another.

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For better or worse, I followed Mike into the writing life, which I had always wanted to do (without, of course, understanding what it might entail in our time; I don’t think he quite understood, either, as print capitalism was morphing at warp speed into the digital disaster we have now). Mike helped and encouraged me, and at each step, sought constructive ways to solve problems. He was practical: he wanted to know who he could call or write to: specific agents or editors. He didn’t want followers or disciples–there is no “Mike Davis” school … not yet, anyway. Like any original thinker, he wanted people to think for themselves, not follow someone else, much less him. There was to be no routinization of charisma if he had anything to say about it. To the extent he was elusive and reclusive, he had good reason to be. Everyone seemed to want something, and Mike had far too much to give. It was hard to say no, and hard to follow through on too many commitments.

Mike was still quite famous when I met him, but seemingly delighted in the company of young, hungry, and unknown radicals. As a PhD student with an infant son and–as yet –no union contract, I qualified. (NYU then paid its grad students a stipend that covered just over half the cost of what it took to live in poverty, according to its own studies.)

I met him and Colin Robinson at Verso’s old office, which I believe was on Varick St., in spring 2001, through a Lebanese radical and organizer, Bilal El-Amin, who had left the ISO with a group of activists and was publishing a new magazine called Left Turn, to which Mike agreed to submit an article, I think. Bilal had gotten me to write one on Colombia for the same issue.

Mike was in town to speak at an event some NYU students had put together before sending some of their number off to Montreal to battle the robocops and protest the neoliberal free trade agenda. Before the event, between Verso’s office and Washington Square, we stopped off for a pint or two at a bar I knew.

Mike invited us to Verso’s launch party for Late Victorian Holocausts, somewhere on the Lower East Side, which I remember as being unusually fun, with Mike introducing everyone to everyone and having the time of his life, even though he had trouble hearing in one ear. Alessandra was pregnant with James Conolly and Cassandra, I think; in any case, she was resplendent; they were moving from Hawaii to San Diego, where our friend-comrade Danny Widener from NYU had been hired. The logistics sounded complicated.

It may have been the time Mike spent in Belfast that made him curious about Medellín, and the details of organized crime and urban insurgency. They were subjects that were clearly dear to his heart, and Bilal was also fascinated because of parallels and contrasts with the Middle East. And of course the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were lurking around the corner–in both theaters, Colombian soldiers and mercenaries trained US clients in counter-insurgency.

We talked about massacres, which had spiked in Colombia, and paramilitary death squads, as well as urban guerrillas in Medellín and Barrancabermeja, as I recall. Mike and Bilal were fascinated by Colombia’s complexity, and I was thrilled to find people who were interested in what was happening behind the headlines as the country lurched from peace to war (again), in synch with US empire and GWOT.

Mike picked up the tab gladly, and was thrilled to have the money with which to do so; you knew he had lived through periods in which a pint or two at the pub (on credit) was all he could afford.

The fellowship, comradeship, solidarity, and sense of purpose, and total rejection of dominant common sense, even on the Left, were extraordinary, especially since we had only just met; but he was with us, not with the big names he must have known all over the city, who wanted to talk to him or hear him talk –Timothy Mitchell, for example, then at NYU, whose work on Egypt Mike deeply admired and respected. Though I don’t know, I’m guessing this scene was repeated in Dublin, Manchester, Barcelona, and who knows, maybe Naples and Marseilles, and other cities where he met up with young, unknown radical intellectuals and activists over beers to fire them up and to re-fuel. It must have been especially true in LA and San Diego.

At the event, which was held at Judson Memorial Church, Mike said he hadn’t been there since an SDS event and demo in the 1960s, I think. He quoted from Francis Parkman’s eight-volume work on the French colonization of Quebec and part of New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in order to help orient us toward Montreal and the history of First Nations and popular struggles in Quebec, including student, labor, and nationalist struggles. It seemed hard to find a part of the globe, or a serious author, that did not interest him in some way or other. Parkman was far from the obvious choice in such a setting, but of course he repays close study. Mike knew and cared about such things in a way that very few people do.

Walking over to Washington Square from the bar that evening in the light spring breeze, Mike asked me if I could write up some of the stuff on Colombia for New Left Review. No longer editor, he was forever recruiting. I was excited at the prospect, since, aside from travel and literature, I had learned about the world via New Left Review (and its US counterpart, Monthly Review). I was about to take my qualifying exams, I think, and had yet to write anything longer than final essays for classes and my MA thesis. Even though it was just a possibility, I took it seriously, as an assignment from Mike, reading and taking notes on Colombia all summer instead of writing my dissertation proposal on Bolivia.

I no longer remember what I survived on that summer, but we (GSOC-UAW) were soon to get a union contract, then the Twin Towers came down–Mike wrote about it more vividly than anyone else–the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, and I won a fellowship to do doctoral research in Bolivia that allowed me to smuggle in some time at my mother-in-law’s place in Medellín, just as Álvaro Uribe was inaugurated, with the FARC’s (sub-contracted) missiles hitting the presidential palace.

My essay on Colombia was published in New Left Review the following year, not long after the US invaded Iraq, and just before the national-popular insurrection overthrew the US-backed government in Bolivia. Although I wrote it with feedback from the editorial collective, the essay was Mike’s doing, mostly, as he wrote a letter to the editor, Susan Watkins, addressed to the rest of the NLR collective, I believe, persuading everyone that NLR needed an essay on Colombia, and that I should write it.

Later, in 2004-5, he would make the same pitch to any editor or publisher who might be interested in commissioning a short book, which I published with Verso in 2006. He walked me through the steps–for example, when I received an anonymous review on a first draft that amounted to a swift kick in the teeth, Mike taught me to smile and keep my chin up. It was excellent advice, for any writer.

We commiserated and laughed about Verso’s publicity person, who told him she hated Colin Robinson, with whom Mike had long worked closely, and whom he considered a friend and comrade, as my book swiftly fell into oblivion, unlike Planet of Slums, which had an impact around the world, and at the end of which Mike–seeing me in light of the young Engels in 1848 perhaps–mistakenly suggested that I had manned the barricades in La Paz (barricades did go up: I did not man them). This ostensibly qualified me to be his partner in crime on the sequel, which would move from the bird’s eye synthetic view to specific case studies by continent; he had originally wanted it to be published in one volume, but Colin persuaded him to split it in two.

At CounterPunch, beginning in 2003, I think, Jeff and Alex were in the habit of running everything I sent them on Colombia and Bolivia, all of which Mike read because he was interested in the political dramas unfolding there in those years when I also wrote for New Left Review. Once I was back in New York, writing books for Verso on the two countries, Alex edited a piece I wrote for the CounterPunch newsletter on Brooklyn’s makeover, which Mike then convinced me needed to be a book on Brooklyn history; I got a book contract from Oxford to write it, and later won a postdoc at NYU to research it. He gave incisive feedback on drafts of a proposal. Perhaps someday I’ll write it for him, if I can; an essay is finally forthcoming in Spectre, called “Labor Noir.” It bears his stamp.

Mike was an antinomian, carrying on the revolutionary traditions that Christopher Hill unearthed: Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Fifth Monarchists, and True Levellers. I thought Mike was just going insane with the twins in preschool, because I couldn’t see why he needed me, as opposed to a seasoned veteran-academic star who knew this stuff inside and out through years of urban ethnography. He must have known many who qualified. It was a heady brew, though, and I kept using grant money and student loans to write stuff that was not my dissertation, like another essay/book on Bolivia for NLR/Verso.

This amounted to academic hari-kari, but I neither knew nor cared, because I had heard the music and seen the dancers; the 2007-8 storm was building out over the Atlantic and about to crash over me in Brooklyn, which Mike had convinced me to research once I told him some of what I had discovered about Red Hook under “Tough Tony” Anastasia. I had yet to write my dissertation.

Mike may have known, or maybe not, but in 2007 or 2008, his doctor–a young Lebanese woman, I think–ordered him to stop writing so much if he wanted to live, so he apologetically backed out of the project he had proposed. And to his credit, he took the early warning seriously, and except for the obra de arte he did with Jon Weiner about LA in the 1960s, he mostly quit writing books, although he wrote many essays; there may yet be another book on the way. I didn’t want him to die. I had other fish to fry, in the shape of a dissertation to write, and thanks to that, in spring 2009, Danny Widener invited me out to UCSD to do a daylong workshop.

I hadn’t seen him since that party for Late Victorian Holocausts; he had just come from jogging barefoot and explained how he had lacerated his feet doing that same thing not too long before, but couldn’t stand shoes maybe? I thought: Jesus, this guy is a true glutton for punishment, Irish Catholic style. Something in his eyes was completely insane – laser-like.

He could change lanes on a dime. He drove me and Lina Britto, my ex-wife–who had only ever seen NYC, DC, Ft. Lauderdale, and New Orleans in the US-–all over the place, including to a working-class BBQ place with wood-paneled walls that he loved, and paid for, and the Museum of Scientology in El Cajón. He told gruesome stories of violent incidents about hot-rods and psychotic households in the late 1950s and early 1960s, pointing out some horse ranch Reagan had once had nearby, and relating a bizarre detail about Reagan’s unhinged belief system. Lina sat up front and struggled to understand his accent and intonation, and he struggled to hear her and with her accent and intonation, but he seemed to be having a blast as he gave us the tour he gave everyone who visited. Most people would have been flagging by the late afternoon–I know I was–but Mike, who had once worked as a tour guide driving a bus, seemed to be hitting his stride as the sun began to slant.

As we got close to his ‘Marxist bunker,’ I asked if we could go see the Pacific, as my Lina had never seen it in the US. Dr. Mojito, as Danny called him, said that certainly we could see it–from his deck, which meant he was ready to pulverize mint, and maybe add basil or something to the rum and soda. He had some secret ingredient, and really enjoyed hogging it; he didn’t share mojitos. They were his poison, and his alone. He enjoyed making these, with mortar and pestle, as much as he did drinking them.

Danny and his wife Sarah, a literature professor and Afro-Cuban specialist, who was pregnant with their son, her second child and his first, came over, along with a Belgian geographer and her husband, whose names escape me (Mike had a hug soft spot for Belgium). We were there forever, at least Lina and I were, and remember lots of laughter and conversation on an incredibly wide range of themes. Alessandra got out Mike’s old photo albums and he told stories about the photos. My son, who was eight at the time, had read Mike’s trilogy of sci-fi thrillers, and worshiped them-him, so I reluctantly asked Mike to sign one of them for him (it may have been the one he is holding in the Verso obituary photo). The posture of the famous author signing books, even ironically, was not him, not at home anyway, just as the posture of the reader-fan was not me. There was something comical about the whole thing.

At some point, Alessandra put the twins to bed, and we moved into the living room to watch Ivan Passer’s “Cutter’s Way” (1981) with John Heard. Mike held his liquor like few people I’ve ever seen. I don’t recall him slurring, which I found incredible. He remained completely lucid, or at least that’s how I recall it. I remember Lina asking him why Nicholas Ray didn’t get more space in City of Quartz. I’m not sure he heard her.

He was always telling me what defense industry jobs he might be able to get near where he lived if he was ever laid off from the UC jobs–first at Irvine then at Riverside, which he called ‘cushy,’ and meant it, even though ‘cushy’ meant endless hours of commuting and grading and listening to rightwing talk radio in his truck, which he drove like the professional he had once been. He could not abide by what he called ‘academic sinecures,’ and was not to be messed with on the road. He said, “I mean, Forrest, you know, the real problem with so many of these people is a mysterious disease called elephantiasis of the reputation, for which there is as yet no cure.”

Mike thought we had to be prepared to do crappy working-class jobs in order to maintain our independence (this was not a quasi-Maoist call to proletarianize ourselves, either); that’s what being a radical intellectual meant, along with–potentially–jail time, arrests, beatings, torture, disappearance, defeat, and exile. Again, it has to be stressed that this was not a pose, although Mike loved to tell tall tales, and, like the late Aijaz Ahmed (1941-2022), who was also a formidable storyteller, told them as if he had written and edited them first. I told him he should publish these for the younger generation who would want to know the real history of the 1960s and 70s, and, in a way, he did, in the scrapbook on LA he made with Jon Weiner. But he always laughed off memoir as a genre, at least for him. Even though some of his stories involved self-mythologizing–not exactly strange for a storyteller–and he made many of them public, still, he was much too private and self-effacing for a book about himself. He found the focus too narrow, the interest too limited.

Fully-formed paragraphs and even full pages poured forth, sometimes achingly slowly, in his Southern California drawl from the 1960s-70s (he had never smoked weed, but it was hard to tell–except for the haircut), as when he was tasked with bringing Chilean wine from London for comrades exiled in Glasgow, but couldn’t find any that was not connected to the Pinochet regime, and was embarrassed by his failure, but brought the very best he could find anyway. The comrades explained that, quite the contrary, by trying, he had in fact succeeded, not failed. Salud, che! The delight he derived from the mission, and the lesson it contained, was contagious in the re-telling. That laser gleam in his eyes. I hope I’m remembering it right.

Mike loved big bands from the 1930s and 40s: Ellington, Basie, and Benny Goodman, and I may have insisted on playing some of the stuff Benny Moré recorded with Chano Pozo in LA after the war over in his office. I think we talked about Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, and Charles Mingus and the scene on Central Ave., which made it into City of Quartz, as I recall.

Though it may seem a bit of a stretch, I see Mike doubly, as analogous to our ‘President’ – the nickname of Lester Young, the subject of Mingus’s classic, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which reminds me of the photo of Mike that Adam Pérez took recently, in which he is wearing what looks like a modified version of one–and to Mingus himself, who was raised in Nogales, AZ, and remained an ungovernable border subject whom no one could encapsulate, because he contained too many damned multitudes. Hence the need for symphonies.

What Mingus did for big band composition, harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically, is perhaps analogous to what Mike did for historical materialist writing about human and non-human life, as well as inorganic matter, on planet earth, in our time, when independent nationalism, social democracy, and communism had all collapsed, and neoliberalism morphed into its current, necrotic form, feeding on the host, which is us; he did it as well as he, or anyone, possibly could, and spared nothing, not even his health, in the effort.

May we hear the echo of the notes and chords he struck, as if we were listening to Mingus solo on the piano–as in “Myself When I Am Real“–and see if we can’t make some serious music, too.

On Sunday night, just before 8 PM Brasilia time, we started with “O-lê olê olê, o-lá, Lu-la, Lu-la!” and “Fora Bolsonaro, Fora Bolsonaro/Vai tomar no cu/Vai tomar no cu!” Although it is hard to think of an intellectual that reminds me of Mike, who was pretty small physically, Lula, who was also born in 1946, reminds me of him plenty, and not only in terms of diminutive stature.

Unlike almost anyone I’ve ever known, Mike not only faced his biggest fears while alive, turning them into the source of his creativity and brilliance, his books helped us face them clearly, too, and turn them into issues of public debate and discussion. None of his readers can say he/she/they weren’t warned about what the struggle to transform the US state-society-empire, not to speak of the rest of the world, will entail.

As if that weren’t enough, Mike faced his own death utterly without fear, because he was surrounded by a numerous, loving family, led by Alessandra. In what may have been his greatest act, as well as the toughest to follow, he taught his children not to be afraid of dying, or of losing him. He did all this more or less publicly, without blinking. In terms of human stature, Lula–who turned 77 on October 27, before winning the elections by a hair on October 30–comes to mind. So does Noam Chomsky. If anyone “went out with his boots on,” like Howard Zinn, Mike did.

The stamina, toughness, stoicism, faith, and total dedication to the mission, to the cause of fighting to make the world better and more just, fair, and equal, along with the impish laser light in the eyes and the joy in the smile, bear a striking resemblance to Lula. I like to think that, whatever its limitations, Lula’s victory, along with the festa democrática that followed, com o povão na rua, was one of Mike’s sendoff events.

Bora rapaziada, é o 13 na cabeça! É o Lula, pô’! Salve salve Mike Davis pessoal! É nós pô’!! É nós!!! (Cue the tambores for samba reggae, Salvadoran-style, as people dressed in red flood the streets and praças, singing and dancing and blowing horns along the orla.)

A short version of this essay ran in the London Review of Books.

Forrest Hylton is Visiting Professor of History at the Graduate School at the Universidade Federal da Bahia and is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso 2006).