Abbie Hoffman – A Personal Memory

April 25, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve just watched “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman brought back memories of my own brief contact with Abbie. Maybe it’s getting into tl;dr territory, and what follows is certainly less sociology, than it is, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, self-indulgery.

I met Abbie Hoffman before he became Abbie Hoffman, the Abbie Hoffman everyone knows, the Abbie Hoffman of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,”  It was two years before the Chicago convention, the summer of 1966. I was 22 and about to enter graduate school. Abbie was 29.  

I had just finished college and was working in the Democratic primary campaign of an anti-war candidate for U.S. senate in Massachusetts.  His name was Thomas Boylston Adams, and he came by it honestly.  I am not sure about the Boylston strand, but the Adams part went directly back to John and John Quincy. More important, he was the only candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam.

His opponents were Endicott Peabody, governor of the state, and John Collins. mayor of Boston. We knew we had no chance to win against establishment Democrats. We were in it to get out the anti-war message. But because the vehicle for that was an election, we had to do what you do in electoral politics.

Much of my work, as I recall, consisted of “canvassing”—handing out literature and trying to get people to sign petitions to get Adams on the ballot. We would canvas in Boston one day, Brockton the next, Fall River the next. One hot day, the campaign manager sent a group from the Boston office out to Worcester to canvas there. He told us that we’d get more information from the campaign co-ordinator for that part of the state—Abbie Hoffman.

Abbie met us, assigned us to different parts of the city, and told us a little bit about the neighborhoods we would be canvassing. Then we were on our own, and I didn’t see him again that day.

At the time, his biography was much like that of many of the other people in the campaign who had worked for liberal and left-wing causes. Yippies did not yet exist. It seems odd now to think of Abbie Hoffman as regional manager, directing conventional political work like canvassing for a candidate who looked, sounded, and acted every bit the Boston Brahmin.

I didn’t see Abbie again until late August, towards the end of the campaign, when the candidate invited everyone for a picnic at his summer home on the South Shore near Quincy. It was a modest, wooden house on several acres of land. Most of the Boston-area people went. A few of the workers from the regional offices also came in for the event. All told, we numbered no more than two dozen.

At some point in the afternoon, several of us went to play softball, and I found myself walking next to Abbie. The field for the game lay on the other side of a slight ridge. When we got to the top and looked out at the large open area below us, Abbie stretched out his arm and made a sweeping gesture. “Comes the revolution, my son,” he said in a fake Russian accent, “all of this will be yours.”

Except for the picnic, most of us rarely had a chance to speak with the candidate himself—an arrangement that was probably for the best. About the only thing most of us had in common with him was a general opposition to the Vietnam war. But while Adams’s views on Vietnam made him the most liberal person running for office in Massachusetts, he was several steps to the right of just about everybody in his own campaign, including of course, Abbie. They were an assortment of 1960s activists. Some were students from SDS. Others had been recruited from past electoral campaigns for other non-mainstream candidates. Some came out of the civil rights movement, having only a few years earlier worked on voter registration in the South with SNCC and CORE. Nobody on the staff had illusions about winning a Senate seat. Instead, people spoke of the campaign as “educational” (i.e., to educate the public about the war). Many of them, like Abbie, also saw it as a way to build a foundation for future political organizing, whether for local or national issues. That was their job. They were political organizers.

One other scene has stayed in my mind from that warm, August day. I do not remember how we all got back to Boston or how it was that Abbie and I were the only ones from the group taking the MTA back to Cambridge, but that is where the memory begins—near sunset at the end of a long day, me standing in an MTA car, talking with Abbie Hoffman.

We were both tired. The picnic had, in effect, marked the end of the campaign. The September primary was only a week or two away. The candidate, we all knew, would get only a handful of votes, and the student workers like me would go back to school. But I wondered about the “older” people.

“What do you think you’re going to do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Abbie said, “I really don’t.” He talked about other political issues that needed people, but it all seemed vague, as though he were tired of it all.

Then he said, “A lot of people I know are getting jobs in the poverty program. It’s a steady job, and you can do pretty well.” Remember, this was the hopeful era of the Great Society, of OEO programs that needed workers and administrators. “I guess I can always get something there too.”

He paused, and for an instant the twinkle returned to his eyes. He shook his head slightly. “But I don’t think I could do that.”

Herbie Hancock, b. April 12, 1940

April 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Herbie Hancock turns eighty-one today. I felt I had to post something, but what? Herbie has recorded so much in in such a variety of genres, but the this was my first — “Dolphin Dance” from the Maiden Voyage album, 1965. It’s innovative in the melody, chords, and structure. Herbie’s playing encompasses funk and the post-bebop “out” style. And while I usually don’t care much for the idea of “program” music, yu can easily imagine standing on the shore, looking out at dolphins on a calm ocean.

The Wikipedia article quotes Herbie saying that when he was first getting into jazz in the 1950s, he learned a lot from the Hi-Los and their arrangements by Clare Fischer. That surprised me. Fischer and the Hi-Los were four white guys, as is Fischer, and their sound has none of funk or bluesy quality that Herbie has always had. But the arrangements are indeed interesting. (Here  is their version of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.”

A summer in the early 1970s, I was hanging out at the tennis courts. One of the afternoon regulars there was a trumpet player. I asked him if he knew the tune. He did. I asked him if he could tell me the changes. He could. (The Real Book did not yet exist.) I managed to borrow a pencil and a scrap of paper, and he dictated the changes to me bar by bar, in piano key, not trumpet. As I said, the changes are unusual, not easy to learn and commit to memory, and if you forget a chord, it’s hard to guess at. For years, when I went to play “Dolphin Dance,” I put that same scrap of paper up on the piano.

Coda: How could I have missed the obvious choice of tunes: Eighty-One. Ron Carter wrote this when he and Herbie were in Miles’s second great quintet. Herbie was 25, Carter was a few years older. Drummer Tony Williams could not drink legally in many states. I doubt that any of them were thinking of Eighty-one as an age.

Herbie recorded it with that quintet on the E.S.P. album, 1965. (here)
And again in 1994 with the same quintet but with Wallace Roney replacing Miles. (here)

Memory and Identity

 April 2, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Was it just a coincidence that this week both The New Yorker and This American Life included pieces on the same case of alleged sexual child abuse ? Neither mentioned the recent HBO documentary series Allen v. Farrow, but the cases are similar. A parent in a custody battle is accused of inserting a finger into the vagina of a six or seven-year old girl. The accused parent suggests that the other parent has coached the child and implanted a false memory.

The point of the less famous case — it involves a woman named Nicole Kleumper — is that memory is fallible. Most of us don’t like to admit that. We think that if we remember something, then it must have happened. Oh, we might forget unimportant details, but the details that do stand out in our memory are  facts.

But that’s not how memory works. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has devoted a lifetime of research to revealing the unreliability and malleability of memory, especially when it involves eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. She was especially skeptical of “recovered memories” — memories of traumatic events that do not come to mind until long after the fact.

In 1997, psychologist David Corwin, published a paper documenting what seemed like a clear case of recovered memory. In a custody battle, the father of six-year old Nicole claimed that the mother had sexually abused her. There were videotapes of a psychologist interviewing Nicole. The father won custody, and the girl did not see her mother again. But ten years later, in speaking with Corwin, Nicole could not remember why she had become estranged from her mother. After her father died, she reunited with her mother and wondered if her father had gotten her to lie, for she had no memory of the alleged abuse.

But Corwin showed her the videotape — six-year old Nicole saying that her mother was “rotten” and had put a finger in her vagina. For Nicole at age 17, the video triggered a sort of memory. “I remember it happening, that she hurt me. I was getting a bath, and I don’t remember anything specific until I felt that pain.

Here, Corwin claimed, was a clear case of a memory that had been repressed and then recovered. Elizabeth Loftus was skeptical and set about debunking this case. She was dogged about it. Corwin had thrown a cloak of anonymity over Nicole, but Loftus sniffed out clues, eventually tracked down Nicole’s identity,and then set about casting doubt on the recovered memory. (Nicole once referred to herself as “a survivor of Elizabeth Loftus.”)

What’s amazing and admirable about Nicole Keumper is that over time she took Loftus’s ideas seriously and in the end came to question her own memory. What had been the firm footing of memory was now soft. And she has come to accept this uncertainty.

I'm never going to know. I'm never going to know. And even after all these years, I think I still thought that at some point I would come to a solid decision, yes or no. And really, really, I'm never going to know. And that just has to be OK.

How many of us would do that? Not Dylan Farrow or her many supporters, including the filmmakers who did the HBO documentary. They all but admit that they wanted to create a one-sided case for the prosecution and had no interest in presenting Allen’s side.

Towards the end of the This American Life segment, Nicole Kleumper says something very perceptive. She recognizes that with some things, when remembered “facts” meld into uncertainty, it is not just a matter of our ability to remember; it can be a matter who we are. The interviewer asks, “How disorienting was it to feel like you had the truth, and then you lost it?”

Disorienting is a good word, but I don't think it fully captures. It goes to my identity. It really goes to the heart of who I am, and who I thought I was, and who I think I am. The most important, the key memory on which I rebuilt and then rebuilt again my identity has now been called into question

For those who have built a public identity around the “fact” that Woody Allen sexually molested his adoptive daughter, uncertainty* would be intolerable.


* Unfortunately, the only person whose testimony that he did it would be convincing is Allen himself. Symmetrically, the only person who could give convincing testimony that Mia Farrow coached her daughter to make a false accusation is Mia herself.

For a thorough statement of skepticism about the HBO series, see Cathy Young at Quillette