Copyright 2011 Tao Ruspoli
I always called him Alex. “Alexander” seemed part of the old world he left in 1973; but “Alex” was a better fit for the world of highway maps and car engines, roadside stops and unruly nature with which I most associated him—apart from words on a page—for the almost thirty years I knew him. Alexander Cockburn died on July 21. To write those words is shattering. A big life, approachable, for me, now only in fragments.
Incredible journey. Alex spent a good bit of his early days in London movie houses, and the palimpsest of his memory was scored with the lines, images and mood shadings of even the most obscure films of the great auteurs. But by the time I met him in New York, that was all another country. He loved animal movies. Talismans of childhood, they offered respite from the barbarism of the age—Reagan’s America and Central America and Occupied Palestine, “the violence program,” as he called it, which cranked along whether or not there was a social program, and there was less and less of that as the rich got fit and the poor got prison and the cries of the oppressed rose up, spilled over, year upon ghastly year. “Is your hate pure?” he would ask a new Nation intern, one eyebrow raised, in merriment or inquisition the intern was unsure. It was a startling question, but then this was—it still is—a startling time. For what the ancients called avarice and iniquity Alex’s hate was pure, and across the years no writer had a deadlier sting against the cruelties and dangerous illusions, the corruptions of empire. But, oh, how much more he was the sum of all he loved.
Animal movies, in the scheme of things, were pretty small change. Smaller than animals themselves: his great, rangy dog, Jasper; his cockatiel, Percy. Smaller than nature, which he embraced not with solemnity but with a free-ranging brio. Smaller than the culture made by human hands and imagination down the ages, for which he had boundless and particular enthusiasms. Smaller by far than the constellation of strangers who became friends, friends who became loved ones and comrades-in-arms, associates (I’m thinking of that legion of interns) whom he gave a boost into the world of words and ideas and intellectual curiosity.
But what he called “the small change of life” was a thing of constant wonder to Alex. A perfect blue. An oxidized red on junkyard metal. A lovely turned bowl. The flutter of cheap fabric on a flirty girl. A bar of blues or country gospel on a Southern radio. Banana trees, “vagabonds of the plant world.” A bit of gossip on the phone. Any one of his experiments: wiring a pork chop in foil to a car manifold and driving from one part of California to another to test out a new form of tramp cuisine. (It worked, too.)
He phoned once after a long plane trip, excited from watching the onboard movie, Homeward Bound, without the irritating human voiceover. Two dogs and a cat are lost and have to find their way home against tremendous odds. They get separated; the cat is thought done for but is rescued by a kindly woodsman. Revived, she hearkens to a familiar bark, and there follows one of the great reunion scenes in cinematic history, with dogs and cat racing from either end of a wide, sun-cast field to meet, ecstatically, in the middle. Alex said the other grown passengers glared in his direction as he sat dissolved in tears before the little screen. It was a happy-ender, the only type of film he would watch.
Sweetpeas. People called Alex elegant, and he was in his way. Charming, and he was. Witty, and he was. I always thought his special grace was having been born into class but not money—his father, Claud, dodging bill collectors, his mother, Patricia, shooting pigeons out of the sky so the family could eat. He had the best education for reducing a political opponent to shreds and for becoming American during the country’s downward slope from liberatory promise to colossal wreck, a phrase he used for the title of his last, as yet unpublished, book. He knew the road better than Kerouac ever did, and understood survival in his bones.
Alex invented a style of press criticism when few took the ideological shaping power of the media seriously, and moved on when others got in the game. He loved the density and flamboyant energy of New York, but moved on when he felt the quicksand of ’80s vulgarity, “Trumpismo,” flowing close. He swam stylishly in the stream of elite media parallel to The Nation, and then walked away from that stream, prefiguring by a decade the era of do-it-yourself, independent media by joining Ken Silverstein, his former intern, in CounterPunch, which he edited with Jeffrey St. Clair until his death. He took such risks, and wore them so lightly.
In personal and political style he was radically original—part fancy man, part anarcho-syndicalist, part nineteenth-century naturalist, part materialist. The years spent traveling from one sister city, one solidarity event, one labor stand, one independent bookstore to the next, and all the stop-off points and temporary roosts along the way, added layers of color to his outlook and sensitivities. While scouting for a permanent home in California, he lived for a year in the Adobe Motel in Aptos, his neighbors mainly people who worked in the construction boom and people who waited for modest welfare disbursements, an “ordinary” place, where drugs and a low-boil violence were integral to that ordinariness. He had an upstairs corner room with kitchenette, the sitting area wall covered with Ida Applebroog’s disturbingly magnificent suite of drawings, “What did you dream?,” the balcony alive with sweetpeas, hanging baskets and potted herbs. The residents thought he was a little odd, but their children ran in and out his door, and he worried over their bruises as he counseled one parent about a bad engine noise and another about a bad man. He embodied a kind of radical democracy, harbored utopian dreams; he was a romantic, but as an act of will, despite life’s messiness.
The Golden Age is in us. Alex found home in Petrolia, in unmanicured country on the lost coast, between the Mattole River and the Pacific Ocean, among pot growers, lamb farmers, artists and itinerant or self-employed others: his place to re-create the marvelous, to insist on magical possibility against the certain knowledge of horror. Many years earlier he had spent the summers in Vermont with Andy Kopkind, his oldest friend in America and Nation colleague, where they and the people they loved did something of the same on a former commune. When Andy died in 1994, Alex told the audience at his memorial service, “Andy’s not dead to me.” He said it in an abstracted, achy way uncharacteristic of him. Nine years later Edward Said died. Then Ben Sonnenberg died. The circle of friends who lit up The Nation’s sky and my own through all the years of my association with this magazine is now complete again in death.
Alex once wrote that in the Golden Age, “as opposed to the successor ages of silver, bronze and iron, death came as a pleasant sleep, followed by easy release into a spirit form which continues to inhabit the earth, attending its own funeral, dispensing wealth to its favorites. So death in the Golden Age was always incorporated into life as a sensate pleasure, followed immediately by an improved life, the way most folks would like it.” I favor that idea and, echoing him, I can say, “Alex is not dead to me.” But there is an ocean of grief to swim before the memory can even try to match the man.