When a friend of mine in California wanted to know if I would cover The Woodstock Film Festival for The Huffington Post, the first thing that came to my mind was The Poet of Havana, the opening film, a documentary about Carlos Varela, who journalists call, “the Cuban Bob Dylan.” I would find out later that this was a title that he didn’t particularly like. “This is a way of speaking that the journalists use,” he would say. “I really like Dylan, but I’m not the Dylan of Cuba. We’ve taken very different paths and also some very similar as well. I’ve never liked the labels that the journalists use to place you in a style.”
Just a few weeks earlier I had seen Jackson Browne perform with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at Bethel Woods. An old friend, I had been speaking with Larry for weeks about Jackson Browne and his relationship with Carlos. “He really loves this guy. He talks about Carlos all the time,” Larry told me. Browne is apparently the man responsible for bringing Carlos to the United States, supporting him, and by coincidence Jackson would be at the Woodstock Film Festival’s opening night at UPAC for a live performance with Varela and his band after the premiering of the film. Browne performs one of Carlos poetic gems, “Muros y Puertas” (“Walls and Doors”) on his new CD.
It seemed like the pieces like a puzzle were all beginning to fall into place.
The film festival is always in October, usually the first week of the month when autumn sneaks in while we’re not looking. I had been trying to arrange an interview with Carlos with the festival’s press office for weeks. I also wanted to speak with Ron Chapman, the director of The Poet of Havana. I was told that Carlos did not speak a word of English and that I should email the questions that I wanted to ask. Now here it was, Wednesday, the first day of the festival, and still no word from Carlos or his people. I figure I’ll go to the film, which I wanted to see since I’ve been hooked on his music for the last couple of months, and maybe catch up with them there.
Outside the entrance to UPAC on Broadway in Kingston, it was like a who’s who of some of notable Woodstock musicians — Tim Moore, Julie Last, Phil Void and Nick Martin.
I hadn’t worn a press pass for over 30 years now. I used to do this for a living when I was in New York City in the 70s and 80s. Things have changed since then. I used to carry a bag with a spare 35 mm camera, film, a notebook, pocket tape recorder, blank tape and had a Cannon 35mm camera slung around my neck. These days a device the size of a pack of cigarettes, and iPhone takes its place. It was familiar and strange at the same time.
Moving around and bending down to take photos of Carlos and his band I realized that this old body was not as eager to work as it was 30 years ago.
The film itself was quite good and it gave you a really comprehensive look at Carlos Varela’s Cuba and the music scene going on over there. The Cubans are a very cultured and passionate people, which I will come to understand better in the next few days. But even though I had a press pass I wasn’t made aware that prior to the film there was a gathering upstairs at UPAC where Carlos, Jackson and Ron Chapman all were greeting people.
I wasn’t going to let that throw me and went home the first night of the festival a bit sore yet hungry for more. Still more days to come. I’ll catch up.
When you are given your press credentials you chose the top five films you’d like to see for review. One of the two films that I still wanted to see the most, after The Poet of Havana, was Left On Purpose a film about a suicide. That was all that I had to read to be drawn in. The word “suicide” is a trigger for me, having lost my pal John Herald to suicide some ten years ago; there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about John and his suicide. When I read more about the film, I learned that it was about the life of Mayer Vishner, somebody that I actually knew back in the 60s from the St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York. Mayer was a political activist who was a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. He was friends with and worked with Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs, Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders and Michael Ventura. Mayer was 64 when he took his life —ironically how old I’ll be next week. Mayer’s death, that he had longed planned, called his “Existential Project,” was primarily due to pain which he claimed was caused by loneliness. There were, of course, other factors that contributed to his wanting to die, however all through the film Mayer talks about his loneliness and having outlived his usefulness. The director of the film, Justin Schein, filmed the bulk of the 85-minute documentary in Vishner’s Greenwich Village apartment where Mayer lived for over 30 years. This was a pretty powerful film — and I was struck by similarities I felt with Mayer. I am really not that unique, this could be any baby boomer past his prime living alone, feeling as if he’d outlived his usefulness and purpose in life…faced with financial problems, health problems, loneliness, disappointment in the dream…
When we had a chance to sit and talk about his film, Schein relayed some facts to me.
Since 2007 baby boomers have had the highest rate of suicides of any age group in the United States. Historically people between the ages of 40 and 64 (there’s that number again) had the lowest rate in the past. Since 2007 the rates for suicides among people in that group has risen nearly 50 percent. In addition, men were four times more likely to commit suicide than women accounting for 78 percent of the 41,149 suicides in the United States in 2013 and its numbers are growing.