Harlan Ellison is sitting in my car, singing.

Singing well.

Why am I not surprised? I've only read everything this autobiographer's autobiographer has written that I could get my hands on, not to mention I have run his web site for over a year and fielded hundreds of questions, and never can I recall anyone (the man himself included) mentioning that he sings. To boot, he casually mentions he used to make some bucks singing at jazz clubs in NYC. With guys like, oh, Charles Mingus.

I'm a singer myself; I've done a turn or two in church choirs (paid and unpaid, as finances and the grace of various Gods allowed), and done amatuer and professional musical theater and opera. Inasmuch as a few minutes in a car doing eighty can show, the man's still got a serviceable voice and an ear for rhythm. There's a certain lady jazz-singer in Ithaca who's probably falling out of her chair right now, but we'll move on because I've got a lot to say, this piece is woefully overdue, and all I really want to say about this singing thing is this:

After all my experience with him, Ellison is still a font of new revelations. The man may be short, but he sure is deep.

Any questions? Yes, you in the back wearing the Dogbert T-shirt....oh, yeah. Sorry about that. I guess I do need to cover how exactly a writer of such laurels came to be sitting in my all-black 1990 Ford Taurus SHO, lost somewhere around Greeneville, South Carolina. Right. Let's backtrack a bit....

You should recognize the gent on the right. The woman on the right is Maggie Thompson, co-editor of Comics Buyers' Guide. They're both at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC - a small liberal private liberal arts school that employs only church-going Christians on its faculty and staff. No shit.

Harlan and Maggie came into town to do a lecture as part of the "1996-1997 Russel Program series on The Media and Popular Culture", entitled Creating a Legend: From Comic-Book Character to Cultural Phenomenon. Originally, Maggie was to do the lecture solo, brought in through the efforts of by Richie and Gina Prosch, creators of the comic Emma Davenport (which I understand has appeared in the CBG). The Prosches happened to jokingly ask Maggie if Harlan could come, too, and sunufagun if Harlan didn't accept! HE is an old friend of Maggie's (he's known her since she was 13, although we won't tell you how long ago that was) and the Fates are curious old birds sometimes, I guess.

If only they knew what they were getting themselves into.

Kristin (the love of my life) and I roared into Clinton on Tuesday, October 15th, at high speed and with reckless abandon, about three minutes before the lecture was to start. Harlan had had mentioned on the phone the preceding Friday that he was flying into South Carolina for a lecture, and after we spoke I looked up the college on the World-Wide Web. I discovered with Automap software that the sucker was only a couple hours or so from our home in Atlanta. Naturally, we had to go. Work is work, but Harlan is Harlan.

I asked directions from one of the thousand Walmart-greeter-looking townsfolk, and sprinted into Belk Auditorium shortly after the talk started to take these pictures.

On reflection, I was facing the wrong way.

I should have shown you pictures of the half-filled auditorium. Hell, of the half-filled kids.

These kids, these students, were in the presence of one of the better speakers and entertainers I've ever watched, sitting in the same room as a man who fills me with energy like some gigantic Tesla coil - and they showed about the same degree of arrogance and ennui as your average Atlanta Braves fan.

You'll probably hear something more eloquent from Harlan on this subject at some later date. He was deeply disturbed by the experience, the silence interrupted briefly by the bell signalling the start of the afternoon's classes which emptied the hall (to borrow a great Donald Westlake simile) like a dog backing into a hot stove, the atmosphere that made it clear that these students (with a few notable exceptions) could give a rat's ass.

The lecture topic wouldn't have been my first pick, but Thompson and Ellison did it proud. They spoke about the five characters, or icons, who have acheived world-wide recognition: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Robin Hood, and Mickey Mouse. They tried to explain what makes a character famous and what lets that character make the leap to universal symbol, to icon status. They traded off quips and quotes, theories and anecdotes, they talked about mass culture and marketing.

It played like Yakoff Smirnoff before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Here's a telling little piece of that disheartening pie: Harlan couldn't get anyone to move closer. Anyone who's been to one of HE's talks knows he'll get the attendees to crowd around the stage or fill in empty seats - to make more room and to get him closer to his audience. I attended a reading at DragonCon in Atlanta where a few of us sat up on the lecture stand with him at his incessant urging.

Harlan couldn't get one of these dudes to move a micron.

I don't think I'm making something of nothing here. Admittedly, Harlan often has an audience familiar with his work who came to whatever he's speaking at to see HIM. But not always, and even so he's an engaging speaker with a sense of humor that is still tight and in touch, and he could probably sit down and write an encyclopedia of cultural literacy off the top of his head. He even knows which Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle wears the purple headband. So trust me, it wasn't just a lack of experience with his work or the non-fannish setting which made the dead air filling the auditorium unsettling.

It was, quite simply, the first time in my life I've ever felt like there was another generation younger than mine; and that something is horribly, desperately wrong with that generation.

I'm thirty. I'm too young for this crap.

I think I've got a handle on why what happened happened. First, kids growing up these days don't read anything, even comic books. They get all their media input from television, which has instructed them very well in recent years in how to attack and deconstruct one's heroes and sacred cows. There is some value in realizing that heroes are human; at the same time I can't help but think it is a little dangerous to spend more time kneecapping role models than learning from them.

I'm also aware that our popular culture is filled to the bursting point with people who got where they are through methods other than learning, working hard, or even by following their bliss. We have never had so much information about so many people with so much fame and money, and at the same time we are watching the first generation since the Depression which will probably grow up with less opportunity and a lower standard of living than their parents.

So okay, maybe I can understand why I'd have trouble concentrating on some guy telling me why Tarzan is so cool. I can understand it - I can't excuse it. I think it's possible it bothers me as much as it does Harlan.

I wonder what's happened to these kids, and I wonder when I stopped being one of them. I want to cry for my lost youth; I want to cry for theirs.

The faculty luncheon after the lecture was a little better, although Harlan was the only Jew and the only African-American was our server (an aged lady darker than the inside of a safe and probably one of the few people there I'd care to spend an afternoon talking to). I was probably one of the only people present who thought Jesus Christ was a swell guy with some great ideas who really got shit on by organized religion and the gubmint.

Harlan sat me at his right hand, and I'm told I was extremely reserved and demure (far out of character, I assure you). Maybe it's because I'm sitting there watching him talk, looking at the slope of his nose and the miles of character etched in his face; and I'm thinking that here's a guy who'd be at the top of that "dinner with" list everyone makes, a guy who is my number one hero not because he writes a damn fine story but because he goes after what he wants and what he believes without fear or reservations, a guy who obviously and sincerely cares about this tossed-aside eight-thousand-mile-wide turdball and the creatures that inhabit it; here's this guy who would never in a million years write a run-on sentence like this; and he's two freakin' feet away from me, and I'm having lunch with him, chatting like we were old fraternity chums!

(Before I get too deep into this lovefest, I should mention that although I love the man he can also really get knee-deep into your small intestine sometimes as well. Ask me sometime about how I tried to correct a proof he sent, by way of explaining the difference between the adjective unconscious and the noun unconsciousness, and the Harlan-sized hole in my peritoneum which resulted. But I digress...)

I should mention two things by way of apologia. First, I've glossed over Maggie Thompson in this recollection. She's a very well-read, intelligent, and interesting woman; asking her a question about the Comics Code and listening to her reminisce with a professor about their favorite Dickens books was enough to impress the hell out of me. Second, I'm sure most of the faculty in attendance was as appalled at the demographics and hiring practices of their school as was I. I'm not trying to make any sweeping generalizations about the life of privileged academia in the Deep South. One of the faculty was practically in tears as she had HE sign her Essential Ellison and spoke about what the story "Jeffty is Five" meant to her.

So let it be said that Maggie held her own in the face of the often-intimidating Ellison, and that I shouldn't stereotype people. And please forgive me if, as a recovering suggin myself, I don't think I got entirely the wrong idea.

After the luncheon, Kristin (TLoML) and I attended a class with a handful of creative writing students who got some very good advice from an old pro on the subject of writing (I took some pictures, they were lost when I dropped my camera at the airport and it popped open and spewed film and batteries like a busted pinata). HE spoke at length about the importance of VERISIMILITUDE in writing - that the appearance of reality, the ability to allow the reader to suspend disbelief, is more important than the actual truth or reality. "It really happened that way" is not an excuse. He mentioned that as soon as he realizes an author isn't telling the truth, as soon as that belief is broken, he refuses to read any further.

Other nuggets of wisdom include:

Never use present tense in your stories. You may think it gives your writing a sense of immediacy; it doesn't.
Don't trust what your friends, family, and lovers say about your work. They can't help but lie, and they aren't qualified to comment regardless. Find someone who is a published writer, who has the credentials, and who has no interest in sparing your feelings.
Do your homework, get the small details straight; they are what makes a story feel real.

There's more; I don't have my notes handy, although I was busier writing stuff down than any of the students. After the class, Maggie and Harlan had to head back to the airport as Maggie has a 5:30 pm flight out. Harlan offered to ride back with us so we could have a chance to chat.

Oh, I also got Harlan to show me the gigantic superhighway of a scar down the inside of his left leg where they yanked 27.5 inches of vein for his quadruple bypass. It's a purple monster - I was tempted to snap a pic but I didn't want to put it online and get in trouble due to that Decency Act thingie.

And that brings us to where we started; the car, the singing.

And here we are, back in the present tense I'm supposed to be avoiding like the plague. I wish, I really wish, that you'll now hear about some fascinating and illuminating conversation we had in that car. But that is not to be.

The simple fact is I'm still a little fearful of opening up too much, of having this guy who's spoken with me on the phone a hundred times but never met me in person before think I'm a total freakazoid. I act like the nervous suitor having dinner at Her Parent's House. Luckily, Kristin doesn't clam up like me and she and Harlan argue about trans-fatty acids and margarine vs. butter halfway to the airport.

So I squander my time alone with The Man. Go figure. It's not the first stupid thing I've ever done, it won't be the last. That time alone, all by itself, is still worth the six hours in the car and the missed day of work. It's worth it by a longshot. Besides which, I do get to hear how Harlan has been able to cure his own headaches and has the knack of telling if a woman is a virgin or not. I also get the pleasure of his company for an hour or so, which is no small reward; the man's damned entertaining.

There is some brief confusion as I get us near the Spartanburg Municipal Airport before I figure out we need to go the Greeneville/Spartanburg Airport instead. Luckily, Harlan's plane doesn't leave until an hour after the inestimable Ms. Thompson's, so we've got time to spare.

In fact, we arrive in time for Harlan to eat half of an only average grilled chicken salad (that's TLoML on the left there splitting it with him), and hold court with myself, Kristin, and the Prosches until time for us to head up to Gate 1A.

Having popped open my camera and exposed the film, I rattle off the last dozen exposures and slap in a new roll. I'll spare you most of the results, mainly poorly framed and focused shots of Harlan stuffing his face.

I do get this one great shot of Harlan, most likely looking at Kristin as she explains to him that "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" is basically plastic and will wind up being worse for him than chugging raw milk no matter what his heart doctor says. Harlan is still worked up over the reaction he got from his lecture audience, and I get the feeling it's going to be keeping him up nights.

Harlan also keeps up a running banter with the waitress, whose name he has made sure to get (Robin) and who is probably wondering what holy man she ran over in a previous life to get this cantankerous rascal in her section. She asks him if he's somebody famous (this tempts me to act outrageously next time I'm in a restaurant to see if I get the same reaction). After Harlan leaves she asks Gina Prosch just who the hell he was. At this point, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with an answer.

Our motley crew ambles up the escalator to the gate, where I get Harlan to tell the less-clean version of the Mother Theresa joke he told on Tom Snyder's show and generally bother the hell out of him for pictures. Three extremely clean-cut young ladies mill about in the general area and someone hypothesizes they are from Bob Jones College, a nearby and extremely Christian school. Harlan can't stand it and eventually has to amble over and ask then where they're from.

Oh, and thanks to the knack I mentioned earlier, we are informed: virgins all.

So that's the end of my day. I leave you as Harlan left me - no hugs or kisses allowed, no fervent goodbyes. A brief walk away, and a few memories. I know my time was not wasted; I hope I did not waste yours.

(Please feel free to insert the mind-numbing summation or jaw-dropping insight of your choice here. It's three in the morning, and I am in no shape to provide such. But I'm sure that if you made it this far you're either an intelligent and fast reader or stoned out of your gourd, and in either case I'm confident you are well qualified to fend for yourself in the Big Picture department. Ciao.)

Other pictures:

Gina and Richie Prosch, the folks responsible for bringing in Harlan and Maggie and the creators of the Emma Davenport comic.

The humble author (me) with HE.

The Love of the humble author's Life, also with HE.

Return to the Harlan Ellison booth