Monday, September 27, 2010

The Ramones and Hollywood Forever

In 1998, I had a teaching engagement in Los Angeles. I took my daughter with me, who was fourteen at the time. We got to California a day early so we could photograph in a few cemeteries. One of these was the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

The cemetery was at that time kind of overgrown with weeds and not tended to very well. It also seemed to parallel the shabby look and feel of Hollywood itself--a shanty town. Supposedly the owner (who died in 1997) embezzled most of the endowment funds (which is a cemetery's main source of income to pay for upkeep). New ownership in 1998 has turned things around and the place is currently a very lively memorial park that hosts tours, movie screenings (picture George Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night Of The Living Dead projected on a mausoleum wall!) and the Ramones annual memorial concert (see link below).

As the Hollywood Forever website says, "Founded in 1899, the cemetery was an integral part of the growth of early Hollywood. Paramount Studios was built on the back half of the original Hollywood Cemetery, where the studio is still in operation today." To paraphrase Mark Twain, you can't swing a cat without hitting a movie star's grave in this place. I don't usually take snapshots of such things, as I strive for a more abstract, fine art type of photography. The image you see above is one of the most memorable I made that day. The sculpture rests on a monument at the main entrance and is a knock-off of the famous Cupid and Psyche masterpiece "Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss" created by Antonia Canova in 1787 (original in the Louvre). I prefer the knock-off; it has more character!

Photo by Mike Spak
Jayne Mansfield, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, and those Little Rascals, Alfalfa and Darla, are all buried here. But the list goes on, as the cemetery continues to host active burials. Since I've been there, two of the Ramones, Johnny and Dee Dee have died (2004 and 2002 respectively) and are both buried there. The photo at right of Dee Dee's headstone was taken by my friend Mike, who visited the cemetery in 2009.

Many of my friends have seen my cemetery photography over the years, and some have become interested in the subject themselves. I've had people send me photos of fabulous graves from all over the world, places I'll probably never get to. It's a nice feeling to know that I've kindled this interest in others, and its fun to hear their stories. Mike, for instance, refused to photograph Johnny Ramone's monument, which is near Dee Dee's. Why? Because it had an inscription carved into it from that poser Eddie Vedder! I mean, Johnny paid for the monument himself! What could Pearl Jam's radio-friendly MOR music have to do with the Ramones' innovative punk? Takes some chutzpah (Johnny was Jewish)  to have your own name carved on someone else's monument.

Another thing that made my visit to the cemetery memorable was an interaction I had with my daughter. As we walked around the grounds, we came to a grove with childrens' graves. Many of the small stones had "Born" and "Died" dates that were very close, often less than a year apart. Being in the health care business, I was fully aware of the high mortality rate among children prior to the 1950s. My daughter, however, was not. They might mention this stuff in school, but it doesn't really hit home until the proof stares you in the face. She was shocked.

In 1900, 10% of U.S.-born children died before they were a year old (now its far less, below 0.03% thanks to vaccines for measles, rubella, and polio, as well as better prenatal care for moms). Large family plots in cemeteries would seem to feed into the stereotype of families being larger in the olden days. But if you scrutinize the dates on the headstones, you'll see that many children didn't make it past their 5th birthday. Parents would in many cases continue to produce children to make up for ones who died. A sobering revelation--I could tell her eyes were opened. Kind of like when I introduced her to the music of Alice Cooper. Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted!

I think I've reached the end of my broadcast day. Since I spent so much of this blog talking about life, death, and creativity, let me leave you with this lovely quote:

"Creation is a drug I can't do without." - Cecil B. DeMille

Some links to peruse:

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Website
Video tour of the cemetery
Ramones annual memorial concert
Johnny Ramone Monument on YouTube
Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"On the Road" with Jack Kerouac and The Cemetery Traveler

Its fitting that The Cemetery Traveler would visit the grave of Jack Kerouac, pop culture's most famous traveler. I was driving through New England a few years back and made it a point to stop to see his grave, at the Edson City Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Known mainly for his epic travel adventure, "On the Road," Kerouac epitomized wanderlust for an entire generation. He continues to do so now, years after his death. You simply cannot read "On the Road" without wanting to just drive recklessly off into the sunset in search of Meaning. I read it, and bought a convertible. 

So why would I want to visit his grave? Why would anyone want to visit a celebrity's grave? Some of us do this because it enables us to get closer to the person than we could possibly have gotten in real life. For me, I think it was to get closer to the spirit of Kerouac's writing (which was a maddening stream of consciousness style further popularized a decade later by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Kerouac isn't exactly a role model for me, its just that his writing touched a nerve: "Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."

I think I was driving back from a ski trip in New Hampshire, when I decided to stop in Lowell. Lowell is a mill town, the nation's textile epicenter during the American Industrial Revolution. A workingman's town, and Kerouac's hometown. He was born there in 1922--Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac. He was French-Canadian, his parents had immigrated from Quebec, Canada. You'll notice the stone says "Jean," not Jack.

Edson City Cemetery is a relatively large, yet flat and plain looking cemetery. The woman at the gatehouse is happily prepared to give you a map showing how to get to the grave (it is arguably Lowell's most popular tourist attraction). Otherwise it would be rather difficult to find as the grave marker is flush with the ground. Let me rephrase that - its actually easy to find if you just take note of the several cars lined up waiting near the grave. This was the oddest thing! No one would bother you as you paid your respects, lit your candle, or left your token offering. As you drove away, the next car would drive up almost religiously, people would get out, walk to the grave, and spend some quiet moments. What were they reflecting on, I wondered? And why such reverence?

I've visited the grave sites of dozens of celebrities (in their own right) and have never encountered another live visitor! Not that I really expected anyone to be hanging out near mathematician Kurt Godel's grave in Princeton (yeah, I'm a fan), but wouldn't you expect to see at least a few people at Rudolph Valentino's grave in Hollywood? I mean, even given the fact that the Hollywood Grave Line Tours will not allow people to get out and walk around...

Statue near Kerouac's grave
So these people still line up to visit Kerouac's grave, decades after his death. Why? Are they, like On the Road's characters Sal and Dean, actually on a spiritual quest? Why such reverence? Kerouac's friend Jim Holmes said,"though the characters rushed back and forth across the country at the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side."

Maybe that's part of the reason I tear off at the drop of a hat in search of new cemeteries to photograph. The creative process of photography has always helped me deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge myself (in retrospect, psychiatry would've been cheaper). However, I believe that spending time in cemeteries has helped me search for, and sometimes find, meaning in an otherwise entropic world. Seeing others find meaning in my work has been an unexpected gift. 

Read about Hollywood's bizarre Grave Line Tours
Visit Lowell, Massachusetts

Purchase On the Road and change your life for a mere ten bucks!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Weird New Jersey

"From "Weird Pennsylvania," p. 240
There are a lot of weird things about New Jersey, but what comes to my mind first and foremost are the roadside "attractions." You just don't see as many hubcap pyramids, giant fiberglas people, or googie custard stands in any other state in the Union. Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran recognized this back in 1994 when they began publishing Weird N.J. magazine, a bimonthly offering that served as "Your Travel Guide to New Jersey's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets," to document the never-ending supply of weirdness in their home state.

For those who've never partaken of the Weird N.J. world, the periodical depends in part on contributions from readers. People send in stories and photos related to such weirdness as abandoned mental hospitals, cemeteries, and New Jersey's version of Sasquatch, the 'Jersey Devil." Urban explorers investigate haunted houses, legends, and deserted military bases, often trespassing for the thrill and the photographic "evidence." I contributed a photo essay which was published in the Oct. 2004 issue called "The Parkway as Road to the Necropolis" (view it on the link below), based on my experience photographing in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Orange, New Jersey.

The Marks typically answered their own mail back then and were very polite and
friendly to deal with. You kind of felt part of the club if they published your piece! Over time, Weird N.J. grew into a series of books based on the Weirdness of each individual state in the Union, then finally the "Weird U.S"  summary book. This spawned the hit television series of the same name on The History Channel (2004-5), "Weird U.S. -- Real Tales of the Bizarre." The series is a travelogue, as the Marks visit various weird locations around America.

"Weird Pennsylvania," p. 241
Actually, the name of this article should be "Weird Pennsylvania," as that book is really the topic of this blog. Published in 2005, Weird Pennsylvania included two of my photographs in the "Cemetery Safari" section, both taken on a rainy day at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. They are the angel at top and the statue of the reclining child here. I was thrilled, of course, and immediately checked the photo credit page in the back of the book to find my name. Not there! I was more bummed out than pissed off, and I wrote the Marks to note this omission. They were very apologetic, sent me a free autographed hardbound copy of the book and promised to correct the error in the next printing. Realistically, I didn't ever expect this to happen, as I'm sure they had more important things to do.

I forgot about the situation until the summer of 2009, when my wife and I were vacationing on the north Jersey coast. We stopped into a store called "Paranormal Books and Curiosities" in Asbury Park. Among the great selection of books, Jill found a newly printed paperback copy of Weird Pennsylvania. Ever the astute observer, she showed me that my name was listed in the photo credits at the back of the book! Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran are real standup kinda guys! True to their word, which made me even bigger fans of theirs than I was before!

Some related links you might find interesting:

Ed's "Parkway as Road to the Necropolis" article on his StoneAngels Website
Weird U.S. on the History Channel

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Trapped in a Cemetery!

Whenever I photograph in a cemetery, I pay attention to an important sign at the entrance--the one that tells me when "Closing Time" is. Minor detail, but neglecting this has gotten me into some tough scrapes. Not that I'm scared of being locked in a cemetery--walking by a dialysis clinic should be more frightening, you know? All those people on the other side of that wall will probably be dead in a month.

Ignoring the possibility of being attacked by the living dead, getting yourself locked in a cemetery poses a certain inconvenience--especially if you're locked in with your car. At least as a pedestrian, you can climb over the wall...before they release the dogs, that is. Who am I kidding? I don't want to be locked in a cemetery under any circumstances!

Back around 2005, I was photographing in the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia. This is an oasis of 250 wooded acres surrounded by city, The University of Pennsylvania, mostly. Its a quietly creepy kind of place, with the sculpted hills blocking out  most of the city noise. In his book, "Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries," author Tom Keels quotes an early advertisement for the Woodlands:

"...the decaying bodies of the dead may securely moulder into kindred dust, with an abundant vegetation and free winds to absorb and dissipate all noxious effluvia."

Poetic, don't you think? Certainly not a place you want to get locked up in. Anyway, I vaguely glanced at the closing time sign on the entrance gate when I drove in--4:30 p.m. I spent a few hours shooting, when I noticed an old pickup truck drive by, heading toward the maintenance garage. I glanced at my watch. Hmmm. 4:20 p.m.. Best pack up my gear. I drove to the entrance and, to my horror, the gate was chained shut! My first inclination was to panic. Which I did, quite effortlessly, as I recall, but then remembered the pickup truck. I drove at amazing speed toward the maintenance garage and found a man sitting in the driver's seat of the idling truck. I drove up alongside him and asked as casually as I could if he could let me out. He looked at me and with the few teeth he had, laughed and said, "That's the only way to get you people out of here!" He did let me out.

As I quickly exited the cemetery, I noticed this decoration on the main gate--an hourglass with wings! Time flies, get it? What better symbol to remind one of closing time! Needless to say, I now pay closer attention to closing times.

Obviously its more than inconvenience that makes us prefer to not be locked in a cemetery. We're taught at a young age that there are no such thing as monsters. It can't simply be fear of mortality. What then strikes fear in our hearts? The possibilities are only limited by our imagination....

A friend of mine once worked in a cemetery and told me that she didn't believe there were any 'bad' spirits haunting cemeteries. If a person happened to die a horrible death, the person's ghost would hang around the place where the death occurred, not the body's final resting place. We laugh at comments like this with much bravado sometimes, either due to ignorance or because we're secretly afraid. Sometimes we think we're above all that "superstitious nonsense." I often recall something I heard a mother tell her 3-year-old daughter at a gallery opening in Manhattan for an exhibit of nineteenth century "spiritualist" photography. It was a telling comment on how our views and beliefs change over time. She gestured around the room at all the hanging photographs and said, "This was all before people knew any better."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery

Last weekend (August 28, 2010), my friend Frank and I explored Mt. Moriah Cemetery (est. 1855) in West Philadelphia. Though I’d been there innumerable times, it’s been years since I’d explored the central monument area, which is way overgrown with trees, cascading picker vines, and poison ivy. Essentially, it’s a forest, only with tombstones in it!

Frank had heard stories about the cemetery being wild and untamed. He asked me if he should bring a weapon. A weapon? Well maybe boots and long pants (even in this heat) because of the deer ticks. Truth be told, Mt. Moriah is in a run down, burned-out section of town (where all the best cemeteries usually are), and I agreed we should at least bring baseball bats. However, he was referring to the “family of wild pit bulls” he heard lived in the cemetery! I had my doubts.

I figured if there was a family of pit bulls, they’d be living in some shelter, e.g. the crumbling brownstone gatehouse. So we decided that should be our first stop! Upon arriving, we explored but only found sordid bedding littered with condom wrappers, and … piles of tombstones. Tombstones? Some from the late 1800s, some from 2006. Why? In looking at Mt. Moriah’s website (listed below), it appears that stones get moved and disappear. A genealogist’s nightmare. They also say if you’re planning to visit the cemetery, “It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration and disappointment.” Hmmm. Now that’s enticing.

We actually found some interesting things in the open and trimmed newer section of the cemetery (on Kingsessing Ave.), like this marble monument to the General who commanded the Monitor, the Civil War submarine that engaged the Merrimac in the famous battle of the ironclads. Quite a find, certainly not disappointing! We also peeked into the chained-up mausoleum nearby and were surprised to see a shattered marble crypt door allowing a rare voyeuristic view of the 100-year-old wooden casket inside.

We decided to drive as far as we could into the main section of the cemetery, where the tops of very elaborate, expensive, and graffittied monuments peek out of the brush. Some of the original weed-covered roads are still used by people to deliver old sofas and tires to their final resting place, so they are somewhat drivable (a jeep would be your vehicle of choice here). The monument you see in the photo at left is in the center of the forest, and commemorates an 1862 Masonic “Grand Tyler.” Its column must be 40 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base, topped with the largest marble compass I’ve ever seen. After hacking our way to the base of it, Frank astutely pointed out that I was standing knee-deep in poison ivy! We made our way out of the thicket and back to the car. In one area thick with flesh-ripping thorned vines, I bent down to duck under and some critter darted away from me through the underbrush.

Back to the car--driving through this jungle, straddling washed-out craters in the road and avoiding being whipped in the face by tree branches was like being on one of those Disney rides or Universal Studios—you half expect a velociraptor to poke its head out of the thicket! Which is about when we saw the pit bulls…!

Two large brown puppies went scampering off down a path near the monument you see at left. We had stopped here earlier to photograph it, but hadn’t noticed the dogs—of course we were looking up at the time …. Gee, let’s get out now and see how protective the mother is…! No really, at that point, I wished the convertible top of my car went up a bit faster. We decided to bravely drive away.

My car in middle of the cemetery!

At one point on a side road, or path, really, we dead-ended at a pile of lumber and other rubbish (Here’s my car at that point). As I backed the car out for about ten minutes to get to a different side-road so we could turn around without getting lost, it became apparent to me that Saabs are just not good off-road vehicles. Well, their website did say to be prepared for confusion and frustration.... With a sigh of relief, we found our way out of the woods into a clearing, and then back to familiar territory-- the pile of unused concrete crypts near the gatehouse. We were certainly not disappointed that the mama pit bull decided to keep a low profile that day.

Is Mt. Moriah a sad commentary on our city or a wondrous attraction for the urban explorer of abandoned places? I can’t be judgmental as to the former and am sorry that the cemetery has been allowed to devolve to this sad state. However, it allows one to contemplate the detritus of human endeavor. We erect monuments to the deceased (often ourselves) for a purpose, but attempts to preserve memories can sometimes be undermined. Vandals, time, and weather erode efforts at immortality and the corruption of the cemetery seems to affirm, rather than deny the decay down below. Seeing it in this condition, you feel you are witnessing the final disappearance of the spirits of the interred.

Mount Moriah Website