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July 08, 2007

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This picture and accompanying story in the New York Times struck a deep chord.

I vividly recall the day the Newark riots erupted. I was with my parents and brother at the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey. It was a classic working class beach resort, something you might see on a flashback scene in the Soprano's. I was 9 or 10 at the time. People kept rushing up to the adults saying: "Newark is on fire."

We returned home later that week and my father took me to my Saturday guitar lesson in Bloomfield, right outside of Newark. On the drive through, we saw the National Guard troops and their heavy equipment essentially occupying the city.  Police pulled our car over and told my father to take an alternate route: "There are snipers on top of those buildings."  Later it was found that many of the so-called snipers were actually police.

The "riots" left a deep impression on me. From then on, I found myself wandering through the stacks of the Newark Library, trading in my "Hardy Boys" novels for books on urban affairs. I needed to understand what was happening in the city of my birth - its once vibrant downtown and neighborhoods reduced to empty store-fronts, burned-out shells, and rubble. I continued to revisit those streets for some time after. Not just on car rides with my father. In our early teens, my brother and I would ride our bicycles - conducting our own version of amateur two-wheeled urban ethnography - on those same streets. More than anything else, I recall how even at that very young age how repulsed I was by the blatant racism lurking behind all of it.

There's a marvelous essay in the Book Review by the novelist Haruki Murakami on the impact of music on his writing.  Music was an enormous part of my youth, but I'd never before so clearly seen the connection between it and what I do now. My guitar playing in bands with my brother Rob were much more important to me than just about anything else. We quickly got bored with playing cover hits, so we we would spend endless hours of riffing and improvising around songs. For years, I've thought I traded in my guitar for a career as a thinker, writer and speaker.  Not really, Murakami helped me understand.  Sure, I've always liked to read, but I've never been a studied writer. Other than first semester composition, I never took a writing class. And I've never had any coaching with public speaking, nor even watched a tape of myself.  People recommend books to me on writing and speaking all the time: I never, ever look at them.

Music, Murkami helped me understand, was a critical component of my training. Music, he explains, helps impart an indelible sense of rhythm, melody, and harmony on writing which he likens to "performance." I essentially "listen" to what I write, trying to feel the rhythm and melody in the combinations of words. The best part, he adds: "Free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow." I improvise a lot in my writing, drawing out riffs of examples, or stories or even trying to bring together new connections between subjects. And improvisation is the core of my speaking.  I don't use any notes at all. I remember the day I put them down: It was the day I realized they were impeding the flow of thoughts and the process of story-telling and communicating which is critical in making a connection to your audience.   


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Like you, I was in Newark during the riots. My father and I had to drive from Nutley down to Broad St. area to pick up a relative who was working in a hospital when the shooting broke out. It was a long and somber ride and we were very scared.

I grew up in Newark and spent the first 14 years of my life there; it wasn't hard to understand why Blacks (we called them "Negroes" then as the alternative names were forbidden in my liberal Italian-American household) were rioting.

Sadly, Newark continued its long journey down over the past 40 years. Corruption, white flight, crime and horrible "leadership" took its toll. While Booker is trying hard, along with other instiutions, to bring back parts of Newark I fear it will not be easy or come anytime soon.

I live about 10 miles from Newark and go there often (mostly museum, PAC concerts, etc.) and it seems like it's mostly New York developers and folks unable to afford Hoboken/Jersey City who are moving there, along with those who, like artists, want to help bring back the city.

Everyone who once loved Newark and even lived there still recoil at the idea of going back there, even for a visit. It will take many generations for the memory of the riots to finally evaporate.


Thanks for writing about this. Very interesting. I saw an interview with Christopher Hitchens where Charlie Rose asked him why he didn't write any fiction. Hitchens said something similar to Murakami in that he felt that the secret to fiction-writing was a familiarity with music, but he had no such familiarity so he stuck to non-fiction essays, reviews, and books. Interestingly, you feel that musical training even spills over to non-fiction writing. That's neat. do you think that music is a necessary condition to be able to speak and write as well as you do?


Brian - I my case the answer is a definite yes. Through process of elimination: it is the only explanation for those abilities. Once having read Murakami, I could see the way I write by listening, almost subconsciously, to the rhythm of the words and the cadence of sentences. I'm mainly a blues guitarist so my prose has that kind of simple structure. But since I've always been an academic my prose takes on a somewhat formal structure. I have to really try to break out of that sometimes to tell stories. Speaking is more easier for me, perhaps because I have absolutely no training. There, I can riff away and not worry about formal academic structure. It's part of the reason, I believe, I'm a much better speaker than writer. But the short answer is that in my case its my musical interest and "ear" if you will that has really been the absolute key to my writing and speaking.

Michael Wells


We recently saw Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist meditation teacher/author speak and his process was fascinating. He came out and set up a table with rows of pieces of paper -- articles, clippings, notes, quotes, whatever. Then he sat next to the table and as he spoke, he would occasionally reach over and pick out a piece of paper, read/quote from it, and toss it on the floor. He didn't use notes, I don't think there was a predetermined structure to which papers he picked up, but it let him speak extemporaneously and still get the quotes and statistics right without having to remember them. I imagine rather like a jazz musician with sheet music.

The topic was Buddhism and Psychology and it was for CEU’s, so lots of details in two fields to get right. I think my wife and I were some of the few non-counselor/ therapists in attendance, we just went to see him. Probably 200 to 300 in the audience.

Jim Russell


I saw an excerpt of your post in the Star-Ledger, and found my way here. All of us who lived in Newark and its surrounding suburbs have snapshots in our minds of 1967. The generations before us see it as the point where they lost the city, ignoring the fact that racist policies had lost the city long before. We were young enough to ask why, and maybe to realize that the riots were a reaction and not a cause.

My first clear view of the world was of Market Street. I was very near-sighted, and never got glasses until first grade. The prescription was filled at B.T. Ganny's, a downtown optician. I came out with my newly focused sight and saw the urban kaleidoscope that Broad and Market was then. Newark will always have a special place in my heart.

It is worth noting that the people of Newark are spending a considerable amount of time discussing the riots as the anniversary arrives. This pleases me for the same reason that Holocaust memorials please me. We have to learn from the dark side of history. Other cities, notably Detroit, seem to be trying to sweep history under the rug. I'm proud of Newark for not doing the same.

Switching gears, thank you for the link to Murakami's essay. The power of music to improve seemingly unrelated skills is undeniable. You may recall me from your distant past as one of the guitarists you occasionally jammed with, back in high school. Like Murakami, I thought my future was in music. Instead, my future turned out to be in cryptographic engineering. (In layman's terms, writing computer security programs.) It's not as easy to describe why my musical inclinations influence my coding, but I can assure you that they do.

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