Lewis MacAdams called the other day, and he began the conversation as though the person on the other end of the line had no idea who he is. "My old friend Angus Wynne said I should call," he began, before proffering a brief bio: born in San Angelo, raised in Dallas, attended St. Mark's School of Texas, lives in Los Angeles, writes some, published a book last year called Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. His modesty is impressive--here, after all, is a man who's been as much subject as author in recent years, most notably for his attempts to transform the Los Angeles River from a glorified drainage ditch into an urban oasis for bikers and nature-lovers--but, yes, some of us know Lewis MacAdams. A writer could do with worse role models than a man whose self-penned bio, titled "In a Nutshell," spans two pages, single-spaced; he makes even the hardest-working stiff feel inadequate.
As a journalist, his has been a successful career; his résumé is littered with stories in Rolling Stone, the French magazine Actuel, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly and Men's Journal. As a poet, he is nearly without peer; MacAdams has been anthologized as often as the period and semicolon, and he has served on the boards of myriad national organizations devoted to the languishing form (of the state of American poetry, he recently said, "[We] are in the dark and out in the cold"). As filmmaker, he has been partially responsible for some truly dazzling docs, among them What Happened to Kerouac?, Eric Bogosian's Funhouse and The Battle of the Bards, which treated the World Heavyweight Poetry Championship like a series of prize-fighting bouts; MacAdams, who's won the competition twice, must be its Ali. And as ecology activist, he is revered in Los Angeles, where the very publications for whom he often writes find it necessary to profile him. After all, how can one pass by so estimable a piece of the scenery without commenting on it? As founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, MacAdams is that ridiculous city's Thoreau. Even his wife, JoAnne Klabin, is an advocate: She's director of the Sweet Relief Musician's Fund, which was founded by Victoria Williams after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992 and found herself with no health insurance.
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Maybe MacAdams has become a mythological being in our minds because he escaped this town and never really looked back, save to return for occasional readings and writing workshops--the very reasons he revisits this weekend. He left St. Mark's, went to Princeton and discovered not only could he make money in this chintzy, cheapskate profession, but also a lasting mark. Birth of the Cool, which soars like a Miles solo and skitters like a Monk tune, isn't just a giddy read but a corporeal one; it links the boppers with the beats, Jackson Pollock with Bob Dylan, DT Suzuki with Chano Pozo, Kerouac with Cassavetes, Baraka with Brando until, sadly, it all congregates in Gap ads. He gives "cool" its proper context; a word that once signified so much has been rendered meaningless, and MacAdams tries valiantly to pluck it from pop culture's dustbin and give it relevance--a rebirth, if you must. In the end, though, what makes MacAdams the coolest mother in any room is that he's involved, part of the world. Some of us merely observe; the best of us, like MacAdams, actually do.