Monday, January 23, 2006

Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Super-Joel's Super Joke

Historical insight has a way of hiding in the cracks of the crazed surface of the Collective Memory. The details and nuances that make dead events come alive, that turn historical actors in history books into breathing, sweating, sneezing, eating people, with smelly feet and itchy asses, sometimes take forever to appear. In these very pages, a few lines typed in the Comments on a long-ago post, only just a few days ago bore some truly ripe and flavorful fruit. A long, long time between the serve and the return, but well worth the wait.

Back in March of last year I put up a post about how today's awful music can't hold a candle to the awful music of 40 years ago. In it I referred -- entirely in passing -- to "Super-Joel" Tornabene's audacious bit of street theater, planting flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen during a 1967 protest against the Vietnam War, a masterful piece of giggly antiwar propaganda captured for posterity in the memorable photo above. The October 1967 Pentagon protest (during which Abbie Hoffman attempted to levitate the Pentagon and the Fugs exorcised it) is described in some detail at

Besides the obvious, what's remarkable about the photo is how evident it is that it must have been staged to a certain extent. Someone must have said to the photographer, "Watch the blond galoot in the big sweater. He's gonna do something worth preserving." And SuperJoel must have had the business already plotted out, too, because you don't just wander around in a superheated confrontation with helmeted National Guardsmen clutching a handful of perfectly trimmed hothouse flowers for no good reason.

Here's the first Comment:

frant said...
SuperJoel sticking a flower into a National Guardsman's rifle barrel

SuperJoel was my brother. It's always interesting to see him mentioned. He died in 1993, but rest assured, he lived a full life on his own terms and listening to whatever music suited him on any given day.
Fascinating, these Internets, no? Like watching a huge Pachinko machine at work, little tiny bead goes in one hole, bounces around crazily for a bit, suddenly dingdingding! a completely unexpected other little bead pops out another hole. Sad to see that Joel died relatively young, but it seems at least he's remembered fondly as a brother.

So that's the ball leaving the pitcher's hand. Here's the crack of the bat, nine months later --

Douglas said...
Superjoel Tornabene was your brother?? My God, he was the boldest, most beautifully crazy cat I ever met.

I will never forget the Yippie march from the SF Civic Center to Montgomery Street to "play monopoly" with the financiers. About three hundred of us were squared off against the Tac Squad, chanting and trying to provoke the "pigs"

Well, Joel got up in the face of one huge porker and blurted out, "I'd like to blow your head off with a .38" That cop got mad red in the face, whipped out his club and hurled Joel to the ground and took him away!

Then I would recall his chants at the Third World Strike in Feb,1969 -- outrageous stuff like "Off your hats, off your wigs, off the fucking pigs," "Lin, Lin, Lin Piao, we want the world and we want it now" and "Don't look for me in the Vanguard cause I'll be with the masses!"

Superjoel -- RIP, brother. You left an indelible impression on me.
"I'd like to blow your head off with a .38!"

Whatever you say about your modern-day antiwar protesters (and plenty has been said) I'm pretty sure not too many of us would possess the utter lunacy born of desperation to yell that in an angry cop's face. Boy, you want to test an authority figure's sense of humor, that'll do it.

But that's the insight, right there, isn't it. To judge by Douglas's comment, the man was just insanely -- and by "insanely" I mean batshit-psychotically -- funny.

Now go back and look at that Pentagon photo again. Does that knowledge inform your interpretation of it at all? Suddenly not so icky-sweet "flower-power"-y, is it? See it without knowing Super-Joel's a Super-Wiseass, and it looks like Innocence About to be Broken On a Wheel, right? Tousled blond hair, big floppy sweater dwarfing his torso, such purposefulness and concentration about his body language. It's as effective an image of innocence defying rampant authority as that loon in front of the tank in Tien An Minh Square.

But now reinterpret the photo as showing not a flower-child naif but an experienced street-thespian at the height of his symbol-weaving powers, a man capable of -- and experienced at -- provoking a cop to murderous rage with a few well chosen, and desperately funny, words.

Different picture, isn't it.


PS: Neither of these two memorable Commenters left any means to contact them -- no Blogger profiles with an email address, no blogs of their own. A shame. I'd really appreciate if either of you would write me back at neddiejingo at aol dot com.

PPS: Not enough batshit-psychotic humor? Check Paul Krassner's The Chicago 7
Trial (on LSD)
, which contains some very interesting biographical details about Super-Joel:
I decided to take a tab of acid before I took the witness stand --- call me a sentimental fool -- but it wasn't merely to enhance the experience. I had a more functional reason. My purpose was twofold. I knew that if I ingested 300 micrograms of LSD after eating a big meal, I was very likely to throw up in court. That would be my theatrical statement on the injustice of the trial. Also, I wouldn't need to memorize so much information that way. I had to psych myself up, to imagine it actually happening. The prosecutor would ask, "Now where did this meeting take place?" And I would go "Waughhhhhppp!"


Anonymous said...

Every picture tells a story, don't it? Or a different story than we knew. Thanks for that

Neil Shakespeare said...

Ah, the Olden Days! Things weren't as they seem even back then.

protected static said...

It's funny, looking at that photo... Even though I've participated in street theatre tactics, even knowing how rare truly spontaneous acts are, it's still hard to look at that picture and not see it as a naive and peaceful hippie confronting naked militarism.

It's Totally. Fucking. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that I come across your blog again. My nephew is doing a history project and is including information regarding my brother SuperJoel and his part in the '68 Democratic convention.
You might be interested in Jonah Raskin's 'For the Hell of It, the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman'.
Joel was so much more than a common street theatre act.
Actually that picture was not at all staged. And for the record, he was not blond or a galoot.
He was truly and sincerely dedicated to educating the public about the Viet Nam war as well as other issues involving helping people. There are many mentions of him and all the others like him during that era. He lived a full albeit short life, he was 44 when he died. He impacted many lives.
As to the Paul Krasner mention, our grandfathers were a Sicilian doctor and a Norwegian Irish carpenter. I can't imagine how anyone would actually believe that Giancana relationship. I'm proud to have had Joel in my life. For future reference, my e-mail address is

Anonymous said...

In the documentary "the Cockettes", the claim is made that George Harris, AKA Hibiscus, is the youngster who put the flowers in the rifles. Any revelations?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know the title of this picture?

Anonymous said...

The photographer is Bernie Boston and the name of the picture is "Flower Power" go to the following link to read his account of the events. He also details the identity of George Edgerly Harris III who placed the carnations in the barrel of the guns.

Anonymous said...

The photographer,Bernie Boston, just died. There's an obituary by Paul Krassner on the net. There are some good SuperJoel stories and little interview bits of him in Larry Sloman's oral biography of Abbie Hoffman "Steal this Dream." According to that fine book on the troubled but entertaining Mr. Hoffman, SuperJoel eventually became a very wealthy importer.

Chicken Hill Farm Handmade Soap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chicken Hill Farm Handmade Soap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I knew joel............ anybody left?