Sunday, December 27, 2009

Valedico Decadis Horribilis

To paraphrase Queen Elizabeth II, we're about to bid farewell to a decadis horribilis. To be sure, there have been rotten decades before, but there were always redemptive events to counter-balance the daily drumbeat of doom and despair. The fifties gave us McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and "Duck and Cover," but also Elvis, Chuck Berry and Jonas Salk. Anyone nostalgic for the sixties was obviously not someone in the line of fire. But amid war, assassinations, generational conflict, the draft, and the daily televised body count, we had the Beatles within a flowering garden of popular music, and a self-created counter-culture with unprecedented expressions of artistic freedom.

The seventies brought inflation, oil embargoes, gas lines, hostage crises, a cocaine epidemic among young professionals, and Disco. But on the bright side, we had the Bicentennial and Quaaludes. Reaganism ruled the eighties, with his theory of "trickle-down economics" sewing the seeds for the most recent orgy of fiscal de-regulation and near economic meltdown. Military budgets ballooned and social programs were cut adrift while the Christian right muscled a seat at the table and an age of rah-rah, jingoism returned to America. Iranian revolutionaries who had humiliated the U.S. were rewarded with illegal weapons sales and once empty CIA planes returning from money drops to Contras in Nicaragua, now came home loaded with something new for the Pepsi Generation; crack cocaine. On the positive side, we beat the Russians in hockey.

The nineties were the uproariously entertaining Clinton years, where grown-ups were forced to explain the meaning of oral sex to their children. For what more could we have asked? Scandals, investigations, wiretaps, blue dresses, cigars, impeachment; the Clintons delivered it all, and more. Hillary's heartaches and what "is" is, live on in our common psyche. But, in the words of James Carville, "What didn't you like; the peace or the prosperity?" Bubba coulda' been a contenda' if he had just holstered his weapon once in a while. Everyone eventually grew weary of the whole circus, but they took it out on Al Gore.

The laughter ended in 2000 when a politicized Supreme Court actually stopped a vote count in progress and awarded the presidency to the intellectually challenged George W. Bush, a decision that ranks up there in wisdom with Dred Scott. Thus, the prophesy made by humorist H.L. Mencken in 1920, was fulfilled; that, "On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." The Great Stem-Cell Compromise of 2001 was so exhausting, the whole Bush gang went on vacation, and, of course, we know what happened then. We were all behind Bush that awful day and, without exception, wanted our president to succeed. Something redemptive might have arisen from that terrible tragedy, but Bush began following a playbook from an earlier age. A dark time of imperial arrogance and deceit descended upon this nation, and if you disagree with that statement, you may be part of the problem.

In another time, during another war, when things were going badly and people were marching in the streets, a president demonized dissenters as "bums" and "traitors," and energized his base to rise up against these scruffy protesters. Violence and riots followed. Richard Nixon, during a volatile time of social upheaval, unnecessarily polarized society between young and old, black and white, and rich and poor for personal political gain. Only resignation saved him from being booted from office for abuse of power. The next such divisive president, casting aspersions of disloyalty and treason toward those who would oppose him and fraying the nation's societal fabric in the process, was old GeeDubya "Bring 'Em On" Bush. And who was the common link connecting the political philosophies of the Nixon and Bush governments? Dick Cheney, Master of Disaster.

The decade's nadir came exactly midway with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The country was shocked to see such an unrelenting tragedy compounded by the government's ineptitude; the same government that plunged us into two wars and an economic catastrophe unmatched since the "Roaring Twenties." But Bush was such a one-man, walking disaster that he made it possible for the first African-American to be elected president. So, just here, at this miserable decade's twilight, comes the glimmer of hope of what's possible in the next; affordable health care, resolution to wars of choice, government infrastructure projects and the accompanying jobs that follow, high-speed rail to finally compete with the airlines, quality public education and reasonable college costs. Positive things can happen when people finally decide to work together. Of course, I believed John Kerry was going to be elected president too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Jammed With Bat Masterson

The recent death of the actor Gene Barry brought a wash of memories over me about the occasion he visited Memphis. At the time, Barry was starring in the lead role of the hit TV western, "Bat Masterson," the legendary Dodge City lawman, and was to be the featured attraction at the Mid-South Fair's annual rodeo. Cowboy stars like Roy Rogers and Lash LaRue had appeared in years before him, but Barry's series was among TV's top rated shows when he was booked for the fair appearance, guaranteeing a large segment of the audience would be his young fans. I'm certain Barry thought his Memphis stop would be a breeze, but then he never expected to encounter Sputnik Monroe.

The evil professional wrestler with the skunk-like white streak in his hair was already the second best known face in Memphis, after Elvis, when he decided to seek even more public outrage by going to the fairgrounds to stalk Gene Barry. Robert Gordon, in his vastly entertaining book "It Came From Memphis," got the scoop years later from Sputnik himself. Monroe explained calmly, "I read in the paper where Gene Barry was coming to the Mid-South Fair and I went out there to hit him in the nose for copying the way I dress. I was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, which is the cowboy town of the world. Gene Barry was the star on 'Bat Masterson' and dressed like I dressed, with a homburg and a vest. I figured if I jerked him off a horse and hit him in the nose for dressing Dodge City-style, I'd get a national reputation." In Sputnik's world, such were the just desserts for impersonating a cowboy. The police kept Sputnik at bay and Bat/Barry's appearance went smoothly, but the Hollywood cowpoke probably never appreciated his near miss with meeting mayhem in Memphis. As it was, Sputnik picked a fight with a rodeo cowboy and made the morning paper's front page. The authentic clipping was sent to me by Sputnik's arch ring enemy, the great Billy Wicks. (Click on clip to enlarge).

The following morning, as we did every Sunday, my sister, Susan, and I attended Temple Israel Sunday School, but returned home to see a sleek town car in the driveway. My mother told us we had a visitor and when we walked into the living room, my jaw dropped. There was Gene Barry himself, sitting at the dining room table having a Sunday brunch. When my father asked if I knew who this was, I replied, "Sure, it's Bat Masterson." The New York bred actor, born Eugene Klass, was the brother-in-law of one of my father's business associates in California. When he found he was coming to Memphis for the weekend, his kinfolks called my mother to ask if there was a good place for a nice, Jewish TV star to get some lox and bagels without being mobbed by fans. "For that," Mom replied, "he'll probably have to come to my house." So there I stood, at age eleven, trying to process the sight of Bat Masterson sitting with my parents, spreading cream cheese on a toasted bagel.

Barry was gracious in the extreme and offered rodeo tickets to my sister and me. When he heard I was an aspiring guitarist, he insisted that I play for him. I had gotten through, "Don't Be Cruel," and "The Battle of New Orleans," when Barry enthusiastically said that he wanted to play along. So, I fetched a pair of bongo drums which I had acquired resulting from my admiration of Maynard G. Krebbs. With bongos firmly clamped between his knees, Gene Barry and I set off into the strangest, rollicking medley of nearly every folk and rock song that I knew. After a laugh-filled jam session, the handsome actor cheerfully suggested that we take the show on the road. Barry withdrew a publicity photo from an attache case and signed it; "To my pal Rand, from his pal Bat," then after expressing his gratitude to my parents and bidding his farewells, Barry opened the front door to find a half-dozen neighborhood kids who had somehow found out about the visit. He was generous to the last child before taking the wheel and heading off to some glamorous hotel suite.

I was still in the thrall of Bat's visit when I spread the morning paper on the floor and saw the article about Sputnik Monroe. I was enraged that this vile man would try to attack such a hero of TV westerns, and I was glad to see Sputnik wrapped in bandages after his fight with the itinerant cowboy. Had someone told me then that I would one day come to revere the man and take his name as a nom de plume, I would surely have asserted that they were insane. I kept up with Gene Barry as a secret pal, but when "Bat Masterson" was finally cancelled, my interest waned, and I never did like the show "Burke's Law" so much. Not so with Sputnik Monroe, who continued to wreck havoc in and out of the ring for another decade and cemented his legend in Memphis history, while personally defending my young ass in the process. But that's another story.

Gene Barry continued his successful career in movies and television and was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the original "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway. His death at the Motion Picture Home in California at age 90 reminded me how quickly life passes. Although I am older now than he was then, I still vividly recall a rugged-looking man with a big laugh asking my father to please pass the lox, and an actor completely at ease in the company of my family, playing the bongos with abandon and a smile while I wailed away on the guitar. The genial Mr. Barry never realized how close he had come to a Memphis-style ass-kicking the previous night. I liked Gene Barry a great deal, and I'm grateful for the afternoon we spent together. My single regret is that if I had only kept in personal touch with him for a few more years, I could have introduced him to Sputnik Monroe, and they might have reminisced about their respective days in old Dodge City.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Obama's War

After Vietnam, I measure a war's nobility of purpose by asking two simple questions: Would I give my life for it, or ask my daughter or son to give theirs? The answer concerning the war in Afghanistan on both counts is "no." I don't understand the logic of committing 30,000 more troops to a guerrilla war that can't be fought with a standing army. The British have already tried that, not only in Afghanistan, but in another tussle known as the American Revolution, with similar results. I don't believe that the President, as a student of history, will repeat the mistakes of Vietnam, yet here we are again, facing an enemy that could be a merchant by day and an insurgent by night, defending a corrupt government that lacks popular support, and an enthusiastic general requesting more troops to "complete the job," only his name is McChrystal instead of Westmoreland.

While the real enemy, Al Qaeda, has an estimated presence in Afghanistan small enough to be defeated by the Tennessee National Guard, their legions have purportedly crossed into Pakistan, as Sec. Clinton so bluntly pointed out to their prime minister. So, it's hard to know who the enemy is in Afghanistan. The Taliban are a nasty bunch, as attested by the news footage of them whipping women in the streets, or blowing up ancient Buddhist statues, long before we invaded. But the purpose for their removal was for harboring bin Laden and friends, not for being religious extremists. I realize that the U.S. must present force in the region to prevent the murderous conspirators who attacked us from regaining a foothold to plot new atrocities. But history and the Mossad have proven that terrorists are better fought with special forces trained for that purpose. If U.S. personnel cross borders to pursue the assassins, I don't necessarily want to know how the sausage is made.

It's not that I don't trust the president's judgement by listening to the military's eternal call of "more troops," or General McChrystal's veracity, although he was involved in the cover-up regarding the death of Pat Tillman; It's Sec. of Defense Robert Gates that I believe. This is a man deserving of one of those Medals of Freedom that Bush used to hand out like prizes from a box of Cracker Jacks. Gates is serving his third president during wartime, having been retrieved from academia to rectify the worldwide chaos wrought by Donald Rumsfeld. Having previously served as head of the CIA, he could have comfortably remained president of Texas A&M, but chose to serve the country again by re-directing the strategy in Iraq, and staying on as secretary under Obama to focus on the indecipherable dilemma that is Afghanistan. Through it all, Gates' primary concern has been for the troops, both in the field and after returning home. If this genuine patriot and public servant believes that more troops now will bring this war to a faster conclusion, then I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Several major differences exist between today's wars and Vietnam. For starters, today's soldiers are volunteers, while the Vietnam War was fed with draftees who were forced to go fight in an alien land or face jail. The war in Indochina was expanded by LBJ primarily over the issue of the size of his balls. He famously said, "I'm not gonna' be the first American president to lose a war." Nixon and Kissinger had the same missile-headed reflexes and cost millions of more lives. Afghanistan, however, was the staging ground for the attacks against us and deserving of retaliation. Now, Obama has the delicate task of extracting us from this morass. No one can accuse him of bait-and-switch on this issue. He campaigned on the promise to bring the focus of our national security back to the region that still endangers us. If the Gates-McCrystal strategy succeeds, I suggest we never again commit troops to any country with a "stan" in its name.

It's too bad the Obama haters won't be listening to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo out of general, misguided principle. But they would only still despise him anyway. Had they listened, they would have heard a Chief of State describe the use of arms against an unprincipled enemy as "just," in defense of the citizens he is sworn to protect. He also reminded the "effete" Europeans that the conservatives are so eager to loathe, that their freedoms over the last century have been purchased with large doses of American blood. Obama stated something even Dubya could love; "There is evil in the world that must be confronted." This sober, thoughtful, and historic speech should forever put to rest the wing-nuts' insistence that Obama is somehow un-American, or acting on behalf of dubious forces beyond our borders; but it won't. They have become so engulfed by hatred and misguided outrage, orchestrated by right-wing, self-serving, on-air, borderline seditionists, that they can't see the man standing before them has become the legitimate Commander in Chief of the United States. And no one is blinder than he who won't see.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Full Contact Shopping

When my email in-box became filled with ads from every merchant with whom I've ever purchased a book or candle, offering steep discounts and free shipping, I knew that the holiday shopping season had arrived in earnest. Before the turkey had even been digested, every news outlet was talking about Black Friday. I understand the day after Thanksgiving is when retailers are supposed to "go into the black," but as a history buff, I can't help but think of the original Black Friday on Oct. 25, 1929, when the stock market crashed, precipitating the Great Depression. That day, it wasn't merely prices that were falling, it was raining stockbrokers. Nonetheless, I suppose I managed to save around three hundred dollars this Black Friday just by staying in bed.

The news footage of the crowds that camped out in front of big box stores and rushed the entrances at dawn was enough to discourage me. Police were called to restore order at a local Toys R'Us when a crush of people caused one female shopper to begin waving a taser in the air and threatening those around her to back up. Voices could be heard saying, "Don't tase me, Ho, Ho Ho." I've been informed that people wait all year for these "doorbuster specials." They get the family involved and plot out strategies and logistics, and were it not for the early-bird sales, many could not afford these gifts at other times. As for me, fighting a frenzied mob of aggressive shoppers at 5AM for an electric, Japanese hamster sounds only slightly less appealing than dipping my face in the deep-frier at Wendy's.

Then comes "Cyber Monday," a recent creation to encourage online shoppers to begin early so they don't end up at "Glitch Thursday," when the retailer screws up your order, it doesn't arrive in time for Christmas, and you end up giving your loved one a catalog photo of the gift they were going to get. Even though you run the risk of receiving that late season post card telling you the great bathrobe you ordered for Mom is presently out of stock, I still shop online ever since I noticed that people don't know how to behave in public anymore. The jostling crowds, the slow walkers and cell-phone talkers, the indifferent clerks and rude cashiers had turned Christmas shopping into a two Xanax event. Online, the need for human interaction is unnecessary, which some may think is contrary to the spirit of the season, but it also reduces the chances of contracting the swine flu. That's why the hottest holiday gift this year is Purell Hand Sanitizer.

Speaking of "holidays," I would expect the opening volley of the annual "War on Christmas," sponsored by Fox News, to go off any day. Usually, Bill O'Reilly kicks things off about a conflict over a creche at the post office somewhere, or some such symbolic thing. I heard a woman say last season that if a merchant wished her "Happy Holidays," instead of "Merry Christmas," she would void her sale and take her business elsewhere. I don't suppose a delicatessen was on her list of shops, but isn't that attitude a bit like the Taliban? Since my neighbors think I'm strange anyway, I was thinking of erecting a large, inflatable Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God, in the front yard. I mean, anybody can blow up a Walgreen's Frosty the Snowman, but Ganesha is the "remover of obstacles." I heard that my rabbi doesn't approve of Jews having Christmas trees, but we're getting by on a technicality since our tree isn't even real and folds up in the attic the rest of the year. Since we're a bi-tradition home, I always get out the acrylic, electric Chanukah menorah, where, on each of the eight nights, you switch on another pastel-colored bulb. I am, after all, a Reform Jew.

I wish I could get more exited about Hanukkah, but it's a minor holiday commemorating a military victory in the 2nd Century BCE, that paled against the festiveness of Christmas as a child. While our Christian friends were given bicycles and ponies, we were getting mesh bags of chocolate coins to celebrate the miracle of one day's worth of Temple oil lasting for eight nights. As far as miracles go, I thought the "Let there be light" one was far more impressive. If it were a holiday of great significance, you would think that after two thousand years, they could agree on how to spell it. It was, however, the world's first holiday celebrating energy conservation. I saw one catalog selling the ultimate in mixed-faith metaphors; the Chanukah spinning top, called a "dreidel," with pictures of Santa on the sides. Could this be a sneaky attempt at conversion, or another Obamanite plot of world-wide ecumenicism?

I know I'll radiate a more seasonal glow as the time draws nigh, then on Christmas day I can erupt in good cheer like an overstuffed Pinata. The family will gleefully unwrap our presents and hunker down for Blue Tuesday, when everybody exchanges everything they received for store credits and gift cards. When all the carolling stops, no one wants to miss an after-Christmas bargain. Until then, the traffic is impossible, the crowds are surly and pushy, and I'm having a difficult time adjusting to life in a world without Ed McMahon. Ask not for whom the jingle bell tolls; especially if you're Dick Clark. "Hiyo!" And, is it alright to say "happy holidays" if you're referring to Lincoln's Birthday, Valentine's Day, and Passover? Finally, why do people pray on Good Friday, but shop on Black Friday? It's not a riddle, I'm just asking. Now get out there and help heal this sick economy by joining our new, grass-roots, holiday initiative, "No electric gerbil left behind."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lieberman the Schmuck

I would like to offer a heartfelt and blanket apology to anyone that I ever mocked, criticized, or offended for having inadvertently cast a vote for Sarah Palin while trying to register their choice for John McCain as president. To my lasting humiliation, while casting a vote for Al Gore in 2000, I am guilty of voting for the mamzer Joe Lieberman. At the time, I felt it was an inspired choice by Gore. Holy Joe was the anti-Clinton and I was thrilled at the prospect of the first Jewish Vice President. Now, Lieberman's looking more like the anti-Christ, and he has announced his intent to join with the Republicans and filibuster Harry Reid's health care reform proposal, or any bill that contains a public option as a "matter of conscience."

I know this guy believes that he holds up the sky, but how can he speak of "conscience" when he betrayed his own party, supported the opposition candidate for president, and was the second Democrat to speak at a Republican convention in successive conclaves, after the nar Zell Miller. Lieberman means to stand in the way, like George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, and prevent the Democrats from even voting on their centerpiece issue on the Senate floor. All this cranky noise from Lieberman is the continuation of a pattern of revenge against the Party for backing the legitimate winner of the Connecticut senatorial primary in 2006, Ned Lamont. Lieberman was re-elected as an independent, but caucuses with the Democrats, and to guarantee that he would play nice, was allowed to retain his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. At the risk of encouraging Jew on Jew violence, it might be time for Rahm Emmanuel to think about slipping a horse's head under Lieberman's linens.

If you'll permit me a couple of ad hominem attacks, Lieberman looks like The Joker from Batman, and when he speaks he reminds me of the Saturday Night Live characters from the 1980s, Doug and Wendy Whiner. He might even have diverticulitis. Every time he opens his yapper, he embodies the term "mealymouth." In the latest Quinnipiac poll, even Connecticut voters believe his views are more in line with the Republicans, so why continue with this sham? The handy website lists Lieberman's top campaign contributors. Why am I not surprised that in the home state of the insurance industry, his major donors include Aetna, Hartford, Pfizer, and Purdue Pharma? Rather than serving the public, or even his constituents' interests, Joe is first serving his corporate masters that got him re-elected.

I long for the days when there was a strong Senate leader like Sam Rayburn or LBJ, who preferred a little arm twisting to assure the success of the party's promises rather than fluff and flattery. And who is the Senate Whip whose responsibility it is to guarantee the votes are there and to enforce party discipline? -Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Between Durbin and Harry Reid, I don't think either man has ever raised his voice. As a result, rather than a unified party doing the will of the people who put them there, we have a version of a Democratic Party Fight Club, with the Blue Dogs peeing on the carpet. Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested punishing Lieberman by stripping him of his committee chairmanship, but I think it's past time to boot his tuchis from the party so he can find his true home as a spokesman for Fox News. Either that, or force him to filibuster and read the phone book on the Senate floor while people are suffering. Lieberman is already in bed with the Christian right over their staunch support for the state of Israel. His ultra-Zionist views allow him to compartmentalize the fact that the evangelicals' long-term vision for the "end times" in the Holy Land is for either the conversion or death of the Jews.

Earlier this month, Mel Brooks announced the founding of a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the word "schmuck." Brooks announced at a rally in Brooklyn that, "Shmuck is dying. For many of us, saying 'schmuck' is a way of life. Yet when I walk down the street and see people behaving in foolish, pathetic, or otherwise schmucky ways, I hear only the words 'prick' and 'douche bag.' I just shake my head and think, 'I don't want to live in a world like this." The literal meaning of the Yiddish word "schmuck" is a man's penis, or more specifically, the foreskin. But over the years it has become used to describe any arrogant, annoying, or disagreeable person. Brooks told reporters at the first Shmucks for Schmuck rally, "You can be a poor shmuck, a lazy shmuck, a dumb shmuck, or just a plain old shmuck. We must save this word." I have a tip, forgive the pun, for the success of Mel's campaign. Take a long look at Senator Joe Lieberman, and I think you may well have found your poster boy.

mamzer=bastard, nar=fool, tuchis=ass, schmuck=Lieberman

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Dick Cheney On Acid

I suppose it was a coincidence that both the National Geographic and Discovery Channels broadcast back to back documentaries about the CIA's experiments in mind control on successive nights. There was nothing new that had not been previously revealed during the Church Committee Congressional hearings of 1975, where the entire ghoulish laundry list of CIA abuses was unfurled before the public, but one inadvertent piece of evidence made my jaw drop. Both shows focused on the CIA's MK ULTRA program, begun in the fifties, which examined the effects of LSD on subjects both witting and unwitting, in an attempt to create new ways to brainwash potential adversaries. Among the early volunteers for the program was Stanford University student Ken Kesey. The whole sordid story is easily researched online or in library, but here's the short version.

In 1953, the CIA killed one of their own and covered it up. An agency biochemist named Frank Olson, who was critical of the program, was surreptitiously given a large dose of Lysergic Acid in his coffee by fellow agents and observed through a two-way mirror. Soon, Olson was debating the weather on Mount Olympus with Zeus and had a severe psychotic break which required sedation and observation by CIA doctors. Claiming Olson was suicidal, he was secretly checked into a tenth floor New York hotel room to be supervised by an agent entrusted with his care, but before morning, the chemist allegedly leaped from a window to his death while his trustee slept. The CIA declared it a suicide. After Senator Frank Church's committee determined that Olson was a forced participant in the CIA's LSD experiments, his family filed a civil suit against the U.S. Government for wrongful death. President Gerald Ford invited the Olson family to the White House and convinced them, for reasons of national security, not to pursue the case. This is where my eyes widened, since this was not a new film, nor one with a political purpose. The official, contractual papers were shown where the family agreed to settle with the government for $7000 (Seven Thousand Dollars). The author of the deal and the signatory for the United States was the president's Chief of Staff, Richard Cheney.

When someone says "Cheney knows where all the bodies are buried," they are not speaking figuratively. Dirty Dick has been covering up for the CIA's illegal nastiness since the seventies. No wonder he was able to go to Langley as Vice President and rifle through the files with impunity to cook the intelligence for the Iraq War buildup. They owe him, and his access goes back to the Nixon years when he coat-tailed his pal Donald Rumsfeld into the White House. Under Gerald Ford, Cheney and Rumsfeld staged what became known as the "Halloween Massacre," usurping the powers of Nixon holdovers Henry Kissinger and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to become Ford's Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense, respectively. From his new position of power, Cheney urged Ford not to cooperate with the Church Committee, arguing that airing the CIA atrocities could only damage the intelligence community. And when the terrible truths became public testimony, Cheney and Rumsfeld engineered the ouster of acting CIA Director William Colby, and had him replaced with George H.W. "Poppy" Bush. The Secret Service's codename for Cheney was "Backseat."

And what a putrid list of illegal activities it was that Cheney wished to protect. From the assassination attempts; Lumumba in the Congo, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers in Vietnam, and the Mafia sub-contract to kill Castro; to the domestic spying and infiltration of the peace movement; to attempts to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King and destroy the Black Panther movement, the CIA was so blatantly beyond the law that congress passed legislation to reign them in. The FISA laws (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) came from the Church Committee recommendations, a law that Cheney obviously disdained then as now. When Ford lost the presidency, with Cheney as his campaign manager, to Jimmy Carter in 1976, the Wyoming native ran for Congress in 1978, serving as the Republican leader on the House Intelligence Committee before "Poppy" Bush tapped him as his Secretary of Defense for payback.

In exile at Halliburton during the Clinton years, Dick Cheney enriched himself as Chairman and CEO of the international conglomerate until the uncanny opportunity presented itself for him to screen the Vice Presidential prospects for "Poppy's" clueless boy Georgie's new administration. We know how Cheney spent the next eight years, trying to revive the Nixon presidency and attempting to concentrate power in the Executive Branch. CIA director George Tenant genuflected before him and Cheney became the de-facto head of government and chief protector of manipulated intelligence. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Halliburton and KBR became bloated with war profits, and the CIA was marginalized by the mercenaries from Blackwater. His understudy, Scooter Libby, pleaded guilty to outing a covert agent, and George Tenant was given the Medal of Honor. Everything he warned of or predicted, from the spectre of mushroom clouds to the effectiveness of state sanctioned torture, has been proven dead wrong; yet he still has the temerity to stick around the Capitol like the ghost of Strom Thurmond, and criticize the military strategy of Secretary Gates and the President.

I believe Cheney is hanging around just to scream "National Security!" if any legal entity should dig too deeply into his resume. Anyone who places a value on the life of an intelligence agent who died in service to his country at $7000, has no qualms about exposing the identity of an undercover CIA analyst who crossed him over the veracity of reports that advanced his imperialist agenda. In 1994, the family of Frank Olson requested an exhumation of the body for further examination. A new autopsy showed that Olson suffered "severe cranial injuries delivered by a blunt object," and was most likely "knocked out" before being tossed from the window. Since Dick Cheney was intimately familiar with the case and prepared the original settlement, and considering his influence with the CIA was sufficient to put his man "Poppy" in the directorship, why do I get the nagging suspicion that he knew about Olson all along and bought his family off with pennies and patriotism? Now that his multi-year, century spanning, executive office-holding marathon is over, there is only one additional governmental agency that Dick Cheney truly deserves to be a part of; the Federal prison system.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Son Of A Beatle

I'm so frozen in time, I wouldn't know an X-Box from a PlayStation if you smacked me upside the head with it, so I haven't the slightest idea how the Beatles Rockband game works. I was curious enough to watch some of the animated videos, however, and they are wonderful. (See them here) Besides, if I want to play a Beatles song, I'll mess it up on guitar like everybody else. But it's amazing to me that 40 years after they broke up, the Beatles are the hottest, cutting-edge group going. Consider that the remastered CDs, prepared for release to coincide with this new project, have already sold 2.2 million copies in a marketplace that barely sells CDs anymore. They topped the Billboard charts yet again and the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil "Beatles Love" show is sold out forever. Finally, younger people are realizing that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings.

On the anticipated Rockband release date, Melody and I were surfing channels on a Sunday afternoon when we came across the Beatles' Anthology on VH1. Six hours later, we wondered how the time flew by so quickly. Recalling such sheer joy, we concluded that the first couple of years of Beatlemania were the best and last innocent times we knew. In 1965, LBJ was sending half a million men to Vietnam, and by the time the Beatles reached Memphis in 1966, the emerging evangelical movement was ready to crucify John Lennon for saying the Fabs were more popular than Jesus. At least they were on the pop charts. All those pictures you see with people holding signs saying "Beatles Go Home" were taken in Memphis, where they held a counter-Beatle rally and concert at the Auditorium while the Lads played the Coliseum. I was there when the cherry bomb was tossed from the upper balcony and John Lennon jumped as if he had been shot. The Beatles played two shows in Memphis, and there were still tickets left unsold. Had I known that, I would have attended both. But, I saw the Beatles, and despite the pandemonium, I also heard the Beatles; and it was a religious experience.

When "Hard Days' Night" was released in 1964, local theatres didn't know how to market it, so it premiered at the Malco Twin Drive-In on Summer Avenue. My sister, Susan, and I saw it in Times Square on a family vacation to New York. So many memorable moments in my life are punctuated by Beatle songs. The first time I heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand," I was driving east on Walnut Grove Rd. and immediately took a left on Mendenhall, headed for Pop Tunes, to buy the single (which I still have in the original dust cover). I can tell you where I was sitting in Knoxville the first time I heard "Day Tripper," and wished I was still in a band. Melody favors "Norwegian Wood" and insists that if I outlive her, "In My Life" must be played at the memorial service. I was thinking of "Nowhere Man" for mine, but I figured it was too self-deprecating, so I'll settle for "The End." And during the multi-year run of my lost and lamented radio show, "The Psychedelicatessen," I always started the program with two Beatle songs, just to begin where it all began. My life would have been immeasurably less interesting without the Fabs in it, and I am grateful.

George Harrison was still alive during the taping of the Anthology, and there was a scene towards the end when the surviving three were discussing the impossibility of a Beatle reunion. Answering suggestions that Julian Lennon replace John, Paul said, "Why would we wish to put him in the middle of this?" It's better to "Let it Be" and savor the memories of a remarkable era. The Rockband game offers memories in the making for young fans not yet alive when the Beatles ruled the world, and the sales and popularity indicate a whole new wave of Beatlemania, Part II in the air. These fabulous songs and wonderful melodies have come to life again for fresh listenings, or discovering for the first time. I don't intend to start playing video games now, but I'm sure happy that it's there. If I had teenagers, their Christmas presents would be already chosen.

Rather than dusty dreams of re-forming the Beatles, my new show-biz idea is to start a new band called Sons of Beatles. Ringo has two sons, Zak and Jason Starkey, who are both drummers; Zak, most notably, with the Who. Consequently, The Sons of Beatles could have double drummers like the Allman Brothers. Both Sean and Julian Lennon are artists and singers, with Julian showing a prodigious talent for songwriting. Dani Harrison, George's son, is a singer and guitarist, and surely one of Paul's children, maybe James, can be taught to play bass if he doesn't already know how. Place them all under the control of George Martin's son, Giles, who was instrumental in assembling the Beatles Rockband, and you have a phenomenon waiting to happen. I would certainly like to see it, even if they were rotten. But there's too much nascent talent there for that to happen. Since Brian Epstein left no progeny, I will volunteer for the manager's position. That's OK, fellows; You don't have to thank me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Premature Acclamation

OK, maybe Rocky hasn't yet amassed the resume of previous recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, but to hear the nasty protestations of his deranged, right-wing detractors, you'd think they gave the prize to Yasser Arafat or something. I mean, let the man broker a treaty first. Even Obama seemed perplexed at having been chosen International Homecoming King, but there are worse things than having the U.S. President regarded as a peacemaker by the rest of the world. Obama's public statements regarding the prohibition of nuclear weapons, torture, the elevation of diplomacy, human rights, and an outstretched American hand to nations once our adversaries, stand in such stark contrast to his predecessor, that the Nobel Peace Prize is as much a rebuke of the former administration as an expression of approval in the country's change of direction. George W. Bush must have misread the Sermon on the Mount to think it said, "Blessed are the warmongers."

The Nobel awards have never been beyond politics, but Obama accepted with a humility that was nearly uncomfortable. It was as if he were awakened by Rahm Emmanuel and answered, "I won what?" John F. Kennedy got a Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles in Courage," a tome composed when he was still a junior senator from Massachusetts, with the uncredited assistance of a professional journalist. Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his "Peace is at hand" speech, when in reality, he interfered with the Paris Peace Talks of 1968 in order to get his man Nixon elected. So, it is not uncommon that these awards are given to a mission in progress rather than the completed work. The last sitting American President to win the Peace Prize was Woodrow Wilson for authoring "The Fourteen Points," and configuring the Treaty of Versailles which ended "The War to End All Wars." But when Wilson attempted to establish the League of Nations, he was thwarted by an obstructionist Republican congress who wished no part of a world governing body. The result? World War Two. Obama rightfully noted that the prize was, "a means to give momentum to a set of causes," rather than for a new President with precious few political victories to brag about.

One would hope that the "loyal" opposition would be gracious enough, just for once, to say "way to go," and press on, but immediately, Fox News went into overdrive with indignity and condemnation and the wing-nut radio talkers exploded in revulsion. Fox's Brian Kilmeade speculated that Obama delayed sending more troops to Afghanistan in order to win the prize, and Rush Limbaugh brayed, "The Nobel gang just suicide bombed themselves," and, "Something has happened here that we all agree with the Taliban..about, and that is he doesn't deserve the award." RedState's Erick Erickson artfully said the Nobel committee must have been trying to fill an "affirmative action quota." The Obama-haters applaud and cheer when he loses the Olympics and grouse when he wins the Nobel Prize, and these are the self-described "patriots." Yet even a partisan like Bill O'Reilly said, in an unusual spasm of conscience, "Deserved or not, having a U.S. President honored with a peace prize is good for the country." The voodoo wing of the conservative movement remained mute.

All Republicans were not as typically obnoxious as the party's right wing. John McCain and Tim Pawlenty were gracious with their remarks, which puts them out of the mainstream these days. Pawlenty is running for President, and McCain is wise enough to realize that Obama is not the Anti-Christ, as suggested in the above mentioned RedState blog and other internet sites, just the Anti-Bush, who must be sitting in Dallas with the relief that no one is searching for the three sixes on him anymore. Had you told the conservatives in advance, omitting any physical description, that their new president was not only a family man with a beautiful wife and two adorable children, but also a constitutional scholar, lawyer, and college professor, who agreed to let his mother-in-law move in, they would have named him a Saint. And the thing is, Obama's not all that liberal. People see in him what they wish to see in him, including the Nobel Prize Committee, who awarded the honor for noble intentions and the desire for peace. It's like my mother says about eating chicken soup for a cold; "It couldn't hurt."

Depending on where Obama decides to go on Afghanistan will determine his mettle and mantel. A large part of the battle we are fighting, as General William Westmoreland used to say, is for the hearts and minds of the people we are trying to assist. It does us no harm for the Afghan civilian population to perceive that Obama has peaceful intentions for their country. He has already accepted the indigenous nature of the Taliban and recognizes that they are not the enemy; Al Qaeda is. Before we commit more troops to this struggle, it would be wise to remember that the Soviets lasted ten years fighting in Afghanistan before going broke. The U.S. is now into its' ninth year of conflict. The battle against the guerrilla insurgents that this country armed to fight the Russians would be better waged with special forces, spies, and bribes. Obama is walking a fine line between giving humanitarian aid to our friends and the Green Berets to our enemies, but if this bloody conflict is merely to prop up another corrupt dictatorship friendly to the U.S., then it's Vietnam redux. If the President can bring some semblance of normalcy to the Afghan people, and draw down the combat forces in Iraq, he may well deserve the recognition bestowed upon him by the Nobel Committee as "peacemaker." Until then, I can already hear the heathen rage, "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Things I'll Never Understand

While songwriting in Nashville, the publisher brought in his man from L.A. to tell us hicks what he wanted in rock songs. He played us a cassette of an unreleased tune called "Like A Virgin," and said it was the future of popular music, to which I replied, "God, I hope not." I always thought Cyndi Lauper would clean her clock. A pure product of the video age, her workout regimen must be fierce; especially the crunches. The only thing flatter than Madonna's stomach is her voice.

Every time I see one of these guys, I wonder if they might live long enough, infections aside, to seriously regret their self-mutilations. My generation grew our hair long to show we were in harmony with the natural order. This practice shows solidarity with the primitive rituals of isolated, Amazonian tribal savages. I'll hand it to you though, you sure look different.

Local News
Local news is actually regional stories with corporate direction. From coast to coast, they have been using the same formula for 35 years. A bi-gender, mixed race anchor team finish each other's sentences before throwing it to bleached blonde reporters in the field who are all looking to make it to the networks. We've all heard the phrase, "If it bleeds, it leads," by now. But must they drive a hundred miles away in the "news van" to find some meth-head who murdered his family because there wasn't enough serious violence nearby? And how come everything is always "Breaking News?" If the local news was all you watched, you'd never leave the house.

Chicken Joints
Why is it that every time you go into one of these places around dinnertime, they're out of chicken?

I understand I'm a provincial with an unsophisticated palate, but among the reasons man discovered fire, wasn't one of them so that we could cook our food?

Ronald Reagan
The "B" actor who co-starred with monkeys and co-operated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 50s, became a mouthpiece for right-wing causes before entering politics. Speaking against Medicare, he said, "One of the traditional methods of imposing Socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project." As Governor of California during the campus unrest of the 60s, Reagan said, "If it takes a bloodbath to silence the demonstrators. let's get it over with." And as President, he relaxed regulations on business and industry, imposed a draconian fiscal policy that his own Vice President called "Voodoo Economics," courted the religious right, and declared government as the enemy. I know the Republicans haven't had a hero since Theodore Roosevelt, but do they really want to carve a face on Mt. Rushmore of the man that said, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles?"

Black Republicans
It must feel groundbreaking to be a big fish in a little pond, but they're using you, pal. How can a black man be the spokesman and apologist for an increasing virulent racism spreading among the base elements of his party? It's like Dick Gregory becoming the Grand Wizard of the KKK. They aren't your friends and are frothing at the mouth to toss you overboard. You believe you're a pioneer, but you're merely a stooge and your term as RNC Chairman will end badly.

A constant and persistent reminder that I ain't so damned smart. I have become such a numerophobe that when you discuss figures with me, my eyes roll back in my head. Math was my worst subject and created a visceral loathing of unknown origin within my soul. I only graduated college because they allowed me to substitute Ethics for Math. When someone tells me, "You do the math," I have a panic attack. I think that in a former life, I may have been an accountant.

Why? When did turning left become a sport? I'd like to see them try to negotiate Poplar Ave. If you asked me if I would like to watch some goober wearing a jump suit covered in small corporate logos, barrel a car blanketed with large corporate logos for 500 miles in an asphalt circle accompanied by the stench of burning tires and gasoline, I would have to say, "No thanks, I'd prefer to watch water evaporate."

Pot Prohibition
Since we have seen the outlawing of a weed, that grows almost anywhere, result in violent drug gangs that deal in bloodshed to protect their massive profits; the filling of our prisons with casual users; revolts in several states to de-criminalize its use by medical cannabis smokers; and the barbaric home-invasions of minor pot growers by DEA and SWAT teams, why is marijuana still illegal? I guess we'll have to wait for Obama's second term before we can even whisper about the complete failure of our government's absurd, 80 year old pot policy.

Fox News
There have always been agitators who blur the line between free speech and hate speech. From Father Charles Coughlin and the Nazi appeasers in the 30s, to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 50s, to Rush Limbaugh today. But there has never been a 24 hour "news" network dedicated to propagating lies and slander with the intention of destroying a presidency and furthering radical conservative causes at the behest of its owner. I saw "Tea-baggers" wearing patriotic colors admit that they watched Fox News exclusively. They are unwitting water carriers for an unscrupulous, bare-knuckled, publishing monopolist from Australia named Rupert Murdoch, who could give a damn about the U.S. government so long as they don't re-regulate the multiple ownership of media outlets in one market by a single company. If Fox is to be the broadcasting propaganda arm of the far right, how about removing the word "news" from their title to conform with "truth in advertising?"

If you are holding a telephone, why are you typing on it?

Thug Rappers
I don't care how relevant, gritty, ghetto, or "street" the message is, I can't hear it because I can't stand being shouted at. And what is this affectation that every single rapper has adopted with the stiff-digits and thrusting hand motions? Are they all supposed to be playing "air turntable?" The "man" is exploiting you, fellows. Learn to sing.

Garth Brooks
See "Madonna" above. This guy has sold over 100 million albums with a talent that rivals Hootie and the Blowfish, yet he will surely be inducted into every existing music hall of fame. Did I lose my taste or my mind? And, truth be told, "I have friends in low places," is not that clever a song idea. I sure wish I'd written it though.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What's The Hurry?

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
Blame the obstructionist Republicans for slow-walking health care reform to death.

Please indulge me if I've said this before; I have no health insurance. I can't buy it anywhere for any price. I once acquired the help of an insurance specialist whose job it was to find individual coverage for people who were self employed. After allowing her access to my medical records, she assured me that she would find something, only to call back in frustration after a week to refund my deposit. Every company has refused me coverage because of the "pre-existing condition." First, this catch-all phrase of doom was an invention of the insurance industry, and secondly, without Divine, metaphysical insight, how in hell would they know what my condition was before I existed? My personal theory was that my soul was in what theologian Jimi Hendrix referred to as "Spiritland," getting ready to go around that wheel one more time. I think the insurance companies would prefer to believe that if you are dead after life, then you are also dead before life. Therefore, if death is a pre-existing condition, they don't have to insure anybody.

It astounds me that so many people question the president's motives over reforming health care and accuse him of every nefarious scheme except wanting to help the American people and the human condition. The GOP has no plan other than to delay the debate and cry, "What's the hurry," which sounds very similar to Alfred E. Neuman's life's query. But tomorrow, forty million people will either have to pay retail for medical costs, if they can afford it, or use the emergency room as their primary physician, and let you pay for it. For a nation whose good was supposedly crowned with brotherhood, we sure have a heartless and ruthless system to care for the ill, the uninsured, the working poor, and the "least of these, my brethren." And what was my sin that forever disqualified me from health coverage? Several years ago I had an ulcer. It went undiagnosed and grew worse for a long time because my doctor was trying to spare me the expense of an MRI since I didn't have health insurance. The last time I had a chest X-Ray, I was billed for $650. How much was yours?

When I could take no more of mooching expensive prescription samples and pleading for doctor's to give me the "brother-in-law discount," I found that the local Church Health Center, although established to help the uninsured working poor, had an exception for musicians that would allow them to acquire decent health care at a nominal cost. I first had to attend an orientation meeting which was filled with mostly poor people coming straight from work, and fill out forms. God bless these folks for the work that they do, but the greeting meeting came with a healthy dose of Jesus and an emphasis on the importance of faith and building a relationship with God. A line in the registration form asked for "Church Congregation." Since Judaism does not have churches, I technically could have written "none," but instead I put "Temple Israel," to avoid any recruitment bulletins. It is, after all, the "Church" Health Center, and I accept their mission.

The young doctor leading our session seemed to have had a bad day and rather than having everyone take a seat, pass out the forms, and give instructions, He had us make a single-file line and he repeated the same instructions fifty times. He grew impatient with an Asian couple that spoke insufficient English and insisted they return at a later date with an interpreter. The young couple in front of me spoke only Spanish to each other, and I was prepared to say, "Yo hablo Espanol," to help these people muddle through on my bad Spanish, but they knew enough English to receive the forms. A brief lecture followed about 1040 tax returns and pay stubs necessary to verify sufficient work hours, and further instructions and calls necessary before being accepted as an "established patient." We concluded with a tour of the Hope and Healing Center on Union Ave., which is a wellness and exercise facility, with a chapel.

It is a tremendous relief to know that should I become ill that I have somewhere to go that will not financially break me. At the same time, while returning to my car after the meeting, I couldn't help but feel somewhat depressed about the whole thing. My wife assures me that the people who work at the Church Health Center Clinic are the most caring and thorough medical professionals she has ever dealt with and that I will appreciate the experience after my years of dealings with doctor's offices. I feel blessed that this alternative is here and is non-sectarian in the dispensing of medical care. But, as a former child of privilege sitting in a room with the likewise uninsured working poor and the truly destitute, I could not help but feel that I was occupying someone else's place whose life was far harder than mine. If I'm able to afford health insurance, then what am I doing accepting charity? The way the collusive medical/insurance complex is currently configured, desperation over health care knows no economic, ethnic, racial, or religious boundaries. Thankfully, neither does compassion.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Wrinkled Rebellion

Hey kids! Remember when your parents told you that wisdom comes with age? Mom and Pop told you a lie. Since you're the Online Generation, you know the acronym, "gigo," stands for "garbage in, garbage out." Wisdom is a long-term distillation of knowledge and experience; but when your experiences are limited and your knowledge comes from AM radio, paid shills for Rupert Murdoch and other right-wing groups, and chain emails, the only wisdom to be found there has to do with impacted teeth. Before the Bush re-election of 2004, an email went around from the GOP to conservatives that stated, "They think you're stupid," and liberals went crazy attempting to discuss issues of war and the economy instead of creationism and gay marriage. Well, the time has come to admit it. We really do think the far right-wingers are stupid, but more than that, we now think they're dangerous as well. And as George Bush proved over eight years, there's nothing more dangerous than an idiot convinced that he's right.

The discussion of health care reform has morphed into a carnival geek show with every pro-militia, automatic weapon-toting, Tim McVeigh wannabe out in public to show that nobody pushes them around. And since I live among them in the south, let's own up to the undercurrent of racial resentment that flows beneath these demonstrations of public anger. It's too simple to say, "Scratch a conservative and find a racist," because there are principled fiscal and social conservatives with much to add to the public debate. So although all conservatives are not racists, all racists are conservatives. Or else they use the "conservative" label to help dilute their 19th century worldview, and those who hold genuine conservative principles have allowed their movement to be distorted and corrupted by a group that could well be called the "New Dixiecrats." These propagandized "patriots" allow themselves to be used by corporate interests and show up at demonstrations howling "Facism, Communism, and Socialism," as if this was the new axis of evil threatening their lives. Where were these protesters when Dick Cheney came as close to establishing a totalitarian state since George Washington decided to be president instead of king?

I have a theory that's going to piss you off. I believe we're seeing the unintended consequences of private Christian education. First, let me say that I am a product of Christian education myself and I am all the better for it, because it helped me to understand religious faiths and viewpoints other than my own. So it is not the Christian part of the equation in which I find fault. In 1971, when the Supreme Court upheld busing to achieve integration in public schools, it threw the national educational system into chaos. It may have been a noble ideal, but many considered it "social engineering," and in retrospect, it was impractical policy. It was also the first conservative uprising since Nixon's "Silent Majority," and led to the complete desertion of public schools by white people, so that schools like East High went from being all-white to all-black in the course of a single year. This, in turn, led to the establishment of the private Christian academies and high schools and to the mammoth growth of churches in the following decades. Congregants found all their needs, from day care and exercise rooms to concert halls, met by the new church community. The unforeseen result was a new type of segregation, where like-minded people associated only with each other and suburban Christianity became a sort of exclusive club. These people have held sway for so long, that they now feel threatened by "socialistic" ideas, even when they are in their best interests.

And those that are screaming the loudest are the members of the so-called "Greatest Generation," who have been on the government teat since 1945. Returning soldiers from the big war were given the biggest slice of socialism this side of Sweden and they called it the GI Bill. Not only was a college education granted to every serviceman, but low-cost government loans were made available to purchase homes and start businesses, which fueled the economic boom of the fifties. Veterans from other wars did not receive such generosity. Now, old soldiers with white hair are hollering "Keep the government away from my Medicare" at town hall riots, or arguing over phantom rationing and forced euthanasia, while demagogic prophets tell them Obama is attempting to overturn the Judaeo-Christian ethic upon which this nation was founded. Which ethic was that; love thy neighbor, or an eye for an eye?

No social progress has ever been made with the help of the obstructionist conservatives. The only things the right-wingers have contributed is free-market Darwinism, prohibition, and term-limits after Roosevelt drove them crazy. I used to ask my Dad what it was like when FDR was president, and he said the GOP, the bankers, and industrialists hated his guts so thoroughly, they refused to refer to him by his name, only as "that man in the White House." Or they called him Rosenfeld and inferred that he was a secret Jew. Sound familiar? He was also known as the "poor man's friend," and called a Socialist and a Communist. Even Eisenhower was called a Communist by the right. When Ike expressed his approval for fluoride, a proven dental aid, to be added to public drinking water, the reactionaries claimed it was a Communist plot to rot the teeth of our children. But now, the factually challenged believe this president is a Kenyan Muslim, sent here by sinister forces to be a bi-racial Robin Hood ready to rob the white rich and distribute their earnings to crackheads and crooked ACORN employees. How did we get so damned dumb?

Any societal advances, from Social Security, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, women's economic and reproductive rights, Medicare or Medicaid, were advanced despite the resistance of the naysayers and defenders of the status quo. Some sort of major health care reform is going to pass this Congress, and in a year or so, it will look so seamless, we'll wonder how we ever allowed our rapacious current system to exist for so long. The Republican party, under the thumb of the Palin/Limbaugh wing, can't even bring themselves to admit there are no "death panels," in the bill, so why even consider them any further? They lost, so steamroll them and leave them in the wake of progress once again to sulk and lick their wounds. Better still, add the public, government-run option to compete against the carnivorous health insurance agencies, name the bill "Ted," and ram it through. Then, when our health care changes for the better, the repugnant, Hitler-referencing, functioning morons among us will have to focus their hatred elsewhere. It may well be true that the United States is the greatest country in the world; it's just the people that suck.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Miami Pop 1968: Best Festival Ever

When my friend Malcolm Levi called me in late August of 1969, he was ready for a vacation. Malcolm co-owned The Electric Outlet, Memphis' first hippie clothing store located at Poplar and Evergreen, and he invited me to join him and some friends for a trip to upstate New York to the Woodstock Music Festival and Aquarian Exposition. Rather than visions of Jimi Hendrix, all I could see was twelve or so hours locked in a cramped hippie bus with acquaintances known for erratic behavior, and so I declined. Besides, nothing could ever top the festival Malcolm and I had attended only eight months previous, which turned out to be promoter Michael Lang's trial run for Woodstock; the incredible three day festival held over the New Year's weekend of 1968-69, at Miami's Gulfstream Park thoroughbred racing track.

After the "big bang" of the Monterrey Pop Festival of 1967, this was the first attempt at such a gathering on this side of the continent and the promoters saturated radio stations in college towns all over the southeast. Since my musical passions were the new, psychedelic music as well as the classic soul sounds of the sixties, I could barely believe I was going to get to hear Procol Harum and Marvin Gaye on the same day. Soul music was still huge in the south and the promoters wisely included such artists like Joe Tex, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, and Chuck Berry to lure the college kids, and Iron Butterfly, The Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac to attract the freaks. Featured for the folkies were Jose Feliciano and a new artist named Joni Mitchell. A gang of Memphis pals piled into cars and headed south and when we reached the bucolic, green racing grounds, graced by flocks of pink flamingos, we were astonished at the sight. In our separate southern locales, the hippies were cautious and few, but together in Miami, we were many and mighty; colorfully dressed and long-tressed, we stared at each other for a full day before we could believe it.

The grounds were separated into two stages, giving the manageable crowd of thirty to sixty thousand room to wander between competing acts, while free-standing, whimsical sculptures in the walkways in between offered shade and wonder. Our Memphis group staked out a small, secluded spot under a tree by the entrance as a meeting place. If anyone were feeling distressed or confused, a few minutes under the tree would bring another friendly face from home. I had just witnessed such familiarity in the faces of Booker T. & the MGs and had made my way back to the side of the mainstage when I saw my boys; the band formerly known as Ronnie & the DeVilles had hired a new lead singer named Alex Chilton and had changed their name to the Box Tops. Alex was in the process of telling a huge audience that he didn't know what they were doing there, as if their hits weren't hip enough, but I managed to get close enough to shout at Thomas Boggs on the drums, who also seemed delighted to see another face from home.

As the days grew in number, so did the extraordinary kindnessness shown between strangers. There was a permanent smile on the face of the entire festival, and even those who never tampered with the locks on the "Doors of Perception," could feel it. Our little group had kicked in the doors and were probing around in the ethers looking for cosmic clues when a helmeted, motorcycle policeman roared a Harley onto the mainstage and stomped down a kickstand with a heavy black boot. I was searching for the exits when the menacing cop grabbed the micropohone and growled, "Got your motor runnin'," and John Kay and Steppenwolf exploded into "Born to be Wild." After sitting through the entirety of Iron Butterfly's "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" drum solo and the debut performance of Three Dog Night, big Bob "The Bear" Hite and Canned Heat took the stage. When they locked into that John Lee Hooker groove it was like an electric current went through the crowd. I felt myself propelled toward the front until I stood with a large, writhing group beside the stage, and while normally reserved at such events, I became somehow transformed into a Native-American warrior under the relentless beat until song's end found me shirtless but for a sheepskin vest, in bellbottoms and moccasins. To celebrate my conversion, we all travelled to the large campgrounds set up for visitors at the nearby Seminole Indian Reservation, where we sat around fires and smoked the pipes of peace well into the next morning.

I left Miami believing that I had witnessed the dawn of an age of gentler people who retained the capacity to love and treat one another with more compassion than previous generations, and it would only spread until we ended the war and changed the world. That euphoric naivete lasted about three weeks until Richard Nixon's inauguration, the demonizing of war protesters as "bums," the bombing of Cambodia, and student strikes ending in the blood of Kent State and Jackson State. But for one golden weekend, I saw it. I saw that by surrendering exclusivity, the worth of all people can be revealed, and that everyone has something to offer if only you are receptive. I witnessed that love is better than hate and kindness is superior to indifference. But that was a long time ago, and, like other flights of fancy, I haven't seen it much since.

My buddy Malcolm told me Woodstock was a bonding experience because so many had to endure so much, but when he described a half million hippies slopping around in the mud, I was glad I didn't go. I went to a few big festivals after Miami, but they only grew more commercial, with massive crowds herded into the infields of auto raceways surrounded by asphalt and inadequate facilities. The promoters of Miami Pop were emboldened to go on to Woodstock, but rather than obtain the cooperation of a friendly community and even an official welcome from the Governor, as in Florida, local officials in New York state gave them nothing but resistance and Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatened them with the National Guard. It is a great achievement of the hippie experience that showed the world that determined people can live without violence. Unfortunately, there are far too many others with no such determination. I can still recall that pop group from Memphis, though, among all the "heavy" acts at the Miami Pop Festival, that sang, "Love is a river running, Soul Deep."

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Hitler Offensive

After watching more incomprehensible town hall hijinks, I began to wonder how so many thirtysomething, ditsy, housewives became such experts on Hitler and Nazism. I realize that the usual suspects; Limbaugh, Beck, and other dim bulbs with red faces, have been working the Nazi angle for weeks, but they're not the ones furnishing the "Obama as Hitler" posters appearing at an event near you. That distinction belongs to Lyndon LaRouche, the perennial candidate for president on the Democratic side, although LaRouche is a Democrat in the same way as say, Leon Trotsky. He's been called a philosopher and visionary economist, but also a cult leader who uses his young followers, an anti-Semite, a fascist, and a convicted felon and ex-convict, the last two being non-subjective. His twisted message is all here. It's been confirmed that the woman who asked Rep. Barney Frank "why he supports a Nazi policy?" is a LaRouche devotee. How damaged must your reasoning be to accuse a gay, Jewish congressman of supporting the Nazis? It shows zero knowledge of history and is painful and offensive, not only to the memory of the victims of Hitler's genocidal regime, but to the sacrifice of almost a half-million American servicemen who died to rid the world of this demented demon of the twentieth century.

I know the argument; "this sort of extremism happens on both sides," but it seems to have broken out like poison sumac on the populace over the summer. As much as I despised the philosophy and actions of the Bush government, you would be hard-pressed to find any comparisons to Hitler in four years of these posts. Know why? Because I fucking know better. It's the cheapest, meanest, and dumbest sort of protest there is. Don't like Obama's health care initiative? Compare him to Hitler. It would be ridiculous on its face were it not for the fact that so many impressionable and angry people, especially in the South, have embraced this as a good idea. So, as long as any geek with a grudge feels entitled to discuss the Nazis, I'll break precedent and give it a stab. Which leader is more Hitleresque? One who wishes to make decent health care accessible to all citizens, or one who invades a sovereign nation without provocation and sets up a systematic, worldwide, torture ring? I report, you decide.

The handsome people in the above photograph are my great grandmother, Sala Haspel, with my two great uncles, Josef and Pavel, and Aunt Frania. The picture was taken in Warsaw and sent to her third son in Memphis, my grandfather, who was the only member of his family to escape Europe alive. See, all these people were murdered by the Nazis, and as meticulous as the Gestapo was known for their record keeping, there is no trace of them anywhere. Their names are not listed in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, nor in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. They simply vanished from the earth. I had always known this, but some years ago, I came into possession of my grandfather's papers, and after seeing their faces and learning their names, it became far more personal. I read his anguished letters to foreign ambassadors and government officials about learning the fate of his "dear ones," without result. This is the dismay that all the Hitler comparisons evoke in millions of people like me, and provokes the contempt I feel for those who use them. And all over health care? There is something deeper and more disturbing here that must be faced.

The past eight years have caused me to surrender my pacifism. I had the notion that the Republicans lost the last election and we might try something new. But after witnessing the disruption, uncivic behavior, and general obnoxiousness at Rep. Steve Cohen's town hall meeting in Memphis, I think the only way to effectively communicate with some of these goons is with a left hook. Please forgive my passion on the subject, but there is free speech, and then there is hate speech. I'm neither young nor strong anymore, and perhaps I lived so long under the protection of the late Sputnik Monroe that I feel emboldened, but should anyone ever approach me with that Hitler stuff at a public event, I will do my dead-level best to fuck you up. Either that, or I hope I'm on your "death panel." Oh, I'm sorry. Should I have said, "Mister?"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on Jim Dickinson

It was in the early seventies when we used to hang out at Phillips Recording Service on Madison when Jim Dickinson told me the secret to prominence in music. "The best way to make it in the music business," he said, "is to start a good rumor about yourself." That's why I took such delight in watching him work his theory and create the "East Memphis Slim" persona he continued to develop. He became the authentic, white boy with the blues, possessing a sardonic sense of humor and the willingness to step out on a limb for his art. Yet, he still had the intellectual honesty to once tell an interviewer, "We all learned it from the yard man." However, sometime after his work with various Memphis bands and his stint as house keyboardist for Atlantic Records at Criteria Studios in Miami, Jim's ever-expanding credits as a producer became so impressive, and his expertise and keen ear so desired by a new generation of musicians, that the reality simply overran the rumor.

Dickinson based his "good rumor" theory on Mac Rebennack, a New Orleans keyboardist he greatly admired, who labored for years in anonymity before creating the Voodoo High Priest, Dr. John the Night Tripper, and then rocketed to recording stardom. Jim turned me on to that particular record in 1967, and when the opening notes of the title track began, Dickinson said excitedly, "Listen to that. That's a cane flute," displaying his fondness for esoteric instruments. That was the year I worked with him on our single recording project at the old Ardent Studio in John Fry's garage on National. Before Led Zeppelin, before Cream, even before Moloch, Dickinson had the idea to record some white-boy, electric blues to stand in contrast with the usual pop fare of the day. He recruited Sam the Sham's drummer, Jerry Patterson, Fred Hester played stand-up bass, Lee Baker played lead, and Dickinson produced and played piano. Even though I was away at college and had been absent from the Memphis scene for a year, I was honored that Jim chose me to sing. I was afraid that, even after a short time away, I would have been forgotten, but Dickinson didn't forget me. That was one of those sessions that was deferred then abandoned for one reason or another. I bugged Jim about it for a year or so, but recording tape was then too expensive to save something that you weren't going to use.

Because of Dickinson's session work in the sixties, he finally crossed paths with Sam Phillips and took his words; "If you're not doing something different, then you're not doing anything," to heart. As a record producer, Jim became the true disciple of Phillips, both in his approach to recording, and the talent he chose to work with. Someone more capable than I can surely enumerate the records he produced and the influence they had on their audiences, but Dickinson, always prepared with a quote, wisely said, "The best songs don't get recorded; the best recordings don't get released; and the best releases don't get played." For his own production career, Jim adopted the "crazy is often good," credo of Sam Phillips. Dickinson's keyboard and vocal work for Sun with sixties garage band, the Jesters, has just been released internationally by Ace/Big Beat Records. The same company is also in the process of assembling a box set by Memphis legends, Big Star, who benefited from Jim's production.

I'm dating myself, but it seems like yesterday when Jim and Mary Lindsay Dickinson lived over off of White Station Road, and entertained a group of Bohemians, hipsters, bluesmen, musicians, and magicians in their living room nightly, and those now famous young men were still little boys. There was very little recording going on in Memphis once the famous labels closed, but the camaraderie among artists was such that it's strange how some of your fondest memories arise from times when you believed you were suffering the most. Though our mutual recording attempt was in the past, I valued Jim's opinion so much that, like a big brother, I still sought his approval for whatever I was doing musically. The whole truth be told, I never much cared for Mudboy and the Neutrons because I disagreed with Dickinson's philosophy that the less rehearsal the better. Actually, I believe there was a whole Andy Kaufmanesque quality to Mudboy, and those who said they sat down and actually enjoyed them were missing the point. Still, anyone like Jim who wears a wrestling mask on stage automatically commands my respect.

Dickinson was a man who would always tell you what he thought and not one to hand out compliments idly. That's why receiving one from him meant so much. I participated in a garage band reunion a couple of years ago, mainly because of my admiration for Larry Raspberry, who also recruited Dickinson to play in an assemblage of Gentrys. I did some shtick that was a throwback to the old soul revues when the singer would chime, "I once heard a friend of mine say," and then sing snippets of various artists' songs. On the changeover, I was walking offstage and Jim was stepping up when he said, "Hey man, that was great." Those few words were sufficient to make my night. Some time later, I got a call from David Less, whose label releases Dickinson's albums. Jim wanted to know if I'd be interested in coming down to Mississippi and singing some backup on his latest solo effort. I sang harmony vocals on one song and when I was done, Jim wrote me a check. "What's this?" I asked. "You're actually going to pay me?" Dickinson just laughed and said, "That's the way we do it these days." I reminded him of our 1967 recordings and told him how pleased I was that it only took him forty years to call me back. But I really would have done it for free.

I can see by the way the North Mississippi Allstars have conducted their careers thus far, that their parents have taught them well. Aside from his extraordinary talent, the other quality Jim Dickinson had in abundance was integrity. He leaves a void in the vanguard of contemporary music production that is impossible to fill. Even after I heard he was in ill health and had bypass surgery, I just assumed if anyone could kick a heart attack's ass, it would be Dickinson. The man just had an air of invincibility about him, and he seemed only in the middle of a saga that had so much more to go. His "East Memphis Slim" creation had come full circle and he was gaining the respect he desired as a producer with every passing day. It was as if he was almost where he wanted to be. Not quite, but almost. A whole generation now, raised on the fifties music played by Dewey Phillips and Rufus Thomas, and with an appreciation for the absurd and the eccentric, is beginning to fade from view. Jim has already achieved legendary status with a generation of musicians inspired by his adventurous productions. For many more that knew him well, or those that only knew him by reputation, the loss of James Luther Dickinson is like losing a part of Memphis itself.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Uppity White People

So I went to Congressman Steve Cohen's town hall meeting and a Jerry Springer Show broke out. I haven't seen that many white people downtown since "Cats" played the Orpheum, and it became quickly obvious by the heavy use of madras and pastels, that most were not residents of the 9th District. I half imagined that the conservative suburban white folks wouldn't flock to a Democratic town hall meeting in the heart of a black district, yet here they were, nattily dressed and tan with nice cars and looking in reasonably good health to me, as in, people who already have health insurance. I wore my T-shirt reading, "I'm one of the 45 million Americans without health insurance," and got my picture taken alot. I guess some people had never seen one before. I attended with my wife and brother-in-law, Melody and Billy, in that order, and although we got there early, the line for admittance stretched around the block and all the seats were taken by the time we entered the cavernous building.

We stood on the side with a large group of anti-whatevers while Cohen's security chief announced that three armed, carry-permit holders had entered the arena and requested for anyone else packing to please identify themselves to the local police. There were a mixture of boos and applause while the preppy beside me shouted, "That's against the law." Now I knew why the white people weren't reluctant to attend, but this was, after all, a community center. Steve Cohen was finally introduced to the cheers and jeers from his constituents and carpetbaggers respectively, but I knew we were in in for a long day when he read the headline from the morning's paper that said "U.S. Economy Shows Life," and a cascade of boos gushed forth from the hostile crowd. When Cohen told the crowd that under the pending House bill, "If you like your current health insurance, you can keep it," it sounded like the referee just made a bad call at a Tiger home basketball game. Then the chants began; "Read the Bill," and "Tell the truth." If Cohen had announced free beer and Bar-B-Que, this crowd would have still booed.

A parade of doctors on both sides of the issue stoked the fires, with the crowd cheering wildly for those condemning health care reform as governmental intrusion into the free market, and shouting at others who stated that the poor deserved health care too. See, these assembly-line doctors who get paid per procedure don't want anything to change because, like street Mafiosi, they're in on the skim. Another jock doc sent the crowd-turned-mob into a frenzy by blaming all the problems of the health industry on the high cost of malpractice insurance. With two wars, an economy on the brink, and unprecedented collapses in the home, banking, and auto industries, you don't know what surreal really means until you stand in the middle of a crowd of angry, red-faced, rich white people chanting, "Tort Reform!" A thunderclap of boos erupted when Dr. Neal Beckford said, "There are fifty million uninsured Americans," as if railing against the facts would change them, but the largest display of hostility was reserved for the doctor who announced that he had read the House bill and, "There was nothing in it about euthanizing Granny."

Boisterous crowds had gathered around us when suddenly a dispute about free speech broke out right next to me. Linda Moore reported in the Commercial Appeal:
Within 15 minutes of the start of the event, a nearly nose-to-nose confrontation between individuals with opposing views became so heated they had to be separated as Shelby County sheriff's deputies and Memphis police officers called for reinforcements. No arrests were made.
OK, so that was me. A knuckle-dragging, Fox News talking-points spouting heckler believed he had the freedom of speech to come into my district and prevent me from hearing my Representative, bellowing, "Stop Lying" in my ear the entire time, and I felt I had the freedom of speech to tell him to be quiet. I might also have thrown an epithet or descriptive adjective in there somewhere. Of course, I said "Shut up," and he thought I said "Stand up," so there was a brief flare-up and exchange of words that was followed by some macho posturing until I felt hands on my shoulders and arms, one of which belonged to brother Billy who was telling a muscled loudmouth with a salon cut to get his finger out of his face. Security immediately stepped in and the meeting continued. The burly heckler looked hard at me a few times, but there was a Sheriff's Deputy standing between us now and, you know what? He wasn't so eager to act-out after he was challenged.

What I want to know is, where were you? I scanned the crowd and you weren't there. The news has been filled with clips of town hall meetings across the country erupting into organized chaos and there was a good chance it was going to happen here. So, why did you allow an enraged mob of former Bush voters to hijack an important democratic function and throw your elected Congressman to the wolves? Where were Steve Cohen's friends and loyal supporters when the modern equivalent of a torch-bearing, superstitious mob of townspeople descended on his meeting with his constituents? Where were the self-congratulatory whites to defend him, who thought Cohen's election signaled the start of a post-racial paradise, and the patriots and champions of freedom who permitted this assault on democracy to go on unremarked? And where in this crowd of 1000, were the black people? I saw, aside from members of Cohen's staff, maybe a dozen African-Americans in the hall. Your congressman was speaking on your behalf today too, and that you weren't there to hear the message makes me wonder if its apathy, or an early indicator of support for Cohen's foe for re-election, former Mayor Willie Herenton.

The last time I saw passions run this high was forty years ago over the war in Vietnam, so something deeper than health care reform must be driving this anger. In 1970, I participated in a Knoxville protest of Richard Nixon's use of a Billy Graham Crusade in the University's stadium to show he was still able to speak on a college campus after his announced invasion of Cambodia. My assignment was to stand at the main intersection and hand out leaflets explaining that our protest had nothing to do with Reverend Graham, but the angry Christians pouring in by the thousands were outraged by these alien, shaggy-haired weirdos that had taken over the college without ever realizing that they were their own children. I had never felt so detached from the society's mainstream as then, but now I know why. The mainstream is sometimes polluted. The angry protesters at today's town hall meeting are like the fabled "Silent Majority" of the Nixon years. They are confused and afraid that there are things beyond their control, even sinister forces, that mean to alter their way of life, because the era of white entitlement is fading away. Another of the doctors speaking today was roundly booed for reminding the mob that fear and lies, repeated over and over again, will always trump the truth.

I regret that because of recent spammers, your comment may not immediately appear, but I will try to post all legitimate comments as soon as possible. RJH

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