Sunday, June 28, 2009

Who Killed Michael Jackson?

"The pure products of America go crazy." William Carlos Williams, 1923

Only days ago, we were discussing the crackdown on dissent in Iran, a world mired in an economic slump, a pending Congressional showdown on health care, and the Argentinian adventures of Governor Mark Sanford, and then suddenly all that talk stopped. Michael Jackson had died. In another of those "where were you" moments, my wife rushed in with the news, and we settled in to watch the sad pageant of grief and shock. It takes a person of enormous influence to halt the 24 hour news cycle in its' tracks, and the filmed reports of people pausing worldwide, for even a moment, to acknowledge the loss, proves Jackson was such an individual. Love him or hate him, this single artist's contributions to popular culture are immeasurable.

Michael had become a touchstone in people's lives. Multitudes grew up with him, and though it's hard to imagine, there's another generation who missed his heyday in the spotlight. Can it really be 25 years since the release of Thriller? I always place myself between the bookends of Elvis, who was 12 years older, and Michael, who was 10 years younger than me. It's curious that shortly before Elvis' death, just before a major tour, he was bloated almost beyond recognition with the effects of narcotic painkillers, while Michael's most recent appearances showed him looking confident, if frail. So, even though Elvis died at 42 and Jackson at 50, Elvis appears forever older in my mind, while Michael remains eternally young. Coloring these images is the memory of Michael emerging as the leader of the Jackson 5 at age ten; so commanding as a singer and polished as a dancer, and so gifted a musical prodigy, that he made a good singular argument for the existence of God.

I confess to being an unabashed Michael Jackson fan, the only other artist of the age who belongs in the same category with Elvis and the Beatles, since I saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show in December, 1969. When the Beatles appeared on the same program in 1964, it was barely three months since the assassination of JFK, and they brought joy to a grieving nation. The Jackson 5 appeared on our TV screens just eight months after the murders of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, and gave particular solace to young, black Americans who gained a new source of pride and inspiration. The corporate, white-dominated, music industry sprang into action and offered the Osmond Brothers as a squeaky-clean alternative. The Jackson 5 got a TV variety show; the Osmonds followed on their heels. A Saturday morning cartoon series was created around the Jacksons; the Osmonds had one within weeks. The Jacksons put Michael forward as their child leader; The Osmonds focused on Donny. It was the old practice of mediocre white artists ripping off black performers that dated back to before Pat Boone recorded "Tutti Frutti." But it was never a contest.

Michael's talent drew so much attention at such a young age, you just knew he would be a major adult artist if he could only survive the pitfalls that befell so many other child stars before him. Frankie Lymon, the MJ of the fifties, was devoured and abused by a music industry that drove him to addiction and early death. But Michael's 1979 Off the Wall solo LP, produced by Quincy Jones, was all the evidence anyone needed to know that the cute little boy had grown up. The Jacksons stopped at the Mid-South Coliseum for their Triumph tour in July, 1981, after Off the Wall had been released. Portions of the Memphis show were recorded for the follow-up Jacksons' effort, the double-album, Live, and though the show was critically hailed, it was clear that it was time for Michael to step out on his own.

No one could have predicted the massive response to Thriller, but something happened to Michael afterwards. Both Off the Wall and Thriller were essentially Rhythm & Blues records, but the international hysteria over Michael grew so far and so fast, that it was no longer sufficient to "cross-over" to a pop audience; he needed to dominate the scene, and he did. Jackson brought in Eddie Van Halen to play solos on guitar-based rock songs with a harder edge, and soon became the "King of Pop," but by the time Bad was released, Michael had begun his sad transformation from a vibrant, young, black man, into an old, white woman. I believe it was to make himself more race-neutral to his expanding international fan base, and the stories of him being teased by his father for his classic Negroid features are now legendary. But all his transitory cosmetic surgeries and eccentricities never compared to his lasting creative contributions to music and dance.

It was the personal oddities that fueled the tabloid fodder, and Michael became a target for opportunists. I truly believe that Jackson was an emotional man-child attempting to surround himself with the only group of people he felt he could completely trust; children. Only Michael could have been naive enough to admit in a documentary that he shared his bed with young boys in a non-sexual and innocent manner, like a childhood sleep-over, and expect people to understand him. Even his trust in children was betrayed when the boy he tried to help with medical expenses and emotional support filed criminal molestation charges against him. After the young man and his mother were proven to be grifters and Jackson was acquitted of all charges, Michael was forever burdened with suspicions of pedophilia, and became an object of ridicule. This trying ordeal led the former Jehovah's Witness into the world of prescription meds, painkillers, and "boutique" doctors. All the questions swirling around Jackson's sudden death have yet to be answered, but there is an object lesson in the latest saga of Scottish singer Susan Boyle. The only thing we English speaking followers of pop culture enjoy more than placing a hero on a pedestal to be worshipped, is to rip them apart when we realize they are not gods after all. In the aftermath of this tragedy, songwriter Don McClean's lyrics about Vincent Van Gogh seem most appropriate to Michael Jackson; "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Alabama Extreme Makeover

Amid all the political vitriol of the past week, it's heartening to report the huge initial response we've received to our petition drive to officially rename the state of Alabama. Not merely in the Northeast and California, but people all over the world are writing in to endorse the idea that since Alabama is the cradle of the civil rights movement, and the scene of some of the era's most tumultuous events, it is only fitting that their citizens honor our 44th, and first African-American President, by formally renaming the state "Alobama." Since so many Alabama towns are named after European cities already; Florence, Athens, Birmingham, Oxford; the contributions from Europe, where our president is a superstar, have just been pouring in.

We, of course, realize that the name change will cause some inconvenience, especially at the DMV and official state buildings. But only one vowel has to be altered and our studies show that thousands of people can become employed rounding off "a's" into "o's." Hiring will be under a federally run public agency like the Works Progress Administration during Roosevelt's New Deal. Any map revisions can be incorporated in the next generation of cartography, however Alobama would lose it's alphabetical advantage to Alaska; a small price for historic change. In return, municipalities throughout France and Germany have agreed to build a series of Bistros and Rathskellers all over rural Alabama with authentic French waiters and Bohemian Frauleins, to introduce European cuisine to the natives. It will be a foie gras meets cheese-grits international smorgasbord. We predict European Socialist Tourism will increase ten-fold, especially during the year-long Obamafest planned to coincide with the name change celebration. It will be like Oktoberfest, only with Earth, Wind, and Fire playing instead of the oompah bands, and exclusively Mountain Dew, endive, and bratwurst in the dry counties.

Understandably, the state's land grant universities have to be treated with the sensitivity deserving of their legendary heritage. The former University of Alabama will be permitted to sell its' supply of red sweatshirts before beginning the new printings, and in honor of Bear Bryant and that song by Steely Dan, they will be allowed to retain the nickname "Crimson Tide." We would prefer, however, that the schools colors be changed to crimson and mauve to reflect the new multi-culturalism, and the football cheer "Roll Tide," be replaced by, "Roll Tide of Hope." The phrase, "Go Bama," is permissible, but the second syllable must be pronounced, "bomma," as in "Go Bomma." The guy in the elephant suit they use on the sidelines is easily swapped for a donkey in a red poncho. Since Auburn University can't decide whether to call their mascots "Tigers," or "War Eagles," a decision has been made for them. There are already too many schools using "Tigers," and we wish to de-emphasize the glorification of war, so to reflect the new patriotism, their sports teams will now be known as the Auburn Bald Eagles. Since nobody knows what a "Blazer" is anyway, UAB can remain the same, with commendations for their "green" theme.

We pledge not to alter the state flag, even though it's the same design as the Confederate battle flag, only with different colors and without the stars. It is a bit too antebellum, however, so the committee recommends co-state flags. We prefer adopting a flag with the Obama "O" logo, with the rising sun in red, white, and blue. Since the existing flag looks like a big, red "X" anyway, we will simply rededicate it in honor of the late Abdul Malik Shabazz, known internationally as Malcolm X. To assuage the concern of local citizens, we have been assured by the Nation of Islam that they will construct enough mosques statewide to accommodate all the new Muslim transplants, so that no one has to be inconvenienced. We further believe, to further the state's new, pacifist image, that flying an "X" flag next to an "O" flag, will also represent kisses and hugs. Henceforth, the Aloboma licence plates will read, "Land of the Tolerant," but that "Heart of Dixie" business has to go in favor of "I (Heart) Big Government." By popular demand, the official state song will be changed from "The Stars Fell on Alabama," to Stevie Wonder's, "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered." With the international attention this will receive, I can promise you that Birmingham will become the new Bangers and Mash capitol of the South, and Muscle Shoals can reopen their recording studios to tape large-group, Socialist anthems from Georgia.

Even George Wallace grew a conscience in his declining years and publicly rebuked his racist past. The old segregationist, who once stood in the schoolhouse door, cried like a woman and begged forgiveness for his sins before going to visit Old Scratch. Likewise, Alabama's day of redemption has come. Petitions are presently circulating in the state and we look forward to the Governor's support. It is hoped that the state legislature will address the name change, but we are prepared to have the name "Alobama" recognized by the World Court, as advised by our council from the ACLU, like Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka. So here's to the "Yellowhammer State," which in the future will be known as "The Big 'O'," and the destiny that awaits you in the New World Order. Already, in keeping with the state's refreshing new post-racial attitudes, the City Council has voted unanimously to rename the Birmingham International Airport after Alabama's two most distinguished, and colorblind citizens. Henceforth, everyone will be flying into the Helen Keller-W.C. Handy Memorial Airfield in Birmingham, Alobama. "Yes We Can."

Monday, June 08, 2009

Osama Fears Obama

Memo to Osama bin Laden re: Your latest audio release; It ain't working anymore, pal. You've become like the Doobie Brothers and released one album too many, and now it's time to hit the Oldies Circuit. You're yesterday's news, with a strong, charismatic competitor for the souls of Muslim youth throughout the Middle-East. All over your imaginary Caliphate, young people are replacing the Osama wall posters with Obama posters. One offers hope, the other offers death. No wonder you released a frantic communique criticising Obama's historic address in Cairo to the Muslim world. If the enormous youth population of the Arab Crescent begin to believe that an erudite man named Barack Hussein Obama can be elected president, maybe the U.S. isn't the "Great Satan" their radical coreligionists have led them to believe.

Obviously, no single speech can erase the chasm that exists between cultures, or diminish the zeal of holy warriors on either side, but Obama's superb address did more to influence the next generation of Muslim youth than eight years of Bush's selling them Democracy as, "God's gift to mankind." Obama is uniquely qualified to deliver a speech of this magnitude, and approached his massive Muslim audience with two things they never heard from the last administration; humility and respect. Making the speech in Cairo must have been particularly galling to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's Dick Cheney, who claims that turf like the Gangsta Disciples. Islamic extremists, who use a great deal of religious symbolism in recruiting, must have freaked-out when they saw the Obama-like hieroglyph in the Great Pyramid at Giza. I know I did. The Pyramid is known to have great mystical powers and astronomical accuracy, and is a recorder of the past and predictor of the future. If Obama is somehow able to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace talks, this country's Evangelical right, already in a frenzy over his references to the "Holy Koran," will be holding the President down in order to shave his head and search for the sixes.

Regardless of your opinion of the President, it took some courage and finesse to speak those hard truths. Like Daniel in the lion's den, he said the U.S.'s bond with Israel was "unbreakable" in the capitol city of an Arab country, while insisting that Hamas and Hezbollah must reject and rebuke violence. Simultaneously, Obama insisted that Israel cease settlement expansion in the West Bank in preparation for a Palestinian state. He was the first President to use the word "Palestine," and also the first to acknowledge the complicity of the CIA under Eisenhower to topple the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. That was our original beef with Iran, which was more pro-Western than not, when we feared our oil might become more expensive, and so staged a coup, giving them the Shah instead of the people's choice as leader. While some criticize Obama for "apologising," he merely owned up to some unpleasant history that needed to be addressed. The Iranian elections are coming, Ahmadinejad is in political trouble, and their young voters were paying close attention to this speech. Could it tip the balance?

President Obama also represents, as an honest broker, the best chance for peace in the Holy Land that we may yet have seen. The Netanyahu government of Israel will make a lot of groaning noises, but they have the proven alliance of Hillary Clinton to assure their interests are protected, and the persuasiveness of George Mitchell to begin the process. Netanyahu is like Nixon or Ariel Sharon, in that he is bellicose and unyielding right up to the moment he realizes history could record him as a peacemaker, then he's a realist. As a result of the positive reception to Obama's Cairo speech in the Muslim world, the Palestinians may begin to moderate their stance. It's only a beginning, but what an absolute dilemma for Al-Qaeda. When the U.S. is represented by a man who tells his Egyptian audience, "I am a Christian," yet is able to quote from the Koran, who will Osama bin Laden demonize to recruit new suckers? Other than the Republicans, who can hate this man? What a delight to have a leader who understands the benefits of community organizing.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Don't Take Your Guns To Town

In my career as a vagabond musician, I suppose I've spent a full third of my life working in bars and restaurants. I've seen some ugly incidents and brutal violence over the years, but aside from one or two times, it never included me. When a fight broke out, the band's policy was to keep playing unless the combatants rolled onto the bandstand at which point, all bets were off. I have used my guitar or microphone stand as a weapon, but we were fortunate to have a couple of big guys in the band who were our enforcers. I've actually turned my head to witness percussionist Skip Ousley catch the fist of an enraged person in mid-swing, right before it reached my face. We performed countless times at the Enlisted Men's Club at the Millington Naval Air Base where there were 200 men and four women, and a brawl erupted every ten minutes. I've watched teeth fly and blood flow, but nothing quite compared to the beat-down of an inebriated patron I witnessed at an all-night club in Little Rock called The Apartment.

Members of the Radiants were taking our parking lot break when a drunken fool was thrown out of the front doors by the club's immense bouncers. The drunk sprang up and attacked the two men, as drunks do, causing one of the bouncers to begin smashing the idiot's head with a lead-filled police slapper while screaming, "You done fucked up now, Bobby Gene!" When the other bouncer pulled a gun and began waving it in the air, we dove for cover behind the parked cars while the drunk continued to fight on. After a dozen more hard blows to the head, the man was beaten nearly senseless. When he tried to struggle to his feet he received a parting boot kick to the ribs that thudded across the lot and dropped him on his back. Still, the bleeding man struggled into his pick-up and managed to lay rubber leaving the club. It then became my job to get back on stage and reassure the freaked-out crowd that the danger was over and play some dance music, but midway through our second song, I saw a sort of panic sweep the room. It seems Bobby Gene had returned, only this time with a shotgun, and there was some sort of stand-off outside. For an agonizing moment, the nightclubbers, as well as the band, believed we could be part of a hostage situation. The police arrested him, but it was one of the few times in a club that I have been really afraid.

The common denominator in all of these incidents was alcohol, yet the Tennessee Legislature overwhelmingly passed new laws allowing handgun-carry permit holders to bring their weapons into bars and restaurants, supposedly for self-protection. So, on behalf of musicians, bartenders, managers, hosts, wait staff, cooks, cashiers, and busboys everywhere, I'd like to ask our distinguished state legislators a question. Are you people fucking crazy? Are you so deeply in the pockets of the National Rifle Association that you are willing to let someone die to keep the endorsements and contributions coming? Any fool can see that if this vote becomes law, somebody, and possibly a lot of somebodies, is going to be killed. The only people that should have guns in places that sell alcohol should be the owner and the security guard, just like at the liquor store. Anything else is inviting a disaster.

Governor Phil Bredesen has made the principled stand against this outrage by vetoing the bill, but there are powerful forces aligned against him and the General Assembly is prepared to override. The bill's sponsor, Republican Representative Curry Todd of Collierville is a former police officer and should know better, but a cursory exam of his voting record shows he wants handgun permit records to be closed to the public, he favors allowing loaded long guns in vehicles and the elimination of the thumbprint requirement for gun purchases. No wonder the NRA Political Victory Fund, which contributes to the campaigns of sympathetic legislators, gave Todd a grade of A+. The curious thing is that there was no demand for this bill. There have been no Luby's style massacres in the local cafeterias. The bill is entirely political and driven by the NRA to expand carry rights into every area of public life. A fear based campaign has already begun by the Tennessee Firearms Association and the NRA to urge their members to contact legislators to override, along with a blatant threat to the political futures of the police and law officials that stood with the Governor.

The gun-toters' argument is always the same: that carry permit-holders are law-abiding citizens that must pass a rigorous course in the use and safety of a handgun before being granted a licence to go strapped to Kroger's, and that they are our first line of defense when the armed drug gangs start to invade our Applebee's. Bullshit. In the past, someone had to show a legitimate purpose for carrying a weapon before being granted a permit. Now, anyone with a pulse and no felonies who can manage to act right for a few hours of training and keep from drooling over the paperwork has a gun in the glove compartment. Why do you suppose the number of road rage shootings has recently rocketed?

Instead of guns in bars, there should be more bars in guns. The last fatal shooting in a Memphis nightclub came from someone who was well-trained in firearm use and licensed to carry; an off-duty policeman who became enraged after a few drinks and shot two people over a parking space. Oh, I take it back. It was that hothead in Cordova, near Rep. Todd's district, who killed the father of two children in the parking lot outside a restaurant for a perceived insult toward his wife. He had a carry permit too, proving that what a handgun often does is turn a small man into a self-perceived badass. Add alcohol to that mix and what used to be a fist-fight will now become a shooting. The new law states that the gun holder is not supposed to be drinking in these "food-serving" establishments. Who's going to enforce that; the waiter or the bartender? This is one of those "contact your congressman" times for the sane people in Tennessee. For your own self-defense, find them at link, or, and tell them that this gun legislation is a really bad idea. No one deserves to be shot over their creme brulee because of an NRA campaign donation.