Sunday, July 12, 2009

Willie and the Hand Jive

"North side, east side
Little Willy, Willy wears the crown/
He's the king around town...
'Cos little Willy, Willy won't go home/
But you can't push Willy round/
Willy won't go."

"Little Willy" The Sweet, 1973

There are occasions in the life of Memphis city politics when you just have to stand back and stare in awe. In 1968, Mayor Henry Loeb's patronizing, pigheaded position concerning city employees virtually forced a confrontation with sanitation workers. Then there was the memorable evening back in the mid-seventies when a disgruntled bar patron grew tired of hard-drinking Mayor Wyeth Chandler attempting to grope his date and kicked his ass in the parking lot behind Overton Square. Now, we have the on-again, off-again resignation of Mayor Willie Herenton, supposedly set for July 30, depending on how spiteful he's feeling at the time. But the bellicose rhetoric and the contempt the Mayor has shown for those citizens outside of his loyal voter base has made it open season for Herenton's critics, and they are legion.

If Chicago is "The City of Big Shoulders," then Memphis must surely be "The City With a Chip On Its Shoulder." It's true enough that African-American citizens have been disenfranchised, underrepresented, and used as pawns in city politics in the not-so-distant past, but most Memphians long for the time when those days can be considered ancient history. It's just that some politicians who shoulder the largest chips won't allow us to move beyond it. Race is just too good of a political wedge issue to leave alone. City Council votes fall routinely along racial lines with many agenda-driven Councilpersons seemingly in it for self-aggrandizement or personal advancement. There is the rare, well-meaning, public servant, but John Vergos retired in frustration over trying to deal with the half-wits, even if he denies it. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin each City Council meeting with a brief group therapy session, or a 12-step program to see how everyone's doing with their respective dependencies. Meanwhile, the mayor's utter contempt for the Council does not make for good government, nor do his take-it-or-leave-it pronouncements from on high.

The most common term describing the mayor that I have seen lately, from professional editorialists to letters to the editor, is "egomaniac." He has become George Bush-like in his opinion of his subjects; you're either with him, or you're against him. And if you're not beholden to the mayor for your job or other "city services," you're considered by Herenton as just another "hater." The Mayor has been playing defense so long now, he has forgotten how to inspire. But it wasn't that way always. I voted for Herenton three times, and three out of five ain't bad. But he lost me around the "Don't bring no mess" phase, when his speeches became increasingly angry, paranoid, and racially tinged. Recalling Herenton's election as Memphis' first black mayor and the tremendous elation that came with the hope that this city might finally transcend its' racially divisive past seems like a very long time ago. Eighteen years of waiting for a renaissance that never arrived has made me Willy weary in the extreme. Especially since he ran for his fifth term just to prove he could be re-elected.

Mayor Herenton's admirable place in the revitalization of downtown during his first two terms has decayed along with the city. The combined efforts of government and business have overseen the opening and closing of Peabody Place, the pending destruction of the Coliseum, the Mid-South Fair moving to Mississippi, and questionable construction issues concerning the FedEx Forum. And as far as our big, empty Pyramid, it is way past time for Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait. Remember when a consortium of businessmen wanted to put a first-rate aquarium in the Pyramid? The mayor blew that one off before he even examined how similar facilities in Chattanooga and New Orleans have become major attractions. The thought of coming over the Memphis-Arkansas bridge and envisioning the architecturally beautiful Pyramid with a giant, hooked fish on its facade would be enough to make the project's founder, John Tigrett, spin in his grave, had he not purchased the "Fair and Square" casket he descibed in his autobiography that leaves him no wiggle room.

So now Herenton wants to run for Congress against Steve Cohen to restore African-American representation to the majority black 9th District. As reported in the Flyer, the Mayor thinks Cohen is "an asshole," but he's wrong. Maybe Cohen used to be an asshole as a young, ambitious County Commissioner, but thirty years in the state legislature taught him the humility needed to compromise with others for the common good. The difference between Cohen and Herenton is that Cohen is running for re-election to serve his constituents; Herenton just wants to win. It was heartening to see Rep. Cohen get a position on the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, where as a freshman, he was taken under the wing of legendary Michigan legislator John Conyers. Cohen was wise enough to know that he had a lot to learn and humble enough to allow himself to be mentored by the elder Conyers. Herenton has no such humility. I'm certain that if Herenton knows John Conyers, he considers himself every bit his equal. After all, what has John Conyers ever run? In the U.S. Congress, you must wait your turn; not the best job for a 70-year-old man used to getting what he wants when he wants it. Herenton has already said he plans to win the election with black votes alone, so we can expect a particularly ugly and race-based campaign.

I think Herenton feels under appreciated. After 18 years, the Mayor is crying out for recognition as the historical politician that he is, only he has stayed at the dance too long and the guests have all gone home. This late-life, vanity run for Congress is an attempt to prove that nobody stops Willie Herenton. Except, the Mayor may first want to check the last election returns to see that Cohen captured 60% of the African-American vote, and in the age of Obama, racial politics takes a back seat to the competence of the candidate. My unsolicited advice is for Dr. Herenton to make good on his retirement of July 30, go out a winner, and forsake further political ambition. Either that, or learn how it feels to lose, badly. Mayor Herenton has become an angry man who no longer receives praise or thanks for his work and feels persecuted by those around him. I think what he really needs is a big hug. So, how about this? For your decades of service to this community, thank you Willie Herenton. During your tenure as Mayor, you did many good things. May you enjoy your golden years in tranquility. Now, was that so hard?


joe said...

I'm with you. But I think it's really Willie and the NPD Jive. Check it out...

Steve said...

Randy, You guys really need to send Willie to Cleveland. Or his predessor, they have
done a great job preserving that city. Get over the fact they have the R & R Museum and
get cracking. Willy talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk.
I've always liked him but it seems he has been in the way of progress for our great city lately.
Keep me up dated. Did you ever get an update on Dickenson ?
I'm presently in Japan with The Original Blues Bros Band playing the Billboard clubs.
Back home end of the month. Booker and I play with a "KIYOSHIRO" tribute band at the
Fuji Rock Fest the 25 then I head back to Nashville.
Take care my friend.


John said...

randy, i was just talking to someone about herenton. i was saying he must have changed since he first ran for mayor because i too voted for him the first couple of times. first, against hackett because i thought he might do a better job of uniting the city. i really got worried when he started saying that god wanted him to be mayor. i hope one day this country can get away from the notion of mixing religion and politics. reason and compassion over superstition, fear and dogma. this is really a good lesson for anyone no matter what you do. life will go much better if doing a good job is all the thanks you need. let your work speak for itself and learn to ignore your detractors. i hope you and melody are having a good summer. if you happen to be out next sunday, the 19th, i'm going to be playing at the shell with a jazz group with vocalist tj graham from 5 pm until 5:40. we'll be doing some standards from the first album we did and some originals from our recent album. hopefully it won't be so hot as today. later, john

Father Farken said...

Quite a coincident! Heard 'THE LITTLE WILLIE' song for the !st time in years on a Middle Tennessee oldies station right before reading this blog! WE FREUDIAN FRAYSER roughnecks thought the song was a sexual connotation about a certain body part! SHLONG! But you have changed my mind! Its a political connotation about a certain body part! ASSHOLE! Also just heard Steve Cohen on Sirius- The GEEKER IN YOUR SPEAKER Elvis Radio! He has helped our Education system by bringing in the lottery. So we no longer have an inheritance....we are having a big old time playing Mr. Lucky! Randy! Your Commentary is SPOT ON! Willie! PLEASE LEAVE WHILE THERE IS A WEE BIT OF DIGNITY! THRE IS NOT GOING TO BE ANY B E T PROMOTIONAL MEMORIAL. THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES1 We'll forget the nightmare! Go in peace! G*d wants you out! Father Farken {SPIRITUAL CZAR)
PS: The great Steve Cropper graced this blog! Perfect! Randy has the clout!

Anonymous said...

"Hit the road Willie and don't ya come back no more", unless your on a MATA bus, that will insure us all that you'll never get back here again.

Look, all you musicans, this is a blog, stop posting all of your up-coming performance dates and stick to the issue on hand. Comphrende?

John V. said...


You're so kind, and your articles are always so insightful, historic, cuttting, humorous, etc.
How's that for ass kissing.

This Thurs. I'll be on AM 56 radio at 9:45 talking about the insanity of high school kids practicing football in 104 degree heat index.

I know it;'s not your issue, but I've been writing articles about it and our incompetent school board for years. I wish Bredesen would take it over.

I hope to see you soon. I wish we could talk more often.

All my best,


Jeff said...

Re: your Sanford for mayor email. Thanks, but I'm winding down not winding up. Am delivering
the keynote on the 23rd at the CCC's annual luncheon at the Peabody. We usually
bring in an out of town speaker, but with the economy and all... I do plan to
hit a few balls straight up the middle re the future of Memphis. What the heck,
all they can do is fire me!

Anonymous said...

Lawler was a shoo-in for mayor before his son got arrested. Long live the king!

Father Farken said...

I have just left my weekly Asshole Anonymous meeting! Still no Willie Herenton! Our premise is IF YOU DON'T THINK YOU ARE AN ASS HOLE YOU ARE IN DENILE. We have come to believe....we are A #1 assholes! Willie come join us! THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR ONE MORE. DON'T MAKE ME INTERVENE! The Peace of The Lord!