Monday, May 24, 2010

The Oily Bird Special

The most moving song I know about the Gulf Coast is "Biloxi" by Memphian Jesse Winchester. (Click on post title to hear "Biloxi"). When he resided here, Jesse went by the name of Jimmy Winchester and fronted a great garage band called the Church Keys. I was a freshman at Christian Brothers High School when he was a senior and a member of the National Honor Society. With a limitless future, Jesse was instead forced to flee this country and accept refuge in Canada rather than participate in the Vietnam War. It was while living as an expatriate that he wrote the wistful "Biloxi;" an evocative childhood memory of frolicking in the salty sea water of the Gulf, made more poignant by Winchester's circumstances. When a potential draftee sought sanctuary from Vietnam in a foreign land, he became a man without a country and was unable to return to the United States without the threat of arrest and imprisonment. So Jesse Winchester wrote "Biloxi" as someone who never expected to see the Gulf again. The song takes on weighty new meaning today, since none of us may ever see the Gulf Coast again; at least as we remember it.

After Jimmy Carter pardoned hundreds of thousands of draft resistors living abroad, Winchester was able to sing "Biloxi," at the Ritz Theatre on Madison Ave. It was the same year that Jimmy Carter tried to warn us about the dire consequences of our dependence on foreign oil. Regardless of your opinion of Carter as president, he was the first visionary to advocate for wind and solar energy. Had we heeded that advice thirty-five years ago, or learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster twenty years ago, we wouldn't be facing the most massive man-made catastrophe since the New Orleans levees broke five years ago. Even then, floodwater eventually recedes; a tsunami of oil is a bit more tenacious. With this ecological 9/11 looming, it seems as if even the local politicians still don't grasp the scope of the danger. Like myopic bureaucrats in a bad disaster movie, Senator Mary Landrieu and Governor Bobby Jindal see no reason to suspend permits for future off-shore oil exploration even while the Louisiana marshes are dying. Landrieu is so deep in the pockets of Big Oil, her campaign contributions are greasy, and "Drill Baby Drill," has reverted to the original "Burn Baby Burn."

BP has become the villain of this piece, although they are as beholden to the petrol cartels as any other major oil trust. What's astonishing is their admitted cluelessness over what to do about it. Too bad we don't have an underwater equivalent to Red Adair. When alleged "experts" in their field begin asking the public for suggestions on how to plug a leak, you know we're in big trouble. And they continue to refer to it as a "spill." A spill is what happens to a glass of wine. Two million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf every day is not a spill, it's an underwater volcano, and BP's attempt to insert tubing into the shattered pipes to capture the oil is like siphoning water from the Mississippi with a garden hose. Now a month after the explosion and fire, and we have only seen their faulty caps and cement doghouses fail to stop it. The company's latest plan is to bombard the area with tires, ropes and golf balls. Wasn't that the premise of a Seinfeld episode? Rush Limbaugh removed an obstruction from his blowhole to blame the Sierra Club for the leak, by forcing the oil syndicates to drill further offshore with their pesky regulations. Come to think of it, old Rush might be the perfect fit to plug that thing.

This atrocity's origins can be found in the era of lax regulation by government, and corner-cutting by ruthless profiteers. Since Dick Cheney allowed industry insiders to write this country's energy policy behind closed doors, we have lurched from one Enron rolling blackout to the next, driven by unfettered corporate greed. No company in US history has benefited more from friends in high places than Halliburton. Yet from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico, they have been the very model of incompetence. It was Halliburton's responsibility to properly seal this well, but they used seaweed instead of cement. The only thing more disastrous than Cheney's oil war has been his corporate crony energy policies. Has there ever been a Vice President who has done more personal damage to his country than Dick Cheney? I think there's finally enough accumulated evidence to charge him with international racketeering under the RICO statutes. Hey, they finally got Al Capone for income tax evasion.

Cheney's been eerily silent about this mess, but he's gone back into hibernation now. This bomb went off on Obama's watch and it's past time for him to get his wingtips dirty and get his ass to New Orleans. If we learned nothing from Hurricane Katrina, it's that the perception of leadership in a crisis is as important  as the methods used to alleviate the problem. The government claims to have its "boot on the neck of BP." Well, time to take the boots off of BP and get down there in the muck with them. Assigning blame is no longer sufficient. There is an urgency now and action needs to be taken or else those white sand beaches that Jesse Winchester sang about, and all that "fun among the sea oats" enjoyed by thousands of Memphians and millions of Southerners will be lost for a century. The "Redneck Riviera" may seem remote to our distant countrymen, but let that crude get into the loop current and start landing on the beaches of Miami and Florida's Gold Coast and we may yet see some outrage. Five states are facing an environmental and economic apocalypse while sea and land creatures face extinction, yet Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, told Sky News, "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest." My father used to say, "It's a dirty bird that fouls his own nest." Heads up to the human race: we just peed in the gene pool. 

Thanks to Bill Day for the magnificant illustration.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Late, Great Johnny Ace

In my boyhood room on the night table next to my bed there was a plastic, box radio with a large moon dial with the word  
“Philco” engraved in a semi-circle across the top. If you turned the dial all the way to the right, you could sometimes hear Wolfman Jack howling out of Mexico. The middle of the dial brought you WLS in Chicago with Dick Bionde, or KXOK in St. Louis and Johnny Rabbitt. All the way to the left of the dial was channel 56 and Daddio Dewey Phillips with “The hottest cottin’ picking show in the country, 'Red, Hot, and Blue,’ coming to you from WHBQ, on the ‘magazine’ floor of the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis.” Dewey would say that he was “downtown about as far as you can get.” Phillip's radio show was on late when I was supposed to be asleep. But every night, right after Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, I turned down the volume and leaned in close to the radio to get the greatest lesson in Rhythm & Blues on the air. Dewey had such a thick southern drawl and was so frenetic, he probably should never have been on the air in the first place. He was the complete opposite of what a radio announcer was supposed to sound like in the fifties. WHBQ only hired him because of the business being generated by WDIA, the first Negro station in the nation. The commercial potential for Memphis’ African-American community could no longer be ignored and WDIA proved that. Except WDIA went off the air at sunset, leaving fans of "race music" with nowhere to turn. Enter Dewey Mills Phillips.

If Rufus Thomas was the strong, steady presence on Memphis radio, Dewey Phillips was its’ shooting star. He shined brightly for a while and then burned out. However, during his command of the airwaves, he held the listening public in thrall for most of the fifties with his outrageous jabber and his taste for hot music. Dewey was not merely the first man to play an Elvis record on the radio; he was the first white disc jockey in the Mid-South to play black music, laying the groundwork for Elvis to emerge. Dewey’s voice; nasal, country, and rapid-fire, was more suited for a Southern auctioneer or a carnival barker. But his experience as a salesman in the record department of W.T. Grant’s on Main Street gave him an expanse of knowledge about Rhythm and Blues music and a proximity to Beale Street enjoyed by only a very few white men. He was also close to the Hotel Chisca where the WHBQ studios were located. Dewey somehow convinced the station manager that he was the man for the nine to midnight shift after WDIA, "the black spot on your dial,” went off the air, and he was right. Every night, WDIA’s massive audience switched the dial to Dewey along with growing numbers of white children discovering the music for the first time. All through the segregated 1950s, Dewey Phillips offered up a sampling of juke, jive, and jump, along with a healthy selection of black gospel music, to an ever-growing audience that was anything but segregated, and all right in the heart of Dixie.

My memories of Dewey begin in adolescence. Although I do not recall exactly when I began to listen, I know it was as early as age seven in 1954, because my paternal grandmother died that year. My sister and I returned from school to find our house filled with weeping relatives. Susan burst into tears, but I was uncertain how to react, so I put on a grim face and pondered it. My grandmother was only in her mid 50s, but she had seemed older to me. All day and night, the house filled with mourners and well-wishers until it was my bedtime. I lay in the dark pondering death until it was time for Dewey's program when I again leaned in close to the radio. I was delighted by his deranged ramblings but felt that I should not be having this much fun when everyone else was so sad. In the rest of the house, people were crying or talking in hushed tones. But in my bedroom, Dewey was playing Louis Jordan singing, "Dadgum your hide, boy/Dadgum your dirty hide/ Dadgum your hide, boy/ I gave you a pig but you wanted a sow,” and I had to laugh. I was transported to a world that the adults knew nothing about. Still, it felt odd that while the grown-ups were in the living room grieving, I was in my bedroom, grooving.

In that same year, on the night of my Davy Crockett Christmas, I wore my brand new coonskin cap to bed and tuned in again to Dewey, expecting some yuletide revelry. It was only a week after my eighth birthday, and I was still supposed to be sleeping. So, once again, with the volume low, I leaned in to listen. Dewey had the unusual practice of yammering right over the record; or if a lyric made a statement or asked a question, Dewey would answer it. Sometimes he even sang along, which made it tough for music lovers, but delighted Dewey's fans. It often seemed that the music was merely the background soundtrack for Dewey’s manic patter, but his listeners kept growing. On that Christmas night, he was as zany as ever until suddenly something unprecedented  happened; Dewey stopped being funny. The first sign was he allowed an entire song to play without interruption. When he returned to the air, Phillips was serious and somber. He said that he had just gotten off the phone, long-distance from Houston, and was sorry to announce that Johnny Ace was dead. Even as a child, I knew who Johnny Ace was, if for no other reason than every time Dewey played one of his records, he introduced it as “Memphis’ own Johnny Ace.” I listened wide-awake while Dewey described the scene in Houston. Ace was in his dressing room between Christmas shows at the Houston Civic Auditorium with a group of fans and friends when he put a pistol to his head as some sort of game and pulled the trigger. The gun went off and Ace fell over dead. It was chilling news, made more so by Dewey’s introduction to the next song. For the very first time, Dewey uttered the phrase that would become famous in popular music history. He introduced "Pledging My Love," the brand new record by, "the late, great Johnny Ace.” Then a slow ballad with a tinkling vibraphone began and the echo-drenched baritone voice of Johnny Ace sounded like it was coming from the grave itself. "Forever my darling, my love will be true,” the chimes rang like chapel bells. "I’ll forever love you, the rest of my days/ I’ll never part from you, and your loving ways.” Johnny sang as if he knew his fate in advance. I remembered that earlier night when my grandmother had died, and I was stunned to realize that I had just been listening to a voice from the beyond. At song's end, Dewey said once again, “the late, great Johnny Ace, dead at age twenty-six.”

The next morning, I asked my father what Russian Roulette was and he asked where I possibly could have heard that. I told him about Johnny Ace, but he said there was nothing about it in the newspaper. The death of Johnny Ace did not command the attention of white Memphis, but the hometown Tri-State Defender reported that an overflow crowd of five thousand people jammed the two thousand-seat Clayborn AME Temple, the same site of Martin Luther King’s final speech, for the funeral, while near hysterical mourners poured into the street. It was Memphis’ largest funeral gathering since the death of  E.H. “Boss” Crump, but neither the morning paper, The Commercial Appeal, nor the afternoon Memphis Press Scimitar printed a word about it. It became underground news for the city’s white teenagers because in attendance at the obsequies was Dewey Phillips. His words, “The late, great Johnny Ace,” would enter the lexicon of pop music, both as the title of a Paul Simon song, and as the description of the first shocking casualty of rock and roll. Whenever I hear the plaintive opening notes of "Pledging My Love," chiming like heavenly harps, I get the same unearthly feeling as when Dewey first played the record on the very night that Johnny Ace ended his life.

(Click on title to hear "Pledging My Love.")
an excerpt from the memoir "Can a White Boy Sing the Blues," by Randy Haspel

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hell Week

That was one helluva fortnight we just experienced. There were volcanic eruptions and ash clouds in Iceland, earthquakes in Chile and Indonesia, a slick, slow-motion, Katrina headed for the Gulf Coast, an attempted terrorist car bombing in Times Square, and Nashville drowned. And I was upset because my garage flooded. Millington and Dyersburg got waterlogged too, not to mention the hapless Beale Street Music Festival. The festival organizers have begun including the annual rainfall in the event's promotion. They have attempted to tie in the "Old Faithful" downpour with the folklore of the festival, and the mud is now supposed to be just part of the adventure. Bullshit. No one but a toddler enjoys slopping around in the mud and the veterans of Woodstock are lying about it. This year, the torrential rains had to compete with the wailing of tornado sirens and park evacuations. The Memphis in May folks need to stop pretending this filth-fest will one day turn out all right and go ahead and change the damn dates. Here's a thought; schedule it the last weekend in May. Of course, the portent of international events made the music festival the least of our worries. It seemed as if every type of disaster occurred except a bomb detonating in the Capitol. Oh, I forgot Jay Leno's routine at the White House Correspondent's Dinner.

While the country's mass media was fixated on the Texas League car bomb that some traitorous swine planted in Gotham's theatre district, and dumb-ass politicians and their rabid, radio masters speculated that Obama sabotaged the BP Oil rig to prevent further offshore drilling, Nashville went snorkeling. I remember Hank Williams used to say that he'd see you, "If the good Lord's willing and the creeks don't rise," but who ever believed that they would actually rise? My Music City pals inform me the flooding was devastating, including the suburb of Bellevue where no sane resident would have ever dreamed of wasting money on flood insurance before now. The downtown area and the Country Music Hall of Fame were under water, with several top musical acts, including Keith Urban, Vince Gill, and Rascal Flatts, reporting the total loss of  their gear in a rehearsal facility. The human and financial loss has yet to be totalled, but should you wish to help our sister city in her hour of need, a good link is here. The storm that rolled through Memphis emptying Tom Lee Park, stopped rolling in Middle Tennessee, producing what government officials called a 500 year storm, and it will take years for the city to recover. The river bluffs saved Memphis from the worst again. And, by the way, "Yo Kanye," Taylor Swift donated a half-million dollars to flood relief. Let's see you match that.

Meanwhile, a man-made disaster is oozing its way toward our friends on the Gulf Coast, like they need more problems in their lives. Perhaps it's time to ask Governor Bobby "Sox" Jindal, "How's that 'Drill Baby Drill' thingy workin' out for ya'?" Everyone is hating on BP, but if it wasn't them, it would be another amoral conglomerate. Remember the scenes in all those western movies where the wildcatter strikes oil? The reason we call them "gushers" is the same reason it's not wise to drill offshore for oil . This baby is now going to gush for an estimated three additional months before BP can cap it, and just when I was beginning to trust Gulf shrimp again. This immeasurable tragedy will only get worse every day that thousands of gallons of crude oil still spill into the Gulf, and the LA Times reported allegations of negligence by, guess who, Halliburton! Cheney's old firm was in charge of cementing the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and their work was as professional as the electric showers they installed in Iraq. In remote Alaska, the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill continue to be felt twenty years later. In Louisiana, all the people that used to shuck oysters can now get jobs washing grease off of water fowl. The National Wildlife Federation is on the ground already, and is a worthy organization for bleeding-heart environmentalists to donate money.

It took NYC's finest and the FBI only 2 1/2 days to catch the unibrow bomber. A half hour later, however, and the guy would have been on the way to Dubai. With all this nightmarish airport "security" that we have endured since 9/11, the culprit managed to purchase a one-way ticket, in cash, to the United Arab Emirates, and had his seat back forward, taxiing toward take-off when the plane was halted and he was taken into custody. His first words to arresting officers were, "I've been expecting you," leading some to speculate that this entire escapade was a scheme to test federal officials. If the "No Fly" list proved to be ineffectual, consider that the homegrown malcontent only recently returned from five months in Pakistan, bought a gun in Connecticut last month, and was videotaped stocking up on fireworks in Pennsylvania. Though the bomber's ineptitude has been ridiculed by the cable news stations, this country was only a few I.Q. points short of another major terrorist attack, proving our vulnerability despite the draconian Bush/Cheney policies. Is it difficult to connect those dots between a Pakistani vacation, gun and fireworks purchases, cash for propane tanks and containers of gasoline, and a whole shitload of fertilizer?

On a positive note, many people are now converts to health care reform after a rash of nationwide cardiac infarctions broke out last Thursday after the Dow dropped 1000 points. Now, the SEC is looking for a fat-fingered trader whose decimal point mistake nearly crashed the market. When I was first learning about the stock market from my father, I asked him what was to prevent another crash like the one in 1929? He told me that after the crash, regulations were put in place governing esoteric practices like margin stock purchases, insuring that what had happened leading up to the Great Depression could never reoccur. Satisfied, I rolled over in my crib and finished my nap. Of course, that was before Ronald Reagan was elected president and the era of irresponsible de-regulation began in earnest. I'm still waiting for an entire generation to wake up to Reagan's bogus claim that government is somehow the enemy. The government exists to protect you from your enemies, and right now it looks as if those might be domestic terrorists and unbridled, bare-knuckled, unregulated American corporate interests. My sympathies go out to our neighbors inundated by oil, fire, and floodwater. With stateside friends like these, who needs Al Qaeda?

Thanks to Bill Day for the use of his cartoon.