Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Greatest Guitarist You Never Heard

This week, rather than rant, I'd prefer to rave, about the greatest guitarist you never heard. His name was Lyn Vernon. You'd be forgiven for not recognizing his name. This year marked the 40th year of his passing and no one outside of a few crusty musicians remembers who he was, yet his influence on this entity we call the Memphis Sound is so enormous that it would not be the same without him. Vernon made his living playing Big Band music and Jazz during the post-war era of live radio transmissions from the Peabody Skyway. For several years, he worked with veteran trombonist Louie Pierini in a jazz quartet, and doubled on guitar and vibraphone with pianist Irving Evans' orchestra at the exclusive Summit Club, five nights a week, for two decades. He was in such demand as a performer that young Memphians might never have seen him if not for his morning gig. "Good Morning From Memphis," on then WREC TV, was co-hosted by the erudite Fred Cook and Gordon Lawhead, with news, conversation, and a live band, featuring Vernon. Every morning the stocky man with the short, curly hair would offer a beaming smile for the camera while his fingers flew over the neck of his guitar, creating clean, clear notes that cascaded from the TV speaker like droplets of water from a rushing stream. He made it look fun and easy.

After Memphis got their first good look at Elvis in 1956, hundreds of local kids fanned out in search of guitars and someone to show them how to play. It so happened that Lyn's day job was teaching guitar in a cramped attic studio of a girls' dancing school at Summer and National. After a great deal of pleading, my parents agreed to let me take guitar lessons at $9.00 per week, only there was a waiting list. I finally took my first lesson from Mr. Vernon in the spring of my 11th year. The greasers who hung out next door at Geters Dollar Store, wearing blue jeans and white T-shirts with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in the sleeve, would yell at me, "Hey Elvis, play us a song," to general laughter. A delinquent with greasy hair molded into a duck-tail sneered, "That gee-tar is bigger than he is," which would have been funny had it not been true. From there, I had to negotiate my way through a sea of tiny, giggling girls in pink tutus to a ladder that led to the attic. Halfway up, mounted on the wall, was an 8x10 glossy photo of a young Larry Raspberry dressed in a fringed cowboy shirt. Climbing back down the attic ladder after my time was up, I encountered Larry Raspberry himself, who had the lesson after me. Then, it was once again through the phalanx of ballerinas to face the waiting greasers. One day, my ride was late and I got the usual, "Hey, Elvis," jocularity. I put the case on the sidewalk and extracted my Sears guitar. Then, daringly putting one foot on their chrome bumper and placing the guitar on my knee, I sang Elvis' version of "Mean Woman Blues." When the song ended, just like a real Elvis movie, the heckling stopped. When I showed up the following week, they still yelled, "Hey Elvis," only this time with a tone of respect.

Another aspiring guitarist was a youngster named Sid Manker. By the mid-fifties Manker was an advanced student of Vernon's when he co-wrote and played the hypnotic guitar line of "Raunchy," by the Bill Justis Orchestra. Released by Sam Phillips on The Phillips International label, the record became the biggest instrumental hit of its time, selling over three million copies. Encouraged by his friend Manker, Sun session guitarist Roland Janes ran to Vernon and paid him for lessons in advance, "to learn more about chord theory." Janes' electrifying, fuzz-drenched guitar caught fire on records by Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley, and before Janes could take his lessons, he had become one of the nation's first guitar heroes. Roland claimed every time he ran into Vernon, he would try to give him his money back. But Janes insisted that he keep it as a down-payment for the lessons he planned to take as soon as he got a break from making hit records. Sid Manker used his royalties from "Raunchy" to support his own Memphis Jazz Quartet. There, he befriended a local jazz musician named Sidney Chilton, who convinced Manker to teach his young son, Alex, to play the guitar.

Charlie Freeman was a skinny kid from Messick High who would demonstrate what he had learned from Vernon to his high school pal, Steve Cropper. Cropper explained, "I would go to Charlie's house after school and wait for him to get home from his lesson. It worked out pretty good for both of us," Steve laughed, "I got a free lesson and Charlie got to practice what he had been taught." Cropper added, "Later, I saved up enough money to get lessons from Lyn myself." Wayne Thompson, lead guitarist for legendary garage band Tommy Burk and the Counts, claimed, "Cropper had the lesson just before mine." Charlie Freeman and Cropper formed a band that ultimately became the Mar-Keys, with Freeman continuing as lead session player for Chips Moman's American Studios and Atlantic Records' Criterion Studios in Miami. Cropper, of course, became one-fourth of Booker T. & the MGs, and as a musician, songwriter and producer, one of the pillars of the glorious Stax sound.

When garage rock emerged in the mid-sixties, performed entirely by high school students, many of Lyn Vernon's charges became successful musicians. Rick Ireland became so proficient that Vernon convinced him to help teach the overflow of young students before Ireland became the manager of Ardent Studios. Fellow students, Bob Simon and I, started the Casuals, then the Radiants, while Larry Raspberry formed the Gentrys with his classmates from Treadwell, and later the super-charged Highsteppers. B.B. Cunningham, Jr. recorded the "Summer of Love" smash hit, "Let It All Hang Out," with his band, the Hombres, and now works with Jerry Lee Lewis. Bobby Manuel became a session guitarist for Stax, working primarily with Isaac Hayes, before producing and engineering the immortal, platinum selling "Disco Duck," by local deejay Rick Dees. Jack Rowell, Jr. made his debut in the Debuts, with Jimi Jamison, and worked with Joyce Cobb before forming his current band, Triplthret. Allen Hester, founder of Natchez, claimed the lesson after Rowell. To sum up, Lyn Vernon taught the major session guitarists at Sun, Stax, and American Studios, and he was the Father of Garage Rock. Yet, despite the near reverence in which his students hold him, no one knows his name. Vernon died at age 49, after experiencing a heart attack in the studio preparing to go on morning television. He still had 41 students. Once, during a lesson, I played a difficult assigned song with gusto and found Mr. Vernon smiling broadly. "I can see it all now," he said. "In a few years, you're going to be riding around in the back of a limousine, I'll just be sitting there on the corner, and you won't even stop. You'll just speed by." I answered him earnestly, "No, Mr. Vernon. I'll always stop and pick you up. I promise." Perhaps, in a small way, I've finally succeeded.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Sexual Congress

I've been enjoying the new reality show, "Sex Lives of the Rich and Heinous," starring the 2012 GOP presidential contenders, only now it's on every channel. In the latest episode, people everywhere held their breath as the fate of the free world fell into the hands of a single woman; Gloria Cain. Would she tell her husband that he was a scoundrel and philanderer and to get his hound-dog ass home? Or would she make a personal sacrifice for the greater good and not allow a bee-hive of scurrilous rumors to derail the "Cain Train," thus depriving a grateful nation of the entertaining pizza magnate who only last month was the Republican front-runner? After the Cain's "face-to-face," a press conference was held where it looked for all the world like Gloria was about to do her best Tammy Wynette impersonation and "Stand By Her Man," but alas, the Cain Train has pulled into the station and drawn its brakes. The press conference began with a prayer from Alveda King, the right-wing niece of Martin, and the La Toya of the King family, before the Cains entered hand-in-hand with the crowd chanting "Gloria," like it was a Van Morrison concert. But, Gloria just smiled and waved while Herman continued to deny a boatload of charges of sexual impropriety, blamed it all on the elitist media, and claimed that politics was "a dirty, dirty game." I suppose the devil made him grope those women. After all, "9-9-9" is just "6-6-6" upside-down.

Just before Cain returned to Georgia to face his wife, he claimed in a speech that, "Stupid people are ruining America." Here, I tend to agree with you, Bubba. Only a fool would launch a candidacy for president with a virtual harem of accusing women claiming sexual abuse just a tabloid's phone call away. Yet Cain seemed oblivious to mounting charges of inappropriate sexual conduct, harassment, assault, and finally, a 13-year long extra-marital affair. Who does this guy think he is, Bill Clinton? At least Clinton acknowledged his serial infidelities as "problems" in his marriage, but Cain insisted his 13 year fling with a Georgia woman was merely one of a generous businessman helping out a friend in need. I wanted to test that theory in real life, so I told my wife, Melody, that I've had this secret gal-pal for many years, and because times are tough, I've been paying her car note and utilities. Before I could scream that the friendship was strictly Platonic and it was only my compassionate nature speaking, Melody was headed for the knife drawer in the kitchen, muttering something about a Lorena Bobbitt. I explained that I only kept it quiet so as not to burden her with all those cancelled checks made out to "Gigi," but I guess my wife isn't as understanding as Mrs.Cain. One of Herman's accusers claimed that he reached under her dress and grabbed her inner-thigh, proving Cain to be the ultimate pizza man, always going for that extra slice. To translate the end of the Herman Cain presidential campaign into the language of the pizzeria; Gloria was the hot pepper and ground sausage. Herman was the barbequed chicken, deep-dish.

Michele Bachmann defended Cain saying, "(He) brought much energy and goodwill to the race." Of course Bachmann also said that a woman should bear her rapist's child, and that her religious belief requires her to be "submissive to her husband." The Stepford Candidate was in Iowa, stumping to overturn the state law recognizing same-sex marriage, when a student asked her why gay people shouldn't have the same rights to marry as heterosexual couples. Bachmann patiently explained that, according to her Oral Roberts University law degree, "All of us have the same civil rights, but we must follow the law." Ergo, gay men and lesbians do have the same rights as everyone else, only they must marry someone of the opposite sex. So, a gay man marrying a straight woman is completely acceptable in Bachmann world. In poker, they call that tipping your hand. Already going down in the polls like the Hindenburg, Bachmann expressed hope that true conservatives that had backed Cain would "return to her," after she lost her brief lead to Rick Perry. The Texas governor has had to confront rumors of infidelity for years in his home state. The issue probably hasn't arisen in the campaign because Perry is too busy stepping on his own dick.

No sooner had I washed the stench of the John Edwards affair from my nostrils, than here comes a resurgent Newt Gingrich. The ethically challenged Gingrich is being hailed as the "probable nominee" by many pundits, including Gingrich himself, who recently intimated that this just might be God's plan. Only, Cain and Bachmann said the same thing, so I think God is just messing with them. For those with a short memory, here's a brief, documented and sourced, highlight reel of the life of Newton Gingrich, defender of family values and the sanctity of marriage. Gingrich married his high school Geometry teacher, Jackie, when he was 19 and she was 26. Jackie paid Newt's way through college all the way to his PhD, and they had two daughters, while Gingrich conveniently avoided the Vietnam War, which he supported. When Newt acquired political ambition, he brought divorce papers to his wife's hospital room while she was recovering from uterine cancer. After being granted the divorce, Newt refused to pay alimony and child support until his hometown 1st Baptist Church had to take up a collection to support the deserted family. Regarding his wife, Gingrich was quoted as saying in an article featured in The New York Times; "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president. And besides, she has cancer."

Newt's second wife, Marianne, maintained a separate residence for six of their twenty-year marriage. Newt asked for a divorce from Marianne by phoning her on Mother's Day, 1999, after indulging in a six year affair with his current wife, Callista, she of the golden helmet of hair. During their clandestine assignations, Gingrich led the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and stacked up 84 charges of personal ethics violations resulting in a $300,000 fine and his ultimate resignation from office. Newt was also an enabler. If he had not led the government shut-down of 1995, Monica Lewinsky would never have delivered that pizza. Somehow, it all gets back to pizza. And if  Callista has a half-million dollar a year jewelry habit, Newt might not be able to afford being president. I'm reminded of the line by comedian Stephen Wright, who said of a friend, "He's gotten himself a trophy wife, only I don't think it was for first place." Still, the rabid right-wing hails Gingrich as a man of "big ideas," like child labor and apprentice school janitors. Slavery was a big idea; it just wasn't a good idea. Gingrich bragged in an interview last week that he was among the primary architects of supply-side, trickle-down economics during the Reagan era. So the joke's on us. We're all Newt's bitches now. Shouldn't I at least get some Tiffany cuff-links, or something?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Freakin' Cops

"And these children that you spit on
  As they try to change their worlds,
  Are immune to your consultations,
  They're quite aware of what they're going through."

  David Bowie; "Changes"

Back in the bad old days of the Nixon era when, like today, public unrest was reaching critical mass, I found myself involved in a campus demonstration at UT-Knoxville that began as a theatrical protest over the lack of a student voice in university affairs. A student group had petitioned, and was granted, a vote on the search committee to find a replacement for the beloved Andrew D. Holt, the retiring  President of the University. Instead, the committee waited until Spring Break when the campus was vacant, and chose who they wanted. The local version of the SDS, called the BODS (Big Oranges for a Democratic Society), gathered a crowd on The Hill to object to the bureaucratic bait-and-switch with some street satire and guerrilla theatre, only not everyone got the joke. Several beefy-looking jock types confronted the hippies during a break in classes, the crowd swelled, and the mood grew ugly. Predictably, the university panicked and called the Knoxville city police, enraging the students, who began chanting, "Pigs off campus." When one of the protest leaders was arrested and thrown into a squad car, what had begun as fun and games turned deadly serious as the group of protesters turned into a crush of people who rushed the doors of the Administration Building, which were quickly locked by university employees.

I was trapped in the middle of a sea of rage and could see the police riot squad, now inside the building, assembling a flying wedge in preparation to disperse the crowd. You could feel the mentality of the mob take over, driving the protesters' anger. The fear was palpable. When the squad of baton-swinging riot police waded into the mob in a skull-cracking frenzy, beating students to the ground and spilling their blood onto the late spring snow, I turned and ran. Casualties began trickling into the Student Center, none worse than the wound to my own conscience. Because I ran, I considered myself a coward; and no rejection hurts quite like self-rejection. I vowed that the next time a situation arose where I could be in danger from the police, I was going to be prepared like the South Koreans and bring my own damn helmet and stick. The cops hated us; we hated the cops. Fortunately for my health, I never had to put my freshly-minted, false courage on the line. No other campus or anti-war demonstration in which I participated ever again turned violent. Although when I was pamphleteering Richard Nixon's crashing of a Billy Graham Crusade in Neyland Stadium, I was spat upon by a few of the more righteous attendees.

Ultimately, I reached an age when the World War II era cops were pretty much retired and a few of my oldest friends had even joined the force. I could no longer think of the "cops" as a monolithic thing as much as dedicated individuals doing a difficult job, no more than the police could classify any long-haired or black person as a revolutionary. With the exception of a few major cities where corruption was systematic, police forces became more professional, better trained, and increasingly attuned to the law. The end of the Vietnam War seemed to also bring an end to the venomous rancor among citizens, and the intimidating image of the helmeted riot cop was iconicized in the disco group, The Village People." Since we've been through all this generational nastiness before, it was with particular disgust to hear Newt Gingrich say to the "Occupy" protesters, "Go get a job after you take a bath." I thought I was having some hideous flashback of the worst of the Seventies. In any case, there are no jobs and all the bathtubs are in use by the Cialis Company. What could really use a thorough rinsing, however, is Gingrich's soul. He was among the architects of the very difficulties that are causing the street protests today. The return of police violence, however, was unexpected.

By now, everyone has seen the video of UC-Davis campus police Lieutenant John Pike using pepper-spray on a group of passive protesters, as if he were spraying the baseboard for termites. The repugnant casualness of his actions made my blood boil, as it did for one old friend whose daughter is a student at the university, and said, "It was like Kent State without the bullets." In other cities where the police have shown excessive force, particularly New York and Oakland, there is a chain of command in which to distribute the blame. Although Oakland's Mayor Jean Quan and New York City's Michael Bloomberg have become the modern equivalents of Richard J. Daley and Bull Connor, the police are there to insure public order and have no further responsibilities to the protesters. Not so with UC-Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, whose first concern should be the safety of the students in her charge. Katehi complained that students staying on the Quad overnight constituted an "encampment," something she had unilaterally banned for the weekend protests. It was her office that sent in the campus police. The two "officers" impersonating exterminators were put on "administrative leave" while Katehi forms a "task force" to study the incident. I'm sure in the eyes of my friend, whose daughter is now participating in the protests, Ms. Katehi is not someone you can entrust with the care of your child, and needs to resign immediately and hire a good civil attorney.  

There's no question that the movement has been infiltrated by "agitators" who, in the case of the black-clad window breakers in Oakland, turned out to be undercover police. But for every cop like the ones at UC-Davis, there's Captain Ray Lewis, former Chief of the Philadelphia Police, whose arrest at the OWS protest for disorderly conduct while in full uniform was caught on a video that also went viral. Lewis, who had been retired for eight years and led a self-described "secluded life," with the Internet as his only source of information, felt inspired by protesters "who were doing this for all people suffering from injustice," and felt compelled to make the trip to "assist the movement." He understood that the protesters were there for the protection of policemen's rights too. Captain Lewis carried a sign encouraging the NYPD not to become "Wall Street's mercenaries." Lewis also demonstrated the power of the Internet at the very same time the police evicted all protesters from Zuccotti Park, proving that the "Occupy" movement needs no permanent encampment to continue, and that we've finally discovered a useful purpose for the "flashmob." Winter shouldn't bring on a self-inflicted Valley Forge. It's one thing to suffer for a cause, it's another to get pneumonia for it. And for the cops that don't yet get it, thanks to cell phone-cams, the whole world really is watching this time. You will not be allowed to beat these people, so you had better damn well join them.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Elephant Walk

Can you believe the presidential election is less than a year away? So, here's what's going to happen. After another dozen or so more debates, the Republican presidential candidates are going to loathe the sight of each other because there's no way to weed anyone out of the process before the primaries begin. The worthy Jon Huntsman will be first to go, followed rapidly by Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, Cain, and any other fringe candidates. Except, they're all fringe candidates. This will leave only Mitt Romney and the idiot Rick Perry standing, even after the stunningly ridiculous vaudeville routine the Texas governor delivered in New Hampshire that has become a viral video. By the time the GOP Convention begins in Tampa next August, the nominee designate will be Romney, because the Republicans always nominate the rugged looking guy who's turn has arrived, just like Bob Dole and John McCain. This will leave the Tea Party faction madder than Herman Cain's wife. They'll beg someone; anyone, to be the ABR (Anyone but Romney) candidate, up to and including Sarah Palin and Jeb Bush, and when rebuked they'll attempt a brokered convention or try to draft someone. But in the end, Romney will be the man and the Tea Party will go insane. They'll either attempt a third party  run with God knows who, perhaps Glen Beck, or intentionally sabotage Romney's campaign. For the Tea Party crowd, the choice between a Muslim or a Mormon is too much to fathom.

I know this because I have (insert your own cliche here: read this book, seen this movie, trodden this path) before. The only variable is at which party's convention will the most protesters gather. And  what happens in the streets could revive that whole "law and order" business the Republicans have run on so successfully before in times of civil disobedience. Already, they mock the "Occupy" movement as being populated by hippies and the homeless. It's unpredictable what will happen when the movement "occupies" Tampa because of Florida's irrational governor Rick Scott and the allegiance of the police. In 1968, when the Democrats nominated the moderate Hubert Humphrey, who was a defender of LBJ and the Vietnam War, street protests turned into bloody, skull-cracking melees after Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley unleashed his baton-swinging police on the protesters, in what an independent commission later determined a "police riot." The ugliness and brutality caused the populace to turn to Richard Nixon, our second worst president, to restore order in the land. The moderate Democrat lost because of discord within the party and the anger of the liberal left. Mitt Romney will lose because of the same anger on the rabid right. My hope is that voters are enlightened enough to see that the Tea Party Congress they put in power in 2010 has done nothing but harm, and they will just as assuredly vote them out. The right-wing's blitzkrieg on public employees and their unions should seal the deal.

Everyone seems to have gotten the message but the police. As public employees, their rights are under siege as surely as teachers, city service laborers, and nurses. The right's open war on collective bargaining includes police unions too, yet police forces in Oakland, New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Atlanta, and Nashville have attacked the "Occupy" camps with violence and arrests. If the police were not ensnared in an "us vs. them" scenario, they would join the protesters instead of beating them. But riot squads train for similar situations requiring crowd control, and when assembled to face a large group of disgruntled citizens, they will exercise that training. When the police are ordered by a municipal lackey to dismantle an assembly with nightsticks, helmets, Plexiglas shields, pepper spray, and all the toys, don't you think they're going to use them? If Memphis Mayor A C Wharton were wise, and I know he is, he would instruct the police to protect the protesters in the Civic Center Plaza against predators in their midst, and put up a dozen port-a-potties as a gesture of goodwill. If nothing else, the movement has Bank of America quaking in their jackboots. New York police arrested 24 people over the weekend who were attempting to remove their funds from Citibank.

The Democratic Convention, which usually attracts the most protesters, will be in Charlotte, N.C. in September. Depending on the state of the economy and the intransigence of the Republicans in office, President Obama will either be regaled as the guardian against the barbarians at the gate, or excoriated for granting the Tea Party Congress a foothold by trying to reason with them in the first place. Nonetheless, Democrats don't force their members to sign tax pledges or defend traditional marriage, like Kim Kardashian's, from the encroachment of the gay hoards wishing to live happy lives, so the convention should be less tumultuous. Despite the expected Obama anger outside, within the convention hall, Democratic unity has been strengthened by the irrationality of the opposing party. Regardless of the President's shortcomings as a political negotiator, none of the carnival barkers that pass for Republican candidates can match him for intelligence, judgement, or respect on the international stage. So, with zero precincts reporting, I can now predict the next president will be Barack Obama. The question is, what will happen with Congress?

The country desperately needs a jobs program for infrastructure repairs, educational improvements, and technological advances, but we'll never get there with the conservative logjam that blocks any and all progress. The House Republicans have wasted their opportunity to lead with a series of meaningless bills concerning social issues rather than addressing the real economic concerns that have made the U.S. a borrower nation. And the Senate has been paralyzed for years by the tyranny of the minority and their misuse of the filibuster. Early on, Senate Republican leader Mitch "Frogman" McConnell freely acknowledged the party's supreme goal was to unseat Obama, and their "just say no" tactics should be repugnant to anyone who values democracy. Yet, in spite of the GOP's obstruction, Obama brought the nation back from the brink of a second great depression, passed healthcare insurance reform, saved the American auto industry and accelerated the development of the electric car, killed Osama bin Laden, stopped a genocide in Libya (for which he was criticized as "leading from behind"), which enabled the Libyan people to kill a murderous dictator, and he ended the war in Iraq. Imagine what he might accomplish with legislators who actually had the best interests of the country at heart.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fetus Envy

Would you like to know my opinion about abortion? That's what I thought. I don't care what you think either. And that's the way it should be with an issue so personal. Unless it involves you or a loved one, it's none of your damn business what someone else chooses to do about an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy. And it most assuredly is not the concern of the government. Yet the moronic Tea Party Republicans, who came into office with the promise to concentrate on "jobs, jobs, jobs" have so far focused their legislative efforts on "abortion, abortion, abortion." The "smaller, less intrusive government" conservatives want to keep Washington off of your back, but all up in your uterus. Anti-abortion crusaders refer to themselves as "Pro Life;" a misnomer for sure. If you're "pro-life," you don't sit in the audience at a Republican candidates' debate and cheer about state executions, or that the Republic of Texas has an express lane running through their death chamber. If you're pro-life you don't scream "let 'em die" when discussing a terminally ill patient without health insurance. The loudest people that claim to be "pro-life" aren't really that concerned about the already living. In reality, they are merely "pro-fetus." In a critical time of economic crises, the House Republicans' obsession with abortion is extending the jobless, homeless recession that has gripped the nation since the Bush regime, like horse manure, hit the dusty trail.

The GOP zealots believe that their electoral victories in 2010 gave them a mandate to pursue their social agenda, while neglecting the country's economic turmoil, lest it give Obama a political "victory." To date, the Republican controlled House has presented 44 bills concerning abortion and 71 others regarding family relationships. With unemployment topping 9 percent, the number of jobs programs offered by Republicans? Zero, with a zed. Their medical meddling proposals vary in outrage from preventing women from purchasing private insurance that includes abortion services, to jailing doctors who fail to notify the parents of a minor seeking an abortion. This month, the House, with unanimous Republican consent, passed the "Protect Life Act," a law that would make it legal for a hospital, as a matter of collective conscience, to deny an abortion to a pregnant women with life-threatening conditions, basically allowing her to die on the floor without legal consequence. The Republican presidential candidates fell all over themselves to out-radicalize each other. Michele Bachmann would force a woman to carry her rapist's child to term, and Rick "man on dog" Santorum even came out against contraception. And these are the people who want government out of your lives.

The most violent act against women by the Tea Party cretins is a bill sponsored by N.J. Rep. Chris Smith, called the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." Since the Hyde Amendment, which has been in effect since 1976, does precisely that, Smith's bill would be merely redundant if not for its unfathomable cruelty. The Hyde Amendment bans all federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother's life. Smith's bill attempts to further constrict a woman's rights by redefining the definition of "rape" from any form of non-consensual sex, to "forcible rape." This would eliminate date rape, statutory rape, incest, or any other such incident in which the woman failed, for whatever reason, to resist. The bill should be renamed the "Your mouth says no, but your eyes say yes" act. The backlash against narrowing the meaning of rape was severe enough for Rep. Smith to remove the language from the bill, but not the bill itself. It sits in the stack with the other 43, including proposals to ban abortion in the District of Columbia by declaring it under federal jurisdiction, and forcing abortion providers to provide mandatory sonograms and anti-abortion counselling. These bills are frivolous, however, when compared to the GOP's all-out war against Planned Parenthood.

Long demonized by the right, a congressional committee has begun an investigation into Planned Parenthood to examine their compliance with the Hyde Amendment amid accusations of being a mismanaged abortion factory awash in dirty money. The cult of the fetus cheered lustily while the president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony list said, "This is a critical step in holding accountable...a billion dollar business centered on abortion and an unapologetic partner of those who wish to exploit young girls." Meanwhile, on the Planned Parenthood website, the organization claims that last year they performed one million cervical cancer screenings, 800,000 breast exams, and 4 million STD tests and treatments. Abortion came to 3 percent of their combined services. Don't the cervix police understand that Planned Parenthood was there 100 years before Roe v. Wade?  So now the battle to defund and marginalize Planned Parenthood has come to Memphis. The Republican dominated Shelby County Commission has voted to provide state funding for family planning to Christ Community Health Services, which does not perform abortions. I'm certain the Christ Community folks are compassionate and qualified professionals, and will refer a woman wishing to terminate a pregnancy after a bit of faith-based counselling, but they also do not provide emergency contraception, which is sort of like going to the Christian Science Reading Room to fill your prescriptions.

If the rabid pro-lifers had their wildest dreams realized and the practice of abortion was once again made illegal, do they suppose that it would stop? Isn't a woman's privacy and good health preferable to returning to a time of agony and secrecy? I don't know a soul who actually "favors" abortion, either in concept or procedure. No one wants to run out and get an abortion. But unexpected things always happen and criminalizing a bunch of doctors and stigmatizing vulnerable women is not the answer. The irony is that the things that could lessen the need for abortion: sex education, dissemination of contraceptives, abandoning the idiotic "abstinence only" school curriculum, are all opposed by the social conservatives. When I told my wife that I was discussing this subject, she suggested that a female viewpoint was imperative. Melody would like to say that if a man was the one that got pregnant, we would never be having this conversation in the first place. She also wishes to emphasize that no pencil-neck fertilizer salesman from West Texas should be making medical decisions about a family's most intimate concerns, and until a man develops the ability to birth a child, sit down and shut up, Sonny. The surest way to stop this nonsense is to abort this Congress.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Dog We Trust

George Carlin once said, "When you get a dog, you know in advance that it's going to end badly." That's because the average canine lifespan is a short 10-12 years, depending on the breed. But Carlin, an animal lover, explained that this allows you to have a whole bunch of doggies in a lifetime, and he was never without one. Then again, if Carlin believed the demise of a well-cared for family pet is a life ending "badly," he never visited Memphis Animal Services on Tchulahoma. Those folks can show you a thing or two about animals coming to a bad end. After the Sheriff's Department raid on the facility in October, 2009, resulting from accumulated evidence of animal mistreatment by the Shelter's staff, the employees were relieved of their duties pending an investigation. That left a public perception that the wrong-doers were all let go, but in fact, most were just on leave and only three people lost their jobs: a veterinarian, the Shelter supervisor, and former Shelter Director Ernest Alexander, who was indicted on charges of animal cruelty. Mayor Wharton said, "The only thing we can do from this point is improve."

Unfortunately for the Mayor, this whole matter landed on his desk on his first day in office. I think it's safe to say that Memphis Animal Services was not high on his priority list. The conditions at the Shelter, however, were so wretched that it made embarrasing national news and the mayor was forced to pay immediate attention. The raid produced evidence of starving, neglected animals, the absence of any record keeping, and a euthanasia rate approaching 80 percent. If dogs were people, we'd be Texas. Promising improvements and "transparency," Wharton delegated responsibility to Director of Public Services, Janet Hooks, who, in turn, promoted the same woman who was only recently very publicly fired and charged with animal cruelty after "Kapone," a pit bull who had escaped his yard, went missing while in her custody. The next day, a dog died from heat stroke in the woman's van while she attempted to avoid arrest. This sterling Animal Control Officer was a hiree from Memphis' Second Chance Program for convicted felons. Not that I'm against giving former felons a break, (after all, they rehabilitated Michael Vick), but guess who's also in charge of the Second Chance Program? Can you say Janet Hooks? Perhaps some felons just released from a cage lack sufficient compassion to care for a dumb animal who's still inside one. In fact, the first requirement of potential Shelter employees should be, "Must love dogs."

The replacement for fired Director Alexander was Matthew Pepper, who came to Memphis from Shreveport. Improvements were made. However, Pepper decided to restrict the public's access to the Shelter's entire inventory of dogs by housing only the most presentable in an "adoption area." He explained that seeing all the dogs would only overwhelm and confuse people. Consequently, the adoption rate was limited and behind a locked door marked "Strays," an animal holocaust continued unabated. The city accepted Pepper's "resignation," but unbelievably decided to keep his policies intact. Pepper was quoted as saying he received pushback from city government and received "no support" over his attempts to fire those city employees he believed to be not up to the job. The city has yet to find a replacement for Pepper while the situation has become a large headache for the mayor, and a stand-off with rescue groups and activists who wish to see the Shelter privatized as a not-for-profit organization and de-politicized as an entity competing over the city's scarce tax funding. Meanwhile, the Shelter is still 1300-1400 calls behind in field investigations, including bites, and charges of abuse and neglect. "Kapone" is still missing, and despite the pleas of several citizens, those ominous doors at the facility and the doomed inhabitants within stay locked away from public view.

The question I hear asked most often is, "Why can't the animal activists show the same concern for people that they do for dogs?" The answer is simple. Most people are born with a capacity to care for themselves, but since we have domesticated these former wolves, dogs are totally dependent on humans for their well-being. That's why half the blame of the Shelter's problems are shared by irresponsible pet owners and reckless dog breeders. Not everyone is capable of caring for a pet, but spay and neuter services are often offered at a discount. Bob Barker was right. The major reason that nearly two dozen dogs are killed daily is to make room for replacements that are coming in all the time from unwanted litters and abandoned pets. Through the Tennessee Open Records Act, animal activist Cindy Marx-Sanders found that two-thirds of the euthanized Shelter dogs were put down for "space;" nearly 12,000 animals last year. There are an unbelievable number of pit bulls on the list, indicating over-breeding by greedy amateurs. These strays come from our homes and yards, and are the result of human indifference to some of our finest companions, illustrating a need for the training of pet owners, as well as those employed by Memphis Animal Services.

To their credit, the Shelter is trying. They have instituted more aggressive adoption policies, and every Thursday, they waive their usual fees for a special $10.00 "Yappie Hour." They're supported by a Friends of Memphis Animal Services Facebook page that posts pictures of available pets. They also sponsor off-site adoption events in parks and shopping centers which have proven very successful. October is officially "Adopt a Shelter Dog Month," and if you're able, you should try it. I know the first thing I did after moving back to Memphis from Nashville in 1992 was to get a dog. I had turned into a taciturn loner and thought a pet might help to re-socialize me. Studies have shown that petting a dog lowers blood pressure and eases depression. I figured I could start with a dog and work my way back up to humans. Here it is, 19 years later, and I have a wonderful wife and two rescued pets in the yard. I credit the dog for my recovery.  In mid-November, the Shelter will re-locate to a new $7.2 million, 35,000 square foot facility, including classrooms to train new employees. The problem is they're bringing the old Tchulahoma policies and staff with them. You can't teach an old dog new tricks or compassion either. You either have it or you don't. That's why the Shelter needs to work with those people who have only the animals' best interests at heart instead of locking them out. Before Memphis Animal Services moves to a clean house, they first need to clean house themselves.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Slap in the Facebook

Doggone that Mark Zuckerberg. He just can't stop himself from tinkering with the design of Facebook and now he's started an ugly backlash among users of the social network. They rail on the site about altering "interfaces," and "status reports,"  wholly resistant to the changes Zuckerberg hath wrought. I, however, am the only one that has suffered financially. Inspired by Facebook's suggestion, I began designing T-Shirts to sell in my Facebook "store." Now that Zuckerberg has unilaterally decided to remove the baffling "poke" feature, I have had to eliminate one of my top selling shirts which read, "I poked your Mom on Facebook." With 800 million users and growing, this guy is costing me money by  declaring "no pokes." What's next to go, all the "Click 'like' if you love Jesus" posts? Don't force me to ditch another T-Shirt.

Now, a chain/spam letter is making the rounds warning users that Facebook is about to charge for usage, and if you copy the message to your wall, your profile picture will turn blue and protect you from the coming pogrom. If not, you must pay or have your account deleted. Of course, it's nonsense, but doesn't it seem to plagiarize the old Passover story when lambs blood smeared over the doorway saved the Jews in ancient Egypt from the angel of death? There are more fake messages posted by what the Huffington Post referred to as "clickjackers." Messages such as "click here to see who's looking at your profile," and seemingly harmless patriotic or spiritual posts that ask you to copy and paste to your wall if you agree, open your account information to clickjackers. Once infected with their code, the hackers are able to spam all your friends, which must be the reason I see so many posts with glittering photos of hi-heeled shoes from my male friends and track shoes from the women.

The fastest growing demographic among Facebook users is among the 60-90 age group, so scams even less sophisticated than these can nearly be predicted. Phishing attempts, phony sites designed to look like Facebook that ask for your password, and the infamous pleas for money transfers from frantic friends stuck in a terrible situation that need your immediate help. For the elderly or less experienced in navigating a computer, sites like Facebook can be a minefield of hucksterism. But for those merely approaching elderly, or upper middle-aged, like me, Facebook can be very gratifying, from connecting with old friends, to observing an old high-school crush age poorly. I located my 5th grade girlfriend and she turned out to be a lovely person. I had always believed that she had moved far away and never heard from her again, but to my surprise, her family had only moved as far as Whitehaven. She claimed "Facebook is a very pleasant way to waste time." It's for certain that hours can go by before you know it. That's Zuckerberg's master plan. Soon, everything you do on the internet will be offered within the confines of Facebook.

I was a reluctant participant for awhile, mainly because I'm not much of a joiner, and as a blogger, I figured I was receiving enough hate-mail, so why open myself up to further abuse? But I've very much enjoyed my Facebook experience once I learned how to use the "mute" function, or what is now referred to as, "Unsubscribe from (so-and-so's) comments." Because of my musical past, I began receiving "friend requests" from many people that I do not know, but I decided that if someone wanted to be my friend, it's OK with me as long as they don't become annoying. As a result, I only personally know about a quarter of my "friends," but I've gotten to know some strangers through conversations about music and politics whose posts I look forward to, while simultaneously "muting" a series of annoying posters without having to offend them with the ultimate penalty of "unfriending." And then there's always the "delete" button.

Currently, I have several types of offenders on "mute." I post, perhaps, twice a day, usually an obscure song from YouTube or an article that I find interesting, but I had to put all the serial posters in Facebook limbo. These are the people who post song after wretched song ad infinitum, and their evil twins, posters who constantly "share" other people's posts. This is the same guy who wanted to copy your test answers in high school. Then there are the self-promoters, which, I suppose, is the purpose of being on there in the first place. But there are shameless individuals, bloated with self importance, wanting you to be aware of their every movement. This excuses musicians who use Facebook to plug their gigs, because musicians do noble work and can do no wrong. It's no coincidence that half my "friends" are holding guitars in their profile pictures. A resurgence of "older" musicians working again has transpired because of Facebook. I've also noticed a surplus of people offering dogs for adoption, sloganeers,  angry political advocates, and prayer requests. But, I believe I've found the way to make it pay. I joined a group of people with whom I used to attend junior high, and I have saved all those goofy school photos we used to exchange. I'm going to post one or two of the most awkward, then ask for "contributions" under the threat of publishing them all. Oh yeah, Zuckerberg made the photos much larger in the news feed.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Meeting of the Meatheads

By now, Barack Obama has extended so many olive branches to the Republicans, they could plant their own vineyard and press up some pure virgin. Sometimes I wonder if he is a stealth Blue Dog Democrat, since he's more of a centrist than Bill Clinton, yet the right wingers continue to howl "socialist," and block his every attempt to drag the economy back from the precipice, at least before the election. More concessions were offered to placate the conservatives and get them on board with the president's jobs plan. Somehow, Obama is the last to realize that principled conservatives have lost control of the GOP to the rabid right and their single intent is to deprive him of any political victory that may lead to re-election, even if it means destroying what remains of the economy in the process. Yet Obama continues to refer to himself as an "eternal optimist." I'm reminded of the concerned parents who decided to cure their overly optimistic son's naivete at Christmastime by filling his stocking with horse manure. On Christmas morning, when the boy discovered his "present," he gushed, "Oh, thank you. You got me a pony but he must have gotten away."

School boards all over the country are passing stiff anti-bullying laws in their districts. Maybe we should enact anti-bullying legislation in Congress toward Obama. I'm not saying the President is compliant, but he gets pushed around more than Larry Flint; first by John Boehner and then by the NFL. He can't schedule a speech on the same night as the Republican debate because, God forbid, he should step on the official unleashing of Rick Perry into the fray. And he can't schedule opposite the grand opening of football season because it would cost him votes. I was going to rail about a game being more important than a major policy address on job creation, but right about now, even the most casual fan would prefer watching the Saints and Packers over yet another speech about unemployment. The president's speech to Congress was stirring, but the game was more exciting, partly because the House Republicans behaved liked teenagers forced to attend the opera. They chortled and snickered over suggestions to pass legislation extending unemployment benefits and squirmed about taxing the morbidly wealthy. Even the criminal Bush was never treated with such disrespect.

It occurred to me that Obama needs to spice up his joint congressional addresses NFL style. Instead of some dour schoolmarm intoning the president's name before he takes his handshaking stroll down the aisle, let Al Michaels bring on the major players to the musical accompaniment of Hank Williams, Jr. "Starting at State, from Wellesley, Hillary "The Crusher" Clinton; At Treasury, from Dartmouth, Tim "The Troublemaker" Geithner; and at Defensive Speaker, John "Big Orange" Boehner." Our team has the talent to win the next Superbowl, we just need to make a couple of substitutions. Joe Biden will never be elected president. He's only a few gaffes away from earning his union card. Hillary Clinton has announced she will be stepping down as Secretary of State at the conclusion of Obama's first term, so I say, "Clinton in for Biden." Hillary could spend the next four years preparing for a presidential run and Biden's long suit is foreign policy. It would be just like subbing Aaron Rodgers for Brett Favre. And Hillary can block for Obama, too.

Watching the president's address to Congress offered a stark contrast to the Republican presidential contenders who gathered the night before at the Reagan Library for another in a series of meaningless debates. I can sum up the Republican economic plan in three words; more tax cuts. The message came with many melodies, but everybody sang the same lyrics. The most sensible of the candidates is Jon Huntsman, which is like being the Lord of the Flies in this bunch. His rational approach automatically disqualifies him in this year of the irrational. Texas Governor Rick Perry's addition to the carnival, however, is most entertaining. Presenting himself as a virtual wild-west Nero, Perry questioned climate change science as "unsettled" while his state was being consumed by wildfires during the hottest August on record. A fiscal conservative, Perry had cut Texas Fire Department funding by 75 percent, including volunteer forces trained to fight just these types of fires. The pundits are already calling this a Perry-Romney contest, even though Perry makes the rigid Romney look like Socrates.

The most telling moment of the debate came not from a candidate's remarks, but from the audience's response to a question. When moderator Brian Williams pointed out that, at 234 and counting, Perry has executed more death row inmates than the next two states combined, the crowd broke into sustained and enthusiastic applause. In a previous life, this was the same mob that would gather to watch a public hanging and jeer at the condemned. Have we regressed to the point where our bloodlust and revenge fantasies cause us to cheer for more state executions? The West Memphis Three should be grateful they were in an enlightened state like Arkansas, or they'd be dead. Still, Rick Perry is the perfect Tea Party candidate. To him, Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme," and a "monstrous lie." The Lord told him to run and every word he speaks reminds voters of George W. Bush. Only, he's too extreme for even Karl Rove. When "Bush's Brain" thinks you're too radical, you've got to be pretty far out there. My conservative friends often ask me, "When are you going to stop blaming everything on Bush?" When you admit that this human wrecking ball was a tragic president whose wars of choice and reckless de-regulation of Wall Street brought this nation to the brink of economic calamity. Meanwhile, Rick Perry is exactly like Bush, minus the humility. Are you watching all this, Sarah? Always room for one more.

Monday, August 29, 2011

All Wet

Hurricanes in New York; earthquakes in Virginia; drought in Texas; historic flooding on the Mississippi, and the tornadic destruction of Joplin Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That's quite a summer. But climate change is a hoax, right? It's just another racket for Al Gore to cash in on, like he did with his invention of the internet. Every sensible person knows it's only the Earth's cyclical behavior and we're just at the metaphorical top of the Ferris Wheel. We'll come down someday. Meanwhile, floodwaters are raging through Vermont and it's still too early to calculate the damage caused by last weekend's Hurricane. But, go ahead and have another cocktail and try not to think about it too much. Historic, destructive weather events are the government's responsibility. Or, they were before the conservatives chimed in. Presidential candidate Ron Paul declared there should be no FEMA relief for the storm's victims, and that federal disaster relief is, "bad economics, bad morality, and bad constitutional law."

In any other time in our history, if there's one thing the populace could depend on, it is federal aid in a natural disaster. Even the criminal Bush got to New Orleans, eventually. But since the Tea Party is flexing its flaccid muscle and trying to abolish the federal government, this time there are strings attached. Even while the hurricane was bearing down on Majority Leader Eric Cantor's district, he was explaining that no federal relief would be forthcoming without equivalent cuts in other social programs. Arrogance like this can only come from a representative that doesn't fear for his re-election, but let a bridge collapse in Richmond and we'll see if he combs the budget for something to cut before requesting funds. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican, is what is known in Yiddish as a nar, or a fool. There's lots of them, but Cantor's the poster boy. He has many positions on social matters, but they're all heartless and contrary to the Judaic principles of social justice. If I weren't so concerned about ugly mail from my fellow tribesmen, I'd go so far as to say Cantor is a disgrace to the Jews. The really troubling fact is that not a single Republican disagreed with or disavowed Cantor's statement about holding emergency funds hostage to their asinine budget process.

The televangelical wing of the Republican Party was quick to blame the erratic weather on an angry and judgemental God who is displeased with us for not mentioning Him before the football game. Pat Robertson pointed out that the Virginia quake put a crack in the crown of the Washington Monument and immediately took it as a sign of impending national destruction. Franklin Graham has been saying the end times are at hand ever since the Japanese tsunami, and phony reverend Glen Beck stated that "The hurricane was a blessing," to remind us that mankind is not in charge. I suppose a hurricane's a "blessing" until it hits your house. And if corporate radio blatherer Rush Limbaugh hasn't found a way to say the hurricane was sent to postpone the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial, he will. The current GOP has a faith-based emergency response where you love your neighbor, unless they're poor, black, brown, Mexican or Muslim, and any government assistance is viewed as creeping socialism. As a grateful beneficiary of a Christian charity, (The Church Health Center), I can testify to the great good they do both in a disaster and on a daily basis. Why is there always some hair-sprayed, half-bright rube explaining God's motivation for visiting destruction on humanity? I would never have known why Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans if not for Jerry Falwell's explanation that it was divine retribution for a gay pride parade.

Leave it to the Tea Party to lose another argument. As soon as they begin chanting "Drill, baby, drill," there's an historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They scream for more nuclear energy and additional power plants right before Japan goes radioactive. Then here comes Rick Perry with a six-gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Pridefully ignorant, Perry believes he was called by God to run for President. But, then so does Michele Bachmann. I guess it's true that many are called but few are chosen, but somebody's God is punking them. This perfectly illustrates the difference between progressive and conservative thought. Liberals come by their beliefs by reading and staying informed of the news. The evangelical right is indoctrinated in church. Progressives have opinions. Evangelical conservatives hold to their beliefs as acts of faith. The most recent poll shows that the Tea Party is the same old religious right that's been around since Richard Nixon recruited them to his cause. They're the Silent Majority, the Dixiecrats, the States Rights Party, The Moral Majority, and George Wallace's American Independent Party. Nothing new to see here, folks. Just move along.. My question is, how do you  reason with someone who's convinced that their way is the only way?

Hurricane Irene could have been worse, but the damages will be substantial. With washed-out roads and damaged infrastructure, this could be a golden moment for the president. I expect Obama to seize this opportunity to introduce vast new employment programs to repair crumbling bridges and electrical grids, flooded tunnels and deteriorating highways. Give the old interstate system to the sixteen-wheelers and build a new one just for cars. Try some New Deal programs like the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), which employed people to build public works and parks; or the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which involved millions in the construction of roads and buildings across the nation. Whatever Obama does, it may as well be something bold, because while the country is in need of a "new" New Deal, the GOP is still trying to repeal the last one. It's now clear that the time for negotiating with rigid ideologues is over. In the last presidential election, I had hoped to be voting for another FDR, not the next Gerald Ford. The Tea Party believes Obama re-regulated Wall Street because liberals hate capitalism. If the president would stop trying to appease those who only wish for his destruction, maybe we could make some progress on the nation's economic recovery and the emotional well-being of its people. To paraphrase Cee Lo Green, forget the Tea Party. They've become irrelevant. Yet again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Overton Square Revisited

WKNO's newest documentary in their "Memphis Memoirs" series; Overton Square: The Golden Age, premiered on the local public network last week, and it was just great. I don't say that merely because I am in it, although my inclusion enhances nearly every occasion, but because director Susie Howe captured the joyous spirit that came along with Memphis' continuing celebration surrounding the Square's development. Begun as the pipe dream of four young scions of prominent Memphis families: Jimmy "J-Rob" Robinson, Ben Woodson, Charlie Hull, and Frank "Bubba" Doggrell," along with prominent developer George Saig, Overton Square blossomed into Memphis' combined version of the French Quarter, Greenwich Village, and Ghirardelli Square in a few city blocks. The music, the food, the intoxicants of choice, the crowds, the events, and the fun have become legendary, and as evidenced by this film, those enterprising young men did this town a big favor by throwing a wild, decade-long party from which the participants are still hung-over forty years later.

Since we both worked there at various locations, Melody and I enjoyed sharing our experiences with the director. Melody lived just behind the Square for a time with a previous spouse and witnessed the mayhem from her front porch nightly. My first employment came as a singer at the Looking Glass, the predecessor to Bombay Bicycle Club. I sat on a high stool in a corner area decorated to look like a library with real bookshelves containing large, leather-bound tomes of ancient history, surrounded by customers sitting in overstuffed couches and puffy lounge chairs. I expanded the act to a duo with conga, then an acoustic trio, and finally a band. After being away from Memphis for a number of years, I was a workhorse for the Square and thrilled with the employment. My champion, more times than not, was Thomas Boggs, whom I had known since his days as drummer for Memphis' legendary garage band, Tommy Burk and the Counts. The Square management put Thomas in charge of the music since they figured he spoke the musicians' language, which was cash. Boggs moved us across the street to Lafayette's Music Room, and was so driven and dedicated in his new management career, that I couldn't help but enjoy being an occasional pain in the ass just to get a rise out of him. My affection for him was shared by many others and made obvious at the film's premier when Thomas' image on the screen was greeted with sustained applause.

Lafayette's Music Room was the gem of midtown. It didn't matter whose name was on the marquee, your friends were there and you were going to hear something new; even if it was Kiss, who got laughed out of town. The consensus was that these four guys couldn't hide their mediocre musicianship underneath a bunch of silly greasepaint. Kansas ("Dust In the Wind") was so loud, they cleared the house in ten minutes, while Minnie Ripperton was sublime. A friend once asked me to accompany her to hear an unknown "Korean jazz pianist," who turned out to be Chick Corea and his trio. From August, 1972- August, 1975, Lafayette's presented new artists to Memphis like Billy Joel, Leo Sayer, Pure Prairie League, Leon Russell, and Phoebe Snow. We rocked out to the Alex Taylor Band before we even realized he was James' brother. In the new film, George Saig said Lafayette's was hemorrhaging money and had to close. It's true that it was small and had to share a nasty kitchen with Friday's, but it was also the searchlight and draw for the entire area. With due respect to Playhouse on the Square, which replaced Lafayette's, the demise of the showcase club was, for me, the end of the Square. The Playhouse drew one audience per night, but Lafayette's turned the house every hour.

One tale left untold in the documentary was the night in Lafayette's when Mayor Wyeth Chandler got his ass kicked. The story has morphed into outlandish descriptions of parking lot stand-offs and fistfights between the Mayor and assorted waiters, but the true tale comes from bartender Joe Dougherty: Chandler, a Square regular, was in attendance with his entourage and was, in a phrase; "shit-faced." An unknown couple at the next table was being harassed by the Mayor, and when Chandler groped the young woman, her date cold-cocked him, knocking him to the floor and sending both the mayor's and Lafayette's staff into a frenzy. Into the breach leaped Thomas Boggs, who hoisted the stunned mayor to his feet and escorted him out a back entrance and into his limousine. Knowing the police were on the way, Thomas felt that the Mayor had it coming and was so fair-minded that he assuaged the offended couple and escorted them from the premises to avoid further questions from the authorities. The Mayor showed up for work the next day looking like he'd gone six rounds with Mike Tyson and was immortalized in a Bill Garner editorial cartoon which pictured him sitting at his desk with a black-eye and wearing boxing gloves. The identity of the man who smacked the mayor is still unknown.

Aside from the wonderful memories, our initial reaction to seeing our contemporaries on film was, "Do we look that old?" But I pushed up the nose-piece on my tri-focals, took Melody's trembling hand in mine, and said, "No Mother, we're still adorable." Thus assured, we enjoyed interviews with everyone from bartenders to bouncers and got to re-visit a time when Memphis experienced a minor cultural revolution on a corner. And it all began when Jimmy Robinson opened a beer joint called the Perception Lounge, because he wanted to "be cool and own his own bar." Isaac Tigrett readily credits Robinson as his role model for opening his own corner burger and beer emporium in London that he named the Hard Rock Cafe. Did we ever get the chance to say, "Thanks, guys.We had a great time?" Loeb Properties has big plans for the Square's location and I wish them well. An Overton Square comeback would be a grand boost for the city, although it will never be the same. Which is as it should be. The Square should be designed for a younger generation, keeping in mind the tradition of local merchants, live music, and the draw of a showcase music room. Then, if they have half the fun that we did, the new Overton Square is sure to be a success. And if you missed the spirited documentary on "The Golden Age,"  I'm sure WKNO will show it again, and again, and...
                                           Henry Gross sings "Overton Square" with Memphis' Freeworld.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Tea Party Treason

Let's begin at the beginning. Government is neither inherently good nor evil. In fact, government is one of the most noble institutions to come from the mind of man. Civilization exists because humankind created government. It's the government that insures you can sleep safely in your bed at night. This whole "government is bad" theory began in 1964 with Barry Goldwater and came to fruition with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. The nation has yet to recover from that failed experiment in less government, but the delusional Tea Party caucus keeps the Reagan myth alive with the help of a few reactionary Democrats who have accepted the Reagan lie as common wisdom. In reality, government is only as good or bad as the elected representatives that populate public offices. So, at this moment, I would have to agree that our government is pretty rotten. Blame it on the Tea Party zealots who went to Washington not to serve the people, but with an ideological axe to grind. Combine that with a Democratic party that can't seem to locate its' spine and we have the most dysfunctional Congress in modern history. The government only mirrors the electorate, however, so the voters who put the Tea Party in a position of power are pretty much getting exactly what they deserve. It's the rest of us that don't deserve the incompetence of the House Republicans and their reckless disregard for compromise or reason.

The Tea Party discusses debts and deficits as if they knew what they were talking about, but the unifying glue of its members is an irrational hatred of Barack Obama. The cretin wing of the GOP mistakenly believe that if they wreck the economy of the United States, the populace will somehow blame their extortion on the President. And their stated goal has always been to deprive Obama of a second term by using 1960s Black Panther tactics: By any means necessary. Like most people outside of the Beltway, I had never heard the phrase, "debt ceiling," before the raging mob made an issue of it. That's because it was never newsworthy before. It was bookkeeping and it always passed, regardless of symbolic opposition, because no sane legislator would dream of putting the nation's credit rating in jeopardy and risk an historic financial crisis for no good reason. But this Republican party turned a non-issue into an unprecedented partisan drama, causing a week-long drop in the stock market and provoking a warning from Moody's credit rating agency. The Tea Party cabal is on a mission of self-fulfilling prophesy; they tell you that the government is bad, and then go about proving it. This crowd came to Washington to "reform" government, but they operate like reverse Robin Hoods, stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Hey patriots, wanna' support the troops? Pay 'em!

The GOP/Frank Luntz mantra of the moment is, "We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," which proves they all got the same memo and can lie in unison. However, any independent study shows that after a decade of tax cuts for the obscenely wealthy and two wars on your dime, we actually do have a revenue problem. Yet the radical Republicans refuse to even consider allowing tax rates to return to Clinton era levels, before everything went to shit. They will protect the estates of their benefactors if it means gutting Social Security and public education to do so. The proper term for anyone who would take action to willfully damage the country is, "traitor," yet none dare call it treason. In the Democratic Party's darkest days of granting safe harbor to Southern racist senators and congressmen, the tobacco chewers never controlled the party, and civil rights legislation was passed despite them. In today's GOP, it's the bomb-throwers who are calling the shots. The Tea Party turned an ordinary procedural vote into a hostage situation, and you were the hostage.

The most macabre aspect of last week's congressional Circus of Horrors is that it never had to happen. With millions unemployed, struggling to hold on to their homes with decimated retirement accounts, people are frightened enough without the Tea Party renegades threatening to renege on Social Security and welfare payments. Technically, we may not be in a Depression, but tell that to the unemployed, single mother who is worried if her food stamps will arrive in time to feed her kids. Or the elderly retiree who depends on the government check he labored all his life to earn. Ironically, a recent Pew poll showed that evangelical Christians make up 57 percent of the Tea Party's membership. You might imagine that an enlightened and benevolent politics would follow the teachings of Jesus who said, "As ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me." As for Grover Norquist and the hammerlock pledge of "no-new-taxes-ever" that he demands be signed by all the Republican sheep, Jesus also said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God, the things that are God's." As a lay student of comparative religion, it sounds to me what Jesus was saying is to quit whining and pay your freaking taxes. In fact, merely allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire will make an enormous dent in the deficit.

Obama called for a "balanced approach" of spending cuts and revenue increases. The Tea Party only wanted to cut social programs. Among the right-wing's complaints about the president is that he comes straight out of Chicago, arm-twisting, machine politics. Yet, he appears to be one of the worst negotiators since Neville Chamberlain. Barack Obama was elected because he is obviously a man of great talent and ability. How disheartening it is to watch him forced by obstructionists to squander his limitless potential in petty political arguments and spend the greatest part of his first term swatting gnats. I voted for Obama, and likely will again, but sometimes his detached equanimity can be exasperating. As much as I admire the president, sometimes I'd like to see someone light a fire under his ass. If I could, I would like to say to him: Mr. President, there is no negotiating with the House Republicans. They hate your guts and want to sabotage your administration, yet you continue to offer concession after concession. No one is happy with these foolish "debt negotiations." We expect our elected officials to do their jobs, but they are wasting time better spent in job creation and recovery efforts. And one more thing, with all due respect, my dear professor, "It's the tax cuts, stupid."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mirth Control

Dr. Marcus and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. See? I haven't even said anything yet and you're already smiling. That's because the visage of this couple brings mirth. It's like watching Rob and Laura Petrie run for president, only without the wisdom and good humor of the Dick Van Dyke Show. The Bachmanns have five children and have fostered twenty-three others, mostly troubled teens, and God bless them for it. In an age of hypocrisy, at least Michele Bachmann backs-up her virulent anti-abortion views by caring for children who have already been born. There is nothing less than admirable in being a foster parent. If having babies and rearing children were a major qualification for the presidency, however, the logical choice would be to vote for the Octomom. As for Bachmann, she signed a "pro-marriage pledge," last week, created by the Iowa nutbag organization, The Family Leader, that equated abortion, Sharia law, pornography, and gay marriage as evils, and insinuated that black children had it better under slavery. After an outcry of righteous disgust, the group decided to delete that particular paragraph. But not before Bachmann signed it. The only other signee to "the pledge" was Rick "man on dog" Santorum.

Dr. Marcus Bachmann, a self-described "Christian therapist," has come under public scrutiny when it was revealed that his federally funded counseling centers, Bachmann and Associates, offered religion-based, gay-to-straight, "reparative" therapy, a practice that has been derided as "dangerous" by respected psychological publications. The doctor claims that homosexuality is a choice and has advised the parents of potentially gay children that, "Barbarians need to be educated. They need to be disciplined. Just because someone feels it or thinks it doesn't mean that we are supposed to go down that road."  Dr. Bachmann later said that he never meant to refer to gays as "barbarians," but instead was referring to children, as if that made it better. I can't help it, but every time I look at this guy, he reminds me of the illegitimate son of former Dallas Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson and Liberace. I confess to having zero gaydar, but watching Marcus Bachmann doing the "Bop" onstage at a Tea Party Rally, was like watching Kevin Bacon on estrogen. From a guy that sounds like Woody Woodpecker and looks like Gorgeous George, I deduce that he's contemplated "going down that road" before. Maybe he's fathered five children but, let's face it, Dr. Bachmann makes Adam Lambert look butch. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Current inquiries have also raised questions about the doctor's credentials. Bachmann claims a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Union Graduate College in Ohio, only no such program existed when he graduated. Unlicensed in Minnesota, "Dr." Bachmann's clinics, while offering counselling services for addiction and other real-world problems, rely on Evangelical teachings enough to question their eligibility for federal funding. The "pray away the gay" therapy only exacerbates the problem. Michele has recently said that she "loves the homosexuals," as much as you can love someone who is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, but this was to neutralize her previous remarks. In an interview, she said that (homosexuality), "leads to the personal enslavement of individuals. If you're involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it's bondage." Is there a straight "lifestyle" that I don't know about? And why do Evangelicals evoke gay imagery to describe human sexuality? Bachmann's campaign for an anti-gay marriage amendment and the Tea Party's social agenda has propelled her past Mitt Romney as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Now, if we could only change her mind about slavery, perhaps she wouldn't talk about "bondage" so much.

Even Rudy Giuliani has advised Republican candidates to leave the gay marriage issue alone, but Bachmann continues marching as to war with Marcus at her side. Despite tub-thumping for the right-wing sex police, Bachmann claims the election is about economics so she can tout her law degree from Oral Roberts University, now Regents College. May I show you my philosophy degree from Lenny's College? Just before the kick-off to Bachmann's presidential campaign, she and Dr. Bachmann conveniently resigned their long-time membership in the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, just because the church teaches that the Catholic Pope is the Anti-Christ. Michele has claimed she is running for president under God's instructions. Do you suppose God told her to leave her church in order to avoid a Jeremiah Wright moment, or was that her decision? Bachmann's supernatural ascension to the Queen of the Tea Party has usurped Sarah Palin's former place on the charts just as surely as Barry White overtook Isaac Hayes. And to imagine, the leading contender for the Republican nomination's greatest legislative achievement is the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.

In any other year, views like these from a presidential contender would be alarming. But the Tea Party led Republican Party have shown themselves to be buffoons and paid corporate shills who would sacrifice the American economy before siding with Obama on anything. These people can no longer be taken seriously and must be steamrolled like California 405 before progress is possible. So, please, nominate Michele Bachmann for president; or any of the other Birthers, climate change deniers, anti-abortion zealots, gay bashers, sovereign citizens, or tax refuseniks. Maybe in Obama's second term we can get serious about some New Deal-like jobs programs and governmental infrastructure repair projects and put the country back to work. This requires dealing with labor unions and other socialist organizations that the right abhors. But then, what don't they abhor? Last week's news featured Michele Bachmann leading in the Iowa caucuses, the deposed Glenn Beck receiving rock star treatment by the right-wing Israeli Knesset, and Rupert Murdoch's media empire under siege. I thought I was dreaming. Members of my generation might remember that old song by Thunderclap Newman; "There's Something In The Air." Depending on which way the wind blows, this election year could be a toxic event for right-wing extremists.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Trials of the Anthonys

It's a bit early in the millennium for a "trial of the century," but here we go again. And just like the trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995, the nation is riveted by the live televised courtroom drama of the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. A large coterie of commentators that analyze every word of testimony has become a nightly staple for trial-watchers, and a whole new lexicon of phrases has entered the national conversation: "Smell Test," "Chloroform Searches," "Hot Body Contests," "Shot Girls," and "Bella Vita." A cast of characters, in and out of court, complete the sideshow, including fistfights among queued citizens hoping for a seat, and the arrest of one spectator caught on camera giving the finger to the lead prosecutor. So far, he's the only one that's been sentenced to jail. The pundits also hail back to the O.J. trial. Marcia Clark showed up on CNN with Dan Abrams, while Fox News went with Mark Fuhrman. The network of record for the trial is Headline News, which features post-court analysis by Dr. Drew Pinsky, big-haired Jane Velez-Mitchell, Joy Behar, and the venomous Nancy Grace, inventor of the phrase, "Tot Mom." If the verdict depended on public opinion, Nancy Grace would be swabbing "Tot Mom's" arm right now.

The trial gives us the most intimate view since the Loud Family in the 1970s of the inner-dynamics of a dysfunctional household. This is also basically a story about mothers and their daughters. Ratings show the overwhelming number of trial viewers are women with young children.  Like most sane people, they can't believe that any mother would murder her own child in order to "live the good life," as the prosecution charges. Since Caylee disappeared in June, 2008, we have come to know this family and their tortured story. Between George's cries, Cindy's lies, and Casey's sighs, we feel the grief of these parents torn between the death of a grandchild and the potential loss of a daughter as well. The courtroom demeanor of Casey Anthony, however, can only be described as chilling. While she scoffs at her fathers' tears and gazes at her mother with thinly disguised contempt, her stoic expression and hollow eyes are filled with a soullessness that no testimony could ever capture. Even an occasional viewer of  Law and Order knows she's guilty as hell, but why does she need to drag her entire family down with her?

Everybody lies in court, from the attorneys to the police, but Casey Anthony is the Michelangelo of lying. She has more imaginary friends than I have real ones. Casey created "Zanny the Nanny" from a name on an apartment guest register. But she didn't just take the woman's name, she created a mother and sister for the phantom babysitter, supplied marital information and gave her a college education. Among the innocents victimized by this case, a real person named Zenaida Fernandez-Gonzales had her life ruined for sport. Casey thought the more elaborate the lie, the more believable, and thus walked the police all the way into Universal Studios before admitting she didn't  work there, despite the fact she had been getting up and going to her fake job for two years. If she is such a nimble liar, my question is, did she believe she could remain free while they searched for the fabricated nanny forever? And if her child drowned, as the defense claims, how to explain the fresh tattoo she got the next day, or the month of hard-partying before admitting her daughter was missing? Casey suffers from the narcissism of the assumed pretty. Her pals were all hooking-up and her boyfriend du jour didn't want a child around. Hot bodies are fleeting.

Unlike the O.J. trial, defense attorney Jose Baez is no Johnny Cochran. His slogan should be, "If your lawyer gets licked, you must convict." Either Casey looked in the Yellow Pages for "Worst Attorneys in Orlando," or she hired him from "Lawyers R' Us." His fumfering, ill-prepared delivery makes him look particularly clumsy next to the professionalism of prosecutor Jeffrey Ashton.  Baez' stunning opening statements about sexual abuse, incest, and the accusation that George Anthony covered up  his granddaughter's drowning were left hanging in the air like the stench of death in a car trunk. Casey watched impassively while her counsel allowed Cindy to perjure herself in an effort to save her daughter's life. Not possessing any such motherly instincts, Casey is like a human wrecking ball, destroying everything in her path. The deleted computer searches sink both Casey and Cindy, who now faces charges of perjury. All the news-talkers expressed amazement at the ineptitude of Jose Baez but after his fourth rebuke from Judge Belvin Perry, I began to glimpse his genius strategy. He needs more time to develop his theory that the meter-reader did it, so regardless of the jury's verdict, an appeals court is bound to grant Casey a new trial on the grounds of incompetent counsel.

With the Florida death penalty at stake, this is truly reality television. Most likely, Casey will never reveal what actually happened to Caylee. Jose Baez conjured an image of George Anthony holding his drowned grandchild while plotting the disposal of her remains, then he never mentioned it to the jury again. My favorite new legal opiner, attorney Mark Eiglarsh, said "It's hard to prove murder without a cause of death." After 84 Google searches for "chloroform," and additional searches for "neck-breaking," and "internal bleeding," on the family computer, any reasonable juror might suspect pre-meditation, regardless of the cause of death. The emotionless Casey may finally show traces of humanity after she is convicted, but because of the overwhelming sympathy for Cindy and the wrecked Anthony family, she'll be spared the death penalty. Whatever the result of this sad episode, a child is dead and a family is ruined. A life sentence might allow Casey the time to train her hyper-imagination toward writing fiction. And if she still misses her party-girl life, I hear there's lots of sex in prison. Personally, I'd like to see "Tot Mom" put under house arrest. Only, it has to be in Nancy Grace's house.