Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sputnik Soars Again

Club Clearpool was the scene for the 1964 Les Debs dance, and the girls had hired Randy and the Radiants to supply the music. At evening's end, there was an argument between the club owner and the band over what time to stop. He had flipped the lights on fifteen minutes early and we were contracted to play to the hour. When all the party-goers were herded out, a tussle broke out between band members, the 40 year old owner, and his two greaser bouncers, one of whom followed me outside and punched me while my hands were filled with musical equipment. I was just 16, and when I entered my parents' home with a bloody shirt and a busted lip, my mother lost her mind and my father called the police. We went to court, where all three received stiff fines for assault and battery and malicious mischief, which would have been great were we not scheduled to appear at Club Clearpool again the next weekend. This time, I hired a security guard with a sidearm to join the band, but when we set up on the stage facing the concession stand on the opposite wall, the same three men were glaring at us with blood in their eyes.

Suddenly, the front door crashed open and hit the wall with a bang and in walked Sputnik Monroe, doing the Beale Street Strut, followed by our young, DJ manager, Johnny Dark. The entire room erupted and stopped the dance cold, while Monroe greeted a stream of teenagers before bounding onstage. When the cheering subsided, Sputnik took the microphone and said, "I'll tell you people what I said at the Tennessee State Prison last week. I couldn't say, 'ladies and gentlemen,' because there were no ladies, and if they were in there, they sure weren't gentlemen, so I'll just say, 'Damn, it's good to be here." Then like Babe Ruth at bat, he pointed directly at the concession stand saying, "And I want to tell everybody," he paused for dramatic effect and jerked a thumb back over his shoulder in the band's direction, "These boys are Sputnik's boys, and if you mess with them, you're messing with Sputnik." Thanks to Johnny Dark, Sputnik took a rare Saturday night off to attend a teenage party and put the fear of God into some bullies. The following morning, the club owner called and apologised for the entire mess, telling me that he had fired his two associates and  we were always welcome to play at Clearpool. I have been one of "Sputnik's Boys," ever since.

Like others of the Mouseketeer Generation who grew up in Memphis, I was addicted to live, Saturday morning, television wrestling, and especially fascinated by the blood feud between good-guy Billy Wicks and the evil Sputnik. After one particularly violent encounter, Sputnik swore revenge at the Monday night matches at the downtown Ellis Auditorium. I had never been to the live matches before and I begged my father to take me. He said, "Call your grandfather. He loves wrestling," and my eyes widened. I couldn't believe my immigrant grandfather, with his continental manners and ever-present jacket and tie could be a closet wrestling fan. We drove downtown in a taxi and got ringside seats to view the mayhem. I watched fascinated as toothless men screamed epithets at Tojo Yamamoto and howled at the shoulder length hair of Mario Galento, but the main attraction was Wicks and Monroe. When Sputnik entered, the arena burst into open hostility with boos and calls of  "Commie," and "Skunky," referring to the white streak in Sputnik's hair. Wicks arrived like the Golden Boy. It was a two-out-of-three fall marathon match which Sputnik won by cheating. He hit Wicks with a foreign object and held his trunks while applying the pin, but the referee raised his arm in victory anyway. I was aghast that he could get away with it, and it was left to my grandfather to explain to me that sometimes the good guys have to lose for the sake of the gate.

As a Billy Wicks fan, I could never have imagined myself 15 years later, hanging out at the Phillips Studios on Madison, sharing a joint with the evil Sputnik. He told me that if you wanted to smoke reefer in the 50s, you would ask someone to "come help me mow my yard," and they referred to marijuana cigarettes as "muggles," to the surprise of Harry Potter fans. It was the early 70s, and Sputnik was frustrated because he couldn't get the fans to hate him like before. I said that in these times, everything was upside down and what the fans truly despised were the hippies preaching peace and love. My friend Skip Ousley, a tall, black man, suggested that Sputnik find a black wrestler to tag-team with. The next Saturday on studio wrestling, Sputnik appeared with Norvell Austin, also with a white streak in his hair and calling himself "The Black Panther." Their hapless opponents were tangled in the ring ropes when Sputnik retrieved a bucket of black paint from ringside and poured it over their heads. Grabbing the announcers microphone, Sputnik declared, "Black is Beautiful." Norvell shouted, "White is beautiful," and linking arms they said in unison, "Black and white together is beautiful." The next time I saw Sputnik, he was a happy man and proclaimed, "They hate me again."  

Last Thursday was declared Sputnik Monroe Day by the mayors of  both Shelby County and the city of Memphis, and Representative Steve Cohen read a declaration into the Congressional Record commending the late professional wrestler for his role in desegregating public accomodations. The honor was to coincide with the premier of the new documentary, "Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin'," and it was such a success, I would like to offer a suggestion. Make Sputnik Monroe Day an annual event, and then the congressman can take it nationally. We need this, people. Directly on the heels of Valentines Day, where in order to express love, you are required to cough it up for cards, candy, and flowers, there needs to be a day when you're allowed to tell somebody to kiss your ass. (Not you, sweetheart. I'm talking about someone else). Then, every March 24th, in Sputnik's honor, you are entitled to go in and spill your boss' coffee in his lap and smash him over the head with a folding chair (what would pro wrestling be without the folding chair?). But listen and listen good, pally. Anyone who recalls a jam-packed Mid-South Coliseum with Jerry "The King" Lawler, Bill "Superstar" Dundee, "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant, or the infamous antics of Andy Kaufman on the bill, and doesn't go to see this film, is just another ignorant pencil-neck geek.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

State of the Unions

click to enlarge

Is it starting to become clear yet? The totally unnecessary chaos in Wisconsin should be a revelatory moment, for anyone who wishes to learn, that working people have no business in the Republican party. Rookie Governor Scott Walker's blitzkrieg against collective bargaining rights for public employees is just the sort of thing that happens when an ideologue is elected who serves a political philosophy rather than the people who placed him in power. It also reveals the Janus face of the Republican Party. One face is of the social conservatives, dominated by the Tea Party, whose pro-fetus, anti-tax sentiments are stoked and inflamed by the other face of the party; the corporate side that's in the pocket of Wall Street and beholden to their campaign financiers. Their marching orders include strip-mining a century's worth of progress in labor relations earned by the bloodshed and struggle of working people. And if you think that the freshman GOP governors are only concerned with public unions, think again. This new breed of radical, right-wing corporatists believe they've been given a mandate to repeal the New Deal.

Scott Walker exposed the whole scheme to a prank phone-caller identifying himself as oil billionaire and Republican donor David Koch. Walker blathered on for twenty minutes about his union-busting plans, hatched in closed-door secrecy with a loose cabal of freshly sworn GOP governors, including those in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, and New Jersey, who were prepared to follow Wisconsin's lead in stripping worker's rights under the guise of financial necessity. They used a budget crises to attack the unions just like George Bush used 9/11 to attack Iraq. The Democratic minority fled Madison for Chicago to deprive the union-busters of the quorum needed to ram their "budget repair bill" through the legislature. Soon they were joined by fugitive Democratic legislators from Indiana for exactly the same reason, causing Illinois to resemble Canada during the sixties as a refuge for conscientious objectors. Walker and the Wisconsin senate removed the pesky "budget" references from the bill and voted with one-party rule to strip public unions of the right to collectively bargain. The result? Four straight weeks of public protests, 100,000 people in the streets, and an active effort, already underway, to recall the perpetrators like rancid peanut butter. 
The stealth campaign against unions, disregarding decades of progress, was done with such a cavalier attitude, it caused me to question the scholarship of Governor Scott Walker. He is a preacher's son, who attended Marquette University where he ran for Student Government president, but lost to a write-in candidate after being cited for violations of campaign rules. Walker attended college for four years, but dropped-out without earning a degree. His Milwaukee mentor, however, was Reince Priebus, current chairman of the Republican National Committee and the man credited with laying the groundwork for Walker's election. Priebus was the seed from which the anti-union crusade germinated and he promised Walker the complete support of the national organization. I realize making sport of someones name, like Hussein, is the cheapest of shots, but Preibus' parents set him up for this. He's like Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue," whose rogue father gave him the name to toughen him up. Reince Priebus sounds like a bulletin placed by management on the wall of a restaurant bathroom reminding employees what is required of them before returning to work. Since Priebus' elevation from Wisconsin Republican Chairman to national director, his old Milwaukee crony, Walker, is simply doing the bidding of the RNC.

When the Republicans came into power in the midterm elections, they promised their focus would be entirely on job creation and budget cuts. So, what has been on the agenda? In the House of Representatives, bills have been introduced to restrict abortion, curtail same-sex marriage, expand gun carry rights, including a proposal to allow firearms on the floor of Congress, reducing the corporate tax rate, and amending the National Labor Reform Act to get rid of the secret ballot. The focused attack on the Teacher's Union is meant to weaken a traditional Democratic voting bloc. By claiming that teachers' contracts are too generous, even after Wisconsin educators agreed to negotiate, Republicans have declared open warfare on funding the public school system. I used to believe these ideological slaves wanted to go back to the 1950s, but I was wrong. They want to return to the Nineteenth Century, when the gentry could afford to educate their children and the poor worked at manual labor for generation after generation, until unions insisted on child labor laws. Any job creation in there?

The Wisconsin union-busting bill will surely be overturned as a violation of open meeting statutes, as will the bill just passed in Michigan, giving their governor the right to declare martial law in a fiscal emergency, and the power to dismiss a town's democratically elected officials and appoint a "special manager" to right the municipality's imagined economic wrongs. Several Michigan cities were known as "company towns" before, but the corporations didn't get to own them outright. The fictional David Koch's easy access to Scott Walker proved the complicity between corporate America and the Republican governors. Only, it sounded more like Pinocchio reporting back to his puppet masters. While working-class, Republican foot-soldiers rail about taxes and immigration, men like the Kochs, Karl Rove, and Dick Armey move them around like rooks on a chess board, using and discarding them when necessary. This battle over public unions should have particular poignance for Memphians. It was 1968, when then Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with a public union he considered to be illegal, forcing a strike by the city's sanitation workers. I wonder if the GOP governors even realize that the right for public employees to unionize was the fight for which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life.