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."