Monday, June 17, 2013

Soul Man

A lady in the parking lot kept waving in my direction the other day. Since I had never seen her before, I assumed she was greeting someone behind me. Yet she persisted until I came into earshot.
"Tim?" she asked quizzically.
"Pardon me?" I replied.
The lady responded, "Aren't you Tim Sampson?"
I suppose she could be forgiven for mistaking me for my ranting compadre. All post-middle-aged, white, portly, bald and bespectacled men with close-cropped white beards look alike. We've even begun to dress alike, both favoring the patterned shirts that don't require tucking into the trouser waist. My concern was that after several years of alternating weeks with Tim Sampson in writing this column, we had somehow merged into the same person. After all, I have never read anything of Tim's that I disagree with and I find him a perfectly agreeable fellow. The only thing I found mildly bothersome were the number of times I found myself thinking, "Man, this guy sure does write about his gig a lot." I guess you could say I was envious. I mean, here's Tim Sampson talking about the Stax Music Academy, with all their accolades and special trips to the White House and such, and I'm sitting here with a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Who can stand to read about so much happiness? After reading Sampson's articles about talented young people achieving their dreams, I had to get out the Raymond Carver novellas just to cheer up and get my brain chemistry back in order. But the lady that mistook me for Sampson might also be forgiven because we were in the parking lot of the Stax Music Academy.

I've been a late bloomer in many areas. I graduated from college when I was 45, got married for the first time at age 54, and at a time when many of my peers are entering retirement, I've entered the  workforce. It wasn't so much a "want to" motivation as a "had to" situation. The rent never sleeps. So, I called Tim to ask if there was anything available at Soulsville for an aging musician with an encyclopedic brain filled with trivia about Soul music. Tim told me that, just by coincidence (or not, depending on your cosmic view), he had overheard the Stax Music Academy staff discussing the need for someone to teach a songwriting course for a five-week, summer music program.
"I'm your man," I yelled into the phone, and before Tim could hang up, I was pulling into the Stax parking lot. During an initial interview with some of the staff members, I told them I had written over 250 songs. After seeing they were duly impressed I added, "But only two of them are good."
I submitted a proposed syllabus and before you could say pedagogue, I was an instructor in the craft of composing songs right next to the very building where "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog," was written. My problem was, I had never faced a classroom before, so I embraced the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." But the closer we got to the opening date, the drier my throat and the tighter my stomach became. My wife dutifully packed me a lunch and sent me off to work.

I was assigned four classes with twenty students in each. During my get-acquainted lecture in my opening moments as a teacher, I asked, "Who here has either written or attempted to write a song?" and every hand in the room went up. I wanted to say, "Damn, let me sit out there and listen to you," but I had come equipped with my greatest hit, "Call the Wrecker for My Heart," by George Jones. It was an illustration of my premise that you can write a song about anything. I lectured for a week about structure and the value of co-writing then sent each class off to compose an original song. I don't know what I was expecting, but the result made my big toe shoot up in my boot. The level of musicianship was so high and the songwriting so sophisticated, it caused me to imagine that if I had half the talent of these students at such a young age, I could, dare I say, rule the world. After the second week of classes, I said in the regular staff meeting that the students had grown beyond my abilities to teach them. The next week consisted mainly of me observing the activities from a plastic chair with the occasional hover and rhyme suggestion. At one point, I was forced to quote Rufus Thomas and shout, "I just feel so unnecessary." When the course is complete, I'd like to sign several of the students to my newly created personal management company, where our motto is, "We Offer a Better Deal than Colonel Parker."

This week, the students will be in the studio recording their songs for a competition to be judged at term's end by a group of professionals, including the dynamic young man at the head of the Stax Academy, Justin Merrick. Speaking of the Academy, Justin has just been nominated for a Grammy Award by the Recording Academy in a new category called Music Education. Now I know how Tim Sampson feels when he shares his colleagues' pride in their achievements. Mr. Merrick certainly prepared and motivated the young people in my classes. If the students' recordings turn out as great as the rehearsals, and the Stax Academy is able to create a new generation of songwriters and artists, I know of a large recording studio right next door in the Stax Museum that's presently going unused except for parties and special occasions. And I'll bet no one else has copyrighted the term "Soulsville," in case anyone was looking for a name for a new label or record company. If you're going to dream, you may as well dream big. This could be the rebirth of Stax, or something similar, and the future for the graduates of this innovative musical program, well...I'm starting to rant. Let's just say good things are happening at 926 E. McLemore Ave.

If my good fortune at being on the Stax campus weren't enough, I have also begun work at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, assisting in the development of guided tours. My previous attempt at being a tour guide ended badly because I talked too much, but Stax seemed to want someone who talks too much. At the city's other attractions, guided tours are assembled to last a specified amount of time. At the Stax Museum, you can stay as long as you want. Since the Stax Museum receives grants and charitable donations they are able to offer an educational component that is more extensive than other attractions, and of course, you exit through the gift shop where the former Satellite Record Shop used to stand. Most of all, the people have been so gracious and welcoming, they make me believe they're actually happy I'm there. This makes me happy, plus, I get to see Tim Sampson every day. I was looking for one job, and suddenly I have three, if you count what you're reading. If not, It doesn't matter because I don't know you, and if you're not a fan of Soul music, I don't want to know you. My question is this: if I am teaching at the Stax Academy and working for the Stax Museum, all under the auspices of the Soulsville Foundation, does this make me a Soul Man? Play it Steve!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Stick 'Em Up

The latest batch of ricin letters to public officials came from- surprise - Texas. One tainted missive was sent to the president and two others were sent to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and to the office of his advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization of seven hundred mayors nationwide urging Congress to expand background checks for gun sales. The packages contained a threatening letter which read;

"You will have to kill me and my family before you get my guns. Anyone wants to come to my house will get shot in the face. The right to bear arms is my constitutional, God-given right and I will exercise that right till the day I die. What's in this letter is nothing compared to what I've got planned for you."
Let me ask you something Skippy, who are you going to shoot first? The mailman? The UPS driver? The pizza guy? Let's say your most paranoid delusions are correct and Obama really is coming for your guns. Do you have a grenade launcher, because, as we all know, Obama has drones. Have you acquired a bazooka? How's that assault rifle going to fend off the  M1 Abrams tank rolling up your driveway? And in which obscure scripture did you find a passage where God gave you the right to own a gun? I must have missed that class during my parochial school education. I heard things like "Love Ye one another," and "What you have done to the least of these, you have also done unto me." I never heard, "If someone slaps you on one cheek, pull out your nine millimeter and shoot them in the face." How dare some hate-infused, delusional, would-be assassin bring God into his deadly actions, and what makes him any different from an Al Qaeda terrorist? Just after these letters were intercepted, another toxin-laced letter addressed to the president was discovered sent from Spokane, WA. Do these crazy bastards believe that the president opens his own mail? The New York letter was opened in a biochemical containment box, but three officers who examined the letter suffered minor symptoms. The Center for Disease Control stated that contact with ricin causes difficulty breathing, vomiting, and redness of the skin. The brazen toxic-outlaws believe they're delivering a blow to a tyrannical government, when actually, they are making a teenage intern in the mailroom nauseous.

Last week's letters were just the latest in a string of similar incidents involving sending toxins through the mail. A Washington state man was arrested last week for mailing ricin to a federal judge and a package sent to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane was also discovered to contain the poison. Last month, a blockbuster local crime-drama broke out when ricin-laced letters addressed to the President, a federal judge, and a state senator were discovered to have been mailed from Memphis. The FBI arrested part-time Elvis impersonator Kevin Curtis, but quickly shifted their attention to his cyber-nemesis, a Tupelo karate instructor named J. Everett Dutschke. The two men had been having an online feud, mainly on Facebook, that's too convoluted to explain, but it was Dutschke who was arrested when traces of risin were found in his Taekwondo studio. And this man claims membership in Mensa. The Bloomberg letters were traced to New Boston, Texas, where the FBI arrested Nathaniel Richardson, an Army veteran employed by the Defense Department, after receiving a tip from his wife who called police after finding a Tupperware container with ricin in the refrigerator. If that weren't enough, the wife is actress Shannon Rogers Guess, best known for a part in The Blind Side, and her role as a zombie on The Walking Dead. Richardson is pointing the finger at her, claiming she bought ricin-rich Castor beans over the internet with a credit card to frame him.

These bizarre culprits are merely the dull tip of the spear when it comes to the gun-crazed freaks that live among us. The NRA has morphed from an organization that taught firearm safety and responsible gun ownership into a lobbying group for the armaments industry. Their heartless hysteria after the Newtown child slaughter caused gullible gun owners to panic that their rights were in jeopardy, especially after the NRA participated in spreading the patently false rumor that there was a government plot to buy up the civilian supply of ammunition after a media-induced run on bullets created a shortage. Unable to see through the Fox News and hate-radio propaganda that closing gun-show loopholes will lead to Blackhawk helicopters over Shreveport, these angry citizens live in fear of their own government and walk around all day with violent fantasies floating through their fevered minds. If you are told all day by right-wing media that you are at war with your government over your basic freedoms, then sending a toxin-laden letter to the chief executive doesn't make you a terrorist. In your own mind, it makes you a patriot.

On the morning of November 22, 1963, the Dallas Morning News ran an advertisement from a right-wing group featuring President John F. Kennedy on a wanted poster with the slogan "Wanted for Treason," along with a list of his fictitious misdeeds, including, "appointing anti-Christians to Federal office." I've always wondered if the newspaper regretted their bad judgement considering Kennedy died that day. Similar lies about President Obama have been accepted as fact by a large number of people who were inclined to dislike him in any case. California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly recently said on Christian radio that the unfettered possession of firearms was "absolutely essential to living the way God intended for us to live." This sort of disinformation comes from a belief that the Constitution was divinely inspired and as such, is a perfect document, much like the scriptures. So, when a person who watches the Fox News bile all day and finally goes insane with paranoia, why should it be surprising when they decide to take action against their government and its officials. When a group implies that its members need to take up arms against their government, its called treason. And any cabal of weapons peddlers who advocate the arming of citizens against their elected officials need to be classified as a terrorist organization.