Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Supremes Redux....

Between 1961 and 1963, the Supremes released eight singles, none of which charted within the Top 40 positions of the Billboard Hot 100. Jokingly referred to as the "no-hit Supremes" around Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices, the girls tried to make up for their lack of a hit by taking on any performing chore that was available at the studio, including doing hand claps and singing backup for Motown artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. During these early years, all three members took turns singing lead on various songs: Mary Wilson favoring the soft ballads; Florence Ballard favoring the soulful, hard-driving songs; and Diana Ross favoring the more mainstream pop songs. Most of their early material was written and produced by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson.

In December 1963, the Supremes song "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes", peaked at number 23 on the Billboard pop chart. "Lovelight" was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Also, in late 1963, Berry Gordy made Diane Ross, now going by Diana, the official lead singer of the group, because he felt her distinctive, nasal quality would help the group cross over to white audiences. Ballard and Wilson were periodically given solos on Supremes albums, and Ballard continued to sing her solo number, "People", in concert for the next two years.

In the spring of 1964, the Supremes recorded a single titled "Where Did Our Love Go". The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Marvelettes, who rejected it. In August 1964, while traveling as a part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars tour, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached number one on the US pop charts. It was also their first song to reach the UK pop charts, going to number three.

"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four more US number-one hits: "Baby Love" (also a number-one hit in the United Kingdom), "Come See About Me", "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." Between late 1966 and early 1967, the Supremes charted four more number-one hits in a row: "You Can't Hurry Love", "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone", and "The Happening."*

The rise of The Supremes coincided with the arrival of the British Invasion and, for a brief moment that felt like it lasted forever - like most brief moments do when you live through them - the Top 40 charts (which we studied like clerics poring over scriptures) were weekly battles between The Beatles and The Supremes.

My memory of the Summer of 1965 was of an ongoing battle between the boys and the girls at the local public swimming pool over the juke box and the back and forth of "Can't Buy Me Love" "Baby Love" "Help!" "You Can't Hurry Love" created the most perfect soundtrack imaginable.

To this day, "She Loves You" and "Baby Love" hold the top 2 positions in my own personal "Best Songs of the Sixties" list.

In 1964 The Supremes released the LP, A Bit Of Liverpool, a collection of British Invasion covers of songs by The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five and The Animals. It's fun to hear Lennon & McCartney channeled through Motown.

There are, of course, arguments made now with the benefit of four decades of hindsight that understand the success of The Supremes in terms of "market forces making black music more palatable to white audiences," which is proof that arguments can be both accurate and utterly beside the point at the very same time.

"Baby Love", like The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl" or Chad & Jeremy's "Summer Song" or The Happenings' "See You In September" these songs represent the very last moments of innocence in a culture that would never know that kind of innocence ever again.

* The first 4 paragraphs are taken from the Wikipedia Supremes entry.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Supremes....

This is the time of year for decisions to be issued by The Supreme Court of the United States. First things first, as this happens notice if you will the number of 5 to 4 decisions. And, as you look at those remember how important it is to elect Barack Obama in November.


In today's ruling the court struck down in a 5-4 decision a Louisiana law that had authorized the death penalty for anyone who rapes a child under the age of 12. Of 3,300 inmates on death row across the country, only two face capital punishment for a crime other than murder. Both were convicted under Louisiana's law, the broadest in the land. There has not been an execution for rape in the United States since 1964.

I have mixed feelings about many things. The novels of William Faulkner, all the records released by Bob Dylan between 1981 and 1997, Barry Bonds, Mexican beers, how many speeds a bicycle really needs, and so on.

I do not have mixed feelings about the death penalty. There are people in the world I'd gladly see leave it with no trace of remorse. When people ask "Who gets to make that decision?" my answer is "We do."

But, while I have no problem with the idea of putting some people down like we do with vicious dogs, I am opposed to the death penalty in practice.

In order to support capital punishment you have to be OK with the idea that we will occasionally execute the wrong person. I'm not. It's that simple.

But I digress.

Today's decision dealt with the execution of child rapists. Again, I have no moral qualms with the idea in theory. Want to make the world a better place? Take a child rapist.... zzzzap! There. One better.

So I understand Justice Alito's argument in his dissent in which he denounced the court's "sweeping conclusion'' that the death penalty is inappropriate "no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted and no matter how heinous the perpetrator's criminal record may be.''

I am, however, troubled that four of the Justices apparently went through law school without the notion of the "slippery slope" coming up, even once. It would not bother me if you killed the child rapist, nor would it bother me if you killed the child abuser. If someone beats and tortures a child but neglects to rape him or her, is that somehow "better"? Why does the monster who rapes the 11 year old get the needle while the one who rapes the 12 year old get to check out books from the prison library? What about people who torture animals? How about a show of hands from all of us who would miss Michael Vick even if we noticed he was gone.

Not only does the idea of the slippery slope inform the majority opinion, but I have to think it is somehow also informed by the arguments presented to the Michigan legislature by the National Organization of Women when they petitioned to have the penalties for rape decreased.

You read that right. N.O.W. asked the Michigan legislature to reduce the penalty for rape.

Too often the crime of rape is reduced to one person's word against another's. Obviously this isn't true for children where the court accepts that a 9 year old cannot consent to sex. But when the accuser and defendant are adults, it's a different matter.

What N.O.W. saw was that the states that had the most draconian penalties for rape also had the lowest conviction rates. In Michigan, where rape was a capital crime, juries were as hesitant to convict a defendant in rape cases as they were in murder cases and rape cases rarely had the same kinds of evidence required to remove reasonable doubt.

In other words, all rapists, including those who target children, are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms when the death penalty is off the table.

That four of the nine people who sit on the nation's highest court couldn't see that is just one more piece of evidence in accessing damage that eight years of Republican rule has done to America.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008)

When someone asks you, A penny for your thoughts, and you put your two cents in, what happens to the other penny?

When someone is impatient and says, "I haven't got all day," I always wonder, how can that be? How can you not have all day?

If a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?

It's never just a game when you're winning.

When you're born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat.

"What if there were no hypothetical questions?"

Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.

Some national parks have long waiting lists for camping reservations. When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong.

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

Before they invented drawing boards, what did they go back to?

Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.

"May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house."

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?

I think it would be interesting if old people got anti-Alzheimer's disease where they slowly began to recover other people's lost memories.

Electricity is really just organized lightning.

Women like silent men, they think they're listening.

"Honesty may be the best policy, but it's important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy."

I recently went to a new doctor and noticed he was located in something called the Professional Building. I felt better right away.

Why is the man (or woman) who invests all your money called a broker?

Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.

If all the world is a stage, where is the audience sitting?

Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they?

"The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done."

Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.

I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.

There's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past.

At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom.

As a matter of principle, I never attend the first annual anything.

"By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth."

Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things.

I think people should be allowed to do anything they want. We haven't tried that for a while. Maybe this time it'll work.

Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.

The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music.Religion convinced the world that there's an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there's 10 things he doesn't want you to do or else you'll go to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! ...And he needs money! He's all powerful, but he can't handle money!

Atheism is a non-prophet organization.

"Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn't mean the circus has left town."

One can never know for sure what a deserted area looks like.

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.

If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.

I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it.

If you can't beat them, arrange to have them beaten.

"The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live."

There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.

When you step on the brakes your life is in your foot's hands.

What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?

You know an odd feeling? Sitting on the toilet eating a chocolate candy bar.

You know the good part about all those executions in Texas? Fewer Texans.

My friend Tom sent me this one:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

It's a bird, it's a plane.... It's Socialist Man!

Cover of Action Comics #1, valued at $2,000,000

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw their creation, Superman, launched in Action Comics #1 in April 1938 (cover-dated June). Siegel and Shuster had tried for years to find a publisher for their Superman character (originally conceived as a newspaper strip) without success.

This may be because Superman was originally a bald madman created by Siegel and Shuster who used his telepathic abilities to wreak havoc on mankind (see below).

Then Siegel thought, "What if this Superman was a force for good instead of evil?"

"What if" indeed.

The story of Superman is introduced in the first story in the comic book. In those 13 pages Superman breaks into the governor's mansion, fights his way through the governor's security and yanks the sleeping governor out of bed in order to stops an execution. Then he shows up at the scene of domestic violence and thumps the bejeezus out of a "wife-beater." Finally, Superman uncovers a plot between a corrupt politician and a corporate CEO to steal millions of tax dollars and brings them both to justice.

What I am fascinated by is a reocurring theme in the pop culture of the period in which the rich and powerful are always cast as villains, not to be trusted, out to screw working people, greedy characters we need to keep our eyes on (and our hands on our wallets).

1938 is also the year George Cukor directed the film Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It is an amazing film that, if you haven't seen, you need to track down the DVD and watch. In it, Grant plays the free-thinking Johnny Case who meets a woman on holiday, falls in love, gets engaged and then discovers she is the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America. The scene in which he finds out when he goes to her house is wonderful; the house is the size of most art museums.

While suspicious of his motives at first, the wealthy father is won over by Grant's ability to put a deal together that will make him a small fortune in the stock market. But the father, and his older daughter to whom Grant is engaged, are horrified to learn that Grant intends to take this money and drop out of the very world into which the money has paid his entry fee. His intent is to retire to a modest life in the country, read Thoreau and "find himself."

Grant's fiancé is played by Doris Nolan and she undergoes a subtle but very noticeable transformation during the film from a young and alive, energetic and beautiful girl at the start, to a shrew-like and almost ugly woman as she is drawn to her father and a life of money and mansions. Katherine Hepburn plays the younger daughter who, of course, believes in Johnny's idealism and who ends up with him in the end.

"You've got no faith in Johnny, have you, Julia? His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well, so it may, what if it should? There'll be another. Oh, I've got all the faith in the world in Johnny. Whatever he does is all right with me. If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

But I digress.

It is, I believe, the Cold War, more than even the Civil War or Vietnam that did the greatest damage to America. Before WWII and the arrival of the mother-of-all-boogie-men-Communism, the popular media shows a landscape the oft deferred to Founders may well have recognized. A popular culture suspicious of the upper classes and the wealthy. A culture driven by labor, suspicious of the motives of management.

Another film that pops into my head as I struggle to articulate the cultural shifts between roughly 1940-1950 is Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

Judgment at Nuremberg is as stunning a critique of Cold War America as it can be read now as an equally insightful critique of the "War on Terror" (either that, or I've just come to a place where everything seems to work as a critique of the Bush administration). It seems to resonate perfectly with Mark Twain's observation that history "may not repeat itself, but it rhymes."

Socialism is an economic system in which wealth is distributed among all tiers of a society. There was a British mini-series a few years back in which a Socialist Party candidate was elected Prime Minister. Asked if he would do away with first class on the rail service he replied, "No! I intend to do away with second class."

I would vote for him on the basis of that remark alone.

In a NY Times article, Texas Governor, Rick Perry described Barack Obama as "one step away from being a socialist." The only way I've found to make sense of this is to argue that, if a socialist would be in favor of nationalizing the oil companies, then Obama, who is not in favor of nationalizing the oil companies is "one step away from being a socialist."

I wonder if they test the drinking water in Texas for thalidomide.

One conservative friend referred to Obama as a "socialist" once and I explained that it wasn't possible because I'm a socialist and I've never seen Obama at any of the meetings. To this day, and to his chagrin, "socialist" has become a generic term for anything he doesn't like. That Adam Sandler movie is socialist. So is that Coldplay song.

In my wallet I still carry, folded up in the corner, a $5 bill from 1950. At the end of my academic career I was teaching multiple sections of Public Speaking and every section had a student who would argue that prayer should be allowed in public school "because it says In God We Trust on our money."

"Really Heather? Tell you what, I'll give you a passing grade on that speech if you can find In God We Trust anywhere on this five."

If Communism is a rejection of private property, then the single greatest harm the Cold War caused was to transform the super rich into super patriots solely on the basis of their wealth.

Never again would it be natural to be suspicious of the intentions of the rich. From here on they would become our role models, who we aspired to be, who we dreamed our children might become.

Game, set and match.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Walking the Dogs: History in the Dust Bin & Other Stories

Friday morning, ten, ten fifteen, I took the dogs for a walk. Across the street from our house is an empty double; two apartments that have been empty for the past five or six years. Before that it was a problematic property, rented by a succession of young couples answering a casting call for COPS. Drunks shouting in the street at three in the morning; young women crying, running down the sidewalk with a baby in tow; the inevitable arrival of the squad cars… that sort of thing.

Our bedroom faces the street and the soft blue, red, and yellow pulse of police lights on the wall in the middle of the night does interesting things to your dreams.

Now whoever owns the place has had workers for the past month or so, gutting the inside and remodeling. The main guy is an ex-con, covered with jailhouse tattoos. He likes the dogs and we stop and chat whenever we go by and he’s there. I think one of the problems with prison must be leaving it behind once you don’t live there anymore. Almost every conversation leads to another story about something he doesn’t do anymore that put him in prison before. One morning he was all bruised up and told me he’d been jumped by five Mexicans in the parking lot of an East Side bar a few nights earlier. Something about an argument over how much they were to be paid for some drywall work, he showed me a gash on the side of his head where he was hit with a club.

“But they never got me down; then I got back to my truck and got my knife.” That’s as much information as he gives me and as much as I need.

But, I digress.

This Friday he wasn’t there, the house was closed up, but on the grass by the sidewalk were two trash cans and, as we passed I noticed a pile of photographs inside at the top.

This has happened to me once before. In the late 1980s I was in San Francisco for some academic conference and on a rainy evening walking to a restaurant with friends, I found a big pile of old family photos lying in a gutter. I saved the ones that weren’t ruined by the water, maybe 100-150 in all. They told the story of a guy who’d been in the US Navy and went to the South Pacific in the Second World War and then spent time in Japan where he met and married a Japanese woman and moved back to San Francisco where he worked as a bartender. The photos were all in black & white and included family gatherings, friends, visits to Japan; each photo had torn pits of black paper on the back from where they had been glued in a photo album. Why they were ripped from that album and tossed in the gutter – as opposed to simply throwing the entire album in the trash – remains a mystery.

This time it was an African-American family, and the photographs go back to the 1930s or 40s and run up toward the end of the 1980s. There are four photo albums and another hundred or more loose photos as well. They chronicle weddings, births, deaths and funerals. There are pictures of black men in uniform at the end of WWII. The photos seem to represent Indianapolis, Kentucky and Philadelphia as the locations for gatherings and relations.

One friend I emailed the photos to replied that the 1930 census shows no Jesse Dixon in Indiana, but shows six Jesse Dixon's in Kentucky (2 in Jefferson and one each in Boyd, Floyd, Hardin, and Lewis). This is, I imagine, the sort of stuff a journalist might do in a search for survivors.

There’s an official file photo of a fortyish-year old black woman from the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yards in Philadelphia and, near that, is a page of photos of various children and adults taken at different Philadelphia tourist locations.

The photos from the 1970s are great; all the men have enormous afros and look like members of Parliament Funkadelic.

I’ve gone through the photos three times now. The first time I was just overwhelmed by the amount and variety of images. The second time I found myself looking at all the children; baby pictures, five and six year olds playing in yards, and thinking about the roughly 12% of all black men in their 20s in prisons in the US. According to “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” published by the Pew Center on the States, one in nine Black men between the ages of 20-34 are incarcerated compared to one in 30 other men of the same age. Like the overall adult ratio, one in 100 Black women in their mid-to-late 30s is in prison. I find it impossible to look at these photos and not think of that.

The third time I went through these an interesting thing happened. They turned into my family photos. They became everyone’s family photos; the same odd composition, the same weddings, the same parties, the same vacations. The ones from the late 40s and 50s are the most “posed.” Getting your picture taken was a bigger deal then. Some of the photos are actually post cards, a practice common to the times when you were going to be sending out the photos of a new baby or a cousin or nephew who just finished basic training.

The 1960s were the time for glossy black & white snapshots. Everybody had a camera by now. Photos become more common and plentiful, more casual and less posed. This is the time of the tilted angles, strangely cropped images and odd accidental lighting effects. I love photos from that era. The 1960s were a period of unbridled possibility; the people in these photographs look like they’re at the beginning of a great adventure.

In the 1970s and 1980s the photos shift again to hundreds of Polaroid pictures, rich, saturated colors, softer focus, even more casual. *These photos end in the late 1980s. Our paths, the people in these photos and mine, just missing as I think whoever the person was who lived in that house was gone by 1987, the year we arrived in Indianapolis and a couple years before we bought the house across the street.

One photo in particular seems to be a metaphor for the entire journey of this family through time. There are two young men in naval uniforms, side by side. The photo was either in direct sunlight for a long time or wasn’t fixed properly when it was printed but the image has almost disappeared. The sailors, once proud and full of energy and promise, are now the ghosts of sailors, almost entirely gone from this world.

And the visual history of our lives has been transformed yet again as we move into the new century. Now, instead of boxes of photos and albums bulging with wedding and vacation photos, we have hard drives stuffed with images. Digital photography means that taking 600 photos of your weekend in St. Louis is no big thing. It will be old PCs sitting out for the trash in the days ahead, and nothing to catch the attention of dog walkers in the future.

Everyday in Indianapolis, like every day in every city and town in America, the Sanitation Department comes and picks up the trash and I suspect trashcans stuffed with family histories are not that uncommon and may even collectively represent their own layer in every landfill in the country.

Americans are more nomadic than most other developed nations. I don’t know if it’s far less common for family photos to end up in the dustbin in France or England but my guess is that it would be. The most amazing example of history pulled from the void at the last possible second I have experienced involves a fiery shoebox, Henry Miller and Man Ray, a story that can be found here.

Earlier today a reporter and photographer from The Indianapolis Star and a senior archivist of African-American History from the Indiana Historical Society came over and took the albums and photographs. We sat around for an hour or so looking through all of it; we walked to the empty house and met with the contractor who took us into the basement and garage where even more photos of the black family, and a whole new collection of family pictures of a white family, were discovered. The reporter will try and track down someone from the family who might be stunned to see what just escaped destruction. If no one can be found the photos will be archived at the Historical Society where they will become another set of pieces in an enormous and ever-growing family album.

This would never have happened if we still had cats.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Three Political Poems

Bird With Two Right Wings

And now our government
a bird with two right wings
flies on from zone to zone
while we go on having our little fun & games
at each election
as if it really mattered who the pilot is
of Air Force One
(They're interchangeable, stupid!)
While this bird with two right wings
flies right on with its corporate flight crew
And this year its the Great Movie Cowboy in the cockpit
And next year its the great Bush pilot
And now its the Chameleon Kid
and he keeps changing the logo on his captains cap
and now its a donkey and now an elephant
and now some kind of donkephant
And now we recognize two of the crew
who took out a contract on America
and one is a certain gringo wretch
who's busy monkeywrenching
crucial parts of the engine
and its life-support systems
and they got a big fat hose
to siphon off the fuel to privatized tanks
And all the while we just sit there
in the passenger seats
without parachutes
listening to all the news that's fit to air
over the one-way PA system
about how the contract on America
is really good for us etcetera
As all the while the plane lumbers on
into its postmodern
manifest destiny

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

There is no poem that will stop this war

This is not the one. There is none. There is
nothing to be done. We are not anything but
the Hun the fierce images in old textbooks
the Mongol horsemen rape and pillage
villages burning and the laughter of old men.
The radio and television prepare us
for the Super Bowl. But already in Ohio
we are number one. All of us better
than all of the rest of the world. Admit it

it was the perfect game. Allah praise Ohio State.
And admit this all who listen to NPR
the president is smarter than you.
He is riding the armored car of history while you
look for a refuge some safe place for your children.
But there is no place to hide. We are the virus.
Everything that cannot be bought and sold
for a profit falls before us. He knows this
even if you believe he is a fool. He lives and breathes
Karl Marx while you hold up a sign that says
Peace is Patriotic. The laughter of old men.

There is no image to stop the war. No child
with burned blacked skin like barbecued chicken.
The children waste away from bad plumbing and no
medicine. We pass along to each other the chips
and organic carrots. Bottled water.

There is no poem as good as government ensured
bonds. We are wounded with so little interest. There
is no poem that will pay us ten percent and stop
this war. The Germans marched prematurely
through history never understanding the power
of the dollar never having heard of Lexus and SUV
never knowing anything about baseball never
knowing that the Yankees only lose enough
to make the game seem fair. Vietnam is empty
in the memory. Cambodia fills with Wal-Mart
and Burger King. Bombs from 20,000 feet.

The first dictate of battle is to make sure
the enemy has no weapons to harm you.
Disable their best batter. Tonya Harding their best runner.
Then attack and wait for the parade. But dont wait
for the poem that will stop this war. There is none.
The history of the empire has just begun.

- Joe Napora

The Last Election

Suppose there are no returns,
and the candidates, one
by one, drop off in the polls,
as the voters turn away,
each to his inner persuasion.

The frontrunners, the dark horses,
begin to look elsewhere,
and even the President admits
he has nothing new to say;
it is best to be silent now.

No more conventions, no donors,
no more hats in the ring;
no ghost-written speeches,
no promises we always knew
were never meant to be kept.

And something like the truth,
or what we knew by that name-
that for which no corporate
sponsor was ever offered-
takes hold in the public mind.

Each subdued and thoughtful
citizen closes his door, turns
off the news. He opens a book,
speaks quietly to his children,
begins to live once more.

- John Haines