Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ghosts in the Machine....

A couple years ago I spent some time setting up a My Space page which I later mostly abandoned after I started this blog. Sometime later I set up a Face Book page, but I quickly forgot my log on information and put it out of my mind. Occasionally I would try and access the page, but for some reason I could never get the "lost password" link to work. Finally, about a week ago, I managed to get back on and I found a mailbox full of messages.

The effect was disorienting.

The best way I can describe it is that it was like a scene from a science fiction film in which a group of people who were abducted by aliens thirty or forty years ago suddenly return, walking out of a mist into view. Or, perhaps it is the memories that, like rescued miners, stumble of the mine entrance, their hands shielding their eyes from the daylight.

With every name from the past I found, I would look at who their friends were and find more names that sounded familiar and I would follow those links. I began to look at the photo books of people I didn't know or only vaguely remembered and, after an hour or so of that, I clicked on another collection of photos and found the one above.

I was stunned.

The photograph was taken in 1973, in the basement of my parents' house in Northeast Philadelphia (Cottman & the Boulevard for anyone who knows Philadelphia). The paneling, ceiling tiles, that dartboard, all instantly recognizable. I'm standing at the left; next to me is my friend Cliff. It was Cliff who introduced me to Bruce Springsteen when, after I'd moved to Clarion PA to start college, he mailed me sheets of lyrics from the Asbury Park album that he'd copied out by hand. This photo was taken right around the time I went back to Philadelphia and the two of us drove over to New Jersey, to see the E-Street Band for the first time at a bar called Uncle Al's Earlton Lounge.

$1 cover charge and $1 beers.

Next to Cliff is David, one of my best friends from that time, being held by another person I can't quite remember. I have no idea who took the photo either. I am pretty sure, however, where I got the idea for the sideburns.

I am in awe of the past. I am in awe of the future. I am in awe of the present. The "internet" -- this seemingly infinite mass of information that has no mass -- seems like a connection to another dimension outside of the four we move through.

This is also, however, where understanding that 75% of all the people on Earth today have never used a telephone comes in handy too. It helps pull me back down here on Planet One where real things still really matter.

Still, fun, these interwebs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Marilyn Gets High....

A home movie that shows Marilyn Monroe smoking a cigarette reportedly filled with marijuana was sold at auction for $275,000. The video, which shows Monroe relaxing and laughing with friends, was filmed about 50 years ago at a home in New Jersey. According to the Daily Mail, the person who made the film confirmed that the cigarette contained marijuana, saying: "I got it (the pot). It was mine. It was just passed around. It was not a party. It was just a get-together. You know, come over and hang out."

I'm not sure what it is about this photo, a screen capture from a silent 8mm film shot at a party over half a century ago, that I find so... comforting.

I think it is an echo of my early-1970s self; a fantasy in which I'm passing a joint from Marilyn to John and Paul, sitting in my living room of that small house on Liberty Street in Clarion, PA, Bonnie Raitt's Give It Up on the stereo. Rum and cokes all around.

Life is good.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Late Great Johnny Ace

Twenty-nine years ago today I was at a late-night poker game. A friendly penny ante game at my friend Steve's apartment. Steve lived above a garage on South Street in Clarion, PA. I lived in an apartment above a garage about a block away. We drank beer and played records and I'm sure I bitched and moaned about every card I was dealt. The game broke up about 2:30 and a half-hour later I got a call from Steve. He said his brother, who'd driven home to Fryburg after the game, called to tell him that he'd heard on the radio that John Lennon had been shot.

"He thinks he may have been killed."

This was back before the advent of 24 hour news channels. CNN had started that very year and wasn't on the cable system in that small town yet. I thought, I don't know what I thought; maybe "I hope not", and I went to bed. I woke up late the next morning and turned on the TV and on channel after channel I saw the kind of photo and film montage that can only mean that someone has died.

I was working at a small local record store and I remember being furious with the people who called to ask if their Beatles and Lennon LPs were worth a bunch of money now. One guy called one evening, not too long before I closed the store, and he just wanted to talk about it. Not about the killing, but about Lennon and about the Beatles and about our childhoods and our memories.

I remembered the very first time I'd heard the name "Beatles", sitting in my desk in class at the local Catholic grade school. The parish priest's voice boomed out of the PA system to tell us that, in no uncertain terms, would "beetle haircuts" be permitted. None of us had any idea what he was talking about and yet all of us suddenly wanted one. What we now know as "THE SIXTIES" might have started that very morning.

My favorite John Lennon memory goes a little past thirteen years before that poker game when my friend Bob and I came back from the shop across the street with the new Beatles 45; this was late-November 1967. I had a crappy record player in the basement of my parents house and we sat there, not even taking our coats off, and listened to "Hello, Goodbye", a decent enough I suppose Paul McCartney song (elevated by some fantastic drumming by Ringo) but possibly the single most undeserving A-side of a single ever, or at least so we concluded after flipping the little disc over and dropping the needle on "I Am the Walrus."

In November of 1967 I was fourteen and had only read the stories about LSD in Time, LIFE and Look magazines; now we found out what LSD sounded like. Hearing that song there in that basement was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where everything shifts from black and white to technicolor (of course, so was hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" for that matter).

That same year Rolling Stone Magazine appeared for the first time and Lennon graced the cover of issue #1.

Rolling Stone ceased to be relevant sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, but I always thought that had Jann Wenner had far more class than he does he might have simply and quietly folded the magazine after their last great issue.

Of all the work the individual Beatles did after the dissolution of the band, there is only one moment that, in my opinion, manages to surpass the best of it. On John Lennon's first solo LP, the song "God." His vocal on the lines, "The dream is over... what can I say? The dream is over" is among the most sublime things I have ever heard.

There are a bunch of songs about John Lennon, but the one that I think stands by itself is Paul Simon's "Late Great Johnny Ace."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bob Dylan: Asking Questions About "Mississippi"

Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

City's just a jungle, more games to play
Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away
I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town
I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well, the devil's in the alley, mule's in the stall
Say anything you wanna, I have heard it all
I was thinkin' about the things that Rosie said
I was dreaming I was sleeping in Rosie's bed

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Some people will offer you their hand and some won't
Last night I knew you, tonight I don't
I need somethin' strong to distract my mind
I'm gonna look at you 'til my eyes go blind

Well I got here following the southern star
I crossed that river just to be where you are
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Everybody movin' if they ain't already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waitin' to be kind
So give me your hand and say you'll be mine

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

"Mississippi" is one amazing Dylan song for a variety of reasons. Of all the songs that get placed on a "Dylan's best song" list, "Mississippi" seems, to me, the most ephemeral of all. While songs like "Visions of Johanna" "Desolation Row" "Chimes of Freedom" clearly aren't traditional "story telling" songs, they none the less are chock full of images; they are overflowing with meaning, whereas "Mississippi" seems to barely trickle meaning, is more like a leaky faucet than the burst dams of those other songs.

More than any other Dylan song it seems like some odd alchemy of words that barely whisper meaning mixed with a strong performance create a result that is so surprisingly impressive. All the various versions (see here, here and here) lead up to the final album version and that version is clearly the best because it finds that amazing contrast between a lyric that descends into a sort of darkness sung against a progression that ascends into light, counteracting the despair.

One way the song works in to create a sense of urgency in the opening verse. "Our days are numbered, there's no escape." A good chunk of Dylan's best work sets up a dichotomy of "light/dark" "urban/rural" and this does too in the second verse's "I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town."

The song's structure is comprised of 12 verses arranged in three sets of four verses each and each of those three sets leading up to the repeating enigma: "Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long."

Here's where the greater context of Love and Theft enters the picture and contributes meaning to "Mississippi." Mississippi has nothing to do with the song per se, but fits into the larger puzzle of the record as a kind of tour through the reconstructed South.

Sung in the first person, it has a narrator; it's just that the narrator is less forthcoming than any other on any other song. To fill 12 verses and say.... almost nothing. It’s like a Steely Dan song.

"Mississippi" is a perfect example of a Dylan song that really resists "interrogation" (you could water board this song and it still isn't giving anything up). But there are two different approaches -- in the first you take a song, sit it in a chair and shine a 100 watt light in its eyes and ask it where it was on the evening of October 5th. That won't work here.

It is the other approach that works -- you take the song to the pub, not to "get it drunk" but to get drunk with it. You sit and drink 6 pints each and it tells you its secrets as you tell it a few of your own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bob Dylan: "Floater (Too Much To Ask)"

Recently, I spent the first half of a day listening to the last three albums by Bob Dylan in the order of their release: Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009). Each record shares the trait of all great art in rewarding repeat visits. It wasn’t until sometime in 2003 that I realized that Love and Theft was the best album Dylan had ever made. Right now I am of the opinion that Modern Times has the slightest edge over the other two.

The writing on all three is some of Dylan’s best, but the writing on Love and Theft is particularly rich. At the half-way point, the song “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” shows up. Musically, the album is a tour of the popular music of America in the 20th Century, and this song sounds like something from the 1930s-1940s. Lyrically, however, its sixteen verses seem to flash on the screen like scratchy black & white home movies from rural Tennessee circa 1938.

Down over the window
Comes the dazzling sunlit rays
Through the back alleys - through the blinds
Another one of them endless days

Honeybees are buzzin'
Leaves begin to stir
I'm in love with my second cousin
I tell myself I could be happy forever with her

I keep listenin' for footsteps
But I ain't hearing any
From the boat I fish for bullheads
I catch a lot, sometimes too many

A summer breeze is blowing
A squall is settin' in
Sometimes it's just plain stupid
To get into any kind of wind

The character who sings the song is a gentleman we only ever see out of the corner of our eye as we look at the various things he’s describing. Sometimes he describes aspects of everyday life, but other times he describes his own inner thoughts and feelings and we are offered little insights into his psyche.

The old men 'round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don't carry weight
It doesn't matter in the end

One of the boss' hangers-on
Comes to call at times you least expect
Try to bully ya - strong arm you - inspire you with fear
It has the opposite effect

As the song proceeds it builds up this rhythm moving back and forth between description and autobiography.

There's a new grove of trees on the outskirts of town
The old one is long gone
Timber two-foot six across
Burns with the bark still on

They say times are hard, if you don't believe it
You can just follow your nose
It don't bother me - times are hard everywhere
We'll just have to see how it goes

My old man, he's like some feudal lord
Got more lives than a cat
Never seen him quarrel with my mother even once
Things come alive or they fall flat

Even in the technology stock boom of the 1990s you’d still have been safe singing about times being hard. Times are always hard (and, for that matter, always changing).

You can smell the pine wood burnin'
You can hear the school bell ring
Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything

Romeo, he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion.
It doesn't give your appearance a very youthful touch!"
Juliet said back to Romeo, "Why don't you just shove off
If it bothers you so much."

They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers
They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers

I wonder if, as he’s spun this tale, this man has been sipping something a bit stronger than sweet tea. We’re offered advice (“Sit close to the teacher”), some thoroughly odd and oblique Shakespeare reference, and that utterly fantastic alliteration, “rest of them rebel rivers.”

I wonder about how alcohol effects people differently when he suddenly stops to remind us:

If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again
You do so at the peril of your own life
I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound
I've seen enough heartaches and strife

The moment passes, and we move back to autobiography.

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of the Christmas Eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

Perhaps that’s it then; our slightly tipsy narrator has lived his life as a tobacco farmer, running a plantation, his own “dreams and hopes left buried under tobacco leaves.”

And as I think about it, I can’t stop myself from wondering if, thirty-seven years after he condemned him in his most famous self-righteous and criminally distorted “finger pointing” protest songs, Bob Dylan is writing this song from the point of view of an older William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger.

No matter. The first fifteen verses were just passing the time up to where, his eyes downcast, we’re told that:

It's not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while - it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it's too much to ask.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Youtube and Cultural Memory....

Looking for "gunfighter ballads" I might have forgotten I went over to Youtube to see if there was a video for "The Ballad of Paladin," the theme song to the 1950s-1960s TV western series Have Gun, Will Travel. And, off course there was.

There should be (and quite possibly is already) a name for the Youtube effect in which one thing leads to another, spirals out of control, and before you know it, you're older.

Go on and click on that link to the video of "The Ballad of Paladin." Look to the right and at the list of related videos and how can you NOT click on the opening of Rawhide? Now, how can you resist looking at the opening of The Rifleman? And now you've clicked on the intro to Gunsmoke, haven't you? And Gunsmoke makes you click on the intro to Cheyenne, a series you didn't realize you remembered until the music kicked in.

And as a repository for the theme songs to all the TV westerns of the 1950s and 1960s Youtube has become this instantly accessible repository for that odd sort of affective cultural memory that television theme songs inhabit.

If it hasn't been named then let me suggest we call it the "Youtube spiral."

Cheyenne led to Colt 45 which led to Johnny Yuma which led to Bat Masterson which led to Jim Bowie which led to Shotgun Slade which led to Tombstone Territory and there, at the very end of the spiral, I found Tate.

Tate was a Western television series starring David McLean that aired on the NBC television network from June 8, 1960 until September 14, 1960. It was a summer replacement series as a part of the Kraft Summer Theater, and did not catch on as a regular series.

As soon as I saw the video I instantly remembered the series with a feeling that's hard to describe. It was like forgetting you speak an obscure foreign language until someone mutters a phrase in passing and the memory of it, it's grammar and vocabulary, suddenly come flooding in.

When the series aired I would have been six years old. I'm sure it was never shown in syndication, but 1960 would have been the very center of the golden age of TV westerns and I remember being a fan of all of them. Like every other kid of the era I practiced my fast draw, could "fan" a six-shooter and fire my Winchester air rifle with the best of them.

These memories have to have been what inspired me some years back to buy an Italian-made replica of an 1870s Colt .45 single action revolver. It's my favorite gun to shoot, especially at an outdoor range. I've even learned to "fan" it -- hold the trigger down after the first shot and sweep the palm of your other hand over the hammer of the gun. It hurts like hell by the way, but the thrill is worth it.

But back to Tate....

Like Shane and Paladin, Tate had one name -- a tradition carried on by their 20th Century counterparts, contemporary "guitarslingers" like Prince, Slash, etc. Unlike other TV leading men, Tate had lost the use of his left arm during the Civil War. Afterward, he roamed the West as a bounty hunter/fast gun trying to earn enough money to get his damaged arm surgically repaired. Yes, even in the late-19th Century the lack of national health care often had tragic results.

Tate dressed in black leather with his left arm covered with black leather and slung with a glove on the end. I think it's that I remember; seeing a handicapped figure in a starring role was unusual for TV of the time. it's reasonable to suggest that Tate paved the way for later shows with handicapped lead characters like Ironside and Longstreet.

I've wonder if the character of Tate wasn't informed in some manner by the handicapped WWII veteran, John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy in the 1955 film, Bad Day At Black Rock. Like Tate, Macreedy faces down the bad guy with just one arm (Tracy keeps his left hand in his pocket the entire film). This fight scene with Earnest Borgnine seems lifted from any one of a thousand classic westerns. Notice how Lee Marvin looks on from a nearby table.

Though short-lived, the series featured a long list of guest stars, including Julie Adams, Chris Alcaide, James Coburn, Robert Culp, Jock Gaynor, Martin Landau, Leonard Nimoy, Warren Oates, and Robert Redford. One episode was even directed by famed actress/director Ida Lupino.

In 2008, The entire 13-episode series was released on DVD by Timeless Media Group, something made possible I suspect because the series is in the public domain. Copyrights that never expire would mean the permanent banishment of who knows how many films and series like this.

One last note.... At the time of the series its star David McLean was already well known as the Marlboro Man, one of the most famous advertising campaigns in advertising history. It would also be one of the most ironic and infamous since McLean himself died of lung cancer in 1995.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Connoisseur

The Connoisseur (1962)

I've written a couple posts in the past about Norman Rockwell; I've always liked the clarity and coolness of his style. This painting was the cover of the January 13, 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Oil on canvas, 37 3/4 x 31 1/2 inches, the image is unabashedly conservative, but a conservatism of a kind that has all but vanished from the contemporary public sphere. The painting both respects and critiques the abstract impressionism of the painting within the painting. It seems to ask whether the artist (apparently Pollock) could ever render an image as "realistic" as the image that contains his painting (Pollock's early work, much of it done for the WPA, would suggest that yes, he could).

Truth be told, I much prefer Pollock. But I also love that sparkling wit in Norman's eye.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and Fox News....

Iva Toguri mug shot, Sugamo Prison - March 7, 1946

I believe the best framework to really understand likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Matt Drudge, Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the ultra-right wingnut punditry is to see them as the direct descendants of Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally.

Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, an American, was the woman most identified with "Tokyo Rose", a generic name given by Allied forces in the South Pacific during World War II to any of approximately a dozen English-speaking female broadcasters of Japanese propaganda.

Mildred Gillars, also known as "Axis Sally," was a female radio personality during World War II, best known for her propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany. Gillars' most famous broadcast, and the one that would eventually get her convicted of treason, was a play titled Vision of Invasion that went out over the airwaves on May 11, 1944. It was beamed to American troops in England awaiting the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as well as to the home folks in America. Gillars played the role of an American mother who dreamed that her soldier son, a member of the invasion forces, died aboard a burning ship in the attempt to cross the English Channel. The play had a realistic quality to it, sound effects simulating the moans and cries of the wounded as they were raked with gunfire from the beaches. Over the battle action sound effects, an announcer’s voice intoned, ‘The D of D-Day stands for doom…disaster…death…defeat…Dunkerque or Dieppe.’ Adelbert Houben, a high official of the German Broadcasting Service, would testify at Axis Sally’s trial that her broadcast was intended to prevent the invasion by frightening the Americans with grisly forecasts of staggering casualties.

They sought what Fox News seeks, the destruction of America. Unlike Sally and Rose, who we assume were motivated by some personal ideology, however wrong; Fox and the pundits are motivated solely by greed.

These are the people Richard Brautigan was writing about in his poem "Negative Clank" in his book Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt.

Negative Clank

He'd sell a rat's asshole
to a blindman for a wedding

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transmissions from a distant galaxy....

"If the lighter side of rap and hip hop's wordplay and rhyme has a spiritual father, he might be Slim Gaillard (1916–1991, shown here at the right), the great jazzman and scat artist of the 1930s and 1940s, whose nonsense syllables and quick-witted and humorous rhymes can be heard as echoes in the raps of De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and A Tribe Called Quest. Born in Santa Clara, Cuba, Gaillard was raised in Detroit and New York City. As half of the jazz duo Slim & Slam, Gaillard developed his own hip argot, a musical vocabulary of wildly colliding nonsense syllables and the surprise of unexpected rhyme Gaillard called "vout." Armed with it, a quick wit, and an ability to scat with the best, Gaillard produced hits like "Chicken Rhythm," "Flat Foot Floogie," and "Cement Mixer." Though he was not as famous as Cab Calloway or Scatman Crothers, Gaillard's comic derring-do and hip personal style made him a cult favorite among jazz listeners and fans of scat for generations to come." - (Oxford African American Studies Center)

"Transmissions from a distant galaxy..." is how I feel about this video I just found on Youtube thanks to the most recent Punmaster mailing (you should subscribe to their Music Wire mailings).

Slim Gaillard is one of those black musicians from the first half of the 20th Century who has obscure origins -- he was either born in Cuba, or in Florida, or maybe Detroit. Gaillard first rose to prominence in the late 1930s as part of Slim & Slam, a jazz novelty act he formed with bassist Slam Stewart. Their hits included "Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)", "Cement Mixer (Puti Puti)" and the hipster anthem, "The Groove Juice Special (Opera in Vout)". The duo performs in the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin'.

In penning his biggest hit, "Flat Foot Floogie," the sly Gaillard perpetrated a monumentally mischievous prank on the American pop music public. The whole first line read: "Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy." As it happen, a flat-foot floozie (Galliard substitutes "floogie) in the African American slang of the period is defined as a streetwalking prostitute and, in the same lexicon, the floy floy is defined as gonorrhea.

In other words, America was unwittingly singing along to a song celebrating a streetwalker carrying the clap.*

This video was aired on Michelob Presents Night Music, a late-night television show from 1988 and showcase for jazz and eclectic musical artists hosted by Jools Holland.

* From Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Songs For Political Action....

Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953 is a 1996 10 CD box set by the German-based Bear Family label.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Bear Family might want to take a tour of the web site and see some of the most excessive CD box sets anyone has ever imagined. It’s one thing to imagine a collection of early 60’s British skiffle performer, Lonnie Donegan. It’s another thing entirely to imagine it as an 8-CD box set with 60-page book (“More Than Pye in the Sky”).

Or, consider this: Currently in print are four different CD box sets for Dean Martin; an 8-CD & 84-page book set, another 8-CD & 84-page book set, and two different 6-CD plus DVD plus book sets (that’s 28 CDs, 2 DVDs and 4 books of Dino). You’ll also find three 4-CD Tex Ritter box sets, and page after page of multiple multi-CD boxes by Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and countless other artists from every genre and era.

When you look at a Bear Family box set of an artist you’re not particularly interested in there is a tendency to think, “How bizarre.” But, when you find that 12 CD box for one of your favorites that contains every alternate version, demo version, foreign language version, outtake, and a glossy hard cover book with full color photos of every LP, single, E.P., Indonesian flexi-disc, etc., there is a tendency to think, “It’s about time.” The Bear Family is the music collector’s dream label.

Songs For Political Action is a perfect case in point. 296 songs on 10 CDs with a 215-page hard cover coffee-table book makes for a box set that can’t be lifted with just one hand. It also makes for a stunning listening experience.

When compared to most of the developed world, America is still a very young country. It is a characteristic of youth to be disinterested in history, and that historical ambivalence is a defining aspect of the American character. The history of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s is the history of average Americans struggling to gain the rights and rewards that most of us in 2009 pretty much take for granted.

This description from the Bear Family catalog places the collection in a concise context:

“Maybe it didn’t bring about the social and economic equality that it strove for, but the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s did leave one lasting legacy: the urban folk song revival. The energetic, politically daring music of the Almanac Singers and its predecessors, contemporaries and successors continue to resonate through today’s singer-songwriters. Spanning the years 1926 to 1953, the discs offer a comprehensive overview of this enduring music, from the labor choruses and New York’s socially conscious theatrical scene of the 1930s, to the Almanac Singers´ influential, the postwar idealism of People’s Songs and ends with the disturbing anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era that silenced many of these talented, dedicated performers.”

The discs are organized historically and thematically: #1 - The Leftist Roots of the Folk Revival. #2 – Theatre and Cabaret Performers: 1936-1941. #3 – The Almanac Singers: March 1941-July 1941. #4 – Fighting the Fascists: 1942-1944. #5 – World War II and the Folk Revival. #6 – The People’s Songs Era: 1945-1949. #7 – Pete Seeger: 1946-1948. #8 – Charter Records: 1946-1949. #9 – Campaign Songs: 1944-1949. #10 – An Era Closes: 1949-1953.

Listen to songs like “I’m Going To Organize, Baby Mine” “There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land” “Farmer’s Letter To The President” “Write Me Out My Union Card” “We Shall Not Be Moved” “Bad Housing Blues” “Which Side Are You On?” “Oh, What Congress Done To Me” “Commonwealth of Toil” “Unemployment Compensation Blues” “The U.A.W. Train” “Susan’s in the Union” “Swingin’ On A Scab” “Song Of My Hands” “In Contempt” “Put My Name Down” “Talking Un-American Blues” “Joe McCarthy’s Band” and you’re listening to the history of America; the history of the individual men women who fought and died for simple things like a living wage, voting rights, the right to organize, and the dignity of the average American.

Throughout the collection there is an underlying passion for America, for the ideals and principles that America should extend to every citizen. It is fitting that the last song on the last disc is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” This passion for America, and a stubborn refusal to accept nothing less than America’s promise of a fundamental fairness, rests right on the surface of lyrics like:

“Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing --
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people --
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.”

Guthrie was a true phenomenon in his time, extraordinarily popular. I’ve always like Grapes of Wrath author, John Steinbeck’s description:

“Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

I think I paid about $250 or so for this box a few years back and it’s been worth that to me. When I was a kid I had an Uncle Joe who always bought me books, every birthday, Christmas, and often whenever he’d come to visit. If I had money, I’d buy a copy for every kid I know as I’m pretty sure this isn’t the history they're getting in schools today, and if anyone ever said a truer thing than “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” I’d sure like to hear it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Jesus is Changing Soon" - A Short Short Story

The signs started to appear in the spring of 2002. The best guess is that the very first sign appeared on a wall of a building facing an empty lot just north of 43rd and Justice. It was written in a distinctive cursive style, seemingly free hand, with white paint. The letters were about two feet high and the words divided into three lines.
is changing


Throughout the spring and summer and into the fall the signs appeared as far north as 94th street and all the way south into Walnut Glenn.

Occasionally, a sign would appear that, from the handwriting, had clearly been written by someone else. These would last no more than a day before they would be painted over or erased, but the original signs were never disturbed.

In the winter, downtown bars began to find business cards left on tables; white, with the same three lines in the same handwriting, printed on them. Nothing else.

Cards were also found at public libraries, movie theaters, and grocery stores.

After the first couple months, people were waiting for some sort of aesthetic punch line. A local band’s new album, an art installation project, something. Sometime in 2003, the appearance of new signs seemed to slow and then stop, sometime around May; possibly, it was suggested, on the anniversary of the very first sign.

The business cards also stopped around that time. Whatever cards were found were collected by local artists; someone created postcards featuring photos of the signs that were sold in some downtown shops.

An editorial, written by the pastor of a local Baptist church, appeared in the city newspaper, critical of the signs, suggesting they represented a mockery of faith. A rebuttal editorial, written by a local Unitarian minister, argued that the signs represented a belief that 19th Century Christianity was ill-suited for a 21st Century world.

Similar battles were also fought from local pulpits.

Sometime in late 2002, a group emerged on the city’s north side that believed the signs were a prediction that the Second Coming of Christ would happen in 2012. That group, labeled “Jesus 2012” by the local media, grew in size at a brisk pace, until meetings with attendance well into four figures was common.

In 2006, two sociologists at a local university conducted a study of the initial phenomenon and mapped six hundred and sixty eight original signs. During their investigation they managed to find one piece of surveillance video from a security camera in which a sign appeared on a plywood sheet covering a window of an abandoned building. In the video, a Ford van arrives at 3:11 a.m. and parks. The driver of the van can be seen looking at papers for nine minutes and eight seconds. When the van leaves, the words are now visible on the plywood; on the video no one is seen on the street coming on the sidewalk from either direction. A traffic camera at the corner, a half block from where the van had stopped, shows that the van never reached the corner.

After the study appeared, a local evangelical Christian cable access program ran a series of shows in which a handwriting analyst studied all six hundred and sixty eight of the original signs and determined that two of them were forgeries.

By the middle of 2007 nine chapters of the “Jesus 2012” group had appeared in Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Knoxville, Huntsville, Indianapolis and Kokomo. The Chicago chapter was the largest, with eleven thousand members.

Around that time “person or persons unknown” used a chain saw to cut out the sign from the plywood window cover that had been identified in the Journal of Urban Sociology article. In a separate incident, twenty-three blocks of homes were without power for two days when a squirrel chewed on an exposed wire after someone removed a transformer cover upon which a sign had been painted.

After a newspaper story about the stolen plywood, three different men were arrested for selling little plastic envelopes that each held a splinter of wood and a card that read, “PIECE OF THE TRUE SIGN - $10.”

The cover of the November 2007 issue of Christianity Today was a sheet of plywood on which was written in a familiar script, “Is Jesus Really Changing in 2012?” Also in November of 2007 a graduate committee in the Ph.D. program in religious studies at Stanford University approved the first dissertation proposal that sought to investigate the signs. The study combined semiotics and hermeneutics in its methodology. Within a year there would be over two-dozen MA and Ph.D. theses in US universities devoted to some aspect of the phenomena.

The documentary, Jesus is Changing Soon, premiered at the Cleveland Film Festival in March of 2007. The following month, Jesus 2012, opened at the San Francisco Film Festival. Both films eventually broke long-standing records held by Michael Moore for documentary sales on DVD.

During the sweeps week of 2008, the TV series, C.S.I. Miami, featured a program about the murder of an artist who had been painting “What Does Jesus Want Now?” graffiti around Miami. The murderer turned out to be the mentally disturbed daughter of a popular television evangelist.

Around the same time, the animated series, South Park, aired the episode, “Cartman is Changing His Underwear Soon” in which the character of Eric Cartman is taunted by street graffiti, eventually found to be the work of Kyle Broflovski.

In the fall of 2009 a conference, Jesus is Changing Soon: Cultural Interstices of Religion and Art, was held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where over twenty panels saw papers presented by leading scholars from around the globe. A special edition of the journal, Cultural Studies, followed, and Oxford University Press has announced a forthcoming edited collection of work culled from that conference. Borrowing from a famous routine by Lenny Bruce, spoken word artist Jello Biafra released a live CD entitled, “To” is a Preposition, “Change” is a Verb.

By the spring of 2009 there were dozens of new courses offered on the phenomenon at universities in the US and abroad.

The Jesus 2012 movement continues to grow with chapters in all fifty states, in England and Germany and a membership now believed to be over two million. When interviewed, members most often explain that they were attracted to the movement because it offers the finality of an actual expiration date. “No matters what happens,” one woman in Liverpool explained, “we will not be having this conversation in 2013.”

Most recently, reports from Saudi Arabia and Iran have surfaced describing graffiti, in both Arabic and Farsi, translated, “The Prophet is Becoming.”

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Exploration of Space and the Consciousness of Cathedrals

Man stands on the Moon, July 1969

Ignore for the moment that conservative Republicans mostly believe the moon landing was a hoax ("If it's real then why aren't there dinosaurs in the photo? Well? Answer that, smart guy!") and take a moment to reflect on the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing and contemplate the reasons why that seemed to represent the swan song for America's program of space exploration.

In a neighborhood coffee shop the other day I watched a twenty-something guy get frustrated to the point of apoplexy with his laptop computer because it took over twenty seconds to load a Youtube video. This, to me, represents the current consciousness we bring with us when we regard time.

Now consider that the nearest star to our solar system is Proxima Centauri, part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri; Proxima is 4.22 light years from Earth. Considered to be science fiction only a few decades ago, the technology of ion drive propulsion has increased the speed of a potential inter stellar vehicle well beyond anything we've known in the past. Using ion drive propulsion, a vessel from Earth would take 81,000 years to make the one-way journey. In human terms, that is 2,700 generations of people, living and dying along the way. Or, imagine the launch of the spaceship in late 2010, and then imagine the parade celebrating it's arrival in 83015 (allowing the additional 4.22 years for the radio message "We made it!" to arrive).

Now imagine another quantum leap forward in propulsion technology allowing the ship to maintain the top speed attainable through gravitational assist, and you can cut a large amount of time off that figure. Now the travel time is reduced to 19,000 years (600 generations). You've cut 62,000 years off your travel time, not too shabby.

Nuclear pulse propulsion is a theoretically possible form of fast space travel. Very early on in the development of the development of the atomic bomb, nuclear pulse propulsion was proposed in 1947 and Project Orion was born in 1958 to investigate interplanetary space travel.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 is largely attributed to the cancellation of Project Orion (due to the obvious design flaw that huge amounts of radioactive waste would be pumped into space), but what kind of velocities could a nuclear pulse propulsion spaceship attain? Some estimates suggest a ballpark figure of 5% the speed of light (or 5.4×107 km/hr). So assuming a spacecraft could travel at these speeds, it would take a Project Orion-type craft approximately 85 years to travel from the Earth to Proxima Centauri.

Now we're talking. We've managed to slice 80,915 years off our original estimate (ignoring the nuclear pollution of the galaxy for a moment). But even 85 years in Youtube minutes is impossibly long. Such a monumental expenditure of time and money, it's difficult to imagine a Presidential administration putting energy behind a journey that would not see a "Welcome back!" parade until forty-two and a half administrations later.

If we consider what happens when inter stellar travel time consciousness collides full on with Youtube download time consciousness... you can see what the problem is. One solution might be if North Korea or Iran were to announce that they are putting resources into a space program for the purpose of inter stellar exploration. That might do it.

Within 48 hours every Republican with a hideous fake tan would be converging on Fox News demanding action be taken (just so long as poor people don't somehow benefit).

But I digress....

In 1160, Bishop Maurice de Sully had a vision in which he saw a new cathedral in the place where the current Parisian cathedral, St Stephen's (built in the 4th century) stood. Shortly after he assumed the title of Bishop of Paris, de Sully had the old cathedral demolished. Three years later, in 1163, the cornerstone for the new cathedral was lain. In 1196 de Sully died just as the nave (the central approach to the high altar in Gothic church architecture) was completed.

In 1345 the Cathedral of Notre Dame was completed and opened to the people of Paris.

Human history is nothing if not a story linked by similar multi-generational projects.

And this brings me back to one of my favorite quotations. About 15 years ago now I ducked my head inside a luncheon that was going on as part of a Women Studies conference and listened to a speaker who quoted someone who said,

"The trick is that we have to be willing to work for a future that, all along, we know we will never live to see."

There are certain things we know, now, even if reality hasn't yet caught up. One day same sex unions will be no big deal. One day people won't be thrown into prison for smoking the leaves and flowers of a weed that grows wild in all 50 states. One day there will be universal health care. One day cars will get over 50 miles to a gallon. One day humanity will spread out into the galaxy and consciousness will begin its slow spread out into the universe.

Some of these things could be achieved with a stroke of a pen; but others take time.

More precisely, they require a 12th Century temporal consciousness that allows for multi-generational projects. Who knows? Perhaps the Islamic clerics will prevail and will return the world to a 12th Century Islamic state and, in so doing, allow the work to begin. Nobody can predict the future.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Health Care Reform... NOW not later.

Why are Republicans fighting so hard against health care reform, telling more lies about what President Obama's proposal would mean than they did about John Kerry's war record or the reason for the invasion of Iraq?

Because a national health care system would push the Republican party to the left, forever. No Republican, no matter how conservative or hawkish, could ever run on a campaign promise to, if elected, get rid of your health care.

Because the Democrats, if successful, will be providing enormous relief to, yes, the legendary "Republican base." In the recent words of the President:

"Right now in Washington, our Senate and House of Representatives are both debating proposals for health insurance reform. Today, I want to speak with you about the stakes of this debate, for our people and for the future of our nation.

This is an issue that affects the health and financial well-being of every single American and the stability of our entire economy. It’s about every family unable to keep up with soaring out of pocket costs and premiums rising three times faster than wages. Every worker afraid of losing health insurance if they lose their job, or change jobs. Everyone who’s worried that they may not be able to get insurance or change insurance if someone in their family has a pre-existing condition.

It’s about a woman in Colorado who told us that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her insurance company – the one she’d paid over $700 a month to – refused to pay for her treatment. She had to use up her retirement funds to save her own life. It’s about a man from Maryland who sent us his story – a middle class college graduate whose health insurance expired when he changed jobs.

During that time, he needed emergency surgery, and woke up $10,000 in debt – debt that has left him unable to save, buy a home or make a career change. It’s about every business forced to shut their doors, or shed jobs or ship them overseas. It’s about state governments overwhelmed by Medicaid, federal budgets consumed by Medicare, and deficits piling higher year after year.

This is the status quo. This is the system we have today. This is what the debate in Congress is all about: Whether we’ll keep talking and tinkering and letting this problem fester as more families and businesses go under, and more Americans lose their coverage. Or whether we’ll seize this opportunity – one we might not have again for generations – and finally pass health insurance reform this year, in 2009.

Now we know there are those who will oppose reform no matter what. We know the same special interests and their agents in Congress will make the same old arguments, and use the same scare tactics that have stopped reform before because they profit from this relentless escalation in health care costs. And I know that once you’ve seen enough ads and heard enough people yelling on TV, you might begin to wonder whether there’s a grain of truth to what they’re saying. So let me take a moment to answer a few of their arguments.

First, the same folks who controlled the White House and Congress for the past eight years as we ran up record deficits will argue – believe it or not – that health reform will lead to record deficits. That’s simply not true. Our proposals cut hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary spending and unwarranted giveaways to insurance companies in Medicare and Medicaid. They change incentives so providers will give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care, which will mean big savings over time.

And we have urged Congress to include a proposal for a standing commission of doctors and medical experts to oversee cost-saving measures. I want to be very clear: I will not sign on to any health plan that adds to our deficits over the next decade. And by helping improve quality and efficiency, the reforms we make will help bring our deficits under control in the long-term.

Those who oppose reform will also tell you that under our plan, you won’t get to choose your doctor – that some bureaucrat will choose for you. That’s also not true. Michelle and I don’t want anyone telling us who our family’s doctor should be – and no one should decide that for you either. Under our proposals, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your current insurance, you keep that insurance. Period, end of story.

Finally, opponents of health reform warn that this is all some big plot for socialized medicine or government-run health care with long lines and rationed care. That’s not true either. I don’t believe that government can or should run health care. But I also don’t think insurance companies should have free reign to do as they please.

That’s why any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange: a one-stop shopping marketplace where you can compare the benefits, cost and track records of a variety of plans – including a public option to increase competition and keep insurance companies honest – and choose what’s best for your family. And that’s why we’ll put an end to the worst practices of the insurance industry: no more yearly caps or lifetime caps; no more denying people care because of pre-existing conditions; and no more dropping people from a plan when they get too sick.

No longer will you be without health insurance, even if you lose your job or change jobs. The good news is that people who know the system best are rallying to the cause of change. Just this past week, the American Nurses Association, representing millions of nurses across America, and the American Medical Association, representing doctors across our nation, announced their support because they’ve seen first-hand the need for health insurance reform.

They know we cannot continue to cling to health industry practices that are bankrupting families, and undermining American businesses, large and small. They know we cannot let special interests and partisan politics stand in the way of reform – not this time around.

The opponents of health insurance reform would have us do nothing. But think about what doing nothing, in the face of ever increasing costs, will do to you and your family. So today, I am urging the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, to seize this opportunity, and vote for reform that gives the American people the best care at the lowest cost; that reins in insurance companies, strengthens businesses and finally gives families the choices they need and the security they deserve. Thanks." - President Barack Obama's Weekly Remarks

Call, write AND phone your elected representatives and tell them you support health care reform. If you have the time to read this you have the time to do it now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"A wise Latina woman...."

The United States of America, 2009

"A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not know that a gaggle of white Republican men afraid of extinction are out to trip her up." - Maureen Dowd

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing moment of the first day of hearings in the confirmation process of Sonia Sotomayor was when Republican Senator Lindsey Graham asked the judge to recite her now famous words, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who has not lived that life."

Forget for a moment that this is thirty-three words in a lifetime of rulings and written comments that Republicans are clinging to with the tenacity that a flood victim brings to a tree branch. Let's get back to the question that caused Newt Gingrich to label Sotomayor a "racist", i.e., would the same phrase be racist if spoken by a white male judge?

Here's the answer, you might want to write it down: It's all about the context.

Imagine if you can, a white male judge invited to speak to a room full of white male lawyers and law school students.

Imagine that the event that draws them all together is a celebration.

Imagine that the reason for celebration is that, after a couple hundred years of systematic oppression that denied white men the right to even apply to law schools or gain admission to good universities; decades after decades during which white men were blocked from the practice of law at every turn and the very notion of a white male judge would seem so utterly absurd that it would cause most people to laugh out loud... after all of that, strides had been made, progress, though slow, had been steady, obstacles removed, attitudes changed and today we're here to celebrate the fact that white men have made significant inroads into the legal profession in the United States.

Imagine that a few white men have even been appointed to the bench.

If the white male judge, to a room full of white male lawyers, in that context had given a speech and in that speech had said "I would hope that a wise white man with the richness of his experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a black or Hispanic male who has not lived that life," and said it to encourage and empower his audience, then no; I don't believe it would be a racist remark.

People, white people in particular, have tried to take the word "racism" and change its meaning so that it is reduced to nothing more than a synonym for "prejudice" and "bigotry." This does the word serious injury.

Put simply, "bigotry" and "prejudice" are individual characteristics, where "racism" describes a struggle among groups on the greater terrains of culture and society. By altering the definition we, in effect, remove the word from its political context and neuter the power of the word.

Sonia Sotomayor brings a depth of experience and a powerful intellect to the court and is a perfect first pick for President Obama. I hope he gets an opportunity to select two or three more.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie....

"Okemah was one of the singiest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns, because it blossomed out into one of our first Oil Boom Towns." - Woody Guthrie

Today is Woody's 97th birthday and time to take a moment and remember that we are standing today on the very first rung of a ladder that leads to the America that Woody imagined it might be possible to have. Say it with me, say it out loud and look at the words as they hang suspended in the air; say it every morning like a mantra.... This land in our land.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma. He was the second-born son of Charles and Nora Belle Guthrie. His father – a cowboy, land speculator, and local politician – taught Woody Western songs, Indian songs, and Scottish folk tunes. His Kansas-born mother, also musically inclined, had an equally profound effect on Woody.

Of all the artists that Woody Guthrie influenced, none is more important than Bob Dylan. Like Ramblin' Jack Elliot before him, a young Robert Zimmerman read Guthrie's Bound For Glory and set out on the road, reinventing himself with every step he took. His steps led him to Brooklyn State Hospital where Guthrie was dying from Huntington's Disease. By the time of Dylan's first album in 1962 he'd written "Song To Woody" which described the debt he owed.

I'm out here a thousand miles from my home,
Walkin' a road other men have gone down.
I'm seein' your world of people and things,
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
'Bout a funny ol' world that's a-comin' along.
Seems sick an' it's hungry, it's tired an' it's torn,
It looks like it's a-dyin' an' it's hardly been born.

Hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things that I'm a-sayin' an' a-many times more.
I'm a-singin' you the song, but I can't sing enough,
'Cause there's not many men that done the things that you've done.

Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too,
An' to all the good people that traveled with you.
Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

I'm a-leaving' tomorrow, but I could leave today,
Somewhere down the road someday.
The very last thing that I'd want to do
Is to say I've been hittin' some hard travelin' too.

On a regular basis I seem to get into arguments with Bob Dylan fans about whether Dylan is a "poet" or not. What I hear in their arguments is an attempt to, in effect, promote Dylan from mere "songwriter" to "poet" and award him status that reflects the age-old "high culture" versus "low culture" (or elite vs pop) dichotomy, the very dichotomy that artists like Dylan upended and overturned a good forty years ago or more.

Their arguments are what arguing that Arthur Miller was such a good playwright that we ought to call him a "novelist" would be like, if anyone ever argued such a thing.

But Dylan has, on occasion, written poetry; and I believe that any serious anthology of the best 20th Century American poetry would do well to include his poem "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie." The video has the audio recording of Dylan's reading of the poem at a Town Hall concert in April of 1963 (recorded for a planned live LP that was never released). It is Bob, not as Rimbaud or Verlaine, but as Whitman.

Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin' behind an' losin' yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life's busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin' up
If the wine don't come to the top of yer cup
If the wind's got you sideways with with one hand holdin' on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood's easy findin' but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin' and the street gets too long
And you start walkin' backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow's mornin' seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin'
And yer rope is a-slidin' 'cause yer hands are a-drippin'
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin'
And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin'
And yer whole world's a-slammin' and bangin'
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
"I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn't they tell me the day I was born"
And you start gettin' chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you're lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world's a-watchin' with a window peek stare
And yer good gal leaves and she's long gone a-flying
And yer heart feels sick like fish when they're fryin'
And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
And you need it badly but it lays on the street
And yer bell's bangin' loudly but you can't hear its beat
And you think yer ears might a been hurt
Or yer eyes've turned filthy from the sight-blindin' dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
When you were faked out an' fooled white facing a four flush
And all the time you were holdin' three queens
And it's makin you mad, it's makin' you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin' around a pinball machine
And there's something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin'
But it's trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when your layin' in bed
And no matter how you try you just can't say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion's mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin with you underneath
And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
And you wish you'd never taken that last detour sign
And you say to yourself just what am I doin'
On this road I'm walkin', on this trail I'm turnin'
On this curve I'm hanging
On this pathway I'm strolling, in the space I'm taking
In this air I'm inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I'm playing, on this banjo I'm frailin'
On this mandolin I'm strummin', in the song I'm singin'
In the tune I'm hummin', in the words I'm writin'
In the words that I'm thinkin'
In this ocean of hours I'm all the time drinkin'
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make yer heart pound
But then again you know why they're around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
"Cause sometimes you hear'em when the night times comes creeping
And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin'
And you can't remember for the best of yer thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that it's something special you're needin'
And you know that there's no drug that'll do for the healin'
And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding
And you need something special
Yeah, you need something special all right
You need a fast flyin' train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That's been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race
That won't laugh at yer looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rollin' long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it's you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you're sitting
That the world ain't got you beat
That it ain't got you licked
It can't get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope's just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve

But that's what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
"Cause you look an' you start getting the chills

"Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house
And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain't on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it's funny
No you can't find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain't in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you're bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain't a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you
And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you
And it ain't in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star's blouse
And you can't find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain't in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain't in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin'
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No you'll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache¥
And inside it the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain't in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who'd turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
My friend
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can't find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain't in the ones that ain't got any talent but think they do
And think they're foolin' you
The ones who jump on the wagon
Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of money and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin', "Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at
Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty

No but that ain't yer game, it ain't even yer race
You can't hear yer name, you can't see yer face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

- Bob Dylan

As an added bonus for those of you unfamiliar with a series of songs Guthrie was commissioned by the US Department of Health to write about the dangers of venereal disease (which, upon hearing, were pretty much never heard from again) you can go here and find the lyrics and mp3s of Bob Dylan playing all four songs: "VD Blues", "VD Gunner's Blues" (aka "Landlady"), "VD Seaman's Last Letter", and "VD Waltz." Here's a brief sample:

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Because that's where the money is."

"Only Americans can hurt America." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

When Eisenhower took office it was not possible to drive from the east coast to the west coast in the US because at some point you would find there just wasn't a road you could take. It was during Ike's administration that the country's infrastructure was built and the post war economy was set into motion. Take a guess at what the tax rate was back then? 5%? 10%?

During Eisenhower's administration income over $400,000 was taxed at a 92% rate.

You want to build (or rebuild) a country, sacrifices are required.

People with only one home and modest means have been sacrificing like crazy during the past 8 years. They've seen their wages stagnate, their health care cover less, their savings disappear, their mortgages and credit card rates increase; more than a few have sacrificed their children to wars fought in deserts. We have been squeezed dry.

During the 2008 election, conservative commentator and occasional actor, Ben Stein, wrote a piece for the NY Times that was in the form of an open letter to GOP candidate John McCain. You should click on the link above and read it. He explains why tax cuts never work, and advises McCain that raising taxes is an essential part of our way out of the economic problems we currently face. Stein wrote:

But whom to tax? The poor are, well, poor. The middle class is struggling to pay for its middle-class life. That leaves the rich. It would be lovely if we did not have to tax them. Many have worked hard for their money. Many have created useful businesses. Many of them are fine people.

But as Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.” By definition, the truly rich have a lot more money than they need. If they don’t, then they are not rich by my standards. The first step toward putting our house in order, once we are past the seemingly looming recession, is much higher taxes on the truly rich and serious enforcement to prevent offshore tax evasion.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, than the history of the Republicans' reliance on tax cuts to raise income ought to be grounds for committal. Consider this:

Between 1917 and 1924 the top tax rate in the US varied between 76% and 56%. During the administrations of Coolidge and Hoover these rates were lowered to 24%-25% and the country was plunged into the Great Depression. From 1932 until 1987, the top tax rate never dropped below 50% (indeed, between 1936-1981 it never dropped below 70%).

The notion that a high tax rate on great wealth is somehow a foreign and new idea is simply not true. The progress that the US saw in the 20th Century was possible because our leaders were smart enough to see where all the damn money was.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, we've been told the lie that taxing the wealth of the richest Americans is somehow unpatriotic. Like my Uncle Butch used to say, "What a crock."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"See what your greed for money has done?" More thoughts on Woody Guthrie

The closing line of Woody's song "1913 Massacre" seems a perfect response to this story by Susan Saulny from the July 10 NY Times:

A Day of Searching, Anger and Renewed Grief in a Desecrated Illinois Cemetery
Published: July 10, 2009

ALSIP, Ill. — They arrived in tears, showing outrage and confusion, generations of a family together, or lonely, widowed spouses and old friends wandering by themselves.

Hundreds of people combed the rows of an old, historically black cemetery in this town south of Chicago on Friday, hoping that their loved ones were not among those corpses — at least 300 discovered so far, county officials say — that had been dug up and tossed into a heap at the far end of the grounds. The authorities are describing the mass disinterment as a ghoulish moneymaking scheme to resell plots.

On Wednesday, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County said detectives had discovered exposed human remains in a remote, fenced-off part of Burr Oak Cemetery, which was still holding funerals on Friday in an atmosphere that grew more morbid and chaotic as the day went on.

Late Friday, Sheriff Dart announced that investigators had found exposed human remains in another area of Burr Oak. The entire cemetery was closed and declared a crime scene.

County prosecutors have charged four current and former cemetery workers, including the cemetery manager, with dismemberment of human bodies, felony charges that carry 6 to 30 years in prison on conviction.

Mr. Dart said investigators had been tipped off to the scheme by the cemetery’s owner, Perpetua Inc., which is based in Tucson and is cooperating with the investigation.

At a news conference at the cemetery, the sheriff said he suspected that irregularities with burials went back at least four years but could stretch back much further and involve many more bodies than have been currently counted.

“This is going to be a very long process,” he said of the forensic work that is beginning to identify the discarded remains.

Many notable African Americans are among the thousands of people buried at Burr Oak, including Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose torture and lynching in 1955 in Mississippi helped spark the civil rights movement. While Emmett Till’s remains were undisturbed, members of his family struggled for strength Friday after learning that his original coffin, the one in which his mutilated body had been exposed for viewing and photographs, photographs that became part of the pictorial record of the civil rights movement, had been left to rot in a garbage-strewn shed and house rats and raccoons.

“He’s been victimized again,” said Simeon Wright, 66, a cousin. “Greed will take you to the lowest of the low.”

Emmett Till’s body was exhumed in 2005 and reburied in a different coffin after a reinvestigation of his murder. Members of the family said the original coffin had been entrusted for preservation to the cemetery because it agreed to build an Emmett Till memorial. Burr Oak was also responsible for collecting donations for the memorial, but the family said the money had never been accounted for.

“While Emmett Till may be one of the most well-known persons laid to rest at Burr Oak,” another cousin, Ollie Gordon, said on Friday, “the family recognizes the pain that all families are experiencing at this time.”

County officials estimated that since Wednesday night, almost 2,000 people had streamed through the cemetery’s gates looking for answers. The sheriff’s office set up an impromptu center for the families and has investigators in a mobile command unit inside the cemetery gathering information from people as they discover what has happened at their particular plots.

Shanelle Woods, 25, discovered a hole in the ground at her mother-in-law’s grave where the headstone used to be.

“Mother’s gone!” Ms. Woods sobbed. “It’s all dug up.”

While Ms. Woods’s sister-in-law spoke with investigators, she added, “It’s just not fair to us or anyone else. You can look down and see a hole. It doesn’t make any sense. It feels like we’re having a whole other funeral today.”

Harrison Mack, 55, arrived at Burr Oak with a map in hand and with four family members to start canvassing the grave sites of aunts and uncles, a grandmother and a grandfather.

“I am highly upset because our dead are not resting in peace,” Mr. Mack said. “The hurting part is that there’s no closure. And how long will this go on, this investigation? In the meantime we have to do our best to maintain our composure.”

Willidean Wayne, 68, was looking for the grave of her grandmother Dorothy Millerton.

Ms. Wayne and family members split up for the task, trudging through muddy, untidy rows of graves, their eyes cast down, frantically reading names.

Ms. Millerton was buried in 1977, and Ms. Wayne could not find her headstone in the area where she had been laid to rest.

“Nothing to do but keep looking and hope she’s resting in peace,” she said.


Here's an early (1961) recording of Bob Dylan singing "1913 Massacre."