I Know Which Brothers I Like Best

The ones who always made me laugh. (Instead of cry over the state of our nation.) In the late Sixties, the short-lived The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour revolutionized the TV variety show by making serious political issues of the day (such as civil rights and Vietnam and drugs) the brunt of sharp-witted sketches and by filling the musical slots with counterculture rock and pop acts.

Future Seventies comedy greats like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks were staff writers on the show and one can imagine Jon Stewart (who would have been seven or eight at the time) watching the Smothers Brothers with his parents and taking notes.

If you need help deciding which pair of siblings you prefer, I recommend these two books.

Steve Jobs – Villain or Villain?

Steven PaulSteveJobs (February 24, 1955 – October 5, 2011)

How do I hate thee, Steve Jobs? Let me count the ways.

Yes, I know it’s his birthday – Jobs would have turned 60 today – and therefore churlish, but let  me count them anyway. I’m four years too late to send him an exploding cake.

exploding cakeMost Jobs haters would start with the fact that he was a complete prick: he screwed over his business partners, fucked over his handful of friends, refused to acknowledge paternity of his first daughter and support her until forced, engaged in a felonious stock swindle because his sorry entitled ass hadn’t been feeling “special” lately, and made his employees feel both unappreciated at work and miserable at home for no reason other than Jobs’s own need to feel powerful and important. Apple products would have been just as successful – possibly more so – with half the mishegoss and none of the sociopathology.

A recent just-okay documentary and a hyperventilated feature (by Danny Boyle) portrayed these and Jobs’s other personal transgressions reasonably well, but none of that matters to me in the least. I didn’t work for Steve Jobs or know him personally, so his prickness is water cooler gossip – nothing more – and doesn’t make me “think different” about the products he supervised and marketed. Things that do matter (because they have impact beyond one businessman’s inner circle) include the following: an already rich Apple used virtual slave labor in China to make a rich Jobs and the company’s rich stockholders exponentially richer; Apple shipped countless other jobs overseas that could have stayed home, again to make the filthy rich filthier; Apple (and Jobs personally) used tax dodges and other morally indefensible behavior to make sure the United States government and its people enjoyed sparse benefit from this made-in-America company’s success.

Some of the the above, fairly standard Robber Baron stuff (worthy of a lesser Koch brother, Bill maybe) wouldn’t bother me as much if Jobs hadn’t pretended to be this real spiritual dude, an acid-dropping hippie dude, the Sad-Eyed Dylan of the Microchips. No, Steverino, you weren’t any of those things. You weren’t even an inventor, man. You were just Henry Ford in designer jeans. And, for a few years – the NEXT years, after the Board of Apple sent you into exile – you were Edsel Ford in Target-wear.

think_different_2-wallpaper-1280x800A lot of business guys – even narcissistic possible sociopaths such as Jobs – would settle for Henry Ford on a casual Friday with unimaginable wealth, but not the guy who used to pass out hand-written Dylan songs to potential girlfriends as if to say: “See, this is who I really am.” No, Steve, that is who Bob Dylan was and is and who you never could be.  You were a little better at writing code than song lyrics, but not by much. And you don’t belong in a photo alongside important people of history – some of whom were geniuses – any more than whoever is currently president of McCann Erickson.

apple cartoon

One of the worst things about Steve Jobs’s delusion that he was a creator, a visionary, a genius on a par with his Much Betters and More Importants was that he persuaded so many others … mostly young people … to share it. Thereby cheapening (possibly forever) the idea of what it means to be those things. And popularizing the notion that you can acquire them – and just about any quality, really – through the purchase of the right technology. You can download creativity. Sample vision. Remix yourself into a genius. At least for a moment. In your own mind. And on your screensaver.

think different

Forget the Maine!

On this date – in 1898 – an explosion sinks the USS Maine in Havana Harbor

First, some facts. On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion aboard a U.S. battleship – the Maine – killed 260 American members of the approximately 400-member crew and sank the ship in Havana Harbor. The USS Maine was one of the first commissioned American battleships in what would become the world’s largest Navy. It cost more than $2 million to build (back when a cool million was a lot of money) and weighed 6,000 tons.

Ostensibly on a “friendly” visit, the Maine was parked in the Cuban harbor as a kind of Big Hello to Spain that American “interests” – meaning, of course, almost 100% private American business interests – would be protected during the ongoing Cuban revolution and its suppression by Spain.

In 1976, a team of expert investigators concluded that the Maine tragedy was most likely caused by a below-decks fire that ignited the battleship’s own ammunition stocks. At the time, it was announced that a mine had sunk the Maine and the blame put on Spain. The full version of the public battle cry was, “Remember the Maine! The Hell with Spain!”

maine-sank

So why did we really go to war?  Well, and I’m only slightly exaggerating, because then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt (and assorted friends and politicians) wanted to go to war. With somebody. Somewhere. And Teddy (I’m again only slightly exaggerating) wanted to go to war for the same reason he liked to shoot big animals. And stick his chest out. ‘Cause, you know he’d been sickly as a child and he didn’t want anyone to think he was … you know. Read the wonderful recent political history by Evan Thomas called The War Lovers (2010) for a fuller and more responsible explanation.

The result was a three-and-a-half-month charade called the Spanish-American War that set the mold both for 20th and 21st century American imperialism and for the attendant series of mostly bullshit wars by which U.S. business and domestic political interests have been served. The pretexts for these wars are grossly exaggerated or made up altogether, the real reasons for the wars are not the stated reasons, U.S. businesses nearly always make shitloads of money at public expense, and politicians earn Street Cred or Buy Time to weather a crisis in the polls by distracting a significant portion of the population (which always now includes FOX viewers) from America’s real problems, generally caused by  the same folks who beat the war drums. And if a current war is lacking, politicians and pundits make do with Soon-to-Be Wars and Rumors of War.

Spain wasn’t much of a combatant in 1898: yellow fever and the heavy losses already sustained from the Cuban revolt had pretty much done them in by the time Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders set foot on Cuban soil with their hand-picked embed reporters and their film crews.  Which also established a pattern for future American history: go to battle with great fanfare against an outgunned and outmanned opponent you know you can whip in your sleep (at least to the point where you can declare “Mission Accomplished”) … act like it was really, really hard and created lots of Real American Heroes … hand out shiny medals and make speeches and do musical tributes. And don’t forget the flags and the fireworks.  All that patriotic stuff helps drive away the doubt.

flag celebration

On the Death of Someone You Don’t Respect

Antonin Gregory Scalia (March 11, 1936 – February 13, 2016)

160213191516-01-antonin-scalia-super-169Antonin Scalia leaves behind nine children who, from all reports, loved him and a wife who loved him enough to have nine children with him. His best friend on the Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg – someone I do respect – so that’s nice. They shared a passion for opera and once appeared onstage together as supernumeraries in Ariadne auf Naxos. I don’t wish death on anyone, but I’m relieved that Antonin Scalia’s career is over. Unfortunately, death is usually the way that careers of Supreme Court Justices end; they come together. So you can’t celebrate the latter without appearing insensitive regarding the former.

But that’s all I got. All the nice I can muster for a man whose rulings and opinions caused large and lasting damage to his country and to the world. I’m sure there’s more on the plus side to be said about Antonin Scalia, but I’m not that interested in seeking it out, any more than Scalia was interested in changing his mind about legal and moral matters from the time it was set at about the age of seventeen. He was a bright boy who caught the attention of his Catholic School masters by mirroring their more extreme moral positions and who held their attention by continuing to be bright and brittle and unwavering. Except in those – not all that rare – instances when political expediency required otherwise. When Scalia had to please other masters, those paying his bills or appointing him to office.

Scalia should have stayed a law professor at the University of Chicago, where he could have become more crotchety, acquired more acolytes, inspired a rightwing sequel to The Paper Chase (1973) about a strict-constructionist Professor Kingsley that might have even starred Professor Scalia as himself. In the Scalia version of The Paper Chase, the rebellious student will knuckle under not quit, join the Federalist Society, be appointed to a judgeship by George Bush, and rehear the Allen Bakke case in order to rule in Bakke’s favor and set the precedent that ends Affirmative Action programs once and for all.

Antonin Scalia called his strict constructionism something else — originalism, I think — because, as a Supreme Court Justice at an advanced age, he was still the brightest kid in Catholic School and had to be “special.” But it’s the same recipe with only slightly different ingredients that means the cake the Founders baked is the one we’re stuck with. No “Living Constitution.” No changes except by Congressional amendment. Or by whim of Scalia (e.g., I’m still searching for the Founders’ views justifying “corporations as people” or anything else in the steaming pile of unconstitutional shit called Citizens United). Or when duty to employer calls.


Antonin Scalia’s first political jobs were in the Nixon and Ford administrations where he advised Nixon (incorrectly) that he had the authority to fire the Independent Counsel, assured him (incorrectly) that he personally owned his tapes and did not have to turn them over, advised Gerald Ford (repeatedly and incorrectly) that he could refuse to turn over documents because of executive privilege, claimed (incorrectly) that the Freedom of Information Act was unconstitutional, and did a whole bunch of other stuff that is more easily explained by doing what your boss wants than by the Constitution. Maybe that’s where the originalism thingee comes in? You have to follow the Constitution unless your boss doesn’t like it: then you can be “original” and do the exact opposite.

If one needs any further evidence of Justice Scalia’s political expediency, I give you Bush v. Gore, which gave us and the world George Bush, Iraq, 9/11, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, the middle getting extreme-prejudiced, a global financial meltdown we haven’t seen the end of, and assorted other gifts from Bush & Company that just keep giving.  Oh, and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that – as of yesterday – has one less vote. Bush v. Gore was such a wretched, blatantly political decision, by the way, that the Court took the unusual step of indicating it was the judicial version of a “one-off,” not to be applied in any other situation or used as precedent in any way.

bush and scaliaSo what do you say when someone dies that you don’t respect? You can, if you wish, extend condolences to his or her family and friends. I certainly do, unless the someone is someone like Ted Bundy. But it’s not required. What is required is that you go on to talk at length about why you had no respect for them. Because their death doesn’t change that. It only stops the bleeding.

New Photos Emerging of Randall Smoot’s 1970s Activism!

The above pictures provide proof that Randall Smoot (aka Randy or Wildman Smooty) was an active participant in high school dances and after parties during the turbulent 1970s. He can be seen in photographs (including one in color) actively looking for his friend with the flask and for a young woman … any young woman … who would dance with him.

I hope these photos put to rest certain controversies regarding where and with whom Mr. Smoot was active 40 some years ago. And put an end – once and for all – to the brutal swiftboating of an ordinary American’s aimless, callow, and generally misspent youth.

Smoot claims that he accomplished quite a bit during those heady days … far more than his parents ever knew … and that he sometimes misses that important time of fighting for his own right to stay out late, drink while underage, and get to second base without having to pretend he was going steady.

In a separate interview, however, Smoot has stated that he does not miss trying to remove base makeup from his button-down shirts before his mother sees it, nor does he miss Boone’s Farm apple wine.

The Party of Lincoln?

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is today, was the first Republican President. The party that for more than a century afterward became known as the “Party of Lincoln” did not exist when Lincoln was born. It was founded – six years prior to his receiving its nomination – by Horace Greeley and other abolitionists in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and to prevent the spread of slavery into new states and territories.

Abraham Lincoln is widely considered by historians to be our greatest President, certainly our greatest Republican President. His only major competition on the greatest lists is FDR, who was a) a Democrat; and b) got to serve two more full terms than Abe. Lincoln is also the “favorite” President of the majority of Americans (i.e., winner of the People’s Choice Award), popular enough to be the subject of a Spielberg movie and countless other biopics, so popular his head is on both the penny and the five dollar bill. Show me the money!

Surprisingly, however, almost none of the current Republican candidates for the top office list Abraham Lincoln as their favorite President.  These days, among the Tea Party of Lincoln, he gets almost no love at all.

I suppose this might be due, in part, to a lingering resentment of our 16th President in certain parts of the South, deemed key to their election by GOP candidates as far back as Nixon in ’68 with his so-called Southern Strategy. Lincoln didn’t respect property rights and he insisted on calling the Civil War the Civil War instead of the War of Southern Secession. A lot of current Republicans also view the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution as egregious examples of judicial overreach and the work of Congresses that would have been well-advised to focus instead on budget deficits and putting pushy women in their place. Sorry, in two places … kitchen and bed.

So who are the favorite Presidents of the current leaders of the Party of Lincoln?

John Kasich’s favorite President is fellow Ohioan Warren G. Harding, who proved that public service didn’t have to prevent you from continuing to earn a good living. Recent dropout Chris Christie is a big fan of another Ohioan, William Howard Taft.

Jeb Bush’s favorite President is George Herbert Walker Bush and he hopes you’ll forget that he is also related to the other President W. Marco Rubio’s favorite President was Fulgencio Batista and he’s hoping to make Cuba the 51st state. The favorite President of failed candidate Paul Ryan is Ayn Rand … somebody break it to him now that Paul has more time to read. Ben Carson liked President Jesus. And the favorite of Donald Trump won’t take office until 2017 … President Donald Trump.

And that just leaves us Ted Cruz, the only candidate who lists Lincoln as his favorite President, but it isn’t Abe Lincoln, it’s some other Lincoln guy.

Which is maybe why that every time I see an elephant these days, he’s crying.

The Photo That Helped Change a War

NGUYEN NGOC LOAN kills viet cong
South Vietnamese National Police Chief Brig Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner with a single pistol shot in the head in Saigon Feb. 1, 1968. (AP/Eddie Adams)

My teen-aged support of the Vietnam War ended the day I saw the above photograph – taken on this date 47 years ago – although I probably didn’t see it until later in the month in a national magazine such as Newsweek or Rolling Stone. My hometown newspapers supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, regardless, their editors would have deemed the image too graphic for the good folks at home.

Whenever I finally did see the photo, I remember thinking that the country where such an event could take place is not one I’d care to die for.  Even get a haircut for. And I also remember thinking that this is a fight between brothers – the shooter and the shot looked enough alike to be blood relatives – so the rest of the world should leave them to it.

We are flooded with images daily, hourly now, and I don’t believe that a single photograph could ever again have the impact that this picture (and a later, even more devastating photo known as “Napalm Girl”) had on the course of a war. I feel certain that’s not a good thing, but I’m not sure why and I don’t have the first clue how to fix it.

Tom Paine: Not Invited to the Tea Party

Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) – America’s 1st Democratic Socialist?

Contemporary America’s sunshine soldiers and Tea Party patriots like to occasionally drag out Thomas Paine quotes – accompanied by an airbrushed drawing of his ravaged, dour, pockmarked face – and pretend like Thomas Paine would have been their buddy if he’d only lived another 200 years. The quotes are usually along the lines of “no taxation without representation” and government “being a necessary evil at best.” Stuff like that. Never mind that Americans have taxation with representation (at least they did, before most of Congress and the majority of state legislatures got completely bought off by the filthy rich and the big corporations) and that the government Paine was usually talking about – in his Revolutionary propaganda pamphlets – was the government of England.

(They stop short of claiming Paine as a fundamentalist Christian, one of the founders of the Christian Nation, because … you know, The Age of Reason.)

The most vehement pretend-populists among American conservatives also like to talk a lot about “common sense” – sometimes ascribing their deep meditations on the subject to Thomas Paine or was it Thomas Jefferson? … somebody named Tom – and they like to say how common sense is the only qualification a person really needs to do this government stuff. The inference being, I suppose, that Joe the Plumber could have written the Declaration of Independence if he’d just gotten around to it and hadn’t been so busy doing real American work like unclogging toilets and drinking beer.

(Speaking of which, where is Joe the Plumber this election cycle? Shouldn’t Trump and Cruz and company be vying for his endorsement to go along with Sarah’s? Is he Joe the Senator now and nobody told me? Is he the Fox News American history correspondent?)

But I don’t want you to think I have anything against plumbers … when my drain is clogged, they’re the first people I call … I don’t just stop some guy off the street at random and pay him to fix it. Because knowledge and experience actually do count for something. And you need more than common sense to unclog a drain. Uh-oh, does that fancy opinion make me an “elitist”? Sacre bleu, does it make me French?!

Let’s consider this common sense stuff a moment longer … what dictionaries say it is, what some folks mean when they say it, and what Thomas Paine meant. Here are three general dictionary definitions of common sense:

  1. The ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.
  2. Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
  3. Sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.

You get the idea and I think you’ll agree with me that when Sarah Palin or Trump or Cruz or some other pseudo-populist Republican talks about common sense, their idea most closely resembles definition 3 and they broaden its application to just about everything. All that book learning just screws you up. Messes with your common sense. We were all born knowing more than Barack Obama. And Trump was born knowing more than everyone else.

When Thomas Paine used the term common sense, however, he was mostly referring to definition 2 and he was also joining a philosophical discussion that dates back as far as Aristotle. And the judgment that Paine thought common sense would assist his fellow Americans in reaching (based on a simple perception of the situation and facts) was that Britain was in violation of the Colonists “natural rights” and, not to put too fine a point on it, had to go.  I hasten to add, however, that Paine believed there was a learning curve attached to simple perceiving and that it was necessary to use your brain to reason your way toward a conclusion. You couldn’t just “know” stuff. You had to learn the situation and facts. You still had to think.

Based on this analysis, I conclude that, if Thomas Paine’s drain had ever been clogged, he would have called a plumber (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and training). Maybe Joe the Philadelphia Plumber in waistcoat and powdered wig.  Which I guess makes Paine an elitist. And possibly means he is French.  He did, after all, journey to France to foment revolution there – Paine was sort of the Che of American liberty – but landed in prison and nearly ended up on the guillotine because he opposed the Reign of Terror.

Activists participate in a tax revolt rally in Santa Barbara, CaliforniaHere are a few more of Thomas Paine’s beliefs that would disqualify him from Tea Party membership.  I present them in no particular order and imagine that a few might come as a surprise, particularly if you think Paine was a no-tax nut or an antigovernment guy:

  • A maternity benefit for poor children that amounted to a kind of Head Start program
  • Public education for all up to and including higher education
  • Public assistance and training for young people seeking work
  • Health benefits for the poor
  • Other welfare programs that amounted to a guaranteed minimum income
  • Extensive veterans benefits, starting with veterans of the Revolutionary War
  • Social security (beginning at age 50, but people died earlier then)
  • Public burial (and we’re not talking a plywood pauper’s coffin in a kiln)

And how did Tom Paine propose that we pay for all this stuff? Uh, by taxes. Specifically by heavy taxes on the rich and propertied classes.  And, as far back as the American Revolution, Paine proposed a federal tax to pay for the war and its expenditures.

Thomas Paine had done his research on his “social agenda” for America – he’d thought long and hard about his ideas – but he also decided they made good common sense.

To which the Tea Partiers don’t have a whole lot to say … except maybe “Oops.”

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

Off With His Head!

On this date – January 21 – in 1793, Louis XVI is executed by guillotine.

louis xvi dies by guillotineThere had been executions during the French Revolution prior to Louis’s execution, but from the moment his kingly head left the royal body, rolling off the guillotine – only to be snatched up by a teen-aged executioner’s assistant and brandished for the crowd, which roared approval and dipped their handkerchiefs in Louis’s blood – it was game on in the Reign of Terror.

When the Reign of Terror was over – a year and a half later –16,595 French had died by guillotine and another 25,000 had been executed by other means. Among the dead were Saint Just and Robespierre – principal architects of The Terror – along with Marie Antoinette and tens of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen. That’s a lot of carnage in a nation with a population then of about twice the size of Los Angeles County now. Carnage carried out in the service of Belief.

Lynching-ReportWhen I read of something horrible happening – the latest ISIS outrage or the tragic Charlie Hebdo killings of a year ago, the Harrods bombing or the Munich Olympic massacre in more distant times – I feel anger and sorrow, of course, but I don’t find what happened “inexplicable” and I’m never especially surprised. I guess that’s because I know history. Human history. I think of the French Revolution or – closer to home – the behavior of small-town crowds at lynchings, crowds that were composed of my fellow Americans who worked and played and raised families during the time when my grandparents were alive. Crowds composed of one group of people who Believed a second barely-distinguishable-from-them group of people were Other, less than them, people to be feared.

And, while devoutly wishing that the perpetrators of the latest forms of Terror be caught and punished, I try not to demonize them. The way, for instance, that those perpetrators demonized their victims. It’s hard, but I try.

How sad, I think, that we humans still do these things. And still in the service of Belief.

Scene in L.A. (Drive-thru Polio Clinic)

“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk

polio drive-thru jonas salk

Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives.  And the vaccine itself was free.

Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter  in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.

i-am-a-man

Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.

Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.

I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.