Archive for August, 2010

Sunday Services: “You Can Have A Kind Heart”

Good evening, good people.

None of us were promised this day, so it is well that we begin by acknowledging it. As Brother Sephius says:

A new day I never seen before nor will I ever again.

Be glad in it.

For this, can I get a witness?


Ground Zero

As further proof that the Obama administration is absolutely indistinguishable from the George II administration—what: you mean it’s not?—the United States Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, was dispatched to the official Japanese ceremony mourning the obliteration of the city of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb. This marked the first time that a US ambassador to that country had ever attended such a ceremony.

Until Friday, American officials had always skipped the annual ceremony, fearing their presence would renew the debate over whether the United States should apologize for the World War II bombings, which together killed more than 200,000 people in explosions so intense that many victims were vaporized, leaving only ghostly shadows on walls, while others died in agony from burns and radiation sickness.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also attended, also for the first time, and also called for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. It is time, he said, to move from “ground zero to global zero.”

While Roos did not speak at the ceremony, the US embassy in Tokyo issued a statement reaffirming the Obama administration’s position that “for the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realize a world without nuclear weapons,” and that in Hiroshima “it is fitting that we renew our determination to ensure that such a conflict is never again repeated.”

Obama is set to visit Japan in November. In light of his April 2009 speech in Prague calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, many Japanese, and other enlightened peoples, believe that a stop in Hiroshima would be appropriate and right.

A new sense of hope that the world’s nuclear powers, and particularly the United States, may finally share a desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons seems to have permeated this city. In front of City Hall, a large sign proclaimed Hiroshima to be part of an “Obamajority.”

However, because a majority of the people in this nation seem to be immured in ignorance, knuckledragging Know-Nothings, a visit by Obama to Hiroshima would be politically dicey. While an actual apology for the unnecessary slaughter occasioned by the atomic incineration of Hiroshima would probably be a form of political seppuku. Too many Americans are not ready for either. Too many believe that nuclear weapons are “necessary.” Though they are anything but. As too many are wedded to the persistent fiction that it was “necessary” to detonate nuclear weapons in Japan in order to stop WWII. Though it was not. And too many are determined that the United States shall never apologize for anything. Even when, as here, it was in the wrong.


The Gift Of Life

I am not alone, see? This tree and the stray animals who come to visit me are all my friends. Even the sun, the wind, and the rain are my friends. Do you recall Hanuman’s parting words to Rama in Ramayana? Beautiful words that speak to the oneness of creation, he said, and, picking up a book beside him, read aloud: Dear Rama, we are indeed your old friends from long ago, and your companions of ancient days come to help you. We are your forefathers. We are your ancestors, the animals, and you are our child man. As for our friendship, we have known you a long time, Rama, and the number of those days is lost in silence.

Ah, the silence of being, said Guatma as now he took his eyes off the book, sighing. Human dreams have no end. Oh, if we would stop hate and wars we would inherit not just the earth but the universe. Listening to what the universe is telling us is the only way for the nations of this our earth to come together and find union with life. Light comes from the sun. Let there be universal light. Space is our refuge. Let’s oppose all intents to take death to space.

They went away wondering if what they had just saw and heard was not coming from a man who had lost his head over the loss of the Mars Cafe.

Clouds were darkening; rain seemed imminent. They passed near Paradise. They drifted from group to group till they came to a crowd around a storyteller with a single-stringed violin.

At that very moment, A.G. shouted, “True! Haki ya Mungu, that is exactly what the Wizard of the Crow did.”

The people listened as he sang the story of his search for the Wizard of the Crow, hoping for a blessing from him: the thing of life. “Let nobody lie to you—the Wizard of the Crow will never die. True! Haki ya Mungu!”

A.G. appeared crazed, and Nyawira thought that he feigned that to be able to say the things he was saying without interference.

“It’s him,” Nyawira whispered as they walked away.

“A.G., who once chased us from the gates of Paradise?”

“And also snatched us from the gates of Hell!”

Kamiti and Nyawira went homeward holding hands, a mixture of teardrops and raindrops running down Nyawira’s face, the sound of the one-string violin and the man’s voice following them. To the sound of the violin Nyawira added her own from her guitar, and the two blended inside her. She let the fusion linger in her mind, knowing that they might never meet him face-to-face to say: “Thank you, A.G. Thank you for the gift of life.”

—Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow

So Strung Out

Last year on this date, August 6, Willy DeVille passed. I knew he’d been sick, but not that sick. While undergoing treatment for Hepatitis C, DeVille was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He went fast. DeVille lived hard, and American men who live hard often have a hard time making it through their fifties. DeVille didn’t make it. He died at 58.

Though he inked his first record deal with Mink DeVille, a five-piece performing in the mid-’70s as “house band” for the NYC punk club CBGB, DeVille was never punk. Or “new wave.” He was a romantic troubadour. Working in a style all his own, one combining, among other things, rock, soul, Cajun, blues, R&B, New Orleans second line, Tex-Mex, cabaret, mariachi, and salsero. The music always in service of his one lyrical preoccupation: Big Love. “What I usually do,” he once said, “is try to shoot for the heart.” That he did.

I was only a few months into rediscovering DeVille’s music when he fell ill and passed. I’d found on these here intertubes work from him I’d never knew existed, for I’d lost track of him during that long period when his records were released in Europe, rather than the States. I’d bookmarked in my life his “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” when it was first released back in 1977, but in the weeks before his death I came across the performance of that number embedded below, from 1994 in Montreux, and it’s been more or less at the top of my personal hit parade ever since. It renders the original, compelling as it is, something of a rough draft. In 1994 in Montreux, DeVille had found the right arrangement and the right players, and he knew exactly what the song was about.

“Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl” is of a genre of songwriting I’m particularly fond of, one wherein young males think they’re writing about women, when they’re actually writing about themselves. If and when they belatedly discover that fact, the songs take on renewed power. Probably the classic example is Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” which, when initially released, came across as one of his many smug put-down songs. But by the time he performed it for the Concert For Bangladesh, he knew that it was himself who “breaks just like a little girl”: there was real, raw, naked pain in his performance.

DeVille claimed as late as 1994 that “Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl” was “about a woman I know who was a drug addict. She was mixed up and she was shook up. That’s what it’s about.” But when he spoke those words DeVille knew that explanation was bogus—because that’s the same year as occurred the performance offered below. And in watching it, it’s clear that he long ago learned that the song is about him, Willy DeVille. He’s the one mixed-up, shook-up, strung-out in his love. He’s also the one strung out on the opiates. For at this point DeVille was closing in on 20 years of heroin addiction (he would finally, permanently kick about two years later). This is at once one of the most beautiful, and one of the most sad, pieces of music I have ever witnessed. It is astonishing, in the old and reverent sense of the word. From out of agony, conjuring ecstasy.

I never wrote about DeVille when he was alive, and for that I feel like a heel. But DeVille saw such things coming. “I have a theory,” he said in 1991. “I know that I’ll sell many more records when I’m dead. It isn’t very pleasant, but I have to get used to this idea.”


Never Get Out Of The Swiftboat

Bone-ignorant racist and serial liar Sean Klannity opened his radio program last Tuesday with a hit piece on Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Despite all that was going on that day, Klannity was unable to resist an atavistic return to the halcyon days of 2004, when he was instrumental in blowing holes in Kerry’s presidential aspirations, via non-stop air time gifted to those mendacious merchants of lies traveling under the Orwellian rubric Swiftboat Veterans For Truth.

A Massachusetts resident, Kerry had berthed a yacht in neighboring Rhode Island, where the craft was built. Rhode Island does not levy a sales and use tax on yachts; Massachusetts does. The Boston Herald, which hates Kerry almost as much as Klannity does, broke the “story.” It was then picked up by the Eggman, one of several slime-buckets from whom Klannity daily drinks his “news,” before regurgitating it for his listeners.

As this story explains, New Englanders—whose states, combined, comprise a land mass smaller than most California counties—commonly cross borders, in pursuits ranging from purchasing liquor to establishing businesses, in order to take advantage of wildly disparate tax laws. But Klannity, and other bellowers into bullhorns in the rightwing echo machine, portrayed Kerry as some sort of cross between Ken Lay, Bernie Madoff, and Al Capone. By week’s end, Kerry had forked over $400,000 to Massachusetts, the amount he would have owed that state if his yacht had been built and berthed there, and thereby told Klannity and Klan to stuff it.

Kerry actually was involved in something newsworthy last week, but neither Klannity nor his Klan wanted to talk about it. Kerry responded to the release by Wikileaks of some 92,000 classified documents on Operation Enduring Fiefdom by stating that “they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right, more urgent.”


No Mas

Parliament in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia voted July 28 to ban bullfighting. By the end of 2012 it will be gone, throughout the region.

Simpleminded US and UK news reports mimicked the Spanish rightist line in dismissing the vote as a sort of hot-headed regionalist-nationalist instant-response to a June constitutional-court ruling declining to define Catalonia as “a nation.” This tired spin, however, neglects to note that people in Catalonia have been working against bullfighting since 1909, that by 2004 polls showed that over 80% of all Catalans opposed it, that last week’s vote was necessitated by the presentation in November 2008 of a petition signed by 180,000 people re-questing an end to the “sport,” and that the final vote last week, at 68-55, was merely a reaffirmation of a similar vote on January 1, which came in at 67-59 (and which I wrote about here). At that time too, it was claimed, falsely, that Catalans were less concerned about bulls, then about spitting at Spain.

In truth, Catalonia has banned bullfighting because Eros is winning, and Thanatos is losing. Blood sports of all kinds are in steep decline all over the globe. As they should be.

For bullfighting begins like this:

It’s a highly orchestrated spectacle that begins with the breeding of bulls in preserved areas known as dehesas. They are raised by their mothers for the first year, then taken away, branded, and kept in single-sex groups. At around two years of age, bulls are tested for aggression toward horses, and are not allowed to encounter humans until they enter the bullring. During their stay, they are encouraged to use their horns in tests of strength and dominance over other bulls, which often ends in severe injuries and even death.

And ends like this:

[W]hen I came to write a book about Barcelona I thought I should go one summer Sunday and attend a bullfight. I remember I didn’t last long. I knew nothing about the rules and intricacies of the sport so all I saw were crowds of well-fed, well-dressed people baying for blood, roaring and cheering at the sight of pain and demanding more of it as picadors on horses and a matador in a brilliant costume ritually tormented and tortured a bull. What was interesting was how present and real the bull felt to me, how close the animal’s pain and puzzlement was. Indeed, the bull, simply because of what it was going through, the ferocious rage and hurt it exuded, filled the ring with its aura much more than any of its killers did. So when it lay down and died and got dragged away, the scene was genuinely dramatic and powerful.

The crowd loved it. It was a useful experience learning that people in groups, without laws or limits set to govern their appetites, will have a great time watching some dumb and beautiful animal, who has no chance of escape, being cut open with swords and other sharp instruments. They can call it sport, they can call it tradition, they can write about its beauty, its poetry and its intricacy, they can invoke Hemingway and write about skill and ritual; for me that day the bullfight was a celebration of cruelty, of mob rule, of death, of picking on something weaker than you and amusing yourself at its expense. It was vile and it was disturbing.

The Catalan moniker for the campaign against bullfighting—”Prou!” or “Enough”—quite appropriate.

As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, more than a century-and-a-half ago, “one must be really quite blind or totally chloroformed not to recognize that the essential and principal thing in the animal and man is the same”; “it may be confidently asserted that he, who is cruel to living creatures, cannot be a good man.”

Two Lights On Behind

Blues grew out of the need to live in the brutal world that stood ready in ambush the moment one walked out of the church. Unlike gospel, blues was not a music of transcendence; its equivalent to God’s Grace was sex and love. Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure, but blues also made those terrors more real. “You run without moving from a terror in which you cannot believe,” William Faulkner wrote in one of his books about the landscape he shared with Robert Johnson, just about the time Johnson was making his first records, “toward a safety in which you have no faith.”

We comfort ourselves that we do not believe in the devil, but we run anyway; we run from and straight into the satanic images that press against the surface of American life. I think of Robert Mitchum, the mad preacher in Night of the Hunter, with LOVE tattooed between the knuckles of his right hand, HATE tattooed between the knuckles of his left—and he seems, again, like the legacy of the men who began the American experience as a struggle between God and the devil, the legacy of a Puritan weirdness, something that those who came after have been left to live out.

The Puritans did not take their dreams from the land; they brought them along. They meant to build a community of piety and harmony, what their leader, John Winthrop, called “a city on a hill”—an idea, in its many forms, that we have never gotten over, nothing less than America as the light of the world. They had a driving need to go to extremes, as if they could master God and the devil if only they could think hard enough; that, and a profound inability to make peace with the world as they found it. They failed their dreams, and their community shattered. “This land,” Winthrop wrote before he died, “grows weary of its inhabitants.”

The Puritans came here with a utopian vision they could not maintain; their idea was to do God’s work, and they knew that if they failed, it would mean that their work had been the devil’s. As they panicked at their failures, the devil was all they saw.

The image of the devil is a way of touching the sense that America is a trap: that its promises and dreams, all mixed up as love and politics and landscape, are too much to live up to and too much to escape. It is as if to be an American means to ask for too much—not even knowing one is asking for too much—and to trade away one’s life to get it, whatever it is.

The most acute Americans, in the steps of the old Puritans, have been suspicious, probing people, looking for signs of evil and grace, of salvation and damnation, behind every natural fact. Robert Johnson lived with this kind of intensity, and he asked old questions: What is man’s place in the world? Why is he cursed with the power to want more than he can have? What separates men and women from each other? Why must they suffer guilt not only for their sins, but the failure of their best hopes?

This is a state of mind that gives no rest at all.

—Greil Marcus, Mystery Train

Elective Affinities

(This story I found last week in the same sort of intertubes wormhole where dwells “Rope’s End.” It has something of a farcical history. In October of 1998, while working for the same shooting-star newspaper that published “Rope’s End,” I set out to try to explain why I thought the press and the public had become obsessed with the peregrinations of The Clenis, then absurdly dominating the national discourse. But the piece quickly grew so long that it would no longer fit in the newspaper. So I cut it off, announcing at the end that the story had become a series. That first installment is lost; this is the second one. There was to be a third—which explains why this piece ends so abruptly—but before it could be published, the paper died.

(After the paper expired, bits and pieces of this story popped up on the tubes now and again, when plucky souls attempted to use it as reference to alter Wikipedia biographies of such notables as Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn, and Bob Barr. Always these attempts have been spurned by Wikipedia mandarins. Which is one of many reasons why I have no respect for Wikipedia: because everything in this story is true. I’m posting it here because I performed a lot of research in writing this thing, and some of the historical info may prove useful at some point, such as the next time some political figure is found to have awkwardly dropped his (or her) pants. Which, things being what they are, should come any minute now. And which, unless said pants-dropping has the effect of hurting people (see, for example, Schine, McCarthy, and Cohn), is really none of our business.)

The sexual shenanigans of Ronald and Nancy Reagan were never a secret. Both were most relentlessly promiscuous while in Hollywood, locus of the nation’s largest, longest, strongest, and most obsessively tended gossip grapevine. Many a starlet seeking studio entree via the well-traveled smile-and-spread circuit hopefully ungirdled her loins and passed under Reagan, while Nancy’s name was routinely circulated among executives in search of a fast and practiced backseat blowjob. Power to the mavens of the entertainment press meant possessing such tantalizing tidbits; once the Reagans began their improbable electoral ascent, the information easily passed through the flimsy scrim separating the Hollywood desk from those patrolling the political beat. Campaign operatives and reporters shamelessly swap gossip with nearly every breath, and thus the Reagans’ sexual adventuring eventually became such common knowledge that even I, who have always occupied only the very outer arm of the political-gossip spiral, knew of Nancy’s legendary mouthwork long before Robin Leach coyly alluded to it during Reagan’s first term, and had heard as well tales involving Reagan’s on-the campaign-trail seduction of an 18-year-old true-believer, a sort of atavistic return to his Hollywood days, which were replete with libidinous, bibulous blackouts, when he would not uncommonly awake not knowing the name of the woman—or sheep (kid-ding, kidding)—ly-ing beside him.

Though until Kitty Kelly I’d never heard the tale of how Reagan blithe-ly bounced the bedsprings with lover Christine Larson while wife Nancy, alone in the hospital, struggled to give birth to daughter Patti (a daughter Nancy would later so abuse—her favorite weapon a hairbrush—that Patti had herself sterilized before the age of 25, terrified that she might abuse her own children; Nancy’s serial abuse came during her 40-year addiction to prescription pills, something she—nor anyone else—never managed to mention while serving as pious diva of the ludicrous “Just Say No” to drugs campaign). Still, I was one of probably millions of Americans cognizant of the open joke of Nancy’s cuckolding of the increasingly befuddled Ronnie with Frank Sinatra in the residence quarters of the White House. And anyone in the nation who paid attention to the numbers—and could count even to nine—realized Nancy was four months pregnant when she pledged to Ron “I do.”


When I Worked

August 2010
« Jul   Sep »