An Incident on Mount Adams

Note: Some of you know that I like to do short backpack trips. I always stuff a journal in my pack, to record anything interesting that might occur. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but I’d like to one day turn my experiences into a book. Anyway, last year I did a short hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What follows is an incident that happened on one of the peaks, Mount Adams. If you feel inclined, let me know your thoughts. Your feedback improves my writing and motivates me to get closer to that elusive book.

The hikers become thicker as I near the base of Mount Adams. Most of them hike in groups. Occasionally, I move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Sometimes they glance up and acknowledge me. Other times they continue to converse with their companions, keeping their eyes on the ground.

Everyone’s different. Even at work, or at the gym, or in the park, some individuals never make eye contact. But at least out here on the trail, they’re not clutching their smartphones as a baby clutches a bottle.

Soon, I arrive at a large, open field. Off to the right are several worn footpaths leading to a rocky summit: Mount Adams. President John Adams always seems overshadowed by larger-than-life Washington and Jefferson, so I commit myself to climbing the summit in honor of our second president. Like Adams the man, the peak is small, but it’s majestic. A number of other hikers also scramble to the top. There’s no worn path, just a jumble of grey boulders to negotiate however one chooses. Unlike at Mount Jefferson, where I left my pack at the summit base, I haul my pack up Adams, which makes for a slow climb. But pretty soon, I’m at the top, surrounded by a mass of day hikers.

For the first time in a while, there are no clouds, and I’m treated to a panoramic view. The view isn’t as stunning as at South Twin Mountain a few days ago, but I also don’t have to deal with that day’s heat or exhaustion. Since it’s still early in the day, I linger here longer than normal. The Labor Day crowd makes for a buzzing social scene.

Back on the Appalachian Trail, at a large cairn signaling the mountain’s location, there was a bustling crowd of kids and adults. I figured it was maybe a church or civic group. Not long after summiting Adams, several of them make their way to the top. Immediately, I notice something a little different about them. The kids all have dark tans and very long hair. They wander by themselves, without adult supervision, and chatter excitedly. One of them, long-haired and lithe, looks neither boy nor girl.

Then a man bounces over the edge of a boulder, standing with his hands on his hips, scanning the crowd on the top. He’s wiry and healthy-looking, with a sandy brown ponytail that’s streaked with grey, and he has a beaming smile. I can’t tell his age. He could be in his late thirties, but with his greyish ponytail, he could instead be twenty years older.

“What an amazing view!” he exclaims with extroverted zest. “And all these amazing hikers!” I see him shoot me a quick, white-toothed glance.

He scurries around the rocks, taking in all the views. I sit on a rock in silence, observing two large dogs panting nearby. But my ears are open. Before long, the ponytail guy is carrying on a conversation with two young men. I overhear him say “Plymouth” and “Blue Bell Bakery,” or something. They chat for about five minutes, interrupted by the man’s gasps of amazement at the views. At the end of the conversation, I hear him extend an invitation to the two men to visit the bakery.

This is one of those times when I feel isolated. Like I don’t belong. I get this way occasionally. I’m not a shy person, in most situations. But in other situations, I have a difficult time opening up. It’s probably a combination of the loner in me, some bullying as a kid that made me wary of people, plus the social anxiety I’ve dealt with most of my life. These three people, after only five minutes, act like they’re old friends. Yet I can know someone for five years and still feel like a stranger.

I observe this ponytail guy like he’s a celebrity or something. He looks good, and there’s a magnetism about him. His wispy ponytail and extroverted manner remind me of certain freespirited hippies I knew back in school. They always seemed comfortable with themselves, and never took things too seriously. While I’ve always been drawn to these types, envious of them, I’m also always a little intimidated. For lack of a better word, they exhibit a “karma” that I don’t have, and probably never will.

Eventually, I zigzag my way down Mount Adams. The descent seems longer than the ascent. Which boulder should I choose to step on? This one. No… this crested rock is a good fit for my boot.

The two dogs and their owners quickly pass me by. So do the two young men. Ponytail guy is already at the cairn with his large group. I don’t see the kids anywhere.

I reach flat ground and angle toward the AT. But I deliberately taper my angle so I can pass by the cairn. I’m still curious about ponytail and his group. Maybe I can pick up some clues from their conversation.

As I get closer, I shoot a few glances out of the corner of my eye, hoping that I won’t appear nosey. But ponytail guy catches me looking.

“You’ve got a big pack there!” he shouts at me. “Where are you headed?”

I veer toward him. “Headed for Osgood Tentsite tonight,” I answer shyly. “Then my car tomorrow, and back home to Ohio.”

He asks me a few more questions, and before long, we’re into a free-flowing conversation. We talk about the White Mountains, Mount Washington, the scenery, the details of our respective hikes, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his group are doing a several-day hike. Then I see the long-haired kids. They drift in and out of the group. If their parents are here, I’m unable to determine who they are. The kids seem to belong to no one, and everyone.

Then I ask him his name.

“Shemet,” he says with a smile.

“Sh…Shemet?” I ask.

“Yes, Shemet.” Then he tells me it’s an old Hebrew name that he adopted a while ago. Suddenly, a young teenage girl approaches us.

“This is my daughter, Mehenomet.” Mehenomet tilts her head and smiles.

Hmm.

Shemet tells me that all the members of his group have adopted Hebrew names (despite the fact that they’re probably all Gentiles). He then tells me he used to work as a park ranger. He hints about certain unsavory activities he engaged in when he was younger. (“Didn’t we all!” I assure him). He and his wife divorced, and he eventually joined the group he’s with today. But he doesn’t give me the group’s name, or its purpose or affiliation.

I ask Shemet why he’s no longer a park ranger. It’s a career which I thought about pursuing when I was younger, and which I’ve always considered meaningful and fulfilling.

“I had no meaning or fulfillment,” he says. “I got tired of rattling on about birds and animals and lakes. There’s a bird, here’s a lake,” he says mockingly. “I didn’t want to serve nature anymore. I wanted to serve people!” he says enthusiastically, as if people and nature weren’t inseparable, and park rangers didn’t serve both wildlife and people.

His rock-headed revelation hits me like a right hook to the jaw. So much for that blissful “karma” I thought about on top of Mount Adams. His coolness quotient drops as precipitously as the mountain. But I guess I’d set myself up for this shock. I had it coming.

We continue to chat, but I slowly inch my way toward the trail. Then, a swarthy, dark-haired man approaches and introduces himself. It’s another Old Testament-type name. He hands me a pamphlet and tells me to read it at my leisure. I thank him, wave goodbye to Shemet and Mehenomet, turn northward on the trail… and feel like a leash has been removed.

I slip the pamphlet into a pocket on my pack, promising myself to at least glance at it later. After I return home, I do. The title is “The Twelve Tribes.” Just below the title is a watercolored illustration of long-haired stick people, children and adults. They’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. I read the bubbly, upbeat words inside the pamphlet. Later, I visit the internet and read more about The Twelve Tribes.

I try to be open-minded about things. And you can’t make snap judgements from a pamphlet, and certainly not the internet. But like so many other “clubs” that rely on dogma and a fixed set of beliefs and practices, what I learn about The Twelve Tribes convinces me it’s not for me, and it’s further proof of Shemet’s scrambled thinking.

Shakespeare undoubtedly had a pithy observation about all of this. In lieu of his words, I’ll go with someone more contemporary, like singer John Prine:

“It’s a big old goofy world.”

 

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A Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)

 

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

PBs_Burns

Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Random Musings…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

ken-burns_helicopter

The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

joe mcdonald

Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

baez_dylan

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

hendrix

Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

helicopter

Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

ochs_mcqueen

 

 

Making Sense of Monument Removals

 

stone mountain

It’s not often that longitudes is stumped. On issues like guns, environment, domestic terrorism, fascism, political electionism etc., this blog has no trouble clearly expressing where it stands.

But longitudes has struggled to make sense of the polarized reactions to chunks of Confederate stone being carted away recently.

Usually, there are one or two soundbites that, like little marshmallows in hot cocoa, always bob to the surface. In the case of monument removals, that soundbite is the word “history.”

“But it’s history!” some say (including my wife).  “You can’t change history!” is also heard.  But are monuments to history history?  And how is history actually being changed?

As loyal readers know, longitudes loves history. An understanding of history is good, because it often prevents us from repeating past mistakes. Frequently, longitudes appears dismayed at the indifference of many Americans to their own history. So it’s perplexing to hear so many Americans now, suddenly, expressing concern for American history. This applies to statue removers as well as statue defenders. Why this sudden obsession with history???

Alright, I’ll cut out the cuteness. This is a serious issue. But not because historical remembrance is threatened. It’s not. It’s serious because, like most everything else in America today and 152 years ago – including the hue and cry over the Confederate flag two years ago, on the heels of the murders of nine black church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist – the subject is race. And people are once again being killed over it.

the atlanta-journal constitution

Courthouse in Douglas County, Georgia (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Now that the statue hue and cry is gradually subsiding, and the U.S. media is being diverted by other dishes at the buffet table, I’ll take my turn and weigh in on monument removals (side note: like food dishes, news stories in the U.S. have a limited lifespan. Politicians learned this a long time ago, and they merely wait until the food gets stale: perhaps one reason why the incompetent blowhard in the White House hasn’t yet been impeached).

Every issue requires historical context. Many of those who now claim to be concerned about history, however, don’t provide it. Since longitudes does value historical understanding, here’s some quick context:

  1. The first slave in colonial America was African John Punch, an indentured servant (a temporary bonded laborer) who ran away from Virginia to Maryland in 1640, then was captured and sentenced to lifetime servitude.
  2. Slavery flourished in America for the next 225 years, when the United States Constitution finally abolished the institution.
  3. Between 1861 and 1865, a war was fought between different states in America. Although there were concerns about maintaining the union of states, about the admission of new western states, and about preserving an agrarian economy in the South, the base alloy for these issues – and the war – was human bondage.
  4. The war commenced after southern states withdrew from the union and formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America (C.S.A., or Confederacy).
  5. Some military leaders, including United States Military Academy graduates Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, chose to remain loyal to their southern states, abandoned the United States nation, and committed treason by taking up arms against it as part of the new Confederate nation (which wanted to preserve human bondage).
  6. The Confederate States of America lost the war to the United States of America. The southern Confederate states were then readmitted to the United States of America. The period of rebuilding the devastated Southern economy and infrastructure (without slavery) is known as Reconstruction.
  7. During Reconstruction, although slavery was now illegal, Southern leaders nonetheless wanted to honor their heroes, and monuments to these people began to be erected. Unlike slavery, monument erection was still legal.
  8. The first monument to a Confederate soldier, “Stonewall” Jackson, was erected in 1875 in the onetime capital of the Confederacy: Richmond, Virginia.
  9. The biggest flurry of Confederate monument erections occurred between 1900 and 1920, the height of the Jim Crow era (when Southern states enforced racial segregation, also legal at the time).
  10. Currently, there are an estimated 1,503 Confederate memorials (statues, flagpoles, obelisks, monuments) in public places throughout the U.S.
AP Images_Rubin Stacy

Lynching of Rubin Stacy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1935 (AP Images)

While all of this monument activity was occurring in the American South, rural blacks were being hauled into the woods at night and strung up by their necks. Between the start of Reconstruction and 1950, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South.

***

Based on the last paragraph, one might guess that longitudes supports the removal of monuments to people with white skin who fought to maintain bondage of people with black skin. Actually, longitudes agrees with Civil War historian David Blight. He argues that Confederate monument removal is a healthy thing for America, but it should be conducted in a thoughtful, intelligent manner, and not hastily and indiscriminately, with grandstanding and finger-pointing.

For example, there’s a palpable difference between an obelisk at Yellow Tavern, Virginia denoting where Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was killed, and the obelisk in Andersonville, Georgia that memorializes Henry Wirz, commander of infamous Andersonville prison, who was hung for war crimes. Likewise, there’s a difference between the giant stone engraving in Atlanta of General Lee astride his warhorse, Traveller, flanked by Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, all with their hats pressed to their hearts in devotion to The Cause, and a statue of civilian Robert E. Lee at his home in Arlington, Virginia, gazing ruefully across the Potomac toward Washington… a statue which currently doesn’t exist.

Years ago, while visiting a Civil War museum with my father down South, I read a letter Lee had written to his son. I was taken aback by his words, which seemed to me to be mature, reasoned, and enlightened. Unfortunately, Lee was also shaped by his unenlightened time and place. He owned slaves, he ordered them whipped, and he led the fight in a cause to preserve slavery. He wasn’t a god, despite what many neo-Confederates would like to believe. He had feet of clay like the rest of us.

So did slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both honored by monuments in the nation’s capital.

But longitudes also feels that too many white Americans are unwilling to walk in the shoes of non-white Americans. By virtue of their birth, they don’t have to. So they don’t make the effort to even speculate. Perhaps if these privileged white Americans envisioned themselves as being black, and living in Richmond or Charleston, and, on their daily commute, having to pass a memorial to a cause that was committed to keeping their ancestors in shackles… they might see things a bit differently regarding removal of certain flags and monuments.

Removing these memorials doesn’t remove or re-write history, despite what monument defenders claim. The history can’t be erased. The removals merely erase symbols that are painful to certain people, and a gruesome cause célèbre to others. If folks want to remember Confederate history, they don’t need a statue or flag to do so. They can go to the library and read a book.

And in the process they might learn some American history.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monuments_and_memorials_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America

http://www.history.com/news/how-the-u-s-got-so-many-confederate-monuments

http://time.com/3703386/jim-crow-lynchings/

confed soldier

Staring Down the Ugly American

staring

“Let’s see if we can find some shade,” Lynn says.

“How about over there, behind the baseline?” I respond.

We work our way around the tennis court stands. The south end has a large shady section that’s beginning to get filled. We find a small space midway from the top. It has a good view of the court. We’ll have a birds-eye view of the player on this end.

I unroll the match schedule and glance at the names. It’s qualifying day at the Western & Southern Open here in Mason, Ohio. The players today are lower ranked and are trying to win a match or two to qualify for actual tournament play, so most of the names are unrecognizable. But the name “Tipsarevic” jumps out. I’d seen him on TV, competing in one of the big Grand Slam events. I’m surprised he has to qualify here. But it’s not too unusual. Sometimes the big names get injured, their rankings drop, then they have to work their way back up again. Maybe that’s the case with Tipsarevic.

Tipsarevic is from Serbia. Same country as Novak Djokovic, one of tennis’s best and most well-liked players.

The other player is from the U.S. He’s a tall, thin, African-American named Chris Eubanks. I’d seen him practicing earlier on one of the side courts, and he looks good. Should be a fun match.

The emcee on the court says a few things, as the last spectators take their seats. It’s a hot day, so a lot of people head to our shady area. Lynn and I are packed in tightly. The guy next to me looks to be in his 60s. In front of him is a pregnant Asian lady with her husband or boyfriend. Just below us are two older couples holding small, plastic glasses of champagne. They’re conversing and laughing like old friends on a yachting excursion. I hear the name “Isner” mentioned several times. This would be John Isner, the second highest-seeded American player, ranked 19th in the world, a 6’11” power server who will be playing later this evening.

Other than Serena Williams, Americans haven’t done well in tennis lately. Especially the men. There are Isner, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Stevie Johnson… names known to tennis fans, but not the general public. Distant are the days of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Ashe, and Connors.

Just before the players are introduced, three men approach our section. The guy in the rear stands out. He’s pale and chunky, and he’s wearing baggy blue jeans. Not your typical tennis fan. His two companions, though, look more the part. They appear to be in their 40s. One is athletic looking, and has scruffy grey whiskers and wraparound sunglasses. He’s holding a drink and smiling.

***

“… from Georgia Tech, his first Western & Southern appearance, please welcome CHRISTOPHER EUBANKS!!” announces the emcee. The crowd cheers. Several young guys seated close to the court stand up and swing their arms.

“They must be college friends of his,” says Lynn.

The three men who arrived late take seats several rows behind us.

Then the other player, Tipsarevic, comes into view. He’s a tanned, muscular guy with a close-cropped beard and shiny black hair. He’s wearing a bright turquoise shirt. He also wears two large wristbands, and a pair of white plastic sunglasses. Looks pretty sharp, like he stepped out of a GQ ad.

“… and from Serbia, the former number 8 player in the world… JANKO TIPSAREVIC!!” The crowd cheers, but noticeably less than for Eubanks.

The players begin a casual rally, warming each other up. Baseline shots, some net practice, some soft overheads, then a few serves. Eubanks is closest to us. He’s extremely tall and wiry, looking more like a basketball than tennis player. But his shots are crisp and clean.

Tipsarevic looks good, too. Very relaxed. He’s seeded third amongst the qualifiers, whereas Eubanks is unseeded, so it should be an easy match for him.

But soon after the match starts, Eubanks breaks Tipsarevic’s serve. In these days of power tennis, that’s not a good sign. However, Tipsarevic appears unconcerned. He doesn’t push himself to chase down balls. His cool, relaxed manner seems to say “Hey, no big deal.”

“Come on, Chris!” several spectators call out, getting excited. “Looking good, keep it up!” Eubanks wins a few more games. He pumps his fist at the stands several times, egging the crowd.

The applause is very one-sided. But this is expected. U.S. tennis fans, like everywhere else, are partial, and they’re hungry for a homegrown star, another Sampras or Agassi. Eubanks is young, fresh out of college. Like many others throughout the years, he could be the “future.”

Like Isner, Eubanks is a powerful server. But his backhand looks weak, and he favors his forehand.tennis player

“I wish we could see his service speed!” says one of the champagne ladies.

“Me too, but I think the speedometer’s broken,” says her companion.

Behind us, the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses has kept up a loud chatter. “Yeah, I got some games off him, but I think he was deliberately hitting soft” he says to his companions, describing some match from his past. As the match continues, though, I hear him make a few comments about Tipsarevic, mispronouncing his name. It starts when Tipsarevic questions a line call.

“I’m surprised he could even see it, he has no depth perception with those awful sunglasses.”

Then, toward the end of the first set, Tipsarevic wildly mishits into the stands what should have been an easy return. The man claps.

This is considered dirty etiquette in tennis. Imagine a golfer missing a putt and a member of the gallery clapping. It just isn’t done.

Eubanks wins the first set, 6-3.  A few people leave our area. Lynn suggests moving up a row, near the aisle. Not because of the man, but because of her claustrophobia. We move.

Eubanks rolls through the second set. Tipsarevic doesn’t seem energized. When he should be chasing balls, he sacrifices points. About halfway through the set, he re-strings one of his tennis shoes. A few points later, he removes his shoe, walks to the sideline, then asks for an injury timeout. The trainer arrives and examines his foot.

“Just go ahead and forfeit!” comes the loud catcall behind us.

“I wonder if he’s faking injury to shift momentum,” says Lynn.

“You never know,” I reply.

After a five-minute break, Tipsarevic returns to the court.

“Come on Chris, make him move, he can’t even walk!” hollers the loudmouth. Tipsarevic wins a few points. Then Eubanks regains the edge. The score is 4-2. Only two more games for Eubanks, and he’s got the match.

Tipsarevic is now serving. His first serve goes into the net. I hear a slow clap behind me. Again, it’s the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses. He’s the only one in the stands to clap, so the sound is jarring.

I turn partway. I want to yell something like “Grow up.” Then I think, no, just explain that it’s impolite to cheer when a player misses a serve. But I stay silent.

Tipsarevic makes his second serve, but loses the point.

He serves again. The first serve, once again, goes into the net.

Clap…clap…clap…clap…clap…clap.   The only sound in the grandstand. Nobody turns around. Nobody tells the man to shut up.

Then something cool happens. Tipsarevic, who is right below us, turns around. I’m certain he doesn’t know who clapped. But he stares upward, straight at the man. His white sunglasses shield his eyes, so it’s hard to tell whom he’s looking at. But he appears to be staring straight into the man, who is maybe 20 rows up. He holds the frozen pose for a full ten seconds. Not long enough for a time violation, but just long enough to make his point.

I join him. I’m not sure if anyone else does, but I turn around and stare at the man. He makes a few nervous giggles. Then the match resumes.

There are no more hate claps from the man.

***

The tennis match in Mason, Ohio was no “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are many differences. But there are also similarities, whether hate-clapper didn’t like “the foreigner” or only his sunglasses. There’s always been ugliness in society. It just seems like we’re seeing more of it these days, more adults behaving like petulant children.

Humans are imperfect creatures. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, prejudice, religious intolerance, misogyny etc. will continue to taint society. But maybe we need to reassess how we react to such hatred when we see it, whether it’s on a large stage, or on a bleacher seat away from the cameras.

Maybe, instead of either ignoring hatred or freaking out about it, we need more long, cold stares.

 

people in US

 

A Chimerical Study of Contemporary Bullshit

WARNING: Some people are sensitive to pessimism. I understand completely. I appreciate people reading my stuff, but if you’re sensitive to pessimism, you may wish to visit somewhere else. But check back later, when I’ll be writing about “Petticoat Junction.”

Preface:

I think I’m usually polite here. Despite outward appearances, I was raised to be a gentleman. Therefore, I try to keep my language free of the little nasties.

So forgive me for using the word “bullshit.” But I can’t think of an appropriate synonym, or another word that has the right zing. “Egocentric duplicity” doesn’t cut it. “Bullshit” has a tart and lively consonant structure, and when properly voiced, the sound of the word effectively mirrors the emotional intent. So here goes:

The older I get, the more impatient I become with what I view as being pure, unadulterated bullshit. When I was younger, much bullshit went over my head. I just accepted things. I smiled while I drank my Kool-Aid® and Funny Face®. Adults were physically larger and knew more than me, so they must be right (right?).

Time flies. Recently, I learned I’m going to be a grandparent. After almost 60 years on this beautiful but increasingly scarred planet, age has driven home the reality that children are bullshit-free. It’s their parents and grandparents who are full of it. Children are untainted, until infected by their elders. As the great Indian actor and philosopher Hrundi V. Bakshi once said, “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of a child is pure.”

Children are so often lied to, tricked, and bombarded with sarcasm, hypocrisy, and false information, that it’s only natural they evolve into adults who either “sling,” or are easily susceptible to being slung at. Since I’m an adult, I’m vulnerable to bullshit as much as anyone else. It’s a two-pronged effort. While I’m oiling my detectors to defend against the bullshit in others, I try to be on guard for the BS in myself.

Muammar Gaddafi was a vicious tyrant, and it’s good that he’s gone. But he had admirable taste in national flags. From 1977 to 2011, the Libyan flag was the color green, the only national flag ever to be just one color. No bullshit.

Background:

History has seen a few great bullshit warriors. Philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians seem particularly adept at identifying bullshit. They have a talent for seeing through things to get to the crux of the matter. The Greeks, then the Romans, along with Eastern guys like Confucius, got the ball rolling. Then we had a rough patch called the Dark Ages, with lots of tribal warfare, land grabs, and religious crusading.

Then the sun came out and we had the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, and rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare, Swift, Melville, Dostoevsky, Sitting Bull, Twain, Wilde, Kafka, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Vonnegut, Guthrie, younger Dylan, Lennon, Zappa, Johnny Rotten… all battled the armies of bullshit with originality and grace (well, Zappa and Rotten weren’t always graceful).

Interestingly, a lot of these warriors also battled depression.

On the opposing side are those who have PhDs in BS. You know who I’m referring to. I’m sounding like a disgruntled peasant belaboring the obvious here, but the data I’ve assimilated reveals that the biggest bullshitters are not cab drivers or small farmers. The greatest offenders reside in high places, like government, large business, and the plush corner office just past the water cooler. The higher up the economic ladder someone climbs, the more proficient they become in hurling the sticky stuff ($$ x h/c = BS³, where c is a constant). In advertising, bullshit-slinging is the name of the game (proof: the number of people who dislike American football yet who sit through the Super Bowl).

With few exceptions, these lofty figures don’t have to battle depression. On the contrary, they’re usually laughing on their way to the bank. At least, that’s what my strictly monitored scientific method has shown.

You’re probably anxious to see a few examples of whom I view – rather, what my analytical data has shown – as being the most flagrant purveyors of bullshit. Or, maybe you’re not anxious. Well, I’m anxious, at least. I’ll skirt around politicians, because BS is mother’s milk to them, and I’d be writing about their bullshit until the cows (or bulls) come home. And since I’m an American and unfamiliar with the bullshit in other countries, I’ll stick with local bullshit.

Breaking Broken News: When a major news outlet feels compelled to assure viewers its news coverage is “Fair and Balanced”… you can bet it isn’t.

Analysis:

The American news press. If you’re a young person, you may not understand what I’m about to say: there once was a time when there was intelligent news, and only three TV stations. Scout’s honor! And America had talented news anchors with names like Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, Chancellor, and Jennings. Most news then was reported with a degree of honesty and integrity.

Then, imperceptibly, a drift occurred. Maybe it was the success of “gotcha” journalism, initiated by the Watergate investigation in the 1970s (Specimen A: the offspring of Woodward and Bernstein). Coulda been the rise of trash TV in the 1980s (Specimen B: Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera). Possibly harsh and one-sided conservative chatter that erupted in the 1990s (Specimen C: Rush Limbaugh and FOX News). Probably all of the above. But, today, journalism that’s responsible and relevant is the exception rather than the norm.

I’m not sure many Americans even recognize the difference between news and propaganda anymore. Or if younger people even know there’s a difference, or what the word “propaganda” even means. We regularly bathe in our tilted information of choice, then cackle what we just heard on our social medium of choice with our ubiquitous handheld computers.

I earned a bullshit (B.S.) degree in journalism, so I know a little about this stuff. And my recent and highly empirical studies show that – right, left, or indifferent – most news today is info-tainment that’s beholden to advertisers and, therefore, scrubbed or manipulated to appeal to a specific demographic. Loads of bullshit information conveyed… scant knowledge obtained.

American entertainment is also bullshit. Lynn and I occasionally watch those strange British shows on PBS (high-quality programming – check it out, before the Republicans destroy it). We’ve both noticed how physically ugly many British actors are. And if they’re not ugly, they’re very old. In other words: they’re real people.

Why can’t the U.S. have more ugly entertainers? The only ugly American entertainers I can think of are criminally untalented: bigots like Phil “Duck Dynasty” Robertson and congenital liars like President Tweety Bird. Not surprisingly, Robertson was the biggest celeb at Tweety’s convention last summer (I don’t consider long-forgotten sitcom actors like Scott Baio to be celebrities).

Religion. This is dangerous territory, I realize. But I’m feeling emboldened, so I’ll put my head on the block. And, let’s be honest, religion has, for centuries, vied with politics for the coveted crown of Emperor Bullshit.

U.S. politicians love to extol their religious (Christian) faith, and the popular tagline to speeches is “…and God bless the United States of America!!” Rhetorical bullshit, folks. Assuming there is a God… He or She or It probably doesn’t recognize geographic borders, and certainly doesn’t bless America for its treatment of the original inhabitants.

I believe anyone who believes his or her belief system, god or godless, is the only valid  belief system, is full of bullshit. As my philosopher friend Cecil responded when I saw him in the break room and innocently said “What’s happenin’, Cecil?”:

“Nobody knows! Many think they do, but they really don’t. It’s all a big guessing game!”

So, Tweety, kick those conservative, fundamentalist mock-Christians out of our house. Yes, the White House is our house, the people’s house. You’re just a temporary tenant the janitor let in. If there’s any justice in the world, you’ll soon be permanently privatized.

Conclusion:

My study findings probably make me sound like a cheap imitation of late comedian George Carlin. I definitely lack the eloquence of the individuals (except Johnny Rotten) that I listed at the top of this diatribe… I mean, study. My words are base and simplistic. But, gosh darnit folks, these bullshitters aren’t that smart, either! In fact, most are pretty thickheaded. They attain powerful positions because they’re specialists in one area, or were born into privilege, or have silver tongues and greasy palms.

“Make America Great Again”? More Bullshit (spelled with a capital ‘B’). “Hope and Change”? The change is being unraveled, and we’re looking more and more hopeless. Here’s my bumper sticker:

“Make America Bullshit-Free… For a Change.”

Vanity in a Tin Can (Part 2)

(This is the conclusion of my two-part article about my experience as a jazz disc jockey)

Before long, manager Geoff hired me as a full-time, paid deejay. He was very encouraging:

“The whole trick is to put a smile into your voice.”

“Try to hit those peaks and valleys, like an easygoing rollercoaster.”

“Man, you sounded hot  yesterday! Have you thought of this as a career? It doesn’t pay much, but you can make a living.”

I began taping my shows, hoping for that one perfect show (I came close, but never got it). Downtown Lowndes and I occasionally exchanged notes. One night, very late, we pretended we were two pompous Top 40 deejays:

“Hey, OK! Got the hot wax and the best tracks, my man Downtown!”

“Hey, OK, Pedro! What’s comin’ up here? Michael Jackson? Noooo, sorry… Chuck Mangione! Hey, OK!”

We figured nobody was listening, anyway, so we might as well stretch out.

Once in a while, I did get phone calls for requests. There was a college guy who always requested Charlie Parker, and nobody else. There was a teenage girl who didn’t care about music but only wanted to talk to the male deejays. She was referred to variously as “Miss Lonelyhearts” or “Jailbait.”

The most frequent caller was this drunk who hated any song unless it was an old, Big Band standard. Everything else was a “buncha crap.” (If he hated it so much, why did he keep calling? I think he was upset because the music had changed so much since “his day,” including the type of jazz being played.)

Alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

One night, while gazing out the porthole at the city lights, I tried to reason with him:

“You should give it a chance. I know this is newer music, but it’s good jazz. It’s Branford Marsalis, brother of Wynton!”

“It’s a buncha crap!”

I gave up.

Because WNOP was a small, tight-knit affair, we sometimes got together outside of work. Brendan, Downtown and I visited local clubs to hear different bands. Eventually, Downtown got his own weekend blues show and became Rod “Blueshound” Lowndes, and his became the station’s most popular show. Whereas at one time he’d complain about not getting any phone calls, soon he was complaining that he couldn’t cue the records “with all these damn calls!”

At one company luncheon, he and I got into a friendly argument about African-American origins of blues music. Similar to “buncha crap,” I was a bit of a purist, so I preferred the primitive, country blues, while Downtown liked contemporary, electrified, urban blues. We went back and forth before someone finally looked at Val, our resident “hip black cat,” and asked for his input. Val’s perfectly timed response was “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

The pinnacle of my time at WNOP was when I got my own avant-garde jazz show. It was still late at night, but it was my show, and I could play practically anything I wanted. I remember Glenn pulling me aside before my first show. He was musically knowledgeable, and he suggested I didn’t have to always play the really “black” stuff, meaning challenging and spiritually probing free jazz artists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. It was a good tip, but I was already primed for a mix of dark and light, combining those artists with a little progressive rock, fusion, and ECM label.

Unfortunately, “The Vanguard Express” didn’t last long. Our Arbitron ratings dipped, and my show was one of the first casualties. The day after it happened, I received a personal phone call from Robert Fripp, legendary leader of King Crimson, who agreed to be interviewed for the show. I had to tell him.

“What?! You’ve been sacked!” Fripp said, as I struggled to recover from a hangover. I explained it wasn’t me that got fired, but the show, and he sympathized. So… no interview. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to get a morning wake-up call from one of my music heroes, even if I had cotton-mouth and crimson eyeballs at the time.

One night I showed up for work and noticed that the album sleeves in the library had colored tape on the spines. Red, yellow, blue, green, and brown. I soon learned that, in keeping with WNOP’s “jazz plus” format, this indicated varieties of jazz. Brown meant traditional jazz. Green was pop or rock with jazz elements (e.g. Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan). Red, yellow, and blue also had meanings of some kind.

Hereafter, all jocks were required to play a certain quota of each color per shift. Of course, the color brown, for traditional jazz, received minimal airplay. I worried about what “buncha crap” would say.

This is about the time I started losing interest in being a deejay. As with everything in life that’s free and untainted, people have to muck it up with manipulations.

It wasn’t long before programming director Chris was dropping by with comments like “Pete, you didn’t play much Red or Yellow last night. We’re trying to get the Arbitron ratings up, you know.”

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon

I told him I’d try to do better. But I really didn’t try too hard.

Instead, I went in the opposite direction. I’d cue up Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s “The Hunt,” which is a live, 18-minute saxophone apocalypse from 1947, then go out on the poop-deck to smoke a cigarette and watch the city lights shimmer on the water.

Things went from bad to worse. Like a lot of single guys who didn’t have girlfriends, I had a little dog to keep me company. One night during a long shift, I brought him to the station with me. He just lay there asleep on the floor, but one of the newer deejays saw him, then went and told the teacher.

“Pete, this is a place of business, and you really shouldn’t bring your dog here.”

“Sorry, Chris, but this is like a home away from home for me. The Jazz Ark is like an extension of my apartment.”

“Well, that’s very flattering, but we don’t allow animals in this ark.”

Not long after, I gave my notice. Chris was right, of course. The station wasn’t a playpen or home away from home. It was an office. And when I realized that fact, the fun disappeared.

WNOP’s jazz format lasted till the millennium, when The Jazz Ark became a Catholic Radio ark. I don’t know if Chris and Geoff’s Arbitron ratings ever spiked like they’d hoped. I saw Chris at a Pentangle concert, around 1992. During our time at the station, I didn’t think he had much taste in music. But maybe I pegged him wrong. Pentangle’s a damn good band.

The only other person I saw was my pal, Downtown. Appropriately, I saw him downtown, about eight years ago, after some function. It was about 1 a.m. He was serving drinks in a seedy bar and taking jukebox requests for the night owls. Same extroverted manner. I recognized him, but I don’t think he recognized me.

I debated whether or not I should reveal myself, but he looked a bit down on his luck, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. For all I knew, he owned a string of successful bars and restaurants downtown. But I didn’t want to take the chance.

So I just requested an old blues song.

Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)

Let Me Introduce to You: The SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND Trivia Contest!

50 years

Sgt__Pepper's

June 1, 1977. Forty years ago today, Mr. Turley cut me a break in calculus, and my high school released me.

Almost as important: ten years to the day before that, the Beatles released (in the U.S.) their spectacular album SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!!!

I love lists, even those controversial and ubiquitous “Rolling Stone” magazine lists, and I can’t recall one rock critics’ list that hasn’t placed this album solidly in the No. 1 position. It’s considered by many the CITIZEN KANE of pop music, the ultimate radical experiment in an era of radical experimentation, yet not so experimental that it alienated the masses. This record’s historical standing isn’t exactly hurt by its association with the greatest musical ensemble in the history of the Milky Way (or, at least, the planet Earth).

Please don’t stand up and throw tomatoes at me when I say this: it’s not number one on my list (duck, Pete!). And since the Beatles excluded their single “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” from the LP, I don’t even consider it the Beatles’ best record. Sonically, it’s very cohesive, maybe their most cohesive album as far as sound and mood. But many of the songs here fall short when stacked against the best work of their other LPs, even the earliest.  I’d pick “Please Please Me” and “This Boy” any day over marshmallow pies and Henry the Horse’s waltzing.

There’s a lot of Paul here, which is good, but John got a trifle lazy, which is not good. I think the adventurous instrumentation and packaging, and the timing of its release have had much to do with its current reputation. SGT. PEPPER kicked off the acid-soaked Summer of Love, which so many social historians and millennials love to associate with the entire 1960s. Also, the public was hungry for a new Beatles LP. The boys had quit touring, and it had been ten months since REVOLVER (today, it takes ten months for a band to decide whose song to sample).

SGT. PEPPER’S swirly, psychedelic motif hasn’t aged well, either, particularly on John’s song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Producer George Martin truly came to the fore as the “fifth Beatle” on this record, so the music is as much him as the four lads.pepper

But… “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” more or less created the mold for poetry and musicality in a four-minute pop song. In fact, classical giant Leonard Bernstein called “She’s Leaving Home” one of the three great songs of the century (does anyone know the other two?). A personal favorite of mine is Paul’s construction project, “Fixing a Hole,” where he allowed his mind to wander, and it’s very reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s beautiful, self-analytical song from the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

Since it’s summer and I’m too lazy to do a “Rolling Stone”-styled pontification on the cultural and musical significance of this record (the best recent article I’ve read about SGT. PEPPER, minus an annoying plug for the obligatory anniversary re-release, is here, if you’re interested), I thought I’d have some fun and offer a trivia contest. Like Mr. Turley’s exams, it’s open book. But the true Beatles fan shouldn’t need a book. Be careful, though! I have at least one trick question in case of a tie.

Hopefully, I’ll get more response than I did with my Gettysburg sesquicentennial quiz.

OK… Mr. K will now challenge the world!

  1. Name two clues, in the music or sleeve art, that Paul is dead.
  2. Give the names of at least five members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band (not including the Beatles themselves).
  3. What are the names of the three children in the song “When I’m 64”?
  4. What was the inspiration for John’s song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”?
  5. Name the band and album that Paul claims inspired him in the making of this album.
  6. Who sings “With a Little Help from My Friends”?
  7. What is the name of George’s token song, and what stringed instrument is prevalent on it?
  8. Which song was covered two years later at the “Woodstock” concert (and was one of the highlights of the subsequent movie)?
  9. Name the band and album that spoofed this album almost a year later.
  10. Why is this the greatest album ever made? If you don’t think it is the greatest, which album would you choose?

Thanks for participating! Just pop your answers into the longitudes comments section. I’ll list the answers and the winner(s) in a couple weeks. Till then, give this classic a spin, and I hope you all enjoyed this show!

P.S. Very belatedly: “Thank you, Mr. Turley.”

b&w photo

Fascism for Beginners, Part 2: Feeding the Beast

On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.

The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.

Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.

After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.

Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

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Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:

Margot Frank. Like her sister, Margot kept a daily diary while her family was in hiding. It’s never been found.

Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.

Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.

Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.

But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?

The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.

Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”

Frederick II (Frederick the Great)

Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.

Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).

Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.

Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.

But I digress.

Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.

As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”

Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.

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(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Beginners” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).