Fascism for Beginners

WWII Map

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which – George Orwell

I’m reading a very good book right now. It’s called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH by William Shirer. I bought it a few years ago in honor of the 50th anniversary of its publication, but until recently it’s been sleeping on my bookshelf. I’m reading it now because, like many people since the November election, I’m pretty deflated, and I’m thinking this book will be a good antidote. Maybe it will put things into perspective. As low as America is right now, it would have to claw a lot more dirt out of the pit to reach the depths of 1930s-40s Germany.

RISE AND FALL is considered the definitive history of the Nazi Party. It’s a 1,150-page book of small print, so reading it is a long haul. I’m just past the rise and starting on the fall. Churchill has replaced Chamberlain in England. Germany’s vaunted army has finally been repulsed, on the icy Eastern front, by Russia. The U.S. has reluctantly been pulled into the war following the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I’ve never been much of a WWII buff. As far as historical conflicts go, I’ve always preferred the more antiquated and seemingly altruistic slaughter of the American Civil War. My wife loves the Second World War. Any time one of those black-and-white newsreels about WWII is broadcast on television, she grabs the remote. I can’t watch them. Inevitably, there are clips of that shrieking madman with the greasy hair and Charlie Chaplin mustache. I usually leave the room. The sight of him makes my skin crawl.

So until recently, I was probably like most Americans, in that my knowledge of Nazi Germany was limited to a few names, dates… and one monumental atrocity. But Shirer’s book has made it abundantly clear that Nazi philosophies and practices were aided and abetted many years prior to the war and the Holocaust. The war and the Holocaust were just fascism brought to its logical and horrifying conclusion.

Charlie Chaplin spoofing Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940). Hitler was considered a big joke in the beginning. After the clown makeup came off, the world saw something else.

What’s the definition of fascism? The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines it as follows:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

That’s a mouthful. But let’s look at the first part: “…exalts nation and often race above the individual.”

The Nazi Party was founded by a man named Anton Drexler and three other far-right Germans in Munich on January 5, 1919. At that time, it was called the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP). By 1921, a onetime vagabond and former Austrian colonel named Adolf Hitler had, through boundless energy, skillful oratory, and not a little fanaticism, wrested control of the party.

Anton Drexler, founder of the Nazi Party

Hitler added the words “National Socialist” to the name, making it NSDAP, or “Nazzy” (Note: the word “Socialist” here was merely used rhetorically and had little to do with the philosophies of various leftist parties in Germany at the time, which Nazism eventually extinguished). Hitler and other party leaders also delivered a 25-point manifesto. Two of the manifesto points were as follows:

Point Number 4: “Only a member of the race can be a (German) citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.”

(This ignorant stipulation mistakenly assumes that precious “German blood” equates with race, when Germanic heritage is actually an ethnicity. And note the casual singling out of one particular group for discrimination: Jews. Evidently there were few Arabs in Germany at the time – at least, any that had social or economic significance).

Point Number 8: “Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.”

(August 2, 1914 is the day Germany mobilized for WWI, which it ultimately lost. The 1918 Treaty of Versailles required the country to make reparations for its aggression, including a substantial loss of territory. This left a lingering bitterness throughout the prideful nation. The date of August 2, 1914 was probably significant to the most nationalistic Germans, but totally arbitrary to most immigrants).

Nation and race. Nationalism and eugenics. Always choice ingredients in a recipe for disaster. Remember, this Nazi “Program” was drawn up in 1921: eighteen years before Germany invaded Poland to start the next world war. Although NSDAP was still only a radical fringe group in Germany, the party principles had already taken root. Hitler and his henchmen would adhere to these two points, and all 23 others – and expand on them – until their empire of sadism finally toppled.

My stomach’s starting to churn, so I’ll break off. But please check back for the second part of my “Fascism for Beginners,” where I’ll be examining how citizens allowed a political party and its leader to turn their country into a pigsty.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

50 yearsalbum cover

Hey white boy… you chasin’ all women around? You wanna make love to the scene? Take a drag or two.

 Oh, pardon me, sir, I don’t know just where I’m going. I’m weary. I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine.

 You better watch your step, little boy. ‘Cause everybody knows, when midnight comes around, all the angels scream.

The lines above aren’t from a pulp novel. They’re snippets of lyrics that I borrowed from a slab of vinyl released 50 years ago today.

_____________

New York City, December, 1965. A cold wind slices through the city night.  Anonymous, grey people wrapped in overcoats shuffle along a sidewalk on West 3rd Street.  They move hurriedly, hunched over from the cold wind, oblivious to the  small nightclub with a tacky-looking sign above the door: “Café Bizarre.”

Inside this little matchbox-sized café, glasses clink, voices murmur, and cigarette smoke clouds the room.

On a little stage toward the back, a Mephistophelian looking man with long, greasy black hair and wraparound sunglasses toys with what looks like an electric violin. Another man, taller, casually tunes a guitar. Behind him, protecting a shabby drum kit, sits an innocent looking girl with a Beatle haircut. At the center of the little group stands a collegiate looking kid with bushy hair, tight pants, and biker boots. He’s holding an enormous hollow-bodied electric guitar. He’s chewing gum. He glances at the other guitarist and cracks a mischievous smile. He then steps toward a microphone.

“Black Angel’s Death Song,” he announces to the half-empty room.

It was the last song the Velvet Underground would play at the Café Bizarre. The manager fired them immediately afterward.

Velvet-Underground

Promo photo of Velvet Underground (and Nico). L to R: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker

The details may be slightly different, but the general picture is accurate. It was the final show by the Velvet Underground before joining Andy Warhol‘s  pop-art multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of his Factory ensemble of experimental artists, junkies, transvestites, and high-society dropouts. He teamed the foursome with an exotic, beautiful European chanteuse named Nico. In 1966, after a whirlwind tour of the states, Warhol financed recording of their first album, and it was released the following year… to little acclaim, and practically non-existent sales.

But in the last 50 years, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO has come to be regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and essential to any respectable record collection. The band’s name (lifted from a porno paperback found in a recently vacated apartment) is now regularly associated with adjectives like “daring,” “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” and “influential.”

Why is this record so important? (Brian Eno famously said that only a few people bought the record when first released, but every one of them formed a band: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Deborah Harry, Jim Carroll, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and a few others). It’s not a stretch to say that the Velvets procreated glam rock, art rock, punk, alternative, industrial noise, and maybe even rap (don’t laugh… listen to the title track of the group’s second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT).

Along with leader Lou Reed’s insightful lyrics – an unholy marriage between Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot – the music on this album set the band apart from everyone else in the kaleidoscopic 1960s. It was harsh, discordant, primitive, and punctuated with blasts of distortion, feedback, and effects inspired by Welsh violist John Cale’s avant-garde studies with John Cage and LaMonte Young (best exemplified in the manic eight-minute closer “European Son”).

At the same time, there were moments of folkish tenderness, as in “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last two sung by Nico in a voice that sounds like Marlene Dietrich on barbiturates. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s favorite) mixes alcohol with the downers, but the straightforward lyrics, about a shunned and lonely Cinderella (Reed’s lyrics were gender-neutral) are incredibly sad and touching.

Even before teaming with Warhol, the Velvets were testing their experimental sounds in the subculture of underground art-film New York, and Reed had already composed his most notorious songs dealing with hard drugs: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the sado-masochistic “Venus in Furs.” The lyrics and two-chord makeup of “Heroin,” in particular, are as striking today – and maybe even more relevant – as when they were first written:

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

And that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

As with all great songs, “Heroin” has a musical structure that expertly punctuates the words and song theme. The song starts slowly, but gradually speeds up. Two simple guitar chords with a pounding bass drum, like a slow heartbeat. A sinister, single-note drone (Cale’s electric viola, strung with guitar strings) enters and becomes increasingly loud (the chemical pulsing through the blood?). The heartbeat grows faster, the guitar and drums become more frenetic… then slow down… then build again.

At the song’s climax, Cale’s viola goes completely berserk, right when Reed (in Dylan-ish talk-sing) begins confessing about “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and “thank your God that I just don’t care.”

Drug addiction is one of the tragedies of modern times. Fortunately, I don’t have experience with hard drugs, nor the harrowing lifestyle around them, so I can’t vouch for how accurate “Heroin” is in its depiction.  But of all the many rock songs devoted to the subject, this song, for me, seems the most frighteningly accurate (and there are many who agree with me).

Even the less celebrated songs on this album are noteworthy, and provide the glue that holds things together. “There She Goes Again” is the closest thing to pop here, and it kicks off with a halting ten-note intro borrowed from the soul shaker “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. “Run, Run, Run” is a chugging little vignette of New York City street life, a sort of taste test for the group’s later 17-minute juggernaut “Sister Ray” (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT), and it’s filled with Reed-patented dysfunctionals with names like Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry.

And “Black Angel’s Death Song” – the song that ended the Velvets’ brief nightclub period – is an inscrutable, imagistic poem, probably written while Reed was an English student at Syracuse University. With a classic, typically menacing Reed vocal, Cale’s viola, and a sound effect like an ejaculating air hose, this is a song that’s primarily concerned with mood, and it grows more appealing over repeated listenings.

Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, and Lou Reed

I asked a question earlier, but I don’t think I adequately answered it. There are a LOT of reasons why this record is so special. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I would use the word “honesty.” You take it or you leave it. There’s no bullshit here, unlike in so much other “popular” music.

Other musical artists – I won’t mention names – have crassly exploited shock effect and darkness for commercial reasons. But they’re poseurs. Unlike Lou Reed, they don’t possess any empathy for the people they sing about, nor a belief in their ultimate redemption. Reed wasn’t singing about caricatures and stick figures. He was empathizing with real people that he actually knew. Or that lived inside him.

If you haven’t yet heard THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO… I envy you, because it will shake your musical world a little. When I first heard this record, it was like discovering Dostoevsky after a diet of Dr. Seuss. It sounds trite, but the Velvets helped liberalize me. It was like crossing a bridge into a new territory of sounds, attitudes, and ideas. With his later songs, like “Jesus,” “Lisa Says,” “New Age,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” Reed seemed to be sending personal postcards to his listeners (and I was one of the lucky recipients).

But this album is where it all started.

Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma (Re-Post)

The Oscars

(The Academy Awards are threatening again.  Every couple years I devote a post to this subject.  But since I rarely watch new movies anymore, and have sworn off most awards ceremonies, I’m recycling this essay from two years ago.  Most of it, I think, is still relevant.)

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic of everything, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations on your bad work, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I wouldn’t know about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. I’m not talking about Left vs. Right here, although there is a hefty amount of PC (see above).  No, I’m referring to campaigning and back scratching.  Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial.

red carpet

Red carpet ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

 

bogie

Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

 

 

Carnival of Familial Souls

 

fair

In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they may be even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station (for you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City).

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

carnival-of-souls

Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

the-end

Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

flourish3

Skiing with the Aliens

astronaut-with-aliens

“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

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Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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Politics, Cruises, Sports, Halls of Fame, and Other Dumb Things

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Last month I published my 100th article on WordPress. Since then, I’ve struggled to come up with number 101. I even mulled over sending longitudes to a permanent dry dock. But like a pressure valve in a steam engine, there needs to be release.

Should I write about the recent U.S. presidential election? I don’t think so. If I do, I’ll either be preaching to the choir, or my words will fall on ears clogged with wax. Better to wait for the pending avalanche before hurling my snowballs from the chairlift.

I could write about the recent anniversary cruise my wife and I took. We had a wonderful time, but the trip was marred by the revelation that our ship, Caribbean Princess, had, only days before, been fined a record $40 million in damages for polluting our oceans with oily waste, then trying to cover up the crime. trumpYet during the muster drill the first day, the boatswain’s mate (or whomever) had, with the temerity of a Pinocchio or Donald Trump, announced that Princess Cruise Lines is serious about environment protection.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, everyone.

However, there were highlights to the cruise. One was meeting music engineer/producer/bandleader Alan Parsons (The Alan Parsons Project). It was following a Q and A session in one of the lounges on the 7th deck (starboard, aft). It was a relief to hear a little good music being played after all the hip-hop, electronica, and lounge lizard sounds.

The down side was that the occasion was instigated by a deal between Princess and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). This, friends, is a capitalist wet dream as slick as Vaseline (or oil). If you’d like to know my not-so-obsequious views about RnRHoF, please see Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One.i-robot

I could write about how my Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, losing their final two games at home. Against the hapless Chicago Cubs, of all teams.

Or how my Cleveland Browns have lowered the bar for patheticism (is that a word?). They’re currently 0-14 and are aiming, once again, for that top draft pick. And maybe the record books.

But getting back to the marriage between the Princess and the RnRHoF: I could write about the argument I had with one of the guests at our cruise dinner table. He had the gumption to suggest the band Styx was more deserving of RnRHoF recognition than Jethro Tull. Sacré bleu, monsieur!  He’s a doctor, so you’d think he’d be smarter than that.

But, I guess even smart people can have their dumb moments. At least, when it comes to music, voting, selecting vacations, or whatever.

Go Browns… (yes, bloggers can be dumb, too).

Note: header illustration is courtesy of and copyright Tim Shields, 2002

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100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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Tribal and Environmental Justice at Standing Rock

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Once again, it’s happening. The United States military – in this case, the National Guard, in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the oil industry – is waging war against the American Indians.

And once again, it’s a war involving land and minerals. The land is the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota, which partly pushes against the mighty Missouri River. Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, murdered by Indian agency police on this very reservation in 1890, is buried close by.

This time, however, the mineral isn’t gold or silver.

It’s oil.

Last week, 141 people were arrested after clashes with the Guard and police. The protesters had occupied private land to oppose construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, a pipe which will tunnel under the Missouri. There were reports of Molotov cocktails being thrown by protesters, pepper spraying and brutality by police, and gunshots by unknown individuals.

Big Oil and its supporters say the pipeline offers a more cost-effective and safer way of transporting shale oil from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf Coast than it does by road or rail. They also claim it will create 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs.

They shifted the original route further away from Bismarck, and closer to the reservation, because they said its construction would be “easier.” (See map)

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Map of Standing Rock Reservation and DAPL (courtesy Paul Horn/Inside Climate News)

But many in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who have been camping out near the proposed pipeline for months (and have been joined by other tribes and some non-natives sympathetic to their plight), argue that an oil spill in the Missouri will prove disastrous, since the people rely on the river for much of their water. Also, that the pipeline will desecrate ancestral land, basing their claim on a 19th-century treaty.

And environmentalists are dead-set against the pipeline for obvious reasons: the potential of a catastrophic oil spill, and the reality of a monstrous carbon footprint.

“The Native Americans are the only people who have inhabited this continent in harmony with nature for centuries,” conservationist, author, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben says. “Their traditional wisdom now chimes perfectly with the latest climate science.”

The Army Corps of Engineers fast-tracked construction of the pipeline last July, but it still needs to grant final permits. Due to the glaring spotlight on this most recent clash, the White House has granted a temporary postponement of the project.

Over 300 tribal nations have come out against the pipeline. The total number of protesters at the site has grown to over 800.

Some Questions

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple (R) criticized the protesters for staging their protest on private land. A valid criticism for most of us. But… here are some questions:

When and how did the land become “private?” Who occupied the land before it became “private?”

Other entities, notably Big Oil and its backers, have charged that a number of protesters are “outsiders” who are unaffiliated with the tribe. Here are some more questions:

Why is this a negative? Aren’t we “our brothers’ keepers?” How noble are the motives of a corporate giant next to those of poor people struggling, not for monetary profits, but for clean water and tribal rights? If there’s an oil spill, will the Standing Rock Reservation be the only thing impacted? And when 800,000 gallons of oil per day are pounding through this pipeline to eventually be burned as fuel, ballooning the atmosphere’s carbon concentration even more, are there truly any “outsiders” in this scenario?

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After Sitting Bull’s murder, 350 Lakota Sioux under Chief Spotted Elk walked away from reservations at Standing Rock and Cheyenne River (land which they’d been exiled to). They were upset at being denied their Ghost Dance, prohibited by U.S. officials, who referred to it as a “Messiah craze.” As at Standing Rock recently, the U.S. military was sent in. The troops, armed with rapid-fire Hotchkiss mountain guns, surrounded the Lakota near Wounded Knee Creek. Nobody knows who fired the first shots. But when the bullets stopped flying, 150-300 Indian men, women, and children lay dead in snow that was dyed red.

Wounded Knee was the last major confrontation of the Plains Indian wars. After this, the Sioux and most other tribes were a defeated people, their leaders killed, their land fenced off and privatized, their traditional food sources depleted, their cultural and spiritual practices ridiculed, their children forced to attend distant schools, dress like whites, and abandon their language. Most reservation Indians today live in abject poverty.

Nobody has yet died at Standing Rock, fortunately. But here’s one final question:

When money, land rights, and race are intertwined… has all that much changed in America in 126 years?

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/10/28/us/28reuters-usa-pipeline-regulations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/29/opinion/why-dakota-is-the-new-keystone.html

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-standing-rock-numbers-20161101-story.html

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