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Really the Invisible Man Blues

September 19th, 2014

The essay that follows is the chapter I wrote for the very fine anthology Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence edited by Kevin Alexander Gray (this site’s administrator), Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Counterpunch, and journalist JoAnn Wypijewski. Its appearance could not possibly be more timely with the news dominated by the cold-blooded murder of Michael Brown in the middle of a street in broad daylight by a cop. As Kevin and I predicted (on Live from the Land of Hope and Dreams) when Obama was elected, the most certain result was that many black males would die. How many more will there be?

Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence

Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence

The question for you and me right now is whether we grasp the facts and allow the uniformed felon who shot Michael Brown get away with it, judicially and otherwise. The attempt to smear Michael Brown as a petty criminal based on his theft of some cigars is exactly what we’re likely to see more of unless there is activity against it–and not just by poor black people. Not just by black people, period.

So let’s get the important stuff straight: Stealing cigars is not a felony, let alone a capital crime. Jaywalking is not a capital crime. Delaying moving when a police office tells you to do so is not a capital crime. Lifting your hands is not a capital crime. Stepping towards a police officer in a confrontational situation is not a capital crime. Lifting your arms is not a capital crime. Turning to flee is not a capital crime. Being black and male and young — none of these are capital crimes.

That none of these is, for that matter, a crime of any kind–or even that we all “know” it– is beside the point. The defenders of the cops, the apologists for the system, the creeps who want to make the “looters” in Ferguson, MO equally culpable along with the cops. The public is ready, much of it even eager, to falsely balance the equation, with the usual bullshit about “wrong on both sides.”

Right now the media and the politicians, from the President on down, are acting as if none of what I just said is true.

The fact that someone has to say these things–that everybody isn’t saying them–is exactly why I had to write this essay, why Kevin, Jeff and JoAnn had to prepare their book.

When will it end? When you–and you, and you, and me–decide to make it stop. And what that means in essence, no matter who is in the White House, is this: It’s not up to black people. It’s up to white people.

Really the Invisible Man Blues

By Dave Marsh

“…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.”
~ Chester Himes

In his autobiography, Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow, locked up in a New York City jail on a drug charge, convinces the warden that he has a black mother and therefore must be placed in the Negro section of the prison – his life depends on it.

Mezz Mezzrow, a pot proselytizer and dealer as well as a pretty good trumpet player, was white, or at least he came from an all-white family. His is one of the few real-life stories in American history in which a white man passes for black and gets away with it. Whether John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, in which a middle-class white writer blackens his skin in order to research what the too-much-melanin blues are like, got away with it is open to debate. He did not die, as has been widely reported, from cancer caused by Oxsoralen, the chemical he used to darken his skin, but the fact that the idea persists thirty years after his death suggests what grim desires his project may have inspired. Griffin is not by any means the only mortal casualty of the American obsession with melanin.

Give or take Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a reasonably fine novel, and Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro,” which is a complete crock, that’s about the end of the literary aspect of passing for black. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist, unquestionably a black citizen, has retreated to a clandestine life in a cellar in a whites-only building somewhere in New York. This man is invisible because other people refuse to see him. And throughout the story, whenever he is seen, disaster of one degree of another ensues.

Somewhere among these fantasies lies a truth about George Zimmerman, who, by his own account, accidentally on purpose murdered Trayvon Martin. Somewhere in there is an authentic human being, like Mezzrow, who imagined himself a superhero. Mezz sold reefer to the stars; Louis Armstrong was his best customer. George Zimmerman stalked the streets of a podunk Florida condo community with a gun by his side, a Batman vigilante.

What fascinates me is that George Zimmerman imagined himself a white superhero. Well, really, it’s not that so much. Name a black superhero, why don’t you? Richard Pryor dressed up as one for one of his album jackets, and that just about covers the point.

Whether George Zimmerman, by the bizarre and often contradictory codes of the United States, is ‘white’ isn’t the issue. It can’t be, because the matter is not so much in the eye of the beholder as in the beholder’s mind, or wherever each of our prejudices resides. There neither is nor ever will be a test of who’s black and who’s white based purely on skin color; thank you, Gregor Mendel. Americans appear in something more than 50,000 shades of gray and brown. Weeding us all out, separating the “Caucasian” sheep from the “Negro” goats (as Mitt Romney’s tutors might have put it) is a fool’s errand, a worthless quest and the core of a national argument that hasn’t changed much since the Tidewater tobacco growers invented the “white race” around 1680. Whiteness as a concept – a mass illusion that really means not-blackness – guarantees a genuine enthusiasm for servile status among white working people to this day. Because, with agreed-upon whiteness comes power, including the power of life and death. It’s amazing every neighborhood in the US doesn’t have a yearly ritual in which people fill out their brackets for who might or might not possess the coveted lack of melanin in their neighborhood.

Zimmerman’s mother has been described as Afro-Peruvian, and pictures alleged to be of his great-grandfather show a dark-skinned man who might well be black or brown (the photos are black and white, in a way that race in America is thought to, but never can, be). His father resembles David Brinkley, only more pallid. Zimmerman himself looks as if his ancestry might be Sicilian, or Native American, or Hispanic, or simply a polyglot genotype commonly known as American. Zimmerman’s voter registration card lists him as “Hispanic.”

Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, was unmistakably a black manchild, African- or Afro-American, or any of two- or three-dozen hideous epithets. That Zimmerman shot Martin because he was black may legitimately be doubted. That Zimmerman stalked Martin and put himself in the position of murdering him because Trayvon was black is beyond dispute. It’s how Zimmerman’s version of the events goes. Broken down between perception and reality, what the shooter tells us is as follows.

I saw a colored kid walking around where he shouldn’t have been (according to Zimmerman), dressed as a criminal (that is to say, as one common variety of adolescent boys, many of them black), and when I attempted to stop and frisk him (Zimmerman doesn’t cop to the frisk, but that’s the general idea) he ran, a clear (to Zimmerman, though in reality doubtful beyond anything reasonable) admission of guilt (of being black where he didn’t belong), so I proceeded to accost him (because that’s what superheroes do to bad guys), and then he tried to hurt me, so I shot him.

It’s that cold and that confused. Chester Himes couldn’t have satirized it. Richard Pryor himself would have been hard-pressed to say anything sufficiently biting about it. Martin’s murder was everything but a metaphor.

I nevertheless submit that George Zimmerman may be the Lee Harvey Oswald of this historical period. His biography is just as sordid and pathetic. In 1997, aged 14, he joined ROTC, with the stated ambition of joining the US Marine Corps. (His father, Robert, is described as “ex-military,” but I’ve yet to find out which service.) George’s post-high school jobs fulfilled no heroic fantasies: he worked for an insurance agency and a car dealership. He went back to school, to get his real estate agent’s license, then to study criminal justice. He may have been in a ride-along program with the Sanford police: he claimed he witnessed “disgusting behavior” by the officers, but the local cops say they have no record of him in the program. That last role (it wasn’t a job or a hobby) came to light in the context of a town meeting, which Zimmerman attended, protesting the beating of a black homeless man by white Sanford cops. He shoved a cop who was busting one of his friends for drunken behavior and was sent into an anger management program. A girlfriend accused him of domestic violence; he requested a reciprocal restraining order. He applied for a job with the local sheriff’s office, and didn’t get it. He took part in the Seminole College graduation program even though he was a credit shy of his degree. At his pretrial hearing in the Trayvon murder case, the prosecutors brought up all of this. The judge described George’s record as “run of the mill.” His father was allowed to sit in on his initial interrogations by the police about Trayvon’s killing.

On the basis of all that, you’d have to say that George Zimmerman has been treated as a white man by the system, or at least a part of it. How he has been treated by classmates, teachers, administrators, recruiting sergeants and, for that matter, junk food-dispensing 7-Eleven clerks is a whole other set of issues. And we’ll never know.

Maybe George Zimmerman wasn’t out there stalking innocent black teenagers in pursuit of certification as an authentic European-American. You’re entitled to doubt it. I don’t. Maybe he had no crisis of racial identity that he was trying to work out by becoming a superhero.

On the other hand, there is that designation on his voter registration card.

So we might, if we are pondering whether George Zimmerman received anything resembling justice (let alone whether Trayvon Martin did), spare a thought for the myriad ways in which the issue of racial identity makes so many Americans crazy – the crazier, it seems, the murkier, the more borderline, their status.

The strange thing is, at trial it was the defense lawyers who kept bringing up Zimmerman’s racial status (albeit outside the courtroom, but trials aren’t really held in court anymore, if they ever were). It was they who allegedly provided the pictures of his mother’s grandfather. It wasn’t even implied; it was stated outright that if George had black blood there was no way he stalked Trayvon Martin and killed him with a pretext so thin even a blind Klansman could see through it.

And now George Zimmerman is a free man, or anyway as free as someone with an Afro-Peruvian mother can be in an America that only in its most privileged sanctuaries understands itself as “post-racial.” Here is the white supremacist dilemma spelled out with remarkable clarity, by a proudly anonymous correspondent to the “conservative” blog Draw and Strike, March 29, 2012, apropos the report that Zimmerman’s photograph had been craftily skin-lightened by the media (no mention of which ones, or of whether Fox had once again held the color line):

right or wrong it’s always a meme about how evil the white man is
and how he be profiling everybody. But if the half jewish half peruvian
Zimmerman is a white hispanic, doesn’t it follow that our muti racial
preznit is indeed not black but white-black-arabic, in fact?

Why do people who essentially have no quarrel with Zimmerman’s vigilantism, who treat Zimmerman as if he has achieved a goal from their personal bucket lists (as indeed he has, especially the hard part, getting away with it), want him not to be white? Why has this question been ignored, even though it is a glaring part of the filthy residue of these crimes (the murder one, and the trial another)?

I think it’s basically because George Zimmerman has a brand new double standard available to him: he is white enough to get away with the shooting and dark enough to suggest to the bigots that there is something deeply wrong. But what’s wrong is not the shooting of Trayvon Martin, which was justified in the way that every vigilante execution has been justified since the Civil War. What we hear from the Draw and Strike crowd is a modern rendition of that tune they’ve danced to since Obama was elected and the chimera of post-racial society began to waver in front of blighted eyes.

In front of the cataracts of liberalism wobbles another image altogether: if this biracial society is such a swell thing, how and why did this acquittal occur? Liberals have no coherent answer, because formulating one would leave them no course except to understand the country in a way that the flag-bearers of post-racialism exist to occlude. Trayvon was shot in a mixed-race (“integrated,” we would once have said) neighborhood, by a vigilante who at least part of the time identified as a member of another ethnic minority. I don’t suppose this sounds like Crown Heights to you, does it?

The travesty of the trial does not stem entirely from the fact that everyone involved in the judicial system – judge, jury, prosecutors, defense counsel, cops – was non-black. Which raises another question: If we can talk about ‘non-white’ as a category, why not the more useful, because more accurate, non-black?

There’s nobody raised or even living long term in the United States of America who can’t answer that question accurately. There are just several hundred million Bartlebys who’d prefer not to.

Which is to say, the mystery of George Zimmerman is that there is no mystery. He did it, he got away with it without even having to deny it, and his kind will come again and again and again until we at least gain as much courage as Ishmael and crawl into bed with the truth.

“What started it?”

“A blind man with a pistol.”

“What’s that?”

“You heard me, boss.”

“That don’t make any sense.”

“Sure don’t.”

– Chester Himes

 

Johnny Winter Knew What to Do

July 19th, 2014

The Winter Blues

Johnny Winter | February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014

Johnny Winter | February 23, 1944 – July 16, 2014

The whitest man of them all could not only play the blues, he could play the hell out of them. For the past 45 years, that’s exactly what he did, night after night, whether he had the ear of the whole music scene or only of those devotees and passers-by who happened to be around on any particular evening. Johnny Winter was absolutely the real thing and, although Chuck Berry, Little Richard and even Bob Dylan played their part in his pantheon, the core of it always came back to the blues.

I first saw him under duress. An albino blues guitarist laying them flat in south Texas and brought north in a whirlwind of press releases threatened worse than tedium. My girlfriend said he was exactly the kind of blues player I loved best. It took about 15 seconds to convince me that he wasn’t good, he was great. It wasn’t just that razor sharp guitar or the gravel edge of his singing. Johnny Winter onstage, bathed in blue spotlights (because white ones burned his skin) was the blues stripped to an essence, confident and raging, nervous and excitable, heart-broken and drowned in not just his own but a world of tears, including your own.

I knew Johnny a little bit in those early days, mainly because I was friends with his manager, Steve Paul, the New York City impresario who flew to Texas the minute he finished reading the first Rolling Stone article about this weird cat in 1968 . Steve had long run a club called Steve Paul’s The Scene, which was the greatest all-night jam club in the history of New York City rock. Jimi Hendrix spent a lot of time there, as did whoever else was in town, from Johnny and his friends Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper to that other left-handed strummer, Tiny Tim. None of these was necessarily the unlikeliest person in the room on any given night.

We saw a lot of Johnny and Steve in those years in Detroit, at the offices of Creem Magazine. I can remember them turning up one day with a copy of Second Winter, the second Columbia album. Two discs, three sides, eleven songs. Fourth side blank. Why? After those, the level of material dropped off, they said. Hype? Well, anyway, a dubious rationale, albeit Columbia only turned up two outtakes when they reissued it on CD ten years ago.

But the real story was the battle they fought with CBS Records over its insistence that all albums made for the label be made at a company-owned studio using company hired and trained engineers. One of the most instructive lessons I ever had about record production came from that conversation, Johnny raving mad about the refusal of those engineers to recognize that to make this music, you needed the needle to rock into the red. Yeah, the sound got distorted. That was what the songs needed. Johnny was righteously indignant. Steve was perfectly happy to have a good story for the papers, capped by his revelation that he had negotiated an agreement—in writing, he said—that Johnny could henceforth record wherever the fuck he wanted to, with whomever he chose.

Once, long after midnight at Creem, Johnny played us his brother Edgar’s first album, which struck me as all too arty. Johnny patiently explained, to universal incredulity, that Edgar had always been the more accomplished musician. I thought this was nothing more than touching brotherly loyalty until Edgar put together White Trash with Dan Hartman and Ronnie Montrose and sold more records in two years than Johnny probably did in his lifetime.

Johnny seemed unthreatened and, looking back on it, you have to think that he understood very well where his life’s work lay, although he did give straight-up rock’n’roll (of the day) a try, with the 1970 album, Johnny Winter And, which was a band concept, Rick Derringer on the other guitar and about half the vocals, with bass and drums by the other members of Rick’s pop group, The McCoys. It gave Johnny the closest thing he ever had to a pop hit, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” Rick’s song sung by Johnny. It also gave him the only chance to croon that I can remember, on the semi-show-tune “Let the Music Play”: “I don’t know what brought you here / But I know what to do.”

Drugs, yeah, he took drugs, including all the wrong ones. He was a pretty bad mess, with a drug habit he did not discard for a very, very long time. He never tried to hide it much. One afternoon at Creem, which was living quarters as well as office space, he borrowed a bedroom for a nap. I went down to wake him up a few hours later and there he lay, sprawled out with his works neatly arranged beside him. Still breathing, but I sure the hell wasn’t gonna be the one to try to wake him up.

Yet the music continued to be fine through all of it or almost all. It was his anchor to life, maybe the only place where Johnny did know what to do. I’m guessing but how else do you explain it?

I once saw Johnny try to make sense of it. It was the early ‘80s and we were taping the David Susskind show for a “discussion” on the rock scene. Johnny was as nervous as ever; he liked people but he knew how many different ways he struck them as odd. So he kind of addressed himself to me, not a very good idea within the bounds of that particular exercise in megalomania. It was, for a while very much as if Susskind and the other guest, John Rockwell, were having one discussion while Johnny and I had another. What Johnny was trying to explain was the why of the drugs, how for him and for Janis Joplin, his friend from their youth in Port Arthur, and for others, the endless attention and… It was as hopeless as any other mass media attempt to explain the lure and necessity of dope. But I’d pay money to have a transcript of what Johnny said, and more to have had Susskind pay attention to it, so that Johnny could’ve finished. It was probably the most sensible thing I ever heard anybody ever say about being an addict, though I remember none of his exact words. (Irish whisky + Lester Bangs the night before.) Finally, I intemperately exploded: “Johnny’s trying to tell you why.” Susskind treated it like who was I to tell him not to kick his dog, which in this case was Johnny. I thought Johnny just trying to tell a philistine like that about such existential woes was in a certain sense more heroic than pathetic, though it was certainly both.

For me, the most heroic thing Johnny Winter ever did was make those Muddy Waters records for Steve’s Blue Sky label (distributed by CBS) in the late 1970s. I edited Rolling Stone ‘s record reviews then and so everything came to me early. I remember opening the first one, in 1977, not expecting much: Muddy’s last few tries for Chess had been dismally mediocre. Hard Again jumped out of the speakers, from Muddy’s first “Ohhhhhh yeah!” on “Mannish Boy.” It’s the perfect opening, not only because it summons musical thunder but because the words are all about the transformative magic Muddy not so much put into his songs but conjured from their structure. He’s boasting, but not idly, because this momentum is sustained throughout the ten songs.

Johnny’s insight came from treating Muddy, to his mind and mine the greatest of all bluesmen, as a singer and a galvanizing bandleader, not as a mere guitarist. (Muddy played no guitar on the record.) Thus, he could be surrounded, as he was on his greatest records, with superb players, mostly a bit younger than himself, and he could both record new songs and rework old ones. The version of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of his defining songs, on Hard Again is a revelation—almost conversational, its cadences relaxed, nothing to prove because he is the proof. The four albums they made for Blue Sky are certainly not Muddy’s greatest recordings, but they are unquestionably his best albums, utterly traditional in the material and arrangements but recorded and organized as a modern rock artist—and I mean, artist—would.

Johnny Winter carried on, accumulating tattoos like blues merit badges. And he couldn’t entirely be ignored—the music simply wouldn’t let him fade away. Rolling Stone squeezed him in at 63 on its list of however-many greatest guitarists (he maybe wasn’t a whole lot better than more than 60% of those ranked higher). Johnny made albums once in a while—the last one was Roots, a beautiful set of classics featuring mostly well-chosen current guitar heroes (Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Susan Tedeschi, Sonny Landreth). On it, Johnny’s singing, always scabrous and sassy, has taken on some of the tone of Dylan’s late work. But this is not a master engaged in mystification, making the listener struggle to divine a meaning that may or may not even be present. This is a bluesman, pained and driven, reaching for lucidity. “I don’t know what brought you here, but I know what to do.” And he did it.

 

 

Letter to my daughter Kristen on the 21st anniversary of her death

March 16th, 2014

I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death. This is this year’s version.

Dear Kristen,

The other day a friend of mine told me that he had just found out that his father would die within the next few hours. We talked about it for a few minutes. As we parted, I said, “You’ll be talking to him, you know.” He gave me a startled look. “No, really, you’ll be talking to him. I’m not saying he’ll answer back. But you’ll talk to him.” He still looked a little quizzical. “I’m not guessing,” I said.

I’m going to see him in a couple of weeks. I hope it came out like I said. He really loved his father. And it probably will. His father really loved him.

The last thing I remember hearing you say, in your own voice, was when you asked your doctor, “Am I dying?” You asked with a note of wonder. I have spent a lot of the past twenty years thinking about that question. For a long time, I pondered your ability to hold off death in favor of life. But lately, I’ve considered the way you accepted the answer: “We’re trying to let today be like every other day, and let the medicine work.”

Your head fell back on the pillow. In memory I see all your fine red-blonde hair spreading across the sheets. But your hair was already gone. So the beauty I remember must be just Kristen. You were going to be 22 that spring, and you were a woman, but you were also the child and the sister of the people with you in that room. All those versions of yourself were there, in that moment, in the wonder in your voice and in your eyes that took over for your hair as the emblem of your beauty.

I used to dream sometimes that it never happened. That you were a story I told myself, nothing more. It was a nightmare panic, one of those dreams where you’ve misplaced the most important thing—you don’t even know what important thing—and search for it endlessly until it occurs to you that if you don’t know what was lost, then maybe it’s a trick of your mind, nothing at all is missing, and this seems truly madness. After that, I don’t know. In my case, I wake up and then it’s real, all right. And madness too.

We have learned to cope. I have almost no idea how. For me, it started with a decision—you loved life and couldn’t have it, I had better learn to love the life I could not escape. Was that the beginning of a one-sided conversation? Not exactly. The conversation comes from all the time I’ve spent thinking about who you were, which means the person I saw you become. A little girl, generally effervescent and nevertheless occasionally terrified.  A resilient, imaginative child, still sometimes frustrated to truly comic rage.  As hip a preteen as I ever met, who spent idle Sunday afternoons watching Elvis movies—by herself. Then, an eighteen year old woman who found what seemed to everyone around her to be true love. At my fortieth birthday party, I remember somebody thinking or maybe even saying, “There goes Kristen with Michael, the oldest couple in the room.”  Which meant old the way that a new mountain is already old. It felt like that.

And mostly, that’s what I recall, even when I put my mind to making the story concrete enough to talk about. The way it felt. It felt right. It felt like a good kid on her way to a good life, maybe a great one. It felt like a dream without a trace of nightmare to it. It felt safe. It wasn’t.

In that world of heartbreak beyond imagining, except as a nightmare of loss, I remember you crying, I think, three times. That isn’t to say you didn’t cry much—but you didn’t show the terror any more than you had to, at least around me. Were you protecting me? Of course you were protecting me.

I couldn’t protect you and I can’t preserve you, not the parts that won’t translate past feelings into words. That, more than anything, is what I have learned to cope with. But it still burns, it still scares me, and I still miss you. Part of that is because I love you. But the greater portion, I cannot deny, is that you loved me.

Twenty years ago, four people held your hands as you took your last breaths. Your mother, your father, your sister, your lover. As you pulled away, you bound us, too. We walked the half mile home as one… with a giant hole in the center.

Now, there are times when I walk out, especially in these deep midwinter days, and see a sky that soars with a blue so clear that it seems more wonderful than even the same clear sky at midsummer. That was the sky on the day you died. And seeing it, my thoughts turn to you, and what you taught me. I feel more alive because that was the essential thing I took from your life. To hell with death, death was a moment. This is what I want to remember, this what I cannot live without.  This is life, and if the air is so cold it practically scorches my lungs, nevertheless I breathe deep. On those days, I know just what you were trying to tell me in between tears, when we would talk about pretty much everything but the shadow moving in from the corner.

I talk to you pretty much every day, Kristen. At some point, I check in, maybe just to hear your voice or see your face or feel the memory of your presence. I generally don’t try to sum things up, because that would spoil the moment. But once a year, when I write down our one-sided dialogue, I do try to sum up. And this is it: I feel so grateful that you were so real, the farthest thing from something anyone could have made up. Grateful too that you loved me, and that I loved you. That you loved all of us, and that for all these years, the gift of your presence, even in absence, knits us together. That you did your best to protect us, even though we couldn’t protect you. And, wonder of wonders, death not only can’t kill love, it can’t keep it from growing.

The greatest gift of my life was my daughters. It dwarfs the rest and always will.

Love from your pop,

Dave

The Kristen Ann Carr Fund 

 

 

A GOLDEN THREAD, A NEEDLE

January 30th, 2014

 

Pete Seeger ~ May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014

Pete Seeger ~
May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014

I met Pete Seeger about 40 years ago on the Clearwater, a refurbished 19th century sloop which had begun its then seemingly hopeless task of cleaning up the shores and waters of the Hudson River. Like a lot of the things that Pete got involved in, it was a hopeless task until it turned out to be common sense.

That day, we cruised Long Island Sound, if I remember right, from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay, which is not very far, and back, which is still not very far. It was worth every minute, and would have been if only for the chance to spend time aboard the 106 foot, single-masted Clearwater, a gorgeous vessel, stable even in Long Island Sound’s considerable chop and carrying as cargo volumes of lore and lessons about the costs of environmental neglect.

You could say that those early Clearwater voyages were the precursors of the present-day celebrity cruise, but with fewer celebrities. No more were needed. Pete Seeger was not only the enduring star of American folk music, he was its leading evangelist and one of the greatest singer/musicians this part of the planet has produced. I remember Pete singing though not what songs, and some lectures about the important work of the ship and the ecology of the Sound and the Hudson River region, though not their specific content. The presentation did its best to be as folkie as a much-darned pair of wool socks, and unmistakably also an event with a star and a crew and an audience, never exactly commingled. It was also a strong, healthy political event, by which I mean that each of us left with a sense of mission and some ideas about how to execute it.

I wasn’t there to clean up the Sound, though I was glad to be part of the movement, or to hear Pete perform, though I knew the importance of his music. I was there to write a story for Newsday, the Long Island daily. I did what you do in those situations, where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, which mostly means I watched and listened and took mostly the kind of sensory notes that you don’t write down on the spot.

When we docked everyone headed for the parking lot. Pete and his wife Toshi had several bags. I introduced myself, not only because we were meant to talk for a few minutes, but as a prelude to asking if I could help carry their stuff.

I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Dave Marsh from Newsday,” before Pete turned to me and snapped—and I mean snapped, like he was already booking me for malingering—“Grab a couple of those bags. It’s good for white collar workers to do physical labor.” Thus spoke the Harvard gentleman to the brakeman’s son who’d never owned a necktie. And no, I didn’t come up with my usual smartass retort. He was Pete Seeger, who had changed not only my life but the world, and the alternative to silence was insulting him as much as he’d just insulted me, and…well, for once it was not in me.

That incident was one of the best lessons I ever had several times over. I learned lessons I’d chew on for, apparently, the rest of my life: The relation between stardom and shyness, between changing the world and retaining your self, and between trusting your perceptions and remembering not to suppose anything until you’ve made sure the person about whom you’ve just supposed it is not a cartoon. And I mean it, I’ve always been grateful because that dressing down has saved me all manner of grief, and not only in things about celebrity. The most important lesson, you see, was about recognizing a difference between loving something and liking something, even when that something is someone. A great teacher may or may not inspire great affection, and he or she may not even teach the best lessons deliberately. So it turned out that Pete and I were in many social and professional situations over the next 40 years without ever getting to know one another much and that isn’t surprising. Mainly because I didn’t learn my lesson all at once. Though I think I did learn, finally. I’ll tell you about it later.

I respected Pete Seeger so much that my teenage self forgave him writing “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” which to my ears was sheer bathos, and for deriding Bob Dylan’s beautiful electric music, which to my ears was the absolute poetry of a world in chaos.

One side of what he did was somewhat foreign to me. Years later my friend Jon Landau and I were talking about folk music one day, which inevitably came around to talking about Pete. Jon told me a story about Pete appearing at his left-wing summer camp or maybe it was Earl Robinson’s music school. I said something I thought was appreciative and Jon stopped me cold. “You don’t understand,” he said. “He was Elvis.”

To me, he was more like a father figure or anyhow that’s the way I made sense of him after I understood that he had many metaphoric children and was glad of it, though not always of the way that they behaved, musically or socially. (Hmmm, that is like Elvis, isn’t it?) He could be amazingly contradictory—a sign of humanity not deity. In his 1972 anthology, The Compleat Folksinger, which collects among other things many of his columns for Sing Out!, Pete wrote about a tour of Czechoslovakia he made in 1964. He was especially thrilled to go to a particular club and hear the groups playing guitars, which happened to be electric.

Back home, Pete was not only immune to Beatlemania but hostile to folk-rock. Maybe it was because, as Pete said, he couldn’t hear the words due to the high volume but he should have known more about music than to use that to justify attacks on the songs themselves. I’m more inclined to think that he didn’t like “Maggie’s Farm” with the Butterfield Blues Band because of the loud absence of explicit social commentary and Pete’s acknowledged absence of feeling for post-war blues.

I am trying to reckon with the complexity of Pete Seeger as man and artist. It is not an easy road to travel, especially not today. But it never has been.

Ten years ago, more or less, there was a panel discussion at a Folk Alliance conference that wound up in a tangle when Nora Guthrie said that Pete had refused to allow Madonna to issue a recording of “If I Had a Hammer” because she’d changed the lyric to “If I had a hammer / I’d smash your fucking head in.” (I don’t know if that’s funny. Depends on how she sang it, doesn’t it?)

Another complex folk music elder, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, also on the panel, thought that Nora was responsible for the rejection and scolded her for not asking Pete to make the decision, since he would surely have supported free speech. I was the moderator and tried to help out by asking Nora if what she meant was that she had communicated a decision made by Pete himself. She said yes. Chris began to sputter, well past the point of coherence for few seconds, and finally a single sentence burst out: “WELL…well…well…then Pete’s not God anymore!”

He never was. He never needed to be. Like everybody else, Pete Seeger set examples good and bad. We might pause here to take notice that, though his feet were of clay, he had a remarkable ability to keep them shod. By which I mean, his transgressions may have been personal but they were very rarely public and he knew how to back down. In 1967 or so, he made a record using electric guitar—not played by him–and somewhat heavier beats. And then returned to doing what he did, as he should have.

Pete Seeger was such a prodigious talent, so young, that the godlike was expected of him. Born in 1919, the son of the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, he grew up in a left-wing household. It was the mandarin left wing: Like his father before him, Pete went to Harvard. He began his prominent performing career in 1940 on CBS Radio, alongside Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Josh White (the show was heard only in New York because the cast was integrated) and a year later was a founder of the first important left-wing folk group, The Almanac Singers, which defined protest singing. Pete Bowers, he called himself then—he had to, as his father was currently a government employee who had been blacklisted during World War I for espousing pacifism.

The Weavers

The Weavers

After the war, Pete formed the Weavers with Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. Their songs were not always topical, because McCarthyism had begun, but the political songs were always there and they had big hits. Thus “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” though the Weavers also rearranged Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” into one of the most important hits of 1950. Seeger and Hayes were a formidable songwriting team. Because of them, the Weavers also produced some of the most enduring post-war protest songs, notably “If I Had a Hammer.” By 1953, they were blacklisted by broadcasters. “If you had seen us coming down the street,” Toshi Seeger, Pete’s wife, told me once, “you’d have crossed over to the other side of the block.” I looked dubious. “That’s exactly what people did,” she said.

Toshi, at least as formidable and complicated as her husband, allowed herself the bitterness Pete never expressed. They had a lot to be bitter about. After being smeared as a Red, Pete became an unusually uncooperative witness before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. HUAC had caused the Hollywood Ten to be imprisoned for contempt of Congress in1950. The Ten lost for standing on the First Amendment as the basis for their refusal to testify. Since then, it had become the practice to stand on the Fifth—the non-incrimination clause–rather than freedom of speech and association. Pete returned to the fundamental issue: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

This was not god-like. It was human– stubborn, flouting all sound advice, courageous. It was also not quite as futile as it immediately seemed. In 1957, he was charged with contempt of Congress. In 1961, Pete was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. In 1962, he won his appeal, a landmark case in ending the blacklist. But the consequences rolled on: The Weavers reformed in 1955, but mainly as a live act. They recorded for small labels but their music could not be broadcast. Nevertheless, they played the major role in popularizing “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “Sixteen Tons” and “Kumbaya.”

Pete was never idle. In the Fifties, he wrote How to Play the 5 String Banjo, invented the Longneck Banjo (three additional frets made it longer than a bass guitar), popularized the 12 string guitar (he’d learned from Lead Belly), and created the brilliant “Goofing-Off Suite,” using classical themes by Bach, Beethoven, Stockhausen and Grieg alongside Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and a batch of folk tunes. When John Hammond at Columbia finally got him a major label record deal, one of the first results was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” probably the most beautiful antiwar melody ever composed. Pete championed the burgeoning topical song movement in the best possible way: He crammed the songs into his albums and concerts. He also took up world music, not as a stylistic synthesis, but as a collection of pieces that taken on their own terms resonated with one another, from Africa (“Wimoweh”) to Cuba (“Guantanamera”), even Europe. It was Pete who suggested that SNCC needed a singing group, and it was Toshi and Pete who befriended and cared for Bernice Johnson Reagon when the SNCC Freedom Singers broke up. He made children’s albums and live albums and thematic albums and mere collections of songs. He was instrumental in starting the Newport Folk Festival. He was on the editorial committee of Sing Out!, the Rolling Stone of the folk revival. And he played a major role (if not the central one—that credit he always gave to Guy Carawan and rightly so) in adapting and popularizing the most important song of the twentieth century, “We Shall Overcome.”

Martin Luther King, Peter Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander's 25th anniversary celebration, Monteagle, TN, 1957.

Martin Luther King, Peter Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy at Highlander’s 25th anniversary celebration, Monteagle, TN, 1957.

Pete made a live album called We Shall Overcome, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1963. It was extremely well-edited, I don’t know by whom. The running order of the album–13 songs of the 40 performed–has absolutely nothing to do with the order of the concert, but it’s more focused, gets to the point more directly and clearly than the show did. Alas, the digital version is the whole thing. ( (It’s easy to make a playlist of the original running order—the original track listing is at the Wikipedia entry for the album.)

I heard the We Shall Overcome album at age 14, when I was the son of budding George Wallace supporters, living in an Up South town full of Ku Klux Klansmen and packs of freelance racists, and going to quietly but adamantly all-white schools. The headlines had been filled every day for the past year with Freedom Riders, pre-teens slaughtered by bombs placed in churches, nonviolent demonstrators attacked by dogs and high pressure hoses. And that was just in the South. Racial turmoil was a constant presence in southeastern Michigan, not just Detroit. The one true thing I was being told about this was that it meant the world, or a world, was coming to an end. The one set of contrary facts I held in my head was almost entirely musical, not the early songs of Bob Dylan but Motown and early soul music that insisted, obliquely but powerfully, that freedom meant everybody or it didn’t mean anything.

Buying We Shall Overcome was more the product of exploration than rebellion. What it inspired was rebellion’s necessary partner, conviction. Most important, the conviction that there really must be a better world, somewhere, and that it was open to the likes of myself. Pete Seeger’s version of a protest album offered a vision, and the core of that vision was not so much any particular songs but the gentle persuasiveness with which he introduced them, the passion with which he laid out their origin or history or contemporary relevance and the power with which he encouraged all present to sing them. What transformed We Shall Overcome from a powerful collection to something with deep historical significance was the presence of the SNCC Freedom Singers. They lent not so much authenticity as boldness and authority to “Oh Freedom,” “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” and particularly “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” They made struggling for equal rights seem like something even a blossoming but isolated teenager could do.

As Daniel Wolff pointed out to me the afternoon that we learned of Pete’s passing, he did this kind of teaching all the time. Seeger believed in singing, he believed it was good for you in all sorts of ways. He was, I recall, fond of reciting his father’s dictum that a country’s cultural health could best be ascertained by how many of its citizens sang and made music. I was just one among who knows how many—a number surely in the hundreds of thousands, maybe the tens of millions, over the sixty years or so that Pete performed—who had their lives turned if not upside down at least askew by the power of his conviction, by the contagion of his vision.

If nothing else, Pete Seeger made me understand how far behind enemy lines I was living—he showed me the road that had to be traveled, if I really wanted to live. He did this the same way that James Baldwin and Elvis Presley and John Coltrane did it: by example, and with the same generosity and the same sense that the world was packed with a load of insurmountable cruelty and that, nevertheless, the truth was that something better had managed to survive within it. Which meant, for each of us, a choice and a chance.

It may even be that Seeger, whose rectitude often communicated, at least to me, a whiff of the Puritanism he inherited, offered a more direct route to this not-at-all specious salvation of spirit and society than anybody else, and for the oddest reason: He thought smaller. He genuinely believed that one more singer, one more non-violent resister, one more example of gumption and love, one more song, one more guitar, was an important thing. And, this I am sure about, he genuinely believed that that was mainly what he, himself, was: One more.

That, and nothing more meek, was why Pete Seeger eschewed the celebrity path. (Ask yourself this: If Burl Ives could become a big star looking like that, what could the young Pete Seeger have become if he’d just given over a few names?) Pete could seem innocent but you’d be a fool to believe it. He paid the price and he had seen the bill coming, too.

If all you know about Pete Seeger is a protest singer, a rag-tag Red, a spinner of false hope, a doddering old man walking that hopeless line (but never by himself, you may have noticed), then you missed it. If all you know is the famous songs – most of which I haven’t even mentioned—you might even then not see it whole. Pete Seeger lived his life every day in the possession of what he envisioned.

Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing "We Shall Overcome" at Palmer's Crossing Community Center, August 4, Freedom Summer.

Roger Johnson and Pete Seeger leading Freedom School students singing “We Shall Overcome” at Palmer’s Crossing Community Center, August 4, Freedom Summer.

There is one song that to me expresses this vision almost perfectly, maybe the greatest of all the lyrics he wrote and in the performance on his mini-box set, A Link in the Chain, possibly his greatest recorded vocal performance. It is called “O, Had I A Golden Thread.” It’s sweet in a way the hard boys, left and right, fear, as they ought to. “Far over the waters I’d reach my magic band / To every human being so they would understand.” He makes it true. He makes those who hear him want to make it truer.

Without such a vision, the folk process that we talk about (or used to, before the scene shifted to singer-songwriters meditating on their inner lives—alas, almost never about the banality of them—and the preening cultists they attracted) isn’t worth much. But there is another question, which is whether Pete’s vision of freedom carries forward, whether it stands, whether it can be nurtured and sustained.

I am sure it will be and my conviction came, perhaps predictably, on the last night of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s magnificent Woody Guthrie tribute in 1996. Pete already wasn’t singing very much—Arlo led the night’s final song, which you knew was going to be “This Land Is Your Land” before you ever saw a ticket. But you didn’t know that the whole cast, including many of the conference’s speakers, would be on stage leading the singing.

Springsteen and Pete Seeger on May 3, 2009, at Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Celebration at Madison Square Garden.

Springsteen and Pete Seeger on May 3, 2009, at Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Celebration at Madison Square Garden.

It had been a night of triumphs: For Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, for Dave Pirner and Jimmy LaFave, Billy Bragg and Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen and Pete too. But the most powerful triumph was that group sing—above all for the spirit still embedded in a potential national anthem yearning for a country to become worthy of it. It floored me and really, it seemed like the moment caught everyone. John Wesley Harding and I, old friends, walked into the communal dressing room afterward, arms around each other’s shoulders, tears in our eyes. And there was Pete, with tears in his eyes.

I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.

That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.

We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.

Got any bags you need carried?

(Thanks to Craig Werner, Danny Alexander, Daniel Wolff and Lee Ballinger, without whom grief might have overwhelmed coherence.)

 

Linger On

November 7th, 2013

Lou Reed ~ 1942 – 2013

Lou Reed

I was kind of an intermittent Lou Reed fan. There were things I loved and things that scared me half to death and I couldn’t love or resist, and things that I thought were just silly, and there was Metal Machine Music, which was a hoax even if Lou got taken by it himself. But he gave me four Velvet Underground albums, each to my adult ear sounding better than the last, and culminating in Loaded, which for me was a life-changing experience.

It was the solo albums I felt more hot and cold about. Lou’s singing reached its peak, I think, on the last two Velvets’ albums, I don’t know why: He sounds more fluent; the edge is more implicit (never absent) and still sharper. The songs probably got better as time wears on, he was a great writer when he got anywhere near a good idea. Later on, with Robert Quine, he was to me just making the purest music he ever did make, as sound. (The singing still wasn’t as good as earlier, the songs were not always his best but the tracks were so good, you could take them by themselves.)

He was way beyond bold. Who else would do a doo-wop tribute album and climax it with a six and a half minute cynical autobiography?  We remember Loaded for “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” but in its own way, “Sweet Nuthin’s,” the extended ballad that closes the album is just as good, musically and lyrically. He went for it, and though he could annoy the fuck out of interviewers I was smart enough never to interview so I could just listen and kind of dispense with the stuff I didn’t like so much (for all I know it was his most ambitious work) and eat up the ones that hit me.  The Blue Mask is somebody’s tour de force, whether Reed’s or Robert Quine’s or both. Quine had more heart than any other musician in Manhattan in that early ‘80s period, tacking in from Miles Davis triangulated by Mick Ronson and Steve Hunter/Dick Wagner.

Most of all, to me anyway, he had a way of expressing heart, that elusive hoodlum desideratum of youth in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the greaser rock era, when to be stand up was the whole game. And throughout his work, whenever it came time to call his own bluff, tell his own story with the wounds and all, and the victories that came from the wounds, he triumphed. That is the Lou Reed of “Street Hassle,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock’n’Roll.” He could be Dr. Sardonicus in rock regalia, he could be superciliously hip, he could be a lot of things, even tender on the final two Velvets albums of “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Candy Says” and “Beginning to See the Light.”

I absolutely believe he meant it when he said, “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” And it’s pretty notorious that I’m hard to convince.

With Loaded’s perfectly matched pair, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll,” Reed upped the stakes for everyone. People had been writing songs about rock’n’roll and why it mattered and wouldn’t die and maybe made people invincible (Lou: “It’s an obscure power that can change your life.”) for 15 years. “It Will Stand,” the title of the Showmen record that might have been the first, was the usual message. But those two songs of Reed’s were about something more: I will stand.

I still remember the first time I heard them, in the old Creem magazine offices on Cass Avenue in inner city Detroit. We got the mail early there. Thursday or Tuesday or whatever day we got ‘em, the major label packages would take a while to listen through–you might get four or five in a package, which was huge then. And so it was about 3 o’clock, maybe 4 when I got around to playing Loaded; it was the same day it arrived, though, I’m sure of that.

“Who Loves the Sun” which seemed an unlikely but not inappropriate sequel to “Pale Blue Eyes,” maybe a weird attempt to do the Beach Boys in S&M drag. Sounded real good.

And then those two songs came on and it was just… you felt flattened by ‘em, really. When Lou hits the emotional breaking point anyway, on “Sweet Jane” — “But anyone who had a heart / He wouldn’t turn around and break it”…. you’d (or I’d anyway) have dived into the storm for Lou Reed at that moment. It was so fucking perfect, especially that ragged harmony, so much my own truth, so much what I had sought and such a miracle to find. And then “Rock and Roll,” which was, I still think, part two of the same song in a lot of ways. Much more a surface song, but then again–starting at 5 years old, yes, that’s about right, and not believing what you heard, that was exactly right. 

So I turn around about the third time I’m playing the tracks back to back, top volume on those huge speakers we had (the floor speakers in the huge square cabinets, ElectroVoice maybe?) and there stands Johnny B, Mitch Ryder’s great drummer and one of my mentors in how to listen and what to listen to. And he’s doing one of his B things–Stewart will know what I mean, with his jaw dropping and his fingers poppin’–because Mitch’s rehearsal upstairs had just ended. And then the rest of the band comes in and we are all standing there with our brains in tatters. 

Six months later, I’m sitting at a table at the Waldorf, some room where Mitch is doing an debut party for his Detroit, and they hit “Rock’n’Roll,” which they’d worked up about a day after first hearing it. We were sitting right up front, and Lou leans over from across the table next to us and says, “That’s what that song was supposed to sound like.”

I didn’t really agree with him. I was thrilled he loved Mitch’s version—Mitch is about the most underrated singer left alive—“Rock & Roll” is one of those tunes where the first time you hear it, if it’s your truth, you bond with it like being put on mama’s chest right after they cut the cord.

So I will never miss Lou Reed, he will be with me until I can’t hear that gorgeous guitar intro and then “Standin’ on the corner….” all the way through to “and it’s all right now / Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby,” babbling off into semi-coherence anymore. 

There are very few artists who can map the universe of your own heart, after all.

So linger on, Lou, linger on.         

 

The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky

August 4th, 2013

 

Chet Flippo (known to friends as Flippo) ~ Oct. 21, 1943 – June 19, 2013 ~ was born in Fort Worth, Texas. He was the son of Chet W. Flippo, a minister, and the former Johnnie Black.

When I first moved to Rolling Stone (from Newsday) in 1975, Chet Flippo was the NYC bureau chief–and the only other editorial person in Manhattan. Alas, this did not last long, but when we moved to 745 5th Avenue as new headquarters (the magazine then had three or maybe four floors in that beautiful art deco heap), we made sure to have offices next door to one another, though I eventually decided, in thrall to my acrophobia, that I wanted an office without a window. 

Chet was one of my great co-conspirators. I’m trying to pare it down to just the highlights, because the thing was, every week was an adventure then, and Chet led his share of the way from helping build the rep of the Lone Star to serving as Austin’s ambassador to Manhattan. He hated bureaucracy as much as I did though he handled it much more quietly. So his subversion generally took other forms, though sometimes we collaborated. There was trying to get past the fact-checking department, in an album review, references to Ray “Wylie” Hubbard (a punctuation alteration which, would have changed his entire career, we believed or at least convinced ourselves–both of us loved Ray…and do.) There was having a meeting with Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres, of a very very nascent World Hunger Year, who informed us that they were about to get the United Nations to stage an anti-hunger concert in NYC, produced by Michael Viner, who they boasted had been the director of “youth events’ for the second Nixon inaugural (and later a guy who earned notoriety by publishing a book by O.J.’s wife’s BFF). We not very gently explained why they weren’t. 

In the very early ’70s, Chet wrote a story for Creem that was a pretty perfect parody of Hunter S. Thompson’s early shit, though it unfortunately didn’t hold up very well when I reread it a few years ago. But he used it to hip readers (at least me) to a whole world of Texas music, starting with Sunny and the Sunglows, which is pretty much primordial Austin. He carried on at Rolling Stone–I got to see Waylon, I mean the person not the show, because of Chet, to know Marshall Chapman, a whole gaggle of people like that. When Waylon and Willie decided to make the Outlaw Country collection Chet was the only conceivable writer for the notes — I don’t know if he coined the phrase but he was pretty much the phenomenon’s offstage architect. 

He covered the entirety of John Lennon’s immigration struggle, a fine set of accounts that made plain the political animus without ever slipping out of objective voice. In the midst of that mess, Lennon needed an expert witness for the trial of his lawsuit against Morris Levy (who had taken an unmixed cassette of John’s “Rock’n’Roll” album and turned it into a “Lennon album” available only by mail order off late night TV ads). Chet recused himself, appropriately, then suggested that they really needed me anyway, as I was chock full of musical opinion. 

And he really wasn’t full of it himself, other than that he loved the music he grew up on (thus his Hank Williams book, Your Cheatin’ Heart, which is sorely underrated to the point of being almost a lost classic), and hated the idea that he looked like John Denver, though he did–well at least they had the same cheekbones and sandy hair. Chet was a reporter before he was anything else, albeit a reporter in the fashion of someone like A.J. Liebling, only even more deadpan funny. He was who he was: Chet had been in Navy intelligence but nevertheless the Cuban government (which had refused me a visa a couple of years earlier, on grounds I don’t know but always suspected had something to do with Detroit radical politics, although maybe they just didn’t like music hippies) let him in to report on the tour that a bunch of CBS artists, lead by Billy Joel, made to Cuba around ’80 or so. Chet turned it into a spy piece, with meet-ups with dissidents on the beach being the main attraction, the music pretty much a sidebar. I hated the politics but that was the only part of what he wrote that was anything like a cliché. 

One of the things that we had most in common was that thinking that whether or not the Stones were has-beens–I was a firmer yes than he–Mick Jagger was a dipstick in the oil pan of rock stardom, as wrinkled and shriveled in our minds then as he is in photographs today. The real feat of his nakedly anti-Stones story getting published in Rolling Stone was that Jann Wenner was a Stones fan to the point where he worshiped them even above the Kennedy family. And Peter Rudge, still my friend after all these decades, has never been described better than in that relatively brief story–I laughed out loud, in delight, when I tea that because it not only brought Chet back to life for me, but also captured Peter at his height, when he still managed both the Stones and the Who. (I hasten to add that I would love Peter even if he managed Bob Jovi, as Jim Carroll called him in the Irish Times the other day.) 

One thing that has gotten lost, I suppose (though I know I have a copy–just not where the fuck it is) is Chet’s masters (if I remember right) dissertation for UT, It was allegedly a history of Rolling Stone but it was really the first expansive history of the rock music press ever written, and has a lot of really fundamental things in it. (I’m pretty sure that I first talked to Chet when he interviewed me about Creem for it.) It was a sturdy little story, like all of his, and took the topic as far as it could be taken in ’71 or ’73 or whenever it was. Popular Music and Society ran pretty much the whole of it over three consecutive issues–be about $25 per issue if you could find ‘em, which you couldn’t. Turns out Chet continued writing for that little academic publication until the late ’70s, which had to be, as much about loyalty as opportunity to talk about things he couldn’t write for anyone else. (That is, he could have sold his “reappraisal” of Willie Nelson and Austin for actual money. Those were the days–you could pass up a payday once in a while, though that was in my view a pretty big expression of loyalty.)  

His books were mostly collections of magazine articles, and they hold up better than you’d imagine, especially the Stones assemblage. I have spent about 30 years now wishing I’d had the insight, skill and discipline to write his plain, witty, deeply respectful and slightly salacious Dolly Parton feature in Rolling Stone. Call me a Flippo fan–it’s a fact and probably a boast, to boot. And I wish to hell his planned official biography of Roy Orbison had worked out. That was actually my idea–I had been offered the job, and while I would have loved to try, it was completely obvious that the book belonged in Chet’s hands. I don’t think I ever did that any other time–gave away the story of someone I truly loved. But then, it was passed on to someone I truly loved.

Chet and I never, ever talked or saw one another without my feeling I was in the company of a guy who totally got it. There aren’t so many people who can put me that completely at ease simply by showing up. His death has left me feeling disturbed for almost a month. It’s one thing to not talk to a friend very often, even when the intervals start becoming years not days. It’s another thing to realize a hole is left in the universe. So I listen to Waylon and Gary Stewart and a few of the other gifts he gave me, feeling like an old five and dimer myself. 

 

Cry, Cry, Cry

June 29th, 2013

Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Perfection of Southern Soul

Bobby “Blue” Bland
January 27, 1930 – June 23, 2013

Bobby Bland was, in his prime, the most powerful blues shouter of all time, though capable as well of a caressing tenderness. “Turn On Your Lovelight” is what the rock world knows, I guess, but the man’s legacy is also in “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” “Farther Up the Road,” “I’ll Take Care of You,” “I Pity the Fool,” “Cry Cry Cry,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” to my ear the finest “St. James Infirmary” of them all, the entire Two Steps from the Blues album (which is, without any doubt in my mind, the best Southern soul album, even including Otis’s; it has the impeccable and beautiful and scary “Lead Me On,” for many (including me) the greatest performance of his career. The list goes all the way up to his Malaco sides, particularly “Ain’t No Love In the Heart of the City.” It is not true that Bobby Bland never made a bad record; it is true that his ratio of great to mediocre is as high as any other singer you can name, in any genre you care to cull.

Bobby “Blue” Bland

To call him Bobby “Blue” Bland always seems so redundant to me–like, as if he could be heard for so much as eight bars and you wouldn’t know that this was his core, his essence and, one way or another, a heap of your own.  But you can make too much of this essentialism–finally, you know Bobby Bland’s name and music less well because he was like his audience: He was a key voice of the black Southern working class from the ’50s onward. His role was to play the shouter from the anonymous ranks, the totally heart broken man among an all-but-totally heart broken folk. (And of course, once in a while, shouting with exuberance all the greater because of that every day heartbreak.)

He was completely non-intellectual about the whole enterprise, as far as I can tell. Told Peter Guralnick that his ambition was to be able to sing each song the exact same way, every time he sang it. A strange kind of perfectionism, I guess. But his command of tone and phrasing was so great that  for me, he held the place that Frank Sinatra held for a lot of other people. “Lead Me On” in particular has never not brought me to tears, not once, though I sometimes listened to it many, many, many times in a row–when I was by myself, the way that particular act of allegiance is best performed. And you know what? He sings it the same way every time.

Perfection is what he knew a lot about. And I, especially the I who found him on the radio and held him very close to the center of my being for the better part of half a century, will never be able to thank him enough. Or often enough. Or even express what I’m thanking him for altogether adequately.

I will tell you the real truth: He was, for me, probably the greatest blues singer of any kind, and the reason I can say this know instead of at the beginning is quite simple: I started listening to Two Steps from the Blues. 

“No matter what you do, I’m gonna keep on loving you and I’m not ashamed, oh no, I’m not ashamed.”

 

 

A STANDING OVATION

June 4th, 2013

Five thousand miles from home and not so fresh from a midnight discussion of drastically under appreciated soul genius — mainly Luther, Teddy and Donnie — I entered my hotel room and snapped up the iPad to check the headlines from home.  Something whispered not to forget the obits, so I checked.  And then I crashed.  A long time ago, the night that Teddy Pendergrass told me flat out “Marvin Junior is my father,” I vowed to myself that when the great Chicago master of rasp and shout passed, I’d do my part to shout the hosannas that Marvin Junior deserved.  That moment has come.

January 31, 1936, Arkansas – May 29, 2013

“Iron Throat” as another of his progeny, David Ruffin called him, died in Chicago last week.  (That the world at that moment busied itself missing Ray Manzarek does not escape my bitter notice.)  You who don’t know who the hell I’m mourning, bend an ear, not just to “Oh What a Night,” “There Is” and “Stay in My Corner” but even to the seeming inanity of “I Can Sing a Rainbow / Love is Blue” in which Marvin Junior deepens banality into honest deep emotion by not so simply isolating less than a word, just a syllable — “blue,” “grey,” and finally declaiming “I’m” past the empty absurdity of its origin.

The Dells

Marvin Junior was the through-line in the story of one of the most remarkable — not least because only the fans and other singers seemed to notice — group careers in rock and soul history.  Nothing better illustrates the transition from doo-wop to soul than the Dells’ two versions of “Oh What a Night,” the perfect doo-wop of 1956 and the improbable Philly-style soul of 1969, the one with the great Johnny Funches as tenor, the other with the equally great Johnny Carter and Marvin Junior on both, as the implacable, enduring gravity that held the group in a steady orbit all the way through.  The Dells had not only two legitimate any kind of Hall of Fame tenors but in the mighty Chuck Barksdale arguably the best bass singer in any black vocal harmony group.  So I guess that it makes sense that Marvin Junior stood out a little less than he might have in other company (but less than Ray Manzarek?).  But for most of the fans he was both the guts of their sound and the whipped cream on top. It was the gravity he brought to records like “The Love We Had Stays on My Mind” and “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation” (which has its own share of transcended absurdities) that led the group from adolescent ecstasies to adult triumphs. It’s two aspects of one mighty sensibility and it endured for four decades because of it.

So I say farewell not only to a beloved voice who has traveled with me not only great distances but taught a lesson or two and left me with some convictions, too.  And a continent away from pretty much everybody who understands why, the love we had stays on my mind.

Letter to my daughter Kristen on the 20th anniversary of her death

January 6th, 2013

 

 

I write a letter to my daughter, Kristen Carr, every year on the anniversary of her death to honor her brave struggle with sarcoma and the love and compassion she embodied.

 

 

Dear Kristen,

The other day a friend of mine told me that he had just found out that his father would die within the next few hours. We talked about it for a few minutes. As we parted, I said, “You’ll be talking to him, you know.” He gave me a startled look. “No, really, you’ll be talking to him. I’m not saying he’ll answer back. But you’ll talk to him.” He still looked a little quizzical. “I’m not guessing,” I said.

I’m going to see him in a couple of weeks. I hope it came out like I said. He really loved his father. And it probably will. His father really loved him.

The last thing I remember hearing you say, in your own voice, was when you asked your doctor, “Am I dying?” You asked with a note of wonder. I have spent a lot of the past twenty years thinking about that question. For a long time, I pondered your ability to hold off death in favor of life. But lately, I’ve considered the way you accepted the answer: “We’re trying to let today be like every other day, and let the medicine work.”

Your head fell back on the pillow. In memory I see all your fine red-blonde hair spreading across the sheets. But your hair was already gone. So the beauty I remember must be just Kristen. You were going to be 22 that spring, and you were a woman, but you were also the child and the sister of the people with you in that room. All those versions of yourself were there, in that moment, in the wonder in your voice and in your eyes that took over for your hair as the emblem of your beauty.

I used to dream sometimes that it never happened. That you were a story I told myself, nothing more. It was a nightmare panic, one of those dreams where you’ve misplaced the most important thing—you don’t even know what important thing—and search for it endlessly until it occurs to you that if you don’t know what was lost, then maybe it’s a trick of your mind, nothing at all is missing, and this seems truly madness. After that, I don’t know. In my case, I wake up and then it’s real, all right. And madness too.

We have learned to cope. I have almost no idea how. For me, it started with a decision—you loved life and couldn’t have it, I had better learn to love the life I could not escape. Was that the beginning of a one-sided conversation? Not exactly. The conversation comes from all the time I’ve spent thinking about who you were, which means the person I saw you become. A little girl, generally effervescent and nevertheless occasionally terrified.  A resilient, imaginative child, still sometimes frustrated to truly comic rage.  As hip a preteen as I ever met, who spent idle Sunday afternoons watching Elvis movies—by herself. Then, an eighteen year old woman who found what seemed to everyone around her to be true love. At my fortieth birthday party, I remember somebody thinking or maybe even saying, “There goes Kristen with Michael, the oldest couple in the room.”  Which meant old the way that a new mountain is already old. It felt like that.

And mostly, that’s what I recall, even when I put my mind to making the story concrete enough to talk about. The way it felt. It felt right. It felt like a good kid on her way to a good life, maybe a great one. It felt like a dream without a trace of nightmare to it. It felt safe. It wasn’t.

In that world of heartbreak beyond imagining, except as a nightmare of loss, I remember you crying, I think, three times. That isn’t to say you didn’t cry much—but you didn’t show the terror any more than you had to, at least around me. Were you protecting me? Of course you were protecting me.

I couldn’t protect you and I can’t preserve you, not the parts that won’t translate past feelings into words. That, more than anything, is what I have learned to cope with. But it still burns, it still scares me, and I still miss you. Part of that is because I love you. But the greater portion, I cannot deny, is that you loved me.

Twenty years ago, four people held your hands as you took your last breaths. Your mother, your father, your sister, your lover. As you pulled away, you bound us, too. We walked the half mile home as one… with a giant hole in the center.

Now, there are times when I walk out, especially in these deep midwinter days, and see a sky that soars with a blue so clear that it seems more wonderful than even the same clear sky at midsummer. That was the sky on the day you died. And seeing it, my thoughts turn to you, and what you taught me. I feel more alive because that was the essential thing I took from your life. To hell with death, death was a moment. This is what I want to remember, this what I cannot live without.  This is life, and if the air is so cold it practically scorches my lungs, nevertheless I breathe deep. On those days, I know just what you were trying to tell me in between tears, when we would talk about pretty much everything but the shadow moving in from the corner.

I talk to you pretty much every day, Kristen. At some point, I check in, maybe just to hear your voice or see your face or feel the memory of your presence. I generally don’t try to sum things up, because that would spoil the moment. But once a year, when I write down our one-sided dialogue, I do try to sum up. And this is it: I feel so grateful that you were so real, the farthest thing from something anyone could have made up. Grateful too that you loved me, and that I loved you. That you loved all of us, and that for all these years, the gift of your presence, even in absence, knits us together. That you did your best to protect us, even though we couldn’t protect you. And, wonder of wonders, death not only can’t kill love, it can’t keep it from growing.

The greatest gift of my life was my daughters. It dwarfs the rest and always will.

Love from your pop,

Dave

 

 

The Kristen Ann Carr Fund -http://www.sarcoma.com/

 

To Set Our Souls Free: A different view of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball

August 10th, 2012

by Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander

You might wonder, for good reason, why we are writing about Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball five months after its release. Some of the reasons have been personal. But  there are better reasons why we’re speaking up now, and speaking in the way that we are. Part of it is that we both like to listen slow, and listen frequently. Too much music writing now seems hasty and undigested, and that takes a toll. (Deadline perceptions are fine if there’s nothing important in the details, vastly inadequate if there is.)  More important was our  desire to hold off until we’d heard a larger dialogue: Just what would the world make of this record and what would we have to add to that conversation? But that dialogue has been slow in coming. Most of what was written and said  about the album missed the overriding sense we have that this record speaks directly to the Arundathi Roy/Grace Lee Boggs maxim: “A new world is possible. A new world is coming. A new world is already here.”

          Because we listen both as long-term Springsteen fans and as activists,  that’s what we heard here from early on. It’s a big part of what makes Wrecking Ball something different, especially in the way these songs interact with the dialogue about the movements for social change currently taking shape in our society.  This album doesn’t sound like anything else he has done, and its call stands apart, both musically and lyrically. It calls for us not only to react, emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually, but also to act, to not just stand but fight “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart,” the last words sung on the record.

           Such a call requires—demands—a response in kind: detailed, direct and the result of lots of interplay between our own ideas and those of others. So we’ve taken our time and as much space as we needed to use. We hope this is part of a beginning. 

TO SET OUR SOULS FREE….Dave Marsh and Danny Alexander write: Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball opens with an alarm, with air raid sirens blaring and tribal drums kicking. The singer, recognizing the enormity of what he’s dealing with, begins in quiet caution. He knocks on the palace door; he desperately seeks a map to bring him home; he stumbles over once-kind neighbors turned callous to his suffering and their own. Like the man in “Rank Stranger,” the Stanley Brothers song that influences so many rock dystopias, the singer can’t believe the devastation he’s seeing, not in the streets but in the faces, the gestures, the way people are standing and moving: “Where’s the eyes, the eyes with the will to see…Where’s the work that will set my hands, my soul free…Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” There’s one thing he needs to make sure of: He chants it obsessively, as if himself amazed that he still fully believes it, even against all this evidence that it can’t be true: “We take care of our own, we take care of our own / Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own.”

Trying to figure out how to realize that promise occupies the bulk of this album, the most complete narrative work Bruce Springsteen has created since the trilogy that runs from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of  Town  to The River (1975-1980). At the end of the first two albums in that series, we found his central character left wounded and stranded, on a hilltop above those who’d given up, with no choice but to come back down into the valley of mundane reality where he has remained ever since. But now that mundane world itself has become tinged with fantasy, swept up in a phantasmagoria of all-against-all: Marauders, carrion eaters and blank-faced rank strangers who, though some have intentions every bit as noble as those of “Promised Land” and “Born to Run,” find the game impossibly rigged. Those “different people” who came down here to “see things in different ways” have indeed swept all away before them. It’s a haunted place now, beset by vultures and wrecking balls. Even with their bones picked over, it seems the dead may have better advice to offer than the living.

Determined to pull out of this world without options, Springsteen begins by deploying some of his old tools: Layer upon layer of guitar against swelling keyboard, driving percussion, exuberant backing vocals and lush strings. We’ve known this guy for decades, and part of what we know is that, at his core, he’s just as desperate as Wrecking Ball’s first track makes him appear. But he’s not nearly so bereft of new ideas as our first reaction to desperation implies. He has, as he so often does, the other possible reaction to desperation, the one that generates alternatives rather than merely succumbing to realities–the ace in the hole called hope. He also has new collaborators, who helped him find loops, samples, an array of new instruments—many of them antique—and most startling, new beats as well. The surprise is the dawning realization, as he moves remorselessly through a dozen songs describing this grotesque landscape and its denizens, that Bruce still believes that  if we look hard enough we’ll discover that we too have just as much reason for hope as for despair—and at least as many devices for realizing that hope, too. Particularly the hope that, if not America, at least Americans can remember what life is supposed to be all about, and then … well, then, act like they believe it, mainly.  And beyond that, can get to the hard work of change, not as rank strangers but “shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

In the world Springsteen invented for himself (and us) forty years ago, hope was an abundant commodity—hope came cheap. Today, hope’s so much harder to discover that most of the time it seems practically beyond price. Nevertheless it’s the indispensable key to solving the fundamental question posed by Wrecking Ball: Can a society that’s torn apart “from the shotgun shack to the Superdome” function on its most basic levels? Should it? Will it? It’s all too obvious (to everyone but the willfully blind) that we no longer take care of more than a few. But how do we admit it to ourselves and begin again?

Springsteen literally prayed for some force—human or supernatural, maybe both—to provide him with this answer a decade ago, in “My City of Ruins.” Now, he’s telling us what he thinks. He’s singing not just about changing the dialogue but altering the way we behave. That is, he wants to begin—he wants all of us to begin–confronting our own weaknesses and illusions. Springsteen presses a point he’s made since he first called out and it’s fundamental to dismantling those lies we tell ourselves: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”—taking care of me and taking care of you can’t be separate options. They have to become part of one process.

Like any great musician—and this album marks him as one, not just a great songwriter or supposed poet—Springsteen’s process begins with listening, hearing what’s around him and what’s within him. James Baldwin said it: “[T]he man who creates music…is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” On Wrecking Ball, Bruce creates from what he hears a catalogue of what he calls his own: a cross section of American voices and sounds that connect to various pieces of himself. And that first song’s emergent voice, proclaiming the necessity of our commonality in order to retain our ability to rave on as individuals, is an almost predictable piece of what makes Bruce Springsteen who he is.

But with his very next step, the tone turns darker. “Easy Money” bursts forth with bombastic percussion accompanied by handclaps. Springsteen sings with an all-but-indecent braggadocio and a twinkle in his eye—veteran fans may recognize the kid who tossed the bus driver a quarter and told him to keep the change. Seemingly mundane preliminaries (getting dressed, taking care of the pets) give way to busting the town wide open. It sounds like this guy’s out for nothing more or better than kicks. And then he states the grim facts as he knows them, and he knows them well: “There’s nothing to it, mister, it won’t make a sound /when your whole world comes tumbling down.” He notices that “all the fat cats… just think it’s funny,” and he’s made a choice. If he has to be a fool, he’s not going to be their fool. The music evokes gangster charisma, a recklessness as infectious as it is cynical. The soaring shout and hoot and holler of his vocal, the steel guitar, fiddle and exuberant backing voices travel alongside it, taking hold before the point emerges clearly: “Easy Money” tramples the line between an ordinary fool headed for destruction and a rock and roller bound for glory.  It’s anything but a plan to confront Springsteen’s own illusions, much less the illusions of the larger audience.  Such a way out isn’t even on offer. Yet the song does possess a seemingly unsinkable spirit. Such swagger can make holding tight to one’s illusions seem like enough, but the way it works out, generally only the fat cats are still smiling at the end. This might well be the character in “Ramrod,” except the guy in “Ramrod” wasn’t looking to kill anybody. That’s how much or how little the world has changed.

“Shackled and Drawn,” a work song through and through (like “Night,” “Factory,” and “Youngstown,” among numerous others before it), begins with a spry guitar figure over pounding percussion. This one’s about awakening to a realization that if wages aren’t quite exactly slavery, they certainly leave the worker “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.”  It rejects the 9mm nihilism of “Easy Money” but the only replacement offered is a primitive “Badlands” slugged out on an anvil. When the lyric asks, “What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song?” he’s obviously asking a personal question—but also an ethical question and, in a collapsing economy, a practical one.  It’s certainly the only way this artist knows to move closer to taking care of his (and ostensibly our) artistic concerns while “up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong.”  He hangs onto that last word so that it all but evokes the rhyme “wrong” before returning to the chain gang: “down here below, we’re shackled and drawn.” But the moment of ignition comes when a female preacher’s voice calls out, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight,” and Springsteen shouts back, relieved to find that somebody is alive out there.

The narrator of “Jack of All Trades” could be any of the guys we’ve met so far. But he could also be any of a hundred other characters Springsteen has created, from the little kid with his feet rooted in the earth and his head in the stars in “Growin” Up” to the father who drives with his son on his lap in “My Hometown” and returns to walk through the town square, wondering when it all really went to hell in “Long Walk Home,” or the man in “Counting on A Miracle,” hearing a new heartbeat as he lays against his wife in their sleeping bag and tries to figure out how he’s going to take care of yet another life. “Jack” is sung in the voice of a man whose best moments have been left behind, down by the river or in the aisles of a supermarket or in the dust of Iraq….or maybe there are pieces of him scattered in all those places, and many more. (Any Springsteen fan could give you a list three times this long and twice as specific.)  But there’s a reason he can speak so frankly, as he sits with his hands around a cold coffee cup, leaning across the kitchen table, looking straight into the eyes of the person he loves most and telling the biggest lie of them all: “Honey we’ll be all right.” 

The music uses the chords of “When the Saints Go Marching In” (in Curt Hamm’s trumpet solo, it simply is ‘Saints”), and they bear what that song always carries, a vision of the certain finality of death so unquestionable that all arguing must cease. Which doesn’t mean the details don’t matter—the way he sings “the banker man goes fat,” so that it threatens to resonate as “fair” is the best example. He sounds weary on that line, like he’s almost sighing, and the fairness is understood to be that of yet another rigged game. It just means the truth is what it is, a pitiless pathway to the grave. If you take it seriously enough, you’re likely to want to take someone else with you—and if you go one step beyond that, you wind up in the coda, a Tom Morello guitar solo so remorseful it beggars any language but its own sounds. And the violin that follows that hums the same tune, albeit maybe another verse. Maybe the one that talks about “when the moon grows red with blood.”

The tragedy of Springsteen’s career may be summarized in the reaction of many of his veteran American fans to the appearance of this epic song in concert: They get up and head for the toilets and the concession stalls. It’s not that they don’t get it. They won’t get it. (In the European shows, the song is accompanied by a stillness and silence so deep it carries a jolt.) And so, as Springsteen says for the first but not the last time on this album, “it’s happened before and it’ll happen again.” Now’s the time for your tears.

The shimmering starlight emanating from the final note of “Jack of All Trades” opens the door to the full blown fight song that follows. “Death to My Hometown” begins in Celtic delirium, pounding drums offset by handclaps, penny whistle, a touch of banjo. Vocals enter, but they’re chanting transcendental Pentecostal incoherencies. There’s a hint of cannon fire. But the clearest noise of all, perhaps unintentionally not buried in the mix (or maybe situated there with perfect calculation, like a Motown tambourine), comes almost three minutes into the song. It’s a gun being cocked—and like the good student of Chekovian drama he is, having now mentioned the option of the gun in three out of five songs, Springsteen makes sure this one goes off, though you’ll have to listen up to hear it (That this is buried in the mix cannot be accidental.) 

Do we know the character Springsteen portrays here? He’s not the guy standing by the roadside, kicking a dead dog—although they might be related. He’s not the maniacal nihilist who calls himself Johnny 99. He’s maybe more like the guy in “The Big Muddy” who believes “You start on higher ground but end up somehow crawlin’.” Except this guy refuses to crawl—that’s what that shotgun’s for, a way of keeping him on his own two feet. It’s how he takes care of his own.

This infuriated Irish-American damns his enemies, gives them names (“marauders,” “vultures,” “greedy thieves”), declares in sputtering rage that the greatest of the injustices is that they “walk the streets as free men now.” But what sort of justice would he have them face ? The gun goes off but without repercussion…and when he has the bastards most clearly in his sights (and this guy’s vision is a lot clearer than Jack’s), he suggests that something else is what might work: “Now get yourself a song to sing / And sing it ‘till you’re done / Sing it hard and sing it well / Send the robber barons straight to hell.”

It’s a rock’n’roll answer. But it’s also something else: It’s straight out of the beloved community that produced the most effective American social change of Springsteen’s lifetime: the Civil Rights Movement. For this ever-moral (and moralizing) artist, the song is always mightier than the shotgun. Hold that thought. 

Hold it tight against what comes next. 

“This Depression” sounds not nearly so much depressed as desperate, and not the desperation of the outlaw who’s crossed some invisible line, more that of a man who’s being slowly tangled by the lines of hip hop beats, ethereal keyboard washes, floating wordless backing vocals and more Tom Morello guitar, which tools through this soundscape of isolated misery as if it’s on a lonely Jersey Girl’s journey between stars…although this certainly isn’t the lights of the sun, let alone where the fun is. More likely, it’s a roughly spackled ceiling dropping paint chips onto her Sistine Chapel dreams.

The nakedness of the song’s self disclosure marks it as utterly contemporary. The voice stripped of bravado, or even energy to face the struggles ahead, suggests the dead ends and bad dreams of “The Promise” and (more so) “State Trooper,” where the singer declares “the only thing that I got’s been botherin’ me my whole life.” But whether “This Depression” refers to the character’s personal clinical depression or an international economic depression, or more likely both, it’s absolutely not a way out. In fact, it’s not even a coherent response to the threat we’ve just been hearing about. He keeps declaring, to some unspecified “baby,” “I need your heart,” although the musical heart of the song, its pulsation, stumbles around like it might give out (or give up). And you have to wonder if he might be staring into a mirror. Until you see that if that’s so, it’s because we all are.

***

In the midst of a vinyl revival, one thing you’d imagine would be mentioned more often is that Bruce Springsteen is approximately the last artist whose records almost always divide as if Side One and Side Two were pertinent digital terms. On Wrecking Ball the turn from “This Depression” to the title track clearly marks the story’s emergence as a struggle toward light, after six songs cursing the darkness.

That light doesn’t exactly pour in. These lyrics are the ultimate mixture of the personal and the political on an album where that particular combo is the daily special. Although the song’s metaphor depends on the planned demolition of Giants Stadium in the Jersey Meadowlands after the Springsteen run of shows there in 2009, even back then it wasn’t “about” the disappearance of a major concert venue or even a quasi-historical site. Bruce first sang it on September 30, 2009—one week to the day after his sixtieth birthday, annus horribilis for any rock star. It was also a year since Springsteen traveled the campaign trail with Barack Obama, and ten months since Obama’s Administration had begun squandering whatever chance there may have been that the vultures of Wall Street would no longer walk the streets as free men.

It’s a funny song, but the humor’s anything but light. For every “mosquitoes grow big as aero-planes” and jangly guitar lick there’s  “when all our victories and glories have turned into parking lots,” a mordant summation of both the man and the building’s career highlights. We are urged to raise up our glasses to those who have fallen (“because tonight all the dead are here”), but we are much more surprisingly and unsentimentally instructed that the way out of the mess is to “hold tight to your anger and don’t fall to your fears.”  That’s not the advice of a nice guy from the backstreets. It sounds more like the admonition of a seasoned barroom brawler.

More than that, we’re told that even after the game is decided and the wrecking ball is heading straight for a sock in our eye, we have to hold tight and not fall because “hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times come and hard times go /  and hard times come and hard times go / and hard times go” and then, his voice coming down on the words like his strings on a power chord, “Yeah, just to come again.” This is a man who’s sick of laughing in the face of defeat after defeat. This is a guy who won and then watched the victory turn particularly sour. This is a guy who’s not sure anybody within earshot (give or take the band) is on his side and isn’t letting that stop him.

This is the tragic hero, finally learning the fundamental lesson that repeating the same mistakes over and over again is worse than insanity. Springsteen here is like Bo Diddley, condemned to endless repetition and delighting in it, too. Condemned to learn the lesson and to spit in the lesson’s eye. Condemned to act crazy and finding in that the greatest delight of all.

It’s not that the endless cycle of hard times doesn’t matter. It’s that it matters so much—and so does what so many have learned about the unsettling ways in which what matters presents itself, opportunities as well as obstacles. At the end of the song, with the whole band in full swing and a wordless chorus pressing relentlessly forward, what you’re hearing is precisely a group admitting its own (very mortal) limits in order to risk whatever it takes for hard times to come again no more.

The record’s musical turning point hinges on not only tearing down walls but reaching through the rubble for helping hands to rebuild.  “Wrecking Ball” itself shifts the focus of the horn arrangement from Clarence Clemons’ tenor sax to Curt Ramm’s trumpet, but that’s a product of inevitability. Producer Ron Aniello is new, as are almost all the engineers and mixers. And though this is a rock album, there’s hardly a track where the E Street Band appears intact. Instead, dozens of different musicians and singers appear, from so many different genres that many songs defy classification.  The lyrics suggest that junking the whole works might be worth the risk, but he’s not just saying it—the idea is made more plausible because it emerges from greater musical risks than Bruce usually allows himself.

Suitably then, the first song after this cataclysmic anthem is a reach of the hand. “You’ve Got It” begins as a wooing, with only voice over acoustic guitar.  Electric guitar, piano and steel guitar turn the second verse into a country-flavored seduction, celebrating that thing the loved one has that makes her like no one else.  Once the singer observes, “You can’t read it in a book/You can’t even dream it,” the full weight of the album’s sound kicks in with bluesy guitar and soulful horns.  By the end, it’s apparent this song’s about the creative heart of the album—that individual human spark that makes us fall in love, yes, and that same spark that binds us together and lends us surprising strength in numbers—like the massive band second lining onward into the unknown beyond the fadeout. A thing so elusive and so fundamental that it’s hardly any wonder that the first time Bruce played it live, he explained it in terms of the Higgs boson.

Springsteen’s writing has edged toward outright gospel since the turn of the century. “Rocky Ground” is the payoff—one of his most musically dramatic and emotionally lavish productions ever. The opening samples a Pentecostal preacher proclaiming, in a voice that sounds remarkably like Bruce’s own, “I’m a soldier!” over and again. The gospel choir that follows—the Victorious Gospel choir of Asbury Park, N.J. with which Springsteen’s worked before—caresses what will become the song’s chorus: “We’ve been travelin’ over rocky ground, rocky ground.” The bed is a synth echoing “Streets of Philadelphia,” before a particularly liquid guitar riff sets the stage for Springsteen’s hoarse recitation of the verse. He begins where he left off in his other gospel choir song, “My City of Ruins” from The Rising, exhorting, albeit with quiet sadness, his flock to “rise up,” a term never more saturated in political and religious conflict. He shows which side he’s on immediately, invoking the expulsion of the money-changers from the Temple, as well as the prospect of (perhaps divine?) retribution, in death and in life. But the second time through, “Sun’s in the heavens and a new day is rising.”

When Springsteen finishes, Michelle Moore steps out of the choir and delivers a rap. It’s written for an impoverished woman, a mother, but she could be that “Wrecking Ball” character (“You pray that hard times, hard times come no more”). Her prayer is simple: “That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest.” Still, in a sleepless night, faith curdles to doubt and “only silence meets your prayers / The morning breaks, you awake, there’s no one there.”

“There’s a new day comin’” the song declares but the voice sounds like Bruce Springsteen, not God. And as Michelle Moore’s voice fades out, repeating the title phrase, what’s left is more than a moment of doubt. The song is an answer to the challenge posed in “We Take Care of Our Own”: If the cavalry stayed at home, what now? The stark answer is that all that’s left is us.

And as the choir opens the next to last song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” recasting a staple of Springsteen’s live shows since the E Street Band reunion in 1999, that’s right where the answer stays.  This rendition is that much more intense, edgier, louder—even Little Steven’s mandolin has some added urgency—because that choir is present to connect Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie elements to those he took from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a secular cross between “This Train is Bound for Glory” and “People Get Ready.” What this means is that the weary traveler finds love even as the material losses multiply. But it’s not God she meets in that field where sunlight streams. It’s just that ordinary guy, the same one we’ve known since “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” “a good companion for this part of the ride.” Surrounded this time by (and seemingly at one with) whores, gamblers, thieves, lost souls and just plain sinners alongside the saints and winners, the journey remains just as important as its destination. 

The pledges of religions and governments are one thing. The bond between individual humans is what always seems truly sacred in Springsteen music, and it has to be carried out, step by painful step. Forgiveness is possible—hell, forgiveness abounds—but the price is as high as it’s meant to be.  Those bells that ring might be the bells from the courthouse in “Long Walk Home,” because their promise is defined exactly the same way. They are “bells of freedom ringin’.” And if, as Springsteen has long contended, the real issue in his songs is whether love is real, then the only qualification might be “in this life.” It’s heartbreakingly real here, heartbreaking because that is one long, long ride. But it can’t start unless we get on board.

However religious he may be, Bruce Springsteen for sure believes that, each and every night, all the dead should be with us. It’s one of the joys of this record that Clarence Clemons makes his final appearance on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” in the heart of one of the band’s greatest songs, in a performance that actually tops the live one.

But the Big Man, like Phantom Dan before him, is gone and he’s not coming back any more than your good manufacturing job is. The question isn’t whether that’s true—only a politician would pretend we don’t know that answer—the question is what we are going to do about it. To really set off on the trip to the Lands of Hope and Dreams, we need to find ways to accept who we really are, to fight off the vultures and the marauders, to rise up so we can hear those bells of freedom ring. 

To Springsteen, the dead still have a role to play—just as they do in “Wrecking Ball,” they reappear in the finale, “We Are Alive,” a mocking, dead-serious merger of Johnny Cash, mariachi, Morricone soundtrack music and a little of that old devil dust.

A bass note from what sounds like scratchy vinyl opens “We Are Alive,” then folky guitar and some truly outré whistling. (The whistling could also be termed “ghostly” and given that the E Street Band’s onstage whistler was Clarence, maybe that’s a better way to put it.)  But then the mariachi horns arrive, and a bass and drum figure out of “Ring of Fire.”  The singer starts looking up at Calvary hill, but he’s immediately distracted by “a graveyard kid” lurking among the dead, listening to corpses tell their stories. The singer kneels and places his ear to the headstones, so he can hear them too. The first three are a dead railroad striker, a little girl killed in a civil rights era bombing, and a border crosser who expired in the Southwestern desert as he attempted to reach the U.S. It’s not much of a reach to connect the gamblers, workers, jacks of all trades, fighters and athletes—each, like all of us, systematically isolated. 

But not only are these dead not content to be silent, they’re not even content to watch us forever screw up. They are about to issue marching orders, not in order to evoke the old days but to ensure that we have the best possible new ones. “We are alive!” they exult. “And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark / Our spirits rise / To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

The singer dreams himself dead—carried under to confront the worms and the dark and the loneliness. Then the voices appear again to remind him: “We are alive…our souls and spirits rise / To carry the fire and light the spark / To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.”

Call it a rock’n’roll version of magic realism, if you wish, but you still won’t have nailed the biggest, most significant change Bruce Springsteen has wrought in his work—and perhaps therefore himself—with Wrecking Ball. The man with the amazing ability to remain a mere moralist while traveling on Presidential campaigns has finally discovered his politics. And so he’s willing to strongly suggest what we might do if we would like to rid ourselves of the vultures and thieves who pillage our lives. Even if he does put his ideas in the mouths of the dead.

Maybe that’s as it should be, the musician listening to the voices he’s gathered and relaying what they say. Those ideas he hears are living things, never more vital than at these moments when we all feel out of options.  What matters most is not that the speakers are the dead (or even that the dead aren’t in the most important sense gone), but that we are alive—right here, right now. All of us: the Jack of All Trades, the punk in search of Easy Money, the ones who’ve got it and the victims of the death of their hometowns, the ones starving on rocky ground or discovering that the lack of a job shackles them as much as the drudgery of a job ever did. Not to mention those sure the train holds no place for them. Wrecking Ball  leaves no one untouched, unmarred or at the very least unchanged. But the people out there in the dark, listening, aren’t buried. They’re still moving and the future lies in the ways in which they move—together and apart, bonded and isolated, terrified and overjoyed, in hope and in despair–as they always have moved when hard times come and come again. Wrecking Ball dares to put all of them together on that train to the certain nowhere that is our only blessed future and then, it does the unimaginable: It tries to start a conversation.  In its own way, armed with not much more than a song to sing and a belief that if we travel over this rocky ground together there is a promised land at the other end, it aims to change the world.

Whether it succeeds in changing it, of course, isn’t up to Bruce Springsteen. It’s up to those who hear his call. It’s up to the ones who are alive out there. It’s up to us. 

 [Many thanks to Daniel Wolff, Craig Werner, and Lee Ballinger as well as the entire Stratlist.]

JUSTICE AND DONNA SUMMER

May 20th, 2012

“Ther is absolutely no doubt that the extraordinary Donna Summer belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Regrettably, despite being nominated on a number of occasions, our voting group has failed to recognize her–an error I can only hope is finally and permanently rectified next year.” — Jon Landau, chairman, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee

I loved Donna. She was sweet and  smart every time I got a chance to meet her. And she never acted the diva. One of my greatest regrets is that our plans to do an interview on Kick Out the Jams, my Sirius radio show, in 2008, when she’d put out Crayons fell through.

She was NOT churchy. She was not just a dance music singer. In the way she dealt with beats, essentially square on, she was a flat-out rock singer. If she were white, Donna Summer would have been in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the minute she was eligible. If she were white, I wouldn’t have to explain it.

I hope we change those facts next year, too.

Dave

KATHY RICH

April 16th, 2012

You probably never knew my friend Kathy Rich. You really missed something. A good way to find out what is to read Margalit Fox’s obituary for her in the April 7 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/health/katherine-russell-rich-who-wrote-of-cancer-fight-dies-at-56.html?hpw). I’d bet all my socks that Fox knew Kathy, partly because she captures so much that’s crucial about her and partly because Kathy seemed to know everybody. (I seem that way too and we had more than one laugh about our mutual reputations in this regard.)

I’m not so sure Kathy would be thrilled about the headline–she did so much more than fight cancer, although to a lot of folks it would maybe seem like she just lived her life (likethat’s a little thing). But her book, The Red Devil, is the definitive account of the price of surviving cancer–in her case, a 19 year struggle against stage IV breast cancer, and yes, I know that sounds impossible. All the more reason for you to read it, for anybody who is beginning or in the middle of cancer treatment to know it by heart, which is what happens when you read it.

It is not a guidebook on how to survive. Stage IV is lethal, and after a couple of decades even Kathy Rich couldn’t live with it anymore. Fuck that. What matters is, she lived.

I met Kathy in ’94, I think, or maybe late ’93. I told our mutual friend Joanne Goldberg that I was going to up to Sloan-Kettering, the NYC cancer hospita, to do something else. She said that Kathy was in the hospital with stage four breast cancer, and she was a writer too. I ought to meet her. I’ve gotten better advice but not often.

Kathy was a horror, as anyone is after bone marrow transplant. Swollen of face, scrawny of limb, bald, her room a havoc. There were no pictures around but I understood for other reasons–personality, confidence, but not complaints–that she was under what had previously been normal circumstances an attractive woman.

Sitting in the chair next to the bed talking to her was a guy who turned out to be the best friend of my own family doctor. He and I sat by for an hour or two, as Kathy held forth about the travails of the hour–not just cancer, but the treachery of magazine jouranlism and of the men in her life. She did not so much continually reiterate as act our her intention of beating her illness…fuck cancer, she was more or less in a mood to beat death itself. And you had to think, yeah, yeah, she might.

We had journalism in common, which we had practiced very differently but there is not all that much distance between Rolling Stone and Allure, come to that; and we had had very different experiences of cancer, and while what had already happened to my duaghter Kristen and what not been happening to Kathy suck equally, they are quite different–survival without the disease relinquishing its grip might be worse than death, or so we had to suppose. But we also had to suppose that living was better tahn dying, and there you are, the paradox of young adults with cancer. “Can’t stop won’t stop,” indeed.

Anyway, we supposed both things together and for all our differences, after that day, she was my friend and I tried to be hers. I did what I could to support her book, when it came out, and I knew I could send any young woman who needed it to her book and thence to Kathy herself and they would always have some wisdom imparted from that source. We have many more friends in common for many other reasons.

Then, when she didn’t die, Kathy went off to India to study the language. She had a habit of sort of disappearing for a couple of years and then turning back up, always chastened, never less determined, and she’d tell me about the journey, the weird people she met, what she’d learned, what she decided not to learn, how many relapses and surgeries and dodged bullets had come across her path. I’d fill her in on what I’d been doing. We’d do a little gossiping, we’d laugh, we’d both wonder more than we let on how long anyone could survive stage IV breast cancer (as the saying goes, there is no stage V). I don’t know what she assumed. I assumed she was so tough and smart, she might outlive me, at least, and probably a whole lot of other people. (And in a whole lot of the other cases she did and hell yeah, that’s something to brag about.)

And that was it. The second book, Dreaming in Hindi, was both a struggle to read — it was so internalized, it was so unmetaphoric, so literally true. Which mean you couldn’t put it down either. It’s really not about learning to speak Hindi, and it’s not even a travel book, or a book about how to live in cultures that are poles apart. It’s about trying to inhabit the mind of strangers, maybe. And it is ruthless about the strangers, the author, the world in which it occurs, and out of that ruthlessness comes a stronger sense of Kathy’s intelligence, courage, and determination than you get in the cancer book. I read a few chapters and thought about them and read some more. Sometimes a year would go by and I wouldn’t touch it and then I’d dive in again and get lost in her head. I never told her this–it was embarassing, no one reads books like that, it’s like an implicit criticism. But really all it means is, you don’t drink a strong bottle to the bottom any way but warily…if the contents are as pure on your palate as they are powerful.

Kathy’s struggle seemed endless: when we met, I had hair and Kathy didn’t, then I lost about half of mine and the rest turned gray, while hers grew back and looked just fine. Twenty years is a very very long time. And most of that time, we had no idea what hte hell was up with her. But when I sent a newly diagnosed friend, whose tumor was also at stage four and also seemed indolent, to talk to her, it was just the right thing to do and Kathy and I emailed about it but we didn’t talk on the phone or see one another for lunch or any of that. I didn’t know such a serious relapse had occurred–although I knew there were relapses, they were pretty much continual– and the news took my breath away that Saturday morning.

Kathy was nothing like Kris Carr, who has an indolent tumor and has an hilarious survival yarn about it that has, I suppose, saved many lives, presuming that relying on eating a lot of wheatgrass and other dietary stuff, and yoga, etc. has anything to do with surviving cancer. I don’t know what Kathy ate and if I had asked her, she’d have very likely said something that amounted to, “What made that your business, buster,” and moved on to what she was actually interested in, which was her life. (Skeptics are like that and no journalist worth anything is not a skeptic, even if the writer in question is also a true believer.)

But these kind of semi-survivable tumors do exist and not only in breast cancer. They’re rare but so are the kind of people who know how to make a life, really a life not just a series of struggling days. Kathy taught me that, and how you have to live differently and not compromise a single one of your goals or principles as you fight, because you fight. And that it could be done.

I asked her once why she left Allure, and she said some of the things about it that are in the Times article and then–now that I think of it, it might have been that day in the hospital–she spun this long, rather mordantly funny story about her last days in the fashion journalism world, and how Conde Nast reacted to her departure: They gave her a lunch with the staff, or something like that, and a Prada bag, the same thing they gave everyone who left in relatively good graces. The message was not “I’m nothing special,” the message was “they don’t know I’m something special.” Is there bitterness attached to that? Well, there ought to be.

Kathy wasn’t everyone, she was as specific a someone as anybody I’ve had the luck to know and care about. And I am pissed off about it to this day, because she’s right, the devil of cancer is red, not black. Blood red. And to this day, when I see Prada–the logo, the clothes, the ads–I think about Kathy Rich and how little respect she got and how much she deserved.

Well, all I’m trying to say is, Kathy Rich was a great person and I loved her, truly I did. And, you know, as long as I’m here, she’s here, I’ll make sure of remembering her however I can. And telling you about it is part of that.

So startled and sad as I was when I heard the news, I didn’t cry. I started to and then I got to thinking about Kathy and how it was that we met and how it was that we were friends, and I think the tears just got beaten back by the only thing that sometimes can do that, even in the face of death, which is the living truth, as we have ourselves witnessed it.

Here’s what she taught me in a nutshell: You have to die and you have to bear it in mind. Then you have to go out and be who you are and let the dying take care of itself. And rage, rage, because that isn’t Tinkerbell’s light that’s dying, it’s your own and, goddamn it, it’s irreplaceable—irreplaceable to everybody not just you.

So don’t clap your hands to save Kathy Rich, just live your life and refuse to forget that it will end someday. That’s not just the acclamation she deserves. It’s the one she earned.

 

AUSTIN HOPES AND DREAMS

April 9th, 2012

I wrote this for Rock & Rap Confidential, the (now online) newsletter about music and politics I’ve edited with Lee Ballinger for thirty years–we started right about this time of year, too, I think. I’ve said very little at RRC in recent months, and this topic (suggested by Lee) seems a good place to get in and start wrestlin’ with written words again.

You can subscribe to RRC, which sends out news items and various sorts of analysis on a regular basis, by going to rockrap.com.

Dave

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The massive South by Southwest music festival (SXSW) has been held in Austin, Texas in the spring of every year since 1987. Dave Marsh reports on this year’s shindig.

I know something about SXSW keynote addresses. Little Richard and Smokey Robinson both did theirs as, in part, dialogues with me—sitting live in front of several hundred people, Richard being Richard, Smokey being serious, sincere, smart, and as handsome as seventy will allow.

To a certain extent, it’s a setup: All the attendees who don’t care find other things to do and most of the rest come to have expectations affirmed. But it’s not that simple either. I had the best fun of the last twenty years just asking four questions, sitting and watching Little Richard rave for (I timed it) 17 and a half minutes without pausing for breath. Then he turned to me, clearly winded, and said breathlessly, “Ohhh, Dave! You’re still here. I bet you want to ask me some more questions.”

But it’s not that simple either. The best moments can also be absolutely pedagogical: Smokey ended with a seven minute spiel telling people how to find and deal with stardom, beginning with an admonition (“Thicken your skin”) and ending with a parable about the invention of show business. Since 2010 that last part’s gotten almost half a million hits on YouTube. Richard, who appeared in ’08, seemed to just rant but in reality he was preaching a sermon on the same theme as Smokey, offering all kinds of nuggets but coming back to the main point over and over again: “Sign your own checks!…Sign your own checks!” Afterwards, a young woman came up to me, eyes a brimful of tears, and said, “Thank you, thank you, that was everything I came here to learn.”

Steve Earle began by lecturing his audience: “Let me make something extremely clear. Kiss is not cool, Kiss was never cool, Kiss will never be cool.”

But Bruce Springsteen, this year, was something else again. He offered career advice wrapped in biography, history complete with instructive examples of where he’d swiped a couple of his classics: the doo-wop crooning that led to “Backstreets,” the way the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” provided the core of “Badlands,” and how and why “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is “every song I’ve ever written including the new ones.” Rocker he may be, but not rockist: “The elements you’re using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There’s just doing it.” Bruce wrestled with Lester Bangs and Woody Guthrie, post-authenticity, the transformative self, Roy Orbison’s paranoia, Phil Spector’s musical violence, the cover of Meet the Beatles as “the silent gods of Olympus,” the barely comprehensible existence of Nintendo-core, black death metal, and the yearning needs of soul. It was as if someone had managed to translate “A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom tutti frutti” into a comprehensive treatise on the development and meaning (or lack thereof) of the past sixty years of Anglo-American popular music.

He avoided the hard political realities at the core of his new album, Wrecking Ball, in favor of talking eye to eye with an audience he assumed (correctly) consisted of people who either knew these things or needed to find them out. It was a practical speech, aimed at a specific group of people. He didn’t even know it was being broadcast live or, as far as I can tell, imagine that it would wind up all over the Internet, words stuck in the heads of millions of listeners. (The full audio’s at npr.org. It’s also worth looking at the segments posted on YouTube, particularly the stuff about the Animals.)

Raves arrived immediately, but I don’t think anyone’s used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion (granted that the entire speech was wrapped in Bruce’s persona, but I’ve already quoted the only reference to his new album.)

Springsteen never has opening acts. That day he had five. Before the SXSW speech, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and Juanes sang Woody Guthrie songs (plus one original by Juanes). It was beautiful and loving, and all the things that a tribute to a great artist on his centenary ought to be. The highlight for me wasn’t Juanes singing a verse from “This Land Is Your Land,” which he told me later was the first time he’d ever sung in English onstage, but Juanes stepping up to challenge the audience when it didn’t sing along heartily enough. LaFave sang wonderfully as he always does, his Oklahoma roots deliberately on display, and his commentary on Woody’s music and life more trenchant than ever. And Eliza, firebrand that she is, kept the music contemporary, insisting on its relevance—or rather, insisting on her listeners paying attention to its continuing relation to the world descended from the one Guthrie described. Eliza has been the best female singer-songwriter for several years now, LaFave has been the best interpreter of Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen for longer than that, and maybe this performance will help the news spread from Austin. Juanes, of course, is a rock star of Springsteen’s magnitude throughout Latin America and much of Europe; imagine John Lennon in Spanish.

That evening at the Moody Theater Springsteen had two openers–Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo with his full band each did about 45 minutes. (Springsteen had done a couple of numbers with Alejandro the night before at the Austin Music Awards show.)

The Austin show was only Springsteen’s second since the release of Wrecking Ball and, like its predecessor—an Apollo Theater benefit in honor of SiriusXM’s tenth anniversary—it contained some beautiful one-off wrinkles. Instead of invoking Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson (and James Brown by way of a lunatic climb into the rigging), this time Woody Guthrie framed the action. Bruce opened with his now-17 member E Street Band doing “I Ain’t Got No Home” a cappella and closed with “This Land is Your Land” with Escovedo, Low Anthem, Joe Ely, and a couple members of Arcade Fire helping out.

Is there another performer in our culture who operates in both the folk-rock and soul-gospel traditions? It’s as fashionable lately to evoke Springsteen as a literary figure as it once was to display him as an articulate pseudo-gas station attendant. But what’s most remarkable is the ability to move smoothly among soul and gospel music and the folk and country tradition in the way that Springsteen does. He has reached the point now that on Wrecking Ball’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” he does both in the same song. Generally, one is lurking in the background of the other in any of his songs, especially live. (Which can’t be discerned if all your attention is on the lyrics which is where, I suppose, the shade of the Great American Poem lurks in the minds of the critics who think it’s mostly about the words.) Yet in pulling these sounds together, Springsteen is capable of convincing more than a few that the beloved community truly could be in our future.

The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River–from the furious social questions of “We Take Care of Our Own,” through the economic despair and determination of “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown” to the glorious anthem of hope “Rocky Ground”—with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, “We Are Alive.”

I don’t suppose Bruce Springsteen has a much clearer vision of where, exactly, that action must lead to prevent the “hard times come and hard times go” cycle that he pounds away at six consecutive times in the song “Wrecking Ball.” But you can glimpse what it might feel like in any great musical performance, not just one of his. And, from my perspective, that is the real purpose of SXSW. Truth is, there hasn’t been a commercially important act that broke out of the conference since Hanson, fifteen years ago. But so what? It’s still the biggest, best music school in the United States, maybe the world.

And while Bruce’s show couldn’t offer the kind of community that he evokes in songs like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” it did evoke a sense of musician solidarity that’s essential to what happens with SXSW at its best. It’s a glimpse, but even a full-on Bruce and the E Street Band show is just a glimpse of what it would be like to live with equality and justice every day.

SXSW is as imperfect as any other human project. The sheer size of it has outstripped Austin’s transportation infrastructure and its deficit is ever-widening. The business panels are just the record industry trying to talk itself into believing it still exists. Hip-hop, dance, and ethnic music never get an equal shot in the press coverage and Austin’s local Mexican/Chicano community is invisible.

But.

What SXSW offers is a chance to attend that music school not only as student but as teacher. Not to study music but to observe and participate in the stewing mess of it. I have gone to Austin for this peculiar rite of March madness for the past, I think, nineteen years. I went to speak, I went back to listen. I keep going back not because I think I’m going to find any next big thing, but because I might run into musical glory.

This year, I got it in half a dozen ways—from Bruce, of course, but also from Eric Burdon, whose surprise (even to him and Springsteen) appearance to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” at the Moody was a fiery proof of every accolade heaped upon the Animals’ frontman earlier that day. Where else could I interview, in the space of forty-eight hours both Juanes and Eric Burdon? Where else could I see old Austin friends like LaFave, Gilkyson, Michael Ramos, Michael Fracasso, Joe Ely and the Krayolas? Where else could I spend an afternoon and evening at a taqueria with Alejandro, Jesse Malin, Lenny Kaye, Rosie Flores, and new favorites like Maren Parusel?

Where else could I (with massive help from David Alvarez at KUT-FM and my producer Jim Rotolo) put on a live Sunday radio show, from nine to eleven AM, with seven musical guests? None of them played a record or sang a song I’d ever heard before. And all of them were flat-out great. None of them got paid—at SXSW no artist at an official gig ever gets paid, and very few get paid at any of the others, either. It is, most of the time, music for the love of music.

I go to SXSW to recharge, to remember why I love music, why we’ve still got a chance. And this year, like that young woman said, I got everything I came to learn.—D.M.

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Please welcome Weston Kristof Carr–Another Chance to Get It Right

February 4th, 2011

Born about 6:45 PM Tuesday at Norwalk Hospital, a 9 pound 1 ounce baby boy. He has his great-grandfather’s thick black hair. His mother’s nose. All of our hearts. 

The nurse who measured him held up the tape and mouthed to me through the nursery window, “Twenty one and a half!” (Inches, she meant.) I thought she did this for all onlookers. When I met her later, she explained she was amazed at how long he was. A few minutes later, a family standing nearby said, “Look at that one. He doesn’t look like a new born. He looks like he’s a month old already.”  He does too—none of that Winston Churchill resemblance. He’s built like a point guard or a wideout, maybe.  But already, he’s his own man, which is the important thing.

 He overwhelmed me, like babies are supposed to do. As did his mother. And her mother, who stood by all night the night before, not a wink of sleep in the hospital’s bed chair, then caressed her daughter through the final round and, finally, cut the cord. I have seen my wife and my daughter look beautiful many times. But this is the best yet.  Wes lives next door, and we get to participate. I await further instructions with an eagerness that suprises me a little. I’d think there comes a point where you’re too old for love at first sight, but I guess you never are.   

For those of you who asked or may wonder, Barbara is Nonna, and he can call me Grandpa, Pops, Pop-pop, Duke, Dukie, or a term of his own devise. The one thing that’s clear already is, I don’t own him. He owns me. Remind me of that once in a while, if I slip….

Both this morning’s Live from E Street Nation and this Sunday’s Kick Out the Jams are about what it means to be a grandparent, in their different ways.

Dave

“What children are, more than anything else, is this: another chance for our flawed species. Another chance to get it right.” – Andrew Vachss

“We can catch courage from one another, sparking a New Year’s momentum to put an end to war.’

December 30th, 2010

From my friends Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison, co-directors of Campaign for Peace and Democracy. I hope you will join us in this simple but meaningful activity.

And let’s all add a New Year’s resolution for our too often bloodthirsty nation:
End the war! And don’t start any new ones.

Thanks for all of you who already work toward that goal. Thanks to all of you who will begin soon.

Happy holidays to all,
Dave

* * * * *

Dear Friends,
I’m writing from Afghanistan where Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers have urged us to stop hunching over computers and head outside to visit a nearby lake. But with this encouragement to join their New Year’s Eve – New Year’s Day, let me add gratitude for all that you do to connect the dots of peacemaking worldwide. Sincerely, Kathy

“Dear Afghanistan:” A New Year’s Call for Peace
While the US may be the world’s single super power in military terms, it faces another super power: the voices of war-weary millions who detest violence and killing. In Afghanistan, in the United States, and among the populations of countries whose governments have joined the NATO coalition, millions of people are calling for an end to war in Afghanistan.

On New Year’s Day, 01/01/11, people around the world are invited to raise their voices, through Facebook, Twitter, Free Conference calls, Skype, and blogs at several websites in a massive refusal to accept this war any longer. Let your New Year’s resolution be to stand for the people and end wars by sending a digital or spoken peacemaking message to people in Afghanistan. By amassing millions of messages calling for peace, we can create yet another indication that ordinary people within and beyond Afghanistan have had enough of war.

Afghanistan’s people need food not bombs, health care not warfare and courage for peace, not war. In the words of Abdulai, an Afghan teenager whose father was killed by the Taliban, the “Dear Afghanistan” campaign offers an alternative to the Obama administration’s most recent review of the war. Abdulai’s experiences of impoverishment, bereavement, and discrimination highlight realities that Afghans face every day. The U.S. government’s December review paid no attention to these conditions.

You can let Afghan people know that their lives matter as much as yours. Assure them that the U.S. government’s war is unacceptable to you and that you are working to end it.

We can catch courage from one another, sparking a New Year’s momentum to put an end to war.

Follow the steps below to communicate the simple yet crucial demand: Stop the Killing in Afghanistan.

On New Year’s Day 2011, from 7.05 pm Eastern Standard Time on the 31st of December 2010 to 7.05 pm Eastern Standard Time on the 1st of January 2011, from wherever in the world, you can:
· Call from your Mobile or Home phone by dialing (661) 673-8600 & access code: 295191#. Please arrange to talk by sending an email to CallAfghanistan@gmail.com
· SKYPE: Please arrange to call Afghanistan by sending your Skype ID in an email to CallAfghanistan@gmail.com
· Send an email message to DearAfghanistan@gmail.com
· Text or sms by mobile at +93 7791 84146 or +1 727-248-0308 (001-727-248-0308 if text messaging from outside U.S.)
· Facebook: Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers
· @DearAfghanistan on Twitter

For more information: Visit Dear Afghanistan

A note on timings for the NEW YEAR CALL :

Place Time Date
London 12.05 am to 12.05 am 1st Jan to 2nd Jan
EST 7.05 pm to 7.05 pm 31st Dec to 1st Jan
Pacific Std 4.05 pm to 4.05 pm 31st Dec to 1st Jan
Jordan 2.05 am to 2.05 am 1st Jan to 2nd Jan
Afghanistan 4.35am to 4.35 am 1st Jan to 2nd Jan

Kathy Kelly
Co-coordinator, Voices for Creative Nonviolence
1249 West Argyle Street
Chicago, IL 60640
773-878-3815
www.vcnv.org

* * * * *
Campaign for Peace and Democracy
2790 Broadway, #12 | New York, NY 10025
This email was sent to: marsh6@optonline.net
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Don’t Just Deplore Bullying — Fight It!

October 21st, 2010

Author/attorney/child-and-anti-abuse advocate Andrew Vachss’ latest, the graphic novel (and a half) HEART TRANSPLANT, hit the stores this week. Read it!

I can’t do better in pushing you to do that, than to repeat the quote I gave the publisher:
“Heart Transplant is a necessity in a country that sometimes seems to be run by bullies at every level, from kindergarten to Capitol Hill. It fits the bill perfectly, with a simple and simply terrific story, wise and scholarly commentary that lets nobody off the hook, and the incandescent Rorschach of Frank Caruso’s illustrations. IF YOU’RE WONDERING NOT JUST WHY BULLYING HAPPENS BUT WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT, READ HEART TRANSPLANT. It ranks alongside Andrew Vachss’ Another Chance to Get It Right as a signpost on the road to a more human society.”

I keep a stash of Another Chance in my house, in case of emergencies–like people who don’t know what to do about their own histories of enduring abuse. Reading it changed an important part of my life. Heart Attack is just as important, and maybe even of more widespread importance. A big part of that is the part written by Zak Mucha, a Chicago social worker.

Zak and artist Frank Caruso will be on Kick Out the Jams and Land of Hope and Dreams on Sunday, October 31. The date could not be more perfectly chosen if we’d tried. This week on Kick Out the Jams, we will feature the “It Gets Better” speech by a Ft. Worth City Councilman along with a spoken piece by Zak, “The Problem with ‘It Gets Better.'” The text and video of Zak’s piece are at

http://www.protect.org/tools/newswire/161-national/1165-the-problem-with-qit-gets-betterq

While you’re at protect.org, I hope you’ll join Protect, the National Organization to Protect Children, which is unique in two ways: First, it’s the most important lobby in America, fighting for better legal protection against abuse–a lobby to advocate for kids of all classes and, truly, to advocate for a nation that tells the truth rather than trying to lie and cover-up scandal and evil. Second, it’s the only place I can think of where I regularly keep company with police, prosecutors and conservatives. It takes much more than a village on this one; it takes a nation and a world.

Andrew Vachss will be on Land of Hope and Dreams on December 14. (Part of the interview Andrew and I did–with production by the great Kara O’Connor–in 2007 can be heard at http://www.vachss.com/av_interviews/vachss-marsh.html )

The following is from a message sent by Andrew’s mailing list (and yeah, I’ve read The Weight and it’s terrific too–might be a good starting point for reading his one-of-a-kind novels):

If you’re willing to wait about a month , you can order a signed copy through the link at http://vachss.com/heart.

And we’re only three weeks away from the release of THE WEIGHT, Andrew Vachss’ next crime-fiction novel. Info at http://vachss.com/weight.

Help Prevent War in Iran; Help Iranians Establish Democracy

October 20th, 2010

I was one of the first to be asked to sign this statement, and did so eagerly.

Things like this might not seem very important, organizations like CPD might seem out of the way of the main stream of events. But I can remember how important it was that names I knew, and names I didn’t know, were signing such statements (and the statements were being published and otherwise circulated) as the Vietnam War “escalated” (“descended” would be more accurate).

I urge all Americans to sign this–all those, at least, who do not wish to see the people of Iran suffer further, and who do not wish a third reckless, ideologically-driven pretext-laden war to infest the Middle East and the world.

Campaign for Peace and Democracy also could use your economic support. Joanne and Tom work very hard with very little support. They are there every day and in sometimes unusual ways, allowing dissenters from Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, to express themselves, helping them gain more exposure if they come to the U.S., accepting jobs that aren’t very glamorous but are vital to creating peace.

And we will create peace or we and our children will not experience it. Nor, if we don’t create peace, will we know justice and freedom, or live with anything but a charade passing for democracy.

“Activist” means just what it says. You need no credentials, and only a modicum of courage, to become one. It can change the world. And one way or another, the world is going to change, the world is changing, and the world has changed. The future is up to us, to build or to destroy.

Thanks for listening.

Dave

#############

Dear Friend,

We are writing you at this critical moment to invite you to sign the Campaign for Peace and Democracy statement entitled

End the War Threats and Sanctions Program Against Iran
Support the Struggle for Democracy Inside Iran

We very much hope that you will join the initial 135 signers of the statement. Your signature can make a real difference: it will help build opposition to Washington’s belligerence toward Iran, while letting the people fighting for their democratic rights in Iran know that we have not forgotten them.

If you would like to add your name to the statement, see the emerging list of signers, or make a tax-deductible donation to publicize the statement, please go to our website.

A list of the initial signers and the text of the statement are below. We aim to collect a large number of signatures very quickly, and then publish the statement as widely as possible, both in this country and internationally. In addition to internet publicity, we will try to raise enough funds to put an ad with a selection of signatures in The Progressive, The Nation and other publications.

You do not have to donate in order to sign, but please give if you can, as generously as you can. If you’ve already signed the statement but not yet contributed to our publicity efforts, you can go to our website now to make a donation, or send a check made out to Campaign for Peace and Democracy to Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2790 Broadway, #12, New York, NY 10025.

Initial signers of the statement include Bashir Abu-Manneh, Michael Albert, Greg Albo, Kevin B. Anderson, Parvin Ashrafi, Ed Asner, Rosalyn Baxandall, William O. Beeman, Judith Bello, Medea Benjamin, Joan G. Botwinick, Laura Boylan, MD, Frank Brodhead, Steve Burns, Leslie Cagan, Antonia Cedrone, Adam Chmielewski, Noam Chomsky, Margaret W. Crane, Hamid Dabashi, Gail Daneker, Bogdan Denitch, Manuela Dobos, Tina Dobsevage, MD, Martin Duberman, Lisa Duggan, Rusti Eisenberg, Michael Eisenscher, Mark Engler, Gertrude Ezorsky, Sam Farber, Thomas M. Fasy, MD, Dianne Feeley, John Feffer, Barry Finger, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Jean Fox, Dr. Harriet Fraad, David Friedman, Robert Gabrielsky, Bruce Gagnon, Barbara Garson, Irene Gendzier, Jack Gerson, Joe Gerson, Hoshang Tareh Gol, John Gorman, Greg Grandin, Arun Gupta, E. Haberkern, Thomas Harrison, Nader Hashemi, Howie Hawkins, Bill Henning, Michael Hirsch, Madelyn Hoffman, Iranian Centre for Peace, Freedom and Social Justice-Vancouver, Doug Ireland, Marianne Jackson, PhD, Melissa Jameson, Kathy Kelly, Tooba Keshtkar, Assaf Kfoury, Mina Khanlarzadeh, Jack Kurzweil, Dan La Botz, Joanne Landy, Marc H. Lavietes, MD, Roger E. Leisner, Jesse Lemisch, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Nelson Lichtenstein, Amy Littlefield, Martha Livingston, Robin Lloyd, Jan Majicek, Betty Mandell, Marvin Mandell, Nasir A. Mansoor, Dave Marsh, Don McCanne, MD, Scott McLemee, David McReynolds, Debbie Meier, Martin Melkonian, Marilyn Morehead, Erika Munk, Ulla Neuburger, Mary E. O’Brien, MD, Derrick O’Keefe, David Oakford, Rosemarie Pace, Leo Panitch, Peace Action New York State, Christopher Phelps, Charlotte Phillips, MD, Frances Fox Piven, Danny Postel, Judy Rebick, Katie Robbins, Leonard Rodberg, Richard Roman, Elizabeth Rosenthal, MD, Matthew Rothschild, Saffaar Saaed, John Sanbonmatsu, Ajamu Sankofa, Jennifer Scarlott, Jay Schaffner, Jason Schulman, Peter O. Schwartz, Lance Selfa, Stephen R. Shalom, Cindy Sheehan, Stephen Soldz, Cheryl Stevenson, Bhaskar Sunkara, David Swanson, William K. Tabb, Jonathan Tasini, Meredith Tax, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Chris Toensing, Bernard Tuchman, Adaner Usmani, Wilbert van der Zeijden, Steven VanBever, David S. Vine, Lois Weiner, Suzi Weissman, Naomi Weisstein, Laurie Wen, Billy Wharton, Sherry Wolf, and Julia Wrigley.

End the War Threats and Sanctions Program Against Iran
Support the Struggle for Democracy Inside Iran
Statement by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy-October 2010
(add your name, donate or share at our website)

We, the undersigned, oppose the U.S.-led campaign to impose harsher sanctions on Iran, and the ongoing threat of war against that country. Despite Washington’s claims, its policy is clearly not animated by a genuine concern for protecting the world from the threat of nuclear war; otherwise how could Washington support such nuclear-armed states as India, Israel, and Pakistan, or maintain its own huge nuclear arsenal? Nor is U.S. policy driven by the goal of defending democracy. If it were, how could the United States support brutally authoritarian regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

Months after it began its recent program to sanction Iran for its nuclear activities, the United States, in a move described by The New York Times as “more symbolic than substantive,” denied visas to and froze the foreign assets of eight Iranian officials, citing their role in the post-election crackdown. This symbolic gesture cannot obscure the fact that Washington’s fundamental motivation for imposing the comprehensive sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program is to neutralize or eliminate a major threat to its power in the region.

In June 2009 people around the world were inspired by the courageous protests in Iran, when hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, took to the streets to demand their democratic rights. Since then the Iranian government has tried to repress the movement: hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, often tortured, deprived of medical care, and forced to live under dangerously unhealthy conditions. We support those who struggle for democracy and social justice inside Iran.

Far from helping the Iranian people, sanctions and war threats strengthen Ahmadinejad’s regime, helping it to shift the blame for worsening economic conditions from itself entirely onto the external enemy. In the past the Iranian elite has proven able to circumvent sanctions, but if Washington actually succeeds in preventing Tehran from importing refined petroleum, exporting oil and other items, and conducting normal trade and banking activities, over time millions of ordinary Iranians will suffer.

We don’t want Iran, or any other country, including our own, to have nuclear weapons. But even the U.S. government admits that Iran does not now possess nuclear weapons and has no imminent prospect of acquiring them. Moreover, Iran has no less right than any other nation to develop civilian nuclear power. Many of us oppose the use of nuclear energy by any country, both for environmental reasons and because of its link to nuclear weapons — but that is not the issue in the present U.S.-Iran confrontation. The United States, a major producer of nuclear energy and by far the leading nuclear weapons nation, which continually upgrades its own conventional and nuclear arsenal and tolerates the possession of nuclear weapons by other reckless and aggressivepowers, has no moral legitimacy when it tries to punish Iran for its nuclear activities.

U.S. belligerence — its continual warnings that “all options remain on the table,” possibly including acceptance of an Israeli attack — only creates strong inducements for Tehran to seek nuclear weapons for its defense, or to become, like Japan, “nuclear-weapons capable,” i.e. possessing all the elements necessary to make a bomb without actually manufacturing one. And it’s not just Iran: U.S. militarism has helped to create a Hobbesian world in which more and more countries come to believe that their survival depends on nuclear “deterrence.”

The United States can best reduce the danger of nuclear war by taking major steps to divest itself of nuclear weapons as part of a new, democratic and socially just foreign policy. This would include initiating both nuclear and conventional disarmament, encompassing missile “defense” as well as more obviously offensive weaponry; ending its predatory wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; supporting a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East; giving real support to Palestinian rights rather than continuing one-sided support to Israel; and dismantling its more than 1,000 military bases around the world. Such steps would help undermine the rationale for Iran and other countries developing their own nuclear weapons. These actions would also be the most effective way to strengthen women’s, labor, and other democratic movements in the Middle East, and to promote the interests of ordinary Americans and real peace in the world.

If for any reason you have difficulty at the website, just send us an email at cpd@igc.org. Please circulate the statement to your colleagues and friends. And you can share the statement on Facebook by going to our website.

In peace and solidarity,
Joanne Tom
Joanne Landy Thomas Harrison
Co-Directors, Campaign for Peace and Democracy

To sign or support the statement, please go to the
CPD website
Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2790 Broadway, #12, NY, NY 10025
Email: cpd@igc.org
Campaign for Peace and Democracy
2790 Broadway, #12 | New York, NY 10025
This email was sent to: marsh6@optonline.net
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I Might As Well Claim It: The Great General Johnson

October 18th, 2010

General Johnson died last week. He wrote the first great rock’n’roll song not about rock’n’roll itself exactly but about why the music would prevail. And he wrote a ton of other stuff, though that one and “Patches,” his deeply affectionate reminiscence of hard times in the rural south, got the attention.

“It Will Stand” was a prophetic voice in its way, as much as James Baldwin’s was. “It swept this whole wide land / Sinkin’ deep in the hearts of man.” Grown-ups must have thought he was nuts. It was 1961. Rock’n’roll was out of fashion since…oh maybe the plane crash. Two years, might as well have been forever. Who else believed that music would have a comeback?

Every kid who heard it. I was ten, it never left my mind all through the crap about the Beatles, long hair, too simplistic….ten years of blah blah blah.

And that whole period at Invictus Records….man! At that point, he was the most powerful ally Holland Dozier Holland (who owned the joint) possessed.

In that time, the early ’70s, General Johnson wrote some of the greatest anti-war songs: “Men are Getting Scarce,” “Bring the Boys Home.” He wrote the greatest anthem of the down-low, “Band of Gold.” He wrote Laura Lee’s “Wedlock is a Padlock,” which Loretta Lynn ought to have covered. Not forget Honey Cone’s rendition of his version of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” which I actually like better than Joe Tex OR Oscar Brown Jr and I don’t hardly ever like anything better than Joe Tex. Beyond that, “Westbound #9″ was just classic, like an updated “Expressway to Your Heart” from the Motor City.

For his Invictus group, Chairmen of the Board, Johnson wrote about fifteen great songs including “Patches” (I think that they did it before Clarence Carter defined it.) The Chairmen also had a stage act that is totally under-rated, with wild ass Harrison Kennedy adding a P-Funk thing. I remember him racing through the streets of some theater, in NY or Detroit I can’t remember, a la Shider, only wearing lime green jockey shorts instead of the diaper.

I interviewed them for Creem but can’t remember what I wrote. Maybe nothing. I was taking it in, but maybe not ready to spit it back out. It was one thing to see Funkadelic, a black rock band, but it was another thing for that kind of outrageousness to pop up with vocal groups. It made me ready for Labelle and Sylvester, probably.

Then all those beach music records, a steady stream of them it seemed like, as they worked the Carolina beaches. Just dance grooves—I never found a great song in any of those various albums they did for little labels down there. Never found any bad songs, either. Which is tougher than it might seem.

To me, General Johnson was a giant. A ton more interesting than a sometimes-inspired hustler like Solomon Burke. Probably that’s just my problem but…what if it isn’t?