Weekly Standard article on Commercial Country Music: Lost In The Stars
September 27, 2016
Lost in the Stars
Country awaits its (musical) messiah.
Oct 03, 2016 | By Dave Shiflett
Many an aging hack writer (ahem) regrets not having worked harder in math class, or in what was once called “shop," which would have equipped us for careers built on sturdier things than words. As the assignments dry up, we could, at the very least, make a few bucks selling wobbly bookcases and custom-made backscratchers (a buck extra for the left-handed model).
Yet a few of us have held out hope for another option: writing country music lyrics. We assumed that, even after decades of cranking out journalistic dreck by day, chased by brain-dissolving potions at night, we'd have enough wattage left over to dash off a few hits, or at least a couple of regional favorites. The good news is that a quick review of contemporary country strongly suggests our wattage will be ample. The bad news—well, we'll get to that later.
There's plenty of good country music being made—along with bluegrass and other rural-inspired genres—but what we're talking about here is commercial country, the stuff you hear on Clear Channel and other broadcast behemoths. It should be said that commercial country is usually sung by talented vocalists backed by incredibly good musicians. But almost every song is instantly forgettable—and that's the generous appraisal. To the late Merle Haggard, modern country was flat-out "crap." It sounded, to his learned ear, as if it were produced by "the same band [with] the same sound."
Put another way: There's plenty of opportunity for up-and-comers. And old, perhaps delusional, hacks.
There is definitely an abundance of what might be called negative inspiration; that is, songs that seem to have required little mental mojo, or even full consciousness, to write. Take, for instance, the mega-hit "Achy Breaky Heart," which is quite memorable in the way that one's first viewing of a roadside corpse tends to stick with you.
But don't tell my heart
My achy breaky heart
I just don't think he'd understand
And if you tell my heart
My achy breaky heart
He might blow up and kill this man
Billy Ray Cyrus, who made a hit of the song, is also famous for siring the pop star Miley Cyrus (born Destiny Hope Cyrus), recently seen serenading her audiences while wearing a prosthetic penis. But be assured: Billy Ray likely doesn't care if you despise his song and his daughter. "Achy Breaky" made him rich and famous. The only dark spot—for him, at least—is that his signature song is being regularly eclipsed by newer atrocities such as "Drunk on a Plane."
Stewardess is somethin' sexy
Leanin' pourin' Coke and whiskey
Told her about my condition
Got a little mile-high flight attention
While easily dismissed as aural dentistry, DoaP does contain an element of genius: Sex in an airborne loo is reasonably considered a step above taking a romantic tumble in an outhouse. Ergo, "Drunk on a Plane" pushes the envelope. Merle, to be sure, was not impressed by this type of song: "They're talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don't find no substance. I don't find anything you can whistle, and nobody even attempts to write a melody."
On the bright side, the songwriters did know how to rhyme.
On my way home I'll bump this seat right up to first class
So I can drink that cheap champagne out of a real glass
And when we land I'll call her up and tell her "kiss my ass"
It might take a couple of double-wides to house all the artistic hairballs coughed up by Nashville songwriters, who are easily matched by writers from other popular genres. But every once in a while comes a song whose egregiousness is truly magisterial. Cowboy hats off, then, to "Red Solo Cup," made famous by Toby Keith.
Now a red solo cup is the best receptacle
For barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals
And you sir do not have a pair of testicles
If you prefer drinking from glass
A red solo cup is cheap and disposable
And in fourteen years they are decomposable
And unlike my home they are not foreclosable
Freddie Mac can kiss my ass woo
At this point, news stories featuring X-rays of skulls pierced by crowbars or railroad spikes suddenly come to mind. The spell holds as the song progresses.
Red solo cup you're more than just plastic
You're more than amazing you're more than fantastic
And believe me that I'm not the least bit sarcastic
When I look at you and say
Red solo cup, you're not just a cup (No, no, God, no)
You're my, you're my friend (Friend, friend, friend, life long)
Thank you for being my friend
In his defense, Toby Keith has been quoted as saying that this might be the dumbest song in existence, not adding whether it took one pickup truck, or two, to haul his earnings to the bank. None of which is to diminish admiration and appreciation for this or any of the aforementioned songs. After all, they give hacks hope that they, too, can have songwriting success. Some of the more delusional ones might even be inspired to pursue the hope engendered by Beverly Keel in her (Nashville) Tennessean column: "As the Bro Country movement begins to wane, people are anxiously awaiting an artist to appear with a fresh new sound to take country in a new direction."
Translation: The position of Country Music Messiah is open.
In this ecclesiastical spirit, I've put together (with suitable humility) a few tunes melding familiar themes—Mama, obesity, the Rapture—with contemporary developments.
Mama got fat, daddy got even,
He ran off and married a guy named Steven
Country music might not save my soul
Moving on a bit, the plot thickens.
Daddy got chopped, now he's a lady
Ran off to Texas with a girl named Sadie
Mama's head is spinning like a top
A good singer—perhaps, especially, one who is transitioning—might ride this tune (called "Roll Rapture") to the top of the charts. With similar reverence I submit "Seven-Dollar Beer," a piece of generational combat in the spirit of Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee."
Well we used to go out drinking
Had ourselves a lot of fun
Drinking Blues and cold Budweisers
Fifty cents for every one
And no one gave a rat's patootie
If your chicken was free range
Hell, if you worried about a chicken
People'd think that you were strange
Both demos are available—free, of course—at my website. Which brings us to some very sobering news. Of course, the subject is money and the reality check is provided by songwriting sensation Aloe Blacc. His giant hit "Wake Me Up!" (which he co-wrote and performed) "was the most streamed song in Spotify history and the 13th most played song on Pandora since its release in 2013," he informs us, "with more than 168 million streams in the US."
And yet, that yielded only $12,359 in Pandora domestic royalties— which were then split among three songwriters and our publishers. In return for co-writing a major hit song, I've earned less than $4,000 domestically from the largest digital music service.
The clear message: Dream big, including young people eyeing a future in the music biz. But think twice about cutting algebra class.
Wall Street Journal Reviews of 'In Praise Of Profanity' and 'What The F'
September 16, 2016
Sept. 16, 2016 2:32 p.m. ET
Cussing sure isn’t what it used to be. These days it seems nearly impossible to horrify, or impress, with a display of nuclear nomenclature. Even the pope has publicly dropped something of an F-bomb, which unleashed a fallout of yawns. It seems we’re all stevedores now.
Which is not necessarily a negative development, at least according to a pair of language experts whose books illuminate profanity’s pilgrimage from the gutter to the basilica.
With “In Praise of Profanity,” Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University, insists that we are living in a kind of golden age of profanity, so designated “because we can use profanity to satisfy multiple human and linguistic needs better now than at any previous time in history, without much constraint.” In “What the F,” Benjamin K. Bergen, who teaches cognitive science at the University of California, is similarly exuberant, calling his book a “coming-out party for the cognitive science of swearing.” One expects Lenny Bruce and George Carlin will be put up for sainthood any day now.
Who would be surprised? Words that once sent offenders to the pillory and introduced countless youngsters to the taste of soap now trip off the daintiest of tongues. In fact, deploying the soap cure may earn parents a visit from child protective services while a failure to cuss might be deemed “putting on airs.”
So how did we get here? Pretty quickly, writes Mr. Adams, who has “witnessed the devulgarization of most profanity during my lifetime.” Harper’s magazine, he notes, first used the F-word in 1968, though the New Yorker’s Harold Ross held longer to his standard of not publishing anything that would, according to one biographer, “bring a blush to the cheek of a 12-year-old girl.” New Yorker writer Renata Adler thought that by the 1960s the “strongest Anglo-Saxon words in the language were so common that their power was nearly gone.”
The shift (or obliteration) of standards was accomplished by endless envelope pushing, some of which seems quaint to our jaded ears. Older readers will recall the uproar over the early pop song “Louie, Louie,” which these days would probably pass muster as a Baptist wedding recessional. Mr. Adams implicitly celebrates Bluto Blutarsky and his frat brothers for their role in the great re-alignment. “Since Animal House,” he writes of the 1978 classic, “. . . we’re all a little vulgar.” And Bluto has been eclipsed by the likes of Tony Soprano, a full-throated Caruso of cursing.
Anyone wondering how language pros spend their working hours will find enlightenment in Mr. Adams’s study of “The Sopranos.” Through careful counting he has established that in 81% of the show’s episodes there was more than one profanity per minute, and in 22% there were at least 100 profanities. In the 85 monitored episodes there were 7,037 “profane instances.” These tallies amount to a loss for civility but a victory for the scriptwriters, who were clearly not penalized for unimaginative repetition.
Readers who fear that the professors might analyze the blood (or other fluids) out of their subject will find some confirmation of their concerns. In both books, words and deeds that formerly raised eyebrows soon begin to lower them to doze position, though Mr. Bergen does perk things up a bit by including photographs of people cussing in sign language. Who would have ever guessed that a properly coached thumb could be so expressive?
Mr. Bergen also includes interesting facts about organs other than those associated with the body’s exhaust or reproductive systems, especially the brain, which, he reports, consumes 20% of the body’s energy while only constituting 2% of its weight. Inequality, it seems, knows no boundaries. He writes that people who sustain brain damage that obliterates their ability for normal conversation often retain their ability to cuss, comforting us with the possibility that even after a stroke we might still spew properly spiced bile if not the Preamble to the Constitution.
Mr. Bergen’s investigation of the pope’s F-bomb (which occurred on March 2, 2014) will likely bring comfort to the faithful: He gives the pontiff a pass, attributing the incident to a mere slip of the tongue. In an address from the Vatican balcony, Pope Francis attempted the Italian word for “example” and ended up striking an inadvertent blue note. Most people, he notes, commit speech errors at a rate of one or two for every 1,000 words, which works out to one error for every 10 minutes of speech. And we all know how the pope can go on. It was only a matter of time.
Not that Mr. Bergen would have minded if His Holiness had purposely loosed a linguistic loogie. Both authors believe that profanity can be unparalleled in its expressive powers and even work physical wonders. Mr. Bergen writes that, while common civility would ideally tame slurring tongues, courts might one day attempt to apply a legal gag. In some places, of course, an ill-considered religious slur can earn you a starring role in an Internet beheading epic.
“Context is everything,” Mr. Adams writes, reasonably enough, though some readers may take exception to his view that we don’t cuss enough. “Women should swear more, and they might as well start swearing while they are girls, right alongside the boys.” Sharing a similar evangelical tone, Mr. Bergen says that “there’s no evidence” that profanity harms children and only inconclusive evidence that children who hear profanity are more likely to use it.
Harm is difficult to measure, and it is easy enough to sympathize with youngsters who deploy formerly taboo words to spice up an otherwise mundane existence (and perhaps rattle their parents). Yet he who rises from his flippin’ ( Andy Capp’s preferred version of the word) bed to eat his flippin’ breakfast before playing his flippin’ videogame till his flippin’ fingers fall off has still, at the end of the flippin’ day, not been up to much—except for sounding like a linguistic drone. Which, besides being mindless, may be a form of self-deception. Words meant to spice up reality might also conceal its fundament vacuousness.
There may also be something diminishing about fixating on words that, for the most part, describe entities and events found south of the beltline. While there are many variations—Mr. Adams says researchers have identified 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for the part of the male anatomy that the Brits call “wedding tackle,” 1,180 for the related female technology, and 540 for the activities that inspired the creation of the diaper and chamber pot—most people suffice with a few default obscenities.
Most parents would prefer that their children spout Shakespeare than sound as if they are perpetually stepping on a nail, just as they’d prefer that their children master the violin instead of the kazoo. Yet it’s also true that a world without salty language would be a tasteless porridge. Mr. Bergen reports, amazingly, that the Japanese language includes no swear words.
Perhaps profanity’s ascendancy will eventually bore people into finding new and more interesting ways to express themselves. For now, however, anyone hoping to escape the triumph of what was once called “gutter talk” should either lance his eardrums or consider relocating to Japan.
Wall Street Journal Review of 'Redskins: Insult and Brand'
April 9, 2016
April 8, 2016 2:45 p.m. ET
Lest Americans grow bored with immigration, terrorism, confiscatory taxation and other mainstays of campaign chatter, Bernie Sanders has dragged the hapless Washington Redskins into the circus, saying that their pigment-specific moniker is on the “wrong side of history.”
Many fans, not to mention team owner Dan Snyder, may feel the same way about Mr. Sanders, yet he is one of 50 senators who signed a letter demanding a Redskins name change. The senators, who always wag a civil tongue, join a dedicated tribe of activists who hope to persuade, or force, Mr. Snyder to relent. It’s enough to make one wonder whyDonald Trump hasn’t beat the anti-PC drums on this subject.
Those seeking a deeper understanding of the anti-Skins crusade will find a vibrant apostle in C. Richard King, a professor of comparative ethics at Washington State University who vastly prefers his ethics to those of the Redskins’ faithful. He’s all-pro on this matter, having written widely against the use of Indian mascots. This latest effort is illuminating, in a blowtorch sort of way.
Mr. King’s basic argument is straightforward. He considers the name “Redskins” a racial slur. He acknowledges that the name may have originated among American Indians themselves and had positive connotations, but he argues that it was a slur by the time team owner George Preston Marshall chose it in 1933 to replace the name “Braves” for his then Boston-based football team.
Mr. King quotes Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz,” who wrote (in reference to Sitting Bull’s demise) that “the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them.” He adds that the first Redskins coach, William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, who identified as a Lakota Indian, may have been making a false claim about his lineage. (What is it about Boston and questionable assertions of Indian ancestry? If the Senate holds hearings on the issue, one hopes Sen. Warren will offer her unique insights.)
The Redskins faithful have another view, summed up by former Chicago Bears coachMike Ditka: “What’s all this stink over the Redskins name? It’s so much horse—. . . . It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian.” Mr. Snyder—and no doubt most team fans—feel the same way and would likely use the same scatological reference to characterize Mr. King’s insistence that their embrace of the name masks deeper, darker intuitions. Which is probably fine with Mr. King, who seems to enjoy a good scrap.
He brings a great deal of passion to the table, starting with the book’s dedication, which includes a hat tip to “haters” (presumably those who disagree with Mr. King). So strong is his dislike of the team name that he refuses to use it, except in the book’s title, preferring the clunky “Washington professional football team.” To utter a word like “Redskins,” he insists, “disappears Native Americans.” It calls “for the exclusion and extermination of the indigenous other.”
Fans of this type of writing (known in some quarters as raving) will find a rich feast in “Redskins: Insult and Brand,” which is regularly spiced with righteous invective and epically eccentric descriptions. Mr. King characterizes the football gridiron “as a kind of heterotopic space, a zone of frivolity and liminality made possible by imagined indigenous masculinity that empowered white male athletes and a white patriarchal public sphere more generally.” One can imagine Mr. Ditka looking up from such a passage and exclaiming: “Where’s this guy from—outer space?”
The passage illustrates another of Mr. King’s passions: clubbing the beneficiaries of “settler colonialism”—who, in pigment-talk, would be known as palefaces. Mr. King (whose jacket photo suggests his own membership in that tribe) writes of “unbearable whiteness” and “unacknowledged whiteness” and even their dull cousin “unremarkable whiteness.” He also sounds as if he’s not too keen on males. Those who defend the team name, he writes, reflect “the shape and significance of white masculinities in the wake of multiculturalism, feminism, and postindustrialization.”
In the academic world that sort of sentence may be the equivalent of an 80-yard field goal—into the wind. Yet readers who might otherwise be willing to consider the argument for a name change may eventually conclude that Mr. King sounds a lot like the headmaster at a re-education camp, one who perhaps types with one hand and sharpens a machete with the other. If he’s for something, there may be good reasons to take a generous look at the opposite side.
When it comes to culture-war subjects, most of us have become accustomed to a fair amount of hectoring. Mr. King does show flashes of genius in that regard, delivering his diatribes with startling intensity and an imaginative deployment of cultural-theory jargon. Even so, we might be forgiven for not getting too worked up about Indian mascots or, for that matter, teams whose names and logos exploit wild animals, pirates, giants or the vast inanimate heat.
We would find ourselves in good company. A 2003-04 Annenberg survey found that only 9% of Native Americans felt the Redskins name to be offensive. Mr. King concedes that later polls “have shown support for the team name among Native Americans.” It is worth remembering that a slur can lose its sting, just as the F-word—once the hydrogen bomb of obscenities—is now as common in everyday conversation as asking, “How’s your mother?” In fact, more common.
That doesn’t mean that the Redskins name won’t someday change. A new stadium deal might include a push for revision. New owners could insist on a new identity. A decline in merchandise sales might doom the tradition.
So it’s not too early to suggest replacements. One assumes that Mr. Trump would support the Washington Bloviators, while anti-Washington types might prefer the Satraps or (my choice) the Burons—a pleasing contraction of “bureaucrat” and “moron.” Meantime, several solid reasons not to support the team remain in play: high ticket and beer prices, traffic jams, and a very good chance, on any given Sunday, that you’ll see an alternate version of Little Big Horn, this time with the Indians getting the short end of the stick.
Wall Street Journal Review 'Of Beards and Men'
January 28, 2016
The ancient Hebrews honored beards. Peter the Great taxed his shaggier subjects. Lincoln grew one to make his mug look more presidential.
Jan. 27, 2016 6:57 p.m. ET
Those who are by nature contemplative, or who just have too much time on their hands, may occasionally ponder the reason why so many modern men shave their faces. As with most deeply philosophical questions, the obvious answer—because they want to—is probably insufficient.
A richer sense of the topic can be gleaned from “Of Beards and Men,” a surprisingly interesting study of mankind’s love-hate relationship with facial hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, who lectures on history at Wright State University. Those who choose to shave, or not to shave, are not simply opting for a look that pleases them, Mr. Oldstone-Moore writes. They are shaped by “seismic shifts dictated by deeper social forces that shape and reshape ideals of manliness.”
Remember that, fellas, the next time someone accuses you of being insensitive to seismic forces. Mr. Oldstone-Moore gives several indications that he aced Academic Jargon 101—“the language of facial hair is built on the contrast of shaved and unshaved”—but he also presents a pleasant survey of beard knowledge with a wry sense of humor, starting with a trip back to the dawn of humanity, when beards evolved “because our prehistoric female ancestors liked them.” A bushy mug was also a weapon to terrorize adversaries—a passive version of beating the chest and grunting loudly.
As civilization set in, whiskers became more than mere babe bait or predator repellant. Mr. Oldstone-Moore finds a divine mandate for beards in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A bit later on, Greek dramatists mined the popular prejudice against clean-shaven men, who were considered effeminate if not outright degenerate.
But all things must pass, and beards were no exception. Their chief executioner was Alexander the Great, no slacker when it came to self-adoration. He believed that his shaved face presented “an otherworldly image of ageless perfection.” His look rocked antiquity and has, for the most part, dominated for the past 23 centuries.
Beards did not of course disappear, and our author identifies a few eras in which wearing whiskers was downright respectable, so much so that beards were sometimes grafted onto faces previously portrayed as hairless. Exhibit A is Jesus of Nazareth, “the most recognizable bearded man in Western civilization,” according to Mr. Oldstone-Moore, even though the Good Shepherd was initially portrayed with a face as bare as Justin Bieber’s. When church fathers eventually adopted “a positive view of facial hair as part of their assertion of a male-dominated gender order,” Jesus bearded up—and has remained that way up to our own time.
Still, it often seems as if the bearded should be recognized as a historically persecuted minority. The medieval era was fond of the razor, and the belief that “beardlessness was next to godliness” could inspire outright persecution. The University of Paris, Mr. Oldstone-Moore tells us, banned long-bearded men from lecture halls in 1533, and a few years later the city’s chief court outlawed beards on judges and advocates. In the same spirit the so-called Enlightenment preferred a shaved face and long wigs. Russian strongman Peter the Great proclaimed a near-jihad against his shaggier subjects, whom he considered an impediment to modernization, and even levied a beard tax.
Mr. Oldstone-Moore does not overlook the fact that beards have conferred benefits, even for women. Hatshepsut, the first female king of Egypt, deployed a fake beard that convinced compatriots that she was a man. Closer to our time, Josephine Clofullia, a 19th-century “freak show” sensation, boasted a beard “that shamed any man’s we have ever seen,” as a contemporary critic raved.
Mr. Oldstone-Moore honors other unshaved eminences, including Karl Marx, whose beard was thick enough to house a family of Bolsheviks, and Abraham Lincoln, who was inspired to fuzz up when 11-year-old Grace Bedell informed him that women with bearded spouses “would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president.” Lincoln had another incentive to cover his mug, as reflected in his reply to Stephen Douglas’s charge that he was two-faced: “If I had another face do you think I would wear this one?”
Yet while beards were popular in Lincoln’s day, there were always critics, including the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In 1851, he wrote that beards “should be forbidden by the police. It is moreover, as a sexual symbol in the middle of the face, obscene: that is why it pleases women.” Just after the turn of the century the medical magazine Lancet reported that clean-shaven men were less likely to suffer from colds, and by 1915 the Los Angeles Police Department wouldn’t promote any man with a beard. A Chicago woman interviewed on the street declared: “I want a modern husband, not one reared in Noah’s ark.”
That censorious spirit has found its way to our era, Mr. Oldstone-Moore writes, reflected in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling (Kelly v. Johnson) holding that “Americans do not have a legal right to grow beards or moustaches as they choose” if their employer demands a clean face. And while several cultural icons have been bearded, including John Lennon—who heroically advised the world to “Stay in bed. Grow your hair. Bed peace. Hair peace.”—a bare face is the default look.
That could change. Beards are becoming somewhat more common these days—at least on entertainers, athletes and Civil War re-enactors—though Mr. Oldstone-Moore says that we will not have arrived at a true bearded age until “facial hair becomes desirable, or even acceptable, for soldiers, managers, and legislators.” In the meantime, he adds, scientific studies show that contemporary women prefer men with stubble, which signals the maturity and masculinity to grow a beard but allows the underlying pretty face (or otherwise) to shine through. The best of both worlds, it seems. One wonders what Schopenhauer would make of that.
Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at www.Daveshiflett.com
Boston Globe Article on Donald Trump's America
January 17, 2016
By Dave Shiflett January 17, 2016
One year from now, perched atop the steps of the Capitol and overlooking a vast crowd of his fellow citizens on the National Mall, Donald J. Trump could be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
Indeed, we may already be counting down the weeks until Donald J. Trump moves into the White House. Make that The Trump White House. Along with Vice President Oprah Winfrey — “She really helped me with the babe vote,” the president-elect might note — Trump will bring his signature policies and a revolutionary tone shift to Washington, which he will try very hard not to call a hick town.
First off, in the spirit of disclosure, I coauthored Trump’s first campaign book, “The America We Deserve,” back in 2000. I found Trump to be funny, truly concerned about America’s future, and a guy who paid his bills on time. I also assume that if you asked him today who I am, he wouldn’t have a clue. As for this election, I vigorously support no candidate. In fact, for reasons explained below, I plan on going fishing on Nov. 8. End of disclosure.
In a similar vein, I’ll go ahead and stipulate that, for any number of reasons — poor showings in early primaries, withering press scrutiny, an unwillingness to write more checks from his own bank account — DT may not actually take the big prize. He may announce that he is, after all, Donald Trump and, “quite frankly, the presidency would be a definite step down.” Or his plane could crash.
Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Trump rides a tsunami of hope, luck, bile, and disaffection into office, inspiring Whoopi Goldberg and others to keep their promise and flee the country. What would life be like for those of us left behind? What would Trump’s America be like? Let’s take a stroll.
The shock to the system would be profound and first noticeable by the words that tumble out of his mouth. It’s not unreasonable to expect he would become the first chief executive to use the F-word. And he’d deploy it judiciously, particularly while attacking ISIS and perhaps as soon as his inaugural address or later in a State of the Union, after which the cameras will pan the assembled Supreme Court justices, generals, and legislators left to wonder if it’s worse to applaud the sentiment or look unpatriotic by not doing so. At the National Prayer Breakfast, the president might use the word as part of an alliterative crescendo featuring pharaohs and Philistines — presenting the audience with a similar dilemma.
Before we get there, however, let’s also stipulate that even Trump’s detractors must agree that he has made this election cycle unusually entertaining. People may not like his demeanor, his pronouncements, or his hair — but the current political season would be a snoozefest without him. Who wakes up wondering what Marco Rubio, Jeb!, or Bernie Sanders will say today? Some of us check regularly to see whether Ted Cruz has grown a dorsal fin overnight, but for the most part, Trump is the draw.
And it’s increasingly easy to believe he’s got more of a chance of winning than the pro prognosticators gave him at the start of this campaign, which was zero. His Republican opposition is weak and uninspiring — a collection of hacks, nonstarters, and the butt end of a political dynasty. While the grand wise men of the Grand Old Party fear Trump may destroy the Republican Party, nine out of 10 medical examiners would rule it a suicide.
Meantime, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has her own set of problems. Over-qualified though she may be, she suffers from a terrible case of chronic charisma deficiency that looks worse in comparison with Trump. Their debates will be the political equivalent of a battle of the bands between Adele and Black Sabbath. Plus, there’s always the possibility of a last-minute indictment over her electronic mail.
Like Ronald Reagan and Thomas Pynchon used to say: “This is America.” Anything can happen. Maybe even President Trump.
In terms ofpolicy, Trump has run a campaign around the five core issues that every single American agrees are the most important — restricting Muslim and Mexican immigration, berating China, cutting taxes, reforming the Veterans Administration, and protecting the God-given right to own a bunker full of automatic weapons.
I loaned my crystal ball to my stock broker, but it seems safe to assume that his M&M immigration initiative — banning Muslims and deporting Mexicans — would command a great deal of public attention and discussion, especially when the streets filled with protestors. DT only likes adoring crowds, so this might undo him a bit, and perhaps inspire him to blink, or at least significantly modify his policies. At the same time, he’d also learn that presidents are not emperors or kings, and that he had less power than he imagined. His promise to put cop killers to death, for example, overlooked the fact that many states do not allow capital punishment.
Meantime, the Chinese will likely tell him where he can stick his plans to force them to close their sweatshops and plug their smokestacks. While his proposal for a flat tax will be music to many ears, it’s an old tune that might grate like disco for others. His promise to take families who bring in less than $50,000 per year off the tax rolls is similarly pleasing, especially if he can refrain from calling them “losers.” As for his Second Amendment initiatives — “I will get rid of gun-free zones on schools” on his first day in office, he promises — they may drive Michael Bloomberg to Xanax addiction. It goes without saying that making the VA more responsive will be universally welcomed.
But that’s to imbue Trump’s policies with a seriousness they don’t deserve. They are probably not central to his ascendancy — or his potential legacy.
After all, how many people go to ever-growing Trump rallies to hear him denounce the Chinese as “currency manipulators” or swoon when he calls for a 15 percent tax rate? Not many. They flock to Trump to hear him denounce losers.
Trump may be new to the political game, but he recognizes the deep resentment many Americans feel toward the elites — whether in politics, the media, the academy, or entertainment — who think it their duty to tell everyone else how to think. Trump feels their disdain. He empathizes with those who are weary of being labeled “haters” or “phobic” because they don’t toe the proper line, and who have had quite enough scolding about their diets, how much they drink or smoke, what they should think about the weather, and the evils perpetrated by their ancestors.
His supporters may agree with lefties that the system is rigged. But in their minds, the most notable beneficiary of it is Hillary Clinton, whose entry-level government jobs were US senator and secretary of state. It is a good thing that guillotines are not currently in fashion.
But DT surely is. Many of the besieged have sent up celestial petitions begging for a redeemer, or at least someone who will tell their oppressors to stuff it. The Universe has heard their entreaties and sent them Donald J. Trump. Put another way, we are seeing the political equivalent of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer trying to free themselves from the hectoring clutches of Aunt Polly.
Of course, even stalwart liberals such as Mel Brooks and Norman Lear have complained about political correctness. Meanwhile, anyone with a grievance against government policy, down to seat belt and bike helmet laws, probably sees a kindred spirit in Trump. His supporters’ views are hardened and his numbers increased when they are characterized as mentally unbalanced, chronically angry, uneducated rubes. And they like it when Trump throws around the word “stupid.” Taken together, Trump’s constituency is likely far larger than we realize.
Trump has no problem playing the role of a modern-day Bolivar — the people’s liberator — perhaps the first of that tribe to outfit his private jet with a Renoir. And should his policies bog down, he can rally the faithful by taking another shot at Polly and her prim confederates, using the word “schlong,” for instance.
President Trump’s freewheeling style would be reflected in his Cabinet: Puffy Combs (secretary of health and human services), Iron Mike Tyson (homeland security), and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio (attorney general), perhaps causing D.C. royalty to flee over the wall into Mexico.
Social media, meantime, would see a definite change in focus. Who’s going to have time to worry about Cecil the Lion when Trump is advocating small-arms training in middle school? And imagine the response when he jokes that appointees to the Federal Reserve will face a swimsuit review. Talk about an audit. Elsewhere, the popularity of a new hairstyle called “The Don” will make us wax nostalgic for the mullet.
Most of it would be highly entertaining. But there would surely be tense times as well, especially when the new president goes toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin. Trigger warning: a discussion of possible End Times to follow.
Despite his tough talk, Trump is a real estate guy who might have had to stare down carpet and concrete contractors but never a former KGB operative with experience as a carpet bomber. Will Trump, who has held out the possibility of nuking ISIS, feel it necessary to prove to Putin who has the bigger club? The tabloid headlines practically write themselves: “Goon Versus Loon.” Well, the worse that could happen would be nuclear incineration. Maybe we have it coming.
But let’s hope not. And to give Trump one last bit of credit, he and his competitors have made it fully respectable to choose another political option: joining the NOTA Party — None of the Above — and going fishing on Election Day.
That’s where I’ll be. Like many Americans, I don’t think we need another Clinton or Bush in the White House. But Trump isn’t the answer. His remarks about Senator John McCain’s war record ripped it with me. There’s a personal angle: My youngest son did two tours in the Middle East, and several other local boys answered the call. Some were hurt and will never be the same. For a guy like Trump, who never wore the uniform, to scoff at anyone’s military sacrifice makes him, in my opinion, ineligible for the job of commander-in-chief.
He even had the chutzpah to argue that he has worn the uniform — in military school — which he likened to real service. That’s like going to a toga party and announcing that you now know what it’s like to have served in Caesar’s legions. Whatever else you want to say about the man, he does keep us smiling.
I’ll be smiling while I’m drowning those worms. I’m expecting lots of company.
Wall Street Journal Article on Donald Trump
December 22, 2015
As the writer of Donald Trump’s first “campaign book,” the slightly revered and lightly-quoted “The America We Deserve” (published in 2000), I have been asked by “many, many people” (to deploy a Trumpism) to offer my recollections of the man who would be king.
Some wonder what he’s like to work with. Others ask if he’s terminally bombastic or what the chances are he’ll get crossways with Vladimir Putin and incinerate the world.
The third question will have to be taken up by soothsayers and bookies. As for the first, we made a pretty good team. He needed words, I needed money, and together we explored what Trump would do if he became president. I have long considered it my first published work of fiction.
Yet the world has gotten very strange since then. In an ongoing shock to Main Street, Wall Street, Sesame Street and probably lots of people who believe in a benevolent deity, Trump has leveraged fear of Islamist mass murderers, concerns over a slack economy, and widespread disdain for the forces of cultural bullying into a forceful lunge for the presidency. He’s serious about the job, and lots of people are serious about him.
This is a vast change from 2000, when Trump (by my estimation) was simply another rich guy out on a lark. He was bombastic but out to make headlines, not history. He talked about toughness much in the same way candidate Barack Obama would later constantly jabber about hope. It was a short-lived dance through the spotlight, and plenty of fun.
Trump was in his early 50s when we teamed up to make, if not literature, at least a little noise and a few bucks. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Among other things he liked to brag about never drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, or even sipping coffee -- credentials that almost suggested a closeted Mormon.
But of course he also liked some of the other the finer things in life, especially if they wore high heels. A visitor to his Trump Tower office found himself surrounded by women who looked as if they’d been created in a laboratory. Trump, by contrast, was something of a manatee with a funny coif, but also living proof that while money might not buy you love or even ripped abs – so what?
He had a decent sense of humor and didn’t bore anyone by droning on about policy specifics. He had Roger Stone, the famed political trickster and fashion plate, to fill in those blanks. Trump could also be surprisingly humble, especially when discussing his parents and their longstanding marriage. He judged himself harshly for his own failed nuptials and was self-effacing when explaining that he wasn’t nearly as germaphobic as fellow plutocrat (RIP) Howard Hughes.
But he also had his passions. One was inspired by his uncle, John Trump, an MIT professor and “great man” who warned his nephew that terrorists with a suitcase bomb could turn Manhattan into “Hiroshima II.” Terrorist attacks on the homeland were approaching, DT predicted. This was prior to 911, so give him some points for prescience.
He was also a serious fan of diversity, inclusiveness and civility. Soon after sending in the first draft I was summoned to New York by Trump’s longtime assistance, Norma Foerderer (now deceased), who to this rustic hack was the epitome of the sophisticated New Yorker: bright, attractive, and possessed with a set of penetrating eyes that would have made a firearm redundant.
She had one message: the draft was too “strident” and would have to be toned down. So crucial was this demand that it could not be given over the phone. It was a long trip (from Virginia and back) for a meeting that lasted just a couple of minutes. Such was the importance making sure the boss wagged a civil literary tongue.
The book set that tone in the first pages. Trump denounced the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the harassment of Jews and all other “hate crimes.” He praised friends who had taught him about the “diversity of American culture” and “left me with little appetite for those who hate or preach intolerance.” Among those friends were Sammy Sosa, Puffy Combs, and Muhammad Ali – then as now perhaps the world’s best-known Muslim.
Fast forward to the present, where Ali recently found it necessary to send his old pal a remonstrance in the form of a press release entitled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States” in which he denounced “those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.” Ali didn’t mention Trump by name, and it appears Trump chose to ignore the Champ’s message.
Instead he rolls merrily along, like fortune’s child, bolstered by terrorist fear and political competitors variously seen as pathological liars, empty suits, the butt-ends of political dynasties and/or possible genetic collusions between a human, a weasel, and a snake. He’s also the default candidate for all who grown weary of culture cops and bureaucratic bullies. For a real estate guy, he seems to have the political game figured out pretty well.
But there’s also something of a tragic element to the rise of candidate Trump.
In what should be his finest hour, he acts as if he had been raised in a barn (as we rustics like to say). One wonders what Norma Foerderer would make of Trump’s barking-dog stridency. One hopes it would be majestically unprintable. What would his parents think of his habit of calling respectable, hard-working people “losers?” For someone who has been given so much in life, it’s an especially vile line of attack.
His remarks about Senator John McCain’s war record were almost supernaturally revolting. Here is a man who never wore the uniform (though he argues that going to military school was pretty much the same as being in the service, which is like me saying that going to a toga party is commensurate with membership in one of Caesar’s Roman Legions) sneering at McCain’s service. My youngest son did two tours in the Middle East and several of his friends also served; some were hurt and will never be the same. To hear Trump sneer at military sacrifice ripped it with me, as I’m sure it did with many military families.
Supporters might argue Trump’s bluster is the result of living in a world that is increasingly hysterical, whether about the climate, the proper nomenclature, or the threat of blood-drunk medievalists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction. Detractors, meantime, sense deep insecurity, not a trait one hopes for in a leader, especially one with a nuclear capability.
Or it could be that despite all the advantages he’s enjoyed, the man prefers being a political shock jock to being a statesman. Whatever the explanation, it’s working, as Trump might put it, “very, very big time.”
Wall Street Journal Review of PJ O'Rourke's 'Thrown Under the Omnibus'
November 21, 2015
Nov. 20, 2015
The world is short on laughs these days, unless you happen to be amused by Internet beheadings or the gales of political flatulence that keep the nation’s curtains constantly aflutter. Excellent timing, then, for the release of a thick collection of humorist P.J. O’Rourke’s work, culled from his 16 books by the author himself.
While Mr. O’Rourke prepared for writerly cringing as he made the selections—“How would you like to have the twaddle and blather you talked forty years ago preserved in detail, set down in black and white, and still extant someplace?”—his work holds up well. Some collegiate readers, to be sure, may howl about the lack of trigger warnings, perhaps not realizing that their screeching is music to Mr. O’Rourke’s ears.
A son of Ohio (and alumnus of Miami of Ohio), Mr. O’Rourke has had a full and illustrious career, including stints at National Lampoon, Car and Driver and Rolling Stone. He occupies a rare place among the laughing class: He has somehow avoided the orifice obsession that captivates many of its members; he identifies as Republican; and he is no mere thumb-sucker, having visited more than 40 countries to report on wars, regime changes, economic revolutions and the experience of drinking cocktails garnished with the poison sacs of cobras.
Some of the earlier pieces are reminders of how much times have changed since Mr. O’Rourke took up the pen, including a primer, from his 1987 masterwork “Republican Party Reptile,” on how to drive while drugged, possum-eyed drunk and within easy grope range of a feral female, an article that might get him arrested today. In the same spirit, he was an early opponent of the war on tobacco. “If someone asks you not to smoke, tell him you have no intention of living to be an embittered old person. But thank him for his concern.”
Of greater delight are his takedowns of the smug drones who insist they know The True Way. In 1982, Mr. O’Rourke infiltrated an entire boatload of such people who were engaged in the heroic work of taking a “peace” cruise down the Volga River. Our correspondent was truly a fish out of water. Among other things he considered socialism “a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck.” His fellow travelers, on the other hand, were fans of the Soviet state, then under the enlightened leadership of longtime KGB thug Yuri Andropov.Yet Mr. O’Rourke, exercising profound investigative skill, spotted the chink in their ideological armor. These “were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.” Small details reveal large truths.
In another throwback moment, he describes one true believer on the cruise radiating “not the kind of ugliness that’s an accident of birth but the kind that is the result of years of ill temper, pique, and petty malice. These had given a rattish, shrewish, leaf-nosed-bat quality to her face.” Today this passage might be dismissed as hag-shaming, though less fevered minds might recognize it as an excellent example of literary portraiture.
As the years passed Mr. O’Rourke found his way to many conflicts, including the invasion of Iraq, where his traveling companion, Atlantic editor Michael Kelly, was killed in an accident during the assault on the Baghdad airport. His interviews with internees at Palestinian refugee camps may have permanently scotched any chances of a speaking gig for Aipac. “This is barbarism. I’ve covered a lot of rioting and civil disorder, and there is no excuse for this kind of civilian hammering by soldiers and police.”
When the jihadists flew into New York and Washington on 9/11, he covered the aftermath from the bar at the Palm restaurant in D.C., whose assistant manager told him: “Ten minutes after the Pentagon was hit, I was getting reservations” because his customers “just wanted to be with other people.” Which brings up one caution about Mr. O’Rourke’s work: If you’re early on in an attempt to regain sobriety, it might be best to leave this book on the shelf until your legs are fully under you, for Mr. O’Rourke is a friend of the grape—or, more precisely, of whiskey. “Yes, alcohol kills brain cells,” he writes, “but it’s very selective. It kills only the brain cells that contain good sense, shame, embarrassment, and restraint. Wield a heavy hand at the bar.” One senses that if you needed to find the best bartender in the expanding caliphate, Mr. O’Rourke could point you in the right direction. I found myself using a swizzle stick for a bookmark.
He is also passionate about his patriotism, as vividly expressed in his description of ordinary Americans: “We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them together, and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars.” This thumbnail sketch surely won’t please his fellow countrymen who look longingly at Europe’s high-speed trains and green initiatives and look down on American politicians for not having read Descartes or memorized Voltaire. Mr. O’Rourke can probably live with their contempt.
His conservatism was somewhat long in coming. Though he hails from a Republican background—his grandmother said that the difference between Republicans and Democrats was that “Democrats rent”—Mr. O’Rourke during his youthful years “was swept out to Marxist sea by a flood of sex. I was trying to impress cute beatnik girls. Then, one day, I found myself beached on the shore of jobs and responsibilities and I was a Republican again.” His hippie friends, he adds, had become parasitical. “They continued to be convinced that everything was going to be shared soon, so they hadn’t gotten jobs.”
While some of them may still be singing “White Rabbit,” Mr. O’Rourke would rather sing the praises of Adam Smith, whose views are foundational to his philosophy of “leave me alone” (after you buy his book). He writes that he became a full-blown conservative on Dec. 4, 1997, when his wife gave birth. “Suddenly I was an opponent of change.” He felt an urge to stand athwart history shouting, “Don’t swallow the refrigerator magnet!”
Mr. O’Rourke has gathered other fruits of aging, including a surprise appearance of cancer in his posterior and a doctor who hoped to put him on a lighter whiskey ration. He is also given to geezerly reflections on his boomer generation, whose exhaustion of “the supply of peculiar” forced the new generation to take extraordinary measures to outweird their parents, including paying serious money “to pierce their extremities and permanently ink their exposed flesh. That must have hurt. We apologize.”
Boomers, he lightly rhapsodizes, channel Lord Byron, “thinking noble thoughts somewhat thoughtlessly, and being high-minded in a mindless sort of way.” But while vain and self-adoring, they are not “greedy for power.” This claim may stun readers who are weary of Clintons, Bushes and boomer bureaucrats or who see the heaving demographic as the middle act in an eternal drama: The older generation wins the peace, their children grow fat and decadent, leaving the youngest generation in the chains of debt and serfdom—perhaps with some hideous tats.
Some boomers might also carp about the book’s squintworthy typeface, while the batface hordes will denounce it as a continuous microaggression. Mr. O’Rourke has a message for them, delivered with a theological flourish: “Jesus said ‘love your enemies.’ He didn’t say not to have any.”
—Mr. Shiflett posts his music and writing at www.Daveshiflett.com
Washington Post Review of Otis Redding Biography
August 29, 2015
By Dave Shiflett August 28 at 12:03 PM
Otis Redding’s burst of fame was short but eventful. He shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and drew the Beatles and other British pop royalty to his concerts. He wrote one song that immortalized Aretha Franklin and co-wrote another that immortalized himself.
Like Hendrix, Joplin and too many other young stars, Redding didn’t make it past his 20s. He was 26 when his Beechcraft H18 airplane crashed into a Wisconsin lake in 1967, months before “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” rose to the top of the charts. Redding would never know the extent of his influence or the scope of his critical acclaim.
Mark Ribowsky, who has published books on the Supremes, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder, has written a (mostly) flattering biography of Redding. He places Redding not only at the head of that roster but at the heart of 1960s American popular music. “Respect” (which he wrote and recorded in 1965), and “ Dock of the Bay,” (co-written with Steve Cropper in 1967) “might very well reveal everything there is to know about the nature and meaning of that decade,” Ribowsky says. Elsewhere he calls Redding “one of the top artists in music history.”Roll over Beethoven, indeed.
Some may argue that Ribowsky elevates Redding’s importance beyond what is warranted, but He nonetheless tells a fascinating tale of the artist and his musical era.
Redding did not seem destined for fame. Born in Dawson, Ga., on Sept. 9, 1941, he was raised by a no-nonsense mother and a preacher father. He never learned to read or write music. But he could sing well enough to win a local talent show 15 times in a row. Soon enough, he was performing at various joints around Macon, initially earning 25 cents a gig.
His recording ascendancy at the Stax label in Memphis began almost by accident. When a musical associate finished a February 1962 recording session 40 minutes early, Redding, who had driven the musicians to the studio, was asked if he’d like to sing. Two songs later, he had deeply impressed sidemen Steve Cropper and Booker T. Jones. “I’d never heard anything like that before,” Cropper told Ribowsky. He signed that day, joining a historic Stax roster that included Booker T and the M.G.’s, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge, and Solomon Burke.
There’s plenty of literary love-bombing in the book, which includes interviews with Redding contemporaries and material from biographies, articles and documentaries. But there are also ample reminders that Redding was no angel. The book includes mention of complaints from band members about not being paid, reports of philandering and abuse.It also describes Redding’s participation in a 1964 shootout that parked some non-lethal buckshot in several participants, including Redding himself.
Ribowsky also takes some shots at the record industry — “one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known” — and delves deep into the competition between Stax and Motown Records. Motown’s sound was slicker while Stax’s was “blacker”and more spontaneous. “Motown does a lot of overdubbing,” Redding said, while at Stax “the rule is: whatever you feel, play it.” And so, Ribowsky writes, when Redding recorded “Satisfaction” his first order of business was to throw the lyric sheet to the floor. “I used a lot of words different than the Stones’ version,” he later said. “That’s because I made them up.”
He found a popular singing partner in Carla Thomas and scored another big hit with “Try a Little Tenderness” (covered by Bing Crosby in 1933).Perhaps his most famous performance came on June 17, 1967 at the Monterey Pop festival. Redding stood out from the Summer of Love crowd. No tie-dye for him: He bounded onto the stage in an “incandescent turquoise suit” looking “twelve or fourteen feet tall” as the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir recalled, and stole the show.
Redding’s biggest song, and his demise, were nearly simultaneous. On Dec. 7, 1967, he came to the studio with some song fragments. “It was in no way near complete,”Ribowsky writes, but after work on the melody and lyrics, including Cropper’s suggestion of a bridge taken from the Association’s “Windy” and Redding’s whistled improvisation at the end, they had a take of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The early reviews weren’t great. “It didn’t impress me,” said Duck Dunn, the bassist who played on the session. “I thought it might even be detrimental.” Bad call, Duck. As Ribowsky notes, The song went on to be the “sixth most played song of the twentieth century.”
Wall Street Journal Review of 'The Girl in the Spider's Web'
August 27, 2015
Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series did no favors to the book-tour industry, selling scores of millions of copies despite the fact that Larsson died before his books were published. He made the fatal miscalculation of climbing seven flights of stairs, which apparently triggered a heart attack.
Larsson’s demise in 2004 at age 50—in Stockholm, where he lived—was followed by bickering over his money and legacy. As it turns out, his characters are getting on very well without him, thanks to Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz, who keeps the “Millennium” brand humming in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”
Mr. Lagercrantz has big shoes to fill. The first three Larsson books—“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2005), “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (2006) and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (2007)—sold 80 million copies world-wide, 24 million in the U.S. But Mr. Lagercrantz has more than met the challenge. Larsson’s brainchildren are in good hands and may have even come up a bit in the world.
Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, a kind of alter ego for Larsson, is still at the center of the action, running Millennium magazine and, as he sees it, speaking truth to power. He is slightly older and creakier than he was at the end of the trilogy; still, he is holding his own, despite being under attack from social-media dolts who are appalled that he is not on Facebook and Twitter. He also finds himself at odds with a sleazy media executive named Ove Levin, whose company now owns a third of Millennium’s shares and who is pressuring the magazine to modify its content: “Surely it was not necessary for all the articles to be about financial irregularities, injustices and political scandals.” Levin would prefer more celebrity news—and more light material for the youth market.
Death by shareholder activism isn’t Blomkvist’s biggest problem, though. The major villains he faces in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” are the masterminds of a shady tech company, some computer- and pistol-savvy Russian thugs, and the eavesdroppers at the U.S. National Security Agency, the world’s unsolicited companion. For all these culprits, the tech is high and the motives are low: more money, more power. Some things never change.
A good deal of the novel’s drama revolves around solving the murder of Frans Balder, a computer genius who has come to have second thoughts about his work in artificial intelligence. He has also been a “lousy father” and has returned to Sweden from California to reunite with his 8-year-old autistic son, whose mother, with her drunken lout of a boyfriend, has created a toxic home environment for the child. Balder, we are told, wants “to start living, to no longer bury himself in quantum logarithms and source codes and paranoia.” He also has something important to tell Blomkvist—though the revelation is aborted when Balder meets his un-maker.
Mr. Lagercrantz dispatches Balder with a minimum of splatter, a show of restraint that is also evident in the book’s treatment of sex. Larsson, by contrast, favored blow-by-blow accounts. Otherwise, the narrative voice and prose style of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” are close to those of the trilogy: sturdy and reliable though not particularly stylish—a high-mileage Volvo that carries the reader along with efficiency.
Mr. Lagercrantz definitely shares Larsson’s love of Lisbeth Salander, the punkish, tatted waif and hacker whose chief talent is to remind us that revenge is a dish best served piping hot. He keeps her offstage for the opening chapters, but when the dragoness enters the story she speeds it up nicely, joining in various subplots aimed at thwarting the evils of the NSA and avenging Balder’s death.
Lisbeth is the franchise character, a damsel who imposes distress on all the right people and, while hardly vain, is pleasantly self-aware. When asked if she is insane, she replies, “Probably yes,” adding that she likely suffers from “empathy deficit disorder. Excessive violence. Something along those lines.”
But she has a good heart and excellent aim, and she works well with children, or at least with Balder’s autistic son, who helps her bring the villains to heel, if only temporarily. She’s also tough. When she takes a slug through the shoulder, there’s no national health care for her. Instead she swallows a few antibiotic pills and goes to the gym to box.
Lisbeth is joined by other characters who are unconventionally appealing. A highly accomplished hacker named Plague “was not a man who normally showered or changed his clothes much” and who “spent his whole life in front of the computer.” Others, we learn from background sketches, spent their youth indulging in various addictions or pursuing the delights of street crime. Most now live on fast food (one almost assumes that McDonald’s paid for product placement). But they are blazingly good with numbers.
As it unfolds, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is very much a geek drama, though Mr. Lagercrantz makes sure that the innumerate will learn a few things, such as the fact that encryption algorithms “take advantage of the difficulties involved in prime number factorization. Prime numbers have become secrecy’s best friends.” Lisbeth and her hacker team are guided by the ancient observation that power corrupts, “especially power without control,” which brings them into conflict with Edwin Needham, top security man for the NSA. His world is turned upside down when he receives a mysterious message: “Those who spy on the people end up themselves being spied on by the people.”
Lesser villains come and go. Christians and monogamy are as popular as pancreatic cancer with this crowd. Evil hitman Jan Holster recites a condensed version of the Lord’s Prayer—“thy will be done, amen”—before ventilating innocent skulls.
But the novel’s overarching evil is greed. A Swedish security cop shudders “at the creeping realization that we live in a twisted world where everything, both big and small, is subject to surveillance, and where anything worth money will always be exploited.” This kind of pronouncement is very much in the Stieg Larsson spirit: The rich and powerful are different—they have more money and fewer scruples and need to be knocked into shape by righteous journalists and fearless waifs. When the curtain falls one senses that future exploitation is inevitable -- including the exploitation of Larsson's fictional characters -- leaving readers with the hope that Mr. Lagercrantz avoids the stairs.
Rolling Stone Piece on Ben Bullington and Darrell Scott
August 7, 2015
Ben Bullington wrote songs while working as a country doctor in White Sulphur Springs, Montana (population: 939), often scribbling away in the early morning hours before work and during down times in the emergency room. He wrote lyrics on cards, boarding passes, propane receipts — anything at hand — and crafted melodies on his 1933 Martin D-18. He worked alone, but his obscurity was not destined to last.
Bullington had taken a crooked path to Montana. Born in Roanoke, Virginia, he attended Vanderbilt University and pursued a career in the oil exploration business. During a trip up the Amazon, he contracted a near-fatal illness and decided to become a doctor. He worked at an Indian reservation and in Alaska before settling in Montana, where he raised a family, produced five CDs and died from pancreatic cancer on November 18th, 2013, at age 58. It was his cancer diagnosis, which arrived one year before his death, that convinced Bullington to leave his work and spend as much time as possible making music.
His songs have taken on a life of their own. Highly descriptive meditations on small town life, love, death, war and even flies — which the doctor despised — they can carry a sharp bite, as in the opening line to "I’ve Got to Leave You Now," a song that predicted his own demise: "Too many men are worse than rodents." Perhaps not Clear Channel material.
But Bullington's work has attracted a devoted following, especially among Nashville's songwriting elite. Darrell Scott's recently released tribute album, 10: Songs By Ben Bullington, is performed with sparse guitar, banjo and piano accompaniment, echoing Bullington's solo performances at Elks Clubs and other small venues out west. "These are real, honest, literature-based pieces of art for art's sake," Scott says, adding that the songs are not marred by "a swing for the commercial fences. I felt I was being part of a beautiful piece of art and part of a beautiful gift that will outlive both of us."
Grammy winner Rodney Crowell says Bullington's songwriting sensibilities "were a hybrid blend of intelligence, innocence and wry observance" and "refreshingly free of what we came to know as 'the music business.' He reminded me that a good and true song needs no other purpose." Scott and Crowell were joined onstage by several Bullington fans at the album's Nashville CD release party in late May, including Bill Cowan, Bill Payne, Gretchen Peters, Tracy Nelson, Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough. Earlier that day, Bullington's "Country Music I’m Talking to You," a scathing indictment of Music Row and country radio, was played on WSM — the voice of the Grand Old Opry.
There's a storybook quality to Bullington's ascendency, whose catalyst was an April 2007 Montana dinner party introduction to Joanne Gardner, a former Sony senior V.P. and refugee from Los Angeles' rat race. She was immediately captivated by his songs and embraced his DIY spirit.
"There was no machine, no label, no distribution," she says. "We kitchen-tabled the whole thing. He had champions all over." None were more dedicated than Gardner, though, who introduced Bullington to Scott, Crowell and other musical pals. She acted as his manager and, during his last year, often drove Bullington to gigs. "Sometimes he felt pretty good, and sometimes he rolled into a ball in the back seat," she remembers. He died at her house.
Mary Chapin Carpenter and Crowell have written songs about Bullington, and Crowell may do some post-mortem co-writing with help from the large collection of lyrical fragments he left behind. Meanwhile, Scott's 10 is Number 26 on the Americana radio play chart. All of which has the feel of an unlikely legend being born.
Wall Street Journal Review of Judd Apatow's 'Sick in the Head'
June 27, 2015
Sit-Downs With Stand-Ups
By DAVE SHIFLETT
June 23, 2015 6:58 p.m. ET
Writer, producer and director Judd Apatow is probably best known for movies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Anchorman,” any one of which, given their unbuttoned sexual humor, would earn him a ticket to the chopping block from any respectable caliphate or two thumbs down from most mothers superior. Yet there is more to Mr. Apatow than his pop-culture triumphs indicate. His collection of interviews with comedy’s top tier—including Mel Brooks, Steve Allen, Albert Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Harold Ramis, Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr—reveals an intelligent man with a searching soul.
Born to a Jewish family (as were a large portion of his interviewees), Mr. Apatow was raised without religion, except for being constantly reminded by his parents that “life isn’t fair.” As he tells us in the introduction to “Sick in the Head,” this mantra “left a bit of a void in my life, and I looked to comedy—and the insights of comedians—to fill it.” He was a diligent and resourceful searcher from early on, using credentials from a high-school radio station to line up interviews with the likes of Steve Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, who were shocked to find that Mr. Apatow was a 15-year-old whose station had a broadcast power of 10 watts.
Yet the youthful Mr. Apatow was thoughtful, and his subjects responded in kind. Steve Allen complained about the canned laughter on “Laugh-In” and talked about Lenny Bruce, noting that “he was the first guy—first comedian, I should say—to speak the language of musicians, which is now common. Even squares now say ‘hip’ and ‘cool’ and ‘I dig.’ ” Back in 1983, Mr. Seinfeld told Mr. Apatow that his generation of comics didn’t “seem too daring as a group, if you compared us to say, the sixties or the fifties.” (What daring there is today is thwarted on college campuses by political correctness, Mr. Seinfeld noted in a recent podcast.)
The interviews in “Sick in the Head,” which mainly took place between 2009 and 2015, allow lots of room for Mr. Apatow’s views and thus feel more like free-ranging conversations, full of quips, occasional nuggets of wisdom and anecdotes. Albert Brooks admits to writing jokes for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Eventually, he says, he was “so disenchanted with him” that he prayed for his defeat. He had a better time, he says, hanging out with rock star Keith Moon, despite his habit of tossing televisions out hotel windows, and with John Lennon, whom he calls “a frustrated comedian.”
Among the stand-out interviews is the one with Mel Brooks, who Mr. Apatow says may be responsible for five of the top 10 comic movies ever made. Despite Mel Brooks’s standing as a comic deity, he comes across as a regular guy who is unimpressed by having won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. When you get older, he explains, “you’re more interested in your cholesterol.” He says that “Blazing Saddles” (1974) probably couldn’t get made today, because of the rabid vigilantism of the language police. “The N-word couldn’t be used as frequently and spiritlessly,” he says, even though the movie lampooned racial prejudice.
A few interviews are somewhat flat, including those with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Mr. Apatow: “Your mom sounds wonderful.” Mr. Colbert: “She was a lovely lady.”) Others underscore the link between anguish and mirth suggested in the book’s title, including the one with Roseanne Barr, who says that she has had “severe mental illness my whole life.” When asked what hell is she replies, “This planet.”
More amusing is the discovery that comics who have made their names pushing the envelope can end up sounding as if they had been raised by nuns. Louis C.K., whose routines might make Blackbeard blush, sees the cellphone as possibly of satanic origin. “It’s a sickness,” he says of iPhone infatuation, and he promises that his daughter will be “the last one of her friends to get a smartphone.” He forces her friends to surrender theirs at his front door, as if they were submachine guns, and watches in horror as withdrawal symptoms set in. “They itch, they shake, they can’t listen to each other.”
Chris Rock, meanwhile, has no time for stripper jokes. “I have two daughters. That joke is never silly.” Musician Eddie Vedder (included because Mr. Apatow likes his music) denounces the Disney Channel in tones reminiscent of a Focus on the Family press release: “I challenge you to find a single character, if not just even a single line in a half-hour show, that has anything of value and that isn’t said with an attitude other than, you know, being snarky.”
Mr. Apatow rarely lets a conversation pass without bringing up religion, often discovering voids similar to his own. Albert Brooks, however, confesses that when his children resisted going to temple, he said: “Let me explain something to you: If Hitler came back, he’s not going to ask if you went to temple. You’re already on the train. So you might as well know who you are and why they’re going to take you.”
Mr. Seinfeld, in a second interview two decades after the first, tells Mr. Apatow that he practices Transcendental Meditation and that he used to post pictures from the Hubble telescope in the “Seinfeld” writing room to provide cosmic perspective. “It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important.” Mr. Apatow replies that such vastness makes him feel insignificant and depressed. Yet he also expresses the hope that he may one day find traditional religious consolation, though it will require, he says, bringing his intellect to heel. “I plan on tricking myself into believing in religion one of these days,” he tells Sarah Silverman. “I’m going to pick a religion and then hypnotize myself.” All things are surely possible for a man who played a central role in Ron Burgundy’s immaculate conception.
Wall Street Journal Review of Willie Nelson's 'It's A Long Story'
May 23, 2015
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Willie Nelson sometimes wonders: Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit?
May 22, 2015 3:38 p.m. ET
Music can be a hard life, as exemplified by the early departures of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Corbain and Amy Winehouse, all at age 27. Yet not every icon is doomed to a quick exit. Willie Nelson, at 82, is still playing 150 nights a year while occasionally denying Internet hoaxes that he too has gone toes-up. It’s enough to make you wonder what his secret is.
Willie—with whom the world is on a first-name basis—provides several hints in his candid, heartfelt memoir. “It’s a Long Story” will probably not be endorsed by the surgeon general, Sunday-school teachers or marriage counselors, but those of a traditional bent will be happy to learn that Jesus and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale are definitely in his backup band.
His enduring glory, we learn, did not originate in a stable relationship with his parents, who married when they were 16 and were divorced when he was 6 months old. Willie and his sister, Bobbie, ended up being raised in Abbott, Texas, by their grandparents Mama and Daddy Nelson. The Nelsons didn’t have much money but were rich with love—for each other, their grandchildren and the Baby Jesus. Willie got right with the Lord early on.
“I was a believer as a kid,” he writes, “just as I am a believer as a man. I’ve never doubted the genius of Christ’s moral message or the truth of the miracles he performed. I see his presence on earth and resurrection as perfect man as a moment that altered human history, guiding us in the direction of healing love.” He also took to heart Norman Vincent Peale’s gospel of “positive thinking.”
His faith, however, didn’t inspire exceptionally close adherence to the rule book. He mentions that his Methodist church preached that “straight is the gate” but that he “can’t remember being afraid of venturing beyond that straight gate.” His walk on the wild side was under way by the time he hit double digits. He was using his musical talents to charm the local ladies by age 10 and discovered another keen interest. “As a kid I’d sneak off and smoke anything that burned. Loved to smoke. Would even smoke strips of cedar bark.”
Willie (with able assistance from veteran music journalist David Ritz) presents his story in a plainspoken, conversational tone reminiscent of his singing voice. He makes it clear that his lasting success cannot be attributed to matrimony, unless you mean the serial kind. He first married at 19 (his firecracker wife was three years younger), with two other stormy marriages to follow (his current marriage is holding strong). He admits that he didn’t practice monogamy nearly as much as guitar and could be prodigiously careless in covering his tracks. In one case he made the mistake of having the hospital where a love child was delivered mail the bill to his home. His wife was not amused.
But there is no doubting his devotion to music. By 14 he was playing in a polka band and had worked up enough confidence to book idol Bob Wills for a gig that provided him with his lifelong work ethic. Watching Wills perform that night, Willie is “transfixed” and feels as if Wills is telling him: “The job is to play like your life depends on it. . . . The job is to give the people what the people want and what the people need.”
While he would eventually get rich—he now divides his time between Maui, a spread in Austin, Texas, and his tour bus—things were desperately tight early on. He made ends meet by operating a tree chipper, selling encyclopedias and tapping the resources of working wives. Money was so scarce that he once offered to sell the rights to several of his early songs, including “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” for $10 each. Fortunately his offer was refused, and those songs have since deeply feathered his nest.
Readers hoping to pick up songwriting tips may be dismayed to learn that Willie’s songs came to him “prepackaged.” Composition has been so easy that he sometimes wonders: “Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit to express these feelings?” He later acknowledges less celestial assistance, including borrowing the opening note to “Crazy” from “I Gotta Have My Baby Back” by Floyd Tillman. “Good songwriters,” he explains, “realize that a little borrowing now and then is part of the process.” Attorneys take note.
Country-music fans will enjoy recollections of the times he spent with Bob Dylan,Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Johnny Cash. Willie’s relationship with Waylon was especially close and sometimes illuminated the mystical nature of popular music. As they prepared to sing a duet of Procul Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Willie asked whether his friend knew “what these lyrics are about.” Jennings responded, “No f—in’ idea, hoss.” They sang it anyway, as have over 1,000 other acts who have covered the deeply obscure if not flat-out incoherent megahit. His own hits, he adds, have sometimes confounded music-industry “suits,” who predicted that such triumphs as “Stardust” wouldn’t sell. “Last time I looked,” Willie says of the latter, “it had sold five million copies.”
He revisits other glories, and setbacks, including six claustrophobic months playing Branson, Mo., and a serious tangle with the IRS, which informed him, in his late 50s, that he owed $32 million in back taxes. He also lost a long-troubled son. Yet his positive attitude has never deserted him, thanks in part to the Good Lord, Norman Vincent Peale and a herbal supplement that is to his public persona what booze was to Dean Martin’s.
Willie’s long-standing relationship with marijuana has been no casual affair. When one of his houses caught fire he rushed inside to rescue his stash. He has toked high and low, near and far, and even on the White House roof during the Carter administration with a friend in high places, leaving one to wonder if the peanut was the only plant dear to the president’s heart. “I owe marijuana a lot. As I write these words on the verge of age eighty-two, I think I can fairly make the claim that marijuana—in the place of booze, cocaine, and tobacco—has contributed to my longevity.” It may be worth mentioning that Willie is also an avid golfer.
He ends the book in church, where he waxes somewhat humble about his long success. “I sing okay, I play okay, and I know that I can write a good song, but I still feel like I’ve been given a whole lot more than I deserve.” His many adoring fans would likely add that he gave as good as he got.
—Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at www.daveshiflett.com
Wall Street Journal: In Praise of the Teen Summer Job
May 6, 2015
Among the signs of my advancing age is bafflement at hearing younger parents talk about what their teenagers are going to do over the summer. Some mention internships with documentary filmmakers. Others say that their offspring will spend the hot months building latrines in distant corners of the developing world. A few speak of expeditions to measure the disappearance of glaciers or a period of reflection at an ashram in Tamil Nadu.
What on Earth is an ashram? And when did teenagers start doing all these exotic things instead of working summer jobs?
I wish them well, of course, and hope that they build the finest latrines ever to grace the Guatemalan countryside. I should also acknowledge that I wish such opportunities had been available to me when I was growing up.
At the same time, there is value in recalling the grit and glory of traditional summer work, which has taught generations of teenagers important lessons about life, labor and even their place in the universe—which turned out to be nowhere as close to the center as we had imagined.
Most of these jobs were anything but glamorous. Newspaper delivery, for example, was the first rung on many an economic ladder. The paperboy (or girl) had to rise early, pull heavily laden wagons up and down dark streets, and later go door-to-door collecting money from customers. It was amazing how gruff some could be, especially if you had innocently thrown a morning post or two through a window.
Construction work was another staple of the summer circuit, and it taught the glories of digging holes, hauling bricks and watching a house or building slowly fill a hole in the landscape. These jobs also introduced many of us to the phenomenon known as workplace danger. Countless youngsters picked up their first work scars on a construction site.
So let’s leave behind, momentarily, the allure of ashrams, glaciers and humanitarian latrine work and travel back to the early 1970s. The British band Mungo Jerry had a hit with “In the Summertime,” which sang the praises of fishing, swimming and dining with the girl of your dreams: “If her daddy’s rich, take her out for a meal / If her daddy’s poor, just do what you feel.” My girlfriend was a doctor’s daughter, so I needed to make as much money as possible. Which led me to a gray cinder-block opportunity zone called Pitzer Transfer and Storage.
Pitzer was a combination warehouse and furniture-moving company located near the then-festering Roanoke River in Roanoke, Va. This sprawling edifice (long ago razed) incubated few if any plutocrats, but it was an excellent showcase of Darwinian endurance. Among the more memorable tasks was the unloading of 100-pound bags of salt and sugar from railroad boxcars. In the summer, the boxcars became ovens—an effect enhanced by the forklifts that darted in and out to remove the loaded pallets. Some ran on natural gas, but others belched deep blue smoke reminiscent of fighter planes that had taken a stream of tracer bullets through the gas tank.
All of which worked wonders for a youngster’s self-esteem. Not only were we lifting and stacking bags fairly close to our body weight (I tipped the scales at around 135), but we were inhaling and exhaling the near equivalent of a forest fire and remaining upright. We often celebrated by using our 10-minute breaks to smoke a cigarette. If the surgeon general had happened by, he might have stroked out.
Another valuable part of the experience for a middle-class white kid was getting to know people from different backgrounds. Several co-workers were black; all were blue-collar. A few constantly radiated bourbon fumes, while one somewhat odd fellow seemed to be addicted to boiled eggs. This was our first close encounter with the melting pot—our version, perhaps, of joining the military, which had introduced wartime generations to the demographic rainbow of America. The older workers didn’t take us young bucks very seriously, but if we paid attention, we could learn a few things from them, including something about the dignity of common labor.
While prospects for job advancement were slim to none, many of the full-timers (lifers, as we called them) took pride in a job well done. And while you didn’t run into many prima donnas in that warehouse, there were world-class good people whose enthusiasm for life was as great as any king’s. I will never forget the day our foreman’s grandson graduated from high school—a first for his family, as memory serves. You would have thought the lad had found the cure for cancer and the common cold too. The foreman’s name was Percy. I assume he’s dead by now.
Perhaps he amuses himself, in some celestial bower, with recollections of how terribly his summer boys sometimes did their jobs—especially when we were allowed (for unknown reasons) to operate the forklifts. Among my most vivid memories is sending a set of forks through the picture tube of a large console television, which produced a magnificent explosion. Oil drums, foodstuffs—all were lanced, often fatally. I shudder to think what I could have accomplished if texting while driving had been possible back then.
Inanimate objects weren’t the only entities to suffer. Humans also took their licks. One day, while moving furniture, we rolled an upright piano over a co-worker, a seasoned professional who immediately sprang up and kept working. This was impressive, and no doubt reflected a desire not to be fired, which in those days seemed to be a common response to injury. The injured were not victims. They were liabilities.
I personally experienced this phenomenon after I had an unpleasant encounter with an arc welder. It all happened very quickly. An older guy (probably not my boss, but we respected our elders back then, which turns out not to be a uniformly wise policy) told me to weld together a broken hatch of some kind. I had absolutely no experience but went at it with youthful exuberance. Later that evening, I became aware of a sensation resembling having sand poured into my eyes, which I treated with cucumber slices. “Flash burns,” the boss noted when I returned a few days later, just before giving me the boot. I should add, on his behalf, he didn’t follow that with, “And good riddance!”
But what’s a little eye-roasting compared with being crushed by a tractor? That teaching moment occurred the summer before my senior year, on my second day of a brand-new farm job. The boss, who seemed to believe that city-raised teenagers instinctively knew how to handle farm equipment, sent us up to a plateau to discard some rain-ruined hay. On the way back down the hill, we lost control of the tractor. In the resulting crash (which I have no recollection of), both lungs were punctured by my ribs and began taking on blood. One filled completely. The other was edging that way when I arrived at the hospital. Some of the emergency-room team thought I was a goner.
But one doctor (my girlfriend’s father) saw a dim spark of life and helped revive me, which (after I regained consciousness) taught me once again the value of perseverance. There were other lessons as well. I carried from the incident a memory of looking down and watching the revival process. Perhaps a delusion, but perhaps one of those “near-death” experiences that have launched many a literary career and a cult or two.
Disaster, of course, is a very good teacher, so long as you survive the course. No one values their own heartbeat more than the person who has nearly had his slip away. Besides that, a close brush with death teaches you to be a bit more careful. There was another lesson as well: The doctor’s daughter dumped me, a reminder of the fleeting nature of love.
Those were far different days. We didn’t consider suing the farm owner, while today the first response might be to phone a lawyer before summoning the ambulance. Indeed, if I had hooked up with the right counselor during those early working years, I might today be living in the Taj Mahal. And while I wouldn’t trade these experiences for a year in an ashram with Elizabeth Taylor (circa 1970, please), I wouldn’t want my grandchildren spending their summers inhaling exhaust fumes.
Sadly, one of the biggest challenges facing today’s teenage worker is finding a job at all. A recent report by J.P. Morgan Chase says that only 46% of young people who applied for summer-employment programs were enrolled in 2014. “In the 14 major U.S. cities surveyed,” a release about the report added, “local officials also project that tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged youths looking for jobs will not be able to find them during the upcoming summer months.”
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the labor-force participation rate—that is, the proportion of a given population that is working or looking for work—for all youth last July was “17.0 percentage points below the peak rate for that month in 1989.” And the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says that young workers “between 16 and 24 years of age constitute the demographic group that has experienced one of the most substantial declines in labor force participation”—though part of that change, this study noted, could be due to more youths spending summers on educational pursuits.
May the Force be with them, and may the older generation start doing as good a job supplying them with jobs as saddling them with debt. Meanwhile, today’s teens may find some comfort in knowing that plenty of free advice is floating around about how summer jobs are often the first step on the yellow brick road to success.
As a part-time musician and full-time geezer with delusions of musical grandeur, I am struck by how often this sort of story gets told by big-time performers of my generation. I got in touch with a few musicians who got rich and famous playing songs about White Rabbits and rocking ’n’ rolling all night but who earlier threw papers and cut grass. These days, they sing something of a different tune—one that might have set Dale Carnegie’s toes to tapping.
Gene Simmons, the bass player of the rock band Kiss (also famous for his anaconda-length tongue), was quick to respond to my query about his summer-job experiences. “I have done everything from delivering newspapers, scrubbing the fat off of a butcher’s block in a meat store, and being a secretary for hire,” he reported via email. Those were pre-Internet days, he added, when you had “roll up your sleeves and do it all yourself. You had to go to the newsstand. You had to buy your own newspaper. You had to look in the want ads columns. You had to pick up the phone and make your own appointment.”
But he didn’t have to travel far to find his blueprint for success. “The best life lesson and clarity of the capitalist business model I ever learned was from Junior Achievement,” he adds, referring to the youth-oriented program started in 1919 to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship to students. “I would recommend young people do the same.”
Jorma Kaukonen, who grew up to play guitar for Jefferson Airplane (and now Hot Tuna), also delivered papers and learned to type his grandfather’s translations of Russian technical documents for the U.S. Department of Commerce, a skill he says still serves him well. The job also allowed him to dip his toe in the great melting pot. “I not only learned how to type,” he said, but “found myself surrounded by Russian émigrés. As a hot-rod-driving American kid, strangely enough, I found myself completely at home with these wonderful people from a different place and time—and also found them to be completely All-American.”
Like most other parents, he passed these values on to his children, including his son, who worked a food-prep job in a restaurant in the fancy Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown. “He called me when he got his first paycheck,” Mr. Kaukonen recalls. His son said, “I can’t believe how much they took out for taxes and Social Security”—to which Mr. Kaukonen recalls responding, “Welcome to my world!”
Mr. Kaukonen’s Jefferson Airplane bandmate Jack Casady, who also grew up in the D.C. area, remembers being a paper-delivering prodigy. “I started when I was 11 years old,” he said while waiting to play a recent gig in Florida. “On Sundays, I got up at 3 a.m. and delivered 400 papers.” He adds, “I made good money”—some of which he used to start the grass-cutting business that paid for his first musical instruments, including an amplifier kit he put together with help from his father.
“All of that taught me the thought process of setting your goal and then putting together the steps to reach that goal,” said Mr. Casady. “I learned that work was a means to independence and that if something you want is not available, you can make it yourself. There was no drudgery involved for me. Work was a means to freedom.”
His advice to young workers: Live and toil “with integrity,” and adopt a no-slacking attitude. “Luck and timing can make a big difference,” he said. “But Lord knows, prepare. If you prepare properly, you’re ready for luck and timing if they come your way.”
Besides sounding like candidates for higher office, including the presidency of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all three of these guys ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a source of pride and inspiration for the nation’s former paper carriers. In addition, those of us who drove forklifts and flirted with rogue tractors salute them—and are happy to still be around to welcome the new summer season.
Wall Street Journal Review of
December 31, 2014
Among the many types of failure that life has to offer, literary failure ranks among the most devastating. It is sometimes even more painful than romantic rejection, which may simply be the result of mundane factors (crossed eyes, a small income). Literary failure, however, is a thing of the soul, made all the more toxic when it comes at the hands of that confederacy of Precious, Insular, Sanctimonious, Smug and often Young (work out the acronym for yourself) writing-program grads who seem to rule the literary roost.
Yet “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” offers a more nuanced view. Far less grim than its title would suggest, the dictionary implicitly argues that failure is often the best possible outcome, both for the reading public and for the writer whose obscurity may be a blessing. “We have no idea how many great works have been lost,” the dictionary explains, “yet we are aware of a number of bafflingly mediocre ones which have managed to survive and even get canonised.” To write is rarely divine; to fail always keeps you out of infamy’s grasp.
THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF LITERARY FAILURE
Edited by C.D. Rose
Melville House, 175 pages, $18.95
In this spirit the widely unheralded Aurelio Quattrochi “spent all of 1973 poring over a single word, and most of 1974 erasing it,” according to the dictionary, never finishing the book he was trying to write. Most readers, to be sure, will not have heard of Aurelio Quattrochi or any of the 51 other victims—or beneficiaries—of literary stillbirth whose biographies are collected in this thin volume. There’s a good reason: They are all fictional.
The dictionary originated as a website where short, invented biographies of writerly catastrophe were posted and usually, soon after, deleted. Mercifully, these were saved from oblivion by their author, C.D. Rose, who lists himself as the dictionary’s “editor.” Though the vignettes are fictional, most are entertaining and all could serve as warnings to anyone thinking of taking up the literary life.
Daniel Finnegan, for example, received a nice advance for his first novel, only to have his editors insist that he change the male protagonist to a washwoman, because “female migrant worker narratives are hot at the moment.” Then, after focus-group intervention, he was informed that the washerwoman should become a reality-show contestant and finally that his book should list a female as its author, though Finnegan was promised a mention in the acknowledgments.
Then there’s the sad tale of Casimir Adamowitz-Kastrowicki, a writer supposedly from the 19th century who asked a friend to destroy his manuscripts should he perish in war. He survived battle but was tardy in his return home, inspiring the friend to carry out his orders. The only silver lining was that the author was simultaneously killed by a runaway horse. In a similar vein of futility, Marta Kupka finally got around to writing her story late in life. “She wrote incessantly for three weeks, completing the long tale of her life, failing to see that not a single word of what she wrote actually made it onto the paper” because her typewriter ribbon had dried up.
Most of the entries in “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” run to only a few pages, giving aspiring writers something to read while waiting for their computers to boot up or their morning martinis to take effect. Though the book describes the travails of the writing class—including poets, who these days find themselves playing second fiddle to fortune-cookie scribes—it offers direct ridicule as well. The dictionary snarls at “ostentatious flâneurs who sit in cafes or coffee shops, flaunting their Macbooks or Moleskines.” It takes aim at “a young, eager aspirant from Ohio, fresh out of his MFA” program, who decides to write the longest novel ever written. Unfortunately, while “he knew how much he wanted to write, he had little idea precisely what he wanted to write.” On the other end of the spectrum, a writer hoping to cash in on the minimalist vogue—think of Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme—submits a manuscript with the word “I” on its first and only page. Publishers and agents mistakenly assume that he has forgotten to send the rest.
Mr. Rose, touted as “the world’s preeminent expert on inexpert writers,” is an appealing crank. He describes practitioners of “experimental writing” as those who “willfully [abandon] punctuation or engage in wild flights of typographical fancy.” He offers up an experimental group called the Beasley Collective, which “wanted to take the ideological drive of the post-punk era and marry it to the sheer thrill of being in a band, but seeing as none of them could play instruments (not, it has to be said, a barrier that stopped many in that fertile time) decided to work in the literary sphere.” Their writing goes no further than an unread manifesto.
For all its ear-boxing “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” proclaims, near book’s end, that writing—even bad writing—is something of a heroic act. “The power of writing is one of the greatest things we have, whether it is read or not.” By writing, we leave a memorial of life: “I was there, I saw.” True, no doubt. But as the book’s mini-biographies attest: It is often better to let sleeping keyboards lie.
Washington Post Review Of Jerry Lee Lewis Biography
December 31, 2014
JERRY LEE LEWIS
His Own Story
By Rick Bragg Harper. 498 pp. $27.99
Is Jerry Lee Lewis hellbound? That question haunts the legendary rocker, who fears he may experience profoundly undesirable climate change in the next world thanks to his success in this one. “Can a man play rock-and-roll music and go to Heaven?” he asks. “That’s the question.”
Great balls of fire, indeed.
Lewis bared his soul, and many details of his admittedly non-seminarian lifestyle, to Rick Bragg, a fellow Southerner (from Possum Trot, Ala.) who has a Pulizer under his belt and formidable literary chops. Bragg’s thick and entertaining book indicates that Jerry Lee, like many of us, has cause to hope the Good Lord grades on a generous curve.
His first day on earth was indicative of what was to follow. Lewis was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La., as the attending doctor slept off a dose of pre-partum liquor served up by Lewis’s father, Elmo, who yanked his breached offspring into the world without apparent harm. “I come out jumpin,’ ” Lewis fondly recalls, “an’ I been jumpin’ ever since.”
He had jumped into fairly humble origins: Elmo did carpentry while mother Mamie picked cotton, but both recognized their son’s musical potential, certified when he picked out, at age 4, “Silent Night, Holy Night” on his Aunt Stella’s upright. He had a powerful will to succeed as a musician, which was not much encumbered by school, hitting a major speed bump when he failed the sixth grade. His resulting outrage led to his nearly strangling a teacher, which is where he got the enduring nickname “Killer.”
Bragg traces his early career though juke joints, dives and long stretches of late-night highway, plus a lengthy string of fistfights. But the path also led to Sun Records, where the now-legendary Sam Phillips recognized Lewis as “a born performer.” Suddenly he was rubbing shoulders with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and even Elvis Presley, whom he hoped to follow onto “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Sadly for Lewis, Sullivan wasn’t interested. “I don’t want any more of this Elvis junk,” he said, or perhaps snarled, yet Steve Allen invited Lewis onto his program on July 28, 1957, where he sang “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” while tossing his long blond hair, kicking his piano stool and altogether presenting himself as the wild man of rock. “That broke it all loose, that night,” Lewis told Bragg. The money began rolling in, but so did increased scrutiny of his personal life, reinforcing the view, popular among clerics and many parents of teenaged girls, that rock was the devil’s music.
Lewis’s reputation as satanic spawn was greatly enhanced by his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra — a third cousin, by his count, and his third wife (by some counts he has married six times, by another count, seven; he first married at 14). This brought out the scolds at home and abroad, and drastically reduced his audience. “I played for two old ladies one time in Kansas,” he recalled. “I told em, ‘Y’all don’t owe me nothin’ for this show.’ ”
Serial matrimony wasn’t his only bad habit, as Bragg reports in detail, though not with shaking finger. Like many in his trade, Lewis drank, ingested and injected a wide variety of substances — some supplied by the same doctor who kept Elvis lubed — which finally blossomed into addiction. He saw a few wives and children die, lost fortunes, and got into deep trouble with the IRS.
Most of which is fairly standard in rock biographies. Thankfully, Lewis’s is spiced by his recounting of the fall of another cousin — evangelical superstar Jimmy Swaggart, who learned to pound the Bible as profitably as Lewis pounded the piano, eventually owning a jet and running a Baton Rouge church that held 7,500 people — or donors, depending on how you count things up. Jimmy was fond of denouncing Jerry’s devilish trade, though he lost significant credibility after the 1988 revelation that he had paid to watch a prostitute perform lewd acts, which inspired his “I Have Sinned!” confession, during which Swaggart emitted enough sweat and tears to drown a hippo. Yet as Bragg also writes, the next time cops caught him with a prostitute, Swaggart revealed a powerful talent for adaptability: “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business,” he proclaimed.
Bragg tells the story well, though he may get a touch worshipful at times, as when designating Lewis’s “Live at the Star Club” as “one of the grittiest, most spectacularly genuine pieces of recorded music ever made.” But he’s in good company. John Lennon worshipped Lewis so much he once kissed his feet, which doesn’t seem to have impressed the great man, who later remarked, “I never did care for the Beatles all that much, to tell the truth.”
Bragg also praises the Internet, which he formerly considered a time-eating Cyclops, but which now blesses us with the opportunity to watch videos of Lewis pounding keyboards, kicking piano benches and sweating like a man with a terminal infection. All of which is tame compared with the beheadings, pyrotechnics, inflated pigs and other stage antics that were to follow in the world of rock and roll.
So while there’s a whole lot of quakin’ going on as Lewis contemplates eternity in the fiery lake (a concern, Bragg adds, that also had Elvis all shook up), here’s hoping the Chef has bigger fish to fr
Wall Street Journal Article: Life Lessons From Dad
July 7, 2014
My father was born and died at home. Nearly 91 years separated those two days, as did a lifetime of significant experiences, including one Great Depression, one World War, one wife, three children, and one year at my house, where he, accompanied by my mother, went through hospice during his struggle with dementia.
Our family's experience was hardly unique. Around 5 million Americans suffer from dementia of some type (Alzheimer's disease is the most prominent) and up to half of Americans over the age of 85 are afflicted. As our population ages, tens of millions of Americans will be called on to care for stricken parents. Over 15 million nonprofessionals are estimated to provide Alzheimer's care alone.
What can families expect?
Like all extreme experiences, caring for Dad changed our lives. Dementia is a terrible disease that robs its victims of their memories, their good nature and much of their dignity. Children of suffering parents will see many things they wish they hadn't, and they may learn things about themselves that aren't always flattering.
But that's not the whole story. Even in the sadness of hopeless decline, my parents—members in good standing of the Greatest Generation—had a few things to teach their baby-boomer offspring about toughness, perseverance, quality of life and, especially, love. We were reminded, vividly, that we are often at our best when life is at its worst.
Ronald C. Shiflett—Ron to most everybody—was born June 17, 1923, in a row house in Richmond, Va. He rarely talked about his early years, though as he grew older Dad would recall his World War II experiences as a navigator on a Naval Air Corps troop transport, ferrying soldiers from San Francisco to Hawaii to Guam. "All that water," he'd say of the vast Pacific. He also told stories about seeing fighter ace Pappy Boyington throwing back drinks at the Top of the Mark bar in San Francisco. Those were among the last memories to leave him.
As a father, Dad was definitely old-school. He wore the pants in the family—and the belt. During the hirsute 1960s, he seemed to take special delight in hauling me to the barbershop, where my ambitious locks were shorn with extreme malice. But he also had a good sense of humor, took us hunting and camping and hardly ever missed a day of work (he started his career in a gas station). Along with Mom, a public-school teacher, he sent me, my sister and my brother through college.
He was remarkably healthy and didn't have a regular doctor until he was 85. Then his life, and ours, began a drastic change. Decline introduced itself in the form of delusions. One day Mom called from their home in Roanoke, Va., to say that she had found Dad standing down by the street, dressed in a suit. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was waiting for the police to pick him up. Dad had come to believe he was guilty of various transgressions, which were all in his mind.
The dementia diagnosis came in April 2010, with physical ailments soon to follow. In May 2012, a bout of pneumonia kept him hospitalized for a week, and the dementia seemed to take over. The medical staff agreed that hospice—a program designed to provide comfort and support for patients with six months or less to live—was our best option.
After a quick huddle with family members, my wife and I said we would move Dad and Mom into our house, where Dad would receive hospice care. We had plenty of room—just under 3,000 square feet, including spare bedrooms (now that our sons had left) and a spare bathroom.
My wife works at a hospital and is gone much of the day, but I work from home. All of this would require some adjustments. I'd need to be available to help Dad go up and down stairs, but that didn't seem like too much. In any event, this wasn't going to be a long-term situation. We expected him to live another two or three months.
That was just over two years ago.
Lesson one from this adventure was that old folks, even when they're frail, can be very tough. Dad, though cadaverous and confused, definitely didn't get the memo that his end was near. Instead, he staged something of a comeback, part of which I attribute to "grub therapy"—a steady diet of everything that sends chills down the spine of the Surgeon General: lots of red meat, fried food (a crab cake a day keeps the Reaper away) and enough cookies to build a two-story chimney.
Meanwhile, Dad's mental distress was somewhat ameliorated by various medications. The hospice nurses and workers—who checked his vital signs and helped clean him (and were paid through Medicare)—were impressed by his resurgence.
But life was difficult.
Dad was almost always cold and became deeply sensitive to being touched. He couldn't shave or clean himself at any level. His mobility steadily declined, and his sense of humor faded. He couldn't be left alone for more than a minute before crying out, "What am I supposed to do?"
Dementia also destroyed his short-term memory, so he might ask the same question five times within a minute. If Mom went out for a few hours, he could easily ask 100 times when she would return. It was as if he were being dragged back into a state of infancy. My wife and I sometimes felt our once-spacious house had suddenly become very small.
All of which produced mixed feelings—sadness and exasperation, plus guilt for feeling exasperated, especially when considering everything Dad and Mom had done for us. Perhaps we suffered from Gratitude Deficit Disorder, if there is such a thing (if not, let's hope the medical and pharmaceutical industries get cracking on this issue). We kept stiff upper lips, but those lips often concealed grinding teeth, despite help from dedicated and sometimes angelic sitters, who came several times a week and were paid for by Mom. Without them, we might have been overwhelmed by Dad's constant need for attention.
Mom bore the brunt of Dad's decline with almost supernatural grace. During the early months she showered him daily, which from outside the bathroom could sound like a mugging in process. Dressing him wasn't much more peaceful. As Dad became increasingly bewildered, she patiently responded to his questions about the most basic elements of life, such as eating breakfast. Every morning Dad would look at his bowl of cereal and ask, "What am I supposed to do with this?" To which she would calmly reply, "You must eat it to keep up your strength." This was usually followed by an exhortation to drink his prune juice.
Which brings us to perhaps the most harrowing and widely feared aspect of caring for a stricken parent: poop—the palindrome that sends countless hearts palpitating, at least until you get a little experience under your belt. Everyone I've ever talked to about caring for parents has had a somewhat similar story.
One morning I heard Dad crying from the upstairs bathroom. There is no pleasant way to describe what I discovered: He was standing in his own excrement, which was scattered widely about. Cleaning up was no picnic, especially when attending to his soiled body, which puts one in frightfully close contact with the apparatus instrumental to your existence.
But, as in other sometimes sticky situations we encountered during Dad's stay, this one revealed a previously unrecognized talent for adapting on the spot. As Dad apologized for "the mess" (which he always did in these situations, right up to the end), I said, coolly and out of nowhere, "You're hanging in there." It became my go-to phrase whenever he became frustrated and saddened by his decline.
Dad had some good moments. He especially liked looking up at the blue sky from my brother's back porch and taking boat rides with my brother, and he warmed up when my sister came to visit. My mother's presence brought him peace. And while there was no mistaking where this was heading, I never heard him express any fear of death. He would, however, deliver stinging commentary on his status, usually as I helped him descend the stairs. As we neared the bottom step, he would often say, "This is no way to live."
To some younger members of the family, that was a self-evident truth. We, of course, are all about "quality of life," whose definition doesn't include living in diapers (which are euphemistically referred to as "briefs"). More than once I told my wife I never wanted to find myself in Dad's condition. "You know what to do," I instructed my youngest son, only partly in jest. "A pillow over the face at dawn."
My parent's perspective was quite different: Life, no matter how hopeless, is to be lived to the final breath. Even when it reached the point where Mom had to feed Dad, she would worry if he didn't eat what she thought was a sufficient amount. Dad, despite his grumbling, would try to exercise every day, even when he had to rely on his hated walker. His life had become a burden, but in their eyes that didn't diminish its value.
Dad had one last surprise up his sleeve—he "graduated" from hospice care. After a year with us, he no longer seemed to be at death's door: His vital signs were good, though climbing the stairs was still a supreme struggle. Mom found a nearby assisted-living facility where, soon after arrival, Dad was taken out of the hospice program after an evaluation determined that he might have more than six months to live.
And the hospice people were right. He held on for almost another full year.
Dad lived mostly in a large recliner during that last year, and eventually the hospice workers returned. His long-term memory deserted him; he could no longer recall, even with prompting, Pappy Boyington and the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. He did recognize family members and could manage a sentence or two about the weather, though after 10 months or so at their new home, his mental age, according to a hospice calculation, was that of a 4-year-old.
By then I think most family members had made the transition from thinking of death as an adversary to thinking of death as a liberator. This too raised some conflicting feelings: You hate to wish death on your father, but you also hate to see him suffer. Death was his only way out.
Mom was probably the last to make this mental transition, but a week or so before the end she said she thought it was time for him to go. He had begun refusing to eat or drink, which the hospice nurses said was a sign his body was shutting down. The last time we trekked to the bathroom, I held Dad by both hands and walked backward toward our target. His stride was about 3 inches. We didn't make it in time.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You're hanging in there."
Dad died two days later, in his bed, surrounded by family. As the day progressed, he turned waxen and slightly blue. His mouth was constantly agape as he struggled to breathe, and at the end we told Mom that she probably shouldn't look too closely. This was May 5, less than a month before their 66th wedding anniversary.
His service, which we held in my brother's side yard, was a nice antidote to the sting of death. The Rev. Robert Bluford, one of Dad's oldest friends and a bomber pilot during the war, read the standard Psalms to a crowd that was thin on churchgoers but stretched all the way from Richmond to San Francisco, where my oldest son watched the proceedings via Skype.
A friend sang "Over The Rainbow" (Dr. Bluford was in his early 20s when the song came out in 1939) and "My Beautiful Friend," which underscored one of the most important lessons we learned from this experience: Never take friends for granted. Among our most cherished memories are of friends who stood with us, whether by bringing over a meal, letting us use a second home to get away for a few days or simply asking how things were going.
A hospice nurse told me, early on, that lots of children won't move a stricken parent into their homes, opting instead for a facility such as a nursing home. How would I advise others who are facing this situation? For our family, bringing Dad home was the right thing to do. When he came out of the hospital, he was so weak and disoriented that putting him into an unfamiliar setting might have finished him off. I also think that caring for Dad made us better people.
As Dad's flame flickered, ours burned brighter. As his life faded, it brought our lives closer together. The challenge of caring for him also made us stronger. We hung in there. None of this was easy or pretty, and while it was happening, it was easy to wish that we were somewhere else. But if we hadn't done what we did, I know that we would regret that decision today.
To be sure, we had the room and the wherewithal to care for Dad. If he had been highly agitated or in acute pain, our decision might have been different. Judge not those who do not opt for home hospice.
Our family walked a hard road. We watched Dad get stripped to the bone by a pitiless disease. Today, our house echoes with memories of his struggle—echoes that are a sad but strangely beautiful part of our song of life.
Wall Street Journal Review of 'Geronimo'
May 24, 2014
Businessmen, athletes and politicians never tire of military allusions. They're forever blowing the competition out of the water, shelling the defensive secondary or exercising the nuclear option, perhaps following up by bouncing the rubble. Prisoners, of course, are never taken.
None of which is quite the equivalent of storming Omaha Beach, though it can add a touch of drama to ordinary life. A new book by college football coach Mike Leach sounds many of these martial themes, offering "leadership strategies" based on the life of Geronimo.
Mr. Leach couldn't have chosen a better brand than the Apache chief, born in 1829 in present-day Arizona. When soldiers, paintballers and boys who are allowed to play with toy guns (the few who are left) leap into battle, they do not cry "Napoleon!" "Hannibal!" or " Nathan Bedford Forrest!" When Navy SEALs set off to lower the boom on Osama bin Laden, they do not name their mission for Omar Bradley. In such circumstances, no other name than "Geronimo" will do.
Coach Leach (a big winner at Texas Tech and currently stationed at Washington State) is a solid admirer of Geronimo's, though he recognizes that some readers might be squeamish about how the chief made his living. "Now, let's get something straight out of the gate," he writes. "Apaches were raiders. 'Raiding' means stealing. Pillaging. Taking from others what you want or need." Piling on a bit, he unleashes the literary equivalent of a Stuka dive-bomb attack—the caps-lock key: "It was best NOT to get captured by Apaches."
That said, we're advised not to think of Geronimo as a ruthless Chief Exterminating Officer. As Mr. Leach sees it, whites moved into tribal lands around 1851 and began a hostile takeover that eventually destroyed the Apache people. What was Geronimo supposed to do, hang around the reservation playing bingo?
Mr. Leach highlights episodes from Geronimo's life as examples of various leadership qualities, such as discipline, fortitude and perseverance. During one raiding expedition into Mexico, for instance, the young warrior was bashed in the head with a rifle butt. Despite a severe concussion and skull fracture, he made the mountainous trek back to Arizona, an effort that Mr. Leach cites as a sampling of the chief's almost superhuman fortitude. He also sprinkles his pages with tips deduced from Geronimo's playbook. These tend to be prodigiously mundane: "Have a purpose in everything you do"; "avoid dealing with people who have proven to be treacherous and dishonest"; "if you sense a double cross while negotiating, don't make the deal."
Such insights may not trigger a lecture invitation from Harvard Business School, but Mr. Leach's narrative (with an assist from writer Buddy Levy ) tells the highly compelling story of a strong and resourceful people.
Consider how the Apaches hunted ducks. Step one: float empty gourds toward prey until ducks become accustomed to their presence. Step two: get in water, insert head into empty gourd and drift within arm's length. Step three: grab the unsuspecting entrées by their feet, pull them underwater for a quick drowning, then retire to the cooking fire. Live and learn, Duck Dynasty.
Apache physical prowess was astounding. Modern-day footballers, who will probably soon be penalized for glaring at the opposing quarterback, would have a hard time making Geronimo's warrior squad. Training started at an early age. "Teams of four stood across from each other in rock-slinging competitions," Mr. Leach explains. "It was like playing dodgeball with stones." Not everyone survived.
Coach Leach, who was stripped of his command at Texas Tech for an incident of alleged player abuse that would have baffled Geronimo, hails the Apaches as the ultimate hardbodies. While modern marathoners proudly post "26.2" stickers on their car bumpers—signifying that they've completed that standard marathon mileage—Apache men, women and children could make 45 miles a day with everything they owned in tow or on their backs. Even into his 60s, Geronimo—who was about 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds—could cover 95 miles in a 24-hour period.
These were not fun runs, of course. Geronimo and company were often in flight from armed troops, sometimes after breaking away from their reservation, where the land was lousy and the oversight humiliating. Geronimo's final breakout, which Mr. Leach counts as one of history's greatest evasive actions, drew the pursuit of one-fourth of the U.S. Army. Though the small band of Apaches was outnumbered 233-1, Geronimo was never captured, though he finally recognized that further resistance was futile and surrendered in September 1886.
But his game was far from over, as Mr. Leach writes in bittersweet homage to Geronimo's adaptability. Thanks to sympathetic press coverage, the Apache chief became a celebrity. Mr. Leach tells of a train ride that attracted flocks of admirers. "He'd rip buttons off his coat and sell them for a quarter," Mr. Leach writes, "then sew more on and sell those at the next stop. His hat went for five bucks." He eventually got into the live-Indian-performance business and rode in Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade.
Geronimo also became a Sunday-school teacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, though he was later booted for "incessant gambling." He found other ways to occupy his time, marrying his ninth and final wife in 1907 at age 84. But he was never to find his ultimate peace—a return to his native lands—despite a direct plea to TR, who turned him down. He died of pneumonia in Oklahoma on Feb. 17, 1909, age 85. Even then, his war with the white man was not quite over.
In 2009, Mr. Leach says, Geronimo's great-grandson sued Yale's Skull & Bones Society to regain possession of the great chief's skull and other remains, which had allegedly been stolen from Yale in 1918 by grave robbers led by Bush family patriarch Prescott Bush. In a development that would probably not have surprised Geronimo, the suit was dismissed on technicalities.
Mr. Leach has written a fan's tribute to a man who, he writes, "personified a life-way of excellence." The realities of modern life may prevent a full application of Geronimo lessons. But many of us could learn a few things from the old chief and his people, starting with a general wariness of government promises and supervision. Some of us might also look upon those 26.2 stickers with a deeply adjusted sense of awe.
Wall Street Journal Article: Where Atheists Meet to Evangelize
April 14, 2014
Look out unbelief—atheism is on a roll, or so proclaims American Atheists, whose annual convention kicks off Thursday in Salt Lake City. “This has been an excellent year for atheism,” says Dave Muscato, public-relations director for the diety-dissing group. “Between 2005 and 2012 there was a fivefold increase in the number of people who use the word atheist when asked to identify their religion.”
That’s still not a lot. While 20% of Americans profess no particular religious faith, according to the Pew Research Center, only 6% identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. Still, one hates to toss cold water on the affable Mr. Muscato, a musician, who says he went atheist five years ago after a stint playing Christian worship music (the kind of songs that, let’s face it, can make you pray they’ll stop).
But why Salt Lake City? “We haven’t had a convention there since 1981,” says Mr. Muscato. “A lot of Mormons who have become atheists call themselves ex-Mormon and part of our campaign is to get them to move away from ex-Mormon” and simply call themselves atheists, thus taking pride “in their non-belief.”
The keynote speaker for the four-day gathering will be Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, who says he was fired for advocating same-sex marriage. Mr. Kluwe, author of “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities,” will be joined by speakers including Denise Stapley, winner of “Survivor: Philippines” and Iowa’s “only certified sex therapist” (according to convention publicity); Mark White, bassist from the Spin Doctors; and gay-rights activist Marsha Botzer.
Workshop topics will include starting your own atheist group, how to lobby politicians, and how to debate Christians and “other religious apologists.” The contact page at the American Atheists website states: “Please note: we are not interested in debating or being preached at,” which to some ears might sound a tad hypocritical and closed-minded, qualities often used to describe the organization’s adversaries.
There seems to be no lack of evangelical enthusiasm in the American Atheist flock, and with 94% of the U.S. population still either in the grips of God or just not sure about Him, the potential for conversions is vast. But organized atheism lags far behind Mormonism in evangelizing. Getting people to enter the godless fold (or abyss, depending on your perspective) appears to be a pretty tough sell.
Mr. Muscato says modern technology is a powerful ally. “Any 7-year-old with an iPhone can go to Wikipedia” to check out religious claims made by their parents, he explains. “They’re harder to indoctrinate”—at least until the kids realize that the words “infallible” and “Wikipedia” rarely appear in the same sentence.
Older seekers, and even reasonably skeptical bystanders, might easily be put off by the tone of American Atheists’ advertising around the country. “Celebrate Reality” one pre-convention billboard proclaims in Salt Lake City, echoing admonitions elsewhere: “Nobody Needs the Christ in Christmas” (Times Square); “Enjoy Life Now. There Is No Afterlife” (Jamesville, Wis.); “Relax, Hell does not exist. Heaven either. Enjoy your life” (San Diego). In other words: “Hey Rube—Wise Up!”
It is the rare philosophy that doesn’t consider itself superior to the alternatives, but suggesting that the uninitiated are delusional and feeble-minded might not be the wisest way to expand your brand. The absolutism underlying the atheist pitch also seems out of step with the spirit of our “tolerant” times. Even John Lennon, whose “Imagine” is something of a hymn to non-belief, led a heterodox spiritual life, including a fascination with the Rev. Billy Graham. Similarly, surveys by Barna Research in 2003 found that half of atheists believe in a soul and the possibility of life after death. Does that qualify as a heresy?
Greater minds will decide that question, and perhaps ponder whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Bible-verse reference on his official Facebook and Twitter accounts really promotes religion via “the machinery of the state,” as atheist activists contend.
Back in Salt Lake, Mormons may bristle at the godless gathering, but they have little reason to fear an atheist army descending. Mr. Muscato estimates that convention attendance will probably be south of 1,000—roughly the number of new members the Latter Day Saints sign up every day.
Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at Daveshiflett.com.
Wall Street Journal Piece: O Come All Ye Grousers (full, unsanitized version)
December 21, 2013
O Come All Ye Grousers
By Dave Shiflett
Thanksgiving is the season of the turkey. Christmas’s official bird should be the grouse.
As always, the run-up to Dec. 25 has unleashed a national moanfest. Crèches set some teeth to grinding, while others complain that the Baby Jesus is being treated like a leper. Almost everyone complains that the season is too “commercial,” though they’ll carp to high heaven if they don’t get everything they asked for.
There are too many calories, too much booze, plus all those family members you hope to see only at funerals, preferably in a horizontal position while holding a couple of orchids. Aesthetes are horrified by tacky lights, and environmentalists wail about the additional fossil fuels needed to fire them. Unbelievably, there is even complaining about one of the season’s most endearing spectacles – the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
Is nothing sacred anymore?
Admittedly, Christmas has gotten to be unwieldy. Thanksgiving is now a mere speed bump on the road to yuletide. Christmas songs infiltrate radio playlists while there are still leaves on the trees, and tinsel and candy canes go up even before the Pilgrims get their annual nod. By mid-December the only reindeer some of us want to see is on a platter with a side order of rice.
But the larger fact is that contemporary Christmas offers something for everyone, from traditionalists to scoffers, enthusiasts to scolds (nearly 20 percent of Americans are not affiliated with any religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, though only 6 percent call themselves atheists or agnostics). If you don’t want to praise the Christian savior you can sing the praises of the other two members of the seasonal Trinity -- Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, both of whose affiliation is unknown. All three bring unique, helpful and evolving messages. Our cups runneth over. Let us consider a few of the ways.
First off, there’s Jesus, whose message of eternal hope and peace continues to illuminate the season. Yet he also can be considered apart from the religious claims that have consoled and inspired believers through the ages (and sent a few heads rolling too). The Christmas focus is an infant in the humblest of circumstances: a stable, which for the four-legged co-occupants doubled as a latrine. There’s tension in the back story as well: Has the earth ever known a more profound silence than just after Mary revealed to Joseph that she was with child, and that the only one passing this paternity test would be the Almighty? How does one prepare for such a moment?
At the very least, it’s a story that provides a profound lesson in trust and positive thinking, both of which are in short supply these days.
Life outside the manger was no carnival ride either. The ancient world was a very tough neighborhood. Routine infections could be fatal. The shadows were full of cutthroats while palaces brimmed with tyrants. Battlefield casualties could be stunning: Cannae (92,000), Arausio (84,000) and Carrhae (24,000); the siege of Jerusalem, later in the first century, would claim over 1,100,000 mostly Jewish lives, according to the historian Josephus, with an additional 97,000 captured and enslaved. Remember, this was before the advent of automatic weapons. And so when Herod commanded his goons to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem with the hope of whacking the newborn king, he was very much in step with his times, during which collateral damage was considered a Virtue.
Despite these challenges, the Baby Jesus ended up doing pretty well. According to Pew, there are today 2.18 billion Christians, nearly a third of the world’s population, despite an inner circle that included Judas the snitch and no social media to speak of. All of which offers a valuable insight to our pampered youth, who think they’ve entered the Valley of Death when their Internet service is interrupted: Man does not live by Bandwidth alone. And while you’re at it, eat your peas.
On the secular side, Santa Claus -- aka Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, and (in stricter households) the Son of Mammon – is a bit newer to the scene, though he does trace his roots to Saint Nicolas, the fourth century Greek bishop best known for giving dowries to three poor girls so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes (reminding us that there’s nothing like a little seed money to keep you out of a tight spot). Other variations include Nazi Germany’s “solstice man,” modeled after the pagan god Odin, who urged mothers to buy swastika-shaped biscuits for their children.
These days, Santa has morphed again.
In the spirit of disclosure, I once had serious issues with Claus, whose impersonators began popping up in U.S. stores sometime around 1890. We know the drill; he invites children to sit on his lap and tell him what they smuggled down the chimney. Despite society’s best efforts to destroy rote learning the tykes recite well-rehearsed wish lists of obscenely expensive toys as Claus, often an unemployed actor or hefty friend of the store manager, leers at the parents, knowing that many of us got little more for Christmas than a stick horse and a few lousy tangerines.
While Claus remains the face of commercial Christmas he has become a far more sympathetic, and heroic, character. The reason is simple: he’s under attack by scolds – who, like the poor, we will apparently always have with us.
The primary complaint is that Claus is fat, as is his wife, whose spirit has never been broken by Jenny Craig. Indeed, perhaps the second most profound silence on earth would follow Santa suggesting to Mrs. Claus that she join Weight Watchers. There is no denying their immenseness. Boiled down to their tallow, the Clauses could light Manhattan for a long weekend.
Nor is their persecution any surprise. We live in a time when office-purchasing mayors tell us how big our sodas should be and what type of oil to fry our food in, while many schools send “parental notification letters” to the homes of chunky youth (in direct contradiction to anti-bullying programs and the war against “size shaming”). Claus, the patron saint of porkers, is a standing rebuke to these outrages. With every corpulent, unrepentant corpuscle Claus tells the Man to Stick It.
The favor is happily repaid. Then-U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Steven K. Galson, teed off on Santa a few years back, proclaiming “It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise.” In the same spirit Australian heath expert Nathan Grills insisted that “Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realized long ago – that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products.” Mr. Grills added that in the U.S. Santa’s name recognition with children is just behind that of another demon: Ronald McDonald. Similarly, Roy Pickler, whose public health credentials include a stint as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” and part time work as a Santa impersonator, pronounced that "The world is going to have to change their acceptance of what Santa looks like. Santa is a role model, and kids don't want to have a role model that's fat."
Not only is Claus an alleged threat to youthful waistlines. He’s blamed for mental and spiritual mayhem as well. In a 2012 Psychology Today essay entitled “Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie” Dr. David Kyle Johnson argues that the “Santa Lie” risks damaging parental trustworthiness and increases “credulity and ill-motivated behavior.” He also notes an incident in which a child, when told that Santa doesn’t exist, turned atheist.
Men have gone to the stake for far less, and the indictment goes yet further. Claus smokes a pipe (contents unknown, though his continuous laughter raises suspicions) and drinks alcohol – brandy, by most accounts, and judging from the flush on his cheeks plenty of it. Tippling fictional icons, of course, are catnip to scolds: James Bond was recently flogged in the British journal BMJ for drinking at levels allegedly detrimental to his marksmanship and famed sexual prowess, the latter certainly startling news to one of Bond’s most vivacious and medically astute leading ladies – Dr. Holly Goodhead.
Most of us, of course, don’t mind well-intentioned advice to shed a few pounds, though unfortunately these admonitions often come from those joyless, hectoring types whose main purpose in life is to parade their own superiority and push other people around. If they weren’t ordering us up on the scales they’d be annoying us some other way. The situation is made worse when the messengers have legislative powers. Just as most of us want government to stay out our bedrooms it should stay out of our kitchens as well. Claus no doubt agrees, which is why he’ll likely end up on a Wanted poster any day now.
Which finally brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge, who is also experiencing a transformation, though one of a different kind.
Scrooge, of course, is best known for a late-life personality switch from tight-fisted taskmaster to doddering sugar daddy. The pre-sugar Scrooge has historically exemplified the qualities denounced in a sermon delivered earlier this year to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“Our society is for better or worse grounded on individualism and this notion of personal freedom versus communal responsibility,” intoned the Rev. Fred L. Hammond, who posted the message on his blog. “This is manifested in a false illusion that the American Dream is attainable by all, if we do as Ebenezer Scrooge did and put our nose to the grindstone and grind away. What our contemporary society fails to see is that our capitalist mindset is a spirituality that is detrimental to living a full and abundant life.” This spirituality, the reverend also noted, rules the U.S. Congress and can be found hovering around Wal-Mart.
Yet there’s a vibrant revisionism afoot that insists Scrooge was actually a better man before he became victim to that dramatic drive-by spooking. A small but virile band of bloggers, analysts, and others who are not likely to be Unitarians hail the pre-conversion Scrooge as the “original one percenter.” Russell D. Longcore, for example, thinks Scrooge was spot-on when he denounced Christmas as “a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you.” These days, Longcore observes, Americans pay for Christmas with plastic while their savings rates “are near zero.”
Scrooge is also hailed as a job creator who paid clerk Bob Cratchit a reasonable wage. The revisionists, in fact, are hard on Cratchit, who they insist is not to be mistaken for Mr. Hustle.
“If Cratchit’s stagnating in the backwaters of Scrooge’s shop was due to his basically poor work skills,” wrote author and law school professor Butler Shaffer in a classic 2004 essay, “we are once again confronted with the question: why did Cratchit not seek to enhance his skills, as by learning a more remunerative trade? That would certainly have been a great benefit to his family, including affording additional resources with which to possibly rescue Tiny Tim from his malady. But, alas, Bob Cratchit was, once again, either too unambitious or too unimaginative to pursue this course of conduct… Such is the extent of his courage, ambition, and love for his family.”
In the generous spirit of the season, Professor Shaffer let Crachit have it with both barrels instead of only one. He also gave a clear sign that those who prefer the unreformed Scrooge are not alone, so if kicking Cratchit is your idea of holiday fun, go at it (and maybe get in a lick at Scrooge's treacly nephew Fred while you're at it). As Scrooge himself said, "keep Christmas in your own way," which is perhaps the best seasonal advice of all.
The long holiday season offers other delights: paid holiday time, an opportunity to sing, sober or otherwise, the Hallelujah chorus, and nourishment of the dark and lurid hope, a variation of which is also present at NASCAR races, that someone in those Black Friday mobs might get trampled. Verily, there really is something for everyone.
So perhaps grousers, as a revised Tiny Tim might observe, should “stick a cork in it, every one.”
Washington Post review: Johnny Cash: The Life
December 9, 2013
By Dave Shiflett
Johnny Cash rode a boyhood dream and three chords to country music stardom. But as Robert Hilburn’s definitive biography vividly chronicles, that dream spawned a sizable brood of nightmares.
Cash grew up poor, mostly in Dyess, Ark., where his parents took part in a government-backed farmland “colonization” program. While poets, philosophers and singers rhapsodize about living close to the land, Cash knew better. Working in the cotton fields was hard, and the early death of his brother in a sawmill accident further darkened the charms of rural life. Soon enough, he decided he’d rather pluck a guitar than a chicken and dreamed of singing on the radio.
The dream was somewhat audacious, for Cash was no musical prodigy. He left high school not for Nashville but for Pontiac, Mich., where he worked in the auto industry. This was followed by a stint in the military that took him to Germany, where he helped intercept Soviet Morse code messages. He formed a band on his return and performed his first radio gig in May 1955 at age 23. According to Hilburn, it was an amateurish performance, though his first recordings were better (and should have been: “Cry, Cry, Cry” required 35 takes). He was on his way.
Hilburn, a former music critic for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Cash often during his journalistic career, and, while an admirer, he goes fairly light on the whitewash. He tells, in great and sometimes harrowing detail, how Cash’s professional advancement and personal decline blossomed simultaneously.
One red-letter day in that decline occurred in the fall of 1957, when a fiddle player gave Cash his first amphetamine after hearing him complain about the exhaustion that accompanied constant touring. Cash, who started smoking when he was 10, was quick to form a new addiction, later telling a friend that “one pill was too many and a thousand wasn’t enough.”
Nor was he a slacker in the skirt-chasing competition, despite having expressed undying fidelity to his first wife, Vivian, in his early hit, “I Walk the Line.” Still, he was far more restrained than musical contemporary and fabled horndog Elvis Presley. “One night,” Cash recalled, “we counted nine girls that he had sex with in the dressing room.”
To no surprise, Cash’s first marriage was not one for the record books, due in part to an evolving romance with June Carter, also married at the time. The turmoil was hard not only on Vivian and their four daughters, but on the local wildlife as well. In 1965, after retreating to the Los Padres National Forest to escape home life, he started a fire that killed most of the condor population.
The rings of suffering spread yet further. Fans struggled through mediocre performances; at times, Cash missed more gigs than he made. Yet he suffered the most, not only from the ravages of addiction, which dropped his weight to 125 pounds, but from the agonies of not living up to his Southern Baptist convictions.
Cash’s desire for redemption seemed as powerful as his desire for drugs. He and June, who married in 1968, became regulars at Billy Graham crusades, “testifying” before nearly 2 million people, despite ongoing drug use and a soft reading of the commandment against adultery. Cash, perhaps in a generous mood, described himself as “a C+ Christian.”
He earned much higher marks for his music, though, as Hilburn reminds us, many of his most iconic songs were written by others, including “A Boy Named Sue” (Shel Silverstein), “Ring of Fire” (June Carter and Merle Kilgore) and “I Still Miss Someone” (which was “mostly written” by a nephew). His signature song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” relied so heavily on “Crescent City Blues,” by Gordon Jenkins, that Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000 to waive his composer rights. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame , the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But he also went through a long recording slump, earning recognition by USA Today for making one of the 10 worst albums of 1987 (“Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town”). Fortune smiled again in 1993 when he met producer Rick Rubin, with whom he made a series of sometimes stark recordings that ended his career on a high note. In perhaps the most searing section of the book, Hilburn recounts the making the 2002 video for Cash’s version of rocker Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was in ill health, and June had learned the day before that she had a leak in a heart valve. She died in 2003; Cash held on four more hard months, dying at age 71.
Cash had a dream and enough talent and desire to see it through, for better and worse. Interestingly, late in his life he suggested he also benefited from good timing. If he tried to make it in today’s music industry, he mused, “I think the only job I’d be able to get would be singing in a coffeehouse somewhere.”
Wall Street Journal Review of Books by Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen
November 25, 2013
Book Review: 'Wild Tales' by Graham Nash | 'Americana' by Ray Davies | 'Eminent Hipsters' by Donald Fagen
It's a popular complaint that America no longer produces anything when in fact we churn out vast quantities of music and musical merchandise—T-shirts, posters, ball caps, thongs—and a steady stream of celebrity-musician memoirs.
Three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees—Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen—have now set down their guitars and picked up their pens (or signed on a ghostwriter), joining such illustrious predecessors as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in reliving their glory years, or at least the parts they care to remember.
Their books include standard features of the genre: early struggle, breakthrough, truckloads of money, rapacious promoters, and nonstop drugs and women, plus arrests, overdoses and rehab. But there's another story line: Ambitious young men working their way out of difficult upbringings to make it big in the Promised Land—America—where they eventually grow old and cranky. Just like the rest of us.
Graham Nash, now 71, is best known for his work with the Hollies and with Crosby, Stills and Nash (sometimes joined by Young). But he grew up in Salford, possibly the worst slum in the north of England. The toilet was al fresco, his wardrobe was provided by the Salvation Army and his father's room and board were supplied, for a time, by the local prison.
Fortunately, Mr. Nash had a talent for singing. As he tells us in "Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life," he and a classmate opened each school day harmonizing the Lord's Prayer, though he was not cut out for the ecclesiastic life. He had been transfixed by radio broadcasts of American pop stars: Elvis, the Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers. He left school at age 16, in 1958, to make a go of it as a performer.
The Hollies (named after Buddy Holly) got their big break in February 1963, after a talent scout caught one of their gigs. Mr. Nash, who makes no pretense of being a master musician, admits that his guitar playing was hardly stunning: At this performance his instrument had no strings. Nevertheless, the band cranked out a string of pleasant pop hits that still haunt the oldies airwaves, including "Bus Stop" (written by teenage songwriter Graham Gouldman), "On a Carousel" and "Carrie Anne."
Soon, though, the young man grew "bored with the moon-and-June rhymes, singing about schoolboy crushes and forbidden sex." He had also fallen in love with America, where he was introduced to future love interest Joni Mitchell, singer David Crosby and drugs.
Readers still amazed by rock excess will get a fix in this breezy memoir. Mr. Nash, turned on to marijuana by Mr. Crosby and to LSD by Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas, became something of a stoner prodigy; one sometimes senses that he considers getting high a heroic act, like storming Omaha Beach. Yet he supplies a cautionary tale by chronicling Mr. Crosby's gruesome transformation into a bloated, lesion-covered addict.
Mr. Nash, whose later hits included singalong standards "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" plus "Just a Song Before I Go" (written after a drug dealer bet him he couldn't compose a song in under an hour), reminds us that rock stars live in a different financial universe than most fans. Soon after moving to California, he found himself short on cash. No problem. Mr. Crosby cut him a check for $80,000. When touring, the band might make $50,000 a day, though Mr. Nash adds that most of the money ended up in other pockets: After one $12 million tour he, Mr. Stills, Mr. Young and Mr. Cosby pocketed $300,000 each. "That left $10.8 million unaccounted for," he writes, and no doubt highly appreciated.
Yet like other mortals, rockers grow older and are susceptible to putting on a righteous grump. He calls Neil Young "utterly self-centered" and takes aim at fatter targets, including George W. Bush, the tobacco lobby and rifles with "hundred-round clips." He seems surprised that 10% of his audience sometimes headed for the exits after the political grumbling commenced, especially in the South. The nerve of those hicks! Despite the manifest flaws of his adopted nation, Mr. Nash loved it enough to become a citizen, settle down, get married—36 years and counting—and otherwise live like a member in good standing of the Rotary Club. He's not alone.
Ray Davies, also from a working-class family in England, found fame and fortune in the U.S., plus a few other things. As a former frontman (with brother Dave) of the Kinks, whose catalog ranges from rock blasters "Lola" and "You Really Got Me" to the serenely beautiful "Waterloo Sunset," he came to the U.S. in 1965 as part of the British invasion, where he rubbed shoulders with people less glamorous than Joni Mitchell, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, "at the time a community organizer" involved in a fundraising concert. After the Kinks went toes-up in 1996, Mr. Davies continued recording and touring, despite later health problems; his most recent record was released in the U.S. in 2011.
In "Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road," Mr. Davies is more reserved than Mr. Nash, offering fairly temperate accounts of the music life's agonies, ecstasies and ennui. Though Mr. Davies was shot by a New Orleans mugger in 2004, he is far more critical of drugs than firearms, complaining how dope is used to prop up touring musicians: "Pamper them; give them all the drugs they need (legal or otherwise) just to get through. Once the tour is over they can be left to look after their own wreckage."
But Mr. Davies, too, is upbeat on America, even praising how students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, "which I think in a strange way helps form a bond among all new Americans." In his spare time he works on an exchange program between high-school bands in New Orleans and London, which suggests he could rise high in Optimist International.
Not so our third musical great, Donald Fagen, a founding member of Steely Dan. If there were a Cranks Hall of Fame, he'd be a multiple inductee.
Mr. Fagen escaped Kendall Park, a New Jersey suburb, after a youth he claims was made bearable only by jazz radio broadcasts and the "subversive" radio talk show of Jean Shepherd (whose "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" would be made into the film "A Christmas Story"). At Bard College, Mr. Fagen met Walter Becker, with whom he eventually founded Steely Dan (named after a Japanese sexual aid) and produced a string of Classic Rock stalwarts, including "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Deacon Blues."
Mr. Fagen, 65, is a good writer and highly talented musician—many rockers would have a hard time reading his charts—but what makes his brief book sing is his sharp tongue. He could teach Bill O'Reilly and Alec Baldwin tons about how to deliver a proper tongue-lashing.
Post his tour journal on the Internet? "Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record," he snarls. Mr. Fagen, who once wrote a song called "Godwhacker," in which he envisioned putting out a hit on the Almighty, is similarly harsh on his Earthbound enemies, citing a British study alleging that conservatives have an "inordinately large amygdala" that makes them delusional. "It's got to be the amygdala thing," he insists. "Period. End of story."
Some listeners might point out that such absolutism is also considered a conservative trait. Indeed, Mr. Fagen sounds like his amygdala is a bit swollen when noting that "I'm deeply underwhelmed by most contemporary art, literature, music, films, TV, the heinous little phones, money talk, real estate talk, all that stuff" and when praising the lack of "soul-deadening porn or violence" on 1960s television.
But what fun is old age if you can't grouse a bit? Geezers do not live by oatmeal alone. Mr. Fagen describes a 2012 concert at which he was performing. The crowd was so "geriatric," he says, that he was "tempted to start calling out bingo numbers." Eventually, the fans were all "on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking out" to the music. "So this, now, is what I do: assisted living."
There's a bright side our author may be overlooking. Should Mr. Fagen tire of the music biz he, along with Mr. Davies and Mr. Nash, have an excellent crack at endorsement deals from the manufacturers of adult diapers and other products for decaying oldsters. For some folks, America's blessings never end.
Wall Street Journal Article: When Summer Was Easy (pre-edited version)
July 14, 2013
Of all the seasons, summer seems to evoke the most childhood memories, probably due to its singular status as the season of No School! Ah, the freedom to frolic beyond the reach of scolding teachers and paddle-wielding assistant principals, to pursue the idle arts of cloud gazing, star counting, making firefly lanterns and perhaps even to skinny dip with an adventurous cheerleader (or, more likely, her less glamorous cousin).
As we grow older (I was born in 1955, during Eisenhower’s first term) we are also naturally inclined to compare summers then with summers now. To no surprise, those of us who have acquired knowledge, wisdom and an appropriately cranky attitude find that summers sure aren’t what they used to be.
Let us count a few of the ways.
First off, most of us born in the fifties spent summers in the raw, sweltering bosom of Mother Nature, which, with all due respect, wasn’t exactly paradise, especially when the mosquitoes started feeding. Home air-conditioners were rare; only about 10 percent of homes had them by 1965 (around 80 percent of modern homes are climate-controlled). When it got hot you turned on a fan. When it got real hot you prayed for a thunderstorm.
People prayed a lot more back then, at least publicly, perhaps in part because it was still legal. We started school (public) with the Lord’s Prayer, and heads bowed prior to most sporting events, weenie roasts and any other occasion where food was consumed. We were also likely to Praise The Lord when the DDT-spewing anti-mosquito fogger appeared on the horizon (haven’t seen one of those in a while). This was, of course, the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, so it was important to have your bases covered at all times.
Also unlike today, we didn’t watch much television during summer break. There were only three channels, and besides that TV played a far distant fiddle to the preferred vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment: books. We might be out of school but we had summer reading lists, which these days don’t seem to be as rigorous. An NEA newsletter noted a couple of years ago that middle school students in the Arlington School District outside New York were required to read at least one book during the summer. One whole book!
I recall (dimly) reading 40 books one summer – some assigned and some part of a local library program. This wasn’t our only bookish experience. For many children in our neck of the woods, Vacation Bible School was a requirement of citizenship (VBS participation is also down). Besides dispensing cookies, watermelon and (untreated) Kool-Aid, these programs focused young minds on talking snakes, parting seas, and Jezebel’s dangerous allure. We still sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which was excellent preparation for many an afternoon’s chief activity: playing guns.
Contemporary gunaphobes will gasp, but guns were as common as iPhones are today. Most boys I knew had at least one toy rifle, pistol or submachine gun (preferably, one of each). We took our marching orders from guys like Kirby in “Combat!” (Kirb was the Baryshnikov of the Browning Automatic Rifle), Illya Kuryakin of “The Man From Uncle” (played by David McCallum, who has devolved to the mild-mannered Duckie of NCIS) and of course the indomitable Sgt. Rock of comic book fame. As we grew older we got BB-rifles, which were used (one cringes to recall) to reduce the local bird population and harass squirrels and other creatures further down the Great Chain of Being (we were all devout speciesists). We later graduated to .22s and shotguns; summer camps had rifle ranges and offered NRA gun safety courses.
These days – characterized by the recent arrest and suspension of a 14-year old West Virginia student who refused to take off his NRA t-shirt -- a high body count would be assumed. I am happy to report that no member of my heavily armed circle ever shot anyone, though honesty requires the admission that one summer afternoon I did manage to shoot myself.
It happened after a small but heavily armed platoon of us was dropped off at a rural lake for an overnight camping trip. Since this was in the thick of adolescence several of us were working hard to develop a smoking addiction (known back then as simply trying to look cool). As I was taking a drag off a cigarette my pistol fell off a nearby bench and discharged, blasting the Marlboro from between my fingers, cutting a groove in my right index finger and nearly trimming the tip of my nose. Yes, I know. A stupid move -- but also a real-life lesson that there is no such thing as cognitive equality, a fact of life that also gets short shrift these days.
Some readers may wonder why parents weren’t hauled into court for sending their sons into the woods with loaded weapons. As it happens, my parents, who had earlier been traumatized when my older brother threw a spear into my back (it stuck, but only for a few seconds) are learning of the shooting incident as they read this article. The larger fact is that by today’s standards, most parents of that era were worthy of Leavenworth. What sinners they were! They sent us outside without sunscreen, let us ride bikes without helmets, jump on trampolines without “safety barriers,” and smiled as we vied with our siblings for the premier spot in the family sedan: the ledge underneath the back window, where you could stretch out and take a nap.
This isn’t to say they didn’t run a tight ship. When we got out of line we were “corrected” with the help of leather belts or expertly wielded hairbrushes (known in some households as “Officer Porcupine”). If we cussed (more about which in a minute) we got our mouths washed out with soap. If someone had told us that a few decades hence parents could be arrested for such manifestations of concern we would have assumed the commies had made good on their promise of world domination.
Yet back then, fixating on possible death and injury would be seen as neurotic. Perhaps this was because our parents had been through the great depression and World War II, which made post-war life seem relatively placid. Accidents happened but they were accepted as part of life. Another personal story illustrates the point. One summer I got a job on a local farm, where I was soon run over by a tractor and hay trailer, which drove ribs into both my lungs. Though I was initially thought to be dead a crack team of surgeons revived me. Being young and resilient I was out of the hospital in a little over a week (my nurse, blessed creature, supplied me with cigarettes once my chest tube was removed).
We never sued the farm owners. Lawsuits were far rarer than today; “ambulance chaser” was an epithet with a significant societal sting. Under 90,000 civil cases were filed in 1970, according to public policy analyst Jurgen O. Skoppek, a number that by 1986 had risen 192%. These days we’re suing each other over mold, hailed as the “next asbestos,” and my lovely nurse might be brought up on charges of supplying cigarettes to a minor. None of which, to my mind, represents progress.
Summers past looked a lot different. Around 13% of Americans were obese in the early 1960s, as compared to 36% today (about two-thirds of contemporary Americans are considered overweight or obese). All of which makes a trip to the beach a different experience.
The seashore of my youth was populated by people who were, relative to now, fairly thin. Huge people were rare: If you weighed in at 350 or more you had a good crack at getting a job at the freak show (a staple of traveling summer carnivals). Nowadays beaches are covered with human manatees (for reasons of disclosure, I could be considered a junior manatee). This may, in part, be a testament to the self-esteem movement, which routed the notion that body size should be a cause of shame. Or maybe it’s simply another reminder that there’s safety in numbers.
Another cosmetic change: Tattoos, which were largely confined to men with military or maritime experience, and bikers. Nowadays, according to a Harris Poll, 38% of adults 30-39 have tats, as do 30% of those 25-29 and 22% of those 18-24. Inked women slightly outnumber men. By comparison, only 11% of American 50-64 say they have tattoos, a number that drops to 5% for Americans 65 and older. Why the proliferation? Twenty-five percent say tattoos make them feel “rebellious” – like growing long hair back in the 1960s -- while 30% say they make them feel more sexy, 21% more healthy and strong and 8% more intelligent (meanwhile 45% percent of Americans without tattoos believe those who have them are less attractive, while 39% say they’re less sexy and 27% less intelligent). Of course, you could always cut your hair if you got tired of it, or faced an unexpected court date. Getting rid of a tattoo is not so easy, though 86% of tattoo bearers said they have never regretted their decision, perhaps belying the idea that the younger generation has commitment issues.
Modern beaches are also intellectually different. When I was a kid you saw lots of thinner people reading fat books. Now you see larger people staring at thin phones. Many are no doubt chronicling the adventures of their favorite literary character – themselves – updating their Facebook accounts with descriptions of eating Oreos, watching a seagull peck the eye out of a dead fish, and spending 15 minutes the prior evening flushing the sand from between their massive glutes. It’s almost enough to make one pity NSA snoops who might be called upon to monitor these communications, thus putting themselves at extreme risk of acute inanity poisoning.
Which brings up another significant change: the rise of the wildly popular salutation/exhortation/denunciation/benediction known as the F-word, which not so long ago was the hydrogen bomb of obscenities, used primarily by men in combat, stevedores, and golfers. Now it traipses lightly off the tongues of 14-year-olds at the slightest provocation – should, for example, that seagull hop over and steal a potato chip. Should cell coverage lapse the oratory might match that of a pirate whose beard had caught afire.
Many oldsters blame rap music and Hollywood; others the triumph of cliche (speech without thought) but a less judgmental (and that must always be our goal!) analysis starts with weeding out the Fs from a typical conversation. What is left? Usually the transcript of a deeply mundane existence. Could the F-infestation, in part at least, be an attempt to dramatize lives made dull by design – a design requiring mandatory bicycle helmets, risk-free trampolines, pools without diving boards, and now an attempt to drop the presumptive drunk driving alcohol level to .05%, which some people can reach with a single glass of wine? As always, proponents argue that if one life can be saved, it’s worth it, though if that’s the criteria they might also focus their hysteria on such threats as falling out of bed, which claims around 600 American lives a year (Time magazine) and autoerotic asphyxiation, which takes another 1,000 citizens to early graves, according to WebMD.
Hypercaution has saved lives, but it has diminished life in the bargain.
Summers saw other enormous changes. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963, which became as familiar to my generation as the Declaration of Independence (July, 1776). The Summer of Love (1967) spread the gospel of getting high, enlightening some and blighting others, while in July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a testament to aiming high. Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, AIDS was formally recognized by U.S. health authorities in June of 1981. Along the way summers saw the passing of national figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Judy Garland, Jonas Salk, Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia.
There were also personnel changes closer to home. Adults who seemed immortal in our youthful summers had their brushes with disease and death. Ditto for some cousins, friends, and siblings – and ourselves. We rarely know the names of current bands, usually go to bed when we used to be going out, and say things like “I’d rather get a colonoscopy – make that a double-colonoscopy! – than go camping.”
Alas, our suns have begun to set.
Yet we have absorbed some of the changes that make modern summers so different than the summers past. Should the sun suddenly blink off, for example, we might acknowledge this as a significant setback for our species – but a giant leap forward in the battle against solar-related cancers and premature wrinkling. And just the other day I was thinking that if my family had more progressive ideas about lawsuits when I got run over that long-ago June, I might today be living on a very nice farm.
Live and learn.
Wall Street Journal Review of 'Follow The Money''
March 11, 2013
The writing life has taken journalist Steve Boggan many exotic places: war zones, up the Amazon in search of hallucinogen- fueled natives (along they way he encountered “rare pink dolphins”), and deep into the bowels of British society during staffer stints at the Independent, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Evening Standard.
Now a freelancer, Mr. Boggan’s first book took him into the gunsights of possibly fatal boredom: He flew from London to Lebanon, Kansas (the center of the United States, by some estimates) to follow a ten dollar bill as it passed from person to person over the course of 30 days. The wandering sawbuck led him to some decidedly non-exotic places, including Hays, Kansas, Harrisonville, Missouri, an apple orchard, a deer hunting camp, and a few motels where bedbugs dare not tread.
“More than once I had questioned my decision to take on this task,” he writes early on. “It was neither smart nor funny. It was just crazy.” Which raises a reasonable question: Why read such a book? For the people, mostly. Ordinary Americans, so-called, bring Mr. Boggan’s book to life (aided, to be sure, by a sharp eye and generous spirit). There’s more to the nation’s interior life than you see from the Interstates, or 39.000 feet.
Mr. Boggan did a similar story for the Guardian, in that case following a ten-pound note around London. The ground rules were simple enough: If a person accepted the bill (either as payment or as change) they were told Mr. Boggan came with it and would stay nearby until the bill changed hands. As he told Rick Chapin, a lodge owner who was the first to get the bill, “Just treat it like any other ten dollar bill and spend it whenever you’re ready.” He fully understands how strange a proposition this would seem to future recipients.
“There is no word other than ‘creepy’ to describe the act of asking a lone woman, traveling hundreds of miles with her four-year-old son, if you can follow her,” he writes. Yet this particular woman, whom he met in Kansas, responded, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
Before his journey ended, Mr. Boggan shared houses, drinks, tree stands and life stories with a proudly godless truck driver, a pair of evangelical missionaries, an Amish rug maker, a platoon of musicians, a Chicago banker, a bow-hunting waitress, a woman whose son makes his living as a cage-fighter, and a hotel worker named Stacey who shared her own literary aspiration: to publish her book arguing that lesbians co-habitate far quicker than heterosexuals. That title is “Bring Your Own U-Haul” and awaits a nimble agent.
Suspicious readers may be wondering by now if “Follow the Money” is yet another exercise in cross-Atlantic sneering, in which a sophisticated European – perhaps one of those preening metrosexuals! – makes fun of American rubes like Ernie, a Kansas farmer who asks if the Brits are still having martial trouble with the Germans, and, when Mr. Broggan offers to guide him around London should he ever visit, asks “Will you take me to see the Eiffel Tower?”
While Ernie would no doubt send eyes rolling ‘round Islington (and Topeka as well) Mr. Boggan finds Ernie to be a decent man who would fly to England’s assistance should the Germans revert to their old ways. Indeed, he is so enthusiastic about many of the people he meets and the places he visits he could easily get work at local chambers of commerce should the freelance life go sour.
In one St. Louis neighborhood, for instance, he marvels at the number of local theatrical productions, admires young girls working on their ballet steps, and enjoys the thunder of a brass band. He chides English friends who insist the “American Midwest was a cultural wasteland. It wasn’t even a weekend. This was an average Thursday night.”
This isn’t to suggest Mr. Boggan is without opinions. He’s put off by anti-abortion billboards, right-wing radio (he is outraged by the Mancow show, for some reason not realizing you should never take seriously anyone called Mancow), is ill at ease around guns and seems, at first at least, to be a bit of a Jehovahphobe, complaining about radio preachers and feeling a “tightening” in his stomach when people start talking about God. But he gives his subjects a respectful listen, especially the Amish, whose productivity humbles him.
He does find signs of small town decay, yet on the bright side notes corresponding investment opportunities. Mr. Boggan tells of a California doctor who bought a Kansas house on eBay for a few thousand dollars, though when he came to town he “took one look at what he’d bought and drove off without getting out of his car.”
Mr Boggan includes brief local histories and interesting tidbits, some about money itself: during his 30 day trip, the Treasury Department printed around 82 million ten-dollar bills; all told 25-30 million bills of all denominations are printed each day, worth in total about $1 billion, though the cost of each bill is just under a dime (which some people think is close to their true value). Google Earth, he discovered, offers a variety of midpoints for the U.S. If you use a Mac, you get Chanute, Kansas, while the PC version directs you to the Meadowbrook Apartments in St. Lawrence, Kansas. He offers a reasonable explanation: “Could this have anything to do with the fact that Brian McClendon, vice-president of engineering at Google, lived in the Meadowbrook Apartments as a boy? Or that Dan Webb, senior software engineer at Google, grew up in Chanute, Kansas? Surely not.”
The last person to have the bill was a retired Ford auto plant worker named Glenn Waddell, who had won the money in a sports bet. All told, the journey took Mr. Boggan about 3,000 fairly placid miles. Pleasant reading every page though an interesting sequel might start him out someplace slightly more adventurous -- South Central Los Angeles or New Orleans perhaps – where a wandering sawbuck would likely take him places that will tighten more than his stomach.
A New Music Fesival: Poor Farm Fest
October 1, 2012
Do you have to be crazy to start a music festival?
I wondered that after seeing a notice for the second annual Poor Farm Festival in Williamsburg, West Virginia. There seems to be at least three strikes against success: a resoundingly flat economy, declining attendance at music venues (down 20 percent by some estimates) and gas closing in on four bucks a gallon.
So maybe the organizers are munching a bit too much of the local loco weed.
But there’s something to be said for people whose madness benefits musicians and their listeners. The Poor Farm Fest (www.poorfarmfest.com
) listed 29 performing bands this year, and organizer Carolyn Stephens was kind enough to offer me a last-minute slot, bringing the number to an even thirty (to keep the ethics tidy, I did not ask for remuneration). The festival was providing work for over 100 musicians. The only act I’d heard of was Nora Jane Struthers, although the sons of two rock stars – Ginger Baker (Cream) and Greg Allman (Allman Brothers) – were billed as headliners.
Besides all that, I could use a good airing out. Website photos showed a terrific setting – mountains, meadows and deep blue sky. I packed up the camping gear, found a bottle of retsina and off I went.
The drive from Richmond to Williamsburg is nice, as Interstate drives go; I-64 provides dramatic (for this part of the world) views topping Afton Mountain outside Charlottesville and re-enters mountainous terrain just past Lexington. Goshen is a beautiful stretch of mountain and valley; if I end up ashes I wouldn’t mind a few spoonfuls being sprinkled thereabouts (heirs take note). The first kiss of fall (the festival opened Sept. 6) had started to turn the leaves around Clifton Forge and an hour or so later I exited at Lewisburg, W.Va. for the final 25 minutes of the trip. The Williamsburg Road covers the final eight miles or so. It is of interesting design: a paved lane with two gravel shoulders; when cars approach it’s onto the shoulder to avoid collision. Eventually you come around a curve and there’s the Poor Farm: 1,000 acres of meadows and forest, some hilly, plus a house, a stage, and a herd of cattle. Atop a distant mountain ridge a dozen or so white wind turbines twirl away.
The site gets its name from its former function. When residents of Greenbrier County were down and out they could go to the farm and work a section of land. The terrain rolls and in some places dips dramatically – the result of limestone cave collapses – but the concert area is fairly flat and the stage – a sturdy structure enclosed on three sides – has a sound system powerful enough to cover the fairly vast camping area, which for my money is nicer than the camping spaces at Floydfest, Clifftop, and certainly Galax.
All in all, a superior festival site. Only one thing was missing: people.
When I arrived Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, musicians on stage sometimes nearly outnumbered the audience. If I were running things I might have gone hunting for a cyanide pill. But organizer Carolyn Stephens (aided by husband Pete) was unruffled. Her attitude brought to mind the motto of a childhood hero: What, me worry?
Carolyn is tall, slender, and apparently unflappable. On Saturday morning we talked things over during a drive to make a bank deposit. My first question: What on earth possessed you to jump into the festival biz?
Well, she began, she had booked acts during her school days at Curry College, near Boston. She brought in people like Livingston Taylor, who might not have sold tons of records but who knew how to win over audiences. Later, she worked in radio – once doing shows on three stations in the same market. “One of the stations was adult contemporary, one was country, and the third was a religious station.”
But love of music isn’t the main reason she started her festival. Wal-Mart played a crucial role – the kudzu-like retailer opened two superstores within an hour of Poor Farm at a time she was making her living selling plants. Her horticulture business soon shriveled. If she was going to stay in the area she’d have to create her own job. She recalled the good times booking acts back in college, and she did have a nice0 site for a festival.
“When we decided to do this, I had 45 days total to get ready. We had to put in roads. We had to build a stage. We had to get a vendor, and line up volunteers. I had to get permits, including an ABC license.” There was also promotion, and the small matter of finding bands that could be booked on short notice. “I hadn’t been to a festival since 1978,” she said. “I do everything on the fly. I mean everything.” Internet research helped her find talent. She ended up hiring seventeen acts, cutting deals with many that included a promise to book them the following year in return for a reduced fee.
Yet Carolyn was unable to cut a deal with the Weather Deity – it rained off and on during the festival. But the festival did attract around 600 people. “Four hundred of them were my neighbors who wanted to see what the hell we were up to,” she said. “They didn’t like music. They’re farmers.” But the other 200, she believed, might become repeat customers and would also talk up the festival to their friends. “The rule is, one talks to ten, so by our second year we’d have the possibility of 2000 people coming.” Word of mouth seemed to be working. “The first year, our Facebook page had 200 friends. This year, we had 2,000,” she said. She also developed a list of about 20 newspapers she targeted with press releases (which she wrote) and pictures. “Some of these papers ran the releases without altering them,” she says, adding that she studied journalism in college. She eventually took out an ad in Relix magazine, which she said was hugely expensive. I sensed Relix won’t be getting any more of her money.
After depositing a wad of currency, we headed back to the Farm. Like many of this year’s acts, the Rain God made a return appearance. She acknowledged that bad weather can dampen attendance. But she also said that the first two days of the Poor Farm 2012 were improvements over year one, and that she was very enthusiastic about some of the new acts.
“I avoid agents like the plague,” she said, but two of her stronger acts for 2012 came through agent John Laird at the Americana Agency. “John has a reputation for being both good for the artist, and good for the venue. In the long run they both have to succeed. I told him I had a small festival and he said he had some up-and-coming people who were really good, and who I could get for a good price.” One act was Nora Jane Struthers and her band, TheBootleggers. The other was The Steel Wheels.
“Nora Jane wrote a song about Greenbrier County – about the effect the coal mining and limestone industries have on residents of this county,” she said. “It’s a great song – and she had never played in Greenbrier County. I thought, ‘this is serendipity. This girl needs to be here!’” The Steel Wheels, meantime, had been well received at Merlefest. Another acoustic act, Johnson’s Crossroads, had also played Merlesfest, and while now based in Asheville its two core members are from the area (I’ll profile Nora Jane Struthers and Johnson’s Crossroads soon).
She was also very enthusiastic about Friday night’s headliner: Kofi Baker’s “The Cream Experience.” I had liked them as well. Kofi, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, could give his dad a run for his money and his band mates left no one pining away for Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. With a few exceptions (including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”) they stuck to Cream and Blind Faith hits; Kofi also warbled a version of “Pressed Rat and Warthog” – a tune that goes well with retsina and which probably doesn’t get covered very often. Though he has a top-flight musical pedigree he’s very accessible and good-natured. His running joke had it that Ginger Baker actually wrote all the Cream’s music, only to have it stolen by Eric Clapton (Kofi’s godfather, Carolyn tells me). He also got off a good joke at Jack Bruce’s expense: “How are a cup of 7-11 coffee and Jack Bruce alike? Both are best with Cream.”
The audience loved the band. But from what I could tell there might have been 1oo listeners, max. And that was huge compared to the next day. To be fair, the stage talent had declined a bit by then, at least early on.
Carolyn had given me an 11:30 slot; the plan was to play tunes from my new collection of instrumentals (free here: www.daveshiflett.com
) and gently draw festivarians from their tents to the stage area in time for the opening noon act. A consummate professional, I rehearsed earlier than morning, sitting on the stage and playing for a woman with three children plus a security guy who had been up until five drinking moonshine.
But as show time approached it was hard not to notice that the lovely meadow in front of the stage was nearly empty. Indeed, had I left my chair in the meadow for the stage when 11:30 arrived, I would have taken the entire audience with me. Yes, I was the only person awaiting my performance. I’m accustomed to playing for small houses so this was no worry. But it raised a vital question. How long can this festival last without bringing in more people?
Carolyn doesn’t seem worried. She said she would give the festival 3-5 years to succeed, and believes that as word gets out – especially about its excellent site and stage – larger acts will want to make the trek down Williamsburg Road. One band she hopes will help put Poor Farm on the festival map is Donna the Buffalo. “I’ve tried to get them before,” she says. “I really want to get them here next year.”
Donna would seem a perfect musical match for Poor Farm, and if the band’s loyal followers — AKA ‘The Herd” – showed up, that should make the cash registers sing as well. Other good fits would be Hot Tuna, Tim O’Brien (a West Virginia boy), and Lyle Lovett (who told me last year he was probably going to go independent) plus returning favorites (Nora Jane Struthers, the Steel Wheels, Johnson’s Crossroads, Kofi Baker). The roster could be rounded out with younger rock/roots/blues acts trying to climb the ladder.
Can Carolyn pull it off? She said she is putting in as many as eighty hours a week to make Poor Farm fly. She seems determined to succeed, come hell or high water.
There was no lack of the latter on Saturday afternoon. Just as Nora Jane Struthers was about to go on, a ferocious rain/wind storm struck. Canopy frames were twisted like pipe cleaners. My faithful chair, parked directly across from center stage, blew away, never to be found.
I know a sign from heaven when I see one and decided to vamoose. Just before departure, Carolyn drove up, surveyed the situation, and declared that the chance of rain was down to about ten percent. “I can live with that,” she said. Later, she filled me in via email about the final day:
“On Sunday, the sun came out and so did the families. We had tons of kids and families sitting in chairs with winter clothes on…We had a full-fledged super light show, smoke, strobes, and covers from the greats like Black Sabbath and Rush, a huge wild show ending with a professional fire dancer on the audience side of the stage who whirled her fire-pots to the music and just made a grand finale for the weekend…I left the festival feeling like a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year!”
Here’s hoping Carolyn Stephens can find a way to make Poor Farm grow and prosper. I’d like to return, maybe even find my vagabond chair.
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Wall Street Journal Review of 'Hit Lit' -- What Makes Blockbusters Tick
April 14, 2012
If you want to make the big money in fiction, don't skimp on the friction—especially the sexual, spiritual and political varieties—and go light on the navel-gazing. So counsels James W. Hall in "Hit Lit," a study of what makes best sellers tick.
Mr. Hall, himself no stranger to the best-seller lists as a thriller writer, teaches a college course on 20th-century mega-best sellers. "Hit Lit" offers insights from his own study of these books and from his classroom discussions.
"Hit Lit" focuses on a murderer's row of commercial best sellers from the past couple of decades: Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), John Grisham's "The Firm" (1991), Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" (1992) and Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (2003). It looks back at earlier sensations, too: Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" (1979), Peter Benchley's "Jaws" (1974), William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (1971), Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" (1969), Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" (1966), Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), Grace Metalious's "Peyton Place" (1956) and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" (1936). These literary cash cows may tell us something about prevailing tastes, and they certainly share many features that wannabe blockbuster writers might keep in mind while going for the gold.
Job one, Mr. Hall writes, is to hook readers quickly, perhaps by having a naked young woman chomped in half by a shark or a man murdered by an albino monk, or by flashing some thigh (and perhaps adjacent real estate). Once hooked, customers must be goaded to keep turning the pages, the quicker the better. If they hesitate, you are lost. "Hit Lit" warns sharply against going introspective. People in blockbuster land don't have navels. "These characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative," Mr. Hall explains. They are "pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themselves" (take that, William Faulkner). Also, don't dillydally with needless personal detail. He notes that in "Gone With the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara "is married and becomes a widow in a single sentence at the beginning of Chapter 7."
Mr. Hall and his students found that protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities. (In real life, aren't these types often deeply self-absorbed?) They are also often in pursuit of the American dream, variously defined, and find themselves acting against "a sweeping backdrop" such as the Cold War ("The Hunt for Red October") or the civil-rights struggle ("To Kill a Mockingbird").
Then there is the sweeping backdrop of humanity's eternal yearning to legally invade someone else's nether regions. "Sex sells," Mr. Hall reminds us, which is why even non-blockbuster readers have heard of "Peyton Place" and "Valley of the Dolls," books that benefited by being published in the pre-Internet era. They offered glimpses of furtive gropings long before it was possible to find every possible sexual permutation in the sanctity of a palm-cradled electronic device.
All the books surveyed, Mr. Hall writes, include at least one central sexual incident. Some are salacious, some melodramatic—Scarlett being carried upstairs for a thorough pillaging—and some criminal, such as the alleged rape at the center of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Many of the episodes shine a light on sexual hypocrisy. "New Englanders were outraged and offended that their folksy cover had been blown and their steamy bedrooms laid bare" in "Peyton Place," Mr. Hall writes. Warming to the subject, he declares that " 'Peyton Place' is America, the polite, mannered façade pulled back to reveal the squirming reality below."
Not to throw cold water on this literary hot flash, but if Americans were, en masse, really so sweaty and squirmy, would they buy a book describing what they already knew? Safer to say it was the novelty of the "Peyton Place" story that made the cash registers sing.
Religion is another hot-button subject in the most popular fiction, we're told. The church ladies in "To Kill a Mockingbird" are a flock of hypocrites, according to Mr. Hall, and they're hardly alone in best-seller land—you won't find an uncritical portrayal of traditional religion in any of these books. "It would seem that the bestselling authors of all time are a collection of freethinkers and agnostics who share a tendency to ridicule religious hypocrisy and aggressively challenge standard orthodoxy."
Or perhaps the authors are protecting their own orthodoxy by ridiculing those outside it. In any event, Mr. Hall informs us that religious works of an affirming sense sell so well that "most bestseller lists shunt them off into a separate category so the mainstream nonreligious books will have some slim chance of survival."
You're not likely to learn much about the Beatitudes in best sellers, but the books are instructive in other ways: Blockbusters almost always include an "abundance of facts and information," Mr. Hall says, by offering peeks inside glamorous or closed-off subcultures. He calls them "secret," but we may call them mysterious or little understood. For example: big-time law offices ("The Firm"), the entertainment world ("Valley of the Dolls"), organized crime ("The Godfather") and Opus Dei, the Catholic organization ("The Da Vinci Code"). Mr. Hall dubs this the "didactic function," which doesn't necessarily mean that the publisher has a fact-checking department burning the midnight oil. While Tom Clancy's detailed descriptions of military technology may be fairly accurate, Dan Brown's premise that Jesus was a baby-daddy is no more factually based than "The Wizard of Oz." Then again, they don't call these books fiction for nothing.
Mr. Hall, who writes with a light, amused touch, doesn't pay much attention to the literary quality of the books in his survey, and he can sound dismissive of writers who vastly outshine the multimillionaire club. "I'd wager there is more pure data on a single page of 'The Hunt for Red October' than in many entire novels by Faulkner or Hemingway," he writes. Here's a counter-wager: There are more moments of pure literary pleasure on a single page of Faulkner or Hemingway than in the entirety of "The Hunt for Red October." Here is a typical passage in the Clancy novel, describing the hero at a tense moment: "Ryan was chain-smoking at his station, and his palms were sweating as he struggled to maintain his composure." Faulkner might rather jump off a bridge than commit such pablum to print.
"Hit Lit" seems to take these books a bit too seriously, as when Mr. Hall contemplates the greater meaning of the opening dining scene in "Jaws," in which the main course has gone for a skinny-dip: "One could ask if the self-sufficient woman who abandons her man in a drunken haze is being punished for the sin of independence." Perhaps the shark ate Quint for the sin of drinking too much brandy.
Faculty-lounge politics pop up here and there in "Hit Lit." In a discussion of the "nuclear family" (a presence in many blockbusters), Mr. Hall dismisses William Bennett's lament over the dissolution of the family as a "a somewhat dire description of what some would say is simply a modernization of the family structure or a set of changes that reflect other transformations in modern culture." As Scarlett O'Hara might say: Pshaw—that professor needs to visit the projects.
“ But he also makes some sensible observations. "These days it's harder to profitably press the hot button of sex because that button has just about been worn out from overuse." And while acknowledging that seven of the books he studied were first novels, he notes that the other authors needed nurturing before hitting pay dirt, an increasingly rare corporate indulgence. "These days, if a writer does not succeed on the first or second try, his or her career is likely to flatline."
Mr. Hall includes some interesting tidbits. Ben Franklin—"lustful Ben," as he calls him—"was one of the first Americans to own a copy of John Cleland's scandalous novel 'Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.' " He quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne's put-down of the "horde of female scribblers" and observes that women make up nearly 80% of fiction readers. Which raises a question. Are male readers kept at bay by design, purposely neglected by publishers? Or were they brainwashed by Opus Dei to avoid fiction? There's a novel in there somewhere.
—Mr. Shiflett is author of a lightly
read novel called "In the Matter
of J. Van Pelt."