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Wall Street Journal Review: The Last Job - April 23, 2019

The prospect of death separates the terminally ambitious members of our species into two distinct groups: those who compose a bucket list of offbeat things to do before they croak and those who decide to attempt one final grand feat, a last hurrah. Bucketeers climb mountains and visit the Taj Mahal. Last-hurrah types try their hand at writing a symphony or building a school in some far-flung place—or, if their life-long occupation has been in the larceny trade, uniting a few fellow felons to pull off a really big heist.

In “The Last Job,” Dan Bilefsky takes up the 2015 Hatton Garden Safe Deposit heist, an operation at the heart of London’s jewelry district that netted about $20 million in gold, gems and cash. The theft was stunning not only for the size of the take but for the crew that did the thieving: a collection of geezers whose lust for loot was matched by age-related maladies such as heart disease, diabetes and a tendency to fall asleep on the job. Theirs is a somewhat inspiring story, unless your money happened to end up in their grasping old mitts.



By Dan Bilefsky 
Norton, 284 pages, $26.95

The perpetrators, who called themselves “The Firm,” had long careers as thieves, with impressive incarceration résumés. Brian Reader, the mastermind and 76 at the time of the crime, began his career at age 11 by stealing a can of fruit. He spent years in the jug and suffered from migraines blamed on falling from a roof during a robbery. He was selling used cars in his driveway when he decided it was time for some legacy looting.

Danny Jones, 60, was a lifelong lock-picker and burglar, as well as an exercise fanatic and eccentric. He sometimes slept in his mother-in-law’s dressing gown—plus a fez—and believed he could communicate with dogs. Less flamboyant were Kenny Collins, 74, an old jailmate of Reader’s whose criminal bona fides included breaking into a shoe shop early in his career (a source of professional ridicule), and Terry Perkins, 67, a serious diabetic with his own lengthy rap sheet and a fondness for Margaret Thatcher.Carl Wood, 58, was a second-tier participant, joined by several ancillaries and a mysterious man named Basil who knew how to disable alarm systems.

Mr. Bilefsky, a New York Times reporter who came across the story during a stint at the paper’s London bureau, maintains a generous attitude toward the perps, who were part of a “nearly extinct generation of old-school professional thieves”; they “abhorred violence” and did prison time “without complaint.” He gives them good marks for planning, too, starting with the strike date: Easter weekend, which even the most devoted followers of Mammon consider a good excuse for knocking off a few extra days. The target was legendary. Hatton Garden had served as a setting in Ian Fleming’s Bond novel “Diamonds Are Forever” and Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” While the Safe Deposit building wasn’t quite Fort Knox, its basement vault was protected by 20 inches of reinforced-concrete walls. Many of the local jewelry stores considered it a safe haven—surely not susceptible to forced entry by elderly eels.

Yet if the planning was solid, the execution was sketchy. Reader rode a bus to the job (his pass would later be traced), while Collins drove his white Mercedes, apparently unconcerned that London is teeming with surveillance cameras. Collins was also somewhat slack as a lookout man, going out for fish and chips and eventually nodding off. When a ramming tool fell apart and forced the thieves to exit the job site to buy a new one, Reader and Wood—apparently suffering from stamina deficit disorder—went home.

“It is almost as if these guys have been locked up and then transported by a time machine to modern times to perform this crime,” a local expert told Mr. Bilefsky, who calls the caper an analogue crime performed in a digital age. Yet the re-tooled rogues did complete the mission—a work of artistry, by their lights, rivaling the Sistine ceiling.

Not everyone was impressed. Scotland Yard’s Paul Johnson, who grew up watching “Hill Street Blues” and who had a lot of experience nabbing jewel thieves, was put in charge of the case. Unlike the Firm, the lawmen operated on the sunny side of the digital divide. Surveillance video revealed the Mercedes, and soon listening devices were recording the perps performing another amazing feat: hanging themselves with their own tongues.

Mr. Bilefsky spices his well-told tale with snippets from the surveillance transcripts: countless F-bombs and petty sniping, often against a backdrop of thunderous music (Neil Diamond was a favorite). Within two months of the robbery, the cops pounced.

The wind-down was bittersweet. New-found celebrity balmed the sting of incarceration—tabloids tagged the crew the Bad Grandpas—yet the evidence against the core four was so overwhelming that all pleaded guilty in March 2016 and got seven years.

So what do old guys do in prison? One of the ancillaries whiled away the hours arguing with Islamic radicals (using Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” as a foundational text). The sentence of Perkins, the diabetic, was commuted by the Grim Reaper on Feb. 4, 2018. Reader was visited by the stroke fairy, survived and was released in July 2018.

Other indignities had to be endured, few greater than a trio of tomato-magnet movies based on the crime (one, “King of Thieves,” starring Michael Caine). Mr. Bilefsky suggests that Brian Reader’s “mastermind” status was well-deserved. More than half the loot from the heist is still unaccounted for. One assumes that Reader has never sold another used car, and if he decides he’d like to visit the Taj Mahal, he’ll fly first class.

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at

Appeared in the April 19, 2019, print edition as 'Once More Into the Vault.'

Wall Street Journal article: Virginia's Confederacy of Dunces - February 8, 2019

Virginia’s Confederacy of Dunces

How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on?

Feb. 7, 2019 6:53 p.m. ET

When word leaked that Gov. Ralph Northam was in hot water over a medical-school photo, some Virginians smiled knowingly. We’ve seen pictures of med-school friends posing with cadavers they’d hung with monikers like “Bessie,” “Big Boy,” and “Wee Willie, ” as circumstances dictated. Then came the jarring news of Mr. Northam’s costume mishap and moonwalking incidents, which instantly converted him into a political untouchable deserted by everyone but his shadow. Abe Lincoln probably had more friends in Richmond when he visited in 1865, just before the South went under new management.

Mr. Northam now appears determined to hold on to his job, and though he’s picking up some support, Richmond remains aghast. The Commonwealth of Virginia, after all, prides itself on being the mother of presidents (eight so far) and a place of profound political decorum. But suddenly we’re living in Dogpatch.

Not only were citizens initially left to ponder whether their governor was the guy in the hood or the guy in blackface (at least until Mr. Northam reversed course and insisted he was neither). A few days later Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would accede should the governor depart, faced assertions of an old sexual assault, whose public airing he suggested was the work of Mr. Northam. That suspicion was redirected toward Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a potential rival to Mr. Fairfax in the 2021 race for governor. Not to be outdone, Attorney General Mark Herring announced Wednesday he that had performed a rapper imitation wearing “brown makeup” when he was 19. On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican, was identified as managing editor of the Virginia Military Institute’s 1968 yearbook, which included blackface photos. The way things are going, we’ll soon discover contemporaneous sketches of Patrick Henry and George Washington in drag.

Adding to the din are Republicans who sense cosmic payback over Northam campaign ads that accused his GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, of racism, plus other critics who insist the governor clings to his job because his pediatric practice was damaged by comments about abortion and infanticide that were more in the spirit of Herod than Hippocrates.

These are indeed dark days. How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on? Yet Virginians are comforted that our dunces are not the only ones in this confederacy. Those calling for Mr. Northam’s head include Sen. Cory Booker, who admits to a youthful sexual encounter that would qualify as assault under today’s campus standards; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, widely criticized for appropriating a Native American identity; and Sen. Kamala Harris, who doesn’t seem to mind rubbing shoulders with controversial pols in the cause of career advancement. Her early patron (and romantic interest) Willie Brown was, among other things, an enthusiastic supporter of cult leader Jim Jones, who went on to lead the largest murder-suicide in modern history.

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We can even sympathize with Mr. Northam (and perhaps Mr. Herring) as they wonder if an indiscretion in young adulthood will erase everything that came after—which in the governor’s case includes the expansion of Medicaid, restoration of voting rights for felons and support for the removal of Confederate monuments. This supposed racist also attends an integrated church with a black pastor—perhaps the perfect place to ask that age-old question: “Why me, Lord?” The clear answer is politics. His party seems happy to throw him to the wolves in exchange for greater credibility in attacking President Trump, a Satan figure to people who tend not to believe in the supernatural. Sorry, Ralph, but don’t take it personally.

Best of all, Mr. Northam’s story reminds us that many people change for the better. Here in the Bible belt we recall Saul of Tarsus, who went from persecuting Christians to becoming the primary expositor of Christianity. Lincoln, by modern standards a thoroughgoing racist, played an incalculable role in racial advancement. Lyndon B. Johnson used the N-word nearly as often as a typical American teenager uses the F one, but pushed through crucial civil-rights and voting-rights legislation.

Former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia didn’t pose as a Klansman; he was a Klansman—an “exalted cyclops”—who repudiated his past and served honorably. “Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation,” NAACP chief Benjamin Todd Jealous wrote after Byrd died in 2010. “Senator Byrd went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country.”

Romantic types may also recall another redemption story—Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” in which Jean Valjean, a reformed petty criminal who brings prosperity to a town and saves a child from unending misery, is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert, a fanatical lawman who cannot forgive ancient transgressions. Mr. Northam may be no Valjean, but we are certainly lousy with Javerts these days.

This storm will eventually pass. Until then the beleaguered may seek context and comfort from ancient scribes, including Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who observed in an 1844 letter: “Man is now only more active—not more happy—nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Amen to that. We may also amend an old adage to reflect modern realities: “Don’t eat the brown acid” is hereby updated to “Don’t wear the brown makeup.”

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at
Appeared in the February 8, 2019, print edition.

Wall Street Journal Review: Grateful and Thanks a Thousand - November 21, 2018


Dave Shiflett

Nov. 20, 2018 6:52 p.m. ET

If turkeys have souls (it’s the season for generous speculation), one might expect that, in the spirit of the times, a flock of transcendent Toms will soon storm the gates of heaven to demand an end to their species-ist Thanksgiving sorrows. They might have a case, but the holiday itself will surely retain heaven’s blessing. As two new books make abundantly clear, giving thanks pays big dividends—soulful and otherwise—at least for humans.

Theologian Diana Butler Bass and non-theist A.J. Jacobs sing from the same hymnal on this point. Gratitude is good. It results in better sleep, increased generosity and confidence, and decreased depression, anxiety and boozing. It’s like a chill pill, with no prescription needed.

Yet not all gratitude is equal. Ms. Bass, who writes from a Christian perspective in “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks,” notes that gratitude often comes with a string of reciprocity attached. Your back has been scratched, for which you are thankful, but now you must return the favor. This arrangement, she explains, has been used by the powerful throughout history to maintain their position atop the great slag heap. One might add that friends, business associates, spouses and other intimates can deploy the quid pro quo on an hourly basis.

The more mature form of gratitude, Ms. Bass explains, recognizes that life is a wondrous gift, the appreciation for which is best expressed by practicing the Golden Rule, stressing giving over getting; as in playing the piano, the harder you work, the greater the results. Ms. Bass is not peddling theory, she assures us. Practicing gratitude has helped her overcome the agonies of job loss and divorce—as well as, she says, the singular horrors of the Trump presidency. Besides leaving Ms. Bass’s preferred candidate chilling (for now) in the dustbin of history, Mr. Trump’s ascendancy left Ms. Bass deep in the dumps. She had to “remind myself to breathe,” she writes, yet by forcing herself to acknowledge life’s many blessings she regained her footing, discovering along the way that “gratitude, like interest, compounds.”

Her recovery was aided by the communal affirmation of shared beliefs during the massive anti-Trump march in Washington after the election, where she and several clerical colleagues donned pink hats and carried signs proclaiming the traditional Beatitudes along with a few “special updated” ones, including “Blessed are the uninsured / Blessed are the immigrants / Blessed are the LGBTQ,” all of which had a profound effect on her: “The day before, I had cried because I was afraid and sad. But on this day I cried because of blessings. For the first time in two months, I felt grateful.”

Some readers may find Ms. Bass less than grateful for the cornucopia that she dismisses as “consumer Thanksgiving.” She believes the holiday has “become an orgy of ‘I’ll get mine’ ” in which “often someone dies in the struggle for a must-have toy or cheap smart phone.” It appears that her condemnation of the Black Friday ritual overlooks the “special updated” proverb stating that into every vital human endeavor, including shopping, a little collateral damage must sometimes fall. No one is perfect, of course, and her generous spirit and positive message will make her book a welcome visitor on many nightstands.

The same is true for Mr. Jacobs’s slim and less introspective volume, “Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.” An “agnostic, verging on atheist” whose earlier books include “The Year of Living Biblically” (2007), he sets out to practice what modern-day sage and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast preaches: “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” Mr. Jacobs’s mission is to thank everyone responsible for providing his morning cup of coffee.

Coffee, he reminds us, is no bit player in human affairs. More than two billion cups are drunk every day. The industry employs 125 million people, including the workers at his local coffee shop, who are the first to receive his thanks. From there he tracks down and thanks the makers of coffee cup lids—small but impressive feats of engineering—and of the cardboard sleeves that keep us from burning our fingers (and perhaps launching a lawsuit). The sleeves, he explains, were known as zarfs in the ancient world; the modern version was invented in Portland, Ore., in 1992 by a struggling couple who sold their Java Jackets from their car trunk and would later see them included in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit called “Humble Masterpieces.”

Soon enough Mr. Jacobs feels a grateful glow, yet realizes the impossibility of thanking everyone tangentially responsible for his morning Joe. He holds his hosannas to 1,000 contributors—truck drivers, farmers, logo artists, warehouse workers, even the chief executive of Exxon, whose company supplies fuel to bean transporters (he chides the CEO for climate change, though mildly). Along the way he shares many coffee-related facts. Beethoven’s morning cup was made with exactly 64 beans, while Balzac downed 50 cups a day. In a hat tip to Big Brother, he notes that, before government inspection, coffee merchants used fillers, including baked horse liver, burnt rags, brick dust and a widely uncelebrated delicacy known as “monkey nuts.”

Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Bass have written pleasant odes to interdependency, reminding us that much of our happiness relies on people we don’t know. That’s not music to the ears the autonomous souls who believe they reside at the center of the universe but is a blessed alternative to the monsoon of seasonal dreck that threatens to drown us all.

Mr. Shiflett’s writing and a new song collection, “Seven Dollar Beer and Other Calamities,” are posted at

Appeared in the November 21, 2018, print edition as 'Their Cups Runneth Over.'

WSJ review of 'Country Music USA' and 'Country Music' - September 29, 2018

Dave Shiflett
Sept. 27, 2018 5:49 p.m. ET
Given the choice between hearing a country-music crooner or a cat in a blender, many Americans might give us reason to fear for the fate of the cat. Others consider country the music that red-state deplorables listen to, even if it’s hardly restricted to hayseeds, malevolent or otherwise. Even Beyoncé sings a little country.

Beyoncé is a little late to the hayride, as we are reminded by the 50th-anniversary edition of Bill C. Malone’s “Country Music USA.” Mr. Malone, a musician and a professor emeritus at Tulane, traces country’s origins to songs brought over by colonials—the fiddler Thomas Jefferson described an instrument called the “banjar” in 1781—and follows the music through its many variations and mutations to the present day.

Country music, Mr. Malone writes, is a “vigorous hybrid” based on a foundation mostly Southern, rural, Protestant and working class. Early audiences flocked to tent repertory or “Toby” shows, where the price of admission (often paid with eggs and other rural currency) bought an afternoon of music and other distractions, including magic shows and trained bears.

Two later advances greatly expanded the music’s reach. During a seven-year stretch in the 1920s, Mr. Malone notes, annual radio sales jumped more than 10-fold, while some estimates reported a radio in every third home, more than a few dialed into country stations. The other boost to country came from Ralph Peer (1892-1960), an energetic Missouri native who “first presented country music to the American public.” Peer didn’t pick, but his efforts as a talent scout, recording engineer and pioneering music publisher surely made him grin—and fairly rich.

Mr. Malone, who seems to have profiled everyone ever associated with country music, questions the “authenticity” of some latter-day artists. Country, he writes, “has been inundated by musicians whose sounds suggest neither regional, rustic nor blue-collar nativity, but are instead rooted in the homogenizing and mass-consumption-oriented media establishment.” For this anniversary edition, he brings in scholar Tracey E.W. Laird to add a final chapter addressing modern country’s “meaning, identity and relationship with its multiple audiences.”

Ms. Laird sings a more academic tune than Mr. Malone, at one point explaining that branding—as crucial for country stars as it is for cars and candy bars—“operates according to multidimensional relationships of signs and meanings, not corresponding object to object, but with shifting points of connection, nearly always in flux.” That observation may leave many banjo players scratching their heads, but she has a “big tent” approach and is as comfortable with the Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé—whose twang-inspired efforts rankle purists—as with Hank Williams.

Jocelyn R. Neal ponders some of the same questions in “Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History,” a textbook that covers much of the same biographical ground that Mr. Malone does (though not in as much detail), augmented with a wagonload of analysis. Some fans might find the interpretations a bit thick, especially a series of “listening guides” that deconstruct classic songs. The opening line to “Rocky Top” (“Wish that I was on old Rocky Top”) is said to describe “an anti-modernist nostalgia,” while the appearance of “two strangers” in a later verse presents “cultural stereotypes that will become part of bluegrass’ reputation”—i.e., “backwoods people who are closed to outsiders, who live beyond the reach of both law and civilization.”

Yet Ms. Neal illuminates other points in perfect pitch. In a discussion of the country bona fides of hit-maker Shania Twain, Ms. Neal quotes a critic who called her the “highest-paid lap dancer in Nashville”—not only offering deep insight but also reminding us that country music has come a long way since Jefferson’s “banjar.”
—Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and journalism at

WSJ Review of Jeff Pearlman's 'Football For A Buck' - September 28, 2018

The new NFL season has commenced with the usual hoopla, though some fans are finding new things to do on Sunday afternoon. Their disaffection isn’t just about kneeling, which is as easy to ignore as other celebrity pose-striking. The game seems flat, perhaps due to efforts to remove risk with new rules and more penalty flags. Watching a game can set the teeth to grinding, especially when advertising time-outs seem longer than the first half of “Gone With the Wind.” Meanwhile, ticket, beer and parking prices make stadium-goers wonder if they could have saved money by opting for a weekend in Paris.

So pro football is ripe for revolution. Luckily, Jeff Pearlman’s “Football for a Buck” offers a blueprint for change, based on the United States Football League, which played three semi-glorious seasons starting in 1983. The book will also please readers who sip bad ink about Donald Trump as if it were the finest wine.

Mr. Pearlman, whose earlier books include one on the Dallas Cowboys, traces the league’s origins to David Dixon, a New Orleans art dealer who in 1961 dreamed of an NFL expansion team for his hometown. His vision slowly evolved into the USFL, which promised grand innovations: a spring-summer season, regional talent in team lineups, two-point conversion opportunities and a low operating budget.

Tryouts were open to the public, Mr. Pearlman tells us, and attracted plumbers, cab drivers and fish-tank cleaners—plus a few fellows with less conventional skill sets. One hopeful was out on a work-release program following an armed-robbery conviction, while another had recently finished a term for manslaughter. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the USFL presented, in the words of one of its former players, “the most violent football ever played by mankind”—featuring a dozen teams (later expanding to 18) with names including the Bandits, Gunslingers and Maulers.

There was also athleticism. The Houston Gamblers, looking to hire speedy receivers, auditioned a candidate who had never played a down of football, according to Mr. Pearlman, but who had “recently raced a horse on the television show That’s Incredible . . . and won.” The league launched several pro legends, including Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Steve Young and Jim Kelly, all of whom were budget busters. There was a massive gap between “grunt” players—who earned an average of $36,000—and the marquee players like Mr. Walker, who got a $1 million signing bonus and $1.2 million a year, along with that stake in an oil well.

On the bright side, the players weren’t expected to be role models. Many did drugs; some smoked cigarettes on the sidelines and even in the huddle. A lineman named Greg Fields responded to being cut by the Los Angeles Express with death threats; management hired Liberace’s bodyguard to keep an eye on him. The executive suite included its own set of rogues. George Allen, the Washington Redskins legend who coached USFL teams in Chicago and Arizona, had an opposing team’s practice sessions illicitly filmed—to great success. “We knew every play they were running,” an assistant coach later marveled.

Mr. Pearlman, who drew on roughly 400 interviews for the book, clearly loves the league, but a few of its owners inspire a deep antipathy, including J. William Oldenburg, chairman of a mortgage banking company and owner of the Los Angeles Express, and Donald Trump, real-estate heir and owner of the New Jersey Generals.

Mr. Oldenburg was a “volatile, erratic, simple, and clinically insane man,” Mr. Pearlman writes. If he had a virtue, it was his dislike of his New Jersey counterpart. “Donald Trump,” Mr. Oldenburg said, “can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business, he can’t carry my socks.” As it happened, he also fancied himself a virtuoso at deal making, in one instance buying a property for $800,000 and selling it to a savings and loan under his own control for $55 million. When his financial fraud was discovered, he was history.

Mr. Trump, 37 when he entered the picture, is the alpha skunk in this drama, presented by Mr. Pearlman as a lying, preening, no-class schmoe who hoped to merge the USFL with the NFL in order to fulfill his dream of owning an NFL franchise. He was able to talk fellow owners into switching to a fall season, creating nose-to-nose competition between the leagues that shook fan support but, Mr. Trump assumed, would make a merger more likely. He also spearheaded an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that, if victorious, would provide a cash infusion to keep his dream alive.

While Mr. Trump’s forceful personality worked wonders with fellow owners, the jury in the 1986 civil trial didn’t fully succumb to his charms. While it agreed that the NFL had created a monopoly, it awarded Mr. Trump and company $1 in damages. The struggling league (which Mr. Trump dismissed as “small potatoes”) soon collapsed, though Mr. Trump would eventually win a national franchise unforeseen at that time—a victory that Mr. Pearlman considers a nightmare of rare and enduring proportions. As for the idea of an alternate league, it still has appeal. “The USFL wasn’t as good as the NFL,” says Jairo Penaranda, a running back for the Memphis Showboats. “But it was 10,000 times more fun”—and lots cheaper than Paris.

Wall Street Journal review of Jorma Kaukonen's 'Been So Long' - September 7, 2018

Sept. 7, 2018 5:08 p.m. ET

Jorma Kaukonen isn’t quite so famous as some of his musical peers, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. Yet unlike those eminences and many others, Mr. Kaukonen—a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane—has hung around. Still touring as he approaches 80, he has now written an engaging memoir that will interest even those who wouldn’t know Hot Tuna (his current band) from a can of sardines. “Been So Long” is a survivor’s tale, well told and sprinkled with a bit of 1960s fairy dust.

Mr. Kaukonen was born under a wandering star, seeing the wider world early on during deployments to the Philippines and Pakistan with his diplomatic-corps father. In Washington, D.C., he started learning traditional “porch-picking” tunes like “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and “Worried Man Blues” in the mid-1950s; he also studied under classical guitarist Sophocles Papas, who taught him, among other things, the virtue of regularly tuning his instrument. Soon enough he was playing local clubs with friend Jack Casady (assisted by fake IDs) and reveling in the fact that he had found what became a lifelong passion. “Music,” he writes, “seemed to me to be the reward for being alive.”


By Jorma Kaukonen
St. Martin’s, 354 pages, $29.99

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From an early age he was an interesting mix of tradition and innovation—an enthusiastic participant in his high-school Junior ROTC program and supporter of Ike over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election but also a free spirit fully adaptable to 1960s California, where he moved to attend Jesuit-run Santa Clara University and found an evolving youth and music culture that might have sent the ROTC brass scurrying for their foxholes. There he played coffee-house gigs with Janis Joplin before heading north to San Francisco and joining the Airplane (Mr. Casady came from D.C. to play bass). He was on his way, and while he would share stages at Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont with Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones, his journey would also take him to places he didn’t suspect were on the itinerary.

To the horror of ghosts everywhere, Mr. Kaukonen has written his own book and scribbles pretty well for a guitar player. His prose is friendly, direct and wryly humorous. “Musicians,” he notes, “complain about two things—having a gig, and not having a gig.” He also recalls that not everyone was awed by the Airplane. An early critic wrote that the band had “all the delicacy and finesse of a mule team knocking down a picket fence.”

But what do critics know? The band scored significant hits, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a psychedelic heist of the “Alice in Wonderland” story featuring Mr. Kaukonen’s haunting guitar line and an exhortation to “feed your head.” That latter advice, which had nothing to do with traditional foodstuffs, drew the scorn of the political class and other adult types, but the music definitely fed the young band’s bank account, allowing the purchase of creature comforts, including a communal mansion across the street from Golden Gate Park, deep in the heart of Hippieland.

Fans of that era will find many delights in Mr. Kaukonen’s recollections, some of which challenge the idea that hippie eminences were all about peace, love and tofu. He writes of one day being overtaken by a withering stench and racing to the mansion’s kitchen, where he found LSD magnate Owsley Stanley roasting various cow parts. Stanley, Mr. Kaukonen explains, ate only meat, insisting that “vegetables are what food eats.” Mr. Kaukonen also throws some cold Kool-Aid on the notion that San Francisco musicians shared the lifestyle of their fans—flowers in the hair, dirt on the feet and very little dough in the pockets. “My colleagues and I were not hippies; we were also affluent and most of our problems were upper-class, first world ones.”

Those problems arrived in force a bit down the road. Initially Mr. Kaukonen, like many a young buck enjoying fame and a growing fortune, made a mission of avoiding the twin terrors of sobriety and monogamy. He was pretty good at it. “It’s funny to think that my life could have been so completely ruled by mood-altering substances,” he writes, “but at the time it would never have occurred to me that there might be another way to live.” He wasn’t alone, of course. He recalls bumping into Jerry Garcia one day as the Grateful Dead guitarist smoked a significant “gob” of heroin. “I’ve got it under control,” he assured Mr. Kaukonen. Both would join the sizable horde that eventually discovered that the White Rabbit and other Pied Pipers of bliss eventually had to be paid.

Monogamy took a similar beating, despite Mr. Kaukonen’s somewhat traditional view of marriage. “No woman of mine is going to have to work,” he announced after marrying his first wife (before his musical ascent), and while there was mutual infidelity the couple stuck together through good times and bad, and there were plenty of the latter. Mr. Kaukonen describes a state of near-terminal matrimony, with hospital visits to close head wounds and an incident in which the missus tried to stab him in the back with a broken bottle while he was erecting a Christmas tree. Matrimonial mayhem, he adds, was something of a family tradition. His parents maintained a stormy relationship for some 60 years. Mr. Kaukonen called it quits after 20, packing up his van one day and driving away.

Another tradition, in rock memoirs at least, is the rehab section—which often leaves readers feeling that they’ve just been involved in a hit-and-run sympathy grope. Mr. Kaukonen mercifully spares readers from excessive detail. “There is no need for a drunkalogue here,” he writes. “There is nothing new in my story.” He provides a basic overview: In the mid-1990s he decided it was time to head in for repairs. “Jorma,” a counselor told him, “you’re going to have to change everything but your name!”

He was definitely treading new ground. Sobriety and monogamy were now the highest ideals, pursued with passion if not perfection. A son born outside his second marriage likely heated things up on the home front, but his second wife, Vanessa, hung with him and played a central part in creating the Fur Peace Ranch in rural Ohio, where musicians pay $1,500 for a weekend of instruction by Mr. Kaukonen and his musical pals, along with gourmet eats from a kitchen overseen by Mrs. Kaukonen. Along the way, the couple adopted a child and the old buck grew wiser: “If life is designed to humble us in the face of time, there is joy in that humility.” All told, a pretty nice second act.

Mr. Kaukonen, whose impressive body of work includes a dozen solo albums, sings a deeply domestic tune these days. “You think playing Woodstock was an adventure?” he asks near the book’s end. “Think about homeschooling your kid.” But his star still wanders. Now 77, he and Mr. Casady tour constantly. He has also pursued a deeper connection with his family’s ancestral Judaism and continues to entertain views that his ROTC instructors might admire. He recalls watching a New Mexico sunset when Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” came on the radio. “Corny? Maybe. Extremely moving? You bet.”

Somewhere, one suspects, a rabbit grinds its teeth.


Weekly Standard article on Ancestor Worship - April 6, 2018

Worship Thy Ancestor
. . . from a distance.

2:00 AM, Apr 06, 2018 | By Dave Shiflett

You can get arrested for spanking an unruly tot these days, but flogging the immortal bejesus out of once-revered ancestors can pay significant dividends. Pounding the Founders and other historic villains not only affirms one's purity and moral superiority but can help achieve social dominance over those who fail to recognize your excellence of spirit. On top of that it can make you feel really good and distract attention from your own shortcomings. What more could you ask for? If I knew the tricks of the app trade I'd create FounderPound on the double and start shopping for a nice island getaway.

Yet there's an overlooked aspect to this phenomenon. We assume our ancestors would be hurt by modern-day criticisms. We assume they would want their names to grace our rubber chicken dinners and dormitories. We are certain they would want their monuments to forever grace our town squares. But perhaps, as we shall see, a little humility is in order. Perhaps our forebears would no more want our praise than they would covet a bite from a rattlesnake.

In the spirit of context, it's worth remembering that flailing the dead finds enthusiasts in every generation, though the purge seems to have picked up steam lately. Last week came word that a statue of President William McKinley, the unrepentant colonialist, is being targeted for removal from the city square of Arcata, Calif. In New Orleans, mayor Mitch Landrieu heroically removed a host of Confederate monuments and lived to write a book about it (In The Shadow of Statues). His critics, to no surprise, insist he was primarily interested in cleansing his own spotty reputation. Meanwhile, in Virginia, the state's Democratic party changed the name of its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to the somewhat clunkier Blue Commonwealth Gala because both men owned slaves. (Jackson is also notorious for his Indian policies.) The lashing of Jefferson and Jackson was something of an expansion of the Old Dominion's version of the purification ritual, in which most fury is directed at Robert E. Lee and his co-conspirators. In the fullness of time it's likely Captain John Smith and Pocahontas spouse John Rolfe will be arraigned and prosecuted, along with almost everyone else in a position of authority prior to 1964 or so.

Traditionalists are of course horrified and defend their heroes along familiar lines. America was born into a world brimming with slavery. Belief in black inferiority was nigh on universal. "Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race," said one appraisal of African Americans: "idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience." That passage was lifted not from the pages of a Richmond newspaper but from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1797). The finest minds agreed, including philosopher David Hume, who likened a black Jamaican who had gained a reputation for intelligence to a parrot, "who speaks a few words plainly." Even John Locke, Mr. "Inalienable Rights of Man," defended slavery and invested in the Royal Africa Company, Great Britain's pre-eminent slaving enterprise. And here in Dixie, defenders of the Cause never tire of quoting Abraham Lincoln, whose views would be very much at home in the skull of a Grand Kleagle:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

Yet traditionalists should recognize that the conventional wisdom defense isn't going to get anyone off the hook. And they really should consider the possibility that our forebears wouldn't want the praise of modern Americans. While we often invoke them, the reverence wouldn't likely be mutual. In fact, if a time-traveling group of them suddenly appeared and seized power, most of us might end up with slit nostrils or seriously stretched necks. They'd be way harder on us than some of us are on them.

Consider, for example, the likely response to the modern phenomenon of ubiquitous swearing. Not all that long ago (as the time flies) swearing earned a public whipping, while children who cursed their parents could be executed. Scolds, nags, slanderers, and gossips faced a multiplicity of corrective devices, among them the brank (or "gossip's bridle"), a cage that covered the head and deployed an iron spike into the mouth to suppress the wayward tongue.

While it is pleasant enough for some to imagine Bill Maher and his entertainment industry colleagues being branked, a huge percentage of Facebook and other social media slaves (no shortage of traditionalists in those ranks) could expect the same treatment. Other idle-minded chatterbugs would be rewarded with a trip to the dunking stool or pillory, a stand-up version of the stocks that offered the option of nailing the visitor's ears to the headpiece. The attending official might further enhance the experience by slitting the offender's nostrils.

There's no doubting that it would be nice if our compatriots didn't cuss so much. But who wants their F-bombing, deity-damning children cured of their affliction by having their heads nailed to the pillory with a railroad spike?

The tongue wouldn't be the only organ to attract scrutiny. As in the good old days, fornicators could expect a whipping while single mothers would face fines and banishment; those who couldn't pay might be sold into serv­itude. Gays, meantime, should head for the border—at a gallop. According to scholar Louis Crompton, "it appears that in 1776 male homosexuals in the original 13 colonies were universally subject to the death penalty." Youthful sexual adventuring would be similarly risky, at least if the experience of Thomas Granger, of the Plymouth Grangers, is any guide. The lusty teenager was detected having sex "with a mare, a cow, two goats, divers sheep, two calves, and a turkey," according to expert testimony. For his efforts—which were clearly considerable he was hanged. The animals were also executed.

This isn't to suggest our American forebears were uniquely cruel. Consider the sentence meted out in 1725 to one Charles Hayon, as reported by Paul Tabori in his immortal work, The Natural Science of Stupidity. Hayon was "sentenced to be laid with his face down, nude, upon a wooden grille and be dragged in such a state through the streets of the commune of Chaussée." His crime? He had killed himself.

These days, of course, we cross the oceans to fight people with similar policies. And on the bright side, we can reasonably assume our visiting forebears would quickly conclude that we are beyond saving. Simply whipping the people who skip church would take every available hand. What would they make of our abortion rate? (Abortion prior to the fourth month or so of pregnancy was legal in early colonial times, though outlawed starting early in the 19th century.) Ditto for the national debt, man buns, warnings on stepladders, and a million other facts of modern life. After a few days they'd vamoose, no doubt leaving behind an indictment of a somewhat tendentious nature:

You are all the most worthless of generations. You have everything humanity has dreamed of and prayed for. You have all the food and drink imaginable; your doctors can outfit you with new hearts, hips, and wedding tackle; you have mosquito-free bedrooms, parasite-free intestines, a short workweek, and marvels you call air conditioning, smartphones, and automobiles. Yet how do you spend your time? Watching The View. Eating until you are fat as pigs. Telling people thousands of miles away about your hemorrhoids. Making entertainments in which the Indians are the good guys! Your men marry men, your women marry women, and parents often don't marry each other. Your bartenders charge seven dollars for a beer but won't let you smoke. You pay five dollars for a cup of coffee but expect music to be free (they wouldn't actually say this, but one can dream). You kill more children in the womb than the death toll in your latest world war, and those you don't snuff are saddled with a staggering debt. So where do you get off looking down on us? Goodbye, good riddance, and while you're at it—go to Hell!

And off they'd go.

It's also worth considering the possibility that our descendants might fully embrace our forebears' indictment, adding whatever other shortcomings offend their sensibilities and standards. In fact, we should probably count on it. Which is why the wisest among us will try to live in the moment while keeping in mind the advice of the pleasantly acerbic James Anthony Froude: "Each age would do better if it studied its own faults and endeavored to mend them instead of comparing itself with others to its own advantage."

Dave Shiflett posts his writing and original music at

Weekly Standard article on the NRA - March 19, 2018

Skunk vs. Skunk
The defense of the Second Amendment goes down-market.
2:40 AM, MAR 16, 2018 | By DAVE SHIFLETT

If someone invented a television “raver filter” there would no doubt be national jubilation—until we realized that blocking the ravers would leave very little to watch. Everyone raves these days: sports announcers, politicians, airline executives, celebrities, cartoon characters, weather forecasters, dog trainers, and of course the growing army of what were once called “talking heads”—whose noggins have all gone nuclear in the Age of Trump.

Add to the raver list the current flock of flacks deployed by the National Rifle Association. While former NRA president Charlton Heston could be a bit dramatic (declaring that Second Amendment foes would have to pry his musket from his “cold dead hands”), you expected as much from the man who played Moses, survived a seriously contested Roman chariot race, and bravely championed his species on the Planet of the Apes. Besides that, he’s weak tea compared with his successors.

A little disclosure may be in order. As a native Southerner I of course keep a few shooting irons around the house. Nothing capable of bringing down a jetliner, to be sure, but enough to seriously harass a low-flying Gulfstream (we could bring down a Cessna with our cutlery). I have no problems with AR-15s—or Kalashnikovs—or with requiring purchasers to jump through a few more hoops. I don’t give money to the NRA, one reason being that every mass shooting seems to be followed by a fundraising call, the apparent formula being: “Lots of people just got shot so send us some money.” Nor do I believe the NRA is as powerful as its enemies—and, for that matter, its own PR material—assert. Politicians love money but they love votes more; those who supposedly “line up” with the NRA are voting the way their constituents want them to vote.

All that said, defending the Second Amendment can be a noble calling, and as such it would seem reasonable for the NRA to present gun owners and advocates as calm, self-possessed, and thoughtful individuals. Among other things, that would distinguish them from many of their rabid critics. Yet it appears the new strategy is to out-rave the competition. Grant Stinchfield, for example, a man with a firm jaw and demeanor to match, stars in an advocacy video (at NRA TV) that begins with him watching a few anti-gun snippets on a television, then destroying the tube with a sledgehammer. Appliance smashing, to be sure, has some entertainment value, yet the idea that Stinchfield—and the NRA—might be every bit as rabid as the people who say guns should be melted down and repurposed as personhole covers easily comes to mind.

In similar spirit Colion Noir, an African American with good pistol skills and a sharp wit, starts his video pleasantly enough, but soon insists that “the mainstream media love mass shootings” and have “a vested interest in the perpetuation of mass tragedy.” This doesn’t sound all that different, in tone and temperament, from claims that the NRA and its congressional allies don’t care if schoolchildren are massacred so long as AR-15s are easily available and the NRA cash keeps flowing.

Neither of these gents is a match for Dana Loesch, a striking brunette who will appeal to friendly viewers as something of a Delphic oracle, while opponents may consider her an incarnation of Helga, She Wolf of the SS. At this year’s CPAC conference Loesch, the NRA’s premier spokesperson, paced the stage like a human flamethrower on black stiletto heels, proclaiming that the media “love mass shootings” and that “crying white mothers are ratings gold”—in contrast to the Chicago mothers of black homicide victims, who are largely ignored. The audience lapped it up, perhaps overlooking the fact that the simultaneous killing of a dozen or two people will always overshadow a death toll reached incrementally.

Loesch is bright, knowledgeable about her subject (she’s brimming with details about FBI and local law enforcement screwups that may have allowed mass killers the freedom to act), and seems much at home in the lion’s den. She appeared at a town hall after the recent Florida school massacre, where (according to her) some audience members insisted she be burned alive. But she often sounds as if she has a brazier full of hot pokers just off-camera, in case anyone needs a little help fully accepting some of her message’s finer points. Consider a plug she did prior to starting a new talk show.

So to every lying member of the media, to every Hollywood phony, to the role model athletes who use their free speech to alter and undermine what our flag represents, to the politicians who would rather watch America burn than lose one ounce of their own personal power, to the late-night hosts who think their opinions are the only opinions that matter, to the Joy-Ann Reids, the Morning Joes, the Mikas, to those who stain honest reporting with partisanship, to those who bring bias and propaganda to CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Listen up! Your time is running out. The clock starts now.

One wonders if Joe and Mika, who seem easily spooked, have ordered Willie Geist to poison test the morning coffee. Maybe Willie will one day let us know. Meantime, even a casual observer is likely to wonder if Loesch has a side gig writing for the White House or vice versa. Not only does her anti-media message sound like it just flew from the president’s lips. She’s also Big Orange’s loyal wingman: “We are witnesses to the most ruthless attack on a president and the people who voted for him and the free system that allowed it to happen in American history,” she says in one NRA spot. “We’ve had enough of the lies, the sanctimony, the arrogance, the hatred, the pettiness, the fake news. .  .  . We are done with your agenda to undermine voters’ will and individual liberty in America.”

We live in shrill times, and maybe it’s necessary to shriek a bit in order to be heard. And for all we know Loesch is not so much defending the Second Amendment as laying the foundation for a run at higher office. A victory would not be surprising. Plenty of voters would no doubt rather watch her strut her stuff than watch Nancy Pelosi chew her cud.

At the same time, Loesch and her colleagues are neutralizing the argument that their opponents are uniquely sanctimonious, shrill, crazed, and fearful. What a fat target to surrender: They not only fear guns (according to the standard indictment) but also the sun, salt, alcohol, diet soda, and a million other things. These are the fiends who came up with words like “bombogenesis” to spook old people who are just trying to watch the weather. Why cast all this aside? While there may be genius at work here, on the surface this looks like bad asset management.

While most Americans, it’s safe to say, head to the can when gun debaters appear on their TV screens, the conflict does illuminate a phenomenon worth keeping an eye on: the belief that the Constitution was written for a population far different from ours and needs “fixing.” Gun control advocates insist the Founders never envisioned modern weaponry when the Second Amendment was written. Opponents respond that the Founders never envisioned 12-year-olds downloading pornography on their cell phones or a hyperviolent entertainment culture that allegedly inspires nihilism and a desire to commit mass murder. Ergo, if the Second Amendment goes in for a trim, so should the First.

Invoking the Founders, of course, is a shaky proposition. If that honored assembly suddenly reappeared and took power, many of us would likely wind up in prison or dangling from the end of a rope. The only thing left on television would be the fishing shows. Perhaps a different consensus should be encouraged: The best (and safest) way to honor the Founders is to let anyone attempting to rewrite their Constitution have it with both barrels.

What does the future hold? We’ve all got our private crystal balls. Mine indicates the “assault weapon” debate will become moot after the crazies learn to make bombs that will overshadow the 1927 school bombing in Bath Township, Mich, that killed 44 people. Once hundreds of people are killed in single attacks, shooting a few dozen will be no big shakes and may even brand the perpetrator a loser. Not a happy viewpoint to be sure, yet history teaches that you can’t be too grim in this world.

Yet we can also dream—perhaps envisioning a time when the NRA leavens its bile by publicizing the stories of a far chiller breed of gun rights advocate. I nominate Keith Richards, who used to carry a pistol to pacify belligerent drug dealers. A truly responsible and inspiring use of firearms! Fellow Rolling Stone member Ronnie Wood would make another nice cameo. Wood reports that after Richards threatened him with a derringer he responded by drawing his own weapon—a .44 Magnum, no less.

Imagine the possibilities:

Dana Loesch: Well, Keef, tell us why you think protecting the Second Amendment is important.

KR: I’ll do better than that, love. Pour us a few drinks and I’ll show you me pistol.

Just make sure nobody mentions Phil Spector.

Dave Shiflett posts his writing and original music at

WSJ Review of Dar Williams' 'What I Found in a Thousand Towns' - September 20, 2017

It’s the rare musician who doesn’t, at some point, compose a tell-all memoir that recounts the rise to glory, descent into addiction, journey through paparazzi hell and, finally, the triumph of the comeback tour—all spiced with enough political observations to score gigs on cable shows.

Dar Williams, a singer-songwriter in the folk-introspective vein, has taken a road less traveled. She has written a book about grass-roots urban renewal. Her focus is not herself but ordinary schmoes who sweat, toil, dream and sometimes scheme to make their communities better places. “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” may not offer up the usual star-performer tales of scandal and excess, but it does remind us that walking on the wild side—which these days means taking a stroll outside one’s techno-bubble—is a trip worth taking.

Ms. Williams isn’t an urban expert by training. She attended Wesleyan College (Middletown, Conn.), which she describes as an “artsy” and “progressive” enclave where she “stage-managed a Balinese-dance love story” and performed in “Marat/Sade,” which required her and her fellow students to explore “the dynamics of power and insanity by dutifully losing our minds.” Outbreaks of profundity were apparently common: “You put your beautiful painting of a tree on the wall? We’re going to staple toast to the wall to challenge your hierarchical definition of art and self-expression.” Take that, Michelangelo.

Despite such diversions, Ms. Williams found time to polish her musical chops, which eventually took her to towns and cities that are rejuvenating themselves “one coffee shop, dog run and open-mike night at a time.” All share what she calls positive proximity, described as a “state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial.” Put another way, positive proximity results when people work together for what they believe is the common good—our era’s version of the old barn raising, though the new barns might be a community center or garden, a soup kitchen or river walk.

Ms. Williams starts out in Beacon, N.Y., “a haven for every kind of freethinker, artistic or otherwise.” The late Pete Seeger lived nearby, and the positive vibe (and low rents) attracted city slickers and everyday artisans, coffee grinders, bar owners and shopkeepers, one of whom sold Ms. Williams the “perfect dress” to wear when she opened for a Simon & Garfunkel tribute show. If not exactly Eden, a close suburb thereof.

She finds a similar spirit in Lowell, Mass., Wilmington, Del., and Moab, Utah, a former uranium mining town whose positive proximity to two national parks (along with some excellent PR work) turned the town into a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts after the uranium biz tanked. In Carrboro, N.C., a vibrant arts scene inspires, unifies and produces income, while the Finger Lakes district of New York is home to a tribe of entrepreneurs who are “pushing the edges of the envelope of the food economy, experimenting with kimchee, ice wine, ice cider, and cucumber popsicles.”

Those of us who prefer our cucumbers drowned in gin can nonetheless appreciate the creativity and the desire to make a buck in new and unusual ways. Yet there’s trouble in paradise, Ms. Williams feels, mostly in the form of gentrification. Developers and various one-percenters, who like the ambiance and real-estate bargains, buy up properties with their pocket change, which drives out lower-income residents and endangers the locality’s “soul.” In many places, Ms. Williams writes, “food servers can’t afford a place to live.” In essence, San Francisco on a micro scale.

A certain type of reader (who perhaps has had a bad kimchee experience) might say that Ms. Williams is herself a person of “privilege” who is giving a book-length shout-out to kindred spirits. They might wonder if her enthusiasm for those bustling coffee shops would be the same if the in-house radios were tuned to Rush Limbaugh rather than Terry Gross.

The good news is that “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” goes light on the politics. While Ms. Williams can’t resist a swipe at Wal-Mart and the Tea Party, there’s no mention of Donald Trump, perhaps an act of heroic self-denial. She also understands the privilege rap: “The expense of growing organic food and just the sheer snobbery that can go with it will easily deepen any chasm of negative proximity in a town, bringing up economic, philosophical and even generational differences as flags for division and distrust.” Still, the power of community can transcend these differences, she says, if residents will let “our curiosity and interests, and a little trust, lead us outside our doors and onto the village green.”

While many singer-songwriters follow the “two chords and a blizzard of words” formula, Ms. Williams largely avoids literary flatulence, though readers are required to weather an occasional blast of jargon: “A good bar,” she explains, “can be the best place to tie up the loose ends of small, social subsets that, in turn, allow people to draw from diverse social resources and discover material ones as well.”

But there’s no doubting Ms. Williams’s sincerity, or the idea that people who work together for positive ends have a better chance of dying with a smile on their faces than those suffering from terminal addiction to their devices. In addition, she appears to practice what she preaches. At book’s end she writes about using her upcoming birthday as an occasion for a fundraiser for the local Episcopal church, whose tepid furnace will put no one in mind of hellfire. One assumes that the kimchee will be sublime.

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at

Wall Street Journal Article on Confederate Monuments - September 14, 2017

Why Not Put Truth on a Pedestal?

Richmond, Va.

I’m a descendant of a soldier who served under Gen. Robert E. Lee and a resident of the Richmond metro area, where one can take very few paces without bumping into a reminder of the Confederate past. Yet I can’t work up much enthusiasm about Civil War monuments.

My lackadaisical attitude has nothing to do with race or heritage and is quite widespread. Most people are far too busy worrying about losing their house, finding a job, making payroll and wondering why their dog’s tongue is turning blue to spend much time contemplating statues of guys who lost a war 152 years ago.

The violence in Charlottesville last weekend is deeply distressing. In this neck of the woods it’s commonly held that thugs who run down people with cars should go to the crocodile pit (after a fair trial, of course). But it’s hard not to cringe over the way a growing list of American locales are responding to the rise of the dead confederates.

In Baltimore, four monuments were purged Tuesday night in a scene reminiscent of the nocturnal vamoose of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. (By contrast, three of the statues were parked at a wastewater treatment plant.) You didn’t have to be a soldier, or even a rebel, to get the hook: A statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Marylander who wrote the Dred decision and served on the U.S. Supreme Court until his death in 1864, was hauled off, along with a statue dedicated to Confederate women. Lexington, Ky., plans its own official purge, while a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C., was toppled Monday and kicked by protesters after it bit the dust.

Where will it stop? President Trump was widely mocked for saying Tuesday: “I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” He didn’t have to wait that long. The next day, a Chicago pastor demanded the removal of a Washington statue from a city park. Last October activists gathered outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History to demand the removal of a statue of “racist” Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider still stands, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted Wednesday that “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed from the [City University] hall of great Americans because New York stands against racism.”

Is anyone in public life not freaking out about Confederate monuments?

Yes. Here in Richmond, once the Confederate capital, Mayor Levar Stoney is keeping his cool. He believes the rebel luminaries have important truths to teach our hysterical and miseducated era.

“Whether we like it or not, they are part of our history of this city, and removal would never wash away that stain,” the mayor, who is African-American, said recently. He advocates adding “context” signage to the monuments, which will “set the historical record straight”—a record based on “a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago not only to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.”

Mr. Stoney’s plan will not please the rabid right or their brawling partners on the left, who imagine Lee, Jackson and Jefferson Davis as rustic versions of Hitler, Himmler and Speer. But converting chaos into what Barack Obama might call “a teachable moment” will resonate with anyone who agrees that allowing street-fighting crazies to set public policy is a bad idea.

Context contractors will be in deep clover along Monument Avenue, where Stonewall Jackson (erected in 1919) is joined by Lee (1890), J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart (1907), Davis (1907) and Matthew Fontaine Maury (1929)—plus Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr. (1996). The tennis legend’s inclusion on the avenue was met with great criticism, in part because he appears to be beating a group of children over the head with his racket. Yet the Ashe placement might have been ahead of its time. “Integrating” the avenue by placing monuments to triumphant African-Americans among the defeated rebs could be highly educational.

Worthy candidates would include local heroes Maggie Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the U.S., and dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson —both of whom are memorialized on a smaller scale elsewhere in the city. Martin Luther King Jr. might make a nice neighbor for Jeb Stuart, while Mr. Obama, who carried Virginia twice, could keep Stonewall Jackson in good company.

And how to answer Jefferson Davis, a vibrant bigot with a theological bent? He once said of blacks: “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.”

Since we’re looking for truth, we couldn’t do better than a monument to abolitionist Sojourner Truth. To my mind her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is more powerful than the Gettysburg Address: “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man, when I could get it, and bear the lash as well—and ain’t I a woman? And I have borne 13 children—13 children!—and seen most all of ’em sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Few will have any trouble deciding who the superior being truly was, or drawing wider conclusions. If Mayor Stoney’s plan helps keep the lid on, he might end up in the governor’s mansion. And funding should be no problem. Pitch it to Mr. Trump as an infrastructure project.

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at

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.
Dave Shiflett
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

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

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


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

‘Stardust’ Memories

Willie Nelson sometimes wonders: Did I really write these songs, or am I just a channel chosen by the Holy Spirit?

Dave Shiflett

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

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.


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


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
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