Wall Street Journal Essay 'My Family's Bones' -- original, pre-edited version
February 18, 2012
The recent filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in Richmond and Petersburg, Va. was a reminder that, despite a few holdouts, local residents have made peace with the Civil War’s outcome. Most greeted the second coming of Lincoln (the film focuses on the late president’s visit to the fallen confederate capital less than two weeks before his assassination) as cause for artistic celebration -- and economic gain. It was also a splashy ending to the often somber Civil War sesquicentennial season.
But there was more involved than Hollywood glitz and greenbacks. Those events also stirred memories of an era that recedes ever further into the past, a time not only of Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but of people little noted, if not anonymous, yet who are in their own way still influential.
I have been thinking lately about one such person. Her name was Marcella Dunn. Her lifetime achievements were, at best, humble. They are certainly little known. So far as I know, this story is the only published record of her existence, though at one time she was listed in various documents – not as a person, but as property.
My family owned Marcella Dunn.
She was alive the day Lincoln came to Richmond – living on the plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia that had passed down through my mother’s side since the 1700s. A slave celebrity of sorts had also lived in the county -- Betsy Hemmings, niece of Sally Hemmings (and by some accounts one of Thomas Jefferson’s children) – who is buried in an attractive grave beside her master, John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson’s son-in-law, at the Millbrook Plantation.
Marcella’s grave, like her life, is all but invisible. It is located on a lightly sloping hillside alongside several dozen slave graves in a segregated section of the family cemetery. Hers is one of perhaps two slave gravestones that include the deceased’s name. The others are marked by bare fieldstones; those resting below are as anonymous in death as they were in life. Marcella’s daughter, Ella, lies among them.
I had seen Marcella’s gravestone during family funerals when I was growing up – you passed the slave graves on the way to the white section of the cemetery, some of which was surrounded by a stone fence. There are three confederate soldiers buried there, including one who fought at Gettysburg. The slave graves were in open land where the cattle grazed; I remember seeing a cowpie on Marcella’s grave during one visit.
But I knew little about her. Relatives would sometimes tell stories about how Marcella helped raise my great-grandmother and grandmother – and my great uncle, Malcolm, a larger than life man whose temperament sometimes seemed straight out of the antebellum era. Then again, to him those days, and ways, were hardly distant. He had the sword of our relative who fought at Gettysburg, and in his youth was cared for by a woman who had been a slave.
In 2000 I took my youngest son (who grew up to be Sarge, whose military deployment was discussed in these pages last July) to Buckingham to talk with Malcolm, then 85. I wanted to record his memories of Marcella and other stories from his life, if not for a future book (a fictionalized version of Malcolm is at the center of my recently published novel “In The Matter of J. Van Pelt”) then at least to make sure they did not disappear with him into his grave. He was the last source of information about Marcella: family records had been destroyed in a fire, as had official records when the county courthouse burned in 1869. Malcolm died two years later, in a world far different than the one he was born into -- a world changed, to some degree I believe, by Marcella.
He called her “A Marcella” – the A standing for Aunt. “I can still see A Marcella walking across the creek land,” Malcolm said, staring off a bit as we sat around the kitchen table. He described her as “tall and skinny” with a light complexion and a deep voice. “A Marcella had a lot to do with raising my mother,” he said, and she also guided him and his siblings in the paths of righteousness. He recalled her taking a stick to a brother, and she gave Malcolm some tongue lashings “like she was my own mother.”
She was born on the plantation in 1818 and in slave times would have been known as an “indoor slave” – someone who worked in the kitchen and tended to the family. “She was part social worker, part domestic help. If somebody got sick they’d send for Marcella.”
She was “loved by everybody. She smiled all the time.”
I asked if she ever talked about slavery. “She used to tell old stories she’d heard by word of mouth that her ancestors were on the first shipload of slaves to Virginia,” Malcolm said. Then he said something jarring: “A Marcella said slavery did black people more good than anything else.”
It was not surprising Malcolm might hold such a view. But could Marcella have really believed such a thing, or was she simply saying what she thought the white folk wanted to hear? There’s no way of knowing, of course, though the possibility she might have is a grim reminder she was born into a world whose best and brightest proclaimed black inferiority as universal objective truth. Lest we forget, a few examples:
"Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race,” said one widely published description of blacks; “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. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself." So stated the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica
In the same spirit philosopher David Hume sneered that a Jamaican black who had gained a reputation for intelligence was "admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly." Even John Locke, champion of the "inalienable rights of man," wrote a provision for slavery in his draft of the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina -- and invested in the Royal Africa Company, which held the British monopoly of the African slave trade.
Transcending such pervasive and grinding bias would require nearly superhuman strength, and there are other, more brutal, reminders of subservient status. While Malcolm insisted whites treated their slaves well, history tells another story, one that also strikes close to home. My family tree includes the names Stevens, Alvis, Coleman, and Cabell -- surnames found in advertisements for runaway slaves from Buckingham and nearby areas.
John Stevens, advertising in the Virginia Argus (Jan. 5, 1803), offered $20 for a slave named Toney, who is described as “about thirty years of age, has scars on his back [not for his good behavior] and one very noted scar on his breast as large as a man's finger.” He had also “been branded on both jaws.” Joseph Cabell, in the Virginia Gazette (Sept. 6, 1799) offered $40 for two slaves named Billy and Judy, a husband and wife who had fled together. In November 1795, John Alloway Strange offered ten pounds for Tom, “about 25 or 26 years old, 5 feet 4 or 5 inches high, has a scar on his head, and a large one on one of his legs, and one on each wrist, occasioned by handcuffs: his back much scarred by whipping.”
I did not ask, though wish I had, if Marcella ever spoke about being beaten, or being intimidated by the Klan, whose local branch included two relatives. Malcolm said he had never seen a lynching but added there was a local “lynching tree” that a “wood company” had cut down a few years prior to our interview. Strange to think, but somewhere that tree may exist in reinvented status as a bed or kitchen table.
Malcolm filled in a few other details of Marcella’s life. She had one child he knew of and likely several grandchildren, though he didn’t know the names of any descendents. The fact that she was light-skinned suggested mixed ancestry. I asked if family slaves had borne children by their masters. “I guess they did,” he said, estimating I had “probably plenty“ of unknown kin, some of whom might be buried near Marcella.
Marcella died a very old woman, in 1927. Her funeral was attended by about 100 people -- “more blacks than whites” with a black and white preacher. “There were buggies and horses under the trees,” Malcolm recalled. “It was a pretty day.” Her gravestone, pictured nearby, includes her name and dates on one side and on the back an inscription stating she had been willed with 20 other slaves to her final master. Near her grave is the only other slave marker I found with an inscription: “Betty Stevens could only read the Bible.”
While you can’t know much about a person from this distance, when I think of Marcella I think of a dignified woman forced to play a difficult hand. She came to know freedom, of sorts at least, and she clearly knew love. She was admired and valued in her community and made her part of the world a better place. Those are worthy accomplishments for anyone, and considering her situation, perhaps great ones.
Yet it is hard not to wonder if her omnipresent smile was a sign of true happiness, a survival technique, or a combination of those and other factors. She was a firm Baptist, Malcolm said, so perhaps her smile also represented a triumph of forgiveness. I like to think Marcella’s smile was the reflection of a nature more powerful than the forces arrayed against her. That would, in my mind, make her a superior person. One also wonders how many Marcellas there were among the 12 generations of American slaves, their contributions unsung but incalculable.
It’s also hard not to also think about the anonymous souls buried alongside her. Who were they? Were they all born on this land? Did some escape the plantation, only to be dragged back? What were their dreams? Did they go through life believing they were inferior, if not sub-human? While Marcella and daughter Ella are said to lie side-by-side, the heart-rending words of Sojourner Truth can haunt as you walk among the fieldstones: "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me -- and aren't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well -- and ar'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen ‘em mos' all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard -- and ar'n't I a woman?"
If David Hume ever spoke words that powerful and eloquent, they slipped my attention.
None are responsible for the sins of their fathers, but there is a connection between generations, for good and bad, sometimes bestowing wealth and privilege, sometimes hardship and sorrow, and many things in between. Time definitely has a way of shuffling the deck. Just as those anonymous bones belonged to people once owned by my family, they now own part of me.
Malcolm’s world was shuffled too, and he seemed to have changed as well, if only a little, perhaps due to Marcella’s influence.
A devout Dixiecrat, Malcolm for many years hosted an annual picnic – featuring fried chitterlings – that attracted upwards of 400 people, including many state politicians. This started out as an all-white event but eventually there were new faces at the table.
“When Doug Wilder was elected they all said I had to have him,” Malcolm recalled near interview’s end, adding that he invited Wilder but wouldn’t allow Virginia’s first African-American governor to sit at his hallowed dining room table. Wilder seems not to held this against him. One day, after he had left office “he stopped in,” Malcolm recalled. “Just came by to say hello.”
I asked what he thought of Wilder.
“He was alright.”
Wall Street Journal Review of "Scapegoat"
February 4, 2012
Truly honorable people—in the wake of some monumental botch—fall on their swords. Most of us, however, would prefer that someone else be chosen to take the hit.
In "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," British writer Charlie Campbell traces the habit of buck passing back to the Garden of Eden, where Eve, an apparently gullible person with far too much time on her hands, blamed a talking snake for persuading her to pick the forbidden fruit, thus unleashing our continuing pageant of sorrows.
Whatever our other shortcomings, humans have a profound talent for designating fall guys for problems and disasters that we ourselves are responsible for or that we simply do not understand. As Mr. Campbell observes in this brief and entertaining book, there might not always be a cure for what ails humanity, "but there's always a culprit."
Mr. Campbell traces the word "scapegoat" to William Tyndale's 1530 English-language translation of the Bible. Tyndale used the word to describe a ritual found in Leviticus in which two goats representing Israel's sins were sacrificed to appease the celestial authorities. The translator himself shared a similar fate in Henry VIII's England. He was eventually condemned as a heretic and strangled—then burned at the stake for good measure.
Scapegoating and religion have kept close company, according to Mr. Campbell, a former editor at the Literary Review.
Christianity's central figure can be viewed as a scapegoat, taking on humanity's sin and in the process earning a trip to Golgotha. Early believers were blamed for various disasters and accused of hideous behavior, including incest, cannibalism and child murder—accusations, Mr. Campbell adds, that Christians would later level against their own adversaries. "Ultimately our imagination is relatively limited when it comes to wickedness," Mr. Campbell writes, "and the authorities trot out the same list of accusations towards minorities they wish to demonize."
Jews, perhaps the eternal scapegoats, catch it in the neck even from people they're trying to help. When Crusaders set out in 1096 to retake the Holy Land, Mr. Campbell says, they stopped off in the Rhine Valley and slaughtered Jews—"many of whom had lent the money the Crusaders needed to set out on this religious quest in the first place."
The list of wrongdoing that Jews have been blamed for is quite expansive, Mr. Campbell reminds us, including poisoned wells and crops, missing children and the Black Death, though Pope Clement VI issued a bull relieving them of responsibility for the last horror. Instead, he chalked it up to "a misalignment of the planets," as Mr. Campbell explains, "which is as close as the Church will ever get to saying that it, like the rest of us, just doesn't know."
Yet there has been little lack of certitude in history's scapegoating efforts, some of which may strike readers as laughable despite the horrendous results. Fifteenth-century Dutch scholar Johann Wyler, a witch expert, calculated that there were 7,405,926 witches, "divided into 72 battalions, each led by a prince or a captain." Another estimate put the number at 1.8 million. While most witches apparently escaped detection, some 50,000 were killed.
Mr. Campbell's descriptions of executions are suitably grim, though he also takes a look on the bright side. While the Middle Ages were especially rough times for the accused, they were plush times for a certain type of entrepreneur. Witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins made a killing in the trade in the mid-1600s, earning 20 shillings per conviction (a month's wages for a laborer). On one red-letter day he sent 19 witches to their deaths. Impoverished towns might spend a big portion of their budgets on witch extermination. This was not an exact science. The famous "swimming" test bound witches and lowered them in water. If they floated, they were guilty. If they drowned, they were innocent. (Sorry—we meant well!)
Mr. Campbell trots out other popular scapegoats—communists, financiers, the devil in his various guises and even inanimate objects, including a bell that innocently tolled away in the Russian town of Uglich until a prince was assassinated there in 1591, after which it was shipped off to Siberia, a cursed object, to languish for several centuries.
Yet Mr. Campbell's strangest examples feature animals. He tells the story of a storm that ravaged the Hebridean island of St. Kilda in 1840. A Great Auk, rare in those parts, was seen walking on the beach; it was captured and put on trial for instigating the fatal storm. The Auk, already a flightless bird, was found guilty and stoned to death. In a similarly vengeful spirit, a Parisian cow was executed in 1546 for having amorous relations with a man, though common sense indicates that the man was likely the aggressor. In a nod to fairness, both were hanged, then burned.
Mixing metaphors, insects have endured a similar scrutiny as scapegoats. Mosquitoes, flies and ravenous weevils have been threatened with excommunication by the church. A killing frost would usually solve the problem. But in southern France, the church put the local weevils on trial for a crop blight. The trial went on for eight months, during which time the weevils were granted a plot of land for sanctuary.
While we might like to believe that humanity has outgrown its addiction to scapegoating, Mr. Campbell reminds us otherwise. Economic downturns, he writes, "are extraordinarily complex and hard to fathom, yet that does not deter the blamemongers." Bankers take much of the blame because "they are regarded by the public as being overpaid." They may certainly be blamed for a revived interest in urban camping.
When bankers won't do, creative minds come up with even more exotic malefactors. Author and lecturer David Icke, a former British soccer player and Green Party spokesman, teaches that "the world is run by a secret cabal of giant shape-shifting extraterrestrial lizards known as the Babylon Brotherhood." This group, he says, includes both President Bushes and troubadours Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. There is apparently a good market for this viewpoint: Mr. Icke has written 18 books, and his website reportedly gets 600,000 hits per week.
Athletes sometimes play the role of the scapegoat, especially if they blow a scoring opportunity that would have clenched the game, as Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff did in his team's recent loss in the AFC championship. Mr. Cundiff, who partially blamed a scoreboard error for making him rush the kick, might argue that losing, like winning, is a team effort. Soccer star Andrés Escobar, blamed for scoring a goal against his own team in the 1994 World Cup game, might argue the same, if he had not been murdered in connection with his gaffe.
Finally, there are politicians, who get blamed for a lot, sometimes wrongly. But they may also be the world's pre-eminent blame shifters—demonizing rival politicians with eternal vigilance. Mr. Campbell does acknowledge exceptions to prominent leaders dodging blame. He cites Robert E. Lee's post-Gettysburg mea culpa: "All of this has been my fault. I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them." Then again, the architect of Pickett's Charge had cause for humility.
Mr. Campbell cannot be accused of writing a ringing endorsement of our species. But he has made it clear that many of us operate on a revised version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what should probably be done unto you.
—Mr. Shiflett is the author of the recently published novel "In the Matter of J. Van Pelt."
Profile: Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo
December 30, 2011
Here's a profile of Tara Nevins I did for my ongoing book: Alive Without Permission.
Tara Nevins is best known for fronting Donna The Buffalo, the enduring (20 plus years) rock/jam/festival band based in Trumansburg, New York. Years pass, band members come and go, but Tara (and co-founder Jeb Puryear) keep Donna hoppin’ and constantly touring.
But in her heart of hearts, Tara Nevins is an old-time fiddler. Her most vivid musical experiences are tied to the traditional music of the North Carolina hills, where she sought out and learned the tunes that still excite her and deeply influence her work with Donna and as a solo artist.
I met Tara last spring at Merlefest. She’s slender and good-looking, with a warm bearing. While some professional musicians seem bored with their routines Tara maintains a passion for music, especially traditional forms, including cajun, zydeco, and old time. She’s something of an old time apostle, and when I told her I was interested in learning more about the music she suggested I attend the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy, North Carolina (the subject of an earlier post – scroll down, you’ll find it).
“Mt. Airy has been and still is my Mecca,” she told me. She books no shows during the week of the festival, and sure enough this year she rolled into the festival grounds in Donna The Buffalo’s big purple tour bus, which has an interesting history all its own: among its previous owners are Toby Keith and Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club.
The sun was on full broil that May weekend and it felt like you could roast potatoes inside the bus, so after a brief talk we stepped outside where Tara pointed out several friends and former band mates who were singing country standards. One old pal is Joe Thrift, well known to old time practitioners for his fiddle tune “Pale Face.” Joe, a highly respected violin maker, once played keyboards for Donna. He was also the band’s bus driver, he told me, and considered himself very good at it. I hope to interview him for this project a bit further on.
The purple bus was on Tara’s mind when I caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about her early days as a musician, her love of old time, and whatever else came to mind. Donna the Buffalo had played a gig in Annapolis, Maryland the night before and soon after departing for home the bus began shaking violently. The problem turned out to be bad rims. “We all got on our computers and found a 24-hour roadside service,” she said. Several hours and four hundred dollars later they proceeded toward Trumansburg. “I got to bed at six-thirty this morning.” I was reminded of something Jorma Kaukonen wrote a few years back (roughly paraphrased here): Being a professional musician means long hours of driving interspersed with brief periods of actually playing music.
Donna usually does around 100 shows a year, Tara says, but this year they’re doing far more. “We have debt to pay.” She said touring is getting a bit harder as time goes on. “I don’t like being out of my routine. I don’t always get to eat as well as I’d like, or exercise as much. I really like to get in an hour of walking each day, and that can be hard to do when you’re on the road.” The band is currently working on a new disc, and she’s also trying to get out more to promote her latest solo album, “Wood and Stone.” Though she sounded somewhat tired she was also upbeat. She clearly loves the path she has chosen.
I asked her how old she was when she knew she would spend her life making music. “I never consciously thought that,” she says. There was no decision one day to forego everything else in favor of the musical life. But many years were spent developing the chops, and worldview, that made this life possible.
Tara grew up in Orangeburg, New York, not far from New York City. She got her first violin at age 5 and took up the guitar at 14, learning the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carol King. She wrote her first song at 17 – “it was a silly little song called ‘We’re On Our Way To A New World Now.’ The theme was kinda ‘the younger generation is alive and happening. We know what it’s all about.’ It did foreshadow the uplifting, worldly message that’s in a lot of Donna the Buffalo’s music.”
She played violin in the high school orchestra, and during that time discovered that not all the old masters played classical music. “When I heard the ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album, it turned my head. I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Her classical violin studies took her to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, but she did not solely concentrate on the classical curriculum.
“My roommate played in a band called the St. Regis River Valley String Band,” Tara says. “They played old time and I fell in love with it in a minute.” The band liked her as well, and eventually added her as a member. “Before I knew it, playing old time was what I was doing with my life.” While she had earned a teaching degree, “I had no interest in teaching music.”
Instead, she wanted to learn as much about old time as possible. After college, she “dove in,” and no place was more important in her development than the Mt. Airy festival. “We also went to Galax and Brandywine, but Mt. Airy was my favorite. It was small and there were lots of local players to learn from, and some of the greatest players came from that area, including Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, and Fred Cockerham.”
There was, she adds, something of a culture clash. “This was a very southern festival, and we were outsiders. We were from the North, the West Coast, the Midwest, and we were alternative minded. We were called ‘The Revivalists’ because we were the younger generation that was reviving this music. At first, the local people looked at us sort of crossways. I think we amused them. But they knew we respected their culture and that we had come to learn their music. And come Sunday morning when it was time to leave, we left the place spotless. Eventually we were accepted, appreciated and loved.”
One sign of that acceptance was that the outsiders began winning contests. “We started an all-girl band called The Heartbeats and one year won the best up and coming band.” The Heartbeats “were and are an extremely significant band in my life. We are a powerful old time band that plays hard driving fiddle tunes and songs that have a bit of pop sensibility.” Tara also won the fiddle contest. “Being accepted at that level was a very powerful experience,” Tara says , though perhaps her most memorable musical experience followed an on-stage performance of the classic tune “Sally Anne.”
“I played the tune in the fiddle contest and got off the stage. I was standing there and Riley Baugus walked up to me and said there was someone who wanted to meet me. I was a little nervous, but I went with him. So he takes me to a campsite, and there’s Dix Freeman, who played banjo with Tommy Jarrell for years. He had heard me playing ‘Sally Anne’ and said ‘You sound so much like Tommy.’ Well, I had learned the tune from a Tommy Jarrell recording. He asked me to play it again. For me, being face-to-face with Dix was mind blowing. He was very nice and invited me to his house and showed me around. There was a little cabin there where they had square dances. He also had Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug. “
For Tara, these were life-shaping events. “These times were like Christmas when you’re a kid. They still are very powerful for me, and I know for a lot of other musicians.” Donna the Buffalo, she adds, has its roots in old time. “Originally, all the people in the band were old time musicians. Jeb picked up the electric guitar and I got an electric violin from my dad. We added drums and morphed into an electric band, but the old time influence is definitely there.”
I asked Tara about songwriting. She is a solitary woman in that regard. While she and Jeb Puryear write all Donna’s original material, and have been doing so for 22 years, “we haven’t written a song together.” She hasn’t co-written with anyone, she adds, though she does perform with other writers, including country hit maker Jim Lauderdale, who appeared on her recent solo album as a harmony singer.
Her new solo disc, “Wood And Stone” (Sugar Hill Records), has stellar contributors, including drummer Levon Helm and producer Larry Campbell, and has kept her in pretty good company, appearing on the Americana charts with recordings from Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. The disc is a deeply personal reflection on family life, including the breakup of her longtime marriage. Yet it is not, she says, “maudlin or so private that it’s embarrassing. This is not a woe is me record” or, as she has said elsewhere, a musical version of a “chick flick.” It is also something of a departure from her first solo record, “Mule To Ride,” which came out on Sugar Hill in 1999 and showcased Tara’s fiddling. That disc, which also charted, featured several high profile guest artists, including Ralph Stanley and Mike Seeger.
Her only woe, she says, is that she hasn’t gotten out to play the tunes as much as she’d like due to commitments with Donna the Buffalo.
“I’m thinking I’d like to put together a little band and do more gigs in the spring.” Despite over 20 years of public performances, including gigs before large audiences, she is still uncomfortable unaccompanied. “I never have just played solo, except maybe at a songwriter workshop.” When she’s with a smaller band, she adds, she enjoys talking with the audience, which she doesn’t do much of when playing with Donna. “It’s nice having that sort of communication.”
Near conversation’s end she offered advice for younger musicians. They should listen to the classical masters – Bach, Beethoven et al. – but also to the best of other traditions, whether Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, the Balfa Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, The Frank Family, plus rock and pop deities including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. And if old time turns their head, as it turned Tara’s, she suggests Jarrell, Flippen, the Smoky Valley Boys and the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, for starters.
And, of course, a yearly visit to Mt. Airy. She’ll be the fiddle babe in the big purple bus.
Talking with Tara reminded me of my trip to Mt. Airy and the other great old time players I’d heard there, including Mark Olitsky. Mark’s clawhammer banjo had turned my head when I first heard it a couple of years ago at Clifftop. We eventually struck up a friendship, played some tunes together, and shared campsites at a few festivals. After eating some of my highly carnivorous cooking, Mark went vegan.
So, next time out, a conversation with Mark (if I can track him down). For now, a short break for Christmas. And for those who have wondered about my son Branch (scroll down a bit and you’ll find a piece I did on his deployment to Iraq) — he’s back home. And he’s looking for an upright bass. He’d probably like to find Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug as well. Lord help us every one.
Wall Street Journal Review of Several Humor Books -- Unedited Version
November 19, 2011
We could all use a good laugh these days, unless you happen to be amused by financial peril, sanctimonious street urchins, unsolicited tumors, children who have decided to move back home, and other of life’s non-stop calamities.
The book industry has responded with a barrage of works promising to bring a smile, or least a smirk, to our weary faces. Some of the material is new, some slightly recycled, some clunky. None of it is free.
In the fresh jokes department, comic Demetri Martin’s “This Is A Book” has a contemporary air, as befitting a guy who’s appeared on Conan, the Daily Show and his own slot on Comedy Central. His book includes essays, drawings, short stories and plenty of reminders that we live in an age when some people – make that lots of people – believe everything they think or do should be posted.
“Nearly ½ of all people in the United States are torsos,” Mr. Martin observes in a chapter entitled “Statistics,” along with “Men are 35 times more likely than women to be turned on by looking at a wedgie.” In a chapter about updating flags his new flag of the south features a man in a suit holding a Bible and a waffle. “He looks proud and is standing inside a trailer park.”
This stuff might be a lot funnier with a chaser of nitrous oxide, yet there are plenty of smiles in David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart,” which argues that humans are experts at self-delusion and in drawing large lessons from abnormal behavior, some of it not so funny at all. He cites hysterical responses to the Columbine school shootings: “A typical schoolkid is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot by a classmate,” he writes, “yet schools continue to guard against it as if it could happen at any second.” Keep that in mind the next time your local school officials start chirping about how they’re teaching “critical thinking skills.” A chuckle may ensue.
In a sexier vein, Merrill Markoe’s “Cool, Calm and Contentious” is a wry look at life from a woman who loves dogs but is a bit warier of men, as we see in her account of surrendering her virginity to a loutish hack artist who treated indifferently and failed to make the earth move despite being given several opportunities. His name is Brad, if anyone’s interested.
Some readers might find themselves saying “are you sure you want us to know all this?” yet may be amused by her explanation of why teenagers are “boneheads” about sexting, hooking up and other sexual endeavors: The frontal lobes, which allow us “to comprehend the idea of actions having consequences, aren’t finished being wired for functioning until your late twenties.” Hmmmm. The fact that many of us comprehended the likely consequences of our actions all too well is why we learned the art of lying at a very early age. That’s no joke.
There are lots of world-class laughs in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” which includes the work of Mark Twain, S.J. Pereleman, Jean Shepherd, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Wanda Sykes, Dave Barry and the Onion. Essays on politics are especially timely: Twain writes as a man disclosing his sins prior to running for president: he not only “treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850” but went AWOL during Gettysburg. “I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it.” Mencken, meantime, proposes that “unsuccessful candidates for the presidency be quietly hanged, as a matter of public sanitation and decorum” and on further reflection concludes ex-presidents be accorded the same treatment. At heart, maybe Mencken was a premature tea-bagger.
P.J. O’Rourke, now an elder in the temple of mirth and the only self-proclaimed Republican in this bunch, still has his teeth about him in “Holidays in Heck,” a collection of re-written magazine articles from Hong Kong, China, Kyrgyzstan and other exotic locales. Mr. O’Rourke, who has added “cancer survivor” to his resume, takes a scalpel to a modern art display at the Venice Biennale, eviscerating a piece by Italy’s Bruna Esposito, who “scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it ‘Get the Broom.’” Looking on the brighter side, Mr. O’Rourke theorizes that many dictators, including Hitler, were frustrated artists, so putting their dreck on display might have kept them out of bigger trouble. That might make a novel fund-raising line: We’re not hanging lousy pictures, we’re aborting world wars. Maybe worth a try.
Calvin Trillin, another elder, sounds a bit cranky in his take on health food in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin,” a rich compendium of 40 year’s worth of his work. “Am I the only one worried about how unhealthy the people who work in health food stores look?” he asks before smirking at “bee waste” and “stump paste” and wondering why legislation hasn’t been passed that protects consumers from “being reminded constantly of the last days of Howard Hughes.” Give it time, sir.
All told, some worthy additions to the humor vault. Other holiday gift suggestions: Juvenal, whose first- and second-century satires of gluttonous bluebloods keeling over on the way to the baths, and incestuous villainy (“every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle”) could have been written last week (though getting them published might be another matter). There’s also Paul Tabori’s “The Natural Science of Stupidity,” which includes a life insurance policy of sorts from the 16th century: Soldiers are instructed to sew moss taken from the skull of an executed man into their clothing. “As long as you wear the jerkin, you are safe from ball, cut and thrust.” Ah, the days before class action lawsuits.
Some of the best humor isn’t found in books, of course. The funniest line I’ve seen in years is on a funeral urn crafted by artist/songstress Nancy Josephson: “Does this urn make my ashes look big?”
A joke to die for, almost.
Review of 'Where Soldiers Come From' on PBS
November 10, 2011
It’s been a while between postings – some unexpected writing assignments came up, and there was also a week in San Francisco. I’m still planning on getting to Ashville, North Carolina ASAP to talk to musicians, recording magnates and other purveyors of roots music, but until then here’s a heads-up on a film about another subject this blog has taken up, military deployment.
“Where Soldiers Come From,” a new film about deployment and its consequences, airs Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS. It will stream Nov. 11-Dec. 11 at http://www.pbs.org/pov/wheresoldierscomefrom
. Readers who enjoyed my Wall Street Journal piece, “While My Son Serves” (scroll down a bit; you’ll find it) will likely find this show worthy of your time.
It follows the deployment of a National Guard unit from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Afghanistan and back home again. The project was four years in the making and is very thorough. Those with family members who have deployed will see a lot of their own experiences here, while those who haven’t will get a clear-eyed view of how deployment affects families.
Director Heather Courtney, who is from the same hometown (Hancock) as several of the soldiers, says the film “is about the people who fight our wars and the communities and families they come from. Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they don't know anyone personally who has served in them as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.”
The film is entirely respectful of the soldiers and their families, though no one will mistake this for a military recruiting film – or an anti-war film either. For my money, it’s a straight-ahead, non-dramatic look at a group of kids – ranging from late teens to early 20s – and their families and friends as they go through a deployment.
The soldiers signed up during hard times; the military gave them work, a $20,000 signing bonus, a promise of an underwritten education and, for some, a purpose in life. Plus, they were young and looking for adventure. They found plenty of that, though we are eventually reminded that adventure can wear you down after awhile, and definitely change your perspective.
Courtney takes us through the early days of training, wondering if they’ll go overseas, and the fateful day the deployment orders come through. Scenes from a farewell party will be familiar to many families: plenty of booze and stiff upper lips. Then they’re off.
The soldiers are fairly carefree, bantering blithely as they go about their job: detonating Improvised Explosive Devices along Afghan roadways. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” says one soldier. His pals chirp in on other subjects. “Have you had sex yet?” says one. “I’m a lover not a fighter,” says another. Many of the conversations in the film, one should add, are undertaken in what my son calls the “incredible mosaic of obscenity.”
Then – Boom! – a bomb goes off and things get very serious very quickly. If you’ve never seen film of an IED detonating, there are plenty here. Some result in wounds, though Courtney spares us the gore.
Courtney also keeps the families in focusing, reminding viewers that when one family member is deployed, the entire family is deployed. Parents will definitely associate with a father who tells of fearing that “knock on the door” from a Pentagon representative bearing bad news. A girlfriend says there’s “lots of depression. Life is very different.” We see families talking via Skype, conversations that are deeply heartfelt but sometimes awkward; a combination of joy, relief, and trying to come up with small talk.
Back in Afghanistan, the stress begins taking its toll.
In their barracks, soldiers talk about having a hard time sleeping. One develops ulcers and adult asthma. A shift in attitude appears universal.
“I hate everybody here,” one soldier says. “I’m a racist American now because of this war.” Other soldiers have become somewhat disillusioned. The people of Afghanistan, one says, are “stricken with a burden that seems unfixable. What is the point in all this? Who am I fighting this war for?” There is talk of suffering “too many concussions” from being “blown up too many times.”
Yet there is also a high level of compassion, even for their adversaries. One soldier sympathizes with the people who are trying to blow him up, suggesting that if he were a native he might be doing the same thing. After a cache of explosives is found near a home, concerns are raised about what will happen to the family now that the man of the house is being arrested and taken away. One soldier asks what anyone would do if a Taliban insurgent ordered them to shoot at American convoys and hide explosives -- or see their children killed. As for the children, they “are unbelievable. They never stop smiling.”
Finally, it’s time to come home. “It’s just like being pregnant,” says one mother. “It’s on you mind every day until they get back.” When they do, everyone realizes these aren’t the same boys they had known. It can be very difficult getting back into the swing of civilian life – finding a job, restarting relationship – especially when some soldiers are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury. One lapses into fits of extreme anger. The hidden toll of war, we are reminded, can last far longer than the deployment itself.
This is a film worth watching, for military and non-military families alike. Many thanks to Cathy Fisher of POV for sending it along. On a personal note, our family appreciates the concerns and prayers sent aloft on behalf of “Sarge,” whom we expect to reappear in Virginia sometime in December or January. And here at Veteran’s Day, we are especially thankful for the service and safe return of soldiers we know who went overseas, including Ben, Josh, Ralph, Mike, Smitty and Chip. We are proud to call you our friends.
Washington Post review: 'The Three of Us' By George Jones (George And Tammy's Daughter)
July 25, 2011
Georgette Jones: Standin’ by mom and dad
By Dave Shiflett, Published: July 22
The children of icons seldom achieve at the level of their luminous parents, which is certainly true of Georgette Jones, daughter of country music deities Tammy Wynette and George Jones. That is, for the most part, a good thing for Georgette, as we learn in “The Three of Us,” her memoir of growing up in that deeply fractured household.
She was never her father’s equal as a boozer — few reach those heights — and hasn’t matched her mother’s level of domestic drama (romance with Burt Reynolds, a long string of sometimes malignant marriages and chronic pill-popping). Then there’s music. George Jones recorded some of country music’s greatest songs, including “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” while Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” is one of country’s best-known anthems.
While Georgette sang a bit with her parents as a child, and later as a backup singer for her mother, she made her living as a nurse before inching back into the family trade. She recognizes that she will never reach her parent’s level of stardom, which, it seems, would suit George and Tammy (RIP) quite well. “In a nutshell,” she writes, “my mom never trusted stardom, and my dad never liked it.”
She provides plenty of run-up to her birth in 1970, including a reminder that, while her parents’ marriage may not have been made in heaven, it was a Nashville dream. “When my mom married my dad, she was marrying her hero,” she writes.
Both came from rural backgrounds, though George’s was more desperate. “Dad had to quit school at a young age to help out his family,” she writes. “No stability and no safety, just poverty and uncertainty.” Music was his way out.
As it was for Virginia Wynette Pugh (Tammy’s real name), a single mother of three when she moved to Nashville in 1966, living in a motel and, in an old Nashville story, rejected by almost everyone on Music Row. Her fortunes changed when she slipped into the office of producer Billy Sherrill and told him, “You are my last hope.” Sherrill liked her voice but not her name and suggested she call herself Tammy — after the title character in the movie “Tammy and the Bachelor.” She soon met Jones at a recording session. She cottoned to “The Possum,” and he to her. They married in 1969.
Whatever marital bliss there might have been was short-lived. By 1972 George and Tammy’s stormy weather was the talk of the tabloids and resonated in their duet “We’re Gonna Hold On,” which, Georgette writes, was “appropriate given their sometimes on-the-rocks marital status.” When they were asked during a television show what would keep their marriage together, a classic line was born: “They agreed it would only work if Dad quit nippin’ and Mom quit naggin.’ ” Neither of which appears to have come to pass. The couple divorced in 1975, and George, for the most part, dropped out of his daughter’s life.
Georgette’s memoir is not an exercise in whining or score settling. Readers looking for yet more stories about George’s legendary guzzling will be disappointed; Georgette says it was largely hidden from her. When he worked the bar and club circuit, she adds, drinking became “a weapon against his introverted nature.”
As for her mom, her major problem involved that other world-class demon: men. Tammy stood by five men, with the last two marriages especially grim. Georgette seems to hold a special, though apparently deserved, animosity for the fifth and final husband, the late George Richey, a songwriter and producer Tammy married in 1978 while “heavily sedated with Demerol.” He was verbally and physically abusive, she writes, and appears to have been a world-class swindler as well.
Georgette, to be sure, didn’t live the convent life, marrying a couple of times and experiencing her own bout of substance abuse, which she backed away from. She later survived cancer and, of greater interest to most readers, her mother’s somewhat mysterious and gruesome death.
The curtain fell in 1998, following years of painkiller addiction partly resulting from multiple operations on abdominal maladies. Tammy apparently lay dead on a sofa several hours before anyone noticed she had stopped breathing. That left her body bloated and her face “cracked,” Georgette recalls. “Mom was dead. Not just dead, but horribly and disfiguringly dead.”
Tammy’s death helped Georgette reestablish her relationship with her father, who had ignored her for long stretches, including begging off when she asked him to walk her down the aisle. Her desire to reconnect, and forgive and forget, is her most engaging and touching characteristic.
All told, the memoir is remarkably upbeat. It also reminds us that Nashville, which operates under the family-values banner, should probably trade that one in for the skull and crossbones.
Wall Street Journal Review: Cabin Fever and Back to the Land
July 9, 2011
The desire to escape the rat race, till the land, raise your own chickens, listen to the whippoorwills and otherwise escape the grind of city life has launched countless daydreams, many books and at least one highly annoying TV show: "Green Acres."
Two new books—one personal, the other a broad history of "back to the land" enthusiasm—may touch a chord in a desperate urban-dweller's heart, but they may also show, if sometimes inadvertently, that Mother Earth's bosom is not always welcoming to mere humans.
Tom Montgomery Fate, whose "Cabin Fever" falls into the category of "nature writing," is far from a full-time homesteader. He is an English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, lives in a Chicago suburb with his family and minivan, participates in the antiwar movement, and could easily be mistaken for a cog in the notorious wheel.
But he is also devoted to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and especially to the idea of living a "deliberate life," which Mr. Fate defines as "a search for balance—in mind and body and spirit—amid our daily lives." That search often takes him to a cabin a few hours from his home, where he observes nature, and himself, at close quarters.
The book is organized into seasonal essays, starting with spring, a time when the sun brings the earth to blossom, though Mr. Fate is equally alert to life forms that have kept the pesticide industry in deep clover. He has a fascination for ticks, for instance. They go "questing" for blood donors, spearing their victims with a "beaklike projection" and drawing a "quantity of blood that is a hundred times their 'empty' weight."
Mr. Fate is also a fan of ants. "Today there are more than a million ants for each person on the planet," he claims in a more-the-better spirit. As Mr. Fate watches ants doing their chores, including passing along "regurgitated" food and cooperating in ways that would make Mr. Rogers smile, he arrives at an epiphany: "It strikes me that humans could never reach such communal efficiency and economy." If the ant is condemned to be an ant and nothing more, "we too are absurdly trapped by our design"—but in our case the trap is "the labyrinth of language and reason." We must also contend with mind-numbing "choices" and "possibilities" that the ant might not imagine.
In such passages humans often appear as a less than heroic species. When Mr. Fate finds a "roadkill raccoon" who is not quite dead, he carries the stricken animal to the road's shoulder; soon he finds himself "kneeling down in the damp weeds in a sort of wordless prayer—for forgiveness, I think." He counts himself among the worst beasts in the forest, feeling as he strolls a riverbank "the burden of my role in its slow destruction."
Yet Mr. Fate has a talent for chuckling at the mind-numbing "possibilities" of existence, such as losing one's car in a parking lot. He confesses that he once found his billfold "in the cheese drawer of the refrigerator." Middle-aged readers (ahem) might find themselves mumbling, "Et tu, Fate?"
Best of all, Mr. Fate is a fan of the coyote—a creature whose tenacity is noticeably less precious and humble than the ant's. The city life seems to suit coyotes, Mr. Fate writes, observing that rural coyotes have a "30 percent chance of living through their first year" while their city dwelling cousins "are twice as likely to live that long." He tells the story of a coyote skulking into a Chicago sub shop, apparently in search of food, and another who stalked a 60-year-old woman through a suburban parking lot. Suddenly, Mr. Fate writes, the coyote "lunged for her miniature poodle, clamping his jaws around the dog's hindquarters." The woman prevailed in the ensuing tug-of-war. Perhaps there is hope for us humans yet.
As animals wander into suburban spaces—bears and deer as well as coyotes—they are betting that they'll eat better among humans than among their own kind. Man has attempted a version of this reverse migration, too, over the centuries. The never-ending search for grub is a central theme in Dona Brown's "Back to the Land."
Ms. Brown, also a professor (the University of Vermont), chronicles a movement that embraces people like Mr. Fate— professional, "progressive," concerned about the environment—but that has also included Americans who hoped to find "food self-sufficiency," preferably apart from a life of wage slavery. That desire was sweetly enunciated by 19th-century writer Philip G. Hubert: "Why is it not possible for a healthy man . . . to make bread and butter for his little ones and himself without chaining himself down to a life of drudgery?"
Ms. Brown starts with a look at early back-to-the-land efforts, which she says ended around World War I. They tended to attract Americans, some in financial peril, who struck out for the rustic regions "as a means of preserving artisanal skill, personal autonomy, and household self-sufficiency in the face of a rising tide of mechanization, monopoly and consumerism."
Later chapters carry the story through to later expressions of the same basic impulse: for example, the Southern Agrarian movement, whose ideal society might owe something to feudalism, and the cluster of thinkers known as "decentralists," who sought a world in which "everyone had access to productive property—to the tools and materials that would allow them to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves." In the 1930s, government programs sought to bring about "self-sufficiency," providing land to down-and-outers, including Johnny Cash's parents. Four decades later, suburban kids who didn't know a hoe from a howitzer traded the country club for the commune.
Ms. Brown reads deeply in the movement's core literature, including the seminal "Ten Acres Enough" (1864), by Edmund Morris, both a journalist and real-estate man. The book contained "detailed information about deep plowing, how best to save manure, and the treatment of worms on peach trees." Ms. Brown notes that a revised version of the book is still in print.
Not everyone thought it necessary to leave town to grow your own. Bolton Hall (1854–1938), a wealthy New Yorker with radical economic ideas and perhaps a green thumb, tended a third-acre garden at 137th Street and Lenox Avenue. In his "Three Acres and Liberty" (1907), he hailed other urban food-raising efforts: "Near San Francisco there are a number of frog ranches." In a similar spirit, Henry Ford provided gardens for 50,000 Detroit auto workers after the 1929 stock-market crash. Working the gardens for food was mandatory.
Ms. Brown writes engagingly, and while her sympathies are not exactly right of center, she doesn't mind detailing the hypocrisy and messianic extremes of some of the movement's more radical leaders. Helen and Scott Nearing, devoted homesteaders and ascetic socialists, sought the good life in rural simplicity and preached abstinence from all animal products, even though Helen ate ice cream. Worse yet, she declared that domestic animals were "slaves" and yet owned a cat. Scott ended up fasting to death in 1983, at age 100.
As Ms. Brown makes clear, the rural impulse can inspire a kind of religious intensity. The author and New Age activist Ray Mungo cast modern-day back-to-earthers as holy penitents: "Pushing long hair out of their way and thus marking their foreheads with beautiful penitent dust," he wrote in 1970, they "till the soil to atone for their fathers' destruction of it." Self-adoration, we are reminded, grows everywhere like a weed.
Toward the end of her survey, Ms. Brown observes that "the old question of food self-sufficiency simply no longer requires quite the same go-it-alone approach that characterized the 1970s." We have more cooperatives stores now, she says, and community-supported farms. And there are hopeful signs, in her view: The Obamas dug up part of the White House lawn in 2009 and planted a garden, while in Los Angeles 245 people (latest count) have joined the online "Los Angeles Urban Chicken Group."
Still, one has to wonder how many Americans would truly forsake their daily grind to raise chickens (and frogs), shovel manure, and operate that wonder of nature known as the cow udder. While a small portion may find solace in the soil, far more would probably prefer not to flirt with dirt.
Wall Street Journal Deployment Story: While My Son Serves
July 4, 2011
What's it like seeing a family member off to Iraq, and perhaps beyond?
The question comes up regularly these days as our 26-year-old son prepares to ship out. Kids in our middle-class world tend to head for college or for the sort of job that eventually convinces them that college isn't such a bad idea after all. Some friends wonder how our son ended up a sergeant in the Army National Guard.
"Sarge" (as we call him now) didn't volunteer because of family influence. We are Virginians and have served, but only when called. The Vietnam War ended before I got called up, but my father was a World War II navigator in the Naval Air Corps, transporting troops from Hawaii to Guam, and Sarge's grandfather on the other side was in a front-line artillery unit in Korea. A century before, the man I was named after did some surveillance work for Robert E. Lee, and in something of that spirit, our son became an Army Scout.
As America celebrates Independence Day this weekend, it's a good time to think of the men and women serving their country overseas.
He is, to be sure, a good demographic fit: Over two-thirds of our armed forces are white, most are male, and Southerners continue to be well-represented in the ranks. There was also his early fascination with soldiers and guns, but that's true of many boys.
Sarge has always possessed one habit of mind seemingly at odds with military life, which many critics insist is fit only for drones. He possesses what we lovingly call a hard head, an independent streak that, as it happens, is an inherited characteristic.
After his enlistment I had to ask why he would join an organization where taking orders is a way of life. "It's how you get to the big game," he replied. Put another way, he's a single young man looking for adventure—and perhaps meaning—and tends to believe that the people who man the office cubicles are the real drones.
He certainly chose an unusual path: Fewer than 1% of Americans wear the uniform these days. That, in turn, puts families of deployed soldiers in something of a world of their own.
For one thing, you're unlikely to bump into someone at the local tavern to commiserate with (which is not an argument for avoiding taverns, tavern life being one of the traditions that our children cross the oceans to protect).
New acquaintances sometimes seem shocked to meet someone with a deployed family member. "I'm so sorry," is their typical response. You'd almost think the lad was heading into rehab or entering the slave trade.
“'When I'm out in the desert, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing,' our son said after returning home. Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose.”
Others simply have no experience with the phenomenon of military service. At a Christmas party a few years ago, a colleague told me, very earnestly, that I was the only person he knew with someone in the military and that my son (whom he had never met) was his only link to that world.
Sheldon Kelly, an old family friend who served with the 82nd Airborne and whose own son has done multiple tours, recalls a lunch in Washington, D.C., with professional friends when the Iraq war was at a high point. "They were all war hawks," he recalled, "but when I told them my son was in Iraq, they were stunned. It was like I was in a different class." None, he added, had children in the military.
All of which can result in a feeling of isolation for some service families and an assumption of societal indifference. With so few people deployed, it's almost as if these conflicts are not really happening.
One local couple, whose son earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, told me that while plenty of people are happy to "ribbon up"—attach those "Support Our Troops" stickers to their cars—that's pretty much the extent of their outreach.
For the most part, however, the usual response when we tell people about Sarge is to say that we must be proud—which we are—and we must also be worried. Well, sure. We're parents—worry is our fate. Yet we try to worry wisely. And thankfully, at this point in his life, Sarge is not leaving behind a family of his own.
His first deployment, in 2007, was supposed to take him to Baghdad, but he ended up in a much quieter area at the southern border. He did not like that, but my wife and I sure did. This time around his gun truck will be driving point on convoys taking troops out of Iraq.
While the Iraq war has wound down, there are still dangers. In June, 11 servicemen were killed, five in a single rocket attack. Death by improvised explosive device is a possibility for anyone riding those roads, and so visions of your son bleeding out as he screams for his mother can appear, unsolicited, in the middle of the night. Some level of apprehension is unavoidable.
Then again, why do we have children if not to give us plenty to think about at 3 a.m.?
Sarge shows few signs of coffin phobia, though he is not looking forward to dealing with intense heat, scorpions and camel spiders (which, he tells us, can grow to the size of your hand, hiss loudly, and sometimes charge in packs). As for other hazards: Sandstorms can be blinding, it's not advisable to date the locals, and a cold beer can be very hard to come by.
And you never know where his service might eventually lead him. The U.S. is supposed to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but that could change. With Sarge's new deployment set at 400 days, we suspect a bonus trip to Afghanistan may be in the bargain. Who knows—maybe he'll end up seeing wild, wonderful Tripoli!
There's a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys. What often isn't said is that, despite the definite downsides to military deployment (including the possibility of becoming a casualty and, at the very least, long separations), it has a strange knack for bringing people together and even making life better.
“There's a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys.”
Sarge's 2007 deployment had some positive health benefits for me, though for nonheroic reasons. Here's why: If your soldier is killed (not a great possibility, though some parents lose sight of that), there will be a knock at your door. Accordingly, if you happen to be home in the afternoon when the FedEx guy drops by, you might experience an unwelcome cardiac jolt.
To avoid that experience I took up walking, often logging 30 to 40 miles per week. Not quite boot camp, but the exercise probably added a few years to my life.
There are also moments that simply would not have happened were it not for deployment. I remember a call from our son (via cellphone) who said he was out in the middle of the desert under a bright canopy of stars. Despite a short voice delay, the reception was incredible.
"You out there by yourself?" I asked.
"No, Dad. I have my machine gun."
It was a strange, intense moment of bonding, even though he was probably 7,000 miles away.
Deployment also cured me of a lingering cable-TV habit. Whatever patience I once had for the chattering class—make that the braying class—disappeared. I don't know what is worse: raving about how our soldiers are "mercenaries" or hearing a parlor patriot (go get 'em, boys!) suggest that because recent conflicts are "low-casualty" (compared with Vietnam, Korea and the world wars), they are nothing to get worked up about. As my friend Sheldon pointed out, it does seem that the people with the biggest heart for war never seem to have any blood on the line.
It is undoubtedly true that war is good not only for munitions makers but also for what a friend calls the "prayer life." In the run-up to Sarge's 2007 deployment, a celestial petition entered my mind so effortlessly and naturally that I assumed the same has been true for soldiers' parents through the ages: If a life must be taken, take mine and spare his.
Deployment can also be a positive experience for soldiers. After returning home, our son said that "when I'm out in the desert, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing." Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose, and many men, I suspect, may come to wish they had made a similar journey.
It's my impression that men like me, who never served, often feel that we've missed out on an important part of life. We don't know what it's like to be young and far away from home, vulnerable to instant personal extinction but also part of the comradeship that such danger creates. In this sense my son's service is a far greater thing than I have ever done.
Back home from deployments, soldiers can experience a vast array of problems, from nervousness while driving under an overpass (ambush?) or in traffic (since cars in today's war zones can carry bombs) to the more serious manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. The military offers some support. A Department of Defense service called MilitaryHomefront provides support for those suffering from various maladies, including combat stress, domestic abuse and suicide prevention.
For families whose soldiers didn't make it home, of course, there is an unfathomable depth of sorrow.
On a happier note, the one area in which deployment is nearly unsurpassed lies in its ability to bring people together for a grand sendoff.
We held Sarge's farewell party just before June 1, his official deployment date (he won't arrive in Iraq until this month).
This was definitely not a Norman Rockwell scene, though one suspects Norman would have had a rocking time. A smoky cooking fire (my idea to roast an octopus was vetoed; our oldest son flew in from San Francisco to butcher and cook a pig) cast a rich haze over 100 or so friends, relatives and a few thirsty strangers, some bearing musical instruments while many others, including soldiers with hard combat experience, came armed with a host of jugs.
When soldiers and musicians gather, the alcohol deities smile broadly. Thirsts worthy of condemned pirates were slaked with passion, and as the smoke and noise levels rose, neighbors could be forgiven for thinking the Vikings had landed (though none sounded the alarm down at the local sheriff's office, for which we are thankful). One senses that many serious head wounds required treatment the next morning, but there was the solace of knowing that the damage was sustained in the line of duty.
This party was not as raucous as the one for Sarge's first deployment, where lights-out came around 5 a.m. This time, all was quiet by 2. The last departure was also officially marked by a ceremony in which Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine traveled to Portsmouth to shake the hands of the hundreds of soldiers departing with my son's unit. Families appreciated that. This time, the current governor didn't show up at the sendoff, which was held in downtown Richmond.
For now, memories of Sarge's sendoff will keep us smiling as we ride out the 400-day deployment.
Grandmother: "Will the vehicle you're riding around in have any weapons?"
Sarge: "Yes, Grandma. We'll be taking along a .50-cal."
While Sarge is away, we're likely to see the local boys who have completed their tours and sometimes gather in a home-built "speakeasy," bedecked with the flags of their respective services: Army, Marines, Navy.
I recall a conversation with them one night about an American flag that has accompanied them on various deployments, sometimes tucked under their battle armor to keep it—and perhaps themselves—safe. The cable TV brayers would scoff at this as "gaudy patriotism," but to my eye this level of communal devotion is another thing soldiers have that most of us don't.
“Despite the definite downsides to deployment, it has a strange knack for bringing people together.”
These vets—young in years but in some cases having witnessed profound horrors—were in full hoot at the send-off, singing along to woozily brilliant renditions of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," Paul Simon's "The Boxer," a deeply fractured rendition of the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," and the Grateful Dead's "Dire Wolf," with its resoundingly appropriate chorus, "Don't murder me!"
There was also a glorious "Over the Rainbow," sung by a woman whose voice brought hope for better days, and then the farewell toast:
Know that you will be constantly in our thoughts and prayers.
We look forward to gathering together again to welcome you home.
Until then, don't mess with the women.
Keep your head down, and
Now, off he goes.
Wall Street Journal Review of "Bunnies and Bachelors" -- Hugh Hefner, feminist
May 29, 2011
The Feminist Mystique of Hugh Hefner
By DAVE SHIFLETT
Journalists lately have taken to portraying Hugh Hefner as an octogenarian whose libido requires chemical upgrades and whose mansion is stuffed with tattered mattresses and stained carpets. But he still has his admirers. These include Carrie Pitzulo, a self-described feminist, who in "Bachelors and Bunnies" casts Mr. Hefner as something of a philosopher king and underappreciated crusader for women's advancement. How dare anyone think the Bunnyboy was ever simply a guy on the make?
Ms. Pitzulo, an assistant history professor at the University of West Georgia, begins by sketching Mr. Hefner's origins. He was born in 1926 into what he called a "typical Midwestern, Methodist home with a lot of repression." As a teenager, he appears to have been less repressed than enthusiastically self-obsessed. He began documenting his life in a series of scrapbooks that now numbers more than 2,000. After a girl rejected him in high school, he "reinvented" himself as "Hef," Ms. Pitzulo says, and he began dressing dapper and writing a music column in the school paper.
View Full Image
copyright Playboy Magazine
A 1964 Playboy ad, claiming that its typical reader 'knows his way around.'
Mr. Hefner married in 1949 and had two children—a son, David, and daughter, Christie, who would eventually take over his empire. He and his wife, Mildred, didn't divorce until 1959, but by then he had made it clear that standard domesticity, that hotbed of monogamy, was not for him. In 1953, the former Esquire magazine copywriter had launched Playboy, a magazine that, as Ms. Pitzulo describes it, championed as its ideal "a swinging single Lothario" who rejected marriage in favor of "self-indulgence, materialism and promiscuous bachelorhood." Oh, and there were photos of naked women.
The magazine also included articles on fashion, food and gadgets such as the "Tensolator," which provided "bodybuilding isotonic tension," perhaps to make up for slow nights in the rumpus room. Mr. Hefner also wanted to appeal to men with intellectual pretensions. The Playboy man, he wrote in the inaugural issue, liked nothing more than "mixing up cocktails and an hors d' oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." Yet the rabbit logo was not meant to celebrate the cerebral nature of the insatiable hare.
Ms. Pitzulo looks closely at the true stars of the show: the Playmates, especially those who appeared in the centerfold—the three-page spread that was among the most sacred item of teenage contraband. While promoted by Mr. Hefner as the "girl next door" and "not unlike the women his readers encountered every day," writes Ms. Pitzulo, these women were actually the stuff of fantasy: perfectly sculpted and without detectable blemish.
Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy
By Carrie Pitzulo
Chicago, 240 pages, $25
In the 1960s, Playmates became the target of feminist ire. Protesters at the 1968 Miss America threw Playboys into a "freedom trashcan" and even Jennifer Jackson, the first African-American Playmate (March 1965), later called Mr. Hefner a "glorified pimp," though she added that she did like him as a person. Gloria Steinem, ever the subtle critic, dragged the Holocaust into the discussion in 1970: "A woman reading Playboy," she declared, "feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual."
Far more troubling to Ms. Pitzulo than the girly pictures was the tone of early stories, such as "Miss Gold-Digger of 1953," which painted "women as conniving wenches only out for money." Another mainstay of the early years: articles belittling marriage and long-term commitment. Yet Ms. Pitzulo also detects a "budding attitude" in the magazine encouraging "sexual autonomy, expression, and pleasure for men and for women." Playboy came to support "progressive" political causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War and support for abortion rights. Eventually Mr. Hefner even stopped advocating male "flight from commitment." While "militant" feminists continued to despise the magazine, Ms. Pitzulo says, Playboy was actually working "toward feminist goals." Mr. Hefner could not agree more. "I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism," he told Esquire in 2002.
Freeing women from sexual restraint and ensuring their access to abortion, of course, are causes hailed in barracks, frat houses and other places where nonfeminists gather, but Ms. Pitzulo is not one to make such observations. She often writes with a messianic earnestness—we're told early on that her editor considers her efforts "worthy and important." She doesn't stint on the academic jargon as she "deciphers" the deeper meaning of centerfolds in "the context of postwar America" and refers to "the feminist porn critique" and the "heterosexual project." As prose goes, this can hit you like a very cold shower.
She also denounces the "religious right" and other "conservatives" with a tone suggesting she's writing universal objective truth, clearly unaware that perhaps her adversaries are not the only ones who adhere to a rigid orthodoxy.
But who among us is without blemish—except the Playmates, a few of whom grace these pages, including the thoroughly stunning Linda Summers (August 1972), stretched out in the sand with a look that says, "Hey boys, soup's on." There's also an in-house ad from 1964 boasting that 43% of Playboy readers had at least three drinks a week in a bar or restaurant, thus making the magazine an excellent buy for booze merchants. It's a reminder that Mr. Hefner believed it was his philosophy attracting the commerce that kept the bunny hopping.
"We do live, now, in a Playboy world," Mr. Hefner said in a 2006 interview, which might be news many places, including those where women still go around wearing sacks. Yet many standard-issue American male readers may conclude they owe Mr. Hefner a debt of thanks. They might have believed it was those guitar lessons, steak dinners and charming conversation that greased the romantic skids, but maybe it was the philosophical Lothario with the smoking jacket and deep reverence for rabbits who actually turned the key to paradise.
Washington Post Review of "33 Revolutions" -- A History of Protest Music
May 18, 2011
By Dave Shiflett
Protest music isn’t what it used to be.
“Steal From Walmart” and even the hundreds of anti-war songs that blossomed in the blood of the Iraq wars don’t approach the societal resonance of “We Shall Overcome” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” as U.K. music critic Dorian Lynskey confirms, and mourns, in “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day,” (ecco/HarperCollins; 656 pages; $19.99).
“I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” Linskey writes in his epilogue . “I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.”
As eulogies go this is a lively and sprawling one, beginning with a chapter on “Strange Fruit,” written in 1939, and ending with largely ignored attacks on George W. Bush’s military policy.
“Strange Fruit,” a darkly powerful meditation on lynching, was anything but ignored. It put 24-year-old Billie Holiday on the map and remains vibrant today, thanks in part thanks to the ministrations of arranger Danny Mendelsohn, who initially dismissed it as “something or other alleged to be music.” While protest songs up to that point were “propaganda,” Lynskey writes, this one “proved they could be art.”’
Most protest songs, to be sure, are far less vocally demanding, including Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” written in a New York flophouse in 1940 and borrowing part of its melody from the Carter family’s “Little Darling Pal of Mine.”
In a similar sharing spirit “We Shall Overcome” commandeered an 18th century melody and boasts four lyricists, including Pete Seeger, whose rendition found an instant fan in Dr. Martin Luther King. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” King said, though it did have its critics, not all of them named Bubba. “If you’re going to get yourself a .45 and start singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I’m with you,” Malcolm X told a Harlem rally in 1964.
Lynskey writes passionately and often admiringly but doesn’t stint on the criticism, giving ample praise to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” but adding that fellow folkie Tom Paxton dismissed “Blowing in the Wind” as “a grocery list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.” Lynskey also reminds us that Dylan was a master of sometimes clunky contrariness: a few weeks after JFK’s assassination he claimed a strange kinship with Lee Harvey Oswald: “I saw some of myself in him,” he told a New York audience, which rewarded him with a bouquet of cat-calls.
Sing-along fans will appreciate Lynskey’s inclusion of Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” perhaps most famous for the Fish Cheer that preceded it at Woodstock, which helped launch the F-bomb’s glorious ascendancy. In this case the criticism comes from McDonald himself. “What’s almost unfathomable is the smallness of it,” he says. “It was just another song.”
Yet we still remember that Rag, unlike the hundreds (if not thousands) of songs inspired by the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, known in some quarters as the Haliburton Expansion Initiative. Lynskey suggests one explanation: “The nature of the antiwar movement changed dramatically in February 1966,” he writes, “when the Selective Service System extended conscription to the campuses.” In that era singing anti-war songs might be considered an act of self preservation; today, the absence of a draft drains such warbling of urgency and audience.
The book ranges far beyond the sixties and includes songs celebrating gay and black pride, protesting apartheid and hunger, and denouncing various meanies including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. There are also amusing non-musical asides, including a fond remembrance of punkster Jello Biafra’s run for mayor of San Francisco, where he took a respectable 4 percent of the vote, though that placed him behind Diane Feinstein and Sister Boom-Boom. (page 316) . Biafra would later say punk was “a close-minded, self-centered social club” and “a meaningless fad.”
The theme of smugness and encroaching irrelevance weaves through the book, with Lynskey reminding early on that many protest songs are short on chord changes and long on sanctimony, with fans to match. He characterizes the attitude as: “We understand. We are not like them. We are all on the same side.”
He gives a terrific example of another problem: the profundity-groping musician, in this case Steve Earle, who insisted that American Taliban John Walker Lindh was something of a post- adolescent everyman: “I became acutely aware that what happened to him could have happened to my son, and your son, and anyone’s son,” (Page 509) weirdly suggesting a widespread youthful desire to join an ultra-religious warrior group that doesn’t allow you to drink beer, listen to popular music, and stones you to death for unsanctioned sex.
Thankfully, we get a more sober and context-setting observation from the voice of reason himself, Keith Richards: “You don’t shoulder any responsibility when you pick up a guitar or sing a song, because it’s not a position of responsibility.”
Is protest music dead? The better question, Lynskey writes, is “Is anybody listening?” Not to protest music, it seems, which interrupts the pursuit of unencumbered entertainment. “It is not just that people have lost faith in any performer to help bring about change, it is that they resent anyone who attempts to do so,” he concludes.
Perhaps the only way to bring protest music back home is to re-institute the draft.
Merlefest Interviews with Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Tara Nevins, Jerry Douglas and More
May 13, 2011
By Dave Shiflett
If Peter Rowan or Jerry Douglas were to give a commencement address this spring, it might be titled: “Wise up, Punks. There’s more to music than Lady Gaga.”
Del McCoury thinks so too.
During interviews at the recent Merlefest festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., several legendary roots musicians discussed the music they think is essential for young people to become familiar with, and with any luck fully embrace.
To no surprise, Bill Monroe was at the top of several lists, but the old guard also had kind words for Jimi Hendrix, aboriginal music from Australia, and even Mick Jagger’s brother.
They were less generous when discussing attempts to cut funding to NPR and PBS, while one suggested a novel cure for Attention Deficit Disorder.
“Of course they should listen to Bach and Beethoven,” said Peter Rowan, perhaps best known for writing the stoner anthem “Panama Red” and his collaboration with the late Jerry Garcia in the band Old and In the Way.
Rowan, who played with Monroe from 1965 to 1967, says Monroe and blues singer Robert Johnson were crucial in creating a sound often lost in a world awash with musical expression.
“There’s too much music available,” said Rowan as he chomped a banana in the artist’s lounge. Lost in the thicket of commercial radio, YouTube and Myspace are traditions that deserve a better hearing, including “black church music, prison songs” and “aboriginal music” from Australia, which he characterized as “three chord” tunes that are an important element in the indigenous peoples’ civil rights movement.
Rowan, who recently returned from Australia, said that movement “has yet to have its Martin Luther King moment,” making the music all the more crucial for maintaining momentum. When asked for a contemporary artist he likes, Rowan suggested crooner Chris Jagger – “Mick’s brother.”
The festival featured several other former Monroe band mates, including Grammy winning bluegrasser Del McCoury, who played in Monroe’s band in 1963. McCoury, known for his piercing voice and gray pompadour, cited Monroe and “the Baptist hymnal” as wellsprings of roots music; Monroe’s picking style, he said, has yet to be topped.
“You can’t beat the innovator,” he said prior to a performance.
Yet McCoury, who recently released a CD with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, agreed that some things have gotten bigger and better. “When we were starting out,” he cackled, “our PA systems were so small you could carry the speakers under one arm and put the microphones in your pocket.”
At Merlefest, the speakers had to be trucked in, and people came in droves. Festival attendance has gone way up since the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. Merlefest organizers said 80,000 people attended the four-day event, which has raised $8 million for Wilkes Community College since starting in 1988.
Monroe wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Rory Block, a willowy blues singer who grew up in Manhattan, sang the praises of the Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith. “They’re the ones I listened to when I was growing up,” she said after a foot-stomping set. Tara Nevins, a masterful fiddler who helps front Donna The Buffalo and also has a vibrant solo career, cited old-time musicians who are far below most radar screens. “I never book gigs during the Mt. Airy old time festival,” she said, adding that many of the players there are unknown but brilliant.
Nashville mainstay Sam Bush, best known for his innovative mandolin playing, praised Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Eric Clapton.
Several players, including Bush, denounced efforts to cut funding to arts and music education, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers insisted that keeping music in the schools will pay profound medical benefits.
“In our schools,” he said of growing up in Europe, “we sang a song together every morning,” which he says focused minds and created a sense of community. When morning singing was cancelled, grades went down, he said, but rose again when the practice resumed.
If American schools made group singing a part of their morning routine, he said, it “would eliminate ADD” though that wouldn’t be music to the ears of the pharmaceutical industry.
Dobro master Jerry Douglas, who cited Flatt and Scruggs as perhaps his most important influences, said he had recently discovered the joys of singing publicly.
Douglas, who will be touring into November in support of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s new “Paper Airplane” CD, said he had launched his singing career the previous week during a Carnegie Hall gig.
“I’m 55,” he smiled. “I figured it was time.”
Had he sung a gentle, heartfelt tune?
“No. I did a murder ballad -- Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe.’”
Wonder how Bill Monroe would have liked that.
Bloomberg Interview with Bruce Molsky, Old Time Fiddle Master (pre-edited version)
April 20, 2011
By Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg) – The Americana/roots festival season kicks off in earnest later this month with Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina (April 28-May 1) and the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia (April 22-25)reflecting the worldwide appeal of songs that often originated in the Appalachian mountains and other rural hotspots.
While performers such as Doc Watson, Del McCoury and Robert Plant are better known and acts such as Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks and the Corklickers more cleverly named, few performers are more admired – and perhaps unlikely -- than Bruce Molsky, considered one of the world’s premier old time fiddlers.
Molsky, 55, who will play in Canberra, didn’t take up the fiddle until he was 18 and didn’t launch his full time music career until he was 41. Contrary to stereotypes this purveyor of mountain music has all his teeth and even wears an earring.
Plus, he’s from the Bronx.
Rembrandt of Appalachia
I caught up with Molsky during a recent swing through the southeast to talk about life as a traditional musician and the growing interest, especially among young listeners and musicians, in the songs he champions.
But first I wanted to know how a guy from the Bronx ends up as “the Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddlers,” as violin master Darol Anger calls him.
It started, Molsky says, when jazz legend Billy Taylor visited P.S. 81 when Molsky was 11: “I heard him play and thought -- man I want that.” Molsky bought a guitar and took lessons for a year, later immersing himself in fiddle and banjo music and earned a living as a mechanical engineer until going full-time at 40, which he calls “the nicest favor I ever did for myself.”
Tears From Ronstadt
Traditional music is on a “definite uptick” because of its purity and communal appeal, according to Molsky. “This is the music of communities and of workers trying to escape their grinds.” Or, in some cases, watching their grinds disappear.
In “Peg ‘n’ Awl,” Molsky sings about a shoe factor worker who is replaced by a machine.
They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine,
I peg one shoe, it pegs fifteen,
I’m gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.
Sung in a sturdy baritone, the song could draw a tear from the most ardent advocate of automation.
“I cried when I heard that song the first time,” says Linda Ronstadt, a Molsky admirer, “and I’m not a crybaby.” She played it for her siblings, she said from San Francisco, and they cried too. Molsky’s rendition of the traditional song has “the same power as Mozart.”
Ronstadt believes Molsky and other traditional performers appeal to listeners tired of “pop music that is so empty,” a belief seconded by Molsky fan and collaborator Jerry Douglas, probably the world’s best-known Dobro player and a mainstay in Alison Krauss’s Union Station band.
“Bruce honors traditional music,” he said from Nashville. He also says Molsky is “a chameleon. With his fiddle, banjo and guitar playing, he can fit into a lot of situations.”
Douglas says younger musicians and listeners are sick of “overproduced, slick stuff.” He and Molsky cite acts such as Crooked Still, Abigail Washburn and the Carolina Chocolate Drops as taking the ancient songs into the future.
Checkered Demon’s brew
Molsky’s influence extends beyond roots music. “Both my String Quartet No. 3 and my Concerto for Violin and Cello and Symphony Orchestra have inspiration from Bruce's playing, his rhythmic drive and how spirited his music is,” composer/violinist Mark O’Connor said in an email.
Douglas adds another kudo: “Bruce isn’t a diva.”
Or rich. “I made a more secure living as a professional person,” Molsky chuckles. He drove his recent southern tour in a Toyota Prius. “I got 46.5 miles to the gallon -- the entire gas bill was $150” – less than a typical bottle of bubbly slurped down by upper-tier rock musicians.
My last question had to do with the origins of his company name: Tree Frog Music. “I was writing liner notes for an album,” he says, and wanted a moniker different than his own name. “There was a Zap comic on the table” in which he found a mention of “the Checkered Demon’s favorite grog: Tree-Frog beer.”
A toast may be in order. Molsky just got word he’ll be teaching and performing at the Berklee School Of Music in Boston in the spring of 2012. Sometimes, dropping out of school and leaving your job pays big dividends.
Review of 'Chinaberry Sidewalks' by Rodney Crowell (pre-edited version)
April 1, 2011
Grammy Winner Rodney Crowell’s Passionate Glance At His Own Family’s Somewhat Twisted Tree
By Dave Shiflett
Most families are strange in their own way, to twist Leo Tolstoy’s observation a bit, while some families, including Grammy winning songwriter Rodney Crowell’s, are strange through and through.
That could make life dicey but also provided material for a delightful and sometimes moving memoir.
Crowell, whose hits include “Shame on the Moon,” “If Looks Could Kill” and “Til I Gain Control Again” is from truly interesting stock.
Father James Walter Crowell was a hard-drinking, honky-tonking wife beater. He was born in 1923 and said he never slept on anything but straw until 1941: “It’s a wonder I don’t crow like a rooster,” he once told his son. (page 44)
Mother Cauzette, born in 1924, was a Pentecostal epileptic who suffered 13 miscarriages, lost one child in infancy and sent her husband to the hospital on at least one occasion to have a wound closed.
And they were nothing compared to other relatives, including an octogenarian great-grandfather whose 1960 death inspired the reflection that “he hadn’t answered a direct question truthfully since his twelfth birthday and hadn’t taken a bath since he fell in the Blood River in 1936” (page 44). Nor was he bound by traditional mores, Crowell writes “His sexual preferences included daughters, sisters, granddaughters neighbor’s wives and the odd farm animal. “
A grandmother, meantime, “excelled in four areas: beating her children, fighting with her husband, baking biscuits and breaking wind, the latter being her greatest passion.” (Page 45)
It may be a miracle Rodney Crowell came out as well as he did.
Born in 1950, Crowell writes with passion and a sometimes bemused horror about his upbringing in a Houston subdivision of cookie cutter houses, towering scrub brush and chinaberry trees. His parents, he notes, were not cut out to be members of the landed gentry, or any other gentry for that matter. They “took to home ownership like horse thieves to a hanging judge.” (page 12)
Pop practiced might be called laissez faire home maintenance, allowing the house -- “essentially a tar paper shack” (page 13) -- to slowly disintegrate. His parents eventually “had to strategically place a number 3 washtub, a five-gallon Igloo water cooler, an ice chest, and various pots and pans to catch the rainwater coming through the ceiling” – through which, he adds, one could see the nighttime constellations. (page 14).
The family also struggled financially. Crowell writes movingly of watching his mother cook eggs in an aluminum pie plate heated by an electric iron and of watching his parents fight, sometimes to the point where bones were broken and blood was shed.
Yet this is far from a sneering look at the family tree. It is, for the most part, a story of love, if not of the fairy book variety certainly of the enduring type. It is also a story of pursuing dreams, especially his father’s desire to be a country crooner, which introduced Crowell to musical performance -- initially as a drummer.
He got the job, he admits, not because of his drumming prowess but because the regular drummer in his father’s band had departed and dad knew he wouldn’t have to pay Rodney, whose first gig was dreadful. Yet performing in dive bars was an eye-opening experience for the pre-teen percussionist. “I saw every kind of skirt lifting, ass grabbing, ear licking, tongue sucking and dry humping there is,” he writes. (page 157)
Crowell also recalls the fateful day in 1958 when he and his parents attended a concert featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash: “twenty three years later I’d produce a live recording of those three artists” (page 229) and he’d also marry Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, though the marriage was short-lived.
We get a fleeting glimpse of Crowell’s musical development, which included stints with bands called The Rolling Tones and the Arbitrators, as well as personal struggles, including a drug overdose that landed him in the hospital.
Yet the focus is on life with his parents. He vividly recalls attending Pentecostal church services with his mother, where he encountered Brother Pemberton, who “gives the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment. With his greasy pompadour spilling down over his eyes, his necktie flying, his shirt hanging halfway out of his pants, his face turned to the heavens like a satellite dish awaiting God’s direct signals, which once received will be spat at the congregation like bullets from a Gatling gun, Brother Pemberton in full flight is a sight to behold.” (page 69).
Despite his fire and brimstone, Crowell writes, “he, too, was bored” – which was revealed during one service when Brother Pemberton winked at him. It was a transforming moment. “In the wink of an eye,” Crowell writes, “ I saw a compassionate, tolerant, and non-judgmental God of love and great humor. My own faith was planted as a seed that morning, and there are days its fruit sustains me still.” 77
He also writes powerfully about his father’s demise, which was wrenching though ultimately closed the circle with his wife. “Your daddy looks like he did the day I married him,” Cauzette said just after he died. (page 247). She lived on several more years.
Crowell warmly embraces his role as “a witness to and harvester of my family’s past” (page 9) which helped him “realize that life’s basic impulse – given half a chance, even in death – is to heal itself.” 230
His healing has produced a memoir that is, in its own strange way, quite life-affirming.
Bloomberg column/Civil War Sesquicentennial/pre-edited version
March 23, 2011
Roll Over Picasso: Lee, Davis Still Rule Richmond
By Dave Shiflett(Bloomberg)— They don’t commemorate wars like they used to – or at least the Civil War, whose sesquicentennial observance is under way in Richmond, Va., capital of the doomed confederacy.
While the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum for Fine Arts dominates local headlines, the “war of northern aggression,” as some traditionalists call the bloody conflict, still rules much of the city’s cultural landscape.
Yet that landscape is definitely changing, says S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of The Museum of the Confederacy, which opened in 1896.
“The centennial of the war was largely about re-enactments of battles,” he says, while this year the emphasis is on how the war affected women, children and the 4 million blacks who lived in the South at wartime, 3.6 million of whom were slaves. In the same spirit a state tourism website refers to the sesquicentennial as the “150th Anniversary of the American Civil War and Emancipation.”
“It’s not just about white guys fighting,” adds Vickie R. Yates, head of the museum’s marketing and public relations department.
There are painful reminders of enslavement and privation in new domestic-themed exhibits, including displays of rough cloth woven by slaves.
Yet reminders of combat are never far away. There’s a dinner plate used by a Luray, Va. woman to bang a foraging union soldier over the head. “Put him out cold,” Yates says. There’s also a wartime textbook that includes this somewhat tendentious math problem: “If one Confederate soldier kills 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?”
The tonal shift, while subtle to a casual observer, is raising serious hackles in some quarters. Roger McCredie, executive director of the Southern Legal Resource Center, which identifies itself as “a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of citizens involved in Southern heritage issues,” writes in an email that “it is already painfully clear that the sesquicentennial is going to be the apogee of thirty years' worth of South-bashing.” He adds that the “only acceptable way for Southerners to mention their Confederate heritage this time around is through self abasement and abject apology.”
Rawls, who sports a bow tie and once worked for Chemical Bank in Manhattan, prefers to focus on the vast interest in the war, which stretches far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Twenty percent of museum visitors in January were from the UK, he says, and he smilingly recalls the day he was summoned to the museum’s front desk to meet a group of battle re-enactors from Stuttgart. “They said they have a hard time doing re-enactments in Germany,” he says, “because no one wants to play the part of the Yankees.”
You don’t have to be a re-enactor to be awed and sometimes amused by some of the museum’s exhibits, including one challenging the popular story (in the North) that confederate president Jefferson Davis was wearing a dress when captured by Union troops. There’s also a handkerchief stained with what is believed to be the blood of the mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson.
What would Stonewall think of the Picasso exhibit? “He probably would not attend,” Rawls responds.
There’s also the uniform Robert E. Lee wore while surrendering to U.S. Grant. Yates points out that while Lee stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, his boots are a petite size 5.
With the cocktail hour approaching, I was inspired to observe: “What, no flask?” According to Rawls, neither Jackson nor Lee were drinkers, quite unlike the victorious Gen. Grant.
Visitors sometimes rub shoulders with contemporary eminences, including Ken Burns, who used the museum artifacts in his sprawling Civil War documentary, and Stephen Spielberg, who visited the adjacent White House of the Confederacy in November, Yates says, doing prep work for an upcoming movie on Abraham Lincoln -- still considered a war criminal by some of the southern faithful.
While McCredie refers to Union troops as “an invading army” most southerners seem to have stacked their muskets long ago. Varina Davis, wife of the former CSA president, relocated to New York after her husband’s death, according to tour guide Dean Knight, and lived at the Hotel Gerard on W. 44th Street and wrote newspaper columns for Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World.”
Would Varina have gone to the Picasso exhibit? Yes, Rawls says, adding she was “thrilled to have Oscar Wilde” visit her post-war home. “But she probably wouldn’t have liked it.”
Review of 'The Girl in the Song' Featuring The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash
December 27, 2010
Dave Shiflett | from: AARP The Magazine | December 23, 2010
The guy with the guitar always gets the girl — or so goes the legend popular among aspiring rockers. Yet to judge by the tales related in The Girl in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics, it seems just as accurate to say that the girl with the pretty face (or similarly arresting attribute) always gets the guitarist.
In this compact collection of breezy profiles, veteran music writers Michael Heatley and Frank Hopkinson showcase the muses who inspired pop and rock’s top songwriting tier — the Beatles; the Rolling Stones; Eric Clapton; Bob Dylan; James Taylor; Elton John; Pink Floyd; U2; Crosby Stills Nash & Young — to produce their epic love songs (and, in a few cases, punishing put-downs). They also focus on hitmakers a few notches farther down the charts, including Counting Crows, the Knack, Toto, Steely Dan, Buddy Holly, Coldplay, Oasis, Billy Joel, and Leonard Cohen. Although most of the muses highlighted here were young, female, and fetching, a few were unique — and at least one appears not to have started life as a girl at all.
Perhaps no modern muse is more celebrated than Pattie Boyd, credited with inspiring memorable melodies by both George Harrison (her husband from 1966 to 1977) and Eric Clapton (her husband from 1979 to 1988). The stunning blonde and former convent girl also had deeply intimate knowledge of the romantically tangled and tragic lifestyles of many rock superstars.
The first time Boyd heard “Something” — the tune she says she inspired Harrison to write (though he would later say he was thinking of Ray Charles) — was in the couple’s house in Esher, England. Like many a show-business honeymoon, the Boyd-Harrison glow was fairly short-lived; Pattie eventually came to feel neglected by George, especially upon learning of his various flings (including one with Ringo Starr’s wife, Maureen). By 1970 Boyd was romantically linked to Clapton, whom she would prompt to pen “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” in her honor. Intriguingly, Pattie’s younger sister, Jenny Boyd, married two rockers — Mick Fleetwood (twice) and King Crimson drummer Ian Wallace — and is credited with inspiring Donovan’s lilting “Jennifer Juniper” (though Donovan himself maintained he and Jennie were never an item).
Heatley and Hopkinson unveil the gynocentric genesis of several iconic Beatles hits. “Dear Prudence,” we learn, was written in a bid to lure Mia Farrow’s younger sister away from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Prudence Farrow shared the band’s infatuation (in their case, brief) with the Maharishi, but John Lennon, according to the account here, had become concerned that she was “going insane” from too much meditation. What she needed was a customized song that would reel her back to the real world: “Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes?” Yet Prudence would later state she had “no recollection of being serenaded” by Lennon.
It was hardly the last time a Beatles muse would be less than floored by an air she had inspired. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” often thought to be an ode to LSD, was actually engendered by a drawing of Lucy O’Donnell, a friend of Lennon’s first son, Julian. Lucy — only 4 years old when Julian sketched her — would grow up to tell an interviewer that “I just don’t like [the song]. I don’t see a 4-year-old kid running around with kaleidoscopic eyes. It doesn’t make sense.” What the song did make was money, and plenty of it: By 2010 it had generated millions in royalties for Apple Records.
The girls in the songs were frequently members of the Rolling Stones coterie, too. “Hey Negrita,” for one, was sparked by Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca. She later made it clear that having a pop song written for you is no guarantor of marital bliss: “My marriage ended on my wedding day.” Another Stones standby, “Miss Amanda Jones,” reportedly honors one Amanda Lear — who, claims The Girl in the Song, may have undergone a sex-change operation in Casablanca in 1963, possibly paid for by surrealist Salvador Dalí.
The award for Most Inspiring Transgender Muse, however, must go to Candy Darling — born James Slattery — who is credited with inspiring the Kinks hit “Lola.” James-cum-Candy likewise inspirited the Velvet Underground to write “Candy Says” and Morrissey to compose “You Know I Couldn’t Last.” She even merited a mention in Lou Reed’s far-better-known “Walk on the Wild Side.”
As you may have gathered, the book abounds with muses unmoved by their enshrinement in song. Stephen Stills composed “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” hoping to recapture the heart of songstress Judy Collins, only to have her remark, “It was beautiful, so beautiful… too bad it’s not going to work.” By the same token, “Our House” — a celebration of his infatuation with Joni Mitchell by a hopelessly smitten Graham Nash — failed to persuade Mitchell to buy into the song’s vaunted connubial bliss; Mitchell broke it off with Nash in 1969. (Commerce reconstituted the ashes of love, however: A U.K. bank ultimately used the song in a mortgage commercial.)
It’s nice to be celebrated in a song, sure, but some muses rightfully wound up feeling exploited. Take Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto: The real-life “girl from Ipanema” was just 15 years old when her extreme pulchritude spurred Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes to compose the bossa-nova anthem that brought her worldwide fame — and not a single centavo in royalties. When Heloísa later opened a boutique called “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), the heirs of the song composers sued, claiming a trademark violation. But Heloísa stood her ground. “They want to prohibit me from being the girl from Ipanema,” she commonsensically pointed out, “which is really going too far.”
The judge agreed, calling to mind another pop classic: “You Don’t Own Me.”
Review of Carrie Fisher's 'Wishful Drinking'
December 10, 2010
Review by Dave Shiflett
Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow we may all land in detox.
So we are hysterically reminded in
Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking,” which airs on HBO Sunday night at 9 p.m. New York time.
Fisher, perhaps best known as Princess Leia in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” and as one-time wife of Paul Simon, lays out her credentials early on in this rollicking 90-minute special.
She’s an alcoholic and a drug addict as well, working in a nice spin on the old Karl Marx chestnut regarding religion and opiates: “I took masses of opiates religiously.”
She also comes from a fabled but somewhat non-traditional family, which included late father Eddie Fisher, whom she calls “puff daddy” because he smoked “five joints a day” and brought his drug dealer to one of her performances.
Fisher has also been immortalized as a PEZ dispenser, an inflatable sex doll ($800 a copy, she says) and as a textbook example of a manic-depressive.
She’s both salty and sweet and near impossible not to like.
The one-woman show, filmed before a live audience, has many hilarious moments, including a discussion of having a friend die in her bed – a Republican lobbyist, no less. An audience member asks, in this very audience-interactive program, if she was naked at the time.
“I haven’t been naked in fifteen years,” she responds, or “sleeveless in twenty.” Fisher also cracks that she once Googled herself and found this posting: “She used to be so hot. Now she looks like Elton John.”
Ah, humility. How rare and refreshing, especially considering that, as she reminds with an old publicity photo from her Star Wars days, she was once out-and-out gorgeous.
The show, which Fisher wrote, is not an exercise in blame shifting, though her recollections of mother Debbie Reynolds’ various eccentricities and a segment on the “incestuous” nature of Hollywood, which includes mocking descriptions of her father’s multiple marriages, could help explain, in part of least, why she’s been around the bend a few times.
She tells a tale of a child who grew up in a “storybook” family who eventually discovered that the stuff so many dreams are made of – especially celebrity – is often quite hollow and unstable.
Sure, her dad was also married to Elizabeth Taylor, but then Liz dumped him the second she laid eyes on Richard Burton. He followed Liz with Connie Stevens and later a former Miss Louisiana, but these marriages failed and he ended up having so many facelifts he looked “asian.”
In the same spirit her mother was an authentic movie legend and the embodiment of purity in her portrayal of Tammy, yet she married poorly as well though wanted daughter Carrie to father a child by one of her husbands, in part because she liked his eyes.
Mom, in a weirdly endearing way, believed her daughter could be artificially inseminated by injecting sperm into her arm.
After hearing all this, most viewers will have little trouble agreeing with Fisher than despite all the fairy dust her family is “blue blooded white trash” and one, she adds, whose celebrity has faded. In perhaps her most poignant aside, she notes that celebrity is merely “obscurity biding its time.”
All told Fisher shows a depth of humor, humility and wisdom that can only come from acute suffering. The other great thing about her is that she’s clearly not trying to bamboozle us into thinking she’s some sort of role model.
She ends her performance by being carried out of the theater on a gurney and slid into an ambulance, having left her audience with this sage advice: “Cry all you want, you’ll pee less.”
In this season of often-forced mirth, Carrie Fisher offers some hard-won comfort and something approaching joy.
Review of 'Lennon Naked' Airing in PBS Nov. 21
November 18, 2010
By Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg) – Being a Beatle bugged John Lennon almost as much as being the son of a wayward drunk.
He had issues with his mother as well according to “Lennon Naked,” which airs on PBS Sunday night at 9 p.m. New York time, along with wife Cynthia and the bearded and babbling Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The only person that seems to have made him happy was Yoko Ono, which made him none too popular with almost everyone else in his life, including his band mates and a snarling mother-in-law.
Few days in Lennon’s life were blissful, if this 90-minute drama is to be believed.
Christopher Eccleston stars as the rock icon. He’s not quite a dead ringer – especially his sizable beak -- though with his Jesus hair and wire-rimmed glasses he’s close enough.
The film opens with Lennon and manager Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear) motoring to a hotel where they meet Lennon’s father, Freddie (Christopher Fairbank), who vamoosed when Lennon was six and hadn’t made contact in 17 years.
He’s a booze hound with a fondness for scotch and, soon enough, a 19-year-old girl, the latter which impresses John, who sets the old man and his babe up in a house. Yet his bitterness toward his father rages throughout the film, which purports to be “based on real events.”
Eccleston’s portrayal of a Lennon as a tormented product of a dissolved home is powerful. Though he would become one of the world’s predominant peace activists he is rarely at peace with himself.
In a pivotal scene he tells his “primal scream” therapist of being forced to choose between his mother and his father during a tense seaside meeting. He initially chose dad, then ran to mom, who took him off and farmed him out to an aunt. The sense of abandonment haunted him ever after.
Yet Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori) did bring some relief. For Lennon it was close to love at first site: He sees her sitting there in an art studio, decked out in her underwear. Soon enough, he sends for her and the rest is history.
They get naked a few times in the film though not in a way to get anyone’s sap rising. In one bare-butted scene Yoko sports enough ballast to keep a medium-sized schooner aloft in a stiff wind.
She’s also given to arcane musings, saying she’s “just thinking about acorns” and that “John and I want to change the world.” Yet she comes across as a sympathetic character, especially after losing a child and getting a perpetually cold shoulder from the other Beatles, who are not even close to dead ringers.
Anyone looking for a Beatle recharge will find the film a bummer. Indeed, Lennon calls much of the Beatle’s music “bollocks” and sneeringly refers to the band as “the nation’s little pets.”
There are funny scenes, including Lennon’s meet-up with his mother-in-law during his divorce proceedings. The old bat calls him “a lying little drug addict” and “a sex maniac, just like his mother.”
Yet the real parallel is with his father, who had left him just as Lennon eventually left son Julian and moved to New York, where he was murdered in 1980. Though a symbol of personal and artistic freedom he comes across here as yet another man deeply and sadly ensnared by his past.
"Wartorn" -- James Gandolfini's New Film on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
November 14, 2010
(Bloomberg) – James Gandolfini, who cracked plenty of skulls as Tony Soprano, visits the haunted minds of soldiers in “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” a powerful documentary airing on HBO Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. New York time.
There’s a special place for Gandolfini in the hearts of many military families. Despite their small numbers he has focused on issues that can make their lives hellish.
In his earlier “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq” Gandolfini interviewed hideously wounded veterans, reminding Americans -- and with any luck their representatives -- of the terrible cost of combat.
In this Veteran’s Day broadcast he traces the phenomenon now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which has long raged behind a cloak of silence that has yet to be fully stripped away.
The film opens with the case of Angelo Crapsey, a Civil War infantryman from Pennsylvania, who chronicled his own descent into madness – known then as “hysteria” of “melancholia” -- in a series of letters.
He went to war at 18 a hard charger, dismissing a sergeant who committed suicide and deserters as “cowards,” yet by the fall of 1863 he wrote that “I am clear off the hooks” and was discharged.
His sister noted he “looked wild” after his return home and had to be tied down to his bed. He committed suicide in August 1864. According to the film, after the war more than half the patients in mental wards were veterans.
Gandolfini, sporting a beard and a powerful girth, enjoyed good access for this project, including a sit-down in Baghdad with Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who believes “we’re much more aware” of stress-related problems in large part due to Vietnam.
“I think society changes over the years,” he says before correcting Gandolfini’s suggestion that 15 percent of veterans may suffer from PTSD. He says the number is closer to 30 percent.
Most of the time, however, Gandolfini stays out of the picture, preferring to let the horrors of war speak for themselves. He digs up searing combat footage I’ve never seen and offers several case studies of the PTSD’s devastating effects.
One of the saddest stories is that of Noah Pierce, who did two tours in Iraq, came home and committed suicide by holding his dog tags to a temple and shooting himself through the tags. His mother reads part of the 23-year-old’s suicide note: “Mom, I am so sorry…I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it is time to take mine.”
Gandolfini revisits the 1943 incident in which General George S. Patton slapped a soldier suffering from “combat fatigue,” as PTSD was known then, called him a “yellow son of a bitch” and ordered him back to combat. His views were standard issue, as reflected in a wartime film in which a clearly disturbed soldier is coolly berated for admitting “I can’t stand seeing people killed.”
Several World War II Veterans tell of personal and family dissolution they blame on PTSD. Al Maher, a former Army Air Corps lieutenant, became an abusive drunk and hasn’t spoken to his sons in 25 years. Watching these old men cry is heart-rending.
While progress is being made, the old viewpoint has not evaporated, the film indicates. Gandolfini interviews Army vice chief of staff Peter Chiarelli, who is attempting to “change attitudes towards PTSD and suicide in the army.”
Gandolfini asks is he is “meeting resistance.”
“You’re fighting a culture that really doesn’t believe in these things,” Chiarelli responds before arguing that you’re not a “weaker person because you see something that no human being should ever have to see” and develop problems.
The film says PTSD affects not only its immediate victims but has a wider societal impact. Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated veterans have screened positive for PTSD.
Gandolfini does good work here; perhaps he could someday turn his attention to the numbskulls who start wars.
Wall Street Journal Review of Manthropology and Is There Anything Good About Men? (pre-edited version)
October 26, 2010
By Dave Shiflett
Have men gone limp?
Totally so, according to “Manthropology,” in which author Peter McAllister argues that contemporary men are a faint shadow of their shaggy forebears.
Modern man, he declares in his first sentence, is “the worst man in history.” A thorough indictment, though not every reader will be convinced.
Mr. McAllister is an entertaining writer whose book is full of interesting information, especially regarding male-sponsored mayhem.
In a section on initiation rights, for example, he dismisses modern-day “blood pinning,” in which military insignia are jabbed into soldier’s chests, as minor league at best. The Sambian men of New Guinea, he notes, initiated their young by jamming cane splints up their nostrils, vines down their throats, and slitting their privates with bamboo blades.
Similarly, while we cringe at waterboarding, it’s pure affection compared to the 17th century Native American practice of not only scalping victims but “heaping hot coals onto their scalped heads.” Which in turn is nothing compared to the attentions lavished on an ancient Christian named Apphianus, who was racked for 24 hours, scourged so hard “his ribs and spine showed, and then had his feet soaked in oil and burned to stumps.”
On a vaster scale, Mr. McAllister writes that recent wars are comparatively wimpy. While World War II killed 3 percent of the world’s 1938 population, the 17th century’s Thirty Years War took out 30 percent of Germany’s people. Which was not all that impressive when compared to the brutality of Genghis Khan’s son Tolui, who killed nearly every inhabitant of Merv in Turkmenistan, then the world’s largest city: as many as 1.3 million were butchered. All told, Mr. McAllister writes, the Mongols killed as many as 60 million people during their 90 year reign. “Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he adds with something of a sneer, “succeeded in killing 14,602 people worldwide in 2005.”
All true enough, though by some readings Mr. McAllister is describing a positive development.
He also roughs up modern soldiers, noting that Army recruits are required to run only 12 miles in four hours compared to Wu Dynasty soldiers in the sixth-century BCE, who did 80 mile runs without a break. Then again, one scrawny grunt armed with a mini-gun could hold off all the ancient armies combined with one hand while downloading porn with the other. If the ultimate mission is to get the killing done, modern soldiers have plenty of the right stuff.
He also sees decline in the world sports. “Ultimate fighting,” Mr. McAllister writes, is “a ridiculously safe form of combat” when compared to Olympic boxing back in the good old days – 490s BCE – when a boxer named Cleomedes killed his opponent Iccus “by driving his hand into his stomach and disemboweling him.” Yet who misses that, or post-game revelries such as the 532 CE “victory” riot in Constantinople, led by charioteer Porphyrius, which claimed some 30,000 lives?
Roy E. Baumeister, another male writer, is not ready to lower the Y-chromosome to half-staff. In his feisty “Is There Anything Good About Men?” he argues that men have been “exploited” by the cultures they have created, which consider them much more “expendable” than women.
This is reflected not only in wartime casualty rates. While men tend to hold the highest levels of power in politics and business, they also die more often in work-related accidents, make up the bulk of the prison population and for the most part are supremely disadvantaged when it comes to sex.
Women, Mr. Baumeister writes, don’t pay for sex because “they don’t have to. Women can get sex for nothing. Men usually can’t.” He notes that when women offer themselves to male celebrities, men often jump at the opportunity. When men do the same to women celebrities, they might expect a visit from the security detail.
Mr. Baumeister, a professor of psychology, writes with a hopeful air, insisting that while men and women are different they are also able to create partnerships based on complementary skills and that men are willing to share power. And so merrily we’ll roll along, perhaps toward ever-better days.
Both books leave the impression, perhaps not intentionally, that while mistakes have been made things could be far worse. Mr. McAllister points out that rapper 50 Cent has composed some 6000 lines while Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” contain 27,803. While this is offered as proof that contemporary bards are no match for the ancients, aren’t 6000 lines of 50 Cent enough?
And, all told, aren’t men much better off these days?
Mr. McAllister answers the question at book’s end by envisioning a male Homo erectus from 1,000,000 BCE plucked off the African plain and plunked down at a NASCAR event. By his reading the visitor would be horrified by the wimpy moderns and bellow (if he could indeed speak) “My sons, my sons, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet there is an alternate view. If ancient erectus were told his “sons” had driven to the event at 70 miles per hour in cars outfitted with a televisions and satellite radios; that they lived in climate-controlled houses whose refrigerators are full of steaks from Argentina, sausages from Germany and wine from France (none of which comes with a side order of intestinal parasites); and if he knew they would bedding down with wives who smelled nothing like his missus, whose olfactory signature is frightfully close to that of a decomposing pig, then he’d likely bellow, “My sons, you have found the Kingdom of Heaven!”
And, comparatively speaking, he’d be right.
The Good Wife -- Second Season Is No Letdown
October 5, 2010
Review By Dave Shiflett
Oct. 5 (Bloomberg) - I’d hate to take on “The Good Wife.”
The series, which airs on CBS Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. New
York time, features a formidable cast that includes two of the
most compelling characters on television.
Julianna Margulies returns as Alicia Florrick, a defense
attorney so attractive -- sharp, slender, and beautiful -- I’d
consider committing a felony just to hang out with her.
Alan Cumming, who plays political operative Eli Gold, is so
slick and snaky it’s a miracle he doesn’t slide right out of his
Both characters, and the actors playing them, help put this
show in a class by itself.
Alicia, to be sure, has first-hand knowledge of the
criminal element in the person of her husband, Peter (Chris
Noth), the disgraced state’s attorney whose sex and corruption
scandal landed him in the jug. This season he’s free and back on
the campaign trail as yet another politico’s sex scandal
threatens to remind voters of Peter’s past indiscretions (with a
little reminding from his opponent).
While Peter wanted to steer clear of the low road, Eli knew
trouble was coming. This week it arrives big time in the form of
a television ad featuring a cheesy blonde purring about how
Peter wants tough sentences -- “the stiffer the better”
We’re reminded that in the dirty tricks department, Richard
Nixon has many rivals.
The series floats between the worlds of politics and the
law, with lawyers coming off better, largely thanks to Alicia.
She takes on tough cases, though not always on behalf of
sympathetic clients. In the opener she coached a self-defending
murder suspect deploying a “unicorn” defense -- the government
had set him up, he crazily argued -- and got him easy time,
despite believing he was guilty.
This week, she finds herself defending a sympathetic murder
suspect in a military court overseen by a female judge with all
the charm of a Claymore mine. “If I order you to be unbiased
will you be?” the judge asks a member of the court martial
panel, who readily assents that her wish is most definitely his
The case has several twists and turns and at the end you
want to give Alicia a big hug -- and maybe a big tip. As does
her mentor in the firm, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who carries
a serious torch for her and vice-versa. Will seems a bit mousy
and cold, but he sure beats Peter.
Lou Dobbs visits te firm, playing his bombastic self and
likely reminding many viewers they’re glad he’s a bit scarce
these days. Law partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) is
no fan either, though she rejects Lou’s idea that she can’t
provide good legal advice, reminding him that she also defends
He likes her reasoning, and perhaps her middle-aged good
looks, and they forge an alliance that may prove interesting.
Meantime, office investigator Kalinda Sharma, (Archie Panjabi)
fills the screen with her dark fatal eyes and ever-suspicious
There is serious trouble afoot in this seriously terrific
show. Peter seems determined to recapture his good wife’s heart,
or at least some of the adjoining real estate, and last week
launched a romantic surprise attack in a steamy bathroom scene.
Alicia seems in danger of slipping back into his clutches.
Here’s hoping she dumps the creep. Being too good a wife may be
her only flaw.
Review of Wallander II -- PBS Series
October 1, 2010
(Bloomberg) – Brooders rejoice. Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, perhaps the most melancholy man on television, is back on PBS starting Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. New York time.
Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) has plenty of reason to mope in “Faceless Killers,” the first of three episodes in “Wallander II.” The shows are based on the crime novels of Henning Mankell and hosted by Alan Cumming, the slithery political aide in “The Good Wife.”
He’s trying to solve the extremely grisly murder of an elderly Swedish couple that has inspired a hate group to target foreign workers, who are suspected of having carried out the gruesome deed.
His father (David Warner)_is in the grips of dementia and has taken to strolling the roadways in his pajamas, burning his furniture and beating his skull while screaming “Space!” He also pleads to his son, “For God’s sake don’t put me away,” as if he might take rumors of euthanasia quite seriously.
Meanwhile, daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) has taken up with a Syrian doctor, which appears to have incited a repressed strain of xenophobia in the deeply decent Wallander, who detests the anti-foreigner sentiment in his fellow Swedes.
Plus he’s living in the port town of Ystad, home to a fair number of psychos and, in the opening episode, murderous thugs who run the Tilt A Whirl at a traveling fair.
This first-rate drama is far different from your typical cop series, where most of the women are babes, the men tend to be glib cynics, and even the file clerks can dust a felon without remorse.
Wallander’s got no swagger, no wisecracks, and definitely no tan. He doesn’t waltz onto a crime scene but instead takes a preparatory deep breath as if he’s about to get himself a root canal. Bodies spook him as opposed to shows where the cops might use a dead man’s chest for an ashtray.
And he’s almost impossible not to like. Wallander’s without pretension or, it appears, an ironed shirt. He’s got stubble on his face, a mole under his lip, and hair he clearly combs twice a year, max. He appears to have last done a sit-up in the 1980s.
His heart is very much with the downtrodden, especially migrant workers, who are under the gun in the opener. One is shot dead in a field and after an explosion at a worker camp Wallander runs into a burning trailer to perform a heroic rescue – though it turns out he saves an inanimate object.
Perhaps there’s something symbolic there, as with other scenes featuring dead flies on a window sill and a roaming white stallion that doesn’t get to trot off into the Nordic sunset. There’s also lots of stark scenery and a musical score featuring lonely piano lines, all of which may put viewers in a Wallander frame of mind.
Yet he is a competent cop. “I am not interested in correctness” he declares, but only “the truth.” With the help of a tipster he discovers the elderly deaths may involve a mistress, a bastard son and lots of money.
He finally gets one of his men in a way that would make Dirty Hairy proud yet this sends him into a profoundly deep funk, even though if ever a thug deserved to die it was this one: a neo-nazi assassin who was working hard to kill Wallander.
You find yourself wondering if this conflicted cop should find another line of work, a thought that haunts Wallander as the series continues through October 17.
Think of him as Brother Grim with a badge, and a terrific show.
Washington Post Review of Nashville Chrome
September 18, 2010
Fame Is For Fools And Other Unfortunate People
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
256 Pages, $24
By Dave Shiflett
Fame is something you wish only for those at the very top of your enemies list, at least according to “Nashville Chrome,” a darkly engaging “reality-based” novel that might make you think twice before trying out for American Idol.
Rick Bass, an O. Henry award-winner, based the novel on the lives of siblings Maxine, Bonnie and Jim Ed Brown, whose peerless vocal harmonies, at least according to the novel, were much imitated but never matched, not even by the Beatles, who were mesmerized by the rustic trio.
So why don’t we remember the Browns? Their flame flickered and died in the early 1960s, which turned out to be a blessing to Bonnie and Jim Ed, though it was also Maxine’s undoing.
Bass, who spent five years working with the Browns on the project, launches the tale in Poplar Creek, Arkansas, where the family, though humble, lived a life of sometimes exemplary misfortune.
Father Floyd guzzled moonshine, caroused a bit and ran a sawmill that provided hard wages while relieving him of a few fingers. He also lost a leg in the timber trade, which he occasionally abandoned for the restaurant business. His wife Birdie was renowned for her pies and hard work, though their establishments were somewhat prone to burning to the ground.
Yet the sawmill was a conservatory of sorts for Maxine, Jim Ed and Bonnie, who early on revealed their musical precociousness by identifying exactly when a spinning saw blade had been properly tempered. Their precise ears informed their precise harmonies, which first caught the attention of parents and neighbors, then a predatory manager named Fabor Robinson, whose credo, Bass writes, held that while “a star might be born, a star would most assuredly not get paid.” Page 41.
There’s no downside these days to whipping music industry weasels and Bass lashes Fabor as a country music version of Fagin, who by comparison was actually a charming fellow.
Fabor was a parasite’s parasite, living large off the sweat of the Browns’ brows while showing them all the warmth of a wolverine. They were paid next to nothing and when they went broke touring he refused to send gas money, leaving them to wash dishes to make enough to get back home. The eventual falling out, however, was in response to a monstrously lecherous move on Bonnie, who had also caught the eye of the young and not-yet-jaded Elvis Presley.
The Browns rubbed shoulders with many greats – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, and eventually the Beatles, with whom they played a series of UK gigs. They also worked closely with Chet Atkins, the guitar god whom Bass says eventually discovered that “what he really loved doing was helping other musicians bring out the best in themselves.” PAGE 127> While there will be readers who consider Atkins’ “Nashville sound” sappy enough to make Mantovani blush, he’s pretty much the only guy wearing a white hat in this tale.
Elvis, meantime, is Exhibit A of how greatness and fame can corrode an otherwise charming momma’s boy.
They Browns knew him early on and for several years, at least according to this story, Elvis was a gentle soul who walked in their shadow. Yet he was a marked man who would eventually be transformed into “the bloated extrapolation of insatiable American appetite and surface showmanship,” PAGE 117 Brown writes. Even after becoming famous beyond earlier imagining he told the Browns “he was pretty sad most of the time.”
They largely escaped his fate. The act fell apart by the early 1960s; Bonnie met a doctor who every thing Elvis wasn’t – even deaf in one ear, which Maxine found scandalous. Jim Ed, after bedding hundreds of adoring babes, settled in on a singer and had a moderately successful solo career.
Poor Maxine, however, led a train wreck of a life. She married a philandering lawyer who eventually flew the coup, leaving her with a couple of kids. She retired to the deeper recesses of the bottle, spicing her morning coffee with rum as Jim Ed tried an intervention, though she eventually shook that demon.
The fame devil, however, did not go so easily. Maxine spent half a century desperately hoping to somehow launch a comeback. How desperate? She posted an ad on a Piggly Wiggly food store bulletin board seeking someone – anyone – who would make a movie about her life. Her ad was answered, albeit not by Tom Hanks, though the film project and its unlikely director provided something of a happy ending to her tale of woe.
The novel is fairly short but richly written. There are times, to be sure, when a reader hears a loud Faulknerian echo – but there are far greater sins. Bass can certainly leave you with an arresting mental image, including this one from Elvis’s funeral: The King, he writes, lay “in an open casket on ice, his insides baking, they said, decomposing faster than most normal people, falling apart, riven by violent internal chemistries, the simmerings of errant prescriptions and unsustainable excess.” Page 249.
Bass has clear sympathy for those whose fate is to haunt some A-list or another. “There is no right or wrong to greatness,” Bass writes, “there is only the forward movement of it, and those who possess the most of it are the least in control of it.” 201
Yet you’re left with the impression that the desire for fame might well be considered a form of mental illness. The next time you feel the urge to hire a publicist, you might be better off hiring an exorcist instead.
Bloomberg Review of HBO Crime Series 'Boardwalk Empire'
September 17, 2010
Review by Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg)— Fans of pin-striped, trash-talking thugs will find bliss in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which launches Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. New York time.
The 12-part series, created by Terence Winter of Sopranos fame and co-directed by Martin Scorsese, is set in 1920s Atlantic City as Prohibition rears its sober head.
Steve Buscemi stars as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, town treasurer, prime thug and a true eel of a man. He’s as comfortable telling a sob-story about eating rats to the weeping ladies of the Temperance Union (who come to life when another speaker hollers “Liquor, thy name’s delirium!”) as he is doing whiskey deals.
He goes around in a powder-blue Rolls Royce and dresses to match, though his pencil-sized neck sometimes gets lost in his collar. He and his similarly slick associates like to salt and pepper their bravado with the F-word, which by now is rapidly approaching cliché. The temperance ladies might think of them as dapper vulgarians.
Nucky is also an artesian well of shopworn expressions and lame jokes. “First rule of politics,” he tells an associate, is to “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Then there’s “How we gonna keep you down on the farm?” He may have a sharp tongue but he’s lugging around a pretty dull brain.
The series starts with the promise of a slaughter afoot but soon enters a sometimes slow-paced segment during which we meet the other principles, including Nucky’s brother and town sheriff Elias (Shea Whigham) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), a 22-year-old just home from World War I who says he killed plenty of Germans and soon retrains his sites on the local competition.
There’s also Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a mousy and pregnant temperance enthusiast who, in all fairness, has come to her passion honestly: her husband’s an abusive drunk. She visits Nucky in hopes he’ll give hubby a job, promising “I’ll name my child after you.” The boss man eventually arranges a job of sorts, but not the kind she was expecting.
The series features thug movie stalwarts Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), Al Capone (Stephen Graham) and a Caruso-loving Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), who eventually experiences a graphic act of cranial ventilation.
The opener is not excessively violent and sex is rare, though both pick up a bit as the series progresses. The first naked woman we see is a corpse in a funeral home. Later on Nucky has at it with a finely crafted floozy who invokes a rodeo theme, much to the city slicker’s chagrin.
When the blood finally flows it does so memorably, especially a scene featuring a shot-gun blast to an unfortunate head. The resulting goo pile may haunt some viewers.
There are arresting and sometimes disturbing period touches, including a black-faced brass band and a reverent appraisal of Henry Ford’s “The International Jew” plus some truly strange scenes, including a storefront window through which we watch nurses place infants in incubators and a boxing match between dwarfs who are instructed “no low blows!”
Though the opener sometimes drags a bit the series picks up steam as Nucky, who’s been a widower for seven years, takes a liking to the freshly widowed Margaret as Jimmy Darmody and Al Capone build their own empires. Meantime, prohibition agents led by the stern and righteous Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) try to close the net on Nucky and his fellow vice lords, sometimes employing thuggery that rivals that of the bad guys.
While “Boardwalk Empire” won’t likely cause many viewers to forget “The Sopranos” it’s strong enough to hook you. Here’s hoping Nucky ends up in an oil drum.
Review of HBO Documentary 'The Fence'
September 15, 2010
Review by Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg)— If idiocy were a capital crime, at least 73 percent of Congress would be facing the hangman.
That’s the percentage of legislators who supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which created one of the most stunning boondoggles in U.S. history, at least according to “The Fence (La Barda)” which airs on HBO Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. New York time.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) starts out with the fence’s major problem: there’s lots more hole than fence. While the U.S.-Mexican border stretches over 2000 miles, the fence only covers only 700.
In one of several “this can’t really be true” segments, a member of a “Minutemen” patrol tells Kennedy that if undocumented migrants don’t want to scale the fence where he’s being interviewed, all they need do is travel a mile to where the fence abruptly ends. Which is does, creating one of many huge gaps in the “protective” barrier.
Bill Odle, who owns a ranch in the area, says the fence is “not performing its function” though that depends on how you define function. To the 7000 construction workers, 350 engineers and 19 construction companies that built the barricade, at a cost of about $3 billion, the fence represents manna from Washington.
But it has spectacularly failed to serve its stated purposes, Kennedy says: to prevent terrorism and slow the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the U.S.
Kennedy, who narrates the film, interviews fence-jumpers, human smugglers known as coyotes, Border Patrol agents and members of various “Minutemen” groups, one of whom insists a “full blown invasion from the south” is underway that threatens to turn the U.S. into a “third world cesspool.”
“My gosh!” sputters Glen Beck in archived footage. “We better wake up soon!”
The need to sober up seems more like it.
Kennedy, who maintains a sense of humor throughout the film, says the construction of the fence did not represent the nation’s greatest engineering feat. Part of the stretch through New Mexico, for instance, was built six feet into Mexican territory and had to be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of millions.
While the fence has deterred wildlife from using traditional migration routes it is little more than a speed bump for many of the estimated 500,000 undocumented aliens who cross the border each year. Footage from cameras posted along the fence shows people scaling the obstacle with little trouble; in a truly hilarious scene a pickup truck roars up a ramp and flies over the barricade as if hellbent to make LA for the cocktail hour.
Kennedy adds that the drug trade has not been slowed, nor has the fence deterred any terrorist activity. Then again, she says, of the 29 acts of terrorism that have taken place on U.S. soil in the past 25 years, none of the perpetrators entered the U.S. from Mexico. It seems terrorists prefer jetting into New York to trekking across the blazing desert.
If the fence has had any effect it’s been to force people to cross the border in more remote desert areas. Kennedy says that has driven up the death rate, which now averages two people a day.
In 2010 the office of Homeland Security froze funding to the project, though maintenance costs over the next 25 years are estimated at $49 billion, according to the film.
“We don’t care about fences,” says one coyote. “We’ll just find another way to cross.” Maybe it’s time for a fresh trek to the drawing board.
<< Previous Page Next Page >>
Bloomberg Review of Spike Lee's New Documentary: 'If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise'
August 23, 2010
By Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg) -- The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brings has inspired the second coming of Spike Lee, who offers a fresh post-mortem of the disaster in “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” a sprawling two-part documentary premiering on HBO August 23 at 9 p.m. New York time.
Picking up where his 2006 documentary, “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts,” left off, the new film is exhaustive at four hours (the final segment airs in the same time slot August 24) yet enduringly interesting.
Lee mixes archived footage with hundreds of fresh interviews. While very dark at times he also finds many silver linings.
To residents such as Curtis Green the storm was a blessing. Green fled to Houston and met his future wife, an especially good catch he tells Lee (always off-camera) because she had not only a house but nice feet. “I have a foot fetish,” he sheepishly admits.
Others, such as Pastor R.C. Blakes, says he experienced a change in his “world view” when white, upper middle class Republicans “reached out in tangible ways” to poor blacks. “I’ve seen that,” he says with a degree of wonderment suggesting he’d just beheld a unicorn.
Yet for many Katrina left scars that may never heal. Lee includes footage of a young victim’s funeral; the wailing mother’s grief is unnerving. Other enduring problems include a ravaged school system, a high crime rate and a lack of affordable shelter. Public housing, says former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, was “atrocious before Katrina” but has been “worse after.” The same is true of mental health services for the city’s most desperate citizens.
Lee spends plenty of time revisiting the official response to the storm, including an interview with former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown.
Brown seems worried about the verdict of history, predicting a less than glowing obit in The New York Times. He lashes the Bush administration for wasting “five days” trying to decide how to respond to the emergency and says former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “didn’t know what he was doing.” One senses the obit writers will not be moved.
Not everyone complained about the response, especially Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, seen in footage bellowing that his constitutions “are not into victimhood” -- perhaps, according to the film, because they were in relatively deep clover.
Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco argues that Mississippi got just as much federal aid as Louisiana even though it suffered only 23 percent of the damage compared to Louisiana’s 75 percent.
The film detours to the January 2010 Haitian earthquake and credits the Obama administration with a rapid response. This segment offers the most gruesome footage in the premier: a large dump truck depositing a load of rotting corpses in a mass grave.
On a brighter note, Lee interviews Brad Pitt, who is spearheading a non-profit homebuilding project in New Orleans. Pitt, sporting a white hat, beard and sunglasses, says the effort, which has so far erected around 50 houses, has “exceeded my expectations” though only 38 percent of percent of the private homes have been rebuilt, according to the film.
The second night includes a detailed look at police misconduct in the wake of the storm and a blistering analysis of the British Petroleum Gulf oil spill.
Famed New Orleans musician Dr. John blames the spill on the “love of money” and says “everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.” George Bush and Dick Cheney are roasted by historian Douglas Brinkley for creating an anti-regulatory environment that set the stage for the disaster, while the Obama Administration is lashed for a somewhat lackluster response, even by Democratic strategist James Carville, who says President Franklin Roosevelt would have “jumped out of his wheelchair and run down there.” Brinkley warns the spill could become known as “Obama’s Katrina.”
At four hours, Lee’s latest is truly epic. All that’s missing is a plaque of locusts and a killer asteroid.