Without a trace of irony, fans of professional wrestling will converge on the City of Brotherly Love this weekend to watch their favorite bruisers pretend to pound each other into mincemeat.
WrestleMania XL—that’s “40” for the Roman-numeral impaired—promised to be an uptick from earlier wrestling extravaganzas. Both official genders will be represented, and in the spirit of wretched excess it includes a “tag team Philadelphia street fight.” One wonders if old-timers like the Iron Sheik (R.I.P.) are groaning in their celestial hammocks.


In 2005, Brad Balukjian set out to write a biography of the Iron Sheik, born Khosrow Vaziri, but pivoted when Vaziri, having detoured into crack-cocaine addiction, threatened to kill him. Mr. ­Balukjian then retreated to romance (which failed) and entomology, at which he excelled (he discovered 17 species of green flash bugs and is now a science professor). But in 2022 he decided to renew his quest and undertook a 12,525-mile road trip to see how the Iron Sheik and other combatants in the 1983 World Wrestling Federation championship were faring. (The championship was a precursor to the first WrestleMania, held in 1985.) The result is “The Six Pack: On the Open Road in Search of WrestleMania,” a lively and ­surprisingly poignant installment of cultural history.
The pro wrestlers of an earlier era, as Mr. Balukjian shows, were eager to bruise contemporary sensibilities. When the Iranian hostage crisis was still a sore subject, the Iron Sheik marched into the ring carrying “the flag of Ayatollah ­Khomeini.” His tag-team partner, Nikolai Volkoff (real name Josip Peruzovic), sang the Soviet national anthem to heat up Cold War audiences. Sgt. Slaughter (Bob Remus) wore an Iraqi uniform when Saddam Hussein was disturbing the peace. The crowds lapped it up. WrestleMania III, in 1987, drew more than 78,000 fans to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.
Yet as startling and phony as such theatrical achievements were—both Vaziri and Peruzovic, who escaped communism in 1968, were deeply patriotic—the wrestlers’ real lives are far more interesting. Vaziri, born in Iran in 1942, served as a bodyguard to Farah Pahlavi (the shah’s wife) before departing to America in 1969. He learned English with help from ­“Sesame Street.” In 1983, he won the championship with a strategic application of his trademark camel clutch hold. The Iron Sheik made more than $400,000 in 1984, his best year before going off the rails.
Mr. Balukjian finds a similar trajectory in Tony Atlas (Anthony White), who identified as a “Black hillbilly” from Low Moor, Va. His father claimed to have sired 36 children before meeting his mother, who ran him off with a pistol, though not before Tony arrived in 1954. Early life ­experiences included being speared in the back with a pitchfork (in a labor dispute). He was making $65 a week as a dishwasher when he went pro in 1975. His first week in the ring earned him $1,500. Yet by 1989 he was a dumpster-­diving addict.
Why the crash and burns? As Mr. Balukjian observes, drugs, alcohol, fluctuations in cash flow and prolific sex—a wrestler named the Junkyard Dog reportedly required groupies to pay for his favors—destabilized home life. Some wrestlers seemed captives of their ring personas. Sgt. Slaughter insisted he was a Vietnam veteran, even after the U.S. Navy said otherwise. Mr. Balukjian found an old pal of his who recalled that the sarge shipped out of high school not to Parris Island but to barber school.
And pro-wrestling fakery could take a toll. During ­WrestleMania VII, Hulk Hogan (Terry Bollea) augmented the drama of being beaned with a chair by slicing himself with a concealed razorblade, sending blood “pouring down the right side of his face,” as Mr. Balukjian writes. Observing the gory stunt, he adds, was WWF fan Donald Trump, destined to become a cultural conquistador in his own right.
For decades, the captain of this spacey ship was Vince McMahon—“P.T. Barnum on steroids,” Mr. Balukjian calls him, adding that Mr. McMahon’s early years were light on family stability (he alluded to parental sexual abuse) and indoor plumbing. Hard work and an aggressive personality (he had the jawbone of a Tyrannosaurus rex hanging over his desk) helped him create an enterprise now worth $8.3 billion. His can-do philosophy—“this country gives you ­opportunity if you want to take it so don’t blame your environment”—was eventually tarnished by employee lawsuits that forced a short-term retirement (with daughter Stephanie taking his place) and, after sex-trafficking allegations, a final exit. This year’s event is reported to be the first McMahon-free WrestleMania.
Other endings are happier. Hulk Hogan, who took a detour into involuntary pornography when shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge secretly filmed him having sex with the Sponge’s wife, won a lawsuit that refilled his coffers. Tony Atlas takes care of wife Monika (No. 4), who rescued him from dumpster hell and now lives in a nursing home. The Iron Sheik beat addiction and restored his marriage. He ­received a three-hour send-off after his 2023 death; Mr. ­McMahon didn’t attend, but he did send flowers.
Mr. Balukjian, an engaging chronicler, writes with an amused respect for these leaping lords of the ring. He tells us that pro wrestling, whose audience began expanding after World War I, has attracted fans of the highest pedigree. When asked what she would miss most about Washington, first lady Bess Truman replied: “wrestling on Thursday night.”
Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.

‘Like, Literally, Dude’ Review: Learning to Chill 

No need to, like, apologize for scattering one’s speech with words and phrases that, you know, signal an effort at ‘cognitive retrieval.’ 

By Dave Shiflett 

May 11, 2023 6:32 pm ET 


‘The tongue can no man tame,” saith the Good Book. Scripture doesn’t seem to be quoted nearly as often as it was in ages past, and of course no one says “saith” anymore. Such are the changes in language and culture over time, a subject dear to the pen of Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada, Reno. In “Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English,” she offers context, and a welcoming spirit, to the many contentious realignments in our language. 

The way humans wag their tongues, Ms. Fridland observes, has been in perpetual flux since tongues took to wagging. Expressions now common and widely accepted were once abominations, if not unto God, at least to the language police. No need to freak, she believes. To chill is divine. 

Ms. Fridland, a self-professed “sociolinguist,” writes with easygoing authority, sometimes deploying impressive syllable clusters to describe monosyllabic words most of us think little about, including “dude,” which in sociolinguist lingo is a “multifunctional sentential marker.” Not long ago, she explains, it was a term of derision (designating a “dandy” or a “fop”) but has been thoroughly refurbished and now reflects an “ethos of counterculture laid-back cool.” It has also “spread beyond gender lines” and become “unisex.” The legendary Lebowski, dude of cinematic dudes, would no doubt be impressed. 

“Like” receives similar scrutiny, including Ms. Fridland’s mention of a posting on a college advice site: “How to Stop Saying ‘Like’ and Immediately Sound Smarter.” She demurs. “Like” is properly seen as a “discourse marker” with long legs. “There is nothing that unique or concerning about it,” she writes, citing an Oxford English Dictionary citation from 1778. Caroline Kennedy, she adds, used another popular discourse marker—“you know”—138 times in an interview with the New York Times, which should greatly diminish any suggestion that Ms. Kennedy is not a highly accomplished practitioner of evolving English. 

 Ms. Fridland’s insistence that “there’s no ‘right’ way to speak English” may set traditionalist teeth to grinding. More than supposed errors in speech or writing, she deplores prescriptive judgmentalism. “Best efforts at eradicating what’s new and novel rarely do much more than spawn a flurry of headlines about the decline of English, only to be forgotten decades later once they have become de rigueur in even our own speech.” This tolerance extends to “um” and “hum,” often mistaken for signs of a flickering intellect that she calls “hesitation phenomena” found even in Shakespeare. These phenomena, um, simply signal that the speaker is “doing some pretty hefty cognitive retrieval” before unleashing a blast of possible profundity. Ergo, he (plus she, it and they) who hesitates is not necessarily lost. 

Innovation embracing aside, Ms. Fridland’s prose could teach the Chatbot plenty about standard usage. It brims with old-fashioned subject-verb agreement and avoids “alternative” spellings, though she would probably forgive such lapses in others. She even shies from spelling out the word known as the F-bomb, now a damp firecracker due to overuse. 

Ms. Fridland spices the story of English change with pop-culture references. “Like” was mainstreamed by unacknowledged linguists Frank Zappa and daughter Moon Unit in their 1982 song “Valley Girl.” Somewhat contentious is her view that much of the cinematic power in the courtroom comedy “My Cousin Vinny” (1992) arises from the contrast between Joe Pesci’s “working-class speech and street sensibilities” and the reserved demeanor of the film’s small-town Southerners. This analysis overlooks the scene-stealing performance by Marisa Tomei (Mona Lisa Vito), whose knowledge of independent rear suspensions not only saves the defendants from a trip to the Alabama crocodile pit but reminds us that some areas of human endeavor—though not language, in Ms. Fridland’s view—continue to demand unalterable precision. 

Ms. Fridland wears her politics lightly (for a professor) but does wade into the pronoun fracas, focusing on the use of “they” by individuals who feel that they don’t fit “within the boundaries imposed by ‘he’ or ‘she’ ” and who refuse “to play into traditional gender expectations.” She cites a similar evolution in the shift from “thou” to “you” (using a traditional plural when referring to one person). In general, she argues for calling people by the pronouns they desire. This counsel is far more civilized than the social and professional annihilation visited upon those who find novel usages troubling (or perhaps insane). This accommodation remains a work in progress. 

More settled is the change that inspired a 1902 letter to Punch magazine denouncing the dropping of the letter “g” from some words as “a disloyal crusade against the Queen’s English.” Ms. Fridland, who hails from Memphis and may have heard far more people singin’ than singing, detects formality and anxiety in the full -ing, which can communicate that “you’re an uptight, rule-following stick-in-the- mud.” Her position is illuminated in the difference between “Let’s go drinkin’ ” and “Sir, have you been drinking?” 

Adapt or perish is standard advice, and in that spirit Ms. Fridland offers a pleasant overview of linguistic dynamism. Yet one still assumes many interviewers will continue responding to brilliant displays of “multifunctional sentential markers” and “hesitation phenomena” with, like, a certain skepticism. One can almost hear the buzzards circling: “I wouldn’t hire this illiterate twerp if he was the last dude on earth.”

Just sayin’. 



The Creative Act’ Review: Inspiration Everywhere 

Creativity is not a rare ability but something available to all and fundamental to life. The entire universe is ready to cooperate. 

By Dave Shiflett 

Jan. 12, 2023 6:14 pm ET 

 While many of us strive to avoid the dangers of positive thinking, a consensus seems to be growing that a change in the national temperament would be welcome right about now. Dare we dream of a society free of malignant memes, craven cancellations and dramatic displays of puritanical fervor? 

Rick Rubin, the noted record producer once named one of the 100 most influential people on Earth (by Time magazine), offers an interesting alternative to internet bickering and similar modern maladies: creating art. While he isn’t pitching “The Creative Act: A Way of Being” as a guidebook for national rejuvenation, his relentlessly positive message may help readers shed a few blood-pressure points and possibly suspend plans to jump off the nearest cliff. 

Mr. Rubin starts on a high note, insisting that all of us have a creative streak. “Creativity is not a rare ability,” he writes, but a “fundamental aspect of being human.” Better yet, the entire universe is ready to cooperate in our artistic endeavors. All one need do is tap into the Source—the endless supply of creative energy and cosmic “data” that we can absorb and convert into whatever art floats our boat. The possibilities can range from composing a musical or literary masterpiece to cooking a virtuosic Philadelphia cheesesteak or even designing a space shuttle, something Mr. Rubin sees as a work of art as much as science. 

Harvesting this magical data can be a blissful process. Forests and quiet seascapes “are fine locations to receive direct transmissions from the universe,” he advises. He also offers tips on expanding awareness, including “looking at sunlight before screenlight,” taking a cold shower, and opening a book “to a random page and reading the first line your eyes find”—a strategy well known to desperate motel-room perusers of Gideon’s Bible. 

 Mr. Rubin, a majestically bearded man who seems to have avoided the Keto craze, has guided many artists toward glory, including Adele, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath and the artist once known as Kanye (in his pre-Hitler period). All told, he’s won nine Grammy Awards. Yet he’s a gentle soul, without a trace of the drill sergeant. “Do what you can with what you have,” he counsels. “Nothing more is needed.” For those who fear failure, he reminds us that the Leaning Tower of Pisa was an “error.” Indeed, when a work “has five mistakes,” he says, “it’s not yet completed. When it has eight mistakes, it might be.” He sings a similar song to readers who might not have excelled in STEM classes: “The world of reason can be narrow and filled with dead ends,” while for spiritual truths “no proof is needed.” 

 While perpetual grousers might accuse Mr. Rubin of groping for progressive profundity, much of his thinking will appeal to traditionalist ears. Those who consume classic literature every day instead of journalism will “have a more honed sensitivity for recognizing greatness from the books than from the media.” He writes that “discipline and freedom . . . are partners,” and he is no fan of the tendency to romanticize addictions. Readers exhausted with preachy celebrities will be deeply pleased by his advice to avoid infatuation with political sermonizing. People who believe in socially responsible art, he writes, don’t have “a clear understanding of the function of art,” adding: “Wanting to change people’s minds about an issue or have an effect on society may interfere with the quality and purity of the work.” 

The artistic life isn’t always easy, of course, especially for those in pursuit of fame, fortune and perhaps the occasional groupie. The chances of selling an on-spec screenplay are frightfully close to zero. New novelists (and plenty of published ones) routinely discover that, though there are thousands of literary agents, few to none of them seem interested in responding to authorial queries. A hope-blinded composer might spend tortured months, if not years, on a symphonic work that garners all of five hits on YouTube. 

Mr. Rubin has this covered: Commercial success is “a poor barometer” of a project’s worth, he argues, and often depends on whom you know, the “mood of the culture,” having the good fortune to choose a release date that happens to be a slow news day, or other nonartistic factors. His bottom line: “You are the only audience that matters.” 

Mr. Rubin tosses in some interesting tidbits, telling us that Charles Dickens carried a compass to make sure that he always slept facing North, which he believed kept him in creative alignment with the Earth’s electrical energy. The lyrics to the hit song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” were written by a man (Gerry Goffin). But his greatest gift may be what he leaves out: all traces of the political caterwauling that pollutes every aspect of contemporary life. The exclusion is almost jarring. It’s as if he’s from outer space. 

He’s also an easy read, with some pages containing single points to ponder, such as: “The universe never explains why.” Or: “We are dealing in a magic realm. Nobody knows why or how it works.” A bit gauzy perhaps, yet far preferable to yet another Twitter twerp declaring the only acceptable pronoun to use when addressing a spayed cat. As such, “The Creative Act” can be considered a work of transcendent literature, one that suggests the universe still smiles upon us despite all indications to the contrary.

Wall Street Journal Review: Peter Shapiro's 'The Music Never Stops'  

‘The Music Never Stops’ Review: It’s Always Show Time 

Peter Shapiro watched U2’s frontman eat a salad with his bare hands and Bill Murray sweep up backstage after a Grateful Dead show. 

 By Dave Shiflett 

Sept. 1, 2022 6:12 pm ET 

 The reopening of America’s concert halls sparks unsolicited memories. My own include my first Grateful Dead show—on Sept. 11, 1973, in Williamsburg, Va. Tickets ran from $4 to $6, and social distancing was a trip too weird to contemplate. Also in the audience at that show, it turns out, was a teenage Bruce Hornsby, the nimble pianist who would later perform some 100 concerts with the Grateful Dead, including a string of 50th-anniversary performances in July 2015 billed as the band’s “farewell.” 

In “The Music Never Stops,” we learn that Peter Shapiro was the promotional mastermind behind those 2015 performances. He mentions that general-admission tickets for the Dead’s farewell tour peaked at $199.50. (At the time Billboard reported that, on the secondary market, some were going for a nifty $116,000.) The tickets sold briskly despite the absence of legendary bandleader Jerry Garcia, who had died in 1995. Devoted fans attributed the appearance of a rainbow at one performance to Garcia’s postmortem machinations, while others credited Mr. Shapiro, though he assures us that conjuring rainbows isn’t in his skill set. 

But he does take pride in having promoted 10,000 (and counting) performances by acts as varied as the Disco Biscuits, Jono Manson (of Joey Miserable and the Worms), U2, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan and several surviving Grateful Dead members. For his memoir, he focuses on 50 of these events, offering an entertaining and often amusing look into the music business and a portrait of his own busy, entrepreneurial life. 

Mr. Shapiro developed his promotional chops following his 1997 purchase of Wetlands Preserve, a New York City music venue that doubled as a political activism center. It could also do a fair imitation of a money pit: One lightly attended show featuring former Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin lost Mr. Shapiro, he says, “ten percent of my bank account.” He rallied and showed a knack for improvising that echoed the experimentation of his favorite musicians. One of his innovations combined live music with bowling; another paired the work of celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, with acts such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His annual Lockn’ Festival in rural Virginia remains a warm home for bands dedicated to keeping alive the San Francisco vibe despite the sometimes discordant accompaniment of gathering years. 

Mr. Shapiro (with assistance from co-author Dean Budnick) comes across as a mellow fellow with a story to charm even those who might prefer Wayne Newton to crooners with more psychedelic predilections. Alongside the famous and semi-famous, his world is populated by bands named Jiggle the Handle, the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong. Acts of nearly supernatural kindness are also fairly common, as when Mr. Shapiro bought tequila shots for 600 customers to celebrate the opening of a concert series. He arranged a benefit show for a regular customer who had suffered cosmic-level bad luck: He “was asleep in a hotel in Portland, Oregon, when an errant taxi crashed into his room and ran him over.” 

Along the way Mr. Shapiro has watched U2 frontman and international publicity hound Bono eat a salad with his bare hands and Bill Murray sweep up backstage after a Dead farewell show. In the guest book at his Capitol Theatre (in Port Chester, N.Y.), he finds a new way of posing the “does size matter?” question: “I think Brian Wilson’s signature was the smallest while Bob Dylan’s was the largest—make of that whatever you will.” Those given to pondering what musicians think about while performing may find illumination in guitarist Bob Weir’s post-gig comment: “Did you see the University of Georgia flag out there? Nice flag.” 

While Mr. Shapiro often swims in heterodox currents, he has a deeply traditional streak. “Getting married helped me to toe the line,” he writes, “and what really helped was being a parent.” He goes out of his way to be an involved father—sometimes way out of the way. He mentions working Friday and Saturday in London, flying to Las Vegas Saturday night and departing Sunday midnight on the red-eye to New York to ensure that he arrives in time to drive his children to school on Monday morning. 

His business ethic might also serve as a guide to evolving entrepreneurs. “There’s a quote I really like: ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get.’ ” Similarly, “You can do it fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. You can do it fast and good, but it won’t be cheap.” He illustrates a part of this maxim with a vignette about booking former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant for a midnight-club appearance. After handing Mr. Plant a paper bag containing $50,000, he said he’d give him an additional $50,000 when he played the show. Mr. Plant’s response: “Is there any paperwork?” “Nope.” Mission accomplished. Mr. Shapiro cites the noted folk philosopher B.B. King: “If you really want something, you bring cash.” 

Some of the advice may strike a sour note. “The decision to return home after college had enabled me to avoid paying living expenses and keep my options open. I encourage interns to do the same, whenever possible.” Should his own children move into his basement for an extended bout of post-graduate chilling, perhaps he’ll rethink that position. 

For now, Mr. Shapiro keeps on trucking. After doctors discovered a potential widowmaker heart attack waiting in his wings, he throttled back on booze and steaks. But his talent for innovation is undimmed, including hopes of teaming up with legendary Vegas crooner Wayne Newton, known to perform in a tuxedo and eat his salads with a fork. 

 Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 

Appeared in the September 2, 2022, print edition as 'It’s Always Show Time'. 


Wall Street Journal Reviews  


‘Funny Business’ Review: How Great Thou, Art 

Art Buchwald wrote a thrice-weekly column on D.C. absurdities. He’d bang it out in an hour, run the jokes by an assistant and then head to Sans Souci. 


By Dave Shiflett 

June 9, 2022 6:08 pm ET 


The world is thick with commentators who are indistinguishable, in their pretensions to glamour and wisdom, from the political knaves that inspire their furious discourse. The late and legendary Art Buchwald (1925-2007), the subject of Michael Hill’s admiring biography, “Funny Business,” was cut from a different cloth. Short and a bit of a pudge, he primarily wrote satirical newspaper columns. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, though he parked seven or eight cigars there most days. His praises are well worth singing. 

Mr. Hill, a historical researcher who has worked with a wide range of luminaries, including John McCain, Walter Mondale and Ken Burns, begins with Buchwald’s recollection of his rough start. “Soon after I was born, my mother was confined to a mental institution, where she remained for thirty-five years. With my three sisters, I was placed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York, and then boarded out with foster parents . . . in eight different kinds of homes with God knows how many strangers.” His father too was mostly a stranger. 

Yet Buchwald had big dreams. He joined the Marines at 17, seeing action in the Marshall Islands during World War II, then used the GI Bill at the University of Southern California and for a study program that took him to Paris. “I wanted to stuff myself with baguettes and snails, fill my pillow with rejection slips, and find a French girl named Mimi who believed that I was the greatest writer in the world.” 

A job would be necessary to finance this vision, and readers experiencing a stall in their professional life may find inspiration in Buchwald’s job-seeking technique. Though he was without contacts or credentials and could hardly write a lick, he approached an editor at the International Herald Tribune with a column idea. The initial response had an air of finality: “Get the hell out of here!” Unbowed, Buchwald waited for the nay-sayer to go on vacation, then told his stand-in that the initial meeting had gone swimmingly. “Paris After Dark” was launched. From such humble beginnings Buchwald’s later columns would eventually be syndicated to 550 papers in 100 countries. 

 Paris, Mr. Hill writes, was Oz for Buchwald. His star rose, and he made lots of A-list friends and admirers, including Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Peter Ustinov, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. He married, adopted three children and eventually followed a new dream: moving in 1962 to Washington, D.C., a land of fat satirical targets. 

Buchwald sweated little blood while writing his thrice-weekly column. He typically knocked off the 600-word pieces in less than an hour, ran the jokes by an assistant, then headed to Sans Souci, where he might rub feedbags with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. He enjoyed friendships with a vast array of rainmakers, including several Kennedys. 

Was he too much an insider to afflict the powerful? Buchwald didn’t think so. “I’ve always been against the establishment, whatever it is, and I think most humorists should be against the establishment, whoever is in power.” His willingness to ruffle at least some official feathers was affirmed six years after his death, when it was disclosed that the National Security Agency had been ordered to conduct secret surveillance of Buchwald in the 1960s, due to columns ridiculing LBJ’s Vietnam policies. 

How funny was Buchwald? More than a few readers, encountering his columns in the Washington Post in the 1980s and 1990s, might say: not enough. Or perhaps readers found them increasingly lame and tame. But Christopher Buckley calls him “the funniest human being on earth” in a glowing introduction, and while some Buchwald quotations presented by Mr. Hill may seem a bit flat, he could pull off a good line. “Frankly, I did so poorly in science I still don’t know how to make a hydrogen bomb,” he admitted in artful self-deprecation, though he did better in the humanities: “You can’t learn from history, unless you rewrite it.” In an imaginary letter to Soviet chieftain Mikhail Gorbachev about a treaty to dismantle nuclear missiles, he asked: “Where are you going to bury the warheads? If you haven’t decided yet, may I put in a good word for Cleveland?” 

Mr. Hill tells us that Buchwald harvested plenty of bucks, both from his column (and column collections) and from the lecture circuit. By the late 1970s, his annual salary was around $2 million in today’s dollars. He also won a Pulitzer, penned a Broadway play (panned in Washington) and successfully sued Paramount for swiping his and a co-writer’s movie idea that became Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” (1988). 

There was a dark lining to his golden cloud, including hospitalization for depression and the collapse of his marriage. In 2003, Mr. Hill writes, Buchwald told his readers that the Herald Tribune, “the paper that had been part of his life for nearly fifty-three years, would no longer run his column.” 

Two years later, when he was 79, vascular distress forced the amputation of his lower right leg. Yet his sense of humor didn’t desert him. Death came on Jan. 17, 2007, preceded by a request that his ashes “be spilled over every Trump building in New York”—a complimentary fairy dusting of sorts. A friend planning a hospital visit received, also free of charge, an aphorism for the ages: “Dying is easy. Parking is impossible.” 

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Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 

Appeared in the June 10, 2022, print edition as 'How Great Thou, Art'.

Appreciation: P.J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022 


P.J. O’ROURKE IN 2007. 


By Dave Shiflett 

Feb. 18, 2022 11:28 am ET 



The world seems ragged these days—roiled by viruses, inflation, rampaging woke folk, omnipresent smartphone zombies and a ruling class that makes romantic types pine for the good old guillotine. The good news is that history has provided sages who have beheld the grim and gruesome and have somehow come through with a smile—or at least a smirk—on their faces. Among them is P.J. O’Rourke, who died this week at the age of 74. He now belongs to the ages—which are no doubt happy to have him. 

O’Rourke didn’t have an easy childhood. “My own family was poor when I was a kid,” he once recalled, “though I didn’t know it. I just thought we were broke. . . . What we managed to escape in 1966 in Squareville, Ohio, was not poverty. We had that. What we managed to escape was help.” 

He went on to prosper in a major way, writing for National Lampoon, Car & Driver, the American Spectator, Playboy and (especially) Rolling Stone. He wrote roughly 20 books, including “Modern Manners” (1983), “Republican Party Reptile” (1987), “Parliament of Whores” (1991), “Eat the Rich” (1998) and “Peace Kills” (2004). 

New readers will want to start with “Thrown Under the Omnibus” (2015), a delightful collection of his work and a constant reminder that O’Rourke was a high deacon in the Church of Mirth with a talent for upsetting all the right people. He happily provided tips on how to drive while drugged and possum-eyed drunk while engaging a female companion—one of the many valuable insights found in “Republican Party Reptile,” which assured right-leaners that they need not be bound by the rules they might have picked up in the Revival Tent. 

 “Parliament of Whores” aptly described Congress as a place where non-cinematic Mr. Smiths don’t stand a chance. “How did an allegedly free people spawn a vast, rampant cuttlefish of dominion with its tentacles in every orifice of the body politic?” he wonders. O’Rourke’s commendable cynicism enlightened a multitude of readers, including a young Greg Gutfeld: “He could step back and see the big picture: that the back-and-forth between political parties was simply a time-consuming activity while both sides made money off the rest of us. . . . He reminded us that none of these people we saw in politics or on TV were very smart. You aren’t the idiot; they are.” 

O’Rourke wrote some unforgettable magazine pieces. One of the most striking, which appeared in Harper’s in 1982, followed his infiltration of a “peace” cruise down the Volga River. (He had seen the adventure advertised in the Nation magazine.) These were the good old days, at the run-up to the reign of KGB thug Yuri Andropov, who was too modest to pose shirtless but whose Soviet Gulag, by some estimates, would house five million guests. O’Rourke considered socialism “a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck” and didn’t feel much at home with his fellow travelers either. 

One peacenik, he reported, radiated “not the kind of ugliness that’s an accident of birth but the kind that is the result of years of ill temper, pique, and petty malice. These had given a rattish, shrewish, leaf-nosed-bat quality to her face.” His investigative skills uncovered another telling datum: His shipmates “were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.” 

O’Rourke reported from more than 40 countries over the course of his career and was often horrified by what he found. Many of his foreign-correspondent dispatches—often from war zones but not always—are found in “Holidays in Hell” (1988), “Give War a Chance” (1992) and “Peace Kills” (2004). He covered the invasion of Iraq, where his traveling companion, Atlantic editor Michael Kelly, was killed in an accident during the assault on the Baghdad airport. His eye was ever sharp: Kuwait City is “Houston without beer,” while suicide bombers in Afghanistan, a guide tells him, usually attack at morning because “it’s a hot country and the explosive vests are thick and heavy.” 

Yet he also found signs of progress during his travels. In Albania, post-communist entrepreneurs raised their game to awe-inspiring levels: “The National Commercial Bank in the city of Gjirokaster was robbed with a tank.” 

But it was mostly the American scene that captured his interest. He loved nothing more than tying a deserving politician to his bumper and taking him for a spin. He also closely identified with ordinary Americans. “We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them together, and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars.” 

He was proudly (or perhaps defiantly) conservative, even declaring the Almighty a Republican, though this didn’t mean all Republicans were worthy of adoration. So appalled was he by Donald Trump that he announced his intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. 

O’Rourke was also a friend and mentor to young writers trying to make their way. Hannah Long, now an editor at HarperCollins, came under his wing while writing an early-career article for American Consequences, an online publication that he edited. “I was hovering on the threshold between the academic and the ‘real’ world,” she says, “and it felt magical to step across it with his blessing.” 

He gave his blessing to other deserving entities, advising us to “wield a heavy hand at the bar” and even describing the resonating pleasure of drinking a cocktail made of cobra blood during a visit to China. None of which likely endeared him to the Surgeon General. 

P.J. O’Rourke seemed prepared for that contingency. “Jesus said ‘love your enemies.’ He didn’t say not to have any.” 

—Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



By Nick Offerman  


Nick Offerman is a man of many talents: actor, woodworker, author, comedian and full-tilt moralizer when the wrong sort of American crosses his path, which seems to happen on a regular basis. 

In “Where the Deer and Antelope Play,” Mr. Offerman—best known as libertarian heartthrob Ron Swanson on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation”—wanders meadow, mountain, glacier and sheep farm in search of Mother Nature’s solace. He finds inspiration in the wisdom of contemporary nature scribe Wendell Berry and in the writings of the 19th-century conservationist John Muir, who, we are reminded, once penned a paean to the river gods: “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” 

Yet there is trouble in paradise, starting with a host of roadside pro-Jesus billboards in Montana that leave Mr. Offerman feeling “assaulted.” Additional ghouls await in Glacier National Park, where a crowd of chatty hikers “called to mind all of the ill-mannered people I’ve encountered hither and yon who absolutely give Americans a reputation for being loud, rude, and stupid.” He is haunted by other Americans, albeit dead ones, who acquired the parkland from Native Americans the old-fashioned way: at gunpoint. 

Some readers may detect a slight whiff of smugness, and as the pages turn (there are more than 300 of them) they may soon conclude that Mr. Offerman can be far more political than pastoral. He vigorously lashes the infidels, including Brett Kavanaugh, Kit Carson, the country singer Lee Greenwood, Donald Trump and Trump’s red-capped followers. No one detonates his dander quicker than Trumpsters, including a small band of them he encounters displaying DT flags in the wilds of Arizona: “No matter what those people were telling themselves about their stance and their values, for those of us opposed to that candidate and what has slavishly become his party, their flag was little different from a Klan hood.” He is not much kinder to people generally espousing “conservative” politics, defined as “a polite term for discriminatory culture.” It seems a large portion of the U.S. population sets his teeth to grinding. 

 Yet at other times he’s a font of nondenominational wisdom. He suggests “woodshop and welding and baking and sewing and so forth should be taught in our public schools as imperative parts of the curriculum of life.” He would like to see us all learn to seek “acceptable levels of risk” as Covid recedes in order to “reclaim our individual powers.” Additionally, “it would do our society a world of good were we made to participate in a hunt,” to better understand the relationship between ourselves and our food. In the same spirit, he writes: “If we were all made to participate in the raising and subsequent butchering of a farm animal, it would quickly foment a massive shift in our national agricultural policies,” toward less wasteful and healthier food production. 


Not that all Mr. Offerman’s lashes fall on the backs of political adversaries. He engages in gentle self-flagellation, confessing to white privilege and even calling himself a “racist” due to environmental factors: “We exist in a world, a framework, that was constructed by, and for the benefit of, white people.” More than once he calls himself “ignorant,” perhaps affirming that self-effacement can be the sincerest (and subtlest) form of flattery. 

Mr. Offerman’s more pointed observations may inspire personal reflections. His bashing of Trump supporters, for me, brought to mind my aged mother (93), a Trump voter who spent many years teaching in predominantly black public schools, to the great benefit of her charges. No Klan hat for her. One assumes that if Mr. Offerman could claim similar real-world efforts on behalf of the dispossessed he would have shared every heroic moment of them. 

In the spirit of seasonal generosity, we can surely agree with Mr. Offerman that we live in a contentious world. Even John Muir and John James Audubon are in the woke doghouse, and it can’t be long before Mother Nature is also brought up on charges, perhaps for allowing the evolution of Republicans. A book without a bit of socially conscious moral flashing, condescension, smugness and the denunciation of sinners would feel out of step. It might even be totally ignored. 

Luckily, Mr. Offerman leaves us with a few literary memories, like this one: “When you have no electricity and it’s night in the desert, look up. Holy Gila monster, the Milky Way was like a vast, psychedelic puddle of sparkling galactic vomit, to make a figure of speech.” Yet his suggested rewrite of the chorus to “God Bless the U.S.A.”—changing it to “I’m proud to be a white straight American”—is both clunky and forgetful of the fact that most people have a hard time reading when they’re rolling their eyes. 

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



‘The Deadline Effect’ Review: Countdown to Zero Hour 


July 29, 2021 6:19 pm ET 

Those who reside in the rustic belt often marvel when squirrels, possums and other quadrupeds wait until cars are right on them before commencing a mad dash across the road. Miscalculations result in an unpleasantly memorable squash, perhaps followed by the driver’s gratitude for being positioned higher up the Great Chain of Being. 

Yet humans are also known to wait until the last minute to tackle whatever task is at hand. While miscalculations rarely reduce us to roadkill, they can have negative consequences. The good news, according to Christopher Cox in “The Deadline Effect,” is that we can make deadlines work for us instead of the other way around. 

Mr. Cox, a longtime editor and writer, explains that the deadline was “originally the line on a printing press beyond which no type could be set”; during the Civil War, the “dead-line” was a boundary surrounding the stockade, “outside of which any prisoner would be shot.” Like nooses, deadlines can concentrate the mind. The problem is that, “as soon as you set a deadline, work tends to get delayed until right before time expires.” Rushed work can be shoddy; rushed deals can be ruinous. 

One solution is the simple lie. An editor can issue a July deadline when October is the real drop-dead date. This strategy might even improve the final product, at least according to Viennese writer Karl Kraus (quoted by Mr. Cox): “A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.” 

 A better solution, Mr. Cox advises, is to set a “soft deadline with teeth.” These often amount to a rigorous rehearsal or dry run in advance of a hard deadline. The Jean-Georges restaurant group was in the process of opening two new restaurants in New York when Mr. Cox visited. “We make sure that we test, we test, we test, and test again,” chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten explained, a regimen that includes “mock services” that replicate opening night. The process, Mr. Cox writes, has “the virtues of the deadline effect (focus, urgency, cooperation) with none of the vices (rashness, desperation, incompleteness).” 

He finds soft deadlines deployed at Telluride ski mountain in Colorado, where opening the slopes as early as Thanksgiving ensures perfect staff performance by the time the ski hordes arrive at Christmas. At the Public Theater in Manhattan, dress rehearsals and helpful revisions to book and music take the sting out of opening night. This is nothing new. Changes to the original “Hello, Dolly!” (starring Carol Channing) were so substantial that a hidden crew member prompted forgetful actors from within an onstage barrel as rehearsals progressed. 

Mr. Cox includes a discussion of the fine art of procrastination, without which deadlines might not be necessary. Once denounced from the pulpit (“Procrastination: or, The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time” was one popular sermon), this perennial predilection is now considered an example of “hyperbolic discounting.” This means, Mr. Cox explains, that “we exaggeratedly (hyperbolically) underestimate (discount) the value of future gains and losses. Thus the satisfaction of finishing a project (a future reward) stands no chance against the fun of playing hooky for a day.” Hooky’s not cheap. H&R Block found that procrastinating Americans overpay income taxes by $473 million a year. 

Mr. Cox’s travels take him to bucolic Smith River, Calif., where four small farms produce almost the entire 10 million or so Easter lilies sold annually in the U.S. and Canada. Managers work back from the Easter deadline (which varies from year to year), following a schedule that ensures there will be lilies alongside the holiday lamb. Similarly, an Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala., relies on “backward” scheduling—essentially, deadlines in stages—to crank out a new A320 every six days. 

Mr. Cox has a wry touch—young workers at Telluride “looked simultaneously wholesome and grungy, like the black sheep in a Mormon family”—and a good eye for detail. Jetliner lavatories and galleys are known among designers as “monuments.” Lilies were “discovered” (for Westerners) by the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg, who was allowed to wander around Japan (then closed to foreigners) after showing a talent for treating syphilis. Everything in Jean-Georges restaurants, down to the amount of olive oil in a salad, is measured to the gram—a virtue in a chef though perhaps a vice in a bartender. 

Mr. Cox finds uplift while visiting the Air Force’s 621st Contingency Response Wing, whose emergency procedures are constantly fine-tuned and animated by a sense of shared purpose “graver than happiness but deeply positive.” There’s also a reminder that meeting deadlines doesn’t ensure survival. “If Home Depot or Walmart decided that an Easter lily was going to sell for eight dollars instead of ten dollars,” he writes, “there was little the farmers could do about it.” The lower-price decrees of big-box retailers, one manager says, could eventually “put us out of business.” 

Mr. Cox sums up his book in seven words: “Set a deadline, the earlier the better.” Valuable advice, no doubt. Many readers will also appreciate learning that they’ve been suffering from “hyperbolic discounting” all these years, when they had simply assumed they were mere slackers. 

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 

BOOK REVIEW: Willie Nelson's Letters To America 

Willie Nelson needed something to do during the lockdown, so he decided to write some letters—to the Almighty, to friends living and dead, to his younger self, even to the Covid virus. The result, as collected in “Willie Nelson’s Letters to America,” is a mix of mash notes, fond memories, a hill country homily or two, and some world-class examples of filler material, including this gem, one of a series of gag-­worthy jokes, lifted from Reader’s ­Digest: “It was raining cats and dogs!” “How could you tell?” “I stepped in a poodle!” 

A crack of that caliber would earn most books a trip to the fire pit, but Mr. Nelson’s fans won’t mind. They’ll also enjoy his retellings of fabled events from his life, including mistakenly mailing a bill for a girlfriend’s maternity services to his then-wife; asking a nephew to pull his car into a burning garage in order to collect the insurance money; and creating hits like “Crazy,” “On The Road Again” and the epic “Red Headed Stranger.”  What fans and other readers will cherish most is the tone of the ­project, alternately raucous, reverent and bittersweet. 

Mr. Nelson, now 88, has traveled a long and interesting road. His journey didn’t start out in first-class. He and sister Bobbie—the recipient of perhaps his most heartfelt letter—were initially raised by grandparents. ­“After my granddaddy died,” he ­recalls, “times were even tougher. For Thanksgiving dinner one year, we split a can of soup!” He felt flush when he began making $8 a night playing in a polka band; his musical income was eventually augmented by gigs trimming trees (for 80 cents an hour) and selling Bibles and encyclopedias. 

His blossoming songwriting talent was not accompanied by a similar ­escalation in business smarts. “I sold my songs Family Bible and Night Life—lock, stock, and writing credits—for $50 and $150, respectively,” he writes. He thanks crooning cowboy Faron Young for refusing to buy his early hit “Hello Walls” for $500. “He said I was crazy and instead loaned me $500.” Young’s recording of the song hit the top of the charts. “My first royalty check was $25,000!” The hits kept coming, including “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Mr. Record Man,” “Crazy,” “I Gotta Get Drunk” and “The Party’s Over.” His secret to songwriting success: “Keep it simple, stupid.” 

Several letters go to friends and associates who helped him along the way, including event producer Gino McCoslin, a genius-level hustler. When Mr. Nelson confronted him about selling twice as many tickets as there was capacity at a Dallas venue, he responded: “Hell, the airlines do it all the time.” McCoslin was also known to put a sign on the exit indicating that it was the door to the restroom. “People would go out of the venue by mistake, then he’d charge ’em to get back in.” If he’d been born later, McCoslin might have made an excellent vice president for fee development at Ticketmaster. 

Guitars weren’t the only instruments popular in the rough-and-­tumble Texas music world. “Fort Worth was like the Wild West. When you played a gig, most of the guys in the band were packing heat, and so were most of the audience.” Mr. Nelson knew plenty of hot licks and could also deploy lead with the best of them, once participating in a shootout with a daughter’s unruly husband to help restore domestic tranquility. He relates this information with all due modesty. 

The years have mellowed him, a process enhanced by a strategic switch from whiskey to marijuana. “You saved me, and we both know it,” he writes, or perhaps gushes, in a missive to marijuana. He has also maintained a passion for politics. He writes plugs for family farmers— “factory farms are a sickness and you, our family farmers, are the cure”—and for the Equal Rights Amendment and says we should get rid of the Electoral College. In a letter to Will Rogers about climate change, he writes: “We know what’s causing it, and we’ve had a good idea on how to stop it for a couple of decades but basically haven’t done one goddamn thing. Any advice?” Should Rogers respond that millions of miles in a tour bus might contribute to the problem, his advice would likely go unheeded. Mr. Nelson tells us he’s itching to get back on the road. But he does promise not to preach from the stage. “Because of music’s ability to heal and unite us, my audiences don’t hear me talk politics at my shows. We’ve struck a bargain and have come together to share in the music and the love and the good things that come from it.” 

Like most people who have been alive for nearly 90 years, Mr. Nelson is on intimate terms with life and death. His remembrances of departed pals are heartfelt and often humorous. Singer Jerry Jeff Walker “told me once that the only difference ­between him and Hank Williams was that Hank went backstage to throw up!” The late Roger Miller is remembered for stellar quips, “like when that cop pulled you over and said, ‘Can I see your license?’ And you replied, ‘Can I see your gun?’ ” Another day, while “we gazed at the incredible clouds in the sky, you said, ‘Just think what God could’ve done if he had money.’ ” 

He anticipates his own setting sun. “I used to fake a heart attack and fall down on the floor,” he writes, quoting one of his lyrics. “But even I don’t think that’s funny anymore.” Eternity is on his mind, and perhaps to no surprise he has his bases covered. “I’m a Baptist or a Buddhist. Considering my footwear, maybe I’m just a Bootist.” He’s clearly not allergic to tradition. In a letter to his children he preaches a sermon that has held up well across the ages: “It all starts with the Golden Rule—with treating others as you’d like to be treated.” 

His harshest letter is addressed to Covid, though the flailing is a somewhat tempered one. “You’ve opened our eyes to the reality that our ­enemies are not other nations or religions we don’t understand or even other cultures. You’re the reminder that manufacturing weapons of mass destruction doesn’t guarantee our safety.” He also includes a message appropriate to this holiday weekend. “I love this great nation,” he says in a letter to America, “imperfections and all. I truly hope we can find a way to all come together to talk about our differences and find the right paths to maintain and improve its greatness for generations to come.” 

Mr. Nelson has been generously sprinkled with the fairy dust of American greatness and success. Even the tree company that paid him 80 cents an hour later shelled out $100,000 for a command performance. He takes it all in stride and counsels perseverance to those impatient for glory. “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese”—words worthy of the greatest of sages. 



By Dave Shiflett 

May 26, 2021 11:00 am ET 


As our wondrous herd lurches toward immunity, many Americans have traded their masks for traveling shoes. The book industry is right in step, offering a slew of titles showing the way to destinations great and small and offering innovative ways to get there. 

Jeralyn Gerba and Pavia Rosati offer a comprehensive guidebook in “Travel North America (And Avoid Being a Tourist)” (Hardie Grant, 283 pages, $29.99). It begins with the dizzying observation that we live on a “furiously spinning globe” beset by potential apocalypses. No worries. Healing can be fostered if the wandering class behaves more like “travelers” than “tourists,” the latter notorious for staying in “hotels owned by large corporations” and for drinking too much bottled water. Travelers “avoid big cruise ships,” hold haggling to a minimum, and bunk in places like A Room at the Beach in Bridgehampton, N.Y., a bungalow once owned by Martha Stewart that, for all its glories, might vaporize what remains of a stimulus check far faster than Motel 6. 


Readers hoping to undo the damage inflicted by Grubhub pizza sherpas can follow the authors’ directions to the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail or burn excess blubber by trekking to high-country huts in Colorado. Those suffering from post-pandemic stress can seek healing context at Winslow, Ariz., where Mother Nature dropped a meteor some 50,000 years ago, devastating neighborhood life forms but leaving behind a crater that makes an awesome selfie backdrop. A similar reminder that our era has not been singled out for rough treatment is found at the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, where many a prehistoric beast met a gooey end, their agonies detailed in a pleasant museum that made the authors’ list. 


Travelers whose artistic sensibilities were not satisfied by the work of Joe Exotic and other lockdown luminaries will find welcome relief in “101 Art Destinations in the U.S.” (Rizzoli Electa, 271 pages, $14.98). Veteran scribe Owen Phillips covers museums famous and remote, cave drawings, and even funk superstar George Clinton’s “Mothership”—an iconic spaceship-shaped stage prop—at Washington’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Along the way Mr. Phillips supplies interesting asides. Money guy Nelson Rockefeller, as we know, made great contributions to several collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; the connection between art and commerce is also on display at the nearby Carlyle Hotel, which swapped accommodations for murals by artist Ludwig Bemelmans, famous for his Madeline books. In Boston, the art of art theft is acknowledged at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, whose Dutch Room displays the frames from which thieves posing as police officers sliced two Rembrandts and a Vermeer during a 1990 heist. 


Mr. Phillips reminds us that art raises spirits—and hackles. The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, which depicts Pickett’s charge, may strike some as a cautionary tale about the dangers of joining the infantry. Other observers, he writes, criticize it “for showing valor on both sides with no judgment or sign of the underlying causes for the war”—a message that might require an additional cyclorama or two. A more creative protest met Pablo Picasso’s untitled five-story steel portrait at Chicago’s Daley Plaza, unveiled in 1967. A science-fiction writer erected a giant pickle on the site to pan the piece in advance. Piling on, journalist Mike Royko wrote of the Picasso that “its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and the weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner.” In Richmond, Va., where most Confederate statuary has been removed, visitors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts can still pose beside a full-figure statue of Caligula, the controversial Roman statesman. 

Those seeking to end their bout of house arrest with a longer and perhaps stranger trip will find kindred spirits in Ben and Roxy Dawson, authors of “The Falcon Guide to Van Life” (Falcon Guides, 223 pages, $24.95). The authors note that “discontent is on the rise in the sedentary lives of twenty-first-century Americans.” They have a cure: Make like a turtle—hit the road and take your accommodations along for the ride. 

The authors tell us that they’ve been living in a van since 2017 and discovering nomadic bliss: “rock climb in the morning, float a river that evening, have a drink by the fire at the end of the day.” Their book is rich with information about vans both humble and sumptuous; the strategies for finding free campsites; and the best websites for scoring regional work. Practical advice abounds. “When in a pinch, don’t underestimate a water bottle with a hole poked in the top to use as a makeshift shower.” On-board toilets, meanwhile—given the tight quarters—can “make for some awkward mornings if one of us had to use the bathroom while the other was making breakfast.” One solution: “Carry a large shovel. The ease of digging a hole with a larger shovel relieves some stress of going in nature.” This is the innovative spirit that drove prairie schooners across the frontier. 

The authors even offer a strategy for overcoming unreliable gasoline supplies. Diesel-powered vans can be converted to run on the vegetable oil that restaurants dispose of after cleaning their deep-fat fryers. As of now, the ransomware bandits have overlooked this fuel source. 

Yet another threat to placid travel must be noted, one every bit as annoying as bears, mosquitoes and quicksand pits. The culprit, Amber Share writes in “Subpar Parks” (Plume, 205 pages, $22), is fellow humans suffering from what might be called the Yelp virus. 

Ms. Share’s amusing indictment of the “least impressed visitors” to America’s most sublime sites is based on reviews, many from online sources, of the 400-plus parks, monuments and other areas managed by the National Park Service. One critic panned the Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park for looking “nothing like the license plate.’ ” In a similar spirit, a reviewer found the 6-million-acre Denali Alaskan wilderness a “barren wasteland of tundra” despite, as Ms. Share notes, its 2,000 “species of plants, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou”—not to mention, at 20,310 feet, the highest peak in North America. Another Yelper type complained that at Yosemite “trees block view and there are too many gray rocks,” while another dismissed the Grand Canyon as “a very, very large hole.” The Statue of Liberty, an inspiration to countless wanderers, is merely “a big green statue and that’s it.” 

One hates to dampen the spirit of our Great Reopening, but as of now there’s no vaccine for what ails these individuals. 

—Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com. 



‘And in the End’ Review: Band on the Run  

The Beatles’ final year was silly, crazy and chaotic, but the music they made then is still with us—as are tales of the Fab Four.  

The Beatles circa 1969.  


By Dave Shiflett  

Aug. 20, 2020 7:28 pm ET  

Among the horrors that beset some aging boomers is the harrowing suspicion that there is more music in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto than in the entire Beatles catalog. But of course not everyone feels that way. Existing for around eight years and gone for 50, the Beatles and their signature hits are still very much with us. If the Fab Four didn’t roll over Beethoven in the composing competition, they certainly overshadowed him in mass popularity. And they continue to inspire a kind of pop anthropology, in which their life and times are chronicled in detail and mined for cultural insights.  

In “And in the End,” the Scottish journalist Ken McNab focuses engagingly, and insightfully, on the band’s final year, starting with an account of its performance on Jan. 30, 1969, atop the roof of Apple headquarters in London. (Apple, we should remember, was a record label, not a computer cult.) The band hadn’t played publicly since an August 1966 gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Lots had happened in the intervening years: landmark albums, drugs, divorce, the death of manager Brian Epstein and the arrival of Yoko Ono.John Lennon complained that the band “had become Paul McCartney’s sidemen,” Mr. McNab says, a view seconded by George Harrison: “You’d have to do 59 of Paul’s songs before he’d even listen to one of yours.” Ringo Starr had tried to keep the peace while acting in Peter Sellers’s “The Magic Christian.”  

The lads were at one another’s throats—and the wolf was at their door. Upwards of £20,000 was disappearing every week, Mr. McNab says, and nobody knew where it was going. Bankruptcy loomed. Lennon, who would later imagine a world with no possessions, worried about spending his senior years playing gigs for anyone who would listen. When he said the band didn’t have “half the money people think we have,” the comment crossed the ocean and aroused the dorsal fin of noted music shark Allen Klein. Like Yoko, Klein is something of a satanic figure to many Beatles fans. But he adds a dramatic surge to Mr. McNab’s narrative.  



By Ken McNab  
Thomas Dunne, 311 pages, $28.99  

Klein had made a name for himself managing the Rolling Stones and other top acts. He deeply desired the Beatles, but his reputation was reptilian. Among his most notable scams was to siphon off most of the Rolling Stones’ U.S. profits. Mick Jagger warned the Beatles against hiring him, and Paul didn’t trust him, but the others liked Klein, who gets a fairly light lashing from Mr. McNab. Klein cut costs and decimated the Apple deadwood, but he would later sue the band (which would also sue him) and be accused of skimming money from the Bangladesh charity concert. His toxic side may have had early origins. Mr. McNab tells us that Klein’s father had put him in an orphanage at an early age, which perhaps also sharpened his ambition and wits. In any case, Klein got the band a significantly better recording contract. They had two projects in the pipeline as the curtain was falling: the albums that became “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be.”  

Mr. McNab is a fan of the band, though not an uncritical one. He dings Lennon for being “high on idealism, low on reality” but also reminds us that the Beatles were uniquely talented and very hard working. “You Never Give Me Your Money” required 36 takes. “Because” had 23 takes of the backing track; producer-arranger George Martin also wrote nine harmony parts for the song. Amazingly, Harrison’s “Something” (which Frank Sinatra called “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”) was initially dissed by Martin, who dismissed it as “lightweight and derivative,” Mr. McNab writes.  

Talent was evident in other forms, including self-promotion. After a post-nuptial hang with Salvador Dalí in Paris, John and Yoko made their way to Amsterdam to promote world peace, arriving in a white Rolls-Royce and taking up residence at the Hilton. Lennon was playing a new tune, “Give Peace a Chance,” which wasn’t entirely impressive. “What did it matter if it read like garbage?” Mr. McNab writes of the lyrics. “What really counted was the message.” He credits Lennon with playing a decisive role in ending the Vietnam War—an accomplishment the Nobel committee overlooked. His claim that rumors of Paul’s death became the “biggest and fastest circulating sensation since the 1963 assassination of JFK” also seems ambitious.  

Mr. McNab leaves no doubt that Lennon engineered episodes of genius-level dissolution. Beethoven had hearing issues, Tchaikovsky was often a nervous wreck, and Schumann ended up in an asylum. But none, so far as we know, descended into “bagism,” a phenomenon in which Lennon climbed into a bag and whistled the “Blue Danube Waltz,” creating a vibe he referred to as “total communication.”  

On April 10, 1970, Paul announced that he was done. The end had arrived before any band members had reached age 30. Bittersweet years followed, including acrimonious legal action. Lennon was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980, three weeks after the release of his “Double Fantasy” album. Harrison made good music and did good deeds until his death from lung cancer in 2001. Paul’s solo career showcased prolonged musical and showbiz prowess: His 2012 “Kisses on the Bottom” album was released on Starbucks’ record label and included “My Valentine,” which channeled Tony Bennett. Ringo maintained a talent for not appearing to take himself too seriously. Mr. McNab’s portrait of the band in its twilight neatly conveys the hazards of fame and the enduring value of youth, talent and a touch of madness.  

As for Yoko, she re-captured the spotlight during the 2016 election cycle over rumors that she had once been romantically involved with Hillary Clinton, which was not enough to get the former secretary of state elected. Ailing but socially concerned, Yoko has lately been involved in creating anti-virus face masks. May her karma be pleasantly instant.  

Mr. Shiflett posts his music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.

Wall Street Journal review of 'Why We Drive' by Matthew Crawford 

The coronavirus has parked multitudes on their sofas, where many have gone half-mad reading rants from advanced-studies graduates of the University of ­Twitter. Matthew Crawford’s “Why We Drive” is the perfect antidote. 

Mr. Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia and the author of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” (2009) and other works of social philosophy, has written a thoughtful, entertaining and substantive work about the joys of driving—and about the attempts by various scolds to relegate that joy, and similar expressions of independence, to the junkyard of history. 

Driving, Mr. Crawford explains, can be a daring undertaking that provides the pleasures of “being actively and skillfully with a reality that pushes back against us”—­sometimes harshly. Driving is a “domain of skill, freedom, and individual responsibility.” To drive “is to exercise one’s skill at being free.” Or, as an earlier philosopher might have put it: I drive, therefore I am. 

Mr. Crawford is not spouting theory—he is a practitioner. During one 12- month stretch his motorcycle driving passion ­resulted in four emergency-room pit stops. He has caused police jaws to drop as he passed through radar traps just slightly below the speed of light. Yet real road ­danger, he says, comes courtesy of the two-headed monster ­created by technological progress and safety neurosis. This is a monster with teeth. 

Highway deaths, he writes, rose at their fastest rate in 50 years between 2013 and 2015. Why? Because “cars became boring to drive. . . . I mean really boring. . . . Driving a modern car is a bit like returning to the womb.” Drivers are increasingly insulated from the road; self-braking devices, navigation screens, cruise control and similar gizmos result in less ­attentive drivers. Smartphones, which promised to keep “boredom at bay,” keep eyes off the road, to disastrous effect. 

Meanwhile safety monitors keep their pitiless vigil. Their purpose, Mr. Crawford suggests, is less risk reduction than good old-fashioned pillage. In 2016, he says, “the District of Columbia took in $107.2 million from its photo radar traffic enforcement cameras.” The cameras were strategically placed in intersections heavily used by commuters from Virginia and Maryland and harvested what amounted to “free money,” in Mr. Crawford’s analysis. Chicago raked in $600 million from red-light cameras, augmenting the take by shortening yellow-light duration, a move that itself caused a jump in rear-end crashes and injuries. In the same spirit, lowering speed limits to unrealistic levels means more manna for localities and for insurance companies, which, after certain traffic violations, can extract higher premiums for years. 

The chapter titles in “Why We Drive” reveal an instinctive skepticism and pleasant pugnaciousness: “The Diminishing Returns of Idiot-Proofing as a Design Principle,” “Auto­mation as Moral Reeducation,” “ ‘Reckless Driving’: Rules, Reasonableness, and the Flavor of Authority.” Among much else, he takes up old cars (he’s their friend); road rage (a rejection of egalitarianism that is aided by tinted windows); and the DMV (visiting which offers a “civic education in submission to a type of authority that relies on unintelligibility to insulate itself”). 

He can be evangelical at times, as when attempting to convince a rural Virginia judge that motorcycling 30 mph or so over the speed limit shouldn’t necessarily be considered reckless. When you’re “riding a bike you are not texting, not looking at your navigation screen, not fussing with the kids in the backseat,” he explained during a court appearance. Plus, you have “a lot of skin in the game”—since you’ll leave lots of it on the road if you crash. His argument didn’t find much traction with the judge but was a noble effort. 

Mr. Crawford is at his best rattling the smug beliefs of “bicycle moralists, electric scooter gliders-about, and ­carbon teatotalers,” not to mention safety nags, whose ­mission in life is to pour their enlightened sugar into renegade gas tanks. While he recognizes that people who invoke safety “enjoy a nearly non-rebuttable presumption of ­public spiritedness,” he thinks that an abundance of caution diminishes us. A fixation on risk reduction, he explains, “tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities.” In contrast to the U.S., ­Germany—which has no speed limit on some roads—“treats citizens like adults. This is a bracing concept.” 

Mr. Crawford, who admires the adage “Every Man Dies. Not Every Man Lives," visits pockets of resistance, including a demolition derby animated by a love of mayhem for its own sake; it recalls, he says, an “Iron Maiden concert, circa 1983.” At a “Hare Scramble” motorcycle race, women ride like demons and berate their men to "man up. ” In France, 60% of automated radar devices had been disabled as of January 2019, likely the work of the Yellow Vest movement. 

Yet the resistance is not winning. “Qualities once prized, such as spiritedness and a capacity for independent ­judgment, are starting to appear dysfunctional.” A Kant quotation (the author quotes only the finest) sums up the enlightened view of resisters: “We look with profound ­contempt upon the way in which savages cling to their ­lawless freedom.” 

Silicon Valley will take it from here. Its plan is fairly ­simple: “removing us from the driver’s seat.” Some will benefit more than others, Mr. Crawford says. Rides in self-driving cars “will remain cheap only until the buses and trains disappear. Then the laws of monopoly pricing will take effect.” Surveillance capitalism, meanwhile, will empty passenger pockets with nearly supernatural virtuosity, “nudging” us to buy stuff by sending self-driving cars ­toward the types of businesses that show up in our digital conversations. “It seems likely there will be real time ­auctions to determine the route your Google car takes,” Mr. Crawford explains, “so you can be offered empowering choices along the way.” Suddenly, being parked on the sofa doesn’t seem so bad. 

Mr. Shiflett’s writing and original music are posted at Daveshiflett.com

WSJ review of Homeplace 

‘Homeplace’ Review: Enticed by Twang and Sawdust

The last roadhouse in the Virginias, where Budweisers, Beatitudes and country music mingle—and a fading subculture finds a home.

Among the collateral calamities of our era’s descent into health obsession is the decline of the traditional honky-tonk. The heart skips a beat in fond remembrance of these roadside establishments, which dispensed—enthusiastically and in good conscience—pork rinds and pickled pig’s feet. (Knuckle sandwiches were also available, gratis.) They were smokier than Krakatoa and sold libations that, if ingested accidentally by a contemporary booze snob, might cause him to jump off a bridge to escape everlasting shame.

For many, such places are poison. For John Lingan, they are sublime. Mr. Lingan, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times magazine and other venues, spent four years researching and writing “Homeplace,” a tribute to the Troubadour Bar & Lounge near Berkeley Springs, W.Va.—the “only twang-and-sawdust roadhouse left in the Virginias.” He finds dignity and even heroism in the lives of those in its orbit and reminds us, on every page, that the times are always a-changing, though often not for the better.

The star of this show is the late owner of the Troubadour, Jim McCoy, who achieved small-town glory as a country-music DJ and front man for Joltin’ Jim and the Melody Playboys in the late 1940s and early 1950s before making his way to Nashville, Tenn., and hanging out with A-listers like Elvis and Marty Robbins. He also helped procure drugs for Johnny Cash.



By John Lingan 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 251 pages, $27

Closing time at the Troubadour Bar & Lounge near Berkeley Springs, W. Va. PHOTO:MATTHEW YAKE

Despite those accomplishments, McCoy’s hopes for stardom tanked when plans for a breakthrough album collapsed. By the time he hit his mid-30s he had seven children, two ex-wives and no steady job. Creating the Troubadour—along with a small recording studio and a convenience store—kept his head above water.

Co-starring in “Homeplace,” briefly, is Patsy Cline, who, according to Mr. Lingan, illustrates the social divide in the broader Appalachian region where the Troubadour is situated. She stopped by McCoy’s radio show in 1948—she was 16—and captivated him with an a capella version of “San Antonio Rose.” Mr. Lingan characterizes her voice as “bell-clear and sorrowful even as a child,” adding that she came by her sorrow honestly. Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, Cline moved constantly in her childhood, had an abusive father, and lived on the wrong side of the tracks when she and her mother settled in Winchester, Va., where she learned heartbreak and alienation from a “rigid social hierarchy” that, according to Mr. Lingan, responded to her music with “unconcealed contempt.” On the bright side, she was able to monetize her heartbreak, belting country-music hits including “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces” before dying in a plane crash in 1963, at age 30.

While Mr. Lingan could have subtitled his book “Life is Tough, Then You Croak,” he writes of several positive developments in this neck of the woods, including a growing acceptance of sexual and ethnic minorities and the blossoming of unexpected business ventures, including an International Water Tasting festival. But he is at his most passionate when depicting the “constant collision” between the past and modernity and between the powerful and those who are displaced by economic and cultural shifts.

He wields a joyful hatchet when taking the high and mighty down a notch. Harry Flood Byrd (1887-1966), a Virginia governor and U.S. senator, was fine when it came to infrastructure and anti-lynching legislation; but nothing, in Mr. Lingan’s view, can erase the shame of his support for Massive Resistance, a late 1950s anti-school-desegregation protest that closed public schools in Virginia’s Prince Edward County for a year. (Byrd’s lawyer-father might have made an excellent Troubadour patron: He once returned from a court recess so drunk that he “began arguing for the other side.”) The area’s “first families” get similar treatment from Mr. Lingan: They became “slumlords” and speculators who drove longtime residents off their ancestral lands.

Yet there were shelters from these storms, including the Troubadour, where Budweisers, Beatitudes and loud country music could mingle in its vinyl booths beneath customer Polaroids illuminated by permanent Christmas lights. Mr. Lingan’s rollicking descriptions of honky-tonk nights are so booze-soaked that a reader might wonder about the safety of driving after reading such passages.

Yet the Troubadour was not immune to change. New smoking laws made it off-limits to children, which stunted their growth, according to Mr. Lingan. “The Troubadour could provide a pre-adolescent with a window into the full range of human feeling, smells and humor,” he writes. “It could mark a person’s values for life.”

McCoy also wound down, though not without putting up a fight. When his doctor attempted to set him on the straight and narrow, “he turned me onto whiskey,” the doctor says. Yet there was no outrunning the setting sun. McCoy died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind directions for a funeral that included Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and a personal beatitude or two, including: “I like being old. It has set me free.”

Mr Lingan doesn’t recommend McCoy for sainthood but admires him for “trying to make a life in a world where the good old days are gone. What could be more purely American?” He also writes that McCoy once opened a 1-800 service called the Heavenly Hotline, an effort that, one hopes, didn’t go unnoticed when the chief barkeep of the great honky-tonk in the sky calculated his final tab.

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.

Wall Street Journal Review: The Last Job 

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

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



By Dan Bilefsky 
Norton, 284 pages, $26.95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at Daveshiflett.com.

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

Wall Street Journal article: Virginia's Confederacy of Dunces 

Virginia’s Confederacy of Dunces How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on? Feb. 7, 2019 6:53 p.m. ET When word leaked that Gov. Ralph Northam was in hot water over a medical-school photo, some Virginians smiled knowingly. We’ve seen pictures of med-school friends posing with cadavers they’d hung with monikers like “Bessie,” “Big Boy,” and “Wee Willie, ” as circumstances dictated. Then came the jarring news of Mr. Northam’s costume mishap and moonwalking incidents, which instantly converted him into a political untouchable deserted by everyone but his shadow. Abe Lincoln probably had more friends in Richmond when he visited in 1865, just before the South went under new management. Mr. Northam now appears determined to hold on to his job, and though he’s picking up some support, Richmond remains aghast. The Commonwealth of Virginia, after all, prides itself on being the mother of presidents (eight so far) and a place of profound political decorum. But suddenly we’re living in Dogpatch. Not only were citizens initially left to ponder whether their governor was the guy in the hood or the guy in blackface (at least until Mr. Northam reversed course and insisted he was neither). A few days later Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would accede should the governor depart, faced assertions of an old sexual assault, whose public airing he suggested was the work of Mr. Northam. That suspicion was redirected toward Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a potential rival to Mr. Fairfax in the 2021 race for governor. Not to be outdone, Attorney General Mark Herring announced Wednesday he that had performed a rapper imitation wearing “brown makeup” when he was 19. On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican, was identified as managing editor of the Virginia Military Institute’s 1968 yearbook, which included blackface photos. The way things are going, we’ll soon discover contemporaneous sketches of Patrick Henry and George Washington in drag. Adding to the din are Republicans who sense cosmic payback over Northam campaign ads that accused his GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, of racism, plus other critics who insist the governor clings to his job because his pediatric practice was damaged by comments about abortion and infanticide that were more in the spirit of Herod than Hippocrates. These are indeed dark days. How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on? Yet Virginians are comforted that our dunces are not the only ones in this confederacy. Those calling for Mr. Northam’s head include Sen. Cory Booker, who admits to a youthful sexual encounter that would qualify as assault under today’s campus standards; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, widely criticized for appropriating a Native American identity; and Sen. Kamala Harris, who doesn’t seem to mind rubbing shoulders with controversial pols in the cause of career advancement. Her early patron (and romantic interest) Willie Brown was, among other things, an enthusiastic supporter of cult leader Jim Jones, who went on to lead the largest murder-suicide in modern history. Newsletter Sign-up We can even sympathize with Mr. Northam (and perhaps Mr. Herring) as they wonder if an indiscretion in young adulthood will erase everything that came after—which in the governor’s case includes the expansion of Medicaid, restoration of voting rights for felons and support for the removal of Confederate monuments. This supposed racist also attends an integrated church with a black pastor—perhaps the perfect place to ask that age-old question: “Why me, Lord?” The clear answer is politics. His party seems happy to throw him to the wolves in exchange for greater credibility in attacking President Trump, a Satan figure to people who tend not to believe in the supernatural. Sorry, Ralph, but don’t take it personally. Best of all, Mr. Northam’s story reminds us that many people change for the better. Here in the Bible belt we recall Saul of Tarsus, who went from persecuting Christians to becoming the primary expositor of Christianity. Lincoln, by modern standards a thoroughgoing racist, played an incalculable role in racial advancement. Lyndon B. Johnson used the N-word nearly as often as a typical American teenager uses the F one, but pushed through crucial civil-rights and voting-rights legislation. Former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia didn’t pose as a Klansman; he was a Klansman—an “exalted cyclops”—who repudiated his past and served honorably. “Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation,” NAACP chief Benjamin Todd Jealous wrote after Byrd died in 2010. “Senator Byrd went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country.” Romantic types may also recall another redemption story—Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” in which Jean Valjean, a reformed petty criminal who brings prosperity to a town and saves a child from unending misery, is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert, a fanatical lawman who cannot forgive ancient transgressions. Mr. Northam may be no Valjean, but we are certainly lousy with Javerts these days. This storm will eventually pass. Until then the beleaguered may seek context and comfort from ancient scribes, including Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who observed in an 1844 letter: “Man is now only more active—not more happy—nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Amen to that. We may also amend an old adage to reflect modern realities: “Don’t eat the brown acid” is hereby updated to “Don’t wear the brown makeup.” Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at www.Daveshiflett.com Appeared in the February 8, 2019, print edition.

Wall Street Journal Review: Grateful and Thanks a Thousand 

By Dave Shiflett Nov. 20, 2018 6:52 p.m. ET If turkeys have souls (it’s the season for generous speculation), one might expect that, in the spirit of the times, a flock of transcendent Toms will soon storm the gates of heaven to demand an end to their species-ist Thanksgiving sorrows. They might have a case, but the holiday itself will surely retain heaven’s blessing. As two new books make abundantly clear, giving thanks pays big dividends—soulful and otherwise—at least for humans. Theologian Diana Butler Bass and non-theist A.J. Jacobs sing from the same hymnal on this point. Gratitude is good. It results in better sleep, increased generosity and confidence, and decreased depression, anxiety and boozing. It’s like a chill pill, with no prescription needed. Yet not all gratitude is equal. Ms. Bass, who writes from a Christian perspective in “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks,” notes that gratitude often comes with a string of reciprocity attached. Your back has been scratched, for which you are thankful, but now you must return the favor. This arrangement, she explains, has been used by the powerful throughout history to maintain their position atop the great slag heap. One might add that friends, business associates, spouses and other intimates can deploy the quid pro quo on an hourly basis. The more mature form of gratitude, Ms. Bass explains, recognizes that life is a wondrous gift, the appreciation for which is best expressed by practicing the Golden Rule, stressing giving over getting; as in playing the piano, the harder you work, the greater the results. Ms. Bass is not peddling theory, she assures us. Practicing gratitude has helped her overcome the agonies of job loss and divorce—as well as, she says, the singular horrors of the Trump presidency. Besides leaving Ms. Bass’s preferred candidate chilling (for now) in the dustbin of history, Mr. Trump’s ascendancy left Ms. Bass deep in the dumps. She had to “remind myself to breathe,” she writes, yet by forcing herself to acknowledge life’s many blessings she regained her footing, discovering along the way that “gratitude, like interest, compounds.” Her recovery was aided by the communal affirmation of shared beliefs during the massive anti-Trump march in Washington after the election, where she and several clerical colleagues donned pink hats and carried signs proclaiming the traditional Beatitudes along with a few “special updated” ones, including “Blessed are the uninsured / Blessed are the immigrants / Blessed are the LGBTQ,” all of which had a profound effect on her: “The day before, I had cried because I was afraid and sad. But on this day I cried because of blessings. For the first time in two months, I felt grateful.” Some readers may find Ms. Bass less than grateful for the cornucopia that she dismisses as “consumer Thanksgiving.” She believes the holiday has “become an orgy of ‘I’ll get mine’ ” in which “often someone dies in the struggle for a must-have toy or cheap smart phone.” It appears that her condemnation of the Black Friday ritual overlooks the “special updated” proverb stating that into every vital human endeavor, including shopping, a little collateral damage must sometimes fall. No one is perfect, of course, and her generous spirit and positive message will make her book a welcome visitor on many nightstands. The same is true for Mr. Jacobs’s slim and less introspective volume, “Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.” An “agnostic, verging on atheist” whose earlier books include “The Year of Living Biblically” (2007), he sets out to practice what modern-day sage and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast preaches: “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” Mr. Jacobs’s mission is to thank everyone responsible for providing his morning cup of coffee. Coffee, he reminds us, is no bit player in human affairs. More than two billion cups are drunk every day. The industry employs 125 million people, including the workers at his local coffee shop, who are the first to receive his thanks. From there he tracks down and thanks the makers of coffee cup lids—small but impressive feats of engineering—and of the cardboard sleeves that keep us from burning our fingers (and perhaps launching a lawsuit). The sleeves, he explains, were known as zarfs in the ancient world; the modern version was invented in Portland, Ore., in 1992 by a struggling couple who sold their Java Jackets from their car trunk and would later see them included in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit called “Humble Masterpieces.” Soon enough Mr. Jacobs feels a grateful glow, yet realizes the impossibility of thanking everyone tangentially responsible for his morning Joe. He holds his hosannas to 1,000 contributors—truck drivers, farmers, logo artists, warehouse workers, even the chief executive of Exxon, whose company supplies fuel to bean transporters (he chides the CEO for climate change, though mildly). Along the way he shares many coffee-related facts. Beethoven’s morning cup was made with exactly 64 beans, while Balzac downed 50 cups a day. In a hat tip to Big Brother, he notes that, before government inspection, coffee merchants used fillers, including baked horse liver, burnt rags, brick dust and a widely uncelebrated delicacy known as “monkey nuts.” Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Bass have written pleasant odes to interdependency, reminding us that much of our happiness relies on people we don’t know. That’s not music to the ears the autonomous souls who believe they reside at the center of the universe but is a blessed alternative to the monsoon of seasonal dreck that threatens to drown us all. Mr. Shiflett’s writing and a new song collection, “Seven Dollar Beer and Other Calamities,” are posted at www.daveshiflett.com. Appeared in the November 21, 2018, print edition as 'Their Cups Runneth Over.'

WSJ review of 'Country Music USA' and 'Country Music' 

By Dave Shiflett Sept. 27, 2018 5:49 p.m. ET Given the choice between hearing a country-music crooner or a cat in a blender, many Americans might give us reason to fear for the fate of the cat. Others consider country the music that red-state deplorables listen to, even if it’s hardly restricted to hayseeds, malevolent or otherwise. Even Beyoncé sings a little country. Beyoncé is a little late to the hayride, as we are reminded by the 50th-anniversary edition of Bill C. Malone’s “Country Music USA.” Mr. Malone, a musician and a professor emeritus at Tulane, traces country’s origins to songs brought over by colonials—the fiddler Thomas Jefferson described an instrument called the “banjar” in 1781—and follows the music through its many variations and mutations to the present day. Country music, Mr. Malone writes, is a “vigorous hybrid” based on a foundation mostly Southern, rural, Protestant and working class. Early audiences flocked to tent repertory or “Toby” shows, where the price of admission (often paid with eggs and other rural currency) bought an afternoon of music and other distractions, including magic shows and trained bears. Two later advances greatly expanded the music’s reach. During a seven-year stretch in the 1920s, Mr. Malone notes, annual radio sales jumped more than 10-fold, while some estimates reported a radio in every third home, more than a few dialed into country stations. The other boost to country came from Ralph Peer (1892-1960), an energetic Missouri native who “first presented country music to the American public.” Peer didn’t pick, but his efforts as a talent scout, recording engineer and pioneering music publisher surely made him grin—and fairly rich. Mr. Malone, who seems to have profiled everyone ever associated with country music, questions the “authenticity” of some latter-day artists. Country, he writes, “has been inundated by musicians whose sounds suggest neither regional, rustic nor blue-collar nativity, but are instead rooted in the homogenizing and mass-consumption-oriented media establishment.” For this anniversary edition, he brings in scholar Tracey E.W. Laird to add a final chapter addressing modern country’s “meaning, identity and relationship with its multiple audiences.” Ms. Laird sings a more academic tune than Mr. Malone, at one point explaining that branding—as crucial for country stars as it is for cars and candy bars—“operates according to multidimensional relationships of signs and meanings, not corresponding object to object, but with shifting points of connection, nearly always in flux.” That observation may leave many banjo players scratching their heads, but she has a “big tent” approach and is as comfortable with the Dixie Chicks and Beyoncé—whose twang-inspired efforts rankle purists—as with Hank Williams. Jocelyn R. Neal ponders some of the same questions in “Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History,” a textbook that covers much of the same biographical ground that Mr. Malone does (though not in as much detail), augmented with a wagonload of analysis. Some fans might find the interpretations a bit thick, especially a series of “listening guides” that deconstruct classic songs. The opening line to “Rocky Top” (“Wish that I was on old Rocky Top”) is said to describe “an anti-modernist nostalgia,” while the appearance of “two strangers” in a later verse presents “cultural stereotypes that will become part of bluegrass’ reputation”—i.e., “backwoods people who are closed to outsiders, who live beyond the reach of both law and civilization.” Yet Ms. Neal illuminates other points in perfect pitch. In a discussion of the country bona fides of hit-maker Shania Twain, Ms. Neal quotes a critic who called her the “highest-paid lap dancer in Nashville”—not only offering deep insight but also reminding us that country music has come a long way since Jefferson’s “banjar.” —Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and journalism at www.Daveshiflett.com.

WSJ Review of Jeff Pearlman's 'Football For A Buck' 

The new NFL season has commenced with the usual hoopla, though some fans are finding new things to do on Sunday afternoon. Their disaffection isn’t just about kneeling, which is as easy to ignore as other celebrity pose-striking. The game seems flat, perhaps due to efforts to remove risk with new rules and more penalty flags. Watching a game can set the teeth to grinding, especially when advertising time-outs seem longer than the first half of “Gone With the Wind.” Meanwhile, ticket, beer and parking prices make stadium-goers wonder if they could have saved money by opting for a weekend in Paris. So pro football is ripe for revolution. Luckily, Jeff Pearlman’s “Football for a Buck” offers a blueprint for change, based on the United States Football League, which played three semi-glorious seasons starting in 1983. The book will also please readers who sip bad ink about Donald Trump as if it were the finest wine. Mr. Pearlman, whose earlier books include one on the Dallas Cowboys, traces the league’s origins to David Dixon, a New Orleans art dealer who in 1961 dreamed of an NFL expansion team for his hometown. His vision slowly evolved into the USFL, which promised grand innovations: a spring-summer season, regional talent in team lineups, two-point conversion opportunities and a low operating budget. Tryouts were open to the public, Mr. Pearlman tells us, and attracted plumbers, cab drivers and fish-tank cleaners—plus a few fellows with less conventional skill sets. One hopeful was out on a work-release program following an armed-robbery conviction, while another had recently finished a term for manslaughter. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the USFL presented, in the words of one of its former players, “the most violent football ever played by mankind”—featuring a dozen teams (later expanding to 18) with names including the Bandits, Gunslingers and Maulers. There was also athleticism. The Houston Gamblers, looking to hire speedy receivers, auditioned a candidate who had never played a down of football, according to Mr. Pearlman, but who had “recently raced a horse on the television show That’s Incredible . . . and won.” The league launched several pro legends, including Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Steve Young and Jim Kelly, all of whom were budget busters. There was a massive gap between “grunt” players—who earned an average of $36,000—and the marquee players like Mr. Walker, who got a $1 million signing bonus and $1.2 million a year, along with that stake in an oil well. On the bright side, the players weren’t expected to be role models. Many did drugs; some smoked cigarettes on the sidelines and even in the huddle. A lineman named Greg Fields responded to being cut by the Los Angeles Express with death threats; management hired Liberace’s bodyguard to keep an eye on him. The executive suite included its own set of rogues. George Allen, the Washington Redskins legend who coached USFL teams in Chicago and Arizona, had an opposing team’s practice sessions illicitly filmed—to great success. “We knew every play they were running,” an assistant coach later marveled. Mr. Pearlman, who drew on roughly 400 interviews for the book, clearly loves the league, but a few of its owners inspire a deep antipathy, including J. William Oldenburg, chairman of a mortgage banking company and owner of the Los Angeles Express, and Donald Trump, real-estate heir and owner of the New Jersey Generals. Mr. Oldenburg was a “volatile, erratic, simple, and clinically insane man,” Mr. Pearlman writes. If he had a virtue, it was his dislike of his New Jersey counterpart. “Donald Trump,” Mr. Oldenburg said, “can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business, he can’t carry my socks.” As it happened, he also fancied himself a virtuoso at deal making, in one instance buying a property for $800,000 and selling it to a savings and loan under his own control for $55 million. When his financial fraud was discovered, he was history. Mr. Trump, 37 when he entered the picture, is the alpha skunk in this drama, presented by Mr. Pearlman as a lying, preening, no-class schmoe who hoped to merge the USFL with the NFL in order to fulfill his dream of owning an NFL franchise. He was able to talk fellow owners into switching to a fall season, creating nose-to-nose competition between the leagues that shook fan support but, Mr. Trump assumed, would make a merger more likely. He also spearheaded an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that, if victorious, would provide a cash infusion to keep his dream alive. While Mr. Trump’s forceful personality worked wonders with fellow owners, the jury in the 1986 civil trial didn’t fully succumb to his charms. While it agreed that the NFL had created a monopoly, it awarded Mr. Trump and company $1 in damages. The struggling league (which Mr. Trump dismissed as “small potatoes”) soon collapsed, though Mr. Trump would eventually win a national franchise unforeseen at that time—a victory that Mr. Pearlman considers a nightmare of rare and enduring proportions. As for the idea of an alternate league, it still has appeal. “The USFL wasn’t as good as the NFL,” says Jairo Penaranda, a running back for the Memphis Showboats. “But it was 10,000 times more fun”—and lots cheaper than Paris.

Wall Street Journal review of Jorma Kaukonen's 'Been So Long' 

Sept. 7, 2018 5:08 p.m. ET Jorma Kaukonen isn’t quite so famous as some of his musical peers, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. Yet unlike those eminences and many others, Mr. Kaukonen—a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane—has hung around. Still touring as he approaches 80, he has now written an engaging memoir that will interest even those who wouldn’t know Hot Tuna (his current band) from a can of sardines. “Been So Long” is a survivor’s tale, well told and sprinkled with a bit of 1960s fairy dust. Mr. Kaukonen was born under a wandering star, seeing the wider world early on during deployments to the Philippines and Pakistan with his diplomatic-corps father. In Washington, D.C., he started learning traditional “porch-picking” tunes like “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and “Worried Man Blues” in the mid-1950s; he also studied under classical guitarist Sophocles Papas, who taught him, among other things, the virtue of regularly tuning his instrument. Soon enough he was playing local clubs with friend Jack Casady (assisted by fake IDs) and reveling in the fact that he had found what became a lifelong passion. “Music,” he writes, “seemed to me to be the reward for being alive.” BEEN SO LONG: MY LIFE IN MUSIC By Jorma Kaukonen St. Martin’s, 354 pages, $29.99 Newsletter Sign-up From an early age he was an interesting mix of tradition and innovation—an enthusiastic participant in his high-school Junior ROTC program and supporter of Ike over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election but also a free spirit fully adaptable to 1960s California, where he moved to attend Jesuit-run Santa Clara University and found an evolving youth and music culture that might have sent the ROTC brass scurrying for their foxholes. There he played coffee-house gigs with Janis Joplin before heading north to San Francisco and joining the Airplane (Mr. Casady came from D.C. to play bass). He was on his way, and while he would share stages at Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont with Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones, his journey would also take him to places he didn’t suspect were on the itinerary. To the horror of ghosts everywhere, Mr. Kaukonen has written his own book and scribbles pretty well for a guitar player. His prose is friendly, direct and wryly humorous. “Musicians,” he notes, “complain about two things—having a gig, and not having a gig.” He also recalls that not everyone was awed by the Airplane. An early critic wrote that the band had “all the delicacy and finesse of a mule team knocking down a picket fence.” But what do critics know? The band scored significant hits, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a psychedelic heist of the “Alice in Wonderland” story featuring Mr. Kaukonen’s haunting guitar line and an exhortation to “feed your head.” That latter advice, which had nothing to do with traditional foodstuffs, drew the scorn of the political class and other adult types, but the music definitely fed the young band’s bank account, allowing the purchase of creature comforts, including a communal mansion across the street from Golden Gate Park, deep in the heart of Hippieland. Fans of that era will find many delights in Mr. Kaukonen’s recollections, some of which challenge the idea that hippie eminences were all about peace, love and tofu. He writes of one day being overtaken by a withering stench and racing to the mansion’s kitchen, where he found LSD magnate Owsley Stanley roasting various cow parts. Stanley, Mr. Kaukonen explains, ate only meat, insisting that “vegetables are what food eats.” Mr. Kaukonen also throws some cold Kool-Aid on the notion that San Francisco musicians shared the lifestyle of their fans—flowers in the hair, dirt on the feet and very little dough in the pockets. “My colleagues and I were not hippies; we were also affluent and most of our problems were upper-class, first world ones.” Those problems arrived in force a bit down the road. Initially Mr. Kaukonen, like many a young buck enjoying fame and a growing fortune, made a mission of avoiding the twin terrors of sobriety and monogamy. He was pretty good at it. “It’s funny to think that my life could have been so completely ruled by mood-altering substances,” he writes, “but at the time it would never have occurred to me that there might be another way to live.” He wasn’t alone, of course. He recalls bumping into Jerry Garcia one day as the Grateful Dead guitarist smoked a significant “gob” of heroin. “I’ve got it under control,” he assured Mr. Kaukonen. Both would join the sizable horde that eventually discovered that the White Rabbit and other Pied Pipers of bliss eventually had to be paid. Monogamy took a similar beating, despite Mr. Kaukonen’s somewhat traditional view of marriage. “No woman of mine is going to have to work,” he announced after marrying his first wife (before his musical ascent), and while there was mutual infidelity the couple stuck together through good times and bad, and there were plenty of the latter. Mr. Kaukonen describes a state of near-terminal matrimony, with hospital visits to close head wounds and an incident in which the missus tried to stab him in the back with a broken bottle while he was erecting a Christmas tree. Matrimonial mayhem, he adds, was something of a family tradition. His parents maintained a stormy relationship for some 60 years. Mr. Kaukonen called it quits after 20, packing up his van one day and driving away. Another tradition, in rock memoirs at least, is the rehab section—which often leaves readers feeling that they’ve just been involved in a hit-and-run sympathy grope. Mr. Kaukonen mercifully spares readers from excessive detail. “There is no need for a drunkalogue here,” he writes. “There is nothing new in my story.” He provides a basic overview: In the mid-1990s he decided it was time to head in for repairs. “Jorma,” a counselor told him, “you’re going to have to change everything but your name!” He was definitely treading new ground. Sobriety and monogamy were now the highest ideals, pursued with passion if not perfection. A son born outside his second marriage likely heated things up on the home front, but his second wife, Vanessa, hung with him and played a central part in creating the Fur Peace Ranch in rural Ohio, where musicians pay $1,500 for a weekend of instruction by Mr. Kaukonen and his musical pals, along with gourmet eats from a kitchen overseen by Mrs. Kaukonen. Along the way, the couple adopted a child and the old buck grew wiser: “If life is designed to humble us in the face of time, there is joy in that humility.” All told, a pretty nice second act. Mr. Kaukonen, whose impressive body of work includes a dozen solo albums, sings a deeply domestic tune these days. “You think playing Woodstock was an adventure?” he asks near the book’s end. “Think about homeschooling your kid.” But his star still wanders. Now 77, he and Mr. Casady tour constantly. He has also pursued a deeper connection with his family’s ancestral Judaism and continues to entertain views that his ROTC instructors might admire. He recalls watching a New Mexico sunset when Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” came on the radio. “Corny? Maybe. Extremely moving? You bet.” Somewhere, one suspects, a rabbit grinds its teeth. .