Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Final Report of the Teapot Commission

November 22nd. I have resurrected an old posting from my pre-blog-days website, originally done in November 1999.

Final Report of the Teapot Commission

Like most Americans, I'm readily willing to believe the worst, even beyond -- heck, well beyond -- when evidence strongly suggests otherwise. And similarly, I'm especially ready to believe the evidence of my own eyes, however inexpertly gathered, in the face of or in accord with other facts, and even more so if the evidence thus gathered supports the well-trod ruts of my own previously-ingrained opinions.

So, when it came to happen that I had some time to kill -- as it were -- in Dallas in April of 1999, I decided to do my own investigation into the Kennedy assassination.

I got the idea to do my own investigation when I got lost on the Dallas freeways. Flying into the airport in the region, one finds oneself with a good two or three hundred miles to drive just to leave the rental car lot. It was all I could do to actually point the car in the direction of downtown Dallas -- which, by the way, today is surely what Oakland was like in Gertrude Stein's day -- especially given that the directions given to me by the rental car clerk were just about as wrong as you can possibly get. You'd think a rental car clerk at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport would either know how to get to downtown Dallas or would know somebody to ask -- like any of her three colleagues standing nearby -- but apparently the metropole is a bit too big for such details to matter. Rather, she was correct in the essential details, like that I had to exit the airport first.

Oddly enough, so are Kennedy assassination conspiracists correct in the general details of the various theories concerning Kennedy's death: he's most assuredly dead. (Actually, though I haven't heard it directly, I'm pretty sure there's probably at least one or twenty or so theories that Kennedy staged his own death and is living to this day in a love nest in Buenos Aires with Hitler, but perhaps we can simply eliminate this minor fraction of the conspiracy populace for the sake of the investigation.) Using that initial fact as the basis of all future work, I decided to take up my own investigation when I completely accidentally ended up driving through Dealy plaza thanks to the geographically-challenged rental car clerk and a Rand McNally map that showed an exit not featured in reality.

I should mention parenthetically that I'm writing up these, the results of my investigation, in November -- these investigation reports take time to think up -- prompted to finally do so by the loss of the famed County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht for the position of Allegeny (Pennsylvania) County Commissioner here in my current investigatory base of Pittsburgh. I voted, for the second time in my life, for a Republican, whose major credential in my mind was that he had not appeared on Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight, and privately circulated militia videos explaining how the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Nicole, Kennedy, and Vincent Price were clearly and absolutely without question conspiracies for which there is no incontrovertible evidence to disprove. I figured, if a nutcase like Dr. Wecht can lose an election in America, even if it was partially due to my doing something as non-sensical as voting for a candidate from the party of Reagan and Oliver North, then by god there's some hope the rest of you nutcases might form a reasonable opinion on something like the Kennedy assassination, with the evidence of a little personal investigation. I'm sure you'll take my word on it when I get to the results. (By the way, it rained election day. Turnout county-wide was nearly in the triple digits.)

Lest you think I take something as grave as the murder of a president lightly -- something that traumatized a generation -- I should explain my family come from a very long line of Kennedy fans. Really and truly. We're from Massachusetts, mostly. I remember my maternal grandfather saying something nice about him, which for a guy who still thought of Republicans as the party that put down the rebellion, and who had a dozen bad names for Catholics, really meant something: when transferred to the more enlightened branches of the family (those born after the great panic of 1893), it verged on hero worship. When we cleaned out my paternal grandmother's house after she died, we found all sorts of original memorabilia from the '60 campaign. When I cleaned up my parents' basement this summer, I found every issue of Life Magazine from 1960-72, all of which were articles on the Kennedy family. I volunteered for Ted Kennedy in his 1980 attempt to win the Presidency, a fact I remember clearly everytime the anniversary of his announcement -- also the day the hostages were taken by those whacky Iranian Students, November 3, 1979 -- twenty years ago to the day. I'd still vote for the guy, who (seriously) probably would've made a better president than his star-sexing, Soviet-stalking, brinksmanship brother. (We can talk about that some other time.) At some point, they'll bulldoze my great-grandmother's house and find nude pictures of her with Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes in Hollywood cemented up in the cornerstone.

And like most members of my generation, I grew up in the pall of the assassination of Kennedy and the feeling of dread that his murder was a sort of Shakespearean foreshadowing of the doom of us all. I was born just a week shy of nine months after the assassination, and it's not at all clear if I was a zygote blessed with the last rays of sunshine from Camelot or conceived in a desperate act of physical passion by my parents to console one another over JFK's loss and the fact that a guy who bred spaniels was in the White House and we of the next generation were all going to die in World War Vietnam. The question of whether I was wrought unto this world in the sunset of hope or the penumbra of dread has really and truly kinda bugged me in a moderate way my whole life. So regardless of the love vs apathy relationship I've had with the Kennedy legacy itself, as one who never properly experienced it, I've got to confess as well to a certain lingering doubt that I should care more deeply about these funky assassination theories.

So, really and truly, there I was in downtown Dallas for the first time, driving the "wrong" way through Dealey Plaza. Suddenly seeing the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building was a stunning shock of recognition. It was like I'd just driven onto a movie set, but one reconstructed from some sort of collective memory that felt joltingly real. Those of us who weren't of the age of conscious thought at the time of the events have lived our whole lives with the building, the window, the street, the curve, the triple underpass, the grassy knoll, the whole tableau simply etched onto the cortex despite never having experienced the moment itself, that defining memory of where-were-you-when-you-heard and being glued to our black and white TVs for four days, as our parents were. Passing the scene directly through my cornea for the first time, it was very much like remembering a key event in my life, like one's wedding day or first kiss or the birth of one's child (not that I can remember any of those events with any clarity myself, but you get the point). Oh yeah, one says to oneself: this was all based on a true story.

In that moment, I felt a true and deep sadness for Kennedy. Given that part of our post-60s post-post-modern media upbringing has been seeing the Zapruder film endlessly (from the evening news to a frame-by-frame analysis via a QuickTime movie to official web documents put out by the National Archives), autopsy photos of Kennedy's brain, and computer animations of the single bullet's path through Governor Connolly's back, one almost has to have a clinical -- pathologically cool -- mental approach to the assassination simply to avoid being overwhelmed. But somehow being in THE PLACE itself transcended the accumulated graphical and verbal barrage of the last 36 years; I felt a sense that this was, if nothing else, a place where a person had died, somebody real. One moment he was riding along in his car, just like me, the next moment his brain had been destroyed and his essence as a person was gone.

I hadn't thought about the assassination when planning my business trip to town, and I most assuredly had not though of doing something as ghoulish as visiting the site of a famous murder. To do so would be to admit either stunningly bad taste, or that I cared, or that somehow the conspiracy theories had some demonstrable truth. Or that resolution or absolution could be achieved by going there. But in those brief seconds as I drove through the plaza known by sight to billions, I temporarily stopped cursing the rental car clerk and decided spontaneously to go back to visit the place.

Downtown Dallas is mostly flat and has a lot of really tall buildings in it, thanks to a bunch of oil booms, and virtually no street traffic on weekends -- and not a whole lot on weekdays, for that matter. These buildings are in archaeological strata, according to which particular oil boom built them (the busts being the intervening strata of vacant lots, I think), in no apparent relationship to one another or to anything else, and separated by random strips of concrete roadway and parking lots. Like most of Texas, it all seems slightly oversized for the people hunched down along its streets.

The hotel I was staying at was the Adam's Mark Dallas. No, this is not an adult rent by the hour flophouse, but a strangely-named small national chain of pseudo-luxury hotels. (I've also been to the one that used to be in Philly, which was like visiting the casting call for a George Romero movie - things happened, just a bit stiffly and with a musty odor.) The Adam's Mark Dallas, it turns out, is a recent rehab of the Southland, Dallas' original skyscraper from the 1950s and at one point the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The building, even in rehab, is hideously ugly. Pictures of it in its original state show it to have been hideously ugly from the moment of its design. However, somehow the Dallas Convention center got built across the street from it, so instead of taking the foresight of the caretakers of such mid-century landmarks and monuments to urban planning as Cabrini Green and Boston's Southeast Expressway and imploding the thing, the Southland became a "luxury" hotel.

From my hotel room on a twenty-something floor, I was startled to see I could see directly to Dealey Plaza. The street where Kennedy was shot and the book depository itself were obscured by several intervening buildings of intermediate height, but I couldn't tell from the distance whether they would've been old enough to have been in existence in November of '63.

Assuming an angle from the roof of the Southland -- less than a mile away from the plaza -- the alignment and angle were just right. It flashed to me that the vantage point would've given a potential assassin any of a number of chances to shoot at the motorcade going through downtown that day, and that the wind and distance of a shot fired from a skyscraper would certainly have gone unnoticed by passersby below. Good perch, a clean getaway -- perfect for the real killers.

Let me back up for a moment. I've examined many of the conspiracy theories, even read the Warren Commission report in some detail in high school, and despite my protestations of not caring that much, feel like I've given the available evidence surrounding the Kennedy assassination some thought. Making up your own mind about something, no matter how unqualified you are in any given field, is one of our rights as Americans.

And frankly, I've found the idea that a lone nut with delusions of grandeur living in a paranoid time and trained by the US military in the use of simple firearms as a boot, and who had ready access to firearms all Americans enjoy, who acted on a sick whim, to be a perfectly plausible explanation of the assassination. Occam's razor and all: ask yourself how many people you know or have come across that you think capable of letting a few rounds loose all of a sudden in the PO or local elementary school, compared to the number of vast extra-governmental conspiracies you've detected. I won't get into the whole history of Oswald, but he sure seems to fit the part of somebody who'd take a shot at the Pres.

There are all sorts of legitimate questions about the botched investigation, but again, ask yourself what's more likely: that the police, FBI, state police, Warren Commission, CIA, and just about every law enforcement agency in the US imaginable were capable of coordinating on a vast conspiracy, or that a bunch of ignorant yokel hick cops with virtually no training panicked at having the most powerful person on the planet shot to death under their jurisdiction and just blew it on the forensic and crime scene details? My local police can't even figure out whether the yellow striped curb near my house is a no-parking zone or not.

There are other details conspiracy theorists love to trot out that just make utterly no sense. Like Kennedy's body motion and the direction the gore flew out. Nobody who's ever shot a pumpkin could have any question the poor man's head was moving in the "correct" reactive angle to the bullet fired. Physics. Or the discrepancies by eye-witnesses about the sound and number of shots fired. Sound carries funny even in uncomplicated situations, and the human cognitive processes are such that any two people standing in different locations are going to experience the same sound event in different ways. I'd think conspiracy only if everybody had the same story.

Still, the one thing that always made me think twice about the second gunman- organized plot theories is the mechanics of shooting Kennedy in a moving car. Even if Oswald had gotten his marksman's badge from the Marines, how do you make three killing hits at a moving car from a steep angle using a mail-order .22 rifle? All those grainy stillshots, the apparent great distance at which the Zapruder film was shot, the subjective rapidity with which the whole thing took place, they all suggest a sense of distance and scale that call into question the idea of whether Oswald could make those shots.

Looking out my hotel room window, I could think of some extra-high-powered rifle in the hands of a super-trained marksman leaning over the edge of the Southland and picking his shots. The greater relative distance might account for a lot of things, such as the disparity between the number of shots heard by some and the number the Warren Commission reported (and thus the strange single bullet theory.) The image of some CIA-employed ex-Navy SEAL with mafia money in one pocket and a Fairplay for Castro and Cuba membership card in the other flitted through my mind, and actually made sense in passing. It was sort of like a calculus problem in my high school math class: one knows there has to be a solution, and has a half-studied and dim idea of approximately what's going on, but the clarity of a full solution without actually understanding the problem just occasionally flashes rather than settling with assurance into one's mind. Just enough so that you think you might have it, even when nobody else might have. That was my Southland sniper theory. Now I really had to find out - myself.

So it was that, after definitively establishing that there's absolutely nothing to do in downtown Dallas, Texas on a Sunday afternoon, I made my way across the landscape of boarded up high-rises, indoor mini-malls, 1960s vintage courthouses, cage-like government offices, used car and vacant lots, and Texas-style McDonald's to the plaza itself.

On foot, the whole place comes into very sharp focus indeed. The most startling thing initially is what a nice-looking building the depository actually is: an early-century brick building of modest size and sturdy proportions, but with the type of decoration eschewed in a merely functional building for much of this century. The facade has pleasing arched double windows, arranged in faux-Palladian framing arches up to the top floor. The red color of the brick, which has been cleaned at some point and kept clean, is satisfying in contrast to the less successful and more dreary whites and greys and non-descript browns of the miscellaneous government and office buildings nearby. Parts of the building are still used from some function, although the infamous sixth floor is kept empty and unused but for the occasional tour. There's a plaque on the corner, noting the assassination site, using the word "allegedly" when describing Oswald's role in the shooting, as all Dallas accounts apparently use. The plaque itself at a distance could just as well be a historical marker noting the invention of the covered wagon tongue.

More subtle, but far more revelatory, is the experience of walking the site itself. It's just small. It's not larger than life: it's a short city block, not even a real block but a half block before the highways of the triple underpass/overpass. The plaza itself, named for an early-century Dallas luminary, is a split park with two squares of green, left in the middle of this split boulevard, only half of which we've come to know in the films and pictures. This little parklet has been given the dual monniker of both Dealey and the Kennedy Memorial park, although there's nothing much in the way of a commemoration of Kennedy's life, and very little of his death other than a bare mention of the facts.

You can cross the street, which angles down to get under the underpass, and stand on the sidewalk and face up back towards the depository. The problem of the marksman is easily solved by doing so. The distances are not appreciable at all. The angle of the road coming into the plaza actually forces cars to slow down, and the natural instinct of a driver would be to slow down anyway, going into the blind underpass. Of course, Kennedy was on a political trip, and the cars would be going a slow and steady pace, anyway, to allow people to see him and wave. From the slow pace of traffic and the frequent out of state plates driving slowly through with drivers gawking around, I suspect many people do the drive-through themselves.

This still being America, the plaza draws tourists, hucksters, and nutjobs alike. The three parties have an affinity for one another. A steady crowd of several score people at a time always seems to be present on the infamous grassy knoll, on the same side of the street as the book depository. One gets an excellent view of it from across the street; you could soft-toss an egg underhanded and hit the most-frequently-alleged position of the second gunman. To truly believe America is full of enough idiots to produce at least one willing to pull the trigger on a sitting President, one need only watch the crowd on the grassy knoll for a while. Every ten minutes or so somebody from the throng steps over to the curbside where the actual first shot is marked, risking their own life and limb against traffic to try to gape back towards the sixth floor window. One actually dashes out into the street in the middle of traffic, to take a picture, while I'm watching.

I stop and listen for a bit. The noises of traffic are strange: as traffic approaches from the east, the noise for a moment appears to come from the west. I try a shy, quiet Philly "yo!" to test the echoes. Too quiet: I gather the gumption and shout it out. The echoes change quite a bit as I move up and down the sidewalk. Frequently, I get no echo at all; once I got three "Yo"s back at me, like I was Yo-ing in Yankee Stadium. Sometimes, you can't hear traffic at all until it's right on you. There's nothing particularly mysterious about this: there are buildings of different heights around the perimeter, and one side is open to the skies. Acoustics are reflective, surfaces absorb sound waves differently according to their shape and the constituent material. Walk down any downtown street in any city and you'll experience something similar, if you pay careful attention. It's quite clear why there was so much conflicting testimony about the sounds, the number of shots, and so forth.

Braving myself for the real test of courage, I go up to the corner and cross over to the book depository side and on over to the grassy knoll, where there's a concrete area, a driveway, and a little grassy slope in front of the famous knoll. Not only are there lots of gawkers, latter-day rubber-neckers, standing around and pretending they were witnesses or the second and third gunmen, the hucksters/whackos are out in full force. There are several small booths and temporary kiosks where conspiracy theorists are selling their wares: videos, books signed in person by the author, photos, you name it.

Parked on the driveway is a sister car to the death car: a Lincoln convertible, I think. Alone among the features of this tableau, the car is huge. You can ride through the plaza in it (for a hefty fee), although on the brisk spring Sunday I'm there, there seem to be few takers. I cautiously look at the car, not wanting to suggest interest in an actual ride in the thing to its obviously very eager-for-business keeper. The thing, as I've mentioned, is just huge -- they made 'em big back then. The rear seat is as big as the entire interior of my '91 Mazda 323, actually probably bigger, truth to tell. With only two people seated in the back, a good six or eight feet of metal trailing behind him, Kennedy would've been a very hard-to-miss target indeed. I mentally transpose the car from its parking spot onto the path of a car passing in front of me, and look back to the window. One, two, three shots at a mosying twenty miles an hour at such a big target -- with the car heading away, and the relative angle for a gunman hardly changing at all -- the evidence of the eyes and senses is that a kid with a paintball gun could've hit the target. A supersoaker might have a fighting chance of finding the target, gravity helping.

The fun part, if you can call it that, is walking over the grassy knoll trying to find the spot where the alleged second gunman might've stood. The topology of this area has undoubtedly changed slightly, but it still appears to be roughly as in all the photos we've seen. The tourist-ghouls fill in nicely as stand-ins for the witnesses of November '63, all looking as they did then at the spot where the car crossed by. Again, everything is much closer and humanly-scaled than the memory of photograph and film suggests. To get a clear view of the motorcade, a gunman on the knoll would've had to have been shooting right on top of the other people there. Pulling further back, including the spot of the alleged "blurry police officer" pointed to in one photo of the event as evidence of a second gunman, you can't really see the road clearly; it's just the angle of the slope, which obscures the car. One would have a hard time making a killing shot at that angle without any people present, much less with a small crowd in front, which even today obscures the view. I look around to make sure nobody's looking at me, and hold up my finger like a pistol and try to follow a passing car from several spots. The angles are impossible: to shoot somebody in a moving car requires 'leading' the car perfectly, and nobody in the car was shot from the side, for heaven's sake. The knoll is close to a perfect 90 degree angle from the site of the first shot. Further back, the road is completely invisible.

In fact, if you take as much of a circumnavigation of the square as you can around the site, it's also clear that it would've been extremely difficult for a gunman to take a shot without instantly being noticed by those around them -- except for the depository, and an upper window or the roof of the courthouse and former county jail (now converted to a museum) opposite the plaza. I'm not sure how the courthouse was eliminated as a possible sniper perch, but the angles certainly would be wrong, based on the Zapruder film. This is instantly obvious to the naked eye when standing on the extreme corner, barely twenty feet from the corner of the depository from where Oswald shot.

So, I looked excitedly up -- what about my Southland sniper theory? It had a certain dramatic modernity, and unlike all the other conspiracy theories, I'd come up with this one on my own. If the facts fit, maybe I could sell my own video from the knoll.

I positioned myself on the opposite sidewalk again, and looked back towards teh Adam's Mark, clearly visible by the weird mark thingy that serves as a logo for the chain. The intervening buildings probably weren't all there before, but some probably were. And from this perspective, the skyscraper is just way, way too far away. One might believe, under completely ideal circumstances, pre-aimed, with no wind, and the best available rifle, that one shot could've been made from there. But not two, certainly not three, and at a steep angle. Not being a gun guy, I'm not completely sure of this, of course, but there's simply no clear path for which one could think a rifle shot could be fired -- except a line one would have to draw right through the window of the schoolbook depository. Since this theory now required that bullets travel in an arc over the depository, it seemed somewhat unlike even to its author by this point.

So how about that Single Bullet Theory? You know, the problem that there were more wounds (three in Kennedy, one in Gov. Connolly, who was riding on a little jump seat opposite Kennedy) than there were alleged shots fired, for which Arlen Spector (now my Senator) came up with this theory as an investigator for the Warren Commission. The basic idea is that one bullet did a really whacky twist on the way out of Kennedy's body and caught Connolly as well. For this end of my investigation, I did some ballistics tests with the help of my grandpa and an old summer vacation.

When I was a kid, though, my grandfather had a BB gun, and in those less timorous days, we were allowed to take it out into the side yard and shoot at a target placed on the side of a cardboard box. Inside the cardboard box were a couple of layers of packing foam hanging from some wooden dowels Grandpa'd run through the top of the box. The foam was meant to catch the bbs, partially so they wouldn't go rattling around the rest of the neighborhood, but also so my frugal grandpa wouldn't have to buy BBs so often. You could just collect them off the bottom of the box.

One time, after I'd gotten bored firing at the designated twenty paces at the BB box target, I decided I was going to go in for the kill. I pretended I was an army guy, advancing and firing on some prone or prostrate enemy, pumping round after round into him for the coup de grace. I half-trotted towards the box, still careful my shots wouldn't go wild, getting closer and closer. Just a few feet away, I was firing down at an angle, and started back as I realized a BB had just hit me in the face!

After determining there was no rock to deflect it back, or second BB gunman in the woods having on with me, I opened up the box to make sure everything was in order. It seemed to be. The best I could figure was that I'd hit the top wooden dowel, it'd bounced through only one of the foam packing sheets, and somehow been deflected off the other dowel and back out of the front of the box. The fact is, the BB hit my face, hard enough to sting.

A 22 is a small caliber weapon, but it's enough to kill a person, and if you take a walk through Dealey plaza, it's really easy to see how the distances were short enough to cause some damage. I've fired a .22 on occasion (really, I'm not a gun guy, really I'm not) and perhaps paradoxically, the smaller caliber makes it a lot easier to handle than more powerful weapons -- less kickback, and one can sort of cradle a smaller rifle more easily. And the single bullet causing injuries to both Kennedy and Connolly? Perhaps improbable, but not excessively so, not if you've fired a BB down into a cardboard box filled with packing foam and had the BB bounce back into your face. Bone probably acts and is shaped something like those wooden dowels, flesh like the packing foam and cardboard. It's just a lot easier to believe a single bullet made both wounds than it is to try to figure out how a second gunman would and could fire into the car and the extra bullet be magically extricated from Kennedy.

In short, everything about the generally-accepted account of the Kennedy assassination seems extremely plausible to me, now that I've walked the spots and thought the whole thing through in sequence. It's simple, and in accord with my understanding of physical law and human psychology.

I wished, walking back to my hotel room, that we could simply be rid of this whole conspiracy thing. It seems like a cancer on the collective consciousness, this idea that there was a vast plot beyond our control to even accurately identify it after the fact, that American society and liberal democracy were so far out of control and out of whack that somebody felt compelled to kill a human being for some strange political reason but couldn't apply that same conspiracy towards something a tad more productive, or at least directly effective. One always comes back to motive for murder, and a senseless murder has the purist motive: the one scrutable only to the killer.

I wished, in a way, that Dealey plaza itself would disappear, so we wouldn't have that jar of the place, the uncomfortable memory of the death of someone like Kennedy, who is all the more real to me now for having seen the place of his death up close. Why didn't they just tear the damn building down, anyway, instead of leaving the window permanently gaping open like a head wound?

But as I think about it, staring out my hotel window again towards the place, I finally think it's good that it's there. Maybe others can walk the place and get the same sense I do, know the simple truth of a random drive-by killing and not that the fates and furies are aligned against any one of us, and get the still edgy but somewhat easier comfort of the human scale of the tragedy at Dallas. And maybe its us babies born after the thing happened itself who will be the first to shake this thing off.

God rest, Kennedy. That's my final report. Pittsburgh, Nov. 3 '99

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Wuss Rock

The Dead Schembechlers (Bo Biafra, Bo Vicious, Bo Thunders, and Bo Scabies -- hey, wait a minute, Jello and Rat aren't dead!) have decided to break up just because the object of their derision, Bo Schembechler, has actually died.

The whole reason the name "Dead Kennedys" was a shocker in the late 70s was, well, because it was kind of offensive and insensitive, most especially to the progressive California suburbia of the day. This allowed the band to be frighteningly liberal in its politics and while not overly ambitious in its musical reach, at least a little frightening at the time.

The Schembechlers, on the other hand, are clearly a joke band put together to rally the faithful against an opponent in a meaningless game, and the only funny bit was that they were willing to sing songs like 'Bomb Ann Arbor Now' and 'I Don't Give a Damn about the State of Michigan' about gleefully killing all the fans of an opposing sports team. Which is kind of a nazi punk approach, even if done tongue in cheek: might as well rally the troops with a little fun pile 'o mock hate. No surprise: the music is (was) hardly punk at all -- a little metal covering of some Pistols' licks.

So, while they were perfectly willing to cash in on the idea of a dead Bo Schembechler while he was alive, they bowed out quickly in the name of good taste, sensitivity, and with a nod at good sportsmanship ("the most valiant opponent" the band describes the object of their derision in its final press release), even donating the proceeds of their last gig to a charity TBD by the late Michigan coach's family.

As if we needed to have any more evidence 'punk' has been a marketing label for a long, long time and not a whole lot more. They could at least take a page out of PiL's playbook and maybe rename themselves "The Angel Bos" or something.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Deathbed Conversion

Another in our occasional series of verbatim items from America's fifth column fourth estate:

Former MLB Pitcher Joe Niekro dies

by Fred Goodall, Associated Press

TAMPA, FLA. -- Former major league pitcher Joe Niekro, Houston's career victory leader, died Friday, Astros president Tal Smith said. He was 61.

The two-time 20-game winner suffered a brain aneurysm Thursday and was taken to South Florida Baptist Hospital in nearby Plant City, where he lived. He later was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005)

It's difficult to know what to say about this well-made, honest, and truly documentary film.

On the one hand, as a fan of the band I'm grateful to have such a nice retelling of their story, crisply paced, and full of details I'd never heard.

On the other hand, I found myself at the end of it rather sad and swimming in nostalgia, and there's something so creepily unpunkrock about that, I'm not sure the basic message of keep-on-moving, do-it-yourself came out in the end.

I suspect that's a distinction between the perspective of the filmmakers, who came upon their subject matter after D. Boon's death and the split-up of the group, versus my own perspective, as a contemporary fan of the group (the number of familiar faces appearing on screen was astonishing.) I couldn't tell you where I was when I heard about Kurt Cobain's death: I can tell you that I was in the basement of Third Street Jazz in Philadelphia on December 26th, 1985, leafing through the 45s when I heard that D. Boon had died (four days earlier).

As such, I also suspect the reaction of the viewer will be quite different depending on whether you were there or whether this is increasingly ancient history.

Here's what stands out:

  • this is an extremely honest and true-to-the-spirit-of-the-group film in its DVD release format (the one most of us will see, given the lack of major theatrical distribution). The filmmakers have crammed two disks with tons of extras: the documentary film itself and another 20 or so outtakes that didn't really fit into the narrative structure, but virtually all of which are amusing or edifying by themselves; three music videos the band and its friends put together, each with their own amusing videos ("This Ain't No Picnic" had me laughing aloud); an unedited interview with the band from 1984; and on disc 2, three more or less complete performances by the band, one from 1980 that shows the band at its coalescent moment and fresh on the scene, one from a college gig in 1984 that shows the band at it mature and bouncy best, and a sort of Minutemen-unplugged all-acoustic set performed for a cable access channel late in the band's existence. It's a great bargain for fans, and while I'd point newcomers to the still-in-print recordings first, this is a fantastic way of completing the band's catalog.

    As a standalone documentary, it certainly tells the story well enough in a conventional narrative that it stands as history.

  • the band's uniqueness among punk bands stands out with the distance of time, and at the heart of what the Minutemen were is this strangely undying question of what it meant (or means) to be 'punk'. The band challenged authority constantly in the sense they had no training but what they provided to themselves, didn't care about popular notions of success, and had a sound that defied even the conventions of punk: jazzy, funky, explosive, melodic and abrupt all at the same time. But it's important to note, as the film makes evident, the Minutemen defied most of the emerging genre conventions of stereotyped punk. They didn't look like "punks", they didn't sound like the Ramones, they had an awareness of the world around them that went beyond the self-indulgent bemoaning of the here and now. Just when you were up and thrashing this song was over. The Minutemen stood out because they were constructive; nihilists neither in spirit nor deed.

  • what I did find frustrating about the film, though, was it never quite closed on the question of hwo the Minutemen truly got from playing "Smoke on the Water" to penning "Double Nickels on a Dime". We get a sort of catalog answer, in that D. and Mike Watt grew up together and were very simpatico, but is that all there is to the story? There are hints everywhere, but ultimately the interviewees seemed a bit too close to the band to have add perspective to this question. Of course, this is often the big mystery in music, from Jimi Hendrix to Mozart, where does that extra touch of genius come from? It may be unfair of me to expect that in this kind of flick.

  • Context or lack thereof: the film is a bit of a hagiography - there's not a lot of discussion about the band's warts or occasional lack of selectivity in its recorded output, and the negativisms of the scene are dealt with somewhat obliquely (mainly focussing on the gobbing second-wave punk wannabes and thrashers). (How, for instance, did the nearly-feminist ideology of D. Boon get reconciled with the misogynistic ravings of bandmates Black Flag? The hormonally-driven rages of the hardcore scene are glossed over in nearly every document and history of the scene I've read -- it's what turned me off personally in the end -- and how the Minutemen lived in this kind of soup while transcending it seems like an interesting question.)

    It's probably that there just wasn't enough time to come out with a fast-paced informative film and deal with more of the complexities of context that shaped the band. It's one thing to note three relatively untutored guys in a working class / military town railing against the creative and political repression of Reagan's America, but with twenty years between the film and the demise of the band, we might be able to start explaining to future generations just what it was like to live under the cloud of nuclear annihilation while living on government cheese. As such, this ended up playing more like a fan's document than broader history. Nothing wrong with that, mind you; it's just there's another movie to be made sometime.

  • I also wish there had been a little more attention paid in a way to George Hurley's role in the band. He co-wrote a lot of the songs, and while due credit is given to his incredibly technical, creative drumming, there's little about George's background relative to the details about the relationship between D. and Mike. The drummer makes the band.

    I do warmly and highly recommend this movie to anybody with an interest not just in the Minutemen per se but pop music history in general. They were paradoxically both sui generis while epitomizing the way bands lived, worked, and died back in the day. This is a primary document in that sense.

    There's a contemporary question to be asked about whether art thrives, or is the answer, in a climate of repression. The United States (and Western Civ in general) has produced enough wealth and free time, and still has enough basic freedom, to allow bands to go off and create bizarre explosions like that of the Minutemen, to let artists paint 'Piss Christ' and the elephant dung Madonna even while most folks get their culture via 'American Idol'. I find it an interesting -- and open -- question about how long this little extra margin of corrosive questioning that borders on bourgeois self-indulgence will be allowed to continue (or can continue) even as technology allows the dream of the band on every block and the record 'label' on every fourth block. The line between passion and fearfulness is murky and is being built into literal walls, higher every day. I mourn the fact that D. Boon isn't with us today -- who knows what the previous twenty years would have brought in terms of music and activism -- and yet I can hear him screaming from beyond the grave that it's up to me, and nobody else, to do something about it. Writing great songs ain't enough.

  • Wednesday, September 13, 2006

    How Was Your Day?

    I had a weird day about a month ago. I was driving to a meeting of a volunteer group that meets in a town about 40 minutes away. The way there is pretty rural, lots of cow and lettuce townlets and fields. I pass through this apparently deserted intersection, and all of a sudden -- as if via a cue in a movie -- there's a traffic jam, dozens of big rig trucks and cars converging on this set of three or four streets around a railroad crossing and a highway intersection. It was a sort of perfect storm of traffic -- everybody who was on that route that night somehow converted simultaneously or something. So I'm stuck in this minijam for long enough that I'm late to the meeting. About three minutes after I get there, just after I've shown somebody my CPR card, the leader of the group has a heart attack. (He survived, it was a little heart attack.) While he's waiting for the ambulance, the vice president decides to keep going with the agenda. Then on the way back, over another seemingly deserted railroad crossing close to a little airport, the crossing alarm comes down, gates closing, lights flashing, bells ringing. I sit there. And sit there. And sit there. And sit there. I get out of the car: look up the tracks, down the tracks. It's an utterly straight line, and there's just no train there. I know better than to try to cross the tracks against a signal, though, especially on a night when clearly there are ghosts about. I wait. And wait. After about 15 minutes it goes off and I cross the tracks. About ten seconds after I've crossed, the alarm goes off again and the signal sounds and the gates come down again. Then about ten minutes later, I'm going through this little farm town that has a couple of hundred houses, classic small one-story California bungalows, very cute, and I slow down to take a look at one that has a 'for sale' sign in front of it. In front of me about 50 feet ahead, a cat darts out of a side alley going hell for leather. If I hadn't slowed down I almost certainly would've smushed it. I start up again and have to jam a little on the brakes, because five seconds later a dog, going full blast and barking its head off, goes after the cat. Ah well I think dogs and cats. Then I start up again and then have to SLAM on the brakes to avoid hitting a man, running after the dog, in full confederate civil war uniform (no gun, but complete with the kepi hat and goateed beard). I inch forward, peer down the street down which they all three have run, and see not a sign of any of them. About ten minutes later, I'm heading around a bluff that rises up from the agricultural land, and on a pretty clear moonlit night I see a lone fog bank sort of drifting down the road in front of me. I drive right into it, only it's not a fogbank -- it's a cloud of some sort of flying insect, something I've never seen anywhere around here, so dense I can only see a few yards ahead of me and I have to slow down to a crawl. When I got home later, there was literally a cake of insect carcasses on my front grille and headlights; I had to use the wipers to wipe them off so I could see to get home in the first place.

    No, this was not all a dream....tis a true story.

    Wednesday, June 14, 2006

    Trial by Jurors

    I got called for jury duty a couple of months ago.

    This was the 11th or 12th time I've been called for jury duty. My wife, who's shared addresses, voter registration, motor vehicle licensing, and just about every other form of public record with me for the past 20 years has been summoned exactly twice. I've had to go down to a court house on all but one of those 11 (or 12) occasions; both times my wife, eager enough to do her civic duty, was able to ascertain from a voicemail message or website on Friday that she didn't have to go in on Monday.

    I go to jury duty willingly enough, but resigned that in terms of performing a public service, I'm simply filling a black circle in a statistical pool and will never, ever actually serve on a jury. I've never been picked, and now that I've been called a relatively significant number of times, I am confident I won't be. I had a friend in Boston who got called when he was a graduate student -- in chemistry -- and who had the academic's uniform of a big bushy beard and long hair and a slightly sleep-deprived wild look about him. He returned from his stint at jury duty explaining how the prosecution and defense were all over themselves trying to excuse him for some reason after their pre-emptory challenges had been exhausted; the judge, in appraising Bob's appearance and list of graduate degrees, apparently abetted them in searching frantically for a legal reason to excuse him. As he explained it: if you want to avoid jury service -- which Bob did not -- wear a beard and talk in full sentences with thoughtfulness when asked questions during the jury questioning. I'm sure the beard did it for me once. The closest I ever got to being seated was, believe it or not, on a capital murder case. I was asked my opinion of the death penalty, and I explained truthfully and with perhaps too much nuance that I was personally opposed to it because I thought it was a barbaric practice which accomplished nothing other than spreading a culture of violence, but that I fully understood my obligations as a citizen and as a juror to carry out the law as my fellow citizens had agreed to it and that I would not hesitate to recommend the death penalty should the evidence and the instructions of the judge concerning the law require it. As I spoke my piece, which was rather brief, I could see furrows of concern across the prosecutor's face and then the defense attorney's. My recollection is that they were down to one pre-emptory challenge each and from the body language they seemed reluctant to use it on a potential borderline juror. Then they got to the list of witnesses, and way down at the bottom there was a police officer whom I knew very casually, and that was enough for an excuse for cause. The next closest time I got was on a civil case that looked very long and boring and which did not seem to me to be worth my time, so I was actually vaguely hoping to be excused but was judged acceptable by both sides. Then it turned out my neighbor's wife had already been seated on the jury and, jury of peers notwithstanding, apparently if you know anybody at all involved with the case, you're kicked off. So there's another hint for avoiding jury duty if you're of that school of thought: just get to know a lot of people.

    Now these days I have no beard, short hair, and a boring resume with only one advanced degree on it, but I think rather that I now look like a cop, and no defense attorney is going to have me on, either, and my listed occupation -- stay at home father -- presents a burden for long trials that I would probably willingly claim in any kind of complicated adjudication, plus I bet it doesn't fit into a profile. And so it was that I went off to jury duty on a Monday morning relatively confident that I'd be home by the end of the day and possibly for lunch.

    On the jury summons, it states very clearly in the instructions to jurors: Business Attire Required. I supposed I could've been sophistic and claimed my business attire for my regular job is a pair of dirty jeans and a t-shirt with banana and juicy juice stains on it, but being (apparently) an uptight East Coast type, I took the instructions seriously and showed up in a suit and tie. As I entered the jury room and checked in, I scanned the room of 300 or so people, and found exactly zero people in similar attire. There was one older lady who looked like she might be wearing her Sunday clothes, but otherwise it was a sea of polo shirts with commercial logos on them, low-butt-cut tattoo-revealing hip-huggers, and the occasional casually-rumpled button-down. Hey, it's California, I realized: maybe this is Business Attire.

    The instructions to the jurors had one common theme: you will probably get out of jury duty! Even in the video they showed extolling the interesting and potentially educational process of being a juror, which occasionally mentioned the awesome powers in a democracy accorded to one as a juror, most of it was focussed on how the jurors had all really wanted to get out of jury duty but ended up being OK with the fact they didn't. The supervisor of jurors gave us a running play by play that morning of each of the four trials scheduled to open, in between reassuring updates on how she knew we all wanted to get out of there.

    I enjoyed the Judge's instructions very much.

    Fairly early on, she explained to us that in order to be a juror, we had to be 18 years of age, a US Citizen, and we must never have been convicted of a felony, and if we didn't qualify for any reason, we must come up and see her. I was stuck away in a corner doing a Sudoku and idly reading Collapse but within earshot of the little booth where the supervisor of jurors did her business. After the spiel about qualifications, one gentleman approached her. "Do you have to have been convicted of a felony to get out of jury duty?" he asked very hopefully. She explained that yes, you have to have been convicted and asked him, have you been convicted of a felony, and he looked disappointed and said, no, not convicted and trudged back to his seat. I wonder still whether he'd been freed on a technicality or simply never caught, and then shuddered at the idea of serving on a jury with him, and in turn, ever being in a position where I was being tried for a crime with a jury consisting of twelve of that particular kind of peer.

    As the morning wore on, the level of noise and conversation in the room increased. There were several complaints about there being no TV (thank god for small favors) and two requests by separate potential jurors that the supervisor of jurors turn the TV in the front that had been used for the instructional video to a soap opera. No dice -- no antenna or cable connection. Actual TV having been denied, there was significant talk around me that reminisced fondly of various TV legal dramas, trials, and so forth. One guy did a repeated Jack Nicholson, saying "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" to the guy next to him. It was a credible impersonation, I must say, I half expected him to whip out a golf club and take it to the windows.

    The guy I was seated next to happened to work at one of the golf courses near where we live. There are a lot of them around here, so this is not a terrible coincidence, but he wanted to know my opinion of the course played, the lunch at the restaurant, how the greens were kept, whether I preferred a cart or carrying a bag, and so on. My answer to the first question was, "I don't play golf, I'm afraid", which, with variations, was also my answer to the next ten or twelve questions he asked.

    The woman in front of me had a tattoo just above her ass that read, at least in part, "Too Hot to..." I almost discovered what the rest of the inscription was when she leaned over to answer her cell phone, but fortunately I had Collapse with me, which I quickly deployed to block my view.

    The presiding judge came down mid-morning to welcome us and provide us with a civics lecture on how great it was to be a juror and how much he, too, wanted us all to get out of jury duty, which I took to be an elaborate campaign speech in the end. He mentioned 9/11 six times in his speech, underscoring how if we don't serve on a jury, the terrorists win. He mentioned (inaccurately) that only six countries in the world have a trial by jury system, and that with only six democracies in the world, we had to serve as jurors to keep Democracy alive, and he'd do the best he could to make sure we never actually had to serve on one. I wondered if he was counting the US as one of the six democracies in the world.

    Towards the end of the day, there was a heated discussion behind me about the OJ Simpson trial. Both parties agreed that the jury was idiotic and they would never be that idiotic and then proceeded to discuss all sorts of things that to the best of my knowledge were never brought into evidence in said trial as evidence of OJ's guilt. At this point I looked around the room of about 300 or so, and counted up the number of apparently African-American people present. One. Two. Two was the total.

    The supervisor of jurors came out about 11 AM and informed us that she'd just been on the phone with the bailiff or judge from the last trial...and they had been working hard on the case...and blah blah blah about it she went on, before finally getting to the point that the case had been settled and we were all free to go. Why the first words out of her mouth weren't "you can all go home now!" is beyond me. Here's how I figure her speech cost society in terms of lost leisure or productivity time: let's just assume everybody there had time worth at least the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. 300 people were there, and we all listened to his completely unnecessary speech for about five minutes, which is 1500 minutes. That's 25 hours of lost time, collectively, to find out we were allowed to leave five minutes ago, which I make out to be about $128.75 of lost time, not counting the time it took my wife to iron my necktie that morning.

    On the way out to the parking lot (a few blocks away from the courthouse) my golfing buddy tagged along and wanted to talk about what had gone on that morning and his big decision about whether to go back to work today or just take the rest of the day off. "Why don't you take the rest of the day off and play a round?" I suggested. "You must get bored playing your own course all the time." "Golf? On my day off? No way!" he replied. The last thing he said to me as we went to our separate cars was, "Hey, come down and try the lunch at the clubhouse! It's great! You'll come try it, right...?"

    Monday, May 15, 2006

    Eyes on the Prize:
    Springsteen Meets Seeger in Throwdown Match

    Guthrie, Dylan Both Spin Round and Round in their Graves, Toes a Tapping

    I once had a conversation with Dick Dale after he'd played a gig -- around when he was a mere pup of sixty years or so -- where he explained Rock and Roll music to me. "Rock and roll is all about fucking," he opined. "The only reason to become a rock musician is to get laid. I know it worked for me." I think this was right after he'd become a father again, mind you. Some geek (not me, I swear) in the little throng around Dick by the stage offered as how Dick's latest album was really meaningful, since it had an environmental message and all. "Shit, if you want music that's meaningful, go listen to folk or something," said Dale. "The only message to my music is below the waist." (Dale also claimed that he wasn't really playing the guitar on stage, he was playing the drums, just with strings.)

    So I find it kind of cute, nearly endearing in a way, that Bruce Springsteen has discovered folk music in general and Pete Seeger specifically after all these years, as evidenced with the release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. It's nearly 25 years since Bruce strapped on the Dylan impersonation gear for Nebraska and thirty or more years since he started trying to be epic in that good-timey saxophony way he's always had. And Bruce has just discovered now that all that attempt to be "meaningful" snuck into rock by way of folk? How quaint.

    It should be set from the outset here that Pete Seeger is the original, ultimate poseur in this little chain of American folk life -- and I say that with all the affection and respect in the world (the Seegers were neighbors of my dad's sixty years back). Pete's Dad, Charles, was an egghead, an ethnomusicologist, professor, and official government wonk on the people's music, and Pete never even heard "folk music" until he was sixteen, so the stories go. He even dropped out of Harvard, just like Bill Gates. So for all the encyclopedic work Pete's done covering the American folk song, it must be said in the chain of "authenticity", whatever the hell that word is worth, Pete's a derivative beast. Hell, you have to remember Seeger was a top 10 artist with the Weavers and he wrote songs that kept popping up the charts in the 1960s, including faux-meaningful chestnuts like "Turn, Turn, Turn". He may have been convicted of failing to cooperate with the HUAC, but most of what he learned about hard time was second-hand from Leadbelly. (Pete got off on a technicality.)

    Look, I'm Relevant!

    So there's two things about these two gents. I've seen them both live and listened to a lot of their recordings over the years -- I grew up with Pete as a birthright of my parents, and with Bruce as a byproduct of the era -- and they have something in common. They both give great live shows (or at least did), and they both ultimately come out significantly more flat on record, at least in their studio albums. With Seeger, it's easy enough to figure out why. A lot of the energy from folk music comes from the audience feeling the song, even singing along, and most of the Seeger concerts were sing-alongs. So, too, have been Springsteen shows, but you can't hear the crowd singing because of the amplification. I've never been a big fan of the Boss, truth to tell, but on my top five concerts of all-time rank a couple of shows he put on in DC in 1981; three hours of non-stop giving, a weird symbiosis with a crowd that came in thinking they knew the music and left having had it rethreaded into their bones.

    I'd like to make a little variation on the great Mr. Dale's pronouncment: I've always thought great rock music was about performance, perhaps above and beyond any other pop genre. You can take practically any song and turn it into a great rock song with the right attitude (or the wrong attitude, as the case may be) and the moment and sufficient butt-pumping. With folk -- at least, with American folk -- the greatness comes from reconnecting specific origination points and somehow making it resonate in a contemporary context. Minimalism and individual performance have a lot to do with that emphasis on the text and the audience meeting, whereas rock is nearly always a collective effort -- group and audience, amplifier manufacturer and roadie and promoter and the electric company and many others conspiring to make the thing happen (even if it's in a garage, Dad's got to pay the bills and move the Buick out of the way.) I like the stories about Pete Seeger during his blacklist days just showing up in a town, going to a radio station, unannounced, in the morning, finagling his way on for an interview on the basis of his hits with the Weavers, and getting a full crowd to come out to a concert ten hours later. Have banjo and a comprehensive musicology education, will travel.

    Here's the other unpleasant truth about these two gents, and I again say this with considerable respect. Seeger has often been just tooooo serious to take seriously. Even in his really fun concerts with Arlo Guthrie in the 1970s, there was a self-importance about spreading the message that made it hard to really live inside the music. Your head was being pulled back out of its ass when your heart just wanted to sing along, and forget about your butt coming along for the ride.

    With Springsteen, his redeeming quality -- especially for his live performances -- was that you could forget he was supposed to be "important" when everybody in the room was dancing along. This became quite a bit harder in the larger venues, and it's the main reason I haven't see the Boss in 20 years or more. Nor have I seen Pete Seeger during that time, for that matter, although Pete's on a slightly different point than Bruce in his career arc. Relevant? Just look at the differences: one is a millionaire living on his farm in the New Jersey countryside, the other lives in the woods in the New York Hudson Valley countryside. Thank god for the internet.

    And I will report before I start to chew the gristle too much that I enjoy The Seeger Sessions. It ain't folk music, at least not any more than Clifton Chenier is folk music. Springsteen's version of a folk tribute is to get an all-star group of musicians around him and play "live", secluded in his home studio, well away from an audience. The songs have horns, bouncy piano, rousing choruses full of backing vocals, and jollility aplenty. Hardly a tear of indignation to be shed, and it's hard to feel really outraged even for "Eyes on the Prize", and you can't help but smile when that sweet-ass accordion kicks in. There are a few banjo licks vaguely reminiscent of Seeger, but that's not enough to convince me Bruce is really suffering. With Pete, man, you knew he was pissed off when he sang on stage, when he sang on record, even when he sang "Froggy Went a Courtin'" he was pissed off. Bruce is the happiest "folk" singer I've ever heard. "Pay Me My Money Down" might've been on Born to Run and the kids would've made out in the backseat to "Shenandoah", too, had the time traveling twelve-track been invented. The version of "We Shall Overcome" sounds like, well, they overcame and are having a nostalgic smoke in bed afterwards.

    Woody's Body Not Even Cold Yet

    Such a strange "tribute" album: not a one of Seeger's most famous or accomplished originals, not a trace of his style, just a wholesale sampling of Pete's corpus consisting almost entirely of covers and/or traditional songs. Holy cow, even my college punk band did the occasional cover of "If I Had a Hammer", which made a hilarious faux protest paean to anarchy with a simple switch of emphasis to I for each verse and chorus. There's certainly enough good Pete to make a cool album. But Bruce just sort of used Seeger as his hook to do a sampler of cool folk songs with a nice group of musicians, and had fun doing it, and by god there's nothing wrong with that at all. I just hope the goofballs don't start calling it important music, because that will spoil the party.

    Of course, Springsteen's peak moment in the American Psyche was probably "Born in the USA", a song all about the collapse of the American dream that became an anthem of mindless patriotism merely because of (a) the chorus, which sounded like something you'd like to shout at a Reagan Youth rally, and (b) because of who Bruce was, already, by that point. It's easy to ignore Springsteen, really, and has been since the mid-70s, most especially when he's doing protest albums about the fall of the twin towers or finally getting his ass out on the stump for the unlikely cause of John Kerry, well after the threat to his popularity and the potential danger of such a gesture had disappeared. (Let's remember that a version of "If I Had a Hammer" was sung at a Tom DeLay fundraiser in 2005.)

    I'm not enough of a Springsteenologist to really know how much of his myth Bruce willingly brought on himself, nor am I enough of a fan to want to, say, go out and buy three-CD reissues because I happened to enjoy the hell out of myself at a show twenty-five years ago. But I did end up buying this album because I liked the way it sounds, and at long last, I don't really have to think to hard about the great importance of the music I grew up with (and rejected, for quite a while, in favor of earbleed punk, among other more visceral genres.) For that I thank both Bruce and Pete.

    Now, back to my Clifton Chenier.

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    Right Hand Interviews Left

    From two articles, both in today's Monterey County Herald, both starting on page 1.

    Lawyer James Michael Dead at 78

    by Virginia Hennessy, Herald Salinas Bureau
    Monterey County lawyers and judges are mourning the passing of attorney James Michael, a "legend" in the local criminal justice system.

    Mr. Michael, who died Monday at the age of 78, was remembered Thursday as a mentor with a wry sense of humor and, said Salinas attorney Tom Worthington, "probably the finest lawyer that ever practiced in Central California." {remainder of article omitted}


    Beautician facing murder charge


    by Virginia Hennessy, Herald Salinas Bureau
    A Salinas cosmetologist accused of killing a client by injecting her with cooking oil has been charged with murder.

    Martha Mata Vasquez, 39, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license. She was arrested Thursday on the upgraded charge and booked into Monterey County jail in lieu of $1 million bail. She faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

    Vasquez is accused of injecting Mazola vegetable oil into the buttocks of Oliva Aguirre-Castillo of Castroville on Nov. 17. Aguiree-Castillo, who believed she was receiving an anti-wrinkle treatment, fell into a coma and died a week later from massive organ failure.

    [Four paragraphs omitted.]

    Vasquez, who is married with two children, had been free on $25,000 [sic]. Her attorney, Tom Worthington of Salinas, was out of the country and unavailable for comment Thursday.

    Sunday, February 26, 2006

    Lost in Time (Buffalo Soldiers, 2001)

    One hilarious bit of trivia about the movie Buffalo Soldiers: the title in Germany was Buffalo Soldiers, Army Go Home! That, of course, is the spin they put on a movie essentially released in 2004, though made in 2000 and slated for original release in 2001, because that's the sentiment that's being reflected in the current era of unilateralism. You wouldn't think we'd won the cold war in a good part by gambling with West Germany and West Germans: scores of divisions, tactical nukes, and brinksmanship for over forty years, the only frontier where US and Soviet troops faced off across the barbed wire. No, these days it's all about whether you can print cartoons and toxic waste dumps of old armored vehicle lubricants and evacuaton hospitals. What have you done for me lately, eh.

    Buffalo Soldiers is set in 1989, and one of the schticks in this tale of drugged out, corrupt, stealing Sad Sacks cum Sergeant Bilkos is that you constantly see scenes of the Berlin Wall falling and the end of communism -- in the background, on TVs playing around. It's meant to be some kind of poetic or symbolic device, I suppose, about the crumbling relevancy of the US Army or maybe military power in general or maybe just a contrast between the power plays in the plot and real life. But I think it's kind of a hollow device in the end, because it's not really used to drive any point home. And in any event, it seems obvous to me that the original mise en scene, the ambient geweltschaft, wasn't the Army of the late 1980s, but that of the late 1970s. The army wasn't taking in the rejects and high school dropouts and kids sent there by the judge insted of to prison by the late 80s: the volunteer army had, in fact, become the kind of well-oiled machine full of esprit de corps that a citizen-volunteer army had the potential to be, and Buffalo Soldiers, in an attempt to be acidic, is a bit off-target.

    Personally, I think it's all the more hilarious to envision a bunch of dopeheads guarding nukes and running battle tanks over filling stations in the late 1970s, when we were still going toe to toe with the Commies, because the absurdity of the conflict in cultures was that much more stark. The whole subplot with the command master sergeant's history in Vietnam and the domesticated status of his nearly adult daughter would've made more sense in the tailing period of the 1970s than the 1980s. And as I can attest to, living in a military community just isn't the same as it once was, being that paradoxically socialized existence where Big Brother hands it all to you and all you have to do is do whatever you're told to do. That uncertain cusp between the old army and the new army in the late 1970s was full of all sorts of contradictions that Buffalo Soldiers tries hard to capitalize on. Even the title is a bit of an anomoly: the old reggae cry to American blacks, harkening back to the memories of the elite but still segregated black troops of the Indian wars, one oppressed minority sent by the Man to go oppress another minority even more. I don't quite get that in the 1980s, and especially without more compelling black characters in the movie to underscore the racial tensions of having a "volunteer" army of the underclass be in charge of the nation's arms, the way I got the sense in the late 1970s.

    Another movie I felt the same way about at the time it came out was Bull Durham, which was a pretty good movie. But the whole set-up screamed of the mid-1960s, not the mid-1980s, from the discussions of Susan Sontag to the sense of genteel decline of the minor leagues at that point. If you're going to do a story about individual character triumphing over the decline and fall of western civilization, best to pick your nadir to make a point. Minor league baseball in the 1980s was already well on the way back, and Crash Davis would've been signing autographs and doing interviews for SportsCenter, not toiling in obscurity with only a line in the Sporting News to show for a career achievement.

    Now what are we going to do, Gomer?

    And of course the other weird factoid about Buffalo Soldiers was it got quashed on release because it came out right after 9/11, and it was not viewed as commercially or politically expedient to have a film that did not show the US military in the best light. We've got the anti-hero, the amiable Ray Elwood, and the bumbling careerist officer from a wealthy background, Colonel Berman, who of course is manipulated all over the map by Ray, but in a friendly symbiotic way. Each man goes about his own meaningless business, one for gelt, the other for a shiny star on his shoulder. Enter the heavy, the straight career enlisted man who's seen it all, who knows he's smarter than any officer and that he's got to prove he's the alpha dog, Sergeant Lee. He's going to get Ray in line, he is. Complications ensue from this conflict. So far we have the basic plot outline used in most McHale's Navy episodes. Can't have that anymore, that's a September 10th mindset, eh?

    Things with the Army these days are so serious, in fact, I'm not even sure you could make Three Kings again. Hollywood's tried to make a couple of films, or at least TV shows, about the war-in-progress, notably the kind of difficult to watch Over There (which, bending over backwards to try to be authentic, ended up about as fakey as an episode of Combat), and fails and fails again. It's because in all phases of war, it's hard as hell to figure out what's going on until well after it's over.

    That in turn is why I think a movie like Buffalo Soldiers would've been better off set a bit further back. Not only would the distance give some perspective, it would give some safety for the viewer to think about the context without having to get defensive towards the present-day Army. Indeed, since the current US military, at least below those ranks where Eagles and Stars fly, is as professional and dedicated and well-trained and educated military as the world has ever seen, it would take a real idiot to confuse what goes on on-screen with Buffalo Soldiers with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yet I think there's a strong underlying question about running our army in a foreign land: why are we there? Why do we bring ourselves over, essentially unchanged, into a foreign land, and remain unchanged? How is it that we can go thousands of miles from home and remain an island unto ourselves? Can I and I survive in Babylon? (The irony, of course, from the Marley lexical quilt is that we now are quite literally in the actual Babylon.)

    I once wrote that I thought that Saving Private Ryan was one of the most dishonest movies ever made. My basic point was that the filmmakers made a big deal about the "authenticity" of everything, right down to buying up remaining stocks of original uniforms vintage 1944 to clad the actors with. The version of "authenticity" had a sting to it because of the graphic violence of the movie, particularly the opening scenes. But the technique was more to make a fake war documentary, right down to copping the visual feel of old kodachrome 16 mm stock, and wrap it around a ludicrous "Why We Fight" story that was as cornball and hackneyed as any porpaganda film that was made during World War II. I was watching Guadalcanal Diary the other day (featuring a young Anthony Quinn, by the way, in a bit part), which is as strong an exemplar as you might find of the formulaic war picture, and enjoyed it a lot more than I did Saving Private Ryan. Despite all the campiness, racism, and bloodless violence, the film is authentic in a way because it captures the feeling of what it was like to be on the losing side of a war (as we were in 1942-43) and desperately trying to keep it together to see the struggle out. It's got immediacy which trumps the anachronisms, and real immediacy in that it was rushed out soon after the events depicted had transpired (even though, as history, it's complete junk.) The king of that genre has to be Wake Island, which was made in 1942 and depicts (sort of) an Alamo-like loss by US forces in December 1941. As propaganda, I have utterly no sense of how it might've been received by its audience at the time. The reality of the atrocities at Wake Island was barely known even by the authorities back then, and what really happened -- a massacre of hundreds of civilians, the brutalization of US POWs in ways that even the North Vietnamese or Sadaam's goons didn't quite come close to -- and an open question about what resistance to the invasion of the island really accomplished, certainly contemporary audiences had utterly no clue about any of that. As a rallying cry, it was a way of taking horror and chunking it up into something motivating. Saving Private Ryan had none of that honesty to it, because it was meant as an hommage, a re-writing of history that ultimately divorced itself too far from the fear, the terror, the killing to really make a reasonable point about motivation. (My proposed solution for that movie at the time was to have the final scene be a pull-back to show the tombstone was actually Private Ryan's, and the narrator/survivor old man would've been the technical corporal played by Jeremy Davies, the guy who couldn't pull the trigger until he had unarmed prisoners in front of him to kill. Wouldn't that have made the movie play differently?)

    We don't get contemporary war movies, perhaps in part because this is a kind of shadow war that's a war largely because the powers that be are calling it a war. It's just difficult to know what to rally around, much less how to rally the movie-watching public. One seems to glean through the fog of history that FDR wasn't going around in 1942 saying we were winning that war just yet, but then again national survival seemed significantly more at stake and obviously so than in our present day circumstances.

    In between -- that era represented by Buffalo Soldiers -- there was that long war of attrition, the Cold War, an era of vicious little conflicts punctuated by long periods of boredom. And in the end I guess that's why I still liked the movie. Even displaced out of its natural setting and time in a way that is kind of jarring and patently unfair, it does have a sense of chaotic truth to it. Nice guys get out, the operators survive, the brutalists do, in the end, eat their own livers.

    Maybe someday someone is going to do a movie that will explain Abu Ghraib's Lord of the Flies groupthink. If they do, it won't actually be about Operation Iraqi Freedom: better to set it someplace else, but use those contemporary emotions to fuel the authenticity. Maybe I should say honesty instead of authenticity, since the latter is an abused word. An honest reckoning is one which pulls no punches, and in that regard I think I can recommend Buffalo Soldiers, even if it's not the kind of desperate testimony of losing ground, fingers tearing for a handhold, that mght help us through these dark times.