It’s Audrey Hepburn’s birthday and the anniversary of Kent State…and the internet meme of the day is a lame Star Wars’ pun….”May the Fourth Be With You”?
And you still think Civilization is a thing?
Today is the 47th anniversary of the Kent State killings. For those new here, this is the only date I commemorate on the blog each year. That is a for a complex variety of reasons which I keep planning to lay out in detail some year but still haven’t gotten around to. If I ever do, it will come down to this: Lest we forget.
I won’t get around to it this year either. Time presses.
However, here are the links to previous years…and I especially recommend following the link to the lengthy article on the student photographers who took the iconic photographs (linked in the 2012 and 2013 editions below) which probably did more than anything to plant the event in the national consciousness (among other things, David Crosby showed one of those photos to Neal Young and Young went off into the woods and wrote a song based on the picture).
And, every year, I look for something new to post here. I was kind of stuck this year until yesterday, when, in browsing through the images available on the net, I happened across the photo at the bottom of this post….which led me to the three that precede it. In this year when it is clearer than ever that we never walked away from the divide that opened up over our leadership’s conduct of the Viet Nam war–that the breach has only grown deeper and wider–they say more than I ever could:
Here’s hoping we don’t hear the drumming in the long, hot summer that lies ahead.
(FBI informant Terry Norman, Kent State University, May 4th, 1970…see link below for the full story)
For newcomers, or those who need reminding, the only annual event I commemorate here is the murder of four students by members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University, May 4, 1970.
For last year’s thoughts on the subject, you can go here, (follow the links to previous years, back to 2012).
I find it odd that we now live in a world where “protest” amounts to one arm of the establishment (carefully disguised as Black Lives Matter, MoveOn.org, etc) probing the defenses of another arm of the establishment (to date, local police forces, whether the National Guard will once again be called in is but one of the interesting questions that will be answered in the coming months). This level of kabuki style politics and culture–sound and fury signifying less than nothing at ever louder volume–did not spring from a vacuum. As we hear the drumming this particular summer, it will perhaps be worth remembering how we got here.
To that end, this article from 2010 does as good a job as any of relating in microcosm just how deep the corruption was even in 1970, when things weren’t quite so firmly under control.
I don’t have any great, deep thoughts about “what it all means.” We’ve come to a bleak place. It may very well be the exact place our refusal to deal with 1968, to forever hold its contradictions at arm’s length (an ignominious history in which the Kent State murders were a signature event) was designed to avoid.
If you end up needing a soundtrack, I’m thinking this might provide a better lead track one than anything obvious. I dunno. Maybe it just has to do with being from Ohio (them, not me):
(Generally useful map, from the Nixon Administration’s investigation, of the ground on which the Kent State shootings took place. Bill Schroeder’s body is placed a long way from where he fell, perhaps to give some validity to the one truly wry element, which is the caption placed next to Step 6 that reads “GUARD HEADED BACK UP HILL–STUDENTS FOLLOW.” Never mind that none of the hundreds of photographs taken show students meeting any rational definition of the word “follow.” One only needs to note the distance to the Prentice Hall parking lot, where the fire was heavily concentrated and where, in fact, all of the dead and most of the wounded actually fell. The parking lot is a hundred yards away and fifty feet downhill. I suppose a fully accurate map might have risked representing what a true “threat” the “rioting” students at Kent State University represented to men who were armed with high-powered rifles and literally a few paces away from the safety of no longer being offended by people yelling insults and giving them the finger.)
The murder of four college students at Kent State University on May 4th, 1970, by members of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard, is the only event I commemorate annually on this blog. For previous thoughts, photos and links you can go here (2012), here (2013) and here (2014). As always, I especially recommend the piece I linked in 2012 and 2013, a beautifully reported account of the the memories of the three student photographers who took the iconic photos which have kept the event much more alive in the nation’s memory than it otherwise would be (not least by directly inspiring Neil Young’s famous song).
After I visited the campus for the first time in 1998 (on the 28th anniversary, which happened to coincide with an ultimately successful protest asking the university to permanently close the parking spots where the murder victims fell and also place memorials on them), I “wrote up” my impressions for family and friends. At some point I’ll probably share some of that piece, but, for now, I’ll recount a memory from 2000, which was the last time I was able to be on the campus.
By the time of this, my third visit, I was familiar with the campus layout (my absolute unfamiliarity made my first visit very much a serio-comic tale of stumbling around in the dark). As such, I was able to fully comprehend the logistics of what had taken place thirty years earlier. I had a sense of the utter ineptitude of the Guard’s leadership on the day in question (worth a long post in itself some day), which, despite amounting to criminal stupidity, in no way justified the actions of the men under their command (whether or not those men acted on some kind of order).
Everything I had learned to that point led me to believe, then as now, that “Kent State” was both horribly inevitable (in the general sense of the times) and consummately preventable (in the specific sense of what actually went down).
But the thing that had changed most dramatically in the interrum for the purposes of the May 4th commemoration ceremony (when the Prentice Hall parking lot is closed anyway), was the presence of those permanent markers that closed off the four parking spaces.
The student organization at Kent State that runs the commemorations (which, by the time of my first visit, consisted entirely of students not born when the murders took place) had always taken on the task of marking the spots on the actual anniversary, so it wasn’t as though I hadn’t known where they were, or failed to be deeply moved by the tradition of students and others chalking their feelings on the pavement (many quite lengthy–you’d be surprised how eloquent chalk-on-pavement can be).
But seeing those new markers actually set in the asphalt gave the place a new feeling of permanence, significant, I thought, on a college campus where the very first impression a visitor gets is a sense of overwhelming ordinariness–of just how close to madness a society has to come for anything like the Kent State massacre to be conceivable, let alone actually happen, and, by extension, just how tenuous civilization really is.
So, with all that in mind, I once again set out to do what I do at any historical place. Stalk the ground and try to imagine myself one of the participants.
I had tried it with both guard and students in the two years prior and again on this visit. Step by empathetic step, I had come to my conclusions: craziness, madness, meanness, fear. The usual combinations for tragedy.
I had felt the ghosts–or thought I had.
And then, near the end of this third visit, something clicked. Some set of memories gathered around a sorority girl named Sandra Scheuer: leaving her dorm, walking to class, wearing a red sweater, stopping to talk to her boyfriend (who had taken part in the protest and was just leaving), being gunned down within seconds after breaking off their conversation to proceed to her next class.
Going to the class, I suddenly realized, that was in that building over there.
And leaving the dorm room that was in that building back there.
Standing next to Scheuer’s particular marker–looking up at the hill where the small (in spirit, not size), mean element in Troop G turned (in unison) and fired (in unison) almost certainly at specific targets they had picked out as the ones most worthy of offing (because they had flipped a bird, chanted an obscenity, waved a black flag, heaved a rock from some distance that James Michener, after conducting an experiment with a member of the Kent State baseball team, concluded couldn’t be covered by Willie Mays)–the parking lot I was in suddenly became a center of some larger picture.
If she was coming from over there and headed for that building up there…
I suddenly realized that, unlike Jeff Miller (committed “radical”…”You don’t think Jeff was there, do you?” his grandmother asked when the news reached home…”Of course he was there,” Miller’s brother told her on the day (and us, thirty years later), “but I’m sure he’s okay.”) or Bill Schroeder (ROTC member committed to observing, thinking, wondering who was right) or Alison Krause (“radicalized” the previous weekend, when she found herself being chased on campus by tear gas and bayonets, last off the Landis Green on May 4th, shaking her fist and shouting “This isn’t right” a true threat to society), all of whom had wandered around a bit, Sandy Scheuer had walked a straight line from where she was to where she was going.
So, if I wanted to walk in the shoes of somebody who was simply going about her business while those other students were “rioting” or “assaulting the Guard” or “brandishing weapons” or any of the other multitude of crimes they were accused of in turn which were, in turn, made so patently ridiculous by the actual evidence that an establishment led by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, looking desperately to convict them in absentia, finally had to give up and go home and hope the memory would die, she was the one.
Caught up in my idea, I went over to the main doorway of the dorm building Sandra Scheuer had left around 12:20-25 p.m. local time on May 4th, 1970.
Then I took a deep breath and I walked her path.
As I say, I haven’t been back since 2000. Details fuzz a bit. But not the essence.
The essence was a few steps to a sidewalk, a small left turn, another few steps. Look both ways. Cross a street that winds through that part of the campus.
Come up on the corner of Prentice Hall.
Take a few more steps.
Turn the corner to the parking lot.
See the top of the building she was heading for (the nursing school if memory serves).
Imagine the day thirty years earlier.
What sort of scene was the student walking from her dorm to class encountering?
Riot? Pillage? A situation careening out of control?
Even a National Guard unit preparing for a slaughter?
I guess not.
Because she kept walking.
She kept walking straight toward her class. Without deviation.
The reason I know she kept walking without deviation, without any hint of the fear you would have if you even remotely suspected your life was at stake (walking in her new red sweater that some member of Troop G very likely mistook for another red sweater on another girl who had been active in the protest) is because when I stood in the place that was the logical entry to the Prentice Hall parking lot for someone coming from Sandy Scheuer’s dorm and looked straight over the top of the permanent marker that was now finally resting where she fell, what I saw was the top of the building where her next class was.
That’s when I realized Kent State really just came down to this.
Finally, they needed to shoot somebody.
We can each decide for ourselves who “they” were.
For my part, I’ll just say that the members of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard, who actually pulled all those triggers, were guilty as hell. But they were hardly alone.
You want to blame their commanders (present or absent)? The governor of Ohio? President Nixon?
Well, I’m hardly unsympathetic.
But the truth is we failed to meaningfully punish any of those people, troops included.
If we had, I wonder if those ghosts would have such a strong presence now whenever May 4th rolls around in Kent, Ohio.
For the record:
Killed (and approximate distance from the National Guard):
Allison Krause 343 ft. (105 m); fatal left chest wound
Jeffrey Glen Miller 265 ft. (81 m); shot through the mouth – killed instantly
Sandra Lee Scheuer 390 ft. (119 m); fatal neck wound
William Knox Schroeder 382 ft. (116 m); fatal chest wound
Wounded (and approximate distance from the National Guard):
Thomas Mark Grace 225 ft. (69 m); struck in left ankle
Joseph Lewis Jr. 71 ft. (22 m); hit twice in the right abdomen and left lower leg
John R. Cleary 110 ft. (34 m); upper left chest wound
Alan Canfora 225 ft. (69 m); hit in his right wrist
Dean Kahler 300 ft. (91 m); back wound fracturing the vertebrae – permanently paralyzed from the chest down
Douglas Wrentmore 329 ft. (100 m); hit in his right knee
James Dennis Russell 375 ft. (114 m); hit in his right thigh from a bullet and in the right forehead by birdshot – both wounds minor
Robert Stamps 495 ft. (151 m); hit in his right buttock
Donald Scott MacKenzie 750 ft. (229 m); neck wound
(For a fine article on the memories of John Filo, who took the day’s most iconic photograph, you can go here.)
This is the only event I commemorate yearly on this blog. I have my reasons and maybe one of these years I’ll get around to writing about them. For now, I’ll let Mr. Young–who has also not forgotten, as evidenced by the date on this recording–have the floor. And, as ever, R.I.P: Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder.
(You can go to this date in the May 2012 and May 2013 archives at the right to link to the best article I’ve read on Kent State, which was published in a local NE Ohio paper in 2000 and can stand in for any number of books on the subject….Highly recommended for anyone who is new to the site in the last year and for anyone who may be laboring under the illusion that the shootings were somehow “justified.” Whatever the motivations of the actual shooters, they did not involve self-defense, any attempt to prevent damage or injury to life or property, or resistance to arrest. No amount of sound and fury coming from either the left or the right should be allowed to obscure this little inconvenient truth.)
For the emotional tenor of a Kent State memorial event, you can click on these two videos, which feature Allison Krause’s boyfriend, Barry Levine–by far the most accomplished speaker of those I’ve heard speak on behalf of the fallen. This is from 2010 and is pretty much the same speech he gave in 2000, on the 30th anniversary, where I was present but, alas, not in possession of a camera, video recording gadget, or the knowledge that YouTube would one day exist to preserve and disseminate such things. In one way this is better, though. In 2000, the sky wasn’t crying.
This week I did something I used to do on an almost obsessive basis and rarely do at all anymore.
Amidst a lot of exhaustion and hurly-burly, I sat in my den and listened to four straight albums.
Just like that.
Propped up a chair some time after midnight, set a coke on the coaster behind me (that’s the way the den is set up…to have the coaster behind me when I’m sitting in front of my speakers…it’s best not to inquire too closely into why, but one of the main reasons is because, well, I don’t sit and listen to four albums in a row much anymore.)
There are practical and impractical reasons why I used to do it a lot–the salient one being that I was chasing both healing and understanding, two concepts that are not necessarily bound to cooperate with each other.
And there are practical and impractical reasons why I don’t do it much anymore–the salient one being that, at my age, I’ve probably given up on understanding as much as I once hoped to and achieved as much healing as is likely to occur on this particular plane of existence.
The four albums I ended up listening to were not chosen entirely at random. I really did listen after the old fashion. I picked the first one because something (I honestly don’t recall what) had brought it up this week (oh, wait, now I remember, it was Dave Marsh’s appreciation of Lou Reed in the latest, far-too-long-in-coming edition of Rock and Rap Confidential) and made me want to do that thing I do far too seldom anymore, which is grab a great record and JUST SIT AND LISTEN.
So I pulled out the Velvet Underground’s Loaded (that was Reed’s final album with his original band for those who might be wondering) and, like I said, pulled up the chair and let myself feel the music and enjoy it after the style of days gone by.
It definitely helped that Loaded is an album I know front to back. I could sing along or pick a little air guitar or tap my thighs to the rhythm (bass or drums….or both) as the mood struck me.
And the whole while, I’m thinking what I always think (what I assume most people think) when I’m in the presence of something that is both bottomless and perfect–something that reveals itself anew after hundreds of encounters and which forges (and then constantly reinforces) a logic so powerful it’s hard to conceive of a moment when it didn’t exist or a moment when anyone would imagine wanting to change a single small element of it.
By all of which I mean I’m thinking: “What could possibly be better than this?”
But I was also thinking (again after the old fashion): “Oh man, what’s next?”
So my mind, which barely operates on one track these days, was suddenly alive enough to run on two tracks and somewhere in there it became completely obvious that the next album I had to listen to was Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays (a record I know pretty well, though not nearly as well as Loaded) and the album I had to listen to after that was Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks (an album I really only got into in the last year or so and don’t know that well at all).
And some time during What We Did On Our Holidays, it became obvious that the album I wanted to listen to after Blood On the Tracks was that one by the Isley Brothers I got not too long ago that starts with a stunning medley of Neil Young’s “Ohio” (which, in its original, sounds like a Neil Young record and was released under the aegis of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and ends with a stunning cover of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” (which, in its original, sounds like a Crosby, Stills and Nash record and was released as a Stephen Stills’ solo), the journey–any journey–between those two things amounting to my idea of a “concept” record all by itself.
I had to look up that last one because I got it in a box set of five cheap Isley Brothers LPs from the late sixties/early seventies and–I cannot tell a lie–I can’t yet tell one title from another.
Turned out it was called Givin’ It Back.
I went ahead and dug it up between Holidays and Blood on the Tracks–you know, just in case I forgot and then had to spend the rest of the night trying to remember which album I knew I wanted to listen to next!
Having pulled it out of its little 5-LP box (guessed it on the second try) I almost put it on first (sorry I still use record player terminology–I know the proper phrase for the digital age is to put it “in”). Then I resisted the temptation to mess with my preconceptions and played the albums in the order I had originally thought I would.
And what did I learn, exactly?
Or, more accurately, of what great, standing truth was I thus reminded?
The fragility of both Fate and Judgment, I’m afraid.
See, if you asked me to “rate” or, better yet, “rank” these four albums, I would put them in the order I played them:
2. What We Did On Our Holidays
3. Blood On the Tracks
4. Givin’ It Back
And I would know–after listening to them all running together in one night–that such a ranking is arbitrary if not downright silly.
I’d put Loaded first because it’s the one I know best. I know it best because I’ve known it longest. I’ve known it longest because I happened to be in the mood to try it one night thirty years ago (or so) and picked it over any one of dozens of other records I could have chosen that same night.
Simple as that.
If some trick of fate–some impulse in that record store (or some other) thirty years ago had caused me to pick up Blood on the Tracks instead (I doubt the others would have been available in any record store I was likely to visit back then–I’m pretty surprised Loaded was) and I had put off picking up Loaded on CD until a couple of years ago because every time I was in a mood to try it, it wasn’t available (or was available in the far less than pristine, though definitely cheap, vinyl copy of Tracks I did pick up five or six years ago but then played only once because, well, it was cheap and used and I got what I paid for) and every time it was available I wasn’t in the mood for more Dylan–well then, there’s a real good chance (though by no means a certainty) that I would rate Blood On the Tracks higher now.
Simply because I knew it better.
I mean, I’ve heard it enough these last couple of years to know it’s a great album. Maybe no Highway 61 Revisited (not much is) but darn close.
And generally speaking, that’s what value comes down to–our very particular experience.
In a perfect world, I’d live long enough, have time enough, to let all these other albums I know less well than Loaded acquire the same sort of weight through repetition. In a perfect world, there would be enough time to know these four albums–and a few thousand others–well enough to know how they really stacked up against each other.
In a perfect world, I might know for certain whether or not the presence of “Who Loves the Sun?” (answer: “not everyone” of course) on the first album I listened to on a particular night led me not-so-coincidentally to an album which contained among other items (like “The Lord Is In This Place, How Dreadful Is This Place?” and “Nottamun Town,” the sound of the latter being way scarier than the title of the former), a song called “Tale In Hard Time” which begins with the line “Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise.” And that listening to a couple of albums filled (along with some good old rock and roll) with those and many other, rather similar sentiments, might lead me to an album which I know just well enough to know contains a song called “Shelter From the Storm.”
Yes, in a perfect world, I’d certainly have the kind of time on my hands required to figure all that out.
Then again–if the world was perfect–I probably wouldn’t need lists that ranked things or notions that linked things and neither would you (assuming you are, like me, the unenviable kind that has ever needed them at all).
These thoughts aren’t exactly new even with me–and they aren’t even close to new with lots of others.
But this week, they hit me a little harder than usual.
Maybe because, after all that, what came bleeding through with the greatest possible urgency and clarity wasn’t even Ohio native Ronnie Isley singing about the dead bodies at Kent State as though he’d been invited to their funeral (i.e., not at all the way Neil Young sang it, which was as a call to arms and appropo enough in the moment), but his singing–immediately after and maybe not by coincidence–James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”
It bled through–and kept on bleeding–even though the first minute and half is misconceived from a production standpoint and the final bit repeats the misconception. Misconceptions didn’t matter when I heard it this week. I don’t mean I was able to set them aside (as sometimes happens). I mean, they just plain didn’t matter.
Robert Christgau reviewed Givin’ It Back when it was released in 1970 and opined that “soul is wasted” on “Fire and Rain” and that the song was more powerful in its “understated” original.
That’s a very reasonable judgment, as long as you assume that Ronnie Isley was after the same thing James Taylor was after.
The judgment is less compelling if you suspect that Ronnie might have been after one of the things James Taylor couldn’t hope to reach for (or, very probably, even imagine).
That “thing” doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of a freed slave searching for a lost relative after Appomattox, which is what I keep hearing in it, but it almost certainly isn’t the kind of expiation of purest self-pity Taylor intended (and which he, incidentally, very much achieved–I’ve been close enough to where Taylor reportedly was when he wrote the song to know how thoroughly he achieved it, though, believe me, my reasons were no better than his and I’m not nearly as proud of ever having gone there, let alone of having come back).
And it’s no knock on Christgau–or anyone–if they don’t hear that in the song.
But I think it does speak to just how fragile the notions of “what we hear” really are.
I mean, if Blood On the Tracks had been the first thing I reached for the other night–as it well might have been if I had started living with it thirty years ago instead of a year or two ago–I might not have played Givin’ It Back at all.
And who knows what I would have heard in “Fire and Rain” some other time?
And who knows if I’ll ever get close enough to either album (or even to What We Did On Our Holidays, which I am, in fact, already a lot closer to than I had previously thought) to move one or the other up on some ranking chart where I can call it an all-time favorite and sing every word?
You know. Like Loaded.
All I can say for certain is…I should live so long!
In sequence then:
So it’s May 4th again and ain’t nothin’ changed except the calendar…
On May 4, 1970, members of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard killed four students on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. I’ve read a few thousand pages on the incident. Except for knowledge about the personalities and histories of the victims, most of what I found that was worth knowing is ably summarized by the lengthy article found here.