I know some of you follow Greil Marcus’s Mailbag (which I can’t link–it’s available under “Ask Greil” if you follow the Marcus link under my blogroll). For those who don’t, here’s the text of a question from one of his readers and his response, regarding the new Docu-flick The King.
I saw The King in NYC yesterday, really enjoyed it—you had the funniest line when you mentioned “crackpot religions” in LA in the late ’60s.
Only thing I got a little turned off to was criticism of Elvis for not marching with Martin Luther King like Brando and Heston did. Why no mention that by performing material on national TV in 1956 by black artists he opened doors for them like no one before? Plus that many people—James Brown, Ivory Joe Hunter, as well as Ali—truly loved him and made no secret of it.
I don’t know—what do you think—is it me?
I think it’s a hard question, less about the March on Washington than any number of civil rights protests in Memphis, and while Van Jones is a blowhard, with, here, none of Chuck D.’s dignity or thoughtfulness, he makes a serious argument. It hit home for me years before, when I looked at the Ernest Withers photo of King’s funeral procession in Memphis passing the State Theater, where the marquee has Elvis’s latest movie, Stay Away Joe—which in context, the context Withers built, means, “Elvis, stay away.” And he could have been there, in his home town, the same place where he sometimes recited the end of King’s March on Washington speech. “If I Can Dream” is about that speech and about the assassination—no, Elvis didn’t write it, but he sings it as if he’s tearing it out of his heart, unsure, tripping and stumbling, desperate to say what he means, to get it across, ignoring melody and rhythm, more like someone jumping on stage to give a speech than being paid to sing a song—but that doesn’t make up for anything. The kinship that James Brown, B. B. King, Eddie Murphy, Muhammad Ali, and Chuck Berry might have felt for Elvis, or his role as some kind of racial ambassador, doesn’t either. Sure, the Colonel would have kidnapped him and held him in Fort Knox to keep him from appearing in public in any kind of civil rights march, but hey, if you’ve seen an Elvis movie, you know he could find a way out.
This leads back to some themes I’ve hit on here before, but this feels like a good time to re-visit them.
I’ll take that attempt at pure musical criticism first:
“ignoring melody and rhythm.”
Here’s a question. If you’re relying on the counterfactual, which fact are you trying to hide?
That Elvis was using melody and rhythm in ways you don’t understand? Or merely in ways that would undermine the larger point you are about to make?
The examples Marcus gives of what Elvis did that didn’t “make up for anything” are designed to let us know that Elvis couldn’t have done anything that made up for not participating in at least one Civil Rights march, the way (as the questioner reminds us) even Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston did.
For Elvis, more than forty years after his death, the goalposts are still moving.
For everyone else, they remain the same.
Just a reminder on how this works:
Bob Dylan converted to Fundamentalist Christianity (and has never quite renounced it, preferring to dance around the question).
Neil Young and Prince loudly and proudly endorsed Ronald Reagan (whom Marcus and many other Libs consider a fascist).
John Lydon and David Lynch (two of Marcus’ great heroes) have said kind things about Donald Trump. (NOTE: Elvis is still called to account for who he might have voted for, had he lived to see the day.)
Ray Charles (no Elvis fan) was a life-long rock-ribbed Republican who sang for Reagan and George W. Bush. And you should have seen the contortions the obituarists at all the Good Liberal periodicals put themselves through when Ray had the bad taste to force-multiply the association by dying the same week as the Gipper.
Elvis Costello once got drunk and called Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger.”
Totally forgiven…even by Ray Charles!
Dozens, if not hundreds, of liberal African-American icons never quite managed to march with or for MLK or the Civil Rights Movement. Too many to list, really.
All totally forgiven.
And, oh yeah, that photographer, Ernest Withers?
Elvis Presley, never marched with or for MLK.
Nothing could ever make up for that!
Now who was it again that asked the real question in the year he already knew we would never walk away from?
The latest immigration “humanitarian crisis” probably came to a head today, with Peter Fonda tweeting that Baron Trump should be put in a cage and gang raped (I won’t link…you can find it easily enough if you’re interested) and Donald Trump promising to end the wailing and gnashing of teeth and sign an executive order overturning the laws passed by Bill Clinton with the understanding, previously adhered to by Bush the Younger and Barack Obama, that they would be selectively, rather than faithfully, enforced.
I was going to let it all go, but Fonda’s additional insistence that mobs target the children of Border Patrol agents by “scaring” them (which I assume need not stop at caging and raping them), put me in mind of what it’s really like to be anywhere near the front lines of human suffering.
My parents were appointed home missionaries for the Florida Panhandle by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. My mother was 60 at the time, already in terrible health. She passed away in 1987. My father was 59. He retired in 1989.
Perhaps things have changed since (I doubt it but I haven’t checked), but, in those days, the Panhandle was the dumping ground for Florida’s refuse population, home to most of the major state and federal prisons, the state mental hospital and the state’s largest and most notorious reform school.
The latter is where my father began his road to mission work by volunteering while he was still attending the nearby bible school. He was led to volunteer by a good friend of ours, a minister in training, like my father, who was already witnessing there.
His name was Joe.
What Joe and my father and, health permitting, my mother (whose biography convinced the Mission Board to take a chance on an oddball fifty-nine-year-old man and his ailing wife) did was minister to the lost: prisoners, inmates, mental patients, people abandoned in jails or nursing homes (often by their families), kids in reform school for rapes and murders.
My father once asked a twelve-year-old why he had killed his brother–Because he beat me up. How often? Every day. Was there no one to stop it? I did.
It’s a hard school, helping the forgotten.
Encountering, in the abstract, a tiny fraction of what Joe and my parents, and thousands like them who dedicate their entire lives to missions or social work, see in the flesh every day, broke Peter Fonda’s admittedly feeble mind. And made him feel good about himself.
Those who do the hard work never get to feel good.
They enter each day knowing that they will minister to a thousand in hopes of saving one. That they’ll be mocked or ignored or patted on the head when they fail and get “certificates of achievement” when they succeed. (A dear friend’s mother volunteered at a battered women’s shelter for three years, got such a certificate and a handshake from the Governor of Florida…and promptly split for California to run a pot farm. Did I mention it’s a hard school?)
One of my father’s best achievements was getting local tomato farmers to allow anyone who wished to come on designated days and claim the “culls” (perfectly edible tomatoes with small imperfections which are left to rot because they don’t look pretty on grocery store shelves). The chief beneficiaries were the migrants who picked the best tomatoes in the first place. That such an action has to be fought and bargained for tells you a lot about the world–and a lot of what you have to deal with if, by chance, you don’t get to sit in a Hollywood mansion and cherry pick your fights because you don’t like the guy in the White House.
When it’s your life, you don’t get to ignore sex trafficking and slave labor–as nearly every sobbing Hollywood celebrity managed to do for decades when the office they now deem responsible was held by people they voted for.
When it’s your life, you don’t get to ignore any of it–because it’s your life, the one you chose.
Your work is never done, or even ameliorated, and the “help” offered by those who are fueled by the grievance of the moment is worse than useless.
But one thing you (and those you live with) learn in such work, is that fighting fire with fire is never an option.
You are not permitted to hate. You are not permitted to scream back: Not at the people who swear in your face for trying to help them; not at the endless stream of bureaucrats (be they religious, corporate or government) who threaten your pension if you fail to sign a requisition for funds in triplicate; not at the likes of Peter Fonda, who ride in when there’s a movie to promote, a headline to be made, an emotion to be fed, and disappear whenever there’s real trouble. No one. No hatred. Ever.
And what do you get?
My father–healthy as a forty-year-old and uniquely suited by both temperament and experience to weather the emotional maelstrom–was forced into retirement at sixty-nine (he only made ten years because the people at the top of the chain, who remembered my mother’s biography–and her sacrifice–insisted that he be allowed to work until he could qualify for his hundred-and-twenty-a-month pension). The nonprofit clothes closet and food bank he had operated for years, so successfully that the honchos who had laughed at such an idea would have been forced to call it a miracle if they had believed in such things, closed in a matter of months. These days, such centers–many run by religious organizations, including my fellow Southern Baptists, specialize in “helping” immigrants. For profit, of course.
My mother spent the last three years of her life breaking down into uncontrollable, wailing sobs when an abused child appeared on a television screen or was even mentioned in a conversation.
Our friend Joe blew his brains out.
That’s what’s waiting for you when you decide to care in the manner that does not allow you to escape or forget or pretend your righteous anger has solved anything.
That and forever wondering if enough of you, who are trained to stand against the wind, will be left to make a difference when Peter Fonda and the like, who call for gang-raping children in the name of righteousness today with perfect confidence that the wind is at their backs, are running for the hills, wondering when the weather vane turned, and why the mob in which they placed so much misbegotten faith wants to set them on fire.
This is not a political blog. I routinely insert political thoughts (and more occasionally, theological ones) into my regular writing because that’s the way I see life. As I said to a friend of mine when I started the blog: “You know me. Rock and roll is just a way of seeing the world.”
But since we now live in such interesting times, I’ve been revisiting my history of little personal political insights and what’s a blog for if not to share random thoughts that invade the mind, unbidden, now and again?
At the end, I might just talk myself into making a prediction about the direction of Donald Trump’s presidency. Before all that, you can check my track record.
From this, all else grows…
1974 (Age 13): Richard Nixon resigns from the presidency to avoid impeachment and conviction. He is pardoned by Gerald Ford. Me: “I bet there’s gonna be a lot of criminal presidents from now on.”
My logic: If Richard Nixon was as bad as everybody said he was–and everybody said it, even in my Nixon-supporting part of the world–and the penalty for whatever he did was early retirement, then it didn’t seem like much of a deterrence.
My track record: After Jimmy Carter, they all look like crooks to me. If only some of them look that way to you, you might want to open that other eye. Unless, of course, you’ve accepted ol’ Dick’s logic that it’s not criminal if the president does it!
1980 (Age 19): Campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan promises that he will increase spending, cut taxes and eliminate the budget deficit, which was then standing at a scandalous sixty-something billion dollars. Me: “I bet if he wins, we’re gonna have a whole lot more debt.”
My logic: Math.
My track record: Reagan won. By 1988, when he left office, the deficit stood at a hundred and eighty-something billion dollars and we had switched to a permanent credit economy which would allow us to borrow without limits and never have to pay it back. The deficit is now around twenty trillion. We rack up another sixty billion every week or two. Good going, 1980.
1984 (Age 23): At the Democratic National Convention, party nominee Walter Mondale uses his acceptance speech to capitulate (I always assumed it was his attempt at imitating Franklin Roosevelt in Firesign Theater’s “Nick Danger, Third Eye” bit). I decide I will not vote in the election. I also decide I will not vote in any future elections.
My logic: What’s the point if it doesn’t matter?
My track record: Mondale lost in a record landslide. I have voted in every election since. I’m not going to discuss who I voted for in any of those elections because it has not mattered.
1990 (Age 29): We invade Iraq. In the run-up up to the invasion, Christopher Hitchens, still lucid at that point, says if we invade it will be the start of a new hundred years’ war. Me: “That sounds about right.”
My logic: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to….yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.” Santayana. Smart guy.
My track record: We’ve entered the war’s 27th year. Christopher Hitchens, who began supporting the war around it’s twelfth year, lies a-moldering in his grave. The war goes on. A hundred years still sounds about right.
1990s (Age “sometime in my thirties”): Me, apropos of nothing: “Free people do not need a security state…”
My logic: “….Because security states exist to preserve themselves, not freedom.” Me in my thirties. Not Santayana, but not half bad.
My track record: Hard to tell. But I used to say: “Everything I really needed to know I learned from rock and roll.” Now I say: “Everything I really needed to know, I learned from Philip K. Dick novels.”
2001 (Age 40): On September 11, the World Trade Center is leveled by terrorists in hi-jacked planes. The Pentagon is attacked by another. Another goes down in a Pennsylvania field, prevented by the passengers from incinerating either the White House or the Capitol. George W. Bush responds by fleeing from Florida to Nebraska. Later, much later, after everyone has patted his hand and told him everything will be alright, he gives a speech to a joint session of congress. Then him and Tom Daschle (Remember him? No? Lucky you.) give each other a big ol’ bear hug to celebrate our victory. (As imitations of “Nick Danger, Third Eye” go, this was almost hallucinatory). Me, in an e-mail to a friend: “I hope we don’t need leaders in this fight, because we ain’t exactly got Churchill.” My friend tries to assure me it will be alright because the generals know what they are doing. I refuse to be comforted.
My logic: Wars are not won by men who return to Washington from Florida by way of Nebraska because Washington might be dangerous. You can be stupid and win a war. You can be a criminal and win a war. You can be a mama’s boy who, in Ann Richards’ immortal phrase, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple” and win a war. You can’t be a coward.
My track record: Well, if we ever do win that war, it won’t be on the coward’s watch.
2004 (Age 43): John Kerry runs for president. He debates George W. Bush. Bush sends a batting practice fastball down the middle, saying that it sounded to him like if Kerry had been president (on the aforementioned 9/11), Saddam Hussein would still have been in power. Instead of saying “If I’d been president, Saddam would be in jail and Osama Bin Laden would be in the cell next to him,” Kerry gave a two-thousand word response that amounted to “Now that’s no necessarily so.” Me: “Goodbye.”
My logic: The coward or the pedant? Who cares.
My track record: John Kerry lost his election. Eventually he became Secretary of State and achieved his life’s goal of turning pedantry into an art form whilst the world burned.
2008 (Age 47): Barrack Obama is elected president. Me: “Interesting. And it’s really nice to check that ‘first African-American president’ box. But, in the midst of all this euphoria, I do wish I could see him.”
My logic: “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land…” John Lennon: Smart guy.
My track record: Too soon to tell, but if a tide comes in, it does tend to wash away the castles you made of sand. And tides do usually come in.
2015 (Age 54): A couple of Beltway reporters kibitzing on Diane Rehm’s PBS show, spend a few minutes trying to one-up each other on just how impossible it will be for Donald Trump to win the Republican Nomination. Me: “If you think he has no chance, you’re crazy.”
My logic: “Call out the instigators, because there’s something in the air.”
Did I mention that, once upon a time, I learned everything I really needed to know from rock and roll?
My track record: Donald Trump will become president on January 20.
One factor, which peeked through the underbrush throughout the last year-and-a-half as Trump systematically (yes, systematically) ripped through everyone from Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton to real power brokers like Megyn Kelly and Jeff Bezos, is that the Security State is not simply worried but frightened. Since the election the peepin’ and a hidin’ and the slippin’ and a slidin’ has become something close to full-blown warfare. Trump has made it abundantly clear that, on Jan. 20, he intends to become the third sitting president to take on the shadow government.
I have no prediction on how it will come out. It did not work out for John Kennedy or Jimmy Carter, whose respective penalties were death and political humiliation.* The Security State is, on one sense, more powerful than ever. Its tentacles gained strength and length by leaps under Bush the Younger and leaps and bounds under Obama. But it is not the top-down machinery that took down JFK (allegedly) and Carter (allegedly**). Without Cold War clarity, there is deep consensus about needs (more power), but much confusion about goals (to what specific end?). Battling cave-dwellers has simply not been as simple or as satisfying as taking on the old Evil Empire. That, plus the sheer size and scope of its expansion has left the Leviathan dazed and weakened at the moment when it will have to face its greatest threat.
So whether they can defeat a determined Trump is an open question and I have no feel in my stomach’s empty pit for how it will come out.
Neither do I have any feel for how Trump would handle either victory or defeat. The great danger–one which is barely hinted at in all the incoherent babbling about fascism and the like–is that Trump will be both willing and able (and at this point it would be far safer, if that’s the right word, to bet against his will than his ability) to replace the praetorian guard we’ve long allowed, in true fascist style, to build around state security, with one built around a cult of personality, one which could presumably be transferred with little fuss to his handsome, hungry children. I will only say that, should he turn in that direction, there will be precious little to stop him and all who had faith in an ever-deteriorating system–me included, as I did keep “voting”–will share the blame.
I wish there was a song for that.
*Eisenhower doesn’t count, as his famous warning about the military industrial complex, while virtuous, was issued on the way out the door. Of course he was right. But that’s like dissing your tyrannical boss at your retirement ceremony.
There is precious little literature on Carter’s demise and I’m not even up on what does exist. But I can pass along this anecdote.
Back in the early 80’s my dad was a home missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention. One of his duties was to visit local conventions around the country and trade ideas for effective mission work. That put him on kind of a rubber chicken circuit several times a year and, at one congregational supper, he found himself next to a recently retired Army general.
As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was a personality and strangers generally had one of two responses to him: run screaming from the room or tell him things they wouldn’t have told their own mother. Evidently, the general was in the latter camp. The subject of Carter came up, as it nearly always did in Southern Baptist circles in those days, and my dad mentioned that, despite everything, he had voted for him.
The general said: “You weren’t wrong.”
From there, the discussion went to the general’s dark knowledge, only a little of which he could share, of course, of the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission. Long story short, the general was of the informed opinion that the mission had been sabotaged. When my dad pressed him as to who would do such a thing, the answer was nonspecific but the general did say the forces behind it were aiming at a change in the presidency. The way my dad reported it to me, the general said: “They were looking to replace him with either Ted Kennedy or George Bush.”
Reliable assets both.
Take it all with a grain of salt.
But, if that was their aim, they came close enough. And, until Trump the Dread says otherwise, we still live in their world, patiently, and helplessly, awaiting the fate of all who accept a Security State’s version of “safety.”
My memories of September 11, 2001 are the common ones. Shock. Disgust. Horror. Sadness. Anger.
My memories of September 11, 2002 might be a bit more singular.
By then I had long since emailed a friend, after George W. Bush’s pathetic speech to Congress (universally lauded at the time by the entire political class and their coterie of media bootlickers, with a few professors thrown in for good measure). The email said:
“I hope we don’t need a leader in this fight we’re about to have, because that sure wasn’t Churchill up there.”
I have a knack, it seems, for being right only about the things I really wish I was wrong about.
By then, I had also seen all the memorial services/concerts etc. and been moved by an occasional performance, the most memorable being Limp Bizkit’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which never made me want to listen to Limp Bizkit but did light a warm place in my heart for the original which had not previously existed but has not diminished in the long dreary years since.
By then, I had heard “W” tell us we should go shopping. Things would be alright.
By then, I had been reminded, way more than once and by chillingly, dishearteningly, real world events, of Franklin Roosevelt, breaking into “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” on the Firesign Theater’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once, When You’re Not Anywhere at All, to announce our complete and unconditional surrender.
By then, I knew, in my heart, which is the only truly knowing place, that the United States was beyond satire, that we might last another thousand years as a political economy or a name in a World Atlas, but we’re done as an idea and an idea is all we ever were that was worth anything.
By then, not to get all gloomy or anything, I had already decided it was time to start devoting such energies as I had left for this sort of navel gazing to figuring out where we went wrong–how Rock and Roll America had turned into Lay Down and Die America.
By then, I knew the response of a handful of passengers on Flight 93 was the only meaningful response there would ever be.
So when I was riding around in my car on September 11, 2002, doing errands while listening to the Oldies Station (Oldies Stations being just one more thing that has disappeared in the years since, at least around here), I was prepared to feel nothing in the way of all the emotions I mentioned above.
Figured if no ranking member of the ruling elite was prepared to commit to anything more than somber statements and crocodile tears, there was no percentage in me remembering.
Then a particular song came on the radio, and it was exactly the last song in the universe that could have been connected to any abstract idea of forcing me out of myself, not allowing me to avoid feeling something, even if I could never quite know what it was.
Not even now.
Sometimes, things are just a mystery…So I won’t even try to explain why this made me feel something, on September 11, 2002, when nothing else, not even my Christian concern for the lost, could make me feel anything at all…