LET ME TELL YOU WHAT IT’S LIKE…(Memory Lane: 1979–1989 and now)

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.

Only forbearance.

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.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #1: The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968)

[NOTE: I have an attachment to album covers in part because, for me, they were a big way into the music. Since I had often not actually heard most (or sometimes any) of the music inside, when I started chasing the music of the fifties and sixties in the seventies and eighties, I studied LP covers for clues.

But, more importantly, I also “felt” them. I formed ideas about what I was going to hear and there were times when it actually took me years to really hear the music if the LP cover hadn’t done a good enough job of prepping me for the experience.

I suspect there are some fine albums I haven’t managed to appreciate yet for this very reason–though, of course I can’t say which ones. Yet.

Later, much later, I took to framing them and hanging them around my house, collecting books dedicated to them and so forth, but even these things only go so far. In the heart of the rock and roll era, LP covers were a world unto themselves. So I’m gonna start sharing some of my favorites, some with extensive commentary, some with just a caption–whatever strikes me as appropriate.]

NOTORIOUSBYRD

To really appreciate this one, you have to keep in mind what surrounded it on the racks at the time of its release in January of 1968. Not that I was cognizant at the time–I was told to cross to the other side of the mall when I passed the record store because, invariably, even in the mall, people who were clearly dope-smoking hippies hung about the place. But I’m familiar enough, in retrospect, to imagine the impact.

Granted, the impact was mostly on the future. Notorious did not sell particularly well and was the first Byrds’ LP to fail to produce a Top 40 single.

This is from the age of Sgt. Pepper and Their Satanic Majesties’ Request and Forever Changes, though, and it’s a telling peek at what was just around the corner. Yes, there were plain-song equivalents around, too, in the aftermath of the Summer of Love, but few were so prescient. You can look at this now and feel (not “hear” because once you got to the vinyl, The Notorious Byrd Brothers was its own thing and not much like anything else that had ever happened or ever would, out there even by the Byrds’ other-worldly standards) the coming of CCR, Southern Rock, California Rock, Country Rock, Outlaw Country, Alt-Country and even some elements of Grunge.

Some version of Cowboy Hippie, then, or at very least Cowboy Long-Hair.

And when Peter Fonda said he modeled his character in Easy Rider after Roger McGuinn (pictured in the middle here–Dennis Hopper was channeling David Crosby, who left the band part-way through the recording of Notorious and, thus, wasn’t included in the LP cover shoot), I always felt like it was this Roger McGuinn he specifically meant.

This was the last Byrds’ album released by the original band. Michael Clarke (pictured at the right) would depart before their next LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (which had a more immediately visceral cover and, with Gram Parsons on board, actually did sound at least sort of like “the future.” though it still sounded like a lot of other things, too). Chris Hillman (left), split not long after that.

But while they lasted–and however many copies of any given record they sold–you could always tell what was coming down the pike by what the Byrds got up to.

Even if it was just messing around in a horse barn with camera shutters clicking.

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Sometimes, the Western Really Does Go Everywhere)

Captain Phillips (2013) channels 3:10 to Yuma (1957)

(WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen either film)

I’m careful about proclaiming just any old American (or Americanized) narrative a “western” (“noir” is the other catchall descriptive that gets around, often after being recognized as a subset, or extension, or consummation, of, well, westerns–these notions, like some who perpetuate them, can get tricky).

However….

In 2007, James Mangold remade 3:10 to Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford/Van Heflin western based on an Elmore Leonard short story and directed by the estimable and too-oft overlooked Delmer Daves. Mangold (a fairly estimable director himself–Walk the Line is first-rate) and his talented cast (Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, et al) made such a hash of things that it was possible to walk out of the theater thinking westerns can’t really be at the heart of everything when they aren’t even at the heart of westerns anymore.

But then Mangold’s version wasn’t really a remake, or even a re-imagining of either Leonard’s original story or Daves’ film. Whatever the intent, it ended up being a cartoon. And, no, not one of those cartoons which are rooted in westerns.

The real remake arrived in theaters a few weeks ago, disguised as Tom Hanks’ worthy (one might almost say tiresomely worthy) bid for a third Oscar, Captain Phillips.

Oh, I know Captain Phillips is based on a true story. I even have a pretty good sense that, for once, the movie may actually adhere pretty closely to the events it is based upon. But that doesn’t disprove my theory. Life wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it didn’t have art to imitate.

So once more, a decent, hard-working, put-upon family man sets off to accomplish a dangerous mission for the sake of an earnest monetary reward. Once more, he finds himself trapped in a small space, trading wits with a charismatic, psychologically adroit villain. Once more the “villain”–ruthless enough in each case to kill a member of his own criminal enterprise without a second thought*–turns out to have both an honor code and a human side that very much includes a growing soft spot for the good man. In each case, the bad man ends up on the way to prison and the good man goes home to his family. And in each case there is a strong hint that the good man has what the bad man truly wants–call it the emotional security which only home and family can provide.

To be sure there are many differences as well. There’s even a crucial twist on the basic theme–in the bobbing, claustrophobic, nodulized life-boat of Captain Phillips, the bad man has hold of the good man (which means the cavalry, here played a U.S. Navy which is never more safely anonymous and faceless than when one of them is given some screen time–Ford’s Ben Wade would be able to teach them nothing about cold-blooded efficiency) is on the way, while in the shadow-striped, still-as-death hotel room of 3:10 to Yuma, the good man has hold of the bad man, and it’s the bad man’s outlaw band (led by Richard Jaeckel at high tide, so one need not worry about facelessness or anonymity) who are riding to the rescue.

And the differences do tell us something. For instance, in 3:10, Ford and Heflin may be from opposite sides of the law, but they are from the same world. In Captain Phillips, Hanks and the mesmerizing Barkhad Abdi (playing the Somali pirate leader Muse) may as well be from different planets. (Their deepest connection, in fact, comes in the harrowing action sequence when Muse and his little band are taking over Phillips’ ship. It’s the moment when, as skilled commanders of ships in battle, they have the most in common, even if one ship is a tiny but lethal motor boat and the other a massive but vulnerable and unarmed freighter.)

What impressed me, though, is not so much a difference as a yawning chasm: namely, why 3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ll watch as long as I have eyes and I could miss seeing Captain Phillips a second time without my life feeling in any way diminished. And why I suspect the case would never be the other way around for anybody, though many could dismiss either and many more could simply enjoy both and let it go at that.

Both movies are made with consummate skill and, honestly, that superlative sequence where Abdi’s pirates take over Hanks’ boat–done as well as an action scene can be–has no equivalent whatsoever in 3:10 to Yuma. There’s tension in the western, but not much action. In Captain Phillips the new, post-western narrative model holds sway–there’s action without much tension.

I can’t say the absence of real tension was simply because I knew the ending going in. If anything, 3:10 to Yuma, which I’ve been watching regularly for years, gets more tense every time I see it, because the more I watch it, the more I feel the weight of what’s really at stake. And, believe me, Tom Hanks emotes at the end of Captain Phillips like nobody’s business. You can feel his relief at being rescued gush out of him.

He’s very, very present.

What’s not present is a sense of something bigger than himself. Some moment that offers the equivalent of Van Heflin’s Dan Evans explaining to his wife why he can’t back down from the task of walking Ben Wade to the train station, even though the reason for his taking on the job in the first place–two hundred dollars–has long since become irrelevant.

He can’t back down because, if he did, there would be nothing left inside of him.

In Captain Phillips, Richard Phillips and Muse really are no more than ships in the night. They happened to collide–a point that is too fully realized by the utter inability of anyone but the two leads to make an impression, while Yuma is filled with faces that matter. The solid direction by Paul Greengrass, the fine performance by Hanks and the riveting one by Abdi–none of it can quite mask that fundamental absence of belonging to something that is worth belonging to.

So the events of 3:10 to Yuma’s fictional story change everyone they touch and it’s possible to imagine they would change you if they happened to you.

There’s no sense that the events of Captain Phillips actually change even the real life characters who lived it–that Richard Phillips’ future will be much altered beyond the residual effects of the inevitable book and movie contract or that Muse’s future in an American prison will be much different than the quasi-prison piracy had already put him in. And there’s no sense these events would change you either except that–much like a car accident or any other random event–you’d be happy you survived.

That’s the new triumph of civilization, what the modern non-culture can still give us at the movies and pretty much everywhere else: Survival is the new emptiness and emptiness is the new fulfillment and, heck, we should all be grateful for it.

There’s cool stuff at the multiplex.

Lucky us.

What more could we ask for?

(*NOTE–It was unclear, to me at least, whether Abdi’s Muse actually kills a rival pirate during an early scene in Captain Phillips. Since he cold-cocks him with a heavy metal object, it’s reasonable to assume he was willing to kill him, which makes the point even if he doesn’t go about it anywhere near as cold-bloodedly as Ben Wade does in 3:10 to Yuma.)

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #1, The Sixties, Explained About As Well As They Ever Will Be)

(This week’s second new category: In whence I will try to put those random cultural experiences which really need to be noted somehow or other but do not fit anywhere else.)

The Beatles “She Said She Said” (Studio recording)

“Soon after Stormy’s death, Peter (Fonda) experiments with LSD. The result is a sensory freak-out, leading to the same breakthrough soon to be claimed by many an acid initiate: cosmic consciousness. Having tripped, he says in 1967, ‘I know where I am on this planet.’

“He’s tripped several times by late August 1965, when through the intercession of the Byrds’ Jim McGuinn and David Crosby he meets the Beatles. Concluding their second American tour, the Fab Four are taking their rest in a hillside mansion on stilts in the wilds north of Beverly Hills. Music plays, pot smoke is on the breeze, and Playboy Bunnies offer relaxation in private rooms. As John Lennon will later recall, ‘The sun was shining and the girls were dancing and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties.’

“But as the day lengthens and the sun goes burnt orange, things turn, in McGuinn’s words, ‘morbid and bizarre.’ Acid comes out. Its takers loll in an empty sunken tub. After a while, George Harrison says he feels as though he’s dying. Peter flashes on his ten-year-old self (who had to be revived repeatedly at the hospital following a self-inflicted gun-shot wound)–and perhaps on Stormy (McDonald, a close Fonda friend, heir to the Zenith fortune, recently found dead under suspicious circumstances), gone just a few months. ‘I know what its like to be dead,’ he whispers back.

“Lennon is nearby, growing paranoid. He is (like Fonda) a bright, rebellious boy with a distant father and dead mother; Peter’s utterance takes him close to an edge he would rather avoid. ‘You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born,’ he moans….”

(Devin McKinney, The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life And Work Of Henry Fonda, 2012–parenthetical insertions mine)

First off, this makes me want to read McKinney’s book on the Beatles even more than the rest of this fascinating little book has.

But what I find really interesting is the idea that “She Said She Said”–the song Lennon wrote based on this particular interchange, which is a high point of Revolver, for my money the Beatles’ last really great album, and, in its supreme reduction of potentially disturbing passion to clinically useful vacuousness, as perfectly Beatlesque as anything could be–was actually born in a moment of genuine (albeit drug-addled) pain and confusion.

Absolutely never would of guessed.

As McKinney himself states a few lines later (sans pretension amazingly enough): “The mysteries and pains of the sixties might be summed up in this one exchange.”

So they might.