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Today we are rooted in place….

April 27, 2015 2 comments

It’s like holding your breath. Sooner or later you have to let it go.

The high tension wire that was the city of Baltimore appears to have snapped. There’s been rioting and looting and injuries. All playing out in front of the cameras. The world watches. All pass judgement. None more so than those who do not call Baltimore home. And those who are white.

(of course, when young white people riot, we call it “disruptive behavior”….and it’s usually over hugely important things like their favorite hockey team losing….but never mind that for now…)

If allowed to fester long enough, fear can turn into anger. And a peaceful crowd can be turned into a lawless mob if leaders emerge….as they most always do.

Leaders can do good and bad things, of course. All leaders ain’t oratorical geniuses. Sometimes it’s just the guy willing to throw the first bottle that gets to be the head of the snake.

A man with goods looted from a store walks past burning vehicles during clashes in Baltimore, MarylandSo, once again, what was a story about possible police malfeasance is about to become un-done, hijacked by photographs of 16 year old kids in $150 sneakers laughing while they throw stones, stopping only long enough to allow looters balancing cases of Pampers on their heads to cross back into their lines. All of this brought on by a small minority of people who didn’t care about Freddy Gray when he was alive and don’t give a shit about him now that he’s dead.

If you look like you’re having fun during a riot, you probably are. And this makes it difficult for outsiders to believe your heart is in it. If you get my drift.

The legitimate problems that led to the protests in Baltimore….namely….issues of race (and class…always class) that plague just about every decent sized city in the country….are lost in the smoldering flames of burning CVS stores and on-the-scene reporters trying to file their stories before being overwhelmed with tear gas…thereby becoming the story. The news is not always what’s on the news.

And besides….this is sorta what the cameras are hoping for. You ever see a peaceful protest on CNN, running uncut for 4 hours in prime time? Me neither. But high school sophomores throwing bricks and jumping up and down on the hood of a cop car? Can you say “sweeps-week-come-early?” (Remember, this is a network saved from bankruptcy by the first Gulf War. Lucky them…)

If your contention is that cops are oppressive, and that you can remedy this by throwing rocks at their heads, you probably need a plan B. If in your old age you want to sit with a grand-child on your knee and tell him or her what you did to further the cause of civil rights in your own neighborhood, here’s hoping you can brag about more than stealing a pair of sneakers from Thom McCan. In the same vein, if you are a Baltimore cop, I hope you’re not the one CNN caught on camera throwing a rock at protesters. Not exactly Serpico-esque.

Mobs don’t do heroes very well.

The anger is undoubtedly real. When white cops are stopping black males for broken tail-lights and, minutes later, shooting them in the back, multiple times, in full view of camera phones and their own dash-board cameras, something is fucked up. When a cop kills a black man and uses the excuse that he shot him by accident…confusing a service revolver with a taser…something is fucked up. And when a black male is arrested for unknown reasons, and is tossed into the back seat of the car healthy…….and comes out 30 minutes later, mortally wounded…..something is fucked up.

But then again, something has always been fucked up. This isn’t a new thing. The fact that these incidents between black males and the police seem more prevalent these days of course doesn’t mean they are. In the age of smart phones and facebook and twitter, just about everything seems more prevalent. If you look closer, however, you’ll find that the only thing increasing is public awareness. The numbers have been a flat line for a long time.

Sooner or later….these things come out. Like life itself, they find a way.

(Or one can….you know….just look at the make-up of our nation’s prison population….if that’s your thing..)

We are loathe to admit it….but when history teaches us that violence doesn’t solve anything, history is a lying bitch. That doesn’t make it any less repugnant while it’s happening….but it is so.

Only the most deranged Fox-watcher can still pretend that justice is color-blind in this country. Something needs to be done. I have no idea what that something needs to be. There are layers upon layers that need to be peeled back and deciphered. Anything but business-as-usual is progress. To stand still is to sink.

A state of emergency has been declared. The National Guard has been called up. Smoke lingers. Sirens wail. We’ve seen this all before.

But surely we’re better than this. We’re better than back-seat beatings and riot shields and pilfered diapers and thug-mugging for the cameras. On the day that Freddie Gray was laid to rest, his memory was besmirched, largely by the very people who claim him as their own very own. But the true tragedy is that he appears to have died in vain.

Nothing is gained in all this. Absolutely nothing. To stand still is to sink? Today we are rooted in place.

I’m not sure how Freddie Gray feels about this, but I’ve a feeling his first few hours in his new locale have been every bit as painful as his last few hours in the old one.

In a bit..

— tf

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“…We’ve come a long way, baby….”

April 25, 2015 1 comment

I caught parts of the Bruce Jenner interview on TV last night and I sat there thinking, “we’ve come a long way, baby”.

Granted, a nation that takes a Ted Cruz or a Scott Walker seriously is not exactly a bastion of civil rights, but last night a transgender was given 2 hours in prime time. During that time Jenner was treated with dignity and respect and allowed to tell his story. He was surrounded by his loving family. Interviewer Diane Sawer did not editorialize. There was no post-interview roundtable of talking heads thrown together to sop the bible belt. When it was over Facebook and Twitter lit up with praise. The normal haters did the normal hating, but it seemed so rote….so connect-the-dot like…..lines pulled out of some goober playbook. Irrelevant.

In short, when all was said and done, America said……”good on you Bruce. Be happy.” And then went to bed. My Mom watched, and she told me…..”I just wish he was prettier…” and that was that. The perfect response. My Mom is as cool as it gets.

(People seemed more surprised that he came out as a conservative Republican than they were hearing that he wanted to be a woman. The sound I heard, which I initially thought was thunder, was John Boehner’s head exploding when Jenner said he would gladly discuss his plight with the speaker of the house…..and expect forward movement on LGBT rights. Good luck there Brucie.)

In my lifetime, this nation has gone from Jim Crow, to an African American in the White House. From gays hiding themselves away behind locked doors, to gays proudly marching down the Avenue of the Americas. Even the hint of a gay character on TV was greeted by the bible police as a sign of the apocalypse. Now, we simply don’t give a shit.

In many cases, not giving a shit is a glorious sign of acceptance.

I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be born a man and want to be a woman. But that’s the trough we need to navigate. I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a black man in the inner city being flagged down by a cop car either. We can never know such things until we can walk in the shoes of others. And all to often, those shoes simply don’t fit.

So what then?

Well….we can listen.

How hard can that be? Well…..pretty damn hard if we fail to filter out all the noise first.

Judge not lest ye be judged. It’s astounding to me how many God-fearing folk forget this little nugget.

What Jenner did was incredibly brave. Any time you raise your head above the parapet you invite rocks to the head.

We should all be allowed to live our lives the way we want to live them…..to love who we want to love….without fear of repression. As long as in doing so we do no harm.

And really, why should I give a shit that Bruce Jenner wants to be a woman?

How is it in any way my business? Live and let live. Another nugget.

But is he a “hero”? We use that word a lot.

That depends on how high your bar is. If winning a gold medal is heroic, then surely so is this.

I don’t think running faster than somebody else makes you heroic, and I don’t think deciding to live your life the way you want to live it is heroic either. Men and women run fast every day. They push through their own lives with dignity every day. Nobody calls them heroes.

Fred Shuttlesworth was a hero. Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi. Kids who fight cancer are heroes.

Bruce Jenner is simply a good man. A good father. By all accounts a good friend. He should be thought of as nothing more. And nothing less. I’m sure he’d agree.

Our nation has come so far…..and yet we still have incredible distances to travel. Sometimes I wish we would run as fast as Jenner did in 1976 in Montreal….but maybe just knowing that we keep putting one foot in front of the other is enough.

Good on you, Bruce. Thank you.

In a bit..

– tf

Categories: Uncategorized

Revisiting Nebraska

April 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Back in the old days you needed money to buy records. “Stealing music” meant literally visiting a record store, shoving a record up your shirt, and doing a runner. As an irish catholic born with guilt, this was impossible.

I was a desperately broke teen, which meant I had to rely on the record collections of others.

Lucky for me I had (and still have) way cool sisters.

Whenever they weren’t around (of course I wasn’t allowed to even breathe on their records, must less touch them) I’d pour over their ever growing collection, which I seem to recall was combined in once stack. They leaned them all against the far wall in the bedroom they shared.

I’d devour Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”, and The Who’s “Who’s Next” and play air guitar to Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”. I was crushed when I heard Neil Young’s live “Cinnamon Girl” at a party and took note of the name “rust” in the record’s title….only to find it was “Live Rust”, not “Rust Never Sleeps”. The latter is the one my sister’s had. A rare lapse that was soon corrected.

One Friday night I slinked in (they, being popular, were out for the evening. Me, being not, was not)….and saw this bearded face staring back at me. Some dude with a hand over his mouth, as if he was about to suppress a giggle that hadn’t formed yet. I looked closer. Bruce Springsteen. I knew the name. But at the time….I’d never heard a note.

I put it on.

It made me dizzy. “New York City Serenade” and “Rosalita” were written by the same dude? This seemed impossible. Stuff about the circus and the boardwalk and pimps and Puerto Ricans and 57th Street and E street and some crazy fortune teller who pissed off cops and got arrested. Horns and accordions and a a guitar jam about some girl just back in town getting everybody worked up, alongside a piano played so quiet that I could hear the pedals being stepped on. The guy was from New Jersey and was 23 years old and looked like one of the guys on a road work crew who draws the short straw and is forced to hold the Go Slow sign. I heard one of his songs on the radio by Manfred Mann….the one with the line about being “wrapped up like a douche.” Something like that anyway. There were no lyric sheets in the early days.

What a night this was. There was another record behind it. And one behind that. One had a cover that still makes me laugh. Bruce with the worst case of bed-head I’d ever seen, standing in front of wallpaper that would have made a whorehouse madam blush. That was “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. The first time I heard “Racing in the Street” was when the connection started (Old time boss freaks know what I’m talking about. There’s that “moment” always, as corny as it sounds). I understood the cover. Nobody who wrote songs like this could possibly get a good night’s sleep. I played that song so much I wore the grooves out and it started to skip. I had to tape a penny to the arm of the needle to force it to stay in the wax.

“Born to Run”, of course. A friend of mine used to talk about (and, unfortunately, sing) this song called “Jungleland”. It was like 10 minutes long. If you went over 3 minutes you needed a note from a doctor back on those days (live drum solos got a pass, as did bad bands from Canada that are now in the rock and roll hall of fame. Not naming names…). There was another song that featured a trumpet. I tried to imagine a trumpet on Led Zeppelin II. That’s how my mind worked in them days. John Bonham might have killed a trumpet player just on principle.

I discovered “The River” at the same time I discovered the healing powers of beer. That record remains to me the greatest beer drinking record of all time. “Two Hearts” and “Out in the Street” and “Ties That Bind” and “Crush on You” and “You Can Look” and “Cadillac Ranch”……we’d be sitting down by the creekside with these songs pouring out of the truck tape-deck, creating dead solders by the score. By the time it got to side 4 (otherwise known as the “sad side”), we’d be drunk as monkey’s and spilling secrets. Guys aren’t supposed to hug but if they drank steadily through The River on a summer night by the end of “Wreck on the Highway” they’d be collapsing in each others arms. Try it. If you’ve got the guts.

But that side 4? Hmmm. Something was going on.

“Stolen Car” might have been the most desolate thing I’d ever heard. You weren’t exactly worried about the guy who wrote it but….well….ok…maybe you were a little.

nebraska_bg_siteBut still, “Nebraska” wasn’t as earth shattering to me as it was to others. It seemed perfectly logical. The next step when your band starts to bore you. A guitar player and singer releasing a record of him playing guitar and singing? Um…so what? Why is everybody getting so worked up? Nobody is buying this stuff because of Gary Tallent’s bass playing.

My sisters had a copy too. Bless their hearts.

You all know the story by now. Newly minted rock star (“Hungry Heart” was a huge radio hit you may recall) watches a Terrence Malick movie and then retreats to his bedroom alone with a 4 track tape recorder and creates a “folk” record that confuses the living shit out of everybody because he was supposed to be writing “Hungry Heart pt II” and is instead writing about serial killers and singing like he just ate a bowl of downers.

But a guy who spends 6 months working on a single song (“Born to Run”) while forced to toil in a studio with an out of tune piano is different than you or me. This is a control freak who sang the sax solo to “Jungleland” to Clarence Clemens….one line at a time, for 16 hours straight, and then heard the finished product and promptly flung the acetate into the pool.

Not the kind of guy who’s gonna work well with the accountants on the top floor. And besides, at the time he wasn’t married or in therapy or living in Beverly Hills so he had lots of time on his hands.

“Nebraska” is raw and home-made and all that (but it was hardly made in solitude. Bruce’s guitar roadie…who was later fired and sued Springsteen for not paying him required overtime…was with him for every note, which I find interesting and deliciously ironic).

But “Nebraska” still sounds great. Every note is clear. Every word is audible. Drenched in reverb, it’s not a “solo acoustic” record despite claims to the contrary. Nearly every track also contains a glockenspiel and a gorgeously understated mandolin. It’s perfectly mixed. In a decade (the 80s) that featured some of the worst sounding records of all time, “Nebraska” to my ears is a sonic marvel. It has certainly dated better than “Born in the USA”, it’s thudding follow-up. Not many people, transfixed as they were by Bruce’s ass on the cover and Roy Bittan’s ridiculous synth lines therein, noticed that more than half of the “Born in the USA” record contained songs that could have (and in the case of the title track, should have) been released on “Nebraska”. BITUSA was essentially a fast-food “Nebraska” released at a time when Bruce was writing songs for Donna Summer. That most of these new fans read the dog-depressing title track as a flag waving republican anthem says something too, but I’m not sure what. All I do know is that these people are still out there….and they vote in large numbers.

If Bruce had a crystal ball and could read all this shit in advance, it’s no wonder he sat at his rented kitchen table in Colts Neck, New Jersey and wrote songs about guys practically begging to be euthanized. Who could blame him? Poor bastard has never been the same since the the fashion faux pas of the head-band.

He said he released “The Rising” in 2002 because somebody called to him on the street after the 9/11 attacks and said “hey man, we need you now”….which is…well….breathtaking in its arrogance if you really think about it, which I try not to do. I hope Jon Landau or Dave Marsh made the story up to make Bruce sound noble. The problem with being treated like a deity is when you start believing you are one.

A deity can’t write a song like “Highway Patrolman” by the way, so there’s that I can fall back on. Which is nice.

“Nebraska” is a folk record, sure (“All music is folk music” said Louis Armstrong. “I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”). When Springsteen sings in the voice of Charles Starkweather, he SOUNDS like Charles Starkweather. He SOUNDS like the morally compromised Joe Roberts, and like the little kid humiliated by Dad’s choice of yet another clunker. It’s a marvelous piece of ventriloquy.

It’s also a great punk rock record (no frills….quick…no fat at all, 3 chords, filled with eccentrics and done on the cheap). A great blues record too (“Reason to Believe” is as good and scary as anything Robert Johnson ever came up with). It’s as good as a set of Flannery O’Connor short stories. Or a Terence Malick film for that matter. Bruce has never really matched its power (“Racing in the Streets” comes close…”The Promise” too)…..but expecting someone to write songs as good as “Nebraska” or “Atlantic City” or “Used Cars” AGAIN is as goofy as expecting someone to write songs as good as those in the first place.

His best has always been good enough for me.

In a bit…

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized